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The Screech Within Speech

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Weird Tales CoverWelcome back to SO!‘s Sonic Shadows series, which focuses on what it means to “have a voice.” In the first post in the series, I considered the role of the novel in sound studies, and how, paradoxically, this led us back to the embodied voice of the writer. In Joseph Conrad’s prose, traces of accent and translingualism shape the sonic space of difference, but also reframe the novel as a social, yet ambiguous act of communication.

This week, I’m happy to welcome Dominic Pettman, who picks up the question of the embodied human voice as it brushes up against the animal in what he calls the “voice of the world.” Next week, the series will conclude with uncanny mechanical sounds of early recording that trouble the voice of the human from within.

— Julie Beth Napolin, Guest Editor

This is the sound of “the loneliest whale in the world.”

Scientists have tracked this mournful creature for several years, intrigued by the melancholy songs, which go unanswered. The call of this singular cetacean, an Internet cult figure of unidentified species, registers at the unusual frequency of 52hz, much higher than that of all other types of whale.

These days, in general, whales have been forced into relatively tiny sonic boxes because of the din created by ship engines and various audio probings of the marine environment by military and industry alike. As bio-acoustician Christopher Clark, suggests, this assault and subsequent diminishment of the whale’s soundscape must be extremely traumatic for the animal, whose overall umwelt has shrunk from large swathes of the watery planet to barely a mile or so in any given direction. The noisier the ocean becomes the lonelier whales are likely to become.

“anim1083″ by Flickr user NOAA Photo Library, CC BY 2.0

The 52hz whale is a bit like an outsider artist, offering personalized songs to the sub-aquatic world, only to be snubbed by the more “vocal” members of whale community. Cetaceans could arguably be considered the first instance of global communication, many millions of years ago, since their calls could travel astonishing distances – up to 500 miles under water. Songs of the humpback, for instance, can “sweep across the Pacific in just a few years,” as biologists from the University of Queensland explain. “In any given year, all the males in a population sing the same song, but the songs change from year to year. The changes are more than incremental; they represent whole new repertoires.”

Can we really, however, speak of singing in such cases? Many would argue that simply using the organ of vocalization does not equate to singing in that it lacks the element of self-reflection necessary for true expression; for artistry. Others have conversely argued that humans were likely taught to sing by other creatures, especially the birds. These perspectives on the question of the interspecies voice have a long and complex history, crisscrossing epochs, as well as those divergent orientations to the natural world crudely divided into “East” and “West.” In this post, I focus on what it means to try to hear the animal beyond or through human terms, to explore the question of who or what can rightly claim to have a voice – is it a property or capacity that belongs to a subject, even a nonhuman subject? Might we consider voice to include “expression” of the elements themselves? Might the world itself, whatever such a grand phrase might denote, have a vox mundi – a voice of the planet?

“Angry” by Pixabay user PublicDomainPictures, public domain

Such questions deserve long and careful consideration, [and SO! has housed a series of reflections on acoustic ecology and a singing planet.] But in this brief context, I focus on the historically contested existence of a creaturely voice – one which describes a plurality of vocal expressions, distributed among those species blessed with the capacity to make sounds with their bodies. As Tobias Menely explains in a wonderful new book, the creaturely voice, like the human one, forms the vector of sympathy; and is thus suspended between the individual producing the sound, and the one listening to it. Through “the voice of nature” we understand our essential “creaturely entanglement” with other animals. This perspective pushes Mladen Dolar’s psychoanalytic theory that voice ties self to other to include the nonhuman experience of the animal realm.

Menely argues for a condition of social identity in “creaturely voice,” which is a way of testing the world, and one’s location, role, and value in it. In other words, monkeys, birds, whales, and so on, test their own existence when they emit non-symbolic equivalents of, “I’m here.” “Where are you?” “Are you really there?” “Who are you?” “Marco.” “Polo.” These are the unspoken – and yet at least partially communicated – messages woven into the ever-vanishing, yet always returning, medium of the voice.

Take, for instance, the parrot or cockatoo. We humans have been fascinated by these birds, largely by virtue of their perceived organic capacity to “record” our own voices, and throw these back at us, like trickster ventriloquists, long before the invention of the phonograph. Certainly, this can create an uncanny effect in the human listener: hearing our own voice echoed back from the larynx of a creature so different from ourselves – a creature that may or may not have its own mind or soul. Historically speaking, many people who had their figurative feathers ruffled by the impertinence of parrots deflected the discomfort they felt, upon hearing their own words screeched back at them.

This pet parrot, who had clearly been in the room when its owner was watching X-rated material, recently became famous. The instant mirth, and/or discomfort, that this clip produces is a function of hearing ourselves, as humans, echoed back by an animal. Our words are “rebroadcast” back to us by an entity that has no sense of irony or decorum. It is literally obscene. It is as if the world were engaged in objective parody of the planet’s most arrogant animal: revealing one of our most sacred activities (“making love”) to be little more than a kind of crude ventriloquial trick. This parrot is not deliberately lampooning us, yet, the refrain created by the bird’s imitative tendencies means that we are lampooned nevertheless.

Another famous pet cockatoo was given to a new couple after a bitter divorce obliged it to find a new home. The details of the break-up remain obscure to the second owners. However, this (traumatized?) cockatoo re-enacts the tone, pitch, and vehemence of the arguments that it was obliged to witness in its previous life. While most of the “words” the cockatoo screeches are not clear enough to be translated, the emotions that initially launched them are obvious to all within hearing distance. The bird even bobs its head, and spreads its wings, in imitation of the angry body language of a wife scorned, spurned, or otherwise so aggrieved that she can only incessantly shriek at the man who made her so miserable. Whose voice is this, then?

Parrots are like children, some might claim, squawking back syllables they will never comprehend. One might as well yell into a cave, and be astonished that the words return as a consequence of physics. Bird songs, according to such a concept, create what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call “a refrain,” which in turn generates a territory through the act of sonically diagramming it. This operation is not limited to the natural world, however, since we may say the same about television sets or saxophones.

Consider how children, or lovers, playfully imitate the speech of the other. In doing so, they assert their own identity, while also putting such an identity under erasure. Many animals (including humans) may thus be creatures who continue to flesh themselves out in(to) this territory. But instead of the animal echoing back the human, what about the reverse? As a final example, consider one famous instance of simulated human suffering, “devolving” into a creaturely register; namely, the old literature professor, Dr. Immanuel Rath, who experiences a nervous breakdown when he succumbs to intense jealousy and a broken heart, at the climax of Josef von Sternberg’s classic film, The Blue Angel (1930).

Just as the full weight of his rejection, at the hands of Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) is being registered in his psyche, the professor – who has quit teaching to follow his beloved in the cabaret world – is ushered out onto the theatrical stage, dressed as a clown. The audience waits in skeptical anticipation of an amusing performance, but the haunted ex-professor can only unleash a torrent of repressed anguish at his broken heart, and his humiliation at the hands of the vulgar mob. The horrible sound he releases, silencing the crowd, is part spurned lover, part rooster, and wholly abject. The professor seems to lose almost all his humanity, which was once verifiable in his composed and authoritative teaching voice, but is now some kind of demonic bird, screeching in misery, fury, and defeat. As this seemingly mindless force of vengeance tries to strangle his romantic obsession backstage, and as he continues to struggle against those who restrain him, the ex-professor has become creaturely: a supposedly subhuman status signified more by his inhuman voice than by anything else.

And yet, as we have seen, there is no simple hierarchy here, where the human occasionally – in times of great distress – finds themselves, by this logic, reduced to being “an animal.” We might call this the vox mundi – the voice of the world—in which, like the shadowy depths of the ocean, there is a swath of sound shared by human and animal. The creaturely voice can be sweet, like the nightingale. Or it can be harsh, like the traumatized cockatoo or the green-eyed professor-clown. There is an intimate link between the voices of animals and those of humans, which cannot be reduced to a concept like “communication,” but which nevertheless impacts and influences all those in hearing distance.

“Humpback Whales” by Flickr user Christpher Michel, CC BY 2.0

That is, unless one happens to be a whale, singing at 52hz. In which case, we are likely to keep singing into the inky darkness, without any reply.

Dominic Pettman is Chair of Liberal Studies, New School for Social Research, and Professor of Culture & Media, Eugene Lang College. He is the author of several books, including Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology (Zero books), and the forthcoming Infinite Distraction: Paying Attention to Social Media (Polity).

Featured image: “Humpback Whales” by Flickr user Christopher Michel, CC BY 2.0

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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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Machinic Ballads: Alan Lomax’s Global Jukebox and the Categorization of Sound Culture

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100 Years of Lomax4

Today, SO! continues 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.

With Clement’s own article below, the series begins to rethink Lomax as a touchstone in current and continuing drives to collect, measure and compute sonic cultures, something that seems hot all of a sudden (see, for instance, coverage of recent digital analysis of trends in pop music at Queen Mary University of London). In her thoughtful, illuminating and inspiring article below, Clement challenges us to consider the politics behind these efforts to search, retrieve and analyze audio, something that the case of Lomax throws into stark relief.

— Special Editor Neil Verma

When the Association for Cultural Equity, an organization that Alan Lomax founded in 1983, announced the release of 17,000 music tracks from Lomax’s fieldwork collections, the New York Times heralded the release as a manifestation of Lomax’s Global Jukebox project, a computational experiment for accessing and studying his vast multimedia collection of the world’s culture. The Times piece likens Lomax’s project to Pandora, which allows the listener to search for music “like” music she has already found. Lomax’s biographer, John Szwed, also makes this comparison but modifies his description by proclaiming that unlike Pandora’s recommendations which are “based on personal taste” and “tend to lead sideways . . . to production style,” Lomax’s Global Jukebox idea held the potential to point a listener to “deeper principles of cultural and musical organization” (The Man Who Recorded the World 391).

Gobsmacked by whizbang possibilities, neither the Times nor Szwed discuss the deeper principles behind Lomax’s attempt to represent culture as a global search engine. In the context of the powerful work being accomplished in the Music Information Retrieval (MIR) community and my own project (HiPSTAS) to develop software for making sound collections searchable and accessible, In this article I will argue that how we build systems for searching and retrieving and browsing cultural artifacts as data is a profoundly political act. Recognizing such politics suggests that Lomax’s Global Jukebox project serves as a cautionary tale for how social and cultural contexts — or what Donna Haraway calls our “ways of being” — are reflected in the systems we develop.

John A. Lomax Collection in UT Folklore Center Archives, Small Multiples. Instrumental sections are in red, spoken sections are in green, and sung sections are in blue. Click to see the full-size image. John A. Lomax Collection in UT Folklore Center Archives, Small Multiples. Instrumental sections are in red, spoken sections are in green, and sung sections are in blue. Click to see a full-size version.

John A. Lomax Collection in UT Folklore Center Archives, Small Multiples. Instrumental sections are in red, spoken sections are in green, and sung sections are in blue. Click to see a full-size version.

The Singer with the Song

The year that Alan Lomax was born (1915), his father John Alan Lomax published a landmark piece heralding seven new types of American ballads for study. American ballads, he argues “reveal the mode of thinking, the character of life, and the point of view, of the vigorous, red-blooded, restless Americans, who could no more live life contented shut in by four walls than could Beowulf and his clan, who sailed the seas around the coasts of Norway and Sweden” (“Some Types of American Folk-Song”, 3). Unlike any other collection of ballads, John’s “American ballad” included the ballads of the miner, the lumbermen, the inland sailor, the soldier, the railroader, “the ballads of the negro; and the ballads of the cowboy . . . [and] the songs of the down-and-out classes, — the outcast girl, the dope fiend, the convict, the jail-bird, and the tramp” (3). Governed by a laudable goal to record the songs of folk cultures at the fringes of mainstream society, the senior Lomax’s view of the communities where he would collect his songs (including jails and state farms), was complex, and can fairly be called both progressive as well as racist (Porterfield 170).

John and Alan went on seven collecting trips together between 1934 and 1936 and co-authored five books on their return. On these trips, they collected songs from people on the street in cities like New Orleans and people in the country, from both church-goers and prisoners. While John held romanticized views of the “noble” southern black man, Alan, on the other hand, indicated a more nuanced understanding of the complexities inherent to his father’s attempt to generalize patterns of “folk” for study. Alan linked “the singer with the song” and was interested in the politics behind prisoners made to sing with guns at their backs and in the cultural lives of people that were so poor in means but so rich in “beautiful harmony, with enormous volume, with total affection” (Szwed 49). While Alan maintained that he was interested in the individual’s story, John believed that “a genuine ballad has no one author. It is therefore the expression of no one mind: it is the product of the folk . . . It might have been written by any one” (“Some Types of American Folk-Song”, 1).

John A. Lomax Collection in UT Folklore Center Archives, Small Multiples. Instrumental sections are in red, spoken sections are in green, and sung sections are in blue. Click to see the full-size image.

John A. Lomax Collection in UT Folklore Center Archives, Small Multiples. Instrumental sections are in red, spoken sections are in green, and sung sections are in blue. Click to see a full-size version.

Taxonomies

The Global Jukebox project demonstrates an almost complete reversal in Alan’s concerns. The studies behind the Global Jukebox include Alan’s Cantometrics and Choreometrics, in which he produces taxonomies for studying song and dance and his Parlametrics project, an “experiment in metalinguistics,” which Alan and his collaborators describe as a taxonomy of “patterns of style” in speech based on dynamic changes in pitch, loudness, speed, spacing, rhythm, and timbre (“A stylistic analysis of speaking”). These taxonomies show that Alan’s early consideration for the individual performer gave way to a desire to make folk study more scientific as a cultural mapping like what his father espoused rather than what Szwed and others have seen as Alan’s concerns with the situated politics of individuals.

Alan’s Parlametric study serves as good example. Approaching delegates from the United Nations and soliciting mail-in samples from regions not covered by the U.N. volunteers, Alan and his team collected representative recordings of 114 languages. Then, in order to study the “generally neglected meta-communicational level” in these recordings, the team designed a rating system including 50 codes that (1) “described the distinctive features of each recording,” and (2) “tended to cluster the recordings into sets of similars” that Alan maintains anyone could “readily use” to record “salient differences in conversation style” (19). These clusters pointed to 14 factors that Alan and his team would use to categorize the cultures from which they received samples:

  1. Repetitiveness
  2. Timing
  3. Speech length
  4. Upglides
  5. Descending cadence
  6. Syllabification
  7. Drawl
  8. Empathy
  9. Space
  10. Dominance/Sharing
  11. Relaxed/Tense
  12. Noise
  13. Breathy
  14. Forceful

Using these factors, Alan makes some broad assertions. The association of clear syllabification” (the degree to which syllables run together) “is most strongly predicted among gardeners with domesticated animals” and “[t]he association of clear syllabification to feminine autonomy is suggested by the discovery that this mode of speaking predicts and is predicted by permissive rather than restrictive premarital sexual mores” (27). Further, “Dominance vs. Sharing of conversation space” is strongly correlated with settlement size and severity of sexual sanctions,” a statement that Alan immediately rationalizes by noting that “this relation between a more crowded social space, high sexual tension and increased rate of interaction seems to make good sense, even if it does not account for every possibility” (31).

These spurious and broad generalizations were what Lomax hoped to facilitate for all with his Global Jukebox as the access point for “the first numerical models of the full range of global cultural variation in holistic form” for “the scientist, the layman, and the student to explore, experience, and manipulate the broad universe of culture and creativity in a systematic fashion, with audio-visual illustrations at every turn of the road” (“The Global Jukebox,” 318). By leveraging his taxonomies of song, dance, and speech in the computer age, Alan could suddenly associate and differentiate cultures holistically and en masse.

A visualization of a song in ARLO

A visualization of a song in ARLO. Click to see a full-size version.

Machinic Methods / Humanistic Questions

As someone who works in the liminal spaces between the humanities and technology, between cultural studies and critique and the machines that increasingly function both as access points and barriers to our cultural artifacts, I see Alan’s switch to generalizable taxonomies as par for the course in the digital age. My own >HiPSTAS project’s primary objective is to develop a virtual research environment in which users can better access and analyze spoken word collections of interest to humanists. We understand that in order for us to search digital sound artifacts, we have to create taxonomies, metadata, keywords and other generalizable frameworks that facilitate discovery.

At the same time that we are using machinic methods, however, we can still ask humanistic questions that open up rather than close down debates and dialogues. In a recent test for the HiPSTAS project, for example, we used machine learning to analyze the recordings in the UT Folklore Center Archives, which comprises 219 hours of field recordings collected by John and Alan Lomax, Américo Paredes, and Owen Wilson, among others (UT Folklore Center Archives, ca. 1928-1981, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin, Box 2.325/R). In our attempt to predict the presence of different sonic patterns including instrumental music, singing, and speech, the results of our analysis are noteworthy as the visualization shown in this brief movie demonstrates.


from Tanya Clement on Vimeo

Within the results, we see a visualization of how many seconds comprise each file (in blue) and how many of those seconds for each file our software has predicted the presence of instruments (green), speech (red), and song (purple). A subtle yet striking difference emerges in the comparison between the Lomax recordings (created 1926-1941), which are the oldest in the collection, and the others, which were created up until 1968. The Lomax recordings (primarily created by John Lomax) consistently contain the least amount of speech in comparison to what the other files contain.

Of course, there are a number of ways you can read these results. Given the conversation above, one could hypothesize that perhaps the Lomaxes were primarily interested in their participants’ songs rather than their stories. One could also think about it in terms of recording capabilities across time. When the Lomaxes were first recording, John Lomax writes, “The amplifier weighed more than one hundred pounds; the turntable case weighed another one hundred; two Edison batteries weighed seventy-five pounds each. The microphone, cable, the tools, etc., accounted for sufficient weight to make the total five hundred pounds. . . . In order to carry them in the car I tore out the back seat . . .” Even in 1967, forty years later, good recorders still weighed 70 pounds and required a car battery, but tapes were longer and costs were less. More tape and more time at less cost both financially and physically had a big impact on what researchers recorded. At the same time, the data shows that the later recordings are not much longer, but do seem to have more seconds of speech.

There is a danger in these kinds of machine-generated generalities. We employed taxonomies (instrumental, sung, speech) to teach the machine to categorize these patterns, but why these patterns? Are there others? Or did I choose these based on what I already wanted to say about the Lomaxes’ practices? And, I haven’t even mentioned here the subjective practices inherent to choosing algorithms for such work.

These kinds of questions require more research, and more contextualization than this aggregated data set can show. Just as the ballads that John and Alan Lomax once collected were written and sung by someone, so were the communities that Alan interpreted through his Parlametrics made up of individuals, not types. Perhaps Alan’s desire “to record the world” was just and Google, the collector, categorizer, and interface for all things on the Internet, isn’t evil. But the Global Jukebox Project serves as a cautionary tale about the politics behind the speed and efficiency that machinic methods seem to promise, a politics that needs to be far less opaque about its deeper principles and problems.

Tanya Clement is an Assistant Professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. She has a PhD in English Literature and Language and an MFA in fiction. Her primary area of research is scholarly information infrastructure. She has published widely on digital humanities and digital literacies as well as scholarly editing, modernist literature, and sound studies. Her current research projects include High Performance Sound Technologies in Access and Scholarship (HiPSTAS).

Featured image: “Day 21 – Waveform” by Flickr user evil_mel, CC BY-NC 2.0

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Workshopping the Derry Soundscape: Mobile technologies as Creative Tools for Third Age Adults

interviewing poetry readers

ActsofSonicInterventionThis April forum, Acts of Sonic Intervention, explores what we over here at Sounding Out! are calling “Sound Studies 2.0″–the movement of the field beyond the initial excitement for and indexing of sound toward new applications and challenges to the status quo.

Two years ago at the first meeting of the European Sound Studies Association, I was inspired by the work of scholar and sound artist Linda O’Keeffe and her compelling application of the theories and methodologies of sound studies to immediate community issues.  In what would later become a post for SO!, “(Sound)Walking Through Smithfield Square in Dublin,” O’Keeffe discussed her Smithfield Square project and how she taught local Dublin high school students field recording methodologies and then tasked them with documenting how they heard the space of the recently “refurbished” square and the displacement of their lives within it.  For me, O’Keeffe’s ideas were electrifying, and I worked to enact a public praxis of my own via ReSounding Binghamton and the Binghamton Historical Soundwalk Project.  Both are still in their initial stages; the work has been fascinating and rewarding, but arduous, slow, and uncharted. Acts of Sonic Intervention stems from my own hunger to hear more from scholars, artists, theorists, and/or practicioners to guide my efforts and to inspire others to take up this challenge.  Given the exciting knowledge that the field has produced regarding sound and power (a good amount of it published here), can sound studies actually be a site for civic intervention, disruption, and resistance?

Acts of Sonic Intervention began  with “Listening to and Through Need” by Assistant Director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, Christie Zwahlen, who argues that any act of intervention must necessarily begin with self-reflexivity and examination of how one listens.    Last week, artist/scholar Luz María Sánchez gives us the privilege of a behind-the-scenes discussion of her latest work, detritus.2/ V.F(i)n_1–1st prize winner at the 2015 Biennial of the Frontiers in Matamoros, Mexico —which uses found recordings and images to break the deleterious silence created by narco violence in Mexico. Next week, we will close with from artist, theorist, and writer Salomé Voegelinwho will treat us to a multimedia re-sonification of the keynote she gave at 2014’s Invisible Places, Sounding Cities conference in Viseu, Portugal, “Sound Art as Public Art,” which revivified the idea of the “civic” as a social responsibility enacted through sound and listening.  Today, Linda O’Keeffe catches us up with her newest public project, a pilot workshop with older people at the U3A (University of the Third Age) centre in Foyle, Derry, “grounded in an examination of the digital divide, social inclusion and the formation of artists collectives.”

–JS, Editor-in-Chief

In 2014, the Irish Research Council funded a project that looked to increase the access of older people to creative opportunities while at the same time generating interest in research examining the social implications of sound, music, and performance produced by older people. The project ran over a 9-month period and included a two-week workshop with a group of third age adults based in Derry, Northern Ireland. This fulltime workshop consisted of training three people aged between 65-70 in the area of gesture based audio technologies on iOS devices.

My initial impetus behind the project was to find different ways to engage older adults with technologies outside of the typical education programs which focus on internet training and learning how to use communication applications like email and VOIP software. I designed the workshop to introduce the participants to a range of audio-based applications designed specifically for an iPad. They learned how to use digital audio recorders, including the different file types associated with sound quality, such as compressed audio mp3 and mostly uncompressed audio WAV (windows audio video format). For clarity, I organized the audio applications into three distinct types: audio editing apps, gesture based performance apps and sound synthesis apps.

Participants working with Auria and Dropbox // Photo by author

Participants working with Auria and Dropbox // Photo by author

Learning sound production, I felt, would offer elder people a different kind of value than basic workplace digital skills, something perhaps even more important for third age adults, what Fisher and Specht describe as a “positive sense of future” in “Successful Aging And Creativity In Later Life” (459).   Training in digital activities such as multi-track editing, performance and synthesis applications, the use of digital audio recorders, soundscape recording, using cloud based applications for sound sharing, and mastering finished works of sound offered more than just a “skill” for workshop participants, it also held out a new sense of purpose, a means to continue engaging with community, continued intellectual stimulation, and the possibility of a new period of productivity in their lives.

Work Shopping Sound

One of the key components to the workshop involved talking about sound and sound art, and discussing the kinds of art made from sound, including work made for radio. Such conversation presented difficulties for people who were largely unfamiliar with fine art, a problem compounded by the fact that, as an emerging art form, sound is not always visible in mainstream cultural spaces.

To ease the transition, I centered our early discussions on important sounds in the participants’ lives: sounds remembered and now lost, the difference between rural and urban soundscapes, and unique perhaps for this particular group, the sounds of civil war. All of the participants had lived in Derry most of their lives and experienced some aspect of the violence within Northern Ireland; through our conversations, sound became an interesting way to memorialize and process this event. We then discussed how these soundscapes could be documented, changed and presented as works of art. Later, workshop conversation consisted of listening to sound art pieces. This helped the group get a sense of the potential of sound as an expressive art form.

Sound as Process

During the workshop, I emphasized the process and practice of sound making over the technology required to undertake the production of their art works. In this way, by focusing on an artistic concept, the technology just became the means in which they could be creative. Each participant was given a digital audio recorder (Zoom), which they brought home to record sounds they found interesting. Every meeting, the group discussed how–through the act of recording and listening–their perception of familiar sounds was being altered. They began also to experiment when recording, using their voices – singing – reading poetry etc. in different spaces, getting close up to sounds – exhaust pipes in cars, for example—and placing the microphone in unusual places such as a neighbours pig shed. Gradually, participants began to think of the sounds they collected as being part of a larger project and they became much more selective about what they would record. In addition, the group began to critique the sounds they recorded as well as sharing their sounds using Dropbox folders. These recordings became the basis for their final works; even if their sounds were eventually altered beyond recognition, the sounds inspired their artistic concepts.

The first Saturday of the two-week workshop included a soundscape recording day in Derry city. Each participant was asked to walk the city, recording sounds they found interesting. What emerged during the sound walks was unexpected. Members of the group began to engage with spaces and people, interviewing some, asking others to make sounds. For example, two participants went into a music store and asked the staff to sing or play an instrument so that they could record these sounds. They also went to the main cathedral in Derry and had the bells rung especially for them and a trainee organist play some traditional organ music. One participant, a poet, had different people read lines from a selection of his poems. He stated later that he was hoping to collect the sounds of women, children and men, as well as the multiple accents of Derry people, because his poetry was about Derry and therefore Derry should be its voice. I had not anticipated this engagement with community and space when I designed the workshop.

Participants recording water feature, Photo by author

Participants recording water feature, Photo by author

During the focus group discussion after the sound walk, each participant talked primarily about how the recorder allowed them access to sounds and people. The technology acted as an interface between them and a sound that they wanted; it gave them the confidence to approach strangers, because they felt they were working on something important.

Gesture Based Performance Applications

Still from Auria, a gesture based performance app

Still from Auria, a gesture based performance app

In addition to conversation and artistic process, the first week of the workshop introduced participants to three applications: Auria audio editor, TC11 gesture based performance app and Animoog (a music synth app designed for iPad). A number of papers argue that it is the complexity of software applications, including the internet, which proves difficult to older users. Overlapping and contrasting colours are defined as difficult to engage with and can be distracting to users whose vision is in any way impaired through ageing. The Auria editor is as complex visually as most computer DAW’s, with one key difference: all interactions are gestural. This simple difference meant that each of the users found engaging with the application less difficult than if they had to deal with a mouse, keyboard, shortcuts and OS’s (see figure).   Animoog synthesis applicationNone of the participants felt that the screen and its multiple windows were so difficult that they could not engage. In fact, we had initially worked with a much simpler audio editing app, Hokusai, which they felt was too simple in its design and usability. By the end of the two-week workshop, the participants had produced at least one complete work of sound, with some creating up to 4. Selected works were compiled in a CD that was launched in November 2014 at the U3A in Derry.  Listen to a sampling below.

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Track Two: “Made in Belfast” by Sam Burnside, read by John Dunlop

Track Four: “The Haunted Valley,” by Florence Forbes

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In a final focus group discussion, the participants all responded very positively to the experience while offering suggestions about future workshops. Most agreed that the digital audio recorders allowed them to open their ears to the possibility of working with sound, but from an ethnographic perspective. The recorders allowed the participants engage actively with people and spaces in a way that had not been anticipated, empowering them with a sense of purpose, and allowed them give voice to both their creative ideas and the voices and soundscapes of Derry. In addition, the iPADs and audio recorders allowed them a sense of technological and creative mobility; they could access sounds on the move, place and share them in the cloud, perform/compose and edit in different spaces.

Participants working with their iPads, Photo by the author

Participants working with their iPads, Photo by the author

Working on this project altered a number of preconceptions I had inadvertently brought with me about older peoples’ capabilities, even though my proposed project challenged other assumptions about aging. For example, I chose some of the audio applications for their simple design, mostly because previous research had highlighted older adults’ limitations in regards to the digital, based on principles of design, where technology is often shaped for a younger, often male, user. The participants in this workshop proved they could learn and even be creative with complicated applications such for synthesis  and sophisticated editing. Even though I have written about older peoples use of audio technologies dating back to the 1940s–and how they developed sophisticated hacked mechanisms in order to broaden their sound/media sphere (O’Keeffe 2015)–I failed to consider that my participants would also have a contemporary relationship to mobile technologies. Yet all three participants, in varying degrees, used some form of mobile technology, from tablets to android phones. But what was evidenced through our conversations was the limited way in which they used their tech. After the workshop, most talked about buying and using audio applications or recording technology for creative or documentary use.

The author, recording sounds in the workshop

The author, recording sounds in the workshop

Prior to the workshop, I myself rarely used iPad audio apps; for me, it required thinking differently about mobility and sound design, and it was only on seeing the very creative ways in which the participants used the iPad that I started to rethink how IOS apps could support my sound practice. Following from this project, I am now in the process of developing a performance collective with third age adults. We will examine ways in which sounds can be assigned meaning and then used in a performance setting. The project will take about a year to complete and the hope is that, when finished, the performance collective will continue, with a tool kit to sustain their practice.

Featured Image: “Workshop participant interviewing poetry readers,” photo by Author

Linda O Keeffe isis a lecturer in sound at Lancaster Institute of Contemporary Art.  She is also secretary to the Irish Sound Science and Technology Association and editor of the Interference Journal.  She has several papers and book chapters published and due for release in the fields of sound studies.  Her practice is concerned with an exploration, both academic and creative, of the ways in which sound alters our experience of different spaces. Her art training was within the sculpture department of IADT under the tutelage of Finola Jones. She completed a Masters in Virtual Reality in NCAD with Kevin Atherton, and just finished a PhD in sociology in NUIM. Her research examined the urban of Dublin city soundscape as socially and technologically co-constructed. She has composed for dance, theatre, quartets, and new instrument performers, installed sound installations for commissions in Ireland, China and Holland, and has had radio works performed both nationally and internationally. In 2008 she was mentored under Eric Leonardson in Chicago, a sound artist and performer. More recently, she was commissioned by Resonance FM to create a work for radio for the 2013 Derry city of culture event. In November 2014 Linda had a solo exhibition  called “Spaces of Sound and Radio Spaces” for the Limerick Sculpture Centre,  a creative realization of her PhD research.She will be releasing an album next year with the composer Tony Doyle on spatialisation and sonified memories with Farpoint Recordings, her third album. You can find her at www.lindaokeeffe.com.

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