“The Sound-Sweep” appeared in the pages of Science Fantasy in 1960. At that time, Amacher was finishing up her undergraduate training at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Soon she’d begin work on “Adjacencies” (1965) for percussion duo and quadraphonic sound projection. This would be her last notated work for orchestral instruments for some time.
“Adjacencies” was to be part of a multipart collection of works from the early to mid-1960s titled AUDJOINS, a Suite for Audjoined Rooms. The suite would have staged ensembles in built space. (“Adjacencies” is the only known extant score of that series.) Indeed, Amacher’s added “u” to the word suggests architectural jointures and contiguities held in place by sound, listening, and their coupling in the aural. Composing for built space occupied Amacher throughout her life, not least via Intelligent Life’s magic architecture.
In Ballard’s story, however, the dynamic, clangorous sounds of Adjacencies percussive architecture would no longer exist. His is a punishing soundworld rocked by omnipresent, stomach-turning industrial noise. Sounds leave residue in built spaces, and excessive sonic residue makes people sick and topples buildings when it accumulates. The story’s viciously stratified socioeconomic world is organized, in part, around the now identical dangers of music and noise. The entertainment conglomerate Video City has monopolized the production of ultrasonic music, which leaves no traces, unlike audible music. The frequencies used by Video City’s ultrasonic composers are so high they don’t leave any corrosive residue; neurophonic music bypassed the auditory pathway and goes straight to the brain, careening around inside each listener’s heads. Ballard humorously refers to these frequencies as “P” and “Q” notes. Every instrument has an ultrasonic counterpart—except the human voice. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Ludwig van Beethoven, Arnold Schoenberg, and other marquee figures from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries live via ultrasonic arrangement. Each day, a phalanx of so-called sound-sweeps clean public and private spaces and deposit their sounds in the sonic dump, a kind of shanty town where sweeps also live. Sound-sweeps live amid the dangerous din from which they save everyone else.
The story orbits around the high-ranking Video City composer Ray Alto, the long-obsolescent opera singer Madame Gioconda, and Magnon, the sound-sweep who works for both of them. Each power-differentiated position entails different way of listening: Alto works with ultrasonics, Gioconda yearns for a resurgence of non-ultrasonic vocal music, and Magnon, unlike other sweeps, can hear all the sonic residues that he is charged with cleaning. Except for the story’s omniscient narrator, Magnon is the only one who can hear everything in the story’s soundworld. While for the most part it isn’t clear where to locate the observer in relation to what is being observed, Magnon is quite a different story.
Though he could do many things with his exceptional listening, Magnon uses his ears to serve Gioconda. She’s plotting a comeback concert and needs Magnon’s help collecting old sonic residue in order to blackmail her ex, Video City’s CEO, Hector LeGrande. Magnon takes Gioconda to the sonic dump, where they scour the shanty town for residue of LeGrande’s voice. Her plan: threaten LeGrande with dirt so damning that he has no choice but to broadcast her comeback performance over Video City’s networks. Maybe the voice will win out over ultrasonic music after all. And Video City is the only game in town.
Magnon’s hopeless infatuation with Gioconda has everything to do with misrecognized parallelisms involving listening and voice. Ultrasonic music made Gioconda’s voice technologically obsolete. And Magnon hasn’t spoken since the age of three, when, we are told, his mother struck his throat and permanently damaged his larynx. Though both characters have in some sense “lost their voices,” their respective losses signal very different social processes. But in Ballard’s merciless rendering, Magnon cannot tell the difference: he stakes the resolution of his childhood trauma on Gioconda’s comeback. Helping her restore her voice will not only restore his voice but also make up for the lack of maternal love that took it in the first place. Ballard stretches the reader’s suspension of disbelief when Magnon actually regains his voice, partway through the story. Like his exceptional listening, this goes unexplained.
For years, he’s been pretending to sweep boos and jeers from Gioconda’s home, even though he knows that they’re in fact all in her head. The better his placebo works, the more woozily erotic Magnon’s attachment becomes. His entanglement with Gioconda stems from his position in Video City’s global labor market, and his resultant infatuation cannot be disentangled from broader concepts of work in the service sector involving customer care and satisfaction. Through Magnon, we get a glimpse of how service work responds to changing conceptions of sound, technology, and media in Ballard’s fictive world.
Ballard’s tight focus on the blackmail plot pushes the story’s vicious structural inequalities into the margins. We don’t meet any other sweeps; we also don’t meet any other singers who’ve been similarly crushed by ultrasonic music (consider, for example, that 1960s R&B, soul, and gospel traditions are nowhere to be found in Video City). It’s hard to imagine the commanding, eminently detestable Gioconda restoring vocal music on anyone’s behalf other than her own, even though she could clearly manipulate LeGrande to such an end. Magnon’s capacity to hear sonic residue also suggests all sorts of insurrections. Yet, in addition to having sex with her, Magnon imagines becoming Gioconda’s manager after her return to the stage. This might be a victory for Magnon, but would certainly be a loss for other sweeps. Amid a resurgence of vocal song, they’d have considerably more work to do in order to keep pace with the voice’s sonic residue.
Magnon also works for Alto, the ultrasonic composer, whose successes parallel Gioconda’s failures almost point for point. Unlike Gioconda, Alto has figured out how to make nineteenth-century Euro-American traditions work within Video City’s ultrasonic industry. He updates Western art music for ultrasonic instruments and has even written a symphony of his own, titled Total Symphony. Gioconda, on the other hand, simply will not go quietly. Once her voice is made obsolescent, she becomes grotesque in almost every way imaginable: fat, drunk, coked out, self-obsessed, delusional, and manipulative. Ballard doesn’t miss a sexist beat. While Alto gets paid to make music in a functional studio, Gioconda lives in an old soundstage surrounded by iconic props from opera staples: she sleeps on Desdemona’s bed, looks at herself in a mirror from L’Orfeo, cooks on a stove from Il Trovatore, and stuffs newspaper and magazine cuttings into a wardrobe from Le nozze di Figaro.
Magnon lets Alto in on Gioconda’s scheme. The two plan to put her on closed-circuit television; Gioconda will think she is being broadcast, Video City’s ultrasonic monopoly will go unchallenged by the human voice, and LeGrande will be none the wiser. But Gioconda gets to LeGrande first; Alto reports on her pre-climactic call after the fact. Though we never hear what was said, Gioconda’s threats work. LeGrande gives her free reign to book her comeback concert on a Video City program of her choosing. Alto convinces Magnon that, after years of neglect, Gioconda’s voice is shot and for her own good, no one should hear her. When she chooses to sing over the premiere of Alto’s Total Symphony, he instructs Magnon to sweep away her voice as she sings; she won’t know that no one will actually hear her. Of course, Magnon thinks Alto is wrong about Gioconda’s voice. And as the concert’s designated clandestine sweep, he’s in the just the right position to prove it.
Things do not go according to plan. Anticipating imminent fame—and having gotten what she wants—Gioconda leaves Magnon a nasty farewell via sonic residue: “Go away you ugly child! Never try to see me again!” Magnon arrives at the concert with Gioconda’s cruel goodbye ringing in his mind’s ear. With his sonovac running, only he can hear her when she starts to sing. She performs the bullfighter Escamillo’s “Toreador Song” from Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Presumably, she’s lost her high range and can no longer deliver Carmen’s mezzo-soprano arias; with Escamillo, she now sings a bass-baritone role. Ballard’s narrator pulls no punches: