Interview with Monica Moses Haller by Marianne Combs
For the Wakpa Triennial, Monica Moses Haller has created materials that people access at “Check Out Stations” at 4 different places in St. Paul and Minneapolis. People will be able to take one of her books and connect to new sound compositions that allow them to “Listen to the Mississippi.” Her work draws from a library of sounds she’s collected over the past decade using a microphone especially designed for recording underwater. It explores complex realities we might not pick up with our other senses. In so doing, she invites us to engage not just with nature but also the politics, industry, and history that surround the waterway and to investigate how our actions upstream have repercussions at the Mississippi Delta.
What inspired you to capture the sounds of the Mississippi?
This work has been going on for 10 years, more or less. It’s a series of underwater sounds and actions that have unfolded over 10 years with different iterations. I think it started even before I realized it started. In some ways I’m more connected to the Mississippi, to the watershed, downriver from New Orleans than I am in the Twin Cities, though I grew up in the Twin Cities and have been out in and out of the Twin Cities all my life. So in the Twin Cities, when I started to go to be by the river, I felt the river as something that was always coming from somewhere, coming from just before – just a moment before – and always leaving, always going right down river, and it connected me to the downriver of coastal Louisiana. The river started to connect familial and ancestral distance for me.
What connects you to coastal Louisiana?
Part of my mother’s family is from coastal Louisiana. My great-grandparents moved to Minneapolis during the Great Migration and every summer my grandfather was sent down to help on the farm. And so he made those trips and then eventually took my mother and her sisters – his family – down to the coast of Louisiana and eventually I also went down. As an adult I probably visit once or twice a year. And so there’s this three generations of movement up and down the Mississippi River.
In the springtime when the snow melts and the runoff starts and the water starts to rise here, I’ll get text messages from our next door neighbor in the wetlands in coastal Louisiana and she’ll be like “What are you sending us? Are we going to top the levees this year?” So for me there is a very strong connection to where this water is going. I’ve still got family in New Orleans now and so there’s also an emotional connection, a kind of a pull –whether I’m up here on the riverbanks or down river – there’s a pull back and forth. People have all sorts of relationships to the river. Mine is one kind. And even this sort of linear way that I have, it kept my family traveling along the watershed, from north to south, south to north. And it kept our bodies near the river in a certain way. And it certainly does in coastal Louisiana, perhaps more so than here, actually, for sure, more so than here. But that’s only really one way of knowing the river, this sort of linear movement from north to south and south to north is only one way of knowing this watershed.
What was it about the audio that drew you in?
I wanted to create circumstances that invited people to think about the constant movement of the water. The water is always arriving – it’s both arriving from someplace new, and also very ancient. And it’s always leaving. And for one second, I’m the stable thing. I mean I’m not stable, right? But for one second, I’m the stable thing at that riverbank. And sound became exciting to me, as someone who was new to sound in terms of working with it as a medium. I started learning that underwater, when sound waves move through the medium of water, they move faster than through air. And so in some ways, this can connect something far away, or you can hear something far away as if it’s right next to you. And so you can start to play with distance and time, and expand it out and collapse it and just really play with both distance in terms of location, distance emotionally, and time, both second by second, but also the future and the past and geologic time, human time. So I was very interested in sound for that reason.
If I walk up to one of your Check Out Stations and I put on a pair of headphones or earbuds, what am I going to hear?
So if you go check out a pair of headphones and take one of the free books at the Check Out Stations, you put the headphones on and there are seven soundtracks. Some are individual sounds from one recording, and some of the tracks are compositions of sounds made by composers. One recording is from the industrial canal in New Orleans, which is off of the river’s main channel. The recording is from a very specific place on the industrial canal where the levee broke and inundated the Lower Ninth Ward. And so in that recording, actually, what you’ll hear is just one single source. It’s just one recording but what you’ll hear is radio interference – the hydrophone (underwater microphone) picked up all this radio interference – so you can hear boats from the nearby channel, you can hear a woman singing, reporting on the Dow Jones Industrial Average, motors, water lapping… and this is all from one recording! The river has these amazing compositions, industrial and natural.
And then if you listen to one of the compositions, let’s say Michi Wiancko and Judd Greenstein’s composition, they took sounds from the library of sounds, and they mixed them together and made their own original music with it. Their piece starts with that same recording from the industrial canal, and then moves into other sounds and eventually you’ll hear a little bit of violin.
How did you compile the library of sounds?
Slowly, at first. Some of the first recordings started in 2013. I made a piece for Northern Spark along with other artists. The idea of an individual artist is a bit misleading. I’ve made it this whole time, but there have always been beautiful thinkers and makers that have been a part of it. In 2015, myself and another artist designer, Sebastian Müllauer, we made recordings from the headwaters to the Gulf within the watershed. So that’s where the majority of them happened. We worked with people and met people all along the river and watershed from all walks of life.
What are some of the most surprising sounds you’ve heard by putting hydrophones in the river?
There are some exciting, lovely sounds like the alligator gar, which is in the lower Mississippi and it shares DNA with dinosaurs. It’s ancient and it makes this deep low croak. So that’s a lovely sound. But in the recordings you also hear the vibration of the hydrophone cord straining under this massive current as we are paddling on the river, and at that point it is a huge strain to go upstream or to cross. And I find that these technical interruptions are great parts for me because they give me clues into what I should be listening to. It might disrupt my expectation of what to listen for or my assumptions. And so for me, that technical-ish problem isn’t a problem. It’s a chance to tune into this sort of immense power of the river.
I love surprises that are like problems, because it helps me go deeper into the material and to imaginatively listen or look at the systems that are connected to the river – environmental systems, systems of violence. You can’t pick up the sound of oil leaking into the bayou – fluid displacing a fluid doesn’t cause an audible break or rupture. But then again, that isn’t a problem. It’s a space and time to think about silence. I mean, of course, it’s not really silence – you can hear still hear birds chirping by an uncapped well in a bayou where oil is slowly leaking into the water. You can still hear water lapping. You still hear water birds. But you can’t hear the oil leaking. And so these are the really important moments to me in this work. What is that space? How do I give time for that reality? Do I show you the silence for that reality? What does that mean? How do we pull apart the lack of sound? How do you give depth to it?
How do you make the invisible visible…
Exactly! So on the aural level or on the auditory level – what should be uttered? That’s another thing that’s really important to me in this work, that kind of sound space and deep listening.
How has this project changed the way you see and experience the river?
I mean, I think I always knew this or thought about this, but it just becomes more and more confirmed, which is that the river is not linear. It’s a watershed. The watershed drains two-thirds of the country’s water. So it’s fluid, and it’s messy, and what the river means changes depending on who you’re speaking to. And so, when we share visuals, I only want to share the watershed if I’m looking at the whole thing, because I feel like it is more true than the idea of one channel. For me, it really opens my imagination – it’s expansive.
It’s a network, not just a line, that reaches out into the land surrounding it, and there are all these relationships that we don’t even think of.
Exactly. And so for this book, this small booklet that we call “notes for listening,” we’re going in and we’re just playing with the sound and what this could signify, and what that makes us think about. There are seven tracks and seven written pieces. But there are so many more ways to just keep unraveling it, right? And this is just one way. And if I read this book in a couple of months, you know, while this public art exhibition is still open, I will have a whole different way that I want to read it. And of course, if anyone else hears the sound, they’re going to have their own experience, and imagine something completely different. And somehow that feels connected to this watershed, which is moving and changing. And that, of course, is what the river does, and would naturally do if it wasn’t leveed and dammed and controlled. So you put something down on paper or make a recording, and it feels much more static than it ought to be.
How do you feel your work connects with the Wakpa Triennial theme: network of mutuality?
We were just talking about the watershed. And I get text messages from a neighbor in coastal Louisiana who’s asking us “Girl, what are you sending us? What are we going to get? Are we going to top the levees?” And of course, along with the water comes sediment, silt, debris, chemical pollutants – lots of chemical pollutants. And you know she’d love to top the levee. By”topping,” I mean flood the levee. I mean bring freshwater and river soil back into the marsh, which is what it needs to build. But that’s also complicated because all those pollutants would go with it, too. So it’s a complicated topic. And the reason I bring this up is it’s an example of a network, and it is an example of being tied to one another, whether you can see it or not. Mutuality is not linear, right? There’s now oil in the waterways and the bayous in coastal Louisiana. And, with all of the pipelines and work in the highways in the Twin Cities, there’s also salt from the runoff and the threat of oil in the waterways here. And so when we talk about mutuality, this watershed and what people in contemporary colonial U.S. are doing is this great example of a network of interconnectedness and interdependence.
And maybe a failure of some people to recognize the interconnectedness?
Absolutely. That’s right. Yeah, I mean, there’s so many ways to pull apart this idea of a network of mutuality.
Environmentally, this work has made you more aware of those ecosystem relationships that happen in the watershed where there is this mutuality that exists in the life forms around the river, as well as in it. But it does seem like we’re at a time where we’re only just beginning to understand the network that we are a part of.
Right, and then some people have understood it for a very, very long time. I mean, here we are in the contemporary ancestral homelands of the Dakota and Anishinaabe people. I’ve come to know a worldview that has known for generations and generations and generations that water is sacred.
What do you hope to inspire people to think about when they encounter these “Listening to the Mississippi” stations and sounds?
I am trying to imagine into these sounds, and connect to the broader systems that they’re a part of, and that can be environmental. And they’re also political. They’re economic, and they’re historical, and they’re about the future. And so I invite others to do that in their own way. The way I’m doing it is just my perspective. But I really invite that – to connect to the broader systems that these sounds are a part of… You know, the paradox of this is that I asked people to put headphones on and listen and read and imagine and then really, what I’m asking people to do is take them off again. And I get out of the way and people just tap into their own senses – of sound, of smell, of touch of air on the skin – and have their own experience with what they’re hearing in their own life. It’s very simple – it’s actually very simple.
Marianne Combs is an award-winning broadcast journalist, producer and writer with more than 25 years of arts and culture reporting experience. You can find her work on National Public Radio, in podcasts and in national magazines. She was named 2020 Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. She has earned multiple awards for her investigative work and currently serves as News Director for the Center for Broadcast Journalism in St. Paul.