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Gendered Soundscapes of India, an Introduction

**This post was co-authored by forum co-editors Praseeda Gopinath and Monika Mehta

A note on the collection: Our original Call For Posts was for “Gendered Sounds of South Asia,” as we hoped to use this de-center India and explore terrain beyond cinema.  However, the submissions that we received compelled us to recalibrate the framing of this forum, which will now focus on cinema and sound in India. It occurred to us once we received the pitches that there were structural reasons for the paucity of submissions on both South Asia and sound beyond cinema. The listservs on which the CFP circulated as well as the ways in which the CFP framed sound shaped the submissions. Intersecting sound with gender immediately invokes the female voice, since gender still signals the female. This invocation leads to the next term, “Indian film,” which dominates the region. That said, it is also possible that gender may not be a key lens for analyzing sound in current work on South Asia; noise regulation, caste, religion, ethnicity, and region might be more salient at the moment. We curated the current forum, “Gendered Sounds of India” to expand the terrain of what constitutes sound and voice in India, and through this means, these articles also offer new modes of listening.

Bow Bazar Area, Kolkata, West Bengal, 2011, Image by Flickr user Lorenzo, (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Praseeda Gopinath: My childhood is lived soundscapes. It’s revelatory to think about memory and self through the paradigm of sound, because it is only now that I realize that some of my abiding memories are shaped by sound, film, and voice. Urban Indian childhood meant inhabiting layers of sound, and learning to separate and parse the various layers in order of situational importance: the call of the ice-cream man from the call of the peanut-seller, depending on what you were in the mood for; raucous playful yelling of friends from your mother yelling to check on where you were; and of course, the ubiquitous sound of radios and televisions from various homes in your neighborhood. Your ear heard the professional cadences of the radio announcer or television announcements, but you were waiting for the film’s songs you liked, or the dialogue delivery of your favorite actor. If we heard Amitabh Bachchan’s distinctive baritone—the undisputed and worshipped Hindi film star of 70s-80s—we immediately stopped whatever we were playing at and listened to his voice as it drifted out on to the aether. He was the gendered voice of power and glamor emanating from invisible radios or televisions and seeping into our childish brains, defining sound, stardom, and most importantly, cool.

Our listening practices are discursively constructed. In the sonic landscape of India, in particular, the way in which we listen and what we hear is often normative, produced within hegemonic discourses of gender, class, caste, region, and sexuality. Today’s entry in the forum, Claire Cooley’s entry on the The Lor Girl (1933)–a film collaboration between Iranian expatriates and The Imperial Film Company–unpacks the ways in which the gendered voice and accent of the female protagonist become symptomatic of modernity in Bombay and Tehran. Class and modernity are rendered through the transformation of her voice and accent. In the process, gendered modernity is also produced and circulated through the film’s soundscape; The Lor Girl offers a lesson in listening, what and how to listen to gendered voice, sound, and accent. It reveals how the ear is trained to identify class, region, and the modern, discourses that continue to shape listening practices in contemporary India.

Similarly, Pavitra Sundar’s article on Falguni Pathak, a sought-after vocalist for heternormative and religiously-inflected Navaratri celebrations, reveals how Pathak’s vocalic body challenges heteronormative ideas about sexuality and gender and consequentially heteronormative listening practices. Sundar asks us to think about how “queerness” might sound in Indian public culture, and indeed, how this aural queerness might not necessarily align with the “queer timbre” theorized in Euro-American queer theory. Perhaps what seems most intriguing about Sundar’s analysis of Pathak is not just her elusive queer voice, but that it is this elusiveness, Pathak’s ability to slip between and across heteronormative aural spaces, that makes her vocal queerness both pervasive and difficult to label.

Women’s Radio Listening Group, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India, Image by Flickr User UK Department for International Development, (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Monika Mehta: When I think of sound, an image surfaces of my mama (maternal uncle) reclining on a bed and cradling a transistor by his ear. The time is the late 1970s and the location, Railway Colony, Kishan Ganj, New Delhi, my maternal grandparents’ home. Thinking back, the transistor must have provided a sense of privacy, perhaps, even facilitated cultivation of a private self in a middle-class, bustling joint family; in such a family, home was not a private place. For better or worse, most things were shared. These shared objects included the radio, and later, the television, both of which were ensconced in the living room and functional, bulky, and ornamental, signaling middle-class status.

Unlike the radio and television, the transistor and the two-in- one were portable; they could be moved and held. The two-in- one was often transported to a grill-window of a bedroom where another mama (maternal uncle) loved listening to Talat Mahmood songs on it. While most Hindi song aficionados were fans of the playback singer Mohammed Rafi, he preferred Mahmood’s voice. For him, the cassette player enabled the cultivation of pleasure and fandom. What appears curious now was that it was mostly, if not exclusively, the male members of the family who were attached to the transistors and the two-in- ones. Similarly, in bazaars, on sidewalks, nears shops, men would cluster around these audio technologies, riveted by a cricket commentary, or at times, enjoying film songs. These technologies produced a sense of male privacy at home, and homosociality outside.

Technology is often imagined as a neutral entity, unaffected and unrelated to socio-economic divisions. Priva Jaikumar and Ronit Ghosh’s posts challenge this normative assumption by examining the relations amongst sound technology, gender, and the public.

Bengaluru, Karnataka, India, 2008, Image by Flick user Paul Weller (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Jaikumar discusses how the adoption of sync sound recording by Bombay filmmakers in the 1990s generates new forms of labor that are divided along lines of class and gender.  Bouncers and sound-security personnel are drawn from lower-class migrant men, whereas the sound artists and engineers are recruited from the middle and upper classes. In both cases, women are excluded from working with or on sound. Ghosh demonstrates how the introduction of new recording technology in India in the 1930s privatizes listening experiences.  If the consumption of live music occurred in public spaces, which could only be accessed by male audiences, then this new technology, not only provided a new listening experience, but made music available to middle-class female audiences.  Both Ghosh and Jaikumar’s posts show that consumption, or the labor of sound in public, is masculinized whereas private sounds, or ones that require private labor, are feminized.

On a closing note, the posts offer snapshots of sound at sites of trans/national production, marketing, filmic and musical texts. Complementing these posts, the accompanying photographs offer glimpses of gendered community formation, homosociality, the pervasiveness of sound technology in India, and the discordant stratified soundscapes of the city. This series opens up for us the question of other contexts in India where sound, gender, and technology might intersect, but more broadly, it demands that we consider how sound exists differently in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Afghanistan. How might we imagine a sonic framework and South Asia from these locations?

To read all of the posts in the forum, click here.

Praseeda Gopinath is an associate professor of English at SUNY Binghamton and author of Scarecrows of Chivalry: English Masculinities after Empire (University of Virginia Press, 2013).

Monika Mehta is an associate professor of English at SUNY Binghamton and author of  Censorship and Sexuality in Bombay Cinema (University of Texas press, 2011).

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Sounding Out! Podcast #63: The Sonic Landscapes of Unwelcome: Women of Color, Sonic Harassment, and Public Space

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This podcast focuses on the sonic landscapes of unwelcome which women and femmes of color step into when we walk down the street, take the bus, and navigate public and professional spaces. Women of color must navigate harassment, violent, and sexually abusive language and noise in public space. While walking to the market or bus, a man or many might yell at us, blow us an unwanted kiss, comment on our bodies, describe explicit sexual acts, or call us “bitch.” The way that women and femmes do or do not respond to such unwelcome language can result in retaliation and escalated violence. A type of harm reduction, women often wear headphones and listen to music while in public for the specific purpose of cancelling out the hostile sonic landscape into which we are walking. The way that women and femmes make use of technology and music as a tool of survival in hostile sonic landscapes is a form of femme tech as well as femme defense. What sort of psychological and emotional effect does constant and repeated exposure to abusive noise have on the minds and bodies of women of color?

Locatora Radio is a Radiophonic Novela  hosted by Mala Muñoz and Diosa Femme, two self-identified locxs. Also known as “Las Mamis of Myth & Bullshit”, Las Locatoras make space for the exploration and celebration of the experiences, brilliance, creativity, and legacies of femmes and womxn of color. Each Capitulo of Locatora Radio is made with love and brujeria, a moment in time made by brown girls, for brown girls. Listen as Las Locatoras keep brown girl hour and discuss the layers and levels of femmeness and race, mental health, trauma, gender experience, sexuality, and oppression.

Mala Muñoz is a writer, advocate, and crisis counselor from Los Angeles. Her writing profiles Latinx artists and creators and has been featured online in VIBE Magazine’s VIBE Viva section. A self-defense instructor and one half of Locatora Radio, Mala’s work online and in real life focuses on the creativity, genius, and legacies of women and survivors of color.
Diosa Femme is a Peruana-Mexicana from Los Angeles. She’s a model for Mi Vida Boutique, and co-founder of Locatora Radio. She intentionally creates and sustains virtual and material spaces that promote alternative self and collective healing work for queer femmes and womxn of color. Catch her on Instagram, making magic, conjuring self-love, and sharing selfies

Featured image of Mala and Diosa is used with permission by the authors.

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SO! Reads: Licia Fiol-Matta’s The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music

In her recent biography of Roland Barthes, Tiphaine Samoyault describes the quality of his speech through what Barthes had called the “grain of the voice,” a quality that “bears witness to a past able to act in the present, a continued memory, a recollecting forwards” (13). The voice, and perhaps most importantly, its potentialities, has been theorized in the realms of critical theory, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and more recently sound studies, as a property that although commonly enacted remains mysterious, beyond the realm of simple intelligibility. Licia Fiol-Matta’s The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music (Duke University Press: 2016).   brilliantly engages many of these theoretical genealogies yet takes an analysis of the voice in surprising new directions. Her focus, as the title indicates, is the career of four “great” Puerto Rican women singers whose careers encompassed a great part of the Twentieth Century. In addition to the theoretical trajectories Fiol-Matta engages, the book is also a welcome addition to the growing field of Latina/o sound studies. Indeed, Latina/o studies’ intersection with sound studies has produced a range of provocative and essential new work that that aim to re-situate how we understand the sonic in Latina/o America.

Once a field dominated by musicologists and historians, sound studies has opened for interdisciplinary scholars new avenues to study the ways in which music and sound intersect with the formation of transnational Latinidad. In particular, many of these studies tend to be anti-canonical, reframing established histories of Latina/o American sounds through expanded forms of listening offered by sound studies. Similarly, listening in new ways to the historical record has allowed scholars in these fields to investigate lesser studied sites or to reframe well established archives. In recent years, we have seen a wealth of exciting (sound) studies that turn our attention and our ears to apprehend how the sonic creates, and often exceeds, forms of knowledge central to these fields. Books such as Deborah R. Vargas’ Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of la Onda  [check the SO! Reads review by Wanda Alarcón], Alexandra T. Vazquez’s Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music, Ana Maria Ochoa-Gauthier’s Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia, and Dolores Inés Casilla’s Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish Language Radio and Public Advocacy  [check the SO! Reads review by Monica De la Torre] to name a few, have re-centered Latina/o and Latin American studies along the lines of the sonic. Departing from (although indebted to) earlier studies of Latina/o American musical forms, this body of work invites us, borrowing Vazquez’s term, to listen in detail not only to the official record, but to the sonic keys and codes hidden beyond official canons of the continental soundscape. In these projects, as in Fiol-Matta’s work, sound is engaged not only in relation to those who produce it but also those of us who must engage in an expansive project of listening.

The “great” woman singer of the title carries multiple valences for the author. It refers of course to the greatness of these singers but also to the ideological strictures that have dictated the very way these singers were received, written about, and interpreted in a larger public sphere that in the book encompasses the continental landscape. Fiol-Matta argues that to conceive of a singer as both great and a woman creates a central divide that forces our listening of female singers into roles dictated by the nation, record companies, fans, and others. In order to challenge this ideological strait-jacked The Great Woman Singer proposes that these great female singers deployed what she calls the “thinking voice,” a form and theory of vocality that turns to a range of theories, primarily psychoanalysis and philosophy, to read the very cultural history of Puerto Rican music during the greater part of the last century.

Fiol-Matta listens in detail to the careers of four singers, Myrta Silva, Ruth Fernández, Ernestina Reyes, and Lucecita Benitez, who throughout their prolific careers were forced to balance their preternaturally gifted voices and defiant public personas against a sexist and homophobic industry and culture that sought to discipline them. In some ways, the histories and careers of each of these singers might seem at first glance to cast them as probable tragic protagonists in a Douglas Sirk melodrama, female figures who are pitted against but ultimately succumb to larger societal forces. A gifted storyteller, Fiol-Matta does provide the reader vivid portrayals of the many challenges that each of these singers faced, yet she pairs these biographical sketches with keen theoretical insight to illuminate how their thinking voice stood against their time. Thus, what emerges throughout The Great Woman Singer is not only a loving portrait of these women, but also a theoretical model that grasps how their extraordinary voices, as well as their performative command of the stage, were able to exist in relation to the weight of the state, culture, and history. Among the book’s most exciting strengths is the encounter between the historico-biographical and a series of deeply theoretical arguments that build throughout. Fiol-Matta deftly combines (to name a few) archival research, cultural history, psychoanalytic theory, queer and feminist theories, close reading, and interviews the author conducted in the course of writing the book.

Ernestina Reyes aka La Calandria, Screen capture by SO!

Although her stated goal is to develop a theory of the thinking voice, Fiol-Matta does so by mining the complex interactions between music’s deployment in the service of state projects, audiences both local and transnational, record companies, the cultural and social history of particular sounds, and the personal and professional lives of the singers themselves. At times such a comprehensive approach feels overwhelming, digressing often from a chapter’s main points to small details of a singer’s oeuvre for example, but this move results necessary to fully illustrate the enormously complex terrains these singers had to navigate. Indeed, the contextual elements of the book provide neophytes to the Puerto Rican and Caribbean sonic landscape the tools to grasp how the voice emerges often against the demands of institutional and cultural forces. However, the driving force of these chapters is an invitation to listen along, so as I read through Fiol-Matta’s chapters I listened along to these voices, enveloping my reading and my listening.

The Great Woman Singer begins with an emblematic moment in the history of Puerto Rican music that helped establish the island’s sonic relation to the rest of Latin America: Lucecita Benítez’s winning performance of “Génesis” at the First Festival of Latin Song in the World. Previous to this moment Puerto Rico, and Lucecita, had occupied a marginal space in the Latina/o American imaginary, but in her performance of composer Guillermo Veneers Lloveras’ song, Benítez reset the script for both.

As Fiol-Matta writes, “no scripts were available to subordinate her and tame her eruption. She was not feminine. She did not sing softly or croon about heterosexual love. She claimed the masculine prerogatives of expressing social and political ideas outside of marriage and motherhood, eschewing the roles that her managers sought to implant in her earliest persona” (3). These opening moments will serve as a refrain through different voices, keys, timbres, and moments throughout the book. The Great Woman Singer, however, is not only a feminist retelling of history, or as Fiol-Matta writes, “It is not a survey of women in music or a tracing of resistance by women to the strictures of music making. My interest in the female pop music star is about querying instances where singularity erupts despite heterosexism and misogyny, through the vehicle of voice” (4). To listen to women seriously, she indicates, is to move away from facile narratives of gender and onto an investigation of what their voice did against the weight of history itself. Like the grain of the voice that began this review, the vocal performances that the book delves into appear to scramble the temporal markers that would contain it.

A central concept in the book is the notion that the voice itself must be understood as a form of thought. As Fiol-Matta writes, to examine the thinking voice of the great woman singer in its historical specificity is a way of thinking gender itself, “a critical theorization of voice and gender, with an anchor in psychoanalytic thought without being exclusively psychoanalytic.” (8). Her approach to the voice functions as the methodology that guides the reader, proposing forms of listening that often escape normative listening practices. Central to the book’s argument is the relationship between music and the state. Indeed, Fiol-Matta refers to the state’s investment in music as a form of “mandated enjoyment” but as she writes, “I unpack enjoyment’s dependency on the performing, female body and detail when, how, and why various forms of control short -circuit, despite their certainty of managing women” (10).

Myrta Silva, Screen Capture by SO!

The first chapter examines the career of Myrta Silva, who enjoyed a long and fruitful career partly because of her mastery of a number of genres, the guaracha and the bolero primary among them. Fiol-Matta puts forward a notion of “cynical ethics” that we can find in Silva’s voice, “a virtuosity that José Esteban Muñoz has linked to queer artistry: the brilliant, conceptual staging of negativity and failure” (19). The height of Silva’s prominence came during the 1940s, her most prolific and successful period. She was an extraordinary figure who interjected herself into traditionally masculine realms, “her positioning was simply unheard of” (21). In the 1950s Silva returned to Puerto Rico from New York, becoming a major figure across media. Fiol-Matta lingers in particular on the excesses of Silva’s body, who in the arc of her career went from a youthful singer to a “sexual bombshell,” eventually to be known as “nuestra gordita,” a figure who had lost the sexual appeal of her youth but who remained iconic in spite of these sexist castings of her body. The chapter listens to Silva’s signature song “Nada.”

The song’s lyrics are self-referential; Silva refers to herself as “nada,” a way of expressing that she does “not want to be looked at/I don’t want to be told what to do, to be touched, spoken to, or be invited to sing/Nothing, I will no longer be called Myrta.” When listening to the song, Silva’s virtuosity becomes immediately apparent as the furious velocity of her voice charges the lyrics in equal amounts with sensuality and negation. As an ostensibly queer artist, this performance of “Nada” signals Silva’s refusal to be coopted by the desires of her male onlookers. As Fiol-Matta makes clear, this positioning is essential to understand the very career of Silva’s body as she morphed from the sensuous “Myrta” to the nearly desexualized “Chencha” later in her career. But her voice “[breached] the distance between signifier and signified and between her persona and person” (33).

The following chapter focuses on Ruth Fernández, one of Puerto Rico’s most prominent black singers. She “entered the star orbit of the music establishment as an exception: the first female lead of any orchestra in Puerto Rico, and also the first black star body in Puerto Rican culture” (67). Blackness, in this chapter, becomes entangled with the question of being itself, with Fernández’s voice a rejoinder that comes into existence against a racist and sexist cultural landscape. Throughout the chapter we hear how Fernández was from her childhood relegated to the sidelines because of her blackness, sometimes quietly, often through the loud marker of “ugliness.” But as with the rest of her case studies, Fiol-Matta shows that Fernández’s trajectory defies any simple narrative that would see her career as a personal triumph against this racism.

Her vocal performance leaps beyond the racist narratives assigned to her blackness although she always had to negotiate them. As the author states, “while Fernández was a pop music singer, she possessed a voice of great volume and color, was naturally virtuosic, and, although not trained, reflected a preference for classically inflected singing that she probably learned or was steered into in school” (68). This education, however, was in itself the result of colonial programs that sought to “civilize” Puerto Rican bodies, but “in this colonial context, her voice opened a gap in the available symbolics of music” (68). The virtuosic register of Fernández’s voice pushed against the racial logics imposed upon Puerto Ricans of African descent, even when descriptions of it understood her blackness as the provenance of her mighty instrument. The chapter is especially attentive to how Fernández’s aural and visual presentation collided and colluded to create a racial sensorium. What emerges in the chapter is a set of difficult negotiations that tether between the official reception of blackness embodied by Fernández’s career and the ways in which the voice, through its signifiers, evades and expands upon those official programs of racial legibility. To approach the black sensorium of Fernández’s career, Fiol-Matta intimates, we must listen past the stories of triumph, hearing as well the wounds that her voice could never quite heal.

The book turns next to Ernestina Reyes, “La Calandria,” Puerto Rico’s foremost interpreter of the jíbaro genre, or music from the countryside. Her fame was unparalleled, “over the course of two decades, she recorded an uncommonly large number of tracks for a woman, a feat made all the more remarkable because she routinely received sole or main billing, collaborated with the very best vocalists of the country music genre, and was as a matter of course backed by master country music cuatro players, certifying her revered standing” (121). But Reyes’s career serves as a gateway to investigate Puerto Rico’s difficult relationship to the figure of the jíbaro, a symbol of the nation’s countryside, a figure equally admired and derided.

As Fiol-Matta explains, “the Puerto Rican genres of plane, bomba, and jíbaro music became explicitly aligned with the national-popular visions that rewrote music history as a racialized narrative of predominantly Hispanophile origins [that] exalted the peasant figure and relegated Afro-Puerto Ricans to a heritage role” (125). Fiol-Matta posits these distinctions as zoe or “bare life.” But, “compared to the Afro-Puerto Rican subject, the symbolic country dweller lived on, however spectrally, while the descendant of slaves faded away as a relic of the past” (125). Calandria was difficult to classify within the racial spectrum of the jíbaro genre, she is consistently described as “dark-skinned” against the figure’s supposed whiteness as she “astutely navigated this extimacy and understood the contradictory affordances of the nothing” (133). Fiol-Matta sees Calandria’s career as an encounter with the “nonplace” in her performance of a figure, the female jíbaro, that did not readily exist in the cultural imaginary. She “learned to convey the ‘rustic’ via well-traveled techniques of rasp and nasality; she also recurred to the shrill tone, which sounded uneducated to the middle classes, a fact that she must have been well aware of” (135). Indeed, Calandria managed a successful career because of the ways in which she disguised her virtuosity through improvisation, playing both in order to create her figure as a singer. Fiol-Matta is attentive to the genre’s own ambivalent place in the Puerto Rican sonic imaginary, teetering between the folksy and the popular, providing readers with a rich history of the demands of iconicity.

The final chapter returns to Lucecita Benítez and most fully develops the concept of the thinking voice. Listening to Benítez’s powerful performance of “Génesis,” the performance that begins the book and serves as its concluding guide, feels overpowering even with decades standing between its moment and the present. It embodies the thinking voice, “an event that can be apprehended through but is not restricted to music performance. It exceeds notation, musicianship, and fandom, although it partakes of them all. No artist owns the thinking voice; it cannot be marshaled at will or silenced when inconvenient. Its aim is not to dazzle or enthrall, although it may do so” (173).Benítez alongside the other singers in the preceding chapters, doesn’t so much possess this voice as much as she wields it, an encounter between prodigious talent and deep technicality. In the case of Lucecita, perhaps the greatest champion of the Puerto Rican sonic imaginary, the expansiveness of the thinking voice took her from her beginnings as a teen superstar to embrace the seismic political calls toward liberation in the 1960s and 70s, and even sustained her as she became a popular balladeer in the dusk of her career. Fiol-Matta explains, “her deep register was truly wondrous and unique in the constellation of all Latin American and Spanish-speaking singers, not just women” (177).  Lucecita did not emerge unscathed, however. As her recordings and performances took on an increasingly defiant tone, aligning herself with the Cuban revolution and Black liberation, she was blacklisted, her career momentarily suspended. As an older figure, her final career incarnation was as a diva never declared such in part because of her butchness. She never turned her back on her political leanings, but adapted to the necessities to continue her career. The chapter’s conclusion is particularly evocative as Fiol-Matta discloses her own disillusionment at this final phase, attending concerts “waiting for the real Lucecita to come back” (224).

But it is this final desire, unfulfilled, that perhaps provides the impetus for a book invested often in reconciliation. Throughout their careers, all four singers performed songs in which they were the explicit protagonists, calling out (and to) their publics, who often chose to ignore these calls in spite of their fascination with the singers. It’s a position familiar to those of us who have declared ourselves fans only to feel like we have been let down by the object of our fascination. And yet what Fiol-Matta proposes with the thinking voice is not simply a mode of reparative reading that restores her (and our own) fandom, but a serious analytic that blurs the distinction between the listening to and the thinking with. Fiol-Matta knows that this is an especially important move when it comes to female singers, whose careers and personas are used to obscure the difficulty they demand from the listener. The Great Woman Singer then provides us with a guide to listen anew and in new ways.

Featured Image: Screen Capture of Ruth Fernández by SO!

Iván Ramos is assistant professor of LGBTQ studies in the department of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland. He was previously a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside.He received his PhD in Performance Studies with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality from UC Berkeley. His first book, Sonic Negations: Unbelonging Subjects, Inauthentic Objects, and Sound between Mexico and the United States, examines how Mexican and U.S. Latino/a artists and publics utilized sound to articulate negation in the wake of NAFTA. Iván’s broader research investigates the links and slippages between transnational Latino/a American aesthetics in relationship to the everydayness of contemporary and historical violence. In Fall 2016, he was a member of the “Queer Hemisphere: América Queer” Residential Research group at the University of California Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine. His writing has appeared in several journals including Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, Studies in Gender and Sexuality, and ASAP/Journal. He has articles forthcoming in the catalog for the exhibition Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A., sponsored by the Getty Foundation, and the anthology Turning Archival from Duke University Press.

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“People’s lives are at stake”: A conversation about Law, Listening, and Sound between James Parker and Lawrence English

Lawrence English is composer, media artist and curator based in Australia. Working across an eclectic array of aesthetic investigations, English’s work prompts questions of field, perception and memory. He investigates the politics of perception, through live performance and installation, to create works that ponder subtle transformations of space and ask audiences to become aware of that which exists at the edge of perception.

James Parker is a senior lecturer at Melbourne Law School, where he is also Director of the research program ‘Law, Sound and the International’ at the Institute for International Law and the Humanities. James’ research addresses the many relations between law, sound and listening, with a particular focus at the moment on sound’s weaponisation. His monograph Acoustic Jurisprudence: Listening to the Trial of Simon Bikindi (OUP 2015) explores the trial of Simon Bikindi, who was accused by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda of inciting genocide with his songs (30% discount available with the code ALAUTHC4). James is also a music critic and radio broadcaster. He will be co-curating an exhibition and parallel public program on Eavesdropping at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne between July and October 2018.


Lawrence English: James, thanks for taking the time to correspond with me. I was interested in having this conversation with you as we’re both interested in sound, but perhaps approaching its potential applications and implications in somewhat different ways. And yet we have a good deal of potential cross over in our sonic interests too. Particularly in the way that meaning is sought and extracted from our engagements with sound. How that meaning is constructed and what is extracted and amplified from those possible, meaningful readings of sound in time and place. I read with great interest your work on acoustic jurisprudence, specifically how you almost build a case for an ontological position that’s relational between sound and the law. I wondered if you could perhaps start with a summary of this framework you’re pushing towards? I am interested to know how it is you have approached this potentiality in the meaning of sound and the challenges that lie in working around an area that is still so diffuse, at least in a legal setting.

James Parker:   Let me begin by saying a sincere thank you for the invitation. As a long-time fan of your work, it’s a pleasure. It’s also symptomatic in a way, because – so far at least – the art world has been much more interested in my research than the legal academy. When I’m in a law faculty and I say that my work is about law’s relationship(s) with sound, people are mostly surprised, sometimes they’re interested, but they rarely care very much. I don’t mean this as a slight. It’s just that their first instinct is always that I’m doing something esoteric: that my work doesn’t really ‘apply’ to them as someone interested in refugee law, contract, torts, evidence, genocide, or whatever the case may be. As you point out though, that’s not the way I see it at all. One of the things I’ve tried to show in my work is just how deeply law, sound and listening are bound up with each other. This is true in all sorts of different ways, whether or not the relationship is properly ‘ontological’.

Image by Flickr User Frank Hebbert, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

At the most obvious level, the soundscape (both our sonic environment and how we relate to it) is always also a lawscape. Our smartphones, loudspeakers, radios and headsets are all proprietary, as is the music we listen to on them and the audio-formats on which that music is encoded. Law regulates and fails to regulate the volume and acoustic character of our streets, skies, workplaces, bedrooms and battlefields. Courts and legislatures claim to govern the kinds of vocalizations we make – what we can say or sing, where and when – and who gets to listen. As yet another music venue, airport, housing development or logging venture receives approval, new sounds enter the world, others leave it and things are subtly reconstituted as a result.

What’s striking when you look at the legal scholarship, however, is that how sound is conceived for such purposes gets very little attention. There are exceptions: in the fields of copyright and anti-noise regulation particularly. But for the most part, legal thought and practice is content to work with ‘common sense’ assumptions which would be immediately discredited by anyone who spends their time thinking hard about what sound is and does. So as legal academics, legislators, judges, and so on, we need to be much better at attending to law’s ‘sonic imagination’. When an asylum seeker is denied entry to the UK because of the way he pronounces the Arabic word for ‘tomato’ (which actually happened…the artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan has done some fantastic work on this), what set of relations between voice, accent and citizenship is at stake? When a person is accused of inciting genocide with their songs (in this instance a Rwandan musician called Simon Bikindi), what theory or theories of music manifest themselves in the decision-making body’s discourse and in the application of its doctrine? These are really important questions, it seems to me. To put it bluntly: people’s lives are at stake.

microphone where attorneys present arguments at the Iowa Court of Appeals, Image by Flickr User Phil Roeder,  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Another way of thinking about the law-sound relation would be to think about the role played by sound in legal practice: in courtrooms, legislatures etc. For a singer to be tried for genocide, for instance, his songs must be heard. Audio and audio- video recordings must be entered as evidence and played aloud to the court; a witness or two may sing. How? When? Why? The judicial soundscape is surprisingly diverse, it turns out. Gavels knock (at least in some jurisdictions), oaths are sworn, judgment is pronounced; and all of this increasingly into microphones, through headsets, and transmitted via audio-video link to prisons and elsewhere. This stuff matters. It warrants thinking about.

Outside the courtroom, sound is often the medium of law’s articulation: what materialises it, gives it reality, shape, force and effect. Think of the police car’s siren, for instance, or a device like the LRAD, which I know you’re also interested in. Or in non-secular jurisdictions, we could think equally of the church bells in Christianity, the call to prayer in Islam or the songlines of Aboriginal Australia. The idea that law today is an overwhelmingly textual and visual enterprise is pretty commonplace. But it’s an overstatement. Sound remains a key feature of law’s conduct, transmission and embodiment.

“Area Man Cheers for LRAD Arrival,” Pittsburgh G-20 summit protests, 2009, Image by Flickr User Jeeves,  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

And to bring me back to where I started, I feel like artists and musicians are generally better tuned in to this than us lawyers.

English: Given the fact that the voice, and I suppose I mean both literally and metaphorically, reigns so heavily in the development and execution of the law it’s surprising that the discourses around sound aren’t a little more engaged. That being said, it’s not that surprising really, as I’d argue that until recently the broader conversations around sound and listening have been rather sparse. It’s only really in the past three decades have we started to see a swell of critical writings around these topics. The past decade particularly has produced a wealth of thought that addresses sound.

Early Dictophone, Museum of Communication, Image by Flickr User Andy Dean,  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I suppose though that really this situation you describe in the law is tied back into the questions that surround the recognition of sound and the complexities of audition more generally. I can’t help but feel that sound has suffered historically from a lack of theoretical investigation. Partly this is due to the late development of tools that provided the opportunity for sound to linger beyond its moment of utterance. That recognition of the subjectivity of audition, revealed in those first recordings of the phonograph must have been a powerful moment. In that second, suddenly, it was apparent that how we listen, and what it is we extract from a moment to moment encounter with sound is entirely rooted in our agency and intent as a listener. The phonograph’s capturing of audio, by contrast, is without this socio-cultural agency. It’s a receptacle that’s technologically bound in the absolute.

I wonder if part of the anxiety, if that’s the word that could be used, around the way that sound is framed in a legal sense is down to its impermanence. That until quite recently we had to accept the experience of sound, as entirely tethered to that momentary encounter. I sense that the law is slow to adapt to new forms and structures. Where do you perceive the emergence of sound as a concern for law? At what point did the law, start to listen?

Parker: Wow, there’s so much in this question. In relation to your point about voice, of course lawyers do ‘get it’ on some level. If you speak to a practitioner, they’re sure to have an anecdote or two about the sonorous courtroom and the (dark) arts of legal eloquence. You may even get an academic to recognise that a theory of voice is somehow implicit in contemporary languages of democracy, citizenship and participatory politics: this familiar idea that (each of us a little sovereign) together we manifest the collective ‘voice’ of the people. But you’ll be hard pushed to find anyone in the legal academy actually studying any of this (outside the legal academy, I can thoroughly recommend Mladen Dolar’s incredible A Voice and Nothing More, which is excellent – if brief – on the voice’s legal and political dimensions). One explanation, as you say, might be that it’s only relatively recently that a discourse has begun to emerge around sound across the academy: in which case law’s deafness would be symptomatic of a more general inattention to sound and listening. That’s part of the story, I think. But it’s also true that the contemporary legal academy has developed such an obsession with doctrine and the promise of law reform that really any inquiry into law’s material or metaphysical aspects is considered out of the ordinary. In this sense, voice is just one area of neglect amongst many.

As for your points about audio-recording, it’s certainly true that access to recordings makes research on sound easier in some respects. There’s no way I could have written my book on the trial of Simon Bikindi, for instance, without access to the audio-archive of all the hearings. Having said that, I’m pretty suspicious of this idea that the phonograph, or for that matter any recording/reproductive technology could be ‘without agency’ as you put it. It strikes me that the agency of the machine/medium is precisely one of the things we should be attending to.

English: I may have been a little flippant. I agree there’s nothing pure about any technology and we should be suspicious of any claims towards that. It seems daily we’re reminded that our technologies and their relationships with each other pose a certain threat, whether that be privacy through covert recording or potential profiling as suggested by the development of behavioral recognition software with CCTV cameras.

Parker: Not just that. CCTV cameras are being kitted out with listening devices now too. There was a minor controversy about their legality and politics earlier this year in Brisbane in fact.

“Then They Put That Up There”–Shotspotter surveillance mic on top of the Dolores Mission, Image by Flickr User Ariel Dovas, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

English:  Thinking about sound technologies, at the most basic level, the pattern of the microphone, cardioid, omni and the like, determines a kind of possibility for the articulation of voice, and its surrounds. I think the microphone conveys a very strong political position in that its design lends itself so strongly to the power of singular voice. That has manifest itself in everything from media conferences and our political institutions, through to the inane power plays of ‘lead singers’ in 1980s hard rock. The microphone encourages, both in its physical and acoustic design, a certain singular focus. It’s this singularity that some artists, say those working with field recording, are working against. This has been the case in some of the field recordings I have undertaken over the years. It has been a struggle to address my audition and contrast it with that of the microphone. How is it these two rather distinct fields of audition might be brought into relief? I imagine these implications extend into the courtroom.

Parker: Absolutely. Microphones have been installed in courtrooms for quite a while now, though not necessarily (or at least not exclusively) for the purposes of amplification. Most courts are relatively small, so when mics do appear it’s typically for archival purposes, and especially to assist in the production of trial transcripts. This job used to be done by stenographers, of course, but increasingly it’s automated.

Stenographer, Image by Flickr User Mike Gifford, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

So no, in court, microphones don’t tend to be so solipsistic. In fact, in some instances they can help facilitate really interesting collective speaking and listening practices. At institutions like the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, or for the Former Yugoslavia, for instance, trials are conducted in multiple languages at once, thanks to what’s called ‘simultaneous interpretation’. Perhaps you’re familiar with how this works from the occasional snippets you see of big multi-national conferences on the news, but the technique was first developed at the Nuremberg Trials at the end of WWII.

What happens is that when someone speaks into a microphone – whether it’s a witness, a lawyer or a judge – what they’re saying gets relayed to an interpreter watching and listening on from a soundproof booth. After a second or two’s delay, the interpreter starts translating what they’re saying into the target language. And then everyone else in the courtroom just chooses what language they want to listen to on the receiver connected to their headset. Nuremberg operated in four languages, the ICTR in three. And of course, this system massively affects the nature of courtroom eloquence. Because of the lag between the original and interpreted speech, proceedings move painfully slowly.

Council of Human Rights of the United Nations investigates possible violations committed during the Israeli offensive in the band Gaza,  27 December to 18 January 2008. Image courtesy of the United Nations Geneva via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Courtroom speech develops this odd rhythm whereby everyone is constantly pausing mid-sentence and waiting for the interpretation to come through. And the intonation of interpreted speech is obviously totally different from the original too. Not only is a certain amount of expression or emotion necessarily lost along the way, the interpreter will have an accent, they’ll have to interpret speech from both genders, and then – because the interpreter is performing their translation on the fly (this is extraordinarily difficult to do by the way… it takes years of training) – inevitably they end up placing emphasis on odd words, which can make what they say really difficult to follow. As a listener, you have to concentrate extremely hard: learn to listen past the pauses, force yourself to make sense of the stumbling cadence, strange emphasis and lack of emotion.

On one level, this is a shame of course: there’s clearly a ‘loss’ here compared with a trial operating in a single language. But if it weren’t for simultaneous interpretation, these Tribunals couldn’t function at all. You could say the same about the UN as a whole actually.

English: I agree. Though for what it’s worth it does seem as though we’re on a pathway to taking the political and legal dimensions of sound more seriously. Your research is early proof of that, as are cases such as Karen Piper’s suit against the city of Pittsburgh in relation to police use of an LRAD. As far as the LRAD is concerned, along with other emerging technologies like the Hypershield and the Mosquito, it’s as though sound’s capacity for physical violence, and the way this is being harnessed by police and military around the world somehow brings these questions more readily into focus.

Parker: I think that’s right. There’s definitely been a surge of interest in sound’s ‘weaponisation’ recently. In terms of law suits, in addition to the case brought by Karen Piper against the City of Pittsburgh, LRAD use has been litigated in both New York and Toronto, and there was a successful action a couple of years back in relation to a Mosquito installed in a mall in Brisbane.

On the more scholarly end of things, Steve Goodman’s work on ‘sonic warfare’ has quickly become canonical, of course. But I’d also really recommend J. Martin Daughtry’s new book on the role of sound and listening in the most recent Iraq war. Whereas Goodman focuses on the more physiological end of things – sound’s capacity both to cause physical harm (deafness, hearing loss, miscarriages etc) and to produce more subtle autonomic or affective responses (fear, desire and so on) – Daughtry is also concerned with questions of psychology and the ways in which our experience even of weaponised sound is necessarily mediated by our histories as listeners. For Daughtry, the problem of acoustic violence always entails a spectrum between listening and raw exposure.

These scholarly interventions are really important, I think (even though neither Goodman nor Daughtry are interested in drawing out the legal dimensions of their work). Because although it’s true that sound’s capacity to wound provides a certain urgency to the debate around the political and legal dimensions of the contemporary soundscape, it’s important not to allow this to become the only framework for the discussion. And that certainly seems to have happened with the LRAD.

Of course, the LRAD’s capacity to do irreparable physiological harm matters. Karen Piper now has permanent hearing loss, and I’m sure she’s not the only one. But that shouldn’t be where the conversation around this and other similar devices begins and ends. The police and the military have always been able to hurt people. It’s the LRAD’s capacity to coerce and manage the location and movements of bodies by means of sheer acoustic force – and specifically, by exploiting the peculiar sensitivity of the human ear to mid-to-high pitch frequencies at loud volumes – that’s new. To me, the LRAD is at its most politically troubling precisely to the extent that it falls just short of causing injury. Whether or not lasting injury results, those in its way will have been subjected to the ‘sonic dominance’ of the state.

So we should be extremely wary of the discourse of ‘non-lethality’ that is being mobilised by to justify these kinds of technologies: to convince us that they are somehow more humane than the alternatives: the lesser of two evils, more palatable than bullets and batons. The LRAD renders everyone before it mute biology. It erases subjectivity to work directly on the vulnerable ear. And that strikes me as something worthy of our political and legal attention.

English: I couldn’t agree more. These conversations need to push further outward into the blurry unknown edges if we’re to realise any significant development in how the nature of sound is theorised and analysed moving forward into the 21st century. Recently I have been researching the shifting role of the siren, from civil defence to civil assault. I’ve been documenting the civil defence sirens in Los Angeles county and using them as a starting point from which to trace this shift towards a weaponisation of sound. The jolt out of the cold war into the more spectre-like conflicts of this century has been like a rupture and the siren is one of a number of sonic devices that I feel speak to this redirection of how sound’s potential is considered and applied in the everyday.

Featured Image: San Francisco 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Jury Box, Image by Flickr User Thomas Hawk, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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