Acoustic Images

Benito Cereno soundscape

by Polina Dronyaeva & Alexander Senko, 2013

‘Benito Cereno’ is widely regarded as one of the most interesting works of Herman Melville. Jorge Luis Borges called it the most inexplicable text, which Melville perhaps “left us as a true symbol of our inexplicable world”.
We suggest to try to resolve Benito Cereno through its ‘sound devices’ as well as its composition. Perhaps if we sonify the composition we can get a glimpse at what is hidden behind the words.
To remind the plot: in the year 1799 Delano, an American captain of a whale-hunting ship has encountered a shabby-looking ship with a Spanish captain Benito Cereno and a mixed white and black crew. One member of the crew, a Benito’s servant Babo, especially attracts the Delano’s attention with the way he patiently serves his Spanish master. Benito Cereno comes across as a very feeble, ill person, always pale and on the verge of collapsing, so it looks pretty natural that his servant has to be around even during captains’ discussions, occasionally even answering Delano’s questions.
Delano’s own good nature allows him to get himself fooled so much, that even when he sees Benito jumping off the ship with a few other white sailors to join departing Americans, he first decides that they are pirates who decided to attack him before he reaches his ship.
Only when he saw Babo trying to kill his master Benito and when later heard the true story, did Delano realized that what he had seen was a masterfully staged spectacle, and those whom he thought to be servants were in fact masters. The black slaves, who looked so friendly to the American captain, had revolted and killed most of the crew having left only the skipper and the captain to take them back home, to Senegal. When they saw the American ship, they decided to pretend to be a normal-looking ship, i.e. with a white captain and black slaves. Babo did not let Benito out of his sight so that he would not give away the truth, that’s why he looked so caring.
The most intense scene of the story is when Babo invites the two captains to talk while shaving his Spanish master. Needless to say how nervous was Benito, while Delano had no idea why his counterpart was so pale.
Now, when Delano was told the whole truth, he sent his people to capture the run away ship with the blacks on board. With guns and cannons that was a matter of a few shots to successfully arrest all the mutineers.
The end of the story is perhaps slightly unusual for Herman Melville, who was known for his humanist position in the questions of slavery. Some critics suggest that ‘Benito Cereno’ was designed to demonstrate a naïve position of a typical Northern abolitionist.
Whatever the specifics of the time of the writing, for us it is particularly interesting to study how Melville designs the situation where a character finds himself in a dubious position becoming a victim of ‘trickery of the mind’. In Melville’s stories things often turn out what they do not seem to be.
In ‘Benito Cereno’ there are quite a few ‘sound devices’, most of them belong to the Spanish ship and its habitants: the ship is old and badly kept thus there are a lot of squeaks of wood, the slaves occasionally sing, but the most noteworthy are the noises from the axes being sharpened by four black elders sitting above the scene. Babo also must be sharpening – this time the razor to shave Benito.
All these sounds, including the splash when Benito jumps in water to follow Delano, as illusionary as images: Delano attached to them a meaning absolutely contrary to the true one. To give him credit, the American captain had more than one versions of what he was witnessing (he occasionally was ready to accept that he mounted a pirate ship), but still he was wrong!
Listening to our soundscape you will be giving a chance to see for yourself the power of ‘trickery of mind’, especially when dealing with sounds.
In composition we decided to follow the story quite closely (apart from the spoken words, which are needless anyway since they bear no true meaning): as in Melville’s, it is shown through Delano’s eyes (here ears) and starts with entering the ship with the first part finishing with Benito jumping in the sea, while second part lacks the guitar, which represents Delano’s opinion on the situation (thus the guitar part has Spanish chords), develops much faster (again, as in Melville’s) and – for most of the slaves at least – finishes with the cannon shot.
As we noted above, the very shortness of the second part may give a hint on the meaning of the story, which as a whole is a beautiful example of inexplicable illusions of our life.
Selected exhibitions and performances
Sound Device n.3, Dublin, Ireland, March 2013