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Listening in Plain Sight: The Enduring Influence of U.S. Air Guitar

The mention of “air guitar” might conjure images of the Bill and Ted series. Or Risky Business. Or maybe even Joe Cocker at Woodstock. You might think of air guitar as an embarrassing fan gesture. So when you hear there’s an annual U.S. Air Guitar competition, you might imagine an entirely superficial practice without any artistic merit. Maybe you just think of it as gimmicky. Or a celebration of the worst aspects of classic rock fandom and the white male guitar heroes that often populate its pantheon. In all honesty, I thought all of these things at first, until I began to take the competition seriously. 

The title of this clipping from the Washington Post on November 28, 1983 reads: “Music to Their Airs!” Text appears alongside a large image of a man flying through the air with an invisible guitar in his arms.

I did not realize, for example, that air guitar competitions have an enduring history since the late 1970s, existing as an incredibly influential popular music pantomime practice that informs platforms like TikTok. I did not realize how invested contemporary competitors could be—dedicating years to learning the craft. And I did not realize how these reconstructions of guitar solos could creatively rupture the relationship between guitar virtuosity and privileged identities in popular music’s past.

The U.S. Air Guitar Championships began in 2003 as the national branch of the Air Guitar World Championships, which began in 1996 in Oulu, Finland. The competition emerged as a bit of a joke alongside the Oulu Music Video Festival. Eventually, two people—Cedric Devitt and Kriston Rucker—founded U.S. Air Guitar, which expanded across the country (thanks, in part, to the influential documentary Air Guitar Nation). Today, folks compete in order to advance from local to regional to the national competition, ultimately hoping to be crowned the best air guitarist in the nation and sent to Finland to represent the United States (think: Eurovision but air guitar). United States air guitarists do incredibly well in the international competition, although they face formidable air guitarists from Japan, France, Canada, Australia, Russia, and Germany (as well as less-formidable air guitarists from elsewhere).

In each competition, competitors perform as personas, such as Rockness Monster, AIRistotle, Agnes Young, and Mom Jeans Jeanie. They don elaborate costumes. They painstakingly practice elaborate choreographies and compete in some of the most famous musical venues in the country—from Bowery Ballroom to the Black Cat. Competitors stage routines that bring a particular 60-second rock solo to life, using their bodies to simulate playing the real guitar (what air guitarists call “there guitar”). Think of these as gestural interpretations of the affective power of guitar solos, rather than a mechanical reproduction of particular chords, frets, and licks. They use their bodies to draw out timbre, rhythm, and pitch, and they also play with the juxtaposition of their own identities and those of the original artists. Judges evaluate performances based on three criteria:

· Technical merit (does the pantomime more or less correspond to the guitar playing in the music?)

· Stage presence (is it entertaining?)

· ‘Airness’ (does the performance transcend the imitation of the real guitar to become an art form in and of itself?)

Scores are given on a figure skating scale, from 4 to 6. So a perfect score is 666 from the three judges. Winners in the first round advance to the second round, where they must improvise an air guitar routine to a surprise song selection. 

As part of my ethnographic work on air guitar, I competed in a local competition, where I was crowned third best air guitarist in Boston in the year 2017 (a distinction that will likely never appear on my CV). I have also conducted fieldwork in Finland twice and attended countless competitions in the U.S. I judged the 2019 U.S. Air Guitar Championships in Nashville alongside Edward Snowden’s lawyer, which resulted in a three-way air off to crown a winner. 

Competitions depend on recruiting new competitors, celebrity judges, and large crowds, all of which can be at odds with creating an inclusive community. Organizers have worked hard to eliminate racist, sexist, ableist, and other forms of discriminatory language from judges’ comments. Women within U.S. air guitar have formed advocacy groups. The proceeds of the most recent competitions have been donated to Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which took up the case of a disabled Black veteran named Sean Worsley who was incarcerated for playing air guitar to music at a gas station. Both organizing bodies at the national and international level emphasize world peace as central to their mission. 

Air guitar routines are themselves political statements too. These acts of musical interpretation enable women, BIPOC, and disabled performers to author sounds credited to guitar idols, like Eddie Van Halen or Slash. Performers make arguments about their access to popular music, using only their bodies. Sydney Hutchinson’s work  examines how air guitar can challenge Asian American stereotypes and gendered conceptions of dance

My current work revolves around disabled air guitarists. Andres SevogiAIR drew me in, as a result of his expressive flamenco-inspired seated style he called “chair guitar.” He passed away but left me with an enduring appreciation for air guitar’s ability to challenge conventional virtuosity, a term that can often reproduce an ableist link between physical ability and musical virtue. I came to appreciate how air guitarists could invent imaginary instruments that serve their particular bodies. I witnessed competitors coupling chronic illness and impairments with air guitar routines, as well as competitors using air guitar to fully amplify their struggles with cancer.

I also came to appreciate how air guitarists embrace stigma (e.g., madness, craziness, and gendered forms of listening), turning taboo into a source of creativity. This led to academic writing that traces the history of madness in relation to air guitar, showing how imaginary instrument playing has often been pathologized, and yet contemporary disabled air guitarists reclaim these accusations of insanity as a source of power. 

* * *

A few weeks ago, I received a request from Lieutenant Facemelter to judge the Midwestern Online Regional U.S. Air Guitar Competition. I accepted. As with many things these days, the contemporary competition has morphed into a Twitch-hosted online spectacle, featuring combinations of live and pre-recorded elements. One woman gave birth between first- and second-round performances (made possible by a multi-day filming period for an asynchronous part of the online competition). One man’s air guitar performance evoked an exorcism in his basement. Another middle-aged competitor competed while suffering the side effects of his second shot of coronavirus vaccine, ultimately winning the competition with a pro-vaccination message. His parents appeared in the livestream when he accepted the award, and the host of the show–the Master of Airimonies–jokingly said to them: “You two must be so proud.” 

I think of U.S. Air Guitar as a stained-glass window, through which prisms of popular music history shine through. The competition can bring troubling facets of that history to light, but the competition can also revise that history (or, at least, reimagine how that history can influence the future). Either way, performers celebrate the idea that rock solos live most powerfully in the embodied listening practices of everyday people. Listening becomes the subject of these performances–the source material for these persuasive displays of music reception. Indeed, air guitar can be one of the strangest things you’ll never see. 

The competition continues this summer

Featured Image: US Air Guitar National Finals, The Midland Theater, Kansas City, MO, August 9, 2014, by Flickr user Amber, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Byrd McDaniel | Byrd is a scholar who researches disability, digital cultures, and popular music. He currently works as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University. His forthcoming book–Spectacular Listening— traces the rise of contemporary practices that treat listening as a performance, including air guitar, podcasts, reaction videos, and lip syncing apps. Byrd is enthusiastic about work that addresses any facet of air guitar, including global and historical approaches. He welcomes outreach from those who want to research these topics.

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Digital Analogies: Techniques of Sonic Play–Roger Moseley

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SO! Amplifies: The Electric Golem (Trevor Pinch and James Spitznagel)

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

On March 24th, 2019 the record release party for The Electric Golem’s 6th CD Golemology was held at the Loft in Ithaca, New York. The Electric Golem is an avant-garde synthesizer duo featuring Trevor Pinch and James Spitznagel, that has been in existence for about ten years.

Trevor Pinch is a local sound artist and professor at Cornell University. He is an STS (Science and Technology Studies) and Sound Studies scholar. As a key thinker of STS, Trevor is the coproducer of theories about Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, Social Construction of Technology (SCOT), and the role of users in technological history and innovation. However, Trevor’s interest in dates back much farther; he built his first modular synthesizer when he was a physics student in London in the 1970s.

The other half of The Electric Golem, James Spitznagel, is a multi-media artist who uses the iPad as a musical instrument and to create digital paintings. While he has played many roles in the music and culture industries—guitarist in a rock band, record store owner, art gallery and guitar shop investor, and even business manager for the Andy Warhol Museum—he moved to Ithaca to focus on producing abstract art: digital paintings and experimental, improvisational music. Being an energetic and enthusiastic person who has unrestrained fantasies, James finds that everything around him can be his inspiration.

Pinch and Spitznagel formed the group after Spitznagel read Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer (by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco) and realized Pinch also lived in Ithaca. Spitznagel simply looked his name up in the phone book and called him up: “I go, ‘is this Trevor Pinch?’ He said, ‘yes.’ I said, ‘well, you don’t know me, but I just read your book and I love it.’”  And then they got together for a beer and have been best friends and collaborators ever since.  Once Spitznagel heard about Pinch’s homemade synthesizer, he asked Trevor to try to make something together and it turned out to be a fascinating mixture of analog–Trevor’s synth, Moog Prodigy, and a Minimoog–and James’s digital instruments.

Building from this first moment of discovery, The Electric Golem’s music is electronic, experimental, and totally improvised. Typically, the pieces of music last twenty minutes to half an hour and expresses their interaction with the machines and with each other in the studio. James is much more controlling of the tone and rhythm, and patches the sound as he goes along, whereas Trevor is much more about making spontaneous weird sounds. They complement each other and the creation process is usually by random and spontaneous, as Spitznagel describes: “I didn’t tell Trevor what to do or what to play, but I said, here’s the piece of music I’ve written. He just instinctively knew what add to it.” Reciprocally, “he might just play something that I go, oh, I can weave in and out of the ambient sound he’s putting there.”

Trevor Pinch, Electric Golem at Elmira College, 2012

For the duo, the process of producing music becomes a shared experience with their listeners. The music is ever changing and evolving. In addition, unexpected drama adds vitality to the palette. “The iPad might freeze up or synthesizer might break somehow,” Spitznagel notes, “that’s happened to us, but we carry on. Like Trevor looks at me and says, it’s not working there. Or, I look at him and go, I have to reboot my computer, it’s not working. But, those times actually inspire us to try new things and go beyond what we are doing.” James explained. Their inspiration comes from the unknown, which just emerges from their practice. “Generally, this sort of music is completely unique to Electric Golem.” Trevor concluded.

The name “Electric Golem” comes from a series of books with Golem in the titles that Trevor collaborated on with his mentor Harry Collins. “The golem is a creature of Jewish mythology,” Pinch and Collins wrote in The Golem, What You Should Know about Science, “it is a humanoid made by man with clay and water, with incantations and spells. It is powerful, it grows a little more powerful every day.  It will follow orders, do your work, and protect you from the ever threatening enemy.  But it is clumsy and dangerous.  Without control, a golem may destroy its masters with its flailing vigour” (1).  Noting Trevor’s association with the concept of the Golem, Spitznagel added the “Electric” twist not just as a metaphor for their sound but also because “it’s kind of like a retro name.” The Electric Golem mushroomed from there, and in the past decade they have had many invitations and bookings to play out, receiving the first recording contract from the Ricochet Dream label, and have played with a bunch of notable musicians, such as Malcolm Cecil of Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Simeon of Silver Apples, and “Future Man” (aka Roy Wooten), and they haven’t stopped there.

According to Pinch, the key feature of The Electric Golem’s music is its ability to encompass different moods. “I think Electric Golem has become good at one thing: its changing and transitioning from one sort of mood of music to another. And we have become quite good at those transitions. I think people would say that’s what they kind of like about us.” These sorts of slow transitions construct a unique texture of sound that can be quite cinematic, so much so that in 2012, the Electric Golem performed the accompaniment to the silent movie A Trip to the Moon, a special Cornell cinema event. Overall, as improvised experimental music, it is sometimes challenging to listen to, with no regular rhythm or reliable melody. Trevor produces warm, rich drones from the analog side that contrast with the sharper digital rhythms that James programs. In short, the Electric Golem varies between these two affects but the music goes far beyond the representation of emotional states; sometimes it conjures up the feeling of the vastness of space and time.

Experimental music, is a collaboration and negotiation process between instruments and their users.  No matter if analog or digital, instruments have autonomy; they are non-human actors with their own agency to some extent. As Trevor Pinch intimates, “I understand the general sort of sound that can be produced, but the particular details of how it will work out, you don’t really know, that’s much more spontaneous, you have to react to that.”  Instruments can often be uncontrollable–making their own sounds—so that Electric Golem must respond in kind. “So, it’s sort of like higher level meta-control versus actually doing what you’re doing in response to the instrument that combines together,” Trevor describes, “which I think is the secret to controlling these sorts of instruments.” It is incredible that Pinch and Spitznagel know each other so well—and each know their instruments so well–that they can improvise for long periods with no trouble. Trevor says: “Follow the use of these instruments! Follow the instruments! They are not essentialized. They are just stabilized temporarily.”

On the whole, The Electric Golem shows an artistic form which breaks the traditional paradigm, deconstructs and then reconstructs it, seeking to free sound from the instruments. Their music is beyond pure melody and rhythm, beyond the expression of existence, expressing more of an aesthetic state of transcendence. They challenge what music is, and what musical instruments are; they challenge divisions between the identities of engineer and musician. Electric Golem’s music co-constructs art and technology and binds them together; art, for them, is a mode of presenting technology, and vice versa, technology is a pathway through which art can flourish.

My favorite Electric Golem piece is called “Heart of the Golem.” What is the heart of the Golem? According to Pinch, “It is a mystery, a process of unfolding and discovery. It is somewhere where analog and digital sound meet, and an improvisation.” What the magic is remains unknown and unlimited, just like the future of the Electric Golem.

Featured Image: Courtesy of The Electric Golem

Qiushi Xu is a PhD candidate in the subject of Philosophy of Science and Technology in Tsinghua University, Beijing and in a joint PhD program in the Department of Science and Technology Studies in Cornell University, working with Prof. Trevor Pinch. Her research areas are Sound Studies, STS, Cultural Studies and Gender Studies. Her current research focuses on the sociology of piano sound and the negotiation and construction of piano sound in the recording studio (PhD dissertation), gender issues in recording industry, experimental music, auscultation and sound therapy. She holds an MA in Cultural and Creative Industries from King’s College London; a BA in Recording Arts and a BA in Journalism and Communication from the University of China, Beijing. She is also an amateur pianist, writer, and traditional Chinese painter. As a multiculturalist, she is am fascinated by different forms of art and culture in different cultural contexts.

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