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Learning to Listen Beyond Our Ears: Reflecting Upon World Listening Day

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World Listening Day took place last week, and as I understand it, it is all about not taking sound for granted – an admirable goal indeed! But it is worth taking a moment to consider what sorts of things we might be taking for granted about sound as a concept when we decide that listening should have its own holiday.

"Listening, Regent Street, London, 17 December 2011" by Flickr user John Perivolaris, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Listening, Regent Street, London, 17 December 2011″ by Flickr user John Perivolaris, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

One gets the idea that soundscapes are like giant pandas on Endangered Species Day – precious and beautiful and in need of protection. Or perhaps they are more like office workers on Administrative Professionals’ Day – crucial and commonplace, but underappreciated. Does an annual day of listening imply an interruption of the regularly scheduled three hundred and sixty four days of “looking”? I don’t want to undermine the valuable work of the folks at the World Listening Project, but I’d argue it’s equally important to consider the hazards of taking sound and listening for granted as premises of sensory experience in the first place. As WLD has passed, let us reflect upon ways we can listen beyond our ears.

At least since R. Murray Schafer coined the term, people have been living in a world of soundscapes. Emily Thompson provides a good definition of the central concept of the soundscape as “an aural landscape… simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving that environment; it is both a world and a culture constructed to make sense of that world.”(117) As an historian, Thompson was interested in using the concept of soundscape as a way of describing a particular epoch: the modern “machine age” of the turn of the 20th century.

"Rock Series - Microphones" by Flickr user Stefano Tambalo, CC BY 2.0

“Rock Series – Microphones” by Flickr user Stefano Tambalo, CC BY 2.0

Anthropologist Tim Ingold has argued that, though the concept that listening is primarily something that we do within, towards, or to “soundscapes” usefully counterbalanced the conceptual hegemony of sight, it problematically reified sound, focusing on “fixities of surface conformation rather than the flows of the medium” and simplifying our perceptual faculties as “playback devices” that are neatly divided between our eyes, ears, nose, skin, tongue, etc.

Stephan Helmreich took Ingold’s critique a step further, suggesting that soundscape-listening presumes a a particular kind of listener: “emplaced in space, [and] possessed of interior subjectivities that process outside objectivities.” Or, in less concise but hopefully clearer words: When you look at the huge range of ways we experience the world, perhaps we’re limiting ourselves if we confine the way we account for listening experiences with assumptions (however self-evident they might seem to some of us) that we are ‘things in space’ with ‘thinking insides’ that interact with ‘un-thinking outsides.’ Jonathan Sterne and Mitchell Akiyama, in their chapter for the Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, put it the most bluntly, arguing that

Recent decades of sensory history, anthropology, and cultural studies have rendered banal the argument that the senses are constructed. However, as yet, sound scholars have only begun to reckon with the implications for the dissolution of our object of study as a given prior to our work of analysis.(546)

Here they are referring to the problem of the technological plasticity of the senses suggested by “audification” technologies that make visible things audible and vice-versa. SO!’s Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman has also weighed in on the social contingency of the “listening ear,” invoking Judith Butler to describe it as “a socially-constructed filter that produces but also regulates specific cultural ideas about sound.” In various ways, here, we get the sense that not only is listening a good way to gain new perspectives, but that there are many perspectives one can have concerning the question of what listening itself entails.

"listen (069/365)" by Flickr user Tim Pierce, CC BY 2.0

“listen (069/365)” by Flickr user Tim Pierce, CC BY 2.0

But interrogating the act of listening and the sounds towards which it is directed is not just about good scholarship and thinking about sound in a properly relational and antiessentialist way. It’s even less about tsk-tsking those who find “sound topics” intrinsically interesting (and thus spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about things like, say, Auto-Tune.) Rather, it’s about taking advantage of listening’s potential as a prying bar for opening up some of those black boxes to which we’ve grown accustomed to consigning our senses. Rather than just celebrating listening practices and acoustic ecologies year after year, we should take the opportunity to consider listening beyond our current conceptions of “listening” and its Western paradigms.

For example, when anthropologist Kathryn Lynn Guerts first tried to understand the sensory language of the West African Anlo-Ewe people, she found a rough but ready-enough translation for “hear” in the verb se or sese. The more she spoke with people about it, however, the more she felt the limitations of her own assumptions about hearing being, simply, the way we sense sounds through our ears. As one of her informants put it, “Sese is hearing – not hearing by the ear but a feeling type of hearing”(185). As it turns out, according to many Anlo-ewe speakers, our ability to hear the sounds of the world around us is by no means an obviously discrete element of some five-part sensorium, but rather a sub-category of a feeling-in-the-body, or seselelame. Geurts traces the ways in which the prefix se combines with other sensory modes, opening up the act of hearing as it goes along: sesetonume, for example, is a category that brings together sensations of “eating, drinking, breathing, regulation of saliva, sexual exchanges, and also speech.” Whereas English speakers are more inclined to contrast speech with listening as an act of expression rather than perception, for the Anlo-Ewe they can be joined together into a single sensory experience.

The ways of experiencing the world intimated by Geurts’ Anlo-Ewe interlocutors play havoc with conventionally “transitive,” western understandings of what it means to “sense” something (that is, to be a subject sensing an object) let alone what it means to listen. When you listen to something you like, Geurts might suggest to us that liking is part of the listening. Similarly, when you listen to yourself speak, who’s to say the feeling of your tongue against the inside of your mouth isn’t part of that listening? When a scream raises the hairs on the back of your neck, are you listening with your follicles? Are you listening to a song when it is stuck in your head? The force within us that makes us automatically answer “no” to questions of this sort is not a force of our bodies (they felt these things together after all), but a force of social convention. What if we tried to protest our centuries-old sensory sequestration? Give me synaesthesia or give me death!

Indeed, synaesthesia, or the bleeding-together of sensory modes in our everyday phenomenological experience, shows that we should loosen the ear’s hold on the listening act (both in a conceptual and a literal sense – see some of the great work at the intersections of disability studies and sound studies). In The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty put forth a bold thesis about the basic promiscuity of sensory experience:

Synaesthetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the centre of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist conceives it, what we are to see, hear and feel. (266)

Merleau-Ponty, it should be said, is not anti-science so much as he’s interested in understanding the separation of the senses as an historical accomplishment. This allows us to think about and carry out the listening act in even more radical ways.

"Listening Room" by Flickr user Consumerist Dot Com, CC BY 2.0

“Listening Room” by Flickr user Consumerist Dot Com, CC BY 2.0

Of course all of this synaesthetic exuberance requires a note to slow down and check our privilege. As Stoever-Ackerman pointed out:

For women and people of color who are just beginning to decolonize the act of listening that casts their alternatives as wrong/aberrant/incorrect—and working on understanding their listening, owning their sensory orientations and communicating them to others, suddenly casting away sound/listening seems a little like moving the ball, no?

To this I would reply: yes, absolutely. It is good to remember that gleefully dismantling categories is by no means always the best way to achieve wider conceptual and social openness in sound studies. There is no reason to think that a synaesthetic agenda couldn’t, in principle, turn fascistic. The point, I think, is to question the tools we use just as rigorously as the work we do with them.

Owen Marshall is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. His dissertation research focuses on the articulation of embodied perceptual skills, technological systems, and economies of affect in the recording studio. He is particularly interested in the history and politics of pitch-time correction, cybernetics, and ideas and practices about sensory-technological attunement in general.

Featured image: “listen up: ears really are strange looking if you think about it” by Flickr user woodleywonderworks, CC-BY-2.0

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On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice

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Sound and Pleasure2After a rockin’ (and seriously informative) series of podcasts from Leonard J. Paul–a three part “Inside the Game Sound Designer’s Studio”– and a post on sound and black women’s sexual freedom from SO! Regular Regina Bradley, our summer Sound and Pleasure series keeps doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it well, this week with a beautiful set of meditations from scholar, artist, performer, and voice activist, Yvon Bonenfant. EVERYBODY SCREAM!!!--JS, Editor-in-Chief

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What I have to say about sound and pleasure can mostly be summed up this way: everyone deserves to take profound pleasure in their body’s sound.

Not only this, everyone deserves to both engage passionately with social sound and negotiate the exchange of social sound on pleasurable terms.

Like other expressive systems, however, these inalienable sonic human rights are mostly ignored, curtailed, or otherwise ‘disciplined and punished’ in the Foucauldian sense by our social systems.  So, we are mostly neurotic, or otherwise hung up on, what kinds of sounds we make, where and when. We fetishise sound, particularly virtuosically framed sound, because it is part of a series of sublimated impulses, or we repress it because we think we aren’t supposed to emit it, or we ignore it.

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"DSC_0296" by Flickr user Anastasia CW, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“DSC_0296″ by Flickr user Anastasia CW, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In any given human relationship within which all parties can vocalize, the voice is an evident, key relational tool. It is full of gesture and meaning and text and sends rapid-fire, complex, layered, even self-contradictory or oxymoronic messages. It is a truly tangled web, and of course, for those who can use speech, transmits language.

However, I’d like to disentangle our sound from our language for a moment. Indeed, sound is not necessary in order to develop and transmit linguistically carried ideas, information and impulses. It has long been accepted that sign languages are fully developed languages, with intricate grammatical systems, vocabularies, and all of the other features of spoken languages.  It is thus not necessary to use sound as a carrier of language. Yet if we have a voice, we almost always use sound to carry our language. And we force deaf people to try to fake having a voice and to fake listening to voices through lip reading and gesturing.

The last twenty years has seen a real boom in speculation and even scientific experiments that theorise why human bodily sound – the most evident aspect of which is our vocal sound – is so important to us. Musicology, biomusicology, evolutionary psychology, neuropsychology, and cultural studies of many kinds have tried to account for this. I have my own favorite reason, one I’ve tried to describe in a number of scholarly articles. This is that sound is much like touch. Like, yet unalike. It reaches and vibrates bodies, but at distance. It voyages through space in other ways, but it evokes haptic responses.

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Sound isn’t solid, but it takes up space. This is expressed by Stephen Connor within his concept of the vocalic body.  When we sound, there is a resonant field of vibration that moves through matter, which behaves according to the laws of physics – it vibrates molecules. This vibratory field leaves us, but is of us, and it voyages through space. Other people hear it. Other people feel it.

"GAELLE" by Flickr user Pauline Thomas, CC BY-NC 2.0

“GAELLE” by Flickr user Pauline Thomas, CC BY-NC 2.0

I’ve said that sound is like touch. However, one key way that it is not like touch is that it can do this thing. It can leave our bodies and travel away from us. We don’t need to grip it. We don’t need to hold on. And once emanated, it is out of our control.

More than one emanation can co-exist within matter. Their vibrations interact with one another, waves colliding and travelling in similar or different directions, and the vocalic bodies that they represent are morphed, hybridized: they intersect and invent composite bodies.

We hear the resulting harmonies. Historically policed into ‘consonances’ and ‘dissonances’, we have the power to let the negativizing connotations of either of these words go and simply hear the results of the collisions. Voices sounding simultaneously create choreographies of gesture that can be jubilant, depressing, assertive, aggressive, delightful, morose… or many of these simultaneously and in rapid alternation.

The fields of human sound in which we bathe are a continually self-knitting web of sensation. They are full of gestures pregnant with intention, filled with improvisatory spontaneity, success, failure and experimentation. They are filled with a desire to act upon matter, and to reach and engage one another.

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My Ukrainian-origin mother was ‘loud’, I guess, at least by Anglo-Saxon standards, and her voice was timbrally very rich. And my father was a radio announcer (he disliked being called a DJ immensely, even though he worked in commercial radio and worked on shows that spun discs – he preferred being associated with talking). His voice was also very rich, as well as extremely crafted. It could be pointed and severe: a weapon. He had professional command of its qualities. We were not a quiet family; none of us were vocal wallflowers. But were our soundings pleasure-filled? Certainly, we were allowed to make lots of sound in some circumstances. However, just being allowed to be loud – though it might sometimes be a pleasure – does not necessarily lead to a pleasure-filled dynamic. Weightlifting makes us stronger, but it doesn’t necessarily feel good.

The amount of sound and whether ‘lots’ of it, or heightenings of its qualities – lots of amplitude, or lots of other kinds of distinctness, let’s say things like pitch or emotional timbre – are key variable features of family life in our cultures. Sound takes us directly into the meatiest of interpersonal dynamics – the dynamics of space and gesture, the dynamics of who takes up space with their sound and when. Families are, of course, microcosms of this sonic dynamic, but any group within which we generate relationships and encounters is subject to this dynamic, too. Our very own bodies end up developing what Thomas Csordas might call a ‘somatic mode’ that embodies our experience of these dynamics.

"Scream" by Flickr user madamepsychosis, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Scream” by Flickr user madamepsychosis, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Whether we start from psychodynamic, neuropsychiatric, or even habitus-based  models, it’s clear that repressing the expression of bodily sound regulates breathing impulses and other metabolic processes in ways that might become, well, habits.

Let’s put this in other ways.

The classic, Freudian, psychodynamic model of neurosis – as disputed as it is, and with all of its colonial, sexist, homophobic, racist and even abuse-denying overtones – did at least one thing for our understanding of what repressed emotion does. Repressed emotion affects the body.

Today, a popular understanding of this kind of emotional repression from a biophysical perspective might be: the use of the conscious mind to hold back emotional flow, and along with it, the emotional qualities of certain associations,  memories, or even the content of the memories themselves.

Repressing this thing we might call emotional flow represses the voice. The literal, physical voice. Now, this kind of repression of the voice can become what Freudians would call unconscious. To allow it out isn’t any longer a choice that can be made, because we’re so used to holding back, that we don’t realize we’re doing it any more.

Somatics have taught us, through the contended practices of the body psychotherapies descended from Wilhelm Reich’s work, or Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s Body-Mind Centering, or any numerous other somatic practices – from certain styles of yoga through to Zen meditation and beyond – that emotional flow is at least partly dependent on how we breathe. And neuropsychology and physiology bear this out.

"Screaming Out My Hell" by Flickr user L'Orso Sul Monociclo, CC BY 2.0

“Screaming Out My Hell” by Flickr user L’Orso Sul Monociclo, CC BY 2.0

Whatever might ‘cause’ an emotion – and the roots of the causes of emotion are a source of debate – once it gets going, it isn’t just a thought process. Emotion is meaty and full of pumping hormones and breath pattern alterations and gestures and rushes of fluid. Chemicals get released. Chemicals get washed away. Heart rates speed up and slow down. Our breath rises and falls and its patterns change. Digestion patterns speed up or slow down or get interrupted. What happens in the body affects the body. What happens in the body affects the voice. Ever heard that kind of voice that seems hardened against the world? Or that media voice – the voice that is carefully shaped to invoke reason? Maybe these vocalisers can never let go of that sound: maybe it’s the only sound they can do, now. It’s just too habitual to let it change.

So, these habits can become so habitual that we don’t notice them anymore. We might change our breathing in some way to modify our expressive states. Because the exact nature of the sound our voices make is exquisitely dependent on how we breathe, and on everything else we do with our bodies, it then changes as well. Our choices to not let impulses flow – and the breath is only one bodily impulse among many –  get caught up in this web. What were once choices can become embedded, difficult, and stubborn. To go far beyond the psychoanalytic and neurophysiological models, we can end up embodying a culture of these choices, and invent together a cultural body that regulates vocal sound based on groups of people making similar choices or playing by similar rules of sonic exchange.

This can end up perpetuating itself within our very tissues, and it can be an incredibly subtle dynamic to identify and shift. The way we embody the complexities of how we structure our physical and psychological engagement with the world – the ways we breathe, look, move, gesture… the ensemble of these is how Bourdieu defined the habitus. Where these complexities start and end is perhaps an infinite loop, a continual cycle of turning and exchange and influence flowing from ourselves to our culture and back again. Our bodies are cultural, counter-cultural, infra-cultural, extra-cultural bodies: we react to culture; we interact with it: we take positions.

Sound – who gets to do it, and when and how – is negotiated, with others, but also, within our own bodies. The traces that others leave there, the things we might call sonic and vocal inhibitions, tensions, these held-back-nesses, eventually become ours to carry, live with, and/or dissolve. They are gifted to us by our culture…. by our environment… by our experience … and by our bodies themselves.

We negotiate sounding.

Pleasure is negotiated, too.

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"Quiet" by Flickr user Leo Reynolds, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Quiet” by Flickr user Leo Reynolds, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

We do this to our children: we shut them up. Oh, of course, we also facilitate their sound, and some do this more than others. But even if we give them sonic liberty at home, someone will shut them up, somewhere. We all know and we all remember being silenced as children by somebody, or at least, made to raise our hands in a classroom to ensure one speaker at a time, chosen by the authority in question. Later, teenagers, more often girls than boys, are called mouthy. The mouth: implicitly loud, and if too active, implicitly offensive. The term has been used against feminists, every identity we might include within LGBTI+, African-Americans, and the list goes on.

The wet, open, loud, loud mouth, just ready to mouth off, just ready to make trouble with its irritating, nasty, and above all, bothersome noise – bothersome because it makes us have to react – to have to consider the existence, the needs, the demands of those we might otherwise ignore – that moist orifice can be a source of great pleasure.

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And on the score of that poor mouthy mouth, let’s consider some other colloquial terms, like ‘sucker’. Sucking is bad, apparently. It expresses need. Thumb out of the mouth! Stop wanting intimacy, reassurance, warmth, contact, and above all stop wanting to satisfy your hard-wired, biological need to suck for comfort and food (my little child). And you there, you sexually active adult! You fucking cocksucker. You ass-licker. That gaping mouth should shut itself up: its gooey pleasures are disgusting. These pleasures involve direct skin-to-skin contact.

Perhaps there is a revolution to be had, in the simple facilitation of gape-mouthed drool.

The vocal tract – that long tunnel surrounded by tongue and palates and teeth and various bits of throat, with at its bottom, the resonant buzz of elastic membranes, through which air is squeezed – also grips the world with direct contact. It’s not just a resonating and sound-shaping cave.

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"Whistling Boy by Frank Duveneck" by Flickr user Mary Harrsch, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Whistling Boy by Frank Duveneck” by Flickr user Mary Harrsch, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I’m making some artworks for children and families right now, and I group them together under the project moniker “Your Vivacious Voice” [See SO! Amplifies post from 6/19/14 to learn more about the free Voice Bubbles App aspect of YB’s project—ed]. I’m collaborating with some scientists and clinician-scientists on this project. They all work with the voice – in psycholinguistics, in understanding infant language acquisition, in voice medicine, and even in laryngeal surgery. We interview these scientists, and use inspiration from our conversations as sources of metaphors for art-making.

One of these is the head Speech and Language Therapist at the Royal National Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital in London, Dr Ruth Epstein. She sees and/or oversees some of the most difficult cases of vocal problems in the whole of the UK. When we asked her what concerns she’d most like us to address in artworks for children and families, she responded along the lines of: please, find a way to get through to them that voice is contact, human contact. She has begun using communication skills, such as eye contact and turn-taking exercises, in addition to vocal skills,  in families with children who have injured voices – because she realized at some point that in many of these families, the near exclusive modality of contact was yelling: yelling without contact – without relationship.

The contactless yell is the thrashing arm that somehow remains alone in a void. It’s a yell that might strike if it lands on other flesh, but somehow doesn’t grip, and can’t convert to a caress. It can’t hold… it only punches.

This reminds me of a rockish tune by Carole Pope and Rough Trade from the Canadiana of my childhood – the refrain went:

It hit me like, it hit me like, it hit me like a slap, oh-oh-oh, all touch…
All touch and all touch and no contact…..

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Back to our children, and to us.

Bodily sound can be a pointed weapon. It can be violent, in that it can frighten, dominate, attack, evoke deep fear, and engage other mechanisms of terror and control and subjugation, and that it can attempt to annihilate our ability to recognize the existence of others. We can drown out others’ sounds. We can drown out their gesture. We can drown their vocalic bodies in our own through amplitude and clashes of timbral spectra. We can shut them up.

Let us consider, here, the desire for amplification and how amplified sound represents an exaggeration of this power, a cybernetic enhancement of the ability to dominate with our emanating waves. We can drown out the social ability for whole groups to hear anyone but ourselves.

However, if, in our cultural environments, everyone is allowed to sound – if, indeed, we facilitate social environments in which everyone’s sound is welcome, then those who are subjected to vocal and sonic violence have an incredible counter-power to this power: they have the power to make sound too.

Although making sound back to violent sound, back to annihilating sound, is not always easy, possible or permitted, it is a power that can’t be easily erased. And we can almost always feel, if not cognitively hear, our own sound vibrate within our own skulls and through our own bones, no matter what is coming from the outside, no matter what waves of vocalic body are streaming toward us. Our sound waves continue to exist, even if transformed.

"Mouthing Off" by Flickr user Demi-Brooke, CC BY 2.0

“Mouthing Off” by Flickr user Demi-Brooke, CC BY 2.0

We can give voice to ourselves. We can change our habits. We can expand away from them.

It isn’t even necessary to fight back. It’s only necessary to vibrate.

And we can take it further.

We can actively encourage each other’s sound. We can actively encourage our children’s sound. We can actively encourage social sound. We can actively encourage a dance with others’ voices. We can facilitate, make space for, enjoy being touched by, the uniqueness of other voices. We can play with how our voices collide and create children with the vocalic bodies of others. After all, our composite vocal bodies are the products of our intensive exchange. We can jublilate in the massages we receive by making our own sound, by vibrating our own skulls, flesh, blood, lymph, interstitial fluid, and the air near us, and we can make it so that we can engage in passionate exchange with the vibrations of others.

This might be something like music. Or other kinds of art. Or it might be simple conversation. Or it might be cooing with a baby. Or it might be making comforting sounds while a toddler cries. Or it might be screaming with rage together.

What it always is, though, is focusing on, opening up to, enjoying the dynamics of the dance of individual, idiosyncratic, messy, fleshly, bodily, sonic emanations reacting with one another.

In the end, the policing of our sound is under our control. We can find ways to unpolice, and enjoy the unbridledness of our sound.

Our bodily sound is a means of engaging passionately with relationship and of glorying in its results.

Featured image: “Faces 529″ by Flickr user Greg Peverill-Conti, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Yvon Bonenfant is Reader in Performing Arts at the University of Winchester. He likes voices that do what voices don’t usually do, and he likes bodies that don’t do what bodies usually do. He makes art starting from these sounds and movements. These unusual, intermedia works have been produced in 10 countries in the last 10 years, and his writing published in journals such as Performance Research, Choreographic Practices, and Studies in Theatre and Performance. He currently holds a Large Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust and funding from Arts Council England to collaborate with speech scientists on the development of a series of participatory, extra-normal voice artworks for children and families; see www.yourvivaciousvoice.com. Despite his air of Lenin, he does frighteningly accurate vocal imitations of both Axl Rose and Jon Bon Jovi. www.yvonbonenfant.com.

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Radio Ambulante: A Radio that Listens

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Radio Accion2Welcome back to the final article in our three-part series, Radio de Acción. Special thanks to you, our readers, and to editors Jennifer Stoever and Neil Verma at Sounding Out! for hosting this addition to a burgeoning field of Latin American critics and producers who are changing the way we hear radio as history, as theory, and in practice.

Over the past several weeks we have tried to bring you into the multiple worlds made possible by radio in Latin America. If you missed our previous posts, please find Alejandra Bronfman’s stunning history of radio in the Caribbean here, and Karl Swinehart’s fascinating study of Aymaran-Spanish radio here.

Both of these critical approaches set the stage for Carolina Guerrero’s extraordinary work with radio in the Americas. An executive director and co-founder of Radio Ambulante—a program that fellow co-founder and novelist Daniel Alarcón calls “This American Life, but in Spanish, and transnational”—Guerrero’s post takes us behind the scenes of her show to consider how the sounds on radio come to life for us as listeners, and the significance of hearing someone’s words in her or his own voice and language. For more Radio Ambulante after you finish reading and listening to Carolina’s post, please visit their website and download their podcasts.

–Guest editor Tom McEnaney

In late 2007, novelist Daniel Alarcón was hired by the BBC to produce a radio documentary about Andean migration in his native Peru. He spent 10 days traveling around the country, from the highlands to Lima, conducting interviews in both English and Spanish, talking to a wide range of people with very personal stories about migration. But when Daniel received the final mix from London, he was disappointed to find that the editor had privileged the English language voices, and left out many of the most compelling Spanish language storytellers. Daniel was left with a question: what if there was a space for those voices on the radio waves? What would it sound like?

Over coffee in San Francisco in January 2011, Alarcón and I decided to create that space, inspired by US public radio shows like This American Life and Radiolab, which had no Spanish counterpart. We knew that poignant, fun, surprising, unique, sometimes sordid, sometimes romantic, absurd and incredible stories we often heard in Latin America were out there, just waiting to be reported. We knew that they would make great radio. And we knew there was an audience—in Latin America and the US—that wanted to hear it. The result became Radio Ambulante.

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FIRST STEPS

We began by asking many of our print journalist friends in Latin America to share stories with us. We sent them links to stories from some of our favorite American radio programs, and then contacted a few bilingual independent radio producers here in the US, and asked them for advice on the basics of radio production. Many directed us to Transom.org, which was an absolutely essential resource.

In March of 2012, we launched a Kickstarter campaign. All we had was an idea and a sampler with less than 45 minutes of audio—and still, we managed to raise $46,000 with the support of 600 backers. The success of this campaign was a huge confidence boost, and we knew we were on to something. We used this money to produce our pilot season.

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Since then, we’ve worked with more than twenty different producers in more than a dozen countries. These are the characters that emerge from Radio Ambulante stories: a transgender Nicaraguan woman living with her Mexican wife in San Francisco’s Mission District; a Peruvian stowaway telling his harrowing tale of coming to New York in 1959, hidden in the hold of a tanker ship; the Chilean soccer player who dared challenge the authority of General Pinochet; a young Argentine immigrant to North Carolina, trying to find his way through the racially charged environment of an American high school. Taken together these voices create a nuanced portrait of Latino and Latin American life:

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PERSONAL STORIES FOR ALL EARS

Now in our third season, we’ve been working hard to create a group of trusted producers and editors across Latin America; people we can turn to with an idea, people we know we can trust with our limited time and resources; reporters we can send to Cuba, send to Honduras, send to Venezuela, and be certain they’ll come back with usable tape, and a good story. We want these first time producers to become long-term contributors.

That’s the case of Camila Segura, Radio Ambulante’s current Senior Editor. She had no prior experience as a radio producer when she reported her first story for us in 2012. That piece, El otro, el mismo (The Other, The Same) is about two men, one Colombian, one Argentinian, who not only share the same name, but who look almost identical. From this coincidence, the story becomes something much stranger, funnier, more subtle, and ultimately quite moving:

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We want the listener to be able to relate and identify with the characters, to feel what they feel. A good Radio Ambulante story should be universal and shouldn’t have an expiration date.

One story from our first season captures this universal quality. In 2011, River Plate, one of the most famous soccer clubs in South America, was relegated to the Argentine Second Division. This event shook the entire nation, and anyone who listens to this story could relate to the sadness and pain that the protagonist is feeling. Two years later, the story still has that raw power:

Translation

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HOW WE SOUND

Martina Castro, Senior Producer, has designed most of Radio Ambulante’s sound, finding the balance between music and sound effects in order to support the voice of the main characters. As she explains,

There are many kinds of pieces that make it to Radio Ambulante. Sometimes the story is focused on one person and their experience: something that happened long ago. Like with Mayer Olórtegui in Polizones (The Stowaways), and the story of how he and his friend Mario jumped aboard a ship headed to the United States. There is no substitute for a dynamic storyteller like Mayer. He not only recreates moments, sometimes even imitating the sounds of what he heard, but he remembers the emotion of what happened, and really feels deeply what he is talking about, like when his voice breaks up at the mention of saying goodbye to his friend Mario.

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Other, more symphonic, multi-voiced pieces provide a different kind of production challenge. The script must showcase the many characters, while giving the listener enough grounding so as not to get lost. A particularly successful example is our award-winning piece “N.N.”, about Puerto Berrio, Colombia, by reporter Nadja Drost. Nadja gathered recordings of this river town, and conducted interviews with many locals, always focused on the issue of the floating, anonymous dead and the town’s strange relationship with these bodies. The music in a piece like this is only meant to support those real-life sounds and characters, and a repeated melody serves as a ghost-like echo of the dead, those voices we never hear.

Translation

We use music carefully to shift the mood, to mark the end of a section, and to alert the listener that something new is coming. The music is also meant to break up chapters of a story, give us a moment to reflect on what we just heard, or to indicate when something is about to change. There are examples in Yuri Herrera’s “Postcard from Juárez,” produced by Daniel Alarcón. It tells the story of Diana la Cazadora, or Diana the Hunter, a vigilante who set about killing bus drivers in one of the world’s most violent cities, allegedly as revenge for years of misogyny and sexism.

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In this particular story, we were able to do something that the English version (produced for This American Life) could not: read in the original Spanish the letter that the supposed killer sent the local Ciudad Juárez newspaper explaining her actions. We had this read by Lizzy Cantú, a Mexican journalist who’d worked with us before, and then distorted her voice, to give it that dark ambience. The listener is supposed to feel the grim violence in those words: the desperation.

bienvenidosTHE STORY IS KEY

In three seasons producing the show, we’ve learned that the craft of radio comes from listening, and that the most challenging aspect of producing radio is not in the technical details of recording those voices or sounds, but in the story itself.

The most basic building block of a good radio story is a good interview. The technical aspects of gathering sound are less important than phrasing the questions to get vivid, almost filmic answers, full of details that set the scene.. As Executive Producer Daniel Alarcón explains,

We ask our reporters to push interviewees to describe scenes in great detail, to unpack moments. Our interviews can last two hours or more, and many are surprised that we go so in depth. We like our reporters to circle back, and then circle back again, so that we’re sure we’re getting the most vivid version possible of a given story’s crucial moments.

We ask our reporters to write colloquially, to imagine they’re telling the story to a friend at a bar. It’s important to have immediacy in the language, an expressive tone that can seem almost improvised, even when it isn’t. The emotional impact of radio is that it feels as though a secret is being shared. The script and the production should always be in service of this intimacy.

Before a script is final, it’s shared with other editors on the team around the globe (California, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Chile), mixed, edited, soundtracked, and refined through hours of collective work online.

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ONWARD

While creating our own sound and storytelling style, Radio Ambulante is constantly experiment with different formats and looking for new ways to interact with our listeners. We’ve done three live radio shows, in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. In addition, we’ve produced two English Language specials, and partnered with writers and animators on hybrid multimedia storytelling. With our partners at PRI, we’re developing a new interview series, and are working with Latin American universities and media outlets to teach more journalists to use radio. Our hope is that Radio Ambulante’s success will mean more innovative radio work in Spanish, and more experiments in the possibilities of bilingual radio.

Carolina Guerrero is the Executive Director of Radio Ambulante. Before getting into journalism, she was a promoter for cultural and social projects, creating a bridge between organizations in three different continents. She has worked with public and private institutions in several countries, for which she has designed and overseen festivals, art exhibits, teaching workshops and fundraising events. Carolina is a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University 2014-15. She is the proud mother of León and Eliseo. (@nuncaduermo)

All images courtesy @radioambulante on Twitter

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Speaking “Mexican” and the use of “Mock Spanish” in Children’s Books (or Do Not Read Skippyjon Jones)

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Cinco de Mayo. ‘Tis the season when many Americans don sombreros, order their frozen margaritas, and, God help us, speak “Spanish.”   We are well used to hyper Anglicized renditions of “amigo,” “adios,” and happy hour specials brought on by the commercialization of Cinco de Mayo.  The holiday celebrates a significant event in Mexico’s history – the battle of Puebla and victory over France in 1862 – through narrowing ideas about language, culture, and tequila. That said, let’s not just blame Cinco de Mayo for the disconcerting use of Spanish. Unfortunately, the incessant use of phrases such as “ay caramba” and “no problemo” are heard much, much earlier in contemporary children’s books.

The New York Times recently published the startling figure that just 93 of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013 were about African American children. Within these few 93 texts, African American children all-too-often read about themselves within the past tense, in reference to slavery and civil rights legacies. Children of color are left to identify with the adventures and imaginative stories of white characters amid white settings.  Aptly characterized as an, “apartheid of children’s literature,” two moving first-person accounts from Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers detail the significance of incorporating more characters of color for all readers.  One major effect of this dearth of representation, according to Christopher Myers,

…is a gap in the much-written-about sense of self-love that comes from recognizing oneself in a text, from the understanding that your life and lives of people like you are worthy of being told, thought about, discussed and even celebrated.

Just as significant, is the number of children’s books about Latino children from the 2013’s trove of 3,200 books: 53. That’s 5-3. As a reminder, the United States Census tallied 53 million Latinos in the United States, representing the nation’s youngest demographic (children!).

However, perhaps worse than the actual lack is the rise of stereotypic in-your-face representations of race within children’s books – award-winning ones, actually – and their role in teaching children troubling ideas about race, language, and “difference.”

My name is Skippito Friskito. (clap-clap)

I fear not a single bandito. (clap-clap)

My manners are mellow,

I’m sweet like the Jell-O,

I get the job done, yes indeed-o.

Case in point: Skippyjon Jones, a Siamese cat that pretends to be a Chihuahua superhero. Skippyjon speaks English, but his super hero alter ego speaks in Mock Spanish in his recurring and imaginative quests.  Speaking “Spanish” in hyperanglized fashion recasts Skippyjon from an English-speaking (white) cat to a Spanish-accented (brown) dog. His auditory performance of Mexicanness, what Reina Prado considers “sonic brownface,” reeks of white privilege as he code-switches from cat/white/English to dog/brown/”Spanish.” What’s worse, as a children’s book, directed at those between the impressionable ages of 4-8, Skippyjon encourages both adult readers and young readers to read out loud and perform sonic brownface. Listening to the book’s trite word choice (amigos, adios, frijoles), fake Spanish (indeed-o, mask-ito) and embellished accents (“ees” for is) trains the ear on how to speak “Mexican,” presumably, of course, for the listening amusement of non-Mexicans.

Image by Flickr user Howard Lewis Ship

Image by Flickr user Howard Lewis Ship

“I am El Skippito, the great sword fighter,” said Skippyjon Jones.

Apparently, these tried and true tactics sell quite well. This award-winning children’s book character, by Judy Schachner, has spawned into a lucrative empire that includes fourteen books, a coordinating plush toy figure, online webisodes of the books’ stories, CDs of Schachner reading out loud, the obligatory Ipad app, a starring role in the department store Kohl’s “We Care” charity campaign in 2012, and get this, a children’s musical. Of course, Skippyjon is not really recognized as a book series about Latinos (like fellow television darlings, Dora the Explorer, Handy Manny, or Dragon Tales) yet it taps into every flinching stereotype we know of, and should avoid, about Mexicans. Equating Mexicans and Mexican tales to the canine of a Chihuahua is hardly new but it does not make it less problematic.

For instance, in the inaugural self-titled Skippyjon Jones book, the cat’s adventures take place “far, far away in old Mexico.” Much like the perpetual placement of African Americans in the past tense within children’s books, situating Mexico in the imaginative past reinforces perceptions of all-things-Mexican as distant, foreign, and old.  Skippyjon and his chimichangos – his sidekicks (good guys) –set out to save their rice and beans from Alfredo Buzzito and Bumblebeeto Bandito (bad guys). Zorro-esque masks, swords, fiestas followed by siestas, fellow Chihuahuas, piñatas, plenty of cacti, and lots of clap-clap cues frame the rice-and-bean rescue. His adventures, book after book, via a Skippito brown identity sends a disquieting message about power and privilege. Skippito, even when masked, still plays the role of Great White Hero to the masses of “Mexican” dogs.

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Image by Flickr user Tomas Quinones

Then all of the Chimichangos went crazy loco.

Several of Schachner’s Skippyjon books have received notable accolades including, for instance, the 2004 E.B. White Read Aloud Award and a spot on the coveted “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children” by the National Education Association in 2007. The former comes with an adorning gold seal on future editions of honored books.  A sampling of the series’ laudatory press, from the E.B White Read Aloud press release, “Peppered with Spanish expressions and full of energized fun, SkippyJon Jones is not only entertaining for the listener, it’s also enjoyable for the reader.” And from the author’s webpage: “Each of my adventures are ay caramba, mucho fun but they’re educational too!” The insinuation that the Skippyjon Empire teaches Spanish not only ignores the richness of Spanish but it also feeds popular ideals that Spanish is an “easy” and “fun” language to learn.

Schachner’s recurrent use of “Spanish,” in particular, not only structures the silly narrative adventures of Skippyjon as he imagines himself to be Skippito but the racialized language play has also become the hallmark element of Skippyjon.  Written and read out loud by parents and teachers, some of Skippyjon’s signature phrases include “Holy Guacamole!” and “Holy Frijoles!” – textbook examples of Jane Hill’s renowned writings on Mock Spanish (or fake, incoherent Spanish uttered and deemed “funny” by non-native Spanish speakers).  Because we already hold native Spanish-speakers (U.S. Latinos) with such little regard in the first place, Mock Spanish done for laughs, as argued by Hill, comes quite easily. Carmen Martínez-Roldán takes the Skippyjon Jones series to task in necessary detail; see her analysis of Mock Spanish in the equally troubling, Skippyjon Jones  in the Doghouse.  Her emphasis on the cultural representations of Mexicans vis-a-vis language in children’s books supports my tirade against this cat/dog. Martínez-Roldán found that several teachers, particularly those from the Southwest, expressed a sense of inexplicable uneasiness to these books.  Amazon ratings are (painfully) positive for Skippyjon, yet, according to Martínez-Roldán, those who expressed low ratings were “accompanied by lengthy explanations, mostly related to misrepresentations of Mexicans and the poor use of Spanish.” Her research calls for more diversity within children’s literature but, central to this essay, reminds us that U.S. Latinos hold both a personal and political relationship to Spanish.

Image by Flickr User John Graham

Image by Flickr User John Graham

Anthropologist Bonnie Urciuoli explains how Spanish, when overheard in designated public spaces (think: Cinco de Mayo or Mexican restaurants) is safely “ethnified,” yet Spanish is regarded as out of place or “racialized” when heard as bilingual announcements at local grocery stores or school sites. When heard by monolingual English speakers outside of its designated spaces in the U.S.,  Spanish carries “racialized” connotations such as “impoliteness” and “danger.” The insistence many American employers place on speaking English and prohibiting non-English language conversations at workplaces, for instance, speaks to the public boundaries imposed on Spanish and Spanish-speakers. (Yes, Whole Foods. I am looking at you.)

Jane Hill’s provocative argument, built from Uricuolli’s writings, examines Whites’ use of Spanish (Mock Spanish). Unlike Latinos, who learn early on to self-monitor where and how they speak English and Spanish, non-native speakers of Spanish do not carry this same burden, according to Hill. In fact, they have the privilege of speaking grammatically incorrect Spanish, in hyper Anglicized Spanish, or mockingly (by adding a stupid “o” or prefacing a phrasing with “el”) without surveillance.

Then, using his very best Spanish accent, he said, “My ears are too beeg for my head. 

My head ees too beeg for my body. I am not a Siamese cat… I AM A CHIHUAHUA!”

In addition to overplayed colloquial expressions, Schachner demarcates a racial line with “visual accents” (“beeg” for big) (see Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Priscilla Peña Ovalle and Sara V. Hinojos). In line with Uricuolli’s ideas, even Skippito’s English is accented and marked while in “Mexican” character. Readers stammer through “ees” and “beeg” in an effort, as prepped, to use their “very best Spanish accent.” The practice teaches children that accents are performative and easy to take on and off rather than hear accents as indicative of someone’s larger family histories of migration and culture.

The Frito Bandito, Image by Flickr user Bill Futreal

The Frito Bandito, Image by Flickr user Bill Futreal

For children unfamiliar with Mexicans and Latinos, these books cast Spanish with archaic imageries of Mexican bandits and modern-day Frito Banditos. Spanish is not used as a language to communicate given its incoherence. Instead, Schachner uses Spanish to laugh at Skippito and by extension, Mexicans and Latinos in the U.S.; its runaway success is indicative of how “funny” Spanish and Mexicans continue to be to White and/or monolingual English speakers.

For Latinos, these books plant early attitudes about their own language differences. For children positioned as the family translator or struggling to maintain a bilingual, bicultural existence, these books teach children to shun their accent and those of their families. These books are clearly not for my two kids, whose young ears are already familiar with their grandmother’s Spanish-accented English and their own mother’s English-accented Spanish.

 “Vamos, Skippito- or it is you the Bandito will eato!” 

Reading children’s books out loud and listening to race through scripted accents sends troubling messages about “difference” at an early age. Educators have long argued that children’s books serve as both mirrors and maps to affirm and inspire readers’ identities, experiences, and future motivations. True. But I would also argue that the woeful absence of more diverse children’s tales mirrors a number of campaigns directed at working-class, communities of color; namely, our nation’s shaky commitment to universal preschool, lack of public support for Women Infant and Children (WIC) and Food Stamp programs, and outdated approaches to parental leaves (six measly weeks). In particular, Skippyjon Jones is a kid’s rendition of grownup racial and language politics, a pint-size version of NAFTA and English-only propositions presented for five-year old audiences. These policies, like the woeful crop of contemporary books, do little to provide a map for the livelihoods of children of color. Instead, Skippyjon’s use of language, a reincarnation of Speedy Gonzalez normalizes English, white characters (even in brown drag), and helps keep Cinco de Mayo antics alive.

Image by Flickr user Manchester City Library

Image by Flickr user Manchester City Library

NOTE: On 5-8-14, the author added a passage to this article to reflect the relationship of her work to Carmen M. Martínez-Roldán’s “The Representation of Latinos and the Use of Spanish: A Critical Content Analysis of Skippyjon Jones” published in The Journal of Children’s Literature (2013).

 

Featured Image by Flickr user The Long Beach Public Library, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Dolores Inés Casillas is an assistant professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies and a faculty affiliate of Film & Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She writes and teaches courses on Latina/o sound practices, popular culture, and the politics of language.  Her book, Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-language Radio and Public Advocacy will be published this fall by New York University Press as part of their Critical Cultural Communication series. 

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