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 Anderson, Associate 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.
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 Nico, White Light, White Heat, The 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.
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.
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.
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).
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 email@example.com.
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
Do not read along with me “in your book.”
Resist the temptation to follow along with your eyes.
Click play. Listen.
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, …”
“I remember that moment exactly, those exact words registering in my mind like the notes of a solo…”
“Bobby Gene was a tattletale he told everything he heard…”
“You must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you…”
“My history is murky, and I wanted it [ …] that way so I could be free to tell whatever I wanted. “
“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…”
“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.
The storied sound of California
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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 Verma, Shawn 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.
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.
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].
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.
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 Keane, Tom McEnaney, Nina Sun Eidsheim, Jonathan 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.
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.
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.
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].
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.
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.