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Malcolm Gladwell’s Bad Aesthetics



Malcolm Gladwell, who recently wrapped the first season of his podcast Revisionist History, has been on a roll lately. Not a particularly endearing one, though. I’ve been trying to locate his nadir, but it’s not easy with so many options to choose from. Is it in the New Yorker, when he condescendingly exclaims “Of course not!” in response to whether Caster Semenya should be allowed to compete in the 800-meter at the Olympics? He follows up with the assertion that no track-and-field fan disagrees with him, as if the complexity of gender identification is somehow best left to a majority appeal. Or is it in Revisionist History’s Episode 9, “Generous Orthodoxy,” when he chides Princeton students protesting the use of Woodrow Wilson’s name around campus? Calling one student “angry”—a loaded word to lob at a black woman—and surmising she would later “regret her choice of words,” Gladwell advises the students to instead threaten to leave the university if their requests aren’t honored. Why? Because otherwise “every crotchety old Princeton alum” wouldn’t believe they actually care about the university.


For those keeping score, that’s Gladwell, who spent an entire other episode of his podcast lamenting that we don’t “capitalize” people’s educational potential well enough, counseling black students to separate themselves from an Ivy League education as a way to make a point about a pro-segregationist president. Gladwell’s seventh episode, “Hallelujah,” where he discusses musical genius, is not obviously about the kind of systemic inequalities he bumbles in the Semenya and Princeton examples. But the conclusions he draws about genius and the anti-pop aesthetic judgments he claims are informed by the same bad gender and race politics that would put a person’s gender identification in other people’s hands and place the burden of sacrifice on the aggrieved in matters of racial injustice.

The episode “Hallelujah” revolves around two songs that Gladwell argues reached their peak of genius years after they were initially recorded: “Deportees Club” (1984) by Elvis Costello and “Hallelujah” (1984) by Leonard Cohen. In each case, Gladwell asserts that the first recordings were flawed but that they attained a certain beauty in later versions that reveals something about how genius works, though each attained that genius status by different routes. While Costello is responsible for the version of “Deportees Club” that Gladwell loves—he re-recorded it as “Deportee” in 1985 (it wouldn’t be released until 1995 on a re-issue of Goodbye, Cruel World)—“Hallelujah” would peak for Gladwell in a series of covers, most famously by Jeff Buckley (1994), performed by artists other than Cohen. Gladwell’s focus on the process by which a song reaches genius status is a riff on David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses theory. Here, Costello and the litany of “Hallelujah” coverers display a process of genius called “experimental innovation,” where the first draft is never the final draft, and genius is only unlocked after years of work. I’ll return to Gladwell’s notion of musical beauty and how it relates to his bad politics momentarily, but I first want to unpack the theory of genius that enthralls him in this episode.

mozart-beethovenGalenson’s notion of genius is a binary, where some geniuses (“conceptual innovators”) are very young, decisive artists and others, like the “experimental innovators” responsible for “Deportee” and “Hallelujah,” are endless tinkerers who tend to reach their creative potential later in life. Gladwell uses the same paradigmatic examples that Galenson does to categorize geniuses; conceptual innovators are Pablo Picasso, while experimental innovators are Paul Cézanne. Curiously, Gladwell notes that this theory of genius may be best exemplified in music, but he doesn’t seem aware that music scholars have already laid out this same broad theory of genius with easy comps: Mozart the young genius and Beethoven the old master. Moreover, Gladwell doesn’t seem aware that this is a lousy theory of genius.

I’ve written elsewhere about genius myths, and there’s a rabbit hole of problematic ideas out there about classical music genius that run from benignly self-serving to violently racist. One critique is particularly useful for pushing back against Gladwell, as it highlights the gender and race problems with Gladwell’s approach to genius. Tia DeNora’s Beethoven and the Construction of Genius (1994) is a painstaking deconstruction of Beethoven’s genius. While DeNora’s argument includes a number of moving parts, it can be summarized as a demonstration of the way “genius” isn’t so much innate talent as it is a combination of several social and political ideals intersecting with a person’s talents or insights.

It was the 90s, when postmodernity crested in musicology, and the aim of DeNora’s analysis is quintessentially postmodern: undo the Great White Man myth to make room for other kinds of histories and notions of genius to be accommodated. If we understand Beethoven’s genius to be firmly rooted in a number of social and political attitudes—including the reflexive belief that only a white man could be a genius—that tipped in his favor, then we can understand that history isn’t telling us that only men or only white people can be geniuses; rather, history is showing its biases. This sort of deconstruction doesn’t really move the academic needle now—most college freshmen can articulate the Great White Man critique—largely due to the work of DeNora and other deconstructionists who effectively cleared the space for us to build other kinds of scholarship on top of their work.

"Pop!Tech 2008 - Malcolm Gladwell" by Flickr user Pop!Tech, CC BY 2.0

“Pop!Tech 2008 – Malcolm Gladwell” by Flickr user Pop!Tech, CC BY 2.0

Alas, though, the 90s truly must be all the rage right now, because Gladwell is wading right back into Great White Man territory. To be clear, he isn’t doing it on purpose, for whatever that’s worth. In Episode 9, the one where he counsels the black Princeton students to threaten to leave the school, he performs a whole Great White Man rant to establish his credibility as A Guy Who Gets It. But beyond understanding that there are too many things named after white men, Gladwell doesn’t indicate that he knows what the rub really is, that the name on a building or School is a tiny piece of a much bigger, systemic problem of race and gender. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, his ideas about musical genius betray his own tendency to set up hierarchies where Great White Men are always on top. So excuse me while I pump some air in my Reeboks, hitch up my Guess jeans, and douse myself in CK1; we have some 90s theory to attend to.

Gladwell doesn’t—and perhaps can’t—articulate what’s genius about the versions of “Deportee” and “Hallelujah” he reveres, and his assessment of the originals is similarly vague. About 1984’s “Deportees Club,” he exclaims, “Oh, god, It’s awful!” For Cohen’s 1984 “Hallelujah,” Gladwell borrows a line from Michael Barthel, who could’ve just as well been describing Gladwell’s podcast: “The entire performance is so hyperserious that it’s almost satire.” [Historiographic aside: Barthel, who is now a researcher for the Pew Research Center, seems to be the under-cited source for the “Hallelujah” history in both Gladwell’s podcast and Alan Light’s book on the song]. Gladwell may suffer a poverty of aesthetic language to describe what is or isn’t good about these songs, but by considering what he does and doesn’t like—what counts as genius or not for him—we can understand where his aesthetic allegiances lie.

Screenshot of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" video on YouTube

Screenshot of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” video on YouTube

Gladwell finds beauty in music whose emotional content is as stripped down as the acoustic guitar textures on the later recordings of “Deportee” and “Hallelujah.” The line he quotes from Barthel misses the point: Barthel likes the satirical nature of the original “Hallelujah” and finds the famous Buckley version—which becomes something of an ürtext for all the covers that came after it—an unfortunate telescoping of emotional range, a “Hallelujah” that only knows lament instead of the many “holy, broken, profane, transcendent” hallelujahs Cohen first explored. But all those hallelujahs, along with the “angry, loud, and upsetting” original “Deportees Club,” don’t seem to suit Gladwell, who prefers versions of the songs where both the emotional and musical content are as straightforward as possible.

Screenshot from Jeff Buckley's video for "Hallelujah"

Screenshot from Jeff Buckley’s video for “Hallelujah”

That Gladwell is drawn to the versions of Buckley’s “Hallelujah” and Costello’s later “Deportee” that feature an acoustic singer-songwriter coffeehouse vibe isn’t a coincidence. The villain in his account of genius is pop. Noting that both songs were initially recorded in 1984, he reminds us that year’s “biggest album” was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “pop music glossed to perfection…not a single stray note or emotion on that record.” “Thriller” was the final single from an album two years old, and it peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, so Gladwell’s definition of “biggest album” is suspect, but he’s looking for “the antithesis of ‘Deportee’ and ‘Hallelujah,’” so I’ll engage on his terms and zero in on his aesthetics by figuring out what he thinks is wrong with pop music like “Thriller.”

Gladwell offers a couple other assessments of pop aesthetics in his description of producers. Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who co-produced the Goodbye, Cruel World album “Deporteees Club” appeared on, are the ill-fitting pop perfectionists who try to harness Costello’s sound but only manage to screw it up. Trevor Horn is the guy spending four weeks—“a month,” Gladwell bemoans—shaping a snare sound for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” (1983). Whether it’s Langer and Winstanley, Horn, or Quincy Jones (who Gladwell doesn’t name but who produced “Thriller”), Gladwell has no space for the behind-the-glass work of sound design and sonic processing in his aesthetics of genius. He argues, citing Costello’s own assessment, that glossy pop perfection couldn’t capture the “dark, emotional, bitter songs, gritty and spare,” pouring out of Costello. For Gladwell, pop music production is the villain because it short circuits the true, raw emotion that he finds beautiful.

The problem with Gladwell’s aesthetics is that he’s mistaking his taste for genius, then reverse-manufacturing an explanation of genius that privileges a specifically white masculine mode of expression. “Glossy pop perfection,” in his estimation, covers up something beautiful, obscuring real emotion. But directly sharing one’s emotions—whether musically or politically—is more acceptable for some than for others. We need look no further than Gladwell for proof. If you’re Elvis Costello or Jeff Buckley singing laments? You’re a genius. If you’re a black woman protesting Woodrow Wilson at Princeton? You’re “angry.”

Joe Mabel [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Joe Mabel [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the danger of directly expressing oneself underlies a wide array of black aeshetics, from Gates’s Signifying Monkey to Shana Redmond’s analysis of Janelle Monae’s “Cold War.” Redmond cites Darlene Clark Hines’s “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West” to highlight Monae’s engagement with “the acts of dissemblance that have long characterized black women’s participation in the public sphere” (398). Hines argues that Black women developed “a cult of secrecy, a culture of dissemblance” to protect themselves in public spaces, “creating the appearance of disclosure…while actually remaining an enigma” (Hines 915). It is Monae’s rupture of pop conventions—she breaks down and cries, dropping her lip synch even as the track plays on—that, on the one hand, creates the space for her to step outside of that culture of dissemblance and, on the other hand, marks the cover those pop conventions provide, the strategic, protective secrecy available under so much glossy pop perfection. In his 2002 “Feenin,’” Alexander Weheliye homes in on glossy pop voice-processing, the vocoders and filters (and, several years after his article, AutoTune) that render the R&B voice machinic, and contends that these processing techniques yield human desire that “can be represented only in the guise of the machinic” (39, emphasis mine). In other words, the gloss isn’t a bad thing. It’s a strategy that plugs technology into humanity in order to project ways of being beyond the white liberal humanist subject. In both Redmond’s and Weheliye’s analyses, the sound of pop, the glossy perfection that Gladwell holds up as the antithesis of genius, is employed by Black musicians to enable emotionality in a world that is otherwise hostile to such expression.

Gladwell’s bad aesthetics, his refusal to recognize beauty in pop music, is also bad politics. By holding up an aesthetic that prizes stripped-down, straightforward emotionality, a form of expression available to some but not others, Gladwell ends up in the same Great White Man genius bind DeNora and others unraveled in the postmodern 90s. So I’ll sum it up with a 90s phrase: genius is always already political. Denora argues—and Gladwell inadvertently demonstrates—that labeling artists as genius relies on politically volatile aesthetic judgments that reinforce existing power hierarchies, in this case along the lines of race and gender. Like his response to Princeton students and his armchair adjudication of Semenya’s gender identity, Gladwell’s theory of musical genius proves to be less a revision of history and more a revival of history’s worst politics.

Featured image: “Malcolm Gladwell” by Flickr user Ed Schipul, CC BY-SA 2.0

Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, and a regular writer at Sounding Out!. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his current book project is called Posthuman Pop. He is co-editor with Ali Colleen Neff of the Journal of Popular Music Studies 27:4, “Sounding Global Southernness,” and with Jason Lee Oakes of the Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies (2017). You can catch him and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.

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Coconut Clops and Motorcycle Fanfare: What Sounds Medieval?

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

Series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

Until the nineteenth century, very little medieval music had been rediscovered, and what little was known was known mainly to specialists.  However, the nineteenth-century fascination with the Middle Ages, the Gothic Revival in art and literature, inspired composers to write symphonic works and operas using medieval stories and themes.  By the time twentieth-century musicologists began decoding and publishing music from the medieval past, a general consensus as to “what sounds medieval” had already been established in the minds of educated listeners familiar with European art music (see Annette Kreuziger-Herr’s 2005 article “Imagining Medieval Music:  A Short History”). Ideas of the medieval constructed in the 19th century via medievalist works of art persisted well into the twentieth, and eventually the imagined medieval sound of Romantic music turned out to be incompatible with the newly discovered historical record.

While Early Music performers in the 1970s and 1980s based their performance styles on historical research, their artistic work was inevitably conceived in relation to existing concert repertoires and standards of performance, as well as ideas about the Middle Ages known by them and by their audiences.  A general goal was to create performances that audiences could feel were convincingly accurate to how the music would have sounded in the past.  But a sense of authenticity depends not just on the performers’ historical accuracy, but on a complex interaction of experiences and expectations on the part of the audience.

Screen Capture by SO!

Screen Capture from Monty Python by SO!

Two films, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Knightriders, play directly with the clash between romantic interpretation of the Middle Ages and historically informed performances of music, for comedic effect.  In Music in Films on the Middle Ages:  Authenticity vs. FantasyJohn Haines examines six tropes of music in medievalist films:  bells, horn calls and trumpet fanfares, court and dance music, minstrels, chant, and warriors on horseback.  Haines mentions Monty Python and the Holy Grail several times, but does not discuss any of its music; he does not discuss Knightriders, likely because of its modern setting.

This essay examines the way these two films used music to highlight issues of the real, the historical, and the existence of competing medievalisms central to the understanding of medieval music in modern times.  In the director’s commentary for the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), writer/performer/director Terry Jones had this to say about the film’s music:

Neil Innes had originally written the music for the entire film, and when we showed it, it didn’t really seem to work… we’d all agreed that Neil should go for a very authentic sound, and authentic instruments.  The trouble is, it sounded quaint, and when we went to do the read-up I realized that actually you needed kind of mock-heroic music.  But of course at that stage, we couldn’t afford to go and record some more music, so the only thing I could do was to go to a music library – I went to DeWolfe’s [a music library that licenses stock music] in London, and spent sort of weeks going through their discs, and sorting out bits of music to put on to it, to give it that sort of … it was just that we realized that if you had sort of music that sounded slightly quaint, because it was on original instruments, and you had all these silly goings-on, it looked comic, the music, instead of actually looking, um, real….

They wanted an “authentic sound,” but what they got didn’t seem real:  here is the problem of conflicting expectations in a nutshell.  Jones likely meant that the newly composed music, including the sounds of pre-modern instruments, was consciously reminiscent of older music as it was beginning to be known. The song sung by Sir Robin’s minstrels is likely a survival of Innes’ “authentic” score.  The singer – Innes himself – sings a minor-mode melody reminiscent of a Tudor-era tune (think “Greensleeves”), accompanied by recorders, some reed instrument, and drum beats.  The terms “original instruments” or “authentic instruments” don’t just refer to antique instruments (or copies of antique instruments), they were code for a particular approach to the performance of old music, an approach that was becoming very popular in 1970s Britain (for more on the British Early Music revival, see  The Art of Re-Enchantment:  Making Early Music in the Modern Age by Nick Wilson).

Jones characterized the pre-existing stock music chosen at De Wolfe’s as “mock Heroic,” but there’s really nothing mock about it per se— it’s genuinely heroic-sounding orchestral music, in the romantic post-Wagnerian style of Hollywood film scores, probably written in the 1950s or 1960s.  There are brass fanfares when the company sights Camelot in the distance, angelic choirs for the vision of God who speaks to Arthur from the clouds, and especially, there is the wonderful music used when the company is galloping with coconuts.  Here they are, approaching the castle of Gui de Lombard

The music for the galloping horses is heard several times during the film, and the contrast between its epic majesty and the sight of King Arthur and his knights not riding horses but rather banging two halves of coconuts together to simulate the sound of hoofbeats enhances the sight gag.  The melody consists of four repetitions of the same melody, a strong rhythmic fanfare.  The melody itself is made up of two almost identical phrases that each rise and then return down.  The rhythm both emphasizes the steady pace and, through its mixture of long and short durations (a so-called “dotted rhythm”), suggests the gait of galloping horses.  First we hear percussion, the high-frequency snare drums and lower booming tympani, then the low brass play the melody, harmonized.  Higher trumpets join in for the second repeat, with flutes doubling the melody at a higher octave for added brilliance.  That combination plays the third repeat, with strings joining for the fourth repeat.  The tympani play faster, approaching the fanfare’s final cadence, but it becomes an anti-climax as Patsy, played by Terry Gilliam, can’t really play his long herald’s trumpet.  A very knowing joke, as onscreen Hollywood heralds are frequently accompanied by the sound of modern valved trumpets playing chromatic phrases impossible to play on the visible long trumpets.

[The whole piece can be heard here; the part heard repeatedly in the film begins at 1:27:]


In its instrumentation, especially the use of brass and percussion, and the dotted rhythms (long, short, long, short, etc.) suggesting hoofbeats, this fanfare draws on a long tradition of music written to suggest galloping horses, whether ridden by medieval knights or other hunters or warriors.  The most famous example is probably the finale to the “William Tell” Overture by Gioachino Rossini (1839).  That galloping music influenced many film scores featuring knights on horseback, and it is likely that Terry Jones recognized the style from films he could have seen since the 1950s, such as MGM’s Knights of the Round Table (1953), starring Mel Ferrer as King Arthur and the very wooden Robert Taylor as Sir Lancelot which features music by Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995), who wrote similar music for both medieval knights and Roman charioteers, including trumpets to suggest fanfares and uneven rhythms to suggest hoofbeats.

The music in my second example deals directly with the clash between then and now.  The 1981 film Knightriders was written and directed by George A. Romero, better known for his horror films (he invented the modern zombie film with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead).  Knightriders follows the adventures of a traveling Renaissance-faire troupe of actors who stage jousting tournaments while riding motorcycles; the interactions between the actors come to parallel Arthurian stories.  The film revolves around the conflict between modern reality and the desire to live one’s life according to (a modern understanding of) medieval chivalric virtues.  This scene shows the troupe’s act:  the action is straightforward, but the music is complicated, with the score by Donald Rubenstein using five distinct kinds of music in a theoretically sophisticated manner.  In order, we hear:  live music played on-screen by visible performers, recorded music played onscreen, and then three musically distinct flavors of underscore music.  Watch for a yet another knowing gag about the technical capabilities of heralds blowing straight trumpets, as well as a cameo appearance by the writer Stephen King as a scornful man eating a sandwich.

The music performed on-screen functions as part of the scene.  The painfully amateur band of minstrels plays a tune from Handel’s oratorio “Judas Maccabeus” (1746), probably known to the squeaky violinist from its use as a Suzuki teaching piece.  We can imagine that these musicians are playing the oldest piece of music they know, and in response the audience—both onscreen and offscreen—is led to believe that the rest of the show will be similarly amateurish.  The professionally recorded trumpet fanfare demonstrates again how their (and our) musical associations for medieval scenes, especially tournaments, come so strongly from Hollywood.  The actors can’t begin to play their instruments, but everyone knows that the heralds and their fanfares are crucial for the scene they’re trying to set.

Screen Capture from Knightriders (1981) by SO!

Screen Capture from Knightriders (1981) by SO!

When King William and Linet take their thrones, we hear underscore music—guitar and fiddle—for the first time; the shift from source music to underscore is done with great subtlety.  This music has the informal flavor of folk music, which connects it to the little onscreen band, but now played professionally.  The cue is extremely short, but serves as a transition from the real world of the tacky Ren-fest to the imagined world of chivalry and knighthood in some mythical past enacted by the modern-day warriors.  The spectacular motorcycle stunts are underscored by more folk-sounding music:  again fiddle and guitar, this time playing a fast jig.  This music is exciting, as befits the action, but the specific sounds, reminiscent of Irish folk music, do more than just underscore excitement:  they begin to move us backwards in time.  Folk music reads as traditional, as old, but not ancient.  The folk music sounds inhabit an intermediate place, a remembered past between the present and the imagined distant past of the middle ages.

When the individual jousts begin, the underscore music changes again, first to the heroic type of “Hollywood Knights” music, prompting the audience to equate the “real” riders onscreen with their fictional (and filmic) knightly counterparts.  This kind of orchestral music, with prominent strings, is used throughout the film for moments of almost magical transformation, suggesting that for believers, such transformation is indeed possible.  For the second and third jousts the underscore changes one last time, to trombones playing very archaic-sounding music.  Here at last in 1980 is the sound of “authentic instruments” that Terry Jones eschewed back in 1974, and it doesn’t sound quaint at all here, it sounds real.  These riders aren’t (just) carnival performers, they are knights at a tournament, risking bodily injury in their quest for personal excellence.

Screen Capture from Knightriders (1981) by SO!

Screen Capture from Knightriders (1981) by SO!

The music in this sequence plays with a basic distinction in film music and film music scholarship: is the music diegetic, that is, part of the film’s story, or nondiegetic, that is, as Robynn J. Stilwell describes in “The Fantastical Gap between Diegetic and Nondiegetic,” in Beyond the Soundtrack, “an element of the cinematic apparatus that represents that world?” (184).  The terms were first used by Claudia Gorbman in her pioneering study, Unheard Melodies:  Narrative Film Music (1987), and have been a major focus of film music scholarship ever since.

In this sequence, the amateur musicians and the taped fanfare, count as diegetic music, while everything else is nondiegetic.  Stilwell points out that border crossings between these two categories are common, but meaningful; she coined the term “fantastical gap,” the gap between what we see and hear and what we hear without seeing, to discuss the liminal (conceptual) space between the two (185-187).  Stilwell describes movement from diegetic to nondiegetic as a “trajectory [that] takes on great narrative and experiential import.  These moments do not take place randomly; they are important moments of revelation, of symbolism, and of emotional engagement within the film and without” (200). The Knightriders tournament sequence, already liminal as a “play within the play” of the film, traverses the fantastical gap in a way that dramatizes a central question for the performance of Early Music:  what happens when modern performances are historically informed, but emotionally unsatisfying?  For George Romero, as for Terry Jones, the answer is to give priority to the emotional, drawing on their and their audiences’ expectation for “Hollywood Knights” soundtrack music.  Early Music performers in the 1980s made similar choices, merging familiarity and unfamiliarity in exciting ways that unfortunately left them open to criticism that their performances were “inauthentic,” an advertising claim they found themselves defending.


Recorded fanfare in Knightriders, Screen Capture by SO!

The modern performance of surviving pieces of medieval music, recorded in notation, will always enact a kind of medievalism, involving the creative use of material survival from the past.  But to understand the goal for the performance of medieval music as historical accuracy alone is to miss an important point.  Medievalisms, the creative use of historical material, create meanings for modern audiences, meanings that then help to shape further understanding of the historical past.

The decades since these two films were made and released saw great growth in both artistic approaches to Early Music, and in the skill of performers in playing old instruments and singing in newer, non-Classical styles.  Professional recordings enjoyed real commercial success as a sub-genre in Classical music starting in the 1980s, accelerating audiences’ familiarity with the novel sounds of old music re-vivified.  The 1990s saw “new age” music and Celtic folk-music sounds added to the mix, while performers in the 2000s have drawn inspiration from Greek Orthodox chant, and continental folk musics.  “What sounds medieval” will always be conditioned by what modern performers and listeners imagine “the medieval” to be, and how “the medieval” is understood to be different from later times.  As those imaginings are themselves constantly changing, so will their representations in music.

Featured Image: “Monty Python Coconuts” by Flickr User Mark Turnauckus

Elizabeth Randell Upton is Associate Professor of Musicology at UCLA and the author of Music and Performance in the Later Middle Ages (“The New Middle Ages” series, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which examines late fourteenth and early fifteenth century vocal music to discover evidence for the experiences of performers and listeners in the medieval past, recorded in surviving musical notation. Her next book will explore mid-twentieth century Early Music revivals in the UK and US, moving beyond the usual focus on musicological scholarship and classical music traditions to examine Early Music’s interactions with both folk music revivals and popular music. 

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SO! Reads: Roshanak Khesti’s Modernity’s Ear


SO! Reads3“I drifted to another place and time,” reminisces drummer and musicologist Mickey Hart in his 2003 book about salvaging indigenous musical traditions, Songcatchers: In Search of the World’s Music. He continues, “Every day I rushed home, put on the sounds of the Pygmies [on the old RCA Victrola], and melted into their very being.” For the Grateful Dead drummer and world music producer, this experience of disorientation would eventually shape his transformation into a “songcatcher,” or one who seeks to preserve the intangible cultural heritage of indigenous music. In Modernity’s Ear: Race and Gender in World Music, author Roshanak Kheshti interrogates the “origin myth” presented by Hart, along with other collective fantasies and historical narratives that urge listening to world music. She argues that we must look beyond the political and economic exploitation of actual musicians to consider the economy of desire in which the conditions of possibility for such exploitation are formed. In contrast to a critical discourse on musical appropriation and exploitation among ethnomusicologists, one that Martin Stokes acknowledges is “marked by an anxious awareness of complexity and complicity” with world music (835), Kheshti deftly tunes into racialized and gendered yearnings for the recorded sounds of others.


Sounds in bodies

Crucial to Kheshti’s argument is her radical proposition for what occurs as, to briefly return to Hart’s aural memories, the sounds of others “melt” into our “very being.” In a crucial maneuver that focuses on how what is being heard is shaped by the embodied experience of listening, Kheshti proposes that “the object [of listening] becomes a part of the self by being taken into the body” (41). Thus when “sound, the listener’s body, escape, and affect fold into one another” (54-56) in the act of listening (a Derrida-derived encounter that Kheshti dubs “invagination”), selfhood is performatively constituted through the aural other. Moreover, the pleasure of imagining the other through listening, writes Kheshti, is not only the hegemonic form of listening within the world music industry but an experience of desire that Western media markets have historically capitalized upon.


“Whispers” by Flickr user Nicola Colella, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Given the ways in which listening embodies an economy of desire, Kheshti tells the history of this libidinal economy through a narrative in which modern selfhood is constructed through the racialized and gendered aural other. The Godzilla in this narrative is the World Music Culture Industry (WMCI), an entity conjured by Kheshti in reference to the historical juncture of comparative musicologists in the early twentieth century with the popular music recording industry, a coupling that she argues spawned the globalized product of modern media known as world music. As a set of hybrid musical practices designed by and large for Western media markets, world music is the key object of her inquiry (in contrast to the diversity of musical practices worldwide).


The imagined listener

songcatcher-coverThough the book does not proceed chronologically, the first chapter seeks to interweave memory with history by opening with the early twentieth century. Stressing the pioneering role of white female sound archivists, this chapter is crucial for setting up the historical significance of the feminization of listening, a process familiar to readers of Jonathan Sterne, Louise Michele Newman, and William Howland Kenney. Kheshti puts Songcatcher (2000), a feature film about a fictional comparative musicologist who dives into Appalachian country and “discovers” Scottish and Irish ballads thought to have gone extinct, into conversation with the iconic images of Frances Densmore, an ethnologist affiliated with the Bureau of American Ethnology in the 1910s, who famously staged phonographic recordings of the Blackfoot chief, Mountain Chief (Nin-Na-Stoko). The point of convergence between these materials is the gendered and racialized politics of who was sent where to record whose sounds: white female sound archivists, spurned by their male colleagues and sent to the periphery of their respective fields to practice their craft. Once in the field, these comparative musicologists, one fictional and one real, committed acts of racial appropriation and erasure. The song catcher deracinates Appalachia by stripping the region of its Native American and African-American histories in favor of the ‘collective origin fantasy’ that links European and American genealogies, while Densmore, among others, domesticates indigenous sounds in her work for the Bureau.


Frances Densmore recording Mountain Chief. Picture by Harris & Ewing [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The very presence of these upwardly mobile women in the sonic-social worlds that they listen to leaves a trace on their phonographic recordings. These aural traces, Kheshti contends, mark the processes of settler colonialism and salvage ethnography by which indigenous bodies are subjected and made subject through phonographic recording techniques (what she calls ‘phonographic subjectivity’), and in particularly gendered and racialized ways. Kheshti traces the performative effects of these aural traces on contemporary world music in her fieldwork with a Bay area world music label in the early 2000s. In particular, she reveals that the target listener for contemporary world music is white and female, and, that this fact is an apparent truism among music executives, or at least the executive who she worked for. This revelation is the cornerstone for Kheshti’s unfolding of the aurality of this figure, the white female listener of contemporary world music.

Though the book tends to favor intensive re-readings of critical and psychoanalytic theory (from Adorno and Benjamin to Freud and Lacan) over thick ethnographic description, Kheshti touches upon key encounters in this culture industry to explain how listening to world music engenders modernity’s ear. For instance, she transcribes segments from a radio show in Northern California in which the host, a middle-aged white female, discusses what constitutes “African rhythms” with a record label executive. The two banter about this misnomered subject for some length. The host interprets what she is hearing as “African rhythms coming through.” Her visitor, an expert in world music, affirms and clarifies this attribution: “Yeah, absolutely. The rhythm on this particular song… is from a style of music called Afro-beat… that rhythm you’re hearing is definitely African, so, you don’t know nothing, you’re learning” (52). Kheshti interprets this banter as an example of how world music listeners “cherish” the experience of listening to sonic difference as a moment to live out “fantasy and imaginative play” (54), in other words, that the pleasures experienced through aurality have become definitive of twentieth-century modernity.


“world music 2” by Flickr user wayne marshall, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In other chapters, she details how record labels fulfill this fantasy through the production of hybrid sound media. The orchestration of these sounds in the studio not only enables the listener to feel “lost” and transcend the contingencies of the listening event, they also “pronounce and suppress presences and absences of all sorts of bodies and grains” (77). Drawing on phenomenological descriptions of her own listening experiences as well as liner notes and other commercial media, she describes how non-Western sounds are encoded as feminine, whereas the synthetic production and digital manipulation of sounds are rendered techno-logically modern and masculine.  Racialized and feminized bodies are put to work in constituting the modern cosmopolitan listener. Furthermore, Kheshti argues that market mobility and aesthetic mobility are gendered male and alterity is gendered female in ways that link, for her, to miscegenation. The listening self reproduces dominant forms of heteronormativity in the consumption of modern sound media.

The listening self reproduces dominant forms of heteronormativity in the consumption of modern sound media.

Kheshti offers a radical alternative to these normative listening practices by turning to field recordings taken by Zora Neale Hurston between 1933 and 1939. Trained by Franz Boas in the traditions of nascent cultural anthropology, Hurston is kin to Densmore and those who worked for the Bureau of American Ethnology a few decades earlier. Like them, she goes to record America’s aural others, or “black folk.” But unlike her white foremothers, Hurston does not attempt to splice out the “noise” of the recordings. She “refuses fidelity” (126). Instead of staging field recordings, she made studio recordings of herself performing songs and discussing rituals. When recording her interlocutors, she interrupts, interjects, and poses directorial cues that Kheshti reads as an attempt to resist the desire to faithfully (re)produce an archive of phonographic subjects.

Zora Neale Hurston with Musicians

ca. June 1935, Eatonville, Florida, USA — Author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston sitting on a porch in Eatonville, Florida with two musicians, Rochelle French and Gabriel Brown. — Image from Stuff Mom Never Told You

Recommended for advanced graduate students and faculty, this virtuosic and tightly rehearsed tour through critical and psychoanalytic theory offers an ambitious and groundbreaking retake on an industry that we thought we understood, perhaps too intimately. Kheshti asks her readers to hold themselves accountable to their own forms of aural pleasure. In so doing, she offers a fresh perspective on the role of embodiment in relation to knowledge production. Rather than embracing somatic methods of inquiry as a welcome challenge to inductive reasoning, she argues that taking pleasure in listening enables the commodification of desire that sustains the world music culture industry.

Kheshti shifts the discussion of world music qua music (aesthetics, history, representation) towards issues of alterity and sound. As such, this book contributes to sound studies by holding the field accountable for difference, and, by inscribing this accountability within the history of the field itself. Indeed, Modernity’s Ear is about how the forces of desire that constitute the modern listening self are enveloped in the aural other as phonographic subject.

Featured image: “ear” by Flickr user Leo Reynolds, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Shayna Silverstein is an assistant professor of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. Her research generally examines the performative processes of politics, culture, and society in relation to sound and movement in the contemporary Middle East. Her current book project examines the performance tradition of Syrian dabke as a means for the strategic contestation of social class, postcolonial difference, and gender dynamics in contemporary Syria. She has contributed to peer-reviewed journals and several anthologies including The Arab Avant-Garde: Music, Politics, and Modernity, Islam and Popular Culture, the Sublime Frequencies Companion, and Syria: From Reform to Revolt. Previously a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Penn Humanities Forum, Shayna received her PhD in Ethnomusicology from the University of Chicago and her BA in History from Yale University.

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Me & My Rhythm Box

paula shepp

I’m fortunate to have quite a few friends with eclectic musical tastes, who continually expose me some of the best, albeit often obscure, sources for inspiration. They arrive as random selections sent with a simple “you’d appreciate this” note attached. Good friends that they are, they rarely miss the mark. Most intriguing is when a cluster of things from different people carry a similar theme, converging to a need on my part for some sort of musical action.

The Inspiration

A few years back I received a huge dump of gigabytes of audio and video. Within it were some concert footage and performances this friend and I had been discussing; I consumed those quickly in an effort to keep that conversation going. Tucked amidst that dump however, was a copy of the movie Liquid Sky. I asked the friend about it because the description of the plot–“heroin-pushing aliens invade 80’s New York”–led me to believe it wasn’t really my thing (not a big fan of needles). Although my friend insisted I’d enjoy it, it took me several months if not a whole year before I finally pressed play.

Even though Liquid Sky was not my favorite movie by any measure, it was immediately apparent to my ears why my friend insisted I check it out. The film’s score was performed completely on a Fairlight CMI, capturing the synthesized undercurrent of the early 80’s New York music scene, more popularly seen in the cult classic Downtown 81, starring Jean Michel Basquiat. While the performances in that movie are perhaps closer to my tastes, none of them compare to one scene from Liquid Sky that I  fell in love with, instantly:

The song grabbed me so much, I quickly churned out a cover version.

Primus Luta “Me & My Rhythm Box (V1)”


While felt good to make, there remained something less than satisfying about it. The cover had captured my sound, but at a moment of transition. More specifically, the means by which I was trying to achieve my sound at the time had shifted from a DAW-in-the-box aesthetic to a live performance feel, one that I had already begun writing about here on Sounding Out! in 2013.  Interestingly, the inspiration to cover the song pushed me back to my in-the-box comfort zone.

It was good, but I knew I could do more.

As I said, these inspirations tend to group around a theme. Prior to receiving the Liquid Sky dump, I had received an email out of the blue from Hank Shocklee, producer and member of the Bomb Squad. I’ve been a longtime fan, and we had the opportunity to meet a few years prior. Since then he’s played a bit of a mentoring role for me. In the email he asked if I wanted to join an experimental electronic jazz project he was pulling together as the drummer.

I was taken aback. Hank Shocklee asking me to be his drummer. Honestly, I was shook.

Not that I didn’t know why he might think to ask me, but immediately I started to question whether I was good enough. Rather than dwell on those feelings, though, I started stepping up my game. While the project itself never came to fruition, Shocklee’s email led me to building my drmcrshr set of digital instruments.

kb-bring-the-noise-5A year or so later, I ran into Shocklee again when he was in Philadelphia for King Britt’s Afrofuturism event with mutual friend artist HPrizm. By this time I had already recorded the “Me and My Rhythm Box” cover. Serendipitously, HPrizm ended up dropping a sample from it in the midst of his set that night. A month or so later, HPrizm and I met up in the studio with longtime collaborator Takuma Kanaiwa to record a live set on which I played my drmcrshr instruments.

Primus Luta x HPrizm x Takuma Kanaiwa – “Excerpt”


Not too long after, I received an email from NYC-based electronic musician Elucid, saying he was digging for samples on this awesome soundtrack. . .Liquid Sky.

The final convergence point had been hanging over my head for a while. Having finished the first part of my “Toward a Practical Language series on Live Performance” series, I knew I wanted the next part to focus on electronic instruments, but wasn’t yet sure how to approach it. I had an inkling about a practicum on the actual design and development of an electronic instrument, but I didn’t yet have a project in mind.

As all of these things, people, and sounds came together–Liquid Sky, Shocklee, HPrizm, Elucid–it became clear that I needed to build a rhythm box.

The History

What stands out in Paula Sheppard’s performance from Liquid Sky is the visual itself. She stands in the warehouse performance space surrounded by 80’s scenesters posing with one hand in the air, mic in the other while strapped to her side is her rhythm box, the Roland CR-78, wires dangling from it to connect to the venue’s sound system. She hits play to start the beat launching into the ode for the rhythm machine.

Paula Shephard Performing "Me & My Rhythm Box" in Liquid Sky

Contextually, it’s far more performance art than music performance. There isn’t much evidence from the clip that the CR-78 is any more than a prop, as the synthesizer lines indicate the use of a backing track. The commentary in the lyrics however, hone in on an intent to present the rhythm box as the perfect musical companion, reminiscent of comments Raymond Scott often made about his desire to make a machine to replace musicians.

My rhythm box is sweet

Never forgets a beat

It does its rule

Do you want to know why?

It is pre-programmed

Rhythm machines such as the CR-78 were originally designed as accompaniment machines, specifically for organ players. They came pre-programmed with a number of traditional rhythm patterns–the standards being rock, swing, waltz and samba–though the CR-78 had many more variations. Such machines were not designed to be instruments themselves, rather musicians would play other instruments to them.


In 1978 when the CR-78 was introduced, rhythm machines were becoming quite sophisticated. The CR-78 included automatic fills that could be set to play at set intervals, providing natural breaks for songs. As with a few other machines, selecting multiple rhythms could combine patterns into new rhythms. The CR-78 also had mute buttons and a small mixer, which allowed slight customization of patterns, but what truly set the CR-78 apart was the fact that users could program their own patterns and even save them.


TR-808 (top) and TR-909

By the time it appeared in Liquid Sky, the CR-78 had already been succeeded by other CR lines culminating in the CR-8000. Roland also had the TR series including the TR-808 and the TR-909, which was released in 1982, the same year Liquid Sky premiered.

In 1980 however, Roger Linn’s LM-1 premiered. What distinguished the LM-1 from other drum machines was that it used drum samples–rather than analog sounds–giving it more “real” sounding drum rhythms (for the time). The LM-1 and its predecessor, the Linn Drum both had individual drum triggers for its sounds that could be programmed into user sequences or played live. These features in particular marked the shift from rhythm machines to drum machines.

In the post-MIDI decades since,  we’ve come to think less and less about rhythm machines. With the rise of in-the-box virtual instruments, the idea of drum programming limitations (such as those found on most rhythm machines) seems absurd or arcane to modern tastes. People love the sounds of these older machines, evidenced by the tons of analog drum samples and virtual and hardware clones/remakes on the market, but they want the level of control modern technologies have grown them accustomed to.

Controlling the Roland CR-5000 from an Akai MPC-1000 using a custom built converter


The general assumption is that rhythm machines aren’t traditionally playable, and considering how outdated their rhythms tend to seem, lacking in the modern sensibility. My challenge thus, became clearer: I sought out to build a rhythm machine that would challenge this notion, while retaining the spirit of the traditional rhythm box.

Challenges and Limitations

At the outset, I wanted to base my rhythm machine on analog circuitry. I had previously built a number of digital drum machines–both sample and synthesis-based–for my Heads collection. Working in the analog arena allowed me to approach the design of my instrument in a way that respected the limitations my rhythm machine predecessors worked with and around.

By this time I had spent a couple of years mentoring with Jeff Blenkinsopp at The Analog Lab in New York, a place devoted to helping people from all over the world gain “further understanding the inner workings of their musical equipment.” I had already designed a rather complex analog signal processor, so I felt comfortable in the format. However, I hadn’t truly honed my skills around instrument design. In many ways, I wanted this project to be the testing ground for my own ability to create instruments, but prior experience taught me that going into such a complex project without the proper skills would be self defeating. Even more, my true goal was centered more around functionality rather than details like circuit board designs for individual sounds.

To avoid those rabbit holes–at least temporarily, I’ve since gone full circuit design on my analog sound projects–I chose to use DIY designs from the modular synth community as the basis for my rhythm box. That said, I limited myself to designs that featured analog sound sources, and only allowed myself to use designs that were available as PCB only. I would source all my own parts, solder all of my boards and configure them into the rhythm machine of my dreams.


The wonderful thing about the modular synth community is that there is a lot of stuff out there. The difficult thing about the modular synth community is that there’s a lot of stuff out there. If you’ve got enough rack space, you can pretty much put together a modular that will perform whatever functionality you want. How modules patch together fundamentally defines your instrument, making module selection the most essential process.  I was aiming to build a more semi-modular configuration, forgoing the patch cables, but that didn’t make my selection any easier.  I wanted to have three sound sources (nominally: kick, snare and hi-hat), a sequencer and some sort of filter, which would all flow into a simple monophonic mixer design of my own.

For the sounds I chose a simple kick module from Barton, and the Jupiter Storm unit from Hex Inverter. The sound of the kick module was rooted enough in the classic analog sound while offering enough modulation points to make it mutable. The triple square wave design of the Jupiter Storm really excited me as It had the range to pull off hi-hat and snare sounds in addition to other percussive and drone sounds, plus it featured two outputs giving me all three of my voices on in two pcb sets.

Filters are often considered the heart of a modular set up, as they way they shape the sound tends to define its character. In choosing one for my rhythm machine the main thing I wanted was control over multiple frequency bands. Because there would be three different sound sources I needed to be able to tailor the filter for a wide spectrum of sounds. As such I chose the AM2140 Resonant Filter.


The AMS2140 PCB layout, based on the classic eMu filter


I had no plans to include triggers for the sounds on my rhythm machine so the sequencer was going to be the heart of the performance as it would be responsible for any and all triggering of sounds.  Needing to control three sounds simultaneously without any stored memory was quite a tall order, but fortunately I found the perfect solution in the amazing Turing Machine modules. With its expansion board the Turing machine can put out four different patterns based on it’s  main pattern creator which can create fully random patterns or patterns that mutate as they progress.

The Results

I spent a couple of weeks after getting all the pcb’s parts and hardware together, wiring and rewiring connections until I got comfortable with how all of these parts were interacting with each other. I was fortunate to happen upon a vintage White Instruments box, which formally housed an attenuation meter, that was perfect for my machine. After testing with cardboard I laid out my own faceplates, which and put everything in the box. As soon as I plugged it in and started playing, I knew I had succeeded.

Early test of RIDM before it went in the Box


I call it the RIDM Box (Rhythmically Intelligent Drum Machine Box). I’ve been playing it now for over two years, to the point where today I would say it is my primary instrument. Almost immediately afterward I built a companion piece called the Snare Bender which works both as a standalone and as a controller for the RIDM Box. That one I did from scratch hand wired with no layouts.

stillconcrete2016 (1)

My current live rig with the RIDM Box and the Snare Bender (on the right)


While this is by no means a standard approach to modern electronic instrument design (if a standard approach even exists), what I learned through the process is really the value of looking back. With so much of modern technology being future forward in its approach, the assumption is that we’re at better starting positions for innovation than our predecessors. While we have so many more resources at our disposal, I think the limitations of the past were often more conductive to truly innovative approaches. By exploring those limitations with modern eyes a doorway opened up for me, the result of which is an instrument like no other, past or present.

I will probably continue playing the two of these instruments together for a while, but ultimately I’m leaning toward a new original design which takes the learnings from these projects and fully flushes out the performing instrument aspect of analog design.  In the meantime, my process would not be complete if I did not return to the original inspiration. So I’ll leave you with the RIDM Box version of “Me & My Rhythm Box”—available on my library sessions release for the instrument.

Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications.  

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