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Call for EMP POP Correspondents! March 22nd

Panelists at Sounds of the City: The 2012 EMP Pop Conference on stage, Photo courtesy of Michael Weintrob and the EMP

Panelists at Sounds of the City: The 2012 EMP Pop Conference on stage, Photo courtesy of Michael Weintrob and the EMP

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:

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 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.

Sound at EMP Pop Con 2012

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 titledDrive 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:

Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out! She is also a PhD candidate at Binghamton University.

Jump to THURSDAY, March 22
Jump to FRIDAY, March 23
Jump to SATURDAY, March 24
Jump to SUNDAY, March 25

"Music in Central Park, New York City" by Flickr user Creative (Elias) 809 under Creative Commons License

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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


Angélique Kidjo

Esperanza Spalding


Himanshu Suri

"Sound The Trumpet" by Flickr user Blacren under Creative Commons License

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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”

Sonic Contestation

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

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”

Lonely Subcultures

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

Broadway Bound

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


Kyle Dargan

Mendi Obadike

Jace Clayton

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”

"New York City." by Flickr user Kyle McCluer under Creative Commons License

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”

Preserving Soundscapes

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


Kirstie Dorr

Roshanak Kheshti

Deborah Vargas

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.

"NYU" by Flickr user LEH.nicor under Creative Commons license

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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”

Distanced Listening

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

Urban Ears

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


Regina Bradley

Fredara Hadley

Matthew D. Morrison

Liana Silva

Sunday, March 25, 2012 4:00pm-6:00pm

Modern English

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”

Improvisation and Play in New Media, Games and Experimental Sound Practices



Editors’ Note: Welcome to Sounding Out!‘s December forum entitled “Sound, Improvisation and New Media Art.” This series explores the nature of improvisation and its relationship to appropriative play cultures within new media art and contemporary sound practice. This series will engage directly with practitioners, who either deploy or facilitate play and improvisation through their work in sonic new media cultures.

The first essay in this series draws from a constellation of disciplinary perspectives that investigate these critical valences, and posits both play and improvisation as critical interventions which can expose, critique and interrupt the proprietary techniques and strategies of contemporary consumer media technologies.

— Guest Editors Skot Deeming and Martin Zeilinger

As media art scholars and curators of the annual Vector Game Art & New Media Festival, we are particularly interested in the conceptual convergence between critical approaches to play, on the one hand, and to improvisation, on the other. In this short essay, we therefore ask how improvisational sound-based media practices that use technologies, aesthetics, artifacts, and expressive modes of play may challenge the assimilative advances of corporate capital, carving out sites at which its logic may be opposed and confounded. We contend that there is a critical edge to the cultural milieu of playful computation through which practitioners (whether as artists or simply as players) can recuperate play from the mainstreamed sound cultures of digital capital through improvisation-based approaches. It is in this regard that play, as a participative act, rather than an interactive mode, can become a critical site by which to understand artistic interventions through contemporary technologies. This essay provokes a dialogue between theoretical avenues in popular music studies and game studies in order to show how the often-conflated practices of improvisation and play have the potential to challenge the homogenous and repetitive logic of the technological sector and the music industry.


An algorave at Vector Game Art & New Media Festival.

We must turn first to popular music studies where the critical valence of improvisation is a relatively well-established concept. Jazz improvisation in particular has been widely recognized as a powerful mode of political expression. Charles Hersch has argued that techniques of polyphony allow for jazz to reconcile the seemingly contradictory dynamics of individual expression and collectivity, thus allowing for the articulation of black solidarity through musical interventions (97-8). Because jazz is importantly built on appropriation-based creative models, it yields fluid, fleeting, spontaneous results that are difficult to assimilate into the entertainment industry’s property-based circuits. Digital play exhibits a similar potential of challenging the logic of capital; it harbors a powerful creative potential even in heavily commodified contexts. Play allows us (indeed, requires us) to become active in shaping the improvisational, the field of simultaneously critical, creative and performative contexts of expression.



Crowds enjoying Vector Game Art & New Media Festival.

Like jazz musicians, game players embody and enact a powerful sense of potentially uncommodifiable agency. Both improvisation and play function similarly, and highlight how contexts of music-making and game-playing activate individuals as critical, expressive agents. Players guide themselves through games based on subjective, rather than imposed, motivations. We can see this emerging in gaming cultures through the rise of player-based phenomena such ‘speedrunning,’ a practice that exploits glitches and faults in a game’s architecture in order to reach the end of a game in the shortest possible time. These niche and ephemeral gaming practices highlight the degree to which practices of improvisation in play may constitute a powerful way of pushing ‘through’ capital–both literally, by accessing games through glitches in their proprietary fabric, and figuratively, if we understand such forms of play as ways to resist the capitalist ideologies embedded within the structures of games (such as the accumulation of wealth, power, or points). Having established here how game-play can act as a form of critical improvisation, this essay now intends to show how these practices of playful improvisation are manifest in the technologies, aesthetics, and the cultural contexts of sound-based art.

glitchjam_circuit bending

Circuit bending Vector Game Art & New Media Festival’s glitch.jam.

Where can we locate practices of improvisation in the context of sound art? For us, sound art is improvisational both in form and practice. First, the emerging aesthetic dimensions of the medium are fundamentally related to the participatory practices of making that have been used to develop the instruments of sound art, such as circuit bending, hacking, tinkering. Here, the playful and open-ended practices of making are a form of improvisation, a modulation within the typical technological frames in which musical composition is typically embedded. Second, when gaming devices are turned into musical instruments (or vice versa), users are called upon to rethink improvisational practice as game-play, and experiment with deploying play as composition. In this sense, game players become sound artists, with sound technologies extrapolating and improvising new sounds from the habit of their play. Improvisation and play thus allow emerging communities of practice to counteract the corporate ‘black boxing’ of entertainment technologies and the creation of closed systems of interaction and participation (such as many mainstream video games) which assimilate user activities and foreclose improvisational play.

Such approaches to sound art are represented by many creative practitioners and take a wide variety of forms, including the appropriation and creative redeployment of participative game environments and game engines. Examples include the creation of interactive sound environments and playable instruments within mainstream participative game ecologies such as the Little Big Planet franchise, the hacking and ‘bending’ of proprietary technologies that invoke the vast universe of game culture nostalgically or in a parodic mode (including handheld gaming systems such as the Nintendo Gameboy, which spawned an entire electronic music genre known as chipmusic), or the making of non-proprietary infrastructures for creative expression that encourage open, participative play, such as open source live coding environments including Sonic Pi, originally developed for the Raspberry Pi platform. Following such approaches, game controllers, digital objects, avatars, virtual architectures, and digital artifacts can thus become tools of composition and/or improvisation. Similarly, we might also think of the improvisational frameworks constructed by sound practitioners as ‘playgrounds,’ which allow players to become performers who explore the technological, political, and aesthetic limits of play. But emergent communities of creative practitioners frequently adopt such close systems and technologies subversively, for example by reverse-engineering them and developing alternative uses. In doing so, they alter the contexts in which these technologies are employed, and open them up for use as musical instruments and infrastructure for creative and critical expression. Technological artifacts with unique user communities can thus be conceptualized as frameworks for musical expression. Vintage gaming consoles, games engines, and computational algorithms have all been reconstructed as new forms of musical creation and interaction through participatory creative communities.



Thesis Sahib performs at Vector Game Art & New Media Festival.

In this short essay, we have approached ‘play’ and ‘improvisation’ as related concepts that can serve to recuperate and empower critical perspectives within the game and sound cultures of capital. As we have suggested, playful approaches to improvisational sound-work and perspectives on play that are rooted in musical traditions can be productively discussed both in sound studies contexts and within game studies paradigms. How, then, do sound practitioners appropriate game technology? How do the socio-political dimensions of digital game culture inform musical practice? With the help of our contributors to this series, we explore how critical perspectives on musical improvisation aid our understanding of the cultural and socio-political significance of play and, likewise, how critical theories of play may broaden our understanding of improvisational sound practices. Through building, tinkering, problem solving, and improvising on the technological back end, creative practitioners playfully create and reshape tools, devices, and techniques of improvisational practice that often embody important ethics of openness, dynamism, fluidity, and sharing, posited against the closed culture of proprietary consumer technology by which we are commonly surrounded. Between live coding, modular synthesis, creative computing, hardware hacking, and appropriation-based interactive performances, the contributors to this series operate in many creative modes that oscillate between improvisation and play. What all of them share is a sense that both play and improvisation enable creative expression outside of prescribed, commodified circuits of media consumption. Improvisation and play can yield wonderful aesthetic experiments and experiences, they can provide critical, social commentary, and they can sharpen our sense of the impact that proprietary technology has on our digital cultural landscape. What we are most interested in are moments when these ambitions converge, when improvisation – drawing on techniques or technologies of play and operating in modes that are associated with play – becomes critical.

All images used with permission from Vector Game Art & New Media Festival.

Featured image: ”Blip Fest 2011 @ Eyebeam, Day 2” by Wikimedia Commons user Lucius Kwok CC BY-SA.

Skot Deeming is an interdisciplinary artist, curator and scholar, whose work spans the spectrum of new media art practice from broadcast media to computational art, experimental videogames, and game art. Drawing on a wealth of practical experience and theoretical knowledge, skot’s practice focuses on new media history and historiography, and DIY technology cultures. This work articulates itself through critical research and writing, exhibitions, installations, and performances. With Martin, Skot is the co-curator of Vector Game Art & New Media Festival., in Toronto, Canada, and the artistic director of the Drone Island Sound Art Festival in Yellowknife, NT. He currently resides in Montreal where he is a doctoral student in the Individualized Program at Concordia University, and a member of the TAG Research Centre, where he investigates critical histories of computational and new media art practices.

Martin Zeilinger (PhD) is a new media researcher, practitioner, and curator whose work focuses on the intersection of digital media art, activism, and intellectual property issues. He is a Lecturer in Media at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge/UK, as well as an Associate Researcher at the OCADU Data Materialization Studio. He is co-editor of ‘Dynamic Fair Dealing’ (Univ. of Toronto Press 2014), which develops interdisciplinary perspectives on cultural ownership issues in new media contexts; recent peer-reviewed essays have appeared in the Computer Music Journal, the International Assoc. for the Study of Popular Music Journal, and in Sampling Media (Oxford UP 2014). With Skot, Martin is co-curator of the Toronto-based Vector Game Art & New Media Festival.

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Playing with Bits, Pieces, and Lightning Bolts: An Interview with Sound Artist Andrea Perkins — Maile Colbert

Digital Analogies: Techniques of Sonic Play — Roger Mosley

Experiments in Aural Resistance: Nordic Role-Playing, Community, and Sound — Aaron Trammell

SANDRA BLAND: #SayHerName Loud or Not at All

"Sandra Bland is Her Name" by Flickr user 
Light Brigading, CC BY-NC 2.0

It is customary that whenever I go to my Nana’s house I turn the car speakers as low as possible. She has super hearing. Sometimes I forget, and the following conversation takes place:

“What’s up Nana Boo?”

“I heard you before you got the house, girl. I told you about playing your music too loud.”

“It wasn’t too loud.”

“I heard you before I saw you.”

“Yes ma’am. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t bring attention to yourself.”


Don’t bring attention to yourself.


Picture from The Feminist Wire.

Picture from The Feminist Wire.

Physically this is impossible. I am a black woman over six feet tall. My laugh sounds like an exploding mouse. I squeak loudly and speak quickly when I get excited. I like knock in my trunk and bass in my music. Don’t bring attention to yourself. I frequently heard this warning as a girl and well into my adult life. I rarely take it as a slight on my grandmother’s account – though she is the master of throwing parasol shade. She spoke to me with a quiet urgency in her warning. In the wake of the murders of Jordan Davis, Sandra Bland, and other black lives that vigilantes and mainstream media deemed irrelevant, I understand her warning better from the perspective of sound.

As a loud, squeaky black woman I am especially attuned to how my sonic footprint plays into how I live and if I should die. As a black woman, the bulk of my threat is associated with my loudness. My blackness sonically and culturally codes me as threatening due to the volume of my voice. This is amplified, as a southern black woman. I exist and dare to thrive in a country that historically and socially tries to deflate my agency and urgency. The clarity of my sentiments, the establishment of my frustration, and the worth of my social and cultural interventions are connected to how others hear my voice. It is not what I say but how I say it.

A woman waits at the Fulton Street subway stop in New York City on February 20, 2010.

A woman waits at the Fulton Street subway stop in New York City on February 20, 2010.

Black women navigate multiple codes of sonic respectability on a daily basis. Their sonic presence is seldom recognized as acceptable by society. Classrooms, homesites, corporate spaces, kitchen tables, and social media require a different tone and volume level in order to gain access and establish one’s credibility. Like other facets of their existence, the way(s) black women are expected to sound in public and private spaces is blurry. What connects these spaces together is a patriarchal and racially condescending paradigm of black women’s believed inferiority. A black women’s successful assimilation into American society is grounded in her ability to master varying degrees of quiet and silence. For black women, any type of disruptive pushback against cultural norms is largely sonic in nature. A grunt, shout, sigh, or sucking teeth instigates some type of resistance. Toning these sonic forms of pushback—basically, silencing themselves—is seen as the way to assimilate into mainstream American society.

In what follows I look at the tape of Sandra Bland’s arrest from this past summer to consider what happens when black women speak up and speak out, when they dare to be heard. As the #SayherName movement attests, black women cannot express sonically major and minor touchstones of black womanhood – joy, pleasure, anger, grief – without being deemed threatening. These sonic expressions force awareness of the complexity of black women’s experiences. In the case of Sandra Bland, I posit that the video of her arrest is not a video of her disrespecting authority but rather shows her sonic response to officer Brian Encinia’s inferred authority as a police officer. I read her loud and open interrogation of Encinia’s actions as an example of what I deem sonic disrespectability: the use of sound and volume to contest oppression in the shape of dictating how black women should or should not act.

The sonic altercation in the video (see full-length version here) sets the stage for Encinia’s physical reprimand of Bland, a college graduate from Prairie View A&M who hailed from Chicago. Bland is not physically threatening—i.e. she emphatically states she’s wearing a maxi dress—but her escalating voice startles and even intimidates Encinia. Bland is angry and frustrated at Encinia’s refusal and to answer her questions about why she was pulled over. Encinia’s responses to Bland’s sonic hostility are telling of his inability to recognize and cope with her anger. In fact, he refuses to answer her questions, and she repeats them over and over again while he barks orders. Encinia states later in the dashboard camera that Bland kicks him and thus forces him to physically restrain her. However, Bland’s vocal assertion of her agency is more jarring than her physical response to Encinia’s misuse of power.

The dashboard camera footage is indicative of their vocal sparring match. Encinia’s voice starts calm and even. He explains to Bland he pulled her over for failure to indicate a lane change. Bland’s responses are initially low and nearly inaudible. However, after Encinia asks Bland if she is “okay,” her responses are much louder.  She does not just follow orders but expresses her displeasure in sonic ways, while she stays in the car. His tone shifts when Bland refuses to extinguish her cigarette. Encinia then threatens to pull her out of the car for disobedience. He begins to yell at her. Bland then voices her pleasure in taking Encinia and his complaint to court. “Let’s take this to court. . .I can’t wait! Ooooh I can’t wait!” Bland’s pleasure in taking Encinia to court is an expression of her belief in her own agency. The act of voicing that pleasure is particularly striking because it challenges an understanding of courts and the justice system as hyperwhite and incapable of recognizing her need for justice. Her voice is clear, loud, and recognizably angry.

Picture from The New York Times

Picture from The New York Times

Her voice crescendos throughout the video, signifying her growing anxiety, tension at the situation, and anger for being under arrest. However, Bland’s voice begins to crack. Her sighs and grunts signify upon her disapproval of Encinia’s treatment of her physical body and rights. Once handcuffed, Bland’s voice is very high-pitched and pained, a sonic signifier of submission and Encinia’s re-affirmation of authority. She then is quiet and a conversation between Encinia and another officer is heard across the footage.

Many critiques of Bland center around her ‘distasteful’ use of language. One critic in particular described the altercation as “an African American woman had too much mouth with the wrong person and at the wrong time.” The assumption in those critiques is that she was not properly angry. Instead of a blind obedience of Enicnia’s inferred authority (read: superiority), she questions him and his inability to justify his actions. Sandra Bland’s sonic dis-respectability (dare I say, ratchet), is a direct pushback against the cultural and social norms of not only rural Southern society but the mainstream American (inferred) belief of southern black folks’ blind respectability of white authority and law enforcement.

Although Bland was a graduate of a southern HBCU, I do not want to assume that Bland possessed the social sensibilities that upheld this unstated social practice of blindly obeying white authority. Her death runs parallel to those of Emmett Till and Mary Turner. The circumstances of Till’s death swirled around his alleged whistling at a white woman – read as a sonic signifier of Till’s black masculine sexuality instead of boyhood – and disregard for white femininity, a protected asset of white men’s authority. Till, from Illinois like Bland, allegedly ignored his cousins’ warnings about the ‘proper protocol’ of interacting with white folks. Mary Turner, a black woman from Valdosta, Georgia, spoke out publicly against the lynching of her husband in 1918. She and her unborn child were also lynched in response to her sonic audacity. Before her death, members of the mob cut open her belly and her unborn baby fell on the ground; it was stomped to death after it gave out a cry. Turner’s voice disrupted white supremacy. Her baby’s lone cry re-emphasized it. Sound grounds much of the racial and gendered violence in the South.

"Sandra Bland mural" by Flickr user Robert Fairchild, CC BY-NC 2.0.

“Sandra Bland mural” by Flickr user Robert Fairchild, CC BY-NC 2.0.

The Southern U.S. emphasizes listening practices as part of social norms and cultural traditions. Listening was an act of survival more so than vocalizing the challenges facing black folks. (Jennifer Stoever’s upcoming book on the sonic color line addresses how advertisements for runaway slaves, for example, mentioned whether they were good listeners, as a way to codify whether they were compliant slaves.). Consider my grandmother’s warning about not bringing attention to myself. In her eyes, by not bringing attention to myself I’m able to remain invisible enough to successfully navigate society’s expectations of my blackness and my womanhood. Silence and listening are tools of survival. Contrarily, Bland’s loud disapproval and emphatic use of curse words registered her blackness and womanhood as threatening. She was coded as less feminine and therefore threatening because of her direct verbal confrontation with Encinia. She was not quiet or polite, especially in the south where quiet is the ultimate and sole form of women’s politeness and respectability. The combination of these multiple representations of black women’s anger invoked Encinia’s hyper-authoritative response to regain control of the situation.

Black folks are increasingly pushing back against “being in their place.” Sandra Bland’s death is rooted in an unnecessarily escalated fear of black women literally speaking their truth to power. In a moment where black women are speaking on multiple wavelengths and levels of volume, it is imperative to single out instances and then implode outdated cultural and social practices of listening.

Featured image:”Sandra Bland is Her Name” by Flickr user Light Brigading, CC BY-NC 2.0

Regina Bradley  is a writer, scholar, and researcher of African American Life and Culture. She is a recipient of the Nasir Jones HipHop Fellowship at Harvard University (Spring 2016) and an Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Armstrong State University. Dr. Bradley’s expertise and research interests include hip hop culture, race and the contemporary U.S. South, and sound studies. Dr. Bradley’s current book project, Chronicling Stankonia: Recognizing America’s Hip Hop South (under contract, UNC Press), explores how hip hop (with emphasis on the southern hip hop duo Outkast) and popular culture update conversations about the American South to include the post-Civil Rights era. Also known as Red Clay Scholar, a nod to her Georgia upbringing, Regina maintains a critically acclaimed blog and personal website – She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

I Been On: BaddieBey and Beyoncé’s Sonic Masculinity — Regina Bradley

“President Obama: All Over But the Shouting?” Jennifer Stoever

Óyeme Voz: U.S. Latin@ & Immigrant Communities Re-Sound Citizenship and Belonging-Nancy Morales

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