- Sound PoliticsThe Air Horn Orchestra Blasts HB2
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The first time we set off the air horns, several of us got frostbite. We didn’t expect it, because we were standing outside of the North Carolina Governor’s Mansion in short sleeves, already contending with the sticky warmth of springtime. Giddy and naive, we wrested the compact aerosol cans from their hard plastic containers with our teeth like children struggling to free new toys. The horns, which were painted in cheery shades of red, white, and blue, were about the size of an inhaler. They looked innocuous.
The sound of one air horn is a shrill, aggressive thing, appropriate for its key purpose as an emergency signal. And, to us, this was the perfect application. In March 2016, the North Carolina legislature approved House Bill 2, which eliminated essential anti-discrimination protections and limited the sovereignty of municipalities across the state. But it was the requirement that transgender people use the bathroom that corresponds to their “biological sex” that made the bill—and, by proxy, the residents of North Carolina—infamous. It was the classic definition of an emergency.
We knew enough to stuff our ears with gummy orange plugs before our performance, and to dispatch a dozen pairs to the police officers across the street, who were stationed to watch—and forced to listen. As it turns out, they weren’t sure what to expect, either, because most accepted our offer with sheepish grins. This rag-tag collection of folks, summoned by a playful social media post, had heard an air horn before. But nobody knew what fifty of them blasting in unison would sound like.
We soon discovered that an assembly of horns is loud enough to feel heavy, and that the squall could blow past the security guards and iron gates and meticulous landscaping of the Governor’s Mansion. Fifty air horns could punch straight through the brick walls and right on into the house. Fifty air horns could drill directly into the governor’s brain, forcing him to make awkward statements during press conferences and peek nervously through the curtains of his magnificent floor-to-ceiling windows. Fifty air horns could help change the course of an election.
While our ears were protected from the sound, our hands were a different story. The pressurized gas rushed from the cans so quickly that it caused a sudden drop in temperature and a hazy frost to crystallize on the metal. But the blast continued, hostile and oppressive, until the cold eventually choked out the sound. All told, the tumult—which also included drums, keyboards, kazoos, even a shofar—lasted about ten minutes. Keeping our hands curled around the containers was sufficient to rip skin (akin to touching a frozen pipe with your tongue). But it was no matter. The horns gave us access to a place we weren’t allowed to go, with an intensity we weren’t supposed to share. Inside of the mansion, our frustration was audible.
We formed a Facebook group to circulate news clips and swap pictures of our palms, which grew increasingly pink and raw as the days wore on. Like a blood [End Page 108] pact, our blistered skin created a bond among us. It marked the first performance of the Air Horn Orchestra, a motley crew of noisemakers that would continue to show up until Election Day to confuse, confound, and deeply irritate Governor Pat McCrory.
Music journalist Jesse Jarnow, who reviewed the Air Horn Orchestra’s meager but mighty output for the online culture magazine Flavorwire, observed that the racket we created “might properly get filed under drone or free jazz should they ever put out an album.” Indeed, the sound was piercing, but also spirited and strangely cheerful. The hiss and wail from the horns formed a stable...