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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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: email@example.com
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”
Editor’s Note: February may be over, but our forum is still on! Today I bring you installment #5 of Sounding Out!‘s blog forum on gender and voice. Last week Art Blake talked about how his experience shifting his voice from feminine to masculine as a transgender man intersects with his work on John Cage. Before that, Regina Bradley put the soundtrack of Scandal in conversation with race and gender. The week before I talked about what it meant to have people call me, a woman of color, “loud.” That post was preceded by Christine Ehrick‘s selections from her forthcoming book, on the gendered soundscape. We have one more left! Robin James will round out our forum with an analysis of how ideas of what women should sound like have roots in Greek philosophy.
This week Canadian artist and writer AO Roberts takes us into the arena of speech synthesis and makes us wonder about what it means that the voices are so often female. So, lean in, close your eyes, and don’t be afraid of the robots’ voices. –Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor
I used Apple’s SIRI for the first time on an iPhone 4S. After hundreds of miles in a van full of people on a cross-country tour, all of the music had been played and the comedy mp3s entirely depleted. So, like so many first time SIRI users, we killed time by asking questions that went from the obscure to the absurd. Passive, awaiting command, prone to glitches: there was something both comedic and insidious about SIRI as female-gendered program, something that seemed to bind up the technology with stereotypical ideas of femininity.
Speech synthesis is the artificial simulation of the human voice through hardware or software, and SIRI is but one incarnation of the historical chorus of machines speaking what we code to be female. Starting from the early 20th century Voder, to the Cold-War era Silvia and Audrey, up to Amazon’s newly released Echo, researchers have by and large developed these applications as female personae. Each program articulates an individual timbre and character, soothing soft spoken or matter of fact; this is your mother, sister, or lover, here to affirm your interests while reminding you about that missed birthday. She is easy to call up in memory, tones rounded at the edges, like Scarlett Johansson’s smoky conviviality as Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her, a bodiless purr. Simulated speech articulates a series of assumptions about what neutral articulation is, what a female voice is, and whose voice technology can ventriloquize.
The ways computers hear and speak the human voice are as complex as they are rapidly expanding. But in robotics gender is charted down to actual wavelength, actively policed around 100-150 HZ (male) and 200-250 HZ (female). Now prevalent in entertainment, navigation, law enforcement, surveillance, security, and communications, speech synthesis and recognition hold up an acoustic mirror to the dominant cultures from which they materialize. While they might provide useful tools for everything from time management to self-improvement, they also reinforce cisheteronormative definitions of personhood. Like the binary code that now gives it form, the development of speech recognition separated the entire spectrum of vocal expression into rigid biologically based categories. Ideas of a real voice vs. fake voice, in all their resonances with passing or failing one’s gender performance, have through this process been designed into the technology itself.
A SERIES OF MISERABLE GRUNTS
The first voice to be synthesized was a reed and bellows box invented by Wolfgang Von Kempelen in 1791 and shown off in the courts of the Hapsburg Empire. Von Kempelen had gained renown for his chess-playing Turk, a racist cartoon of an automaton that made waves amongst the nobles until it was revealed that underneath the tabletop was a small man secretly moving the chess player’s limbs. Von Kempelen’s second work, the speaking machine, wowed its audiences thoroughly. The player wheedled and squeezed the contraption, pushing air through its reed larynx to replicate simple words like mama and papa.
Synthesizing the voice has always required some level of making strange, of phonemic abstraction. Bell Laboratories originally developed The Voder, the earliest incarnation of the vocoder, as a cryptographic device for WWII military communications. The machine split the human voice into a spectral representation, fragmenting the source into number of different frequencies that were then recombined into synthetic speech. Noise and unintelligibility shielded the Allies’ phone calls from Nazi interception. The Vocoder’s developer, Ralph Miller, bemoaned the atrocities the machine performed on language, reducing it to a “series of miserable grunts.”
In his history of the The Vocoder, How to Wreck a Nice Beach, Dave Tompkins tells how the apparatus originally took up an entire wall and was played solely by female phone operators, but the pitch of the female voice was said to be too high to be heard by the nascent technology. In fact, when it debuted at the 1939 World’s Fair, only men were chosen to experience the roboticization of their voice. The Voder was, in fact, originally created to only hear pitches in the range of 100-150 HZ, a designed exclusion from the start. So when the Signal Corps of the Army convinced President Eisenhower to call his wife via Voder from North Africa, Miller and the developers panicked for fear she wouldn’t be heard. Entering the Pentagon late at night, Mamie Eisenhower spoke into the telephone and a fragmented version of her words travelled across the Atlantic. Resurfacing in angular vocoded form, her voice urged her husband to come home, and he had no problem hearing her. Instead of giving the developers pause to question their own definitions of gender, this interaction is told as a derisive footnote of in the history of the sound and technology: the punchline being that the first lady’s voice was heard because it was as low as a man’s.
In fall 2014 Amazon launched Echo, their new personal assistant device. Echo is a 12-inch long plain black cone that stands upright on a tabletop, similar in appearance to a telephoto camera lens. Equipped with far field mics, Echo has a female voice, connected to the cloud and always on standby. Users engage Echo with their own chosen ‘wake’ word. The linguistic similarity to a BDSM safe word could have been lost on developers. Although here inverted, the word is used to engage rather than halt action, awakening an instrument that lays dormant awaiting command.
Amazon’s much-parodied promotional video for Echo is narrated by the innocent voice of the youngest daughter in a happy, straight, white, middle-class family. While the son pitches Oedipal jabs at the father for his dubious role as patriarchal translator of technology, each member of the family soon discovers the ways Echo is useful to them. They name it Alexa and move from questions like: “Alexa how many teaspoons in a tablespoon” and “How tall is Mt. Everest?” to commands for dance mixes and cute jokes. Echo enacts a hybrid role as mother, surrogate companion, and nanny of sorts not through any real aspects of labor but through the intangible contribution of information. As a female-voiced oracle in the early pantheon of the Internet of Things, Echo’s use value is squarely placed in the realm of cisheteronormative domestic knowledge production. Gone are the tongue-in-cheek existential questions proffered to SIRI upon its release. The future with Echo is clean, wholesome, and absolutely SFW. But what does it mean for Echo to be accepted into the home, as a female gendered speaking subject?
Concerns over privacy and surveillance quickly followed Echo’s release, alarms mostly sounding over its “always on” function. Amazon banks on the safety and intimacy we culturally associate with the female voice to ease the transition of robots and AI into the home. If the promotional video painted an accurate picture of Echo’s usage, it would appear that Amazon had successfully launched Echo as a bodiless voice over the uncanny valley, the chasm below littered with broken phalanxes of female machines. Masahiro Mori coined the now familiar term uncanny valley in 1970 to describe the dip in empathic response to humanoid robots as they approach realism.
If we listen to the litany of reactions to robot voices through the filters of gender and sexuality it reveals the stark inclines of what we might think of as a queer uncanny valley. Paulina Palmer wrote in The Queer Uncanny about reoccurring tropes in queer film and literature, expanding upon what Freud saw as a prototypical aspect of the uncanny: the doubling and interchanging of the self. In the queer uncanny we see another kind of rift: that between signifier and signified embodied by trans people, the tearing apart of gender from its biological basis. The non-linear algebra of difference posed by queer and trans bodies is akin to the blurring of divisions between human and machine represented by the cyborg. This is the coupling of transphobic and automatonophobic anxieties, defined always in relation to the responses and preoccupations of a white, able bodied, cisgendered male norm. This is the queer uncanny valley. For the synthesized voice to function here, it must ease the chasm, like Echo: sutured by a voice coded as neutral, but premised upon the imagined body of a white, heterosexual, educated middle class woman.
My own voice spans a range that would have dismayed someone like Ralph Miller. I sang tenor in Junior High choir until I was found out for straying, and then warned to stay properly in the realms of alto, but preferably soprano range. Around the same time I saw a late night feature of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, struggling to lose her crass proletariat inflection. So I, a working class gender ambivalent kid, walked around with books on my head muttering The Rain In Spain Falls Mainly on the Plain for weeks after. I’m generally loud, opinionated and people remember me for my laugh. I have sung in doom metal and grindcore punk bands, using both screeching highs and the growling “cookie monster” vocal technique mostly employed by cismales.
Given my own history of toying with and estrangement from what my voice is supposed to sound like, I was interested to try out a new app on the market, the Exceptional Voice App (EVA ), touted as “The World’s First and Only Transgender Voice Training App.” Functioning as a speech recognition program, EVA analyzes the pitch, respiration, and character of your voice with the stated goal of providing training to sound more like one’s authentic self. Behind EVA is Kathe Perez, a speech pathologist and businesswoman, the developer and provider of code to the circuit. And behind the code is the promise of giving proper form to rough sounds, pitch-perfect prosody, safety, acceptance, and wholeness. Informational and training videos are integrated with tonal mimicry for phrases like hee, haa, and ooh. User progress is rated and logged with options to share goals reached on Twitter and Facebook. Customers can buy EVA for Gals or EVA for Guys. I purchased the app online for my iPhone for $5.97.
My initial EVA training scores informed me I was 22% female; a recurring number I receive in interfaces with identity recognition software. Facial recognition programs consistently rate my face at 22% female. If I smile I tend to get a higher female response than my neutral face, coded and read as male. Technology is caught up in these translations of gender: we socialize women to smile more than men, then write code for machines to recognize a woman in a face that smiles.
As for EVA’s usage, it seems to be a helpful pedagogical tool with more people sharing their positive results and reviews on trans forums every day. With violence against trans people persisting—even increasing—at alarming rates, experienced worst by trans women of color, the way one’s voice is heard and perceived is a real issue of safety. Programs like EVA can be employed to increase ease of mobility throughout the world. However, EVA is also out of reach to many, a classed capitalist venture that tautologically defines and creates users with supply. The context for EVA is the systems of legal, medical, and scientific categories inherited from Foucault’s era of discipline; the predetermined hallucination of normal sexuality, the invention of biological criteria to define the sexes and the pathologization of those outside each box, controlled by systems of biopower.
Despite all these tools we’ll never really know how we sound. It is true that the resonant chamber of our own skull provides us with a different acoustic image of our own voice. We hate to hear our voice recorded because suddenly we catch a sonic glimpse of what other people hear: sharper more angular tones, higher pitch, less warmth. Speech recognition and synthesis work upon the same logic, the shifting away from interiority; a just off the mark approximation. So the question remains what would a gender variant voice synthesis and recognition sound like? How much is reliant upon the technology and how much depends upon individual listeners, their culture, and what they project upon the voice? As markets grow, so too have more internationally accented English dialects been added to computer programs with voice synthesis. Thai, Indian, Arabic and Eastern European English were added to Mac OSX Lion in 2011. Can we hope to soon offer our voices to the industry not as a set of data to be mined into caricatures, but as a way to assist in the opening up in gender definitions? We would be better served to resist the urge to chime in and listen to the field in the same way we suddenly hear our recorded voice played back, with a focus on the sour notes of cold translation.
Featured image: “Golden People love Gold Jewelry Robots” by Flickr user epSos.de, CC BY 2.0
AO Roberts is a Canadian intermedia artist and writer based in Oakland whose work explores gender, technology and embodiment through sound, installation and print. A founding member of Winnipeg’s NGTVSPC feminist artist collective, they have shown their work at galleries and festivals internationally. They have also destroyed their vocal chords, played bass and made terrible sounds in a long line of noise projects and grindcore bands, including VOR, Hoover Death, Kursk and Wolbachia. They hold a BFA from the University of Manitoba and a MFA in Sculpture from California College of the Arts.
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Editor’s Note: Today I bring you installment #4 of Sounding Out!‘s blog forum on gender and voice! Last week Regina Bradley put the soundtrack of Scandal in conversation with race and gender. The week before I talked about what it meant to have people call me, a woman of color, “loud.” That post was preceded by Christine Ehrick‘s selections from her forthcoming book, on the gendered soundscape. We have two more left! In the next few weeks we’ll have A.O. Roberts with synthesized voices and gender, and lastly Robin James with an analysis of how ideas of what women should sound like have roots in Greek philosophy.
This week guest writer and professor Art Blake shares with us a personal essay. He talks about how his experience shifting his voice from feminine to masculine as a transgender man intersects with his work on John Cage. So, lean in, close your eyes, and try not to jump to conclusions before you listen. –Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor
When I walked into the packed lecture theatre at the start of the Fall term 2012 I was hoping, more than any other year, to sound convincing. I had been teaching for 11 years by that time so I knew what I was doing. But I was walking into class as a man, for the first time. I was not sure if my newly thickening vocal chords would hold me at a convincing “male” pitch or if I would be able to project that developing voice to the back of the room. I thought I looked “manly” enough; but would I sound manly?
I had been researching and teaching about sound since 2003 but had not confronted myself as a potential object of study until I was preparing to return to teaching in 2012 following the early phase of my transition from female to male. My notions of “masculinity” have never been conventional: as a somewhat incompetent butch-ish lesbian I’d attempted but never “mastered” the appropriate vocal or bodily swagger. I abandoned those conventions to evolve my own more elfin, more queer swish. But on that first day back in the classroom, and for much of that term, I felt I needed to produce “normal guy”—a gender-identity category I didn’t believe in or want to become—so I might feel secure enough later to explore and tweak my newly gendered voice and body. I wanted a baseline from which I could re-build. I wasn’t ready to be out as trans* in the classroom. Yes, I was in a closet; but I needed it to serve as a dressing room, a place of private preparation, rather than as a long-term hiding place.
I started testosterone therapy in January 2011, on a low dose as is the standard of care. As my doctor increased my dose over the months, I noticed the beginning of the physical changes I’d been waiting for: more body hair, muscle development, and a hoarsening voice. I earnestly weighed and measured myself, worked out at the local YMCA, chose a new name and made it legal … and dealt with months of severe anxiety and depression. Puberty isn’t fun, and doing it again in my forties, as part of gender transition, was not the seamless story of celebration familiar from the YouTube videos I’d watched obsessively charting other guys’ transitions. Those videos were mostly about looking male, not sounding male, and rarely addressed transitioning at work, within a profession.
I spoke to a transman, also an academic, to discuss the challenges of transitioning in our profession. His version of masculinity was more conservative than I had expected, and a bit homophobic, but what really worried me was his concern about my voice: “I really hope for your sake your voice changes,” he said. What did he mean? Would I fail the test of public masculinity not only because I wasn’t wearing a jacket and tie but because I sounded feminine?
All those images of authoritative, sonorous, academic masculinity flooded me with panic. Testosterone wasn’t going to make me any taller, give me an Adam’s apple, or bigger hands and feet. I was going to be a small guy, standing at the front of the classroom with years of academic expertise, but a mismatched voice might undermine that basic authority. Female academics, like most female professionals, have to work harder for the respect of students as well as colleagues; we all have seen or know of evidence for this sexism. Men, just by being perceived as male, get more generous teaching evaluations from undergraduates. As I transitioned I found myself grasping for that authority in a way I hadn’t imagined before.
In search of help, I went to see Dr. Gwen Merrick, a therapist in the Speech Pathology section of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital. Gwen is known in the trans* community and trans* health networks for her work with transwomen. To my surprise I was her first transmale patient. While admitting her lack of experience she also welcomed the challenge to help masculinize my voice and lessen my anxiety around my vocal-gender dysphoria.
So we began: she examined my vocal chords (properly “vocal folds”). We then moved on to discuss my goals and concerns, and began the process of recording my voice—measuring its volume and tone, listening to the digital recordings, and training me to hear and then adjust my vocal pitch and speech rhythms. She gave me vocal exercises for homework, and taught me how to relax and move my larynx lower in my throat to lengthen it and create a lower pitch. Gwen also encouraged me to imagine myself into the vocal change I sought. I tried taking up more space as I sat in her office, head up and chest out, adopting an attitude of greater confidence, channeling the burliest and butchest of my cismale friends.
My scholarly life took a nosedive during those months on medical leave. The first piece of scholarship I re-engaged with during this time was something I’d been thinking about for years: an article about the composer John Cage‘s voice. I wanted to write about the disconnect I had heard between Cage’s speaking voice and my assumptions about him based on his appearance. I sought to hear Cage’s voice in the context of the post-1945 period when he rose to great prominence as a composer. What I gradually came to hear as I returned to this research was how and why Cage’s voice, within the context of the 1950s in particular, spoke to me so profoundly as I emerged publically as trans*.
I first heard his recorded speaking voice while teaching some of his work in an early iteration of my sound studies seminar. I’d seen photographs of Cage as a middle-aged and older man; from those images of a tall, craggy-faced guy in a sports jacket or woolly sweater, I had expected to hear a baritone, chest-resonant, rich “masculine” voice. Instead, Cage’s voice was light, with very little chest register, almost breathy sometimes, and inflected with the rhythm and occasional sibilance of what I “recognized” as a gay male (American) voice.
How had Cage navigated the homophobia of the 1950s with a voice like that? Was what I heard as his audible difference perceived that way in the postwar period as he rose to prominence as a modernist composer? According to some older gay men I’d interviewed for my 2004 radio documentary on the early gay leather scene in the 1950s, they had consciously altered their voices in everyday situations where they didn’t want (or couldn’t risk) being heard as gay. As one guy mentioned, for such circumstances he adopted his “gas station voice”—a vocal pitch and style to get him through such commonplace moments of public masculinity as talking to the gas station attendant. I wondered if Cage also kept one voice in the closet and adopted another one he needed based on circumstance.
As I sought my own “gas station voice” in the fall of 2012, returning to Cage and listening to his voice in his 1956 composition Indeterminacy helped gradually lessen my anxiety about audibly “passing.” Listening to Indeterminacy, a series of stories occasionally interwoven with a piano, allowed me to not only hear but also admire Cage’s voice and the political resonance it may have held in McCarthy-era America.
I looked for examples of Cage speaking outside of his own compositions, someplace more public—someplace where I might hear him put his voice in the closet and butch himself up for the public ear. I looked for ways to contextualize Cage’s voice in the era of determinacy — mainstream 1950s America, high modernist, planned, and in love with postwar military-industrial efficiency and the performance of expertise.
My urban history self focused on New York in the 1950s, listening for other voices resonant with the era’s “structure of feeling.” If heard by a 1958 resident of New York City, Indeterminacy might have sounded somewhat familiar. The experience of listening to all or parts of Indeterminacy resonated with the interruptions, the drowned-out words, the overlapping and oppositional sounds, the proximity of people and machinery, which characterized Manhattan (in particular) in the late 1950s. Cage spent periods of time in New York City as well as upstate in the 1950s, moving between different art scenes. What did New York sound like in the 1950s? The Puerto Rican migration and urban renewal re-shaped the city’s soundscape on the west side, as documented by sound recordist Tony Schwartz and re-presented through the musical West Side Story. I had written about those encounters with audible difference but now wanted to listen more closely. What did the city’s infamous urban planner, master of urban renewal, Robert Moses sound like? What did his outspoken critic Jane Jacobs sound like? And how might I hear their contemporary John Cage in this context with reference to the notion of “indeterminacy”?
Within a Cold War-McCarthyist context, voices represented an aspect of the suspect-self available for investigation, interrogation, and pathologizing. I identified, to an extent, with such a predicament, such a fear of exposure and of the negative consequences I presumed would follow. While I listened to John Cage’s and others’ voices from this period, I listened for how Cold War authorities may have heard them. John Cage’s voice offers indeterminacy itself, hovering in the margins of the tonal, rhythmic, and pitch ranges of conventionally “masculine” and “feminine” voices at mid-century. Despite our contemporary resistance to stereotyping, one hears in Cage’s gendered oscillation, mixing minor chest resonance with the higher, softer, breathier sounds, a definitive type of “gay” male voice: the sissy voice. As Craig Loftin has argued in “Unacceptable Mannerisms: Gender Anxieties, Homosexual Activism, and Swish in the United States, 1945-1965,” during the 1950s gay men as well as the heteronormative majority, produced intense hostility to the archetype of the “sissy,” whose voice and body movements marked him as politically problematic in the context of both homophile activism and Cold War homophobia.
Paul J. Moses aimed to analyze in his 1954 book, The Voice of Neurosis (one of the many works in the field of “personality studies” popular in the 1950s) the personality from the speaking voices of his subjects with a method he called “creative hearing.” Moses’s work suggested that the voice revealed the “true” personality, belying a person’s efforts to disguise themselves through dress, work or relationships. Such secrets could be heard, or listened for, through Moses’ “creative hearing.” Of course, when he published his work in 1954, the Cold War made aural surveillance, the use of listening devices, as well as the “creative hearing” of expert listeners, a crucial weapon in a war of secrets.
In January 1960 John Cage appeared as a contestant on the popular television game show I’ve Got a Secret (CBS, 1952-1967), a show that perfectly channeled concerns about hidden identities at the heart of public and Congressional anti-Communism within Cold War politics in the United States. Derived from the radio show What’s My Line in which a celebrity panel tried to discover a person’s job, in I’ve Got a Secret the panel tried to uncover the contestant’s “secret,” normally something unusual or perhaps embarrassing. The I’ve Got a Secret format played with the tension between who knew and who did not know the contestant’s “secret.” After being introduced by name and hometown, the show’s host asked each contestant to whisper their secret in his ear. During the on-camera intimacy of mouth-to-ear divulgence, text of the revelation scrolled up over the TV screen for the viewers at home and was visible to the studio audience. The panel of celebrity inquisitors could only observe the studio audience’s responses of laughter, shock, or titillation.
John Cage’s appearance on the show was devoted to the performance of his “secret.” Cage whispered to host Garry Moore that he had made a musical composition using a bathtub, jugs, a blender, radios, a piano, a tape recorder, a watering can, and other common household objects. In an absurdist version of a laboratory experiment, Cage darted from one to the other object, pressing buttons, pouring liquids, hitting radios, putting flowers in a bathtub, all the while holding and responding to the stopwatch in his hand. Cage performed inefficiency and absurdity, inviting laughter, the opposite of industrial modernism’s demand for logic, order, and compliance to norms. Cage’s non-compliant, queer performance and composition satirized the efficiency experiments of twentieth century time-management experts; the “Water Walk” “instruments”, all objects from everyday life, bear no productive relation to each other and are not arranged in a manner producing efficiency. Cage thus queered the modern, as typified in mid-20th century American industry, corporate capitalism, and national infrastructure projects such as urban renewal.
Cage’s voice provides an added and unexpected queer flourish to his TV appearance on I’ve Got a Secret. The sound of Cage’s voice (soft, higher-pitched, lilting, slightly sibilant) contrasts with his formal attire and hetero-normative environment. Cage’s voice reveals a “secret”—his homosexuality—different from the “secret” featured on the show. Like most Cold War secrets, it was not a secret to him or his close friends but was supposed to function as a secret in that historical context. Cage resisted, consciously or not, the vocal closet; he made no attempt, as far as I can hear, to alter his voice in the very public context of a live television show. John Cage appears happy, playful, and delighted to perform for the audience. His antic performance of “Water Walk” endeared him to a mid-century audience who came ready to enjoy the show’s pleasurable revelation of secrets.
Other “hearings” of Cage’s non-normative self might well have produced a less relaxed response from those same audience members: his voice at a Congressional HUAC hearing; his voice overheard on the street or in a cafe. The gay or gender non-conformist audience members may have thrilled to Cage’s double-edged performance of his “secrets,” or they may have cringed at such possible revelations, in fear of their also being heard as different but lacking the protection of Cage’s (albeit limited) celebrity.
Standing at the front of the lecture theatre in September 2012, I felt I too had a secret, and my heart pounded, my stomach jittered for fear of its revelation. But, as I continued to listen to Cage’s voice on a recording of Indeterminacy, and to think through his TV performance on I’ve Got a Secret, I grew more able to let go of my fear of being heard as trans*. I heard and saw Cage as a man who resisted convention and a culture of fear and judgment.
Four years on, I no longer worry whether or not my voice signals my transmasculinity. I can’t control how my students or anyone else hears me, or the joy, confusion, curiosity, or disgust their hearing me may produce in them. My last term’s teaching evaluations, from Fall 2014, for that same large lecture class I first taught in Fall 2012, included many positive comments about my teaching; they also included a student’s written comment describing my voice as “gentle” and thus sometimes harder to hear. I will wear a microphone for volume, if needs be, to increase my audibility. But I feel no need to alter what that student heard as “gentle.” I can live with gentle, for which I thank John Cage.
Featured image: from Issue Project Room
Art Blake is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Ryerson University, Toronto, where he also teaches and supervises grad students in the Communication and Culture program. He is completing his second book, Talk To Me: Mediated Voices in 20th Century America. His new research concerns contemporary international urban “maker” cultures.
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