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Re-orienting Sound Studies’ Aural Fixation: Christine Sun Kim’s “Subjective Loudness”

Editors’ note: As an interdisciplinary field, sound studies is unique in its scope—under its purview we find the science of acoustics, cultural representation through the auditory, and, to perhaps mis-paraphrase Donna Haraway, emergent ontologies. Not only are we able to see how sound impacts the physical world, but how that impact plays out in bodies and cultural tropes. Most importantly, we are able to imagine new ways of describing, adapting, and revising the aural into aspirant, liberatory ontologies. The essays in this series all aim to push what we know a bit, to question our own knowledges and see where we might be headed. In this series, co-edited by Airek Beauchamp and Jennifer Stoever you will find new takes on sound and embodiment, cultural expression, and what it means to hear. –AB

A stage full of opera performers stands, silent, looking eager and exhilarated, matching their expressions to the word that appears on the iPad in front of them. As the word “excited” dissolves from the iPad screen, the next emotion, “sad” appears and the performers’ expressions shift from enthusiastic to solemn and downcast to visually represent the word on the screen.  The “singers” are performing in Christine Sun Kim’s conceptual sound artistic performance entitled, Face Opera.

The singers do not use audible voices for their dramatic interpretation, as they would in a conventional opera, but rather use their faces to convey meaning and emotion keyed to the text that appears on the iPad in front of them. Challenging the traditional notions of dramatic interpretation, as well as the concepts of who is considered a singer and what it means to sing, this art performance is just one way Kim calls into question the nature of sound and our relationship to it.

Audible sound is, of course, essential to sound studies though sound itself is not audist, as it can be experienced in a multitude of ways. The contemporary multi-modal turn in sound studies enables ways to theorize how more bodies can experience sound, including audible sound, motion, vibration, and visuals. All humans are somewhere on a spectrum between enabled and disabled and between hearing and deaf. As we grow older most people move farther toward the disabled and deaf ends of the spectrum. In order to experience sound for a lifetime, it is imperative to explore multi-modal ways of experiencing sound. For instance, the Deaf community rejects the term disabled, yet realizes it is actually normative constructs of hearing, sound, and music that disable Deaf people. But, as Kim demonstrates, Deaf people engage with sound all of the time.  In this case, Deaf individuals are not disabled but rather, what I identify as difabled (differently-abled) in their relationship with sound. While this term is not yet used in disability scholarship, it is not completely unique, as there is a Difabled Twitter page dedicated to, “Ameliorating inclusion in technology, business and society.” Rejection of the word disabled inspires me to adopt difabled to challenge the cultural binary of ability and embrace a more multi-modal approach.

Kim’s art explores sound in a variety of modalities to decenter hearing as the only, or even primary, way to experience sound. A conceptual sound artist who was born profoundly deaf, Kim describes her move into the sound artistic landscape: “In the back of my mind, I’ve always felt that sound was your thing, a hearing person’s thing. And sound is so powerful that it could either disempower me and my artwork or it could empower me. I chose to be empowered.”

For sound to empower, however, cultural perception has to move beyond the ear – a move that sound studies is uniquely poised to enable. Using Kim’s art as a guide, I investigate potential places for Deaf within sound studies. I ask if there are alternative ways to listen in a field devoted to sound. Bridging sound studies and Deaf studies it is possible to see that sound is not ableist and audist, but sound studies traditionally has suffered from an aural fixation, a fetishization of hearing as the best or only way to experience sound.

Pushing beyond the understanding of hearing as the primary (or only) sound precept, some scholars have begun to recognize the centrality of the body’s senses in sound experience. For instance, in his research on reggae, Julian Henriques coined the term sonic dominance to refer to sound that is not just heard but that “pervades, or even invades the body” (9). This experience renders the sound experience as tactile, felt within the body. Anne Cranny-Francis, who writes on multi-modal literacies, describes the intimate relationship between hearing and sound, believing that “sound literally touches us,” This process of listening is described as an embodied experience that is “intimate” and “visceral.” Steph Ceraso calls this multi-modal listening. By opening up the body to listen in multi-modal ways, full-bodied, multi-sense experiences of sound are possible. Anthropologist Roshanak Kheshti believes that the differentiation of our senses created a division of labor for our senses – a colonizing process that maximizes the use-value and profit of each individual sense. She reminds her audience that “sound is experienced (felt) by the whole body intertwining what is heard by the ears with what is felt on the flesh, tasted on the tongue, and imagined in the psyche” (714), a process she calls touch listening.

Other scholars continue to advocate for a place for the body in sound studies. For instance, according to Nina Sun Eidsheim, in Sensing Sound, sound allows us to posit questions about objectivity and reality (1), as posed in the age-old question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Eidsheim challenges the notion of a sound, particularly music, as fixed by exploring multiple ways sound may be sensed within the body. Airek Beauchamp, through his notion of sonic tremblings, detaches sound from the realm of the static by returning to the materiality of the body as a site of dynamic processes and experiences that “engages with the world via a series of shimmers and impulses.”  Understanding the body as a place of engagement rather than censorship, Cara Lynne Cardinale calls for a critical practice of look-listening that reconceptualizes the modalities of the tongue and hands.

Vibrant Vibrations by Flickr User The Manic Macrographer (CC BY 2.0)

As these scholars have identified, privileging audible sound over other senses reinforces normative ideas of communication and presumes that individuals hear, speak, and experience sound in normative ways. These ableist and audist rhetorics are particularly harmful for individuals who are Deaf. Deaf community members actively resist these ableist and audist assumptions to show that sound is not just for hearing. Kim identifies as part of the Deaf community and uses her art to challenge the ableist and audist ideologies of the sound experience. Through exploring one of Christine Sun Kim’s performance pieces, Subjective Loudness, I argue that we can conceptualize sound studies in the absence of auditory sound through the two concepts Kim’s piece were named for, subjectivity and loudness.

In creating Subjective Loudness, Kim asked 200 Tokyo residents to help her create a musical score. Hearing participants were asked to use their bodies to replicate sounds of common 85 dB noises into microphones. The sounds Kim selected included: the swishing of a washing machine, the repetitive rotation of printing press, the chaos of a loud urban street, and the harsh static of a food blender. After the list was complete, Kim has the sounds translated into a musical score, sung by four of Kim’s closest friends. The noises then become music, which Kim lowers below normal human hearing range for a vibratory experience accessible to hearing and non-hearing individuals alike; The result is music that is not heard but rather felt. As vibrations shake the walls, windows, and furniture audience members feel the music.

Kim’s performance expands upon current understandings of the body in sound by incorporating multiple materialities of sound into one experience. Rather than simply looking at an existing sound in a new way, she develops and executes the sound experience for her participants. Kim types the names of common 85 dB sounds, what most hearing people may call “noise” on an iPad – a visual representation of the sound.

By asking participants to use their bodies to replicate these sounds – to change words into noise – Kim moves visual representation moves into the audible domain. This phase is contingent on each participant’s subjective experience with the particular sound, yet it also relies on the materiality of the human body to be able to replicate complex sounds. The audible sounds were then returned to a visual state as they were translated into a musical score. In this phase, noise is silenced as it is placed as musical notes on a page. The score is then sung, audibly, once again shifting visual into audible. Noise becomes music.

Yet even in the absence of hearing the performers sing, observers can see and perhaps feel the performance. Similar to Kim’s Face Opera, this performance is not just for the ear. The music is then silenced by reducing its volume beyond that of normal hearing range. Vibrations surround the participants for a tactile experience of sound. But participants aren’t just feeling the vibrations, they are instruments of vibration as well, exerting energy back into the space that then alters the sound experience for other bodies. The materiality of the body allows for a subjective experience of sound that Kim would not be able to as easily manipulate if she simply asked audience members to feel vibrations from a washing machine or printing press. But Kim doesn’t just tinker with the subjectivity of modality, she also plays with loudness.

Christine Sun Kim at Work, Image by Flickr User Joi Ito, (CC BY 2.0)

In this performance Kim creates a think interweaving of modalities. Part of this interplay involves challenging our understanding of loudness. For instance, participants recreate loud noises, but then the loud noise is reduced to silence as it is translated into a musical score. The volume has been dialed down, as has the intensity as the musical score isolates participates. The sound experience, as the score, is then sung, reconnecting the audience to a shared experience. Floating with the ebb and flow of the sound, participants are surrounded by sound, then removed from it, only to then be surrounded again. Finally, as the sound is reduced beyond hearing range, the vibrations are loud, not in volume but in intensity. The participants are enveloped in a sonorous envelope of sonic experience, one that is felt through and within the body. This performance combats a long-standing belief Kim had about her relationship with sound.

As a child, Kim was taught, “sound wasn’t a part of my life.”  She recounted in a TED talk that her experience was like living in a foreign country, “blindly following its rules, behaviors, and norms.” But Kim recognized the similarities between sound and ASL.  “In Deaf culture, movement is equivalent to sound,” Kim stated in the same talk. Equating music with ASL, Kim notes that neither a musical note nor an ASL sign represented on paper can fully capture what a music note or sign are. Kim uses a piano metaphor to make her point better understood to a hearing audience. “English is a linear language, as if one key is being pressed at a time. However, ASL is more like a chord, all ten fingers need to come down simultaneously to express a clear concept in ASL.” If one key were to change, the entire meaning would change. Subjective Loudness attempts to demonstrate this, as Kim moves visual to sound and back again before moving sound to vibration. Each one, individually, cannot capture the fullness of the word or musical note. Taken as a performative whole, however, it becomes easier to conceptualize vibration and movement as sound.

Christine Sun Kim speaking ASL, Image by Flickr User Joi Ito, (CC BY 2.0)

In Subjective Loudness, Kim’s performance has sonic dominance in the absence of hearing. “Sonic dominance,” Henriques writes, “is stuff and guts…[I]t’s felt over the entire surface of the skin. The bass line beats on your chest, vibrating the flesh, playing on the bone, and resonating in the genitals” (58). As Kim’s audience placed hands on walls, reaching out to to feel the music, it is possible to see that Kim’s performance allowed for full-bodied experiences of sound – a process of touch listening. And finally, incorporating Deaf and hearing individuals in her performance, Kim shows that all bodies can utilize multi-modal listening as a way to experience sound. Kim’s performances re-centers alternative ways of listening. Sound can be felt through vibration. Sound can be seen in visual representations such as ASL or visual art.

Image of Christine Sun Kim’s painting “Pianoiss….issmo” by Flickr User watashiwani  (CC BY 2.0)

Through  Subjective Loudness, it is possible to investigate subjectivity and loudness of sound experiences. Kim does not only explore sound represented in multi-modal ways, but weaves sound through the modalities, moving the audible to the visual to the tactile and often back again. This sound-play allows audiences to question current conceptions of sound, to explore sounds in multi-modalities, and to use our subjectivities in sharing our experiences of sound with others.  Kim’s art performances are interactive by design because the materiality and subjectivity of bodies is what makes her art so powerful and recognizable. Toying with loudness as intensity, Kim challenges her audience to feel intensity in the absence of volume and spark the recognition that not all bodies experience sound in normative ways. Deaf bodies are vitally part of the soundscape, experiencing and producing sound. Kim’s work shows Deaf bodies as listening bodies, and amplifies the fact that Deaf bodies have something to say.

Featured image: Screen capture by Flickr User evan p. cordes,   (CC BY 2.0)

Sarah Mayberry Scott is an Instructor of Communication Studies at Arkansas State University. Sarah is also a doctoral student in Communication and Rhetoric at the University of Memphis. Her current research focuses on disability and ableist rhetorics, specifically in d/Deafness. Her dissertation uses the work of Christine Sun Kim and other Deaf artists to explore the rhetoricity of d/Deaf sound performances and examine how those performances may continue to expand and diversify the sound studies and disability studies landscapes.

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Introduction to Sound, Ability, and Emergence Forum –Airek Beauchamp

The Listening Body in Death— Denise Gill

Unlearning Black Sound in Black Artistry: Examining the Quiet in Solange’s A Seat At the Table — Kimberly Williams

Technological Interventions, or Between AUMI and Afrocuban Timba –Caleb Lázaro Moreno

“Sensing Voice”*-Nina Sun Eidsheim

The Listening Body in Death

Editors’ note: As a discipline Sound Studies is unique in its scope—under its purview we find the science of acoustics, cultural representation through the auditory, and, to perhaps mis-paraphrase Donna Haraway, emergent ontologies. Not only are we able to see how sound impacts the physical world, but how that impact plays out in bodies and cultural tropes. Most importantly, we are able to imagine new ways of describing, adapting, and revising the aural into aspirant, liberatory ontologies. The essays in this series all aim to push what we know a bit, to question our own knowledges and see where we might be headed. In this series, co-edited by Airek Beauchamp and Jennifer Stoever you will find new takes on sound and embodiment, cultural expression, and what it means to hear. –AB

My voice melds with the sound of the water pouring from the hose, as I gently massage the waste, blood, and tears from the body of the deceased. In the act of washing the dead, water is simultaneously sound, spirit, and sensory experience for the deceased and for the washer herself.

Washing the deceased in groups of three, our individual solo voices punctuate space at our own paces and intensities. Our sound soothes and cleanses the deceased as much as our washing. The melodic recitations we provide when gently holding the deceased are the most important components of ritual cleansing before one is buried. We repeatedly sound “Forgiveness, o Teacher [e.g., God]” while exhaling and inhaling. Often we recite the Tekbir—which articulates God’s greatness—adding a melodic architecture to our textured calls for forgiveness.

In washing the dead, we touch the deceased with respect and humility. “Please,” a family member will often beg, “please do not use cold water.” We quickly respond, “of course, this sister is still sensing us.”

Approaching the grieving we smile and gently say, “she is only without breath.”  We turn on the water and gently command: “bring me your hand.” And the bereaved joins hands with the washer and feels the warmth of the water. We espouse a tactility exclusively belonging to the washer—as the choreographer and improviser of mourning—with the one who is left alive and in grief.

Our touch and voices alter with each separate experiencing of washing the dead. Because each deceased woman is her own person with her different body and causes of death, no encounter is the same. In the way that we leverage our own bodily movements of lifting and turning the deceased’s body, we actively chose to duet with sounds pouring from the mourning family members in the room. If the mourners are silent, we tend to fill the space with our sound. Our recitations are not only for ritual per se, but exist to offer pleasing sounds to the dead herself.

We recite believing, as Muslims do, that her soul still hears us. While “dead,” she can communicate with all or part of her former body, cooperating with us, the living, as we mediate mourning and prepare her body for burial.

One of the most hard-drawn sensory lines we assume and maintain is the border of death. Death ostensibly marks the end of our constellation of sense experience, engenders the limit of the body, and demarcates the edges of aurality. While we know that hearing remains the last of the senses experienced in dying, scholars of sound studies have yet to extend our exceptional inquiries on hearing, aurality, and listening into posthumous auralities practiced by multiple communities throughout the world. How might sound studies scholars attend to the multi-sensory perceptions and auralities that extend beyond the grey where western epistemological structures end?

As a specialist of Ottoman and Turkish classical musics, I have long been interested in how variant Sunni Islamic practices—themselves rooted in centuries of philosophical debates outside of those generated in “the west”—unsettle categories that many scholars globally assume to be fixed and natural. My current projects have led me to consider the intensity of diverse listening structures attuned to violent thresholds of death in Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean seas.

In fall of 2016, my ethnography on listening towards posthumous aurality brought me to Karacaahmet Cemetery in Istanbul, a critically important burial ground of the Ottoman Empire and reportedly the second largest cemetery in the world. Here I was apprenticed to the women of Karacaahmet, practicing Sunni Muslims and official state employees who provide the service of conducting the Islamic rituals of washing the dead. During this time I had the privilege of laying dozens of women and girl-children of all ages, diseases, and accidents to rest with sound.

Walking in Karacaahmet. Istanbul, September 2016. Photograph by the author.

In taking posthumous aurality seriously, I have few paths of translation available to me. I am challenged by normative secular belief structures that we may uncritically reproduce in scholarship. Death is not necessarily the end of aurality. Provincializing western critical theory and engaging ethnographic insight from non-western eschatologies—the areas of theology concerned with death and dying—invites one path for expanding our structures of listening beyond a body’s end.

For decades now, scholars have studied the body not as an accomplished fact but rather as a process. Yet in the body praxis long upheld in Islamic death rituals in Turkey, the vitality, socialization, and subjection of the body does not end in death, but rather passes into an alternate sensory and dialogically sonic realm. Death offers a space akin to what Bohlman and Engelhardt have considered as the sonic emptiness of religious ontologies, or “a space of perception and experience, not of silence and absence.”

Posthumous aurality, as I define and explore it, takes both an ethnographic and a sound studies approach to consider sensory possibilities of death. In this liminal space of mingled bodies—the bodies of the dead, the washers as care laborers, and the deceased’s mourning family members—I listen at a crossroads in which local belief structures mediate and structure sounds, soundings, silences, and voicing.

In Muslim cemeteries in Istanbul, it is believed that there is life in the grave. Death is described in terms of development, progression, pathway, and mere transition from one stage of life to another stage. The barzakh, the barrier of the grave and time spent dwelling posthumously in it, is an interstitial zone entered upon death which the soul can experience pleasure and pain, socialize and commune with others. There exists no necessary binary of life versus death, sound versus silence in these spaces.

The barzakh is a stage of movement, a zone of transference and oscillation. The body is a listening body—its soul communicates and lingers around it, sensing the sounds and touch offered by the washers. Ottoman poetry abounds about such sensings, echoing the understanding the body is a cage and the spirit is incarcerated in it. Artists of the word—with wording historically experienced aurally—narrate the body as wishing for its release (e.g., death) and the possibility of being reunited with its beloved (e.g., the divine) and returning to the earth as soil.

Sonic generosity in the face of death requires washers to engage a modality of listening, touch, and sounding to send an individual to the next realm to await resurrection. Her soul circles the room where we wash her body, listening and participating with us sonically, called back to her body in the grave three times before it is closed.

We believe we hold the body in its second most intimate moment in life, after that of its emergence from the womb. The scent of death fills our nostrils as we sweat to lift the deceased after we finish shrouding her and sprinkling the shroud with rose water. Gently, we ease her into the pine box that transports her to her grave.

And after we are done washing someone—whether we refer to her as “sister,” “aunt,” or “daughter”—we later, in our back tea room, remark upon the grieving of the family members joining us in the room and the discovery of ailments or sores on our sister.

The shoes that we shed at the entrance to our back tea room. Istanbul, October 2016. Photograph by the author.

In these moments of collective sharing, we discover ourselves in our shared similarities with the dead. Wisdom is, after all, listening in tandem with others and recognizing that which is most human in all of us.

In the context of Cairo, Egypt, Charles Hirschkind has beautifully analyzed “the ethical and therapeutic virtues of the ear.” Yet in washing the dead, I produce and engage in a space beyond the pieties maintained by circulating listening structures in particular places. I enter a particular and intimate form of relationality—not a relationship to myself as a subject or the subjection of the dead other, but rather to relationality itself as a form of the sonorous. Jean-Luc Nancy reminds us that the sonorous “outweighs form.” In listening towards posthumous aurality, I am ushered into a unique corporeal and sensorial form of access. Posthumous aurality is simultaneously “mine” and also shared.

Posthumous aurality renders all of our bodies—including that of the literal post-human dead—as capable of being influenced by others in that place. Sharing posthumous auralities in tandem with the washers, the grieving, and the deceased echoes in a space that is indissociably material and spiritual, internal and external, singular and plural.

The critical theories and methodologies of sound studies tend to not center diverse non-western tenets of sensory apparatus espoused by individuals and communities who perceive sound outside of the boundaries of western metaphysics. Posthumous auralities—when translated and mediated linguistically—offers a sound path to understanding the continuations and transformations of sense experience that occur in death.  Tuning into posthumous auralities in Turkey’s urban Muslim cemeteries has helped me recover sounds long unheard because they have been relegated to the boundaries of our academic disciplines and the fringes of our very lives.

Featured Image: A view from Eyüp Sultan.  Istanbul, October 2016.  Photograph by the author.

Denise Gill is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Washington University in St. Louis in the Departments of Music; Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; and Jewish, Islamic, and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. Her research has been supported by Fulbright and ACLS.  Her book, Melancholic Modalities: Affect, Islam, and Turkish Classical Musicians (Oxford, 2017), introduces methodologies of rhizomatic analysis and bi-aurality for scholars of sound, musical practices, and affect.  Her current projects focus on listening structures of death, refugee loss, and acoustemologies of Muslim cemeteries and shrines in Istanbul. A kanun (trapezoidal zither) player, Denise has performed in concert halls in Turkey, the U.S., and throughout major cities in Europe. 

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Something’s Got a Hold on Me: ‘Lingering Whispers’ of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Ghana–Sionne Neely

The Amplification of Muted Voices: Notes on a Recitation of the Adhan–David Font-Navarrette

Troubling Silence: Sonic and Affective Dispossessions of the African Slave Trade–Michelle Commander

An Ear-splitting Cry: Gender, Performance, and Representations of Zaghareet in the U.S.“-Meghan Drury

SO! Amplifies: Anne Le Troter’s “Bulleted List”

SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

Nestled deep in a corner of Paris’ Palais de Tokyo, Anne Le Troter’s sound piece “Bulleted List” invites the museum’s visitors to explore the social similarities that people verbally express in response to cold calls. Le Troter’s first solo show to be on display in Paris, the work invites the audience to sit inside a modified cinema amphitheater as the sounds of recorded people answering survey queries echo throughout the sloped room. The seating arrangement inside the exhibition mirrors the cubicle-style setup of a call center, though each “station” consists solely of an outline designating where to sit and a coordinating amplifier. Both the questions and answers in the sound piece are produced by real survey callers; each voice sounds polished, poised and mechanized from years of vocal experience, revealing the automated nature that comes with the territory of making a scripted call. The result of each recorded voice unto the listener is akin to standing in the center of a symphony, with vocal patterns as punctuated as a visual, typographic list.

At the Palais de Tokyo I set up a play of light, a new element in my work, which gives visitors a time reference, even if they arrive half way through. Each broadcast is incidentally interspersed with a long silence to emphasize the idea of a session. This determines the attention span given to a work. The collective listening situation I find especially interesting because it reveals a set of patterns of behaviour, a whole language of bodies and eyes between the spectators. These micro-actions, just like the mental paratext of visitors and pollsters (those words that are not uttered but which ring out in our heads when we think or write), swell the work.  –Anne Le Troter, interview with Raphael Brunel

Still of Anne Le Troter’s “Bulleted List” at the Palais de Tokyo, image by author

The progression of sounds in the exhibition follow a distinct, if not choppy routine, with a clearly enunciated polling question asked — “What is your relationship status?” for example — followed by equally simplistic answers — “widowed,” “married” and “couple,” to note a few.   Reflective of the exhibition’s timely concurrence with the French presidential election, each of the questions asked in the sound piece culminates in a political questionnaire, with the same questions and answers being traded back and forth between people in all areas of the political spectrum — indicating that there are fewer differences between the various polling demographics and how they express their opinions than what appears at first glance.

“Bulleted List” opened at the Palais de Tokyo on Feb. 3, 2017, and will close on May 8.

Anne Le Troter was born in 1985 and currently lives in Paris. She graduated from the Geneva School of Art and Design in 2012, and her first solo shows were held at the Arnaud Deschin Gallery (Paris, 2016), BF15 (Lyon, 2015), Espace Crosnier (Geneva, 2015) and Espace Quark (Geneva, 2014). In 2016, she was awarded the Grand Prix at the 61st Salon de Montrouge.

Featured Image: Still of Anne Le Troter’s “Bulleted List” taken by the author

Shauna Bahssin is a sophomore at Binghamton University who double-majors in English and art history. She currently serves as the copy desk chief for the student newspaper, Pipe Dream, and has written for its news and arts and culture sections in the past. Outside of the paper, she is involved with the university’s fundraising initiatives through the Binghamton Telefund, and she hopes to work within the field of arts development and advancement after she graduates.

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SO! Amplifies: Mendi+Keith Obadike and Sounding Race in America

Sound and Curation; or, Cruisin’ through the galleries, posing as an audiophiliac–reina alejandra prado

SO! Amplifies: Allison Smartt, Sound Designer of MOM BABY GOD and Mixed-Race Mixtape

SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

Currently on the faculty and the associate technical director of California Institute of the Arts Sharon Lund Disney School of Dance, Allison Smartt worked for several years in Hampshire’s dance program as intern-turned-program assistant. A sound engineer, designer, producer, and educator for theater and dance, she has created designs seen and heard at La MaMa, The Yard, Arts In Odd Places Festival, Barrington Stage Company, the Five College Consortium, and other venues.

Allison Smartt

She is also the owner of Smartt Productions, a production company that develops and tours innovative performances about social justice. Its repertory includes the nationally acclaimed solo-show about reproductive rights, MOM BABY GOD, and the empowering, new hip-hop theatre performance, Mixed-Race Mixtape. Her productions have toured 17 U.S. cities and counting.

Ariel Taub is currently interning at Sounding Out! responsible for assisting with layout, scoping out talent and in the process uncovering articles that may relate to or reflect work being done in the field of Sound Studies. She is a Junior pursuing a degree in English and Sociology from Binghamton University.

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Recently turned on to several of the projects Allison Smartt has been involved in, I became especially fascinated with MOM BABY GOD 3.0, of which Smartt was sound designer and producer. The crew of MOM BABY GOD 3.o sets the stage for what to expect in a performance with the following introduction:

Take a cupcake, put on a name tag, and prepare to be thrown into the world of the Christian Right, where sexual purity workshops and anti-abortion rallies are sandwiched between karaoke sing-alongs, Christian EDM raves and pro-life slumber parties. An immersive dark comedy about American girl culture in the right-wing, written and performed by Madeline Burrows. One is thrown into the world of the Christian Right, where sexual purity workshops and anti-abortion rallies are sandwiched between karaoke sing-alongs, Christian EDM raves and pro-life slumber parties.

It’s 2018 and the anti-abortion movement has a new sense of urgency. Teens 4 Life is video-blogging live from the Students for Life of America Conference, and right-wing teenagers are vying for popularity while preparing for political battle. Our tour guide is fourteen-year-old Destinee Grace Ramsey, ascending to prominence as the new It-Girl of the Christian Right while struggling to contain her crush on John Paul, a flirtatious Christian boy with blossoming Youtube stardom and a purity ring.

MOM BABY GOD toured nationally to sold-out houses from 2013-2015 and was the subject of a national right-wing smear campaign. In a newly expanded and updated version premiering at Forum Theatre and Single Carrot Theatre in March 2017, MOM BABY GOD takes us inside the right-wing’s youth training ground at a more urgent time than ever.

I reached out to Smartt about these endeavors with some sound-specific questions.  What follows is our April 2017 email exchange [edited for length].

Ariel Taub (AT): What do you think of the voices Madeline Burrows [the writer and solo actor of MOM BABY GOD]  uses in the piece? How important is the role of sound in creating the characters?

Allison Smartt (AS): I want to accurately represent Burrows’s use of voice in the show. For those who haven’t seen it, she’s not an impersonator or impressionist conjuring up voices for solely comedy’s sake. Since she is a woman portraying a wide range of ages and genders on stage and voice is a tool in a toolbox she uses to indicate a character shift. Madeline has a great sense of people’s natural speaking rhythms and an ability to incorporate bits of others’ unique vocal elements into the characters she portrays. Physicality is another tool. Sound cues are yet another…lighting, costume, staging, and so on.

I do think there’s something subversive about a queer woman voicing ideology and portraying people that inherently aim to repress her existence/identity/reproductive rights.

Many times, when actors are learning accents they have a cue line that helps them jump into that accent. Something that they can’t help but say in a southern, or Irish, or Canadian accent. In MOM BABY GOD, I think of my sound design in a similar way. The “I’m a Pro-Life Teen” theme is the most obvious example. It’s short and sweet, with a homemade flair and most importantly: it’s catchy. The audience learns to immediately associate that riff with Destinee (the host of “I’m a Pro-Life Teen”), so much so that I stop playing the full theme almost immediately, yet it still commands the laugh and upbeat response from the audience.

AT: Does [the impersonation and transformation of people on the opposite side of a controversial issues into] characters [mark them as] inherently mockable? (I asked Smartt about this specifically because of the reaction the show elicited from some people in the Pro-Life group.) 

AS: Definitely not. I think the context and intention of the show really humanizes the people and movement that Madeline portrays. The show isn’t cruel or demeaning towards the people or movement – if anything, our audience has a lot of fun. But it is essential that Madeline portray the type of leaders in the movement (in any movement really) in a realistic, yet theatrical way. It’s a difficult needle to thread and think she does it really well. A preacher has a certain cadence – it’s mesmerizing, it’s uplifting. A certain type of teen girl is bubbly, dynamic. How does a gruff (some may say manly), galvanizing leader speak? It’s important the audience feel the unique draw of each character – and their voices are a large part of that draw.

Madeline Burrows in character in MOM BABY GOD (National Tour 2013-2015). Photos by Jessica Neria

AT: What sounds [and sound production] were used to help carry the performance [of MOM BABY GOD]? What role does sound have in making plays [and any performance] cohesive? 

AS: Sound designing for theatre is a mix of many elements, from pre-show music, sound effects and original music to reinforcement, writing cues, and sound system design. For a lot of projects, I’m also my own sound engineer so I also implement the system designs and make sure everything functions and sounds tip top.

Each design process is a little different. If it’s a new work in development, like MOM BABY GOD and Mixed-Race Mixtape, I am involved in a different way than if I’m designing for a completed work (and designing for dance is a whole other thing). There are constants, however. I’m always asking myself, “Are my ideas supporting the work and its intentions?” I always try to be cognizant of self-indulgence. I may make something really, really cool but that ultimately, after hearing it in context and conversations with the other artistic team members, is obviously doing too much more than supporting the work. A music journalism professor I had used to say, “You have to shoot that puppy.” Meaning, cut the cue you really love for the benefit of the overall piece.

I like to set myself limitations to work within when starting a design. I find that narrowing my focus to say…music only performed on harmonica or sound effects generated only from modes of transportation, help get my creative juices flowing (Sidenote: why is that a phrase? It give me the creeps)[. . .]I may relinquish these limitations later after they’ve helped me launch into creating a sonic character that feels complex, interesting, and fun.

AT: The show is described as being comprised of, “karaoke sing-alongs, Christian EDM raves and pro-life slumber parties,” each of these has its own distinct associations, how do “sing alongs” and  “raves” and our connotations with those things add to the pieces?

Madeline Burrows in character in MOM BABY GOD (National Tour 2013-2015). Photos by Jessica Neria

AS: Since sound is subjective, the associations that you make with karaoke sing-alongs are probably slightly different from what I associated with karaoke sing-alongs. You may think karaoke sing-along = a group of drunk BFFs belting Mariah Carey after a long day of work. I may think karaoke sing-alongs = middle aged men and women shoulder to shoulder in a dive bar singing “Friends In Low Places” while clinking their glasses of whiskey and draft beer. The similarity in those two scenarios is people singing along to something, but the character and feeling of each image is very different. You bring that context with you as you read the description of the show and given the challenging themes of the show, this is a real draw for people usually resistant to solo and/or political theatre. The way the description is written and what it highlights intentionally invites the audience to feel invited, excited, and maybe strangely upbeat about going to see a show about reproductive rights.

As a sound designer and theatre artist, one of my favorite moments is when the audience collectively readjusts their idea of a karaoke sing-along to the experience we create for them in the show. I feel everyone silently say, “Oh, this is not what I expected, but I love it,” or “This is exactly what I imagined!” or “I am so uncomfortable but I’m going with it.” I think the marketing of the show does a great job creating excited curiosity, and the show itself harnesses that and morphs it into confused excitement and surprise (reviewers articulate this phenomenon much better that I could).

AT: In this video the intentionally black screen feels like deep space. What sounds [and techniques] are being used? Are we on a train, a space ship, in a Church? What can you [tell us] about this piece?

AS: There are so many different elements in this cue…it’s one of my favorites. This cue is lead in and background to Destinee’s first experience with sexual pleasure. Not to give too much away: She falls asleep and has a sex dream about Justin Bieber. I compiled a bunch of sounds that are anticipatory: a rocket launch, a train pulling into a station, a remix/slowed down version of a Bieber track. These lead into sounds that feel more harsh: alarm clocks, crumpling paper…I also wanted to translate the feeling of being woken up abruptly from a really pleasant dream…like you were being ripped out of heaven or something. It was important to reassociate for Destinee and the audience, sounds that had previously brought joy with this very confusing and painful moment, so it ends with heartbeats and church bells.

I shoved the entire arc of the show into this one sound cue. And Madeline and Kathleen let me and I love them for that.

AT: What do individuals bring of themselves when they listen to music? How is music a way of entering conversations otherwise avoided? 

AS: The answer to this question is deeper than I can articulate but I’ll try.

Talking about bias, race, class, even in MOM BABY GOD introducing a pro-life video blog – broaching these topics are made easier and more interesting through music. Why? I think it’s because you are giving the listener multiple threads from which to sew their own tapestry…their own understanding of the thing. The changing emotions in a score, multiplicity of lyrical meaning, tempo, stage presence, on and on. If you were to just present a lecture on any one of those topics, the messages feel too stark, too heavy to be absorbed (especially to be absorbed by people who don’t already agree with the lecture or are approaching that idea for the first time). Put them to music and suddenly you open up people’s hearts.

Post- Mixed-Race Mixtape love, William Paterson University, 2016 Photo credit: Allison Smartt

As a sound designer, I have to be conscious of what people bring to their listening experience, but can’t let this rule my every decision. The most obvious example is when faced with the request to use popular music. Take maybe one of the most overused classics of the 20th century, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. If you felt an urge just now to stop reading this interview because you really love that song and how dare I naysay “Hallelujah” – my point has been made. Songs can evoke strong reactions. If you heard “Hallelujah” for the first time while seeing the Northern Lights (which would arguably be pretty epic), then you associate that memory and those emotions with that song. When a designer uses popular music in their design, this is a reality you have to think hard about.

Cassette By David Millan on Flickr.

It’s similar with sound effects. For Mixed-Race Mixtape, Fig wanted to start the show with the sound of a cassette tape being loaded into a deck and played. While I understood why he wanted that sound cue, I had to disagree. Our target demographic are of an age where they may have never seen or used a cassette tape before – and using this sound effect wouldn’t elicit the nostalgic reaction he was hoping for.

Regarding how deeply the show moves people, I give all the credit to Fig’s lyrics and the entire casts’ performance, as well as the construction of the songs by the musicians and composers. As well as to Jorrell, our director, who has focused the intention of all these elements to coalesce very effectively. The cast puts a lot of emotion and energy into their performances and when people are genuine and earnest on stage, audiences can sense that and are deeply engaged.

I do a lot of work in the dance world and have come to understand how essential music and movement are to the human experience. We’ve always made music and moved our bodies and there is something deeply grounding and joining about collective listening and movement – even if it’s just tapping your fingers and toes.

AT: How did you and the other artists involved come up with the name/ idea for Mixed-Race Mixtape? How did the Mixed-Race Mixtape come about?

AS: Mixed-Race Mixtape is the brainchild of writer/performer Andrew “Fig” Figueroa. I’ll let him tell the story.

Andrew “Fig” Figueroa, Hip-Hop artist, theatre maker, and arts educator from Southern California

A mixtape is a collection of music from various artists and genres on one tape, CD or playlist. In Hip-Hop, a mixtape is a rapper’s first attempt to show the world there skills and who they are, more often than not, performing original lyrics over sampled/borrowed instrumentals that compliment their style and vision. The show is about “mixed” identity and I mean, I’m a rapper so thank God “Mixed-Race” rhymed with “Mixtape.”

The show grew from my desire to tell my story/help myself make sense of growing up in a confusing, ambiguous, and colorful culture. I began writing a series of raps and monologues about my family, community and youth and slowly it formed into something cohesive.

AT: I love the quote, “the conversation about race in America is one sided and missing discussions of how class and race are connected and how multiple identities can exist in one person,” how does Mixed-Race Mixtape fill in these gaps?

AS: Mixed-Race Mixtape is an alternative narrative that is complex, personal, and authentic. In America, our ideas about race largely oscillate between White and Black. MRMT is alternative because it tells the story of someone who sits in the grey area of Americans’ concept of race and dispels the racist subtext that middle class America belongs to White people. Because these grey areas are illuminated, I believe a wide variety of people are able to find connections with the story.

AT: In this video people discuss the connection they [felt to the music and performance] even if they weren’t expecting to. What do you think is responsible for sound connecting and moving people from different backgrounds? Why are there the assumptions about the event that there are, that they wouldn’t connect to the Hip Hop or that there would be “good vibes.”

AS: Some people do feel uncertain that they’d be able to connect with the show because it’s a “hip-hop” show. When they see it though, it’s obvious that it extends beyond the bounds of what they imagine a hip-hop show to be. And while I’ve never had someone say they were disappointed or unmoved by the show, I have had people say they couldn’t understand the words. And a lot of times they want to blame that on the reinforcement.

I’d argue that the people who don’t understand the lyrics of MRMT are often the same ones who were trepidatious to begin with, because I think hip-hop is not a genre they have practice listening to. I had to practice really actively listening to rap to train my brain to process words, word play, metaphor, etc. as fast as rap can transmit them. Fig, an experienced hip-hop listener and artist amazes me with how fast he can understand lyrics on the first listen. I’m still learning. And the fact is, it’s not a one and done thing. You have to listen to rap more than once to get all the nuances the artists wrote in. And this extends to hip-hop music, sans lyrics. I miss so many really clever, artful remixes, samples, and references on the first listen. This is one of the reasons we released an EP of some of the songs from the show (and are in the process of recording a full album). 

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The theatre experience obviously provides a tremendously moving experience for the audience, but there’s more to be extracted from the music and lyrics than can be transmitted in one live performance.

AT: What future plans do you have for projects? You mentioned utilizing sounds from protests?  How is sound important in protest? What stands out to you about what you recorded?

AS: I have only the vaguest idea of a future project. I participate in a lot of rallies and marches for causes across the spectrum of human rights. At a really basic level, it feels really good to get together with like minded people and shout your frustrations, hopes, and fears into the world for others to hear. I’m interested in translating this catharsis to people who are wary of protests/hate them/don’t understand them. So I’ve started with my iPhone. I record clever chants I’ve never heard, or try to capture the inevitable moment in a large crowd when the front changes the chant and it works its way to the back.

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I record marching through different spaces…how does it sound when we’re in a tunnel versus in a park or inside a building? I’m not sure where these recordings will lead me, but I felt it was important to take them.

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