This post is dedicated to the memory of Amiri Baraka, who passed away on January 9, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey.
I began writing this post while my wife, Sarah, was at a conference on writing curriculum for high school literature. Over the phone one night she asked how to help students better understand the language of Shakespeare, and at a loss for suggestions (not only because I don’t study early modern drama), I recalled my own adolescent struggles with Macbeth, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. I recalled well-intentioned teachers who gave me recordings, telling me that they would help me get an “ear” for Shakespeare’s language—yet all I remember, maybe all I learned, while listening to the Caedmon recording of Macbeth on vinyl, was that, to my mid-1990s ear, Shakespeare (anachronistically) sounded like Star Wars (which appeared 15 years after the 1960 Caedmon album).
My high school confusion has not completely faded when it comes to the sound of recorded poetic language, even more so when the notion of the poet’s voice is thrown into the mix. As opposed to verse recited by actors (the Caedmon Macbeth featured Anthony Quayle), or the sound of the syllables when we read a poem silently to ourselves, I find it tough to parse the idea of the sound of the poem in terms of the poet’s voice because “voice” is a slippery category—a constructed one, contingent upon the given historical moment of inscription and reception. It is tough because this idea of the sound of the poem, located in the voice of the poet, gets complicated with sonic technologies where voice is subject to the shifting conditions of fidelity.
The act of listening to recorded poetry thus poses particular analytic challenges, which become more complex when the politics of identity are brought to bear on these questions of voice and poetry. As a site for identity production, the recorded poetry performance projects a mediated voice that is a potential self. The “sound” of this poetic subjectivity is different from recording to recording, even of the same poem. In an effort to work through these complexities, this post takes up three different recordings of Amiri Baraka’s poem “Black Dada Nihilismus,” which offer variations in delivery and performance that each depend upon the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of the soundscape that each recording is embedded within.
“Black Dada Nihilismus” is an excellent opportunity to consider the overlapping challenges of voice, performance and the politics of identity in recorded poetry. Published in the early 1960s, this poem was written before Baraka’s shift in politics, which was precipitated by the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, yet the poem anticipates the intersection of aesthetics and politics during the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s into the 70s. This shift can be tracked in the sonic details of the first two recordings, made in 1964 and 1965. In the third version, a 1993 remix by DJ Spooky, we can hear how this shift reverberates beyond its historical moment.
In a statement of poetics included in Donald Allen’s classic 1959 anthology The New American Poetry, Baraka (then Leroi Jones) asked: “HOW YOU SOUND??” How a poet’s poem sounded mattered most for him: “you have to start and finish there … your own voice … how you sound” (425). Primarily referencing the poem on the page, he wasn’t whistling in the dark: often thought of as a vocal performance of language, poetry has a long history with sound. One thread of this history is the Homeric tradition of an “oral poetics,” a tradition where, as Albert Lord notes in The Singer of Tales, socialized performances of poetry were simultaneously modes of composition. The feel of language in the body remained inseparable from the poetry that relayed the heroic tales of the ancient world. In The Sounds of Poetry, Robert Pinsky offers a similar account of sound and voice, suggesting that the “sound” of language, the sensuous play of speech, is the material for poetic composition. Or as Charles Bernstein has it in Close Listening, “poetry needs to be sounded” because it is a way to understand it better (7).
Poetry is often said to be difficult—but how would a poet’s “sounding” of a poem help a listener better understand it, as Bernstein suggests? How is the recorded voice resonating in air different from inert marks on a page? What is the status of that difference? Why or how would the sound recording signify differently than the poem on the silent page? In short, is listening easier than reading? My answer to the final question is a resounding “no.” For me, the challenge is how to consider the recorded poetry performance in both formal and aural terms so as to remain tuned in to the aesthetic and the poetic as well as the social and historical dimensions of a particular poet’s work. This is not easily done.
“Black Dada Nihilismus” was first published in The Dead Lecturer (1964) and later included in Transbluesency (1995). Written in two parts, it asserts a black aesthetic by critiquing the dominance of (white) light in Western art and suggesting a connection between this light, ethnic violence, and religious ideology. This is how the poem opens:
.Against what light
is false what breath
sucked, for deadness.
Murder, the cleansed
purpose, frail, against
God, if they bring him
Bleeding, I would not
forgive, or even call him
black dada nihilismus.
The protestant love, wide windows,
color blocked to Modrian, and the
ugly silent deaths of jews […]
Through critique the poem develops the connections between aesthetics and racial dominance and violence. These connections take on different inflections in each recorded version of the poem, and with each inflection another aspect of them is amplified.
The first version is a bootleg of a reading at the Asilomar Negro Writers Conference that was held in Pacific Grove, California, in early August, 1964.
In addition to the preamble, where Baraka explains some of the poem’s key terms such as Dada, which he describes as a movement in France (rather than Germany or Switzerland), another sonic detail that marks this as “live” is at the 2:59 minute mark when we hear the flap of a turning page, reminding us that Baraka is treating the poem as a script in these recordings. In this version, the opening lines are sharply delivered, the voice fully pausing at the linebreaks and acutely pronouncing the hard vowels (e.g. “sucked”). Against the continuous background hush of the original reel-to-reel recording, Baraka punches his words into the air, as if trying to find a rhythm between these harder vowels and the softer ones that often denote the poem’s object of critique (e.g. “light”).
The next version is off the A side of New York Art Quartet and Imamu Amiri Baraka (ESP Disk 1965), where the poem’s rhythm is immediately established by the musical accompaniment.
Between the first recording and this one a shift began in Baraka’s development as a poet. The assassination of Malcolm X pushed him to think even more about race, politics, and art. In this version the opening lines, delivered with punch and pause in the bootleg, take on a different register when juxtaposed with the smooth coolness of the quartet. Overall, though, the poem is delivered more militantly here. In the first version the opening lines are delivered forcefully, but ultimately this forcefulness subsides over the course of the reading. The opposite is the case in this studio version that slowly builds to the apex of the poem, the point of most force, this stanza:
and chant, scream,
and dull, un
In the bootleg, the turn of the page—between “earthly” and “hollering”—interrupts this stanza, and Baraka hesitates and slowly finds his way toward the poem’s close, while in the studio version, the musical accompaniment reaches a fevered pitch here, making it feel as if it is at the edge of the scream that it names. This prepares us for the closing litany of names of black figures of “black dada nihilismus,” which goes like this:
For tambo, willie best, dubois, patrice, mantan, the
For Jack Johnson, asbestos, tonto, buckwheat,
In the final version, which is DJ Spooky’s remix of the second one, included on the CD Offbeat: A Red Hot Soundtrip (TVT Records 1996), this litany feels more like the outro (that is meant as) against Spooky’s beats and moody reverb.
An aspect of the poem amplified in the remix is the stanzas leading up to the apex stanza of the “black scream.” In a series of tercets that open the second section, the speaker addresses the experience of racial oppression and a growing need to strike back:
The razor. Our flail against them, why
you carry knives? Or brutaled lumps of
heart? Why you stay, where they can
reach? Why you sit, or stand, or walk
in this place, a window on a dark
The “why” is significantly amplified in the remix, forcing us to hear the ironic indictment of the oppressive “light,” not as audible in the other two tracks, explicit in Baraka’s tercets.
The original recordings of these versions of “Black Dada Nihilismus” are each in a different format: vinyl LP, tape-to-tape reel, and CD. I have been working with digitized versions, so the way I am hearing these recordings—through a smooth digitized MP3 file or Youtube clip—is not the same as the crackle of a needle running an LP’s groove or a nearly noiseless laser tracing a CD. These variations in format mean that the different ways these versions individual signify—their respective “sounds”—are flattened out by compression. Despite this loss of material context, Baraka still sounds different in each of these tracks. Each version of Baraka’s poem offers us another iteration of his “voice,” and the poem, but listening to each of them does not necessarily provide a better understanding of it. We are, though, given different sonic experiences that depend upon the purpose of Baraka’s performance, the listener imagined during the reading, and the voice enunciated through the mediated environment.
Some of the voice details do remain consistent across these recordings. For example, the delivery of one of the poem’s most memorable phrase—“Hermes, the/the blacker art”—that occurs toward the close of the poem’s first section is steadily delivered in a lower register, in the hush of an aside, and might be taken as the motif of each of these variations.
A vast archive of recorded poetry exists. Mid-century recording projects by Caedmon and Folkways made “voices” of well-known poets, such as Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas, available for mainstream consumption. More recent anthologies and series like Poetry Speaks and The Voice of the Poet suggest that the “voice of the poet” still holds appeal. The proliferation of online sound archives such as Penn Sound and From the Fishouse further attest to an ongoing investment in recording, storing, and making available sound files of poets reading their work. And this fascination with the “sound” of poetry is not limited to mainstream cultural spheres or web-based archives. Several scholarly collections on this convergence of sound, voice, and poetry such as Bernstein’s already-mentioned Close Listening, Adelaide Morris’s Sound States, and Marjorie Perloff’s and Craig Dworkin’s The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound have appeared over the last decade.
The idea of the sound of the poem, located in the mediated voice of the poet, therefore remains relevant today. In many of these instances, however, the poet’s voice falsely takes on an authoritative “aura,” as Walter Benjamin used that word in his (recently re-translated) “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Benjamin uses “aura” to talk about authenticity in art and how that is lost when images (or sounds) can be reproduced and widely distributed, and this is not a bad thing: “technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual. To an ever-increasing degree, the work produced becomes the reproduction of work designed to be reproduced” (24). When Benjamin’s concept is applied to recorded poetry, two key points emerge. First, the “sound” of a poet’s voice is the product of technological conditions. Second, just as a book editor makes aesthetic judgments based on a perceived audience, a listener is imagined when a poetry performance is recorded. Too bad I didn’t know this in high school.
Featured image: “Paula Varjack” by Flickr user Very Quiet, CC-BY-SA-2.0
John Hyland recently completed his dissertation on sound, poetics, and the black diaspora, titled “Atlantic Reverberations: The Sonic Performances of Black Diasporic Poetries,” at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared (or are forthcoming) in a range of journals, such as The Journal of Postcolonial Writing, College Literature, and Borderlands. Recently, he has enjoyed performing with the Buffalo Poets Theater and co-edited a special issue of the poetry journal kadar koli on the relationship between violence and the expressive arts.
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[Editor's Note 01/24/14 10:00 am: this post has been corrected. In response to a critique from DJ Rupture, the author has apologized for an initial misquoting of an article by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, and edited the phrase in question. Please see Comments section for discussion]
Time to ring the bell: this year, Sounding Out! is opening a brand-new stream of content to run on Thursdays. Every few weeks, we’ll be bringing in a new Guest Editor to curate a series of posts on a particular theme that opens up new ground in areas of thought and practice where sound meets media. Most of our writers and editors will be new to the site, and many will be joining us from the ranks of the Sound Studies and Radio Studies Scholarly Interest Groups at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, as well as from the Sound Studies Caucus from the American Studies Association. I’m overjoyed to come on board as SCMS/ASA Editor to help curate this material, working with my good friends here at SO!
For our first Guest series, let me welcome Justin Burton, Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, where he teaches in the Popular Music and Culture program. Justin also serves on the executive committee of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music-US Branch. We’re honored to have Justin help us launch this new stream.
His series? He calls it The Wobble Continuum. Let’s follow him down into the low frequencies to learn more …
Things have gotten wobbly. The cross-rhythms of low-frequency oscillations (LFO) pulsate through dance and pop music, bubbling up and dropping low across the radio dial. At its most extreme, the wobble both rends and sutures, tearing at the rhythmic and melodic fabric of a song at the same time that it holds it together on a structural level. In this three-part series, Mike D’Errico, Christina Giacona, and Justin D Burton listen to the wobble from a number of vantage points, from the user plugged into the Virtual Studio Technology (VST) of a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to the sounds of the songs themselves to the listeners awash in bass tremolos. In remixing these components—musician, music, audience—we trace the unlikely material activities of sounds and sounders.
In our first post, Mike will consider the ways a producer working with a VST is not simply inputting commands but is collaborating with an entire culture of maximalism, teasing out an ethics of brostep production outside the usual urge for transcendence. In the second post, Christina will listen to the song “Braves” by a Tribe Called Red (ATCR), which, through its play with racist signifiers, remixes performer and audience, placing ATCR and its listeners in an uncanny relationship. In the final post, Justin will work with Karen Barad’s theory of posthuman performativity to consider how the kind of hypermasculinist and racist signifiers discussed in Mike’s and Christina’s pieces embed themselves in listening bodies that become sounding bodies. In each instance, we wade into the wobble listening for the flow of activity among the entanglement of producer, sound, and listener while also keeping our ears peeled for the cross-rhythms of (hyper)masculinist and racist materials that course through and around the musical phenomena.
So hold on tight. It’s about to drop.
As an electronic dance music DJ and producer, an avid video gamer, a cage fighting connoisseur, and a die-hard Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson fan, I’m no stranger to fist pumps, headshots, and what has become a general cultural sensibility of “hardness” associated with “bro” culture. But what broader affect lies behind this culture? Speaking specifically to recent trends in popular music, Simon Reynolds describes a “digital maximalism,” in which cultural practice involves “a hell of a lot of inputs, in terms of influences and sources, and a hell of a lot of outputs, in terms of density, scale, structural convolution, and sheer majesty” (“Maximal Nation”). We could broaden this concept of maximalism, both (1) to describe a wider variety of contemporary media (from film to video games and mobile media), and (2) to theorize it as a tool for transducing affect between various media, and among various industries within global capitalism. The goal of this essay is to tease out the ways in which maximalist techniques of one kind of digital media production—dubstep—become codified as broader social and political practices. Indeed, the proliferation of maximalism suggests that hypermediation and hypermasculinity have already become dominant aesthetic forms of digital entertainment.
More than any other electronic dance music (EDM) genre, dubstep—and the various hypermasculine cultures in which it has bound itself—has wholeheartedly embraced “digital maximalism” as its core aesthetic form. In recent years, the musical style has emerged as both the dominant idiom within EDM culture, as well as the soundtrack to various hypermasculine forms of entertainment, from sports such as football and professional wrestling to action movies and first-person shooter video games. As a result of the music’s widespread popularity within the specific cultural space of a post-Jersey Shore “bro” culture, the term “brostep” has emerged as an accepted title for the ultra-macho, adrenaline-pumping performances of masculinity that have defined contemporary forms of digital entertainment. This essay posits digital audio production practices in “brostep” as hypermediated forms of masculinity that exist as part of a broader cultural and aesthetic web of media convergence in the digital age.
Media theorist Henry Jenkins defines “convergence culture” as “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want” (Convergence Culture, 2). The most prominent use of “brostep” as a transmedial form comes from video game and movie trailers. From the fast-paced, neo-cyborg and alien action thrillers such as Transformers (2007-present), Cowboys & Aliens (2011), and G.I. Joe (2012), to dystopian first-person shooter video games such as Borderlands (2012), Far Cry 3 (2012), and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (2012), modulated oscillator wobbles and bass portamento drops consistently serve as sonic amplifiers of the male action hero at the edge.
Assault rifle barrages are echoed by quick rhythmic bass and percussion chops, while the visceral contact of pistol whips and lobbed grenades marks ruptures in time and space as slow motion frame rates mirror bass “drops” in sonic texture and rhythmic pacing. “Hardness” is the overriding affect here; compressed, gated kick and snare drum samples combine with coagulated, “overproduced” basslines made up of multiple oscillators vibrating at broad frequency ranges, colonizing the soundscape by filling every chasm of the frequency spectrum. The music—and the media forms with which it has become entwined—has served as the affective catalyst and effective backdrop for the emergence of an unabashedly assertive, physically domineering, and adrenaline-addicted “bro” culture.
Film theorist Lorrie Palmer argues for a relational link among gender, technology, and modes of production through hypermasculinity in these types of films and video games. Some definitive features of this convergence of hypermediation and hypermasculinity include an emphasis on “excess and spectacle, the centrality of surface over substance… ADHD cinema… transitory kinetic sensations that decenter spatial legibility… an impact aesthetic, [and] an ear-splitting, frenetic style” (“Cranked Masculinity,” 7). Both Robin James and Steven Shaviro have defined the overall aesthetic of these practices as “post-cinematic”: a regime “centered on computer games” and emphasizing “the logic of control and gamespace, which is the dominant logic of entertainment programming today.” On a sonic level, “brostep” aligns itself with many of these cinematic descriptions. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd describes the style of Borgore, one particular dubstep DJ and producer, as “misogy blow-job beats.” Other commenters have made more obvious semiotic connections between filmic imagery and the music, as Nitsuh Abebe describes brostep basslines as conjuring “obviously cool images like being inside the gleaming metal torso of a planet-sized robot while it punches an even bigger robot.”
MASCULINITY AND DIGITAL AUDIO PRODUCTION
While the sound has developed gradually over at least the past decade, the ubiquity of the distinctive mid-range “brostep” wobble bass can fundamentally be attributed to a single instrument. Massive, a software synthesizer developed by the Berlin and Los Angeles-based Native Instruments, combines the precise timbral shaping capabilities of modular synthesizers with the real-time automation capabilities of digital waveform editors. As a VST (Virtual Studio Technology) plug-in, the device exemplifies the inherently transmedial nature of many digital tools, bridging studio techniques between digital audio workstations and analog synthesis, and acting as just one of many control signals within the multi-windowed world of digital audio production. In this way, Massive may be characterized as an intersonic control network in which sounds are controlled and modulated by other sounds through constantly shifting software algorithms. Through analysis of the intersubjective control network of a program such as Massive we are able to hear the convergence of hypermediation and hypermasculinity as aesthetic forms.
Media theorist Mara Mills details the notion of technical “scripts” embedded both within technological devices as well as user experiences. According to Mills, scripts are best defined as “the representation of users embedded within technology… Designers do not simply ‘project’ users into [technological devices]; these devices are inscribed with the competencies, tolerances, desires, and psychoacoustics of users” (“Do Signals Have Politics?” 338). In short, electroacoustic objects have politics, and in the case of Massive, the politics of the script are quite conventional and historically familiar. The rhythmic and timbral control network of the software aligns itself with what Tara Rodgers describes as a long history of violent masculinist control logics in electronic music, from DJs “battling” to producers “triggering” a sample with a “controller” or “executing” a programming “command” or typing a “bang” to send a signal” (“Towards a Feminist Historiography of Electronic Music,” 476).
In Massive, the primary control mechanism is the LFO (low frequency oscillator), an infrasonic electronic signal whose primary purpose is to modulate various parameters of a synthesizer tone. Dubstep artists most frequently apply the LFO to a low-pass filter, generating a control algorithm in which an LFO filters and masks specific frequencies at a periodic rate (thus creating a “wobbling” frequency effect), which, in turn, modulates the cutoff frequency of up to three oscillating frequencies at a time (maximizing the “wobble”). When this process is applied to multiple oscillators simultaneously—each operating at disparate levels of the frequency spectrum—the effect is akin to a spectral and spatial form of what Julian Henriques calls “sonic dominance.” Massive allows the user to record “automations” on the rhythm, tempo, and quantization level of the bass wobble, effectively turning the physical gestures initially required to create and modulate synthesizer sounds—such as knob-turning and fader-sliding—into digitally-inscribed algorithms.
SONIC WARFARE AND THE ETHICS OF VIRTUALITY
By positing the logic of digital audio production within a broader network of control mechanisms in digital culture, I am not simply presenting a hermeneutic metaphor. Convergence media has not only shaped the content of various multimedia but has redefined digital form, allowing us to witness a clear—and potentially dangerous—virtual politics of viral capitalism. The emergence of a Military Entertainment Complex (MEC) is the most recent instance of this virtual politics of convergence, as it encompasses broad phenomena including the use of music as torture, the design of video games for military training (and increasing collaboration between military personnel and video game designers in general), and drone warfare. The defining characteristic of this political and virtual space is a desire to simultaneously redefine the limits of the physical body and overcome those very limitations. The MEC, as well as broader digital convergence cultures, has molded this desire into a coherent hegemonic aesthetic form.
Following videogame theorist Jane McGonigal, virtual environments push the individual to “work at the very limits of their ability” in a state of infinite self-transition (Reality is Broken, 24). Yet, automation and modular control networks in the virtual environments of digital audio production continue to encourage the historical masculinist trope of “mastery,” thus further solidifying the connection between music and military technologies sounded in the examples above. In detailing hypermediation and hypermasculinity as dominant aesthetic forms of digital entertainment, it is not my goal to simply reiterate the Adornian nightmare of “rhythm as coercion,” or the more recent Congressional fears over the potential for video games and other media to cause violence. The fact that music and video games in the MEC are simultaneously being used to reinscribe the systemic violence of the Military Industrial Complex, as well as to create virtual and actual communities (DJ culture and the proliferation of online music and gaming communities), pinpoints precisely its hegemonic capabilities.
In the face of the perennial “mastery” trope, I propose that we must develop a relational ethics of virtuality. While it seems to offer the virtue of a limitless infinity for the autonomous (often male) individual, technological interfaces form the skin of the ethical subject, establishing the boundaries of a body both corporeal and virtual. In the context of digital audio production, then, the producer is not struggling against the technical limitations of the material interface, but rather emerging from the multiple relationships forming at the interface between one’s actual and virtual self and embracing a contingent and liminal identity; to quote philosopher Adriana Cavarero, “a fragile and unmasterable self” (Relating Narratives, 84).
Featured Image: Skrillex – Hovefestivalen 2012 by Flickr User NRK P3
Mike D’Errico is a PhD student in the UCLA Department of Musicology and a researcher at the Center for Digital Humanities. His research interests and performance activities include hip-hop, electronic dance music, and sound design for software applications. He is currently working on a dissertation that deals with digital audio production across media, from electronic dance music to video games and mobile media. Mike is the web editor and social media manager for the US branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, as well as two UCLA music journals, Echo: a music-centered journal and Ethnomusicology Review.
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Editor’s Note: Sound Studies is often accused of being a presentist enterprise, too fascinated with digital technologies and altogether too wed to the history of sound recording. Sounding Out!‘s last forum of 2013, “Sound in the Nineteenth Century,” addresses this critique by showcasing the cutting edge work of three scholars whose diverse, interdisciplinary research is located soundly in the era just before the advent of sound recording: Mary Caton Lingold (Duke), Caitlin Marshall (Berkeley), and Daniel Cavicchi (Rhode Island School of Design). In examining nineteenth century America’s musical practices, listening habits, and auditory desires through SO!‘s digital platform, Lingold, Marshall, and Cavicchi perform the rare task of showcasing how history’s sonics had a striking resonance long past their contemporary vibrations while performing the power of the digital medium as a tool through which to, as Early Modern scholar Bruce R. Smith dubs it, “unair” past auditory phenomena –all the while sharing unique methodologies that neither rely on recording nor bemoan their lack. The series began with Mary Caton Lingold‘s exploration of the materialities of Solomon Northup’s fiddling as self-represented in 12 Years a Slave. Last week, Caitlin Marshall treated us to a fascinating new take on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s listening practice and dubious rhetorical remixing of black sonic resistance with white conceptions of revolutionary independence. Daniel Cavicchi closes out “Sound in the Nineteenth Century” and 2013 with an excellent meditation on listening as vibrant and shifting historical entity. Enjoy! –Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
“To listen” is straightforward enough verb, signifying a kind of hearing that is directed or attentive. Add an “er” suffix, however, and “listen” moves into a whole new realm: it is no longer something one does, an attentive response to stimuli, but rather something one is, a sustained role or occupation, even an identity. Everybody listens from time to time, but only some people adopt the distinct social category of “listener.”
And yet listeners have emerged in diverse historical and social contexts. Arnold Hunt, in his recent book The Art of Hearing, for example, points to the congregants of the Church of England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, whose sermon-gadding and intense repetitive listening to preachers became a form of popular culture. Shane White and Graham White, in The Sounds of Slavery, argue that early nineteenth-century black slaves adopted listening, or “acting soundly,” as a way of being that gave everyday sounds—conversation, cries of exertion, hymns—multiple layers of meaning and a power unknown to white overseers. Jonathan Sterne, in The Audible Past, describes the post-Civil War culture of sound telegraphy, in which young working class men trained themselves to employ “audile technique” for bureaucratic purposes, rendering their hearing objective, standardized, and networked.
We might add our own contemporary iPod era to these examples. We live in a time, after all, when it entirely acceptable to appear alone in public, ears connected to an iPod, head bobbing to the grooves of a vast archive of recorded music. Sampling, playlists, streaming–thanks to playback technologies, the U.S. has become a nation of obsessive listeners, and the power to “capture” a sound and re-hear it, something that began with the phonograph, remains a time-bending drama that can awaken people to their own aurality. Technologized listening, in fact, has spawned many of the icons of music discourse in the past 100 years: Edison’s tone testers in 1910s, record-collecting jitterbugs in the 1930s, audiophiles of the Hi-Fidelity era in the 1950s, Beatles fans with their bedroom record players in the 1960s, the “chair guy” in Memorex’s famous ad campaign of 1980, dancing listeners silhouetted in iPod posters since 2003.
But I think also that phonograph-centric narratives have obscured earlier, equally powerful cultures of listeners. The focus of my recent research, for example, has been the world of antebellum concert audiences. Between 1830 and 1860, the United States developed concentrated population centers filled with boosters and recent migrants eager to embrace a life based on new kinds of economic opportunity. Shaping much of the urban experience was a growing commercialization of culture that generated new and multiple means of musical performance, including parades, museum exhibitions, pleasure gardens, band performances, and concerts. Together, these performances significantly enhanced the act of listening: for people used to having to make music for themselves in order to hear it, a condition common to most Americans before 1830, access to public performances by others provided an opportunity for working and middle-class whites (women, African Americans, and the poor were another matter) to stop worrying about making music and, with the purchase of a ticket, to solely, and at length, assume an audience role.
The odd circumstance of purchasing the experience of listening provided class-striving urbanites with new possibilities for self-transformation. For many young, rural, white men, for example, arriving to the city for the first time to take clerking jobs in burgeoning merchant houses, being able to hear diverse performances of music was associated with a cosmopolitanism that brimmed with social possibility. Thus, for instance, Nathan Beekley, a young clerk, recently arrived in Philadelphia in 1849, found himself attending multiple performances of music several nights a week, including more and more appearances at the opera as a way to avoid “rowdies.” In New York City during the 1840s, George Templeton Strong, a young lawyer in Manhattan, derided his own musical abilities and instead attended every public musical event he could find, carefully chronicling his listening experiences and analyzing his reactions in a multi-volume journal. Walt Whitman, a young man on the make in Brooklyn and New York between 1838 and 1853, regularly attended every sound amusement he could, including the Bowery Theatre, dime museums, temperance lectures, political rallies, and opera, writing in Leaves of Grass, “I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen/And accrue what I hear into myself.”
This culture of listening was, in many ways, very much unlike ours. Despite an expanded access to performance, for instance, professional concerts before the mid-1850s were often understood as part of a wider ecology of sound. Very few listened to music in ways that we might expect today–focused on a “work,” in a concert hall, without distraction. Listening, in fact, was as much a matter of local happenstance as personal selection—a passing marching band, echoes of evening choir practice at a nearby church, an impromptu singing performance at a party. Such experiences were marked by the momentary thrill of spontaneity and discovery rather than the studied appreciation of familiarity; in any moment of hearing, it was difficult to know how long the encounter might be, or even what sounds, exactly, were being heard. Cities like Boston and New York were especially rich with such surprise encounters.
Francis Bennett, a young arrival to Boston in 1854, for example, encountered, in his first night in the city, a band concert and the “cries” from a “Negro meeting house,” and within weeks became enamored of fife and drum bands, often leaving work to follow one and then another as far as he dared. Young writer J. T. Trowbridge was more stationary but equally enthusiastic about what he heard from his New York rooming house in 1847: “The throngs of pedestrians mingled below, moving (marvelous to conceive) each to his or her ‘separate business and desire;’ the omnibuses and carriages rumbled and rattled past; while, over all, those strains of sonorous brass built their bridge of music, from the high café balcony to my still higher window ledge, spanning joy and woe, sin and sorrow, past and future….”
Music listeners were also often listeners of other forms of commercial sound, especially theater, oratory, and church services, which, together, comprised a complex sonic culture. This was especially reinforced by the physical spaces in which they shared such diverse aural experiences. In a rapidly-growing society, there often was not time or immediate resources to construct buildings dedicated to specific uses; instead, existing structures–typically a “hall” or “opera house”–served mixed uses.
As historian Jean Kilde noted in When Church Became Theater, evangelists in the Second Great Awakening often rented urban theaters for services; and congregations, in turn, rented churches to drama troupes, ventriloquists, and musicians to raise money. This “mixed-use” of buildings was reinforced by hearers, who often engaged in their own “mixed-use” understandings of what they heard. They evaluated sermons as they would a theatrical performance or found church choirs thrillingly entertaining rather than piously inspirational. Conversely, they listened to symphonic concerts with a religious solemnity.
This culture of antebellum, middle-class urban listeners didn’t last long, succumbing to the class sorting by post-Civil War social reformers, who mocked the indiscriminate over-exuberance of antebellum listeners as a kind of “mania” and a form of social disorder. As Lawrence Levine explains in Highbrow Lowbrow, over the course of the nineteenth century, developing a “musical ear” became increasingly paramount, reverence for great works of art shaped audience response, and listening became a specific skill to be learned. Music became something to appreciate not simply hear. By the 1890s, a true listener was someone who, in the words of critic Henry Edward Krehbiel (in his enormously popular How to Listen to Music, from 1897), “will bring his fancy into union with that of the composer” (51).
In many ways, the controlled silent listening favored by reformers directly paved the way for music technologies, like the phonograph, that similarly sought to control and manipulate listening. But it was the urban music listeners of the 1840s and 1850s who were responsible, in the first place, for identifying and accentuating the joys and possibilities of “just listening.”
Featured Image: Etching of Jenny Lind Singing at Castle Garden in New York City, 1851
Daniel Cavicchi is Dean of Liberal Arts and Professor of History, Philosophy, and the Social Sciences at Rhode Island School of Design. He is author of Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum and Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans, and co-editor of My Music: Explorations of Music in Daily Life. His public work has included Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom, an inaugural exhibit for the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles; the curriculum accompanying Martin Scorcese’s The Blues film series; and other projects with the Public Broadcasting System and the National Park Service. He is currently the editor of the Music/Interview series from Wesleyan University Press and serves on the editorial boards of American Music and Participations: the Journal of Audience Research.
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