Sounding the Wall

“Bach played in cathedrals,” musician Glenn Weyant told me. “The Sonoran Desert is my cathedral.” And Weyant’s instrument is the border wall.

I traveled to Nogales with Weyant and watched him attach a contact microphone to the border wall. He plugged the mic into an amplifier and the wall sings before it is even played. The wall vibrates in the wind. The sun warms the metal – recycled helicopter landing mats from the first Gulf War – and the panels creak and pop. The microphone revealed that the wall, meant to restrict movement across the border, is itself constantly moving.

But the wall’s natural moans did not satisfy Weyant. He wanted to “sound” the wall. Weyant adjusted the volume on the amplifier and tapped the wall with drum sticks made of palm fronds. He dragged a snare brush across the ridges, and bowed the metal edges with a cello bow. “I have to be careful. Steel will eat the bow,” he said. The taps and rattles emanated out from the amplifier and into the border hillsides where Border Patrol officers and National Guard troops watched on bewildered.

Weyant’s soundings encompass more than just his percussive playing on the wall itself. The sound of dogs barking and border patrol vehicles passing end up on his recordings. So does street noise from the Mexican side of the wall. Weyant once played a ‘duet’ with a Black Hawk helicopter patrolling the border overhead. All these sounds form a chorus, Weyant says. “The wall is a resonator. A unifier. It doesn’t discern between sounds on one side of the other.” In this way, Weyant’s soundings turn something meant to divide into something that unites.

Weyant offered to play a duet with me. I selected a palm frond and a metal whisk from Weyant’s sack of implements. Then I stood up to the wall and Weyant and I played the wall. Weyant says that playing the wall makes beauty out of its ugliness, but I am not sure my taps and knocks, transmitted through wire and echoed through the speaker, sounded beautiful. There was, however, something beautiful in the absurdity of the action. From a distance, two men making music from on a metal wall seems ludicrous. Then again, what is more ludicrous than the wall itself?