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This Is How You Listen: Reading Critically Junot Díaz’s Audiobook

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Last month, T.M. Luhrmann compared the experience of reading a written book versus listening to books in the New York Times article “Audiobooks and the Return of Storytelling.” Lurhmann points out how audiobook sales jumped 20% in 2012, whereas total industry book sales went down 1%. From the looks of it, books have benefited from audiobook sales, but in literary studies, print remains the primary vehicle for analysis. Might listening to an audiobook actually change how we critically read a text?

As I listened to Junot Díaz narrate This Is How You Lose Her  (2012), the first book Díaz has read as an audiobook and the first book of short stories the author has published since 1996’s Drown, I wondered how his reading influenced how I interpreted the text. Díaz’s reading sounds less like regular speech and more like a performance, with its own cadence and rhythm:

This post approaches the audiobook as a text in itself, coming from a sound studies perspective. I attempt to conceptualize the idea of “close listening” as a methodology akin to “close reading” in literary studies. I listen for how Diaz reads the text but more specifically how the reading itself becomes a way of authoring the text.  Ultimately, I argue that Díaz’s reading becomes a re-authoring the text—re-writing the text sonically. On a broader level, I hope to add to the conversation of what it means to read an audiobook, as Birgitte Stougaard Pederson and Ibsen Have brought up in “Conceptualising the Audiobook Experience.” Using This Is How You Lose Her, I show that reading an audiobook means engaging with the text from the angle of the ear, and that close listening can become an aural reading practice that relies not so much on the visual texts, but on aural cues from the narrator.

Not one but two (!) copies of This Is How You Lose Her

Not one but two (!) copies of This Is How You Lose Her

This Is How You Lose Her revolves around Yunior, a young Dominican immigrant who grows up in New Jersey and who ends up as a professor in Boston, and the many loves he has had or that he has encountered growing up. The stories trace his progress from a young, recently arrived Yunior, to a tenured, mature Yunior, showcasing certain relationships that influence how he relates to women—in sum, illustrating how he loses the women he loves. Throughout the short story collection, Díaz also calls attention to other relationships that may influence Yunior’s perspective, for example, his brother’s attachments with women, especially toward the end of his young life as he battled cancer, and his father’s relationship with his mistress, a Dominican woman who lived in New Jersey. At the end, Díaz illuminates how a mujeriego (womanizer) like Yunior comes to be; the short stories indicate that Yunior is as much a product of his environment as he is a seller of the merchandise.

Díaz is not a professional audiobook narrator. Although Díaz has done live readings, reading the full-length version of a book one has written is a different exercise. The Penguin Audio version of the collection is based on the actual short story collection (in other words, unabridged), so it does not contain additional stories or behind the scenes interviews. Technically, it is no different than the print version.

Listening to authors read their own work has value beyond the pleasure of hearing them read their text. Scholarly writing on audiobooks has emphasized the experience of listening to an audiobook for pleasure (like Deborah Phillips’ “Talking Books: The Encounter of Literature and Technology in the Audiobook” and James Shokoff’s “What Is An Audiobook?”), but it wasn’t until the 2011 edited collection Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies that audiobooks were considered on their own instead of as extensions of the literature they were based on. The allure of doing this scholarly exercise with the audiobook version of This Is How You Lose Her is that Díaz’s delivery of the text is uncommon at the least.

"Junot Diaz at the Southern Festival of Books" by Flickr user Stacey Kizer, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Junot Diaz at the Southern Festival of Books” by Flickr user Stacey Kizer, CC BY-NC 2.0

Talking about Junot Díaz’s readerly voice requires to tune into conversations about his writerly voice. In many reviews of Díaz’s books, writers discuss how Díaz deftly conveys a writer’s voice in his text, indicating that his success is that his characters have a very clear voice—or at least Yunior does. Michiko Kakutani, for example, points out how “Junot Díaz has one of the most distinctive and magnetic voices in contemporary fiction: limber, streetwise, caffeinated and wonderfully eclectic, capable of conjuring for the reader everything from the sorrows of Dominican history to the banalities of life in New Jersey.” Although this quotation is in reference to Díaz’s second book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, it describes Díaz’s writing in terms of his voice instead of, for instance, in terms of his use of metaphors or choice of subject.

Richard Wolinsky, in his Guernica interview with Díaz, sees an overlap between Yunior and Díaz: “He’s [Yunior] got a very distinct voice, and it’s a voice that’s informed by [Diaz’s] own reading, particularly science fiction and fantasy.” Although Díaz has pointed out that Yunior is loosely based on events that have happened to him,  Wolinsky “hears” Díaz in his main character. The tone and the language Yunior uses is read as a reflection of Díaz.

Conversations about the voice of the writer point to a sensibility about sound, but are often limited to a written text. Anna Barnet, in an interview with Junot Díaz, states “His two principal linguistic registers (‘this kind of crazy Caribbean language and music’ and ‘this sort of African-American-infused American vernacular’) grind against each other along with the many other voices he ventriloquizes in his writing.” Barnet reminds readers that Díaz’s writing style is based in spoken language—particularly Díaz’s spoken language. This language of “voice” to describe a writer’s style (or, specifically, a writer’s ability to convey a clear sense of who the character is and/or their views) is commonplace but gives the impression that there is a sonic aspect to an author’s work, when in reality it is but a metaphor for something that occurs at the level of text.

A critical reading of a text that includes the audiobook rendition allows critics to add substance to those references to “voice.” In Junot Díaz’s case, it is possible that readers encounter him first through written text, and so have an expectation of what Díaz (or Yunior) would sound like live.  In my textual analysis of eight audiobook reviews (and one book review that included a mention of the narration in the audiobook) most listeners showed some sort of discomfort with Díaz’s narration. One reviewer, for example, had issue with the “smoothness” of Díaz’s narration: “At times the reading was a little shaky and uneven”. Another reviewer stated “at times his cadence is choppy, with odd pauses and emphasis on strange words that detract from the overall experience.” Reviewers also had an issue with Díaz’s pace, which is characterized by pauses in places that many not seem normal in casual American speech. These statements hint at a “weird” quality in Díaz’s speech, something that does not come through when Díaz has a casual conversation. (Listen to this podcast episode of NPR’s Alt. Latino guest-starring Díaz and compare with this video of him reading part of This Is How You Lose Her.) Although one blogger pointed out that Díaz sounded “professorial” in the reading, others used the words “native,” “authenticity,” “Dominican” and even “Jersey accent” to describe how Díaz sounded. It is unclear how these reviewers define “native” or “authentic.”

"Junot Diaz" by Flickr user ALA The American Library Association, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Junot Diaz” by Flickr user ALA The American Library Association, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Connecting sound to authenticity implies that Dominicans can only sound a certain way, or that the audio narration is lacking when it does not represent a “typical” Dominican voice. To the extent that Díaz is Dominican, his voice is of a Dominican male who has grown up in the Northeastern United States. His uneven audio narration creates a feeling of sonic unintelligibility in the listener, similar to the effect of including Spanish words in the written text. Díaz-as-narrator can make a listener uncomfortable, and by extension forces that reader to listen.

The sonic unintelligibility also relies on the text, on how Díaz plays with language by switching back and forth from English to Spanish. Díaz mentions in an interview with Marva Hinton that some readers are not happy with his choice of Spanglish in his writing: “There [are] folks who hear one Spanish word, and they’re convinced this is some sort of immigrant conspiracy” Farther down, in the same article, Díaz refers to his mix of Spanish and English (and a particular kind of Spanish and English at that, since he moves among Standard American English, African American Vernacular English, and Dominican Spanish) as “opaque language.” There’s a connection between the kind of “opaqueness” that Spanish gives and the unintelligible effect of Díaz read his work.

An example of how sonic unintelligibility operates in the audiobook is the first story, “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars.” This opener, told in first person, revolves about one of Yunior’s break-ups; Yunior and his girlfriend Magdalena, on whom he cheated, go to the Dominican Republic on a trip they had planned before she found out about the affair. It frames the book as being an in-depth analysis of loves lost, from the man who keeps losing them. It also sets the tone sonically for the audiobook reading: after the introduction of the book, a snippet of bachata music comes on, and then makes way for Díaz, who reads the title of the story. This is the pattern of the book: slices of bachata, followed by Díaz’s narration.

His voice is characterized by a slight sing-song cadence that is reminiscent of Dominican Spanish accent. If this were in Spanish, it might be easier to lose track of the cadence, but in English it sounds like a disembodied accent. I showcase the swing in Díaz’s narration by alternating capital letters and lower-case letters: “Her FAther, who usually would treat me like his HIjo, CALLS me an ASShole on the PHONE, SOUNDS like he’s STRANgling himself with the cord.” The voice seems to float for a while until Díaz arrives to the end of a paragraph or a series of sentences, and then it sinks. Moreover, this pattern does not change when Díaz switches characters: it’s hard to tell Yunior apart from Magdalena unless the reader pays close attention to when the narrator is switching characters and/or when the narrator uses a pronoun. The same effect comes from the odd pauses in the author’s narration: “Oh God, she wailed. Oh. My God.”


The choppiness and the emphasis in the reading are a way to dislocate the listener, in a similar way that Spanish phrases or lack of quotation marks in the text dislocate a reader who does not understand Spanish or who depends on the quotation marks to make sense of the prose.  Also, this story focuses on Magdalena withdrawing from Yunior and not communicating with him. The tone, cadence, and sound of Díaz’s voice can be read to mirror the relationship between Yunior and Magdalena (and the other women in the text): the sonic unintelligibility is manifest at the level of plot through Yunior’s relationships.

Although many audiobook reviewers may consider the plot in their reviews, part of what makes an audiobook stand out is the performance of the text. I take my cues from audiobook reviewers and consider critically my listening experience of This Is How You Lose Her and how this can become the basis for a critical interpretation of the text.  My analysis underscores that having an author read a text can provide a different way into analyzing the text and prompts readers to pay attention to sound. If, like Shokoff asserts, most audiobook readers listen to an audiobook while doing something else, Díaz shows that listening closely to the audio text can be as rewarding as reading a book.

Featured Image: “Junot Diaz” by WBUR Boston’s NPR News Station, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

Liana Silva-Ford is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!.

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Sonic Brownface: Representations of Mexicanness in an Era of Discontent

Speedy Gonzalez

Image by Flickr User Thomas Hawk

In the current anti-immigrant climate, the visual, sonic, and textual modes of representation are becoming battlegrounds we must consider. Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama’s takes on immigration policy and eliminations of ethnic study course offerings from college and high school curricula, are signs of a climate fraught with discontent. However, these fights are not limited solely to the political sphere; in fact, the arena of cultural production—music, literature, theater, and film—facilitates a generalized outlook on Latinidad in the United States by representing Dreamers (the generations of children who were raised in the U.S. from a young age but are not citizens), and/or the thousands of undocumented immigrants who sustain an infrastructure of cheap labor. Within these often stereotypical representations, it is frequently sound that produces the strongest sense of social, cultural, and political difference for Latino subjects.

In this post, I analyze the 2006 film Nacho Libre, a comedy starring Jack Black as a friar who becomes a Lucha Libre fighter, as symptomatic of what I term “sonic brownface,” an aural performativity of Mexicanness. My interest on Nacho Libre is to elucidate how sonic brownface manifests on the big screen, and what is at stake through these seemingly innocent (re)presentations of Mexicanness. I characterize “sonic brownface” as a “speedification” of a Mexican accent, named after Speedy Gonzalez’ infamous call “¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba! ¡Epa! ¡Epa! ¡Epa!” Although comedian Jack Black intends to present a respectful portrayal of a Mexican, his speech enables my analysis of “sonic brownface” within popular culture, a sound that reproduces ideologies about an invisible majority that is also perceived as non-American: Latinos, undocumented immigrants, and dreamers.

The May 1, 2006 protest in Los Angeles, Image by Flickr user The Korean Resource Center 민족학교

The May 1, 2006 protest in Los Angeles, Image by Flickr user The Korean Resource Center 민족학교

Voicing the Other…

Popular silent-era leading man Ramon Novarro (née José Ramón Gil Samaniego) as photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1935

Popular silent-era leading man Ramon Novarro (née José Ramón Gil Samaniego) as photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1935

The last scene of the Academy Award winning film The Artist (2011), presents why the silent film Artist was against the industry’s move toward the “talkie.” His voice collided with the visual representation of the suave debonair cosmopolitan man—and audience expectations of what such privilege sounds like. Though French actor Jean Dujardin plays the lead character in the film The Artist, it must be noted that several Mexican and Latin American actors did quite well in those early years of Hollywood cinema. Their exotic looks made them desirable and allowed audiences to fantasize about the man or woman on the screen because they could not hear them speak. Moreover, their physicality allowed some actors to “pass” as white. When talkies became the norm, Latino actors began performing now familiar stereotypical characters because in the U.S., their voices were indelibly associated with their “foreignness.”

In the realm of popular culture, both Disney and Warner Brothers created their own “Mexican” characters. In 1944, Disney introduced a Mexican and a Brazilian in the animated film Three Caballeros. Joaquin Garay was a Mexican voice actor featured in the voice of Panchito Pistoles in the Three Caballeros.

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His accent and his singing sounded like someone who is Mexican speaking English, as oppose to an exaggerated Mexican accent heard later in the cartoon character of Speedy Gonzalez. Panchito Pistolas showcases a pride in being Mexican as heard in the singing of a ranchera and wearing his gun like the Mexican Revolutionaries of the 1910s. In the 1950s, Warner Brothers introduced Speedy Gonzales to their pantheon of animated characters, coinciding with the next wave of anti-Mexican sentiment during the campaign of Operation Wetback.


In his essay “Autopsy of a Rat,” William Nericcio posits that viewers come to recognize a series of stereotypes about Mexicans through the animated character of Speedy Gonzales. Nericcio incorporates historical references that influenced the design and creation of Gonzalez. He stipulates that this animation creates visual cues which American audiences connect as qualities of Mexicanness, “how this popular animated star comes to function in a way that reinforces politically charged, visions/versions of the ‘Mexican’ on ‘American’ soil” (212). Nericcio emphasizes the “visuo-ethnic clues” to deconstruct the Speedy Gonzales cartoon, and his definition of the stereotype helps corroborates my interest in how “sonic brownface” manifests as a “Speedification” of a Mexican accent. “Strapped for existential input as to the dynamic of Mexican subjects, we turn to stereotypes to provide us with visuo-ethnic ‘clues’ that fill in for empirical data and satisfy the lazy desire of our collective curiosity (219). Whereas Nericcio emphasizes the visual, however, I argue that sound has also held a strong purchase on the American racial imaginary in the case of Latinos. When audiences see and hear Jack Black as Nacho Libre, for example, they already recognize the accent.

Nacho Libre, sonic brownface personified

I propose the concept of “sonic brownface,” which pairs auditory with visual signs of Mexicanness as mediated in popular culture, to characterize the Mexican as a perpetual foreigner within the national imaginary. My interest in a film like Nacho Libre is to elucidate how audiences already recognize “Speedification,” a voicing of Mexicanness that manifests as a performance of “sonic brownface.” This conceptualization of “sonic brownface” is informed by Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s work on the “sonic color-line.” In “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York,” she posits that “sound is not merely a scientific phenomenon—vibrations passing through matter at particular frequencies—it is also a set of social relations … the “sonic color-line” begins to theorize the mutually constitutive relationship between sound, listening, and race.” She elaborates how “aural signifiers of race are thoroughly enmeshed with the visuality of race [because] they never really lose their ultimate referent to different types of bodies” (65). In the case of “sonic brownface,” Jack Black does not need to be a Mexican actor, he just needs to sound “Mexican” to conjure a physical referent.

jazz singer

Still from The Jazz Singer

In utilizing the term “brownface,” I also reference minstrel entertainment in which blackness fetishized and simultaneously disavowed African American entertainers consequently framing racial codes onto a spectrum of racialized bodies. In his analysis of the first talkie The Jazz Singer (1927) “Blackface, White Noise,” Michael Rogin proposes that the “protagonist adopts a black mask and ventriloquiz[es]the black, sings through his mouth” (419). Through this masking, the Jazz Singer becomes Americanized through “appropriat[ing] an imaginary blackness” (421). Even as our contemporary sensibility would call out any form of contemporary blackface performance, we have yet to identify a similar masking when it occurs with Mexican or Latino characters. I contend that the models seen in blackface entertainment have already placed familiar scenarios of seeing White or Jewish actors performing an ethnic Other. When American audiences see Jack Black as “Nacho Libre,” they do not need to see him brown his skin; it is enough to hear a “speedification” of Spanish to have us entertain his believability. When “sonic brownface” occurs, it does not Americanize the performer, rather it perpetuates the Mexican and by extension Chicanos and Latinos as always already foreigners.

In order to recognize how “sonic brownface” is performed in the comedy Nacho Libre, it is also necessary to understand how its sound echoes a political climate that conflates “Mexican” with “Immigrant,” thereby representing Mexicans as undocumented people who have no right to be on this side of the U.S./Mexico border, and lumps all Latinos together as “Mexican.” The film was released a month after the nation’s largest immigrant rallies on May 1, 2006, occurring throughout many cities. The timing of the film also coincided with the first series of policy measures on immigration reform proposed by Congress. Whereas before the May Day marches, some members of congress discussed immigrants as criminals, after the big turnout Congress changed their tune, beginning to consider amnesty or easier paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, including generation Dreamers, already raised and finishing their schooling in the States. Cue Jack Black.

Image by Flickr User Thommy Browne

Image by Flickr User Thommy Browne

Speedification del Celluloid: “sonic brownface” in Nacho Libre

Nacho Libre, directed by Jared Hess (of Napoleon Dynamite fame) presents a comedic fictionalization of the story of Fray Tormenta, a career Lucha Libre fighter who was actually Reverend Sergio Gutiérrez Benitez. The film highlights Black’s strengths as a singer and presents him in a character that is the classic underdog trying to achieve his wrestling dream. As Nacho, the cook for the orphanage, he also wishes to provide the children a better meal, at least once in a while. I will highlight a few scenes in which Black’s sonic brownface performance stands in contrast to the other Mexican cinema actors who speak English. I will conclude with a proposition as to why sonic brownface is already so familiar to us.

From the opening sequence, we see the quaint orphanage located in a small Mexican pueblo. “Sonic brownface” is introduced in the film from Black’s first words “Be grateful Juan Pablo today is especially delicious.” In the next sequence, Hess films the Father saying mass in Spanish with no translation, or subtitles. I point this out because it sets up a type of authenticity with the Mexican orphanage, and that the film brings together both American actors speaking “Es-Pan-ish” and Mexican actors speaking in English. Ana de la Reguera, “Sister Encarnación,”–a nun who arrives to teach the children–also does not perform sonic brownface. She sounds like a Mexican actress speaking English, very much like other Mexican actors preceding her in Hollywood, adding a third later of sonic representation that actually works to heighten sonic brownface’s effects.

However, the sequence that most prominently presents the visual and auditory cues of sonic brownface appear in a twenty-minute segment when Nacho recruits his partner, Esquelito, and they transform into luchadores. In the midst of Nacho’s transformation, he must also contend with his carnal feelings for Sister Encarnación and to instruct the boys that wrestling is not good. Black goes from Italian in “taste of glory” (19:114-16); to Cuban “take it easy” (24:03); to urban Mexican American “my life is good, really good. It’s fantastic” (35:50). The sequence ends as Nacho cannot defend Sister Encarnación and blames Esqueleto for the mishap. Here sonic blackface culminates this performativity of Other with “get that corn outta my face. I looked like a fool last night. What took you so long?!” (39:54-40:29).

One could read this performativity of Otherness in the remix of accents as Black’s self-awareness that he is voicing something not of his experience. However, that he is Jewish and a comedian implies a privileged position already granted to him through blackface performances: the permission to co-opt ethnic and racial identities. When he inflects a Cubanesque accent, audiences can recall Al Pacino in Scarface, an earlier articulation of “sonic brownface.” Or the urban Chicano accent as seen in Born in East L.A. when Cheech Marin teaches the Mexicans waiting to cross the border how to blend in with Chicanos. By the time Black performs sonic blackface, as audiences we have been cued to these auditory references, thus we do not need him to alter his physicality to match the accent. It is enough to hear it to understand the referent. The sequence reaffirms Nacho as the luchador, since we also see his persona of the fighter come to life.

Rogin’s analysis can help us understand these slippages, as well as the role of “sonic brownface” in representations of Latinos by white actors. Rogin posits how Jolson’s performance in the first talkie simultaneously killed Vaudeville entertainment and reintroduced blackface into popular media (429). It is Rogin’s conclusion that it is with the appearance of “Jack Robin” in blackface, that the Jewish individual “Jakie Robinowitz” becomes white and thereby successful, mediating this success through visual codes of blackness. Similarly, in Nacho Libre, sonic brownface operates as both the visual and sonic cues of Mexicanness that enable Jack Black to become the luchador who doesn’t need to live behind a mask. As the film ends, Nacho is content, becoming a hero to the orphans who no longer bemoans his lot in life. This ending is contrary to the plight of immigrants from Latin America who must leave their home in search of better economic opportunities.

By identifying sonic brownface, we can see how American audiences fetishize the sounds of the Mexican/Latin Other yet simultaneously disavow their presence by placing non-Latino actors in these roles. Through the performativity of sonic brownface, popular media and film reify codes of Mexicanness as always foreign, silencing their accents because español is still an unwelcomed sound. Sonic brownface can also be a useful tool by which to investigate similar auditory articulations of Latino sounds. I’m thinking here of Rita Moreno in West Side Story (1961)see ‘s Sounding Out! post “Aurally Other: Rita Moreno and the Articulation of ‘Latina-ness’” (January 2011)–George Lopez in Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008), Wilmer Valderrama “Fez” in the television series That 70s Show, and the panoply of Latino actors in Machete (2010) by Richard Rodriguez. Given that media tends to recycle tropes and stereotypes, as audience members we have developed a keen awareness of these sonic markings of Otherness.

Most importantly, my intent in identifying sonic brownface concerns its re-appearance during another surge of anti-immigrant rhetoric. The rallies that occurred on May Day 2006 became synomous with immigrant rights. The release of Nacho Libre shortly after these rallies unknowingly silenced immigrant Spanish speaking voices in the popular imaginary until the film A Better Life (2011) staring Demián Bichir, connected undocumented immigrants with an empathetic experience. The strongest counteractions, however, have not been channeled through Hollywood. With the 2012 election, another surge of immigrant rallies happened at the Democratic National Convention with UndocuBus riders arriving in time to call attention to immigrant rights (start at 8:10-11:24).

As seen in this video clip, undocumented immigrants, Dreamers, Latina/s, and Chicana/os committed acts of civil disobedience because their voices will not be silenced.

reina alejandra prado saldivar is an art historian, curator, and an adjunct lecturer in the Social Science Division of Glendale Community College in Glendale, California.As a cultural activist, she focused her earlier research on Chicano cultural production and the visual arts. Prado is also a poet and performance artist known for her interactive durational work Take a Piece of my Heart as the character Santa Perversa (www.santaperversa.com) and is currently working on her first solo performance entitled Whipped!


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Further Experiments in Agent-based Musical Composition

Photo by whistler1984 @Flickr.

Editor’s Note:  WARNING: THE FOLLOWING POST IS INTERACTIVE!!!  This week’s post is especially designed by one of our regulars, Andreas Duus Pape, to spark conversation and provoke debate on its comment page.  I  have directly solicited feedback and commentary from several top sound studies scholars, thinkers, artists, and musicians, who will be posting at various times throughout the day and the week–responding to Andreas, responding to each other, and responding to your comments.  Look for commentary by Bill Bahng Boyer (NYU), Maile Colbert(Binaural/Nodar, Faculdade de Belas Artes da Universidade do Porto), Nick Knouf (Cornell University), Primus Luta (AvantUrb, Concrète Sound System), Alejandro L. Madrid (University of Illinois at Chicago), Tara Rodgers (University of Maryland), Jonathan Skinner (ecopoetics),  Jonathan Sterne (McGill University), Aaron Trammell (Rutgers University, Sounding Out!) and yours truly (Binghamton University, Sounding Out!).  Full bios of our special respondents follow the post. We wholeheartedly wish to entice you this Monday to play. . .and listen. . .and then share your thoughts via the comment page. . .and play again. . .listen again. . .read the comments. . .and share more thoughts. . .yeah, just go ahead and loop that.  –JSA, Editor-in-Chief

I’m a musician and an economist. Sometimes you will find me playing acoustic folk rock and blues on guitar, harmonica and voice. And at other times I will be at work, where I apply my expertise in game theory to the computer modeling of social phenomena. I create simulations of people interacting – such as how people decide which way to vote on an issue such as a tax levy, or how people learn to sort objects given to them in an experiment. In these simulations, the user can set up characteristics of the environment, such as the number of people and their individual goals. After things are set up, users watch these interactions unfold. The simulation is a little story, and one need only tweak the inputs to see how the story changes.

As a musician, I was curious if a program that generates social stories could be refashioned to generate musical pieces. I wanted to build a music-generation engine that the listener could tweak in order to get a different piece each time. But not just any tune – a piece with some flow, some story. I like that tension between randomness and structure. On one hand, I want every song to vary in unpredictable ways; on the other hand, I want to create music and not structureless noise.

I created a basic story of predators and prey, whimsically naming the prey “Peters,” represented by rabbits, and the predators “Wolves.” My simulation depicts a plain in the savannah with a green oasis. The prey seek the oasis and the predators seek the prey. Each character has its own goals and the closer they are to achieving them, the happier they are. Both predators and prey want to have stomachs full of food, so naturally they want to be close to their target (be it prey or oasis). As they travel through the savannah, they learn what choices (directions of movement) make them happier, and use this experience to guide them.

Photo by bantam10 @Flickr

So how does this story become music? To this question there are two answers: a technical one and an intuitive one. The intuitive answer is that in real life the story of predators and prey plays out geographically on the savannah, but musically this is a story that plays out over a sonic landscape. To elaborate, I abstracted the movement of the prey and predator on the geography of the plain into the musical geometry of a sonic landscape. The farther north an agent travels, the higher the pitch. And, the farther east an agent travels the longer the duration. In other words, as an agent travels to the northwest, she makes longer-lasting tones that are higher pitched. I also mapped happiness to volume, so that happy agents make louder tones. Finally, so that each agent would have a distinct voice as they traveled through this space, I chose different instruments for each agent.

In the video below I assigned the “church organ” sound to prey, and the “brass section” sound to predators.

Ultimately, there are some things that I like about this piece and others that I do not.

As a harmonica player, I improvise by creating and resolving tension. I think this piece does that well. The predator will pursue the prey into a quiet, low-pitch corner, creating a distant, rumbling sound – only to watch prey escape to the densely polyphonic northwest corner. There is an ebb and flow to this chase that I recognize from blues harmonica solos. In contrast to my experience as a harmonica player, however, I have found that some of the most compelling parts of the dynamics come from the layering of notes. The addition of notes yields a rich sonic texture, much like adding notes to a chord on an organ.

Unfortunately, for largely technical reasons, there is a lack of coherent rhythm and pacing. The programming platform (agent-based modeling software called NetLogo) is not designed to have the interface proceed in real-time. Basically, the overall speed of the piece can change as the processing load increases or decreases. I found that as agents learnt more about their surroundings (and more system resources are allocated to this “memory”), they became slower and slower. To fix this, I capped the size of their memory banks so that they would forget their oldest memories. The closest I have come to a rhythmic structure is by ordering the way that the agents play. This technique makes the piece have a call-and-response feel. If only the piece to had a coherent rhythm,  then I could imagine playing harmonica along with it.

One last comment on pitch: while an earlier version of this piece mapped each step in space to a semitone, things sounded too mechanical. Even though this was the easiest and most intuitive decision from a technical standpoint, it was aesthetically lacking, so I have now integrated traditional musical scales. The minor scale, in my opinion, is the most interesting as it makes the predator/prey dynamic sound appropriately foreboding.

Photo by deivorytower @Flickr.

You can play this piece yourself. Simply go to this link with Java enabled in your browser (recommended: Google Chrome). Pressing “Setup” then “Go” will create your own run of the piece. As it is running, you can adjust the slider above the graphic window to change the speed. Press “Go” again to stop the model, adjust any parameters you wish and press “Setup” and “Go” again to see how the piece changes. Here are some parameters to try: instA and instB to change the instruments associated with prey and predators; PlayEveryXSteps to change the pace of the piece (higher results in a slower paced piece); Num-PackAs and Num-PackBs changes the number of prey and predators; the vertical PeterVol and WolfVol adjust the overall volume of prey and predators.

In regards to my version of “Peter and the Wolf,” I have a number of things that I’m curious about.

First, how does this relate to what you think of as music? Do you like listening to it? Which elements do you like and which do you dislike? For example, what do you think about about the tension and rhythm – do you agree the first works and that the second could be improved? Would you listen to this for enjoyments’ sake, and what would it take for this to be more than a novelty? What do you think about the narrative that drives the piece? I chose the predator and prey narrative, admittedly, on a whim. Do you think there might be some other narrative or agent specific goals that might better drive this piece? Is there any metaphor that might better describe this piece? As a listener do you enjoy the experience of being able to customize and configure the piece? What would you like to have control over that is missing here? Would you like more interaction with the piece or less interaction?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what do you think of the premise? Can simple electronic agents (albeit ones which interact socially) aspire to create music? Is there something promising in this act of simulation? Is music-making necessarily a human activity and is this kind of work destined to be artificial and uncanny?

Thanks for listening. I look forward to your thoughts.

“The Birth of Electronic Man.” Photo by xdxd_vs_xdxd @Flickr.

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Andreas Duus Pape is an economist and a musician. As an economist, he studies microeconomic theory and game theory–that is, the analysis of strategy and the construction of models to understand social phenomena–and the theory of individual choice, including how to forecast the behavior of agents who construct models of social phenomena. As a musician, he plays folk in the tradition of Dylan and Guthrie, blues in the tradition of Williamson and McTell, and country in the tradition of Nelson and Cash. Pape is an assistant Professor in the department of Economics at Binghamton University and is a faculty member of the Collective Dynamics of Complex Systems (CoCo) Research Group.

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Guest Respondents on the Comment Page (in alphabetical order)

Bill Bahng Boyer is a doctoral candidate in music at New York University who is completing a dissertation on public listening in the New York City subway system.

Maile Colbert  is an intermedia artist with a concentration in sound and video, living and working between New York and Portugal. She is an associated artist at Binaural/Nodar.

Nicholas Knouf is a Ph.D. candidate in information science at Cornell University.

Primus Luta is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art; he maintains his own AvantUrb site and is a founding member of the live electronic music collective Concrète Sound System.

Alejandro L. Madrid is Associate Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a cultural theorist and music scholar whose research focuses on the intersection of modernity, tradition, globalization, and ethnic identity in popular and art music, dance, and expressive culture from Mexico, the U.S.-Mexico border, and the circum-Caribbean.

Tara Rodgers is an Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies and a faculty fellow in the Digital Cultures & Creativity program at the University of Maryland. As Analog Tara, she has released electronic music on compilations such as the Le Tigre 12″ and Source Records/Germany, and exhibited sound art at venues including Eyebeam (NYC) and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (Toronto).

Jonathan Skinner founded and edits the journal ecopoetics, which features creative-critical intersections between writing and ecology. Skinner also writes ecocriticism on contemporary poetry and poetics.

Jonathan Sterne teaches in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies and the History and Philosophy of Science Program at McGill University. His latest book, Mp3 The Meaning of a Format comes out this fall from Duke University Press.

Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman is co-founder, Editor-in-Chief and Guest Posts Editor for Sounding Out! She is also Assistant Professor of English at Binghamton University and a former Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University (2011-2012).

Aaron Trammell is Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out! and a Ph.D. Candidate in Media and Communications at Rutgers University.

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