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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Sounding Out Tarima Temporalities: Decolonial Feminista Dance Disruption–Iris C. Viveros Avendaño
Gendered Soundscapes of India, an Introduction –Praseeda Gopinath and Monika Mehta
The forum’s inspiring research by scholars/practioners Wanda Alarcón, Yessica Garcia Hernandez, Marlen Rios-Hernandez, Susana Sepulveda, and Iris C. Viveros Avendaño, understands music in its local, translocal and transnational context; and insists upon open new scholarly imaginaries. . .
Current times require us to bridge intersectional, decolonial, and gender analysis. Music, and our relationship to it, has much to reveal about how power operates within a context of inequality. And it will teach us how to get through this moment. –MHP
A new generation of Chicana authors are writing about the 1980s. An ‘80s kid myself, I recognize the decade’s telling details—the styles and fashions, the cityscapes and geo-politics, and especially the sounds and the music. Reading Chicana literature through the soundscape of the 80s is exciting to me as a listener and it reveals how listening becomes a critical tool for remembering. Through the literary soundscapes created by a new generation of Chicana authors such as Estella Gonzalez, Verónica Reyes, and Raquel Gutiérrez, the 1980s becomes an important site for hearing new Chicana voices, stories, histories, representations, in particular of Chicana lesbians.
Reading across Gonzalez’s short story, “Chola Salvation,” Reyes’s Chopper! Chopper! Poetry from Bordered Lives; and Gutiérrez’s play, “The Barber of East L.A,” this post activates the concept of the “flashback” to frame the 1980s as a musical decade important for exploring Chicana cultural imaginaries beyond its ten years. In Gonzalez’s “Chola Salvation,” for example, Frida Kahlo and La Virgen de Guadalupe appear dressed as East Los cholas speaking Pachuca caló and dispensing valuable advice to a teen girl in danger. The language of taboo and criminality is transformed in their speech and a new decolonial feminist poetics can be heard. In Reyes’s Chopper! Chopper!, Chicana lesbians – malfloras, marimachas, jotas, y butch dykes – strut down Whittier Boulevard, fight for their barrio, take over open mic night and incite a joyous “Panocha Power” riot, and make out at the movies with their femme girlfriends. Gutiérrez’’s “Barber of East L.A” recovers forgotten butch Chicana histories in the epic tale of a character called Chonch Fonseca, inspired by Nancy Valverde, the original barber of East Los Angeles. A carefully curated soundtrack amplifies her particular form of butch masculinity. These decolonial feminist ‘80s narratives signal a break from 1960s and ‘70s representations of Chicanas/os and introduce new aesthetics and Chicana/x poetics for reading and hearing Chicanas in literature, putting East L.A. on the literary map.
Gonzalez, Reyes, and Gutiérrez’s work also use innovative sonic methods to demonstrate themes of feminist of color coalition and solidarity and represent major characters whose desires and actions transgress normative gender and sexuality. All three contain so many mentions of music that operate beyond established notions of intertextuality, referencing oldies, boleros, and alternative 80s music as a soundtrack that actually transform these works into unexpected sonic archives. Through the 80s soundscapes that music activates, these authors’ work shifts established historical contexts for reading and listening: there was a time before punk, and after punk, and this temporality sounds in Chicana literature.
If the classic documentary film The Decline of Western Civilization by Penelope Spheeris was meant to give coverage to the Los Angeles neglected by mainstream music journalists, it also performs an important omission that leaves Chicano viewers searching for a mere glimpse of “a few brown Mexican faces,” as Reyes writes in her poem “Torcidaness.” Among the bands featured–most male fronted–the film captures an electric performance by Chicana punk singer Alice Bag, née Alicia Armendariz. In contrast to the other musicians in jeans, bare torsos, and, combat boots, Bag is visually stunning and glamorous. She dressed in a fitted pink dress reminiscent of the 1940s pachuca style; she wears white pointed toe pumps, her hair is short and dark, her eye and lip makeup is strong and impeccable. In the four brief minutes the band is on camera Bag sings in a commandingly deep voice, slowly growling out the words to the song “Gluttony” and before the tempo picks up speed, she lets out a long visceral yell on the “y” that is high pitched, powerful, and thoroughly punk. It’s a superb performance, yet Bag is not interviewed in this film.
Reyes’s poem draws attention to that omission as the narrator searches for a mere glimpse of “a few brown Mexican faces.” This speaks to the longing and the difficulty for Chicanas to see themselves reflected in the very same spaces that offer the possibility of belonging. Over thirty years since the film, Bag is now experiencing a surge in her career and has sparked renewed interest in histories of Chicanas in punk. She has written two books including the memoir: Violence Girl: From East L.A. Rage to L.A. Stage – A Chicana Punk Story (2011) and is sought out for speaking engagements on university campuses. Bag is able to tell her story now through writing, something a film dedicated to documenting punk music was not able to do. In retrospect, thirty-five years later, Bag’s current visibility emphasizes the further marginalization of Chicanas in punk the film produces by silencing her speaking voice against the audible power of her singing voice. Recovering Chicana histories in music may not happen through film, I propose that it is happening in the soundscapes of new Chicana literature. Importantly, new characters emerge and representations that are minor, marginalized, or non-existent in the dominant literary landscape of Aztlán are rendered legibly and audibly.
Theorizing the flashback in Chicana literature raises new questions about temporality that invite and innovate ways to trace the social through aesthetics, politics, music, sound, place and memory. Is flashback 80s night at the local dance club or 80s hour on the radio always retrospective? Also, who do we envision in the sonic and cultural imaginary of “the 80s”? As a dominant population in Los Angeles and California, it is outrageous to presume that Chicanas/os or Mexican-Americans were not a significant part of alternative music scenes in Los Angeles. This post turns up the volume on the ’80s soundscapes of Chicana literature via Verónica Reyes’s poem “Torcidaness: Tortillas and Me,” to argue that one cannot nostalgically remember the 80s in a flashback radio hour or 80s night at the club and forget East L.A.
“Torcidaness” (Twistedness) speaks in an intimate voice homegirl-to-homegirl: “Tú sabes, homes how it is in—el barrio.” Through this address the narrator describes the sense of knowing herself as different and “a little off to the side on the edge” much like a hand formed tortilla. In the opening stanza, Reyes introduces the metaphor for queerness that runs through the poem in the image of the homemade corn tortilla, “crooked, lopsided and torcida.” Part of Reyes’s queer aesthetics prefers a slightly imperfect shape to her metaphorical tortillas rather than one perfectly “round and curved like a pelota.” As a tongue-in-cheek stand-in for Mexicanness, the narrator privileges the homemade quality of “torcidaness” versus a perfect uniformity to her queerness.
Importantly, the narrator locates her queer story that begins in childhood as “a little chamaca” in the Mexican barrios of East Los Angeles. “Torcidaness” names the cross streets to an old corner store hangout and brings East L.A. more into relief:
Back then on Sydney Drive and Floral in Belvedere District
Oscar’s store at the esquina near the alley was the place to be
We’d hang out and play: Centipede Asteroids Pac Man
or Ms. Pac Man (Oh yeah, like she really needed a man)
and even Galaga… Can you hear it? Tu, tu, tu… (very Mexican ?que no?)
Tú, tú, tú (Can you hear Eydie Gorme? Oh how so East L.A.) Tú, tú, tú…”
Coming at you … faster faster—Oh, shit. Blast! You’re dead (22).
This aurally rich stanza rings with the names of classic video games of the early 1980s. Reyes reminds us that video games are not strictly visual, they’re characterized by distinct noises, quirky blips and beeps, and catchy “chiptunes,” electronic synthesizer songs recorded on 8-bit sound chips. The speaker riffs off the playful noises in the space game Galaga, asking the reader to remember it through sound: “Can you hear it?” Capturing the shooting sounds of the game in the percussive phrase, “tú, tú, tú” prompts a bilingual homophonic listening that translates “tú” into “you.” The phrase is only a brief quote, a sample you could say, and the poem seems to argue that you’d have to be a homegirl to know where it comes from. The full verse of its source goes like this: “Me importas tú, y tú, y tú / y solamente tú / Me importas tú, y tú, y tú / y nadie mas que tú” as sung by the American singer Eydie Gorme with the Trio Los Panchos in their 1964 recording of “Piel Canela.”
To some extent the poem is not overly concerned with offering full translations, linguistic or cultural, but the reader is invited to corporeally join in the game of “Name That Tune.” The assumption is that Gorme’s Spanish language recordings of boleros with Los Panchos are important to many U.S. Mexicans and they remain meaningful across generations. And importantly, this “flashback” moment is not an anachronistic reference, rather it says something about the enduring status of boleros and the musical knowledge expected of a homegirl. Reyes’s temporal juxtaposition of the electronic sounds of the video game with the Spanish language sounds of a classic Mexican love song—and their easy, everyday coexistence in a Chicana’s soundscape–is part of what the narrator means by, “Oh how so East L.A.”
As a map, this poem locates the ’80s in part through plentiful references to the new electronic toys that became immensely popular in the US, yet Reyes does not fetishize the technology nor does she abstract Mexican experiences from these innovations as the American popular imaginary does all too often. Rather, she situates the experience of playing these new toys in a corner neighborhood store among other Mexican kids. The deft English-Spanish code switching audible in lines such as, “Oscar’s store at the esquina near the alley was the place to be,” is also part of the poem’s grammatically resistant bilingual soundscape. In these ways the poem makes claims about belonging and puts pressure on how we remember. There is danger in remembering only the game as a nostalgic collective memory and not the gamers themselves.
As a soundtrack, Reyes’s poem remembers the 80s through extensive references to the alternative rock music and androgynous and flamboyant artists of the MTV generation. This musical lineage becomes the soundtrack to the queer story in the poem. Through the music, the narrator produces a temporally complex “flashback” where queer connections, generational turf marking, and Mexicanness all come together.
No more pinball shit for us. That was 1970-something mierda
We were the generation of Atari—the beginning of digital games (22)
[. . .]
This was Siouxsie and the Banshees’ era with deep black mascara
The gothic singer who hung out with Robert Smith and Morrissey
The Smiths who dominated airwaves of Mexican Impala cars (23)
In these lines the narrator shows no nostalgia for the 1970s and boasts intense pride for all things new ushered in with the new decade. She brags about a new generation defined by new cultural icons like video games and synthesizer driven music. And while this music’s sound discernibly breaks from the 70s, its alternative sensibility isn’t just about sound, it’s about a look where “deep black mascara” and dark “goth” aesthetics – for girls and boys – are all the rage and help fans find each other. Simply dropping a band’s or artist’s name like “Siouxsie” or “Morrissey” or quoting part of a song conjures entire musical genres, bringing into relief a new kind of gender ambiguity and queer visibility that flourished in the 1980s. The poem is dotted with names like Boy George, Cyndi Lauper, Wham!, Elvis Costello, X, Pretenders, all musicians one might hear now during a “flashback 80s” radio hour radio or club theme night.
The complex sense of time-space of the “flashback” as a theoretical concept is part of what links seemingly discrete flashback events: club nights, radio hours, musical intertexts. What is new about the “flashback” in this context is the unexpected site (literature) and literature’s unexpected Chicana subjects who frame readers’ listenings. Reyes’s poem represents and reminds me that the reason I go to dance clubs has always been for the love of music, all music, a feeling shared passionately among my stylish and musically eclectic friends (read more in my SO! post “New Wave Saved My Life.”). The last 80s night I went to was earlier this summer at Club Elysium in Austin, Texas, with my partner Cindy and our friend Max, who says he loves it because everyone there is his age – and for the love of new wave and fashion! The DJ played requests all night which made some of the transitions unexpected. But there we were, three Chicanos, less than ten years apart in age, enjoying a soundscape any 80s kid – from SoCal or Texas — would be proud of. When I got home I added four new songs we heard and danced to that night to my oldest Spotify list titled, “Before I Forget the 80s.” Although the purpose of this list is to stretch my memory of the music as a living pulsing archive, it also recovers the memory of this great night out with friends that extends beyond the physical dance floor.
Spotify Playlist for “Torcidaness” by Wanda Alarcon
Yet, in “Torcidaness,” remembering this music is mediated by the Chicana lesbian storyteller’s perspective who keenly tunes into these sounds and signs of alternative music and gender from East Los Angeles. The line, “The Smiths who dominated airwaves of Mexican Impala cars,” has implications that she was not alone in these queer listenings, as Reyes casually juxtaposes the image of lowrider car culture associated with Chicano hypermasculinity with the ambiguous sexuality of the Manchester based band’s enigmatic singer, Morrissey. Morrissey and lead guitarist Johnny Marr captivated generations of music listeners with their bold guitar driven sound, infectious melodies, and neo-Wildean homoerotic lyrics in the albums The Smiths (1983), Meat is Murder (1985), and The Queen is Dead (1986).
Recalling the song, “This Charming Man” against the poem’s reference to an Impala lowrider complicates how I hear the lyric: “Why pamper life’s complexities when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat?” In a flash(back), the gap between the UK and East L.A. is somehow bridged in this queer musical mediation echoing what Karen Tongson calls “remote intimacies across time.” Although the poem reads like a celebration, there is a critique here in lines such as these. Chicanos and people of color are never at the forefront of who is imagined to be “alternative” in histories of alternative rock music. A vexing exception can be found in the Morrissey fandom. Mozlandia, Melissa Mora Hidalgo’s study in “transcultural fandom” is partly a response to troubling misrepresentations of Chicano fans of Morrissey. In the important work of Chicana representation where audibility is as needed as visibility, this poem not only remembers but it documents queer Chicana/o presence in these alternative 80s music scenes.
By poem’s end, “torcidaness,” a Spanglish term, comes to mean lesbian, working class, and Chicana of the eighties generation all at once. Tuning into the poem’s soundscape enables the possibility of hearing all of these queer meanings simultaneously as well as the possibility of hearing Aztlán, vis-a-vis Eydie Gorme, in a video game. In these ways, Verónica Reyes’s sonically rich poem renders East Los Angeles and the 1980s as an important nexus for recovering Chicana histories and Chicana lesbian representation.
Ultimately “Torcidaness and Me” captures the joy and the struggle of queer Chicana belonging in this new narrative of what Cherrie Moraga calls, “Queer Aztlán.” Reyes writes, “Yep, this was the eighties and I was learning my crookedness.” At the same time, the compatibility of the term “queer” to tell Chicana stories is challenged by the presence of alternative ways to indicate ambiguity of gender and sexuality. In this poem, “crookedness,” “torcidaness,” “my torcida days to come,” and “marimacha” all convey “queerness” in forms more audible and meaningful to a homegirl from East L.A. If there is a sound to gender—to marimachas, malfloras, jotas, butches/femmes, what does using the word “queer” do to how we hear them? Some meanings are lost in translation, yet I don’t believe that translation should always be the goal.
Theorizing the concept of the flashback in the soundscapes of this generation of Chicana authors rejects the abstract and diffuse notion of 80s themed events deployed in mainstream American culture and resists the erasure of Chicanos and Latinos in the ways we remember this important musical decade. The stakes involved in representing and remembering such histories are high. Yet Chicana histories, experiences, sexualities, subjectivities, intimacies, language, style, desires cannot be understood without a deep recognition of Chicana lesbians and butch/femme as subjects of literature and the communities we live in. As part of a decolonial feminist listening praxis, the flashback becomes an important tool linking listening with remembering as more diverse Chicana worlds emerge.
Featured Image: Shizu Saldamando’s Pee Chee LA 2004, courtesy of the artist. See Shizu’s work at the LA Pacific Standard Time Show Día de los Muertos: A Cultural Legacy, Past, Present & Future at Self Help Graphics opening September 17th, 2018.
Wanda Alarcón is a lecturer in the Department of Feminist Studies at UC Santa Cruz. She is a recipient of the Carlos E. Castañeda Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin (2016 –2017). She received her Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality from UC Berkeley in 2016, and earned an M.A. in English & American Literature from Binghamton University. Her research interests lie at the intersections of decolonial feminism, sound studies, popular music, eighties studies, and Chicana/o and Latinx cultural studies. Her interdisciplinary research theorizes “listening” as a decolonial feminist praxis with which to remember alternate histories of Chicana/o belonging within and out of national limits. In particular, her research argues that queer Chicana/x and Latina/x sonics become more audible in the soundscapes of Greater Mexico. At home Wanda plays piano almost every day, tinkers with bass guitar, and enjoys singing in her car. She listens to The Style Council and The Libertines in equal measure and is active on Spotify where she makes playlists for work, play, and sharing with friends.
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Could I Be Chicana Without Carlos Santana?–Wanda Alarcon
Here at Sounding Out! we like to celebrate World Listening Day (July 18) with a blog series that focuses on the importance of listening. This year, we bring your attention to the role of listening when it comes to the sounds of the K-12 classroom, and by extension, the school.
Any day in a K-12 school involves movement and sounds day in and day out: the shuffling of desks, the conversations among classmates, the fire drill alarm, the pencils on paper, the picking up of trays of food. However, in many conversations about schools, teaching, and learning, sound is absent.
This month’s series will have readers thinking about the sounds in classrooms in different ways. They will consider race, class, and gender, and how those aspects intersect how we listen to the classrooms of our past and our present. More importantly, the posts will all inspire assignments that educators at all stages can use in their classrooms. Our first post came from Shakira Holt, a playlist of her black girl students’ songs as philogynoir. Our second post was penned by Caroline Pinkston, and in it she questions common classroom management strategies for quieting a classroom instead of listening to students. Today’s post comes from the point of view of a student, teacher, and now researcher, who reflects upon how we listen to the sounds (and students!) in our classrooms.
Time’s up, pencils down, let’s take our notebooks outside to the playground and listen along with Cassie J. Brownell. –Liana Silva, Managing Editor
I have spent much of my life listening in schools. I essentially grew up in the public elementary school in Montana where my mother taught for over 40 years. The sounds of my childhood are those of feet squeaking on the tile floor of the hallways, the bounce of a kickball in the gym, and the slam of desks opening and closing throughout the day.
Across my elementary school years, I spent many early mornings attempting to write my name in cursive with a squeaky dry erase marker on the whiteboard in her classroom. Other mornings, I rapidly clicked the keyboard as I played Oregon Trail alongside two friends whose guardians also worked at the school. After school, I chased these same friends across the schoolyard, shot hoops with them in the gym, or discovered new worlds in the stacks of the library. The whipping Montana winds on the open playground later gave way to new sonic experiences, as I transitioned from elementary student to classroom teacher and, eventually, educational researcher.
When I later became a teacher at an elementary school in post-Katrina New Orleans, Louisiana, the chorus of sounds from my childhood reverberated around me. The delightful shrieks of children on the playground and the sounds of trays being stacked after lunch were familiar. So, too, was the daily stacking of chairs. The frequencies of childhood, both my own and that of my students, informed my entrée into teaching. The familiar rhythms of pencil sharpeners and stapled butcher paper were welcoming waves as I settled into not only my new role, but my new school community in the neighborhood of Algiers Point. Yet, with the opening bells of the school year at this New Orleans elementary school, I began to hear schooling in new registers.
On my first day of teaching, I was acutely attuned to the “noise” the second-grade children in my classroom made—sounds I had not been aware of as a student. I quickly tried to “correct” their behavior with promises of external rewards if they could only make better “choices,” including quieting themselves to listen to me. Yet, few of the classroom management “tricks” I had learned in my educational training seemed to work. After the last child walked away from the schoolyard, I crumbled in the classroom of my mentor teacher. Crying, I told her I was not cut out for such work. She laughed as she told me that to be a teacher I must (re)learn to listen to the sounds of my classroom.
In time, I learned to listen. The day-to-day sounds of teacher-directed schooling, or what I now know as the banking model of education, quickly gave way to my listening to children. I slowly learned the value of listening to the whispers of children as they read, the scuffle of their feet as they sought a different color crayon from a child at another table, and the wise words they shared with one another about how they used an alternative route to solve a given math problem. I listened to them too when they found my hand to hold during recess and the high-fives before they departed each day. Rather than hearing their sounds as unruly chatter, I opened my ears to the excitement and learning children were sharing with one another.
That semester Hurricane Gustav appeared in the Gulf Coast. The impending arrival of the storm coincided with the three-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. As the whole city of New Orleans was encouraged to evacuate, I felt the resonances from Katrina’s devastating impact in the stories and questions of my second-grade students. As Gustav approached, many of the children shared In the final days before we evacuated, we commemorated Katrina and shared hopes for protection during Gustav.
While I listened to their words, I also learned to listen to their bodies. I could hear their worries about the storm in their hugs, the intonation of their voices, and in their reactions to thunderstorms shaking our classroom windows. As a bodily experience, multimodal listening quite literally moves beyond just what our ears can hear to how sound moves across/through/with bodies, materials, and contexts. Through multimodal listening, listeners can develop their skills as both critical consumers and producers of sound. Listeners are thus better positioned to reflect on and identify how sound informs other sensations and feelings. Although I have only recently put words to what it means to engage in multimodal listening, my body was already experienced with it.
I returned to the city almost two weeks later, after the Gulf Coast suffered the one-two-punch of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Whispers of wind rustled art supplies by sneaking through fresh cracks in the windows. As my colleagues and I hurriedly re-vamped our classrooms, the traditional staccato sounds of schooling slowly echoed in my ears. In the quiet clean-up of the storm, new frequencies of the school soundscape could be heard. This soundscape was not new in and of itself, but rather it was the absence of the consistent beat that harmonized the everyday sounds to which I had become attuned. Without the slap of a jump rope on the ground or the cheers of children playing kickball to punctuate the silence, waves of emotion—despair, hope, and uncertainty—underlying the soundscape of schooling I thought I knew became apparent to me for the first time.
As an educational researcher in an urban, elementary classroom in the Midwest, I now find myself hearing other frequencies of schooling that remained unheard even in my early teaching. In my new role, my job is to engage in multimodal listening at all times as I participate in elementary classrooms. As a teacher in New Orleans, I was only just beginning to engage in the task of multimodal listening that Ceraso describes. Still today, I am often still attempting to hear and feel all the vibrations happening around me. Yet, as a researcher, I can attend more fully to the task of listening.
Unlike when I was teaching, I do not need to adhere to strict policies regarding the learning of a group of students, but I can instead take an exploratory approach to learning alongside children. Specifically, in collaboration with a culturally and linguistically diverse group of 3rd-grade children in Mr. Holiday’s classroom this past year, I started to earwitness the ambient soundscapes of children’s life spaces. Although I first began listening with the children at Community School J three years earlier, I entered in to Mr. Holiday’s class this year interested in considering the ways children were engaging with and drawing upon various cultural, linguistic, and modal experiences to communicate. I did so aware that, for many historically marginalized children, such communicative practices are often overlooked or unheard in standardized curricular materials.
Mr. Holiday challenged his students to think—and hear—beyond the standardized curriculum by considering how sound can be a tool to write with and through.
“You’re writing, but you can use words, pictures, you can sketch…anything you want to,” Mr. Holiday shared with his class of diverse 3rd graders one day. “Just remember to listen. When we come back inside, we will all share what we heard and then we will talk about how we could use this in our stories about our school.”
Outdoors, a low-flying plane could be heard. With little bodies quietly kicking them back-and-forth, swings creaked. On the playground, we listened to the whipping wind and felt the cool fall weather on our skin. From the slide, one child sounded out for his peers the word chilly, stretching the ls as long as he could. The mulch of the dry ground was kicked by one child as another, with her stomach on the seat of a swing, pushed the ground under her feet to glide back-and-forth.
Some children imagined the empty playground to be filled with the familiar sounds of their daily recesses. Others began to set strict boundaries for how they and their peers might begin to listen. In an attempt to control the bodies of her peers, one girl sent away her friend, suggesting that they could not hear together. Almost simultaneously, another child silently waved from the highest playground tower to the three boys from her class seated closely next to each other on a bench.
As Mr. Holiday called for all children to make a line outside his classroom door, a cacophony of cheers and groans lurched from the children as they sprinted from their observation sites.
“Look at how much I noticed!” one little boy shouted as he handed his notebook to me with a list of sounds. He included sounds heard in the moments we were outdoors like the airplane, but he also included imagined shrieks of children at play.
The sounds of elementary schooling have shown me that much of classroom teaching and learning needs to be grounded in listening. From the structured directions—like those presented by Mr. Holiday—to the daily screams of children racing across the school grounds. In other words, we must listen to children, to their experiences, and to their emotions in order to critically consider how schooling, as a space, informs and is informed by children’s bodies and sounds.
I sometimes wonder what frequencies and rhythms are unheard. With each passing observation in a school, I question whether Western schooled notions of listening contaminate the uniquely trained ears of children. As I observed in the listening exercise with Mr. Holiday’s class, children were capable of engaging in multimodal listening: they not only heard, but felt the wind; they created and felt the vibrations of the swings. They imagined the movement of bodies across the playground and cacophony of sounds and emotions that accompanied them. All of these were embodied sounds I missed as an adult and classroom teacher.
At the same time, I remain hopeful. I am hopeful because the children I came to know in Mr. Holiday’s classroom took the task of listening seriously. They understood hearing as more than simply about the cars passing by or the birds in the nearby trees, but instead engaged in listening with their bodies. Throughout the year, I noticed they were acutely aware of the sniffles or the slow shuffle of feet of a peer who was having a rough day. Their eyes grew large as they danced along with their friends on brain breaks and they often cheered with the whir of a fidget spinner balanced on their teacher’s thumb.
This hope is also based in my various sonic experiences, across spaces and places that visually appear quite different. Teachers interested in learning to listen with their students might consider how they, like Mr. Holiday, might foreground sound as a mode of primacy within the perceived constraints of the mandated curriculum. Engaging in a multi-sensory experience may be as simple as Mr. Holiday’s listening task on the familiar grounds of the schoolyard. Or, perhaps, it is starting your curriculum with the children’s stories of their lived experiences as I did in New Orleans. As others have discussed, when it comes to listening, there is not a clearly defined beginning or end as there does not exist a “blink of an ear.” I am slowly becoming more attuned to the sonic possibilities of how children’s stories and experiences of schooling may be amplified if we, as Mr. Holiday shared, “Just remember to listen.”
Featured image: “listen” by Flickr user Ren:), CC BY-ND 2.0
Cassie J. Brownell is a doctoral candidate and Marianne Amarel Teaching and Teacher Education Fellow in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. A corecipient of a 2015 NCTE-CEE Research Initiative Grant, Cassie’s most recent collaborative project—#hearmyhome—explores how writing with and through sound might help students and teachers attune toward literacies and communities of difference.
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SO! Amplifies: #hearmyhome and the Soundscapes of the Everyday–Cassie J. Brownell and Jon M. Wargo
(Sound)Walking Through Smithfield Square in Dublin— Linda O’Keeffe
A Listening Mind: Sound Learning in a Literature Classroom–Nicole Furlonge
Here at Sounding Out! we like to celebrate World Listening Day (July 18) with a blog series. This year, we bring your attention to the role of listening when it comes to the sounds of the K-12 classroom, and by extension, the school.
Any day in a K-12 school involves movement and sounds day in and day out: the shuffling of desks, the conversations among classmates, the fire drill alarm, the pencils on paper, the picking up of trays of food. However, in many conversations about schools, teaching, and learning, sound is absent.
This month’s series will have readers thinking about the sounds in classrooms in different ways. They will consider race, class, and gender, and how those aspects intersect how we listen to the classrooms of our past and our present. More importantly, the posts will all include assignments that educators at all stages can use in their classrooms.
Time’s up, pencils down, and if you can hear Caroline Pinkston‘s voice, you should clap once for this personal essay. –Liana Silva, Managing Editor
Editorial Note (7/17/2017, 11:55 am): After careful consideration, I have changed the last photo of the post, as it was from a NATO Flickr account, and it could be seen as supportive of military presence in Afghanistan. I have added a different photo that compliments better the original intention of the author and the editorial mission of SO!.–Liana Silva, Managing Editor
[C]ontrolling who has the floor is the mark of your authority and a necessity to your teaching.
I am twenty two, new to New York City and new to teaching. In six weeks, I will be in charge of my own classroom, and like most new teachers, I am worried about classroom management. In my summer pedagogy classes I soak up the advice I am given, dutifully taking notes. Controlling my classroom, I learn, means controlling noise: my own and my students’. My words should be clear, carefully chosen, purposeful. I should eliminate words altogether when I can, using hand signals instead: students who need to use the bathroom, for example, can simply raise their hand with two fingers crossed. I should determine when and how students will answer my questions. I should memorize the names of different participation strategies: cold call, popcorn, call and response. Students should not speak out of turn, even if their responses are well intentioned or correct. Even nonverbal sound should be prevented. “Don’t let them suck their teeth at you,” a veteran teacher cautions me. Unsanctioned noise, I learn, can signal rebellion.
I should never, under any circumstances, talk over my students, or let them talk over me. I learn techniques to quiet large groups efficiently. “If you can hear my voice, clap once,” I learn to say. “If you can hear my voice, clap twice.”
On the first days of school, learn to begin many of your sentences with, “You will … “ An alternative would be, “The class procedure is…” The first few days are critical. This cannot be stressed enough.
Harry K. Wong & Rosemary Wong, The First Days of School: How To Be An Effective Teacher
For the first few weeks, I write my lessons in complete sentences, rehearsing them in advance like a play. In the lesson plans I write each night, I attempt to impose order on the noise of the classroom the next day with scripted responses. I plan for periods of speaking and silence. I write out the questions I will ask, giving thought to the most effective wording, and I try to anticipate every possible answer. I think through how I might address a misunderstanding, correct a behavior, dole out consequences. In my lesson plans I speak, students respond, and we go back and forth together.
But in the classroom, noise emerges in less predictable ways, bubbling up through the cracks in ways I haven’t planned for. I am listening for outbursts, students speaking out of turn, challenging my authority: the sorts of sounds I’ve been trained to respond to. But mostly, there are pencils tapping on desks. My tongue tripping over names that are at first unfamiliar to me. My voice, to my dismay, shaking. The door, swinging open and shut. Students arriving late, administrators stepping in: sorry to interrupt but could I borrow…? The fire alarm. The crackling loudspeaker.
My voice is tired and hoarse at the end of each day. The hand signal to use the bathroom does not go over well.
Quiet Power. When you get loud and talk fast, you show that you are nervous, scared, out of control. You make visible all the anxieties and send a message to students that they can control you and your emotions… Though it runs against all your instincts, get slower and quieter when you want control. Drop your voice, and make students strain to listen. Exude poise and calm. (Lemov, Teach Like a Champion)
In October of my first year, something strange happens at the beginning of B period. I’ve come into class a little late, flustered and overwhelmed and tired of pretending so hard that I know what I’m doing, to be calm and authoritative and in control. I open my mouth to say the right words to get class started, but instead I find myself laughing—I’m not sure why, really—and then I can’t stop laughing, and I laugh till I cry a little, and I have to step out into the hallway to compose myself.
Outside, I am sobered by the thought of what I’ve just done: whatever authority and professionalism I had gained, gone. I’ll have to start all over. But when I walk back in, my students are laughing, too, at me, and with me, and through that laughter something tiny but important shifts. It is one of the best days of teaching I’ve had all year.
The soundscape begins to shift. The less I try to extinguish every noise I hear, the more I begin to hear things I hadn’t noticed before: singing in the hallways, laughing. Students asking me about my day.
[K]eep in mind that all students – no matter what age – respond to authenticity. They crave teachers who see them as real people, and they do back flips for the ones whose interactions with them are based on sensitivity and respect. Remember to let them know – this is my single greatest pearl of wisdom, Caroline – let them know every single day that you like them. Laugh with them. Lift their spirits. Sing with them!
(Marsha Russell, personal email).
I observe a veteran teacher whose class of seniors is putty in her hands. At her request, they even burst into song, in unison. How do you get them to do that? I ask. And she tells me: You just have to believe that they will.
She writes me an email of classroom management tips. I print out my favorite part and keep it; I unfold it and I reread it and I put it in my pocket and I pass it along to other teachers.
Sing with them! It’s a revelation, that teaching could be conducting, that learning could be music.
Economy of Language. Fewer words are stronger than more. Demonstrating economy of language shows that you are prepared and know your purpose in speaking. Being chatty or verbose signals nervousness, indecision, and flippancy. It suggests that your words can be ignored. (Lemov, Teach Like a Champion)
My second teaching post is at a private, Episcopal school, where students transition between classes to the sound of music playing through the loudspeakers. In daily chapel, the whole community marks a moment of silence, signaled by a bell that reverberates through the rafters. We sit together patiently, four hundred people breathing. I wonder what combination of school culture and privilege and training creates a student body this quiet and calm, and what unseen tradeoffs might come with such silence. It’s peaceful, but I also find myself nostalgic for the stream of noise I’d grown accustomed to in New York, constant and lively and joyful.
I am finally confident in my ability to quiet a classroom, but the skill proves unhelpful in this new space, where on the first day my seniors sit quietly and wait for me to begin. I find this a little unnerving, like I’ve stepped into a game I thought I knew well, only to find that the rules have changed.
Ineffective teachers say things like:
“Where did we leave off yesterday?”
(Translation: I have no control.)
“Open your books so that we can take turns reading.”
(For what reason?)
“Sit quietly and do the worksheet.”
(To master what?)
“Let’s watch this movie.”
(To learn what?)
“You can have a free period.”
(Translation: I do not have an assignment for you. I am unprepared.)
(Wong & Wong, The First Days of School)
F period teaches me that silence can be deadening, too. They answer when I ask them to, but they wait to be asked, or for one of their classmates to resign themselves to raising their hands, again. And the moment of waiting, the stillness that follows the question, punctures the energy in the room as perfectly as a needle: we arrive at an answer, but something important has been lost along the way.
I’m learning that sometimes controlling noise is easier than producing it, creating sound where before there was silence. And sound is not enough: I must layer speech on top of speech to build a conversation, which is something altogether different and more precious. We have to create something, together. That’s the real challenge.
Teaching isn’t magic, says every classroom management book I’ve ever read. And it isn’t, if you’re talking about technique, about participation strategies, about getting everyone quiet or deciding who speaks. But at the center of all that structure is something elusive and harder to describe or replicate — a moment all those management books try to help you approach, when you and your students arrive at something powerful and important together. I’m not sure that moment requires a lively classroom or a silent one, and I don’t think you can conjure it. It comes unbidden. It might be chance. It might happen like this.
You’ll be in second period English, reading King Lear, at the part when Kent tells Lear to see better. You’ll be telling a story about the very first days of your teaching, when you were too concerned about controlling your classroom to really notice the students in front of you, to see them as real, whole people. You use the story to talk about sight, about what it might mean to see better, how what we pay attention to shapes what we think we know. This story matters to you. You believe in it.
And on this afternoon, for whatever reason, the intensity of your students’ attention will be so sharp and clear it will raise goosebumps on your arms. You’ll feel it and look up, and they will be listening exactly the way you’re talking about seeing, and the room will be so quiet that it almost hums. It’s the kind of quiet you can’t get from silencing noise, just like you can’t create a conversation by making students speak. It grows from the ground up, a momentary enchantment brought on through some alchemy of their interest and your story and the book and the weather that day.
You’ll yield to it, listening, holding your breath in case it disappears.
Featured image: “Inside My Classroom” by Flickr user Marie, CC BY-SA 2.0
Caroline Pinkston is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her work brings education into conversation with childhood studies and cultural memory. She holds a B.A. in American Studies and English from Northwestern University (2008), an M.S. in English Education from Lehman College (2010), and an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Texas (2014). A former high school English teacher, she has taught and worked in public, private, and nonprofit settings in New York City and Austin, Texas.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
A Listening Mind: Sound Learning in a Literature Classroom–Nicole Furlonge
Audio Culture Studies: Scaffolding a Sequence of Assignments–Jentery Sayers