This September, Sounding Out! challenged a #flawless group of scholars and critics to give Beyoncé Knowles-Carter a close listen, re-examining the complex relationship between her audio and visuals and amplifying what goes unheard, even as her every move–whether on MTV or in that damn elevator–faces intense scrutiny. Last Monday, you heard from Kevin Allred (Women and Gender Studies, Rutgers) who read Beyoncé’s track “No Angel” against the New York Times’ reference to Michael Brown as #noangel. You will also hear from Liana Silva (Editor, Women in Higher Education, Managing Editor, Sounding Out!), Regina Bradley (writer, scholar, and freelance researcher of African American Life and Culture), and Madison Moore (Research Associate in the Department of English at King’s College, University of London and author of How to Be Beyoncé). Today, Priscilla Peña Ovalle (English, University of Oregon) gives us full Beyoncé realness, from TMZ Elevator to Beyoncé and Back Again,–Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever
Less than six months after Beyoncé released Beyoncé, she was momentarily silenced on the small screen when the gossip site TMZ released silent elevator security footage of a fight between her famous husband and sister. Doubly framed by the black and white of a surveillance video screen surreptitiously captured on a security guard’s camera-phone, the video’s silence left plenty of room for speculation. But the footage also revealed a woman conscious that her life is on record: Beyoncé’s body seemed to elude the camera’s full view and she emerged from the elevator with a camera-ready smile.
Like Kevin Allred in his powerful reading of “No Angel,” I could not help but rethink Beyoncé in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder. I already read Beyoncé as a sophisticated response to the visual and aural policing of black female bodies, but the closed-circuit images of Beyoncé on TMZ (and in Beyoncé) made me reconsider silence as a damning convention of video surveillance; like Aaron Trammell in “Video Gaming and the Sonic Feedback of Surveillance,” I questioned (the lack of) sound as a technique of control. When the camera-phone recording of Kajieme Powell’s murder, photographed and narrated by a community member in real-time, was released with silent surveillance footage of the alleged theft, my appreciation of Beyoncé—as a response to those silent damnations—took a new turn.
“Resounding Silence and Surveillance” argues that Beyoncé returns the media’s visual-aural gaze. Because of its pop package, the album’s artistic composition and socio-cultural merit are often underestimated. Like the silence of surveillance footage, omitting any one sensory element from Beyoncé distorts the holistic meaning. To untangle this critically complex interplay of audio and video, I analyze the visualized song “Haunted” and briefly address the single “***Flawless” to show how the artist’s triple consciousness anchors Beyoncé. She is on to us: Beyoncé is the culmination of an artist who has spent her career watching us watch her. Temporarily silenced by footage that she could not control, Beyoncé resounds that “elevator incident”—and our sonic/optic perceptions of her feminism—with a flawless remix.
“I see music. It’s more than just what I hear,” declares Beyoncé. Her voiceover runs over the black screen that opens the promotional video “Self-Titled.” Released the same day Beyoncé premiered on iTunes, “Self-Titled” directs audiences to “see the whole vision of the album.” By design, Beyoncé is an immersive experience—like watching Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as a television event on MTV.
Because Beyoncé was born the same year the cable music channel MTV premiered, she has never known a world without the ability to “see music.” In many ways, her visual album reinvigorates the early spirit of MTV: after Beyoncé, we will “never look at music the same way again.” Though music videos exacerbate the pop single obsession that Beyoncé explicitly resists with Beyoncé, they also produce a unique kinetic connection with the listener-viewer, whose experience of sound is visually registered by the body as it processes shots and edits. This is especially true when strong imagery, rhythmic editing, and dance movements are expertly employed, as in Beyoncé.
Beyoncé deftly critiques the beauty and music/media industries that have been central to her pop success. If taken piecemeal, these critiques can be easily dismissed: the sustained gloss of her image works all too well. There is much to say on a video-by-video basis, but I focus here on the specific aural elements of “Haunted” that articulate Beyoncé’s refusal of the music industry’s status quo. This visualized rejection reveals the layers of racism and sexism that nonwhite female artists (even Beyoncé, even today) must negotiate.
Because of my personal and professional interest in music videos, I consumed Beyoncé as she intended: a sequence of MPEG-4 videos rather than AAC audio files. But it was not until I solely listened to the album that I could discern Beyoncé’s maturation as a black female multimedia pop/culture artist. One refrain from “Haunted” was especially effective:
I know if I’m onto you, I’m onto you/ Onto you, you must be on to me
The song’s ethereal quality is amplified by Boots (Jordy Asher), one of Beyoncé’s (then-unknown) collaborators with whom she shares “Haunted”’s writing and producing credit. The track builds slowly, supporting Beyoncé’s “stream of consciousness” delivery with layers of reverberation and waves of synth sounds like “Soundtrack” or the Roland TR-808 kick drum. Punches of bass accelerate the beat until Beyoncé riffs her explicit desire to create something more than a product:
The music winds to a halt, but the song is not over. Breathy, reverberating vocals transition the track and a piano is delicately introduced:
It’s what you do, it’s what you see
I know if I’m haunting you, you must be haunting me
It’s where we go, it’s where we’ll be
I know if I’m onto you, I’m onto you
Onto you, you must be on to me
At this point, the song “Haunted” is split into two videos: “Ghost” (directed by Pierre Debusschere) and “Haunted” (directed by Jonas Åkerlund). The videos’ visual differences exemplify the various points of view—from active subject to object of desire and back again—employed across Beyoncé. “Ghost”’s hypnotic visuals underscore the song’s sentiments: close-ups of Beyoncé’s immaculately lit visage soberly mouthing lyrics are intercut with medium shots of her still body swathed in floating fabric and wide shots of her athletic movements against sparse backgrounds. The ar/rhythmic cuts of “Ghost” enunciate an artistic dissatisfaction with the industry: visuals build against/with the synthetic beat, mixing Beyoncé’s kinetically intense movements with her deadpan delivery.
The fiery agency of “Ghost” sets up the chill of “Haunted,” a voyeuristic tour in which Beyoncé watches and is watched. The “knowing-ness” of her breathy refrain (“I know if I’m haunting you”) is heightened when the tempo accelerates in the song’s second half. There is much to say about “Haunted”—from the interracial family of atomic bomb mannequins to Beyoncé’s writhing boudoir choreography. Most significantly, she is the video’s voyeur and object of surveillance: her face appears on multiple television screens and her voyeur-character is regularly captured on closed-circuit footage. The “Haunted” video soundtrack features the foley and stinger sounds of a horror film, but these surveillance shots feature the low whirr of a film projector rather than silence. The silence of a moving image is so jarring that it compels us to watch differently, so much so that “silent” film scenes utilize a recorded sound of “nothing” (“room tone”) to focus the audience.
When Beyoncé finally resounded the silence of the “elevator incident,” she chose to do it through “***Flawless,” her explicit response to anti-feminist accusations. While the multifaceted anthem gained attention because of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s audio, the song is uniquely infused with a kind of docu-visuality thanks to Ed McMahon’s well-known voice and the Star Search jingle. These bookends cite a young Beyoncé losing to an all-male rock band, the kind heavily programmed during MTV’s early days. The clips reinforce the album’s critique of racial and gender hierarchies while questioning the double-edged “work ethic” required to surpass them. Of course, Beyoncé pre-emptively frames this discussion for us in “Self-Titled,” a necessary step that helps audiences appreciate the many moving parts of her tour de force, including her creative business mind.So when Beyoncé swapped the audio of Adichie and McMahon for Nicki Minaj, it was no less of a feminist move. Instead, Beyoncé silences TMZ gawkers:
She then offers herself as a medium of empowerment. Beyoncé may be part of a billion-dollar empire, but she willingly shares that pleasure with us:
I wake up looking this good
And I wouldn’t change it if I could
(If I could, if I, if I, could)
And you can say what you want, I’m the shit
(What you want I’m the shit, I’m the shit)
(I’m the shit, I’m the shit, I’m the shit)
I want everyone to feel like this tonight
God damn, God damn, God damn!
Beyoncé’s last word is an image. She and her creative team remixed the visuals of the “elevator incident”: the remix single website features black and white photos of Beyoncé and Minaj, simultaneously evoking surveillance footage and the photo booth images of a girls’ night out. Beyoncé is the work of an artist who has spent her career watching us watch her: this minor moment exemplifies Beyoncé’s multimedia resonance as an artist whose power is visible and audible across iTunes and TMZ screens alike.
Thanks to Elizabeth Peterson, Charise Cheney, Loren Kajikawa, André Sirois and Jennifer Stoever for providing research and intellectual support for this essay
Priscilla Peña Ovalle is the Associate Director of the Cinema Studies Program at the University of Oregon. After studying film and interactive media production at Emerson College, she received her PhD from the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television while collaborating with the Labyrinth Project at the Annenberg Center for Communication. She has written on MTV, Jennifer Lopez, and Beyoncé. Her book, Dance and the Hollywood Latina: Race, Sex, and Stardom (Rutgers University Press, 2011), addresses the symbolic connection between dance and the racialized sexuality of Latinas in popular culture. Her next research project explores the historical, industrial, and cultural function of hair in mainstream film and television. You can find her work in American Quarterly, Theatre Journal, and Women & Performance.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:
Aurally Other: Rita Moreno and the Articulation of “Latina-ness”-Priscilla Peña Ovalle
Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic–Imani Kai Johnson
Karaoke and Ventriloquism: Echoes and Divergences–Sarah Kessler and Karen Tongson
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HAPPY 5th BLOG-O-VERSARY! Parabéns!
As I write this, I am sitting on the return flight from Portugal, where I spent an utterly transformational four days at the Invisible Places, Sounding Cities conference (deftly organized and elegantly curated by Raquel Castro), a sensory torrent that still has me buzzing. While there, I was thrilled, provoked, taken, shaken, intrigued, pleased, taught, energized, exhausted, re-energized, puzzled, lifted up. . .all of the things I hope a truly great meeting will do (and then some). What I wasn’t prepared for—and when going to a conference featuring sound artists and performers, I imagine myself ready for anything—was the flood of gratefulness and gratitude that I felt every time I had a conversation about Sounding Out!, every time all of our stickers disappeared off the registration table, every time I introduced myself and there were nods of recognition from people I had never met—people located thousands of miles from my home IP address—and every time my scouting attempts were met with enthusiasm that matched (and often rivaled) my own.
And, while I cannot deny that I my work on Sounding Out! has generated personal pride—speaking honestly, sometimes I go to soundstudiesblog.com just to LOOK at it—but the feeling I enjoyed in Viseu was different from “accomplishment.” I felt grateful for the support of our editors, writers, and podcasters—sharing the best of themselves, tirelessly and without compensation other than mad props and ‘nuff respect—for our readers, ever stretching across the globe, sharing, liking, and ReTweeting, until this endeavor became a networked community, and for our fans—Yes! We have received fan mail!—whose enthusiasm always seems to arrive at the right time, the Hail Mary eleventh hour when the editors are fighting sleep and/or needing another reason to allow Dora the Explorer to play a little longer to steal time to finish a piece. I also felt gratitude for the diverse and full-bodied sound studies community, particularly its rigorous but generous, inviting embrace, which extended to the fledgling Sounding Out! experiment five lightning-quick years ago.
In that time, I hope we have expressed our gratitude in return, by deepening and extending our mutual community, binding us in new and unexpected ways, showcasing our best and giving air to our challenges, and, most importantly, enabling us to greet each other as familiar colleagues—in Viseu, Berlin, Toronto, San Juan, Los Angeles, Copenhagen, New York, Sao Paolo. . .—even if we had never before met “In Real Life.” Know that as we continue to grow and renew the site that the function of community will always remain a prime directive of SO!. I welcome the responsibility we have collectively invested in Sounding Out!; it makes my decisions both more contemplative and surefooted. Thank you, everyone, for the last five years—lets raise a glass of Grão Vasco Dão Tinto toward many more together!
As we sip, let’s also partake in the annual SO! tradition of taking stock of the last action-packed year, with soundtrack supplied by another artist having a #flawless year, Ms. Beyoncé Knowles herself. . .
- “Irreplaceable” (Goodbye, Liana): I write this first update completely under protest. I know I am not supposed to admit to affective reactions, especially in cyberspace and especially as a woman with her feet in several male dominated fields, but when Liana Silva-Ford, our stalwart and smoothly bad-ass Managing Editor and Co-Founder, told me she was considering leaving SO!, my eyes welled up instantaneously. Okay, so she very straightforwardly told me she was leaving—even now I still have to sneak in the modifier “considering.” Liana was recently named Editor-in-Chief of the longstanding publication Women in Higher Education (now on Wiley-Blackwell)—read her first “Editor’s End Notes” here—and she is embarking on a book project on her not-so-secret passion, postcards. Liana has, rightly and deservedly, decided to bestow more of her time on these two *amazing ventures. Even though none of us has yet to successfully visualize SO! without her, we know this is right and we wish her all and only the best. Thank you, Liana for your steady hand but light touch, your sharp yet generous editorial eye, and the intelligence, professionalism, and enthusiasm you brought to every meeting, every challenge, and every writer. Working (and SO!-hiveminding) with you has been an exquisite pleasure. And thank you for letting me twist your arm into a permanent “Editor-at-Large” position (whew!).
- “Green Light” (Welcome Cara, Neil, Will): On the other hand, I am pleased to announce that the O.G. SO! triumvirate has happily expanded to a sextet. Media scholar Neil Verma (Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University) our new ASA/SCMS Special Editor, came on board in late 2013, curating our new Thursday stream that launched in January 2014. Neil has already proved himself to be a skilled editor, an intuitive curator, and a natural at the brand of humor and enthusiastic tomfoolery we thrive on behind the scenes. We initiated our “L.A. Office” in December with the addition of William Stabile, our new Assistant Visual Editor, who is responsible for many of the mighty fine layouts that that you have seen this year. He is flexible, patient, and extremely gifted in the visual arts, with a wit dryer than Riverside, California this time of year. We value his work and presence immensely. And, drum roll please (especially with our crowd), we are pleased to announce right here today, that Cara Lynne Cardinale is our new Managing Editor, coming to us live from the East Bay in Northern California with a soaring collection of great ideas and her feet firmly planted on the ground of spreadsheets, calendars, and deadlines. Cara graduated in 2010 with her Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Riverside, with a brilliant dissertation that I am constantly telling my graduate students to seek out: “‘Through the Eyes’: Reading Deafened Gestures of Look-Listening in Twentieth Century Narratives.” A unanimous selection for her intensity, sharpness, and style-for-miles, Cara will undoubtedly turn this mother out!.
- “Upgrade U” (Thursday Stream!): You may have noticed that there has been twice the SO! to love in 2014, thanks to Neil Verma’s work on the Thursday stream, with his cadre of guest editors and an array of media-related subjects that has greatly expanded and deepened the site’s threshold. The year is only a little more than half-over and already we have been treated to forums on Cuban radio history (Tom McEnaney’s “Radio de Acción”), Lou Reed’s voice and sonic influence (NV’s “Start a Band”), and Justin Burton’s rumbling “The Wobble Continuum” of dubstep sounds and scholarship. Jump on the most current series of the stream, “Sculpting the Film Soundtrack” (guest edited by Katherine Spring), a collection of posts that re-frames the cinematic soundtrack to to be heard anew. The media stream + our monthly podcast series + SO!’s monthly pass-the-mic “Sound Off! // Comment Klatsch” = vibrant sounding Thursdays. We like this new math.
- “Check on It” (“SO! Amplifies”) b/w “Schoolin’ Life” (Book Reviews): Sounding Out!, by design, is not a clearing house for any-and-all sound-related events [however, you CAN get all that information by following us on Twitter, liking us on Facebook, and Tumbling with us too]. BUT, we realized this year that relationships are built and connections are made through support of one another’s work, and, more often than not, it takes more than 140 characters to properly accomplish this important task. So, in 2014, we launched two new ongoing series, “Sounding Out! Reads,” reviewing the latest monographs of interest to Sound Studies peeps, and a curatorial series called “SO! Amplifies” that enables selected makers, artists, authors, researchers, designers, and other creative/creating folks to introduce their work and tell SO! readers how/why it is important to them (and should be to us). In addition to amplifying the signal sent out by our featured works, we also hope to enable the production of new research, art, and other types of projects and connections through the introduction of these new tools, models, information, and archives. At the very least, we will be hipping your ears and eyes to some seriously cool new ish.
- “Satellites” b/w “Rocket” (War of the Worlds collabo extravaganza): Neil Verma came to the SO! team last summer in search of a site to host observations on the occasion of the 75th Anniversary of Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. Knowing the brilliance and exceptional quality of Neil’s work—please buy and devour his 2012 Theater of the Mind (University of Chicago Press, SCMS First Book Award Winner) ASAP—I automatically said an enthusiastic “YES.” BOOM. Just like that, an international multimedia fandango was born. On the ground, or since we are talking radio, terrestrially, #WOTW75 sounded like a three-hour radio broadcast on Binghamton University’s WHRW 90.5 with 2 hours of original content produced by Team SO! (one of them live!) bookending a re-broadcast of Welles’ original at the precise date and time of its debut, 8:00 PM EST, October 30th [1.5 hours are available via our podcast series: EPISODE XXII: Remixing War of the Worlds presents an original creative sound composition by Monteith McCollum and his Performative Processes class at Binghamton University that re-imagined act three of WOTW and EPISODE XXIII: War of the Worlds Revisited, the new 60-minute audio documentary featuring interviews with top media scholars engineered by our very own Multimedia editor Aaron Trammell]. BUT, out in the aether and Twittersphere, #WOTW75 looked like so much more: simultaneous listening parties dotting the globe—a special shout out to Jake Smith’s event at Northwestern U in Chicago—a months-long supergroup collabo between the Sounding Out! crüe and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Antenna—mad props to Andrew Bottomley—a real-time Twitter conversation using the hashtag #WOTW75 that sparked myriad reactions from excitement to snark—NV has curated the best of these for the upcoming sound special issue of Velvet Light Trap—academic panels, radio interviews, podcasts—thank you Aca-Media!—TV interviews, live dramatic radio performances—you rock, Charles Berman and the WHRW drama dept—a live collaging project put on by Toronto’s Collage Collective at the Textile Museum of Canada, martian-themed cupcakes, commemorative T- shirts by artisanal screen printers Muckles Ink, a theme-song (!!) written and performed by Binghamton’s finest ambient surf-noise band The Short Waves, and, we dearly hope, renewed excitement for the experience of “liveness” in the twenty-first century, an experience greatly changed since 1938, but no less vital in importance and thrilling in affect.
- “Run the World” (Citations, Reposts, and Writer Updates): It has been a great year for our writers, who have found their work cited and re-blogged in many venues including The Society Pages, The Feminist Wire, Twentieth Century Music, The New Inquiry’s Sunday Reading, Radio Survivor, Repeating Islands, Past and Present, About Place Journal’s 1963-2013 Civil Rights Retrospective, and American History Now [for the full bibliographic details see our SO! Media page].
We also congratulate our writers on their recent news and updates!
- Kaj Ahlsved is working hard on his PhD dissertation “Music and sport: soundscape, identity, context and function.” He published his first article in the 2013 Yearbook for the Finnish society for Ethnomusicology. His second article, “Let’s Play Hockey,” is currently under peer review. He is also part of a research project called Kiekkokansa that will publish a book on Finnish ice hockey culture in April 2015. For this project he and a few other researchers had the opportunity to do ethnography in Minsk during the 2014 World Ice Hockey Championships.
- Regina Bradley released her video dialogue series called Outkasted Conversations. She has a chapter titled “Kanye West’s Sonic [Hip Hop] Cosmopolitanism” in the collection The Cultural Impact of Kanye West. She also has an article forthcoming on Edward P. Jones’ The Known World and the Hip Hop Imagination in Southern Literary Journal.
- Dolores Inés Casillas was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
- Kariann Goldschmitt will be a Visiting Lecturer in the Faculty of Music at the University of Cambridge this upcoming October. Her essay on mobile tactics in the Brazilian independent music industry has been published in The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies, Volume 1.
- Carter Mathes saw the release of his new book this year, titled Imagine the Sound: Experimental African American Literature after Civil Rights.
- Jonathan Sterne is co-organizing, with Nick Mirzoeff and Tamar Tembeck, the first-ever sound studies-meets-visual culture studies conference. Called Sound, Vision, Action, it puts scholars and artists in dialogue across sonic and visual traditions. They are especially interested in how each field addresses questions of power. The lineup is still being confirmed, but it will be hosted by Media@McGill in Montreal, 14-15 November 2014. Sterne is teaching a graduate seminar in conjunction with the conference in the Fall. More details will be available at http://media.mcgill.ca.
- Jennifer Stoever was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure at the State University of New York, Binghamton where she was also awarded a 2014 Chancellor’s Award in Teaching.
And now. . .because this is how we do year after year, roll up your rug or roll down your partition, please, it is time to celebrate our #flawless 5.0 blog-o-versary, ‘Yonce-style. –JS, Editor-in-Chief
Jennifer Stoever is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sounding Out! She is also Associate Professor of English at Binghamton University.
Click here for Sounding Out!‘s Blog-O-Versary #Flawless 5.0 mix with track listing
This is the opening salvo in Sounding Out!‘s April Forum on “Sound and Technology.” Every Monday this month, you’ll be hearing new insights on this age-old pairing from the likes of Sounding Out! veterano Primus Luta, along with new voices Andrew Salvati and Owen Marshall. These fast-forward folks will share their thinking about everything from Auto-tune to productivity algorithms. So, program your presets for Sounding Out! and enjoy today’s exhilarating opening think piece from SO! Multimedia Editor Aaron Trammell. –JS, Editor-in-Chief
We drafted a manifesto.
Microsoft Research’s New England Division, a collective of top researchers working in and around new media, hosted a one-day symposium on music technology. Organizers Nancy Baym and Jonathan Sterne invited top scholars from a plethora of interdisciplinary fields to discuss the value, affordances, problems, joys, curiosities, pasts, presents, and futures of Music Technology. It was a formal debrief of the weekend’s Music Tech Fest, a celebration of innovative technology in music. Our hosts christened the day, “What’s Music Tech For?” and told us to make bold, brave statements. A kaleidoscope of kinetic energy and ideas followed. And, at 6PM we crumpled into exhausted chatter over sangria, cocktails, and imported beer at a local tapas restaurant.
The day began with Annette Markham, our timekeeper, offering us some tips on how to best think through what a manifesto is. She went down the list: manifestos are primal, they terminate the past, create new worlds, trigger communities, define us, antagonize others, inspire being, provoke action, crave presence. In short, manifestos are a sort of intellectual world building. They provide a road map toward an imagined future, but in doing so they also work to produce this very future. Annette’s list made manifestos seem to be a very focused thing, and perhaps they usually are. But, having now worked through the process of creating a manifesto with a collective, I would add one more point – manifestos are sloppy.
Our draft manifesto is a collective vision about what the blind-spots of music technology are, at present, and what we want the future of music technology to look like. And although there is general synergy around all of the points within it, that synergy is somewhat addled by the polyphonic nature of the contributors. There were a number of discussions over the course of the day that were squelched by the incommensurable perspectives of one or two of the participants. For instance, two scholars argued about whether or not technical platforms have politics. These moments of disagreement, however, only added a brilliant contour to our group jam. Like the distortion cooked into a Replacements single, it only serves to highlight how superb the moments of harmony and agreement are in contrast. This brilliant and ambivalent fuzziness speaks perfectly to the value of radical interdisciplinarity.
These disagreements were exactly the point. Why else would twenty academics from a variety of interdisciplinary fields have been invited to participate? Like a political summit, there were delegates from Biology, Anthropology, Computer Science, Musicology, Science and Technology Studies, and more. Rotating through the room, we did our introductions (see the complete list of participants at the bottom of this paper). Our interests were genuine and stated with earnestness. Nancy Baym declared emphatically that music is, “a productive site for radical interdisciplinarity,” while Andrew Dubber, the director of Music Tech Fest, noted the centrality of culture to the dialogue. Both music and technology are culture, he argued. The precarity of musical occupations, the gender divide, and the relationship between algorithm and consumer, all had to take a central role in our conversation, an inspired Georgina Born demanded. Bryan Pardo, a computer scientist, announced that he was listening with an open mind for tips on how to best design the platforms of tomorrow. Though collegial, our introductory remarks were all political, loaded with our ambitions and biases.
The day was an amazing, free-form, brainstorm. An hour and a half long each, the sessions challenged us to answer a big question – first, what are the problems of music technology, then what are some actions and possibilities for its future. Every fifteen or twenty minutes an alarm would ring and tables would exchange members, the new member sharing ideas from the table they came from. At one point I came to a new table telling stories about how music had the power to sculpt social relations, and was immediately confronted with a dialogue about problems of integration in the STEM fields.
In short, the brainstorms were a hodgepodge of ideas. Some spoke about the centrality of music to many cultural practices. Noting the ways in which humans respond to their environments through music, they questioned if tonal schema were ultimately a rationalization of the world. Though music was theorized as a means of social control many questions remained about whether it could or should be operationalized as such. Others considered different conversations entirely. Jocking sustainability and transduction as key factors in an ideal interdisciplinarity and shunning models that either tried to put one discipline in service of another, or simply tried to stack and combine ideas.
Some of the most productive debates centered around the nature of “open” technology. Engineers were challenged on their claim that “open source technology” was an unproblematic good, by Cultural Studies scholars who argued that the barriers to access were still fraught by the invisible lines of race, class, and gender. If open source technology is to be the future of music technology, they argued, much work must still be done to foster a dialogue where many voices can take part in that space.
We also did our best to think up actionable solutions to these problems, but for many it was difficult to dream big when their means were small in comparison. One group wrote, “we demand money,” on a whiteboard in capital letters and blue marker. Funding is a recurrent and difficult problem for many scholars in the United States and other, similar, locations, where funding for the arts is particularly scarce. On points like this, we all agreed.
We even considered what new spaces of interactivity should look like. Fostering spaces of interaction with public works of art, music, performance and more, could go a long way in convincing policy makers that these fields are, in fact, worthy of greater funding. Could a university be designed so as to prioritize this public mode of performance and interactivity? Would it have to abandon the cloistered office systems, which often prohibit the serendipitous occasion of interdisciplinary discussion around the arts?
There are still many problems with the dream of our manifesto. To start, although we shared many ideas, the vision of the manifesto is, if anything, disheveled and uneven. And though the radical interdisciplinarity we epitomized as a group led to a million excellent conversations, it is difficult, still, to get a sense of who “we” really are. If anything, our manifesto will be the embodiment of a collective that existed only for a moment and then disbursed, complete with jagged edges and inconsistencies. This gumbo of ideas, for me, is beautiful. Each and every voice included adds a little extra to the overall idea.
Ultimately, “What’s Music Tech For?” really got me thinking. Although I remain skeptical about the United States seeing funding for the arts as a worthy endeavor anytime soon, I left the event with a number of provocative questions. Am I, as a scholar, too critical about the value of technology, and blind to the ways it does often function to provoke a social good? How can technological development be set apart from the demands of the market, and then used to kindle social progress? How is music itself a technology, and when is it used as a tool of social coercion? And finally, what should a radical mode of listening be? And how can future listeners be empowered to see themselves in new and exciting ways?
What do you think?
Our team, by order of introduction:
Mary Gray (Microsoft Research), Blake Durham (University of Oxford), Mack Hagood (Miami University), Nick Seaver (University of California – Irvine), Tarleton Gillespie (Cornell University), Trevor Pinch (Cornell University), Jeremy Morris (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Diedre Loughridge (University of California – Berkley), Georgina Born (Oxford University), Aaron Trammell (Rutgers University), Jessa Lingel (Microsoft Research), Victoria Simon (McGill University), Aram Sinnreich (Rutgers University), Andrew Dubber (Birmingham City University), Norbert Schnell (IRCAM – Centre Pompidou), Bryan Pardo (Northwestern University), Josh McDermitt (MIT), Jonathan Sterne (McGill University), Matt Stahl (Western University), Nancy Baym (Microsoft Research), Annette Markham (Aarhus University), and Michela Magas (Music Tech Fest Founder).
Read the Manifesto here and sign on if you dig it. . . http://www.musictechifesto.org/
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University. His dissertation explores the fanzines and politics of underground wargame communities in Cold War America. You can learn more about his work at aarontrammell.com.
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