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Desert Abolition

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror

which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so...”

- Rainer Maria Rilke

The desert. Inhaling and exhaling its surroundings. And, like other geographies, it simply

is its surroundings. Where sky and land reflect one another. It inspires and expires its

inhabitants. Like the ocean, it is at once haven and succubus. Gentle and unrelenting.

Overwhelming and offering. Open. And a system that can close on you mercilessly. Or


To consider abolition feminism while residing in the desert body is to consider the

desert’s – and our own – complimentary contradictions, nature, changeability, stubbornness,

and interdependent reliance on a common universal habitat.

Upon return from pre-production of the Free the Body project in Indio, CA, reviewing

video reels, sound samples, choreography, and visual art design, I am drawn repeatedly to the

fact that none of it would be possible without the emptying and emptiness of the pure gallery

space of the Coachella Valley Art Center. Returning the gallery to its desert form and function.

The necessary seekers and wisdom bearers who follow a so-called “poverty of the spirit” – a

renunciation of all that renders the purity of habitat unclear – treasure the rich simplicity and

complex ability to give which the desert represents. In doing so, such practitioners become

clarity beacons, as well.

The sound sample accompanying this particular blog is a combination of two pieces of

music, and two experiments. Both pieces of music were intentionally created to represent a

“desert” nature or impression. While one is a tone poem, the other is a formally composed

piano piece. In Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Rilke’s 10th Duino Elegy (above), Rilke

purportedly writes, “Beauty is the beginning of terror...” Together, these pieces couch each

other in a pointed intention toward the vast beauty and vast fear – the draw toward trepidation

- associated with the enormous desert.

Still, something remained incomplete.

The desert has no synonym.

While we might call the ocean the “high seas”, there is no substitute for the moniker of

“desert”. It is firm, immutable, and irreplaceable.

As such, I found it contradictory – though somewhat interesting – to overlay two

disparate pieces of music, the combination of which construct a portrait of the same geological

formation, on top of one another to multiply, in the folds of sound, the point that each was

already making. However, that a formalist chemistry of composition occurred ensconced within

an informal, insinuated sentiment seemed to demand the leavening force of chance.

To honor that call, I recorded an improvised, second piano track alongside the first one,

attempting to both complement the intent of the original’s construction, while also offering

alternatives born of a new mechanism – improvisation. My intention, also, was – and is – to

reflect the ethic and praxis of abolition feminism through my chosen artistic medium, while also

intersecting with the rest of the Free the Body’s creative vision.

To continue, for me, the wonder of this piece appears in two ways: first, through an

extreme use of a commonly occurring audio effect; and two, through the insertion and

embedding of Free the Body testimonials into this sound bed. In the first case, I was curious

what would happen if, like a sandstorm or massive, melting heatwave, I drenched the

improvised piano in “reverb”. With reverb being the digital reproduction of audio reflections

from a given sound source, and its overtones, within a listening space, one is able to effectively

superimpose one sonic habitat into another sonic habitat. While that particular reality may not

be immediately apparent to the listener, it is almost always felt and navigated. So, what would

happen if I introduced an abnormal, unpredictable, sonic “weather condition” into the mix?

The piano changed into another instrument. The DNA of the principal sound source was

actually inverted and redefined by its own output. That its output is also reflected back to it and

that was affected, more poignantly and clearly demonstrates the effect that large variables

have on others, as well as on themselves.

And the testimonies still, amidst the new and shifting habitat, retain their clear voice.

The senders are anonymous, but might be heard as oneself. The messages are different, but the

sentiment, goal, and realization are common to the human experience. The sound bed is rich

and lush, yet the human voices sing through the created, above and beyond impression to

direct communion with the listener.

This sound piece and one other – different, but with the same intentions – will each be

located within one of the two small “listening” windows at the Coachella Valley Art Center, the

perfect location for the project launch. In keeping with the immersive approach of the rest of

the installation, attendees are encouraged to lean their whole heads into the window spaces in

order to have the most direct and complete experience of these immersive pieces.

My hope is that this sound slice (here, without a testimonial), puts you into the realm of

not simply an “idea” of a desert, but of the open ended, myriad experiences the “desert” offers.

The overwhelm and the loss. The blessings. And the threats that may be incurred if respect is

not paid to this necessary animal. My experience in the desert and with the wonderful people

of Indio, CA taught me much, but above all it taught me that only if I respect the land – the

grounding - of my body and mind – the endless desert - may I be respectful to the shared land

that we all place our feet upon – the land of the earth and one another. With all of the beauty

and terror we bring into the palm of the welcoming desert space between us.

Written by Peter DiGennaro, Sound Artist/Human Rights Educator

Sound Swatch: SoundCloud

Learn more: Free the Body


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