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Sonic Contact Zones: An Interview with DJs MALT and Eat Paint in Koreatown, Los Angeles

On Sunday, February 21, Atlanta-based hip-hop photographer Gunner Stahl will be DJing at a raw space being built at 4317 Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles’ Koreatown as part of the Red Bull Music Festival. Red Bull suggests that many of the photographer’s artistic subjects, such as Tyler the Creator, Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert, Gucci Mane, and/or The Weeknd might make guest appearances during his set. This star-studded stage with financial backing from the drink that gives you wings will stand across the street from Vilma’s Thrift Store, DolEx Dollar Express, Gina’s Beauty Salon, and Botanica Y Joyeria El Milagro. Tickets are a modest $15. At first glance, the location choice might seem odd; why not the legendary Wiltern Theater just down the street on Western? Or why not set up a stage inside MacArthur Park? Those are definitely options, and many performers do grace the stage of The Wiltern for fans in Koreatown and the greater Los Angeles area. However, for those who know Los Angeles’ Koreatown gets down, discounted snacks and pedicures a stone skip away from millionaires sounds just about right.

Figuring out these connections between sound, capital, culture, ethnicity, and art in LA’s Koreatown has been a popular pursuit in recent years. The year was 2014. The place was The Park Plaza Hotel on the outskirts of Los Angeles’ Koreatown. The people performing were TOKiMONSTA (Jennifer Lee), Far East Movement (Kevin Nishimura, James Roh, Jae Choung, and Virman Coquia), Dumbfoundead (Jonathan Park), and others. The reporter was Erik Kristman for Vice Media’s Thump. In the article titled “SPAM N EGGS Festival Was a Window to LA’s Multiculturalist Underground Movement,” Kristman proclaims: “Koreatown’s spectrum of sound, a culture hidden beneath its mid-Wilshire scenery, is no doubt one of the few remaining jewels of the LA underground.”

In Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital (1996), Sarah Thornton writes that DJs “play a key role in the enculturation of records for dancing, sometimes as an artist but always as a representative and respondent to the crowd. By orchestrating the event and anchoring the music in a particular place, the DJ became a guarantor of subcultural authenticity” (60). Asian American DJs performed in Koreatown, so the electronic music and hip hop they mixed was enculturated not only with a Los Angeles neighborhood flair but also with an ethnic twist.

Park Plaza Hotel, Taken by Flickr User Cathy Cole (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Park Plaza Hotel, now The MacArthur, has its own important history as a venue as well. Built in the 1920s by prominent Los Angeles-based architect Claud Beelman, the building has hosted the racially exclusive Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, night clubs such as Power Tools with attendees such as Andy Warhol, and has been a site of numerous films and music videos such as Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” (2017). It survived the demolishing of similar Art Deco buildings during the 1980s. It survived the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of four police officers who beat Rodney King and the killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du, the Korean-born convenience store owner of Empire Liquor on 91st Street and Figueroa Avenue. It survived, if not flourished, in the subsequent gentrification of the Wilshire Center area with eager real estate agents and endowed buyers who are made nostalgic by the building’s Art Deco façade. The right DJs playing in a prime spot such as The MacArthur could definitely guarantee a level of Los Angeles subcultural authenticity for attendees. But what kind of authentic? And was that something anyone was trying to go for?

Kristman’s caricaturization of Koreatown certainly reveals how this visage of authenticity affected him. In his words, Koreatown is a diamond waiting to be mined. Koreatown is hidden. Koreatown’s “spectrum of sound” takes the singular verb “is,” meaning it functions as a unified, indistinguishable whole. Kristman has “no doubt” about his analysis of his authentic trip to Koreatown.

The openers of Spam N Eggs that night were two techno DJs and producers named MALT (Andrew Seo) and Eat Paint (Vince Fierro). Together, they run the Los Angeles-based Leisure Sports Records. We met at the Seoul-based coffeehouse Caffé Bene in Los Angeles to share misugaru lattes and talk about Kristman’s statement.

“I definitely wouldn’t call ‘Koreatown’ very underground,” says Vince. “It’s certainly become a new social center to LA’s night life, and there was a time when there was a feeling of great potential for a solid underground movement. But sadly, there have not been any significantly artistic home-grown breakthroughs coming from K-Town.”

Vince continues: “Rather, it serves as a new landing pad for the very commercialized Korean hip-hop and EDM cultures in Los Angeles. These genres dominate the K-Town club landscape. Unfortunately [pause] to me, anyway [pause] it’s success not won with any kind of daring artistry or underground legitimacy but rather with familiar aesthetics and neon lights.”

“[Los Angeles] helps them, too,” adds Andrew. “They’ll close off streets and bring in vendors because it gets people out spending money. A lot of the Korean stars come out for these events, but the thing is [pause] what kinds of people are these events attracting? Obviously, Koreans, or people that are fans of Korean music. I think Korean people here have a lot of pride, and they see that there is a rise in the culture and the area’s popularity and they’re jumping on that. They’re trying to make it bigger and better. If you walk around Koreatown, you’ll see gentrification happening everywhere.” He references the Wilshire Grand Center, the Hanjin Group-owned skyscraper that stands taller than any other west of the Mississippi, and its surroundings as evidence.

Urban studies carried out by Kyonghwan Park and Youngmin Lee, Kyeyoung Park and Jessica Kim, and others on Koreatown’s fraught relationship with surges of capital have made similar acknowledgments in wonderful detail. These surges are not evenly distributed among clubs; there are many more “secret” dimly-lit rave spots that pop up throughout the district than there are widely advertised above-ground clubs in Koreatown. Even relatively established clubs such as Union at 4067 West Pico Boulevard or Feria at 682 Irolo Street were not glamorous (and both have closed since the time this recent interview was conducted); they are surrounded by predatory lending offices and abandoned shops. Andrew gave me the address of an upcoming rave spot in Koreatown; it was basically under an apartment complex.

“I think they just want to bring what they build in Korea over here because that’s how they do it over there,” adds Andrew. “They just have apartments and then clubs and restaurants underneath or underground. It’s kind of like how Tokyo is.”

If this “hidden, underground” Koreatown culture does exist, as Kristman suggests, then finding it requires ignoring the flashing lights of Spam N Eggs and seeking out the darker warehouse raves. It also requires a level of suspended disbelief that Koreatown is untouched by hipster gentrification and instead an embracing of a subcultural essence that goes beyond city architecture and real estate. The physical space of sections of Koreatown might not be as important as the potential for the production of space in terms of creating sonic contact zones.

sign in Koreatown, Los Angeles by Flickr User vince Lammin (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The zones created by artists such as Malt and Eat Paint are mobile and fleeting as they pop up whenever and wherever these DJs perform. Like Josh Kun famously put forward in his book Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (2005), the music these musicians produce and mix has the ability to create audiotopias “of cultural counter that may not be physical places but nevertheless exist in their own auditory some-where” (2-3). Electronic music, and perhaps similarly this “jewel-like” spectrum of Koreatown sound, has the ability to implant identity into the buildings and surrounding neighborhoods. What once was a Mexican restaurant and is now abandoned becomes a pulsating techno club attracting those Angelenos who shy away from the more commercial scenes.

Perhaps Kristman was focusing more on the Asian American DJs themselves than the types of music they were spinning or The Park Plaza Hotel and its situation in Koreatown. As Asian Americans, these DJs represent and are representative of an authentic subculture to which Kristman bears witness. However, many artists shy away from or sometimes outright deny any racial or ethnic connections being made between their art and their identities. Andrew and Vince shared personal and well-known examples of ambivalent attitudes toward such labeling. Jason Chung, also known as Nosaj Thing, is one of the best-booked electronic performers today, flying around the world sponsored by Adidas or playing huge shows with Flying Lotus. Vince, who worked very closely with Jason just as his career was taking off, reflects on Nosaj’s rise: “Everyone here in K-Town thinks Nosaj Thing is a god. But if you ask him about his pride in being Korean, he won’t say anything.”

Andrew adds: “It’s just like how Qbert is for the Filipino community – that’s who Nosaj Thing is for Koreans today. When I went to South Korea to perform, they would ask me how I was affiliated with him, although I’m not really. South Koreans are amazed to see a Korean guy make it in the music industry in America with a sense of originality, not having to sell out.”

Both Andrew and Vince shift the conversation suddenly to Keith Ape and his debut as a trap music artist. Keith Ape’s success was due in part to spectacle (as the genre demands), to the power of hallyu promotion, but more so to simple respect from established artists such as Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame. In a Noisey documentary about his first U.S. performance at South by Southwest (SXSW) in 2015, Keith Ape is translated as saying: “You know, I’m Asian. And I heard stories of how Asians are still looked at as outsiders in the States. And I heard it’s even worse when it comes down to hip-hop.”

While his successful Atlanta trap-style set at SXSW ultimately assuaged those fears of acceptance, for many beginning and working Asian American DJs and performers, this perceived and sometimes enforced musical barrier is daunting. While Andrew seemed to have his criticisms about how Korean promoters of Korean artists seem to be strictly focused on the commercial payoff of such events, he did not condemn their tapping into the United States market. Furthermore, he never mentioned that performing in the electronic music genre was either assisted or hindered by his ethnicity. Rather, much like Nosaj Thing, Malt lets the music do its work and create an audiotopia in which race and ethnicity are not under the spotlight. Literally, most of the shows Malt performs at do not feature the performer; the DJ is often in the dark, putting the focus almost exclusively on the music.

MALT, courtesy of Leisure Sports Records

Vince adds: “Korean American artists like Nosaj Thing and TOKiMONSTA and David Choe – all these people are doing their own thing. They’ve got these ‘don’t see me as Asian’ mottos, these ‘just think I’m dope’ vibes.”

Instead of searching for authenticity in the racial or ethnic identities of performers, Andrew is more interested in breaking stereotypes about the dangers associated with techno music, raves, and drug use. Andrew concludes: “I think first impressions are very, very important to Korean people. Looks are everything. South Korea is like the biggest plastic surgery country in the world. I went to Korea to visit my grandma, who I hadn’t seen in a long time, and all she would ask me was like, ‘Are you eating well? Look at your hair!’ Just purely about my looks. I was telling her, ‘Grandma! I run a label back in LA! I’m trying to be a musician!’ At our events, random Korean people walk by, they’ll come in for five seconds, listen to the music, and label it as ‘drug music,’ like something you listen to when you’re messed up. The same thing could be said about trap or EDM, right? But they don’t associate it with that. Hopefully, if the right timing comes, we can change that somehow.”

Featured Image: TOKiMONSTA by Twitter User Henry Faber, 2011 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Shawn Higgins is the Academic Coordinator of the Undergraduate Bridge Program at Temple University’s Japan campus. His latest publication is “Orientalist Soundscapes, Barred Zones, and Irving Berlin’s China,” coming out in the 2018 volume of Chinese America: History and Perspectives.

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“Most pleasant to the ear”: W. E. B. Du Bois’s Itinerant Intellectual Soundscapes

Inspired by the recent Black Perspectives “W.E.B. Du Bois @ 150” Online ForumSO!’s “W.E.B. Du Bois at 150” amplifies the commemoration of the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth in 2018 by examining his all-too-often and all-too-long unacknowledged role in developing, furthering, challenging, and shaping what we now know as “sound studies.”

It has been an abundant decade-plus (!!!) since Alexander Weheliye’s Phonographies “link[ed] the formal structure of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to the contemporary mixing practices of DJs” (13) and we want to know how folks have thought about and listened with Du Bois in their work in the intervening years.  How does Du Bois as DJ remix both the historiography and the contemporary praxis of sound studies? How does attention to Du Bois’s theories of race and sound encourage us to challenge the ways in which white supremacy has historically shaped American institutions, sensory orientations, and fields of study? What new futures emerge when we listen to Du Bois as a thinker and agent of sound?

Over the next two months, we will be sharing work that reimagines sound studies with Du Bois at the center. Pieces by Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Kristin Moriah, Aaron Carter, Austin Richey, Julie Beth Napolin, and Vanessa Valdés, move us toward a decolonized understanding and history of sound studies, showing us how has Du Bois been urging us to attune ourselves to it.

Readers, today’s post by Phillip Luke Sinitere offers a wonderful introduction to W.E.B. Du Bois’s life’s work if he is new to you, and a finely-wrought analysis of what the sound of Du Bois’s voice–through first hand accounts and recordings–offers folks already well-acquainted.

–Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Liana Silva, Eds.


In her 1971 book His Day is Marching On: A Memoir of W. E. B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham Du Bois recalled about her late spouse’s public lectures that “everyone in that hall followed his words with close attention. Though he read from a manuscript replete with statistics and sociological measurements, he reached the hearts as well as the minds of his listeners.” Shirley’s memory about W. E. B.’s lectures invites reflection on the social and political significance of what I call his “itinerant intellectual soundscapes”—the spaces in which he spoke as an itinerant intellectual, a scholar who traveled annually on lecture tours to speak on the historical substance of contemporary events, including presentations annually during Negro History Week.

Yet Du Bois’s lectures took place within and across a soundscape he shared with an audience. In what follows, I center the sound of Du Bois’s voice literally and figuratively to 1) document his itinerant intellectual labor, 2) analyze how listeners responded to the soundscapes in which his speeches resided, and 3) explore what it means to listen to Du Bois in the present historical moment.

***

Upon completing a Ph.D. in history at Harvard in 1895, and thereafter working as a professor, author, and activist for the duration of his career until his death in 1963, Du Bois spent several months each year on lecture trips across the United States. As biographers and Du Bois scholars such as Nahum Chandler, David Levering Lewis, and Shawn Leigh Alexander document, international excursions to Japan in the 1930s included public speeches. Du Bois also lectured in China during a global tour he took in the late 1950s.

W. E. B. Du Bois delivering a speech in front of a microphone during trip to China, circa 1959, Courtesy of the Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth, physical image located in Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

In his biographical writings, Lewis describes the “clipped tones” of Du Bois’s voice and the “clipped diction” in which he communicated, references to the accent acquired from his New England upbringing in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Reporter Cedric Belfrage, editor of the National Guardian for which Du Bois wrote between the 1940s and 1960s, listened to the black scholar speak at numerous Guardian fundraisers. “On each occasion he said just what needed saying, without equivocation and with extraordinary eloquence,” Belfrage described. “The timbre of his public-address voice was as thrilling in its way as that of Robeson’s singing voice. He wrote and spoke like an Old Testament prophet.” George B. Murphy heard Du Bois speak when he was a high school student and later as a reporter in the 1950s; he recalled the “crisp, precise English of [Du Bois’s] finely modulated voice.”

One benefit of Du Bois’s long life was its intersection with technological advances in audio recording and amplification, the dynamics of which literary historian Jennifer Lynn Stoever insightfully narrates in The Sonic Color Line. This means that in 2018 we can literally listen to Du Bois’s voice; we can experience sonic dimensions of his intellect and sit with the verbal articulation of his ideas. For example, Smithsonian Folkways released two audio recordings of Du Bois: an April 1960 speech, “Socialism and the American Negro” he delivered in Wisconsin, and a 1961 oral history interview, including a full transcript. Furthermore, in his digitized UMass archive we can read the text of another 1960 speech, “Whither Now and Why” and listen to the audio of that March lecture.

The intersection of these historical artifacts texture understanding of the textual and aural facets of Du Bois’s work as an itinerant intellectual. They give voice to specific dimensions of his late career commitments to socialism and communism and unveil the language he used to communicate his ideas about economic democracy and political equality.

The act of hearing Du Bois took place within and across his itinerant intellectual soundscape was rarely a passive activity, an experience toward which Shirley’s comments above gesture. Those who attended Du Bois’s lectures often commented on listening to his presentations by connecting visual memories with auditory recollections and affective responses.

John Hope Franklin, 1950s, while Chair of Department of History at Brooklyn College, Courtesy of Duke University

For example, the late black historian John Hope Franklin penned an autobiographical reflection about his first encounter with Du Bois in Oklahoma in the 1920s at 11 years old. At an education convention with his mother, Franklin commented on Du Bois’s physical appearance: “I recall quite vividly . . . his coming to the stage, dressed in white tie and tails with a ribbon draped across his chest . . . the kind I later learned was presented by governments to persons who had made some outstanding contribution to the government or even humankind.” He then referenced a sonic memory. “I can also remember that voice, resonant and well modulated,” Franklin wrote, “speaking the lines he had written on note cards with a precision and cadence that was most pleasant to the ear . . . the impression he made on me was tremendous, and I would make every effort to hear him in the future wherever and whenever our paths crossed.” While Franklin did not remember the speech’s content, his auditory memories deliver a unique historical impression of the sound of Du Bois’s intellectual labor—a “resonant and well modulated” inspirational voice to which Franklin attributed his own career as an intellectual and historian.

A few years after the Oklahoma lecture, Du Bois gave a February 1927 presentation on interracial political solidarity in Denver during Negro History Week. Two audience members penned letters to him in response to his speech. A minister, A. A. Heist, told Du Bois that his encouragement for interracial work across the color line was bearing fruit through community race relation meetings. Attorney Thomas Campbell’s letter, like Heist’s, confirmed the speech’s positive reception; but it also revealed captivating details about the soundscape. Campbell described the lecture as a “great speech” and a “remarkable address.” “I have never heard you deliver such an eloquent, forceful and impressive speech,” he gushed, to an “appreciative and responsive audience.” Although the speech’s text does not survive, from correspondence we learn about its subject matter and receive details about the soundscape and positive listener responses to his spoken words.

 

NAACP Pres W.E.B. DuBois speaks Third Baptist Church 1958, San Francisco

The observations of Franklin, Heist, and Campbell collectively disclose pertinent historical, gendered, and racialized dimensions of listening to Du Bois. These historical documents convey what rhetoric scholar Justin Eckstein terms “sound ontology,” the multifaceted relationship between speakers, words, listeners, and the intellectual, cultural, and affective responses generated within such sonic settings. In other words, within the context of each speech’s delivery listeners heard Du Bois speak and felt his words which generated embodied responses. At the intersection of Franklin’s visual and aural memories is a well-dressed regal Du Bois, a male black leader whose presence in Tulsa a handful of years after a destructive race riot perhaps represented recovery and resurrection, whose words and voice commanded authority. Similarly, recollections of a leading lawyer in Denver’s early twentieth-century black community lauded Du Bois’s role in fostering interracial possibility. Campbell’s admission was important; it documents how a male race leader and key figure in one of the nation’s most important interracial organizations, the NAACP, inspired through an impactful, moving, and persuasive lecture collaborative conversations across the color line. Given Du Bois’s stature as a national and international scholar and intellectual leader, Franklin, Heist, and Campbell perhaps expected him to dispense wisdom from travel and study. Nevertheless, the historical record documents an interactive soundscape that emanated from Du Bois’s presence, his words, and the listening audience.

Ethel Ray Nance, a black  educator and activist from Minnesota, first met Du Bois during the Harlem Renaissance. After she moved to Seattle in the 1940s, Nance helped to organize his west coast lecture tours and assisted with his United Nations work in 1945. Nance also assembled a memoir of her work with Du Bois, titled “A Man Most Himself.” Her reflections provide a unique personal perspective on Du Bois. She recalled meeting him at a reception held in his honor after a lecture in Minneapolis in the early 1920s. She described the larger soundscape of Du Bois’s lecture, especially how listeners responded to him. “The audience gave him complete attention,” she wrote, “they seemed to want him to go on and on. You could feel a certain strength being transmitted from speaker to listeners.”

Also in Minnesota, around the same time a young black college student named Anna Arnold Hedgeman heard Du Bois lecture at Hamline University. As she listened to a lecture on Pan-Africanism with “rapt attention,” Hedgeman wrote in her 1964 memoir The Trumpet Sounds, she noticed that Du Bois wore “a full dress suit as though he had been born in it” and commented that “his command of the English language was superb.” Hedgeman located her inspiration for a career in education and activism to hearing Du Bois speak. “This slim, elegant, thoughtful brown man had sent me scurrying to the library and I discovered his Souls of Black Folk,” she said.

W.E.B. Du Bois on a country road in his own car, 1925, Courtesy of the Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth, physical image located in Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Broadly speaking, the listener responses mentioned above capture dimensions of Du Bois’s public reception at arguably the mid-life pinnacle of his career. He was in his 50s during the 1920s, an established scholar, author, and black leader. Yet due to shifting national and international conditions related to capital, labor, and civil rights during the Great Depression and World War II, his politics moved further left. He settled more concretely on socialist solutions to capitalism’s failures. This position became increasingly unpopular as the Cold War dawned. People still listened to Du Bois, but with far more critical and dismissive dispositions.

Page from W.E.B. Du Bois’s voluminous FBI file

Peering further into the historical record, part of Du Bois’s verbal archive and audible history resides in his FBI file. Concerned about his leftist political leanings, the Bureau had surveilled Du Bois starting in the 1940s by reading his publications, and dispatching agents or informants to attend his lectures and speeches. As the Cold War commenced, scrutiny increased. Redacted reports communicated his movements throughout the world in 1960, including a speech at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D. C. when he received the Lenin Peace Prize, and an address he gave in Ghana at a dinner celebrating that nation’s recent independence in 1957. The FBI file states that he received “an ovation as he rose to make a statement” about world peace and a more equitable distribution of resources. Similarly, the report from Ghana relayed that in his address he outlined two divergent world systems, “the socialism of Karl Marx leading to communism, and private capitalism as developed by North America and Western Europe.”

The bureaucratic construction of FBI reports reveals less about the audibility of Du Bois’s voice. However, unlike the listener reports presented above, the technical nature of bureaucratic communications offer a great deal more about the content of his speeches and thus documents another sense in which people—presumably FBI agents or informants—heard or listened to Du Bois as part of their sonic surveillance.

Du Bois’s audible history invests new meaning into his work as a scholar and public intellectual. Through John Hope Franklin, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and Anna Arnold Hedgeman we “see” Du Bois lecturing and speaking, in effect the public presence of a scholar we tend to know more readily through the printed words of his publications. With Thomas Campbell and Ethel Ray Nance—and from a different vantage point his FBI files—we “feel” the power of Du Bois’s words and the affective experience of his verbal constructions. Whether found in historical documents or narrated through vivid descriptions of the “clipped” aspects of his voice’s literal sound, investigating Du Bois’s audible history innovatively humanizes a towering scholar mostly readily known through his published words.

Attending to the audible and archival records of his life and times, we not only encounter the sonic dimensions of his literal voice, we observe how ordinary people listened to him and responded to his ideas. Some embraced his perspectives while others, especially during the Cold War, denounced his socialist vision of the world. Yet this is where the redactions in the FBI files ironically speak loudest: Du Bois’s ideas persisted, and survived. Scholars and activists amplified his words and retooled his ideas in service of black liberation, social justice, and economic equality.

W.E.B. Du Bois receiving honorary degree on his 95th birthday, University of Ghana, Accra, 1963, February 23, 1963,Courtesy of the Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth, physical image located in Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

By literally listening to and sitting with an audible Du Bois today there’s an opportunity to mobilize affect into action, a version of what Casey Boyle, James J. Brown, Jr. and Steph Ceraso call “transduction.” Du Bois’s voice digitized delivers rhetoric within yet beyond the computer screen. It (re)enters the world in a contemporary soundscape. Hearing his voice produces affect and thought; and thought provokes action or inspires creativity. Such a “mediation of meaning” shows that contemporary listeners inhabit a soundscape with Du Bois. Whether a scholar listens to Du Bois in an archive, students and teachers engage his voice in the classroom, or anyone privately at home leisurely tunes into his speeches, time, space, and place collectively determine how wide and expansive the Du Bois soundscape is. Advancements in communication, digital and sonic technologies mean that across whatever modality his voice moves there’s a sense in which Du Bois remains an itinerant intellectual.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is a W. E. B. Du Bois Visiting Scholar at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2018-19. He is also Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a predominately African American school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, his books include Christians and the Color Line: Race and Religion after Divided by Faith (Oxford University Press, 2013); Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History (University of Missouri Press, 2014) and Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (New York University Press, 2015). Currently, he is at work on projects about W. E. B. Du Bois’s political and intellectual history, as well as a biography of twentieth-century writer James Baldwin. In 2019, Northwestern University Press will publish his next book, Citizen of the World: The Late Career and Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois.  

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becoming a sound artist: analytic and creative perspectives

Recently, in a Harvard graduate seminar with visiting composer-scholar George Lewis, the eminent professor asked me pointedly if I considered myself a “sound artist.” Finding myself put on the spot in a room mostly populated with white male colleagues who were New Music composers, I paused and wondered whether I had the right to identify that way. Despite having exploded many conventions through my precarious membership in New York’s improvised/creative music scene, and through my shift from identifying as a “mrudangam artist” to calling myself an “improviser,” and even, begrudgingly, a “composer” — somehow “sound artist” seemed a bit far-fetched. As I sat in the seminar, buckling under the pressure of how my colleagues probably defined sound art, Prof. Lewis gently urged me to ask: How would it change things if I did call myself a sound artist? Rather than imposing the limitations of sound art as a genre, he was inviting me to reframe my existing aesthetic intentions, assumptions, and practices by focusing on sound.

Sound art and its offshoots have their own unspoken codes and politics of membership, which is partly what Prof. Lewis was trying to expose in that teaching moment. However, for now I’ll leave aside these pragmatic obstacles — while remaining keenly aware that the question of who gets to be a sound artist is not too distant from the question of who gets to be an artist, and what counts as art. For my own analytic and creative curiosity, I would like to strip sound art down to its fundamentals: an offering of resonance or vibration, in the context of a community that might find something familiar, of aesthetic value, or socially cohesive, in the gestures and sonorities presented.

Rehearsing for “Meena’s Dream” (2013) by playwright Anu Yadav – original score by Rajna and Anjna Swaminathan and Sam McCormally.

I have spent most of my musical life wondering how the sounds I produce intersect with specific vectors of social belonging. The sounds emanating from my primary instrument — the mrudangam, a South Indian drum — are situated within a complex lattice of social difference, resonating within and across communities as disparate as the predominantly privileged-caste audiences of Chennai’s elite Karnatik sabha-s and the cosmopolitan connoisseurs who show up to find a home in New York City’s myriad intercultural and experimental music spaces. The sounds I produce are also inflected by the multivalent referentiality of my own socially situated body — as a queer, privileged-caste, Indian-American woman — simultaneously slicing through and answering to sonic environments organized around particular notions of rigor, virtuosity, and beauty.

For me, what began as a creative path rooted in the mimesis of an artistic lineage eventually settled in a versatile expressive voice, shaped by a decade of aesthetic (and ethical) nomadism. From my vantage point as a female percussionist in the South Asian diaspora, I have always been aware of the cracks in the veneer of tradition and other normative structures, and perhaps this fueled my musical vagrancy. Over time, my sound has accumulated the resonances of Karnatik music, ‘jazz’ drumming, bharatanatyam footwork, and Afro-Cuban rhythms, among others.

The author performing with Vijay Iyer, Graham Haynes, and Marcus Gilmore. The Stone, NYC. July 2013.

Certainly, this convergence of sonic layers is mediated by the rich specificity of interpersonal relationships and positionalities within larger networks. Power and positionality mediate the shape, audibility, and versatility of sounds as they become coupled with the implied (or actual) encounter of socially situated bodies. Yet, sounds somehow continue to exist in excess of the mechanisms and bodies that attempt to explain, produce, and contain them: idiom, tradition, space, culture, nation, race, gender, and sexuality. Therein lies their potency and mystery, and I intend to briefly explore the sensation of sonic excess in the hopes of honing a more sensitive analytic and creative perspective.

I am yet to become comfortable thinking in terms of sound, due to the longtime privileging of structure and technique in my musical upbringing. However, this is beginning to unravel as I am forced to deal with sound, particularly the sound of what Patrice Pavis and Jason Stanyek have called the “intercorporeal” aspect of intercultural performance. The predominantly improvised sounds that resonate through my mrudangam often emerge on the edge of my dynamic embodied consciousness, arranging themselves chaotically in real-time, interacting with others’ emergent soundings and sensory yearnings. Some of it may be mediated by parallel perceptual and idiomatic forms, but achieving a core interactive flow involves a fundamental immersion in sound.

Mat Maneri, feat. Rajna and Anjna Swaminathan

Tongues Series, curated by Amirtha Kidambi

ISSUE Project Room — June 18, 2016

For instance, take this impromptu piece presented by violist Mat Maneri, violinist Anjna Swaminathan (my sister), and me in 2016. It took place in the wonderfully resonant vaulted space of ISSUE Project Room, in front of an unsuspecting audience that had convened to hear the back-to-back juxtaposition of two improvisational “tongues” — a set of Maneri’s rich microtonal experiments, followed by a Karnatik concert of voice, violin, and mrudangam. However, this impromptu ludic exchange of sonic offerings — particularly Maneri’s incredible, chameleon-like ability to confound the sounds of Karnatik ornamentations with his own microtonal reflections — guided attention away from comparison and toward the sounds as they bounced eerily around the resonant architecture. Faced with the technically daunting Karnatik repertoire that Anjna and I were to play subsequently with vocalist Ashvin Bhogendra, the echoes of our interstitial collaboration allowed us to reorient ourselves and breathe a little easier.

From an analytic perspective, it is irresponsible to distill these sounds, to capture and conceptualize them as distinct from the bodies, histories, and discourses that participate in their co-creation and interpretation. Yet, riddled as they are with generations of power asymmetries and complex emotions, it is clear that these resonances have a secret life of their own. As musicians, we are not often given the opportunity to explore these clandestine, almost Baudelairean, correspondences, except perhaps when we discover them by accident. For instance, sonic ambiguities like those spun during the trio encounter play on sonic excess to spur new ways of listening and relating, with a direct ethical impact on the ensuing music.

Performing in Vijay Iyer’s large ensemble project, “Open City,” named after Teju Cole’s award-winning novel. October 2013.

John Blacking’s definition of all music as “humanly organized sound” is perhaps an early articulation of this idea, although the word ‘organized’ contains a bias toward formal structure and stability. To be sure, organizing principles always exist at the local level of socially situated perception and expression, which Nina Sun Eidsheim calls the ‘figure of sound.’ However, the kind of sound art I’m proposing revels in excess, or as Eidsheim puts it — “not only aurality, but also tactile, spatial, physical, material, and vibrational sensations [that] are at the core of all music” (5). We can even turn to how Jacques Attali poetically describes composition — as “a labor on sounds, without a grammar, without a directing thought, a pretext for festival, in search of thoughts,” a practice wherein “rhythms and sounds are the supreme mode of relation between bodies once the screens of the symbolic, usage and exchange are shattered,” one that neither marks nor produces the body, but allows for “taking pleasure in it” (143). By focusing on the multi-sensory, pleasurable valences of sound, and on the ways in which sonic excess allows for new patterns of coexistence, we can outline a ‘sound art’ practice and analytic that aren’t circumscribed by Western institutional definitions and technological/perceptual biases.

Thinking in this way about sound and vibration helps to eradicate the mind-body problem that continues to plague certain areas of music studies and music making. Sound forms an elusive common denominator that doesn’t rely heavily on colonial taxonomies of form or hierarchical theories of art. It even accounts for the subversive or incommensurable resonances that tend to emerge at the unstable threshold between so-called ‘producers’ and ‘receivers’ of music. After all, sound is in the ear of the beholder, and social asymmetries are embedded in the way we hear and listen. Through the notion of vibration, we are further attuned to the visceral space in which it reverberates, and the ways in which its echoes live on in the bodies of those who experience it.

performing at the Banff International Workshop for Jazz and Creative Music. June 2013. Photo credit: Don Lee, Image courtesy of author

Finally, there is the other definition of sound in English, which indicates a level of trust and holism. Taking this path to becoming ‘sound artist’ focuses attention on the artist. I don’t intend to focus on the ‘chops’ conventional to a field of aesthetic practice. Rather, I am interested in the more obscure meaning: a ‘sound artist’ as one that ethically occupies space as an artist.

How might this emerging sound art, as analytic and creative practice, work to interrogate the very ethics and politics of art, while succumbing to the contingency and volatile excess of sound? I don’t claim to hold the answers, but if we are in any way sounding out against the grain of dominant modalities, then at some level we must attend seriously to sound: in its excess, as it overwhelms bodies and spaces, and as it stretches the realm of the known.

Featured Image: “The great Rajna Swaminathan,” from Teju Cole tweet, 5 October 2013.

Rajna Swaminathan is an accomplished mrudangam (South Indian percussion) artist, a protégé of mrudangam legend Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman. She has performed with several renowned Indian classical musicians, most notably mentor and vocalist T.M. Krishna. Since 2011, she has been studying and collaborating with eminent musicians in New York’s jazz and creative music scene, including Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, Miles Okazaki, and Amir ElSaffar. Since 2013, Swaminathan has led the ensemble RAJAS, which explores new textural and improvisational horizons at the nexus of multiple musical perspectives. Swaminathan is active as a composer-performer for dance and theatre works, most notably touring with the acclaimed company Ragamala Dance and collaborating with playwright/actress Anu Yadav. Swaminathan holds degrees in anthropology and French from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is currently pursuing a PhD in cross-disciplinary music studies at Harvard University.

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“Happy Homes Have Gramophones” –Gender, Technology, and the Sonic Restaging of Community Before and After the Partition of Bengal

co-edited by Praseeda Gopinath and Monika Mehta

Our listening practices are discursively constructed. In the sonic landscape of India, in particular, the way in which we listen and what we hear are often normative, produced within hegemonic discourses of gender, class, caste, region, and sexuality. . . This forum, Gendered Soundscapes of India, offers snapshots of sound at sites of trans/national production, marketing, filmic and musical texts. Complementing these posts, the accompanying photographs offer glimpses of gendered community formation, homosociality, the pervasiveness of sound technology in India, and the discordant stratified soundscapes of the city. This series opens up for us the question of other contexts in India where sound, gender, and technology might intersect, but, more broadly, it demands that we consider how sound exists differently in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Afghanistan. How might we imagine a sonic framework and South Asia from these locations? —Guest Editors Praseeda Gopinath and Monika Mehta

For the full introduction to the forum, click here.

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

“She compelled respect at once by refusing on any account to be phonographed: perhaps she thought, amongst other things, that if she committed her soul to a broken piece of wax it might get broken…my subsequent experiences showed that it was only too likely,” wrote the British musicologist A.H. Fox-Strangways in 1910 about Indian female singer Chandra Prabha, while remarking on the harsh reactions to the gramophone in India (90).  Such deep-rooted discomfort with the gramophone speaks to the cognitive, perceptual and experiential challenges faced by a listener/performer when a new auditory technology substitutes familiar terrains of musical production.

In this post, I revisit the decades prior to and following the 1947 Partition of Bengal, a phase singularly volatile not only in India’s political but also its musical and technological histories.  I examine how the introduction of European harmony/polyphony in the aural imaginary of Bengal negotiates ideologies espoused by the nationalists in the (re)constitution of gendered space post-Partition by transforming relations of consumption. The production of gendered domesticity was vitally related to rigid conceptions of physical space and its allocation in colonial Bengal which, further, influenced music reception in ways worth probing.

The auditory regimes prior to the emergence of recording/radio-broadcast typified public modes of listening based on live performances engendering affective flows and presupposed human proximity. This culture of aurality is inextricably tied to communal modes of consumption and performance, be it the high-end salon-tradition of the Bengali modern song, the hard-hitting agitprop strains of the Bengal wing of the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) or even the stylized elite classical genres. The collective nature of musical practice conjures up traditional connotations of masculine spaces, especially in the case of the elite Bengali household where the gendered ideology of spatial orientation relegated the respectable Bengali woman (bhadramahila) to the interiors of the house (antahpur/andarmahal). The delights of salon-music were to be relished by the man of the house (babu).

‘Gramophone – a home entertainer’

Thus, the communitarian character of musical practice often made it elusive to respectable women. However, the emergence and subsequent sophistication of auditory technologies ushered a radical transformation to such a dynamic by dissociating music from the human performer. Besides leading to the obvious technological alienation in the listener, the privatization of the listening experience was accompanied by a condition of a penetrating solitude and interiority, a state speaking to the voices and /sounds emanating from the phonograph. At the sociological level, the entry of recording technology redefined long-held divisions of domestic space and the gendered dynamics thereof by not only democratizing musical consumption but also forging provisional collectivities of listeners often cutting across gender, class and caste. Besides, traditional associations of musical genres with specific loci- classical music with the salon/concert space for instance- gave way to a more fluid conception of domestic space assuming multiple sonic/musical identities depending on what the gramophone played. The phonographic interface, thus, radically reconfigures listening practices and produces a different paradigm of self, sound, community, and gender.

What is at stake here is not some covert form of linear technological determinism, but a more nuanced detour around auditory-technologies, spaces of consumption, and the affordances thereof that calibrate auditory experience along new registers. What merits contemplation is how (if at all) these technological innovations in the commercial arena complement and usher formal nuances and sonic innovations in the musical works they mediate. The gramophone renders problematic the uncritical conflation of the sonic and visual registers typical of live musical performance and, in the process, sets in motion a unique dynamic of interacting with musical sound. Severed from its visual footholds in live performance, phonographic sounds often provoke the listener to imagine the singing/performing body which, in turn, informs the way the sounds are processed mentally.

Vintage Gramophone spotted in Little India, Serangoon, Singapore, Image by Flickr User Linkway88, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Indian music has traditionally been based on a single melody which, in its skeletal grammar, is an individual mode of expression, even when performed by a group. The intrinsic form of Indian and traditional East Asian music in general exhibits a non-harmonic character. The concept of musical harmony proper is considered a European import. European harmony, polyphony, and counterpoint are in their very essences a set of disparate tonal registers forging a gestalt which impresses on the mind of the listener an overarching unity. At an experiential level, the polyphonic form embodies a distinct sonic ontology and a novel dimension, as it were, and thus cannot be reduced to merely a stylistic import. It induces a new auditory condition, a new register of being-in-listening (the lecture snippet from 57:08-.1:02:07 effectively demonstrates the morphing of the basic melody of a song into its polyphonic equivalent). The new auditory condition conjoins the familiarity of the melody with the markedly different yet complementing registers of the polyphony, creating a novel sensation for the uninitiated Bengali listener.

Among the very early records to employ musical polyphony in India were two iconic musical works of the mid-20th century, one devotional in intent– Aham Rudre from Mahishasurmardini (1931) composed by the legendary music director Pankaj Mullick–and the other, a professed experiment in introducing polyphony in Bengali music, Shurer Ei Jharna (1958), by the noted composer Salil Chowdhury.

In the current context, it is important to note how the sonic dimension of musical polyphony in Aham Rudre  and Shurer Ei Jharna embodies and substitutes notions of aural communities and restages a communitarian character. Notably, the creation and circulation of these works paralleled the establishment of commercial state-radio in India (1930) and the first microgroove record in Kolkata in 1958 by the Gramophone Company.

The Gramophone Company in Calcutta marketed its records with the Bengali tagline “Shukhi Grihokon Shobhe Gramophone/Happy Homes Have Gramophones,” projecting the phonograph as the symbolic ideal of the domestic idyll and in the process confronting gendered spatial demarcations head-on by invading the auditory horizons of the secluded Bengali women. The striking presence of the gramophone in the iconic Gramophone Scene (1:35:17-1:35:28) in Satyajit Ray’s movie Ghare Baire–set in the backdrop of the 1905 Partition of Bengal–beautifully illustrates the sorority forged by the gramophone which, notably, draws even the marginalized widow Bouthan within its field of influence.

However, the gramophone superseded its commodity-character to serve not only in crass exhibitionism but also as an index of a masculine, elite consumerist culture where “serious music” and musical connoisseurship often became synonymous with the gramophone and recorded sound. A new breed of “record-collectors” came into existence, mainly belonging to the upwardly-mobile/elite classes whose passion for records was their most prominent identity-marker in the domestic realm, occasionally outweighing even their professional concerns.

But even as the radio and phonograph transcended the hitherto gendered character of musical reception by entering the women’s quarters and dissolving time-honored segregations of auditory spaces within the household, it had to contend with a deep-seated psychological discomfort in the listener, a fundamental unease with befriending technology that substituted the human. I argue that the newly insulated character of the radiophonic auditory experience was counteracted by significant efforts, conscious or otherwise, at sonically restaging and reclaiming the community lost in technological mediation.

Indian farmers gathered to listen the Farm Forum programme broadcast by All India Radio in the 1950s, Image Courtesy of Flickr User Public Resources.Org, (CC BY 2.0)

Given pet notions of musical anthropology and the chronological coincidence between the early uses of harmony and the entry and sophistication of technologically mediated music in Bengal one could, at the risk of slight oversimplification, posit that the import of the harmonic form at this significant juncture sonically compensates the auditory solitude induced by radio/phonograph by recreating a modified and idealized Platonic (Platonic here is used as an allusion to ‘music of the spheres’ to point towards how musical harmony since medieval times has been associated with ideal public) community and restaging it within the confines of the constitutive plurality of the polyphonic mode. As an aside, the initial introduction of polyphony in Shurer Ei Jharna (1958) garnered flak from a large section of the audience who cognized it as a group of amateur performers ‘singing out of key’ (Salil Chowdhury’s lecture from 30:31-31:15). Over the next few decades, however, this form was  trans-culturated and seamlessly assimilated within the sonic vocabulary of the Bengali/Indian masses, so much so that without the regular vocal/instrumental counterpoint, commercial songs nowadays are often felt to be lacking hue.

The sonic changes that I have been investigating preceded or followed the Partition of Bengal, which informed the gendered patterns of popular musical consumption. It is well-known that the exigencies of the Partition proved emancipatory for women in that they were exposed to the vagaries of the workplace, leaving the confines of their quarters. It is with an often uncritical celebratory fervor that the Partition is credited with fashioning the independent, self-reliant and educated middle-class Bengali working woman, on occasion emerging as the sole bread-earner of the family. Jasodhara Bagchi says that the “partition accelerated the earlier trends of the twentieth century of abolishing the ‘purdah that had confined the Bengali bhadramahila to her antahpur (private quarters)…The same stroke that brought this flood of uprooted marginalised women to Calcutta also opened the door to many new opportunities for Bengali middle-class Hindu women. They came out of the private domain of domesticity and child rearing to take up public duties.’”(8) Uditi Sen, however, in her revisionist reading of the celebratory impulse argues that “situational aberrations” notwithstanding, the Partition did not lead to “a transformation of social norms or any substantive change of women’s ideal role within the bounds of the family.”(16)

In the aftermath of the Second World War, which had also witnessed the entry of women into the professional/public sphere, the USA launched a propaganda war to restore women to their hearth, revivifying the “cult of the housewife,” deploying films and popular music to promote the trope of the ideal housewife. Redefining domestic spaces as woman’s space had also been in the cards for the Indian state post-Partition, which had to a large extent been governed by patterns of popular media consumption. Arguably, the coincidental emergence of musical harmony and sophistication of private auditory technologies in the years following the Partition contributed to efforts to restore women to their private quarters, by compensating the lost professional community of the self-reliant working woman with the poetic/sonic community embodied by the polyphonic form, in the process enlivening her insipid lived quarters. Popular media technologies often employ innovation in content to revivify clichéd formats; musical harmony coupled with sophisticated audio-reproduction provides a classic instance of inaugurating a new sonic dimension in popular music which provides a powerful and enthralling form of domestic leisure.

Thus, in the context of early 20th century Bengal, the gramophone was a significant import which not only reconfigured perceptual registers and musical cultures but also listening practices by entering the interiors of elite Bengali households. Besides democratizing the listening experience, which till then had largely been restricted to male constituencies, the gramophone privatized musical consumption. It was through the introduction of musical polyphony, which is intrinsically ‘public/ communal’ as regards its sonic character, that this impulse was counteracted. As mentioned earlier, these technical/musical innovations widened the scope and impact of musical performance and arguably contributed to the reconstitution of gendered domestic space post-Partition which points to subtle and complex relations among technology, (musical) genre and gender.

Featured Image: Screen Capture from by SO! Ed. Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire

Ronit Ghosh is a postgraduate student at the Department of Art and Technology, Aalborg University, Denmark. His research interests include aesthetic philosophy, critical sound studies and the sociology of Indian popular music. He has published articles on sound studies in the International Journal on Stereo and Immersive Media and The Rupkatha Journal and has an article forthcoming in the Journal of Sonic Studies. He is a classical violinist and an aspiring music composer.

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