Ron Jost ~ Walking Around a Cleveland Steel Mill

And then there was one.  Cleveland’s ArcelorMittal steel mill is the only remaining testament to a once-dominant industry.  The plant runs 24 hours a day, keeping up with demand yet always on the verge of dissolution.  As a testimony to home, Ron Jost spends the afternoon investigating the sonic properties of the plant, amplifying its aural legacy.

The hiss of steam greets the listener, imitating the howl of wind.  It’s easy to connect this sound to the winds of change.  Our grandparents drove steel cars.  Pittsburgh’s football team still bears the name, but don’t mention this to anyone in Cleveland; the Steelers and Browns have a bitter rivalry.  Who are we, if not our rivalries and industries?  What do we become when our livelihoods constrict or vanish?

Warning horns sound as the hiss descends to a crackle; we are walking deeper into the facility.  A stray foot-plant seems to land in a puddle.  Watch your step!  And now the whir of motors, sanders, purifiers.  Already in the seventh minute, it is hard to hear anything but the drone.  We suspect the workers are wearing earplugs as well as hard hats.  The sounds form their own sedimentary layers.  But in minute ten, a congenial dialogue, away from the engines:  “So many cool sounds, man ~ you never know what you’re going to hear!”  Equipment is unloaded, dragged, transferred.  There’s still pride in a job well done.

While there’s no indication that this plant is in trouble, to be the last is to hang on.  Just as field recordists travel to the Amazon and other remote locations to record the last pristine evidence of vanishing species, Jost chronicles these evocative sounds, whose history and power provide an odd comfort.  There was a factory, now there are mountains and rivers.  Flipping the script of the typical field work, the stray birds seem like intrusions, like those who make their homes in malls.  Traffic passes outside; yes, that’s what we want!  At least the trucks still use steel.

And then: footsteps, breath.  The body has become the narrator.  In the background, a continuous hum, then an alarm.

In the second piece, Jost adopts the frequencies as his own.  “Multizone Drone” is layered, sculpted, pitch-adjusted: the sound of the plant overlaid by the sound of the impression.  The result is akin to a downpour, tumbling into white noise, eventually lulling the listener despite its volume.  Humans have an amazing ability to acclimate.  Is this what Jost hears when he thinks of the plant?  Should the ArcelorMittal steel mill close, will this be what workers and neighbors remember: a curated sonic nostalgia, faithful yet removed, abrasion sloughed to produce a soothing surface?  For now, the steel workers think little of such things; they are glad their jobs are intact.  (Richard Allen)

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