“I compare New York to Bangkok all the time,” a young activist told me, just moments before he joined a small, media-ready protest at the Thai consulate in midtown Manhattan. On a pleasant day this past July, along a quiet side street lined with the gold plaques of consulates general, his comparison felt strained—Thailand is currently governed by a free speech-averse military junta that seized power last year, and mourning a deadly terror attack. In Thailand, the tension and fear are acute; in New York, the local delivery driver was whistling.
The young activist, an ocean removed from Bangkok, sought ways of speaking politically, knowing well that he could and would be heard across that ocean When he returns, if he returns, he may be imprisoned, intimidated, or injured. In front of the consulate in New York, those problems were imperceptible to the uninitiated. But they weighed heavily on all of us. Whenever the group chanted or sang, their voices rose through the low ambience like heavy weights, and stopping they fell away without receiving a response. There was a perverse aural disjuncture between the easy rhythms of the day and the harrowing risk that we knew was present in every utterance.
I had come to participate in the event, to speak against the military junta’s recent arrest of fourteen university students for protesting peacefully. I had also come to make a sound recording, and as usual to consider the odd phenomenon of protests staged to create media artifacts rather than to influence people in the flesh. The purpose of the protest was not to negotiate risk but to invite it. It barely mattered that New York City didn’t hear the protest as it occurred. Where it needed to sound potent, it would. Recorded sound surely renders all protest multi-sited; protest sound is a speech-act spatially and temporally deferred.
However, for protests staged at great physical distance from what’s being protested, the specter of comparison and difference between sites and movements can be profound. New York is in certain ways friendly to protest; the city is liberal with permits, and even unpopular opinions are expressible. Relative to most of Thailand, this is a welcome distinction. Of course, such freedom can blunt the acuity of dissenting speech — protests limited to a specific place and time, accompanied by two polite cops indifferent to the issue at hand, are easy to tune out. The United States has its own instruments of containing dissenting speech.
Furthermore, as responses to both Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter movement have shown, organizational structure and subjectivity make some actions more vulnerable to state violence than others. There are moments when a single word can provoke repression here in no less crude a fashion than the Thai junta prefers. But the game has wholly different rules, and these rules engender different strategic responses. Protesting at a distance is both a way of threading multiple sites together and of reflecting on how protesters in different places and movements choose to speak. In the mind of a young activist accustomed to Thailand’s particular labyrinth of political expression, the contrast with his own country can become a source of ideas.
“When I first came here,” the activist continued with a note of awe in his voice, “Occupy Wall Street just started, so it’s like, there is this obvious difference that really intrigued me in how people organize or react to causes. In Thailand we still kind of are using older ways to organize, kind of like really centralized, some figures pretty much
To develop a political movement in the United States is a different challenge than doing the same in Thailand, to put it mildly. In the United States the left risks triviality; in Thailand, it literally risks death. Thai communists were hunted by soldiers in the jungle in the twentieth century, and left-wing political parties are still forbidden today. Republicanism is treason. And with the ascent of the military junta, many trials are now held in secret, and intimidation of political critics is routine. A movement cannot attempt to run headlong toward whatever it wants to topple; circuitous end-runs are necessary. This explains the increased appeal of decentralized protest tactics to Thai activists. The young man I met was far from the first in his country who has espoused such an approach.
The protest began with one woman playing an acoustic guitar, leading the twenty of us assembled in a folk-style singalong. The sincere, uneven rendition of “Song of the Common Man,” currently popular among anti-junta protesters in Thailand, was followed by nervous laughter, and the honk of a nearby taxi. The lyrics are mild and the structure formulaic, but the song has caught on among the junta’s most outspoken critics – notably, one recording available online was made by a band whose songs are strident enough that they were pursued by the military, and forced to flee to Laos. The song lasted less than two minutes, and an American, who worked for a freedom-of-speech NGO in Southeast Asia, ensured that the group moved on to the next part of the tight half-hour schedule. Every moment was brief but assiduously documented.
We took selfies wearing masks shaped like the faces of the fourteen students who were set to appear before a military court that day. The Thai consulate employees watched with bemusement, and briefly chatted with us in the low, serious hush filled with polite participles that characterizes formal conversation in Thailand. The event ended, and the quiet side street remained undisturbed.
One moment was particularly chilling. The American was leading the group in a series of “what-do-we-want-when-do-we-want-it” chants, which though adapted to concerns of the anti-junta movement felt pro forma and out of place. That cadence and call-and-response pattern is almost never heard at protests in Thailand, and the protesters were not accustomed to it. When someone suggested chanting in Thai rather than English, the group naturally fell into a different rhythm. The repetition of Prayuth aawk bpai, an insulting demand that coup leader General Prayuth Chan-Ocha go away, was much sharper. The chant hearkened to protests of recent years against illegitimate Thai governments. A recording of it would, without doubt, be very risky once heard by the wrong ears in Thailand. Its potency was not only in its direct semantics, but in the connection it formed between the current protest and protests of the recent past. Protest in an age of ubiquitous media tends to form such links across boundaries of time and space.
But a curious thing happens when protest movements can readily observe one another. Comparisons are made all the time, but so are convergences. Rhetoric and strategy become cosmopolitan, not native to any place, and protests increasingly echo other protests. Contemporary Thai dissidents have been influenced by Argentinian horizontalism, and they swap documentaries about the Arab Spring online, for example. The watertight conditions of a geopolitical place have more leaks than was thought. And as ideas travel, the places themselves can become fertile grounds for the growth of those ideas in practice.
Sound is vital to this process. Perhaps because it is often regarded as the most visceral expression of the body, sound has a special relationship to protest. Sound and self need not be romanticized as coterminous in order to appreciate that speech acts feel very close to the body. But listen again. Sound can both feel immediate and be radically disembodied. It can be a material for experimentation, for feeling out how to speak in the immediate present, and be by the same stroke a final product to be audited by the twitchy ears of the junta. The July protest was and will be both.
Benjamin Tausig is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University, where he works on sound studies, music, and protest in Bangkok and other urban spaces. He is on Twitter @datageneral
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Hot on the heels of the American Musicological Society and Society for Music Theory’s joint annual meeting in Milwaukee, the Society for Ethnomusicology will hold its 59th Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh, November 13-16, 2014, hosted by the University of Pittsburgh. SEM is arguably one of the conferences most hospitable to sound studies, and several panels feature strong papers.
On Wednesday, Nov. 12, the “Music and Labor” pre-conference symposium features some fascinating papers of interest to sound scholars and includes a keynote address by Dr. Marcus Rediker, Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh. With panels titled “(Re) Conceptualizing Music and Labor,” “The Labor of Music in Transitioning Economies,” “Art as Work: Defying Capitalist Hegemony and National Narrative through Musical Activism and Creative Adaptation,” and “Transformation of Music Labor Regimes in Socialist and Post-Socialist Southeastern Europe,” even the papers that aren’t especially sound studies-related have the potential to demonstrate deft interdisciplinary approaches that would be applicable (and fruitful) in sound studies research.
One of the first sound studies events of the conference program is the annual meeting of the Sound Studies Special Interest Group. Dr. Allen Roda, Jane and Morgan Whitney Research Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and I are currently co-chairs of the SIG; anyone interested in sound studies will not want to miss our meeting on Thursday, November 13 at 12:30-1:30 PM in the Duquesne Room. This year’s meeting will mark the SIG’s 6th anniversary since it was formed in 2009. The group now has over 100 members and is represented on several panels at the 2014 conference in Pittsburgh. One co-chair seat will become vacant this year, and the group will hold elections to fill this position at the meeting; we also plan to discuss plans for more visibility online and among the academic community.
Before the meeting, come early to the 8:00-10:30 AM session in that same room to catch Molly McBride’s paper, “The Sounds of Humor: Listening to Gender in Early Barn Dance Radio,” or see a whole sound studies panel titled “Auditory Histories of the Indian Ocean: Hearing the Soundworlds of the Past” in the Alleghany Room.
If you can’t make those early panels on the first day, the convention boasts numerous, high-quality sound studies sessions, many of which convene simultaneously. There have been several sound studies-related panels and individual papers at past meetings, but the number of high-quality papers is certainly trending in favor of more sound studies.
Also, the last several annual meetings have featured a soundwalk hosted by the Sound Studies SIG. This year is no different; however, rather than having a guided walk around the host city, this year’s soundwalk will be self-guided. Using the Twitter hashtag #semsoundwalk, participants will listen to Pittsburgh, the acoustic environment of the conference itself, the coffee shop where they stop for refreshment, or wherever they happen to find themselves between 1:15 – 6:00PM on Friday, Nov. 14. Be sure to follow the hashtag – even if you’re not in Pittsburgh – to “listen” along with conference participants.
I am delighted to see that this year’s conference unites the SEM’s commitment to the study of world musics and cultures and sound studies, particularly in panels such as “Auditory Histories of the Indian Ocean: Hearing the Soundworlds of the Past,” “Contemplating Voice in Cross-Cultural Perspective,” and “Regulating Space, Regulating Sound: Musical Practice and Institutional Mediation in São Paulo, Brazil.” This year also highlights the SEM’s strong interdisciplinary bent and makes even more room at the epistemological table for the examination of technoculture and its implications for sound studies and the larger ethnomusicological community.
Because of the sheer volume of sound studies activities, rather than listing my “picks” for the conference, I’ve listed most of the relevant papers and sessions, leaving the hard decision up to you. In fact, there are so many genuine sound studies panels and papers (or papers on closely related topics) its easy to see why the blurry line that demarcates “sound studies” from “music studies” seems blurriest at SEM. For those who cannot attend the conference, some of this year’s panels will be live-streamed. The Special Interest Groups for Sound Studies and Ecomusicology are also co-hosting a roundtable on Saturday morning. For more information about the conference and to catch the live-streamed sessions, visit the conference website at http://www.indiana.edu/~semhome/2014/.
Michael Austin is Assistant Professor of Media, Journalism, and Film and coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program in the School of Communications at Howard University where he teaches courses in music production, sound design for film and audio production. He holds a Ph.D. in Humanities – Aesthetic Studies (with a specialization in Arts and Technology) from the University of Texas at Dallas and music degrees from UT-San Antonio and UT-Austin. He is also affiliated with the Laboratoire Musique et Informatique de Marseille, an audio/music technology and informatics lab in Marseille, France, and is co-chair of the Society for Ethnomusiciology’s Special Interest Group for Sound Studies.
Featured image: “Musician” by Flickr user Joanna, CC BY-NC 2.0
WEDNESDAY, November 12
8:00 am – 8:00 pm
Ballroom 3, Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh Downtown Hotel
Pre-Conference Symposium: “Music and Labor”
THURSDAY, November 13
8:30 – 10:30 am
“The Sounds of Humor: Listening to Gender on Early Barn Dance Radio,” Molly McBride, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Session: Auditory Histories of the Indian Ocean: Hearing the Soundworlds of the Past
“Wonders and Strange Things: Practices of Auditory History before Recorded Sound,” Katherine Butler Schofield, King’s College London
“Notes in the Margins: Sumatran Religious Hybridity and the Efficacy of Sound, “ Julia Byl, King’s College London
“Contact, Contestation and Compromise: Sound and Space in 19th-Century Singapore,” Jenny McCallum, King’s College London
“A ‘Wayang of the Orang Puteh’?: Theatres, Music Halls and Audiences in High-Imperial, Calcutta, Madras, Penang and Singapore,” David Lunn, King’s College London
10:45am -12:15 pm
Sterling 3 Room
“Sounding Neoliberalism in the Richmond City Jail,” Andrew C. McGraw, University of Richmond
“The Color of Sound: Timbre in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man,” Sydney A. Boyd, Rice University
12:30 – 1:30 pm
Special Interest Group for Sound Studies
1:45 – 3:45 pm
Sterlings 1 Room
“Radio Archives and the Art of Persuasion: Preserving Social Hierarchies in the Airwaves of Lima” Carlos Odria, Florida State University
Ft. Pitt Room
Session: Mediated Musics, Mediated Lives
“Uploading Matepe: The Role of Online Learning Communities and the Desire to Connect to Northeastern Zimbabwe,” Jocelyn A. Moon, University of Washington; Zachary Moon, Independent Scholar
“Staging Overcoming: Disability, Meritocracy, and the Envoicing of Dreams,” William Cheng, Dartmouth University
“As Time Goes By: Car Radio and Spatiotemporal Manipulations of the Travel Experience in 20th-Century America,” Sarah Messbauer, University of California, Davis
“’How Can We Live in a Country Like This?’ Music, Talk Radio, and Moral Anxiety,” Karl Haas, Boston University
Sterling 3 Room
Session: Oxide and Memory: Tape Culture and the Communal Archive
Oxide and Memory: Tape Culture and the Communal Archive
“Magnetic Tape, Materiality, and the Interpretation of Non-Commercial Cassette and Reel-to-Reel Recordings from Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula,” Laura Risk, McGill University
“Family Sense and Family Sound: Home Recordings and Greek-American Identity,” Panayotis League, Harvard University
“The Memory of Media: Autoarchivization and Empowerment in 1970s Jazz,” Michael C. Heller, University of Massachusetts, Boston
“Reimagining the Community Sound Archive: Cultural Memory and the Case for ‘Slow’ Archiving in a Gaspesian Village,” Glenn Patterson, Memorial University of Newfoundland
4:00 – 5:30 pm
Sterlings 1 Room
Panel: Contemplating Voice in Cross-Cultural Perspective
“The Gravest of Female Voices: Women and the Alto in Sacred Harp,” Sarah E. Kahre, Florida State University
“Re-sounding Waljinah: Aging and the Voice in Indonesia,” Russ P. Skelchy, University of California, Riverside
“Katajjaq: Between Vocal Games, Place and Identity,” Raj S. Singh, York University
Sterlings 3 Room
Session: Rumors, Sound Leakages and Individual Tales: Disruptive Listening in Zones of Conflict
“From the Struggle for Citizenship to the Fragmentation of Justice: Reflections on the Place of Dinka Songs in South Sudan’s Transitional Justice Process,” Angela Impey, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London
“Internet Rumors and the Changing Sounds of Uyghur Religiosity: The Case of the Snake Monkey Woman,” Rachel Harris, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London
“The Cantor and the Muezzin’s Duet at the Western Wall: Contesting Sound Spaces on the Frayed Seams of the Israel-Palestine Conflict,” Abigail Wood, University of Haifa
Session: Historiography, Historicity, and Biography
“A Sonic Historiography of Early Sample-Based Hip-Hop Recordings,” Patrick Rivers, University of New Haven
“Biography as Methodology in the Study of Okinawan Folk Song,” Kirk A. King, University of British Columbia
“Sounding the Silent Image: Uilleann Piper as Ethnographic Object in Early Hollywood Film,” Ivan Goff, New York University
FRIDAY, November 14
7:00 – 8:00 am
Special Interest Group for Voice Studies
8:30 – 10:30 am
Commonwealth 1-2 Room, live streaming
Session: Sound Networks: Socio-Political Identity, Engagement, and Mobilization through Music in Cyberspace and Independent Media
*Sponsored by the Popular Music Section and Special Interest Group for Sound Studies
“Technological Factors Conditioning the Socio-Political Power of Music in Cyberspace,” Michael Frishkopf, University of Alberta
“Cyber-Mobilization, Informational Intimacy, and Musical Frames in Ukraine’s EuroMaidan Protests,” Adriana Helbig, University of Pittsburgh
“Countering Spirals of Silence: Protest Music and the Anonymity of Cyberspace in the Japanese Antinuclear Movement,” Noriko Manabe, Princeton University
“Living (and Dying) the Rock and Roll Dream: Alternative Media and the Politics of ‘Making It’ as an Iranian Underground Musician,” Farzaneh Hemmasi, University of Toronto
Sterling 1 Room
Session: Affective Environments and the Bioregional Soundscape
*Sponsored by the Special Interest Group for Ecomusicology
“’Landscape is Not Just What Your Eyes See’: Battery Radio, the Technological Soundscape, and Sonically Knowing the Battery, Kate Galloway, Memorial University of Newfoundland
“Re-sounding Caribou: Musical Posthumanism in Being Caribou,” Erin Scheffer, University of Toronto
“Cold, Crisp, and Dry: Inuit and Southern Concepts of the Northern Soundscape,” Jeffrey van den Scott, Northwestern University
Discussant, Nancy Guy, University of California, San Diego
“The Sound of Affective Fact,” Matthew Sumera, University of Minnesota
1:15 – 6:30 pm
Soundwalk: A Sonic Environmental Survey of the SEM Annual Meeting
*Sponsored by the Special Interest Groups for Sound Studies and Ecomusicology. Follow the walk on Twitter: #semsoundwalk
(Meet in Wyndham Grand main lobby at 1:15pm. Reconvene in lobby at 6:00)
1:45 – 3:45 pm
Session: Strident Voices: Material and Political Alignments
*Sponsored by the Special Interest Group for Voice Studies
“Registering Protest: Voice, Precarity, and Assertion in Crisis Portugal,”Lila Ellen Gray, University of Amsterdam
“Quiet, Racialized Vocality at Fisk University,” Marti Newland, Columbia University
“’The Rough Voice of Tenderness’: Chavela Vargas and Mexican Song,” Kelley Tatro, North Central College
Discussant: Amanda Weidman, Bryn Mawr College
4:00 – 5:30 pm
Session: Celebratory Sounds and the Politics of Engagement
“Creating Zakopower in Postsocialist Poland,” Louise J. Wrazen, York University
“Merry-Making and Loyalty to the Movement: Conviviality as a Core Parameter of Traditionalism in Aysén, Chile,” Gregory J. Robinson, George Mason University
“Sounding the Carnivalesque: Changing Identities for a Sonic Icon of the Popular,” Michael S. O’Brien, College of Charleston
SATURDAY, November 15
8:30 – 10:30 am
Sterlings 1 Room
Roundtable: Sound Studies, Ecomusicology, and Post-Humanism In/For/With Ethnomusicology
*Sponsored by the Special Interests Groups for Ecomusicology and for Sound Studies
P. Allen Roda, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Jennifer Post, University of Arizona
Mark Pedelty, University of Minnesota
Michael Silvers, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Ben Tausig, Stony Brook University
Zeynep Bulut, King’s College London
10:45 am – 12:15 pm
Benedum Room, live streaming
Musical Instruments, Material Cultures, and Sound Ecologies
“Bulgarian Acoustemological Tales: Narrativity, Agrarian Ecology, and the Kaval’s Voice,” Donna A. Buchanan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Sterling 1 Room
Session: Theorizing Sound
“Water Sounds: Distance Swimmers and Ecomusicology,” Niko Higgins, Columbia University
“Telephone, Vacuum Cleaner, Couch: Senses and Sounds of the Everyday in Postwar Japan,” Miki Kaneda, Boston University
Discussant: Benjamin Tausig, Stony Brook University
SUNDAY, November 16
8:30 – 10:30 am
Session: Regulating Space, Regulating Sound: Musical Practice and Institutional Mediation in São Paulo, Brazil
*Sponsored by the Latin American and Caribbean Section
“Music under Control? São Paulo’s Anti-Noise Agency in Action,” Leonardo Cardoso, University of Texas at Austin
“Music Producers in São Paulo’s Cultural Policy Worlds,” Daniel Gough, University of Chicago
“’Small Universes’: The Creation of Social Intimacy through Aesthetic Infrastructures in São Paulo’s Underground,” Shannon Garland, Columbia University
Discussant, Morgan Lurker, Reed College
“Hear What You Want: Sonic Politics, Blackness, and Racism-Canceling Headphones,” Alex Blue, University of California, Santa Barbara
“Sound and Silence in Festivals of the French Revolution: Sonic Analysis in History,” Rebecca D. Geoffroy-Schwinden, Duke University
10:45 am – 12:15 pm
Session: Sounding Nations
“Building the Future through the Past: The Revival Movement in Iranian Classical Music and the Reconstruction of National Identity in the 1960s and the 1970s,” Hadi Milanloo, Memorial University of Newfoundland
“Sounding Citizenship in Southern Africa: Malawian Musicians and the Social Worlds of Recording Studios and Music Education Centers,” Richard M. Deja, University of Illinois
“Unity in (Spite of) Diversity: Tensions and Contradictions in Performing Surinamese National Identity,” Corinna S. Campbell, Williams College
Editor’s Note: Sound Studies is often accused of being a presentist enterprise, too fascinated with digital technologies and altogether too wed to the history of sound recording. Sounding Out!‘s last forum of 2013, “Sound in the Nineteenth Century,” addresses this critique by showcasing the cutting edge work of three scholars whose diverse, interdisciplinary research is located soundly in the era just before the advent of sound recording: Mary Caton Lingold (Duke), Caitlin Marshall (Berkeley), and Daniel Cavicchi (Rhode Island School of Design). In examining nineteenth century America’s musical practices, listening habits, and auditory desires through SO!‘s digital platform, Lingold, Marshall, and Cavicchi perform the rare task of showcasing how history’s sonics had a striking resonance long past their contemporary vibrations while performing the power of the digital medium as a tool through which to, as Early Modern scholar Bruce R. Smith dubs it, “unair” past auditory phenomena –all the while sharing unique methodologies that neither rely on recording nor bemoan their lack. The series began with Mary Caton Lingold‘s exploration of the materialities of Solomon Northup’s fiddling as self-represented in 12 Years a Slave. Last week, Caitlin Marshall treated us to a fascinating new take on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s listening practice and dubious rhetorical remixing of black sonic resistance with white conceptions of revolutionary independence. Daniel Cavicchi closes out “Sound in the Nineteenth Century” and 2013 with an excellent meditation on listening as vibrant and shifting historical entity. Enjoy! —Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
“To listen” is straightforward enough verb, signifying a kind of hearing that is directed or attentive. Add an “er” suffix, however, and “listen” moves into a whole new realm: it is no longer something one does, an attentive response to stimuli, but rather something one is, a sustained role or occupation, even an identity. Everybody listens from time to time, but only some people adopt the distinct social category of “listener.”
And yet listeners have emerged in diverse historical and social contexts. Arnold Hunt, in his recent book The Art of Hearing, for example, points to the congregants of the Church of England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, whose sermon-gadding and intense repetitive listening to preachers became a form of popular culture. Shane White and Graham White, in The Sounds of Slavery, argue that early nineteenth-century black slaves adopted listening, or “acting soundly,” as a way of being that gave everyday sounds—conversation, cries of exertion, hymns—multiple layers of meaning and a power unknown to white overseers. Jonathan Sterne, in The Audible Past, describes the post-Civil War culture of sound telegraphy, in which young working class men trained themselves to employ “audile technique” for bureaucratic purposes, rendering their hearing objective, standardized, and networked.
We might add our own contemporary iPod era to these examples. We live in a time, after all, when it entirely acceptable to appear alone in public, ears connected to an iPod, head bobbing to the grooves of a vast archive of recorded music. Sampling, playlists, streaming–thanks to playback technologies, the U.S. has become a nation of obsessive listeners, and the power to “capture” a sound and re-hear it, something that began with the phonograph, remains a time-bending drama that can awaken people to their own aurality. Technologized listening, in fact, has spawned many of the icons of music discourse in the past 100 years: Edison’s tone testers in 1910s, record-collecting jitterbugs in the 1930s, audiophiles of the Hi-Fidelity era in the 1950s, Beatles fans with their bedroom record players in the 1960s, the “chair guy” in Memorex’s famous ad campaign of 1980, dancing listeners silhouetted in iPod posters since 2003.
But I think also that phonograph-centric narratives have obscured earlier, equally powerful cultures of listeners. The focus of my recent research, for example, has been the world of antebellum concert audiences. Between 1830 and 1860, the United States developed concentrated population centers filled with boosters and recent migrants eager to embrace a life based on new kinds of economic opportunity. Shaping much of the urban experience was a growing commercialization of culture that generated new and multiple means of musical performance, including parades, museum exhibitions, pleasure gardens, band performances, and concerts. Together, these performances significantly enhanced the act of listening: for people used to having to make music for themselves in order to hear it, a condition common to most Americans before 1830, access to public performances by others provided an opportunity for working and middle-class whites (women, African Americans, and the poor were another matter) to stop worrying about making music and, with the purchase of a ticket, to solely, and at length, assume an audience role.
The odd circumstance of purchasing the experience of listening provided class-striving urbanites with new possibilities for self-transformation. For many young, rural, white men, for example, arriving to the city for the first time to take clerking jobs in burgeoning merchant houses, being able to hear diverse performances of music was associated with a cosmopolitanism that brimmed with social possibility. Thus, for instance, Nathan Beekley, a young clerk, recently arrived in Philadelphia in 1849, found himself attending multiple performances of music several nights a week, including more and more appearances at the opera as a way to avoid “rowdies.” In New York City during the 1840s, George Templeton Strong, a young lawyer in Manhattan, derided his own musical abilities and instead attended every public musical event he could find, carefully chronicling his listening experiences and analyzing his reactions in a multi-volume journal. Walt Whitman, a young man on the make in Brooklyn and New York between 1838 and 1853, regularly attended every sound amusement he could, including the Bowery Theatre, dime museums, temperance lectures, political rallies, and opera, writing in Leaves of Grass, “I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen/And accrue what I hear into myself.”
This culture of listening was, in many ways, very much unlike ours. Despite an expanded access to performance, for instance, professional concerts before the mid-1850s were often understood as part of a wider ecology of sound. Very few listened to music in ways that we might expect today–focused on a “work,” in a concert hall, without distraction. Listening, in fact, was as much a matter of local happenstance as personal selection—a passing marching band, echoes of evening choir practice at a nearby church, an impromptu singing performance at a party. Such experiences were marked by the momentary thrill of spontaneity and discovery rather than the studied appreciation of familiarity; in any moment of hearing, it was difficult to know how long the encounter might be, or even what sounds, exactly, were being heard. Cities like Boston and New York were especially rich with such surprise encounters.
Francis Bennett, a young arrival to Boston in 1854, for example, encountered, in his first night in the city, a band concert and the “cries” from a “Negro meeting house,” and within weeks became enamored of fife and drum bands, often leaving work to follow one and then another as far as he dared. Young writer J. T. Trowbridge was more stationary but equally enthusiastic about what he heard from his New York rooming house in 1847: “The throngs of pedestrians mingled below, moving (marvelous to conceive) each to his or her ‘separate business and desire;’ the omnibuses and carriages rumbled and rattled past; while, over all, those strains of sonorous brass built their bridge of music, from the high café balcony to my still higher window ledge, spanning joy and woe, sin and sorrow, past and future….”
Music listeners were also often listeners of other forms of commercial sound, especially theater, oratory, and church services, which, together, comprised a complex sonic culture. This was especially reinforced by the physical spaces in which they shared such diverse aural experiences. In a rapidly-growing society, there often was not time or immediate resources to construct buildings dedicated to specific uses; instead, existing structures–typically a “hall” or “opera house”–served mixed uses.
As historian Jean Kilde noted in When Church Became Theater, evangelists in the Second Great Awakening often rented urban theaters for services; and congregations, in turn, rented churches to drama troupes, ventriloquists, and musicians to raise money. This “mixed-use” of buildings was reinforced by hearers, who often engaged in their own “mixed-use” understandings of what they heard. They evaluated sermons as they would a theatrical performance or found church choirs thrillingly entertaining rather than piously inspirational. Conversely, they listened to symphonic concerts with a religious solemnity.
This culture of antebellum, middle-class urban listeners didn’t last long, succumbing to the class sorting by post-Civil War social reformers, who mocked the indiscriminate over-exuberance of antebellum listeners as a kind of “mania” and a form of social disorder. As Lawrence Levine explains in Highbrow Lowbrow, over the course of the nineteenth century, developing a “musical ear” became increasingly paramount, reverence for great works of art shaped audience response, and listening became a specific skill to be learned. Music became something to appreciate not simply hear. By the 1890s, a true listener was someone who, in the words of critic Henry Edward Krehbiel (in his enormously popular How to Listen to Music, from 1897), “will bring his fancy into union with that of the composer” (51).
In many ways, the controlled silent listening favored by reformers directly paved the way for music technologies, like the phonograph, that similarly sought to control and manipulate listening. But it was the urban music listeners of the 1840s and 1850s who were responsible, in the first place, for identifying and accentuating the joys and possibilities of “just listening.”
Featured Image: Etching of Jenny Lind Singing at Castle Garden in New York City, 1851
Daniel Cavicchi is Dean of Liberal Arts and Professor of History, Philosophy, and the Social Sciences at Rhode Island School of Design. He is author of Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum and Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans, and co-editor of My Music: Explorations of Music in Daily Life. His public work has included Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom, an inaugural exhibit for the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles; the curriculum accompanying Martin Scorcese’s The Blues film series; and other projects with the Public Broadcasting System and the National Park Service. He is currently the editor of the Music/Interview series from Wesleyan University Press and serves on the editorial boards of American Music and Participations: the Journal of Audience Research.
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“Como Now?: Marketing ‘Authentic’ Black Music,” –J. Stoever-Ackerman
How Svengali Lost His Jewish Accent––Gayle Wald
When I heard of people flocking to recreate “Gatsby Dress” costumes for Halloween 2013, I couldn’t help but ponder the seemingly-perpetual cultural allure of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, particularly its latest cinematic incarnation in spectacular Baz Luhrmann-style. More than a little of the momentum of the recent revival, however, had everything to do with the film’s soundtrack–executive produced by Jay-Z (who also executive produced the film)–that drew heavily on hip-hop. This sonic move was not without controversy, however, sparking intense debate when the film was released in May 2013. Take this line from Vice Magazine’s UK music blog Noisey (from a post snarkily entitled “Who Let The Great Gatsby Soundtrack Happen?”) that describes Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne album, from which many of the film’s songs are taken, as “a record that couldn’t be further removed from West Egg than a pauper trying to gain access to a Gatsby soiree.” This statement reveals more about this particular listener than it does about either the record or the film, which are intimately connected through the labor of Jay-Z and what I theorize here as a “sonic hip hop cosmopolitanism.”
I’ll admit that when I was first hip to The Great Gatsby my junior year of high school, I thought it was boring and couldn’t stand Tom or Daisy Buchanan or their rich white folk problems. I rooted for Jay Gatsby but couldn’t for the life of me understand why he was so sprung over Daisy, who wanted her daughter to be a “beautiful little fool” (17). But as I got older, I found myself returning to the novel time and time again, coming back to Gatsby like a forlorn lover and reconsidering what Jay Gatsby’s character represents: unrequited love, American idealism, (capitalistic) hustle, and (white) masculine performance. However, I’ve always been part of the camp that secretly hoped Gatsby was a black man passing for white, yearning for a life – and a woman – out of his grasp no matter how much “new money” he acquired.
It was not until Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of Gatsby that I realized how hip (hop) Gatsby really could be.
Luhrmann’s modernization of classic literary texts is not new; Romeo + Juliet (1996) got me through high school readings of Shakespeare’s play in ways Sparknotes could not. While Shakespeare’s words remained intact, the scenery and aura of the play burst to life on the big screen. Luhrmann uses in that film sonic cues of contemporary (youth) popular culture to make Shakespeare’s characters relatable. Verona is a hip, urban hub of violence that vibrates to grunge and pop artists such as Garbage, Everclear, and Quindon Tarver instead of mandolins and harps. The grittiness of grunge rock signifies the grittiness of Verona street life while Quindon Tarver’s angelic voice signifies the innocence and vulnerability of (first) love.
But Luhrmann’s Gatsby takes it up a notch, looking to hip hop culture as a bridge between the roar of the 1920s and the noise of the present. Aside from the literal presence of hip hop sound – mostly snippets from Jay-Z and West’s Watch the Throne – the materiality of hip hop sound also serves to update the Gatsby narrative. Consider how Gatsby’s parties are loud and bass-filled with a live jazz band. The loudness of the party and “surround sound” stereo sound of the film amplifies the vibrancy of the Jazz era while drawing in the audience with a contemporary interpretation of live parties seen and heard in contemporary hip hop culture. “The question for me in approaching Gatsby was how to elicit from our audience the same level of excitement and pop cultural immediacy toward the world that Fitzgerald did for his audience?” Luhrmann told Rolling Stone. “And in our age, the energy of jazz is caught in the energy of hip-hop.”
The film itself is stunning: vividly colored with panoramas and ground shots of New York City, Luhrmann’s film draws in an audience possibly unfamiliar with Fitzgerald’s novel. The film utilizes the more traditional jazz aesthetic that captures the novel’s initial element, but invokes hip hop to span a generational divide and update the (black) cool factor of the film. Indeed, both jazz and hip hop best signify black cool and its commodification into mainstream white America. For example, Norman Mailer’s discussion of the white hipster and Jazz aficionado as a “white Negro” is also tantalizingly useful in thinking of Gatsby as a black man passing for white. His affinity for Jazz and throwing jazzy parties incites the probability of Gatsby’s racial and social background. The film uses sound to create a hybrid of timeless black cool, while highlighting the presence of African Americans’ contributions to American culture. Hip hop’s birthplace and the portal for many immigrants into America, New York is arguably America’s most mythological city, grounded in both white and African American culture memory as such. Jay-Z’s own mythic rise to fame, wealth, and power in New York City–exemplified in some lines from 2009’s “Empire State of Mind,” “Yeah I’m out that Brooklyn, now I’m down in TriBeCa/ Right next to De Niro, but I’ll be hood forever/ I’m the new Sinatra, and since I made it here/I can make it anywhere, yeah, they love me everywhere”– grounds the film’s rags-to-riches mystique.
In addition to such extradiegetic associations, the film’s soundscape itself enthralls, with brassy, lively instrumented notes of jazz – which carried the sonic narrative of the 1920s – sounds of the hustle and bustle of urban spaces, particularly New York City, and hip hop. The film’s soundscape presents a hybrid of sonic black identities – jazz and hip hop – and uses their blended aesthetics to speak to the continued framework of black popular culture as a gauge of Americanism. In other words, the marginalized perspective is used to decide whether or not something is authentically American or not.
Hip hop aesthetics bridge old New York with the current New York as a foundation of Americanness. Gatsby bridges the old adage of New York as a space of opportunity with the familiar New York adage that Harlem-born and Mt.-Vernon-raised P. Diddy drops in Jermaine Dupri’s “Welcome to Atlanta,” “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,”a call back to Sinatra’s “New York, New York” that is also echoed by Jay-Z that forms a foundational trope of the film and the novel. A particular striking example of the merging of these adages is a scene in the novel where Nick and Gatsby are on their way to the city. They pass a car with black passengers and a white chauffeur:
As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.
“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “Anything at all” (69).
While the novel does not describe a sonic accompaniment to Carraway’s observation of the black folks in the limousine, there is an inherent understanding of the “modish” fashion of the black folks as jazzy, as cool. In the film, there is an audible sound associated with the black folks. They are sipping champagne and listening to Watch the Throne. Although visibly symbolic of the 1920s – dressed in zoot suits and flapper dresses – the aural blackness associated with the scene suggests a merger of jazz and hip hop cool and cosmopolitanism.
In order to understand how hip hop updates the struggle for realness, entitlement, and respectability in the Gatsby film, it is important to return to the major sonic influence of the literal hip hop sound in the film: Jay-Z and Watch the Throne. Jay-Z’s work on the album raises questions of how hip hop culture impacts not only the American dream but the aspirations of mogul-dom seen and heard in the film and novel. Christopher Holmes Smith’s discussion of hip hop moguls in Social Text (Winter 2003) is particularly useful in teasing out the implications behind the hip hop mogul and such figures’ social-cultural responsibility to their respective communities. Holmes Smith argues:
The hip-hop mogul bears the stamp of American tradition, since the figure is typically male, entrepreneurial, and prestigious both in cultural influence and wealth. The hip-hop mogul is an icon, therefore, of mainstream power and consequently occupies a position of inclusion within many of the nation’s elite social networks and cosmopolitan cultural formations (69).
Jay-Z’s status as a hip hop mogul – serving both as a creative talent and corporate backer – lends credence to thinking about hip hop as a space of entitlement and a site of struggle to attain that entitlement. It is from this perspective that I think of Gatsby as a hip hop figure/mogul: his working class background, hyper-performance of white privilege, materialistic pursuit of wealth for visibility, and desperate need for approval as “authentic.” To borrow from rapper Drake, Gatsby “just wanna be successful.”
Mark Anthony Neal’s discussion of Jay-Z as a hip hop cosmopolitan figure in Looking for Leroy (2013) further enables an understanding of how Jay-Z lends his (sonic) hip hop cosmopolitanism to sonically navigate between hip hop’s working class aesthetics and his own sense of entitlement because of the way he mobilized those working class experiences to become wealthy. While the film does have performances by artists who are not considered hip hop – i.e. Lana Del Rey, Jack White, and Florence+the Machine – Jay-Z’s use of his own raps, including tracks from the Kanye West collaboration Watch the Throne suggests a “sonic hip hop cosmopolitanism” complements any sense of the film as a case study of white entitlement. Tracks like “100$ bill,” “No Church in the Wild,” and “Who Can Stop Me” both prop up and tear down Luhrmann’s visual rendition of Fitzgerald’s critique of the uppercrust of America as corruptibly entitled.
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is an intriguing and useful tool through which to analyze the (in)consistencies of race and cultural authenticity in the United States. Both jazz and hip hop exist in the interstitial spaces that lie between black cultural expression and white entitlement to those expressions. Luhrmann uses hip hop’s sonic and cultural aesthetics to pump up the capitalistic and all-American narrative of “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative in Gatsby by also declaring, “get yours by any means necessary.”
Featured Image adapted from Flickr User kata rokkar
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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