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Learning to Listen: The Velvet Underground’s “Once Lost” LPs

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Start a band3 (1)Welcome back to Start a Band, our two-part series on Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, focusing on what the band’s sonic provocations mean for sound studies today. Last week, we heard from Jake Smith, who introduced us to a way of thinking about the Velvets that emphasized the “haptic” qualities that emerge so often while listening to them. Following that idea, Smith took us on a kind of journey from the skin to the musculature and the viscera through a deep analysis of key songs in their catalog — “This is your body on the Velvet Underground.”

This week, we’re delighted to welcome to Sounding Out! a writer whose work we’ve been eager to feature for a long while — Tim AndersonAssociate Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University. Tim has written extensively on popular music and sound, and is currently a leader of the Sound Studies Scholarly Interest Group at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, one of the scholarly groups associated with the SO! Thursday stream. It’s such a pleasure to present this sensitive and personal account of the Velvet Underground — and of learning to listen.

- NV

Lou Reed and Andy Warhol as the respective definers of audible  and visual cool for misfits and undergroundlings for the last five decades.

Lou Reed and Andy Warhol as the respective definers of audible and visual cool for misfits and undergroundlings for the last five decades.

Reports of Lou Reed’s death came on a Sunday. Even though he was 71, it was still a shock. To many present-day friends and colleagues Reed’s  Velvet Underground are a band that they understand are important, but just don’t get. In the case of an artist like Lou Reed, an artist who never had a top ten charting single and only two gold albums, you could see their point.

Still, I obsessed. Rattled from my travels in Washington, DC, I called my wife and we talked about his music for about an hour or so, after which I took a long walk to the Washington Mall. It was a sunny fall day, October 27, 2013, and I walked past the Smithsonian with its prominent memorials, such a clean space for so much past, some of which the nation has buried and  some of which we don’t even bother to think about. The deceased have always done the most important work in our nation’s capital.

The day after,  I really don’t remember doing much. I took a train home, read everything I could online about Reed, and thought a lot about his records. The ones I liked —New York and The Blue Mask—the ones I learned to like —it took me years to enjoy Transformer—and the ones I loved —The Velvet Underground and NicoWhite Light, White HeatThe Velvet Underground and VU. Those four records, more than any records I can remember, altered me, many of my friends in my teens and in college, and almost every rock musician I admired in the 1980s. Velvet Underground records were simply foundational. Writing about Reed’s death, rock critic Greg Kot summed up the Velvet’s influence by claiming that they were “as influential as The Beatles” and if you named “just about any left-of-centre band or artist since the ‘70s”, some of whom like R.E.M., U2 and Talking Heads “became mainstream giants”all of them would “acknowledge a deep debt to the Velvet Underground.”

This influence is the reason that the collective mourning of such a marginally popular figure swelled to such a crescendo. However, to paraphrase the words of one of Reed’s most storied rivals, Lester Bangs, on the death of John Lennon, this was not the mourning of a person. Most of us never met Lou Reed. Instead, we were mourning ourselves. To lose Lou Reed was tantamount to losing the author of a proverbial urtext of a kind of secret rock language that has been passed down since the late 1960s on how to be cool. It was a language of composed of style, gestures, and reactions. It was one that was filled with a fun that was not of the obligatory “hey-dude-let’s-party!” party. The Velvet’s overdriven guitars repeatedly underscored that teenage kicks included other aesthetic pleasures such as contemplation and melancholy.  Most importantly, the Velvet Underground offered a language of listening passed down from one rock underground to another.

Because pop fans of all stripes must learn how to be a fan, learning how and what to listen to is a taste-defining social exercise. Simon Frith once explained that, for him, “one aspect of learning how to be a rock fan in the 1960s was, in fact, learning to prefer [original records made by black artists of the 1950s] to covers [made by white artists of the same era]. And this was, as I recall, something that had to be learned [by Frith]: nearly all the records I had bought in the late 1950s had been the cover versions” (Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, 1996). In my case, learning to listen also meant learning what to listen to while listening to The Velvet Underground, a process involving peers, record clerks, friends, musicians and reviews.

R.E.M.'s 1983 LP release of "Murmur" on cassette

R.E.M.’s 1983 LP release of “Murmur” on cassette

As a young rock fan who began first collecting cassettes —that’s right, cassettes —this process would begin through an obsession with R.E.M.’s Murmur, a cryptic, odd inscrutable cassette with no lyrics, a black and white picture and layers of reverb. The copy I found had been severely discounted in a ma and pa record store in Globe, Arizona. In Summer 1983 I read a rave review in a copy of Rolling Stone and at 14 had purchased a cassette unlike anything I had ever heard; I wasn’t sure I enjoyed it. Why did so many reviewers seem to fall over themselves about this record? To solve this puzzle, it meant learning how to listen to music invested in tone rather than ostentatious chops. It meant paying attention to drones rather than solos. It meant following those features to Velvet Underground records after peers, record clerks, friends, musicians and reviews made a point that Murmur reminded them a bit of VU records.

Murmur was also the first record I ever purchased that embraced what Jacob Smith so wonderfully identifies as a distinctive trait of all Velvet Underground records. For Smith, these pop records are part of a genealogy that “stress evocative timbres, idiosyncratic voices, and signature sounds over structural or lyrical complexity.” The distillation of this pop ethos onto record was one of the reasons that so many musicians whose abilities may have been limited but whose tastes tended toward the poetic found The Velvets so influential. As Jonathan Richman explained, “I didn’t start singing or playing till I was 15 and heard the Velvet Underground. They made an atmosphere, and I knew that I could make one too!” (Quoted in Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, 61). Indeed, Smith notes that the deceptive complexity of VU Records “can be found more on the level of timbre than in musical structure or instrumentation” and “lyrics often encourage a blurring of listening and touching”; his post actually reads like many of the conversations and reviews surrounding R.E.M.’s debut LP. The same could also be said of records released by other 1980s and 90s artists such as The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, Opal, Mazzy Star, Radiohead, The Dream Syndicate, Galaxie 500, The Rain Parade, Green on Red, New Order, Joy Division, The Feelies, Spacemen 3, Sonic Youth, The Pretenders, The Sisters of Mercy, Ministry, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and The Violent Femmes, to name but a few who drew water from the Velvet Underground well.  Bands sonically inspired by the Velvets often providing feedback before solos, drummed without cymbals, and portrayed dark themes sung in monotones that sounded sophisticated and obscure.

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However, actually hearing a Velvet Underground record in 1983 and 1984 was a significant problem for newer fans, as their MGM catalog was out of print. Many understood these records to be effectively buried by label president Mike Curb’s infamous axing of the act from MGM along with seventeen others who allegedly promoted and exploited “hard drugs through music” (Tiegel, Eliot “Mgm Busts 18 Rock Groups.” Billboard, November 7 1970, 1, 70). As Lou Reed himself once noted, “it’s depressing when you’re still around and your albums are out of print.” I have often wondered if this was one of the reasons that The Velvets catalogue would have such a profound effect on so many of us. Sure, I had found a copy of Loaded, the band’s fourth official release, but its bright tones had none of the subversive menace that so many reviewers alluded to when speaking of the Velvets. Even in a mountain town in Arizona, I had a better chance of finding used copies of  The Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood or Blues for Allah than I did The Velvet Underground and Nico. In other cities, in other record stores, when I did find those records they were used and prices started at $15 and up. They were records I simply could not afford to listen to.

The Velvet Underground's "lost" fourth album, "VU"

The Velvet Underground’s “lost” fourth album, “VU”

All that changed after 1985, when every MGM Velvet Underground record would appear in my life for less than $25. Bill Levenson’s efforts as Polygram’s then A&R manager to reissue the buried and lost MGM catalog on Verve provided me and every other young person who had only “heard of The Velvet Underground” the chance to finally to listen to all of these records at once.  Indeed, the moment of the catalogue’s reissue was simply a sonic flood, one where sounds filled in gaps that had been cut deeply by conversations, descriptions and my own imagination. Writing at the time about these reissues and the unveiling of a lost album’s worth of material that would be titled V.U., David Fricke argued that “rock historians and fans alike owe Bill Levenson, the executive producer of V.U., a debt of thanks for resurrecting these tracks and for giving the band’s first three LPs the proper reissue they’ve long deserved. At $5.98 list price, The Velvet Underground and Nico,White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground are essential purchases —certainly essential listening for any study of Seventies and Eighties punk evolution. As for V.U., the Great Lost Velvet Underground Album is no longer lost. It is simply great” (Fricke, David. “The Velvet Underground – V.U.” Rolling Stone, March 14 1985).

2012 ad for another reissue of the MGM Velvet Underground catalog and Nico's first solo LP

A 2012 ad for another reissue of the MGM Velvet Underground catalog and Nico’s first solo LP

Is it too much to suggest a that the pent up desire to hear a secret history sparked by The Velvet Underground’s reissues created the 80s/90s iteration of “alternative rock”? Perhaps, but history is filled with desires asserted, accepted and denied. Indeed, most of those aforementioned 80s alternative acts I came into contact with had been performing and recording and releasing records years before 1985. However, there is no doubt that the VU reissues turned a number of ears predisposed to hearing in a certain way onto new ways of listening to the Velvets concentrated doses of moody darkness, modes that earlier Velvet Underground fans simply had little access to.

Ignoring the impact of the sonic flood of VU material that fell upon my ears during this period turns away from a specific history of listening that, while personally unique, was an opportunity available to so many of my contemporaries. Indeed, if sounds have histories because their traces persist, then listening must have histories guided partially by testimonial. To hear these histories we might ask ourselves to remember how, why, and with whom did we listen, and to trade in this information. If we did so, we might better understand how we learned to listen: especially what to listen to and why it was important. And, without these testimonials of our pasts as listeners, we just may lose sound’s crucial other half.

Featured Image: “Velvet Underground Yellow Label Mono” by Flickr user Simon MurphyThe Velvet Underground – Yellow label mono 

Tim J. Anderson is an Associate Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University where studies the multiple cultural and material practices that make music popular. He has published numerous book chapters, refereed journal articles, and two monographs: Making Easy Listening: Material Culture and Postwar American Recording (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) and Popular Music in a Digital Music Economy: Problems and Practices for an Emerging Service Industry (Routledge, 2014). His latest research project focuses on recordings, musicians, listeners and the public sphere. His website is timjanderson.weebly.com and he can be contacted at tjanders@odu.edu.

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Sounding Out! Podcast #28: Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles

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Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles

With the slight return of warmth to the East Coast of the U.S. and Tropics of Meta’s very recent release of Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis’s fantastic history“’The Sky is Black and the Asphalt Blue’: Placing El Monte in the Early LA Punk Rock Scene” and its accompanying archival project (bring your old flyers and pics down to scan at Bridgetown DIY, 1421 N. Valinda Ave, La Puente, CA on May 3rd from 2-6 pm), we thought it was high time to bring Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s LA mixtape Off the 60 into the sunlight for everyone to bump with their windows down.

Off the 60 was initially commissioned as a sonic installation for the re:present L.A. Exhibition at East LA’s Vincent Price Museum from May 3 – July 27, 2012. re:present L.A. was curated by Museum Studies students at Claremont Graduate University (and coordinated by performance artist, scholar, and poet reina alejandra prado saldivar, who wrote about the experience for SO! in 2011). The exhibit sought “to explore, challenge, and depict the multiple representations of Los Angeles that responds to the present social landscapes of city” through both sight and sound.” Click these links for the exhibit’s virtual catalogue and list of participating artists. Both the liner notes and the track listing have been modified slightly from the original for publication here.

Off the 60: Liner Notes

When I began to make this mix-tape that somehow would re-present L.A. in a mere 80 minutes, my enabling fantasy was that I could make a playlist that would be my musical calling card, a sonic Rosetta Stone for “home” that would unravel the complex knot of feelings about L.A. I carry around with me, something I could share with my son, whom I am somewhat reluctantly raising as a New Yorker. You know, a musical study guide so the sounds that raised and shaped me could tell him all the things I just can’t put into words about Los Angeles, namely how much music and place are wrapped together in my memory’s DNA. Therefore, this mix deliberately dates and locates me, enabling, in the words of Ronnie Hudson’s “West Coast Poplock,” the intimate knowledge of “listening to the map.” And—there was more than a little magical thinking involved here—I thought that perhaps if I arranged these songs just so, then the barren Sleepy Hollow landscape of wintry upstate New York would transform itself into the desiccated foothills, dried river beds, and dense strip malls of Southern California. I’d turn a bend and, with a little help from the Go-Go’s and Union 13, 79 would suddenly become “the” 60.

60 freewayAnd thus the title, a tongue-in-cheek reference to J.Lo’s debut album On the 6 (1999), named after the subway line between Manhattan and the Bronx, where she grew up. Off the 60 references the freeway whose red brake lights stretch between Los Angeles and Riverside, my hometown, and the mix is just the right length for a one-way trip, provided there’s no traffic (I told you there was some magical thinking involved here!). The 60 is one of the most heavily trafficked commuter pathways in the country; I know people in Riv who will make this 60-mile drive 5 days a week, 51 weeks a year, for decades (I have also met people in Los Angeles who had never made this trip east, and who used to look askance at my 951 cell number, in the same way that my current 323 area code causes looks of consternation to New Yorkers). For many people coming of age in the Inland Empire, Los Angeles exerts a tidal pull, and we make many trips there before hitting the commuter treadmill—in family cars, in our imaginations, in movies, in books, on school busses and tour busses, in broken-down band vans, in hoopties borrowed from our friend’s uncle that may not make the return trip—and some of us make that 60-mile move West and never really come back, like me. I ended up living on St. Andrews instead of only singing about it.

Riverside 60But you never know, The Riv has a deep hold on people. I closed Off the 60 with a band from Riverside, old friends of mine Chicano punk rockers the Voodoo Glow Skulls, because one second you are going to law school in Queens or Dap-Toning with Sharon Jones and the next you are back, public defending in San Bernardino or married with big fam filling a house by Mt. Rubidoux, respectively. True stories. But I am already taking a detour Off the 60, in the hopes that the music on this mix invites you to do that. Unlike J.Lo’s subway, you can’t stay on the 60 and really get to know Riverside, Los Angeles, or all the many places in between that are intertwined socially, historically, culturally and economically with both cities: Glen Avon. Corona. Chino. Diamond Bar. Rowland Heights. La Puente. Hacienda Heights. El Monte. Montebello. East L.A. Boyle Heights.

A sonic exit ramp of sorts, Off the 60 is a mix-tape in digital format, crafted in the old style: a painstaking arrangement of songs really familiar and much beloved to me, listened to obsessively throughout the process to create fresh transitions that are laden with significance—and of course, car tested L.A.-style until smooth like butter.   For Off the 60, I deliberately picked songs without the aid of Wikipedia or any of the copious L.A song lists, sitting down with just a blank page, my memory, and a sharp pencil (as I hope you can tell by many of the songs, I’m kinda old school) to come up with a set of songs that aren’t necessarily about L.A., but of it. This is a small, symbolic sample of the music that once scored my life in the Southland from the 1970s-the 2000s through the perspective of my current “home away from home” in New York. Now, in what my colleague and homegrrl Karen Tongson (another Riversidean, now turned proud Silver Lake home owner) has poignantly dubbed “remote intimacy” in Relocations (New York University Press, 2011).  And these sounds still make me feel L.A. even though I often feel like I live “a million miles away.” I hope you feel it too.

9297628099_7ab788f0a8_bThe songs on Off the 60 are arranged to speak to each other, sometimes sonically, sometimes thematically, sometimes historically (and occasionally I pull off the trifecta! Listen carefully!). I designed the mix to flow along with the narrative rhythms of a timeless (yet intentionally dated) Saturday in L.A., from waking up with the sound of Friday night still in your ears to basking in the warm afternoon—which can feel so good you almost get knocked off your game—until the purplish-orange twilight descends, with its regret and uncertainty, on into the pulsing promises of the night. Sonically blending vulnerability with hardness—and revealing both where you least expect them—I hope the songs on this mix share an overall L.A. vibe that is more than merely the sum total of the musical parts, a feeling that’s ephemeral and hard to put your finger on, but—paradoxically—one whose resonance lasts.

And because I am a sound/music scholar in addition to a product of the 714 909 951, you’ll get plenty of L.A. music history through this this mix. All the bands featured are based in L.A. or Riverside, except for two artists whom I have awarded honorary Angeleno status: Smokey Robinson and Debbie Deb. Never mind the fact Motown had already moved to L.A. by the time Robinson’s “Crusin’” was released in 1982 and he used to host one of my favorite radio shows on 92.3 in the 2000s, but these two songs have bumped out of so many cars, clubs, backyard parties and Art Leboe sets that both Smoke and Deb own some symbolic real estate in Southern California, at least in my heart.

In putting the work of so many different L.A. artists together, I challenged myself to create a coherent musical feel without placing songs from similar genres, scenes, or time periods right next to each other. I worked hard to create a sense of the diversity of the Los Angeles area without being either gratuitously culture clash-y or post-multiculti Velveeta, but using sound to make palpable both the dissonant tensions and the productive energies of everyday encounters in the city in a way that “represents” without claiming to be representative. Think of Off the 60 as a flash-sample of what you might hear while whiling away a scorching Friday night in traffic, when everybody’s got their windows open, cooling off the outside with their tunes. As a result, you’ll hear classic L.A. musical sounds in conversation—mariachi horns, surf guitar, nasally Val-Speak, fat funky synth, staccato punk growls, metal licks, downtempo samples, polyrhythmic percussion, and that power pop tone that my Vox amp calls “Cali Clean”— calling and responding across genres and decades: re-mixing, recontextualized, distorting, hyperembodying those terribly glamorous L.A. sounds, across this town, our town. Por vida.

Off the 60 is dedicated,  Art Leboe-style,  to my SGV homegirl Melissa Contreras-McGavin for always (even though she lived off the pinche 10 for so long). Mwah.

Off the 60: Track Listing–Click to Jump to Track Description

1. “This Town” by The Go-Go’s
2.
“Del-Tone Rock” by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones
3.
“La Bamba” by The Plugz
4.
“Chango” by Ozomatli
5.
“Unyielding Conditioning” by Fishbone
6.
“Blessings” by The Visionaries and the Beat Junkiez
7.
“All Day Music” by WAR
8.
“Concrete Schoolyard” by Jurassic 5
9.
“Cruisin’” by Smokey Robinson
10.
“It was a Good Day” by Ice Cube
11.
“A Million Miles Away” by The Plimsouls
12.
“I Can’t Stand it Anymore” by Union 13
13.
“Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction
14.
“Destination Unknown” by Missing Persons
15.
“Look Out Weekend” by Debbie Deb
16.
“West Coast Poplock” by Ronnie Hudson and the Street People
17.
“Make Ya Neck Lock” by Medusa and Feline Science
18.
“This Town” by Ceci Bastida with guest Tim Armstrong
19.
“Here Comes the Sun” by Voodoo Glow Skulls

  1. “This Town” by The Go-Go’s (Beauty and the Beat, I.R.S. Records, 1981): The Go-Go’s were formed in Hollywood in 1978 by members of the early L.A. punk scene and this song reflects their lives in that moment. The Go-Go’s initially consisted of Belinda Carlisle (vocals), Jane Wiedlin (guitar, vocals), Margot Olavarria (bass), and Elissa Bello (drums). Members Charlotte Caffey (guitar), Gina Schock (drums) and Kathy Valentine (bass) were added by 1981, after founding members Margot Olvarria (bass) and Elisa Bello (drums) were fired. The Go-Go’s were the first female band writing and playing their own music to reach number one on the Billboard Charts.   This was the first record I purchased with my own money.

  1. “Del-Tone Rock” by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones (The B-Side of “Let’s Go Trippin’,” Deltone Records, 1961): Dick Dale was born in Boston, Massachusetts and came to Southern California in 1954—Orange County, but we’ll let that slide—where he was one of the innovators in the “Surf Music” genre that many still associate with Los Angeles. “Del-Tone Rock” was the B-Side of the alleged first surf song ever, “Let’s Go Trippin.’” An avid surfer, Dale sought to imitate with his guitar the sounds that he heard while riding waves—and he pushed his equipment to the max while doing so (Fender guitars, another Southern California staple, designed several custom guitars and amps for Dale and still sell a “Dick Dale Custom Shop Stratocaster” model). My dad once got in trouble for sneaking out to see Dick Dale play a “stomp” at the Riverside Armory in 1963. I saw him play at the Dragonfly in 1996.

  1. “La Bamba” by The Plugz (Electrify Me, Plugz Records, 1979): The first rock and roll version of this Mexican folk song was of course recorded by Richie Valens of Pacoima in 1958—he was first known as “Little Richard of the Valley”—and his life and music inspired countless musicians after his untimely death at age 17 in a plane crash in Clearlake, Iowa. The Plugz’ punk-rock version both pays homage to Valens and signifies on the outsiderness of his music career—his manager insisted he whiten his surname by changing it from Valens to Valenzuela, for example. The Plugz formed in 1977 in East Los Angeles and their version of “La Bamba” was recorded with the original line-up: Tito Larriva (lead vocals/guitar), Charlie Quintana (drums), and Barry McBride (bass/backing vocals). The Plugz were staples in the early LA punk rock scene, but they challenged its Hollywood-centricity with a sound that also had firm roots in Chicano garage rock from bands like Thee Midnighters. I first heard The Plugz on the soundtrack to Repo Man, and I can’t tell you how many batteries I went through fastforwarding from “El Clavo y Cruz” to “Hombre Secreto” and back again.

  1. “Chango” by Ozomatli (Ozomatli, Almo Sounds, 1998): Ozomatli was formed in Los Angeles in 1995, after meeting through their affiliation with the Peace and Justice Center. A multiethnic, multiracial collective that, at the time “Chango” was recorded was comprised of Wil-Dog Abers (bassvocals), Ulises Bella (clarinet, guitar, tenor saxophone, vocals), Chali 2na (MC), Cut Chemist (DJ), Raúl Pacheco (guitar, vocals), Justin Porée (percussion), Asdru Sierra (trumpet, vocals) and Jiro Yamaguchi (tabla, cajón, other percussion, vocals), Ozomatli is unabashedly and proudly political through and through: in their lyrics, in their brilliantly miscegenated music—described by Bella and Yamaguchi as “that crazy blend that’s going on between that cacophony of sound” on the streets of L.A. (NPR, 2007)—and in the shows they choose to perform. Ozomatli famously played their cumbia-funk-hip hop-salsa-merengue jams in front of the 2000 Democratic Convention in Downtown Los Angeles and continued to record after the LAPD shut them down and began to shoot rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray paint balls at the peacefully gathered crowd (the footage opens their second record Embrace the Chaos). I included this particular song to also give props to the way in which Ozo has politicized collective dancing—and dances their politics—I have seen them play in many diverse venues from the Cal Plaza to the Warped Tour and I have never seen them fail to move the crowd in more ways than one. Bravo, Ozo!

  1. “Unyielding Conditioning” by Fishbone (Give A Monkey A Brain and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe, 1993): One of the best (and most virtuostically versatile) bands from Southern California, hands down, Fishbone was formed by high school buddies John Norwood Fisher (bass, vocals), Kendall Jones (guitar), Phillip “Fish” Fisher (drums), Angelo Moore (vocals, saxophone, and theremin); “Dirty” Walter A. Kibby II (vocals, trumpet); and Christopher Dowd (keyboards, trombone, vocals) in South Central Los Angeles in 1979. Their coming together is a very 1970s L.A. story; everyone but San Fernando Valley local Moore was bussed from Compton to the overwhelmingly white high school, an 100 mile round trip that you can hear in their music. If you have never heard of this wonderful fusion band—everything from heavy metal to ska to funk to soul to punk—but find that this song sounds teasingly familiar, consider even just the LA-area bands that have stood on these giant’s shoulders: the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, No Doubt, the Skeletones, the Voodoo Glow Skulls, Hepcat. While it has always burned me up that Fishbone has never seen the level of fame that many of these acts have—too bad you can’t pay the rent with respect—I refuse to talk about them as a failure, especially not as an act who has unceasingly worked so hard to portray Los Angeles they live in story and sound. In a recent interview with the Japanese Metropolis, Norwood Fisher stated: “you know we came from gang-related neighborhoods, so for me the violence of punk made sense. There was a big cross-cultural surge, everybody was listening to everything—mod and ska and new wave—everybody could enjoy it, and for a moment it didn’t matter what color you were.” To create that “one moment,” Fishbone has never stopped telling the stories of the numerous moments where it does matter—the tensions embodied in “Unyielding Conditioning”—and that is why I will always love them. By the way, these veteranos still tour so please support Fishbone whenever they come to home to play.

  1. “Blessings” by The Visionaries and the Beat Junkiez (Galleries, Up Above Records 1998). This virtuostic Los Angeles hip hop super group in the tradition of multicultural, multiracial Angeleno musical collectives like WAR and Ozomatli, blends the MC talents of Visionaries 2 Mex, LMNO, Lord Zen, Dannu, Key Kool, and DJ Rhettmatic with the legendary turntablist crew the World Famous Beat Junkies (who were formed in Orange County in 1992 by J-Rocc) and whose members over the years have included Rhettmatic, Curse, Melo-D, D-Styles, Red-Jay, Havik, Tommy Gun, & What?!, Symphony, DJ Babu (also of Dilated Peoples) and Mr. Choc. The cream of the backpack crop, this group was the sound of L.A. underground positivity for myself and so many artists, writers, and musicians I knew in the 2000s. Not to mention that this amazing downtempo beat also reminds me of dancing with my best girls at turn-of-the-millennium late night chill spots all over the city—after long days grinding hard, working toward our Ph.D.s in American Studies and Ethnicity at USC—life-affirming spots like the Little Temple, Carbon, Bounce Rock Skate, the Dub Club, the Root Down, and Nappy at the Roots at the Fais Do Do.

  1. “All Day Music” by WAR (All Day Music, United Artists, 1972) The title song from their first album after changing their name from “Eric Burdon and WAR,” “All Day Music” is a musical manifesto of sorts for the multiethnic 7-piece funk/soul band that came together in 1969 in Long Beach (although the core of the band had been together since 1962 as The Creators). The new line-up was comprised of Howard Scott (guitar, percussion, vocals), B.B. Dickerson (bass, percussion, vocals), Lonnie Jordan (organ, piano, percussion, vocals), Harold Brown (drums, percussion, vocals), Harold Brown (drums, percussion, vocals), Papa Dee Allen (conga, bongos, percussion, vocals), Charles Miller (flute, sax, percussion, vocals), and Lee Oskar (harmonica, percussion, vocals). The gentle strains of this song always take me right back simultaneously to the parks I have loved and loved in in Los Angeles—Pan Pacific Park, Lincoln Park, MacArthur Park, Elysian Park, and Echo Park.

  1. “Concrete Schoolyard” by Jurassic 5 (Jurassic 5, TVT/Interscope, 1998) Jurassic 5 formed like Voltron back in 1994, from the wreckage of two earlier hip hop groups,Rebels of Rhythm and Unity Committee, and was made up MCs Charles Stewart (Chali 2na), Dante Givens (Akil), Courtenay Henderson (Zaakir), Marc Stuart (Mark 7even), and disc jockeys Mark Potsic (DJ Nu-Mark) and Lucas Macfadden (Cut Chemist)—both Cut Chemist and Chali 2na were also in Ozomatli until 2000. J5 cut their teeth at L.A.’s legendary “Good Life,” a South Central health food store owned by B. Hall that became an influential hotbed of rhyme in the early 1990s, hosting a “no cursing” open-mic night that nurtured innovative acts like J5, Medusa, the Pharcyde, and the Freestyle Fellowship. While I didn’t make it to Leimert in time for The Good Life, I loved Thursdays at Project Blowed, the next incarnation of the hip hop workshop held at filmmaker Ben Caldwell’s community arts, multimedia, and performance space, KAOS Network, which he founded in 1990. It is still held every Thursday night at 43rd Place and Leimert Blvd., and will be celebrating its 20th Anniversary on 12/29/14. Follow @Blowdians for the latest.

  1. “Cruisin’” by Smokey Robinson (Where There’s Smoke, Motown/Tamla 1979) Smokey Robinson was already quite famous as a Motown originator by the time he scored this throwback hit at the end of the disco era. Motown had been based in Los Angeles since 1972, and this song—an instant classic in the Lowrider Oldie genre co-written by Robinson and fellow Miracle Marv Taupin—shows just how much L.A. had impacted the label, especially Latino car culture. Now a staple on Art Laboe’s “Killer Oldies,” a long-running Los Angeles radio show famous for playing “Oldies but Goodies” by special request. Give your loved one a musical shout out by calling 800-681-2121 M-F between 7pm-Mid and Sun 6pm-Mid PST.

  1. “It was a Good Day” by Ice Cube (The Predator, Priority Records, 1993) Born O’Shea Jackson in Compton, Ice Cube took on his famous moniker when he joined old school rap group CIA in the mid-1980s (the group sang backing vocals on “Cabbage Patch”—remember that?) and then became a member of legendary hip hop group NWA in 1986. He went solo upon NWA’s break up in 1989 and produced club bangers for a good many years. I almost picked “Bop Gun” for this compilation—I love the George Clinton reference and the way it so perfectly captures the best vibes of the 1990s—but there is a world of LA knowledge embedded in the way in which the minor key sample from the Isley Brothers’ beautiful 1977 hit “Footsteps in the Dark” subtly undercuts Ice Cube’s Southern California fantasy that it could only be this song. Not to mention the long afterlife of “Good Day”: while I usually shy away from gross generalizations, I think I am safe to say that everyone who grew up in the L.A. region in the 1990s has a special love for this song. It is the day by which many of our good days are judged. People have such enduring love for the song that someone at the blog Murk Avenue spent many many hours using context clues to determine once and for all that this legendary good day was in fact, January 20, 1992. While you may have missed its twentieth anniversary, it’s not too late to order up the blimp for the 25th in 2017.

  1. “A Million Miles Away” by The Plimsouls (Everywhere At Once, Geffen, 1983) Formed in Paramount, from the ashes of the power pop/punk trio The Nerves in 1978—who performed the killer original version of “Hanging On The Telephone,” covered more famously by New Yawk’s Blondie—the classic line up includes singer, guitarist and songwriter Peter Case, drummer Louie Ramírez, guitarist Eddie Munoz and bassist Dave Pahoa. Their first break came when Long Beach promoter Stephen Zepeda signed the group to his Beat Records label for a five-song EP called Zero Hour, whose title song received a lot of KROQ airplay. Their second crack at fame occurred when they were hired as the “club band” in the film Valley Girl (1983), which my little sister and I watched over and over again, thanks to ON Television and lax babysitters.As a result, this song was the soundtrack to some of my earliest LA dreamings, and it—plus a very young Nicolas Cage as the rough guy from “over the hill” in Hollywood—gave punk rock boys permanent real estate in my heart.

  1. “I Can’t Stand it Anymore” by Union 13 (East Los Presents. . ., Epitaph Records, 1997) Formed in Boyle Heights in 1992, and influenced by punk rock, hardcore, metal, and their shared Mexican—Central American upbringing, the original lineup on this recording consisted of Edward Escoto on vocals, José Mercado and Ben Sandoval on guitars, Jerry Navarro on bass, and Louie Villareal on drums. I eventually spent so much time with these guys, in vans and in clubs on both sides of the border, that even though I haven’t seen them in years, I still think of Union 13 like family—even more so after they played a show in my backyard in Riverside and they got into a friendly brawl in the front. Ah, brothers!

  1. “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction (Nothing’s Shocking, Triple XXX Records, 1988): This band came together in Venice in 1985 out of the remains of Psi-Com, the first LA-area band of Queens transplant Perry Farrell (government name Peretz Bernstein) and included Dave Navarro (guitarist), Eric Avery (bass), and Stephen Perkins (drums). Both this song and the band were named after the struggles of Farrell’s drug addicted roommate, Jane Bainter, whom he lived with on Wilton Street in Hollywood in the early days of the band’s history. My first history with this song begins with high school subjection coupled with a lustful yearning for the sound of the bohemian unknown; I remember my best friend was almost suspended for wearing a Nothing’s Shocking T-Shirt to school because it featured plaster casts of naked women with their hair on fire—“but the female body is beautiful” I remember her saying, as she reluctantly turned the shirt inside out. The second is of moving to Los Angeles and living in Koreatown, on the fabled St. Andrews street mentioned in the song, and though the intensity of my feeling sfor this band had long since faded, “Jane Says” would pop into my head at least once a day as I headed out to hit the red line, find a coffee shop, walk past the Wiltern on my way to the Sav-on, or grab some Pho 2000 in the middle of the night. And I would stop, look up at the gently waving palm fronds, and remember that no matter what was going on in my life—high drama, money struggles, the mundanity of getting older—“at least I live in Los Angeles.”

  1. “Destination Unknown” by Missing Persons (Spring Session M, Capitol Records, 1982) Missing Persons, a new wave staple on the radio and MTV in its infancy, were founded in 1980 in Los Angeles by Warren Cuccurullo (guitar), Dale Bozzio (vocalist), Terry Bozzio (drummer) and later Patrick O’Hearn (bass) and Chuck Wild (keyboard). While this song is much lesser known that “Walking in L.A.”—which I still get asked about occasionally out here on the East Coast. . .”is it true?” . . .um, once and for all, “NO!”—I think it really captures a particular alternative New Wave sonic alterity that scholar, poet, and Highland Park native Wanda Alarcon describes in an SO! post entitled “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” as having told her “there were options out there. . .and that was all I needed to survive—to save my queer soul.” Sometimes not knowing your destination can be truly liberatory.

  1. “Look Out Weekend” by Debbie Deb (single on Jam Packed Records, 1984) While the bad ass Deborah Claire Wesoff-Kowalski (known of course as Debbie Deb) was born in Brooklyn and raised in Miami, she is an honorary Angelena as far as I am concerned. Her music was the soundtrack to many an Aqua Net set as my friends and I teased our bangs to untold heights to hit Roller City 2001, or later to attempt to rule the dance floor (and work out our Riverside-ness) at Hollywood’s Florentine Gardens—a basketball gym-sized dance floor replete with go-go dancers, a taco bar on the patio, a dress-to-impress crowd and a broad spectrum of ground effects in the parking lot. We loved it so much we claimed the sound of Miami freestyle as “L.A. Disco.” To this day, when I throw on Deb at a party, I can’t help but smell Drakkar Noir and the scent of burning eyeliner pencils—well, how do you soften it to make your Cleopatra-eyes?. Then, as now, I used Deb’s pounding beat, synth stabs, and tough girl vocals to armor myself for life’s increasing challenges—to transform “Oh, what now?” into that world-famous and oh-so-necessary L.A. challenge “So now what?” And I thank her profusely for that.

  1. “West Coast Poplock” by Ronnie Hudson and the Street People (Single on HouseJam Records, 1982) In this multi-layered song by early Los Angeles B-Boys, Ronnie Hudson and the Street People, you can hear the echoes of earlier hits—lyrical shout outs to “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugar Gang (1979) and Zapp and Roger’s “So Ruff, So Tuff” (1981) as well as a killer hook borrowed from Booker T. and the M.G.’s “Bootleg” (1965)—and some really excellent futureshocks of the many L.A. acts to later sample it in songs like Mixmaster Spade and the Compton Posse’s “Genius is Back” (1988), N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” (1988), Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” (1992), and Tupac and Dr. Dre’s much beloved monster hit “California Love” (1994). But you can also listen for the way its soundscape takes you back to the days when pop-locking ruled the scene so hard that Ronnie Hudson made a special version called “East Coast Poplock” to take the moves created by Don Campbell, a commercial art student at L.A. Trade Tech, all the way to the other coast.

  1. “Make Ya Neck Lock” by Medusa and Feline Science (Undaground Crewed, Project Blowed, 2002). Another amazing fusion artist who should not be an LA-area secret,Medusa (also known as Baby NeNe, Triple Kahlua, Sister Monet, Medusa, Microfro, and that “cool-playa-pimp nigga Sean”)began her long Los Angeles reign as a 16 year old pop-locker with the Groove-Atrons and honed her rhyme talents at The Good Life Café (and later Project Blowed) in Leimert Park, along with Freestyle Fellowship,Yo Yo, J5 and the Pharcyde. Medusa, along with her live back-up band and hip hop crew Feline Science—which includes a DJ, drummer, bassist, keyboard, percussionist, guitar and background singers—has reigned supreme on the L.A. club circuit for many years, most famously transforming the Fais Do-Do on West Adams into her own personal queendom called “Nappy at the Roots”—a fecund female and queer-friendly performance space for innovative acts that fused musics from across the city like Quetzal, Wozani, and Burning Spear—where she always brought down the house. I can vouch—I was a devoted subject for all of the years I lived in L.A.

  1. “This Town” by Ceci Bastida with guest Tim Armstrong (Veo La Marea, EMI, 2008). Ceci Bastida has been an integral part of the transborder music culture circulating between Tijuana and Los Angeles since age 15, when she joined what would become one of the most classic Rock en Español bands, Tijuana NO!, as a singer, keyboardist and songwriter. While with TN!, Ceci collaborated with bands like Fishbone and Manu Chao. After leaving the band in 2000, she played with Julieta Venegas’s band for seven years, whereupon she started her solo turn, from which this track is taken, a bi-lingual, multi-genre revisioning of the Go-Go’s 1980s Valley soundscape, one that reminds listeners that the founder of the Go-Go’s was actually Chicana punk rocker Margot Olvarria (who was eventually kicked out of the group for refusing to conform to the band’s shift from punk aggression to power pop harmonies). I’ll forgive her the guesting by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, because I love this song so much, especially its movements from English to Spanish to Spanglish, its deft juxtapositions of sounds and musical styles, and the way it manages to be celebratory and confrontational all at once. It’s might be our town, but it’s still “so ruff, so tuff out here, baby.”

  1. “Here Comes the Sun” by Voodoo Glow Skulls (Who Is This Is?, Dr. Strange Records, 1994) Founded in La Sierra (an unincorporated area in Riverside County), Inland Empire Chicano punk-ska-metal band the Voodoo Glow Skulls have been at it since 1989. The “classic” line-up has a trio of brothers at its heart: Frank Casillas (Vocals), Eddie Casillas (Guitar) and Jorge Casillas (bass), with a pulse provided by Jerry O’Neill (drums), and the unique warped mariachi-1950s rock bop horn sounds provided by Joe McNally (trumpet), Joey Hernandez (sax), and Brodie Johnson (trombone). Confession: I have known Joe since elementary school and Brodie since he was a high school metal head and, even though I have some personal rough water under the bridge where VGS is concerned—an ex, and that’s all I will say about that—I haven’t stopped loving this song, a speeded-up Beatles cover that embodies the tensions, excitement, danger, and hope in California’s eternal promise of new beginnings. It’s rapid-fire chant calls to me now to remind me that “Little Girlie, it’s been so long since you been here.”

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Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief  for Sounding Out! She teaches African American literature and sound studies at Binghamton University and was a former Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University (2011-2012). You can catch her full CV at stoeverackerman.com.

Featured image borrowed from Flickr user Daniel Orth.

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SO! L.A.: Sounding the California Story

4736051423_cfe642b355_b

 Editor’s Note: Welcome to the second installment in our month-long exploration of listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18, 2012.  For the full introduction to the series click here.  To peep the previous post, click here.  Otherwise, whip out your most oversized sunglasses, kick back, and listen to Bridget Hoida’s California.  –JSA

—-

STOP.

Do not read along with me “in your book.”

Resist the temptation to follow along with your eyes.

Click play. Listen.

Sunset in the San Joaquin Valley

If I had things my way, I would whisper these stories to you as we sat in mesh folding chairs on the poured concrete porch of my Central Valley childhood home. If I had things my way, I would refill your glass with lemons and gin, and we would breathe in the sweet, summer smell of rotting blackberry brambles. If I had things my way, we would wait until the sun set against a Tokay harvest, taking with it the harsh triple digit temperature and leaving us nothing but the quiet of a delta breeze and moonlight. If I had it my way, I would ask you to lean in close as I whisper with canonical voices:

“This is a story about love and death in the golden land, …”

-Joan Didion

“I remember that moment exactly, those exact words registering in my mind like the notes of a solo…”

-Lawson Fusao Inada

“Bobby Gene was a tattletale he told everything he heard…”

Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel

“You must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you…”

Maxine Hong Kingston

“My history is murky, and I wanted it [ …] that way so I could be free to tell whatever I wanted. “

Salvador Plascencia

“I’ll tell you what I suppose from your silences and few words and you can tell me if I’m mistaken. You’ll have to speak up with the real stories if I’ve got you wrong…”

Maxine Hong Kingston

“And so they talked and told tales of their region, and I listened. Long into the night I listened until I dropped off to sleep and my father would pick me up onto his lap as he continued to talk about the Revolution…. And every camp was different, none existing for more than six or seven weeks, then off we would go to the next harvest, where new people would gather and there would be new tales to be told and heard. I knew when I was six years old that the one thing I most wanted from life was to be a storyteller.

-Jose Antonio Villarreal

The storied sound of California

-All Voices

Shush…. Listen.

Linger with me on the drawn-out drawl of the stories I was raised on. Of the stories I was raised upon. For this is the sound of the California story: A myriad of voices sounding out narratives onto the page. Conflicting, concurring, spoken-over and rewrote…no one lasts longer than the next harvest, the next filmic “Action!” This is the sound of the storied terrain of interwoven melodies spoken upon the California soil that I call home.

1.

In or around 1995, I fell madly in love with Joan Didion. It’s not so much Didion the woman but rather the sound of Didion’s words that have me so hung up. My obsession began in the stacks of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. I was assistant to the assistant librarian there and during my lunch hour I would take the dumb waiter up to the roof, eat a Kaiser roll with apricot jam, and read dime store copies of classic novels. I chose the roof because I like to read aloud, and in libraries at the time, reading aloud, especially to yourself, was expressly forbidden.

So there I was on the roof of Bancroft, with my roll, my jam, and my dime store copy of Play It As It Lays I opened the page and read something about snakes and Iago. A mother died, the town of Silver Wells was won, and then lost, in much the same way a marriage slips into divorce. And then it happened. I stumbled across a line that changed the way I thought about words. Page 7, the first full sentence of the top paragraph, on the right: I might as well lay it on the line, I have trouble with as it was.

And after that line a whole lot of white space.

Beautiful, brilliant, blank white space.

As though in the silence of the rooftop, of the view, Didion was screaming to the reader, to me, something louder than words. In that white space there was sound and it was deafening.

2.

Later, when I decided to get a Ph.D. in creative writing, and although I couldn’t say as much on paper, examine, among other things, the commonality of language in California writers and the sonic devices of oral storytelling, I came across a quote from Didion, in interview, that said:

I had the technical intention to write a novel so elliptical and fast […] it would scarcely exist on the page at all…white space. Empty space. […] A white book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams…

And although I adore everything about her I almost wished she hadn’t said it. Or that I hadn’t read it, because the thing about Didion is that statement… the part about the blank space… and the nightmare… it was already there. On the roof of the Bancroft library with my Kaiser roll and apricot jam, when the air tasted like September, I brought my own bad dreams because in that brilliant bit of white space I heard the scream.

3.

I like the white page. I prefer stories to plots. Plot for me is how the narrative moves from one space in time (from one line on the page) to the next. Story is how the narrative sounds. Story is voice. Plots are where girls meet boys and girls lose boys and girls get boys back. Stories are the shuffle and stop of scuffed shoes walking railroad levees, old men clearing phlegm, the surprise of an elastic bikini band as it snaps against the freshly burnt back of a burgeoning starlet. And the sounds of words as they smack unbridled against the page.

a traditional page by John Steinbeck

a white page by Joan Didion


4. 

When I read Didion we are on my porch and I hear her voice. When we think of writing, when we imagine reading, we think of quiet moments that exist alone with fixed type on a printed page. But as a reader, and more importantly as a writer, I have never felt this way.

5.

Voice, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, is the “slant” you bring to your version of “the truth.” Plots are recyclable. Hell, you can buy one on eBay, to be sure. But a writer’s voice is different. I don’t read a book to figure out what happens next. I read to hear the whisper of the author’s voice. If they whisper well, I turn the page.

6.

From John Steinbeck to Gertrude Stein John Fante to Susan Straight, Larry Levis and Mary Hunter Austin to William Saroyan and Shawna Yang Ryan, there is commonality of sound and language that I’m willing to claim composes an aural palimpsest of sorts. A voicing over, both literally and figuratively of native daughters and native sons held up on the tongue of the golden state.

The cadence, the rhythm, the obsession with things past. The aching nostalgic longing. The reflection. The fear. The reclamation. The imagination. The witness of an agrarian undoing. Sleepy Hollow moments reborn—again and again on western soil. The feeling of home. The feeling of home slipping away. The feeling of self, self-made in the image of home, slipping away alongside it. There’s a certain Californianess to it.

7.

What if we found a way to consider the sound these “fixed texts” emote? What if we broke with conventional narrative structure and embraced a written technique that more adeptly mirrored the sound and cadence of spoken story telling? Then might it be possible that the very aurality that is “written over” on the read palimpsest is in fact the sound that also remains?

As a writer, a writer who believes in voice, who rejoices in sounds as the strike-like syllables against a now forgotten Olivetti key, my pursuit in writing not only a novel, but in writing a novel about California was how I could possibly enter into this conversation. How I might be able to raise my voice loud enough to embrace the crowd of such a respectable page. How I could construct my text in such a way that it would not only read, but also sound Californian.

a “docu-page” by Raymond Barrio

8.

In my struggle to voice not only my novel, So L.A., but also my protagonist Magdalena de la Cruz, I relied heavily on the patterns, soundscapes and literary devices of the collective California canon comprised of authors such as the ones I spoke of above. In So L.A. I was looking for a way to tell the story out loud while still operating within the conventional structure of a “type and text” book.

9.

My novel opens with Magdalena falling off a boat and then moves both forward and backward in time. This is how most people tell stories orally. They begin in the middle and then jump around, forgetting, amending, and calling attention to the most important parts, while the listener rarely ever exclusively listens but instead interjects and provides his or her own connections, observations and experiences. Eliminating quotations allowed me to access some of this interplay. It allowed me to question the reliability of spoken language. Spoken utterance does NOT always translate to precise hearing of the said words uttered. There is always interference—be it emotional (memory-sound triggers), psychological (felt meaning as opposed to said meaning), physical (honking cars, loud birds, eye rolls and sneezing) or linguistic (signifiers and unspoken gestures). Just because words are utter does not mean they are the same words that are heard. And not only did I want this, but I needed it on my page. Although I considered the docunovel (in the vein of Raymond Barrio), autho-interview collage (like Anna Deavere Smith) and autofictive exploration (ala Salvador Plascencia) I ultimately decided to abandon quotation marks.

a “sounded” page from The People of Paper

10.

This (“) says open. It says start.

This (”) says closed. It says stop.

But (“) and (”) also sound.

For me they sound like a particularly rough clearing of the throat. They sound like standing on a library rooftop, trying to confess your love with the passion of a librarian “with hiccups.”

“They” interrupt the eye. “They” provide visual cues for accessing character and I didn’t want Magdalena “to be seen.” I wanted her to sound.

Her voice required a fluidity and unreliability not attainable “in quotes.”  Without conventional quotes I was free to wander inside the head and voice of my protagonist as I pushed the blur between what she was saying, what the listener perceived she was saying, and what other characters were voicing without visual interruption.

11.

Also important in my authorial access to sound (and the absence of sound) on the fixed and written page was the use of filmic microchapters (some only as long as a single sentence). A sentence that reads as a chapter, surrounded by all that stark and lovely white space, not only looks different from a classical bookish chapter, but it also sounds different. Read out loud, or quietly inside the reader’s head, it sounds out a particular meaning and resonated differently within the mind’s eye and ear.

12.

With so much of the present world turning virtual, author and storyteller Barry Sanders concludes, “We demand less from the historical accuracy of our stories. We even demand less of a truth. We are content with images and feelings. If it feels closer to the truth then it might as well be.” However I’d like to extend Sander’s assessment beyond image and feeling to include sound. In this newly constructed world of virtual storytelling we are again experiencing a shift (not unlike the shift from oral to written storytelling) that is also sound dependent and sonically informed. From the staccato sounds of Twitter as compared to the unconstricted and leisurely expanse of Tumblr, it is important to acknowledge that the twenty-second sound bite can be (and historically has been) used (and utilized) in fiction to make noise and call attention to lasting moments of profound revelation. Although Didion’s Maria may “have trouble with how it was” I find a certain sense of comfort in how it is provided we are all able to lean in close and listen. Listen past the interference of type, text and YouTube to the sound of words both on and upon the page as,

“These are tales told in darkness in the quiet at the end of the day’s heat…”

Shirley Anne Williams

Opening Image Credit: “L.A. Sky at Sunset” by Flickr User David Vienna

Audio note: Voices used, with the exception of Bridget Hoida, are not the actual voices of the authors listed, nor are they meant to be representative of said authors.

Bridget Hoida is the author of So L.A. (2012). In a past life she was a librarian, a DJ, a high school teacher, and a barista. In this life she experiments with words and has taught writing at UC Irvine, the University of Southern California and is currently a professor at Saddleback College. Hoida is the recipient of an Anna Bing Arnold Fellowship and the Edward Moses prize for fiction. She was a finalist in the Joseph Henry Jackson/San Francisco Intersection for the Arts Award for a first novel and the William Faulkner Pirate’s Alley first novel contest. Her short stories have appeared in the Berkeley Fiction Review, Mary, and Faultline Journal, among others, and she was a finalist in the Iowa Review Fiction Prize and the Glimmer Train New Writer’s Short Story Contest. Her poetry has been recognized as an Academy of American Poets Prize finalist and she was a Future Professoriate Scholar at USC.

She has a BA from UC Berkeley, a MA in fiction from San Francisco State University, and a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. So L.A. is her first novel.

Listening to the A. D. White House: Cornell’s Society for the Humanities’ Year in Review

Brandon Labelle

Today, Society for the Humanities Director Timothy Murray sings us back home with a meditation on the soundscapes of study at the A.D. White House this year, closing out our spring “Live from the SHC” series covering new research on  “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politics.”  The 2011-2012 Fellows have got to say goodbye for the summer–and sadly beyond–but we all hope that  next years’ Fellows (2012-2013 Theme: Risk @ Humanities) enjoy all the good vibrations we will leave behind, and that you, Dear SO! readers, have enjoyed our broadcast!  Our summer series, “Tuning In the Past,” on radio and legacy of broadcaster Norman Corwin, featuring  Neil VermaShawn VanCour, and Alex Russo begins at the end of June.  And, of course, every Monday in between and beyond,  we’ll keep giving you something you can feel.  –JSA, Editor in Chief (and 2011-2012 SHC Fellow)

Many thanks to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman for hosting “Live from the SHC” on Sounding Out!  What a fantastic experience it’s been to have Jennifer screening and tweaking Sounding Out! from her garret office overlooking the gardens behind the A.D. White House, the Cornell home of the Cornell’s Society for the Humanities.  Readers of “Live from the SHC” have read various strains of this year’s focal theme, “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politics.”  The aim of this year’s residential research project was to contemplate and analyze the resonance of historical and contemporary representations, movements, ideas, and negations of sound.

From Left: Tim Murray, Eric Lott, Tom McEnaney, and Marcus Boon, Image by Renate Ferro

Open to study of the broadest cross-cultural range of contexts and media that cross the boundaries of time and space–from East and West/South and North–the Fellows’ research delved into the complex ways that sound abounds in visual, textual, and aural realms.  From “voicing” to “listening,” sound shaped the framework of our critical and philosophical analyses of the body, affect, and social publics.  Sound came to be appreciated for its shaping of the parameters of psycho-cultural imaginaries, social practice, religious ritual, and political regulation throughout history and across the globe.  Just as sound differs in the global context of capitalism and cosmopolitanism, not to mention the specificities of ethnic difference and cultural diversity, “voice,” “hearing,” and “listening” frame the humanities disciplines in relation to their aesthetic properties and political ramifications.

From Left: Eric Lott and Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Image by Jeanette Jouili

The Fellows found themselves reflecting on several key issues. Which criteria differentiates natural from artificial sounds?  Does sound challenge disciplinary distinctions between the visual and the oral/aural/tactile? Can the loud noises of industrial culture be distinguished from the synthetic sounds of electronic music, the stammerings of performance and the vibrations of philosophical manifestos? It should come as no surprise to followers of Sounding Out! that sound marks the passage of time, the correlation of the aural to the movement of the body in dance and performance, the sonic promise of cartographic projects of social movements and migrations, and the cultural and ethnic specificities of acoustic fields and rhythms in the age of sampling and mixing, not to mention the gender, racial, and ethnic import of voice and spoken narrative.

Adding vibrant texture to our year-long discussions were the three weeks spent in extended dialogue with the Society’s Senior Invited Fellows.  Emily Thompson (The Soundscape of Modernity) charted the histories of the architectonic sounds of cinema houses as well as the untraceable wealth of the historical sounds of New York City as its peripheries morphed from country estate to urban zone.  Brandon LaBelle came from Norway to take us on a journey of artistic imagination and phenomenological hopefulness as he cruised his writings on Acoustic Territories and Site Specific Sound while sampling the background noises of his multimedia installations.  Then Norie Neumark, fresh off the release of VOICE: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media (co-edited with Ross Gibson and Theo Van Leewen), arrived from Australia to follow up on our 2003 online seminar on Sound Cultures.  She reminded us of the deep history of sound studies down under, while focusing our attention on voicings and her own multimedia art practice that blends spoken narrative, synthetic noise, mouthed breath, and shocks in the ear. [The "Live From the SHC" logo is a piece from Neumark and Maria Miranda's "Shock in the Ear"--ED].

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Various other visitors throughout the year included multimedia artists Mendi and Keith Obadike whose “not” Afrofuturism walked us through their exciting series of performance works,“Four Electric Ghosts,” Caitlin Marshall from Berkeley who  brought cyborg speech to life with her prosthetic soundings, and renowned choreographer William Forsythe, whose four-hour choreography piece  “Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time“–performed amidst amidst over 150 hanging pendulums–combined dance and environment as a means of physically manifesting the process of thought.  Marjorie Garber from Harvard rode our acoustic wave to reflect on the future of the humanities while Norma Coates came down from Western Ontario to sensitize us to the mixes of pop sound and culture.

Brock Labrenz performs William Forsythe’s “Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time” at Cornell University’s Rand Hall on March 3, 2012. Image by William Staffeld / AAP

In listening back to the echoes of the year past, rather than here retracing the specific projects of our Fellows (you can consult the critical tales already Sound[ed] Out! by Damien KeaneTom McEnaney, Nina Sun EidsheimJonathan Skinner, Eric Lott, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, and Jeanette Jouili), I find myself sampling the sounds, noises, and glitches that provided unexpected reverbs for the academic writing happening behind closed office doors throughout the A. D. White House.

Nina Sun Eidsheim, Image by Renate Ferro

Sounds of glee, delight, and play first arrived on the scene at the end of August with gaggles of laughing and screaming kids running wild and climbing trees in the gardens, surrounded by bemused adults and envious dogs. Accompanying partners brought to the mix the diverse soundings of African film, suspicious packages, software beats, performance art, critical geography, and real estate hawking.  No wonder the assembled Fellows strayed so readily, if not unconventionally, from the promised strictures of already exceptional research projects that brought to our weekly seminar table the street sounds of Egypt, Turkey, Korea, early modern Germany, contemporary Islam, American hip hop, contemporary art, circuit bending, gaming, German, Irish, U.S. and Latin American radio, voices of performers, animals, and posthumans, urban soundscapes, and, here making a loud call out to one Stoever-Ackerman, sonic color-lines.

Marcus Boon Rocks the Spring Workshop After Party–Image by JSA

Resounding throughout the year to give cadence and timbre to our serious ponderings were the spontaneous soundings that seemed always to give ample depth to the provocative interstices of intellectual life.  There were the noises of glitch, circuit-bending, and Guitar Hero that stretched and extended the purpose of music and machinics.  There were spontaneous voice lessons that turned anxious performers into wild choreographic objects.  Singing above in the hidden alcoves–when not streaming through the high Victorian ceilings of the A. D. White House–were our flying mammal friends whose echolocation extended beyond the reach of our mere human ears.  Then were the sudden noisy reminders of the vulnerability of our corporeal organs.  Who could forget the reported imaginary of the crunch of human leg against car as two of our Fellows found themselves under assault from a crazed pizza delivery guy – luckily no lasting damage?

Our fellows will carry away the subliminal lacings of the lighter sounds of improvisation and camaraderie.  There were the poundings of feet and slappings of bodies dancing late into the night after hours of laborious conferencing to the beats of DJs Marcus Boon, Art Jones, and Earmuffs.

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At the end of the year, Fellows grooved to the beat of Tom McEnaney playing bass with The Vix Krater out at the Rongo in Trumansburg, NY (down the road from the home of Moog),  before retreating to the bowels of the A. D. White House basement for another dusty, late night jam session with drums, synthesizer, guitars, bass, and various acoustics, led by the ultimate sound blogger herself, the guitar heroesse, Jenny S-A. [Well, I'm learning.  So far I know E-Minor. It was Trevor that really broke my strings in! --ED].

(From left) Damien Keane on bass, Michael Jonik, Trevor Pinch on Guitar and Moog, Image by JSA

And, yes, there was always the accompaniment of the clinks of glasses and bottles bearing the liquid life blood of any noisy crew.

The French philososopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, reminds us in Listening (2007) that the shared space of noise and sound entails “a totality of referrals: from a sign to a thing, from a state of things to a quality, from a subject to another subject or to itself, all simultaneously.  Sound is also made of referrals: it spreads in space, where it resounds while still resounding ‘in me’” (7).   What resounded and referred this year at the Society for the Humanities was the very immaterial and inchoate touch of sound, which is a-live in intensity and force.  But who would have imagined the intensity of the noise of referral that remained so constant throughout the year to envelop the solid academic work of our Fellows in the wilding vibrations of jouissance?  Indeed, perhaps the best lesson of the year, at a moment when the humanities finds itself threatened and in transition by the supposed certainty of metric and assessment, is that the Society’s scholarship in sound was driven by the relentless noise of referral and the unpredictable delight of the commune.

From Left: Renate Ferro, Ladi Dell’aira, Sarah Ensor, Jeanette Jouili, Nina Sun Eidsheim, Brian Hanrahan, and Norie Neumark, Image by JSA

Featured Image Credit: Brandon La Belle, Duck Duck Goose Installation, Ausland, Berlin

Timothy Murray is Professor of Comparative Literature and English and Curator of the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art. He is the Cornell Principal Investigator of the Central Humanities Corridor, generously supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and he sits on the International Advisory Board of the Consortium of the Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) and the Steering Committee of the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC). He is Co-Moderator of the -empyre- new media listserv and the author of Digital Baroque: New Media Art and Cinematic Folds (Minnesota 2008); Zonas de Contacto: el arte en CD-ROM (Centro de la imagen, 1999); Drama Trauma: Specters of Race and Sexuality in Performance, Video, Art (Routledge, 1997); Like a Film: Ideological Fantasy on Screen, Camera, and Canvas (Routledge, 1993); Theatrical Legitimation: Allegories of Genius in XVIIth-Century England and France (Oxford, 1987). He is editor of Mimesis, Masochism & Mime: The Politics of Theatricality in Contemporary French Thought (Michigan, 1997) and, with Alan Smith, Repossessions: Psychoanalysis and the Phantasms of Early-Modern Culture (Minnesota, 1997). His curatorial projects include CTHEORY MULTIMEDIA and Contact Zones: The Art of the CD-Rom.

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