Editor’s Note: Welcome to Sounding Out!‘s fall forum titled “Sound and Play,” where we ask how sound studies, as a discipline, can help us to think through several canonical perspectives on play. While Johan Huizinga had once argued that play is the primeval foundation from which all culture has sprung, it is important to ask where sound fits into this construction of culture; does it too have the potential to liberate or re-entrench our social worlds? Here, Roger Moseley challenges us to rethink the philosophical discourses of both sound and play and locates the moments in which they intersect and interface. From games of Telephone to Guitar Hero, Moseley considers the ways in which sonic play can help us understand the phantasmic binaries of the analog and digital.–AT
Throughout the distinguished intellectual lineage of play (where it is touched on by notable philosophers such as Plato, Montaigne, Kant, Schiller, Gadamer, Derrida, and Baudrillard), little attention has been paid to the parallels that can be drawn between sound and play as both media and phenomena. The very name of today’s most prominent cultural and technological locus of play, the video game, overtly privileges the eye at the expense of the ear. As recent research and creative work by such figures as Aaron Oldenburg, Aaron Trammell, George Karalis, and Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo indicates, a surge of interest in audio games, as well as video games that emphasize the importance of sound while eschewing or minimizing visual stimuli, is acting as a salutary corrective to this oculocentrism. In what follows, I suggest that bringing sonic and musical techniques to bear on this history might afford new insights into play and its myriad configurations. Conceiving of play sonically entails thinking of sound playfully. This intersectional logic can, I argue, unpick binarisms that enforce problematic distinctions and constrict thought. To demonstrate this, I conclude by deploying the concept of play to redefine the relationship between the digital and the analog—and vice versa.
How can play be defined in a manner that encompasses its farrago of meanings and associations? For video game designers and theorists Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, the answer is deceptively simple: play is “free motion within a more rigid structure” (Rules of Play, 304). To illustrate the flexibility of this definition, Salen and Zimmerman allude to the phenomenon of light playing upon the ocean waves. They leave unexamined, however, the intimacy and richness of the relationship between play and sound. From a scientific perspective, the patterned oscillation of which a sequence of sound waves is constituted consists of free motion within the limits set forth by the laws of physics. When disciplined and deployed as a cultural technique–take the play of musical instruments for example–sonic play is humanized and rendered transitive. But, we might also suggest that instruments play people, citing the sensation of automation with which fingers flash over fretboard or keyboard. Moving further away from anthropocentrism, we can observe how sonic technologies render play intransitive once more. From the barrel organ to the iPod, sound plays without human aid when mechanically reproduced. This way of framing reproduction invokes and extends Roger Caillois’s playful category of mimicry, which can be construed as faithful imitation, deceptive fakery, or even a Baudrillardian attempt to simulate a phenomenon that never existed.
In order to pay due attention to both the technologies through which sonic play is mediated as well as the cultural techniques imbue it with significance, I suggest that we supplement Salen and Zimmerman’s definition by thinking of freedom, motion, and structure in both digital and analogical terms. To an extent, the adoption of this modish epistemological framework acknowledges that conceptions of play are always constrained by their prevailing intellectual context. More importantly, however, I contend that technologies of sonic generation and representation from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries can be understood to play with the categories of the digital and the analog avant la lettre (ou le chiffre). The two categories are not mutually exclusive and to treat them as such would be to subjugate the granularity of the analog to the binary logic of the digital. Rather, they co-exist as modes between which sounds and players freely oscillate.
The origins of digital sonic play lie within the human body. As Johan Huizinga put it, “the link between play and instrumental skill is to be sought in the nimble and orderly movements of the fingers.” In the course of musical performance, human digits perform innumerable calculations. At its crudest level, musical performance from a score can be construed as a sort of algorithmic play through which mimetic fidelity is evaluated (and wrong notes relentlessly tallied). This ludic logic is at its most visible in rhythm-action video games such as Guitar Hero in which the score is no longer a text but rather a quantitative analysis. The iconography of these games usually indexes a set of digital technologies used primarily for the recording, editing, and playback of music. On the one hand, this relationship can be traced back to Leibniz’s exposition of ars combinatoria and his “invention” of binary; on the other, it is realized by the hydraulic organ and composing machine devised and programmed by the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, both of which are depicted in his Musurgia universalis (1650). In media-archaeological terms, the combination of Leibniz’s concepts and Kircher’s mechanisms gave rise to the hardware and software of Joseph Marie Jacquard’s revolutionary loom, Charles Babbage’s prototypical Analytical Engine, the player piano, the IBM punch card, and the MIDI sequencer before resurfacing in Guitar Hero, a piece of software that, in purely algorithmic terms, enlists the player’s digits to verify checksums.
Such digital grids may constitute the field and the rules of sonic play, but they must be supplemented by analog elements if play is to flourish. As detailed in C. P. E. Bach’s Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (1753/62), the clavichord and its descendants distinguished themselves from the harpsichord and the organ by endowing the keyboard with an infinite sensitivity to touch, thereby enabling a mimetic spectrum of emotional flow with unprecedented verisimilitude. Analogicity also provides another perspective on Caillois’s concept of mimicry, according to which one object or activity playfully stands in for another via imitation, deception, or make-believe. Additionally, the curves of Ernst Chladni’s figures, which materialized sound as sand, exemplify this sonic and mimetic trajectory as they rely on both Hermann von Helmholtz’s pioneering work on acoustics and the complex history of phonography to the development of analog synthesis.
In terms of sonic play, digital and analog elements can be chiastically recombined and reconfigured. A sonic communication game such as Telephone relies on the human propensity for analogy and its corrupting influence on the integrity of information transfer, playfully inverting the conditions and functions of the “real” telephone (which was engineered to compress informational content digitally without jeopardizing meaning). In much electronic dance music, the digital latticework, simultaneously visualized and rendered audible by the sequencer’s grid, constitutes a field of play overlaid with vocals, sweeps, and other analog elements that, in turn, have been captured via digital sampling. As a kind of meta-game, a mash-up plays with sonic elements whose relations can be parsed in the digital terms of Leibnizian recombinatorial play, but equally important are the unintended associations and analogies which inevitably emerge. And while games such as Guitar Hero foreground digital techniques of sonic reproduction, they simultaneously foster diverse forms of analogical play involving the player’s manipulation of the sonic (and social) behavior of her on-screen avatar—and vice versa.
There is no doubt that the status of sound and its mediation through and as play have too often gone unacknowledged. As well as seeking to rectify this state of affairs by stressing the importance of sound in relation to the playful operations of other media, we might also dwell on the distinguishing features that set it apart: sound and the techniques that shape it are unique in the ways they simultaneously trace and are traced by the materials, technologies, and metaphors of play.
Roger Moseley is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Music at Cornell University. His most recent research brings a media-archaeological perspective to bear on musical performance and improvisation. He is particularly interested in how the concept of play informs sonic practices and cultural techniques. Active as a collaborative pianist on both modern and historical instruments, he has recently published essays on digital games in the contexts of musical and visual culture. His current book project is entitled Digital Analogies: Interfaces and Techniques of Musical Play.
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Papa Sangre and the Construction of Immersion in Audio Games– Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo
Editor’s Note: Even though this is officially Osvaldo Oyola‘s final post as an SO! regular–his brilliant dissertation on Latino/a identity and collection cultures is calling–I refuse to say goodbye, perpetually leaving the door open for future encores. He has been a bold and steadfast contributor–peep his extensive back catalogue here–and we cannot thank him enough for bringing such a whipsmart presence to Sounding Out! over the years. Best of luck, OOO, our lighters are up for you!–J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
As several of my previous Sounding Out! Blog posts reveal, I am intrigued by the way popular music seeks to establish its authenticity to the listener. It seems that recorded popular music seeks out ways to overcome its lack of presence as compared to a live performance, where a unified and spontaneous sense of immediacy seems to automatically bestow the aura of the “authentic”—a uniqueness that, ironically, live reproducibility engenders. Throughout my time as a Sounding Out! regular, I have explored how authenticity may be conferred through artists affecting an accent as a form of musical style, comparing their songs to other “less authentic” forms of music through a call to nostalgia, or even by highlighting artificiality through use of auto-tune.
One of the ways that artists and producers get past a potential lack of authenticity when recording is through call outs to “liveness.” I am not referring to concert recordings (though there are ways that they can be used), but elements like counting off at the beginning of songs or introducing some change or movement in a song. There is no practical need to count off “One, two, three, four!” at the beginning of a recording of a song if it is being pieced together through multiple tracks and overdubs. These days a “click track” or adjustment post-recording can keep all the players in time even if not necessarily playing at once; even if a song is being recorded as a kind of studio jam, the count off could be edited out. It is an artifact of the creation, not a sign of creation itself. Instead, the counting can become an accepted and notable part of the song, like Sam the Sham and the Phaorahs performing “Wooly Bully,” giving it an orientation to time—the sense that all these musicians were present together and playing their instruments at once and needed this unique introduction to keep them all in tempo.
Similarly, sometimes artists call out to other musicians, giving instructions when no instructions are needed, assuming that most popular music is recorded in multiple takes using multiple tracks. In Parade‘s “Mountains,” Prince commands the Revolution, “guitars and drums on the one!” when clearly they had rehearsed when putting together the song, and ostensibly knew when the drum and guitar breakdown was coming up. Prince, furthermore, joins artists as varied as the Grateful Dead and the Beastie Boys in mixing concert recordings with studio overdubs to capture a “live” sound on songs like “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” and “Alligator.” Even something as ubiquitous as guitar feedback is a transformation of an artifact of live performance into a sound available for use in recording—something that was purposefully avoided until John Lennon’s happy accident when in the studio to cut “I Feel Fine.” Until then, playing with feedback was a way to demonstrate performance skills through onstage vamping.
These varied calls to liveness provide a sense of authenticity to music made via the recording studio, denoting what I understand as the spontaneous sociability of music. Count-offs and studio shout-outs provide a sense of unified presence to a performance, especially if the performance has actually been constructed piecemeal and over time. This is something of a remnant of an old-fashioned notion that recorded music is measured in quality in comparison to live performance. It’s any idea that hung around both implicitly and explicitly long after bands started experimenting in the studio with effects that ranged from the difficult to the impossible to replicate on stage, and reinforced through recordings by performers who purposefully referenced their lauded live performances.
For example, James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” is built on this conceit. The entire song is a conversation, a call and response between James Brown and his band, the J.B.’s. From the opening line, Brown introduces the song as moment in time in which he is compelled to do his thing, but he demands both encouragement and cooperation from the band in order to achieve it. When Brown asks Bobby Byrd, “Bobby! Should I take ‘em to the bridge?” we as listeners are invited to play along with the idea that it has suddenly came into his head to have the band play the bridge—as it might’ve happened (and thus been practiced) countless times in his legendary live shows. It suggests a form of spontaneity that the reality of recording would otherwise drain from the song. Sure, according to RJ Smith’s The One: The Life and Music of James Brown (2012), “Get Up” was recorded in only two takes–already fairly amazing–but the very nature of the song makes it sound like it was recorded in one, even if it had to be broken up into two sides of a 7-inch. That reality doesn’t matter—what matters when listening is the feeling that we, as listeners, are being allowed to partake in the capturing of what seems like one unique, and continuous, moment.
The question then arises: What about recorded music that does the opposite, that makes a point of highlighting its artificial construct—the impossibility of its spontaneous performance? While there are examples that date back at least to the 1960s, does this shift highlight a difference in aesthetic concerns by the pop music audience? If calls to “liveness” suggest a spontaneous sociability to music, what do the meta references to their songcraft suggest about what is important to music now?
The classic example is Ringo Starr’s bellow, “I GOT BLISTERS ON MY FINGERS!” at the end of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” an exclamation made after umpteen takes of the song recorded on the same day, but there are more contemporary and even more obvious examples. Near the end of Outkast’s “Prototype,” (at 4:21) Andre 3000 can be heard talking to his sound engineer John Frye about the ad libs, “Hey, hey John! Are we recording our ad libs? Really? Were we recording just then? Let me hear that, that first one. . .” There is an interesting tension here between the spontaneity of an “ad lib” and listening back to pick the best one or further develop one when re-recording, and Andre in his role as producer decided to keep it in as part of the final product. The recording itself becomes part of the subject of the song as a kind of coda. The banter is actually a brilliant parallel to the content of the song, which undermines the typical “we’ll be together forever” love song trope for one that highlights the reality of serial monogamy common in American culture and lessons each relationship potentially provides us for the next. Rather than pretend that a romantic relationship is a unique and eternal thing, the song admits the work and changes involved, just as it admits that the seemingly special spontaneity of a song is developed through a process.
Of course, hip hop as a genre, with its frequent use of sampling, tends to make its recording process very evident. While it is possible to play samples “live” using a digital sampler or isolating sections on vinyl via the DJ as band member, the use of pre-recorded fragments means that rap music relies on the vocal dynamics of rap to carry the sense of spontaneity. Yet, in 1993′s “Higher Level,” KRS-One opens with a description of the time and place of the recording—“5 o’clock in the morning” at “D&D Studios,” establishing forever when and where and thus how the recording is happening. Five o’clock in the morning places the creation of the song with a context of working and rocking all through the night to get the album completed. The song may or may not have actually been recorded last, but its placement at the end of Return of the Boom Bap, gives it a sense of a last ditch effort to complete the collection of songs. The fact that “5 o’clock in the morning” is likely also among the cheapest available studio times potentially highlights budgetary concerns in the recording itself. This is a rare thing to include in recording, though the Brand New Heavies cap off the dissolution of their 1994 track “Fake” into pseudo-jazz-messing-around with one their members chiding, “a thousand dollar a day studio!” This is a different kind of call to authenticity, as a budgetary concern is an implicit to a “realness” defined by being non-commercial.
One of my all-time favorite examples is a few years older than “Higher Level”—“Nervous” by Boogie Down Production: “written, produced and directed by Blastmaster KRS-One,” which includes an attempt to explain how a song is put together on the “48-track board.” Instead of calling instructions to a band, KRS points out that DJ Doc is doing the mixing and instructs him to “break it down, Doc!” just before a beat breakdown (listen at around 1:40). He explains, “Now, here’s what we do on the 48-track board / We look around for the best possible break / And once we find it, we just BREAK,” and then the pre-recorded beat seems to obey his command, breaking down to just the bass drum and a sampled electric piano from Rhythm Heritage’s “The Sky’s the Limit.” Later, he says, “We find track seven, and break it down!” and the music shifts to just the bass guitar and some tinny synth high-hats.
So how does highlighting the recording circumstances, or just bringing attention to the fact that the song being listened to is a multiple-step process of recording and post-production benefit the song itself? Is it like I mentioned in my 2011 “Defense of Auto-Tune” post, that this kind of attention re-establishes authenticity by making its constructed nature transparent? I’d say yes, in part, but I also think that–through its violation of the expectation of seamlessness–the stray track or reference to recording within a song is a nod to a different kind of skillfulness. Exhortations such as “Take it to the Bridge” give an ironic nod to the extemporaneous to call attention to the diligent workmanship and dedication demanded by studio songcraft. Traditionally, live audiences may appreciate a flawless or nearly flawless performance and understand a masterful recovery from (and/or incorporation of) error as the signs of a good show, but, these moments that call attention to the recording studio situation claim there something to appreciate in the fact that Ringo Starr endured 18 takes of “Helter Skelter” until he had painful blisters, or that KRS-One and DJ Doc worked out the proper way to “feel around” the mixing board to make a grooving collage of sounds as disparate as the theme from “Rat Patrol” and WAR’s “Galaxy.”
KRS may have once admonished other MCs to “make sure live you is a dope rhyme-sayer,” but clearly he believes liveness—whether implicitly or explicitly—is not the only measure of musical ability. Rather, the highlighting of labor in the construction of a recording becomes its own kind of (anti-)vamping and demonstration of skill, and of a different kind of sociability in making music that these conversational snippets and references to other people in the studio make clear. This kind of attention to the group labor is especially important as various recording technologies become increasingly available to the wider public and allow for an isolated pursuit of recording music. Just as calls to liveness in recording engage the listener in ways that suggest participation as a live audience, calls to anti-liveness also engage the listener, but by bringing them across time and space into the studio to witness to a different form of great performance.
Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and a PhD Candidate in English at Binghamton University working on his dissertation, “Collecting Identity: Popular Culture and Narratives of Afro-Latin Self in Transnational America.” He also regularly posts brief(ish) thoughts on music and comics on his blog, The Middle Spaces.
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Experiments in Agent-based Sonic Composition–Andreas Pape
Welcome to week four of our February Forum on “Sonic Borders,” a collaboration with the IASPM-US blog in connection with this year’s IASPM-US conference on Liminality and Borderlands, held in Austin, Texas from February 28 to March 3, 2013. The “Sonic Borders” forum is a Virtual Roundtable cross-blog entity that will feature six Sounding Out! writers posting on Mondays through February 25, and four writers from IASPM-US, posting on Wednesdays starting February 6th and ending February 27th. For an encore of weeks one through three of the forum, click here. And now, Tara Betts drops some science, Sounding Out! style. –JSA
When underground hip-hop artist P. Blackk released Blackk Friday (2011), several reviewers insisted that he sampled political activist Angela Davis. Oddly enough, one of the reviews from The Meara Blog, featured the video for “Brainz,” the song in question–and the video clearly showed that the sampled track was in fact not Davis but activist and lawyer Kathleen Cleaver. Why the automatic assumption that any black woman sampled from the 1960s is Davis? Why the collapsing and erasure of so many distinct and powerful voices?
Davis, Cleaver, and Assata Shakur are arguably the three most iconic women of the Black Power Movement, but they largely go unrecognized in mainstream history. Erasure by omission represents how many historical sources are resistant to identifying their specific contributions to grassroots organizing, intellectual life, and politics, while the male leadership of the Black Power Movement is often mentioned by name. So, the inclusion of Davis, Cleaver, and Shakur in songs by hip hop artists P. Blackk, John Forté, and Common simultaneously amplifies the distinctiveness of their voices while signaling conscious choices by younger male artists to align themselves with the political thinking espoused by these radical women in politically-rooted, layered tracks–even as these samples inadvertently reveal the mainstream public’s tendency to treat black female activists as interchangeable. Both in their moment and in its sampled echoes, these women resist being grouped into an amorphous group of misconstrued black people, and these tracks highlight that.
In “Brainz,” P. Blackk samples a 1968 speech by Cleaver. In the track, the basic bassline reverbs beneath the emcee’s repeated hook. He begins the song with the “huh” sound that many emcees use to amplify enthusiasm, start rhyming, and alert whomever is listening that the words are about to arrive. Blackk repeats certain phrases and utilizes internal rhyme as he makes observations about the choices people should make to care for themselves, their children, and their communities. The most original slant rhyme emerges in the second of two verses, replicated here:
It’s funny how we love chains and whips
when we were bound by em.
and we hate rock’n’roll and it was found by us.
You can’t hate what’s beautiful. I’m black and I’m proud,
but that ain’t got nothing to do with my pants sagging down.
Society is pimping you.
I’m just a man who’s a little more sensible.
I used to be invisible, now I’m invincible.
Not the stereotypical,
and I’m doing my thing in a game with no principles.
Knowledge and power, all I need, yeah, that’ll do.
The difference between me and my peers is gratitude.
Younguns is dumb too and too cool,
but it’s uncool living in a city that’s gun-ruled.
Here, P. Blackk most closely echoes how Cleaver expresses a sense of embracing and affirming black beauty while still acknowledging flawed educational systems, materialism, the origin of rock music, intergenerational disconnects, and gun violence. As a member of the Black Panther Party, wife of Eldridge Cleaver, attorney and professor, Cleaver has been a spokesperson for African American struggles. When the chorus simply repeats “real n-gga wit a brain,” P. Blackk is claiming the term that is still an affront to middle class people reaching for the civility of assimilation. He is insisting that some people are afraid of their intelligence and growing awareness as marginalized people and what actions that might entail. This fear of a nascent threat was at the root of resistance towards the slogan “Black is Beautiful” in the 1960s.
The Cleaver sample comes at the end of “Brainz,” and in the music video appears in its entirety on a projection screen and against P. Blackk himself, decked in a white shirt and bow tie, as he “lectures” students in a darkened classroom. As different black historical figures, including the likes of Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Ralph Abernathy, George Jackson, and James Baldwin, are projected on the screen behind Blackk, the instrumental audibly drops much lower so the only voice heard is Cleaver’s.
[Cue to 3:05 for Kathleen Cleaver]
The footage from which her sample is taken has background sound such as others talking and a chant with cadences that were often heard at black political protests; these can be faintly heard along with the audible buzz of varied speaking voices in the crowd that surrounding Cleaver. She was not onstage nor the main focal point of the larger event, but P. Blackk’s re-framing places her at its center. When one considers the position of Davis and Cleaver as esteemed and radical activists and professors, it’s not surprising that P. Blackk video positions him as an educator, like these women, to further reinforce the point of Cleaver’s words.
In “A Song for Assata,” from Like Water for Chocolate (2000), Common retells some of the events detailed in Assata: An Autobiography, but his sample reinforces why her activism was so important to Common and others like him. Her looped voice concludes his song, incredulously repeating the question, “You askin’ me about freedom?” In the sample Shakur explains how she knows more about what freedom is not, which is similar to a comment that Shakur made in Gloria Rolando’s documentary Eye of the Rainbow: Assata Shakur and Oya. Shakur then defines how freedom allows one to be one’s self, and the definition is faded down and the last of the soaring music rises slightly. When this fade occurs, we have a few examples of what Shakur imagines what freedom could potentially be, but it also leaves a sonic pause where listeners might contemplate how they define freedom for themselves.
The choice to fade out a sample says so much about not just the message that it (and Common) hopes to convey, but also reveals narratives that have been enforced consistently through institutions and time. I read the fade out as sonically emphasizing “the struggle,” rather than the intellectual present of an activist speaking; it limits her to the role of an representing the past. In dream hampton’s documentary Black August, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement organizer Meron Haile Selassie elucidates how women like Shakur are idolized:
Historically, the black liberation movement and actually all movements, let’s be honest, have fallen short of trying to incorporate the role of women, what women need, and how we incorporate anti-sexist theory and anti-sexist work in our general liberation movement. And when the woman that we put on the poster every single year, Assata Shakur, is someone that these artists revere and talk about yet but they’re somehow unable to see an Assata Shakur in the woman they’re dating that’s a painful realization.
In other words, even in black history and social movements, some women are canonized and celebrated and others are disregarded, which is not a far cry from the well-worn debate of using the word “b-tch” or “ho” and insisting that this namecalling does not address all women. Such overlooking and fading out is a subtler silencing of women.
John Forte’s “Drift On” works against the narrative of the fade-out in “A Song for Assata.” In “Drift On,” from his album The Water Suite (2012), Forte lyrically articulates the feeling of being distant from someone; however, it is the brief sample of a few seconds from Angela Davis that reinforces the possibility of redemption during and after confinement. Forté begins singing the hook over a guitar-like loop that functions almost like a chord, and his soft singing of the chorus contrasts with his solemn rhyming lines and the firm solemnity of Davis’ brief sample midway through the song. A little more than a minute before “Drift On” ends, Davis speaks:
many people recognize that they can refashion themselves. They can rehabilitate themselves. They can live a life of the mind.
Davis stresses the words “they,” “refashion” and the third, final “can” spoken in this sample. Her tendency to stretch and soften particular nouns and verbs in speaking is a consistent pattern in Davis’ public speech, achieved by rhetorical devices such as metanoia– the immediate restatement of a phrase–and amplification. When Davis speaks in this manner, she makes listeners pay attention to the “they” whom she refers to as intellectually capable, but it also stresses “possibility” and redemption of the self.
It is important to note that the artists sampling these iconic Black women are men. Although women such as Me’shell Ndegeocello, and Terri Lyne Carrington and Diane Reeves have sampled Angela Davis on successful records, these records were not necessarily considered hip hop, which has consistently relied on men’s voices to create a radical impression in music, like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Public Enemy long relied on voices like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., but happens to (and with) women’s voices? Including these voices in hip hop shows that women do exist as thinkers, activists, and speakers, even if the exposure is being exercised by artists who are men.
However, each song extends the narrative of each woman in a different manner than they constructed for themselves. P. Blackk stops admonishing, advising, and insisting on pragmatic Afrocentrism so he can to listen to Cleaver explain why black beauty was finally being embraced in the 1960s. Cleaver, in her 1968 speech, eschews white standards of beauty to embrace herself, which P. Blackk uses to connect self-hatred in the past and self-destructive behavior in the present. Common ends “A Song for Assata” with Shakur so she can share some of her thoughts on freedom after the song relates major events from her life based on details and paraphrased lines from poems in Assata: An Autobiography. Forté uses the sample of Angela Davis to further a narrative that reveals how the prison industrial complex diminishes perceptions of the humanity and the intellectual capacity of prisoners in “Drift On.”
These three hip hop songs align with a continuum of specific radical women during a time when there are few women getting consistent recognition in the genre of hip hop music, so it marks a curious point of departure where women can be part of conversations in a musical genre where they are not frequently prominent as vocalists. This sampling practice also places men and women in conversation–activists, artists, and listeners–in a manner that reflects strength, certainty, and a sense of coming together with specific political ideas in a manner that, importantly, does not erase intellectual, or sonic, difference.
Tara Betts is the author of the poetry collection Arc and Hue, a Ph.D. candidate at Binghamton University, and a Cave Canem fellow. Tara’s poetry also appeared in Essence, Bum Rush the Page, Saul Williams’ CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape, VILLANELLES, both Spoken Word Revolution anthologies, and A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. Her research interests include African American literature, poetry, creative writing pedagogy, and most recently sound studies. In the 1990s, she co-founded and co-hosted WLUW 88.7FM’s “The Hip Hop Project” at Loyola University while writing for underground hip hop magazines, Black Radio Exclusive, The Source, and XXL. She is co-editor of Bop, Strut, and Dance, an anthology of Bop poems with Afaa M. Weaver.
The point that had lingered with me after first reading Jonathan Sterne’s essay “The mp3 as Cultural Artifact,” was the idea that the mp3 was a promiscuous technology. “In a media-saturated environment,” Sterne writes, “portability and ease of acquisition trumps monomaniacle attention . . . at the psychoacoustic level as well as the industrial level, the mp3 is designed for promiscuity. This has been a long-term goal in the design of sound reproduction technologies” (836). A technology, promiscuous? I did not have to look far to find support. Like germs, I could find copies of mp3s that I had downloaded from Napster in 2000 scattered across generations of my old hard drives. Often they were redundant, too – iTunes having archived a copy separate from my original download.
But, for Sterne, mp3s are also socially promiscuous. They accumulate in the hard drives of the working class and are shared, almost anywhere, through the branching left/right wires of iPod earbuds. Since the popularization of the mp3, there have been new opportunities to share how we listen with others. This is promise of the mp3, and the reason it forms such a key point of scholarly meditation.
MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke University Press, 2012) finds Sterne revisiting many of these key themes, with a larger focus on the genealogical beginnings of the mp3 technology. While many of the book’s chapters are extrapolations of prior work Sterne has done regarding the genealogy of listening practices, this work concerns itself less with the 19th century, and more with the 20th century. Perhaps this is related to some of the methodological decisions Sterne has made in planning the book – in seeking out the genealogical origins of the mp3, Sterne worked from archives and manuals described in interviews by engineers who were fundamental to the technology’s production. As such it finds much in common with Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco’s Analog Days and Dave Tompkins’ How to Wreck a Nice Beach but incorporates the genealogical methods regarding sonic technology present in Sterne’s earlier work The Audible Past and Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity. In MP3 Sterne positions himself as a critical cultural studies scholar working between the humanities and sciences, focusing specifically on the mp3 due to its social and technological relevance today. The critical is key here as MP3 is truly a work devised to underscore the economic connections between the construction of our selves as “hearing subjects” and the media industries.
Certainly, the mp3 can still be considered a promiscuous technology, but it is corporate capitalism that had failed to recognize the extent to which it relies on technological promiscuity to support its infrastructure. This focus, ironically, displaces the mp3 as the main object of Sterne’s analysis. It highlights instead the pathological logic of corporate capitalism, and the ways that this rationality has mutated, now, in the wake of mass replicable, malleable, and iterative digital culture. In other words, the mp3 is endemic to a much larger plot, wherein the culture industries adapt to their own deus ex-machina. The naive development of the mp3 by the motion picture industry is a large part of the story here, but it is only a small bit of a much larger whole. The real story involves understanding how a handful of vested corporate interests have shaped the ways that we interpret and understand what listening is. In MP3 Sterne addresses one of the great questions of sound studies: What are the politics of listening? Or, which individuals and institutions have a vested economic interest in questions of how we hear?
Sterne recalls this drama in three parts, each unfolding in a somewhat autonomous fashion, but unified in so far as they explore the economic interests behind the scientific construction of “hearing subjects.” In the first part, Sterne is at his best exploring AT&T’s (and the affiliated Bell Laboratories’) role in funding psychological, physiological, and cybernetic research on hearing. In the second, Sterne explains how this early research has been applied to the visual and technical abstraction of sound in the 1970s. And, in the third part of this genealogy, he explains how these analogs were made digital, specifically the corporate politics which went into the construction of the mp3 standard. Throughout this surprising and detailed trajectory, Sterne makes the invisibility of corporate interests apparent and explicit.
Sterne also hints toward several powerful economic rationalities that have guided the construction of the mp3. Key among these insights is the monetization of cybernetic discourse, or the incorporation of the human body within a scientific understanding of technical systems. In order to engineer an efficient technical system, the capacities and limits of how we interact with (or serve as parts of) these systems must be taken into account. Sterne refers to this mode of engineering as “perceptual technics,” and he goes to great lengths to explain it.
Basically, at the turn of the 20th century, AT&T had taken a keen interest in the science of how people listen because they wanted to maximize the amount of simultaneous conversations broadcast through a single telephone wire. More conversations meant the purchase of fewer wires, and therefore greater profits. Eventually, drawing on the research of the oft-cited Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver (within SO!: What Mixtapes Can Teach Us About Nois and Pushing Record; and soundBox: Mapping Noise), AT&T recognized an economic problem of technical efficiency within their wires – there was too much ambient noise. Because of this, AT&T sought to limit the audible signal transmitted from one phone to another. This would allow for more signals (and therefore conversations) to be transmitted through the same wire. Physiological research provided clues that some frequencies were more audible than others, so engineers worked to compress audio signals to reflect this scientific abstraction of hearing.
The reduction of listening–as an embodied practice–to the quantification and control of the audible spectrum, is, in other words, the history of compression. Which, according to Sterne, should be understood as the true meaning of the mp3. While the mp3 format, like the CD or cassette, may become obsolete, technologies of compression will not. Sterne argues convincingly that most advances in compression technologies have been guided by the invisible logic of corporate capitalism. It is this exact tendency of compression–to make things smaller and more efficient–that threatened to undo the entire project of corporate and branded music distribution in the year 2000, via platforms like Napster. Sterne is well aware of this irony throughout MP3, and uses the final chapter to discuss, briefly, the moment of cultural transformation that is defined by file-sharing and mass distribution.
Bringing things full circle with a somewhat stoic conclusion about the democratic potentials of this moment, he remarks: “The end of the artificial scarcity of recording is a moment of great potential. Its political outcome is still very much in question, but its political meaning should not be” (224). Sterne points to the globalization and ubiquity of mediated listening as a sign that things may not have changed much even though mass networked society at one point promised freedom from a commodity form which privileged things like “liberal notions of property, alienated labor, and ownership” (224). He argues that even the music industries shall persevere, mostly because people have a sublime attraction to listening and music. In other words: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. There are few moments of liberation to be found within MP3; it is instead a drama of the status quo where the conspirators of corporate capitalism succeed in spite of themselves.
The disparity in Sterne’s tone, when juxtaposing the nefarious and efficient dispositifs of capitalism with an untroubled and authentic construction of music is striking to say the least. And although Sterne is clear to explain that he locates his scholarship as work on a container technology (the mp3) and not its content (the music), this is a somewhat unsatisfying distinction as an embodied practice, such as listening, must take both into account. And while I agree that the mp3 reflects the promiscuity of corporate capitalism, is this challenged by the plethora of ideological nuance coded into song lyrics and arrangements? Do the corporate ideologies of the music industries flow beyond the container of the mp3 into the music itself? Is there any crosstalk, or overlap between these historical constructions? In other words, what are the limits to theorizing a container technology, and how much does the discursive path of the mp3 sculpt the content of what we listen to?
Despite, or perhaps, because of the rather dystopic scene that Sterne alludes to at the end of MP3, it falls nicely in the space between Sound Studies and Critical Information Studies. It bridges humanistic scholarship on embodied listening practices with a critique of the economic interests that have funded much of the scientific research relating to the phenomenology of sound. To that end, MP3 reveals much about the social construction of hearing and the ways that the familiar mythology of audio fidelity has been produced, discussed and exploited by several communication industries. Even though the mp3 may have been eclipsed by industry as the main object of inquiry in the eponomously titled MP3, Sterne succeeds admirably in detailing the promiscuity of corporate capitalism in the listening practices of our everyday lives.
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University.