This year, Sounding Out! plans to “cover” each of the five regional Experience Music Project conferences for our readership, particularly thinking through an issue we have been discussing in detail lately in our “Sonic Borders” forum with IASPM-US—where exactly is the rub between sound studies and popular music studies?
We are looking for one attendee at each EMP conference:
- Seattle (April 20th)
- Los Angeles (April 17th, 19th-20th)
- New York City (April 18-19th)
- Cleveland (April 19th-20th)
- New Orleans (April 18th-21st)
to attend the respective conference and as many of its attached events as possible and then provide a 500-700 word review of the conference no later than two weeks after the event. We are especially interested in reviews that consider the following questions:
- How has the rise of sound studies challenged, provoked, and factored into popular music study?
- Where is the crossover, the overlap—and, inevitably, the divergence?
- How does popular music study challenge and provoke sound studies in return?
- In what way does the regional nature of the new EMP format issue interesting challenges to both fields?
Our correspondents will be published together on a special “EMP Fandango” blog post that will reach a wide readership. It will also become a permanent part of our archive and a tool for future scholars in both fields.
To apply to be a correspondent for any of the regional conferences, please email Editor in Chief Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman at email@example.com by March 22nd with your CV (or resume) and a brief cover letter email conveying your interest in thinking through the “sonic border” between sound studies and popular music studies at EMP this year (250-300 words). Please place the EMP you would like to cover in the subject line of your email.
As our Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman mentioned in her Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) Conference Round-Up post from this past Monday, this weekend will be action packed for those interested in media studies and popular music studies. This year is the first year the Experience Music Project Museum (EMP) POP Conference will take place on the East Coast—sponsored by New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. In addition, the EMP POP Conference will be jointly held with the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (US) Conference (IASPM-US for short). With that in mind we have brought two conference round-up posts this week. (Speaking of blogging about conferences, don’t miss IASPM’s blog coverage of EMP POP Conference 2012, where they are previewing several papers that will be read at the conference.) Even though our editorial collective is still working on the technology to enable us to be in several places at once so we don’t miss out on these awesome opportunities, I will be Sounding Out’s eyes and ears at EMP POP Conference. I will also attempt to live-tweet the panels I am attending. You can find me at @literarychica, or you can follow the conference tweet stream at #PopCon
The EMP POP Conference has been bringing together academics and non-academics alike, musicians and non-musicians alike, music writers and non-music-writers to discuss the direction of popular culture–especially popular music. The theme of this year’s POP Conference is Sounds of the City, and what better location for these cross-disciplinary conversations than New York City? From the conference website:
Presenters will pay particular attention to what urban environments have meant for race, gender, and sexuality. Jazz, rock, indie, country, metal, electronic dance music, roots, disco, and Broadway music are but some of the sounds that will be the subject of entire panels.
The city becomes the place to explore how sound is constructed but also how the city helps construct sound—and its counterpart, noise. Detroit, Berlin, and New York City, among others, take certer stage in this year’s program. Many of the panel topics show an interest in thinking about how sound influences our notion of urban space, which brings to my mind the “cities of feeling” that Carlo Rotella talks about in his book October Cities: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature. If, according to Rotella, “literary writers are in the business of imagining cities,” here at the EMP POP Conference there is an impulse to consider how do sound and noise participate in that imagining, and how gender and race play a role (3). The conference offerings illustrate an attempt to think about the sounds of the city in a broader sense, not just limiting it to music. Although the EMP POP Conference stands out for its critical focus on everything related to popular music, this year’s panels are more sound-studies oriented.
Another indication of the sound studies influence at this year’s EMP POP Conference is a focus on listening. There seems to be a an inclination not just to think about the sounds within the city but how we listen to those sounds. Listening is an important factor in how sound is constructed; in other words, an analysis of sound is not limited to the sounds themselves, but how those who listen interpret those sounds, or how listeners themselves are perceived. From the Feminist Working Group‘s Friday panel titled Turn It Up! One: Listening to Difference to Gustavus Stadler’s “Aural Drag: Warhol as Pop Listener” to the Sunday panel Urban Ears, listening is part of the conversation taking place at NYU this weekend about sound and urban space.
Our regular readers will see several familiar names in the program. Gayle Wald is presenting on the Marvelettes Friday morning on the Afro Imaginaries panel. Gustavus Stadler is moderating the Lonely Subcultures panel on Friday and presenting on Andy Warhol in his paper “Aural Drag: Warhol as Pop Listener.” (Insider tip: keep an ear out for Eric Lott, who will be presenting on the same panel as Stadler; you can expect a blog post from Lott in the upcoming months.) Karen Tongson, who blogged for us on The Voice, will be presenting a paper titled “Drive and Sounds of the ‘80s Metropolis.” Scott Poulson-Bryant will be participating in the Saturday afternoon roundtable on Whitney Houston titled “Newark’s Finest: Reflections on Whitney Houston.” Last but not least, Regina Bradley, one of our regular writers, and myself will be presenting together on a roundtable on Sunday titled “I Pledge Allegiance to the Block: Cityscapes, Hegemonic Sound, and Blackness.”
The conference will take place at New York University’s Kimmel Center, and is free of charge. To find out more about the presenters or to read about all the other outstanding panels at the conference, please visit the conference website. So if you’re in the New York City area Thursday through Sunday (or if you’re considering hopping on a train from Boston to check out some panels–wink wink), the conference will be well worth your while!
Please comment to let SO! know what you think–both before and after EMP PopCon 2012. If I missed your panel in my round up, please drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out! She is also a PhD candidate at Binghamton University.
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THURSDAY, March 22
Thursday, March 22, 2012
Thursday, March 22, 2012 7:00pm-8:30pm
Conference Opening Keynote: The Artist in the City: with Angélique Kidjo, Esperanza Spalding, Santigold, and Himanshu Suri (aka Heems)
Room: Eisner & Lubin Auditorium KC 401
Writing about how jazz in the mid-20th century reflected lived experience in New York city’s tenements, the scholar Shane Vogel quoted Duke Ellington’s description of his swing symphony, “Harlem Air Shaft”: “So much goes on in a Harlem air shaft…You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people maing love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great big loudspeaker.” In the crowded city, the musician-composer becomes a living receiver, distilling a static field of sounds and sensations into an evocative whole.
This keynote event gathers together four prominent artists whose work reflects a cosmopolitan worldview, with each artist rooted in his or her particular urban home. Grammy winning Beninoise singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo has truly had a global career, having recorded albums in a staggering array of languages, styles, genres and cities; her recently-released live album Spirit Rising is a career retrospective featuring diverse guests like Ezra Koenig, Josh Groban and the Kuumba Singers. Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding is about to release her third album, Radio Music Society, a border-crossing blend of jazz, soul, funk and pop that reflects the cities she loves: New York, Barcelona, and her birthplace of Portland, Oregon. Philadelphia-bred, Brooklyn-based Santigold (Santi White) is one of the brightest lights of the East Coast bohemian underground; her upcoming second album, Master of My Make Believe, takes her incendiary blend of hip hop, indie rock and dance music to a new level. On his recent mixtape Nehru Jackets, Himanshu Suri (Heems) of the Queens-identified hip hop group Das Racist drops wit and wisdom about the ups and downs of life in Gotham’s five boroughs. Discussing their new work and how they’ve formed their own sound and vision in relationship to the urban spaces where they thrive, these artists consider what’s changed and what remains consistent in the half-century plus since the Duke found heaven in the clanging multiplicity of the air shaft.
Moderator: Ann Powers
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FRIDAY, March 23
Friday, March 23, 2012
Friday, March 23, 2012 9:00 am-11:00 am
Room: KC 804/5
Moderator: Banning Eyre
Gayle Wald, “‘Deliver De Letter’: ‘Please Mr. Postman,’ the Marvelettes, and the Afro-Caribbean Imaginary”
Emily J. Lordi, “Moving Out: White Flight and Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘Stand!'”
Koushik Banerjea, “Cities of the Dead: Soundscaping Race, Memory and Desire in a Forgotten London”
Wills Glasspiegel & Martin Scherzinger, “Beyoncé’s Afro-Future: Power and Play in “Run the World (Girls)””
Repositioning Urban Pop
Room: KC 808
Moderator: Barbara Browning
Rustem Ertug Altinay, “‘In Konya she would marry a regular dude, but Serife from Konya is now a Lady’: Power, Sexuality and Cities in Gungor Bayrak’s Autobiographic Songs”
Erin MacLeod, “‘Layers and layers of not-so-dope synths’: Listening to the Music of Addis Ababa”
Mark Lomanno, “Surfaces and (archi)Textures in Canarian Jazz”
Room: KC 406
Moderator: John Melillo
Patrick Deer, “‘The Cassette Played Poptones’: Punk’s Pop Embrace of the City in Ruins”
Jessica Schwartz, “Conform or Die: Composing the City as National Security Threat, 1945-1962”
John Melillo, “Revenant Frequencies: Destructive Sound from “The Waste Land” to NYC Ghosts and Flowers”
J. Martin Daughtry, “Evocative Objects and Provocative Actions on the Acoustic Territory of War”
Friday, March 23, 2012 11:15 am-12:45pm
Turn It Up! One: Listening to Difference
Room: KC 808
This panel is sponsored by the Feminist Working Group. Since 2008, we have organized panels, get-togethers and networking opportunities for all feminists who participate in EMP. For more information about our activities, and to get involved, please visit http://feministworkinggroup.blogspot.com
Moderator: Lucy O’Brien
Summer Kim Lee, “‘Singin’ Up On You’: Queer Intimacies of the Sonorous Body In ‘The New Sound Karaoke'”
Daniel Sander, “Girl. Reverb. Notes on Queer Tactics of Sonorous Difference”
Kyessa L. Moore, “(Sub)Spacialized Urban Sound, Expressive Communion and Identificatory Dislocations”
Cairo and Athens Spring Up
Room: KC 405
Moderator: Katherine Meizel
Banning Eyre, “Cairo Soundscape: Revolution and Cultural Renaissance”
Maysan Haydar, “Wild in the (Arab) Streets: Songs for the Revolutions”
Hypatia Vourloumis, “Bad Athena: Crises, Syntheses and Sounds of a European Other”
Room: KC 406
Moderator: Gustavus Stadler
William Hutson, “Abrasive Nostalgia: A Noisescape of Deindustrialization”
Vivian L. Huang, “Not That Innocent: Britney Spears, Laurel Nakadate and Strangers”
Julia DeLeon, “Dance Through the Dark Night: Distance, Dissonance and Queer
Friday, March 23, 2012 2:15pm-3:45pm
Memory, Music, and the Metropolis
Room: KC 804/5
Moderator: Charles Kronengold
Tracy McMullen, “In the Beginning, You Are There: Cloning Genesis and the Return of the Urbane”
Tavia Nyong’o, “Shame and Scandal and Zombies”
Karen Tongson, “Drive and Sounds of the ’80s Metropolis
Room: KC 808
Moderator: Caroline Polk O’Meara
Raymond Knapp, “The Sound of Broadway’s Mean Streets”
Jacqueline Warwick, “‘Bigger than Big and Smaller than Small’: Child Stars, Street Urchins, and Little Orphan Annie”
Elizabeth L. Wollman & Susan Tenneriello, “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark and the Ambivalence of Spectacle
Turn It Up! Two: Making Community
Room: KC 405
Moderator: Elizabeth Keenan
Rachel Devitt, “I Love a (Pride) Parade: Queer Community-Building, Temporary Spaces and Politicized Kitsch among LGBT Marching Bands”
Evelyn McDonnell, “The Roads to Ruin”
Matthew Carrillo-Vincent, “Ears to the Streets, Peripheral Beats: The New Social Map of Backpack Rap”
Friday, March 23, 2012 4:00pm-6:00 pm
Roundtable: “Do You Want More?” The Time and Space of Alternative Sonic Blackness
Room: GC 95
The migration of sounds and ideas across time and place encourages synthesis; giving rise to avant garde, radical, and futurist voices. What (other) worlds open up and what (outer) spaces are formed? How do regional sites remix global flows? What factors/forces enable or prohibit certain voices from finding an audience in the national, global or cyber scene? How do we reconcile organicism of sound, as musicians produce out of particular worlds, with the reckless and restless ways music circulates?
Moderator: Jayna Brown, Daphne Brooks, Tavia Nyong’o
The work of Barry Jenkins
Location Location Location
Room: KC 802
Moderator: Fabian Holt
Keith Negus, “Making it in the Big City: Small Town Boys, Country Girls and Suburban Dreamers”
Jennifer C. Lena, “The Ground on which the Race was Run: Careers in Pop”
Carl Wilson, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful: The Death and Life of Great North American Scenius”
Kembrew McLeod & Loren Glass, “Killer Apps Play the Sounds of the Cities”
Detroit: Foundation, Eclecticism, and Memory
Room: KC 808
Moderator: Marlon Bailey
Rebekah Farrugia & Kellie Hay, “‘The Foundation’ in Detroit: Challenging Conventional Ideologies about Sex and Gender in Hip Hop”
Denise Dalphond, “Eclecticism in Detroit: Diverse Dance Party Scenes in Electronic Music”
Carleton S. Gholz, “Remembering Rita: Sound, Sexuality, and Memory”
Back to menu SATURDAY, March 24
Saturday, March 24, 2012
Saturday, March 24, 2012 9:00 am to 11:00 am
Metal Studies Rising
Room: KC 808
Moderator: Jeremy Wallach
Esther Clinton, “The Gothic Menace, Then and Now: Gothic Literature, Heavy Metal Music, and Moral Panics”
Eric Smialek, “How Does Metal Mean? Ways that Musicology Can Contribute to Metal Studies”
Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone, “Hell Bent for Metal: A Study of Queer Fans of Heavy Metal”
Nelson Varas-Diaz & Eliut R. Rivera-Segarra, “Heavy Metal music in the Caribbean Setting: Social Practices and Meanings of Music at the Periphery”
Saturday, March 24, 2012 11:15am-12:45pm
Street Dreams: Blackness on the Move
Room: KC 802
Moderator: Alexandra T. Vazquez
Adrienne Brown, “Rehearing Hip-Hop Automotivity”
Sonya Posmentier, “City Streets, Country Roads: Zora Neale Hurston’s Moving Sound”
Francisco Robles, “‘This bitter earth may not be so bitter after all’: Political Promise and Sonic Geography in Killer of Sheep and We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite”
Sexuality and the City
Room: KC 405
Moderator: Franklin Bruno
Philip Gentry, “The Erotics of Chance”
Emily Tartanella, “‘A Country Mile Behind the World’: A Smithsian Sense of Place ”
Elias Krell, “Singing the Contours of the City: Transvocality and Affect in Lucas Silveira’s Toronto”
Room: KC 406
Moderator: Laura Lavernia
Matthew Hayes, “Preserving America’s Endangered Soundscapes: An Emerging Field in Historic Preservation”
Barrett Martin, “Preserving Musical Memory: Physical Space and Socio-Economic-Cultural Identity”
Devon Powers, “Writing Music (Into) History”
Saturday, March 24, 2012 2:15pm-3:45pm
Warhol’s New York
Room: KC 914
Moderator: Jonathan Flatley
Gustavus Stadler, “Aural Drag: Warhol as Pop Listener”
Eric Lott, “Andy’s Mick: Warhol Builds a Better Jagger”
Bryan Waterman, “‘It’s Too ‘Too Too’ to Put a Finger On’: Tom Verlaine’s Lost Lisp and the Secret History of the New York Underground”
Losing It in the City
Room: KC 804/5
Moderator: Ken Wissoker
Carolina González, “DomiNegro turf: Whose Uptown?”
Keith M. Harris, “‘I don’t care anymore’: Deep Soul, Doris Duke, and the Allegory of Migration”
Michael B. Gillespie, “We Almost Lost Detroit: Sonic Historiography, 9/11, and Theo Parrish”
Saturday, March 24, 2012 4:00pm-6:00pm
Roundtable: Feminist and Queer Studies of Race in Sound
Room KC 804/5
This roundtable convenes two fields of scholarly inquiry—critical race studies and feminist theory/queer studies—to explore the following interrelated questions: How does sound construct racialized and gendered meaning and/or prompt processes of racial subjection? How might various hermeneutics of sound enrich and/or expand current ethnic and gender studies approaches to the study of racial formation? And how might we collectively forge a feminist, queer analytic for the study of racialized sound and sonic processes of racialization?
Moderator: Kevin Fellezs
Saturday, March 24, 2012 6:15pm-7:30pm
IASPM-US General Membership Meeting
Room: Rosenthal Pavilion, 10th Floor
The general membership meeting of IASPM-US is the organization’s opportunity to gather together and discuss the accomplishments of the past year, any concerns or issues that have arisen, and plans for the coming year. All IASPM members are welcome. We would also like to invite any interested regular EMP participants who might be interested in joining IASPM. Beyond our normal business, the general meeting this year will feature the announcement of the first winner of the Charles Hamm Memorial Award in recognition of lifetime contribution to Popular Music Studies. In addition, the David Sanjek Award for best paper by a graduate student at the meeting will be announced.
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SUNDAY, March 25
SUNDAY, March 25, 2012
Sunday, March 25, 2012 9:00 am to 11:00 am
‘Silver City Bound’: Black Women Musicians & the Urban Avant Garde
Room: KC 905/7
Moderator: Imani Perry
Daphne A. Brooks, “‘One of these mornings, you’re gonna rise up singing’: The Secret Black Feminist History of the Gershwins’Porgy and Bess ”
Farah Jasmine Griffin, “Playing through the Changes: Mary Lou Williams’ Manhattan”
Salamishah Tillet, “Bethlehem, Boardwalks, and the City of Brotherly Love: Nina Simone’s Pre-Civil Rights Aesthetic”
Jayna Brown, “After the End of the World: Afro Diasporan Feminism and Alternative Dimensions of Sound”
Room: KC 802
Moderator: Tom Miller
Jeremy Morris, “Hear, Here: Location-Based Music”
Van Truong, “Distant Sounds”
Mark Katz, “Analog and Digital: A Love Story”
Karl Hagstrom Miller, “I am Sitting in a Room: The Private Pop Experience”
Sunday, March 25, 2012 11:15am-12:45am
Utopian Spaces in an Accelerated Age
Room: KC 802
Moderator: Eric Lott
Wayne Marshall, “Music as Social Life in an Age of Platform Politricks”
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, “Cunt Music: When Vogue House Dips Meet Dipset”
Max Pearl & Alexis Stephens, “New Jack City: Frenzied Cultures, Transitory Spaces (or, how I learned to stop worrying and embrace the hype cycle)”
Sunday, March 25, 2012 2:15pm-3:45pm
Room: KC 905/7
Moderator: Greil Marcus
Sonnet Retman, “Muddy the Waters: Other Stories of Love and Theft in the Making of the Delta Blues”
David Suisman, “The Urban Ear of Tony Schwartz”
Franklin Bruno, “Who Put the Arrow in ‘Cupid?’: Hugo and Luigi’s Schlock ‘n’ Soul”
A Girl’s Guide to the Urban Imaginary
Room: KC 914
Moderated by: Jacqueline Warwick
Elizabeth Keenan, “Out in the Streets: 1960s Girl Groups and the Imagined Urban Space of New York City”
Sarah Dougher, “Making Noise in the Safe Space: How Girls’ Rock Camps Make Place in the City”
Diane Pecknold, “The Spectral Cityscapes of Tween Pop”
“Beat Street”: New York City Hip-Hop
Room: KC 804/5
Moderator: Oliver Wang
Patrick Rivers, “Rumble in the Concrete Jungle: Beat Battles in NYC and Their Impact on Hip-Hop Production”
Shanté Paradigm Smalls, “‘Voices Carry’: Queer Dissonance and the Travel of NYC 1980s Hip-Hop Sound”
Chris Tabron, “‘Boom It in Ya Jeep’: Low-end Theories of Black Aurality in 90’s NYC Hip-Hop”
Roundtable – I Pledge Allegiance to the Block: Cityscapes, Hegemonic Sound, and Blackness
Room: KC 808
Whether a homesite for protest and resistance or, as Alain Locke suggests, an escape from the ‘medieval’ south, the city serves as both a muse and haven for black American cultural expression. Although city-scapes are heavily represented in African American music and popular culture, more discussion is needed about how the city is often a hegemonic space of black cultural expression. In other words, how does an urban setting dictate power and blackness in the (African) American community?
Moderator: Guthrie Ramsey
Matthew D. Morrison
Sunday, March 25, 2012 4:00pm-6:00pm
Room: KC 808
Moderator: Devin McKinney
Julia Sneeringer, “‘I’d Never Even Been to Manchester’: Liverpool Musicians in Hamburg’s Entertainment Economy, 1960-1965”
Leonard Nevarez, “How Joy Division came to sound like Manchester”
Lucy O’Brien, “Can I Have a Taste of Your Ice Cream? (Post punk feminism and the Yorkshire Ripper)”
Gillian Gower, “Riot Culture: Beats, Banksy, and the Bristol Sound”
Each of the essays in our “Medieval Sound” forum focuses on sound as it, according to Steve Goodman’s essay “The Ontology of Vibrational Force,” in The Sound Studies Reader, “comes to the rescue of thought rather than the inverse, forcing it to vibrate, loosening up its organized or petrified body (70). These investigations into medieval sound lend themselves to a variety of presentation methods loosening up the “petrified body” of academic presentation. Each essay challenges concepts of how to hear the Middle Ages and how the sounds of the Middle Ages continue to echo in our own soundscapes.
Read all the previous posts here, and, HEAR YE!, in April 2017, look for a second series on Aural Ecologies of noise! –Guest Editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman
As humans, we engage all of our senses in every undertaking, whether or not we consciously perceive our sensory interactions. For instance, when we consume a gourmet meal, we don’t simply taste the food—we also see it, smell it, and feel it. We might also hear it as it is being prepared and/or consumed, and the meal’s pleasure can be enhanced by conversation. Overall, our experiences are enriched (or worsened) through our multisensory engagement. Similarly, reading involves multimodal feedback. While we might think of it as solely a visual experience, both auditory and tactile interactions occur within the process. As The Handbook of Multisensory Processes (518) tells us, audiotactile (sound+touch) and visuotactile (sight+touch) interactions are of great functional importance as they link remote senses to the body.
Thus, our interactions with everyday objects are multisensory, even if we do not consciously realize that fact. Arguably, although the sense of hearing is the first to develop in the womb, it is often the sense we overlook in solitary pursuits such as reading. Nevertheless, every human action occurs within a soundscape, much like they take place within a landscape. A soundscape is “an environment of sound with emphasis on the way it is perceived and understood by the individual, or by a society. It thus depends on the relationship between the individual and any such environment” (Handbook for Acoustic Ecology, 1978). Like landscapes, soundscapes must be considered in context and in relation to multisensory experience.
In particular, audio-visual interactions have been shown to have an effect on soundscape perception. Soundscape design elements reflect this concern. For example, a plan might include adding fountains, both as a noise control element and as a deliberate introduction of a soothing sonic feature. At the same time, fountains are a managed version of a natural element (water) that incorporate certain visual effects (e.g. reflective space and sparkling sunlight) creating textured and appealing landscapes. How the element is introduced into the environment has an effect on the perception (and appreciation) of the space. Furthermore, the touch of cool, clean water can supplement the overall impression, heightening the soothing effect initiated by the tinkling sound of the moving water. This is an audiotactile experience; that is, sounds connected with the sense of touch, an ecological system that combines the haptic and the aural.
Although the field of audiotactile integration has been somewhat dormant in the biological sciences since Paul von Schiller suggested back in 1932 that sounds, especially patterned noises, could affect tactile perception of roughness, recently some researchers have conducted experiments that test audiotactile qualities of materials. Several have suggested that these results might be synthetic—that is, the impact the sounds have modulate the haptic perception of the material being touched. For the most part, there seems to be connections between the perceptions of the sounds involved in touch and the perceptions of the stiffness of material. However, one study demonstrates that synchronized movements and sounds can affect the perception of the subject’s own skin. Suffice it to say, then, that sounds and texture and material quality are linked, both physically and perceptively.
Although humans rarely display deliberate awareness of audiotactile interaction, both auditory and haptic stimulation share similar temporal and psychological patterns in human consciousness. This connection would have perhaps been even more true in the Middle Ages than it is now, since the context of parchment and manuscript production and consumption was more immediately personal than paper production and reading is today.
To understand both the historicizing of the senses and the impact of shifting modes of literacy, it is possible to recreate some of the former immediacy of parchment production. During the summer of 2015, I participated in a National Endowments for the Humanities Seminar on Manuscript Materiality. This occasion provided me with the opportunity to make a manuscript page replica, starting from the “ground up” with the creation of parchment. We also studied theory, page layout, and other material circumstances, allowing us to really think about how people—both medieval and modern—engage with manuscripts using their senses. Elsewhere I have discussed the sense of touch. Here, I want to extend that discussion to include the sense of hearing; that is, I will focus on the sounds of parchment-making and parchment-reading, as activated through touching.
Parchment (Latin pergamenum) is the general term used for an animal hide that has been prepared for writing. Vellum (Latin vitulinum) more specifically refers to prepared calfskin. Parchment is made through an extended process of skinning, cleaning (de-fleshing and de-hairing), stretching, and scraping. It is stretched and scraped on special frames with adjustable screw pegs. The parchment maker scrapes the skin to the desired thickness with a curved tool, adjusting the pegs as the skin dries and changes texture. Often the skin is rewetted, scraped, and stretched numerous times in order to achieve the desired thickness. Sometimes a pumice stone finish is used at the end to create a surface porous enough to accept and retain ink. This is a vastly different process than tanning, which involves chemical alteration of the skins.
In the seminar, our parchment master was Jesse Meyer of Pergamena. He provided tools, guidance, and expertise as we participants stumbled through the process. Parchment making is hard, smelly work. My hands ached after only a few go-rounds with the tools, which included a pumice-like concoction of over-baked bread mixed with ground glass, knives that had been reshaped and re-handled, and Jesse’s special skin-refiner tool discussed below. Jesse told us many eye-opening things over the days of parchment making; however, possibly one of the most intriguing was how parchment masters could make a parchment “sing,” and how they, through this sound, knew whether or not the skin had reached its full potential.
So when Jesse demonstrated the various techniques on his sample skin, I listened carefully to the sounds he made by scraping as well as watching what he did with his hands. As he scraped away, the parchment did indeed sing. You can hear it yourself:
Audio Clip of Jesse’s “Parchment Singing”
This aspect of parchment making fascinated me. After our seminar was done, I got back in touch with Jesse to talk further about the sounds of parchment making. He was more than forthcoming about his experiences. When Jesse first read about medieval parchment making, he ran across several mentions of the “ringing” sound that parchment masters produced when shaving their skins. He, like many of us, had never considered that aspect before. So he started paying attention to the different sounds he made as he used various tools on the skins. Right now, he uses a handmade tool that consists of a saw blade shaved to his specificity with a handmade handle on it. Each of us got a chance to hold it and try it on our own skin. It was an unwieldy tool for the uninitiated, and my parchment did not “sing” like Jesse’s did.
Jesse is an expert, but even he says he cannot quite tell the nuances among the different types of skins by sound alone, although he notes that there are similarities among the types. Perhaps that skill could be developed over years of working solely with parchment, as a master in the Middle Ages would have. What Jesse has shared, however, is valuable: thicker skins are not as flexible, but they produce a “better,” that is clearer, sound.
Thickness of parchment can be due to a number of factors including preparation technique, but also the age and type of animal. Older animals yield thicker skins. Thicker skins are usually smoother and yield a cleaner sound. Of course if the animal has been injured or diseased, the skin may not be smooth. The firmer and tighter a skin is, the denser it is, and the easier it is to shave as well. In fact, Jesse says that denser skins can also make full, warm, “drum-like” sounds. Even more intriguingly, when I asked Jesse if he had ever noticed a difference between the hair side and the flesh side of skins, he said yes: the hair side of parchment sounds better to him because it is cleaner once the hair has been removed. The flesh side often retains fibrous bits even after many scrapings, and produces a more diffuse sound. When this side is scraped, it leaves behind a “fuzzy” residue until it has seen many passes with the scraper.
The relative dryness and “freshness” of the skin can also alter the clarity of the “ringing.” For example, compare the sound from the freshly prepared goatskin last summer to the sound from scraping a drier goatskin in Jesse’s workshop:
Repeat of first audio clip of Jesse’s “parchment singing”
Comparison clip of Jesse making a drier parchment sing
Both of these clips were produced from goatskins, and both were produced by Jesse who also used the same tool on each. While the sound is very similar, and both ring true, the drier skin produces a clearer, purer sound.
Plainly, then, the sounds of parchment making are vital to quality production. Most medieval manuscripts are made of three types of animal skins: sheep, goat, and calf. The prevalence of each animal is geographically dependent (sheepskin is more common in England, calfskin in France, and goatskin in Italy), although of course manuscripts traveled, and wealthy patrons commissioned materials they preferred. (see “DNA May Reveal Origins of Medieval Manuscripts” from Livescience)
Age, breed, size, and animal health can all contribute to the audiotactile qualities of a skin. However, there are some general guidelines. Sheepskins, for instance, are stretchier than goat skins, so their “ringing” can be muffled. Goatskins, which are thinner and stiffer, make a higher pitched “ring.” Calfskins are larger and easier than the others to get clean, and thus often make the cleanest “ring” and can do so more quickly than the others.
The type of skin is not the only factor in play. A rough blade would have produced a rough sound; conversely, an even, sharp blade would have produce the cleanest sound. The tautness of the skin in the frame can also affect pitch and tone, as can its dryness, its fatty content, and the age of the animal. As noted in a recent study, “The density of collagen fibrils in calf and goat parchment, compared with a more open weave and higher fat content in sheep parchment, favors the former two species [for producing the finest parchment]” (15070). Nevertheless, master parchment makers should have been able to manipulate any skin to produce superior results. As long as the corium (the dermis layer of skin containing all the connective tissues, including collagen, elastic fibers, hair follicles, sebaceous glands, blood vessels, and a number of other components) is sufficiently ground down, the parchment produced can be made very fine. And as the corium wears away, the sound of the scraping grows ever cleaner and clearer, just as the feel of the skin grows ever smoother. Overall, the tone gets higher as the skin gets thinner, and as long as the scrape is even, the tone should remain pure.
Here’s a video of Jesse scraping a calfskin. Compare this clear “ringing” to the goatskin scrapings:
That’s all well and good for production of manuscripts, but texts are made for consumption. Earlier, I mentioned my having considered the qualities of hapacity and manuscripts involving Christ’s side wound in another blog post. One of the manuscripts I discussed, London, British Library, MS Egerton 1821, was clearly designed to be touched. This unusual manuscript contains a number of woodcuts that reflect devotion to the wounds of Christ, but, more strikingly, opens with three pages painted black, covered in drops of paint meant to emulate Christ’s flowing blood.
After a series of woodcuts, seven more pages appear. These are painted red with darker red paint splatters representing drops of blood. Although these pages do not contain specific images, they are meant to evoke interactive piety. The reader is invited to touch Christ’s wounds while praying or meditating. The worn appearance of Folio 2r demonstrates just how frequently the pages were touched and rubbed.
How did those pages feel to a medieval reader? Did they feel rough or smooth? Did the reader feel a frisson of excitement? Animal skin, such as parchment, carried with it the essence of the life of the animal, thus imbuing the images painted onto it with some semblance of life force, such as suggested by Thomas Aquinas in his Question 8 (Summa Theologica) regarding the potential for divinity placed within material objects. To a certain extent, then, touching an image of Christ was akin to touching a proxy of his body, allowing a powerful and individual haptic experience of faith. But what about the sounds made when these images became the subject of interaction? Was the medieval reader aware of touching the page, touching Christ’s wounds, even more because he or she would hear the interaction?
I took it upon myself to rub the worn folio in Egerton 1821. I did so reverently, if not because I felt a mystical connection to Christ, but because I felt awed at being able to reproduce a medieval experience (albeit 500 years later). There was a distinct sound, which you can hear in this clip:
Clip of the author rubbing the worn folio in Egerton 1821
I was surprised at the resultant sound. The worn part of the page looked soft, and the paint splatters looked cracked. Instead, to my surprise, the worn portions felt rougher than the cracked paint. Like the modern studies demonstrated, my audiotactile perceptions were altered initially by what I saw, but then by what I heard. At first, I touched hesitantly, but when the sounds produced became rhythmic, my hands felt smoother and the noise sounded more even. If I were repeatedly rubbing the same spot, in the same manner, producing the same sounds—much as a medieval reader might have done—the combined sensations would likely have produced a soporific and meditative state. That is, combining touch, particularly of a textured surface, with measured reading might have resulted in the ideal perceptive state for experiencing an immersive religious experience.
If, as numerous studies have demonstrated, vibrotactile stimuli can facilitate hearing, both for those with and without hearing impairments, then the sounds hand and fingers make when exploring a surface must contribute to an individual’s haptic perception and vice versa. How, then, would this connect on the behavioral or emotional level? Researchers have been exploring the reciprocal interactions of the auditory, tactile, and visual (sometimes referred to as cross-modal effects), often concentrating on sensory thresholds, information processing performance, and spatial navigation; however, only recently are studies beginning to investigate the emotional and physical benefits of such exchanges. For instance, one such study suggests auditory-tactile stimulation as a means to increase health and well-being.
Thus, a combination of touch felt by a reader with sound heard by a reader at the same time might influence the reader’s state of mind in a positive way, resulting in a positive effect on the body as well. A desired state can be reached more quickly through an audiotactile combination, resulting in a sensory illusion (perceiving something not physically extant but mentally present)—a powerful manner of evoking emotion. Similarly, the positive physical effects include relaxation, stress relief, and sleep enhancement. Again, this seemingly suggests that multisensory integration, especially the combination of touch and sound, might have produced a mental state in the (medieval) reader that made them particularly receptive to spiritual experience.
I would suggest, then, that as medieval scholars, we should examine how audiotactile events are processed during dynamic contact between hands and material. Since different sensory modalities are integrated in the human brain to form our perceptions as a whole, including spatial and temporal relationships, it is important that we consider multisensory interactions that code the location of external events relative to our own bodies. Thus, to think through the process of making, touching, and hearing medieval parchment opens up a lot of possibilities for the study of medieval materiality—indeed for materiality in general as a field. The importance of the whole body sensory experience, including hearing, in reading is something we need to continue to imagine, to reimagine, to recreate, and to explore.
Michelle M. Sauer is a professor at the University of North Dakota in the English Department. She recently released her latest book, titled Gender in Medieval Culture (Bloomsbury, 2015).
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Malcolm Gladwell, who recently wrapped the first season of his podcast Revisionist History, has been on a roll lately. Not a particularly endearing one, though. I’ve been trying to locate his nadir, but it’s not easy with so many options to choose from. Is it in the New Yorker, when he condescendingly exclaims “Of course not!” in response to whether Caster Semenya should be allowed to compete in the 800-meter at the Olympics? He follows up with the assertion that no track-and-field fan disagrees with him, as if the complexity of gender identification is somehow best left to a majority appeal. Or is it in Revisionist History’s Episode 9, “Generous Orthodoxy,” when he chides Princeton students protesting the use of Woodrow Wilson’s name around campus? Calling one student “angry”—a loaded word to lob at a black woman—and surmising she would later “regret her choice of words,” Gladwell advises the students to instead threaten to leave the university if their requests aren’t honored. Why? Because otherwise “every crotchety old Princeton alum” wouldn’t believe they actually care about the university.
For those keeping score, that’s Gladwell, who spent an entire other episode of his podcast lamenting that we don’t “capitalize” people’s educational potential well enough, counseling black students to separate themselves from an Ivy League education as a way to make a point about a pro-segregationist president. Gladwell’s seventh episode, “Hallelujah,” where he discusses musical genius, is not obviously about the kind of systemic inequalities he bumbles in the Semenya and Princeton examples. But the conclusions he draws about genius and the anti-pop aesthetic judgments he claims are informed by the same bad gender and race politics that would put a person’s gender identification in other people’s hands and place the burden of sacrifice on the aggrieved in matters of racial injustice.
The episode “Hallelujah” revolves around two songs that Gladwell argues reached their peak of genius years after they were initially recorded: “Deportees Club” (1984) by Elvis Costello and “Hallelujah” (1984) by Leonard Cohen. In each case, Gladwell asserts that the first recordings were flawed but that they attained a certain beauty in later versions that reveals something about how genius works, though each attained that genius status by different routes. While Costello is responsible for the version of “Deportees Club” that Gladwell loves—he re-recorded it as “Deportee” in 1985 (it wouldn’t be released until 1995 on a re-issue of Goodbye, Cruel World)—“Hallelujah” would peak for Gladwell in a series of covers, most famously by Jeff Buckley (1994), performed by artists other than Cohen. Gladwell’s focus on the process by which a song reaches genius status is a riff on David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses theory. Here, Costello and the litany of “Hallelujah” coverers display a process of genius called “experimental innovation,” where the first draft is never the final draft, and genius is only unlocked after years of work. I’ll return to Gladwell’s notion of musical beauty and how it relates to his bad politics momentarily, but I first want to unpack the theory of genius that enthralls him in this episode.
Galenson’s notion of genius is a binary, where some geniuses (“conceptual innovators”) are very young, decisive artists and others, like the “experimental innovators” responsible for “Deportee” and “Hallelujah,” are endless tinkerers who tend to reach their creative potential later in life. Gladwell uses the same paradigmatic examples that Galenson does to categorize geniuses; conceptual innovators are Pablo Picasso, while experimental innovators are Paul Cézanne. Curiously, Gladwell notes that this theory of genius may be best exemplified in music, but he doesn’t seem aware that music scholars have already laid out this same broad theory of genius with easy comps: Mozart the young genius and Beethoven the old master. Moreover, Gladwell doesn’t seem aware that this is a lousy theory of genius.
I’ve written elsewhere about genius myths, and there’s a rabbit hole of problematic ideas out there about classical music genius that run from benignly self-serving to violently racist. One critique is particularly useful for pushing back against Gladwell, as it highlights the gender and race problems with Gladwell’s approach to genius. Tia DeNora’s Beethoven and the Construction of Genius (1994) is a painstaking deconstruction of Beethoven’s genius. While DeNora’s argument includes a number of moving parts, it can be summarized as a demonstration of the way “genius” isn’t so much innate talent as it is a combination of several social and political ideals intersecting with a person’s talents or insights.
It was the 90s, when postmodernity crested in musicology, and the aim of DeNora’s analysis is quintessentially postmodern: undo the Great White Man myth to make room for other kinds of histories and notions of genius to be accommodated. If we understand Beethoven’s genius to be firmly rooted in a number of social and political attitudes—including the reflexive belief that only a white man could be a genius—that tipped in his favor, then we can understand that history isn’t telling us that only men or only white people can be geniuses; rather, history is showing its biases. This sort of deconstruction doesn’t really move the academic needle now—most college freshmen can articulate the Great White Man critique—largely due to the work of DeNora and other deconstructionists who effectively cleared the space for us to build other kinds of scholarship on top of their work.
Alas, though, the 90s truly must be all the rage right now, because Gladwell is wading right back into Great White Man territory. To be clear, he isn’t doing it on purpose, for whatever that’s worth. In Episode 9, the one where he counsels the black Princeton students to threaten to leave the school, he performs a whole Great White Man rant to establish his credibility as A Guy Who Gets It. But beyond understanding that there are too many things named after white men, Gladwell doesn’t indicate that he knows what the rub really is, that the name on a building or School is a tiny piece of a much bigger, systemic problem of race and gender. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, his ideas about musical genius betray his own tendency to set up hierarchies where Great White Men are always on top. So excuse me while I pump some air in my Reeboks, hitch up my Guess jeans, and douse myself in CK1; we have some 90s theory to attend to.
Gladwell doesn’t—and perhaps can’t—articulate what’s genius about the versions of “Deportee” and “Hallelujah” he reveres, and his assessment of the originals is similarly vague. About 1984’s “Deportees Club,” he exclaims, “Oh, god, It’s awful!” For Cohen’s 1984 “Hallelujah,” Gladwell borrows a line from Michael Barthel, who could’ve just as well been describing Gladwell’s podcast: “The entire performance is so hyperserious that it’s almost satire.” [Historiographic aside: Barthel, who is now a researcher for the Pew Research Center, seems to be the under-cited source for the “Hallelujah” history in both Gladwell’s podcast and Alan Light’s book on the song]. Gladwell may suffer a poverty of aesthetic language to describe what is or isn’t good about these songs, but by considering what he does and doesn’t like—what counts as genius or not for him—we can understand where his aesthetic allegiances lie.
Gladwell finds beauty in music whose emotional content is as stripped down as the acoustic guitar textures on the later recordings of “Deportee” and “Hallelujah.” The line he quotes from Barthel misses the point: Barthel likes the satirical nature of the original “Hallelujah” and finds the famous Buckley version—which becomes something of an ürtext for all the covers that came after it—an unfortunate telescoping of emotional range, a “Hallelujah” that only knows lament instead of the many “holy, broken, profane, transcendent” hallelujahs Cohen first explored. But all those hallelujahs, along with the “angry, loud, and upsetting” original “Deportees Club,” don’t seem to suit Gladwell, who prefers versions of the songs where both the emotional and musical content are as straightforward as possible.
That Gladwell is drawn to the versions of Buckley’s “Hallelujah” and Costello’s later “Deportee” that feature an acoustic singer-songwriter coffeehouse vibe isn’t a coincidence. The villain in his account of genius is pop. Noting that both songs were initially recorded in 1984, he reminds us that year’s “biggest album” was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “pop music glossed to perfection…not a single stray note or emotion on that record.” “Thriller” was the final single from an album two years old, and it peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, so Gladwell’s definition of “biggest album” is suspect, but he’s looking for “the antithesis of ‘Deportee’ and ‘Hallelujah,’” so I’ll engage on his terms and zero in on his aesthetics by figuring out what he thinks is wrong with pop music like “Thriller.”
Gladwell offers a couple other assessments of pop aesthetics in his description of producers. Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who co-produced the Goodbye, Cruel World album “Deporteees Club” appeared on, are the ill-fitting pop perfectionists who try to harness Costello’s sound but only manage to screw it up. Trevor Horn is the guy spending four weeks—“a month,” Gladwell bemoans—shaping a snare sound for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” (1983). Whether it’s Langer and Winstanley, Horn, or Quincy Jones (who Gladwell doesn’t name but who produced “Thriller”), Gladwell has no space for the behind-the-glass work of sound design and sonic processing in his aesthetics of genius. He argues, citing Costello’s own assessment, that glossy pop perfection couldn’t capture the “dark, emotional, bitter songs, gritty and spare,” pouring out of Costello. For Gladwell, pop music production is the villain because it short circuits the true, raw emotion that he finds beautiful.
The problem with Gladwell’s aesthetics is that he’s mistaking his taste for genius, then reverse-manufacturing an explanation of genius that privileges a specifically white masculine mode of expression. “Glossy pop perfection,” in his estimation, covers up something beautiful, obscuring real emotion. But directly sharing one’s emotions—whether musically or politically—is more acceptable for some than for others. We need look no further than Gladwell for proof. If you’re Elvis Costello or Jeff Buckley singing laments? You’re a genius. If you’re a black woman protesting Woodrow Wilson at Princeton? You’re “angry.”In fact, the danger of directly expressing oneself underlies a wide array of black aeshetics, from Gates’s Signifying Monkey to Shana Redmond’s analysis of Janelle Monae’s “Cold War.” Redmond cites Darlene Clark Hines’s “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West” to highlight Monae’s engagement with “the acts of dissemblance that have long characterized black women’s participation in the public sphere” (398). Hines argues that Black women developed “a cult of secrecy, a culture of dissemblance” to protect themselves in public spaces, “creating the appearance of disclosure…while actually remaining an enigma” (Hines 915). It is Monae’s rupture of pop conventions—she breaks down and cries, dropping her lip synch even as the track plays on—that, on the one hand, creates the space for her to step outside of that culture of dissemblance and, on the other hand, marks the cover those pop conventions provide, the strategic, protective secrecy available under so much glossy pop perfection. In his 2002 “Feenin,’” Alexander Weheliye homes in on glossy pop voice-processing, the vocoders and filters (and, several years after his article, AutoTune) that render the R&B voice machinic, and contends that these processing techniques yield human desire that “can be represented only in the guise of the machinic” (39, emphasis mine). In other words, the gloss isn’t a bad thing. It’s a strategy that plugs technology into humanity in order to project ways of being beyond the white liberal humanist subject. In both Redmond’s and Weheliye’s analyses, the sound of pop, the glossy perfection that Gladwell holds up as the antithesis of genius, is employed by Black musicians to enable emotionality in a world that is otherwise hostile to such expression.
Gladwell’s bad aesthetics, his refusal to recognize beauty in pop music, is also bad politics. By holding up an aesthetic that prizes stripped-down, straightforward emotionality, a form of expression available to some but not others, Gladwell ends up in the same Great White Man genius bind DeNora and others unraveled in the postmodern 90s. So I’ll sum it up with a 90s phrase: genius is always already political. Denora argues—and Gladwell inadvertently demonstrates—that labeling artists as genius relies on politically volatile aesthetic judgments that reinforce existing power hierarchies, in this case along the lines of race and gender. Like his response to Princeton students and his armchair adjudication of Semenya’s gender identity, Gladwell’s theory of musical genius proves to be less a revision of history and more a revival of history’s worst politics.
Featured image: “Malcolm Gladwell” by Flickr user Ed Schipul, CC BY-SA 2.0
Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, and a regular writer at Sounding Out!. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his current book project is called Posthuman Pop. He is co-editor with Ali Colleen Neff of the Journal of Popular Music Studies 27:4, “Sounding Global Southernness,” and with Jason Lee Oakes of the Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies (2017). You can catch him atjustindburton.com and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.
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