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SO! Reads: Daniela Cascella’s F.M.R.L. (Finding Materials for Remembering and Listening)

"The Meaning of It All" by Flickr user Nick Webb, CC BY 2.0

SO! Reads3

***

Before I read F.M.R.L., I didn’t know Daniela Cascella or her work. I hadn’t read her first book or her blog or her Tweets; I hadn’t seen any exhibits she had curated or attended a reading. Instead, the words in her book introduced us.

Here’s how she was introduced, here in this exploration of how sound and writing intertwine:

  • A wanderer, traveling the globe to meet friends, attend conferences, read books (and more books, and more books)
  • An archivist, saving physical and digital boxes of sounds and words and quotes, all blended with her own notes and ideas
  • A listener, noticing the sounds of words as much as their meanings
  • A cave-explorer, digging ever deeper through layers of earth to find echoes of what has been buried—which is another way to say a wanderer, an archivist, a listener

How odd to meet someone through words alone, not knowing what she sounds like, what she would say if we met.

***

“you know you’re a Mac user when…” by Flickr user Nick Normal, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’ve never told anyone this: I sometimes imagine descendants and friends sifting through my digital archives after I die, meeting me through my words and my collections.

“Collections” is too organized of a word, really. I save files, sometimes in clearly named folders, but just as often not: pdfs, docs, txts, sometimes containing my own words and sometimes others’. On 3.5” floppies, CDs, DVDs, in the cloud. Poems, essays, quotations, scans—I don’t even know what these people from the future might find, how these archives would introduce me to them.

Once, my first year in college, a girl I liked called me to complain about her boyfriend, and her words were so layered with meaning that I opened up a window of Word and started typing her words, verbatim. She was going fast, though, so when I got behind, I just hit enter and kept going. She must have heard the keyboard clicking, but she never said anything.

I haven’t read that file for years, but it must be somewhere in the cave of my collections.

***

png;base6445b4d03606ce2862A colleague sees Cascella’s F.M.R.L. on my desk. His face scrunches as he tries to make sense of the letters on the cover.

“It’s a book I’m reviewing,” I offer.

“No, it’s just. . . .” He reads the subtitle. “I thought it was a play on the phrase FML or something.”

I know how he feels. Every time I see the book sitting there, new words and letters come to mind. I eventually heard it as ephemeral, but always after others:

Formerly. Fame, really. Female roll. F my real life. FM Radio, Live!

Here’s what it actually says on the cover: Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains and Leftovers of Writing Sound. When my colleague sees that subtitle, he experiences the tiny pleasure of “getting it,” of seeing what the letters “really” stand for, of feeling like these words now make sense in the way they were supposed to.

But inside the book, you quickly learn that in 1926, Louis Aragon also re-voiced ephemeral as F.M.R.L., but the letters stood for something different to him: frenzy, madness, reverie, love.

Cascella takes it further: the next page lists the other things that F.M.R.L. could stand for: footnotes, false starts, frenzy, and so on, each list of words ending in delightful ellipses, which seem to say, “And what does this F mean to you?”

“The Letter F for Flickr and Friends” by Flickr user Denise Womack-Avila, CC BY-NC 2.0

***

From Cascella’s blog: “The title is ‘F.M.R.L.': not ‘Ephemeral’. I chose this title because of its ambiguity and because it calls to be sounded. I chose it to draw the attention toward language as material; to stay away from any literal understanding of sound as ephemeral, as if unworthy of attention; and to prompt other departures from and into words and letters.”

***

A note I wrote in the margin: “So much of this book is an explanation of this book.”

Consider:

“I have a habit with listening. It makes me write even when I don’t now [sic?] what to say. . .” (9). Do you hear? she seems to say. I’m writing, and you’re listening in, but I’m not sure what it will mean to you, or to me. That’s how sound works.

“Each cluster of words is not created anew but cast from words that were before, recalled from archival layers. I don’t want to explain them, but rearrange them and hand them over to you before they expire” (118). Do you hear? she continues. Will you listen? Can’t you make meanings without my explanations?

“SOUND: You should not have called me Sound, but told me of the sounds in s-s, addressed me with incoherent stories and undecipherable acoustic traces, signifiers whose sense is uncertain and that yet mean” (2).

That last is from the dialogue that opens the book: SOUND and WRITER are “walking in a circle, anticlockwise and diametrically opposite” as they try to figure each other out. Or, really, as Writer tries to figure out Sound, trying to grasp and understand and explain. Sound seems ok living in the moment, singing.

As I read the rest of the book, I kept remembering that tension between writing and sound. It’s infused in the pages of the book like strong tea.

And I kept thinking of myself, as a writer and teacher of writing who is also a listener and a maker of sounds. I’m dedicated to writing and sounds, both. Maybe Cascella’s solution is the best: to love words, to read and memorize and archive them, but to never stop at what they signify, to always attend to the sounds they suggest as well, the puns of meaning hidden throughout all languages.

***

By writing about this book, I feel I’m writing against some of its core ideas.

Writing about is so descriptive, explaining, clarifying, cleaning up, setting the table for dinner because something important is going to happen soon, so wash your hands. When I write about, I take notes in the margins, but not the kind of notes where I exclaim in wonder or shock, or record my emotional reactions. Instead, when I’m in writing about mode, I jot marginal notes that summarize, explain, organize, keep track of everything.

An example: here’s a list of the page numbers where I noticed Cascella using the word ephemeral:

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Ah, now I have some ownership over this book. Ah, now I am on my way to understanding it.

This is how I feel when reading/annotating poetry: a little embarrassed when I annotate only to explain and clarify, but pleasantly engaged when I annotate my gut reactions, often written in exclamation points or question marks or stars, doubled or tripled when I really mean it.

***

This is a book that asks to be read all in one sitting, even though that’s impossible.

At least it’s impossible for me. Cascella’s soundings (which seems like a better word than writings) are thick with images and quotations and sudden jumps, which seems to suggest a slow attitude, like reading a poem or two a day instead of powering through an entire book as if it were a long sandwich.

But the echoes (and this is very much a book about echoes, and caverns, and geological layers) threaten to disappear from memory if you wait too long to read the next chapter. My longer reading sessions were always rewarded with subtle connections: a circle, an incantation that I’m sure she mentioned just a few pages back, hold on while I find it.

So maybe the best solution is to read it once quickly, attending to the echoes, and then again slowly, attending to the layers. It’s like watching Twin Peaks, like exploring a museum.

“The Lion Man” by Flickr user storebukkebruse, CC BY 2.0

An example: in the final section of the book, she describes The Lion Man, a 40,000-year old sculpture. “I cannot even figure the meaning of 40,000 years ago,” she writes (113). I pause, look up, and bite the end of my pen. I’ve heard these lines before, I realize. Did I read ahead, when I first got the book in the mail? Or did I read about The Lion Man online somewhere, maybe when Thomas Rickert is discussing the Lascaux paintings in his book Ambient Rhetoric? Was I thinking about it when singing R.E.M.’s “Texarkana” the other day in the shower, how the numbers in that song grow from 20,000 to 30,000 to 40,000?

But then, later, I skim through my marginalia and realize I was wrong: Cascella herself told this story, back on page 14, using the same words.

I’m tempted to explain to you the effect of this verbal echo, from sculpture to exhibit to Cascella’s archival notes to Cascella’s book, written in two different places. But right now, I have page 15 open, held down under my arms as I type, and there’s a sentence there that I double-starred, and to me, double-stars are rare and important. I starred: “Perhaps their [ancient art objects’] final appeal is for us to cease to aim at being clear and distinct” (15).

So I’ll hold off my explaining, my desire to clarify. But I’ll add another echo from Cascella: toward the end of the book, she writes the same sentence—”Perhaps their final appeal is for us to cease to aim at being clear and distinct” (120)—but this time, the pronoun their is describing sounds, bottled up and kept in the room of an enchanted child. On this page, I once again double-starred the line, even though I had forgotten that I had read those words before in this book. They affected me the way sounds affect me, with the slam and the flood of standing in the ocean, which then pulls back before repeating the same slam and the same flood.

***

“Lascaux II – Hall of the Bulls” by Flickr user Adibu456, CC BY-NC 2.0

“[W]e can compare the designed use of Lascaux as afforded by its spatial, acoustic, and material properties to musicians’ attempts to get a certain sound by recording in a specific environment.” —Thomas Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being

***

I recently taught Lauren Slater’s memoir Lying in a creative nonfiction class. I reread it on a plane ride to Florida and decided to write about my experience on the plane ride home. But when I opened my laptop, I found myself writing like Slater in little ways: invented scenes mixed into my nonfiction, insistent addresses to the reader (like “you have to believe me on this point”), sentences that drifted on, connected only by comma splices, there’s one there, they’re lovely sometimes, they were everywhere in my sentences.

What’s more, this echoing didn’t feel like a choice. Slater’s writing had become part of my internal archive, bubbling up unbidden.

***

Scholar of writing Peter Elbow emphasizes the importance of teaching students to trust their mouth and ears when making punctuation decisions. He admits that comma splices often feel right when you’re trusting the sound of your words, that there’s a connectedness you want with a comma that you don’t get with a pesky semicolon or period or even a lively dash.

“But,” he reminds us—and I hear some sad music in the background as I write this—”many teachers and readers who know the rules are unforgiving about run-ons.”

Do you see how Cascella is in my brain, connecting my mental archives with synthesizer cables? I can’t stop thinking about the rules of writing and the rules of sound, and how they might sound together if I just try plugging this here. . . .

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“Modular Synthesizer Desktop HDR” by Flickr user Peter Georges, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

***

In one of Cascella’s most fascinating chapters, she describes an experiment she performed on herself: “I learned by heart every week a paragraph from a new text that mentioned sounds, re-wrote it from memory the following week, and interpolated the missing parts with other words heard beside myself—an experiment in layered memory, as it corrodes and actualises my physical and emotional archives while I search for more voices: an echo cast into shape, to fold my enchantment with words round, and back dissolving, and again” (69).

She shares three examples, three “casts,” of these rewritings from memory. And I’ll be honest: when I first read this part of the book, I was excited at the idea of looking up the originals, of trying to catch exactly how much she did and didn’t remember—of reinscribing the authority of an ur-text, instead of allowing the echoes of the her-text envelope me.

So I looked one up. (I mean, Google Books.) And I compared. And I saw similarities and differences. Yep, there they were.

And out of nowhere, I felt ashamed. I felt like I was trying to break her experiment, her art, her practice. So I’ll leave it up to you: read her rewritings from memory—it’s chapter 11, I’ll wait while you find it—and decide for yourself if you want to know how much she changed or didn’t change from the “originals.” Decide for yourself how right/write or wrong it is to play with someone else’s texts. Decide for yourself if this is really how we do everything everyday anyway.

***

Slater’s Lying, the book I read on the plane, mixes truth and lies, a fact that aggravates some readers and enchants others. The thing is, she tells you exactly what she’s doing—I mean, the book is called Lying, and her first chapter, in its totality, is “I exaggerate.” Plenty of other obvious clues remind us that fact and fiction have been put in the blender of this book.

Cascella tells us what she’s doing, too. Eventually, you start to realize that explaining this book is one of the themes of the book—but no, explaining is the wrong word. More like inviting you to enjoy it the way she wants you to enjoy it.

Sometimes that invitation is rather direct: “I seek to reclaim the intermittent incoherence in listening as it urges to move through its residual presence into a marginated writing that is not a site of clarity but edge, horizon, fugue” (24). Bam. Pretty clear.

But often, she’s more invitational, writing in the second person, just to you: “Try and listen to them, one after the other, forget about genealogies and canons, listen to those vocal intertwinements and rhythmic mosaics” (30).

Then it’s back to her again, how she “want[s] words to follow the untidy movements in listening, to be mud and magma” (48), how she’s “drawn to listening to [sounds], to reinvent, recall and divine them in words” (68).

Her, you, her, you. Me. A swing, a dance, a recursive circle between telling and inviting.

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“Blah” by Flickr user Flood G., CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

***

“The moment I begin to write, sound is no longer sound” (39).

***

One reason Cascella writes this way: she’s frustratred with work on sound that ignores the affordances of sound. At sound art conferences, in discussions about sound art—they all seem to be so filled with words and explanations that she couldn’t help but explode words onto these pages in a different mode, like she does in this book.

“[C]oming back from yet another conference on sound,” she writes, “I would feel like I no longer knew how to speak, listen or write” (23). She’s tired of artists who make complex work but then use “trite and worn-out expressions that say no more” when describing it (55), “where sound becomes an apology” (108).

So this book uses sounds, and there’s no accompanying apology. Sorry.

***

I’m sitting outside at an academic conference for scholars in rhetoric and composition. I’ve seen some boundary-breaking stuff today, but I want more.

“I mean, sometimes I don’t want to have to tell the audience everything,” I say. I’m at a table with friends. We’re in Florida, so we’re drinking obscenely bright cocktails. “I want to throw ideas and sounds at them and let them connect the dots. These are smart people, right?”

Paul nods and pauses before speaking. We just met, so I think he’s trying to give good advice in as gentle a way as he can. “Yes. They’re smart. But there’s obviously a line, too, right? If you’re creating scholarship, you have to make moves that signal that you’re part of that community, that conversation. Otherwise, you’re making. . . .”

“You’re making art. Right?”

“Right. And art is important, and I agree that we need more artistic sensibilities in our field. But it’s not scholarship.” He pauses. “You have to play the game, too.”

I nod. I think he’s right. Sometimes, in some places, I need to play the game.

But not always. And in different fields, different modes of expression beyond the scholarly, the game is different, you can see it if you peek around the corner into other rooms. And if you break down walls, it’s all one big room. Which is exciting and terrifying and I want it all, all the ideas and methods and all the sounds.

“Sound six points” by Flickr user Sarah Barker, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

***

How can I tell you anything at all, when all I know are sounds?

But still, you want the point. You want to know what this book will do for you, for your art, for your scholarship.

How can I tell you anything at all, when all I know are sounds?

But ok. You’re not here to be moved. (Are you? I hope you are.) But if you’re not: what will propel your ideas, what will inspire your work after reading Cascella, what the take-aways are:

  • “Writing away from sound” as a different way to “write about sound” (44). That is, instead of explaining, to let the nature of sound itself inspire the kinds of work you do.
  • “Writing Sound” as an “encounter,” as “transcience” (54).
  • Acknowledging our archives and inviting them to the forefront of our writing, even when those encounters are messy or confusing.
  • Considering what we’re really doing in our art/theory/writing/sounding. Cascella says she’s not “a writer, a theorist, a critic” but “a handler of words, a listener, a reader” (90). Who are you? Who am I?

But how can I tell you anything at all, when all I know are sounds?

***

“I’m cut through by voices I don’t want to explain” (72).

Kyle D. Stedman is assistant professor of English at Rockford University, where he teaches first-year composition, digital rhetoric, and creative nonfiction. His work explores rhetorics of sound and music, intellectual property, and fandom. He tweets at @kstedman and hosts the podcast Plugs, Play, Pedagogy.

Featured image: “The Meaning of It All” by Flickr user Nick Webb, CC BY 2.0

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Machinic Ballads: Alan Lomax’s Global Jukebox and the Categorization of Sound Culture

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100 Years of Lomax4

Today, SO! continues its series reconsidering the life and work of Alan Lomax in his centenary year, edited by Tanya Clement of The University of Texas at Austin. We started out with Mark Davidson‘s reflections on what it means to raise questions about the politics behind Lomax’s efforts to record and collect folk music, and continued a few weeks later with Parker Fishel‘s consideration of Lomax’s famous “Southern Journey” and how it has been appropriated by musicians more recently.

With Clement’s own article below, the series begins to rethink Lomax as a touchstone in current and continuing drives to collect, measure and compute sonic cultures, something that seems hot all of a sudden (see, for instance, coverage of recent digital analysis of trends in pop music at Queen Mary University of London). In her thoughtful, illuminating and inspiring article below, Clement challenges us to consider the politics behind these efforts to search, retrieve and analyze audio, something that the case of Lomax throws into stark relief.

— Special Editor Neil Verma

When the Association for Cultural Equity, an organization that Alan Lomax founded in 1983, announced the release of 17,000 music tracks from Lomax’s fieldwork collections, the New York Times heralded the release as a manifestation of Lomax’s Global Jukebox project, a computational experiment for accessing and studying his vast multimedia collection of the world’s culture. The Times piece likens Lomax’s project to Pandora, which allows the listener to search for music “like” music she has already found. Lomax’s biographer, John Szwed, also makes this comparison but modifies his description by proclaiming that unlike Pandora’s recommendations which are “based on personal taste” and “tend to lead sideways . . . to production style,” Lomax’s Global Jukebox idea held the potential to point a listener to “deeper principles of cultural and musical organization” (The Man Who Recorded the World 391).

Gobsmacked by whizbang possibilities, neither the Times nor Szwed discuss the deeper principles behind Lomax’s attempt to represent culture as a global search engine. In the context of the powerful work being accomplished in the Music Information Retrieval (MIR) community and my own project (HiPSTAS) to develop software for making sound collections searchable and accessible, In this article I will argue that how we build systems for searching and retrieving and browsing cultural artifacts as data is a profoundly political act. Recognizing such politics suggests that Lomax’s Global Jukebox project serves as a cautionary tale for how social and cultural contexts — or what Donna Haraway calls our “ways of being” — are reflected in the systems we develop.

John A. Lomax Collection in UT Folklore Center Archives, Small Multiples. Instrumental sections are in red, spoken sections are in green, and sung sections are in blue. Click to see the full-size image. John A. Lomax Collection in UT Folklore Center Archives, Small Multiples. Instrumental sections are in red, spoken sections are in green, and sung sections are in blue. Click to see a full-size version.

John A. Lomax Collection in UT Folklore Center Archives, Small Multiples. Instrumental sections are in red, spoken sections are in green, and sung sections are in blue. Click to see a full-size version.

The Singer with the Song

The year that Alan Lomax was born (1915), his father John Alan Lomax published a landmark piece heralding seven new types of American ballads for study. American ballads, he argues “reveal the mode of thinking, the character of life, and the point of view, of the vigorous, red-blooded, restless Americans, who could no more live life contented shut in by four walls than could Beowulf and his clan, who sailed the seas around the coasts of Norway and Sweden” (“Some Types of American Folk-Song”, 3). Unlike any other collection of ballads, John’s “American ballad” included the ballads of the miner, the lumbermen, the inland sailor, the soldier, the railroader, “the ballads of the negro; and the ballads of the cowboy . . . [and] the songs of the down-and-out classes, — the outcast girl, the dope fiend, the convict, the jail-bird, and the tramp” (3). Governed by a laudable goal to record the songs of folk cultures at the fringes of mainstream society, the senior Lomax’s view of the communities where he would collect his songs (including jails and state farms), was complex, and can fairly be called both progressive as well as racist (Porterfield 170).

John and Alan went on seven collecting trips together between 1934 and 1936 and co-authored five books on their return. On these trips, they collected songs from people on the street in cities like New Orleans and people in the country, from both church-goers and prisoners. While John held romanticized views of the “noble” southern black man, Alan, on the other hand, indicated a more nuanced understanding of the complexities inherent to his father’s attempt to generalize patterns of “folk” for study. Alan linked “the singer with the song” and was interested in the politics behind prisoners made to sing with guns at their backs and in the cultural lives of people that were so poor in means but so rich in “beautiful harmony, with enormous volume, with total affection” (Szwed 49). While Alan maintained that he was interested in the individual’s story, John believed that “a genuine ballad has no one author. It is therefore the expression of no one mind: it is the product of the folk . . . It might have been written by any one” (“Some Types of American Folk-Song”, 1).

John A. Lomax Collection in UT Folklore Center Archives, Small Multiples. Instrumental sections are in red, spoken sections are in green, and sung sections are in blue. Click to see the full-size image.

John A. Lomax Collection in UT Folklore Center Archives, Small Multiples. Instrumental sections are in red, spoken sections are in green, and sung sections are in blue. Click to see a full-size version.

Taxonomies

The Global Jukebox project demonstrates an almost complete reversal in Alan’s concerns. The studies behind the Global Jukebox include Alan’s Cantometrics and Choreometrics, in which he produces taxonomies for studying song and dance and his Parlametrics project, an “experiment in metalinguistics,” which Alan and his collaborators describe as a taxonomy of “patterns of style” in speech based on dynamic changes in pitch, loudness, speed, spacing, rhythm, and timbre (“A stylistic analysis of speaking”). These taxonomies show that Alan’s early consideration for the individual performer gave way to a desire to make folk study more scientific as a cultural mapping like what his father espoused rather than what Szwed and others have seen as Alan’s concerns with the situated politics of individuals.

Alan’s Parlametric study serves as good example. Approaching delegates from the United Nations and soliciting mail-in samples from regions not covered by the U.N. volunteers, Alan and his team collected representative recordings of 114 languages. Then, in order to study the “generally neglected meta-communicational level” in these recordings, the team designed a rating system including 50 codes that (1) “described the distinctive features of each recording,” and (2) “tended to cluster the recordings into sets of similars” that Alan maintains anyone could “readily use” to record “salient differences in conversation style” (19). These clusters pointed to 14 factors that Alan and his team would use to categorize the cultures from which they received samples:

  1. Repetitiveness
  2. Timing
  3. Speech length
  4. Upglides
  5. Descending cadence
  6. Syllabification
  7. Drawl
  8. Empathy
  9. Space
  10. Dominance/Sharing
  11. Relaxed/Tense
  12. Noise
  13. Breathy
  14. Forceful

Using these factors, Alan makes some broad assertions. The association of clear syllabification” (the degree to which syllables run together) “is most strongly predicted among gardeners with domesticated animals” and “[t]he association of clear syllabification to feminine autonomy is suggested by the discovery that this mode of speaking predicts and is predicted by permissive rather than restrictive premarital sexual mores” (27). Further, “Dominance vs. Sharing of conversation space” is strongly correlated with settlement size and severity of sexual sanctions,” a statement that Alan immediately rationalizes by noting that “this relation between a more crowded social space, high sexual tension and increased rate of interaction seems to make good sense, even if it does not account for every possibility” (31).

These spurious and broad generalizations were what Lomax hoped to facilitate for all with his Global Jukebox as the access point for “the first numerical models of the full range of global cultural variation in holistic form” for “the scientist, the layman, and the student to explore, experience, and manipulate the broad universe of culture and creativity in a systematic fashion, with audio-visual illustrations at every turn of the road” (“The Global Jukebox,” 318). By leveraging his taxonomies of song, dance, and speech in the computer age, Alan could suddenly associate and differentiate cultures holistically and en masse.

A visualization of a song in ARLO

A visualization of a song in ARLO. Click to see a full-size version.

Machinic Methods / Humanistic Questions

As someone who works in the liminal spaces between the humanities and technology, between cultural studies and critique and the machines that increasingly function both as access points and barriers to our cultural artifacts, I see Alan’s switch to generalizable taxonomies as par for the course in the digital age. My own >HiPSTAS project’s primary objective is to develop a virtual research environment in which users can better access and analyze spoken word collections of interest to humanists. We understand that in order for us to search digital sound artifacts, we have to create taxonomies, metadata, keywords and other generalizable frameworks that facilitate discovery.

At the same time that we are using machinic methods, however, we can still ask humanistic questions that open up rather than close down debates and dialogues. In a recent test for the HiPSTAS project, for example, we used machine learning to analyze the recordings in the UT Folklore Center Archives, which comprises 219 hours of field recordings collected by John and Alan Lomax, Américo Paredes, and Owen Wilson, among others. In our attempt to predict the presence of different sonic patterns including instrumental music, singing, and speech, the results of our analysis are noteworthy as the visualization shown in this brief movie demonstrates.


from Tanya Clement on Vimeo

Within the results, we see a visualization of how many seconds comprise each file (in blue) and how many of those seconds for each file our software has predicted the presence of instruments (green), speech (red), and song (purple). A subtle yet striking difference emerges in the comparison between the Lomax recordings (created 1926-1941), which are the oldest in the collection, and the others, which were created up until 1968. The Lomax recordings (primarily created by John Lomax) consistently contain the least amount of speech in comparison to what the other files contain.

Of course, there are a number of ways you can read these results. Given the conversation above, one could hypothesize that perhaps the Lomaxes were primarily interested in their participants’ songs rather than their stories. One could also think about it in terms of recording capabilities across time. When the Lomaxes were first recording, John Lomax writes, “The amplifier weighed more than one hundred pounds; the turntable case weighed another one hundred; two Edison batteries weighed seventy-five pounds each. The microphone, cable, the tools, etc., accounted for sufficient weight to make the total five hundred pounds. . . . In order to carry them in the car I tore out the back seat . . .” Even in 1967, forty years later, good recorders still weighed 70 pounds and required a car battery, but tapes were longer and costs were less. More tape and more time at less cost both financially and physically had a big impact on what researchers recorded. At the same time, the data shows that the later recordings are not much longer, but do seem to have more seconds of speech.

There is a danger in these kinds of machine-generated generalities. We employed taxonomies (instrumental, sung, speech) to teach the machine to categorize these patterns, but why these patterns? Are there others? Or did I choose these based on what I already wanted to say about the Lomaxes’ practices? And, I haven’t even mentioned here the subjective practices inherent to choosing algorithms for such work.

These kinds of questions require more research, and more contextualization than this aggregated data set can show. Just as the ballads that John and Alan Lomax once collected were written and sung by someone, so were the communities that Alan interpreted through his Parlametrics made up of individuals, not types. Perhaps Alan’s desire “to record the world” was just and Google, the collector, categorizer, and interface for all things on the Internet, isn’t evil. But the Global Jukebox Project serves as a cautionary tale about the politics behind the speed and efficiency that machinic methods seem to promise, a politics that needs to be far less opaque about its deeper principles and problems.

Tanya Clement is an Assistant Professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. She has a PhD in English Literature and Language and an MFA in fiction. Her primary area of research is scholarly information infrastructure. She has published widely on digital humanities and digital literacies as well as scholarly editing, modernist literature, and sound studies. Her current research projects include High Performance Sound Technologies in Access and Scholarship (HiPSTAS).

Featured image: “Day 21 – Waveform” by Flickr user evil_mel, CC BY-NC 2.0

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The Problem of Alan Lomax, or The Necessity of Talking Politics During the Lomax Year

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660276/

Alan Lomax (left) and youngster on board boat, during Bahamas recording expedition

100 Years of Lomax4This week, Sounding Out! kicks off an exciting four-part series exploring the work of Alan Lomax, a key figure in sound culture studies, and one whose legacy is in the midst of being reconsidered and refreshed by many scholars, musicians and folklorists alike.

As Guest Editor, we are happy to welcome Tanya Clement, Assistant Professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. Clement has expertise in a wide variety of fields, from scholarly information architecture and digital literacies to modernist literature and sound studies, and she is currently helping to lead the High Performance Sound Technologies in Access and Scholarship (HiPSTAS), a project you should know about that’s using new technologies to analyze and increase access to a range of spoken word recordings.

I’ll turn it over to Clement to introduce the series, an expertly-curated set of reflections on what Lomax and his recordings have meant in the past and could mean in the future.

Special Editor Neil Verma

Alan Lomax (January 31, 1915 – July 19, 2002) was an archivist, ethnomusicologist, film-maker, folklorist, oral historian, political activist, scholar, and writer and many would say he has had the single most influential impact on the preservation of global music traditions. 2015 marks his centenary and this series of posts will both celebrate and interrogate his tireless and controversial crusade to bring attention to, understand, and preserve sound culture.

Below, Mark Davidson’s piece will introduce our collection with an exploration into the Alan Lomax “branding” as either saint or sinner with a call for transparency, context, and accuracy with regard to current scholarship and repatriation efforts surrounding the recordings Lomax made over six decades of work. In his approach to Alan Lomax’s Southern-based collecting work in our second article, Parker Fishel will consider the complex practice of documenting and preserving transforming dynamic community-based traditions into static texts that Lomax and others touted as authentic. Next, Toneisha Taylor will interrogate how the Federal Writers Project Folklore and Folkways collection projects, first formed by Lomax’s father, has framed how we encounter significant recordings about Black life in the Deep South during and after slavery. Finally, Tanya Clement will explore how Lomax’s ideas about Cantometrics and the Global Jukebox resound in recent work using computers to categorize and analyze sound in the 21st Century.

By revisiting Lomax’s collecting practices and the songs Lomax collected from alternate perspectives in the context of the diverse communities affected by his work, these posts are an attempt to use Lomax’s Centenary to celebrate the enduring resonance of folk songs in our sound culture and to bring awareness to the importance and complexities of its continued preservation.

— Guest Editor Tanya Clement

In 1987, two years after the three hundredth anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth, musicologist Susan McClary published a now-classic article titled “The Blasphemy of Talking Politics during the Bach Year,” in which she reflected on her experiences at a number of Bach events in 1985. Using Theodor Adorno’s 1950 essay “Bach Defended against His Devotees” (written on the two-hundredth anniversary of the composer’s death) as a jumping-off point, McClary defied Bach scholars who viewed the German Baroque master’s music as sacrosanct and unimpeachable, and performed a brazen deconstruction of Bach’s most revered works: the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and Cantata No. 140 (“Wachet Auf”). For McClary, the turn was critical: “we must confront Bach and the canon and resituate him in such a way as to acknowledge his prominence in musical and non-musical culture while not falling victim to it (p. 60).”

What, one might ask, does a canonical “classical” music composer, a contemporary musicologist, and a twentieth-century German theorist have to do with folk music collector Alan Lomax? Aside from a heavy degree of fetishizing by pale male scholars (myself included), it turns out quite a bit.

The “Lomax Year” began on January 31, 2015, the 100th anniversary of Lomax’s birth, with events throughout the United States and Europe including concerts, marathon film screenings, and radio broadcasts devoted to his life and work. Centennial events are ongoing throughout the year, including a panel at SXSW on March 21st in Alan Lomax’s hometown of Austin, Texas.

Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, N.C.

Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, N.C.

But the current Alan Lomax revival began long before January 31. Over the course of the past five years there have been numerous books, including Lomax’s first full-length biography, websites devoted to his recordings (e.g., Louisiana, Kentucky), and recording reissues, all of which have garnered considerable attention in the popular media. There has been an ongoing film and recording series, The 78 Project, in which the project’s founders lug across the nation a vintage 1930s Presto recording machine similar to the kind Lomax would have used in search of contemporary musicians playing modern renditions of folk songs. Alan Lomax was even featured on The Colbert Report in March 2012, around the time that the massive Alan Lomax Archive of Alan Lomax’s Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) launched. The TV spot included a discussion of Lomax’s legacy and a performance by Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, and ACE executive director and musician Don Fleming, with Colbert helping out the proceedings.

Alan Lomax has become a brand, a larger-than-life figure looming over the entirety of folk music collecting in the United States. His name is the first on people’s lips when one mentions the subject (as I have found again and again in my own research on 1930s folk music collectors not named Alan Lomax). And he went to great pains throughout his life to promote this brand. It was, after all, the way that he was able to continue his life’s work. This branding effort continues to the present day, largely due to the efforts of the Association for Cultural Equity, which Lomax founded in 1983, and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where the Archive of American Folk Song (now the Archive of Folk Culture) is housed. Alan Lomax became the first salaried employee of the Archive in 1937, working there until 1942 when he left for the Office of War Information. But Lomax kept in close contact with the Archive for the rest of his life, lording “Ayatollah-like” (I’ve been told) over the collections he did so much to foster.

The Lomax Year has also been the impetus for a healthy reappraisal of Lomax’s life and career, as evidenced by a recent Studio 360 radio segment, produced by Richard Paul and featuring Dom Flemons, Karl Hagstrom Miller, Dwandalyn Reece, and Patricia Turner. In the 13-minute-long spot, Lomax is at once heralded as the potential grandfather of rock ’n’ roll while also criticized for the time that he and his father spent recording black prison inmates in the South, and the overall “folk construction” in which they engaged. The intervention is not unlike McClary’s call to “confront [Lomax] and the [traditional music] canon and resituate him in such a way as to acknowledge his prominence in musical and non-musical culture while not falling victim to it.”

"Lightnin' Washington, an African American prisoner, in the prison hospital at Darrington State Farm, Texas" by Alan Lomax.

Lightnin’ Washington, an African American prisoner, in the prison hospital at Darrington State Farm, Texas

But the “re-situation” suggested by this exposé borders on the same sort of constructed truth of which Lomax himself is accused. By listening to the segment one might come to the conclusion that Lomax had no time for any types of African American music outside of prison inmates: “It would take 14 years before Lomax ever recorded in a black church and he never recorded at a black college.”  Or one might think that the Lomaxes’ quest to find “pure” or “unadulterated” versions of songs was unique. Both statements are simply not true. Alan Lomax, in his official capacity with the AAFS, worked with numerous collectors who recorded all types of music. Just one example of many is his collaboration with John Wesley Work III of Fisk University to record African American folk songs and spirituals for use by Fisk and the Library of Congress. As far as fetishizing the untouched or “pure products,” it is a practice that persists in ethnographic research to this day.

Defending Alan Lomax in this way is not a position with which I am comfortable. But relegating him to a decade of his life, and conflating him with “the sins of the father” is no better a stance. There are plenty of places where Lomax can, and should, be justly criticized. There is his practice of taking composer credits for other musicians’ performances (which he somewhat awkwardly defended in a 1990 Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross). Then there’s the instructions he gave other AAFS fieldworkers to actively deceive their informants: “The recording interview can be as significant as the song itself and is valuable as a fresh field document, especially, if the informant does not know that the interview is being recorded, and if he never learns it.” And there’s a statement he made to Federal Writers’ Project historian Jerre Mangione in which he boasted that his father was “a fucking genius at getting blacks to sing” while describing, excitedly, the dangers of recording in the Jim Crow South. Not to mention Zora Neale Hurston putting Alan Lomax in blackface as they traveled the South. And these instances all fall within this same five-year period of Lomax’s life.

Stavin' Chain playing guitar and singing the ballad "Batson" accompanied by a musician on violin, Lafayette, La.

Stavin’ Chain playing guitar and singing the ballad “Batson” accompanied by a musician on violin, Lafayette, La.

What falls away in these discussions is perhaps the most critical piece to this puzzle: the individuals behind the recording. Who were they, and what were their lives like outside of the three minutes that are etched into a lacquered aluminum “acetate” disc? Aside from a few notable exceptions (e.g., Muddy Waters, Jelly Roll Morton), most of these performers remain unknown to the general public. Through this particular sin of omission, we fall victim to the fallacy that perhaps Alan Lomax really was the progenitor for the “never-ending folk music revival,” or that he really was the grandfather of rock ’n’ roll. Few scholars have even approached the problem of dealing with the performers in any substantive way, with the exception of perhaps Stephen Wade through his recent book The Beautiful Music All Around Us. The problem of the individual extends to the various recent “repatriation projects” that have been underway for some years. Given what we know about Lomax’s fieldwork co-creator-credit practices, how transparent have these repatriation efforts been able to be? What do these plans include for the forthcoming “definitive Centennial box set”?

Talking politics during the Lomax Year is not blasphemy. It is necessary. But the overall reliance on knocking down Alan Lomax™ misses an important point. It is nearly impossible to make the overly simplistic and poorly nuanced argument that Lomax was simply a product of his time, when that time spanned the better part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The problem of Alan Lomax, then, is acknowledging his importance while resituating him within the larger narrative of traditional music research in the twentieth century, not as a brand, but as an individual in a larger network collectors, institutions, and musicians who fought against what the rapid disappearance—what Lomax called “cultural grey-out”—of music and culture throughout the world. Doing so won’t solve the problem, but it’s at least a start.

Mark Davidson is a Ph.D. candidate in cultural musicology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is currently finishing up a dissertation on WPA folk music collections, including Sidney Robertson Cowell’s California Folk Music Project; Herbert Halpert’s Southern States Recording Expedition; and the Florida Federal Writers’ Project’s statewide folk music recording survey (which included Zora Neale Hurston and Stetson Kennedy). Mark has also been working with Tanya Clement and the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas to launch a website of the Lomax family’s recordings in Texas. He received an MSIS from the UT School of Information in August 2014, and has worked for the Journal of the Society for American Music since 2008.

Featured image: Alan Lomax (left) youngster on board boat, during Bahamas recording expedition. All images via the Library of Congress Lomax Collection.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This post, a personal essay concerning an endangered archive of radio recordings in Detroit by University of Michigan Professor Derek Vaillant, has been temporarily embargoed due to a security concern regarding a specific location discussed in the post. It will be restored as soon as possible, with additional details from the author. — Special Editor Neil Verma

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