[Warning: Spoilers Ahead for Folks Not Caught Up with Season 7, Episode 5!]
In one of the more memorable – and squirm-inducing – scenes of this season of AMC’s Mad Men, brilliant but eccentric copywriter Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) presents his colleague, agency copy chief Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) with his own severed nipple, placed carefully in a gift box. Ginsberg explains to the understandably horrified Peggy that the gift is both a token of his affection and a means of relieving pressure caused by the arrival of Sterling, Cooper & Partners’ (SC&P) newest acquisition: a humming, room-sized IBM System/360 mainframe computer. Explaining his enmity for the machine and his increasingly erratic behavior, Ginsberg tells Peggy that the “waves of data” emanating from the computer were filling him up, and that the only solution was to “remove the pressure” by slicing off his “valve.”
The arrival of the IBM 360 in the idealized 1960s office space inhabited by Mad Men is obviously an unsettling presence – and not only for Ginsberg. Since its debut in Episode 4, commentators (e.g. WaPo’s Andrea Peterson, Slate’s Seth Stevenson) have meditated on the heavy-handed symbolism surrounding the machine – both in terms of its historical significance and its implications for plot and character development. Typically cued through noise (or lack thereof), it is worth reflecting upon the role of sound in establishing the computer as a source of disruption. Between the pounding and screeching of installation and the drone of the completed machine’s air conditioner and tape reels, the sonic motifs accompanying the computer underline tensions between (and roiling within) SC&P staffers grappling with the incipient digital age. Likewise, the infernal racket produced by the installation and operation of the IBM 360 adds an important dimension to the tensions resulting from its presence, which can be read as allegories for the complexities and contradictions of our relationship with technology.
The tone of the conflict is set even before we meet the IBM 360 toward the end of Episode 4: The Monolith – a reference to Kubrick’s 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (Slate’s Forrest Wickman ably discusses the references). Like the unnerving silence used with such great effect in that film, the absence of sound frames our first encounter with the computer – or at least its promise. Early in the episode, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), newly rehabilitated from his forced exile from the agency, arrives one morning at SC&P to find the office deserted. The ghostly sequence is clearly meant to symbolize Draper’s detachment from the firm. But as the episode progresses and tensions mount over the possibility that the IBM 360 will render jobs obsolete, the desolate office suggests a more ominous meaning – a once lively space muted by cold, impersonal automation.
In following scenes, successive stages of mainframe installation are marked by convergences of conflict and cacophony. First, there is the din of the creative team as they evacuate their beloved lounge – now earmarked as computer space – and during which a distraught Ginsberg projects his indignation onto art director Stan Rizzo, who appears more accepting. “They’re trying to erase us!” Ginsberg exclaims bitterly. Later, Draper lounges on his office couch as a clop clopping of hammers outside signifies tangible change. As if this weren’t enough of a distraction, two men in the corridor begin to chat loudly over the noise. Going out to investigate, Draper strikes up a conversation with one of the men, Lloyd Hawley, installation supervisor and founder of a small technology company competing with IBM. “Who’s winning?” Draper asks innocently, “who’s replacing more people?” Clearly irritated by Draper’s tone, Harry Crane – SC&P media director and the computer’s lead cheerleader – offers Draper a condescending apology for the loss of his “lunchroom,” assures him the change was “not symbolic.” “No, it’s quite literal,” Draper retorts. Unabated, the pounding and screeching of construction work emphasizes his point.
For the remainder of the episode, the raucous noise of construction acts as a leitmotif underscoring tensions between characters – between Peggy and Lou Avery (Draper’s priggish replacement at creative director), and between Draper and the interloper Lloyd. Finally, the end of construction is punctuated by a return to silence, as Peggy arrives one morning to see workers glide mainframe components noiselessly into the office.
With this emphasis on technology as a source of symbolic, physical, and sonic disruption, Matthew Weiner and the creators of Mad Men draw upon a rich literary tradition. A relevant example contemporaneous with the show’s “present,” is literary critic Leo Marx’s 1964 text The Machine in the Garden, which examines the complicated relationships between a “pastoral ideal” and technological progress within American literature and popular imagination. Marx’s analysis reveals that sound is often used to convey the disruptive presence of technology within the bucolic landscape of the American continent. In Hawthorne’s Sleepy Hollow for example, it is the interrupting shriek of a locomotive whistle that breaks the author’s harmonious reverie: “Now tension replaces repose: the noise arouses a sense of dislocation, conflict, and anxiety” (15). In the decidedly un-pastoral modern office space, the noise of the computer installation nevertheless signifies a momentous social change and irrevocable loss. Picking out these tensions has always been one of the show’s strengths – whether it is the computer, Draper’s double identity, or the quiet endurance of women to the misogyny of midcentury work and domestic life.
Change, however, has significant consequences for Ginsberg, the young copywriter and Holocaust survivor who, as CBS’s Jessica Firger observes, has been deteriorating psychologically for some time. The proximity of the IBM 360, and the incessant drone of its mind-controlling waves eventually puts him over the edge. As Draper and Peggy enter the office early in Episode 5, Ginsberg glowers into the room housing the IBM 360. “Stop humming, you’re not happy!” he explodes. As Peggy attempts to soothe her colleague, our perspective shifts to look out at them from inside the glass-encased computer room. From here, the mainframe’s ambient noise muffles Peggy’s words, suggesting isolation between human and non-human. This play of speech and silence reoccurs later in the episode as Ginsberg, working alone on a Saturday with tissues wedged in his ears, spies Lou Avery and SC&P partner Jim Cutler inside the computer room, their voices made inaudible by the droning computer in a delicious homage to 2001 (see Vulture’s amusing gif). But the noise is clearly affecting Ginsberg. “It’s that hum at the office! It’s getting to me!” he tells Peggy later that evening. He even claims the computer has affected his sexuality.
Ginsberg’s noise complaints would have resonated in 1969 New York. In November of that year, the New York Times ran a feature on the city’s nerve-shattering noise pollution, calling it a “slow agent of death.” In addition to the myriad construction projects, subways, car horns, jet planes, and standing machinery populating the city soundscape, office workers found scant respite indoors where phones, air conditioners, “computers and typewriters and tabulators” whirred, whined, and clacked throughout the day. The article went on to report that scientists studying the impact of prolonged noise exposure on the human body had concluded a variety of ill effects on the heart and nervous system. Though no connection was made between computers and sexuality (as Ginsberg claimed), the article reported that laboratory rats under prolonged noise exposure had indeed “turned homosexual,” an opinion that underlined deterministic associations between sexuality, psychological disorder, and external stimuli.
As SO! editor Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman has argued, noise in midcentury New York also signified a sonic-racial politics, in which the mainstream “listening ear” recoiled at the “noise” created by Black and Puerto Rican others. In terms of Mad Men’s computer however, it is technology, economic anxiety, and mental illness, rather than ethnicity that frames sonic disruption. The basis of these tensions are similar however, and various interactions with SC&P’s IBM 360 demonstrate, as Stoever-Ackerman writes in SO!, “the ways in which Americans have been disciplined to consider some sounds as natural, normal, and desirable, while deeming alternate ways of listening and sounding as aberrant [and] dangerous.” Though similar, the conflict with technology on Mad Men does not suggest a clear us/them, or us/”it” binary. The banging of construction may be at first antagonistic, but it’s finite – eventually the computer is normalized within the SC&P office space to the extent that Peggy chides Ginsberg’s exasperation in Episode 5 by insisting “it’s just a computer!” Ginsberg’s reaction is more complex however, implicating a contradictory relationship with technology: once fully installed, has the droning computer become “natural, normal, and desirable” despite previous ambivalence? Is the keen awareness and anxiety towards technology symbolized through Ginsberg (albeit in a extreme form) suggested as the “aberrant” listening practice, or could it be Peggy’s apparent acceptance?
Like most cultural texts set in the past, it is possible to read Mad Men allegorically, as suggesting a certain ordering of meaning and values. From the perspective of those who have long since domesticated computers, the controversies and tropes activated by SC&P’s IBM 360 might strike us as familiar, even quaint. As the sociologist Bruno Latour has argued however, we would be wise to consider how technology exerts a kind of social agency that structures and impacts our daily lives. As historical symbolism, the sounds and noises of the IBM 360 on Mad Men should remind us that technological progress is not teleological, but a struggle over meaning in which anxieties (about jobs, mind-control, surveillance, subjectivity, etc.) may be variously accommodated, suppressed, or dismissed as irrational.
Featured image: An IBM 360 Mainframe. Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0
Andrew J. Salvati is a Media Studies Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University. His interests include the history of television and media technologies, theory and philosophy of history, and representations of history in media contexts. Additional interests include play, authenticity, the sublime, and the absurd. Andrew has co-authored a book chapter with colleague Jonathan Bullinger titled “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past” in the recent edited volume Playing With the Past (2013), and has written a recent blog post for Play the Past titled “The Play of History.”
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This piece is co-authored by Sarah Kessler and Karen Tongson.
Scholarship rarely happens in isolation, despite quantitative demands in the humanities for “single-authored” works. Instead, intimacies of different shapes and configurations, transpiring in spaces as variegated as “the institution,” cocktail bars, cars, and even boudoirs, have profound effects on how we think, and on what we eventually write. However, academics have very few forms beyond the citation, the footnote, or even the acknowledgment, through which to admit our debts, recognize our inspirations, and lay bare the narcissisms of our small differences.
Our current areas of research—karaoke for Karen, ventriloquism for Sarah—traverse what may appear to be a narrow terrain of sound studies currently focused on “voice” or “the voice.” And yet the strains of sound studies that draw us to these topics do not exclusively concern themselves with the tropes or techniques of voice and vocalization that karaoke and ventriloquism conjure. Though voice presents itself as the most basic and fundamental connection between these two concepts and practices, we are each more invested in exploring karaoke and ventriloquism as actual sound technologies, as well as technologies of power. As you will read below, ventriloquism, for all its associations with archaism and mysticism in certain historical contexts, is also depicted as a technology and technique of deception, statecraft, and power. Meanwhile, karaoke, for all its associations with the expressive and participatory potential of amateur vocalization is also, crucially, a technological apparatus, whose media archaeology bears the traces of intercolonial conflicts, negotiations, and aftermaths. Finally, we are also both interested in the ways in which these sound technologies and techniques have been transformed into critical, intellectual, and affective methodologies, especially since they’ve both been harnessed as broader cultural metaphors for judgments at once moral and aesthetic.
Over an obscenely caloric breakfast, we devised several questions touching upon some keywords and concepts we believe are applicable to both karaoke and ventriloquism, two topics that undermine notions of authorship, source, and origin. In our respective writing about these two subjects, we’ve both occasionally (or more than occasionally) been besieged by the anxiety that our work is melding together into some indeterminate blob. To put it another way: like any other lesbionic duo resisting the “urge to merge” (as so many other queers have warned against), we’ve arrived at that moment in our intimate and intellectual relationship where we’ve decided to sort out whose socks are whose. Somewhat ironically, then, we wrote this post together to establish some of the crucial differences between karaoke and ventriloquism.
The following “ventrilokeal” dialogue shows, from a conceptual standpoint, where some of the boundaries between karaoke and ventriloquism harden, while others remain porous.
We each provide separate answers, engaging the other person’s answer when appropriate. Feel free to supplement some of our questions in the comments section, addressing either or both of us. And thanks for indulging.
1) How do both karaoke and ventriloquism—as terms, metaphors, and practices—conjure and/or reframe our understandings of originality and derivation?
KT: Karaoke, at least in my mind, has become the prevailing metaphor for derivation in the contemporary moment. Whenever the term is tossed about casually as a cultural metaphor, with little regard to the geographical contexts, modes of performance or the technologies that underlie its current practice, “karaoke” functions as a kind of shorthand for “the unoriginal,” the debased copy, the amateur reenactment. Novelist Dubravka Ugresic’s long essay on “Karaoke Culture” (2011) provides a perfect example of these applications of “karaoke.” And yet, karaoke in the U.S. in the last 15 years or so has also been construed as something that unlocks the creative and expressive potential of beleaguered, repressed or emotionally stunted individuals, usually men (see Lost in Translation, the forgotten Huey Lewis and Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle, Duets, and a recent pair of books I actually quite like, Brian Raftery’s Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life and Rob Sheffield’s Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke). Of course, it will take all of Empty Orchestra (my working book title), to answer this question properly, but one of the principles guiding my own account of karaoke as a metaphor for copies and reenactments (in addition to my exploration of its material practices and technological history), is that derivation and mimicry have always been a key concern of—and a point of intersection between—queer theory, aesthetics, critical race studies, and (post)-colonial studies.
SK: When ventriloquism is employed as a metaphor in popular cultural contexts, it’s also often used to connote a lack of originality. The term tends to describe (and to fantasize) a situation in which one individual acts as the communications medium—usually the speaking or singing vessel—for words, songs, and other ideological formulations that originate or originated with someone else. So, in contrast to the mass copying and amateurism invoked by “karaoke,” “ventriloquism” suggests an unoriginality that can, and that must, be traced back to a discrete body and distinct point of origin. Think, for example, of George “Dubya” Bush and Dick Cheney, who were often represented as a ventriloquial duo. Political cartoons depicted Dubya as Cheney’s open-mouthed dummy, perched on the knee of his puppet master, the “actual” leader of the free world. Here, ventriloquism was used to image a scenario wherein the man who seemed to be in power was both secretly and openly manipulated by another man, who was the true source of power. In this case, unoriginality on Bush’s part connoted originality on Cheney’s, whereas in the case of the Beyoncé lip-synch scandal (more on this below), unoriginality signified very differently. Generally speaking, however, “ventriloquism” implies that a deceptive act has occurred, one that masks the origin of its own workings. It signals the veiling and subsequent exposure of a powerful apparatus. This apparatus is usually vocal in nature, the voice’s historical connections to power being well documented. In his Western cultural history of ventriloquism, Dumbstruck (2001), for example, Steven Connor traces the form back to Greco-Roman oracular myths in which divine prophecy is primarily accessible as a voice, transmitted through the mediating body of a priestess.
Contemporary ventriloquists like the British performer Nina Conti often claim to be surprised by what their dummies say, which suggests that, far from being an omnipotent machinator, the ventriloquist is a bifurcated entity—one whose practice places her beside herself, in conversation with herself (or, as others have noted, with her unconscious). My recent work argues for bifurcation as a workable antidote to the tired, either/or question of originality vs. derivation to which popular cultural forms are repetitively subjected.
2) The terms “karaoke” and “ventriloquism” are both frequently employed in adjudicatory ways. As Karen has pointed out elsewhere, “karaoke” is often used in reality TV contexts (American Idol, The Voice) as a negative judgment of performance quality, i.e. “that performance was shit—mere karaoke.” “Ventriloquism,” for its part, is often used to connote a deviousness or deception that disqualifies a performance (think folks condemning Beyoncé post-lip-synched inauguration performance). What are the differences between “karaoke” and “ventriloquism” as judgments?
KT: I actually think that one of the primary differences between these two terms as judgments, and perhaps more simply as just terms, is that “karaoke” condemns the person performing it, or performing something in “the style of” karaoke (i.e. derivatively, as a copycat, as a mere echo of the “original”), as a lightweight. Pulling off a feat of ventriloquism seems like a heavier, more sinister, and more complex operation of power, at least as I’ve heard you explain it, and as you describe it viz. Bush/Cheney above. Karaoke as a performance practice also lacks ventriloquism’s gravitas and requisite skill, insofar as ventriloquism is an archaic-seeming art form. Karaoke is the opposite of serious or sinister: it’s laughable, buffoonish, and absurd. It’s all surface and no depth. Ventriloquism, at least as I’ve heard you describe it to me on many occasions, in different situations, seems more layered. This is not to say, however, that I actually believe that karaoke is lightweight, or only about surfaces, but as a term of adjudication, it can’t really break free from those associations to mean anything more.
SK: Yes, as you say above, “karaoke” as judgment indicates amateurism and insubstantiality, whereas “ventriloquism” suggests a more menacing, or at least a more complicated, operation. And when one actually does karaoke, one can’t even conceal one’s appropriation—it’s part and parcel of the practice. A ventriloquist, on the other hand, hides herself in plain sight: the greater the attention focused on her dummy, the less it matters that—as the audience well knows—she’s the one talking. This is called “misdirection”: if the eyes are on the dummy, the ears will follow, and the dummy will appear to speak even if he doesn’t have his own microphone.
The interesting thing about the liberal accusation that Bush was Cheney’s ventriloquist dummy was that, though the image of Cheney as evil puppetmaster was sinister, it still served a reassuring function, in that it allowed for the continuation of the idea that there was a source, or origin, of power, period. As opposed, let’s say, to a more Foucauldian understanding of power as dispersed, not traceable to an isolated sovereign body. In contrast, when Beyoncé allegedly lip-synced, but in fact sang over, her own recording of the National Anthem at the 2013 presidential inauguration, her performance—which, as many have pointed out, was not unusual by pop industry standards—was framed as ventriloquism in order to cast doubt on her legitimacy as a live performer, i.e. as a performer whose voice could “stand up” in non-studio conditions (which are still, and ironically, just as much mediated as studio conditions). These ventriloquial scenarios are, it should go without saying, gendered and racialized: Bush-Cheney as ventriloquism emasculated Bush while restoring power to Cheney’s white, male, visibly disabled body; Beyoncé-Beyoncé as ventriloquism rather unsuccessfully attempted to pit Bey against herself (mediated, recorded Beyoncé vs. live Beyoncé) in order to devalue her corporeal body and frame her as unworthy of (national) subjectivity.
3) Both karaoke and ventriloquism are mass, but not mainstream, cultural practices. Karaoke is a mass cultural activity, but one that still carries with it the frisson of doing something slightly risqué (hence its frequent overlap with inebriation). Ventriloquism, while not being a cultural activity practiced by the masses, is a mass-mediated and mass-consumed cultural form, despite the aura of Vaudevillian anachronism (and/or pathology) it persistently conveys. How might we account for the “mass but not mainstream” quality of both practices?
KT: I actually have to credit Zhou Xun and Francesca Tarocco, co-authors of an ambitious book, Karaoke: The Global Phenomenon (2007) with the “mass vs. mainstream” formulation. At this point, karaoke is globally ubiquitous, thanks to the many delivery systems that have evolved from the first karaoke and sing-along machines from Japan and the Philippines. There’s actually a popular app called Sing!, which enables you to perform karaoke and compete against anyone in the world. Meanwhile, YouTube is replete with karaoke videos to perform and practice with (some KJs, or “karaoke jockeys,” use YouTube as their primary interface), as well as with videos of people from all walks of life performing karaoke in various bars or at family functions in the home or elsewhere. These days, practically every sitcom on primetime TV stages a requisite “karaoke outing,” that usually leads to disastrous, if hilarious consequences for its characters.
And yet karaoke as a mass practice can’t quite broach the mainstream, because of its various “abject” associations with immigrant communities, aspirational everymen longing to be idols, isolate geeks who only interact with the outside world through their computers, drunkards, gaggles of girls group-singing to Madonna, queens bereft of the piano bar’s liveness, slumming with an electronic delivery system for their show tunes, and other such “sad” spectacles. Once someone excels at karaoke—at singing someone else’s song so well that they transform it in some way—we are apt to think they actually exceed karaoke, and leave behind the form, much in the same way that, as you suggest in your opening comments, a good dummy eclipses its ventriloquist. When (in the words of many an Idol judge), someone makes someone else’s song “their own,” we enter into the territory of the cover, the reboot, the repurposed. The failure of the form to transcend its own limitations, even if it serves as the vehicle for many to otherwise achieve transcendence in myriad ways, is what keeps karaoke abject and not quite ready for mainstream acceptance.
SK: In the U.S., there’s a genre of white, masculine ventriloquism that’s currently extremely popular. This genre is typified by U.S. ventriloquism’s two biggest guns, Terry Fator and Jeff Dunham, who, following in the footsteps of Edgar Bergen, brought their ventriloquism to television to increase the art’s spread. Fator won America’s Got Talent in 2007 and now gives nightly performances at The Mirage in Vegas, where he has a theater named after him. He’s made hundreds of millions this way. Dunham has a strong presence on Comedy Central and is also one of the top-grossing U.S. standup acts. Both vents are especially popular with “Heartland” audiences, and both have casts of gendered and racialized puppets to whom they, as white male ventriloquists, play the straight man. Dunham, in particular, takes an unapologetic stance towards his own redneck identity, which permits him to criticize and recuperate this identity in one fell swoop. For instance, Dunham’s “white-trash trailer-park” dummy Bubba J drinks a surfeit of beer and is of low, if any, intelligence, but he remains benign in comparison to the rest of Dunham’s cast of characters, which includes Achmed the Dead Terrorist (a bin Laden caricature) and José Jalapeño on a Stick (use your imagination). Fator and Dunham’s ventriloquism evokes the practice’s historical connections and overlaps with minstrelsy, consolidating a fragile white masculinity in the process.
This culturally bounded reading of contemporary ventriloquism’s mass popularity directly resonates with your reading of karaoke as a practice with “abject” associations that is accordingly repurposed to “unlock the creative and expressive potential of beleaguered, repressed or emotionally stunted individuals, usually men.” While ventriloquism is difficult to perform well, vent instruction manuals always stress that, with practice, anyone can ventriloquize. One of the reasons that the practice isn’t mainstream is that it’s associated with a perverse desire, even a need, to speak through someone else in lieu of being able to speak “for oneself.” Edgar Bergen was always said to be shy with women, and to woo them through his brash, confident alterego Charlie McCarthy. And in his autobiography, Who’s the Dummy Now? (2008), Terry Fator (or his ghostwriter) writes about how his father found his ventriloquism perverse, and how he literally closeted his dummy as a result. Ventriloquism is too blatant a form of triangulation to be normal, and is thus coded as deviant, a perversion of heterosexuality’s direct, unmediated operation. Hence Fator’s book title, which aggressively restores authority to the formerly emasculated ventriloquist.
4) As the previous question suggests, and as prominent scholars of ventriloquism have also suggested, ventriloquism is ever anachronistic. Karaoke, too, is suffused by a sense of belatedness, reflected in nostalgic, hits-driven karaoke song choices and/or by the practice’s enduring connection to seemingly obsolete technological forms like laser discs. In what ways is each form out of time, or behind the times, and, alternatively, why do these forms appear as such even as they continue to exist in time?
KT: As I mentioned above, karaoke’s purported abjection in the U.S. is, in many ways, a consequence of its association with the immigrant communities from Asia who imported the practice, as well as karaoke technologies, to the west coast as early as the mid-1970s. In that sense, karaoke functioned as a vehicle of nostalgia for those in the diaspora who longed to connect with memories of “home” through certain musical repertoires, even if some of those repertoires were actually already comprised of American pop hits folks grew to love when they were still “back home” (e.g. songs by the Carpenters, or any of the Johns—Elton, Olivia Newton, Denver). I haven’t quite worked it all out yet, but there is a certain circular temporality to karaoke. I have a hunch that the form is Romantic insofar as it is, at once, about the moment and its “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” yet prone to saturating those powerful feelings with the “passionate recollection of youth.” There’s also something anticipatory and performative about karaoke, insofar as it has the capacity to do what it purports to articulate. I wrote something about this from a personal perspective in a piece about my favorite L.A. karaoke bar, the Smog Cutter. As the question above remarks, karaoke also feels belated, or emblematic of a particular era, because of the visual peripherals that accompany some song catalogues, especially those released on laser disc in the late 1980s and early-to-mid-1990s (i.e. the videos comprised of b-roll, and oblique narrative re-imaginings of certain songs). I can’t get into all of it here, but my plan is to devote a chapter to the karaoke video—from its production history (of which Brian Raftery offers an excellent preliminary account), to its repurposing in contemporary queer performance art.
SK: I’m still working on understanding ventriloquism’s anachronism—why it continues to appear, or to feel, outmoded despite its present popularity—besides the obvious fact that its contemporary iterations evoke Vaudevillian performance. Nina Conti, who has, like Fator and Dunham, distributed her ventriloquism across multiple media platforms, makes many jokes about this. Her puppet Monk, who sounds like a muffled Sean Connery trapped in a fuzzy, simian body, will often deride her for practicing such a “dead art,” and Conti’s documentary, Her Master’s Voice (2012), theorizes the ventriloquist dummy as a “bereaved object” that loses its voice repeatedly, and finally for good. Conti’s film, however, argues with its own assertion by reanimating the dummies of a dead ventriloquist with new voices, a process that could theoretically continue ad infinitum. Steven Connor argues that present-day “revivals” of ventriloquism like Conti’s are always “necromantic,” conjuring the form’s prehistory while at the same time referencing “newer” media like film (which, according to Rick Altman (c. 1980) and Michel Chion (c. 1982) is itself a form of ventriloquism). Writes Connor, “Whether because it is scandalously or mysteriously archaic, or uncannily premonitory, ventriloquism is always anachronistic, never quite on time.” And Mladen Dolar tells us that the voice itself is ventriloquial, leading to the extrapolation that ventriloquism literalizes or visualizes what the voice has always already done.
I tend to think of ventriloquism as temporally bifurcated. A ventriloquist has to exist in both the future and the past to make her practice work. She has to anticipate what’s going to be said next while remembering what’s just been said, and she has to keep her lips still while moving her tongue—acts that circumvent linearity and synchronization. In saying this I’m not arguing for ventriloquism as a “resistant cultural practice”; rather, I’m simply pointing out the temporal perversion to which the art lends itself.
Reflecting upon this conversation on karaoke and ventriloquism—a conversation that is, of course, ongoing—it has become even more apparent to us that both forms are sound technologies struggling against obsolescence, even as they are so frequently imagined as possible gateways to some human “truth” or “essence” precisely because of their associations with the voice. Though vocalization and vocality are reflexively associated with both forms, we hope we’ve been able to underscore some of the ways in which their powerful associations with “voice” naturalize, and to a certain extent also neutralize, the technical elements of each practice. We appreciate the opportunity to make some key distinctions, and to sound some of these issues out, here on the SO! Blog. Many thanks to Jennifer Stoever and Liana M. Silva for their generous editorial input. Like Conti’s bereaved puppets, who lose their voices only to be invested with new ones, we now relinquish ours—for the time being.
SK & KT
Featured Image by Flickr User Sam Grover
Sarah Kessler is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, where she is writing a dissertation on ventriloquism in contemporary British and U.S. popular culture. She received an M.A. in Modern Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2008. Kessler’s writing on art, film, and media has appeared in artforum.com, the Brooklyn Rail, In These Times, and Public Books, among other publications, and she has held editorial positions at Triple Canopy and Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry. She is currently completing an article on the documentary work of ventriloquist Nina Conti.
Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, and the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, 2011). Her work has appeared in numerous venues in print and online, including Social Text, GLQ, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Novel: A Forum on Fiction. She is currently the series editor for Postmillennial Pop at NYU Press, and just completed a multi-year term as co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Her current book project, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke. Critical. Apparatus. critiques prevailing paradigms of imitation in contemporary aesthetics and critical theory, while offering a genealogy of karaoke technologies, techniques, and desires.
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This is article 2.0 in Sounding Out!‘s April Forum on “Sound and Technology.” Every Monday this month, you’ll be hearing new insights on this age-old pairing from the likes of Sounding Out! veterano Aaron Trammell along with new voices Andrew Salvati and Owen Marshall. These fast-forward folks will share their thinking about everything from Auto-tune to techie manifestos. So, turn on your quantizing for Sounding Out! and enjoy today’s supersonic in-depth look at sampling from from SO! Regular Writer Primus Luta. –JS, Editor-in-Chief
My favorite sample-based composition? No question about it: “Stroke of Death” by Ghostface and produced by The RZA.
Supposedly the story goes, RZA was playing records in the studio when he put on the Harlem Underground Band’s album. It is a go-to album in a sample-based composer collection, because of the open drum breaks. One such break appears in the cover of Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine”, notably used by A Tribe Called Quest on “Everything is Fair.”
RZA, a known break beat head, listened as the song approached the open drums, when the unthinkable happened: a scratch in his copy of the record. Suddenly, right before the open drums dropped, the vinyl created its own loop, one that caught RZA’s ear. He recorded it right there and started crafting the beat.
This sample is the only source material for the track. RZA throws a slight turntable backspin in for emphasis, adding to the jarring feel that drives the beat. That backspin provides a pitch shift for the horn that dominates the sample, changing it from a single sound into a three-note melody. RZA also captures some of the open drums so that the track can breathe a bit before coming back to the jarring loop. As accidental as the discovery may have been, it is a very precisely arranged track, tailor-made for the attacking vocals of Ghostface, Solomon Childs, and the RZA himself.
“Stroke of Death” exemplifies how transformative sample-based composition can be. Other than by knowing the source material, the sample is hard to identify. You cannot figure out that the original composition is Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” from the one note RZA sampled, especially considering the note has been manipulated into a three-note melody that appears nowhere in either rendition of the composition. It is sample based, yes, but also completely original.
Classifying a composition like this as a ‘happy accident’ downplays just how important the ear is in sample-based composition, particularly on the transformative end of the spectrum. J Dilla once said finding the mistakes in a record excited him and that it was often those mistakes he would try to capture in his production style. Working with vinyl as a source went a long way in that regard, as each piece of vinyl had the potential to have its own physical characteristics that affected what one heard. It’s hard to imagine “Stroke of Death” being inspired from a digital source. While digital files can have their own glitches, one that would create an internal loop on playback would be rare.
There has been a change in the sound of sampling over the past few decades. It is subtle but still perceptible; one can hear it even if a person does not know what it is they are hearing. It is akin to the difference between hearing a blues man play and hearing a music student play the blues. They technically are both still the blues, but the music student misses all of the blue notes.
The ‘blue notes’ of the blues were those aspects of the music that could not be transcribed yet were directly related to how the song conveyed emotion. It might be the fact that the instrument was not fully in tune, or the way certain notes were bent but others were not, it could even be the way a finger hit the body of a guitar right after the string was strummed. It goes back farther than the blues and ultimately is not exclusive to the African American tradition from which the phrase derives; most folk music traditions around the world have parallels. “The Rite of Spring” can be understood as Stravinsky ‘sampling’ the blue notes of Transylvanian folk music. In many regards sample-based composing is a modern folk tradition, so it should come as no surprise that it has its own blue notes.
The sample-based composition work of today is still sampling, but much of it lacks the blue notes that helped define the golden era of the art. I attribute this discrepancy to the evolution of technology over the last two decades. Many of the things that could be understood as the blue notes of sampling were merely ways around the limits of the technology. In the same way, the blue notes of most folk music happened when the emotion went beyond the standards of the instrument (or alternately the limits imposed upon it by the literal analysis of western theory). By looking at how the technology has evolved we can see how blue notes of sampling are being lost as key limitations are being overcome by “advances.”
First, let’s consider the E-Mu SP-1200, which is still thought to be the most definitive sounding sampler for hip-hop styled sample-based compositions, particularly related to drums. The primary reason for this is its low-resolution sampling and conversion rates. For the SP-1200 the Analog to Digital (A/D) and Digital to Analog (D/A) converters were 12-bit at a sample rate of 26.04 kHz (CD quality is 16-bit 44.1 kHz). No matter what quality the source material, there would be a loss in quality once it was sampled into and played out of the SP-1200. This loss proved desirable for drum sounds particularly when combined with the analog filtering available in the unit, giving them a grit that reflected the environments from which the music was emerging.
On top of this, individual samples could only be 2.5 seconds long, with a total available sample time of only 10 seconds. While the sample and conversion rates directly affected the sound of the samples, the time limits drove the way that composers sampled. Instead of finding loops, beatmakers focused on individual sounds or phrases, using the sequencer to arrange those elements into loops. There were workarounds for the sample time constraints; for example, playing a 33-rpm record at 45 rpm to sample, then pitching it back down post sampling was a quick way to increase the sample time. Doing this would further reduce the sample rate, but again, that could be sonically appealing.
An under appreciated limitation of the SP-1200 however, was the visual feedback for editing samples. The display of the SP-1200 was completely alpha numeric; there were no visual representations of the sample other than numbers that were controlled by the faders on the interface. The composer had to find the start and end points of the sample solely by ear. Two producers might edit the exact same kick drum with start times 100 samples (a fraction of a millisecond) apart. Were one of the composers to have recorded the kick at 45 rpm and pitched it down, the actual resolution for the start and end times would be different. When played in a sequence, these 100 samples affect the groove, contributing directly to the feel of the composition. The timing of when the sample starts playback is combined with the quantization setting and the swing percentage of the sequencer. That difference of 100 samples in the edit further offsets the trigger times, which even with quantization turned off fit into the 24 parts per quarter grid limitations of the machine.
Akai’s MPC-60 was the next evolution in sampling technology. It raised the sample and conversion rates to 16-bit and 40 kHz. Sample time increased to a total of 13.1 seconds (upgradable to 26.2). Sequencing resolution increased to 96 parts per quarter. Gone was the crunch of the SP-1200, but the precision went up both in sampling and in sequencing. The main trademark of the MPC series was the swing and groove that came to Akai from Roger Linn’s Linn Drum. For years shrouded in mystery and considered a myth by many, in truth there was a timing difference that Linn says was achieved by delaying certain notes by samples. Combined with the greater PPQ resolution in unquantized mode, even with more precision than the SP-1200, the MPC lent itself to capturing user variation.
Despite these technological advances, sample time and editing limitations, combined with the fact that the higher resolution sampling lacked the character of the SP-1200, kept the MPC from being the complete package sample composers desired. For this reason it was often paired with Akai’s S-950 rack sampler. The S-950 was a 12-bit sampler but had a variable sample rate between 7.5 kHz and 40 kHz. The stock memory could hold 750 KB of samples which at the lowest sample rate could garner upwards of 60 seconds of sampling and at the higher sample rates around 10 seconds. This was expandable to up to 2.5 MB of sample memory.
The editing capabilities made the S-950 such a powerful sampler. Being able to create internal sample loops, key map samples to a keyboard, modify envelopes for playback, and take advantage of early time stretching (which would come of age with the S-1000)—not to mention the filter on the unit—helped take sampling deeper into the sound design territory. This again increased the variable possibilities from composer to composer even when working from the same source material. Often combined with the MPC for sequencing, composers had the ultimate sample-based composition workstation.
Today, there are literally no limitations for sampling. Perhaps the subtlest advances have developed the precision with which samples can be edited. With these advances, the biggest shift has been the reduction of the reliance on ears. Recycle was an early software program that started to replace the ears in the editing process. With Recycle an audio file could be loaded, and the software would chop the sample into component parts by searching for the transients. Utilizing Recycle on the same source, it was more likely two different composers could arrive at a kick sample that was truncated identically.
Another factor has been the waveform visualization of samples for editing. Some earlier hardware samplers featured the waveform display for truncating samples, but the graphic resolution within the computer made this even more precise. By looking at the waveform you are able to edit samples at the point where a waveform crosses the middle point between the negative and positive side of the signal, known as the zero-crossing. The advantage of zero-crossing sampling is that it prevents errors that happen when playback goes from either side of the zero point to another point in one sample, which can make the edit point audible because of the break in the waveform. The end result of zero-crossing edited samples is a seamlessness that makes samples sound like they naturally fit into a sequence without audible errors. In many audio applications snap-to settings mean that edits automatically snap to zero-crossing—no ears needed to get a “perfect” sounding sample.
It is interesting to note that with digital files it’s not about recording the sample, but editing it out of the original file. It is much different from having to put the turntable on 45 rpm to fit a sample into 2.5 seconds. Another differentiation between digital sample sources is the quality of the files, whether original digital files (CD quality or higher), lossless compression (FLAC), lossy compressed (MP3, AAC) or the least desirable though most accessible, transcoded (lossy compression recompressed such as YouTube rips). These all result in a different degradation of quality than the SP-1200. Where the SP-1200’s downsampling often led to fatter sounds, these forms of compression trend toward thinner-sounding samples.
Some producers have created their own sound using thinned out samples with the same level of sonic intent as The RZA’s on “Stroke of Death.” The lo-fi aesthetic is often an attempt to capture a sound to parallel the golden era of hardware-based sampling. Some software-based samplers by example will have an SP-1200 emulation button that reduces bit rates to 12-bit. Most of software sequencers have groove templates that allow for the sequencers to emulate grooves like the MPC timing.
Perhaps the most important part of the sample-based composition process however, cannot be emulated: the ear. The ear in this case is not so much about the identification of the hot sample. Decades of history should tell us that the hot sample is truly a dime a dozen. It takes a keen composer’s ear to hear how to manipulate those sounds into something uniquely theirs. Being able to listen for that and then create that unique sound—utilizing whatever tools— that is the blue note of sampling. And there is simply no way to automate that process.
Featured image: “Blue note inverted” by Flickr user Tim, CC BY-ND 2.0
Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications. He maintains his own AvantUrb site. Luta was a regular presenter for Rhythm Incursions. As an artist, he is a founding member of the collective Concrète Sound System, which spun off into a record label for the exploratory realms of sound in 2012. Recently Concréte released the second part of their Ultimate Break Beats series for Shocklee.
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