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This is What It Sounds Like . . . . . . . . On Prince (1958-2016) and Interpretive Freedom

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Can you imagine what would happen if young people were free to create whatever they wanted? Can you imagine what that would sound like?–Prince, in a 2015 interview by Smokey D. Fontaine

Prince leaves an invitingly “messy” catalog—a musical cosmos, really—just as rich for those who knew it well as for those encountering it with fresh ears. He avoided interviews like he avoided conventions. He made few claims. Read him as you will.

We are free to interpret Prince, but not too free. Yes, art is open, and perhaps Prince’s art especially. And yet many eulogies have described him as indescribable, as if he were untethered by the politics of his world; he wasn’t. Some remembrances assume (or imagine) that Prince was so inventive that he could escape stultifying codes and achieve liberation, both as musician and human being.  For example, Prince has often been called “transcendent”—of race, of musical genre, even of humanity itself.  This is overstated; he was rooted in all of these. Better to say, maybe, that he was a laureate of many poetics, some musical and some not. He responded to race, genre, and humanity, all things that he and we are stuck with. He was a living artwork, and these, by way of sound, were his media.

Prince was not transcendent. He was just too much for some to assimilate.

little prince

Since Prince’s passing last month, I’ve been struck by the idea that his career might have been, deliberately or not, an elaborate quotation of the career of Little Richard, who anachronistically has outlived him. Or, a sonic version of what Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls “signifyin(g)” in the African American artistic tradition in The Signifying Monkey: repetition with a difference, a re-vision—and, especially appropriate here—a riffing (66). Both Prince and Richard in their way defined rock music, even as rock—as a canonized form—held them at a distance. They were simultaneously rock’s inventive engine and its outer margins, but never, seemingly, its core—at least from the perspective of its self-appointed gatekeepers.

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Rock and race have, to put it mildly, an awkward history. African-American rock artists rarely get their due from labels and taste-making outlets, in money or posterity, a phenomenon not at all limited to the well-known pinching of Elvis and Pat Boone. One might consider, for example, Maureen Mahon’s anthropology of the Black Rock Coalition, a group home to Greg Tate, Living Colour, and others dwelling on rock’s periphery. Canons are one way to understand how this denial works.

To be sure, some black artists have been canonized in rock, but always with a handicap, as Jack Hamilton has explained lucidly. In, for example, best-of lists (which I have browsed obsessively since Prince died, as if enshrinement there might confirm something about him; he is usually #40 or #50), there are only so many slots of color: Hendrix is the black guitar god; Little Richard the sexual sentinel rising in a repressed era; James Brown the lifeline to funk; Big Mama Thornton the grandmaternal footnote. Best-of lists published by major magazines and websites such as Rolling Stone and VH1, tend to name about 70% white artists, as well as 90-95% male ones. These lists have become just a smidgen more inclusive in the past decade or so. Still, only the Beatles and Rolling Stones are regular contenders to be named history’s greatest rock band.

We are free to interpret greatness, but not too free.

For those who care about lists enough to comment on them, much of the point is in the arguing, the freedom to declare an opinion that cannot be challenged on logical grounds. I certainly wouldn’t argue for more “correct” best-of lists, either for aesthetics or inclusivity. Lists have every right to be subjective. But they are also fascinatingly unmoored by any explicit standard for judgment. As a result, the debates that surround their ordering are full of unvarnished pronouncements of truth (and falsity), even for those who acknowledge the subjectivity of lists, which I observed first hand as I joined and posted on a Beatles forum and an Eagles forum to research this article (“…putting the Police and the Doors ahead of the Eagles is absurd, IMHO”). But why would anyone declare certainty about a question such as the best rock artist of all time, when it is so plainly open to personal interpretation?

Yes, lists are subjective. But who are the subjects that invest in them?

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Prince’s career began in the late 1970s, a musical moment deeply reflective of what Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.”  The Beatles were gone after the 1960s and guitar music stood under their long shadow. Led Zeppelin were bloated and breaking up. Disco was in ascent. Rock had somehow convinced itself that it was neither rooted in nor anchored by queer, female, and racially marked bodies, as it indeed was and in fact had always been. White male rock critics and fans were busily constructing the “rock canon” as a citadel—impenetrable to “four on the floor beats” and diva-styled vocals—and there was nothing in its blueprint to suggest that there would be a door for someone like Prince.

Just one month after Prince finished recording his breakthrough, self-titled album in July 1979—the record gave us “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “I Feel For You,” which Chaka Khan would take to chart topping heights in 1984—Chicago “shock jock” Steve Dahl staged an infamous event at Comiskey Park called Disco Demolition Night. The fascistic spectacle, which took place between games of a White Sox doubleheader, asked fans to bring disco records, which would be demolished in an explosion and ensuing bonfire on the field.

It was a release of pent-up frustration and a wild-eyed effort to rid the world of the scourge of disco, which many listeners felt had displaced rock with plastic rhythms, as Osvaldo Oyola discussed in a 2010 SO! post “Ain’t Got the Same Soul,” a discussion of Bob Seger, who famously sang in 1979, “Don’t try to take me to a disco/you’ll never even get me out on the floor.” Excited, drunk defenders of the “rock canon” rioted around the fire. The nightcap was cancelled.

These are the subjects who invest in lists.

Many who witnessed the event, both in person and on television, experienced its personal, racially charged, and violent implications. Aspiring DJ Vince Lawrence, who worked as an usher at the Disco Demolition Night game, was later interviewed for a BBC documentary entitled Pump Up the Volume: The History of House Music: [see 9:00-10:15 of the clip below]:

It was more about blowing up all this ‘nigger music’ than, um, you know, destroying disco. Strangely enough, I was an usher, working his way towards his first synthesizer at the time, what I noticed at the gates was people were bringing records and some of those were disco records and I thought those records were kinda good, but some of them were just black records, they weren’t disco, they were just black records, R&B records. I should have taken that as a tone for what the attitudes of these people were. I know that nobody was bringing Metallica records by mistake. They might have brought a Marvin Gaye record which wasn’t a disco record, and that got accepted and blown up along with Donna Summer and Anita Ward, so it felt very racial to me.

Lawrence notes that blackness was, for rock’s canonizers, part of a mostly inseparable bundle of otherness that also included queer people, among others. Although the disco backlash is often regarded as mainly homophobic, in fact it points to even deeper reservoirs of resentment and privilege.

When music companies decided to mass-market the black, queer sound of disco, they first called it “disco-rock”; two words that American audiences eventually ripped apart, or demolished, perhaps. Black and queer people—and women too, of all races and sexualities—represented the hordes outside of rock’s new citadel, whose walls were made from the Beatles’ cheeky jokes, Mick’s rooster-strut, Robert Plant’s cucumber cock, and Elvis’s hayseed hubris.

Little Richard, for example, was black and queer like disco; what to do with him? His drummer invented the straight eight rhythm, perhaps the genre’s most enduring motif. Here’s Little Richard was rock incarnate, total frenetic energy; Richard’s brilliant, singular approach to the piano  would launch a thousand rock tropes in imitation. But in canonization he could only be the nutrient-rich soil of rock—say, #36 on a best-of list—never its epitome, somehow.

I don’t know if Prince—a lifelong resident of Minneapolis, who came of age in the volatile Midwestern American milieu of white disco demolitions AND underground black electronic music culture—cared to consider this history, but he floated in it. He effectively signified on Little Richard not so much by quoting his music (though he owed a debt to him just like everyone who played rock), but by reproducing his position in the music industry. He was a queer noncomformist, never in the business of explaining himself, obsessed with control, whose blackness became a way of not flinching in the face of an industry that would never embrace him, anyway.

prince2

Love-Symbol-2

I interpret Prince’s musical personae as queer, not in the sense of inversion, as the anti-disco folks had it, but as a forever-exploration of sexual life. Prince’s queerness was not, strictly speaking, like Little Richard’s, but Prince took it on as an artistic possibility nonetheless. If Richard dwelled on this particular fringe as a consequence of his body, his desires, and the limits of social acceptance and religious conviction, Prince chose it as his identity. But Prince also lived and worked within limits of morality and, also like Little Richard, religion.

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Image by Flickr User Ann Althouse, 2007

Touré writes in a New York Times obit of Prince’s “holy lust,” the “commingling” of sexuality and spirituality. Jack Hamilton writes of the doubt and moral uncertainty that coursed through songs like “Little Red Corvette.” Holy lust is arguably the central pursuit of rock; the term “rock and roll” is etymologically linked either to intercourse or worship, appropriately, emerging in both cases from African-American vernacular. Prince’s queer play with sex, sexuality identity, and religion is as rock and roll as it gets.

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As punk sputtered, Simon Reynolds writes in Rip it Up and Start Again, funk appeared to rock fans as a racially tinged, politically and sexually charged savior. Bass, the heart of funk, was key to punk becoming post-punk around 1980. The instrument was suddenly charged with new symbolic and structural importance. During the same period, it is remarkable how many of Prince’s songs either have no bass, or rework bass’s role entirely. “When Doves Cry,” from Purple Rain (1984), Prince’s 6th studio album, is the best-known example of an ultra-funky track that withholds bass entirely, but “Kiss” lacks it, too, as well as “Darling Nikki.”

Earlier on Purple Rain, the bass on “Take Me with U” plays almost as a drone, buzzing like a minimalist’s organ.“Kiss,”from 1986’s Parade and Prince’s second-biggest hit yet only #464 on the Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Timeis so tight, so locked in, so populated by alluring timbres that suggest an alien plane of instrumentation, that you forget it’s even supposed to have bass by rock top 40 convention. On much of 1980’s Dirty Mind, it is difficult to know which carefully tweaked synthesizer tone is supposed to index the bass, if any. Prince’s funk was even funkier for being counterintuitive, as Questlove notes. This gesture wasn’t rejection, of course, it didn’t “transcend” funk. Prince was still playing inarguably funky music, and the lack of bass is so unusual that it’s almost even more apparent in its absence. Free, but not too free.

Love-Symbol-2

Prince approached rock iconicity much as he approached bass, which is to say that he embraced clichés, but performed them inside-out, calling attention to them as both limits and possibilities, as constraint and freedom. “Raspberry Beret,” from 1985’s Around the World in a Day, is a boppy “girl group” song with sly allusions to anal sex, that uses exotic instruments and is written in an obscure mode. The virtuosic riff on “When Doves Cry,” instead of going where guitar solos go, comes right at the beginning of the track, before the drums, both seemingly isolated from the rest of the song and yet heralding it, too.

All of this worked very well, of course. His songs are just idiomatic enough to give listeners a foothold, but brave enough to evoke a world well beyond idiom. In retrospect, this is precisely what Little Richard had done. This is also what Hendrix and George Clinton and Tina Turner and OutKast have done, from where they rock out—way beyond the citadel, mastering many idioms, then extending them, at once codifying and floating away from genre.

Andre 3000 of OutKast rocking outside the box at Lollapalooza 2014, Image by Flickr User Daniel Patlán

Andre 3000 of OutKast rocking outside the box at Lollapalooza 2014, Image by Flickr User Daniel Patlán

Prince’s career calls back to the personal and artistic concerns, as well as the innovations, of Little Richard and other artists’ sonic expressions of blackness that both built rock’s house and sounded out the tall, white walls of the citadel that would exclude them. All of these artists, I suspect, find little point to hanging out near the citadel’s gates; there are other, funkier places to live. Prince himself was perfectly comfortable working athwart Warner Brothers, the press, stardom. He did more than fine.

We are free to interpret Prince, but not too free. Creative as he was, he lived in his time; he was no alien. The greatest testament to his genius is not that he escaped the world, nor that he rendered a new musical landscape from scratch, but rather that he worked in part with rock’s sclerotic structural materials to create such beautiful and fluid work.

Featured Image by Peter Tea, July 12, 2011, under Creative Commons license No Derivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0)

Benjamin Tausig is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University, where he works on sound studies, music, and protest in Bangkok and other urban spaces. He is on Twitter @datageneral

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Reflective Sound Gathering via the New England Soundscape Project

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Beyond the confines of recording studios, stages, and music classrooms, a vast and shifting sonic canvas exists for field recorders. This personal essay explores my awakening to a new creative recording process through the New England Soundscape Project , an ongoing sound-gathering mission whereupon I use small digital recorders—paired with various microphones, an iPhone, and a genuine sonic curiosity—to record brief moments throughout New England’s rich coastal, urban, and rural landscapes across six U.S. states. I received a modest seed grant from my University to pursue some creative work in field recording and sound studies. Over the next year, my travels will take me to the National Parks, cities, and historic landmarks in Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

While near limitless possibilities on where and how to produce sonic and electroacoustic musical compositions endure, starting theNew England Soundscape Project  challenged me to hone my listening skills while simultaneously dealing with nature’s unpredictability. Moreover, as a budding sound artist, I had to contend with the cognitive and emotional issues affecting a brand-new and unexplored creative practice. I came to believe that a holistic method of field recording offered me certain advantages—enabling an emerging sound artist to detach from rigidly defined agendas and instead focus on reflection, deep breathing, environmental awareness, gratitude, and an observational spirit. The listening exercises I detail in this post made me a newly introspective practitioner—one capable of a heightened sensitivity that improved my production and composition skills across multiple media.

Merrimack River-NH 1

Merrimack River, New Hampshire, USA. All images by author.

Field Recording: An End Goal in Mind?

Field recording involves a delicate balance of technical skill, careful planning, and patience. Stepping away from a controlled environment, capturing audio on location presents many random and often erratic trials. From wind noise and poor site accessibility to recording malfunctions and user error—a host of issues arise once the recordist enters unfamiliar territory. Here, unfamiliar territory includes both new places and nascent approaches to research-based production and artistic data collection. Where do I situate a project like the New England Soundscape Project  among new media production, sound studies, and music composition? Does that issue even matter?

Otter Brook Dam and Edward MacDowell Lake-Keene, New Hampshire, Image by the author, Dan Walzer

Otter Brook Dam/Edward MacDowell Lake, Keene, New Hampshire, USA.  All images by author.

The notion of practice-based work usually implies an end goal in mind. What if there is not an end goal in sight? What happens then? Would the New England Soundscape Project be “enough” of a contribution to creative scholarship when approached as a type of audio ethnography—much like the immersive storytelling recently curated by Leonardo Cardoso? The New England region is lush and robust, with many diverse landscapes. I hoped to document these in some way, but wondered how to continue. Truthfully, I had some hesitation on where to start.

Media artists and music composers learn the mechanics of their craft in colleges, universities, conservatories, at home, and on the job. Some of these techniques include audiovisual production, computer programming, coding, editing, and arranging using  digital software. I am both self-taught and a product of an academic and Eurocentric, conservatory training system. This presents some tension, as I discuss below. Although traditional audio engineers and music composers often work towards completing a project without a predefined trajectory, how can budding sound artists develop and hone an inner acuity to find the “right” material during their creative processes?

While the process remains largely subjective, I found it helpful to begin by answering the following questions:

  • What kind of project is this?
  • How is the sound to be used?
  • Where and how will the project be displayed?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What are the sound artist’s intentions?
  • What tools are needed?

I draw inspiration from the Sound Studies Lab’s position that this type of work is diverse, fluid, and balances technical, artistic, and theoretical aims. The challenge is that the answers to the questions above are not immediately clear and require me to look inward at who I really am.

Boott Mill Threading Machine, Lowell, Massachusetts, USA, All images by author

Boot Mill Threading Machine, Lowell, Massachusetts, USA. All images by author.

Following the Sonic Muse

Beyond the obvious technical and aesthetic factors affecting an expansive multisite recording project, we know little about how a nascent sound artist begins. Whom do they emulate? Should they take notes? pictures? What should they pay attention to onsite?

If the project is exploratory, the recordist may experience hesitation—as I did— and frustration that can block their creative process, especially because the pathways toward a finished sound project aren’t as established as those of a sound engineer, for example, or a songwriter.  Nevertheless, my experiences have shown me that a nascent sound artist/recordist can also find intrinsic meaning and realize their mission—particularly by establishing a detached yet perceptive listening ethos, as I did to begin my work on the New England Soundscape Project.

For me, framing a detached and perceptive mindset involved:

  • Remaining sensitive to my surroundings at each location;
  • Focusing on stillness, deep breathing, and a quiet mind while recording;
  • Adopting a respectful, unobtrusive manner at each site—taking care not to disrupt or distract others;
  • Calmly monitoring my technology and its use;
  • Trusting that I am intended to be in that exact moment at that exact time;
  • Avoiding being overly concerned with the “end game” of their practice;
  • Embracing the role of a sound gatherer and observer;

It is perhaps the final objective—adopting the philosophy of sound gatherer and observer—where truly sensitive listening begins. Here, the recordist aims to remove their personal goals and agenda from the field recording process. Before proceeding, the attentive recordist looks around them, focuses on quiet breathing, and views their microphones as lenses and without fear of what the result should be. To what or whom am I observing?

Here’s the problem. It dawned on me that I know little about who I am as a sound artist, and how my voice positively contributes to the world, if at all. I need to learn to listen—not just to the sounds in nature, but also to the sounds of the voices of the persons with whom I interact. Could solitude and introspective listening lead me to listen through a newly formed self, capable of deeper connections with my peers and environment? I found that my detachment involved investigating, acknowledging,  and, whenever possible, setting aside my own biases, fears, and, importantly, my own agendas. By removing my ego and cluttered mind from the process, I could start to be an inclusive practitioner—one whom cultivates positive relationships daily and is capable of crafting a deeper sonic art that embraces rather than one that marginalizes.

Merrimack River, Lowell Massachusetts, USA. All images by author.

Merrimack River, Lowell Massachusetts, USA. All images by author.

The Art of Meditative Listening

Rather than taking on a stringent approach with little flexibility, I practice observational recording by gathering audio as my muse and as environmental conditions dictate. By remaining attentive to my recording levels, I gather source materials up close, from afar, and for any length of time. Meanwhile, as this creative progression unfolds, I stay quiet—bringing almost meditative quality to my practice. Moreover, concentrating on deep breathing and stillness allows me to adopt a grateful mindset—one that is appreciative of my surroundings and for being present at that precise moment. It is then that the environment becomes the focus of sound gathering and not notions of a “final product.”

Scarborough State Beach, Newport, Rhode Island, USA. All images by author.

I found an artistic renewal—even healing—by adopting this meditative practice. As the New England Soundscape Project takes shape over the coming months and years, I hope to document the beauty of the Northeast through music, sound, and images. Yet, it is enough simply to be present in each location while aspiring to produce thoughtful and reflective sound art. Although there is no overarching method that best describes every aspect of a multisite field recording process, the “art” in the sound can truly emerge by striving to banish fear and doubt from the recording process. Addressing the “why” during each moment is just as important as addressing the “how” and the “why” in pre- and post-production. The recordist’s humanity plays a key role in determining how creative decisions are made, and the ability to remove the need for control determines how free—and freeing—the process can be.

This Thursday, SO! will feature my podcast on reflective listening with audio examples from the New England Soundscape Project thus far. I look forward to producing future episodes (and essays) on this project in the coming months. I hope you can tune in on Thursday and thank you for listening!

Featured Image: Scarborough State Beach, Newport,  Rhode Island, USA. All images by author.

Acknowledgements

An Internal Seed Grant from the University of Massachusetts Lowell supports the New England Soundscape Project. 

Daniel A. Walzer is an Assistant Professor of Composition for New Media at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.  Walzer’s research and reviews appear in the Leonardo Music Journal, the Journal of Music, Technology & Education, the Journal of Radio & Audio Media and forthcoming articles in TOPICS for Music Education Praxis, and the Music Educators Journal.  Walzer received his MFA in Music Production and Sound Design for Visual Media from Academy of Art University, his MM in Jazz Studies from the University of Cincinnati and his BM in Jazz Studies from Bowling Green State University.  Walzer is currently pursuing doctoral studies in education at the University of the Cumberlands. Read more at http://www.danielwalzer.com

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The Amplification of Muted Voices: Notes on a Recitation of the Adhan

Image courtesy of author

Where do we begin?

On Tuesday January 13th, 2015, my first-year students and I gathered for the second meeting of our seminar, “Soundscapes: Artistic, Social, and Biological Approaches to Acoustic Environments.” We were just a few steps away from the iconic Duke chapel, almost in its shadow.

The chapel is an example of a revivalist architectural style known as “Collegiate Gothic.” Its steps were constructed with soft stone, intended to wear down quickly and provide an accelerated impression of age and prestige. The chapel’s cruciform blueprint is an unambiguous symbol of its Methodist Christian roots, as is the university’s motto: “eruditio et religio” (“erudition and religion”). In true Gothic revivalist style, the phrase is a Latin translation of a line from an 18th-century, English-language Methodist hymn titled “Sanctified Knowledge.”

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cruciform

duke chapel

On Tuesday, January 13th—the second day of my Soundscapes seminar—Duke’s Office of Communications announced that the Islamic call to prayer, the adhan, would sound from a bell tower of its iconic chapel in Durham, North Carolina. According to a press release, Duke’s chapel administrators and Muslim Students Association felt the three-minute long,  “moderately amplified” recitation “represents a larger commitment to religious pluralism” on campus and that the sound of the adhan “connects the university to national trends in religious accommodation.”

The story was picked up by WRAL, the television news outlet based in nearby Raleigh. The web-based stories included a photo of the student slated to be the muezzin, the person appointed to recite the call to prayer. In the photo, the student was shown rehearsing from the bell tower. I read the announcement just before walking to class and thought the event would be a historic opportunity for my students and I to make field recordings of their university soundscape.

Where do we begin?

The adhan was scheduled to take place on the afternoon of Friday, January 16th.  On Wednesday, January 7th—a week before the announcement of the adhan at Duke—twelve people were murdered during an attack on the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Ostensibly, the murders were committed on behalf of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as a retaliation for the newspaper’s cartoon depiction of the prophet Mohammed.

Image of "Je Suis Charlie" solidarity demonstrations in Hamburg, Germany, by Flickr user Konrad Lembcke

Image of “Je Suis Charlie” solidarity demonstrations in Hamburg, Germany, by Flickr user Konrad Lembcke

Where do we begin?

Islamic theology posits that the adhan is not music.  It is recited, not sung. Likewise, the text of the Qu’ran is not poetry. These sacred texts are certainly musical and poetic, but they are neither music nor poetry. These theoretical distinctions have complex and profound implications: more than soundscapes or sound art or acoustemology, the Islamic premise underlying recitations of the adhan and Qu’ran provoked my students to reconsider entire constellations of historical, cultural, linguistic, political, and—indeed—spiritual phenomena.

My students and I conducted a survey in which they asked classmates to identify a recording of the adhan. Only 2 out of 48 students recognized it as a recitation of the Islamic call to prayer; most guessed it was “Arab” or “Middle Eastern” music, but it seemed universally familiar as a “soundtrack” for a film sequence. One student who had lived in Morocco recognized the adhan immediately; another recognized it as the sound of his Lebanese grandmother’s alarm clock, automated to remind her to pray. We became acquainted with Cairo in One Breath, a documentary film project about post-revolutionary Egypt’s 2010 Adhan Unification Project, an effort to “replace individual muezzins with a single voice, broadcast to Cairo’s [thousands of] mosques from a radio station.”

BilalWe also became familiar with the mythology of the first muezzin: Bilal, who was born in Mecca to Abyssinian slaves—in other words, a black man who was freed from slavery.

Where do we begin?

On Wednesday January 14th, the Reverend Franklin Graham posted a reaction to Duke’s announcement on his Facebook account. Franklin is the son of evangelical Baptist preacher Billy Graham, close friend and advisor to American presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush and known as “America’s pastor.” Franklin Graham is a resident of High Point, North Carolina (an hour’s drive from Duke) whose salary from tax-exempt, non-profit religious organizations is reported to be $880,000 per year.

FG

Graham’s post “went viral,” and his threat of financial sanctions—aimed squarely at donors and alumni—seemed to land on its mark. Within hours, Duke’s proposed adhan recitation became the subject of a flood of media coverage, and the university received “credible threats” of violence; public relations and financial concerns were quickly compounded by “safety concerns.” My students and I—whose safety was being threatened—wondered whether the phrase “safety concerns” was a euphemism for terrorism, or vice versa.

On Thursday January 15, the university’s administration announced that they were canceling the planned recitation from the chapel bell tower. Instead, the adhan would be recited just outside the chapel, at the top of the steps leading to the chapel’s front doors. Franklin Graham celebrated the decision—again, on Facebook.

FG2

Later in the day, Richard Hays, the dean of the Duke Divinity School, released a letter outlining his objections to the proposed recitation. Hays’ letter revealed a somewhat obscure but significant division between the Divinity School and the chapel administration, each of which see themselves—in their own ways—as custodians of Duke’s Christian image. For the Divinity School administration, the chapel is a symbol of the university’s Christian identity. For the chapel administration, its Christian heritage is an aspect of a fundamentally pluralistic identity.

It is worth pausing here to emphasize that the controversy—now national in scope—was provoked by the mere prospect of sound. More specifically, a sound amplified at “moderate volume.”

By this point, the student muezzin and his family requested that his photo and name be removed; like the university, the young man and his family expressed “safety concerns.” Duke removed his image and name from the official online version of the announcement immediately. WRAL, the Raleigh television station, have still not removed the student’s image or name from their website.

Screen Capture of WRAL's website by author

Screen Capture of WRAL’s website by author

Where do we begin?

On the morning of Friday, January 16th?

The adhan was scheduled to take place at 1PM. At 12:30, I met two of my students—Tanner Waters and Jee Yoon—near the chapel. A large crowd was already gathering. Tanner, Jee, and I equipped ourselves with identical digital audio recorders so we could make a trio of stereo recordings, each from a distinct position; later, we would synchronize the recordings, mixing them in different ways to experiment with sonic “versions” of the event.

A half-dozen news vans were parked around the circular driveway leading to the chapel, their satellite antennas projecting into the clear blue sky. This was news. The news’ cameras were arranged on tripods in a straight line at the rear of the crowd; university security were maintaining a perimeter around the chapel that kept broadcast media at a distance. As I approached with my headphones on and my audio recorder in my hand, a chapel staff member asked mildly, “Excuse me, sir. Are you with the media?” I smiled and shook my head. No.

Image courtesy of author

Photo by Elysia Su, The Duke Chronicle

A small PA sat at the top of the steps. Very small. There were no cables attached to it, and a small radio antenna extended from the top. It took me a few minutes to realize that this was the amplification, the moderate “loudspeaker” for the adhan. It took me another moment to realize the student muezzin would not appear: instead, he would transmit his recitation remotely. I was told later that he was just behind the closed doors of the chapel. Like so many recitations of the adhan, the transmission, amplification, and conceptual layers of it seemed uncannily like a sound art installation.

We all faced the loudspeaker, waiting for sounds to happen. The crowd went from murmurs to whispers, then silent. After a few seconds, the voices of members of the Muslim Students Association began to broadcast from the loudspeaker.

A young man’s voice introduced the adhan—a brief, prosaic context for what we would hear. Then a woman’s voice (also young) offered a literal English translation of the the adhan’s Arabic text. She spoke plainly, without the melodic contours of a recitation.

Now, before sharing recording of the Duke student muezzin’s recitation, I offer a bit of context—not an explanation or translation, but a comparative musical example. First, let’s listen to an iconic recitation style—albeit with a bit of YouTube-style hyperbole—recorded in Medina, Saudi Arabia. This recitation lasts four minutes—a fairly typical length of time for a complete recitation.

Now, let’s listen to the entire recitation of the adhan at the Duke chapel.

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The prevailing quality of the Duke recitation is extraordinarily subdued. It is a vocal expression of the “moderate” sound and Muslim identity at the center of the controversy. At one minute and thirty seconds, it is less than half as long as most recitations.

Where do we begin?

Perhaps we might analyze this adhan as a peculiar instance of acousmatic sound: the student muezzin, like Pythagoras or the Wizard of Oz behind a curtain, was separated or dissociated from a discernible source by a curious bit of technology. When I asked Omid Safi, the director of Duke’s Islamic Studies Center, about this aspect of the story—the unseen and moderate voice of the student—he responded that for Muslims at Duke, the entire episode was about “safety and inclusion.”

Screencapture of comments underneath a CBS.com broadcast about the Duke adnan, DATE

Author’s screencapture of comments underneath a CBS.com broadcast about the Duke adhan.

Safi is a Duke alum. He studied there as undergraduate, co-founding the Muslim Students Association as a freshman, and went on to earn his Masters and PhD degrees at Duke. Since returning as director of the Islamic Studies Center two and a half years ago, he has been vocal and visible in the mass media. Safi himself has been labeled a “radical Muslim professor” by white conservatives and subjected to online “takedown articles,” particularly surrounding this event. Safi told me,

Part of the reason why … there was amplification but no person in sight [was] that people were scared. And it sounds hysterical … In retrospect, knowing what took place in Chapel Hill a few weeks later, [it was] not so unreasonable.

On Tuesday February 10, 2015, three Muslim college students—Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salah—were murdered in their Chapel Hill home, just a twenty-minute drive from Duke. Less than a year earlier, Yusor Abu-Salha had been interviewed by her third-grade teacher for the StoryCorps oral history project.

Click on image to hear Story Corps interview

Click on image to hear Story Corps interview

.

At horrifying moments like these, I think to myself, “This is why people pray.”

I was deeply ambivalent about discussing the murders with my students. After speaking to a handful of students individually and discreetly, I found most of them were completely unaware of the murders. I wondered—mostly silently, to myself—what impact the news might have on them, then decided to share the story obliquely: I discussed StoryCorps (“listening is an act of love”) in class, an important resource for those of us interested in oral history and I concluded by mentioning the recording of Yusor Abu-Salha. I never asked if they listened to Yusor’s voice, and I cannot know how they might have been affected. I simply did not know what to ask, nor what to say.

Less than one year later, in September, I surveyed my next cohort of incoming freshman. Less than half of them knew anything about the adhan controversy. Among the few who had heard something about it, the event had already acquired dubious mythological qualities: in one account, Muslim students were forced to move their call to prayer from the chapel tower to the nearby Sara Duke Gardens.

Analyses of the event varied considerably. In an op-ed for Duke’s student newspaper titled “Deconstructing the National Fear of Duke’s Adhan,” freshman Eidan Jacob—an Israeli Jew—offered a brilliant context and synthesis, expressing “surprise and disappointment” that the adhan was “so poorly received.” He observed that in his hometown of Haifa, “recitations of the adhan are simply part of the soundscape.”

A broad cultural and political context reveals that xenophobia and—more specifically—Islamophobia, remain cultural common sense in the post-9/11 United States. Both supporters and opponents of the adhan at Duke were disappointed by the controversy, and I do not discern a tidy moral to the story.

The sounds and discourse of the adhan at Duke suggest a narrative preoccupied with “decibels and debate,” but the subtle dynamics and textures of thoughtful, moderate conversation suggest an audible alternative to the loudness and noise of mass media discourse. The diverse qualities of the voices in this story—musical and otherwise—are more than poetic metaphors: the “voices of moderates” and “moderate-sounding voices” deserve close attention; regardless of the causes or motives underlying their subdued tones, their very quietness demands nuanced, high-fidelity listening. The literal and metaphorical amplification of voices might be a distraction from more important matters of range and intimacy.

Where do we begin?

In May 2015, the Duke chapel was closed for restoration. It is scheduled to reopen in May 2016. 

Plans for a weekly adhan recitation elsewhere on the Duke campus are under consideration.

Featured Image by Elysia Su, The Duke Chronicle

David Font-Navarrete is an artist, musician, and ethnomusicologist. He is currently a Lecturing Fellow at Duke University’s Thompson Writing Program.


tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:

“Beat-ification: British Muslim Hip Hop and Ethical Listening Practices” Jeanette Jouili

Rallying Cries as Suffering Sounds: “Allah-O-Akbar” and the Aurality of Feminized Iranian Suffering–Roshanak Kheshti

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

Radio Preservation Task Force Conference: Sound History and the Logistics of Social Recognition

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Click to download PDF of Program!

Radio Preservation Task Force Conference Information

Friday: Library of Congress, Washington, DC 9-5pm

Saturday: University of Maryland- College Park, 9-5pm

Schedule at: www.radiopreservation.org,

RPTF Federal Page (associate list linked at the left tab): https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-recording-preservation-plan/about-this-program/radio-preservation-task-force/

Hashtag: #RTPF (@soundingoutblog will livetweet the conference)

This conference is free and open to those in the academic/archival/curatorial/preservation community who would like to attend.

On Feb. 26 and 27, the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) of the National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB) will hold the first national digital humanities media history conference at the Library of Congress on Friday and the University of Maryland on Saturday. The schedule can be found here. Eminent sound historian Michele Hilmes (Wisconsin) directs the conference program with Christopher Sterling (GWU), Chair of the National Recording Preservation Board. Distinguished historian of British broadcasting Paddy Scannell (Michigan) commences the conference as academic keynote. I write this update as national research director for the project.

The RPTF is tasked with preserving local, noncommercial, and otherwise unprocessed recordings stored at local radio stations, libraries, archives, and garages, and identifying strategies to process and facilitate engagement with these materials. Scholars, curators, sound preservationists, and archivists from more than 100 universities, museums and libraries will converge on Capitol Hill to discuss steps toward preserving radio’s aural history, including the many historical events captured by nontheatrical broadcasts such as news, town hall meetings, public forums, sporting events, and community outreach programs.

The conference is a culmination of roughly 18 months of initial work (largely built out of service labor by academic media historians), and contributes a new dimension to the emergent discipline of sound studies with its focus on the history of mass media storytelling, sound art, and for the first time, the nontheatrical sounds of radio history. Participants have been confirmed from NPR, the Smithsonian, Pacifica, the Library of Congress, and multiple academic research groups. National presses, blogs, and magazines will also be present to cover the RPTF. Our conference Twitter hashtag is #RPTF. Presenters will discuss the common goal of how to best assess, protect, preserve, and implement current and future findings, with reference to conventional history work, museum curation, classroom pedagogy, and material preservation actions. Tours for scholars and archivists began yesterday at NPR and the Library of Congress’s Packard Campus.

The RPTF was formed thanks to a mandate by sound preservation pioneer and former NRPB Chair Sam Brylawski, practitioner keynote for the conference. The mandate was issued to identify what, where, and how many recordings might still be extant from radio history. Our early findings have been both compelling and disappointing. Over the RPTF’s first two aggregation cycles, the consortium turned up 350,000 recordings spread over roughly 350 participating archives. We expect that number to reach well over one million after our next search cycle, and for our affiliate archive list to increase to over 1000 with the inclusion of radio stations. Enormous numbers to be sure.

However, if one conducts a thought experiment about how many recordings might have aired between the mid-1920s and the mid-1980s, the number seems meager at best. I’m terrible at math, but if one begins with a low-ball assumption (very low for some markets) that there have been 25 stations per median market, producing daily content between 1925 and 1985, it’s not hyperbole to speculate that our findings, while not total or comprehensive, reveal that only a fraction of content has survived. Most materials have been incinerated or trashed thanks to “consolidation” of the media market after the Telecommunications Act of 1996. As stations changed hands, moved sites, and reorganized spaces, station archives were the first to go. Protecting and storing records, DATs, reel-to-reels, and internal documents, simply haven’t made sense for bottom lines. It’s safe to anecdotally contend that we’ve certainly already lost over 75% of radio history, and perhaps as high as 90%.

 

Why is this important? The short answer is that radio has held a unique and important position in U.S. cultural history. Radio has been a media industry that developed a mature art form through storytelling and entertainment, while acting as a communications technology that has been utilized for community building and public discourse. After print media, the history of radio provides an unmatched reflection of the historical development, experience, and reception of cultural and political events. And as I’ve written previously at FlowTV, radio sometimes contains the only remaining historical expression of specific moments and social movements.

As the task force has progressed since late 2014, it’s become conspicuously apparent to our consortium that a core goal of cultural research – increasing the visibility of marginalized histories – is well served by exhuming and studying the artifacts of radio history. By increasing the nontheatrical radio archive in particular, we increase and build continuity lines for histories that simply haven’t been told due to lack of primary sources. It’s very much a nuts and bolts, trial and error process. A lot of the project will culminate around a sprawling big data interface in 2017 – a collaboration between the RPTF, ARSC, and Indiana University. This potentially makes the RPTF the largest digital humanities project in Film and Media. And we plan for the interface to feature syllabi, lesson plans for all educational ages, and recordings that fall under the domain of “fair use.”

To make invisible histories audible turns out to consist of quite a few steps, and a careful study of the conditions necessary to conduct preservation work, which requires an understanding of the regulatory, historical, and organizational precedents and restrictions by which materials can be shared. In this way, the RPTF also represents an emergent research path for media and sound studies – dedication to the study and implementation of logistics for social recognition. Actively studying the contemporary political economy of how hidden information might come to be circulated, and devising strategies to protect and circulate voices for the first time, makes a strong contribution to social justice work.

 

There’s still much to learn about these processes, and that’s the purpose of the conference. We’re putting together experts in multiple spheres for the first time to begin a conversation about how a national infrastructure might be organized to address the mechanics that comprise the ethics we associate with the study of sound history. Participants will present historical research, while panels and workshops discuss everything from material sound preservation methods, to educational approaches to teaching sound in film and media classrooms, to contemporary curatorial methods regarding presentation of media art.

[Ed note: SO! Ed. in Chief J. Stoever will be speaking in as part of a Radio Pedagogy Workshop this afternoon at 1:30 (along with Special Ed. Neil Verma and SO! writers Amanda Keeler and Kathy Battles; other SO! fam in the house include Inés Casillas, Monica de la Torre, Alex Russo, Shawn VanCour, Suzanne Smith, Alejandra Bronfman, Christine Ehrick, Bill Kirkpatrick, Josh Sheppherd and Andrew Bottomley. It’s an SO! fam reunion over here!]

Among projects commencing immediately after the conference, the RPTF will be applying for preservation and curation grants with our partners at multiple universities, as well as with Pacifica Radio Archives, considered by many to be the great collection of postwar local and community radio history in the U.S. Since there are so many recordings to process, the RPTF has organized eight content-based caucuses in which faculty experts will be working with archivists to unite split collections, and determine which recordings are most in need of research and circulation. Caucuses will meet for the first time at the conference, as horizontally organized research units that will act as grant-writing bodies. The results of their preservation actions will be linked or shared at the RPTF big data site. Here is a list of the caucus chairs and their themes:

  • Kathleen Battles, Oakland University – LGBT Radio
  • Mary Beth Haralovich, University of Arizona – Gender and Feminist Radio
  • Laura Schnitker, University of Maryland and Jennifer Waits, Radio Survivor – College, Community, and Educational Radio
  • Sonja Williams, Howard University – African American and Civil Rights Radio
  • Jon Nathan Anderson, CUNY-Brooklyn – Labor Radio
  • Michael Stamm, Michigan State – Radio Journalism
  • Inés Casillas, UC-Santa Barbara – Spanish Language and Bilingual Radio
  • David Jenemann, University of Vermont – Sports Radio

In collaboration with the National Recording Preservation Foundation, the RPTF has already distributed its first grant: to the Lily Library at Indiana University to digitally process, preserve, and distribute the complete Orson Welles radio broadcasts. This will be the first time these recordings — which are all now in the public domain — have been made available in completion. We expect to build a special website with these materials sometime in 2017.

 

Josh Shepperd is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Catholic University in Washington D.C. He teaches courses related to critical, conceptual, and methodological approaches to media studies.  He is also actively involved in digital humanities media preservation, and currently serve as the National Research Director of the Radio Preservation Task Force for theNational Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress.

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