On May 5, 2018, the C-ville Weekly, a newspaper based out of Charlottesville, Virginia, published an article titled “Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll: new apartment complex promises at least one of those.” The headline referred to the complex being built at 600 West Main St. in Charlottesville. The complex has since been completed and studio bedrooms currently cost more than $1000 a month. As the C-ville Weekly headline shows, the developers were using the term and connotations of “rock ’n’ roll” to sell exclusive – and in many ways unaffordable – housing.
After reading this headline, I began to develop an idea for a summer course at my institution, the University of Virginia (UVA). I ultimately titled that course “Black Music and Corporate America” which I offered online during the summer of 2021 (syllabus available for download via the link above). Although the course discussed varied content – from the multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-gendered histories of rock and roll to the endorsement of conspicuous forms of consumption in hip hop – I wanted to spend one unit focusing on the interrelationship between music, corporate America, and gentrification. I strove to solidify this connection by assigning two related articles. The first article, by geographer and sociologist Brandi Thomson Summers, argues that black residents in Washington D.C. adopt go-go music as a form of reclamation aesthetics to combat their city’s increasingly rampant gentrification. In the second article, ethnomusicologist Allie Martin conducts a soundwalk of D.C.’s Shaw District to forefront the experience of a black woman in the city and help displace white hearing as the default standard of interpreting sound (see Sounding Out!’s Soundwalking While POC series from Fall 2019). These two articles served as a foundation for one of the assignments the students had to complete in class: conducting a soundwalk of their own in which they had to walk around a field site of their choosing and think critically about the sounds they were hearing.
Throughout the summer sessions, students completed three main assignments related to the course topic. They had to think about marketing themselves and thus wrote a cover letter for a job or internship they were interested in pursuing in the future. We also, as a class, sent a suggestion to literary scholar John Patrick Leary, who has created a list of “keywords of capitalism:” buzzwords that get adopted in corporate lingo; we suggested “rockstar” as a term and offered him a brief explanation why:
Students also had to conduct a soundwalk. I asked them to model it after Martin’s and to also take into consideration Summers’ arguments about gentrification, white policing of black sound, and a community’s response to attempts to silence their music and culture.
The soundwalks I received merit sharing with readers of Sounding Out for three primary reasons: 1) The assignment benefited from the online format, especially since students could conduct soundwalks in Charlottesville as well as in their homes across the country. 2) the students made compelling arguments that deserve recognition. 2) the students brought up issues that teachers interested in assigning soundwalks in the future might want to preemptively address.
Students who walked around Charlottesville focused mostly on The Corner, the portion of the city where most of UVA’s student body eats, shops, and drinks. As one student noted, during the regular semester, hundreds of students populating The Corner on any given day during the semester can silence out – literally – the concerns of the homeless and the panhandlers who make the area their home. However, over the summer, Charlottesville’s Corner becomes significantly less populated and, as this student noted, much more silent. As a result of this silence, pedestrians might be much more attuned to Charlottesville’s rampant inequality. This student, over the course of their summer soundwalk on The Corner, came to a radical conclusion: while communities might need moratoriums on evictions, or moratoriums on construction, maybe Charlottesville needs a moratorium on student noise as well.
In addition to focusing on inequality, many students’ soundwalks pointed out discrepancies between what they saw and what they heard while on their soundwalks. Another student writing about The Corner noted how, as a transfer student, the music that they heard emanating from a barbershop helped make them feel at home in Charlottesville. Businesses on The Corner have historically not been entirely welcoming to people of color. Additionally, most pedestrians and patrons of The Corner are white. However, this student remarked how comfortable they felt on The Corner because they could hear one of their favorite artists, Moneybagg Yo, playing from the sound system of the barbershop they were going to visit. Long before they could visually see the business, the soundscape let this student know they were welcome. In this way, this barbershop helped create a sense of community in a similar way that the broadcasting of go-go music from Shaw’s many businesses helps create in Washington D.C.
Another student focused specifically on the contradictions between the activism they “saw” demonstrated in their upper-class Boston suburb and the activism they “heard” while walking around their neighborhood. This student noted that residents of their neighborhood strove to create an inclusive atmosphere by putting up “Black Lives Matters” and “Immigrants Welcome” yard signs. However, they also cited Jennifer Lynn Stoever’s work – who we read in class – and noted the presence of what Stoever calls the “sonic color line.” As this students’ own field recordings of their neighborhood illuminated, most residents of this neighborhood valued silence. Harlemites during the 1940s and 1950s, as Stoever writes, certainly appreciated restful nights, but her scholarship also demonstrates how dominant narratives constructed black communities as “noisy,” “chaotic,” and “dangerous,” and white ones as “silent,” “efficient,” and “disciplined.” Although residents in this Boston suburb think of themselves as progressive and demonstrate their liberalism through visual signifiers such as yard signs, this student concluded that they still live in a community that privileges certain (silent) soundscapes. In doing so, such communities continue to perpetuate the sonic color line.
Admittedly, several students living in America’s suburbs struggled to conceive of the sounds they heard as worthy of discussion. For instance, the sounds of cars made frequent appearances in their writing but were often dismissed as inconsequential. Instead, students lamented that they were not experiencing a vibrant public sphere that resembled the setting of Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do the Right Thing (a film we watched together in class), as if that representation wasn’t a very particular historicized and localized representation. On an individual basis, I tried to get students to think more critically about the sounds of cars in their neighborhood. We read about the role of automobile in the development of G-Funk during the early 1990s as well as the death of Jordan Davis, who was murdered in his car for playing rap too loudly. However, neither article resonated with students’ experience on their soundwalks since they were simply hearing cars passing by their houses or driving down the street. Most of the time, they could not tell what type of music was being listened to at all inside the car nor could they hear it emanate onto the street.
Therefore, teachers, depending on the living conditions of their students, might want to preemptively include discussions of car culture within American society. After all, more than go-go music broadcasted from storefronts, or second line parades, or music playing from boomboxes, or the noise of nature, (my) students typically hear cars in their day-to-day life. As a result, teachers assigning soundwalks may want to talk about the role of highway construction and the automobile industry on suburbanization and white flight. Discussions of automobiles within the context of environmental racism might also be useful for students to consider. Steph Ceraso’s Sounding Composition also discusses the immense time and energy corporations have devoted to car sounds and soundscapes within cars, buffering occupants from car noise as well as that of the neighborhoods outside.
In addition, I found that students need a more robust historical understanding of suburbanization in the United States, particularly alongside an understanding of their own racial and ethnic histories. Some students living African American suburbs could have benefited from some contextualization about when and how they came to be. Talking about suburbanization in general, the development of White suburban liberalism in the 1970s and 1980s would have helped the student living in a Boston suburb make more sense of the politics of their neighborhood. Karen Tongson’s Relocations also provides context for shifts in America’s suburban landscape after sweeping changes in immigration law in 1965, as well as a rethinking of expressions of sexuality in the suburbs. These are just some topics I wish I had focused on more to help prepare my students for their soundwalks.
Future teachers may feel inclined to refer to the conclusions my students came to, as well as the literature I wish I had included in course, as they think about assigning soundwalks in their own classes. Both my students and I appreciated the soundwalk assignment and its invitations to listen differently. Teaching soundwalks in a course focusing on “Black music and marketing strategy” prompted my own necessary meditation as a non-Black scholar working in this field. Guided by Loren Kajikawa’s new research on “Music, Hip Hop and the Challenge of Significant Difference” that examines how the popularity of courses on black music help subsidize a university’s classical music offerings, I want to incorporate future discussions of Black music as sonic diversity marketing in contemporary higher ed, both at the microlevel of scholarship and the macro- institutional level, which remains far from equitable despite ongoing challenges to its status quo. For students, the soundwalks–in their words–allowed them to learn about themselves and think differently about the area in which they live. They also become more attuned to their surroundings–questioning what makes a neighborhood and for whom?–and how different cultures use their voices where they live, necessary skills for our moment that will help us envision a world beyond it.
Featured Image: Wall Mural right next to Bowerbird Bakeshop in Charlottesville, VA, image by Tom Mills, (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Rami Toubia Stucky is a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia and scholar of the music of the African diaspora, music of the Americas, commercial culture, intercultural exchange, and music and migration. Sometimes he composes/arranges jazz music and plays drums. He is currently writing a dissertation on the arrival of Brazilian bossa nova to the United States during the 1960s. He runs a personal and professional website dedicated mostly to talking about the songs his sister likes.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig all this good stuff about sound studies pedagogy! Good luck with Fall semester, folks!:
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“Toward A Civically Engaged Sound Studies, or ReSounding Binghamton”–Jennifer Lynn Stoever
SO! Podcast #79: Behind the Podcast: deconstructing scenes from AFRI0550, African American Health Activism – Nic John Ramos and Laura Garbes
Listening to #Occupy in the Classroom–D. Travers Scott
Sounding Out! Podcast #13: Sounding Shakespeare in S(e)oul– Brooke Carlson
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“A focus on listening [with technology] shifts the idea of freedom of speech from having a platform of expression to having the possibility of communication” (K. Lacey)
One of the biggest social media event of the past decade, #metoo stands out as a pivotal shift in the future of gender relations. Despite its persistence since October 2017, #metoo is still under-theorized, and since its permutations generate countless hashtag sub-categories each passing week, making sense of it presents a conceptual quagmire. Tracing its history, identifying key moments, mapping its pro- and counter-currents present equally tough challenges to both data science and feminist scholars.
Meta-communication about #metoo abounds. Infographics and visualizations attempt to contain its organic growth into perceivable maps and charts; pop news media constantly report on its evolution in likes, counts, and retweets, as well as—and increasingly—in number of convictions, lawsuits, and reports. At the same time, #metoo has arguably created a discernible listening public in the way that Kate Lacey (2013) argues emerged with national radio: women’s stories have never been listened to with such wide reach and rapt attention.
The project I discuss here takes ‘hearing’ #metoo a step further into the auditory realm in the form of data sonification so as to to re-imagine an audience compelled to earwitness not just the scope but the emotional impact of women’s stories. Data sonification is a growing field, which from its inception has crossed between art and science. It involves a conceptual or semantic translation of data into relevant sonic parameters in a way that utilizes perceptual gestalts to convey information through sound.
Brady Marks and I created the #metoo sonification you’ll hear below by drawing from a public dataset spanning October 2017 to the early Spring of 2018 obtained from data.world. Individual tweets using the hashtag are sonified using female battle cries from video games; the number of retweets and followers forms a sort of swelling and contracting background vocal texture to represent the reach of each message. The dataset is then sped up anywhere between 10x to 1000x in order to represent perceivable ebbs and flows of the hashtag’s life over time. The deliberate aim in this design was to convey a different sensibility of social media content, one that demands emotional and intellectual attention over a duration of time. Given Twitter’s visual zeitgeist whereby individual tweets are perceived at a glance and quickly become lost in the noise of the platform the affective attitude towards “contagious” events becomes arguably impersonal. A sonification such as this asks the listener to spend 30 minutes listening to 1 month of #metoo: something impossible to achieve on the actual platform, or in a single visualization. The aim, then, is to interrupt social media’s habitual and disposable engagements with pressing civic debates.
A critique of big data visualization
To date, there have been more than 19 million #MeToo tweets from over 85 countries; on Facebook more than 24 million people participated in the conversation by posting, reacting, and commenting over 77 million times since October 15, 2017. In a global information society ‘big data’ is translated into creative infographics in order to simultaneously educate an overwhelmed public and elicit urgency and accord for political action. Yet ideological and political considerations around the design of visual information have lagged behind enthusiasm for making data ‘easy to understand’. At the other end of the spectrum, social media delivers personalized micro-trends directly and in real time to always-mobile users, reinforcing their information silos (Rambukkana 2015). Between these extremes, the mechanisms by which relevant local, marginalized or emergent issues come to be communicated to the wider public are constrained.
With this big idea in mind, the question we ask here is what would it mean to hear data? Emergent work in sonification suggests that sound may afford a unique way to experience large-scale data suitable for raising public awareness of important current issues (Winters & Weinberg 2015). The uptake of sonification by the artistic community (see Rory Viner, Robert Alexander, among many others) signals its strengths in producing affective associations to data for non-specialized audiences, despite its shortcomings as a scientific analysis tool (Supper, 2018). Some of the more esoteric uses of sonification have been in the service of capturing what Supper calls ‘the sublime’ – as in Margaret Schedel’s “Sounds of Science: The Mystique of Sonification.”
Who’s listening on social media?
Within the Western canon of sound studies “constitutive technicities” (Gallope 2011) or what Sterne calls “perceptual technics” embody historically situated ways of listening that center technology as a co-defining factor in our relationship with sound. Within this frame, media sociologist Kate Lacey traces the emergence of the modern listening public through the history of radio. Using the metaphor of ‘listening in” and “listening out,” Lacey reframes media citizenship by pointing out that listening is a cultural as well as a perceptual act with defined political dimensions:
Listening out is the practice of being open to the multiplicity of texts and voices and thinking of texts in the context of and in relation to a difference and how they resonate across time and in different spaces. But at the same time, it is the practice and experience of living in a media age that produces and heightens the requirement, the context, the responsibilities and the possibilities of listening out (198)
According to Lacey, a focus on listening instead of spectatorship challenges the implicit active/passive dualism of civic participation in Western contexts. More importantly, she argues, we need to move away from the notion of “giving voice” and instead create meaningful possibilities to listen, in a political sense. Data sonification doesn’t so much ‘give voice to the voiceless’ but creates a novel relationship to perceiving larger patterns and movements.
Our interactions with media, therefore, are always already presumptive of particular dialogical relations. Every speech act, every message implies a listening audience that will resonate understanding. In other words, how are we already listening in to #metoo? How and why might data sonification enable us to “listen out” for it instead? In order to get a different hearing, what should #metoo sound like?
Sonifying #metoo: the battle cries of gender-based violence
It is unrealistic to expect that your everyday person will read large archives of testimony on sexual harassment and gender-based violence. Because of their massive scale, archives of #metoo testimony pose a significant challenge to the possibility for meaningful communication around this issue. Essentially drowning each other out, individual voices remain unheard in the zeitgeist of media platforms that automates quantification while speeding up engagement with individual contributions. To reaffirm the importance of voice would mean to reaffirm inter-subjectivity and to recognize polyphony as an “existential position of humanity” (Ihde 2007, 178). This was the problem to sonify here: how to retain individual voices while creating the possibility for listening to the whole issue at hand. Inspired by the idea of listening out, myself and artist collaborator Brady Marks set out to sonify #metoo as a way of eliciting the possibility for a new listening public.
The #metoo sonification project intersected deeply with my work on the female voice in videogames. My choice to use a mixed selection of battle cry samples from Soul Calibur, an arcade fighting game, was intuitive. Battle cries are pre-recorded banks of combat sounds that video game characters perform in the course of the story. Instances of #metoo on Twitter presumably represent the experiences of individual women, pumping a virtual fist in the air, no longer silent about the realities of gender-based violence. So hearing #metoo posts as battle cries of powerful game heroines made sense to me. But it’s the meta layers of meaning that are even more intuitive: as I’ve discussed elsewhere, female battle cries are notoriously gendered and sexualized. Listening to a reel of sampled battle cries is almost indistinguishable from listening to a pornographic soundscape. Abstracted in this sonification, away from the cartoonish hyper-reality of a game world, these voices are even more eerie, giving almost physical substance to the subject matter of #metoo. Just as the female voice in media secretly fulfils the furtive desires of the “neglected erogenous zone” of the ear (Pettman 2017, 17), #metoo is an embodiment of the conflation of sex with consent: the basis of what we now call ‘rape culture.’
Sonifying real-time data such as Twitter presents not only semantic (how should it sound like) but also time-scale challenges. If we are to sonify a month – e.g. the month of November 2017 (just weeks after the explosion of #metoo) – but we don’t want to spend a month listening, then that involves some conceptual time-scaling. Time-scaling means speeding up instances that already happen multiple times a second on a platform as instantaneous and global as Twitter. Below are samples of three different sonifications of #metoo data, following different moments in the initial explosion of the hashtag and rendered at different time compressions. Listen to them one at a time and note your sensual and emotive experience of tweets closer to real-time playback, compared to the audible patterns that emerge from compressing longer periods of time inside the same length audio file. You might find that the density is different. Closer to real-time the battle cries are more distinctive, while at higher time compressions what emerges instead is an expanding and contracting polyphonic texture.
Vocalizations of female pleasure/affect, video game battle cries already have a special relationship to technologies of audio sampling and digital reproduction as Corbett & Kapsalis describe in “Aural sex: the female orgasm in popular sound.” This means that the perceptual technics involved in listening to recorded female voices are already coded with sexual connotations. Battle cries in games are purposely exaggerated so as to carry the bulk of emotional content in the game’s experiential matrix. Roland Barthes’ notion of the “grain of the voice”—the presence of the body in (singing) voice—is frequently evoked in describing the substantive role that game voices play in the construction of game world immersion and realism. In the #metoo sonification, I decontextualize the grain of the voice—there are no visual images, narrative, or gameplay; the battle cries are also acousmatic, in that there are no bodies visually represented from which these sounds emanate.
The battle cry in this #metoo sonification is the ultimate disembodied voice, resisting what Kaja Silverman (1988) calls the “norm of synchronization” with a female body in The Acoustic Mirror (83). As acousmatic voices, these battle cries could be said to exist on a different conceptual and perceptual plane, “disturbing the taxonomies upon which patriarchy depends,” to quote Dominic Pettman in Sonic Intimacy. (22). In other words, the sounds exist in a boundary space between combat sounds and orgasmic sounds highlighting for the listener the dissonance between the supposed empowerment of ‘speaking out’ within a culture that remains staunchly set up to sexualize women; something one can hardly ignore given the media’s reserved treatment of #metoo.
Liberated from the game world these voices now speak for themselves in the #metoo sonification, their sensuality all the more hyper-real. The player has no control here, as the battle cries are not linked to specific game actions, rather they are synchronized autonomously to instances of #metoo confessionals. In fact, the density of the sonification as time speeds up will overwhelm listeners with its boundlessness; echoing how contemporary media treats the sounds of the female orgasm as a renewable and inexhaustible resource, even as reports of sexual harassment and gender-based violence continue to pile on in 2021. Yet we intend that the subject matter resists pleasure, rendering the sonic experience traumatic as the chilling realization sets in that listeners are hailed to accountability by #metoo. The experience should instead be unsettling, impactful, grotesque, and deeply embodied.
Listening both metaphorically and literally goes to the very heart of questions to do with the politics and experience of living and communicating in the media age. In her paper on the sonic geographies of the voice, AM Kanngieser notes in “A Sonic Geography of Voice“: “The voice, in its expression of affective and ethico-political forces, creates worlds” (337). It is not just in the grain but in the enunciation that battle cries find their political significance in this sonification. As the hyper-real gasps and moans of game heroines animate individual moments of #metoo the codification of cartoonish voices resists being subconsciously “absorbed into the dialogic exchange” (342) of habitual media consumption. Listening to the sonification is instead an experience of re-coding the voice, reconfiguring the embedded meanings of game sound to a new and contradictory context: a space that challenges neoliberal appropriations of radical communication and discourse (348). This is not data sonification that delights the listener or simply grants them access to ‘information’ in a different format; rather it calls on the listener to de-normalize their received technicity and perceptions and to connect to the emotional inter-subjectivity of this call to action.
Most importantly, the #metoo sonification invites the auditeur to listen in, to take an active role in the reconfiguration of meanings and absorb their political dimensions. These are the stories of #metoo; these are the voices of women, of men, of marginalized peoples, emerging from the zeitgeist of Twitter to ask us to earwitness gender-based violence. We are a new listening public, wanting and needing to create new worlds. A critical bandwidth is the smallest perceivable unit of auditory change, in psychology terms. This sonification begs the question, how many battle cries will it take for us to end gender-based violence by fostering equitable worlds?
Milena Droumeva is an Assistant Professor and the Glenfraser Endowed Professor in Sound Studies at Simon Fraser University specializing in mobile media, sound studies, gender, and sensory ethnography. Milena has worked extensively in educational research on game-based learning and computational literacy, formerly as a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Research on Digital Learning at York University. Milena has a background in acoustic ecology and works across the fields of urban soundscape research, sonification for public engagement, as well as gender and sound in video games. Current research projects include sound ethnographies of the city (livable soundscapes), mobile curation, critical soundmapping, and sensory ethnography. Check out Milena’s Story Map, “Soundscapes of Productivity” about coffee shop soundscapes as the office ambience of the creative economy freelance workers.
Milena is a former board member of the International Community on Auditory Displays, an alumni of the Institute for Research on Digital Learning at York University, and former Research Think-Tank and Academic Advisor in learning innovation for the social enterprise InWithForward. More recently, Milena serves on the board for the Hush City Mobile Project founded by Dr. Antonella Radicchi, as well as WISWOS, founded by Dr. Linda O Keeffe.
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