This year, Sounding Out! plans to “cover” each of the five regional Experience Music Project conferences for our readership, particularly thinking through an issue we have been discussing in detail lately in our “Sonic Borders” forum with IASPM-US—where exactly is the rub between sound studies and popular music studies?
We are looking for one attendee at each EMP conference:
- Seattle (April 20th)
- Los Angeles (April 17th, 19th-20th)
- New York City (April 18-19th)
- Cleveland (April 19th-20th)
- New Orleans (April 18th-21st)
to attend the respective conference and as many of its attached events as possible and then provide a 500-700 word review of the conference no later than two weeks after the event. We are especially interested in reviews that consider the following questions:
- How has the rise of sound studies challenged, provoked, and factored into popular music study?
- Where is the crossover, the overlap—and, inevitably, the divergence?
- How does popular music study challenge and provoke sound studies in return?
- In what way does the regional nature of the new EMP format issue interesting challenges to both fields?
Our correspondents will be published together on a special “EMP Fandango” blog post that will reach a wide readership. It will also become a permanent part of our archive and a tool for future scholars in both fields.
To apply to be a correspondent for any of the regional conferences, please email Editor in Chief Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman at email@example.com by March 22nd with your CV (or resume) and a brief cover letter email conveying your interest in thinking through the “sonic border” between sound studies and popular music studies at EMP this year (250-300 words). Please place the EMP you would like to cover in the subject line of your email.
As our Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman mentioned in her Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) Conference Round-Up post from this past Monday, this weekend will be action packed for those interested in media studies and popular music studies. This year is the first year the Experience Music Project Museum (EMP) POP Conference will take place on the East Coast—sponsored by New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. In addition, the EMP POP Conference will be jointly held with the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (US) Conference (IASPM-US for short). With that in mind we have brought two conference round-up posts this week. (Speaking of blogging about conferences, don’t miss IASPM’s blog coverage of EMP POP Conference 2012, where they are previewing several papers that will be read at the conference.) Even though our editorial collective is still working on the technology to enable us to be in several places at once so we don’t miss out on these awesome opportunities, I will be Sounding Out’s eyes and ears at EMP POP Conference. I will also attempt to live-tweet the panels I am attending. You can find me at @literarychica, or you can follow the conference tweet stream at #PopCon
The EMP POP Conference has been bringing together academics and non-academics alike, musicians and non-musicians alike, music writers and non-music-writers to discuss the direction of popular culture–especially popular music. The theme of this year’s POP Conference is Sounds of the City, and what better location for these cross-disciplinary conversations than New York City? From the conference website:
Presenters will pay particular attention to what urban environments have meant for race, gender, and sexuality. Jazz, rock, indie, country, metal, electronic dance music, roots, disco, and Broadway music are but some of the sounds that will be the subject of entire panels.
The city becomes the place to explore how sound is constructed but also how the city helps construct sound—and its counterpart, noise. Detroit, Berlin, and New York City, among others, take certer stage in this year’s program. Many of the panel topics show an interest in thinking about how sound influences our notion of urban space, which brings to my mind the “cities of feeling” that Carlo Rotella talks about in his book October Cities: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature. If, according to Rotella, “literary writers are in the business of imagining cities,” here at the EMP POP Conference there is an impulse to consider how do sound and noise participate in that imagining, and how gender and race play a role (3). The conference offerings illustrate an attempt to think about the sounds of the city in a broader sense, not just limiting it to music. Although the EMP POP Conference stands out for its critical focus on everything related to popular music, this year’s panels are more sound-studies oriented.
Another indication of the sound studies influence at this year’s EMP POP Conference is a focus on listening. There seems to be a an inclination not just to think about the sounds within the city but how we listen to those sounds. Listening is an important factor in how sound is constructed; in other words, an analysis of sound is not limited to the sounds themselves, but how those who listen interpret those sounds, or how listeners themselves are perceived. From the Feminist Working Group‘s Friday panel titled Turn It Up! One: Listening to Difference to Gustavus Stadler’s “Aural Drag: Warhol as Pop Listener” to the Sunday panel Urban Ears, listening is part of the conversation taking place at NYU this weekend about sound and urban space.
Our regular readers will see several familiar names in the program. Gayle Wald is presenting on the Marvelettes Friday morning on the Afro Imaginaries panel. Gustavus Stadler is moderating the Lonely Subcultures panel on Friday and presenting on Andy Warhol in his paper “Aural Drag: Warhol as Pop Listener.” (Insider tip: keep an ear out for Eric Lott, who will be presenting on the same panel as Stadler; you can expect a blog post from Lott in the upcoming months.) Karen Tongson, who blogged for us on The Voice, will be presenting a paper titled “Drive and Sounds of the ‘80s Metropolis.” Scott Poulson-Bryant will be participating in the Saturday afternoon roundtable on Whitney Houston titled “Newark’s Finest: Reflections on Whitney Houston.” Last but not least, Regina Bradley, one of our regular writers, and myself will be presenting together on a roundtable on Sunday titled “I Pledge Allegiance to the Block: Cityscapes, Hegemonic Sound, and Blackness.”
The conference will take place at New York University’s Kimmel Center, and is free of charge. To find out more about the presenters or to read about all the other outstanding panels at the conference, please visit the conference website. So if you’re in the New York City area Thursday through Sunday (or if you’re considering hopping on a train from Boston to check out some panels–wink wink), the conference will be well worth your while!
Please comment to let SO! know what you think–both before and after EMP PopCon 2012. If I missed your panel in my round up, please drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out! She is also a PhD candidate at Binghamton University.
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THURSDAY, March 22
Thursday, March 22, 2012
Thursday, March 22, 2012 7:00pm-8:30pm
Conference Opening Keynote: The Artist in the City: with Angélique Kidjo, Esperanza Spalding, Santigold, and Himanshu Suri (aka Heems)
Room: Eisner & Lubin Auditorium KC 401
Writing about how jazz in the mid-20th century reflected lived experience in New York city’s tenements, the scholar Shane Vogel quoted Duke Ellington’s description of his swing symphony, “Harlem Air Shaft”: “So much goes on in a Harlem air shaft…You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people maing love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great big loudspeaker.” In the crowded city, the musician-composer becomes a living receiver, distilling a static field of sounds and sensations into an evocative whole.
This keynote event gathers together four prominent artists whose work reflects a cosmopolitan worldview, with each artist rooted in his or her particular urban home. Grammy winning Beninoise singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo has truly had a global career, having recorded albums in a staggering array of languages, styles, genres and cities; her recently-released live album Spirit Rising is a career retrospective featuring diverse guests like Ezra Koenig, Josh Groban and the Kuumba Singers. Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding is about to release her third album, Radio Music Society, a border-crossing blend of jazz, soul, funk and pop that reflects the cities she loves: New York, Barcelona, and her birthplace of Portland, Oregon. Philadelphia-bred, Brooklyn-based Santigold (Santi White) is one of the brightest lights of the East Coast bohemian underground; her upcoming second album, Master of My Make Believe, takes her incendiary blend of hip hop, indie rock and dance music to a new level. On his recent mixtape Nehru Jackets, Himanshu Suri (Heems) of the Queens-identified hip hop group Das Racist drops wit and wisdom about the ups and downs of life in Gotham’s five boroughs. Discussing their new work and how they’ve formed their own sound and vision in relationship to the urban spaces where they thrive, these artists consider what’s changed and what remains consistent in the half-century plus since the Duke found heaven in the clanging multiplicity of the air shaft.
Moderator: Ann Powers
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FRIDAY, March 23
Friday, March 23, 2012
Friday, March 23, 2012 9:00 am-11:00 am
Room: KC 804/5
Moderator: Banning Eyre
Gayle Wald, “‘Deliver De Letter’: ‘Please Mr. Postman,’ the Marvelettes, and the Afro-Caribbean Imaginary”
Emily J. Lordi, “Moving Out: White Flight and Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘Stand!’”
Koushik Banerjea, “Cities of the Dead: Soundscaping Race, Memory and Desire in a Forgotten London”
Wills Glasspiegel & Martin Scherzinger, “Beyoncé’s Afro-Future: Power and Play in “Run the World (Girls)””
Repositioning Urban Pop
Room: KC 808
Moderator: Barbara Browning
Rustem Ertug Altinay, “‘In Konya she would marry a regular dude, but Serife from Konya is now a Lady’: Power, Sexuality and Cities in Gungor Bayrak’s Autobiographic Songs”
Erin MacLeod, “‘Layers and layers of not-so-dope synths’: Listening to the Music of Addis Ababa”
Mark Lomanno, “Surfaces and (archi)Textures in Canarian Jazz”
Room: KC 406
Moderator: John Melillo
Patrick Deer, “‘The Cassette Played Poptones’: Punk’s Pop Embrace of the City in Ruins”
Jessica Schwartz, “Conform or Die: Composing the City as National Security Threat, 1945-1962″
John Melillo, “Revenant Frequencies: Destructive Sound from “The Waste Land” to NYC Ghosts and Flowers“
J. Martin Daughtry, “Evocative Objects and Provocative Actions on the Acoustic Territory of War”
Friday, March 23, 2012 11:15 am-12:45pm
Turn It Up! One: Listening to Difference
Room: KC 808
This panel is sponsored by the Feminist Working Group. Since 2008, we have organized panels, get-togethers and networking opportunities for all feminists who participate in EMP. For more information about our activities, and to get involved, please visit http://feministworkinggroup.blogspot.com
Moderator: Lucy O’Brien
Summer Kim Lee, “‘Singin’ Up On You’: Queer Intimacies of the Sonorous Body In ‘The New Sound Karaoke’”
Daniel Sander, “Girl. Reverb. Notes on Queer Tactics of Sonorous Difference”
Kyessa L. Moore, “(Sub)Spacialized Urban Sound, Expressive Communion and Identificatory Dislocations”
Cairo and Athens Spring Up
Room: KC 405
Moderator: Katherine Meizel
Banning Eyre, “Cairo Soundscape: Revolution and Cultural Renaissance”
Maysan Haydar, “Wild in the (Arab) Streets: Songs for the Revolutions”
Hypatia Vourloumis, “Bad Athena: Crises, Syntheses and Sounds of a European Other”
Room: KC 406
Moderator: Gustavus Stadler
William Hutson, “Abrasive Nostalgia: A Noisescape of Deindustrialization”
Vivian L. Huang, “Not That Innocent: Britney Spears, Laurel Nakadate and Strangers”
Julia DeLeon, “Dance Through the Dark Night: Distance, Dissonance and Queer
Friday, March 23, 2012 2:15pm-3:45pm
Memory, Music, and the Metropolis
Room: KC 804/5
Moderator: Charles Kronengold
Tracy McMullen, “In the Beginning, You Are There: Cloning Genesis and the Return of the Urbane”
Tavia Nyong’o, “Shame and Scandal and Zombies”
Karen Tongson, “Drive and Sounds of the ’80s Metropolis
Room: KC 808
Moderator: Caroline Polk O’Meara
Raymond Knapp, “The Sound of Broadway’s Mean Streets”
Jacqueline Warwick, “‘Bigger than Big and Smaller than Small’: Child Stars, Street Urchins, and Little Orphan Annie”
Elizabeth L. Wollman & Susan Tenneriello, “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark and the Ambivalence of Spectacle
Turn It Up! Two: Making Community
Room: KC 405
Moderator: Elizabeth Keenan
Rachel Devitt, “I Love a (Pride) Parade: Queer Community-Building, Temporary Spaces and Politicized Kitsch among LGBT Marching Bands”
Evelyn McDonnell, “The Roads to Ruin”
Matthew Carrillo-Vincent, “Ears to the Streets, Peripheral Beats: The New Social Map of Backpack Rap”
Friday, March 23, 2012 4:00pm-6:00 pm
Roundtable: “Do You Want More?” The Time and Space of Alternative Sonic Blackness
Room: GC 95
The migration of sounds and ideas across time and place encourages synthesis; giving rise to avant garde, radical, and futurist voices. What (other) worlds open up and what (outer) spaces are formed? How do regional sites remix global flows? What factors/forces enable or prohibit certain voices from finding an audience in the national, global or cyber scene? How do we reconcile organicism of sound, as musicians produce out of particular worlds, with the reckless and restless ways music circulates?
Moderator: Jayna Brown, Daphne Brooks, Tavia Nyong’o
The work of Barry Jenkins
Location Location Location
Room: KC 802
Moderator: Fabian Holt
Keith Negus, “Making it in the Big City: Small Town Boys, Country Girls and Suburban Dreamers”
Jennifer C. Lena, “The Ground on which the Race was Run: Careers in Pop”
Carl Wilson, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful: The Death and Life of Great North American Scenius”
Kembrew McLeod & Loren Glass, “Killer Apps Play the Sounds of the Cities”
Detroit: Foundation, Eclecticism, and Memory
Room: KC 808
Moderator: Marlon Bailey
Rebekah Farrugia & Kellie Hay, “‘The Foundation’ in Detroit: Challenging Conventional Ideologies about Sex and Gender in Hip Hop”
Denise Dalphond, “Eclecticism in Detroit: Diverse Dance Party Scenes in Electronic Music”
Carleton S. Gholz, “Remembering Rita: Sound, Sexuality, and Memory”
Back to menu SATURDAY, March 24
Saturday, March 24, 2012
Saturday, March 24, 2012 9:00 am to 11:00 am
Metal Studies Rising
Room: KC 808
Moderator: Jeremy Wallach
Esther Clinton, “The Gothic Menace, Then and Now: Gothic Literature, Heavy Metal Music, and Moral Panics”
Eric Smialek, “How Does Metal Mean? Ways that Musicology Can Contribute to Metal Studies”
Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone, “Hell Bent for Metal: A Study of Queer Fans of Heavy Metal”
Nelson Varas-Diaz & Eliut R. Rivera-Segarra, “Heavy Metal music in the Caribbean Setting: Social Practices and Meanings of Music at the Periphery”
Saturday, March 24, 2012 11:15am-12:45pm
Street Dreams: Blackness on the Move
Room: KC 802
Moderator: Alexandra T. Vazquez
Adrienne Brown, “Rehearing Hip-Hop Automotivity”
Sonya Posmentier, “City Streets, Country Roads: Zora Neale Hurston’s Moving Sound”
Francisco Robles, “‘This bitter earth may not be so bitter after all’: Political Promise and Sonic Geography in Killer of Sheep and We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite”
Sexuality and the City
Room: KC 405
Moderator: Franklin Bruno
Philip Gentry, “The Erotics of Chance”
Emily Tartanella, “‘A Country Mile Behind the World’: A Smithsian Sense of Place “
Elias Krell, “Singing the Contours of the City: Transvocality and Affect in Lucas Silveira’s Toronto”
Room: KC 406
Moderator: Laura Lavernia
Matthew Hayes, “Preserving America’s Endangered Soundscapes: An Emerging Field in Historic Preservation”
Barrett Martin, “Preserving Musical Memory: Physical Space and Socio-Economic-Cultural Identity”
Devon Powers, “Writing Music (Into) History”
Saturday, March 24, 2012 2:15pm-3:45pm
Warhol’s New York
Room: KC 914
Moderator: Jonathan Flatley
Gustavus Stadler, “Aural Drag: Warhol as Pop Listener”
Eric Lott, “Andy’s Mick: Warhol Builds a Better Jagger”
Bryan Waterman, “‘It’s Too ‘Too Too’ to Put a Finger On’: Tom Verlaine’s Lost Lisp and the Secret History of the New York Underground”
Losing It in the City
Room: KC 804/5
Moderator: Ken Wissoker
Carolina González, “DomiNegro turf: Whose Uptown?”
Keith M. Harris, “‘I don’t care anymore’: Deep Soul, Doris Duke, and the Allegory of Migration”
Michael B. Gillespie, “We Almost Lost Detroit: Sonic Historiography, 9/11, and Theo Parrish”
Saturday, March 24, 2012 4:00pm-6:00pm
Roundtable: Feminist and Queer Studies of Race in Sound
Room KC 804/5
This roundtable convenes two fields of scholarly inquiry—critical race studies and feminist theory/queer studies—to explore the following interrelated questions: How does sound construct racialized and gendered meaning and/or prompt processes of racial subjection? How might various hermeneutics of sound enrich and/or expand current ethnic and gender studies approaches to the study of racial formation? And how might we collectively forge a feminist, queer analytic for the study of racialized sound and sonic processes of racialization?
Moderator: Kevin Fellezs
Saturday, March 24, 2012 6:15pm-7:30pm
IASPM-US General Membership Meeting
Room: Rosenthal Pavilion, 10th Floor
The general membership meeting of IASPM-US is the organization’s opportunity to gather together and discuss the accomplishments of the past year, any concerns or issues that have arisen, and plans for the coming year. All IASPM members are welcome. We would also like to invite any interested regular EMP participants who might be interested in joining IASPM. Beyond our normal business, the general meeting this year will feature the announcement of the first winner of the Charles Hamm Memorial Award in recognition of lifetime contribution to Popular Music Studies. In addition, the David Sanjek Award for best paper by a graduate student at the meeting will be announced.
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SUNDAY, March 25
SUNDAY, March 25, 2012
Sunday, March 25, 2012 9:00 am to 11:00 am
‘Silver City Bound’: Black Women Musicians & the Urban Avant Garde
Room: KC 905/7
Moderator: Imani Perry
Daphne A. Brooks, “‘One of these mornings, you’re gonna rise up singing’: The Secret Black Feminist History of the Gershwins’Porgy and Bess “
Farah Jasmine Griffin, “Playing through the Changes: Mary Lou Williams’ Manhattan”
Salamishah Tillet, “Bethlehem, Boardwalks, and the City of Brotherly Love: Nina Simone’s Pre-Civil Rights Aesthetic”
Jayna Brown, “After the End of the World: Afro Diasporan Feminism and Alternative Dimensions of Sound”
Room: KC 802
Moderator: Tom Miller
Jeremy Morris, “Hear, Here: Location-Based Music”
Van Truong, “Distant Sounds”
Mark Katz, “Analog and Digital: A Love Story”
Karl Hagstrom Miller, “I am Sitting in a Room: The Private Pop Experience”
Sunday, March 25, 2012 11:15am-12:45am
Utopian Spaces in an Accelerated Age
Room: KC 802
Moderator: Eric Lott
Wayne Marshall, “Music as Social Life in an Age of Platform Politricks”
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, “Cunt Music: When Vogue House Dips Meet Dipset”
Max Pearl & Alexis Stephens, “New Jack City: Frenzied Cultures, Transitory Spaces (or, how I learned to stop worrying and embrace the hype cycle)”
Sunday, March 25, 2012 2:15pm-3:45pm
Room: KC 905/7
Moderator: Greil Marcus
Sonnet Retman, “Muddy the Waters: Other Stories of Love and Theft in the Making of the Delta Blues”
David Suisman, “The Urban Ear of Tony Schwartz”
Franklin Bruno, “Who Put the Arrow in ‘Cupid?’: Hugo and Luigi’s Schlock ‘n’ Soul”
A Girl’s Guide to the Urban Imaginary
Room: KC 914
Moderated by: Jacqueline Warwick
Elizabeth Keenan, “Out in the Streets: 1960s Girl Groups and the Imagined Urban Space of New York City”
Sarah Dougher, “Making Noise in the Safe Space: How Girls’ Rock Camps Make Place in the City”
Diane Pecknold, “The Spectral Cityscapes of Tween Pop”
“Beat Street”: New York City Hip-Hop
Room: KC 804/5
Moderator: Oliver Wang
Patrick Rivers, “Rumble in the Concrete Jungle: Beat Battles in NYC and Their Impact on Hip-Hop Production”
Shanté Paradigm Smalls, “‘Voices Carry’: Queer Dissonance and the Travel of NYC 1980s Hip-Hop Sound”
Chris Tabron, “‘Boom It in Ya Jeep’: Low-end Theories of Black Aurality in 90′s NYC Hip-Hop”
Roundtable – I Pledge Allegiance to the Block: Cityscapes, Hegemonic Sound, and Blackness
Room: KC 808
Whether a homesite for protest and resistance or, as Alain Locke suggests, an escape from the ‘medieval’ south, the city serves as both a muse and haven for black American cultural expression. Although city-scapes are heavily represented in African American music and popular culture, more discussion is needed about how the city is often a hegemonic space of black cultural expression. In other words, how does an urban setting dictate power and blackness in the (African) American community?
Moderator: Guthrie Ramsey
Matthew D. Morrison
Sunday, March 25, 2012 4:00pm-6:00pm
Room: KC 808
Moderator: Devin McKinney
Julia Sneeringer, “‘I’d Never Even Been to Manchester’: Liverpool Musicians in Hamburg’s Entertainment Economy, 1960-1965″
Leonard Nevarez, “How Joy Division came to sound like Manchester”
Lucy O’Brien, “Can I Have a Taste of Your Ice Cream? (Post punk feminism and the Yorkshire Ripper)”
Gillian Gower, “Riot Culture: Beats, Banksy, and the Bristol Sound”
This is the final article in Sounding Out!‘s April Forum on “Sound and Technology.” Every Monday this month, you’ve heard new insights on this age-old pairing from the likes of Sounding Out! veteranos Aaron Trammell and Primus Luta along with new voices Andrew Salvati and Owen Marshall. These fast-forward folks have shared their thinking about everything from Auto-tune to techie manifestos. Today, Marshall helps us understand just why we want to shift pitch-time so darn bad. Wait, let me clean that up a little bit. . .so darn badly. . .no wait, run that back one more time. . .jjuuuuust a little bit more. . .so damn badly. Whew! There! Perfect!–JS, Editor-in-Chief
A recording engineer once told me a story about a time when he was tasked with “tuning” the lead vocals from a recording session (identifying details have been changed to protect the innocent). Polishing-up vocals is an increasingly common job in the recording business, with some dedicated vocal producers even making it their specialty. Being able to comp, tune, and repair the timing of a vocal take is now a standard skill set among engineers, but in this case things were not going smoothly. Whereas singers usually tend towards being either consistently sharp or flat (“men go flat, women go sharp” as another engineer explained), in this case the vocalist was all over the map, making it difficult to always know exactly what note they were even trying to hit. Complicating matters further was the fact that this band had a decidedly lo-fi, garage-y reputation, making your standard-issue, Glee-grade tuning job decidedly inappropriate.
Undaunted, our engineer pulled up the Auto-Tune plugin inside Pro-Tools and set to work tuning the vocal, to use his words, “artistically” – that is, not perfectly, but enough to keep it from being annoyingly off-key. When the band heard the result, however, they were incensed – “this sounds way too good! Do it again!” The engineer went back to work, this time tuning “even more artistically,” going so far as to pull the singer’s original performance out of tune here and there to compensate for necessary macro-level tuning changes elsewhere.
The product of the tortuous process of tuning and re-tuning apparently satisfied the band, but the story left me puzzled… Why tune the track at all? If the band was so committed to not sounding overproduced, why go to such great lengths to make it sound like you didn’t mess with it? This, I was told, simply wasn’t an option. The engineer couldn’t in good conscience let the performance go un-tuned. Digital pitch correction, it seems, has become the rule, not the exception, so much so that the accepted solution for too much pitch correction is more pitch correction.
Since 1997, recording engineers have used Auto-Tune (or, more accurately, the growing pantheon of digital pitch correction plugins for which Auto-Tune, Kleenex-like, has become the household name) to fix pitchy vocal takes, lend T-Pain his signature vocal sound, and reveal the hidden vocal talents of political pundits. It’s the technology that can make the tone-deaf sing in key, make skilled singers perform more consistently, and make MLK sound like Akon. And at 17 years of age, “The Gerbil,” as some like to call Auto-Tune, is getting a little long in the tooth (certainly by meme standards.) The next U.S. presidential election will include a contingent of voters who have never drawn air that wasn’t once rippled by Cher’s electronically warbling voice in the pre-chorus of “Believe.” A couple of years after that, the Auto-Tune patent will expire and its proprietary status will dissolve into to the collective ownership of the public domain.
Growing pains aside, digital vocal tuning doesn’t seem to be leaving any time soon. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but it’s safe to say that the vast majority of commercial music produced in the last decade or so has most likely been digitally tuned. Future Music editor Daniel Griffiths has ballpark-estimated that, as early as 2010, pitch correction was used in about 99% of recorded music. Reports of its death are thus premature at best. If pitch correction is seems banal it doesn’t mean it’s on the decline; rather, it’s a sign that we are increasingly accepting its underlying assumptions and internalizing the habits of thought and listening that go along with them.
Headlines in tech journalism are typically reserved for the newest, most groundbreaking gadgets. Often, though, the really interesting stuff only happens once a technology begins to lose its novelty, recede into the background, and quietly incorporate itself into fundamental ways we think about, perceive, and act in the world. Think, for example, about all the ways your embodied perceptual being has been shaped by and tuned-in to, say, the very computer or mobile device you’re reading this on. Setting value judgments aside for a moment, then, it’s worth thinking about where pitch correction technology came from, what assumptions underlie the way it works and how we work with it, and what it means that it feels like “old news.”
As is often the case with new musical technologies, digital pitch correction has been the target for no small amount of controversy and even hate. The list of indictments typically includes the homogenization of music, the devaluation of “actual talent,” and the destruction of emotional authenticity. Suffice to say, the technological possibility of ostensibly producing technically “pitch-perfect” performances has wreaked a fair amount of havoc on conventional ways of performing and evaluating music. As Primus Luta reminded us in his SO! piece on the powerful-yet-untranscribable “blue notes” that emerged from the idiosyncrasies of early hardware samplers, musical creativity is at least as much about digging-into and interrogating the apparent limits of a technology as it is about the successful removal of all obstacles to total control of the end result.
Paradoxically, it’s exactly in this spirit that others have come to the technology’s defense: Brian Eno, ever open to the unexpected creative agency of perplexing objects, credits the quantized sound of an overtaxed pitch corrector with renewing his interest in vocal performances. SO!’s own Osvaldo Oyola, channeling Walter Benjamin, has similarly offered a defense of Auto-Tune as a democratizing technology, one that both destabilizes conventional ideas about musical ability and allows everyone to sing in-tune, free from the “tyranny of talent and its proscriptive aesthetics.”
Jonathan Sterne, in his book MP3, offers an alternative to normative accounts of media technology (in this case, narratives either of the decline or rise of expressive technological potential) in the form of “compression histories” – accounts of how media technologies and practices directed towards increasing their efficiency, economy, and mobility can take on unintended cultural lives that reshape the very realities they were supposed to capture in the first place. The algorithms behind the MP3 format, for example, were based in part on psychoacoustic research into the nature of human hearing, framed primarily around the question of how many human voices the telephone company could fit into a limited bandwidth electrical cable while preserving signal intelligibility. The way compressed music files sound to us today, along with the way in which we typically acquire (illegally) and listen to them (distractedly), is deeply conditioned by the practical problems of early telephony. The model listener extracted from psychoacoustic research was created in an effort to learn about the way people listen. Over time, however, through our use of media technologies that have a simulated psychoacoustic subject built-in, we’ve actually learned collectively to listen like a psychoacoustic subject.
Pitch-time manipulation runs largely in parallel to Sterne’s bandwidth compression story. The ability to change a recorded sound’s pitch independently of its playback rate had its origins not in the realm of music technology, but in efforts to time-compress signals for faster communication. Instead of reducing a signal’s bandwidth, pitch manipulation technologies were pioneered to reduce the time required to push the message through the listener’s ears and into their brain. As early as the 1920s, the mechanism of the rotating playback head was being used to manipulate pitch and time interchangeably. By spinning a continuous playback head relative to the motion of the magnetic tape, researchers in electrical engineering, educational psychology, and pedagogy of the blind found that they could increase playback rate of recorded voices without turning the speakers into chipmunks. Alternatively, they could rotate the head against a static piece of tape and allow a single moment of recorded sound to unfold continuously in time – a phenomenon that influenced the development of a quantum theory of information.
In the early days of recorded sound some people had found a metaphor for human thought in the path of a phonograph’s needle. When the needle became a head and that head began to spin, ideas about how we think, listen, and communicate followed suit: In 1954 Grant Fairbanks, the director of the University of Illinois’ Speech Research Laboratory, put forth an influential model of the speech-hearing mechanism as a system where the speaker’s conscious intention of what to say next is analogized to a tape recorder full of instructions, its drive “alternately started and stopped, and when the tape is stationary a given unit of instruction is reproduced by a moving scanning head”(136). Pitch time changing was more a model for thinking than it was for singing, and its imagined applications were thus primarily non-musical.
Take for example the Eltro Information Rate Changer. The first commercially available dedicated pitch-time changer, the Eltro advertised its uses as including “pitch correction of helium speech as found in deep sea; Dictation speed testing for typing and steno; Transcribing of material directly to typewriter by adjusting speed of speech to typing ability; medical teaching of heart sounds, breathing sounds etc.by slow playback of these rapid occurrences.” (It was also, incidentally, used by Kubrick to produce the eerily deliberate vocal pacing of HAL 9000). In short, for the earliest “pitch-time correction” technologies, the pitch itself was largely a secondary concern, of interest primarily because it was desirable for the sake of intelligibility to pitch-change time-altered sounds into a more normal-sounding frequency range.
This coupling of time compression with pitch changing continued well into the era of digital processing. The Eventide Harmonizer, one of the first digital hardware pitch shifters, was initially used to pitch-correct episodes of “I Love Lucy” which had been time-compressed to free-up broadcast time for advertising. Similar broadcast time compression techniques have proliferated and become common in radio and television (see, for example, Davis Foster Wallace’s account of the “cashbox” compressor in his essay on an LA talk radio station.) Speed listening technology initially developed for the visually impaired has similarly become a way of producing the audio “fine print” at the end of radio advertisements.
Though the popular conversation about Auto-Tune often leaves this part out, it’s hardly a secret that pitch-time correction is as much about saving time as it is about hitting the right note. As Auto-Tune inventor Andy Hildebrand put it,
[Auto-Tune’s] largest effect in the community is it’s changed the economics of sound studios…Before Auto-Tune, sound studios would spend a lot of time with singers, getting them on pitch and getting a good emotional performance. Now they just do the emotional performance, they don’t worry about the pitch, the singer goes home, and they fix it in the mix.
Whereas early pitch-shifters aimed to speed-up our consumption of recorded voices, the ones now used in recording are meant to reduce the actual time spent tracking musicians in studio. One of the implications of this framing is that emotion, pitch, and the performer take on a very particular relationship, one we can find sketched out in the Auto-Tune patent language:
Voices or instruments are out of tune when their pitch is not sufficiently close to standard pitches expected by the listener, given the harmonic fabric and genre of the ensemble. When voices or instruments are out of tune, the emotional qualities of the performance are lost. Correcting intonation, that is, measuring the actual pitch of a note and changing the measured pitch to a standard, solves this problem and restores the performance. (Emphasis mine. Similar passages can be found in Auto-Tune’s technical documentation.)
In the world according to Auto-Tune, the engineer is in the business of getting emotional signals from place to place. Emotion is the message, and pitch is the medium. Incorrect (i.e. unexpected) pitch therefore causes the emotion to be “lost.” While this formulation may strike some people as strange (for example, does it mean that we are unable to register the emotional qualities of a performance from singers who can’t hit notes reliably? Is there no emotionally expressive role for pitched performances that defy their genre’s expectations?), it makes perfect sense within the current affective economy and division of labor and affective economy of the recording studio. It’s a framing that makes it possible, intelligible, and at least somewhat compulsory to have singers “express emotion” as a quality distinct from the notes they hit and have vocal producers fix up the actual pitches after the fact. Both this emotional model of the voice and the model of the psychoacoustic subject are useful frameworks for the particular purposes they serve. The trick is to pay attention to the ways we might find ourselves bending to fit them.
Owen Marshall is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. His dissertation research focuses on the articulation of embodied perceptual skills, technological systems, and economies of affect in the recording studio. He is particularly interested in the history and politics of pitch-time correction, cybernetics, and ideas and practices about sensory-technological attunement in general.
Featured image: “Epic iPhone Auto-Tune App” by Flickr user Photo Giddy, CC BY-NC 2.0
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As folks rightfully celebrate the 20th anniversary of Nas’ Illmatic album, I wanted to make sure space was made to equally celebrate and critically think about the stank that Outkast put on hip hop. I want to take the conversation outside of the academy into spaces where others could join the conversation. To do this, I set up a YouTube channel and sent out invitations to friends and colleagues I knew were vested in Outkast or whose work could be used to situate Outkast in creative and critical conversations. The response to the project thus far has been overwhelmingly positive. I have conversations scheduled to broadcast until the end of the year. Here’s episode #4, a teaser to bring the Sounding Out! crowd in on the conversation.
My Outkasted Conversations project started with a fleeting thought while speaking with a friend: “It’s the 20th anniversary of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik? Damn. It’s really been twenty years?!” I was ten years old when Southerplayalistic dropped and didn’t really understand or appreciate the brilliance of the album back in 1994. I was in the initial stages of becoming someone vested in music, let alone hip hop. My definition of music was still deeply attached to what I learned in my music class. I could play the hell out of a recorder. I did a recorder solo at my school’s spring concert and was applauded like a boss.
I flirted around with being a ‘Kast fan – I remember them on Martin and later wearing out the track “In Due Time” on the Soul Food soundtrack – but it wasn’t until 1998 that I really became “Outkasted.” I permanently moved to my grandparents’ house in Albany, GA. I was tall, lanky, and awkward. I was a black Keds white socks connoisseur because you never wear white shoes in red clay. I battled the teenaged pangs of wanting to be popular and visible. I wouldn’t consider myself ‘hip hop’ at the time but I knew the heavy hitters from days of listening to WKYS out of Washington, D.C. I could school anyone on the latest single from Busta Rhymes, Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Nas, Lil’ Kim, and Foxy Brown and Go-Go-ed with the best of them. Down South, though, those artists were important but they weren’t folk. As I listened to the radio, the artists that I was familiar with got no play. I tried to wax (northern) hip hop philosophical at lunch and got some serious side-eyes. A classmate scolded, “those up north n— don’t matter down here. What you listening on from ‘round hea (here)?” Round hea? Nothing but a mix tape I made off of the radio before leaving Virginia, gospel cavalcade on Sunday morning rides to church, and Paw Paw’s juke joint blues on Saturday morning while cleaning up the house. If I wanted to survive, I needed to adapt. I recorded multiple radio mixtapes, meticulously blending the artists I heard kids at school talking about and my own musings after browsing the record store in the mall. Slowly, Wyclef Jean and Montell Jordan were replaced by Three Six Mafia, Goodie Mob, and Outkast. Aquemini and Still Standing held a chokehold on my playlist. I became a full-fledged member of the Dungeon Family Chuch of Modern Day (S)Aints.
The following episode of Outkasted Conversations is with Dr. Treva B. Lindsey, Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University. This conversation features discussion of how the sonic elements of women’s pleasure complicate gender and identity politics in Outkast’s body of work.
To subscribe to Regina Bradley’s Outkasted Conversations via Youtube click here.
Featured Image: SO CLEAN PSP by Flicker User John Bracken
Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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