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Saving Sound, Sounding Black, Voicing America: John Lomax and the Creation of the “American Voice”

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100 Years of Lomax4Today, SO! finishes its series reconsidering the life and work of Alan Lomax in his centenary year, edited by Tanya Clement of The University of Texas at Austin. We started out with Mark Davidson‘s reflections on what it means to raise questions about the politics behind Lomax’s efforts to record and collect folk music, and continued a few weeks later with Parker Fishel‘s consideration of Lomax’s famous “Southern Journey” and how it has been appropriated by musicians more recently. The third piece in this series was Clement’s own, which challenged us to consider the politics behind efforts to search, retrieve and analyze audio, something that the case of Lomax throws into stark relief.

We conclude with a piece by Toneisha Taylor, who urges us to think about the influence of John Lomax’s curatorial practice on Alan’s own, particularly the monumental Works Progress Administration project of recording interviews with elderly former slaves in the 1930s. At once a critique and a counternarrative, Taylor’s work urges us to think of the interviewees as co-creators of the “American voice” so important to both Lomaxes.

— Special Editor Neil Verma


I recently found myself in a discussion with white friends and fellow scholars about the Lomax recordings of the 1930’s where I, as the lone Black woman in the conversation, heard myself tell an inner truth that most Black folk know, but won’t speak on. I admitted to my small audience of friends and colleagues, in the vein of Black folklore scholar John B. Cade, a truth about the past: if you were a Black person living in Waller County Texas in the 1930s and white men came to your door with notebooks, questions and a voice recording device, you weren’t thinking to yourself, “let me be my most honest and authentic self.” Even if you knew the men to be John Lomax and Alan Lomax—those men collecting those songs from Black folks around and through these parts—you still didn’t trust them. Not really. Your whole life experience up until that point taught you better. It was still your life. And you knew that.

Although we scholars have not often been willing to admit it, those Black folks had an agency when it came to the myth creation and historical preservation associated with the Lomax archive. They knew what they were doing. They knew that they were telling their stories in a ways that served them best as John Lomax contemporary John Cade notes in his work “Out of the Mouths of Ex-Slaves.”

John Lomax and Uncle Rich Brown at the home of Julia Killingsworth near Sumterville, Ala., Oct. 1940,  Courtesy of the Library of Congress

John Lomax and Uncle Rich Brown at the home of Julia Killingsworth near Sumterville, Ala., Oct. 1940, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In our modern day readings of the Lomax collections, it is not at all fair to take agency away from Black folk brave enough to share their stories, and to place the creative power in the hands of the Lomaxes and the white oral history and folk music collectors they worked with in the Federal Writers Project. To do that negates the work of Zora Neale Hurston, Cade, and other Black folklore and folk life collectors and scholars; it also negates the power of the narrators that shared their lives with John and Alan Lomax. By focusing on the sound recordings of former slaves, we can investigate the ways in which Black people who participated in the Works Progress Administration interviews coded their agency in their narratives. Moreover, we have an opportunity to investigate the ways in which the Lomaxes facilitated the agency of Black interview participants and Black folklorists.

The systematic collection of slave narratives as recorded by the writers and scholars participating in the John Lomax-directed Federal Writers Project  always had multiple goals. The Works Progress Administration conceived of the project as a way to employ out of work authors and underemployed scholars during the Depression. The Library of Congress and John Lomax saw the project as a method to collect first hand accounts of a dying history. The participants likely saw the opportunity as a way to be a witness to their own truths. During the 1930’s and 1940’s when the bulk of the collection was taking place other scholars such as Cade were working to collect narratives using similar techniques and research designs. Many scholars, at the time and afterward–famously John Blassingame and Henry Louis Gates–would question the authenticity of the transcribed narratives, there was always a sense that the WPA collected narrative left more questions than they answered. When the Library of Congress, with funding from Citigroup Foundation, put the narratives, transcripts, WPA collection reports, photographs and other documents up on the internets they opened the collection up to scholars to ask new questions. The digital representation of the WPA collection allowed for new options in research with the ability to hear the recordings the controversy over authenticity of transcripts seemed dated and immaterial. Now the questions can focus on embodied narrative, with access to the reports and memos written by WPA staff questions of intent and purpose can be asked. With a focus on sound studies we can ask about the ways in with interpersonal discourse in racialized moments are navigated between people with sociocultural difference.

This post focuses on the early collection work of John Lomax (Alan Lomax’s father and teacher), asking some critical questions about how the Lomaxes archived Black voices into the “American Voice.” In his piece, as part of this series, Parker Fishel discusses the purposefulness of Alan Lomax’s Southern Journey recordings notes. As Fishel notes one of the elements Alan offers in his notes are methods for critical listening. By focusing on both the recordings in the WPA Slave Narratives and letters and memos written by John and Alan Lomax directing the collection, transcription, and preservation of the narratives I focus on how taking the totality of the collection into consideration can change the view of the WPA Slave narratives. How was it possible that the Lomaxes preserved stories of Black American life while at the same time, silencing their subjects in other ways? How can we rediscover, conserve, and integrate the sounds of Black folk life into a more holistic understanding of the American past?

Patsy Moses, age 74, ca. 1937, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Patsy Moses, age 74, ca. 1937, courtesy of the Library of Congress

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Research

I discovered the work of the WPA Slave Narratives when I was in college. I was assigned a paper and went to the library to do some research. With the help of the research librarian I found the website (layout unchanged since the late-1990’s) for the WPA Slave Narratives. I wrote my paper, did well, and, like most undergraduates, moved forward with my life.

However, the voices of those Black folks continued to echo in the back of my mind. As I advanced in my academic study, I would “check up” on the website, you know, lurk. I would go in to see if there were updates or new information placed online. When I found information, I engaged the text. When the Library of Congress made the digital recordings available online, the collection included WPA recordings as well as other interviews recorded and collected with former slaves. The crackle of the recordings, coupled with the rhythm of voices of those women and men bold enough to share their stories, drew me in once more. In particular, I tended to return to recording of Aunt Harriet Smith. Her memory of her work, life, and religious experiences during slavery still interest me.

“Ex-slave Narratives – Interview with Aunt Harriet Smith”. Released: 2003.

Mrs. Smith, like all participants in the Ex-Slave Narrative Project, shares her personal narrative in such a ways as to engage the listener in the shared creation of a “memorable message.”  Memorable messages are stories that we get from family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and even strangers that transmit an experience so salient we bookmark the message and use it as a guide for future interaction, behavior—performance.Communication scholars have worked with memorable messages for decades (Knapp, Stohl & Reardon 1981; Camara & Orbe, 2010). In tandem with the narrative paradigm, memorable messages function within rhetoric to give rise to the central importance of the retelling of human experience as part of the collective human story (Fisher, 1984). The value of listening to the recording of Mrs. Smith, therefore, is in the way hearing her voice completes the accuracy of the narrative.For example, take a listen [about 5:31 in the recording] to the way she answers the interviewer’s question:

Well did you ever hear of any slaves being mistreated? Were there any tails going around?

Mrs. Smith answers:

Yes, I know of times when, mistreated people they did. I hear our folks talk ‘bout whopping, you know, cus they had to grease the back. To get the clothes from their back.

The tone in her voice and the engagement in her memory is so clear and certain that her insistence that the family she belonged to didn’t “mistreat their colored people” was honestly presented. Notably, even the short transcription I provided differs from the transcribed section of the same interview printed at the time of the collection.

As I discuss elsewhere, memorable messages as theory relies on the verbal and embodied telling of a story. Different from the womanist theorizing of re-memory, memorable messages are based on the lived experience of others not ourselves. Re-memory is the work done by the womanist who imparts the memorable message. In constructing the narrative I, as the womanist narrator, re-member my narrative as part of the life lesson I seek to impart to my reader.

John Lomax, Alan Lomax and the Power to Decide

The process of generating the WPA narratives was far more complicated than many realize. It is not tangential to the creation of the WPA Slave narratives that one way of entering the project was through the former slavemaster. In other words, Black participants were often identified by their former owners or the relatives of those owners to participate in the collection. Additionally, some of the interviewers were themselves know to be related to large slaveholding families. The combination of these facts likely impacted the creation of the narratives on the part of the Black participants. In  her essay “Ex-Slave Narratives: The WPA Federal Writers’ Project Reappraised” Lynda M. Hill focuses on the language and questions of Alan Lomax outlined in a number of his reports to his father and other directors of the WPA Ex-Slave Narrative collection. In their papers and notes, as well as their directives to those collecting the narratives—a list including Alan Lomax, Dr. Charles S. Johnson, John Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, John Henry Faulk, Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner, Ruby Lomax and others—it is clear that both father and son wish for a greater humanity in the interviews.

Zora Neale Hurston with three boys in Eatonville Florida, 1935. Hurston interviewed children and had them demonstrate their games as Alan Lomax documented the action. [Prints and Photographs, Call number: LOT 7414-C, no. N109a, frame 47].

Zora Neale Hurston with three boys in Eatonville Florida, 1935. Hurston interviewed children and had them demonstrate their games as Alan Lomax documented the action. [Prints and Photographs, Call number: LOT 7414-C, no. N109a, frame 47].

Where Alan and John seemed to disagree was on the content. John Lomax wanted a narrative concentrated on the participant’s life during slavery, where Alan also wanted to know about their life since. Alan seemed more interested in race relations, as well as the economic, political and social engagement of the participants. Both father and son seem quick to place the blame for lightness of the interviews on the interviewers they used and their inability or reluctance to ask probative follow-up questions.

The Lomaxes, Texans who spent much time in the Southern states collecting narratives, songs, and oral histories from African American community members, speak from a place of experience. When Alan Lomax suggests that interviewers need to “spend time” and “become friends” with individuals, he knows of what he speaks. While certain that members of the “ex-slave community” can be reluctant to share their stories and the truths of their inner lives with white outsiders, he is much less clear on how one might “become friends” with them. To modern ethnographers, Alan Lomax’s call to his contemporary white colleagues can read as harsh (or perhaps not harsh enough). For 21st century ethnographers, folklorists, and musicologists, it is common to “become friends” to engage in participant observation research where the scholar and his or her interlocutors have fewer social distances.

[Alan Lomax (left) youngster on board boat, during Bahamas recording expedition], 1935, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

[Alan Lomax (left) youngster on board boat, during Bahamas recording expedition], 1935, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Alan Lomax also may not have always been aware of his own process of “becoming friends” and how much it was guided by his social and cultural capital. It is probable that Alan’s social relationships with his father, mother, friends, colleagues and business associates all made access to certain people much easier, and their willingness to share aspects of their lives with him more palpable. Where Alan saw “lightness” in other’s collections of ex-slave narratives, there was likely greater reserve on the part of both the interviewer and the speakers, given the vast social distances of the 1930s.

Aunt Harriet McClintock, dancing for John A. Lomax as she sang "Shing, Shing," at the crossroads near Sumterville, Ala., 1940, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Aunt Harriet McClintock, dancing for John A. Lomax as she sang “Shing, Shing,” at the crossroads near Sumterville, Ala., 1940, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In April 1937, John Lomax himself seemed to recognize that the directives he sent to local field directors were not yielding the responses he thought they should, prompting a revision of the interview questions as and instructions. While both John Lomax and Alan Lomax pushed on local directors to hire African American interviewers, there was no formal incentive to follow through (65-66). Some local directors did hire African American interviewers, but would fire or replace them within a few short months. The field notes and interview transcripts collected by African Americans were often included in larger reports with notations suggesting the local director found the work inferior or suspect (66-67).

Critique and Understanding : Questions With and Without Answers

I continue to lurk about the WPA website to this day, wondering if the site’s peach background and sepia photograph header and text-only links create a statement of recording silence. As an early career faculty member with a keener sense of funding and project completion maps, I see the unchanged digital interface of the Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938 as a type of visual internet nostalgia, a way of placing Black voices in the record and then silencing or muting the power of voices by not attending to their narratives or, ironically, making those narratives easily accessible. Every time I check back, I question how the visual presentation of information is as critical to scholarly engagement as the recording itself.

Albeit in a new technical format, my critique is not novel, but rather one encoded in the report Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938 Administrative Files compiled in 1941. Slave narratives tell us much of the daily interactions and histories of all parts of American life. John Lomax believed that their preservation in the moment was necessary. His sense of coding the narratives in more standardized, easy-to-read 1930s language did, however, point to the limits of his willingness to allow the narrative to stand in full voice. To John Lomax, it mattered that there was uniformity in the way that the written text of ex-slave narratives appeared. He knew part of the long project was a book length manuscript. The collection of narratives needed to present visually in a way that eased the reader, some of whom may have been reluctant to see Black lives as having authenticity. It is in this moment of graphic depiction that language becomes contested as some (perhaps rightfully,) argue the slave narratives are inaccurate reflections of slave life.

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Does it matter that the few sound recordings remaining from the WPA project are not coupled with the transcribed narratives and photographs of speakers listed on the Slave Narratives site? Yes. Through sound, listeners have a truer sense of the active creation of Black bodies by Black folks involved in their own documentation. Think back to Mrs. Smith and her description of the neighborhood girl that leaves with the union soldiers. Mrs. Smith activates a sense of freedom and sadness in those few sentences that is understood through the combination of her tone and words. Access to sound records in a digital format allows contemporary scholars the opportunity to compare the narrator’s voice and embodiment to the written document where possible. The Library of Congress and The American Folk Life Center actively document and curate the list of sound recordings and their origins. However, the preset format forces interested people into a game of lurker hide and seek on the LOC site to access them. It is this “work” that keeps the sound recordings, texts, and photographs far too distant from one other, allowing the narratives to be only minimally present and appear not to be valued. In their current format, the WPA recordings seem appropriated as a way of suggesting inclusion in American life, but not prioritized as valued American experience.

Interviewed by Ira S. Johnson Birmingham, Alabama WPA Slave Narratives, A917, vol. 1, pp. 404-406 Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (90)

Simon Walker, Interviewed by Ira S. Johnson Birmingham, Alabama WPA Slave Narratives, A917, vol. 1, pp. 404-406 Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (90)

One could argue that the reading of Black bodies as American bodies isn’t possible without the inclusion of Black voices in Lomax’s collection of Americana and folk music.The narratives of daily life during slavery and after shape our understanding of the bodies of Blackness and the human toll of bondage. When John Lomax, and by extension Alan Lomax, collected American folk music and actively sought the music and voices of Black southern musicians and story-tellers, they authenticated belongingness of Black peoples in the creation of the American voice. Lomax centralized Black life in American life. However, the Lomax team accomplished this archiving only with with the cooperation of Black narrators whose lives were central to the telling of American life. —what we need now are more questions that center on the documents, sounds and voices of the past—centralizing memorable message sound is the key.  In a contemporary context,the WPA narratives provide a space to investigate memorable message creation and the embodiment of Blackness in the project of American life.

Featured Image: Gabriel Brown playing guitar as Rochelle French and Zora Neale Hurston listen- Eatonville, Florida, June 1935.  Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/107444

Toniesha L. Taylor is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Interim Department Head in the Department Languages and Communication at Prairie View A & M University. She earned her B. A. with a double major in 1999 from California State University, San Marcos in Communication and Liberal Studies with a minor in History. She immediately began her graduate work at San Jose State University in Speech Communication completing an M. A. in 2002. Her research foci in African American, Religion, Intercultural, Gender and Popular Culture communication started during her undergraduate studies. She has cultivated those interest throughout her doctoral work at Bowling Green State University were she completed her Ph.D. in Communication Studies with a focus on Rhetoric. Her dissertation developed womanist rhetorical theory and analysis of African American women’s sermons in the contemporary Black Church.

Toniesha’s research, conference presentations and publications speak to her diverse interest. Her recent research and conference presentations include discussions on womanist rhetoric as method and theory; practical social justice pedagogy for faculty and students; critical engagement in popular cultural critique; digital humanities methods implications for activist recovery projects; African American women’s sermons and conversion discourses both historic and contemporary. Her recent publications include “Transformative Womanist Rhetorical Strategies: Contextualizing Discourse and the Performance of Black Bodies of Desire” in Crémieux, Lemoine & Rocchi (Eds.) Black Being, Black Embodying; Contemporary Arts & The Performance Of Identities and “Black Women, Thou Art Produced! Tyler Perry’s Gosperella Productions: A Womanist Critique” in Bell & Jackson (Eds.) Tyler Perry Reader.

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Tuning Into the “Happy Am I” Preacher: Researching the Radio Career of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux
 — Suzanne E. Smith

 

SO! Amplifies: Josh Shepperd on the Radio Preservation Task Force of the Library of Congress (from FlowTV)

Shepperd-RPTS-icon-350x350

 

Document3SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

Thank you to Josh Sheppard and FlowTV for permission to reprint this excellent call to action. 

Primary Sources, Primary Sounds: The Radio Preservation Task Force of the Library of Congress

Sound history is cultural history. And a giant part of our history has yet to be preserved, researched, or taught in our classrooms. Our omissions are disproportionately distributed among the local and the liminal, the pastoral and the public, and marginalized and minority experiences. Sound trails continue where paper trails end, and we have an opportunity to provide new insight into the cultural history of the U.S. thanks to recent innovations in sound preservation technology. The Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) of the National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB) of the Library of Congress (LOC) is a growing 125-faculty member and 275-archive Digital Humanities initiative working to broaden the historical record by unearthing, mapping, and making available materials that that chronicle experiences neglected in existing historical accounts, such as minority, political, orientation, social advocacy, and educational groups. Perspectives and events that have remained unaddressed by the primary document record will receive new recognition by focusing preservation on the conversational and community building character of noncommercial and local radio history.

Soul Music/Civil Rights Legend DJ Herb Kent at WVON-Chicago

Soul Music/Civil Rights Legend DJ Herb Kent at WVON-Chicago

A historical marvel of nation-building, serialization, and aesthetic innovation, radio has also been utilized for multiple purposes beyond entertainment: from education, to a technology of opinion-formation, to a medium for political problem-solving. Much of the early history of the ether consists of distance learning broadcasts, public forums, and civic debates, and in addition to local theatrical and drive time programming the task force is concerned with making these important historical records accessible for the first time. To frame the project in historiographical terms, the RPTF is approaching radio history as a study of what the Birmingham school might call the genealogy of how strategies for circulation of discursive codes, as representations, became central to an expanded concept of the public sphere that included popular culture. If we accept the historiographical argument that content representations are also implementations of discursive, political, and industrial strategies, then radio might be viewed as a medium in which institutional and intellectual projects endeavored to communicate with and persuade community members about a specific perspective or initiative. In this way, radio history has the capacity to reveal the development and dissemination of cultural aspirations and viewpoints, and its consequent archive can be understood as a series of concurrent media advocacies that sought to define conditions of social attunement.

[Reblogged from FlowTV, to continue reading Josh on the RPTF, please click here.]

RPTF Logo, courtesy of the author; designed by artist Daniel Murphy (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).

Josh Shepperd is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Catholic University in Washington D.C. He teaches courses related to critical, conceptual, and methodological approaches to media studies.  He is also actively involved in digital humanities media preservation, and currently serve as the National Research Director of the Radio Preservation Task Force for theNational Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress.

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SO! Amplifies: Cities and Memory

quiet street

Document3SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

Inspired by how sound and memory interact, Cities and Memory is a sound program with the aim of “remixing the world, one sound at a time,” existing on the (already quite blurred) line between documentary field recording and sound art.

Its primary manifestation is an online global sound map, on which every location boasts two sounds, the “city” and the “memory.” The “city” sound is the faithful, documentary field recording capturing that place at that time, as it existed and was heard. The “memory” sound is a reimagined, remixed, reinterpreted version of that sound: everything from oral reconstructions, full-on techno tracks built around a field recording, ambient reimaginings, and all the points in between, as summarized in this roundup of creative approaches from the site.  The reimagined sounds represent how sound is remembered and experienced differently by each individual, and explore what happens in that magical period between sounds being physically experienced and their being mentally processed, interpreted, and above all felt.

Starting from that basic premise, Cities and Memory has collected more than 600 sounds from around the world in just over a year, with more than 100 artists, musicians, field recordists and sound enthusiasts contributing anything from a field recording snatched on a mobile phone through to a complete musical reconstruction.

Over recent months, Cities and Memory has expanded with a series of projects each exploring a different avenue or window onto sound that has been opened up. For instance, last November saw #HamburgSounds, an ambitious project to sound map the vast city of Hamburg, Germany and to reimagine its sounds. A four-day recording session garnered enough recordings for forty sound artists each to give their take on a different aspect of Hamburg’s sounds and what they meant to them. The results were symbolically released over a 24-hour period, representing a day in the city’s life, and in the memories and imagination of its citizens.  For more sounds from Hamburg, click here.

OS_Shareable_1 (3)

This year also saw a project using Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies cards as creative direction for reimagining field recordings. The reimagined sounds that came from more than 100 different creative strategies employed in the project were even more diverse than its locations, which covered everything from jungle in Thailand and Shanghai temples to the urban centres of Chicago, New York and London. Spectrum analysis, musical cryptograms, working simultaneously with artists in different countries, even TripAdvisor reviews(!) – every creative sonic technique in the book seems to have been used in one way or another.

The latest project, called Quiet Street, takes the form of a simultaneous digital and physical exhibition, reimagining the sounds of the city of Bath as part of its Fringe Arts Bath Festival.  The physical installation presents two sides of sonic memory – first, the documentary field recording of a location in Bath, and second the reimagined, or ‘memory’ version of the sound. The audience can navigate between two sonic ‘versions’ of Bath simultaneously on different sides of the space. One side broadcasts the “city” sound from a location, the other the matching “memory” sound, a remix or reinterpretation of the field recording, time-synced so that the sets of sounds shift in and out of one another in unison. The listener chooses – by his or her own physical proximity – to experience freely the two sound worlds.

Poster-3-small-724x1024 Visit the physical installation of Quiet Street  at Fringe Arts Bath Festival,                                         22 May 2015 - 7 June 2015 at 8/9 New Bond Street Place, Bath

Visit the physical installation of Quiet Street at Fringe Arts Bath Festival,                              22 May 2015 – 7 June 2015 at 8/9 New Bond Street Place, Bath

As the “city” and “memory” sounds are precisely time-synced in the installation, an additional creative challenge for the artists was to create reimagined version the same length as the source field recording. More importantly, they also needed consider not just how the reimagined sound stood on its own, but how it would live simultaneously in the same space as the field recording, creating a direct tension between “real” documentary sounds and the memory of those sounds in the same space.

The digital exhibition of Quiet Street allows the sounds to be explored through a map interface.  It also allows listeners to simulate the installation experience with a series of installation mixes, presenting the field recording and reimagined sound on opposite sides of the stereo field. You can access playlists here and here as well as download the album documenting the event here.

As a curator, the most exciting thing to me is that the central idea behind Cities and Memory is so open; there are almost infinite possibilities for its application. A new angle on sound, place or memory can bring up a new project at any point, and every contributor brings their own experience and interpretation.

In the course of exploring hundreds of field recordings, examining them in detail and finding a creative angle from which to reinterpret them, I’ve developed a new appreciation not just of field recording as a practice, but of how to listen to whichever environment I find myself in. It’s given me a new perspective on sound and on music, and how utterly blurred the lines are between the two. I listen very differently to the world now.  As Cities and Memory continues to grow, I hope many others will too.

C&M Website_Venice_3

 

Stuart Fowkes is the creator and curator of Cities and Memory, producing a large number of the source field recordings and reimagined ‘memory’ versions himself, as well as curating the project as a whole. Quiet Street runs from 22 May to 7 June at 8/9 New Bond Street Place, Bath, as part of Fringe Arts Bath, and digitally at www.citiesandmemory.com/quietstreet. Find out more about Cities and Memory and how to contribute: http://citiesandmemory.com/what-is-cities-and-memory-about/

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Sounding Our Utopia: An Interview With Mileece

ML

There is no utopia without nature. Life is already a utopia–Mileece

When I heard sound artist and environmental researcher Mileece refer to utopia as she presented on her bio-sound work  this past year for MOMA’s PSA1 series “Speculations: The Future Is ____” I was startled and intrigued. When I asked Mileece to delve further into her conception, Mileece explained how when faced with an environment lacking flora–such as on a recent trip to India where she spent a lot of time in a cityscape heavy with apartment blocks–she noticed that finally coming upon a garden outside a temple or other flush area felt like utopia. “I’m referring to an ecological utopian society, not a fictional one.” Mileece told me, “But either way, what we imagine as a perfect society always comes with fruit. Nature makes man right in the head. Without it, things get really rough. With it too of course, but you can see what happens to people deprived of green.”  Her participatory art installations explore and communicate her sense of the lushness and sensory surprises of the natural world.

Mileece is a internationally acclaimed, multi- disciplinary sonic artist and renewable energy ambassador. Her work “promoting ecology through technology and the arts’ has brought her international critical acclaim as a composer and installation artist.  Formations, her debut album, inspired by cycles and formations in nature (“beautiful, real, musical science,” BBC), was the result of her initial works in computer generated compositions, using Super Collider, an object-oriented programming language.–Decibel festival bio

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Mileece and I recently continued our conversation via Skype–she in the city of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan performing camera and sound work on mouthharps, and me in my studio in Lisbon, Portugal–what follows is a transcript of our talk.  Mileece had just finished showing in Bhutan, where she created an installation in a dome at their first international festival.

Maile Colbert: Was the installation [in Bhutan] related to the work you did recently in MOMA [at POPRALLY in February 2013]?

Mileece: similar in being an installation with interactive plants and sensors.

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MC: And when you are home and in the studio, what does your day look and sound like?

M: That depends on much. The last project I did before leaving for Bhutan was a dome at a school, which had me with a shovel in garden clothes up early onsite, then home late, so I wasn’t in the studio at all. Then I worked on the plant interface for Bhutan and generally to get a public interface finished-hardware and software as pre-made wireless ‘off the shelf’ devices and learning kits that I can distribute to people and artists and do more complex projects with. So at random hours, when my colleague who is helping me with the engineering aspects had a moment, we would sit and quickly go over the builds. I did recently decide I want to do a less intensely computer based project, so completely rearranged my studio, borrowed a loop station, bought a gold guitar and started to ‘jam’. It’s something I’ve never done before. I’ve had days where it’s fourteen hours working constantly in the studio, tweaking buttons and writing code. But it all depends…

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MC: So, does each project tend to take you into something new…new tools, new methodology…or do you think you work like that because that’s how you like it, to be an exploration as well as a process?

M: I’m always refining, but the software I wrote is 10 years old now and I’ve been working on the plant project for about 15 years. “Soniferous Eden” is an installation series where interior spaces are transformed into star-studded micro-ecologies, where lush groves of plants generate rich and dynamic soundscapes in response to the touch and presence of the participants, who can saunter barefoot in moist soil amongst them. I’m always working on it, whether the code, concept, or its elements.

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M (cont. . .): Every time I do an installation it’s site specific, so never the same, and generally it’s evolved into a variety of different types with focus on various objectives. For example, the dome at the school is a bio-library and sound sanctuary, where I created a pond, dry creek, planted area, and interactive sitting ‘pods’ inside a dome so kids can read and be in a seemingly natural environment, sitting on the ground in a way that is ergonomic and triggers soundscapes when they are still. There is an array of benefits to being around plants and within a ‘high fidelity’ acoustic environment, as R. Murray Schafer would call it (from whose works some of the concepts were modeled)…from helping the parts of the brain dealing with abstract thinking, to developing memory and social skills. It’s argued that attention deficit disorder is a behavioral issue that can be traced to the decrease in natural habitat available to children.

On other projects, such as for Bhutan, more emphasis was on the interactivity with the plants themselves, so I worked on the code of the plant synths, written in SuperCollider, an object-oriented programming language.

I’m not really reinventing at this point, just tweaking and improving. Although, having said that, for these next projects there are significant advancements in the works…it’s like invention. Sometimes I make new sensors and design new sounds, but since my work has spanned quite a variety of stuff from renewables to software to gardens, each one evolves slowly.

MC: Can you tell us a bit about your background and where you are from? And what from this do you think led you to “Tree We’vr”, and working with biofeedback data of plants?

M: I’m from England and grew up in multiple cities (London, New York, Los Angeles) and the countryside equally, so I was exposed to rural and urban environments. I saw The Secret Life of Plants when I was around nineteen, and a couple of years before that Mobius 8 had shown me his work with MIDI and sensors.

M (cont. . .): I had imagined holographic plants (my mum did holography in the 80’s)…which then seemed completely uninteresting since plants THEMSELVES could iterate music.

MC:  Have you always had an interest in micro-worlds? What about worlds barely perceptible to us interests you?

M: Yes, micro-worlds…love that. In Suffolk, where I grew up for some time, we had this greenhouse and I remember making this tiny micro-garden in it. I LOVED it and was just mortified when my father told me it needed to be torn down for being unsafe, which he did by getting riotously pissed with his best friend and driving the Range Rover through it.

I have great respect and love for the world and living things. I truly ache for the well being of plants and animals and most people so overall I am dedicated to helping support a healthy ecology, in the holistic sense of the word. And sometimes these ‘hidden things’ are what makes the link to show up the ‘livingness’ and connection we are lacking…the ‘magic’ we need to see and touch to remember that we are a spinning spool of intangible energy organized and perpetuated only by our own existence.

MC: Do you feel your sonification with plants as an instrument, or translation? Can you describe the connection you have with a plant when working with it…is it emotional, scientific, intellectual curiosity…a mix? Is it a dialogue?

M: Nail on the head. My work as an artist is to find the balance between the two. I call it aesthetic sonification, as what you are looking to do is relay data in a way that people understand it, which isn’t necessarily how it iterates, as there are psychoacoustics and other human factors as to how we interpret sound that need to be considered when you are translating information into the sonic realm. So you find a way to relay the information, then make it beautiful for both the human and the plant to be able to enjoy, which is key to art being successful. It’s a balance, and that is my job. That is where I see the necessity for artistry and mastery, and where I try to get it right. The rest is understanding the technicalities.

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M (cont. . .): An instrument holds potential as a set of elements and offers a composer/musician that spectrum of potential to weave from. The limitations are the possible manifestations of that potential as choreographed by the degree of expertise of the musician/composer. Sonification doesn’t care about weaving potentials, it wants to be direct as possible. The degree of articulation of the information is a strictly technical matter. So I am somewhere in there, where the sonification is the limitation of the instrument, and the instrument is the plant and interface.

MC: Do you find people understand your work? How much of understanding what you do is important for you to have from your audience?

M: b A whole spectrum of folk come and make use of the installations. Though perhaps not many thoroughly understand my work, most understand the consequence. When I explain what I’m doing I don’t usually get vacant stares, most people follow. I don’t really have an audience, I have participants, so people do a thing, and a thing happens…then they wonder how, and they can find out. Their curiosity leads them on that journey of discovery, and it doesn’t really matter, the issue is plants are alive more than we thought. So long as someone walks away with that, that’s right and good. And if the music and ambience moves them, that’s best.

An instrument holds potential as a set of elements and offers a composer/musician that spectrum of potential to weave from. The limitations are the possible manifestations of that potential as choreographed by the degree of expertise of the musician/composer. Sonification doesn’t care about weaving potentials, it wants to be direct as possible. The degree of articulation of the information is a strictly technical matter. So I am somewhere in there, where the sonification is the limitation of the instrument, and the instrument is the plant and interface.

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MC: You mentioned once plants “lacking representation”…I find this intriguing, can you tell us more about this concept?

M: There really isn’t one part of our economy that doesn’t rely on the exploitation of plants, either themselves or their habitat. We have rights for animals, rights for people, and we know we abuse them often, as there are representatives who tell us so. But we don’t often think about the plants, and the plants are also living. They support life, all life almost, so we have to start thinking about that. They are now using ‘excess’ plant energy to power devices. I find this idea of ‘excess’ interesting, like over 90% of our DNA is junk, and 94% of the Universe is ‘dark’. I wouldn’t like to be so assertive.

MC: What tends to happen with the sound from the plants when they are touched? Does it depend on the kind of touch? Does it depend on the kind of plant, or where it is touched? Do plants scream? Or is this anthropomorphizing?

M: Plants emit indicators, best known to be chemical, when they experience threats or distress. The smell of freshly cut grass for example, this is a chemical emitted by the plants to express distress. So ‘screaming’ is an anthropomorphic viewpoint on that possibly unemotional ‘response,’which is what plant biologists would commonly call it. This is because we don’t understand plant biology well. They have systems to take in a calculate information, make decisions, and produce self-regulated results, but we have a hard time figuring that out since it isn’t in the form of what we say is required of sentient beings… a nervous system and a brain. But no, it doesn’t matter where you touch a plant, that doesn’t make different sounds, at least that I can tell. I don’t have scientific instruments, I have arty ones, so they aren’t accurate enough to make precise measurements or declarations. I’m in the experience, not research department.  The synths I’ve written are modulated by the current from the plant, so the sound changes in direct function of the modulation of the current, which changes with touch or presence and general livingness.

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[. . .]

MC: You go way beyond trend or gimmick, you have been doing this a while. Where do you think your work is going? Do you have more in this vein to explore…is it leading somewhere you can share with us?

M: I’m currently working with Eden Labs and some other partners at UCSD on a project engaging custom made technology to hybridize with living systems, forging lucid and direct connections between the inner city and wild ecologies in real time.

Mileece flowers

More on Mileece and here work here: http://www.mileece.is/

All images courtesy of the artist

Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!

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