The Firesign Theatre are the only group that can claim among its devoted fans both Thom Yorke and John Ashbery; who have an album in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress and also coined a phrase now used as a slogan by freeform giant WFMU; and whose albums were widely distributed by tape among U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, and then sampled by the most selective classic hip hop DJs, from Steinski and DJ Premier to J Dilla and Madlib.
Formed in 1966, they began their career improvising on Los Angeles’s Pacifica station KPFK, and went on to work in numerous media formats over their four-decade career. They are best known for a series of nine albums made for Columbia Records, records that remain unparalleled for their density, complexity, and sonic range. Realizing in an astonishing way the implications of the long playing record and the multi-track recording studio, the Firesign Theatre’s Columbia albums offer unusually fertile ground for bringing techniques of literary analysis to bear upon the fields of sound and media studies (and vice versa). This is a strategy that aims to reveal the forms of political consciousness that crafted the records, as well as the politics of the once-common listening practices binding together the disparate audiences I have just named. It is no accident that the associative and referential politics of the sample in “golden age” hip hop would have recognized a similar politics of reference and association in Firesign Theatre’s sound work, in particular in the group’s pioneering use of language, time, and space.
The Firesign Theatre is typically understood as a comedy act from the era of “head music” — elaborate album-oriented sounds that solicited concerted, often collective and repeated, listening typically under the influence of drugs. But it may be better to understand their work as attempting to devise a future for literary writing that would be unbound from the printed page and engaged with the emergent recording technologies of the day. In this way, they may have crafted a practice more radical, but less recognizable, than that of poets —such as Allen Ginsberg or David Antin, both of whose work Firesign read on the air — who were also experimenting with writing on tape during these years (see Michael Davidson’s Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word, in particular 196-224). Because their work circulated almost exclusively on vinyl (secondarily on tape), it encouraged a kind of reading (in the strictest sense) with the ears; the fact that their work was distributed through the networks of popular music may also have implications for the way we understand past communities of music listeners as well.
The period of Firesign’s contract (1967-1975) with the world’s largest record company parallels exactly the recording industry’s relocation from New York to Los Angeles, the development of multitrack studios which made the overdub the dominant technique for recording pop music, and the rise of the LP as a medium in its own right, a format that rewarded, and in Firesign’s case required, repeated listening. These were all factors the Firesign Theatre uniquely exploited. Giving attention to the musicality of the group’s work, Jacob Smith has shown (in an excellent short discussion in Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures that is to date the only academic study of Firesign) how the group’s attention to the expansion of television, and in particular the new practice of channel-surfing, provided both a thematic and a formal focus for the group’s work: “Firesign […] uses channel surfing as the sonic equivalent of parallel editing, a kind of horizontal or melodic layering in which different themes are woven in and out of prominence until they finally merge. Firesign also adds vertical layers to the narrative in a manner analogous to musical harmony or multiple planes of cinematic superimposition” (181). But more remains to be said not only about the effect of the Firesign Theatre’s work, but about its carefully wrought semantics, in particular the way the “horizontal” and “vertical” layers that Smith identifies were used as ways of revealing the mutually implicated regimes of politics, culture, and media in the Vietnam era — at the very moment when the explosion of those media was otherwise working to disassociate those fields.
The group’s third album, Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers is typically understood as their first extended meditation on the cultural phenomenology of television. Throughout the record, though there is much else going on, two pastiches of 1950s genre movies (High School Madness and a war film called Parallel Hell!) stream intermittently, as if through a single channel-surfing television set. The films coincide in two superimposed courtroom scenes that include all the principal characters from both films. By interpenetrating the school and the war, the record names without naming the killing of four students at Kent State and two students at Jackson State University, two events that occurred eleven days apart in May 1970 while the group was writing and recording in Los Angeles. Until this point rationalized by the framing fiction of a principal character watching both films on television, the interpenetration of the narratives is resolvable within the album’s diegesis—the master plot that accounts for and rationalizes every discrete gesture and event—only as a representation of that character’s having fallen asleep and dreaming the films together, a narrative sleight of hand that would testify to the group’s comprehension of literary modernism and the avant-garde.
The question of what may “cause” the interpenetration of the films is of interest, but the Firesign Theatre did not always require justification to elicit the most outrageous representational shifts of space (as well as of medium and persona). What is of more interest is the way rationalized space — the space implied by the “audioposition” of classic radio drama, as theorized by Neil Verma in Theater of the Mind— could be de-emphasized or even abandoned in favor of what might instead be called analytic space, an aural fiction in which the institutions of war and school can be understood as simultaneous and coterminous, and which more broadly represents the political corruptions of the Nixon administration by means of formal and generic corruption that is the hallmark of the Firesign Theatre’s approach to media (35-38).
While the techniques that produce this analytic soundscape bear some resemblance to what Verma terms the “kaleidosonic style” pioneered by radio producer Norman Corwin in the 1940s — in which the listener is moved “from place to place, experiencing shallow scenes as if from a series of fixed apertures” — even this very brief sketch indicates how radically the Firesign Theatre explored, deepened, and multiplied Corwin’s techniques in order to stage a more politically diagnostic and implicative mode of cultural interpretation. Firesign’s spaces, which are often of great depth, are rarely traversed arbitrarily; they are more typically experienced either in a relatively seamless flow (perspective and location shifting by means of an associative, critical or analytical, logic that the listener may discover), or are instead subsumed within regimes of media (a radio broadcast within a feature film which is broadcast on a television that is being watched by the primary character on the record album to which you are listening). According to either strategy the medium may be understood to be the message, but that message is one whose horizon is as critical as it is aesthetic.
The creation of what I am terming an analytic space was directly abetted by the technological advancement of recording studios, which underwent a period of profound transformation during the years of their Columbia contract, which spanned the year of The Beatles’s Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (arguably the world’s first concept album, recorded on four tracks) to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (arguably that band’s fourth concept album, recorded on 24 tracks). Pop music had for years availed itself of the possibilities of recording vocals and solos separately, or doubly, but the dominant convention was for such recordings to support the imagined conceit of a song being performed live. As studios’ technological advances increased the possibilities for multitracking, overdubbing, and mixing, pop recordings such as Sgt. Pepper and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) became more self-evidently untethered from the event of a live performance, actual or simulated. In the place of the long-dominant conceit of a recording’s indexical relation to a particular moment in time, pop music after the late 60s came increasingly to define and inhabit new conceptions of space, and especially time. Thus, when in 1970 Robert Christgau asserted that the Firesign Theatre “uses the recording studio at least as brilliantly as any rock group” (and awarding a very rare A+), he was remarking the degree to which distortions and experiments with time and space were if anything more radically available to narrative forms than they were to music.
The overdub made possible much more than the simple multiplication and manipulation of aural elements, it also added depth and richness to the soundfield. New possibilities of mixing, layering, and editing also revealed that the narrative representation of time, as well as spatial element I’ve just described, could be substantially reworked and given thematic meaning. In one knowing example, on 1969’s How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All, an accident with a time machine results in the duplication of each of the narrative’s major characters, who then fight or drink with each other.
This crisis of the unities is only averted when a pastiche of Franklin Delano Roosevelt interrupts the record’s fictional broadcast, announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and his decision to surrender to Japan. On a record released the year the United States began secret bombing in Cambodia, it is not only the phenomenological, but also the social and political, implications of this kind of technologically mediated writing that are striking: the overdub enables the formal representation of “duplicity” itself, with the gesture of surrender ironically but pointedly offered as the resolution to the present crisis in Southeast Asia.
To take seriously the Firesign Theatre’s experiments with medium, sound, and language may be a way of reviving techniques of writing — as well as recording, and of listening — that have surprisingly eroded, even as technological advances (cheaper microphones, modeling software, and programs from Audacity and Garage Band to Pro Tools and Ableton Live) have taken the conditions of production out of the exclusive purview of the major recording studios. In two recent essays in RadioDoc Review called “The Arts of Amnesia: The Case for Audio Drama Part One” and “Part Two,” Verma has surveyed the recent proliferation of audio drama in the field of podcasting, and urged artists to explore more deeply the practices and traditions of the past, fearing that contemporary aversion to “radio drama” risks “fall[ing] into a determinism that misses cross-fertilization and common experiment” (Part Two, 4). Meanwhile, Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett’s live performances from their excellent World According to Sound podcast are newly instantiating a form of collective and immersive listening that bears a resemblance to the practices that were dominant among Firesign Theatre listeners in the 1960s and 70s; this fall they are hosting listening events for Firesign records in San Francisco.
It is tempting to hope for a wider range of experimentation in the field of audio in the decade to come, one that either critically exploits or supersedes the hegemony of individualized listening emblematized by podcast apps and noise-cancelling headphones. But if the audio field instead remains governed by information-oriented podcasts, leavened by a subfield of relatively classical dramas like the very good first season of Homecoming, a return to the Firesign Theatre’s work can have methodological, historical, and theoretical value because it could help reveal how the experience of recorded sound had an altogether different political inflection in an earlier era. Thinking back to the remarkably heterogeneous set of Firesign Theatre fans with which I began, it is hard not to observe that the dominant era of the sample in hip hop is one where it was not the Walkman but the jambox — with its politics of contesting a shared social space through collective listening — was the primary apparatus of playback. However unwished- for, this determinist line of technological thinking would clarify the way media audiences are successively composed and decomposed, and show more clearly how, to use Nick Couldry’s words in “Liveness, ‘Reality,’ and the Mediated Habitus from Television to the Mobile Phone,” “the ‘habitus’ of contemporary societies is being transformed by mediation itself” (358).
Featured Image: The Firesign Theatre (ice cream baggage claim): John Rose, courtesy of author.
Jeremy Braddock is Associate Professor of English at Cornell University, where he specializes on the production and reception of modernist literature, media, and culture from the 1910s throughout the long twentieth century. His scholarship has examined the collective and institutional forms of twentieth-century authorship that are obscured by the romanticized figure of the individual artist. His book Collecting as Modernist Practic— a study of anthologies, archives, and private art collections — won the 2013 Modernist Studies Association book prize. Recent publications include a short essay considering the literary education of Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus and an essay on the Harlem reception of James Joyce’s Ulysses. He is currently working on a book on the Firesign Theatre.
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“Happy Homes Have Gramophones” –Gender, Technology, and the Sonic Restaging of Community Before and After the Partition of Bengal
Our listening practices are discursively constructed. In the sonic landscape of India, in particular, the way in which we listen and what we hear are often normative, produced within hegemonic discourses of gender, class, caste, region, and sexuality. . . This forum, Gendered Soundscapes of India, offers snapshots of sound at sites of trans/national production, marketing, filmic and musical texts. Complementing these posts, the accompanying photographs offer glimpses of gendered community formation, homosociality, the pervasiveness of sound technology in India, and the discordant stratified soundscapes of the city. This series opens up for us the question of other contexts in India where sound, gender, and technology might intersect, but, more broadly, it demands that we consider how sound exists differently in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Afghanistan. How might we imagine a sonic framework and South Asia from these locations? —Guest Editors Praseeda Gopinath and Monika Mehta
For the full introduction to the forum, click here.
To read all of the posts in the forum, click here.
“She compelled respect at once by refusing on any account to be phonographed: perhaps she thought, amongst other things, that if she committed her soul to a broken piece of wax it might get broken…my subsequent experiences showed that it was only too likely,” wrote the British musicologist A.H. Fox-Strangways in 1910 about Indian female singer Chandra Prabha, while remarking on the harsh reactions to the gramophone in India (90). Such deep-rooted discomfort with the gramophone speaks to the cognitive, perceptual and experiential challenges faced by a listener/performer when a new auditory technology substitutes familiar terrains of musical production.
In this post, I revisit the decades prior to and following the 1947 Partition of Bengal, a phase singularly volatile not only in India’s political but also its musical and technological histories. I examine how the introduction of European harmony/polyphony in the aural imaginary of Bengal negotiates ideologies espoused by the nationalists in the (re)constitution of gendered space post-Partition by transforming relations of consumption. The production of gendered domesticity was vitally related to rigid conceptions of physical space and its allocation in colonial Bengal which, further, influenced music reception in ways worth probing.
The auditory regimes prior to the emergence of recording/radio-broadcast typified public modes of listening based on live performances engendering affective flows and presupposed human proximity. This culture of aurality is inextricably tied to communal modes of consumption and performance, be it the high-end salon-tradition of the Bengali modern song, the hard-hitting agitprop strains of the Bengal wing of the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) or even the stylized elite classical genres. The collective nature of musical practice conjures up traditional connotations of masculine spaces, especially in the case of the elite Bengali household where the gendered ideology of spatial orientation relegated the respectable Bengali woman (bhadramahila) to the interiors of the house (antahpur/andarmahal). The delights of salon-music were to be relished by the man of the house (babu).
Thus, the communitarian character of musical practice often made it elusive to respectable women. However, the emergence and subsequent sophistication of auditory technologies ushered a radical transformation to such a dynamic by dissociating music from the human performer. Besides leading to the obvious technological alienation in the listener, the privatization of the listening experience was accompanied by a condition of a penetrating solitude and interiority, a state speaking to the voices and /sounds emanating from the phonograph. At the sociological level, the entry of recording technology redefined long-held divisions of domestic space and the gendered dynamics thereof by not only democratizing musical consumption but also forging provisional collectivities of listeners often cutting across gender, class and caste. Besides, traditional associations of musical genres with specific loci- classical music with the salon/concert space for instance- gave way to a more fluid conception of domestic space assuming multiple sonic/musical identities depending on what the gramophone played. The phonographic interface, thus, radically reconfigures listening practices and produces a different paradigm of self, sound, community, and gender.
What is at stake here is not some covert form of linear technological determinism, but a more nuanced detour around auditory-technologies, spaces of consumption, and the affordances thereof that calibrate auditory experience along new registers. What merits contemplation is how (if at all) these technological innovations in the commercial arena complement and usher formal nuances and sonic innovations in the musical works they mediate. The gramophone renders problematic the uncritical conflation of the sonic and visual registers typical of live musical performance and, in the process, sets in motion a unique dynamic of interacting with musical sound. Severed from its visual footholds in live performance, phonographic sounds often provoke the listener to imagine the singing/performing body which, in turn, informs the way the sounds are processed mentally.
Indian music has traditionally been based on a single melody which, in its skeletal grammar, is an individual mode of expression, even when performed by a group. The intrinsic form of Indian and traditional East Asian music in general exhibits a non-harmonic character. The concept of musical harmony proper is considered a European import. European harmony, polyphony, and counterpoint are in their very essences a set of disparate tonal registers forging a gestalt which impresses on the mind of the listener an overarching unity. At an experiential level, the polyphonic form embodies a distinct sonic ontology and a novel dimension, as it were, and thus cannot be reduced to merely a stylistic import. It induces a new auditory condition, a new register of being-in-listening (the lecture snippet from 57:08-.1:02:07 effectively demonstrates the morphing of the basic melody of a song into its polyphonic equivalent). The new auditory condition conjoins the familiarity of the melody with the markedly different yet complementing registers of the polyphony, creating a novel sensation for the uninitiated Bengali listener.
Among the very early records to employ musical polyphony in India were two iconic musical works of the mid-20th century, one devotional in intent– Aham Rudre from Mahishasurmardini (1931) composed by the legendary music director Pankaj Mullick–and the other, a professed experiment in introducing polyphony in Bengali music, Shurer Ei Jharna (1958), by the noted composer Salil Chowdhury.
In the current context, it is important to note how the sonic dimension of musical polyphony in Aham Rudre and Shurer Ei Jharna embodies and substitutes notions of aural communities and restages a communitarian character. Notably, the creation and circulation of these works paralleled the establishment of commercial state-radio in India (1930) and the first microgroove record in Kolkata in 1958 by the Gramophone Company.
The Gramophone Company in Calcutta marketed its records with the Bengali tagline “Shukhi Grihokon Shobhe Gramophone/Happy Homes Have Gramophones,” projecting the phonograph as the symbolic ideal of the domestic idyll and in the process confronting gendered spatial demarcations head-on by invading the auditory horizons of the secluded Bengali women. The striking presence of the gramophone in the iconic Gramophone Scene (1:35:17-1:35:28) in Satyajit Ray’s movie Ghare Baire–set in the backdrop of the 1905 Partition of Bengal–beautifully illustrates the sorority forged by the gramophone which, notably, draws even the marginalized widow Bouthan within its field of influence.
However, the gramophone superseded its commodity-character to serve not only in crass exhibitionism but also as an index of a masculine, elite consumerist culture where “serious music” and musical connoisseurship often became synonymous with the gramophone and recorded sound. A new breed of “record-collectors” came into existence, mainly belonging to the upwardly-mobile/elite classes whose passion for records was their most prominent identity-marker in the domestic realm, occasionally outweighing even their professional concerns.
But even as the radio and phonograph transcended the hitherto gendered character of musical reception by entering the women’s quarters and dissolving time-honored segregations of auditory spaces within the household, it had to contend with a deep-seated psychological discomfort in the listener, a fundamental unease with befriending technology that substituted the human. I argue that the newly insulated character of the radiophonic auditory experience was counteracted by significant efforts, conscious or otherwise, at sonically restaging and reclaiming the community lost in technological mediation.
Given pet notions of musical anthropology and the chronological coincidence between the early uses of harmony and the entry and sophistication of technologically mediated music in Bengal one could, at the risk of slight oversimplification, posit that the import of the harmonic form at this significant juncture sonically compensates the auditory solitude induced by radio/phonograph by recreating a modified and idealized Platonic (Platonic here is used as an allusion to ‘music of the spheres’ to point towards how musical harmony since medieval times has been associated with ideal public) community and restaging it within the confines of the constitutive plurality of the polyphonic mode. As an aside, the initial introduction of polyphony in Shurer Ei Jharna (1958) garnered flak from a large section of the audience who cognized it as a group of amateur performers ‘singing out of key’ (Salil Chowdhury’s lecture from 30:31-31:15). Over the next few decades, however, this form was trans-culturated and seamlessly assimilated within the sonic vocabulary of the Bengali/Indian masses, so much so that without the regular vocal/instrumental counterpoint, commercial songs nowadays are often felt to be lacking hue.
The sonic changes that I have been investigating preceded or followed the Partition of Bengal, which informed the gendered patterns of popular musical consumption. It is well-known that the exigencies of the Partition proved emancipatory for women in that they were exposed to the vagaries of the workplace, leaving the confines of their quarters. It is with an often uncritical celebratory fervor that the Partition is credited with fashioning the independent, self-reliant and educated middle-class Bengali working woman, on occasion emerging as the sole bread-earner of the family. Jasodhara Bagchi says that the “partition accelerated the earlier trends of the twentieth century of abolishing the ‘purdah that had confined the Bengali bhadramahila to her antahpur (private quarters)…The same stroke that brought this flood of uprooted marginalised women to Calcutta also opened the door to many new opportunities for Bengali middle-class Hindu women. They came out of the private domain of domesticity and child rearing to take up public duties.’”(8) Uditi Sen, however, in her revisionist reading of the celebratory impulse argues that “situational aberrations” notwithstanding, the Partition did not lead to “a transformation of social norms or any substantive change of women’s ideal role within the bounds of the family.”(16)
In the aftermath of the Second World War, which had also witnessed the entry of women into the professional/public sphere, the USA launched a propaganda war to restore women to their hearth, revivifying the “cult of the housewife,” deploying films and popular music to promote the trope of the ideal housewife. Redefining domestic spaces as woman’s space had also been in the cards for the Indian state post-Partition, which had to a large extent been governed by patterns of popular media consumption. Arguably, the coincidental emergence of musical harmony and sophistication of private auditory technologies in the years following the Partition contributed to efforts to restore women to their private quarters, by compensating the lost professional community of the self-reliant working woman with the poetic/sonic community embodied by the polyphonic form, in the process enlivening her insipid lived quarters. Popular media technologies often employ innovation in content to revivify clichéd formats; musical harmony coupled with sophisticated audio-reproduction provides a classic instance of inaugurating a new sonic dimension in popular music which provides a powerful and enthralling form of domestic leisure.
Thus, in the context of early 20th century Bengal, the gramophone was a significant import which not only reconfigured perceptual registers and musical cultures but also listening practices by entering the interiors of elite Bengali households. Besides democratizing the listening experience, which till then had largely been restricted to male constituencies, the gramophone privatized musical consumption. It was through the introduction of musical polyphony, which is intrinsically ‘public/ communal’ as regards its sonic character, that this impulse was counteracted. As mentioned earlier, these technical/musical innovations widened the scope and impact of musical performance and arguably contributed to the reconstitution of gendered domestic space post-Partition which points to subtle and complex relations among technology, (musical) genre and gender.
Featured Image: Screen Capture from by SO! Ed. Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire
Ronit Ghosh is a postgraduate student at the Department of Art and Technology, Aalborg University, Denmark. His research interests include aesthetic philosophy, critical sound studies and the sociology of Indian popular music. He has published articles on sound studies in the International Journal on Stereo and Immersive Media and The Rupkatha Journal and has an article forthcoming in the Journal of Sonic Studies. He is a classical violinist and an aspiring music composer.
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In her recent biography of Roland Barthes, Tiphaine Samoyault describes the quality of his speech through what Barthes had called the “grain of the voice,” a quality that “bears witness to a past able to act in the present, a continued memory, a recollecting forwards” (13). The voice, and perhaps most importantly, its potentialities, has been theorized in the realms of critical theory, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and more recently sound studies, as a property that although commonly enacted remains mysterious, beyond the realm of simple intelligibility. Licia Fiol-Matta’s The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music (Duke University Press: 2016). brilliantly engages many of these theoretical genealogies yet takes an analysis of the voice in surprising new directions. Her focus, as the title indicates, is the career of four “great” Puerto Rican women singers whose careers encompassed a great part of the Twentieth Century. In addition to the theoretical trajectories Fiol-Matta engages, the book is also a welcome addition to the growing field of Latina/o sound studies. Indeed, Latina/o studies’ intersection with sound studies has produced a range of provocative and essential new work that that aim to re-situate how we understand the sonic in Latina/o America.
Once a field dominated by musicologists and historians, sound studies has opened for interdisciplinary scholars new avenues to study the ways in which music and sound intersect with the formation of transnational Latinidad. In particular, many of these studies tend to be anti-canonical, reframing established histories of Latina/o American sounds through expanded forms of listening offered by sound studies. Similarly, listening in new ways to the historical record has allowed scholars in these fields to investigate lesser studied sites or to reframe well established archives. In recent years, we have seen a wealth of exciting (sound) studies that turn our attention and our ears to apprehend how the sonic creates, and often exceeds, forms of knowledge central to these fields. Books such as Deborah R. Vargas’ Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of la Onda [check the SO! Reads review by Wanda Alarcón], Alexandra T. Vazquez’s Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music, Ana Maria Ochoa-Gauthier’s Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia, and Dolores Inés Casilla’s Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish Language Radio and Public Advocacy [check the SO! Reads review by Monica De la Torre] to name a few, have re-centered Latina/o and Latin American studies along the lines of the sonic. Departing from (although indebted to) earlier studies of Latina/o American musical forms, this body of work invites us, borrowing Vazquez’s term, to listen in detail not only to the official record, but to the sonic keys and codes hidden beyond official canons of the continental soundscape. In these projects, as in Fiol-Matta’s work, sound is engaged not only in relation to those who produce it but also those of us who must engage in an expansive project of listening.
The “great” woman singer of the title carries multiple valences for the author. It refers of course to the greatness of these singers but also to the ideological strictures that have dictated the very way these singers were received, written about, and interpreted in a larger public sphere that in the book encompasses the continental landscape. Fiol-Matta argues that to conceive of a singer as both great and a woman creates a central divide that forces our listening of female singers into roles dictated by the nation, record companies, fans, and others. In order to challenge this ideological strait-jacked The Great Woman Singer proposes that these great female singers deployed what she calls the “thinking voice,” a form and theory of vocality that turns to a range of theories, primarily psychoanalysis and philosophy, to read the very cultural history of Puerto Rican music during the greater part of the last century.
Fiol-Matta listens in detail to the careers of four singers, Myrta Silva, Ruth Fernández, Ernestina Reyes, and Lucecita Benitez, who throughout their prolific careers were forced to balance their preternaturally gifted voices and defiant public personas against a sexist and homophobic industry and culture that sought to discipline them. In some ways, the histories and careers of each of these singers might seem at first glance to cast them as probable tragic protagonists in a Douglas Sirk melodrama, female figures who are pitted against but ultimately succumb to larger societal forces. A gifted storyteller, Fiol-Matta does provide the reader vivid portrayals of the many challenges that each of these singers faced, yet she pairs these biographical sketches with keen theoretical insight to illuminate how their thinking voice stood against their time. Thus, what emerges throughout The Great Woman Singer is not only a loving portrait of these women, but also a theoretical model that grasps how their extraordinary voices, as well as their performative command of the stage, were able to exist in relation to the weight of the state, culture, and history. Among the book’s most exciting strengths is the encounter between the historico-biographical and a series of deeply theoretical arguments that build throughout. Fiol-Matta deftly combines (to name a few) archival research, cultural history, psychoanalytic theory, queer and feminist theories, close reading, and interviews the author conducted in the course of writing the book.
Although her stated goal is to develop a theory of the thinking voice, Fiol-Matta does so by mining the complex interactions between music’s deployment in the service of state projects, audiences both local and transnational, record companies, the cultural and social history of particular sounds, and the personal and professional lives of the singers themselves. At times such a comprehensive approach feels overwhelming, digressing often from a chapter’s main points to small details of a singer’s oeuvre for example, but this move results necessary to fully illustrate the enormously complex terrains these singers had to navigate. Indeed, the contextual elements of the book provide neophytes to the Puerto Rican and Caribbean sonic landscape the tools to grasp how the voice emerges often against the demands of institutional and cultural forces. However, the driving force of these chapters is an invitation to listen along, so as I read through Fiol-Matta’s chapters I listened along to these voices, enveloping my reading and my listening.
The Great Woman Singer begins with an emblematic moment in the history of Puerto Rican music that helped establish the island’s sonic relation to the rest of Latin America: Lucecita Benítez’s winning performance of “Génesis” at the First Festival of Latin Song in the World. Previous to this moment Puerto Rico, and Lucecita, had occupied a marginal space in the Latina/o American imaginary, but in her performance of composer Guillermo Veneers Lloveras’ song, Benítez reset the script for both.
As Fiol-Matta writes, “no scripts were available to subordinate her and tame her eruption. She was not feminine. She did not sing softly or croon about heterosexual love. She claimed the masculine prerogatives of expressing social and political ideas outside of marriage and motherhood, eschewing the roles that her managers sought to implant in her earliest persona” (3). These opening moments will serve as a refrain through different voices, keys, timbres, and moments throughout the book. The Great Woman Singer, however, is not only a feminist retelling of history, or as Fiol-Matta writes, “It is not a survey of women in music or a tracing of resistance by women to the strictures of music making. My interest in the female pop music star is about querying instances where singularity erupts despite heterosexism and misogyny, through the vehicle of voice” (4). To listen to women seriously, she indicates, is to move away from facile narratives of gender and onto an investigation of what their voice did against the weight of history itself. Like the grain of the voice that began this review, the vocal performances that the book delves into appear to scramble the temporal markers that would contain it.
A central concept in the book is the notion that the voice itself must be understood as a form of thought. As Fiol-Matta writes, to examine the thinking voice of the great woman singer in its historical specificity is a way of thinking gender itself, “a critical theorization of voice and gender, with an anchor in psychoanalytic thought without being exclusively psychoanalytic.” (8). Her approach to the voice functions as the methodology that guides the reader, proposing forms of listening that often escape normative listening practices. Central to the book’s argument is the relationship between music and the state. Indeed, Fiol-Matta refers to the state’s investment in music as a form of “mandated enjoyment” but as she writes, “I unpack enjoyment’s dependency on the performing, female body and detail when, how, and why various forms of control short -circuit, despite their certainty of managing women” (10).
The first chapter examines the career of Myrta Silva, who enjoyed a long and fruitful career partly because of her mastery of a number of genres, the guaracha and the bolero primary among them. Fiol-Matta puts forward a notion of “cynical ethics” that we can find in Silva’s voice, “a virtuosity that José Esteban Muñoz has linked to queer artistry: the brilliant, conceptual staging of negativity and failure” (19). The height of Silva’s prominence came during the 1940s, her most prolific and successful period. She was an extraordinary figure who interjected herself into traditionally masculine realms, “her positioning was simply unheard of” (21). In the 1950s Silva returned to Puerto Rico from New York, becoming a major figure across media. Fiol-Matta lingers in particular on the excesses of Silva’s body, who in the arc of her career went from a youthful singer to a “sexual bombshell,” eventually to be known as “nuestra gordita,” a figure who had lost the sexual appeal of her youth but who remained iconic in spite of these sexist castings of her body. The chapter listens to Silva’s signature song “Nada.”
The song’s lyrics are self-referential; Silva refers to herself as “nada,” a way of expressing that she does “not want to be looked at/I don’t want to be told what to do, to be touched, spoken to, or be invited to sing/Nothing, I will no longer be called Myrta.” When listening to the song, Silva’s virtuosity becomes immediately apparent as the furious velocity of her voice charges the lyrics in equal amounts with sensuality and negation. As an ostensibly queer artist, this performance of “Nada” signals Silva’s refusal to be coopted by the desires of her male onlookers. As Fiol-Matta makes clear, this positioning is essential to understand the very career of Silva’s body as she morphed from the sensuous “Myrta” to the nearly desexualized “Chencha” later in her career. But her voice “[breached] the distance between signifier and signified and between her persona and person” (33).
The following chapter focuses on Ruth Fernández, one of Puerto Rico’s most prominent black singers. She “entered the star orbit of the music establishment as an exception: the first female lead of any orchestra in Puerto Rico, and also the first black star body in Puerto Rican culture” (67). Blackness, in this chapter, becomes entangled with the question of being itself, with Fernández’s voice a rejoinder that comes into existence against a racist and sexist cultural landscape. Throughout the chapter we hear how Fernández was from her childhood relegated to the sidelines because of her blackness, sometimes quietly, often through the loud marker of “ugliness.” But as with the rest of her case studies, Fiol-Matta shows that Fernández’s trajectory defies any simple narrative that would see her career as a personal triumph against this racism.
Her vocal performance leaps beyond the racist narratives assigned to her blackness although she always had to negotiate them. As the author states, “while Fernández was a pop music singer, she possessed a voice of great volume and color, was naturally virtuosic, and, although not trained, reflected a preference for classically inflected singing that she probably learned or was steered into in school” (68). This education, however, was in itself the result of colonial programs that sought to “civilize” Puerto Rican bodies, but “in this colonial context, her voice opened a gap in the available symbolics of music” (68). The virtuosic register of Fernández’s voice pushed against the racial logics imposed upon Puerto Ricans of African descent, even when descriptions of it understood her blackness as the provenance of her mighty instrument. The chapter is especially attentive to how Fernández’s aural and visual presentation collided and colluded to create a racial sensorium. What emerges in the chapter is a set of difficult negotiations that tether between the official reception of blackness embodied by Fernández’s career and the ways in which the voice, through its signifiers, evades and expands upon those official programs of racial legibility. To approach the black sensorium of Fernández’s career, Fiol-Matta intimates, we must listen past the stories of triumph, hearing as well the wounds that her voice could never quite heal.
The book turns next to Ernestina Reyes, “La Calandria,” Puerto Rico’s foremost interpreter of the jíbaro genre, or music from the countryside. Her fame was unparalleled, “over the course of two decades, she recorded an uncommonly large number of tracks for a woman, a feat made all the more remarkable because she routinely received sole or main billing, collaborated with the very best vocalists of the country music genre, and was as a matter of course backed by master country music cuatro players, certifying her revered standing” (121). But Reyes’s career serves as a gateway to investigate Puerto Rico’s difficult relationship to the figure of the jíbaro, a symbol of the nation’s countryside, a figure equally admired and derided.
As Fiol-Matta explains, “the Puerto Rican genres of plane, bomba, and jíbaro music became explicitly aligned with the national-popular visions that rewrote music history as a racialized narrative of predominantly Hispanophile origins [that] exalted the peasant figure and relegated Afro-Puerto Ricans to a heritage role” (125). Fiol-Matta posits these distinctions as zoe or “bare life.” But, “compared to the Afro-Puerto Rican subject, the symbolic country dweller lived on, however spectrally, while the descendant of slaves faded away as a relic of the past” (125). Calandria was difficult to classify within the racial spectrum of the jíbaro genre, she is consistently described as “dark-skinned” against the figure’s supposed whiteness as she “astutely navigated this extimacy and understood the contradictory affordances of the nothing” (133). Fiol-Matta sees Calandria’s career as an encounter with the “nonplace” in her performance of a figure, the female jíbaro, that did not readily exist in the cultural imaginary. She “learned to convey the ‘rustic’ via well-traveled techniques of rasp and nasality; she also recurred to the shrill tone, which sounded uneducated to the middle classes, a fact that she must have been well aware of” (135). Indeed, Calandria managed a successful career because of the ways in which she disguised her virtuosity through improvisation, playing both in order to create her figure as a singer. Fiol-Matta is attentive to the genre’s own ambivalent place in the Puerto Rican sonic imaginary, teetering between the folksy and the popular, providing readers with a rich history of the demands of iconicity.
The final chapter returns to Lucecita Benítez and most fully develops the concept of the thinking voice. Listening to Benítez’s powerful performance of “Génesis,” the performance that begins the book and serves as its concluding guide, feels overpowering even with decades standing between its moment and the present. It embodies the thinking voice, “an event that can be apprehended through but is not restricted to music performance. It exceeds notation, musicianship, and fandom, although it partakes of them all. No artist owns the thinking voice; it cannot be marshaled at will or silenced when inconvenient. Its aim is not to dazzle or enthrall, although it may do so” (173).Benítez alongside the other singers in the preceding chapters, doesn’t so much possess this voice as much as she wields it, an encounter between prodigious talent and deep technicality. In the case of Lucecita, perhaps the greatest champion of the Puerto Rican sonic imaginary, the expansiveness of the thinking voice took her from her beginnings as a teen superstar to embrace the seismic political calls toward liberation in the 1960s and 70s, and even sustained her as she became a popular balladeer in the dusk of her career. Fiol-Matta explains, “her deep register was truly wondrous and unique in the constellation of all Latin American and Spanish-speaking singers, not just women” (177). Lucecita did not emerge unscathed, however. As her recordings and performances took on an increasingly defiant tone, aligning herself with the Cuban revolution and Black liberation, she was blacklisted, her career momentarily suspended. As an older figure, her final career incarnation was as a diva never declared such in part because of her butchness. She never turned her back on her political leanings, but adapted to the necessities to continue her career. The chapter’s conclusion is particularly evocative as Fiol-Matta discloses her own disillusionment at this final phase, attending concerts “waiting for the real Lucecita to come back” (224).
But it is this final desire, unfulfilled, that perhaps provides the impetus for a book invested often in reconciliation. Throughout their careers, all four singers performed songs in which they were the explicit protagonists, calling out (and to) their publics, who often chose to ignore these calls in spite of their fascination with the singers. It’s a position familiar to those of us who have declared ourselves fans only to feel like we have been let down by the object of our fascination. And yet what Fiol-Matta proposes with the thinking voice is not simply a mode of reparative reading that restores her (and our own) fandom, but a serious analytic that blurs the distinction between the listening to and the thinking with. Fiol-Matta knows that this is an especially important move when it comes to female singers, whose careers and personas are used to obscure the difficulty they demand from the listener. The Great Woman Singer then provides us with a guide to listen anew and in new ways.
Featured Image: Screen Capture of Ruth Fernández by SO!
Iván Ramos is assistant professor of LGBTQ studies in the department of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland. He was previously a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside.He received his PhD in Performance Studies with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality from UC Berkeley. His first book, Sonic Negations: Unbelonging Subjects, Inauthentic Objects, and Sound between Mexico and the United States, examines how Mexican and U.S. Latino/a artists and publics utilized sound to articulate negation in the wake of NAFTA. Iván’s broader research investigates the links and slippages between transnational Latino/a American aesthetics in relationship to the everydayness of contemporary and historical violence. In Fall 2016, he was a member of the “Queer Hemisphere: América Queer” Residential Research group at the University of California Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine. His writing has appeared in several journals including Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, Studies in Gender and Sexuality, and ASAP/Journal. He has articles forthcoming in the catalog for the exhibition Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A., sponsored by the Getty Foundation, and the anthology Turning Archival from Duke University Press.
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SO! Reads: Dolores Inés Casillas’s ¡Sounds of Belonging!–Monica De La Torre
SO! Reads: Roshanak Khesti’s Modernity’s Ear–Shayna Silverstein
For the full intro to the forum by Michelle Habell-Pallan, click here. For the first installment by Yessica Garcia Hernandez click here. For the second post by Susana Sepulveda click here. For the third post by by Wanda Alarcón click here. For last week’s post by Iris C. Viveros Avendaño click here.
The forum’s inspiring research by scholars/practioners Wanda Alarcón, Yessica Garcia Hernandez, Marlen Ríos-Hernández, 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
When did punk become white? Sound white? Sound male, even? The story of moshing–a dance where predominantly young men gather in a half circle aggressively pushing into each other –which is integral to how the history of punk is shaped, understood, and passed on, offers a window into investigating the outright erasure of Chicana punk from broader punk history which has generally centered cis-heterosexual men from either the U.K. or New York scenes.
Yet, the story of slam dancing, later known as moshing, was also not always a part of punk. In the early 80s slam dancing was introduced by Orange County punks to the Hollywood/ LA scene and through the advent of technologies such as the VHS and Betamax, punk then consequently becomes satirized, recorded, and archived as angry, white, and “Hardcore.”
I argue that the erasure of the Los Angeles punk scene and queer Chicanx youth from punk history can be mapped through the story of when and how the pogo was replaced by slamming. I position the Los Angeles punk scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s as a prime example of how the experiences of punk youth were deeply shaped by the conditions of possibility the pogo offered, creating a completely different scene than the ones more popularly archived as white, male, and devoid of queer people of color and women. Here, gentrification takes the noisy and rapid shape of upper- to middle-class OC Hardcore beach punks introducing slamming and eventually pushing out the pogo –– mirroring the co-optation of L.A. punk and finally cementing the story of US Punk as white. Therefore, the genealogies of these punk dances demonstrate the ways that dance and sound together can produce the gentrification and expulsion of an entire scene.
Pogoing, the predecessor to moshing, as a physical dance consisted of jumping up and down with varying degrees of contact danced usually by participants across venue space. The pogo’s movements embodied a kind of fun that was quite equitable across gender expressions and sexualities. I put this thesis into practice every time I ask my students to pogo with me in class, mainly because literature on the pogo is very scarce and recreating the pogo through movement serves as a pedagogical tool. The pogo was a common form of punk dancing in the earlier days of punk and can be seen more prominently in The Punk Rock Movie (1980), The Great Rock and Roll Swindle (1980), and Decline of Western Civilization (1981).
Though pogoing goes as far back at the U.K scene, it reached the L.A. scene last, just before it became slamming. Broader than a dance, the pogo signified a particular relationship between sound, community and a sense of belonging––a home for the outsider and their band of misfit friends, a home that created space for queer Chicanx/POC youth later forced to reckon with a new wave of punks wearing Swastika patches as eviction notices on their sleeves. The band X said it best on an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air.
X NPR Interview with Terry Gross, 2 May 2016, “A Personal History Of L.A. Punk: ‘It Was A Free-For-All For Outcasts'”
Singer Exene Cervenka explained how the pit formed following a trajectory of spontaneous punk dancing, which includes the pogo, that blurred the lines between audience and performer, particularly during a time where punk was not yet under the scrutiny or rubric of what it meant to be “punk.”
While the pogo was still relatively aggressive by many accounts, according to the late MTV program UltraSound, pogoing began as a response to mainstream Disco’s “the bump” or “the hustle.” These dances signified order and more broadly a celebration of U.S. mass consumer culture that punks from the U.K. and U.S. desired to resist. Though positioning the pogo as a direct response to disco can be deeply racialized–as disco initially was a queer, brown musical movement before mass marketing brought it beyond underground urban dance clubs to the white suburbs– I would rather look to to the pogo’s embodiment of an era of punk in the U.S., with a focused gesture to L.A. punk, that existed before hardcore. Susana Sepulveda defines hardcore as an intensified version of 1970s punk coming out of the local beach cities and commemorated by white cis men despite hardcore’s queer and POC ties from earlier scenes, especially via L.A. I would also add a class analysis, in which hardcore was welcome to upper to middle class punks unlike the scenes before that catered to poor whites and people of color. Yet, the question of how punk became white through the arrival of hardcore and the push back from Chicanx youth, I argue, meet in the pit.
Slam dancing, the predecessor to the mosh pit, is described by Joe Ambrose, as the accompaniment to hardcore shaped by its fast pace and as an expression of male youth aggression that includes a mix of the pogo, circle pitting, and stage diving. Slamming, unlike the pogo, is gendered as predominantly male and performed at the front and center of the stage. Ambrose maps the history of mosh pit by placing slamming as the main dance of the 1970s scenes, with very little attention to the pogo. Yet, I posit slamming as a variant of the pogo that was more violent and reflective of the anxieties and frustrations of upper to middle class white punks. And as a reactionary dance rooted in a bourgeois definition of boredom which punks before them could not afford, since boredom was for them rooted in poverty.
Yet, Ambrose’ erroneous conflation of slamming and the pogo is challenged by various L.A. punks, who have specifically pinpointed the moment they witnessed slamming taking over. Decline of Western Civilization, the aforementioned documentary featuring many queer/POC artists, allows the viewer to bear witness to the act of sound and dance used as a form of gentrification. The Bag’s performance of “Gluttony” and “Prowlers in the Night” alongside FEAR’s “I Don’t Care About You” demonstrates an evolving kind of bodily relationship with the sound of punk, one that began to incite and accommodate the sounds of hardcore through more violent touching and a gendered/racial divide on the dancefloor informed by the slam dance. I expand on Michelle Habell-Pallan’s analysis of Alice Bag’s performance in Decline by adding on how her hot pink mod dress is not just a marker of her unapologetic femininity but also as an unwavering reminder of the long time Chicana residency within L.A. punk unbothered by the misogyny and racism of hardcore, even as its encroachment intensified.
In the chapter “Hard To The Core” from her memoir Violence Girl, Bag recounts how the new wave of younger punks from the Southern California beach cities took over the scene and disinvested in punk as a creative and generally inclusive musical space. Just like Bag, Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys also recognized that slamming helped sever the connection between audience and performer, writing the song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” to call out the dance’s connection between whiteness, heteromasculinity, and violence that was rapidly and radically changing the scene. As he told the LA Times in 2012:
I wrote that song in 1981, and at the time, it was aimed at people who were really violent on the dance floor; they didn’t call it mosh pits yet. It began to attract people showing up just to see if they could get in fights in the pit or jump off stage and punch people in the back of the head and run away.
Drawing from Bag and Biafra, I argue the pogo then also ceased to serve as a conduit for community and home for its LA initiators. OC/Beach punks finally drove out the Hollywood scene by relying on slamming as a classed expression of boredom, antipathy, and anti-patriotism fueled by the Reagan administration, which were all aspects later exploited within mainstream popular culture and through the advent of talk shows. As early as 1982, this wave of coverage created moral panics within conservative American white families about punk rock––finally cementing punk as white and violent.
The process of gentrification is most often perceived as a relatively quiet process where changes to an entire landscape are made against the demands of the community being affected. Yet, the threat and aftermath of gentrification also affects music, such as punk, that is particular to working class artistic spaces. Delinking gentrification as exclusively spatial and analyzing it as also a sonic force of expulsion can help us understand how public access to the arts and music making can be quickly demolished and replaced with new forms of expressive art symbolizing the modern day eviction notice. If the music, and its music makers, and its scene participants no longer have a home within the city, how then can any artistic expression survive in the face of displacement? How does the process of gentrification facilitate the pushing out of already existing music practices, the pogo, while simultaneously allowing windows for gentrification’s beneficiaries to replace and redefine an entire soundscape? Yet, the ways that dance in particular is also affected by gentrification are central to understanding how the eviction of the pogo, and its replacement replaced by slamming, reveals yet another gentrifying force that is not just physical demolition but a palpable vibrational form of sound and dance.
Although the legacy of care from the pogo has transcended into what we now know as “pit etiquette,” the mosh pit has made its home within punk and much like the process of gentrification, is secured at the expense of the communities that came before it. Thus, I look to the the current struggles of Mariachis in Boyle Heights to analyze gentrification as not just the displacement of a community or neighborhood, but also as a contemporary reminder that the attack on Latinx artistic practices is both ongoing and deeply rooted in Los Angeles history. The resilience of Chicana/Latina soundscapes today attests to our D.I.Y/Do It Yourself tools of recovery, testimonio, sonic and physical nepantlerisma or sonic in-betweenness that made it possible for me to share my interpretation of what happened to the pogo, a side of Chicanx L.A. history that neither physical demolition, hipsters, or even the current political climate can take away.
Featured Image: Alice Bag in mid-pogo, at Cinco de Mayo show, 2007. Lysa Flores on guitar.
Marlen Ríos-Hernández is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California, Riverside. Her current research revolves around queer Chicana/Mexicana punks in Mexico and Los Angeles from 1977-early 2000s. Her dissertation aims to theorize and argue how Alice Bag, an innovator of the 1970s Los Angeles punk scene alongside other Mexicana punks, utilized noise to correlate the systemic disenfranchisement of womxn of color with the desire for transformational change integral to the survival of Mexicanas and first generation Chicana womxn, especially during the Reagan and Bush Administrations. Via Ethnic Studies as her area of study along with her humanities and arts training as a Musicologist, Marlen investigates the relationship between unruly Chicana/Mexicana performing bodies and bisexuality, swapmeets, police brutality, photography, and film as instruments of noise-making necessary to invert normative gender and sexual politics in punk.
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If La Llorona Was a Punk Rocker: Detonguing The Off-Key Caos and Screams of Alice Bag – Marlen Ríos-Hernández
Riot-Grrrl, Punk and the Tyranny of Technique – Tamra Lucid