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World Listening Day 2015: Mendi + Keith Obadike’s “Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin]” (2015) #WLD2015

blues

World Listening Month3For World Listening Day 2015, Sounding Out! is honored to debut Mendi + Keith Obadike’s  new documentary video about their recent large-scale urban installation at The New School’s University Center in New York City, “Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin]” (April 2015), dedicated to writer and public intellectual James Baldwin (1924-1987). –JS

As Mendi + Keith describe, “For Baldwin sound, music, and the blues in particular were sources of inspiration. The multichannel sound art work meditates on a politics of listening found at the intersection of Baldwinʼs language and the sound worlds invoked in his work. It uses the glass façade of The New School’s University Center as delivery system for the sound, turning the building itself into a speaker. The 12-hour piece is created using slow moving harmonies, melodicized language from Baldwinʼs writings, ambient recordings from the streets of Harlem, and an inventory of sounds contained in Baldwin’s story ‘Sonnyʼs Blues.'”

“‘Blues Speaker’ celebrates James Baldwin’s keen understanding of the social role of the blues. In his important 1957 short story ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ the writer argued that attending to the blues required the listener to confront and accept both literal noise (sounds beyond the listener’s understanding) and ideological noise (elements of the lives of those whose journeys have taken radically different paths), and seek beauty and understanding. If this relationship to listening is specific to the blues — a form that takes its shape in response to the survival of black people in general and to the decisions of its craftspeople — then musicians who seriously engage the blues must hold a knowledge deeply important for humanity that lives in the music and extends beyond that medium.”–Artists’ Statement, Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The Year of James Baldwin Exhibition.

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

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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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Sounding Our Utopia: An Interview With Mileece — Maile Colbert

Sounding Out! Podcast #44: Retail Soundscapes and the Ambience of Commerce

Ambient interiors in a typical mall. Nicholas Eckhart CC BY.

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What is the ambient sound of commerce? Equally reviled and revered, the programmed soundscapes of retail space combine wonderful serendipity with quotidian blandness. This podcast examines field recordings from luxury megastores, suburban fast food joints, and everything in between. As it turns out, the corporate ambience of chain-store retail isn’t so far away from the high-brow ambitions of ambient music. Ambience is whatever surrounds us, and it’s embroiled within the same kinds of aesthetic, political, and economic struggles that have been recognized in architecture for centuries.

While a long line of thinkers have identified the links between retail and modernity, surprisingly few have addressed the phenomena in auditory terms. Following up on Jonathan Sterne’s 1997 inquiry regarding environmental music in the Mall of America, this podcast examines new developments in ambient sound that have accompanied the rise of e-commerce and the decline of brick-and-mortar stores. Segmentation of markets, nostalgia for the past, and the early history of recording are all addressed, as we take a listening trip through consumer culture.

The podcast presents highlights from field recordings from retail stores, accompanied by voice-over narration. Field recordings were captured with a Zoom H4n handy recorder, at Menlo Park Mall in Edison, NJ, Dover Street Market New York, Parsonage Road Target in Edison, NJ, Wal-Mart Route 27 in Edison, NJ, and Dunkin Donuts Route 27 in Edison, NJ. Also includes excerpts from Brian Eno’s “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” (1978) and Disconscious’ “Hologram Plaza” (2013).

James Hodges is a PhD student in media studies at Rutgers University. His research focuses on the relationship between promotional culture and media preservation. James is the cofounder of a media archaeology working group at Rutgers, and he runs a small cassette label for fun.

Featured image by Nicholas Eckhart @Flickr CC BY.

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Sounding Out! Podcast #18: Listening to the Tuned City Brussels , Day 3: “Ephemeral Atmospheres”– Felicity Ford and Valeria Merlini

Sounding Out! Podcast #28: Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles – Jennifer Stoever

Sonic Connections: Listening for Indigenous Landscapes in Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles

"chavez ravine"

In April 2015, ten American Indian extras walked off the set of Adam Sandler’s new film The Ridiculous Six, a spoof on the classic Magnificent Seven (1960), in protest over the gross misrepresentation of Native cultures in general, and in particular over its insults to women and elders. Allison Young, a Navajo actress who participated in walking off, stated, “Nothing has changed. We are still just Hollywood Indians.” Young is referencing a long history of the film industries’ construction of stereotypical American Indians by non-natives created to entertain non-natives.

Still from the movie. From http://www.arthousecowboy.com

Still from the movie. From http://www.arthousecowboy.com

Within this long history exists a rare film, Kent Mackenzie’s 1961 The Exiles, re-restored and re-released in 2008 by Milestone Films. The Exiles is one of the few 20th century films that feature urban American Indians; it follows three main Native narrators from dusk to dawn as they experience the joys and struggles of urban life. Without an official score, this black and white docudrama places sound against haunting 35 millimeter black-and-white images of a downtown Los Angeles landscape. This mis-en-scène creates what Mackenzie (the white screenwriter, director and producer) asserts is “the authentic account of 12 hours.” The voiceovers of Homer Nish, a Hualipai from Valentine, Arizona who recently moved to Los Angeles after fighting in the Korean War; Yvonne Walker, originally from the White River Apache reservation in San Carlos, Arizona who first moved to the city to work as a domestic; and Tommy Reynolds, who is identified only as Mexican-Indian and is portrayed as a comedic playboy and the life of the party; narrate the intimate, day-to-day lives of urban American Indians.

In this post, I consider what we can hear if we pay close attention to how the director incorporates the narrators in a kind of Indigenous soundscape. Mackenzie’s soundscape bring together voices as well as music. The collage of sounds traces the journeys of American Indians to and from Los Angeles in the mid-twentieth century. The sonic connections in The Exiles provide a cacophony of histories of forced movement, transit, and re-making spaces as Indigenous at the same time that it perpetuates important historical silences. I borrow Chickasaw scholar Jodi A. Byrd’s term from The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (2011), cacophony—or “discordant and competing representations” and experiences— and apply it to the sounds that inform the indigenous space represented through the film.

"Bunker Hill 1968" by Flickr user Laurie Avocado (CC BY 2.0)

“Bunker Hill 1968″ by Flickr user Laurie Avocado (CC BY 2.0)

The narrators are part of a large population of American Indians who moved from rural reservations to urban centers after WWII. Due to the federal government’s mismanagement of Native tribes’ land and resources, and the genocidal abandonment of treaties made with tribes, the late 1950s and 1960s were times of dire economic and social conditions on reservations. The influx of Native Americans to cities also came because of assimilation campaigns in boarding schools, military service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ “Termination Era” policies (1940s –1960s) that intended to terminate the state’s bureaucratic relationships with Native tribes. Relocating Native populations from reservations into cities where work was available year-round was a key aspect of the Termination Era policies. According to Norman Klein (The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory), areas near downtown Los Angeles, including Bunker Hill where the film is primarily shot, were multi-racial neighborhoods in economic decline and therefore became relocation sites for American Indians. Importantly, both Klein and Mackenzie are silent about the prior forced removal of Tongva on that very same location that began in the 1840s.

The audio track of The Exiles contradicts the stereotypical American Indian sounds featured in Hollywood movies. The film’s contemporary mainstream Hollywood releases included sounds such as the whooping sounds of “hostile Indians” in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), the broken English spoken by the “Apache” in Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950), and stereotypes played out in John Sturges’ Magnificent Seven (1960). In the soft Southwestern Native lilt of Yvonne’s voice, the way that Homer and others add “you know?” to the end of almost every sentence they utter, alongside the rhythm of the casual banter and tenor of the men’s laughter, I hear a potential sonic archive of American Indians that talks back. For example, in a short clip when Tommy and his friends enter Café Ritz, an Indian bar, Thomas calls out over the loud rock and roll music as he passes people at the bar. Tommy shifts easily between English (“What’s happening there, man?”), Spanish (“Gracias amigo, ¿cómo estas?”), and Dine (“Yá’át’ééh. E la na tte?”). Careful attention to the cinematic soundscape provides access to voices of discontent and resiliency, practices of building and maintaining multilingual multi-tribal Indian spaces, and the flow of American Indians between reservations and multiple cities.

Understanding the sounds and the silences of The Exiles as a cacophony offers a way to appreciate how the film both perpetuates stereotypes but also provides insights into the urban American Indian experience. Mackenzie’s construction of Homer Nish and American Indian men continues a myth that it is individualized behavior that keeps Indians from the American Dream. (In his 1964 masters thesis, “A Description and Examination of the Production of The Exiles: A Film of the Actual Lives of a Group of Young American Indians” Mackenzie states outright that he believes they are responsible for the mess they created). The Exiles portrays American Indian men reading comic books, listening to rock and roll, hanging out at bars instead of working, and taking rent money away from their suffering women and children to gamble. These formulaic images of Native Americans are informed by a long history of visual, literary and legal representations of American Indians that compose Indian men as either savage, infantile and emasculated. But if we listen to the banter and laughter in the bar scenes and at home, we also hear the caring intimacy of camaradrie. The cacophony of sound provides a counterbalance to the visual representations.

 

The Voiceover and Realism

Mackenzie uses dialogue to direct the visual and sonic narrative of the docudrama’s soundscape. Ironically, this collaborative low budget project that stretched on for three and a half years has minimal original dialogue. They could not afford sound techs on site, so the most obvious sonic evocation of realism Mackenzie explores is asynchronous sound performed in a studio months later. In Mackenzie’s master’s thesis he writes that, to construct dialogues (they often voiced their lines with a group of people around), “people would joke around a lot” while “everybody was drinking beer” (76). The filmmaker did not find that dialogue on larger budget feature films at the time were “lifelike” and believable. He writes that people

seldom spoke of important matters directly; they seldom spoke clearly or coherently when they did speak and their everyday language was full of overlaps interruption and communications through looks, gestures and shrugs. Many sentences made the end understood. …What a person said seemed less important than how he said it. (73)

Here, it becomes clear that the “realism” Mackenzie pursues is more about a style of filmmaking rather than about an authentic rendering of Native American everyday life. If he found the actors performing lines too dramatically Mackenzie states he “would blow the scene apart by asking for more casual and apparently pointless lines” (73). He created a specially mediated recording of the people, downtown Los Angeles and the time period. In other words, he pursued realism: he did not seek to fully capture real experiences.

Tommy Reynolds and Homer Nish in Kent Mackenzie's THE EXILES (1961).

Tommy Reynolds and Homer Nish in Kent Mackenzie’s THE EXILES (1961).

Through interviews he guides the actors to talk about their everyday lives, their problems and their thoughts about life. Mackenzie used “improvised tracks” out of individual interviews in an attempt “to help preserve their point of view in the film.” He interviewed Homer, Tommy and Yvonne for several hours apiece, questioning and re-questioning them – not necessarily to document the subjects’ truths but “for emotional quality and general attitudes and feelings” (78). Despite his intentions, the voiceovers provide some context of the trials of everyday life and how the leads negotiated their belonging in a space far from home. Mackenzie’s realism builds a collage of soundscapes—voiceovers, background noise, music—to orchestrate a scene rather than simply document part of a 12-hour period of life.

 

Rock and Roll and Urban Indian Sounds

Mainstream “Hollywood Indians” are associated with a limited soundscape of drums and whoops, but Mackenzie’s use of contemporary rock and roll illustrates the complexity of the indigenous soundscape. Even though the film opens with the slow repetitive beating of the buckskin drums and a contextual opening monologue, after the drums stop it is the early surf music of Anthony Hilder and his five-piece band, The Revels, that drive many of the scenes. The music renders audible the many ways people tried to belong in new locations and within new cultures, juxtaposing the fast blast of the trumpet and guitar riffs of the Revels with the steady beat of the drum and shake of a turtle rattle.

Mackenzie continues this juxtaposition later in the film. Homer, alone on the street in front of a liquor store, opens a letter a bartender handed to him earlier in the evening. At the top of the letter is written “Peach Springs, Arizona” and tucked within the letter is a picture of an older man and woman. The camera focuses on the picture that dissolves and reemerges as a rural desert scene. The man from the picture sits beneath a tree with a girl and the woman, and rhythmically chants and shakes a rattle. There is no voice-over or dialogue; ceremonial singer Jacinto Valenzuela’s repeats a song multiple times without an English translation. The steady rattle of the dry seeds in the gourd are a sharp contrast to the pace of the Revels’ songs that saturates Homer’s earlier scenes.

Without guidance from a narrator, the scene is left to audience interpretation. The scene and its sounds could represent Homer’s sense of being displaced between times, or a homesick romanticized remembrance of family life: the moment quickly dissipates and Homer once again stands alone on a corner bathed in the streetlight. However, the music here could be a sonic connection that provides an alternative geography of indigenous space and place. Mackenzie’s collage of sound echoes the circuitous path of indigenous bodies and ideas of indigenous life in diasporas described in Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska scholar Renya Ramirez’s work in Native Hubs: Culture, Community, and Belonging in Silicon Valley and Beyond. The rattle and drum can instead signal a belonging to a community and people in a present that Homer carries within him. Through sound, Mackenzie connects Homer with his communities, traditions, and a sense of belonging regardless of spatial distance.

Mackenzie deepens this connection when he imbeds Homer in a place and community through the dancing and drumming on Hill X in the penultimate scene of the film sounds. When Homer talks about Hill X (formerly Chavez Ravine, then a site of the forced displacement of Mexican residents in Los Angeles in 1950-1952, now the site of Dodger Stadium) we hear his strategy for his own and his tribe’s collective survival. The shaking of the gourd in the desert and the dancing, singing and drumming of the 49 —lead by Mescalero singers Eddie Sunrise Gallerito and his twin cousins Frankie Red Elk and Chris Surefoot—shows a reclaiming of Los Angeles as indigenous land. Thus practices of sound and movement function as what Tonawanda Seneca scholar Mishuanna Goeman identifies as “remapping” of Indian space. Taken together with the beat of the drum, the bells and rock and roll compose the content of a Los Angeles indigenous soundscape.

exiles_poster1_lgThe Exiles registers contemporary American Indians in motion. Homer and his comrades reclaim Hill X as Indian land with song and dance over a century after the City of Los Angeles displaced the Tongva out of that same location. At the time of the filming, American Indians were also forced to move within Los Angeles- their homes on Bunker Hill soon demolished and replaced by high rises. Paying attention and critically re-listening to the sounds of The Exiles offers an alternative soundscape of Indigenous life.

 

Featured image: “chavez ravine” by Flickr user Paul Narvaez, CC BY-NC 2.0

Laura Sachiko Fugikawa holds a doctoral degree in American Studies and Ethnicity with a certificate in Gender Studies from the University of Southern California. Currently she is working on her book, Displacements: The Cultural Politics of Relocation, and teaches Asian American Studies at Northwestern University.

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Sounding Out! Podcast #40: Linguicide, Indigenous Community and the Search for Lost Sounds–Marcella Ernst
The “Tribal Drum” of Radio: Gathering Together the Archive of American Indian Radio–Josh Garrett Davis
Vocal Gender and the Gendered Soundscape: At the Intersection of Gender Studies and Sound Studies–Christine Ehrick

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