This is the fourth and final post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us. For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening, and, as Trevor Boffone prescribes, a much wider and more corporeal understanding of the practice that goes beyond an emphasis on the ear and even on sound itself. –Editor-in-Chief JS
As Kent, a Deaf man, stands on stage in Tamales de Puerco, signing his story of struggling and growing up in a hearing family, the only aural sounds in the theater come from the audience: the sounds of crying. Performed in English, Spanish, and American Sign Language (ASL), Tamales offers a glimpse into the seldom seen realities of life as a single mother to a Deaf child as it intersects with Latinidad. The play presents the story of Norma, a young mother who confronts her abusive husband and challenges a country that rejects and oppresses her as an undocumented immigrant. She overcomes the hardships of being Latina, undocumented, and having a Deaf child (Mauricio) without any support from her husband, her mother, and local and state institutions. Ultimately, Norma must negotiate cultural citizenship and notions of belonging to the Deaf Latin@ community so that her son can have more opportunities. The play uses—and calls attention to—silence as an essential building block in the process of constructing, remixing, and performing the complexities of Latin@ identity.
Listening to the silences in Latin@ theatre performance offers crucial insight into how the Latin@ population and Latinidad fit into the fabric of the United States in the 21st Century, as Marci R. McMahon notes in “Soundscapes of Narco Silence.” In Tamales, the staging of Deafness creates a particular kind of silence that promotes new listening strategies. What I find most compelling is how Deafness on stage–and the particular silences Deafness can create–opens up a space for what Steph Ceraso calls “multimodal listening,” listening as a full-bodied event not solely linked to the ears, but rather connected to “bodies, affects, behaviors, design, space, and aesthetics.” Calling attention to the body as it does, the silences in the play give weight to Kent’s story and affects the viewer beyond the limits of voiced acting by encouraging spectators to concentrate on the actors’ physical emotions and how actors’ bodies work to transmit messages without verbal cues. I argue Tamales promotes multimodal listening by forcing spectators to use their “Third Ear”—a mode of listening across domains of silence, sound, and the moving body—as a device to understand a seemingly silent world.
To do this, I engage with the playscript and recordings of the 2013 production of Mercedes Floresislas’s Tamales de Puerco at CASA 0101 Theater under Edward Padilla’s direction. While Floresislas’s script raised many complex issues surrounding the Deaf Latin@ community, Padilla’s staging focused on the intersections of Deafness and Latinidad by foregrounding the use of silence in the production. [Note: I use the capitalized versions of Deaf and Deafness. A standard dictionary definition of “deaf” represents one who is partially or unable to hear (deaf and hearing impaired are essentially interchangeable). Deaf with a capital D, however, refers to the community that self-identifies as belonging to the Deaf culture. Deafness, therefore, is a sign of health and prognosis of well-being among sign language dependent hearing-impaired people. Likewise, hearing versus Hearing represents a similar biological/cultural binary.]
In Hearing Difference: The Third Ear in Experimental, Deaf, and Multicultural Theater, one of the few studies to devote critical attention to Deaf theater as it relates to multicultural experience and identity, Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren introduces the “Third Ear,” a useful term that facilitates focusing one’s attention on the performative forms of expression. Blending sensory, spatial, and visual elements generates a Third Ear that acts as a “Deaf-gain,” a hybrid mode of hearing and coming to know the world. When specific senses are lost, the mind becomes dynamic in such a way that continues to allow affected individuals to actively engage with their surroundings, with their community. Deaf people, therefore, do not lack a vital sense, but rather they gain a new sense—one typically inaccessible to hearing individuals– that enables them to successfully navigate their surroundings. Kochhar-Lindgren’s work focuses attention on the “sense” of performance and the different movements that work together to form speech sensed by the “Third Ear.” For audience members, learning to perceive the mixing of forms together as communication is fundamental to understanding the messages presented on stage; inevitably, the Third Ear promotes auditory silence yet it establishes that a lack of sound does not necessarily correspond with a lack of understanding. By removing all sound, silence gains power.
The evocation of the Third Ear separates Tamales from the majority of Latin@ theater productions grounded in aural languages such as English, Spanish, and Spanglish. Deafness is seldom represented onstage in any type of theater, aside from revivals of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker and Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, more contemporary works such as Suzan Zeder’s Ware Trilogy and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, and the work of Deaf West Theatre in Hollywood, whose most recent production, Spring Awakening received rave reviews and will move Broadway in September 2015. The work of Deaf West has been of particular interest to Sound Studies scholars for its unique contributions to the American Theatre. In Cara Cardinale’s 2012 SO! post, she discusses Deaf West’s production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in which the roles were reversed. The production’s interpreters were for the hearing audience and, thus, sign language took center stage. Yet, all of these more well-known works focus on Anglo experiences, neglecting the specific intersectional challenges that Deaf people of color face such as limited access to state-funded resources such as counseling services, educational inequality and the achievement gap, not to mention that the majority of Deaf Latin@s do not have parents who can sign with them (re: effectively communicate).
The Third Ear, as evoked in Tamales, seems especially suited for representing Latin@ Deafness onstage and evoking a concomitant visceral understanding in audiences. Floresislas’s writing and Padilla’s direction work together to strategically allow audience members to develop a Third Ear at key moments in the play, enabling them to fill silences they might have otherwise perceived as gaps. Entering Tamales’ silent world not only compels hearing audiences to recognize their supposed privilege, but pushes toward a deeper understanding of the relativity of hearing-as-privilege. In a Deaf world, hearing is not a privilege, but rather one of many ways to come to know the world. In this regard, Tamales reiterates Liana Silva’s argument that “deafness complicates what it means to listen” by calling attention to the many non-auditory signals that are vital to the act.
In addition, Tamales deliberately fosters moments of uncomfortable silences that are one of the production’s strengths. For example, silence plays a key role in an early scene in which Norma decides to leave her abusive husband, Reynaldo. In this violent episode–either by a deafening blow or disassociation–everything in her world goes silent. While Reynaldo yells at her and throws things around the house, his voice fades out. However, as Norma sits in silence, she becomes better able to navigate her abusive marriage. Norma hears the silence. Her hypervigilance increases her ability to identify potential threat(s) and, ultimately, she takes her son and flees from the situation. While Norma taps into her Third Ear on stage, the audience also enters a silent world in which they must seek alternative methods to actively engage with the production. By “losing” their hearing along with Norma, the audience must pay a different kind of attention to her to gain an understanding of the scene.
Along with recognizing certain hearing privileges, listening with the Third Ear both connects and separates the audience. For instance, in the scene in which Norma attends an AA meeting for Deaf people, Padilla’s direction activates the Third Ear by removing sound from the stage. In the original playscript, Floresislas wanted Kent’s monologue to include a voice-over, but during rehearsals, Padilla saw the potential to foreground the silence in this scene (and throughout the piece, as well); his direction transformed the staging from an aural scene to a silent one. Listening with the Third Ear enables the audience to blend sensory and visual hearing in order to understand the emotional depth of the action transpiring on stage. As Kent stands in silence, signing his story about the difficulties of connecting with his hearing father, many in the audience were audibly moved. During Kent’s monologue, the actor remained silent while supertitles revealed his speech:
Yesterday, my father had a heart attack and I got called to his bedside at the hospital. I had not seen him for almost 15 years! I had never had a conversation with my father; yes, he was hearing and I was his only deaf child. (…) I always believed by dad hated me; nothing I did was ever good enough. He was always watching me and looking angry for everything I ever did or asked. I actually wished he’d ignore me like the rest of the family! (15)
Particularly gripping, this scene acts as a crucial building block in the necessity of creating opportunities for her son that drives Norma’s story forward, not to mention that it calls attention to the fact that reading isn’t necessarily a silent act. Kent’s story reveals much to a hearing audience who may be unfamiliar with the Deaf Latin@ community. Kent’s experience is typical of Deaf Latin@s, only 20% of whom have parents that can sign. It compels an understanding of the reasons why Norma learns ASL and pushes for a better life for her son. She does not want him to be in the same position that Kent finds himself in. And, she does not want to have the regret of having never learned to communicate with him. Kent continues:
Yesterday, he looked frail; he was paralyzed on one side. When he saw me, he moved his hand like this (brushes his left hand up the center of his chest then points at). At first, I didn’t understand what he was doing. But when he did it again, I understood. He said, “I’m proud of you.” Then he signed “I love you.” (…) My niece told me he had been learning ASL for the last 3 months because he wanted to tell me how sorry he was for not being able to talk to me. My dad didn’t hate me; he hated himself for not being able to talk to me! (…) But yesterday, I also had my first and last conversation with my dad he signed for me! That…makes me feel very proud! (15-16)
As Kent stands in silence, his emotional journey is given life through his hands and body. Interestingly, the silences enacted onstage by Tamales actually create sound, amplifying the sobbing that emanates from the audience in both its auditory and visual manifestations. The way in which silence allows the audiences’ sonic reactions to become part of the play itself suggests that how—and why–the audience responds may actually be more important than the performance itself. How much are the sobs about the heartbreaking nature of Kent’s story and how much of it is recognizing one’s own privileges? How much of it is the audience connecting with the story? How much of it is about seeing themselves represented? And how does silence amplify “listening” to Kent’s story?
While not exhaustive, my reading of Tamales widens the conversation about the intricacies of Deaf Latin@ performance. The 2013 production of Tamales best hints at the possibilities of Latin@ performance in Boyle Heights and how community-based theater companies such as CASA 0101 can work to provide more access to Deaf people, thus forging both an inclusive community and theater company. More plays featuring Deaf characters, incorporating Deaf actors, and Deaf dramatists are needed, something Floresislas is already exploring. Still, much research remains as to how Deaf Latinidad is heard and how this identity fits into a performance framework. Through multimodal listening, Tamales urges spectators to leave the theater considering how they may or may not alter their actions to better benefit underprivileged and underrepresented communities such as the Latin@ Deaf community. Quite frankly, Tamales opens the “eyes and ears” of audiences. Now is the time to listen to Deaf Latinidad. What will we choose to hear in the silence?
Still Images from Tamales de Puerco, permission courtesy of CASA 0101 Theatre. Featured Image: Olin Tonatiuh and Cristal Gonzalez in “Tamales De Puerco.” Photo by Ed Krieger.
Trevor Boffone is a Houston-based scholar, educator, dramaturge, and producer. He is a co-founder of Amaranto Productions and a member of the Latina/o Theatre Commons Steering Committee. Trevor is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston where he holds a Graduate Certificate in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. His dissertation, Performing Eastside Latinidad: Josefina López and Theater for Social Change in Boyle Heights, is a study of theater and performance in East Los Angeles, focusing primarily on Josefina López’s role as a playwright, mentor, and community leader. He has published and presented original research on Chicana Feminist Teatro, the body in performance, Deaf Latinidad, Queer Latinidad, as well as the theater of Adelina Anthony, Nilo Cruz, Virginia Grise, Josefina López, Cherríe Moraga, Monica Palacios, and Carmen Peláez. Trevor recently served as a Research Fellow at LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at the University of Texas at Austin for his project Bridging Women in Mexican-American Theater from Villalongín to Tafolla (1848-2014).
Happy 6th Blog-o-Versary Team SO!
This year was tough, y’all. We know it. You know it. 2014-2015 was a year of rolling up sleeves, raging against the machine, typing furiously into the night, blocking the trolls, crying tears of frustration and anger, organizing heated meetings, fitting shoulders uncomfortably to various wheels while questioning exactly why and for whom, hugging our folks closer while unfriending Facebook “friends” like mofos, facing the millionth revision—or worse, the next police shooting, and the next and the next.
All of us have reeled at one time or another at what sometimes seemed like a Niagara Falls of quicksand: mounting challenges, unexpected setbacks, pay and budget cuts (if you had a budget to begin with), hashtag memorials, calculated attacks, haters far more malevolent than your basic Taylor Swift variety, general piling on, restrictive and invasive university policies, less jobs/more adjuncts, and racist, sexist, and classist aggressions, macro, micro and everywhere in between.
But to quote one of my favorite poems from Langston Hughes, especially in these times, we are STILL HERE. And that really is everything. We can move mountains with that. We can. And, to cite the ethos of the Sounding Out! Editorial Collective: We remain committed, undaunted,
AND. WE. CLAP. BACK.
Here, for example, is SO! regular writer, Cornell Science and Technology Studies PhD Candidate, and producer Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo performing as her (m)other brain rapper SAMMUS at Ithaca Fest in May 2015, where she debuted her powerful new song protesting state violence against black people, “Three Fifths,” produced by DNilz for the upcoming independent film “Rodney.”
Sammus closed her performance with a stirring sonic memorial to the unarmed black men and women who have been murdered by police in the U.S. over the last 20 years, as well as a call to action for white listeners to acknowledge their complicity in the “law and order” state and the agency they have to end the deadly terror of white supremacist policing.
Sammus’s music and lyrics have long inspired the SO! crew to keep on pushing–you’ll hear another of her songs on our mix–but especially this year. We talked a lot about how and why SO! continues to matter, specifically how can the collective labor here that seeks to understand sound as a medium of power be useful in struggles to make #blacklivesmatter once and for all, for example, or to end violence against transpeople? To dismantle debilitating gender stereotypes about women? To stop the marginalization and exploitation of immigrants and undocumented workers in the U.S.? And how to push the boundaries of US-centric sound work with local and/or comparative research from other countries–and vice versa? This year, we redoubled our collective efforts to produce top notch applied scholarship that intervenes in the challenges of our contemporary moment, not just the field of sound studies.
Not that we don’t plan to keep on pushing interventions there as well. Team SO! spent a lot of time earlier this year reflecting, in real time, on our origin story for an article we co-authored for the new Digital Sound Studies anthology edited by the Soundbox Crew (forthcoming on Duke University Press, digital entries already live here). We were grateful for the opportunity to articulate the politics of our founding and why SO! remains so vitally important to us (and we hope to you). Here’s an exclusive sneak peek of our upcoming chapter “The Pleasure (is) Principle: Sounding Out! and the Digitizing of Community”:
When we met in a humid apartment in upstate New York to plot a sound studies blog back in 2009, one of our key goals was to provide indelible visibility to the top-notch contributions we knew were being made to sound studies by scholars of color, graduate students, junior scholars and other groups marginalized in/by academia, so that their role in building this growing field could not be erased, ignored, silenced, hijacked, buried, or claimed by others better positioned by social and institutional privilege and its attendant cultural capital to gain conference spots and find publishers for their work. There is solidarity in the affects produced by giving voice, making visible, and, above all else: listening. Because connections undeniably matter, we decided to build our own, and to do so in a way that celebrated the people and the scholarship perpetually at the fringes of most fields, but especially those involving technology and music.
Through the experience of collaboratively reviewing our history and together calling a new creation into being once again, we realized—on an entirely new frequency—how Sounding Out! and the community it kindles consistently sustains the three of us through stormy times: personally, professionally, and politically. I am not sure if it clicked in while scowling through the umpteenth revision or LMAO-ing through yet another Hangout, but we all came around to the truth that the right kind of work, performed with your ride-or-die people, can energize rather than enervate, center rather than scatter, and make you want to keep on pushing, especially when being pushed. For us, it never has been just about sound.
So this year, for our 6th Blog-o-Versary, our theme, “Keep on Pushing,” honors the fact that sound can be both a balm and a motivator for years like this one and for times when the news is ENOUGH but we need to keep going. We also want to express our respect and gratitude for all the heavy lifting, daily grinds, and labors of love, pleasure, and sometimes frustration—both Tweeted and unsung—of ourselves and our ever-growing community of readers, writers, Twitter Followers, Facebook friends, Link sharers, survey respondents, sticker distributors, folks who archive us, writers who cite us, teachers who assign us, and peeps who talk us up and give word of mouth. We are all putting in work in a thousand and one ways, big and small, to make this community bigger, badder, and deffer each and every year. And *that’s why we are still here.
Thank you and here’s to lucky number seven in 2016!
Liana’s back!!: We had a bit of a personnel shuffle last summer, but in the end the stars aligned and we got Liana back. She edited this year’s February forum on gender and voice (which you can check out here) and selected the tracks for this year’s mixtape for the second year in a row. Outside of Sounding Out! she’s been publishing more, getting her break in the Houston Chronicle online column Gray Matters, developing a column for Chronicle Vitae, and working on a book proposal due later this year. You can keep up with her writerly adventures on Twitter: @lianamsilva
INDEXING: We told you this year was all about the grind. We are working hard over here to make SO! more searchable. With 400 posts and counting over 6 years, we recognize that finding what you need grows more challenging every Monday. This spring, we debuted an alphabetical index of all of the themed series and forums and soon we will have completed full indexes by author soon and title soon, as well as some themed lists for teaching and general inquiry.
MLA INDEX IS UP AND RUNNING!: For folks privileged to have access to the Modern Language Association’s digital bibliography—perform a search for Sounding Out! and you will find links to all of our posts categorized as “articles.” The index is also searchable by author. Now we are officially, as Hammer would say, 2 legit 2 quit.
WE KEEP ON PUSHING THE ENVELOPE: Now that sound studies is increasingly becoming canonized and institutionalized, we feel it is increasingly important to continue looking for new avenues of interest and inquiry and to experiment with the form of the blog and podcast. This year we debuted a series of online sonic installations by artists and thinkers such as Salomé Voegelin (“Sound Art as Public Art”), the Berlin arts collective La Mission who performed a full series of sound and video installations in honor of José Esteban Muñoz for our Round Circle of Resonance series, and sound artists Sonia Li, Mendi + Keith Obadike and Anne Zeitz and David Boureau. We also began a new running series called “SO! Amplifies,” which allows us the opportunity to scout out innovative organizations, artists, installations, exhibits, community engagement projects, radio programs, etc. and bring them to your attention.
THURSDAYS STILL ON POINT! Special Editor Neil Verma has continued to rule the Thursday airwaves with his specially curated series of guest editors emphasizing sound and media. For a rundown of 2014’s programming see his excellent year in re-hear post from November 2014. Right now we are in the midst of the “Sonic Shadows” series with more excitement to come! And of course, Multimedia editor Aaron Trammell continues to curate an exciting and innovative open format podcast series on the last Thursday of every month. This year’s Blog-O-Versary mix is our 45th podcast!
RELAX! DON’T DO IT!: This year SO! started doing its part to promote healthier work habits by taking a week off here or there. We hope that, rather than disappointing our avid Monday morning readership, we have encouraged our community to stop and gather strength too (or at least to explore our extensive back catalog. 400 posts!). SO! is a marathon rather than a sprint and we are just getting started.
SPEAKING OF. . .
WE’RE ALWAYS LOOKING FOR NEW FOLKS FOR TEAM SO! Don’t forget we have our latest Call For Posts on “Sound and Affect” up and running with a deadline of August 15th. Please submit a pitch and/or spread the word!!
Highlight Reel: See what’s new with SO! authors and community members this year! Congratulations everyone (and don’t forget to keep those cards and letters coming!).
- Regina Bradley was selected as a 2016 Nasir Jones HipHop Fellow, Harvard University. She is also and incoming Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Armstrong State University in Georgia.
- Steph Ceraso finished her first year as an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her audio-visual project, “A Tale of Two Soundscapes: The Story of My Listening Body,” appeared in the open access collection Provoke! Digital Sound Studies and her article, “(Re)Educating the Senses: Multimodal Listening, Bodily Learning, and the Composition of Sonic Experiences,” was featured in College English. She gave talks at Duke University, The University of Virginia, UCLA’s “Inertia: Sound, Media, and the Digital Humanities” Conference, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and MITH (Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities). Ceraso was also interviewed by The Guardian about teaching the podcast Serial. You can find more about her work and current book project at www.stephceraso.com.
- Stuart Fowkes’ Cities and Memory hit the 700 mark in terms of numbers of sounds, with more than 150 contributors and now over 200,000 listens. They’ve run open call sound project every few months, which have included: Oblique Strategies: more than 50 artists reimagining field recordings using Eno and Schmidt’s oblique strategy cards for inspiration; Quiet Street: a sound map of the city of Bath that was installed as part of the Fringe Arts Bath festival; Sound Waves: for World Listening Day 2015, a sound map and edited piece looking at the role water plays in our lives; and Dreamland: a commission by the Dreamland amusement park in Margate, UK, to reimagine the sounds of a theme park.
- Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo passed her Ph.D qualifying exams and has just returned from a research trip to Congo. She also has recently had the opportunity to put together some music and a sound installation for a stage play that will premiere at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem in early August 2015. The organizers have put together a fundraising campaign via Indie Gogo; they’re trying to raise $15,000, right now they’re just shy of $10,000–please join SO! in supporting her work here. As Sammus, she went on her first tour with rapper Mega Ran which included a performance at the SXSW festival in Austin, TX. You can follow her on Twitter (@sammusmusic) or listen to her music, including her latest releases at http://sammusmusic.bandcamp.com/.
- Kristin Moriah’s article on Uncle Tom’s Cabin/Onkel Tom’s Hütte was recently published in Lateral, the Cultural Studies Association’s online journal. She will be presenting a paper entitled “Singing Books: The Curation of Sound in Sissieretta Jones’s Scrapbook” at the 2015 American Studies Association convention in Toronto.
- Visual Editor Will Stabile is still out there every day, making it happen. He asked that we not worry about him. We still check in on him regularly though.
- Justyna Stasiowska put together for the international conference “Post-technological experience. Art-Science-Culture” (Poznań 23-27 October 2014) the presentation “Soft machine – somaintrument,” on modes of programming perception in Maryanne Amacher’s instalations. She also presented “Ephemeral performance or how does sound smell,” focused on programing a synaesthetic expierience in Ephemera and creating a new academic format during “Fluid Sounds” (lectures, perfomances, performances and audio papers in Amager 18-21 June 2015). Lastly, she created a sound mix for a drag queen-inspired performance called Valentine Tanz, which focused on being a performance artist. The episode (the project is a series of performances), that she worked on juxtaposed the ballroom queer scene aesthetic with Marina Abramovic’s work on trying to deconstruct persona of a performer.
- Kyle D. Stedman is co-editing a digital collection on sound and writing pedagogy. If you’re interested on submitting an idea for how you use sound in the classroom, read the CFP or listen to the audio version at the Soundwriting Pedagogies project page. He also podcasts every month or so at Plugs, Play, Pedagogy, a show about teaching writing and rhetoric in the 21st century, which led to a workshop and presentation on academic podcasting at the 2015 Computers and Writing conference.
- Jennifer Stoever published three articles this year, “Fine-tuning the Sonic Color-line: Radio and the Acousmatic Du Bois” in Modernist Cultures, “‘Just Be Quiet Pu-leeze’: New York’s Black Press Fights the Postwar ‘Campaign Against Noise,’” in Radical History Review, and “Toward a Civically Engaged Sound Studies, or (Re) Sounding Binghamton,” in the Proceedings of Invisible Places / Sounding Cities. Sound Urbanism and Sense of Place (you can download the full volume here). She was also named an Engaged Teaching Fellow by the Binghamton Center for Civic Engagement and enjoyed the hell out of herself co-teaching a radio arts course with filmmaker and Sound Artist Monteith McCollum. They produced an accompanying live radio show (listen here!).
- Aaron Trammell will defend his dissertation in September 2015 and will begin a two year postdoctoral fellowship at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California.
Neil Verma has had a busy year: the WOTW article ran in Velvet Light Trap, published a chapter on noir in Kiss the Blood of My Hands, wrote an article on Wyllis Cooper in the Journal of Sonic Studies, did a review about Sean Borodale’s “Mighty Beast” in RadioDoc Review, wrote an article on Game of Thrones in Critical Quarterly, did a short piece on listening in Lang’s Hangmen Also Die in Cine-Files, then this post on using podcasting to study podcasting in Antenna. He also co-programmed the conference Sonic Boom: Sustaining Sound Studies here at Northwestern, and did Network Director stuff for the Library of Congress RPTF.
- Alyxandra Vesey published three articles: “Mixing in Feminism.” Popular Music and Society (39) 4: 1-20; “Putting Her on the Shelf: Pop Star Fragrances and Post-feminist Entrepreneurialism.” Feminist Media Studies 15 (6): 1-17; and “Working for @LateNightJimmy.” Spectator: Performing Labor in the Media Industries 35 (2): 47-56. Also, as the graduate representative for the Women’s Caucus, she helped put on SCMS’s “Participatory Pedagogy” networking event and workshop at last spring’s conference in Montreal.
The theme for this year’s Blog-o-Versary post and mix was of course inspired by Curtis Mayfield and his early group The Impressions. Thank you for this sonic uplift!
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 “Keep on Pushing” mix 6.0 with track listing
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
- 2014 #flawless 5.0 celebration and mix
- 2013 Blog-o-Versary 4.0: Solid Gold Summer Countdown!
- 2012 #Blog-O-Versary 3.0: Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (The Awesomeness)!
- 2011 “Awesome Sounds from a Future Boombox” 2.0
- 2010 First Blog-O-Versary party mix: A Celebration of Awesomeness
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Keep on Pushing! Mix
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Keep On Pushing!
The Style Council, “Walls Come Tumbling Down”—Aaron Trammell
Tricky, “Black Steel”—Brían Hanrahan
Alabama Shakes, “Dunes”—Liana Silva
INSTRUMENTAL #1: Physics, “Delayed Drone”—Stuart Fowkes
Boris Dlugosch, “Keep Pushin” (Original Club Mix)—Luis-Manuel Garcia
Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators, “Keep Reaching’ Up”—Will Stabile
The Slits, “Typical Girls”—Art Blake
INSTRUMENTAL #2: AGF, “Bgcolour”—Salomé Voegelin
Nina Simone, “Work Song”—Neil Verma
Frank Wilson, “Do I love you/indeed I do”—Josh Shepperd
INSTRUMENTAL #3: Odon, “Never”—Primus Luta
tUnE-yArDs, “Look Around”—Alyxandra Vesey
Sammus, “Power Ups”—Jennifer Stoever
INSTRUMENTAL #4: Sabrepulse, “Cityscape Dreams.”—Kyle Stedman
The Impressions, “People Get Ready” —Regina Bradley
Arrested Development, “Everyday People”—Kristin Leigh Moriah
Editor’s Note: Here’s installment #2 of Sounding Out!‘s blog forum on gender and voice! Last week we hosted Christine Ehrick‘s selections from her forthcoming book; she introduced us to the idea of the gendered soundscape, which she uses in her analysis on women’s radio speech from the 1930s to the 1950s. In the next few weeks we’ll have SO regular writer Regina Bradley, with a look at how music is gendered in Shonda Rhimes’ hit show Scandal, A.O. Roberts with synthesized voices and gender, Art Blake with his reflections on how his experience shifting his voice from feminine to masculine as a transgender man intersects with his work on John Cage, and lastly Robin James with an analysis of how ideas of what women should sound like have roots in Greek philosophy.
As I planned for SO!’s February forum, I wondered about my own connection to the topic: how is the loudness of a voice gendered? Does it matter who we call “loud”? As a Latina, I’m familiar with the stereotypes of the loud Latina, and as a Puerto Rican I faced them at every gathering. So for this week I decided to reflect upon my experiences in a personal essay. Lean in, close your eyes, and don’t let the voices startle you.–Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor
I was 22 years old when someone called me deaf. I was finishing my bachelor’s degree at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus. After four years of living in San Juan, I still hadn’t gotten used to the class and race microaggressions I encountered regularly because I was a brown girl who grew up in the country and was going to school in the urban capital, el área metropolitana. These microaggressions were usually assumptions about who I was based on how I talked: I called pots a certain way, I referred to nickels in another way, and I couldn’t keep my voice down–all indications, according to my “urban” friends, that I grew up in the country. But being called “deaf” was a new one.
My boyfriend at the time had no cellphone, and his mother would call me regularly to see if he was on his way home from a gig or to ask him to run an errand. She and I were not close, but we were cordial. I always felt we didn’t click on some level. This particular weekend day, she had called to ask if he had left San Juan already to come visit her, and I told her I had just seen him that morning before he left. Somehow she and I went from small talk into a conversation.
In my head, I thought I was making headway with her and that this was a huge step forward in our relationship. We talked about his gig the night before, about how my family was doing, things like that. Then she asked me if my family had a medical history of people losing their hearing. “No? I don’t think so. Why do you ask?” I said in Spanish.
“Because you talk so loud, and so do your father and your sister. Your mom isn’t loud.”
That was over 10 years ago, but the comment still stings. I am certain that wasn’t the only time someone called me “loud” or pointed out the tone of my voice, but it’s the one time that still rings in my ears when I think about the intersection of gender and sound. It wasn’t just that I spoke at a high volume, it was that I was a woman who spoke at a high volume. I was the girlfriend who was loud.
Of course we’re not born loud- or soft-speakers – we learn to use the volume level that prevails in our culture, and then turn it up or lower it depending on our subculture and peer group.
-Anne Karpf, The Human Voice
What does “loud” mean, anyway? Denotations fade into connotations. As I write this, I struggle to think of how to describe loud in a way that doesn’t feel negative. Because every time I think of “loud” its negative connotations float up to the surface. Just take this Merriam-Webster online dictionary entry for “loud.” Aside from the reference to volume, “loud” also means sounds that are offensive, obtrusive—annoying.
To be fair, I’ve always been self-conscious of my voice, and not in the way most people hate the sound of their voice. I always felt my voice was not girly enough. I always felt as a teenager and a young adult not “pretty” enough, not thin enough, not “feminine” enough, so my insecurities also extended to my voice.
Growing up, I heard people tell me time and time again to keep my voice down, that I was talking too loud, that people next door could hear me, et cetera. Grandparents, cousins, parents, friends: I got it from every corner. Shush. But I don’t recall anybody saying that about the boys/men I hung out with. Add to that the comments I got about my appearance: “you’re too fat,” “your hair is too frizzy,” ‘you’re ugly.” I associated being loud with being unattractive. Just another flaw.
It’s no coincidence then that describing a woman as loud is almost never said as a compliment. Although a man can be loud—he might even be expected to have a deep, booming, commanding voice, as the above video describes—when a woman is described as loud, it’s almost never in a good light. Karpf mentions in The Human Voice: The Story of a Remarkable Talent that “Loudness certainly seems to be judged differently depending on the sex of the speaker. Talking loudly is considered an act of aggression in women, but in men as no more than they’re entitled to.” In other words, society deems men to be allowed to be loud, and by extension loudness comes off as a masculine feature. So loudness, something that at its base means high volume, ends up being constructed as more than just decibels. Women who are “loud” become noisy, rude, unapologetic, unbridled.
Mija pero que duro tu hablas.
In Puerto Rico, the word for “loud” was alto (high) but also duro (hard). I knew early on that when someone told me that I spoke duro they didn’t mean it in a kind way. The voice was described as hard, harsh, shards of glass. It hurt to be called loud. It hurt to be called hard. Especially when you understand that society accepts only certain ways of being a woman: soft, delicate, fragile, dainty. It was never meant as a compliment to have someone call your voice “hard.”
If I was listening to my mother and my aunts or cousins speaking, and then chimed in, I would get the “shhhh” or if they wanted to be discreet they would make a gesture with their hands to indicate to me that I should bring my voice down. I learned early on that a lower voice was more appealing than the loud voice hiding in my vocal box.
I am Puerto Rican, and even though I was born in New York City, I was raised in a small town on the western side of Puerto Rico. I was already well-aware of stereotypes and digs about my being born in New York, even at a young age. My cousins would tell me I was stuck up, I thought I was better than other people because I had cable, I only listened to music in English (I guess that was a bad thing to them). When I moved to San Juan, I was no longer a displaced Nuyorican but a country bumpkin. Peers, friends, and new acquaintances would not classify me as a Nuyorican but, because I was living in San Juan at the time, would categorize me as an islander, de la isla, which basically meant I was not from el “area metro.” I was, in short, a country bumpkin to them.
The loudness of my voice was not just a marker of where I came from (the country, with all of the classicism that the phrase entails) but for me became conflated with gender. I knew that even when I wasn’t living in the city, I had been called loud. It’s just that when my peers asked me to lower my voice or to not speak so “duro” it was also because they thought of me as jíbara, country.
Sometimes I would get carried away when I was telling a joke among my female roommates, or I’d be excited to share some news, and eventually someone would tell me to tone it down. Baja la voz. As I reflect upon my college years living with roommates in a crowded apartment in a crowded city, I remember that we often got together and laughed, talked over each other, shouted across the apartment. But I would get carried away and then someone would say something about it. Mira que nos van a mandar a callar. Someone’s gonna tell us to shut up.
It was in college, however, that I learned to modulate my voice. I am physically capable of whispering, but when I spoke in English in a classroom setting (I was an English major in a school whose language of instruction was Spanish) I felt even louder in English. So I made the effort to tone down my voice, literally. I equated English with career, and by extension with my professional persona.
Ultimately, English would be the language I spoke (and still speak) in academic circles; with the language came also the tone and the volume. Men in my classes seemed more often to initiate conversations in my classes, and sometimes even in the ones where they were a minority. Meanwhile, the driven graduate student that I was, I wanted to step in but not stand out because of my voice. I didn’t want to give them (or the professor for that matter) a chance to discount me because I was a loud Puerto Rican woman at an American school. Eventually I learned how to switch back and forth. So did my fellow female classmates.
I remember as a teacher modulating my voice so I would be less loud and less abrasive in a college classroom. I wanted to assert my authority. If some women resort to vocal fry in order to be taken seriously, as this 2014 article in The Atlantic (online) suggests, I resorted to modulating my voice. That was my way of passing: passing for creative elite, passing for feminine, passing for authoritative. I tried to assert my credibility as a burgeoning scholar and professor by tweaking my voice. I laughed a little softer, I spoke a little slower, I sounded a little lower. I teetered between trying to sound feminine and trying to downplay my femininity through my voice.
Was I trying to sound more like the stereotype of a woman so I could be more credible in the classroom? Was this my own version of respectability politics? “Don’t be so loud and they’ll listen to you”?
“White supremacy grants white people the ability to be understood as expressing a dynamic range; whites can legitimately shout because we hear them/ourselves as mainly normalized. At the same time, white supremacy paints black people as always-already too loud.”
The negative rhetoric about women and loudness is also connected to respectability politics. Take for example the stereotype of the angry black woman (which is in the vicinity of the loud Latina). If women must be delicate and feminine, being loud would be unattractive, unseemly. Loud also means “not being silent,” in other words, speaking when not spoken to. Robin James touches upon “loudness” in contemporary music, and how the turn toward less loud tracks also has to do with racialized ideas about who can speak and who can be loud–in other words, what counts as noise and what counts as harmonious sound. She cites Goldie Taylor’s piece in The Daily Beast about how, regardless of how angry she felt about the racial injustices in the United States, she would never be able to scream and shout without consequences. Loudness is something racialized people cannot afford.
The stereotype of the angry woman points to how the notion of who is loud and what tone of voice is considered loud are constructed. Although there are studies that point out that the sound of one’s voice indicates to others that one is in a position of authority or that one’s voice can make or break one’s career, there is yet to be a study that shows how the biology of the body that produces the voice affects what one can or cannot do. In other words, the connection between voice and our abilities, or our social class, is constructed—in our heads.
Assertive, aggressive, leader: these descriptions benefit men, for the most part. Aggressiveness is seen as a masculine trait, and along with that a loud tone of voice is also seen as masculine. (This idea is also problematic, for it sets anything that isn’t aggressive and assertive as female, and therefore negative.) The opposite applies to women; the same way our society associates fragile delicate things with femininity, a fragile, soft, low tone of voice is the acceptable range for a woman. And James and Taylor’s comments point to how race also changes the equation. Damned if we speak, damned if we don’t.
Over the years, I’ve become more comfortable with the way I sound. I’ve also become more comfortable switching between my aural codes, like I do with English, Spanish, and Spanglish. I know that there’s a volume that I use in certain spaces. I also know that in other spaces I don’t have to watch over how loud I am. If I am in a familiar space, with people I am close to, I feel less inclined to watch myself. I feel safe, not judged. I can be as loud as I want to be. But loudness is also an accepted way of speaking around my family. If I spoke in a low tone, I’d probably be picked on for that. My father, for one, has a booming, deep, loud voice, and so do many of my family members.
For me, embracing my voice is also a kind of body acceptance. My body, plus-sized and all, takes up space. My voice takes up space too. As a teenager and an adult I was constantly shamed for the way I look (skin too brown, voice too loud, face too painted, hair too short), and for a time tweaking my voice became a way to try to fit in. But I later learned how to respond to the remarks. I learned to be sarcastic. I learned to make jokes. I learned to talk back. I didn’t find my voice; I embraced my voice.
Dear readers, let us know in the comments: have you been chastised for being loud? Or for not speaking loudly enough?
Featured image: property of the author.
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!.
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