In the Flesh: Embodiment, Listening, and Transcription
Editor’s Note: July 18th, 2012 has been designated as World Listening Day by the World Listening Project, a nonprofit organization founded in 2008 “devoted to understanding the world and its natural environment, societies and cultures through the practices of listening and field recording.” World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us. This year, Sounding Out! has decided to observe World Listening Day by planning a month-long special forum of posts exploring several different facets of listening such today’s offering by SO!‘s Multimedia Editor Aaron Trammell on listening’s relationship to the body and next week’s discussion by novelist Bridget Hoida on the impact of listening on her writing process. We will also explore questions that we need to remember when we celebrate listening as a cultural, embodied act. What happens when listening is interrupted? distorted? A post on tinnitus by Mack Hagood will help us think through what happens when we take listening (and the able body) for granted as a universal, normative experience. We’ll also publish a special bonus multi-sensory post by our newest regular writer, Maile Colbert, on World Listening Day itself and we will launch our regular quarterly spring podcast for on July 12th, which will feature Eric Leonardson, director of the World Listening Project. In addition to being interesting as all hell, the podcast will suggest some ideas for how to get involved in WLD activities–or how to embark on a listening project of your own this July. Enjoy our ear-opening extravaganza and please keep those comments coming. We’d love to hear from you! –JSA, Editor-in-Chief
What happens when the body translates sound from one medium to another? How is the body both affected by a song (when listening), and affecting it’s content (when writing)? In this post, I will relate my experience transcribing the lyrics of the song “Hexbreaker!” by The Fleshtones in an effort to answer these questions.
I love to sing. Often, I feel that it is only through singing that I feel that I can adequately relate to the emotions, ideas, and narrative of the songwriter. This relational practice is called embodiment. While psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung had at one point considered this sort of emotional relationship to be a libidinal drive – either to the phallus (in Freud’s case), or a unifying mythological symbol like the mandala (in Jung’s). These feelings, or drives, in classical psychoanalytic theory are part of our interior psyches, the unconscious mind.
Contemporary physiological research has departed from the sharp dichotomy of the conscious/unconscious mind. Instead, emotions are looked at as exterior phenomena - invisible links which form between bodies. As Lisa Blackman (2010) explains in her essay Embodying Affect: Voice-hearing, Telepathy, Suggestion and Modelling the Non-conscious: “The voices can be materialized through particular technologies of inscription such as neuro- imaging scans, and can even be located within the right temporal-parietal lobe, showing the capacity of the right brain not only for psychological attunement, but also for registering the affects of others” (166). Other theorists such as Sara Ahmed (2004) have argued that emotions float between and stick to bodies. Julian Henriques (2010) has even noted the ways that sonic vibrations work to activate reciprocal affective moods in others (75), a point very much in line with Blackman’s musings on the voice’s centrality to “psychic,”right brain, linkages. To these points, it is important to consider exactly what it means for the body to work as a medium of translation. What emotions can a song activate in my body, and how do these feelings become words, stored in the mnemonic confines of paper?
Because listening is central to the transmission and construction of emotional bonds, I will now detail my experience transcribing “Hexbreaker!”.
The Fleshtones are a band that I love. Their songs find the perfect balance of Animal House cool, Swinging Medallions style garage rock, and campy B-movie flavor. They have cred too, as they were a frequent act in the late-70s CBGB punk scene who shared a rehearsal space with The Cramps (a similar, but notably more famous band). Their song “American Beat” was key in the soundtrack of Tom Hanks’ shlocky 1984 film Bachelor Party. Peter Zaremba, the group’s singer, was a host on MTV’s interview based program, I.R.S. Records Presents the Cutting Edge. And, best of all, The Fleshtones have been largely eclipsed by bands with more visible albums, members, and histories. The band is all mine, and they serve as the perfect accent to any mixtape or conversation trivia at a mixer.
The digital footprint left by The Fleshtones is surprisingly sparse. Only a handful of key songs (from movie soundtracks) come up when a search for “fleshtones lyrics,” is queried on Google. A search for guitar notation or chord charts is completely fruitless, a rare feat in today’s search ecosystem. Even their vintage releases, 1982’s Roman Gods and 1983’s Hexbreaker!, were hard to pin down until the Australian label Raven re-released them on CD in 2011. For whatever reason, this sense of scarcity does nothing but excite me. It makes me feel an increased sense of intimacy and ownership. The Fleshtones, in this sense, are a knowledge commodity that has been underappreciated. By transcribing “Hexbreaker!”, and submitting it to the lyrics archive at lyrics.com (yet to be posted), I feel that I am laying claim to a space of knowledge and expertise neglected by many others.
Transcription is generally dull. Having transcribed many interviews in the past, I admit to regarding it as a job that requires patience more than practice: Press play. Listen for ten seconds. Jot down what was said. Forget half of what I was writing. Rewind five seconds. Listen again. Not quite enough to replace when I missed. Rewind eight seconds. Finish constructing the first sentence. Repeat. Hang in there for a few hours. Slow, repetitive, and monotonous is the work of interview transcription. In lieu of my previous experiences, I was happy to learn that the work of song transcription is notably more pleasurable. Although it came with its own share of frustrating and repetitive points, the presence of melody, cadence, and rhyme schemes made the entire process much more endearing and predictable.
One of the most engaging portions of song transcription came with the puzzling-out of unintelligible lyrics. The second verse of “Hexbreaker!” begins with a line that sounded like “With ____-____ mud and a hoodlum stack, finding fire in a mangled park” on first listen. It wasn’t until I had listened to each phrase five times in a row that I was able to revise to, “Well knee-high mud, and a moon lit shack, fightin’ flies in a mangled marsh.” Still not confident with that wording, I decided to do a dictionary search for similar words. To my elation after I had typed m-a-n-g into the dictionary the first word to appear was “mangrove,” the perfect word which I would never have guessed (it’s a weed-like tree found in coastal swamps!). Next I was spirited to discover that the following line evoked images of conquistadors sailing and exploring: “Well knee-high mud, and a moon lit shack, fightin’ flies in a mangrove marsh / Sendin’ sabres across the seven seas, or any foreign shores they may wash / I need a hexbreaker!”
After I was able to get a gist of the overall narrative through transcription, I went back through the piece and was better able to make educated guesses about what the lyrics were. Although Zaremba often takes an unintelligible pitch when singing, the context of 17th century exploration helped me to piece together many of the tougher bits of the song. For instance, I revised the beginning of the chorus from “Well toss it back / [The bottles they break],” to fit the overall theme of colonial exploration, “The cause is had. / [The bodies they break].” Although, I’m not certain that these are the words to the song, I’m very confident because they match the overall theme. The practice of song-transcription has been fulfilling in the same way that figuring out a jigsaw, or tangram is exciting. It is a creative sort of problem solving, one that combines both analytic (left brain) and spatial, metaphoric (right brain) intelligence.
Emotionally, however, I did not feel the same satisfaction that I do when singing. Perhaps this has something to do with transcription alternate mode of embodiment. Transcription, and the pleasures associated – problem solving, precision, and permanence – are all of an analytical, and somewhat strategic sort. These are the pleasures of a conduit, processes associated more with the enduring construction of emotional bonds (belonging, and community), than the lucid enjoyment of them. It is my hope that one day another Fleshtones fan plumbs the depths of Google to find the lyrics of “Hexbreaker!” and that the fruit of my efforts, a completed transcript on lyrics.com, greets them and helps them to sing along and revel. Until then, it is enough to know that the work of transcription, for myself at least, is analytic and dry–definitely worlds apart from the euphoric mode of singing where my entire body vibrates in rhapsody to the melody, rhythm, and harmony of song.
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and multimedia editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University.