Mexico City always comes up in talks about the largest human populations in the world, and it’s no wonder why – something like 22 million people sharing a common space does already sound like an outlandish 1950’s sci-fi projection of the wonders of city life. Wonder, however, has little to do with it, because great cities are machines for living, a grand mechanism that in the movement of millions of cars and the crackle of electric undercurrents perpetually dreams of us. It is a technological dream, all ones and zeroes, cogs and switches, automations that infuse our blood with the existential affirmation of an ‘I am’. Joseph Sannicandro’s a sea without a port re-enacts the potential boundlessness of such a vitality, using field recordings to explore the intense shadow that the mechanic rationality of such an enormous thing ought to create. Like the title of the album indicates, it attempts to seize that oceanic feeling through which the city’s heart beats inside our every thought, and it speaks of a Mexico City that brims with the static of modernity, always glitching out to reveal the fragmentation at its core.
Joe Sannicandro aptly manipulates the noises of the city, from the high-pitched whistle that the sweet potato vendors’ carts make as they announce their presence, to the storms that make people huddle together at the entrances of subway stations, in order to produce moods that often stand in contrast to each other. “En el futuro todas las rutas de México terminarán por llamarse Insurgentes” (“In the future all the routes in Mexico will end up being called Insurgents”), which alludes to the city’s longest avenue, named “Insurgentes” after the rebels of the 1821 revolution, begins with the bustle of car horns and street conversations, soon shifting to a contemplative tone. It is, perhaps, a historical thought, an exercise in projecting to the future all the little, everyday gestures of dissent in a city that proudly displays its progressiveness to the rest of the country, an arrogance that earns it as much awe as disgust. After all, it is not difficult to make a turn in the right street and see that in the here and now such a vast machine demands as much death as the life it provides, to see that the city’s dream is often indistinguishable from its nightmare.
A track like “Non-aerial cartography” offers a kind of counterpart: it mixes the repetitive pre-recorded messages of tamal street carts, rhythmically self-erasing their meaning into pure electronic noise, with conversations and cries that build up into sounds that can no longer be thought of as made up of words. There is no possibility of contemplation here, only an incomprehensible immediacy that repeats itself, moment after moment, demanding attention, demanding for you to gaze back. The city stops being a conceptual construct and mimetically turns into something monstrous, something that, curiously, peers into us. Sannicandro portrays this monstrosity with care, juxtaposing found sounds in a way that only someone unaccustomed to listening to the city all the time could do, highlighting its very surface. It is on the surface where the city’s twitches can be best seen, where the songs of an old men’s folk band mingle with the stereotypical recreations of pre-Hispanic music, where the baroque formality of people’s manners is ruptured by the shouts of road ragers, all the histories of Mexico dissonantly clashing with each other.
It is in this utterly mechanical juxtaposition where the city finds its most vibrant life, having no true unity of purpose, no innate choreography beyond that of modernity and capitalism, always different, a harmony without an anchor to keep it still. Like the sounds in the album, it is incredibly diverse, and yet it seems like it is one, like it is an organism that grows and breathes and wants, but the truth lies, perhaps, elsewhere, in the transition from meaningful to meaningless (as in the pre-recorded street announcements in “Non-aerial cartography” or “The Spell of a Useful Illusion”). In thinking of its unity we keep the city under rational reins, but it is its oceanic quality what makes it meaningful, a sense forever in escape, its unimaginable scale making small, inevitable tears in the fabric of our understanding.
I like to think this is not exactly unique, and that it is entirely a post-colonial phenomenon – something shared not only with the United States’ most cosmopolitan urban areas but also with places like Rio de Janeiro, Jakarta, Kinshasa or Delhi, where historical scars grant a richness of difference rarely enjoyed by the great cities of the colonizers. Sannicandro has done a great job of capturing this sense, this feeling of inexhaustible complexity, and as someone who lived in Mexico City most of his life (and looks forward to eventually returning), I believe this album represents a good point of entry for anyone looking to dive, however briefly, into the inner workings of this gigantic, dreamful machine. (David Murrieta)