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SO! Amplifies: Carleton Gholz and the Detroit Sound Conservancy

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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!

I founded the Detroit Sound Conservancy in 2012 in order to preserve what music producer Don Was has called “the indigenous music of Detroit.” I also did it to preserve my own archive of Detroit sound related artifacts – oral history interviews, recordings, vinyl records, cassette tapes, 8-tracks, posters, t-shirts, buttons, articles, clippings, books, magazines, zines, photos, digital photos, notes, jottings, and other miscellaneous ephemera — knowing that if I could not help preserve the materials of an older generation of musicians, producers, DJs, writers, collectors, and fans, my personal archive and passions would not weather the storms (literal and figural) of the early 21st century – PhD or not. After a year or so of organizing virtually from Boston where I had found academic work teaching media & rhetoric, the DSC had its first major success with an oral history project for Detroit music, funded through Kickstarter.  Donations allowed us to throw a great party in Boston, form the non-profit, and push me home to work on the DSC full time.

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The results of the move have already manifested themselves. This summer we had a successful conference at the Detroit Public Library — the first of its kind — dedicated to Detroit sound.We will hold another next year on May 22 dedicated to the key role of Michigan in general, and Detroit in particular, in the emergence of the modern soundscape.  We plan to have the call for papers out this fall.

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October 14, 2014, interview with historian / musician Larry Gabriel and myself at #RecordDET, image courtesy of the author

In addition, we currently have an organizing/promotional night called #RecordDET at a downtown coffee shop  called Urban Bean so that we can continue to both record interviews and playback the sounds / stories we are learning from. So far we’ve interviewed a retired disco / house DJ, a record retail and radio veteran, and two blues historians and musicians.

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The long-term goal is to use the stories and sounds to propel us into a more sustainable future for Detroit’s sonic heritage. Recent local floods  have reminded Metro Detroiters just how vulnerable we are and continue to be. We must preserve or our sonic dreams will perish.

I imagine the DSC as the sonic dream weaver. As one of our inspirations, the Black Madonna in Chicago, says: We still believe.

Carleton Gholz (PhD, Communication Studies, University of Pittsburgh, 2011) is the Founder and Executive Director of the Detroit Sound Conservancy, a lecturer in Communication at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and President of the Friends of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection at the Detroit Public Library.

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SO! Amplifies: Mendi+Keith Obadike and Sounding Race in America

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SO! Amplifies: Mendi+Keith Obadike and Sounding Race in America

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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!

Several years ago—after working on media art, myths, songs about invisible networks and imaginary places—we started a series of sound art projects about America. In making these public sound artworks about our country we ask ourselves questions about funk, austerity, debt and responsibility, aesthetics, and inheritance. We also attempt to reckon with data, that which orders so much of our lives with its presence or absence.

We are interested in how data might be understood differently once sonified or made musical. We want to explore what kinds of codes are embedded in the architecture of American culture.

Big House/Disclosure

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The first sound art project in this vein that we completed in 2007 was entitled Big House / Disclosure. Northwestern University commissioned Big House / Disclosure to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade. We began researching Chicago’s recently (2002) issued Slavery Era Disclosure Ordinance, which states that any business seeking a city contract must publicly disclose (without penalty) its historical relationship, if any, to the slave trade. In that project we interviewed 200 citizens in the Chicago area about that city ordinance, how they (or their ancestors) arrived in this country, the origins of house music, and imaginary plantations, as well as their opinions about the legacy of slavery in their lives. Their answers were woven into a 200 hour house song & public sound installation on the Northwestern campus.

We used custom built software to trigger changes in the sound (drums, bass lines, chords, etc.) of that installation as the stock prices of companies like Lehman Brothers and Wachovia Bank (listed by this city ordinance as having profited from slave trade) rose and fell in 2007. In addition to the sound installation there were a number of performance scores and graphic scores to be performed in the project. The graphic scores were performed at the Stone (John Zorn’s music venue) by bassist Melvin Gibbs, turntablist Val Inc, percussionist Satoshi Takeshi, and pianist Shoko Nagai in New York. The book and album for this project (recorded with percussionist Guillermo Brown, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, cellist Okkyung Lee and percussionist Tim Feeney) were released by 1913 Press.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Bdh5ykfHEE

American Cypher

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In 2012-13 we created American Cypher. This project looked at American stories about race and DNA. The stories included narratives about Barack Obama, geneticist James Watson, Oprah Winfrey, and two men in the criminal justice system. At the center of the project was a multi-channel sound installation made from a small 18th century bell that belonged to Sally Hemings (a woman enslaved by Thomas Jefferson and, as indicated by DNA testing, mother to his children). The bell was recorded and altered. It was tuned using DNA information (microsatellite STR analysis) from the Jefferson and Hemings families. That analysis gave us a pitch set that was used to compose the piece. The project was commissioned by Bucknell University’s Samek Gallery and Griot Institute. The exhibition was mounted at the Studio Museum in Harlem and later traveled to the Institute of Visual Art at the University of Milwaukee Wisconsin.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/81574324″>Mendi + Keith Obadike: American Cypher – Samek Gallery and The Studio Museum in Harlem</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user12307441″>Keith Obadike</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Free/Phase

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Free/Phase is our latest project for 2014-15. This work uses the archives of Columbia College’s Center for Black Music Research (Chicago, Illinois) as its foundation. With this work we are doing conceptual remixes of African-American freedom songs found in the archives. We are thinking about how this music has been used over the past couple of centuries and all that is encoded in these songs musically, politically, and spiritually. There are three nodes to this project. These nodes will be presented and produced in several venues throughout the city of Chicago and will include audience participation.

1) Beacon

“Beacon” is made up of a distributed site-specific sound installation that “rings” morning, noon, and evening, playing a short melodic phrase from specific spirituals found in the CBMR archives. Each spiritual chosen contains musical & lyrical messages that could have been used for pre-emancipation navigation on the underground railroad or inspiration.

2) Overcome

“Overcome” is a video work that is inspired by ways that music was used during the American Civil Rights Movement.

3) Dialogue

“Dialogue” is comprised of “listening posts” throughout Chicago. A number of DJs engage audiences in a discussion about the canon of African-American freedom songs.

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Across this series, we hope to invite new ways of thinking about the archives that hold information about our existence—the records of profit during the era of American slavery, the relationships marked in our genetic information, and the strategies for survival encoded in our music. Our work in this area reflects on the information that sometimes vanishes from view, whether because it is ephemeral or because it has been buried. We hope our sounding the archives invite new ways of listening to the past and the future at the same time.

Mendi + Keith Obadike make music, art and literature. Their works include The Sour Thunder, an Internet opera (Bridge Records), Crosstalk: American Speech Music (Bridge Records), Black.Net.Art Actions, a suite of new media artworks (published in re:skin on M.I.T Press), Big House / Disclosure, a 200 hour public sound installation (Northwestern University), Phonotype, a book & CD of media artworks, and a poetry collection, Armor and Flesh (Lotus Press). They have contributed sounds/music to projects by wide range of artists including loops for soul singer D’Angelo’s first album and a score for playwright Anna Deavere Smith at the Lincoln Center Institute. You can find out more about them at http://obadike.com.

Featured image from authors’ website.

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“You’re. . .#noangel. . . either”: Uneasy Politics and Dissonant Sonics in Beyoncé’s “No Angel”

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This September, Sounding Out! challenged a #flawless group of scholars and critics to give Beyoncé Knowles-Carter a close listen, re-examining the complex relationship between her audio and visuals and amplifying what goes unheard, even as her every move–whether on MTV or in that damn elevator–faces intense scrutiny.   In the coming Mondays, you will hear from Priscilla Peña Ovalle (English, University of Oregon), Liana Silva (Editor, Women in Higher Education, Managing Editor, Sounding Out!), Regina Bradley (writer, scholar, and freelance researcher of African American Life and Culture), and Madison Moore (Research Associate in the Department of English at King’s College, University of London and author of How to Be Beyoncé).  Today, we #wakeuplikethis with Kevin Allred (Women and Gender Studies, Rutgers), who refuses to let us fast forward past the understated and discomfiting video track “No Angel.”–Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever    

Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot to death by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014, for no apparent reason [see author’s note below].  While the fact that the death of unarmed black men (and women and trans people) at the hands of those in power is, sadly, no unique occurrence, as Melissa Harris-Perry – among countless others – have pointed out, Brown’s death has sparked nation-wide outrage and protests about police brutality, racial injustice, and severely decreased resources for impoverished communities.

In the New York Times’ reportage on Brown’s death, reporter John Eligon found it appropriate to characterize the teenager as “no angel,” as if any amount of alleged wrongdoing or possible character flaws on Brown’s part somehow justified his murder.  Both Eligon and the Times were called out on social media and in traditional publications such as the Atlantic, and, while the press quickly apologized, the phrase’s familiar interpellation of victims – especially when they are people of color – as “no angels” lingered: a journalistic gaze born of sympathy with white authority that invalidates an individual’s life, tarnishes their memory, and even rewrites histories.

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A powerful counter discourse challenges these racist narratives, however; one we can hear in the dissonant sonics of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s “No Angel,” a song that  anticipates–and adamantly refutes–the racist notion that people who live, and quite possibly die as Michael Brown did,  are anything but valuable.

Released almost 9 months before Brown was killed, Beyoncé’s “No Angel” cannot explicitly be called a response, but the ghosts of black men–living and dead, unfairly judged and mistreated–haunt the entire song. “No Angel” begins with a slow-burning 4-count beat; a low, synthesized, slightly off-kilter kick drum sets the tone for the song while an eerily-lilting high-pitched synthetic warbling noise simultaneously pours out of the speakers. The sound, reminiscent of feedback, drifts between pitches for four painstakingly slow measures before Beyoncé’s vocals kick in. When they do, what we hear is unusual.  Her voice reverberates in a breathy, almost too-high falsetto that sounds nothing like the soaring powerhouse vocals of “Halo” or “I Was Here;” nothing like the precise, punctuated staccato of “Single Ladies” or “Run The World (Girls);” and certainly nothing like any of the other songs on BEYONCÉ.  Sonic and musical contradictions abound.  Neither the kind of impressive falsetto showing a wide range, nor necessarily immediately pleasing to the ear, Beyoncé’s voice is forced. . .and it haunts. Further, the vocals seem to cut the time signature of the song in half, effectively doubling its pace. Its tempo, cadence and vocal dynamics signal “No Angel” as a very different kind of Beyoncé song, one forwarding a sonic and political statement over radio-readiness.

Admittedly, “No Angel” was not initially one of my favorite songs on Beyoncé’s new album. In fact, when teaching this song, most of my students – even the hardcore Beyoncé fans – admit sheepishly to skipping through it because of a feeling of discomfort mainly related to Beyoncé’s vocal delivery. But after a few listens, something clicks: “No Angel” is not supposed to be pleasant, easy listening, but rather it jars and unsettles, just like the impact of news of another unarmed black person killed by white police.  We are neither supposed to immediately identify with the audio of “No Angel,” nor possibly even like it.

All about dissonance, the song’s innovation fuels itself with inconsistency and contradiction. Vocally speaking, there are incongruities between the highs and the lows (the bass and the treble or the bass and the soprano), and the abrupt shifts in pacing—the slow pace both in opposition to and contained within the faster pace of the song. Even the stretched and breathy falsetto Beyoncé puts on for most of the song strikes a dissonant chord.   Simply put, dissonance is tension, and neither the sonic nor the political tension ends here.

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Here’s the thing: we know Beyoncé’s voice doesn’t usually sound like it does on “No Angel.” It is a conscious manipulation. And when coupled with the refrain:

You’re no angel either baby

her voice even becomes a kind of accusation. If Michael Brown is “no angel;” if Beyoncé herself, as the singer and also as a black woman in a racist U.S. society, is also initially “no angel” then, Eligon in the NYT as Brown’s accuser and, by extension, we as the listeners, become “no angel either.” What’s more, Beyoncé ‘s delivery is so deliberately overdone that she can be heard taking deep breaths in between each word of the chorus – something most singers would attempt to hide.  Beyoncé chooses instead to push it to the forefront of the recording, audibly projecting each word toward the listener; in effect, slapping us in the face with each syllable, driving that message/accusation straight home.

However, while this forum may be dedicated to the sonic qualities of Beyoncé’s work, I don’t believe we can completely divorce the sonic from the visual for “No Angel,” or anything on BEYONCÉ, as it was specifically marketed and publicized as audio and visual album.  BEYONCÉ  visual music experience is nothing knew to Beyoncé herself. As far back as Dangerously In Love, Beyoncé forwarded her belief “that harmonies are colors” on an interlude toward the end of the album. For her latest album, she went so far as to strike an exclusive deal with iTunes in which the album was only available as a complete package for the first week of its release – singles could not be purchased separately nor without videos (and vice versa). It would be a disservice to ignore the visual depiction of “No Angel,” directed by @LilInternet and its synaesthetic fusion of sound and sight.

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Image by Flickr User Princess Mousy Cards

Just as the sonic qualities of the song provoke discomfort, unexpected imagery confronts the eye. First, the video is quite simply not about Beyoncé. She is rarely shown. Instead, Houston street culture and its struggles and poverty, represented largely through the faces of people of color, takes center stage. The video features mainly black men, although there are some images of black women throughout; a stark moment showing black women– raced and sexualized as “no angels”–working as strippers reveals an industry driven not by the agency/desire of the strippers themselves, but rather by the failures of capitalism that often offer few profitable choices to poor women other than sex work (as evidenced in the highlighting money shots/literal shots of money). But the video celebrates the lives of all theses alleged non-angels by showing small moments of happiness – a father smiling with his son; young boys flashing the peace sign with their fingers; sweet glances between lovers, community members proud to show off their jewelry and cars for the camera–redirecting the viewer’s attention to the structural inequality framing many of the images, provoking more voyeuristic viewers to reflect on their own responsibility and complicity in the systems that create poverty and segregation in the first place. Simultaneously, members of the Houston community–as well as diasporic Houstonians–can see themselves represented, even celebrated in the video, as opposed to the usual cinematic vilification and denigration of these very same bodies as “no angels.” Many Houston hop-hop legends appear in the video as well: Bun B, Scarface, Willie D,  Z-Ro, and of course Beyoncé herself.

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Still from “No Angel” video

When the camera does linger on Beyoncé, it juxtaposes her iconic image–associated with the wealth and power of her celebrity status–with everyday people of her Houston hometown, including its most impoverished.  Beyoncé, the residents, and the city itself stare the viewer down – actively challenging us to see both life and death, both living people and memorials to those, such as Michael Brown, who have died too young. The dissonant tension between life and death, encapsulated in Beyoncé’s voice and the video’s mirroring visuals: the high and the low; the rich and the poor; and the fraught gap in between.

Beyoncé tries to bridge this gap, both visually, through her self-representation in Houston, and sonically, particularly the moment when the refrain “you’re no angel, either. . .baby” finishes and she swings her voice down out of falsetto, into her more powerful full-out throat voice. It is assuredly no coincidence that during those moments she repeats the word “no,” over and over again. With that “no,” she objects to mainstream news vilification, anticipating and objecting to Michael Brown’s characterization as “no angel.” Her voice shifts from the high-falsetto – a sound serving the dual purpose of exposing the above dissonance AND acting as a caress to black communities in Houston, and Ferguson, and on and on – and moves into the heavy throat-voiced complaint and objection. “No, you will not treat my people this way. No, you will not treat ANY people this way,” her sound testifies. And, for viewers not represented in the video, that “you” is them–and she means that realization to feel uncomfortable.  Beyoncé’s vocal dissonance and visual images force a confrontation with this accusation: it is not Michael Brown and those represented and celebrated in the video who are “no angels,” but the rest of us who fall short.

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So, if we are “no angels, either” what do we do about it? Do we skip the track? Do we sit in front of our computer with the visual evidence of the failure of the American Dream staring us down as we groove to Beyoncé’s vocals? Do we turn off the news coverage in Ferguson, MO and pretend it’s not happening? Beyoncé’s voice provokes these uncomfortable questions and more: What does inequality sound like? What does hope and/or resolution/reparation sound like? Are they the same sound? This is a Beyoncé more in line with artists such as Nina Simone, who famously used  her voice to express political critique, and not always in the most “pleasant” ways. “No Angel” is Beyoncé’s audio-visual “Strange Fruit,” positioning her alongside some of the most political and innovative protest singers of our time.

Author’s Note:  At the time of Brown’s death, I had already been submitted this article. Due to the eerie coincidence between Beyoncé’s song “No Angel” and Eligon’s  characterization of Michael Brown in the New York Times noted during the review process, I reworked the article to bring the two into conversation – which, in fact, they always were, even though I didn’t know it at the time.

Kevin Allred is a musician, activist, and teacher, currently at Rutgers University, where he teaches a signature course he created: “Politicizing Beyoncé.” He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his boyfriend and two elderly dachshunds. Join the Politicizing Beyoncé community at www.facebook.com/politicizingbeyonce. You can also find Kevin at www.kevinallredmusic.com and www.politicizingbeyonce.com.

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