Deborah R. Vargas’s Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda (2012) presents an alternate story of Chicana music through a collection of case studies in Chicana/o music history centering on Chicana/Tejana musicians active between the early decades of the 20th century to the present. Vargas assembles a mix of archival documents, interviews, images, songs, recordings, performances, ephemera, fragments, memories and engages intersectional feminist theory and queer of color critique to trace the music scenes her subjects inhabit.
A feminist oral historian, Chicano/Latino cultural studies scholar, and Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside, Vargas’s research overlaps these disciplines and facilitates a conversation between popular music and sound studies that significantly considers gender, sexuality, and racialization in the construction of borderlands imaginaries. With Dissonant Divas Vargas makes an intervention both theoretical and methodological that greatly expands the Chicana/o musical archive and as well as the audiences for sound studies research. Furthermore, Vargas’s reflective writing voice locates her own Tejana/Chicana story in relation to her project and offers helpful insights into her research process at key moments. [The brief essay titled “Selena, Jenni Rivera, Eva Garza—meditations on an author’s soundtrack” published on the Minnesota Press webpages for Dissonant Divas is a generous methodology piece that should be read along with this comprehensive, satisfying, highly readable and often riveting text.]
Vargas defines the term, la onda, in a general sense as “an umbrella term for Mexican American/Chicano/Tejano music (x).” More critically, la onda also “operates to represent musics that have been prominent in academic and cultural sites that have produced dominant discourses of sexuality, gender, class, race, geography, and language in the constructions of Chicano music.” “Dissonance” can be understood variously as “chaos, cacophany, disharmony, static” and “out-of-tuneness” that draws attention to “the power of music with regard to Chicana gender and sexuality (xiv).” Vargas’s main critique notes how the “limits of la onda” reveals the heteronormative and patriarchal underpinnings that construct dominant narratives of Chicano music historiography. She argues that the force of these narratives have naturalized a way of thinking about Chicano music in terms of the various “fathers” of Chicano rock, conjunto music, and of the field of borderland studies itself. The distortions produced by the assimilating cultural nationalist logic of “la onda” have not only suppressed Chicana music histories and/or enabled their mishearing, but they also hide the complex ways that race, class, gender, and sexuality converge to produce Chicana subjectivities within and against the Chicano musical canon. In theorizing “dissonance,” Vargas thus productively sounds the Chicana histories in Dissonant Divas as alternatively gendered and/or queered against the heteromasculine concord of la onda.
The chapter “Borders, Bullets, Besos: The Ballad of Chelo Silva” contains perhaps the most provocative pages, detailing Chelo Silva, a bolero singer with a distinct repertoire of songs that are still performed and kept alive by a diverse lineage of performers and audiences, yet whose renown is seemingly inseparable with her former marriage to Américo Paredes. Ubiquitous in borderlands studies, Paredes’s name and legacy are defined largely by his study of the corrido, With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (1970). Vargas strategically positions Silva and Paredes as “embodied representations” of the bolero and the border ballad, respectively, taking up Sonia Salídvar-Hull’s proposal to “imagine new corridos” by proposing Silva’s boleros as “feminist border ballads.” Vargas parses the constructions, aesthetics, and values carried in each song form, exploring how the border ballad has been the primary counter-site for narrating the injustice of Tejano/Anglo conflict (bullets) while the bolero, whose constant subject is love, luxuriates in all its jouissance (besos). Vargas reveals that the border ballad “has allowed its authors, singers, and scholars to sound the borderlands imaginary into being,” illuminating how the contest over historical representation is tied to musical representation. Silva’s story cannot be found within this articulation of la onda without, in part, redefining the border ballad (54).
Vargas innovates and meticulously crafts an alternative archive better suited to narrating and hearing Silva’s fragmented story, what Vargas felicitously calls her archisme of knowledge. Engaging the silences in Silva’s story, the archisme sounds her presence in the recorded memories of her fans which include testaments to her unique vocal qualities, her powerful and evocative performances, her improvisations in music and in life,,along with a healthy amount of the chisme or gossip surrounding Silva. Proposing the archisme as a “feminist project for historicizing nonnormative Chicana/o genders and desires” Vargas extends both Sonia Saldivar-Hull’s directive for Chicana scholars to look in nontraditional places for theory and Lisa Lowe’s theorization of gossip as a destructuring site of knowledge production (Saldivar-Hull, 1998; Lowe, 1996).
As I read through the first three chapters, a question that kept coming up concerned why we should not consider this study on more specific regional terms, or why this book isn’t titled, “Tejana Divas”? Vargas finds the overdetermination of these Chicana/Tejana musicians as “regional” subjects a problem not typically encountered by musicians from a city like Los Angeles, for example, because of its construction as a global metropolis. I cannot dispute Los Angeles’s status as a world center and I wondered how to earnestly engage Vargas on this point. What are the stakes of locating this study of Tejana/Chicana musicians within a broader Chicano/a musical context?
The final two chapters make the case for remapping Chicana music, advanced in part by the capacious notion of queer “diva-scapes.” In “Sonido de las Americas: Crossing South-South Borders with Eva Garza,” Vargas employs what she calls a “transfrontera musical compass,” a feminist methodology deftly juxtaposing the notion of a “musical scale” with the concept of “geographic scale.” Eva Garza’s career begins in her San Antonio hometown but she eventually came to embody the “la vóz de las Américas” in a hemispheric sense via her participation in early Spanish language radio, recordings, and live performances in nightclubs and films that took her to Mexico City and Havana for significant periods; her genre-crossing repertoire mirrored her travels. Garza began as a singer of the appropriately feminine bolero, but through her contact with Cuban musicians, the Afro-Caribbean guaracha song–decidedly phallocentric and risqué in its subject matter–also became part of her repertoire. The song she was most known for, “Sabor de Engaño” adds a sensual register to her transfrontera compass, a lingering sabor or taste exceeding regional, national, formal, and gendered limits. This is most evident in the repeated examples of impromptu performances of a song verse or refrain of “Sabor de Engaño” by many Cubanos Vargas encountered in her research travels. Vargas employs the transfrontera musical compass as a “listening instrument” to trace Garza’s musical trajectory through spatial-temporal moments disrupting rigid and normative notions of community, nation, and Chicano music (147).
In “Giving Us That Brown Soul: Selena’s Departures and Arrivals,” Vargas addresses the multiple problems in the mainstream media’s designation of “crossover star” to narrate Selena’s story as a spectacular rise in fame marked by her violent death in 1995. Vargas seeks to correct the assimilationist narratives of Selena’s musical history that, in addition to figuring her as a marginalized Latina on the verge of “legitimate” status, problematically narrates a south-north trajectory “devoid of blackness and queerness.” Vargas both critiques how “brown soul” has been musically deployed to stand in for cultural nationalist “brown power” and extends previous work focusing on blackness in Chicano/Latino music that includes R&B and Afro-Caribbean influences but not necessarily the Afro-diasporic. Cumbia, an Afro-Columbian dance form popularized in Mexico in the 1940’s – 50’s is central to Selena’s Tejano sound as are 70’s era disco and 80’s freestyle, particularly in the cultivation of her iconic diva look which together resonate a queer of color musical legacy on the sonic and visual planes.
Selena’s “brown soul” and style moves Tex-Mex cumbias in what Vargas calls “queer misdirections” by traveling north-south, for example, while sounding counterhegemonic femininities that continue to reverberate in the many tribute drag performances to Selena in and beyond the borderlands of Tejas. In these ways, Vargas traces the “topography of Selena’s transformations and remappings of Chicano music (205). Just as audio technologies have been key in circulating Eva Garza’s and Selena’s music in multiple directions, so are the memories, repeated performances, and queer embodiments of their music by their diverse audiences. For both of the these artists, sound expands Vargas’s engagement with spatialization theories so that we may hear these productive dissonances and in these ways begin to imagine alternative borderlands imaginaries.
Upon finishing, a question that remains in considering “diva dissonance” is the implied consonance of Vargas’s theorization of “la onda.” At times, the term becomes too totalizing, and I would argue for the presence of heterogeneity and other musical diversities even within what Vargas denotes as la onda. We must both make and leave room to imagine the possibility of many unrecorded, captured, or yet unsounded transgressions for Chicanas whose paths may appear to follow a heteronormative logic. For this reason I found the reiteration of such rich findings against la onda asomewhat repetitive distraction from the richer tales Vargas’s archival work tells. What would these histories sound like if they weren’t always positioned against la onda—if they were sounded instead more toward each other?
What Deborah R. Vargas richly accomplishes in Dissonant Divas responds to Alejandro Madrid’s call for musicologists to establish critical conversations beyond “the conservatory” and to engage larger intellectual dialogues (AMS Vol. 64, No. 3, 2011).Vargas’s intersectional feminist-of-color argument extends the body of feminist Chicana/o cultural studies scholarship and equally extends Chicano music histories that may engage gender to some degree but do not fully interrogate those categorical constructions. Her theorization of the title’s key term “dissonance” as “both a methodological and analytic device” and her construction of a differential archive combine to create “alternative sonic imaginaries of the borderlands (xii).” More broadly, Dissonant Divas is an intervention to the problems of conducting research in marginalized communities and the racialized subjects often left out of official archives, institutional records, and studies of sound (Trouillot, 1995; Taylor, 2003). Each chapter reveals and addresses various barriers to conducting research on Chicana musicians whose uneven historical representation lead Vargas to turn to other sites, methodologies, and embodied practices where Chicana voices resound across temporal and spatial lines. In these ways, Vargas’s sustained engagement of race, class, gender, and sexuality with Chicana/o borderlands music is thoroughly new.
Featured Image: Pauline Oliveros by Flickr user Horacio González Diéguez, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Wanda Alarcón is a doctoral candidate of Comparative Ethnic Studies with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the University of California, Berkeley where she is writing a dissertation titled: “Sounding Aztlán: Music, Literature, and the Chicana/o Sonic Imaginary”. Her research interests include Chicana/o cultural studies, U.S. ethnic literatures, popular music, sound studies, queer of color theory, and decolonial feminism. At Berkeley she has facilitated the working groups, “Decolonial Feminisms” and “Popular Music in Chicana/o Cultural Studies” at the Center for Race and Gender (CRG). Wanda is originally from Los Angeles and before starting graduate school she created the poetry zine, JOTA (2002 – 2006) and is updating that project by creating an archive for queer Chicana writing in cyberspace. She is a fan of radio genres and podcasts and writes micro radio plays while on the road. She is suspicious of the MP3 format yet enjoys curating party, tribute, and mood themed playlists on Spotify immensely. You can find her on Twitter depending on writing deadlines @esawanda.
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During a preview of the UK tour of my performance Beacons, I noticed something intriguing. There were a couple of children in the audience, and they were singing along with me. I mean, not just singing – doing all kinds of vocal things along with me.
You have to understand that I’m an extended – or I now prefer the term extra-normal – vocalist. I make artwork from the ‘weird’ qualities of the voice. Now, the term weird, when it comes to the voice, is always culturally relative. But let’s face it – in almost any of the industrialized cultures, we don’t exactly let the voice go wild, and so the category of “weird” is pretty large and full. Our cultures are a Freudian fiesta of vocal repression and sublimation. When’s the last time you heard a heartfelt, loose, easy series of adult sobs at a business meeting, or a wail of deep mourning at a funeral? When it comes to the voice, we’re pretty uptight.
However, here were some children absolutely letting loose and going along for the ride. This has happened before. During my piece Soie Soyeuse, during which I wrap the audience in habotai silk, some children got right into it. I was five feet away making really incredibly ‘ugly’ chewing noises and groans of gnashing teeth and they delightedly voiced along.
Right now, everything’s becoming user-driven. The audience loves to co-make art. And why not? So I thought: let’s go for broke, here. Let’s try to create some environments and experiences in which kids (and the kid in all of us) can really explore what their voices can do. Let’s give them freedom to experiment. Let’s reward them for wildness. Let’s try to make it child and family friendly, but beautiful and rich and somehow sensual, despite the limitations of the tablet format. I worked like a dog to get financing. I collaborated with scientists. And so, Voice Bubbles for iPad was born.
It’s free, thanks to our funders. It’s got no silly pop up ads and in-app purchases. Kids love it and will use it for hours, happily. It lets them record, improvise, structure and add effects to their voices. They can play back little sequences or structured phrases. They can fool with what else their voices can do and be.
It makes them feel, and makes we adults question, just why we need to keep the voice so under wraps when it’s a source of so much playful joy and intense engagement. Give it to a child to enjoy. Enjoy it yourself.
*You can explore other related artworks at www.yourvivaciousvoice.com
Yvon Bonenfant is Reader in Performing Arts at the University of Winchester. He likes voices that do what voices don’t usually do, and he likes bodies that don’t do what bodies usually do. He makes art starting from these sounds and movements. These unusual, intermedia works have been produced in 10 countries in the last 10 years, and his writing published in journals such as Performance Research, Choreographic Practices, and Studies in Theatre and Performance. He currently holds a Large Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust and funding from Arts Council England to collaborate with speech scientists on the development of a series of participatory, extra-normal voice artworks for children and families; see www.yourvivaciousvoice.com. Despite his air of Lenin, he does frighteningly accurate vocal imitations of both Axl Rose and Jon Bon Jovi. www.yvonbonenfant.com.
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After a rockin’ (and seriously informative) series of podcasts from Leonard J. Paul–a three part “Inside the Game Sound Designer’s Studio”– our summer Sound and Pleasure series keeps giving you the good stuff, this week with SO! Regular Regina Bradley, making it rain. . . with some serious knowledge. What is the connection between sound and enjoyment, and how might black women’s sexual freedom be manifested via sound? --JS, Editor-in-Chief
At fifteen, while in church service, I learned how to clutch pearls after hearing a woman moan during the altar call.
It was not a “Jesus done found and saved me” moan, either. A friend forgot to turn his cell phone off for church. As the church prayed, his phone started to ring. It was not the usual digital beeping or quick calypso ring tone. His phone calls were annotated by a woman’s moan during sex. She moaned from his cell phone to pick up the call. Each ring the woman moaned louder and adamant until she hollered like she was just saved. The kids in the back snickered as the ushers – including my grandmother – silently and angrily screened each pew to see who would pick up the phone. Quaking church ladies and my grandmother’s wide-eyed glare and heaving chest suggested they were about to pass out from embarrassment. Wringing their white gloved hands and grabbing at their pearl necklaces in angst, they looked everywhere but at each other: the back of a man’s head, the cross at the front of the church, the stain glass windows. A flush of warmth entered my cheeks and neck as I tried to contain my laughter and creeping embarrassment. I was embarrassed for my grandmother and the ladies of the church because I was aware of the unspoken rule that women – especially middle-class black women – don’t do sex. Being embarrassed of sex is proper and “ladylike.”
Ashon Crawley’s contextualization of the praise and worship in Black Pentecostal church as a sonic public zone is useful for using sound to complicate the church as an erotic space. Crawley’s suggestion of sound as a “vessel. . .for the exchange of ecstasy and ecstatics” collapses the more tangible notions of gender and respectability via physical displays –i.e. the quaking church ladies and clutching pearls – to recognize the overlap of moaning as a marker of sexual joy, moaning as a form of praise and worship, and moaning as an indicator of shame. Crawley’s observations bring to mind Helga Crane’s run in with the storefront church in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. It is not the physical aspect of the church and its embodiment of respectability that draws Helga into the space. Rather, it is the singing, weeping, and moaning – the sonic elements of praise and worship–that parallel her own suppressed sexual frustrations. Her weeping is not necessarily a “come to Jesus moment” but rather a sonic release acknowledging her sexual agency.
Looking back at when this dude’s phone went off in church, I realize the bulk of discomfort in acknowledging sexual pleasure exists in how it sounds. The woman’s moan highlighted an alarming reality for the women at my church: pleasure was being presented outside of its respectable physical and sonic boundaries. I wish to identify what I call sonic pleasure politics to address new developments in 21st century southern gender identity politics. Sonic manifestations of pleasure point to a younger generation’s rearticulation of sexuality as a site of agency and self-definition in an otherwise suppressed southern experience.
As a southern black woman, I’ve always been struck by the anxiety sex and pleasure invoked in the women in my life. Sex and pleasure were never articulated in the same breath, as sex was a wifely duty and responsibility for procreation. Pleasure was never synonymous with sexual joy, even when I snatched whispers of conversation about sex from my elders. Moreover, I was taught that sex (or even an interest in it) would plummet my stock as a good girl and put me in the ranks of “fast-tailed” girls who used sex as a desperate plea for attention. Nope, sex – pleasurable sex – was always for men’s gratification. Aside from the abstinence manifesto – “just don’t do it, chile” – for women, enjoying sex was the devil’s work. Respectable sex was quiet, for marriage, and never discussed outside of the house.
Sound as a signifier of sexual pleasure is considered by many to be counterintuitive because of the history of sexual trauma associated with black women’s bodies in the south. Reading sex as a genesis point of southern black women’s pleasure and empowerment is a difficult undertaking. The forced silence of slave women’s rapes and other physical violence that took place on southern soil parallels the silence that is deemed to be necessary for survival in a racist society. Further, the far-reaching residual effects of black women’s inferred lacking virtue lurk in how black folks navigate their southern experience and identities. Conservative attitudes towards sex in the southern black community are no doubt associated with the constructed attempts to humanize and validate blacks outside of hypersexual scripted blackness.
However, the sonic dimension of sex and pleasure in the south goes largely without analysis even though sound is a primary space in which recognition of sexual and nonsexual pleasure takes place. Consider blues women and, more recently, women in [southern] hip hop culture. The sounds of women’s giggles and moans as representative of sexual pleasure in bass music and the heavy use of moaning in the work of Trina, Jacki-O, Khia, Erykah Badu, Beyoncé, and Missy Elliott points to a need to recognize sound as a reservoir of pleasure, raunchiness, and sexual work—what I call “sonic pleasure politics.”
Studies of sonic pleasure including those of Robin James contextualize pleasure via the technical production of sound to induce a particular set of cultural and visceral responses. However, I ground my theorization of sonic pleasure politics in the growing body of scholarship offered by the “Pleasure Ninjas” collective consisting of Joan Morgan, Brittney Cooper, Treva Lindsey, Kaila Story, Yaba Blay, and Esther Armah. They utilize pleasure as a site of healing and reclamation of black women’s identities. Morgan’s interrogation of pleasure as a form of survival, for example, is especially useful in thinking about how southern women’s sexuality stems from the trauma of the transatlantic slave trade. She suggests pleasure’s palpability as an alternative space to reclaim slaves’ humanity. The Pleasure Ninjas’ construction of pleasure lends credence to my theorization sonic pleasure politics as a space for mediating the historical implications of abusive sexual power and the use of sexual pleasure as a form of resistance in the south.
Situating women’s pleasure in southern hip hop is messy as it reflects both men’s investment in women as objects of pleasure – i.e. bass music – and women’s subversion of this expectation of their sexuality a way to express themselves. For example, Lil Wayne’s lyrical affirmation of his sexual prowess via cunnilingus in songs like “Pussy Monster,” “She Will,” and “Lollipop” parallels singer Joi’s demonstration of pleasure as a form of sexual consent via the use of (presumably her) moans and sounds of cunnilingus on her popular song “Lick.” Sonic pleasure politics become a workspace for bridging the south’s historical construction of [black] women’s sexuality-as-respectability and the recent, more fluid form of younger women’s embrace of sex-as-empowerment heard in southern popular culture.
Sonic Pleasure Politics and Strip Club Culture
A primary space for teasing out the multi-layered significance of sounds and sexuality in southern hip hop is the strip club. The production of sonic and visual representations of strip clubs are inextricably linked: bass heavy musical tracks keep time with the “clapping cheeks” of exotic dancers. Further, the loudness of the strip club denotes patrons’ attempts to drown out the world while pivoting off of the fantasy of sexy women dancing, moaning, and sexually gesturing for their entertainment. The dominance of strip clubs in southern hip hop contribute to the erotic map(s) of a younger generation of southern black women. My contextualization of strip clubs as a cartographic point of interest pivots off of Kaila Story’s description of erotic maps as an entry point for recognizing black women’s sexual agency. Erotic maps are the touchstones through which people address sexual pleasure. Story uses black women’s social-historical narratives to map out black women’s use of sexuality as a measure of self-definition. These maps are complex as they are intertwined with historical-cultural biases and cultural preferences frequently outside of black women’s experiences.
Strip club anthems, like Memphis rapper Juicy J’s “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” riff on the sonic and physical components of strip club culture. The bass kicks complement what sounds like clapping hands, a signifier of strippers’ clapping butts. Juicy J talks at length about his love of the strip club, distinguishing between “real” and fake strip clubs by the amount of nakedness and strippers wrangling for high-paying patrons’ bands of money. The snapping sound of rubber bands holding wads of cash together authenticates the duality of the women’s sexual posturing as physically pleasurable for men and profitable – economically pleasurable – for women. “Bandz a Make Her Dance” is grounded in the appeal of strip clubs as spaces of empowerment for black men. From this perspective, the clapping heard across the track could also signify the snapping of rubber bands against money to sonically signify men’s power as a strip club patron. Yet the physical and sonic presence of black women’s bodies – i.e. grunting as they maneuver and climb the dancing pole – also makes strip club culture a useful space to pivot southernness and sonic pleasure.
An example of establishing black women’s sonic pleasure narratives in strip clubs is singer Rihanna’s panning of “Bandz a Make Her Dance” titled “Pour It Up.” Although Rihanna is a pop singer from the “Global” South, she sonically signifies if not subverts southern hip hop gender politics via sampling the instrumental from Juicy J’s record. The majority of “Pour It Up’s” instrumental accompaniment is a subdued if not washed out sample of “Bandz a Maker Dance” that helps highlight Rihanna’s voice. The clarity of Rihanna’s voice “garbles” the accompaniment in the sense it is background noise to her narrative of enjoying herself and taking pleasure in the bodies of other women present in the club. The accompaniment serves as a brief nod to Juicy J’s initial intentions of crafting the strip club as a sexual space but ultimately uses the track as a testament to her own pleasure narrative.
In particular, Rihanna’s sing-song holler before the chorus “All I see is signs…all I see is dollar signs,” points to a subversion of the hypermasculinity in strip club culture to establish her own pleasure in a similar space. Parallel to Juicy J’s indulging of exotic dancers via throwing bands of money, Rihanna enjoys herself at the strip club using other people’s money:
Strip clubs and dolla’ bills (Still got mo’ money)
Patron shots can I get a refill (Still got mo’ money)
Strippers going up and down that pole (Still got mo’ money)
4 o’clock and we ain’t going home (Still got mo’ money)
Bands make your girl go down (Still got mo’ money)
Lot more where that came from (Still got mo’ money)
In particular, Rihanna’s verse not only demonstrates an alternative viewpoint of black women’s bodies in the strip club but destabilizes the idea of the strip club – and intercedes on the understanding of southern hip hop – as a heternormative hypermasculine space. The line “bands make your girl go down” alludes to not only a possible sexual encounter by Rihanna or for the girl in question but doubly signifies upon the potential for pleasure via the strip club culture for women and the hypersexuality of Juicy J’s track. “Pour it Up” reflects the messiness of [southern] hip hop gender politics because it builds upon the reputation of the strip club as a site for men’s pleasure to excavate women’s dancing as pleasurable for their own purposes. In addition to Rihanna’s sonic signifying of strip club culture, the “Pour It Up” reveres pole dancing as an art form rather than an exploitative practice. Rihanna’s pleasure in watching the dancers perform parallels the exertion of joy – and consent – that the dancers exhibit in their movement.
Trekking back to the sexy moaning phone in church, the sonic cue of sexual pleasure and joy conflicted with the gender norms associated with southern black women’s identities. Consideration of sonic pleasure narratives stirs discussion of the unarticulated experiences of southern black womanhood that may be overlooked in favor or a larger, more conservative, and familiar narrative of sex as tool of victimization. Sonic pleasure politics makes room to remap the contemporary southern social-cultural landscape as a complex yet living space of cultural production and sexual freedom.
Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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This post continues our summer Sound and Pleasure series, as the third and final podcast in a three part series by Leonard J. Paul. What is the connection between sound and enjoyment, and how are pleasing sounds designed? Pleasure is, after all, what brings y’all back to Sounding Out! weekly, is it not?
Part of the goal of this series of podcasts has been to reveal the interesting and invisible labor practices which are involved in sound design. In this final entry Leonard J. Paul breaks down his process in designing living sounds for the game Vessel. How does one design empathetic or aggressive sounds? If you need to catch up read Leonard’s last entry where he breaks down the vintage sounds of Retro City Rampage. Also, be sure to be sure to check out last week’s edition where Leonard breaks down his process in designing sound for Sim Cell. But first, listen to this! -AT, Multimedia Editor
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Game Audio Notes III: The Nature of Sound in Vessel
Strange Loop Game’s Vessel is set in an alternate world history where a servant class of liquid automatons (called fluros) has gone out of control. The player explores the world and solves puzzles in an effort to restore order. While working on Vessel, I personally recorded all of the sounds so that I could have full control over the soundscape. I recorded all of the game’s samples with a Zoom H4n portable recorder. My emphasis on real sounds was intended to focus the player’s experience of immersion in the game.
This realistic soundscape was supplemented with a variety of techniques that produced sounds that dynamically responded to the changes in the physics engine. Water and other fluids in the game were difficult to model with both the physics engine and the audio engine (FMOD Designer). Because fluids are fundamentally connected to the game’s physics engine, they takes on a variety of different dynamic forms as players interact with the fluid in different ways. In order to address this Kieran Lord, the audio coder, and I considered factors like the amount of liquid in a collision with anything, the hardness of the surface that it was colliding with, the type of liquid in motion, whether the player is experiencing an extreme form of that sound because it is colliding with their head, and, of course, how fast the liquid is travelling.
Although there was a musical score, I designed the effects to be played without music. Each element of the game, for instance a lava fluro’s (one of the game’s rebellious automatons) footsteps, entailed required layers of sound. The footsteps were composed of water sizzling on a hot pan, a gloopy slap of oatmeal and a wet rag hitting the ground. Finding the correct emotional balance to support the game’s story was fundamental to my work as a sound designer. The game’s sound effects were constantly competing with the adaptive music (which is also contingent on player action) that plays throughout the game, so it was important to provide an informative quality to them. The sound effects inform you about the environment while the music sets the emotional underscore of the gameplay and helps guide you in the puzzles.
Defining the character of the fluros was difficult because I wanted players to have empathy for them. This was important to me because there is often no way to avoid destroying them when solving the game’s puzzles. While recording sounds in the back of an antique shop, I came across a vintage Dick Tracey gun that made a fantastic clanking sound when making a siren sound. Since the gun allowed me to control how quickly the siren rose and fell, it was a great way to produce vocalizations for the fluros. I simply recorded the gun’s siren sound, chopped the recording into smaller pieces, and then played back different segments randomly. The metal clanking gave a mechanical feel and the siren’s tone gave a vocal quality to the resulting sound that was perfect for the fluros. I could make the fluros sound excited by choosing a higher pitch range from the sample grains and inform the player when they approached their goal.
I wanted a fluid-based scream to announce a fluro’s death. I tried screaming underwater, screaming into a glass of water, and a few other things, but nothing worked. Eventually, when recording a rubber ear syringe, I found squeezing the water out quickly lent a real shriek while it spit out the last of the water. Not only did this sound really cut through the din of the gears clanking in the mix, but it also bonded a watery yell with the sense of being crushed and running out of breath.
For the final boss, I tried many combinations of glurpy sounds to signify its lava form. Eventually I recorded a nail in a board being dragged across a large rusty metal sheet. Though it was quite excruciating to listen to, I pitched down the recording and combined it with a pitched down and granulated recording of myself growling into a cup of water. This sound perfectly captured the emotion I wanted to feel when encountering a final boss. Although it can take a long time to arrive at the “obvious” sound, simplicity is often the key.
Anticipation is fundamental to a player’s sense of immersion. It carves a larger space for tension to build, for instance a small crescendo of a creaking sound can develop a tension that builds to a sudden and large impact. A whoosh before a punch lands adds extra weight to the force of the punch. These cues are often naturally present in real-world sounds, such as a rush of air sweeping in before a door slams. A small pause might be included just for added suspense and helps to intensify the effect of the door slamming. Dreading the impact is half of the emotion of a large hit .
Recording all of the sounds for Vessel was a large undertaking but since I viewed each recording as a performance, I was able to make the feeling of the world very cohesive. Each sound was designed to immerse the player in the soundscape, but also to allow players enough time to solve puzzles without becoming annoyed with the audio. All sounds have a life of their own and a resonance of memory and time that stays with the them during each playthrough of a game. In Retro City Rampage I left a sonic space for the player to wax nostalgic. In Sim Cell, I worked to breathe life into a set of sterile and synthesized sounds. Each recorded sound in Vessel is alive in comparison, telling stories of time, place and recording with them, that are all their own.
The common theme of my audio work on Retro City Rampage, Sim Cell and Vessel, is that I enjoy putting constraints on myself to inspire my creativity. I focus on what works and removing non-essential elements. Exploring the limits of constraints often provokes interesting and unpredictable results. I like “sculpting” sounds and will often proceed from a rough sketch, polishing and reducing elements until I like what I hear. Typically I remove layers that don’t add an emotive aspect to the sound design. In games there are often many sounds that can play at once, so clarity and focus are necessary when preventing sounds from getting lost in a sonic goo.
In this post I have shown how play and experimentation are fundamental to my creative process. For an aspiring sound artist, spending time with Pure Data, FMOD Studio or Wwise and a personal recorder is a great way to improve their skill with game audio. This series of articles has aimed to reveal the tacit decisions behind the production of game audio that get obscured by the fun of the creative process. Plus, I hope they offer a bit of inspiration to those creating their own sounds in the future.
- My GDC 2012 talk – My site includes an MP3 recording of the talk and the full powerpoint presentation. A full video of the talk is in the GDC Vault but requires membership
- See the Jon Hopkins Soundtrack in the Video Game Vessel video game soundtrack video by me on YouTube – shows use of Lua with music in the custom level editor : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOyjMPPvaY4
Leonard J. Paul attained his Honours degree in Computer Science at Simon Fraser University in BC, Canada with an Extended Minor in Music concentrating in Electroacoustics. He began his work in video games on the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System and has a twenty year history in composing, sound design and coding for games. He has worked on over twenty major game titles totalling over 6.4 million units sold since 1994, including award-winning AAA titles such as EA’s NBA Jam 2010, NHL11, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, NBA Live ’95 as well as the indie award-winning title Retro City Rampage.
He is the co-founder of the School of Video Game Audio and has taught game audio students from over thirty different countries online since 2012. His new media works has been exhibited in cities including Surrey, Banff, Victoria, São Paulo, Zürich and San Jose. As a documentary film composer, he had the good fortune of scoring the original music for multi-awarding winning documentary The Corporation which remains the highest-grossing Canadian documentary in history to date. He has performed live electronic music in cities such as Osaka, Berlin, San Francisco, Brooklyn and Amsterdam under the name Freaky DNA.
He is an internationally renowned speaker on the topic of video game audio and has been invited to speak in Vancouver, Lyon, Berlin, Bogotá, London, Banff, San Francisco, San Jose, Porto, Angoulême and other locations around the world.
His writings and presentations are available at http://VideoGameAudio.com
Featured image: Courtesy of Vblank Entertainment (c)2014 – Artwork by Maxime Trépanier.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Sounding Out! Podcast #31: Hand Made Music in Retro City Rampage- Leonard J. Paul
Papa Sangre and the Construction of Immersion in Audio Games- Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo