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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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SO! Reads: Deborah R. Vargas’s Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda

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SO! Reads3

Deborah R. Vargas’s Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda (2012) presents an alternate story of Chicana music through a collection of case studies in Chicana/o music history centering on Chicana/Tejana musicians active between the early decades of the 20th century to the present.  Vargas assembles a mix of archival documents, interviews, images, songs, recordings, performances, ephemera, fragments, memories and engages intersectional feminist theory and queer of color critique to trace the music scenes her subjects inhabit.

A feminist oral historian, Chicano/Latino cultural studies scholar, and Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside, Vargas’s research overlaps these disciplines and facilitates a conversation between popular music and sound studies that significantly considers gender, sexuality, and racialization in the construction of borderlands imaginaries.  With Dissonant Divas Vargas makes an intervention both theoretical and methodological that greatly expands the Chicana/o musical archive and as well as the audiences for sound studies research. Furthermore, Vargas’s reflective writing voice locates her own Tejana/Chicana story in relation to her project and offers helpful insights into her research process at key moments.  [The brief essay titled “Selena, Jenni Rivera, Eva Garza—meditations on an author’s soundtrack” published on the Minnesota Press webpages for Dissonant Divas is a generous methodology piece that should be read along with this comprehensive, satisfying, highly readable and often riveting text.]

"Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music" copyright University of Minnesota Press, all rights reserved

“Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music” copyright University of Minnesota Press, all rights reserved

Vargas defines the term, la onda, in a general sense as “an umbrella term for Mexican American/Chicano/Tejano music (x).”  More critically, la onda also “operates to represent musics that have been prominent in academic and cultural sites that have produced dominant discourses of sexuality, gender, class, race, geography, and language in the constructions of Chicano music.”  “Dissonance” can be understood variously as “chaos, cacophany, disharmony, static” and “out-of-tuneness” that draws attention to “the power of music with regard to Chicana gender and sexuality (xiv).” Vargas’s main critique notes how the “limits of la onda” reveals the heteronormative and patriarchal underpinnings that construct dominant narratives of Chicano music historiography.  She argues that the force of these narratives have naturalized a way of thinking about Chicano music in terms of the various “fathers” of Chicano rock, conjunto music, and of the field of borderland studies itself. The distortions produced by the assimilating cultural nationalist logic of “la onda” have not only suppressed Chicana music histories and/or enabled their mishearing, but they also hide the complex ways that race, class, gender, and sexuality converge to produce Chicana subjectivities within and against the Chicano musical canon. In theorizing “dissonance,” Vargas thus productively sounds the Chicana histories in Dissonant Divas as alternatively gendered and/or queered against the heteromasculine concord of la onda.

The chapter “Borders, Bullets, Besos:  The Ballad of Chelo Silva” contains perhaps the most provocative pages, detailing Chelo Silva, a bolero singer with a distinct repertoire of songs that are still performed and kept alive by a diverse lineage of performers and audiences, yet whose renown is seemingly inseparable with her former marriage to Américo Paredes.   Ubiquitous in borderlands studies, Paredes’s name and legacy are defined largely by his study of the corrido, With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (1970). Vargas strategically positions Silva and Paredes as “embodied representations” of the bolero and the border ballad, respectively, taking up Sonia Salídvar-Hull’s proposal to “imagine new corridos” by proposing Silva’s boleros as “feminist border ballads.” Vargas parses the constructions, aesthetics, and values carried in each song form, exploring how the border ballad has been the primary counter-site for narrating the injustice of Tejano/Anglo conflict (bullets) while the bolero, whose constant subject is love, luxuriates in all its jouissance (besos).  Vargas reveals that the border ballad “has allowed its authors, singers, and scholars to sound the borderlands imaginary into being,” illuminating how the contest over historical representation is tied to musical representation. Silva’s story cannot be found within this articulation of la onda without, in part, redefining the border ballad (54).

Vargas innovates and meticulously crafts an alternative archive better suited to narrating and hearing Silva’s fragmented story, what Vargas felicitously calls her archisme of knowledge. Engaging the silences in Silva’s story, the archisme sounds her presence in the recorded memories of her fans which include testaments to her unique vocal qualities, her powerful and evocative performances, her improvisations in music and in life,,along with a healthy amount of the chisme or gossip surrounding Silva.  Proposing the archisme as a “feminist project for historicizing nonnormative Chicana/o genders and desires” Vargas extends both Sonia Saldivar-Hull’s directive for Chicana scholars to look in nontraditional places for theory and Lisa Lowe’s theorization of gossip as a destructuring site of knowledge production (Saldivar-Hull, 1998; Lowe, 1996).

As I read through the first three chapters, a question that kept coming up concerned why we should not consider this study on more specific regional terms, or why this book isn’t titled, “Tejana Divas”?  Vargas finds the overdetermination of these Chicana/Tejana musicians as “regional” subjects a problem not typically encountered by musicians from a city like Los Angeles, for example, because of its construction as a global metropolis.  I cannot dispute Los Angeles’s status as a world center and I wondered how to earnestly engage Vargas on this point. What are the stakes of locating this study of Tejana/Chicana musicians within a broader Chicano/a musical context?

The final two chapters make the case for remapping Chicana music, advanced in part by the capacious notion of queer “diva-scapes.” In “Sonido de las Americas: Crossing South-South Borders with Eva Garza,” Vargas employs what she calls a “transfrontera musical compass,” a feminist methodology deftly juxtaposing the notion of a “musical scale” with the concept of “geographic scale.” Eva Garza’s career begins in her San Antonio hometown but she eventually came to embody the “la vóz de las  Américas” in a hemispheric sense via her participation in early Spanish language radio, recordings, and live performances in nightclubs and films that took her to Mexico City and Havana for significant periods; her genre-crossing repertoire mirrored her travels. Garza began as a singer of the appropriately feminine bolero, but through her contact with Cuban musicians, the Afro-Caribbean guaracha song–decidedly phallocentric and risqué in its subject matter–also became part of her repertoire. The song she was most known for, “Sabor de Engaño” adds a sensual register to her transfrontera compass, a lingering sabor or taste exceeding regional, national, formal, and gendered limits. This is most evident in the repeated examples of impromptu performances of a song verse or refrain of “Sabor de Engaño” by many Cubanos Vargas encountered in her research travels. Vargas employs the transfrontera musical compass as a “listening instrument” to trace Garza’s musical trajectory through spatial-temporal moments disrupting rigid and normative notions of community, nation, and Chicano music (147).

"Selena Live" by Flickr user hellboy_93, CC BY-ND 2.0

“Selena Live” by Flickr user hellboy_93, CC BY-ND 2.0

In “Giving Us That Brown Soul: Selena’s Departures and Arrivals,” Vargas addresses the multiple problems in the mainstream media’s designation of “crossover star” to narrate Selena’s story as a spectacular rise in fame marked by her violent death in 1995. Vargas seeks to correct the assimilationist narratives of Selena’s musical history that, in addition to figuring her as a marginalized Latina on the verge of “legitimate” status, problematically narrates a south-north trajectory “devoid of blackness and queerness.”  Vargas both critiques how “brown soul” has been musically deployed to stand in for cultural nationalist “brown power” and extends previous work focusing on blackness in Chicano/Latino music that includes R&B and Afro-Caribbean influences but not necessarily the Afro-diasporic. Cumbia, an Afro-Columbian dance form popularized in Mexico in the 1940’s – 50’s is central to Selena’s Tejano sound as are 70’s era disco and 80’s freestyle, particularly in the cultivation of her iconic diva look which together resonate a queer of color musical legacy on the sonic and visual planes.

Selena’s “brown soul” and style moves Tex-Mex cumbias in what Vargas calls “queer misdirections” by traveling north-south, for example, while sounding counterhegemonic femininities that continue to reverberate in the many tribute drag performances to Selena in and beyond the borderlands of Tejas.  In these ways, Vargas traces the “topography of Selena’s transformations and remappings of Chicano music (205).  Just as audio technologies have been key in circulating Eva Garza’s and Selena’s music in multiple directions, so are the memories, repeated performances, and queer embodiments of their music by their diverse audiences. For both of the these artists, sound expands Vargas’s engagement with spatialization theories so that we may hear these productive dissonances and in these ways begin to imagine alternative borderlands imaginaries.

Upon finishing, a question that remains in considering “diva dissonance” is the implied consonance of  Vargas’s theorization of “la onda.” At times, the term becomes too totalizing, and I would argue for the presence of heterogeneity and other musical diversities even within what Vargas denotes as la onda. We must both make and leave room to imagine the possibility of many unrecorded, captured, or yet unsounded transgressions for Chicanas whose paths may appear to follow a heteronormative logic.  For this reason I found the reiteration of such rich findings against la onda asomewhat repetitive distraction from the richer tales Vargas’s archival work tells. What would these histories sound like if they weren’t always positioned against la onda—if they were sounded instead more toward each other?

What Deborah R. Vargas richly accomplishes in Dissonant Divas responds to Alejandro Madrid’s call for musicologists to establish critical conversations beyond “the conservatory” and to engage larger intellectual dialogues (AMS Vol. 64, No. 3, 2011).Vargas’s intersectional feminist-of-color argument extends the body of feminist Chicana/o cultural studies scholarship and equally extends Chicano music histories that may engage gender to some degree but do not fully interrogate those categorical constructions. Her theorization of the title’s key term “dissonance” as “both a methodological and analytic device” and her construction of a differential archive combine to create “alternative sonic imaginaries of the borderlands (xii).”  More broadly, Dissonant Divas is an intervention to the problems of conducting research in marginalized communities and the racialized subjects often left out of official archives, institutional records, and studies of sound (Trouillot, 1995; Taylor, 2003). Each chapter reveals and addresses various barriers to conducting research on Chicana musicians whose uneven historical representation lead Vargas to turn to other sites, methodologies, and embodied practices where Chicana voices resound across temporal and spatial lines. In these ways, Vargas’s sustained engagement of race, class, gender, and sexuality with Chicana/o borderlands music is thoroughly new.

Featured Image: Pauline Oliveros by Flickr user Horacio González Diéguez, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Wanda Alarcón is a doctoral candidate of Comparative Ethnic Studies with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the University of California, Berkeley where she is writing a dissertation titled: “Sounding Aztlán:  Music, Literature, and the Chicana/o Sonic Imaginary”. Her research interests include Chicana/o cultural studies, U.S. ethnic literatures, popular music, sound studies, queer of color theory, and decolonial feminism. At Berkeley she has facilitated the working groups, “Decolonial Feminisms” and “Popular Music in Chicana/o Cultural Studies” at the Center for Race and Gender (CRG). Wanda is originally from Los Angeles and before starting graduate school she created the poetry zine, JOTA (2002 – 2006) and is updating that project by creating an archive for queer Chicana writing in cyberspace. She is a fan of radio genres and podcasts and writes micro radio plays while on the road. She is suspicious of the MP3 format yet enjoys curating party, tribute, and mood themed playlists on Spotify immensely. You can find her on Twitter depending on writing deadlines @esawanda.  

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SO! Reads: Susan Schmidt Horning’s Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP

My Recording Studio

SO! Reads3The recently published Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture & the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP (Johns Hopkins Press, 2013) is historian Susan Schmidt Horning’s first book. Veering away from the usual sound recording suspects (like the phonograph), Chasing Sound shows the studio and the audio engineer as central to the cultural and technological changes associated with the production and reproduction of sound.

According to Schmidt Horning, such changes were reflected in the shifting ideal of recorded music as a representation of live performance to the ideal of recorded music as a studio-engineered creation. Using the accounts of those responsible for recording sound, Schmidt Horning constructs a rich narrative that manages to be accessible while still focused on the highly technical work required of studio workers. That said, by focusing so heavily on user practices and anecdotes she misses an opportunity to engage with the theoretical implications of the ways audio engineers imagine and describe the actual space in which they work. Still, I contend that Chasing Sound represents an indispensable and critical approach for historians of sound, one that is unafraid of reconfiguring the central players in a narrative as big as the history of recorded music.

As a contribution to sound studies, Chasing Sound follows in the footsteps of Trevor Pinch’s Analog Days, the first work to explicitly apply Science and Technology Studies (STS) approaches to the history of a musical instrument. For Pinch, a critical understanding of sound requires examining the ways in which society and technology produce historical sites of change and stabilization. This approach focuses on understanding the ways people engage with technologies of sound, in order to interrogate their cultural and historical meanings. A historian of science and technology by training, Schmidt Horning has thus devoted much of her academic career to writing about the production and reproduction of sound through the practices and tacit knowledge of engineers, producers, musicians and technicians at music studios. By following the breadcrumbs dropped by these actors, Chasing Sound reveals the rich history of commercial studios and the cultural ideals cultivated therein.

Chasing SoundMethodologically, the author draws on a mixed bag of sources, which include oral histories from early recordists, interviews with more contemporary audio engineers, her own ethnomethodogical studio research, trade literature, and archival documents from big studios like EMI. The book proceeds in chronological order, with each chapter laying out changes in the physical and acoustic qualities of commercial studios as they shifted from bare-walled rooms with “the recording horn jutting through a wall at the far end of the room” (9) to multi-track studios complete with “Mission furniture, [and] hand-laid distressed wood floors.” (209) The author plots these changes alongside improvements in the science of acoustics, the importation of techniques and tools from the more well developed medium of radio broadcasting, the consolidation and growth of the recording industry, the rise of independent labels, the emergence of new attitudes and musical tastes, and the professionalization of audio engineering.

Chasing Sound, unlike many other books on the topic, places the studio in relation to a set of changing cultural expectations regarding recorded music. Where recordings were once understood as a reflection of live performance, they later were seen as a signature creation of music studios. Rather than focusing on the phonograph, gramophone, microphone, or magnetic tape, the author argues that the recording studio belongs at the center of recorded music because it was there that the ideal of music as a “technologically mediated art” was first engineered into cultural listening norms. Consequently the audio engineer, or recordist as he (or in rare cases, she) was known prior to the 1930s, must also be understood as central to narratives regarding recorded sound from its inception. In this way, Schmidt Horning aims to recontextualize and centralize the studio and its inhabitants within histories of the production and reproduction of sound.

Because the audio engineer represents an inextricable part of this history, each chapter devotes time to the technologies and practices cultivated by the amateur recordists and trusted professionals responsible for recording sound. Initially such practices formed the basis of their tacit knowledge regarding the proper “staging” of artists in relation to acoustic recording horns among other techniques, but by the 1950s, sound engineers were responsible not just for positioning artists, microphones, and the increasingly important work of “enhancing” recordings during post-production. The book concludes by charting the unfettered rise of independent studios as well as the consequent proliferation of (and backlash to) new sound manipulation technologies in the 1970s.

Throughout the text the author notes the ways in which audio engineers often lamented the increasing technological mediation involved in record production, even as it granted them more creative control and prestige.

vinAd50AudioMafCvrSchmidt Horning’s methodology represents Chasing Sound’s strongest quality. The rich narratives of the audio engineers allow the author to directly connect their technologically and culturally informed ideas about what constitutes good sound to the desires and expectations of listeners. In addition to this work, Schmidt Horning also highlights the ways in which advances in engineering technology did not necessarily overlap neatly with cultural norms. Throughout the text the author notes the ways in which audio engineers often lamented the increasing technological mediation involved in record production, even as it granted them more creative control and prestige. Such examples reveal the tightly knit relationship between ideas of liveness, talent, creativity, and authenticity. Chasing Sound is full of stories that detail the complex material, artistic, and ethical constraints around which recordists and engineers navigated in order to achieve the perfect sound.

The author’s methodological approach certainly helps to structure the narrative, but there are also ways in which it prevents her from digging in to important theoretical discourses regarding the studio. As Eliot Bates notes in his article, “What Studios Do,” the way audio engineers conceive of their workspaces is crucial for making sense of the power relations and social interactions that govern and are governed by studio spaces. Chasing Sound does not pursue these discourses. The author briefly mentions how the metaphor of flight is often used by sound engineers regarding the increasingly complex console controls of the 1950s and 60s but does not provide further elaboration on the implications of such a comparison. Even if the participants in her study did not reflect on their colloquial notes about the studio space, it would have been interesting to see Schmidt Horning consider what these metaphors reveal about the changing roles of the engineer.

These points aside, Chasing Sound is an important read both for those with a general interest in the history of sound production and reproduction as well as those scholars more specifically invested in understanding the role of recorded sound in society. Since I discussed the book’s limitations in “Making Music in Studio X,” Chasing Sound has become a foundational text in much of my research. Specifically, the author’s claim that the studio is (and has been) a critical site for examining broader industrial, technological, and cultural changes resonates deeply with me because it offers a critical methodology for considering issues of identity and power within studio spaces that are often neglected. In this regard, Chasing Sound is important not just for what it discusses, but also for what it does not. Noting the lack of female and black audio engineers discussed throughout the book, the author laments, “For the first century of sound recording, the field of audio engineering and recording studios in particular comprised a profoundly white male-centered culture that reflected corporate culture at large and technical professions in particular.” (9) The absence of these faces serves to remind us that while successfully “chasing sound” certainly relies on the cultivation of craft skill, and tacit knowledge, it also depends heavily on access.

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Chasing Sound stands out as the most exhaustive history of audio engineering available. Schmidt Horning’s user-focused narrative successfully ties together changes in studio configurations and audio engineering practices with cultural expectations regarding recorded music. This helps to show how the studio and audio engineer can easily be recognized as central figures in the history of sound reproduction. Chasing Sound’s intervention is necessary as the history of recording is often told through artifacts like the phonograph, microphone, and magnetic tape, not living spaces like the studio and its inhabitants. Schmidt Horning’s dedication to telling these neglected stories is what makes the book come to life. Her research promises to open up new avenues for others interested in these issues. For me, this means pursuing lines of inquiry related to the growing philanthropic interest in the recording studio as a site for engaging and “assisting” low-income communities. In this way Chasing Sound asks us to recognize the recording studio as a critical site for the production and reproduction of our assumptions about what counts as appropriate, good, or real in music and people.

Featured Image: My Recording Studio by Flickr User Fabio Dellutri

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo is a PhD student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. Since completing a senior thesis on digital music software, tacit knowledge, and gender under the guidance of Trevor Pinch, she has become interested in pursuing research in the emergent field of sound studies. She hopes to combine her passion for music with her academic interests in technological systems, bodies, politics and practices that construct and are constructed by sound. More specifically she would like to examine the politics surrounding low-income community studios, as well as the uses of sound in (or as) electronic games. In her free time she produces hip hop beats and raps under the moniker Sammus (based on the video game character, Samus Aran, from the popular Metroid franchise).

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