Editor’s Note: Today we start off a series, a propos for World Listening Day 2016 on digital humanities and listening. As I mentioned in my Call for Abstracts in March, this forum considers the role of “listening” in the digital humanities (DH, for short). We at Sounding Out! are stoked to hear about (and listen to) all the new projects out there that archive sound, but we wonder whether the digital humanities engage enough with the the notion of listening. After all, what’s a sound without someone to listen to it? The posts this month consider: how have particular digital studies, projects, apps, and online archives addressed, challenged, expanded, played with, sharpened, questioned, and/or shifted “listening”? What happens to digital humanities when we use “listening” as a keyword rather than (or alongside) “sound”?
We will be hosting the work of DH scholars who are doing exactly that: prompting readers to consider what it means to listen in the context of DH projects. Fabiola Hanna will be reflecting upon what DH means when it talks about participatory practices. Emmanuelle Sonntag, who has written for SO! before, will be addressing listening from the starting point of the documentary Chosen (Custody of the Eyes). Today, however, we start things off with a collaborative piece from the Vibrant Lives team on the ethics of listening to 20th century sterilization victims’ records.
Don’t just stand there. Take a seat and listen.-Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor
In the 1920s a young woman was admitted by her mother to a mental institution in California. The local doctor recommended her for sterilization with the following notes:
has been reported to have interest in sexual encounters
Mother is pregnant and cannot care for her (thinks she may be able to post-sterilization).
This brief note is representative of the stories of the roughly 20,000 people who were sterilized in California institutions of mental health. The soundscape of these institutions is largely lost to the past. We cannot recover the sounds of treatment spaces, family visits, recreation, and everyday life of those in the care of the state of California who were considered feeble, insane, or otherwise out of control.
Like the conversations about illness and reproduction presumably had in those halls, the sounds of salpingectomies (removal of fallopian tubes), vasectomies (severing the vas deferens), and, later, tubal ligations are lost to us. In the absence of human rights violations, this is perhaps as it should be; we cannot collect the minutiae of everyday life. But in situations where reproductive and disability rights have been limited, where we can see race and gendered bias, we may well have need of telling such stories.
Reparative justice best practices dictate that survivors should be able to tell their own stories on their own terms. How can we listen to such stories when the majority of our survivors have died and we have little to nothing in their own words?
While conversations between patients, parents, and doctors might be lost to us in terms of playback, they have embodied traces in the nearly 20,000 people sterilized in California between 1919 and the 1950s under eugenic sterilization laws. The 19,995 sterilization recommendations and notes, brought together under the project Eugenic Rubicon: California’s Sterilization Stories, cannot currently be made publicly available due to U.S. patient privacy laws. Important documentary films like No Más Bebés, which tells the story of Mexican-American women sterilized without consent at Los Angeles County – USC Medical Center in the 1960s and 1970s, have made it possible for us to hear accounts of such reproductive injustice first hand. But for the thousands of people sterilized between 1909 and the repeal of eugenics laws in 1979, we must find other ways to listen and to hear.
Given the privacy restrictions on working with this dataset and our concerns to care for the people who are represented therein, we (the Vibrant Lives team) felt it was important to find alternative methods that did more than de-identified and quantified graphs could do. We know all too well that we can’t recover the past “as it was.” Nevertheless, we are working to bring the emotional and intellectual power of sound and critical listening to a largely unheard history of sterilization of Latinx people. Specifically, our project prompts listeners to consider how listening fits into reparative justice for the victims of sterilization.
Listening Toward under the Law
That eugenics laws and their surgical enactments played out in racialized and gendered ways is not surprising but bears repeating. For example, according to work by Alexandra Minna Stern, Nicole Novak, Natalie Lira, and Kate O’Connor, patients with Spanish or Hispanic surnames were three times as likely to be sterilized as their non-Hispanic counterparts. Those lost sounds have traces in California’s Latinx communities, both in terms of the community structures themselves, but also in terms of soundscapes that never were because of sterilization. This acoustic ecosystem in which the politics of race, gender, nation, and mental health converged in dramatic fashion is recorded only in the bodies and medical records of the patients and the 21st century communities shaped by the children, born and unborn, of these patients.
Not only are we limited to working with the textual, institutionally generated remnants of the past, we are also constrained by 21st century health and personal data privacy laws. Our archive is a set of medical records and as such this collection contains sensitive patient data that must be de-identified and used in accordance with contemporary HIPAA (Health Information Portability and Accountability Act) regulations and IRB protocols.
This means that we cannot reveal names, dates, and other identifying information regarding those who were sterilized in the first half of the 20th century. We are unable to tell individual stories of sterilization lest the individual be identified. Traditionally, historians have used fictional composites to tell such stories and our collaborator Alexandra Minna Stern used this method in her 2015 second edition of Eugenic Nation.
The HIPAA guidelines and their impact on how we tell the history of medicine raises important legal questions about how we might balance a public right to know about practices (we’d call them abuses) within state-run facilities with the need to protect patients’ rights to privacy regarding their own reproductive and mental health. In some cases, it seems as though the privacy guidelines protect the state more than they protect any individual patient. In fact, we have seen a remarkable lack of concern for these records in their discovery and transmission. The records themselves were largely abandoned when Stern discovered the microfilm reels in the 2000s. They were lost again after she returned them to the state after having made a copy. The originals are lost as far as we know.
Listening Toward the Past
Vibrant Lives is working not with sounds found, but with archival records found and then sonified (transformed into sound) as a way of listening toward those rooms, conversations, and procedures. In brief, this sonification entails the following steps
- Selecting a subset of the large data set (we can’t currently process the whole)
- Selecting between two and four axes of information, such as gender, race, age at sterilization recommendation, consent, or nationality
- Mapping the informational values into numerical space – sonification requires the creation of a dataset whose limits are 1 and -1 (based on how the speakers work)
This work has been done to date using two tools: Sonification Sandbox, an open source tool developed at the University of Georgia, and GarageBand, a proprietary music making tool that comes with Macintosh computers. We use Sonification Sandbox to create the score first and then turn to GarageBand because it has a greater range of instrumentation available. The sonification process is still very experimental and exploratory. Team member Jacqueline Wernimont does all of our sonifications for us and she is trained as a historian of literature and technology. While she has extensive experience within digital humanities methodologies, sonification is a new effort for us.
We have begun producing short sample tracks that allow us to enact the kind of listening toward that we’re advocating for. In the track below, we have data from the age, gender, and consent axes for the period 1940-1949. Additionally, this sample draws only from what we’ve described as “Spanish surname” patients, the vast majority of whom were American-born of Mexican descent, although they also include some other Latinx national communities.
Latinx Eugenics Sample Track
As you listen, each note represents one Spanish-surnamed person recommended for sterilization. The children, both boys and girls under 18, who were sterilized without consent are the highest notes, and the adult men who were sterilized with consent are the lowest.
Listening Toward as Ethical and Communal
Listening is always about an ethical relationship and it is particularly fraught when the effort to listen and to encourage others to listen entails hearing about a person’s most intimate health information and experiences. This is particularly true when those experiences may include trauma from unwanted surgery or other experiences.
While we might think of patient privacy as a form of care, in this instance we find ourselves wondering who these regulations actually serve. According to the updated 2013 HIPAA guidelines, personal health records are no longer considered sensitive information 50 years after death (it was previously 100 years). Preliminary estimates by our team indicate that as many as 1,000 survivors might be alive in 2016. However, while the vast majority of the people discussed in the records are no longer alive, family and friends may well be.
We respect the need for family members and friends to privacy when it comes to the health records of their loved ones. At the same time, an essential component of most restorative justice programs, like those undertaken for North Carolina eugenic sterilizations, is an articulation of the violations, which HIPAA blocks in many ways (North Carolina’s cases were revealed by investigative journalists who are not subject to HIPAA and the IRB regulations that we must adhere to as academics). As a consequence, those who might most benefit from reparations – sterilized individuals and their immediate families, including children – are likely to die before the privacy laws enable us to draw attention to the individual impacted by the racialized and gendered discrimination evident in the records.
The sonification of these records and the companion participatory performances that we facilitate allow us to intervene and share these important stories before all of the survivors and family members have passed away. We have the opportunity to drive justice-oriented processes forward while there is still time.
Consent/Non-consent Sample Track (entire population)
Vibrant Lives focuses not just on the stories but also on the people who listen to the audio. We spend time watching how our audiences participate in listening toward the history of eugenic sterilization in California. Below are images of recent presentations of this work in which we’ve incorporated both haptic (touch-based) and sonic performance.
Part of what we see here is the attentive posture of our participants – leaning in to feel a history of sterilization. The haptics are being shared with a thin, red metal wire that the participants have to touch lightly in order to not dampen the signal for others. For us, this is an effort to bring care for the experiences of others into the performance. The history of eugenics has impacted communities and we are creating communal aural and tactile experiences as a way to disrupt the notion that academic work and knowledge is a solitary endeavor.
The performance captured above is also an exercise in patience and as such expresses a willingness on the part of the participants to sit with a disturbing history. The sample people are listening to and feeling here is 100 seconds long with each note/vibration corresponding to one person who was sterilized. In most performances the participants stay for the duration of the piece, but there have been instances where people have touched a haptic piece and then walked quickly away. We can’t know why some have chosen to walk away.
Some of those who have stayed have shared with us that they felt responsible to feel and hear each person. It’s an abstraction, to be sure, but we are intrigued by the power of listening and feeling to encourage people to not simply look and walk away. As one participant at a Michigan performance noted, the “tingling (from the haptics) lingers, it’s spooky.” Another participant at the same performance indicated that she felt “more implicated” having engaged with a multi-media experience than with a visual like a graph or chart. When asked why, she responded “I’ve felt it and will continue to remember that, but still will likely do nothing in response.”
In creating performances where participants have to care for one another and care enough about the people represented in the data to stay through a durational piece, we are working to redress the extraordinary lack of care that the records represent, both in terms of testifying to the violence done to men’s and women’s bodies and in terms of the State of California’s lack of regard for this history.
Sounds Felt, Sounds Touched
Our work is an ongoing experiment. We’ve moved from haptics along a wire, to haptic spheres that vibrate with the sonification. The image above is from one of these events this spring. We’ve retained the communal effect while transforming the embodied structure of the event. Participants now gather around, encircling the object as they listen toward a history of reproductive injustices. People still tend to lean in – to have heads lowered in a posture of intense focus. The sphere itself demands that someone cradle it and it also requires that people touch lightly once again so as to not dampen the experience for others.
We plan to expand our durational events in our next iteration known as “Safe Harbor” in which we hope to explore how to best care for those people sterilized by the state by caring for their data. In this instance we are thinking of sounds (and more) that we’ll make together with impacted communities. For this work we are particularly interested in engaging audience members in the hosting and care of the eugenics data and, by extension, the survivors.
As a way of enacting a site-specific response to both historical and contemporary human and reproductive rights violations that have occurred in the state, we plan to stage this durational event in California. We’ll begin by inviting audiences to help build and shape an empty warehouse space with us, transforming the empty space into a place of care where we can listen toward these histories. The audience will be invited to converse about the research and reflect upon conversations through making, creating, and ultimately building up our safe harbor.
We plan to listen to and co-create with impacted communities through collective making of the space. As a result, Safe Harbor will enact a cooperative improvisational process shaping socially responsive dialogue – performing, hearing, listening, documenting, and rebuilding notions of care in real time. What we hope to discover here are shared sounds of resistance, repair, and healing. Sounds that might let us listen toward the past, while also creating more just futures.
Featured image: “Water under 12.5 Hz vibration” by Jordi Torrents, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Vibrant Lives is a collaborative team that makes, stages, and performs as part of interactive multimedia installations. Jessica Rajko and Eileen Standley are both professors in the Dance area of the School of Film, Theater, and Dance at Arizona State University (ASU). Jacqueline Wernimont’s home department at ASU is English and she’s a digital humanities and digital archives specialist. Wernimont and Rajko are also multimedia artists/faculty working in Arts, Media, and Engineering.
The data derives from a larger project, known as Eugenic Rubicon: California’s Sterilization Stories, a multidisciplinary collaboration among Arizona State University, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and University of Michigan. This larger collaboration includes historical demography and epidemiology, public health, history of medicine, digital storytelling, data visualization, and the construction of interactive digital platforms. This team is quite large, with our center of gravity residing at the University of Michigan where historian of science Alexandra Minna Stern directs the Eugenic Rubicon lab. Stern discovered the microfilms of more than 20,000 eugenic sterilization patient records in 2013. Stern and her team have created a dataset with this unique set of patient records that includes 212 discrete variables culled from over 30,000 individual documents. This resource is the first of its kind, encompassing almost one-third of the total sterilizations performed in 32 states in the U.S. in the 20th century.
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EPISODE LI: Creating New Words from Old Sounds–Marcella Ernest, Candace Gala, Leslie Harper, and Daryn McKenny
With the premier last month of Lemonade, her second visual album, Beyoncé didn’t make the world stop so much as she make it revolve: around her, around her work, around black women. For all of the limitations of pop music as a medium (it’s inherently capitalist, for one) and Lemonade’s various feminist strategies (“Formation,” with its “Black Bill Gates” language, can be heard as a black parallel public to white corporate feminism), the album nevertheless re-centered mainstream media attention on black women’s cultural and creative work.
As the conversation about Lemonade revolved around black women and black feminism, two white men pop critics writing for major publications responded with “So What About The Music?” articles. The description to Carl Wilson’s Slate piece asks “But how is it as strictly music?,” and Kevin Fallon’s Daily Beast piece asks both “But is the music any good?” in the title and “But is the music worth listening to?” in the dec. Each time, the “but” sounds like the antecedent to its implied mansplainy consequent “actually…” And just as “but actually” recenters men as authorities and experts, these three questions decenter features prioritized in black women’s pop performance traditions, and in Lemonade itself. As posed in these two articles, the “so what about the music?” question frames “music” so narrowly that it both obscures or at best trivializes what the album does musically. Wilson and Fallon’s essays are good examples of how not to listen to Lemonade.
I want to read Wilson and Fallon carefully so we can think about when this question makes for both technically correct and ethically/politically responsible theory and criticism, and when it makes for technically incorrect and ethically/politically irresponsible theory and criticism. My aim here isn’t to argue that Wilson and Fallon are bad people. My focus is the definition or concept of “music” that’s at the heart of the method they use in these two articles (and methods are bigger than individual writers). In more academic terms, I’m asking about research ethics. If, as Wilson’s and Fallon’s articles prove, the “so what about the music?” question can be a power move that establishes the critic’s or theorist’s authority, how can we–especially the mainstream we–ask about the music parts of pop music without making that power move?
Firstly, both articles apply fairly conventional European fine art aesthetics to the album. Wilson invokes pre-Enlightenment European aesthetics to argue that the “reality show aspect” of the album is somehow aesthetically inconsistent with great pop music. Prior to the 17th century, it was commonly thought that the status of a work’s form or medium ought to correspond to the status of its representational content: painting, the most highly regarded art form, should have subject matter of equal stature–gods and royalty. Wilson’s claim that “the other distraction is the way that the album’s central suite of music interacts with tabloid-style gossip (and a certain elevator video clip) about Beyoncé and her husband Jay Z” echoes that centuries-old sentiment, a sentiment which is about as alien to Lemonade’s aesthetic as, well, Boethius is.
Fallon begins his article with a genuflection to Prince (as does Wilson), scrunches its nose at the gossipy lyrical and narrative content, and then twice scoffs at the very idea of a visual album, “whatever that is,” as though we in the West don’t have precedents for this sort of Gesamtkunstwerky (the total artwork combining music, visuals, and lyrics) thing going back to Wagner and the Florentine Camerata (the collective attributed with inventing opera in the 17th century). He does talk more extensively about the sounds and music than Wilson does, but given the rapid turnaround he also faced, there’s not a lot of close listening to specific musical figures, performances, or compositional techniques, mostly just a survey of the different genres on the album.
Wilson says that the cheating story detracts from the album’s musical quality because it’s an unoriginal narrative:
a drama of jealousy, betrayal, and reconciliation, one of the most ancient and common of human experiences, and of songwriting fodder…that issue of thematic freshness may render some of the songs here less distinctive and invigorating than Beyoncé was.
I find this an odd criticism to level at a pop album, or even an artwork. Nobody would say that West Side Story or Romeo & Juliet were aesthetically diminished because they recycled that tired old theme of jealousy, betrayal, and (failed) reconciliation. Moreover, as Angela Davis argued in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, these themes of jealousy, betrayal, and reconciliation are the foundation of black feminist pop music aesthetics in a personal-is-political kind of way. Both articles force a contextually incorrect definition of “politics” onto the album, one which sees the most intimate details of relationships, sex, and kinship as merely personal and apolitical. Fallon, for example, says “there’s no doubt that the music on the album is far more personal than it is political.” Both critics fail to consider it in terms established in black women’s pop performance traditions.
Even in Wilson’s attempt to focus strictly on the music, he spends most of the time talking about visuals and lyrics. He hears a wide range of sonic references in Lemonade, from Dolly Parton to Donna Summer to the Lomax recordings to calypso. But he thinks this makes it sound derivative: “as an aural album, Lemonade is a little less fascinatingly singular and eccentric than Beyoncé” (Wilson). Fallon makes an almost identical remark in his article: “Lemonade doesn’t hurl itself toward any genre in a statement of artistry. Instead it masters… um, all of them, but in turn doesn’t make the same powerful statement of Beyoncé’s artistic mission, like her last album did.” Contrast this with the way Jonathan Shecter talks about Diplo’s post-genre eclecticism as “fresh and cutting-edge,” part of an “ongoing artistic evolution.” As philosopher Christine Battersby has argued, the habit of thinking that flexibility is a sign of innovation when attributed to white men, but a sign of regression when attributed to anyone else, is a habit that goes back to the 19th century. It’s not surprising that Beyoncé gets dinged for the same thing that garners Diplo praise: in her case, what Fallon calls “the most daringly genre-hopping music she’s ever produced” is evidence of unoriginality, whereas in Diplo’s case post-genre eclecticism is evidence of his ability to distinctively transcend provincialism. Even when Wilson’s article does manage to talk about sounds and music, it trivializes Beyoncé’s other artistic achievements on the album.
Both articles rely on some gendered and racialized interpretive habits to address the song’s aesthetic value, lyrical content, and Beyoncé’s artistry. But what about their discussion of the music?
These same racialized, gendered habits tune Wilson and Fallon’s listening and mask the sonic dimensions of Lemonade that don’t fit their narrow concept of music. Both critics make a conceptual move that separates musical practice from black feminist practice. Fallon uses some parentheses and a “but…?” question to put rhetorical and grammatical space between Lemonade’s black femininity and its musical and sonic features: “(By the way, it’s powerful, and feminist, and unapologetically black, and transfixing, and gorgeous, and assured, and weird, and confusing, and dumb, and groundbreaking.) But hey: Is the music any good?” This framing defines “the music” as something distinct and independent of the album’s black femininity, as though black women’s and black feminist musical traditions didn’t infuse the album’s music…or, to the extent they do, they don’t count as “music.”
Wilson makes an identical move. Following the white liberal feminist aesthetics that influence lots of contemporary post-feminist pop, Wilson’s piece locates treats the black feminist message primarily in the video. “In video form…it’s more evident that [Lemonade] is equally the cyclical story of generations of black women dealing with men and balancing their struggle for R-E-S-P-E-C-T (as well as S-E-X) against the violations and injustices of race and gender.” He sees the politics in the visuals, but doesn’t consider the sounds as having anything to say or do about that story and that struggle.
This approach isn’t limited to well-meaning but ignorant white men pop critics: even bell hooks’ now (in)famous essay on Lemonade looks at but doesn’t listen for its politics. She argues that it is a “visual extravaganza” whose “radical repositioning of black female images does not truly overshadow or change conventional sexist constructions of black female identity.” Locating the politics entirely in Lemonade’s visuals, hooks’s essay treats black feminism as something contested solely in terms of images. (And divorcing the images from the sounds fails to consider the fact that the sounds impact how viewers interpret what they see.)
This is the wrong method to use for thinking about Lemonade and Beyoncé’s work as a whole (and pop music in general). Sounds on this album don’t operate independently of black femininity, black women’s performance traditions, or individual artists’ black feminist politics. On the one hand, thinking with Daphne Brooks and Regina Bradley, it’s more accurate to say that Beyoncé’s sound game has generally led the way and been more politically cutting-edge than her visual game. On the other hand, sound can also be what does the heavy lifting for patriarchy and other systems of domination, as I argue here. Separating the music itself out from the political content misrepresents what music is and how it works. And it is a particularly gendered misrepresentation: critics are not so eager to separate Kendrick’s sounds from his politics. In both white and black philosophical traditions, dominant concepts of politics and the political are normatively masculine (just think about the gendered public/private distinction, for example), so from these perspectives feminine and feminized sounds don’t feel or seem “political.”
But in these two cases the divorce between music and politics is also what lets white men pop critics have authority over black feminist music. If they can distill Lemonade down to its “solely musical” aspects, then they can plausibly present themselves as experts over generic, depoliticized sound, sounds disconnected from knowledges and values tied to particular lived experiences and performance traditions. Problem is, in the same way that there is no generic ‘person’ without a race or a gender, there is no generic, depoliticized sound. As Jennifer Stoever has argued, even though Western modernity’s occularcentric epistemology obscures the sonic dimensions of white supremacist patriarchy and the subaltern knowledges developed under it, sounds nevertheless work politically. Digging deep into the music on Lemonade or any other pop song does not involve abstracting the music away from every other aspect of the work and its conditions of production. Digging deep into the music part of pop music means digging deeper into these factors, too.
When Regina Bradley, Dream Hampton, Laur M. Jackson, Zandria Robinson, and Joan Morgan talk about how Lemonade makes them feel, what affects and knowledges and emotions it communicates, they are talking about the music–they just work in a tradition that understands music as something other than ‘the music itself’ (that is, they don’t think music is abstracted away from visual and cultural elements, from structures of feeling common to black women with shared histories and phenomenological life-worlds). As I have tried to show in my own work, the sounds and musical performance are central to Beyoncé and Rihanna’s work because they engage traditions of black women’s and black feminist knowledges. Aesthetic practices develop and emerge as types of implicit (i.e., non-propositional or non-verbal) knowledge, knowledge created in response to lived experiences in a particular social location. Aesthetic practices can communicate and perform knowledges that reinforce systems of domination, and they can also communicate and perform subordinate knowledges that map out strategies for survival amid domination. Dominant institutions (like the music industry) and people from dominant groups (like Iggy Azalea or Eric Clapton) separate the aesthetic practice from the implicit knowledges that make it meaningful, and thus neutralize those knowledges and make the aesthetic practice fungible and co-optable. Talking about “the music itself” or “solely music” does the same thing: it is a form of what philosophers call epistemic violence.
So, asking “but what about the music?” is a way to dig into those implicit knowledges to show where much of this epistemic work is happening. And that’s good analysis that isn’t (necessarily) epistemically violent. It demonstrates what Stoever calls “an ethical responsibility to hear African American cultural production with…assumptions about value, agency and meaning” (31) that are appropriate to them. But you can also ask “but what about the music?” in a way that abstracts away from these implicit knowledges. That’s what Wilson’s and Fallon’s pieces do, and that’s why they’re both epistemically violent and objectively poor methods of musical interpretation. But we can and do better when we write about and theorize the music part of pop music. And, to riff on Mariana Ortega’s argument in her article on the type of epistemic violence she calls “loving, knowing ignorance,” doing better means listening to and with black women, black women’s music, and black feminist aesthetics. You can’t divorce music or listening from politics; listening better can and will follow from practicing more just politics.
Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism, published by Zer0 books last year, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.
I Been On: BaddieBey and Beyoncé’s Sonic Masculinity-Regina Bradley
Listening to Sounds in Post-Feminist Pop Music-Robin James
Beyond the confines of recording studios, stages, and music classrooms, a vast and shifting sonic canvas exists for field recorders. This personal essay explores my awakening to a new creative recording process through the New England Soundscape Project , an ongoing sound-gathering mission whereupon I use small digital recorders—paired with various microphones, an iPhone, and a genuine sonic curiosity—to record brief moments throughout New England’s rich coastal, urban, and rural landscapes across six U.S. states. I received a modest seed grant from my University to pursue some creative work in field recording and sound studies. Over the next year, my travels will take me to the National Parks, cities, and historic landmarks in Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.
While near limitless possibilities on where and how to produce sonic and electroacoustic musical compositions endure, starting theNew England Soundscape Project challenged me to hone my listening skills while simultaneously dealing with nature’s unpredictability. Moreover, as a budding sound artist, I had to contend with the cognitive and emotional issues affecting a brand-new and unexplored creative practice. I came to believe that a holistic method of field recording offered me certain advantages—enabling an emerging sound artist to detach from rigidly defined agendas and instead focus on reflection, deep breathing, environmental awareness, gratitude, and an observational spirit. The listening exercises I detail in this post made me a newly introspective practitioner—one capable of a heightened sensitivity that improved my production and composition skills across multiple media.
Field Recording: An End Goal in Mind?
Field recording involves a delicate balance of technical skill, careful planning, and patience. Stepping away from a controlled environment, capturing audio on location presents many random and often erratic trials. From wind noise and poor site accessibility to recording malfunctions and user error—a host of issues arise once the recordist enters unfamiliar territory. Here, unfamiliar territory includes both new places and nascent approaches to research-based production and artistic data collection. Where do I situate a project like the New England Soundscape Project among new media production, sound studies, and music composition? Does that issue even matter?
The notion of practice-based work usually implies an end goal in mind. What if there is not an end goal in sight? What happens then? Would the New England Soundscape Project be “enough” of a contribution to creative scholarship when approached as a type of audio ethnography—much like the immersive storytelling recently curated by Leonardo Cardoso? The New England region is lush and robust, with many diverse landscapes. I hoped to document these in some way, but wondered how to continue. Truthfully, I had some hesitation on where to start.
Media artists and music composers learn the mechanics of their craft in colleges, universities, conservatories, at home, and on the job. Some of these techniques include audiovisual production, computer programming, coding, editing, and arranging using digital software. I am both self-taught and a product of an academic and Eurocentric, conservatory training system. This presents some tension, as I discuss below. Although traditional audio engineers and music composers often work towards completing a project without a predefined trajectory, how can budding sound artists develop and hone an inner acuity to find the “right” material during their creative processes?
While the process remains largely subjective, I found it helpful to begin by answering the following questions:
- What kind of project is this?
- How is the sound to be used?
- Where and how will the project be displayed?
- Who is the intended audience?
- What are the sound artist’s intentions?
- What tools are needed?
I draw inspiration from the Sound Studies Lab’s position that this type of work is diverse, fluid, and balances technical, artistic, and theoretical aims. The challenge is that the answers to the questions above are not immediately clear and require me to look inward at who I really am.
Following the Sonic Muse
Beyond the obvious technical and aesthetic factors affecting an expansive multisite recording project, we know little about how a nascent sound artist begins. Whom do they emulate? Should they take notes? pictures? What should they pay attention to onsite?
If the project is exploratory, the recordist may experience hesitation—as I did— and frustration that can block their creative process, especially because the pathways toward a finished sound project aren’t as established as those of a sound engineer, for example, or a songwriter. Nevertheless, my experiences have shown me that a nascent sound artist/recordist can also find intrinsic meaning and realize their mission—particularly by establishing a detached yet perceptive listening ethos, as I did to begin my work on the New England Soundscape Project.
For me, framing a detached and perceptive mindset involved:
- Remaining sensitive to my surroundings at each location;
- Focusing on stillness, deep breathing, and a quiet mind while recording;
- Adopting a respectful, unobtrusive manner at each site—taking care not to disrupt or distract others;
- Calmly monitoring my technology and its use;
- Trusting that I am intended to be in that exact moment at that exact time;
- Avoiding being overly concerned with the “end game” of their practice;
- Embracing the role of a sound gatherer and observer;
It is perhaps the final objective—adopting the philosophy of sound gatherer and observer—where truly sensitive listening begins. Here, the recordist aims to remove their personal goals and agenda from the field recording process. Before proceeding, the attentive recordist looks around them, focuses on quiet breathing, and views their microphones as lenses and without fear of what the result should be. To what or whom am I observing?
Here’s the problem. It dawned on me that I know little about who I am as a sound artist, and how my voice positively contributes to the world, if at all. I need to learn to listen—not just to the sounds in nature, but also to the sounds of the voices of the persons with whom I interact. Could solitude and introspective listening lead me to listen through a newly formed self, capable of deeper connections with my peers and environment? I found that my detachment involved investigating, acknowledging, and, whenever possible, setting aside my own biases, fears, and, importantly, my own agendas. By removing my ego and cluttered mind from the process, I could start to be an inclusive practitioner—one whom cultivates positive relationships daily and is capable of crafting a deeper sonic art that embraces rather than one that marginalizes.
The Art of Meditative Listening
Rather than taking on a stringent approach with little flexibility, I practice observational recording by gathering audio as my muse and as environmental conditions dictate. By remaining attentive to my recording levels, I gather source materials up close, from afar, and for any length of time. Meanwhile, as this creative progression unfolds, I stay quiet—bringing almost meditative quality to my practice. Moreover, concentrating on deep breathing and stillness allows me to adopt a grateful mindset—one that is appreciative of my surroundings and for being present at that precise moment. It is then that the environment becomes the focus of sound gathering and not notions of a “final product.”
I found an artistic renewal—even healing—by adopting this meditative practice. As the New England Soundscape Project takes shape over the coming months and years, I hope to document the beauty of the Northeast through music, sound, and images. Yet, it is enough simply to be present in each location while aspiring to produce thoughtful and reflective sound art. Although there is no overarching method that best describes every aspect of a multisite field recording process, the “art” in the sound can truly emerge by striving to banish fear and doubt from the recording process. Addressing the “why” during each moment is just as important as addressing the “how” and the “why” in pre- and post-production. The recordist’s humanity plays a key role in determining how creative decisions are made, and the ability to remove the need for control determines how free—and freeing—the process can be.
This Thursday, SO! will feature my podcast on reflective listening with audio examples from the New England Soundscape Project thus far. I look forward to producing future episodes (and essays) on this project in the coming months. I hope you can tune in on Thursday and thank you for listening!
Featured Image: Scarborough State Beach, Newport, Rhode Island, USA. All images by author.
An Internal Seed Grant from the University of Massachusetts Lowell supports the New England Soundscape Project.
Daniel A. Walzer is an Assistant Professor of Composition for New Media at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Walzer’s research and reviews appear in the Leonardo Music Journal, the Journal of Music, Technology & Education, the Journal of Radio & Audio Media and forthcoming articles in TOPICS for Music Education Praxis, and the Music Educators Journal. Walzer received his MFA in Music Production and Sound Design for Visual Media from Academy of Art University, his MM in Jazz Studies from the University of Cincinnati and his BM in Jazz Studies from Bowling Green State University. Walzer is currently pursuing doctoral studies in education at the University of the Cumberlands. Read more at http://www.danielwalzer.com
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SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig. You’re welcome!
The first annual Sounding Board sound exhibit was held at The Companion Gallery in Austin, Texas on December 3 – 6, 2015, as part of the 60th anniversary meeting of the Society of Ethnomusicology (SEM). In the promotional literature for the show, the curator, Leonardo Cardoso (Texas A&M), described its objective: to give students, ethnographers, ethnomusicologists, and any “sound-minded” people an opportunity to share research and contemplate fieldwork from different perspectives. Cardoso hoped that SEM Sounding Board would “stimulate dialogue between ethnomusicology and other fields, especially sound studies, sound art, ecomusicology, anthropology, and media studies.” He also sought to facilitate interaction between the local community in Austin and SEM scholars who traveled to attend the conference.
I spoke with Cardoso about this exhibit on several occasions. When I asked him why name the exhibit “Sounding Board”?, he told me that Veit Erlmann (University of Texas Austin), described once described his role as a mentor as someone to bounce ideas off of, like a sounding board. In a similar way, Cardoso’s vision for the first annual SEM sound art exhibit was to create opportunities for scholars and local people to meet and discuss sound, ethnography, art, and fieldwork in an open context, and learn from each other while interacting in that space. He designed Sounding Board as a place where “ideas are amplified” and scholars and community members can make fruitful connections because they have an opportunity to reflect and discuss research with people from different backgrounds.
In his invitation to SEM attendees, Cardoso described Sounding Board as
[eight] sound works that probe into sonic in-placements (water and wind), sonic displacements (the telephone, the radio, and the microphone), sonic emplacements (the acoustic territories of urban Taiwan, the Brazilian hinterlands, and West Texas), and sonic mix-placements (in Mexico City).
This collective sound exhibit showcases the creative work of scholars attentive to the spatial, acoustemological, and ethnographic potential of sound. SEM SOUNDING BOARD challenges distinctions between sound-as-episteme and sound-as-performance, sound-as-ethnography and sound-as-art.
Interactive, Immersive, Ethnographic Sound Art
The playfully engaging work, Pool of Sound, welcomed me to the interactive SEM Sounding Board exhibit. As soon as I walked into The Companion Gallery, I noticed the eye catching 1st Annual SEM Sounding Board poster near a studio monitor on a stand, facing another monitor, placed directly across from it, about 20 feet away. A large illuminated circular area gleamed in between the silent speakers. When I moved into the light, I suddenly heard the clear sounds of gently rushing water, but only for an instant, then there was silence again, as soon as I stood still. As I turned and stepped towards one of the speakers I heard the rushing water return. The gurgling sound mirrored my movement and when I stopped, the sound of the water stopped.
Lina Dib (Rice University) created the piece, with an
enchanted zone [that] literally becomes a pool of sound where sound becomes substance, something to be physically and playfully encountered. In other words, sound with this installation becomes palpable, sound is made (in)to matter. The larger the visitors’ gestures, the louder and stronger the sound of water becomes.
Dib cites Jean-Luc Nancy in her work’s description, understanding her piece as an embodiment of Nancy’s observation in Listening that sound envelops the listener: “Sound has no hidden face; it is all in front, in back, and outside inside, inside-out.”
While experimenting with the intersections of sound and gesture in Dib’s Pool of Sound, I noticed someone sit down at an antique-looking wooden desk across the gallery, pick up an old school, land line telephone, dial a number, and start writing on a notecard. The person at the desk was experiencing Schizophone, Calling Son Jarocho, a installation by Craig Campbell (University of Texas Austin) and collaborators, Julian Etienne, Juan-Pablo Gonzalez, and Cameron Quevedo. When the person hung up and left, I sat down, braced the phone between my ear and shoulder and listened to a dial tone.
I dialed a few numbers and started to hear a conversation through the receiver: musicians were speaking in Spanish, discussing certain subtleties of a Son Jarocho performance. I felt like I was eavesdropping. I dialed another number and the sounds of Son Jarocho music flooded my ear. This installation provides numerous sound bytes of field recordings related to Son Jarocho music of Mexico. Each recording is described on a notecard that gives ethnographic descriptions of the situation. Campbell also asks the listener to participate in the piece by filling out a card to leave a record of their experience. The artist says that his “work builds on R. Murray Schafer’s ‘schizophonia’ to signal the profound but also banal experience of listening to recorded sound. The schizophone recruits the telephone–a mundane, though now largely residual technology–to frame and structure an encounter with archival recordings.”
A few feet away from the Schizophone desk, a poster stand held a flyer for the piece Wind Noise by Marina Peterson (Ohio University). A pair of headphones clung to the stand.
When I put the headphones on I expected to hear some cinematic blowing, or the soft sound of a summer breeze. Instead, I heard a familiar, dreaded, thumping noise. Peterson’s work indulges in a recording taboo: the clipping, dull thud of wind hitting an unprotected microphone.
As I listened, I thought about noise and how to define it. Usually, this thudding sound would bother me and I would cut out chunks of recordings to get rid of it. But in the context of a sound art exhibit, I found myself examining this noise, and listening to it as art. This reinterpretation of sound in relation to space reminded me of David Novak’s discussion of “Noise” as a genre in the context of Japanese music coffeehouses in his article, “2.5 meters of space: Japanese music coffeehouses and experimental practices of listening.” Peterson discusses her work as an exploration of technology, mediation, and the microphone. She describes these recordings as
an effort to reveal the microphone as technology by disrupting it. Wind noise is sound as touch – this is the sound produced by touching the microphone, whether by finger, breath, or air. These recordings do not capture the sound of wind, but the sound wind makes on the microphone. The sound the microphone makes when touched by wind.
In a recessed corner of the gallery I saw a music stand with a piece of paper on it. I didn’t know if it was part of the Sounding Board installation, or just a piece of equipment, set aside. As I stepped up to the stand to read the paper, I unexpectedly stepped into a chamber of sound. A Holosonics AudioSpotlight AS-24i directional speaker, mounted on the ceiling, beamed a column of music into that area, which a listener can hear only when directly below the speaker.
The piece is called Resting Place, by Michael Austin (Howard University). In the description of this work Austin states:
Resting Place is based on the old cowboy song ‘Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.’ Not only does this work confront listeners with thoughts of mortality and final resting places, it embodies the wide open spaces of my childhood home and serves as a place of peace and relief for the here and now.
Austin grew up in the countryside of the Texas Panhandle, and his work intends to bring a piece of that Texan soundscape to a corner of the gallery. I could hear the sounds of birds, wind, and water combined with chant and meditative, drone music; they were all sounds that would usually communicate rest and peace. Unfortunately, I had a difficult time entering that relaxed frame of mind because the recording of the Texan soundscape often clipped, which disrupted my concentration on the calming aspects of the field recording. Composers such as Annea Lockwood and Janet Cardiff use binaural microphones to capture nature sounds up close and create an intimate surround sound experience for the listener; although I am fascinated by the concept of creating a “soundscape chamber” by using a hyper directional speaker, I would love to hear the details of Austin’s field recordings through a nice pair of headphones.
Resting Place and Wind Noise invite contemplation as the listener receives sound. In contrast, the broadcasting sound piece by Tom Miller (Berkeley College) is intensely interactive. In Radio Texas International, a Micro Radio Station in the Austin Wavescape, Miller creates an experience where it is possible to broadcast sound and listen to recordings.
Resting Place and Wind Noise invite contemplation as the listener passively receives sound. In contrast, the broadcasting sound piece by Tom Miller (Berkeley College) is intensely interactive. In Radio Texas International, a Micro Radio Station in the Austin Wavescape, Miller creates an experience where it is possible to broadcast sound and listen to recordings. Miller explains that for this piece he
operate[s] a low power Mini FM Micro Radio station in the gallery… Tuning to open frequencies, a legal micro power transmitter broadcast[s] to receivers distributed within a 200-foot radius as a hyperlocal, pop-up intervention into the FM band. Using headsets, listeners will tune the radio dials seeking to locate the signal interspersed with the music, religious broadcasts, news, foreign language programming and static of the local radio wavescape.
In the video of his work you can hear several different ethnographic recordings that are broadcasted by Miller in the gallery, and at the same time intertwine with the sounds of local radio stations in Austin. Besides broadcasting field recordings, Miller also aired live interviews and music throughout the three-day exhibit. I was delighted to have the chance to play some traditional Irish music on the air for Radio Texas International.
雜 (dza) is a piece by Yun Emily Wang (University of Toronto) and Wendy Hsu (Dept. of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles), who created a work that inhabits a cardboard box. The artist Zimoun often uses percussive elements to explore acoustics and cardboard, but in 雜 (dza), Wang and Hsu employ the box as a resonator to amplify and combine sounds emitted from headphones playing loops. The listener is asked to put their head in the box to hear a cacophony of intermingled field recordings that create a decontextualized soundscape of Taiwan.
The artists explain that “These composed loops recontextualize the sonic materiality of the informal economy and quotidian life exemplified at a Taiwanese night market, and interact with the spatial and sonic elements of the venue and its role within the emerging art-as-enterprise share economy.
There were two pieces of interactive, ethnographic sound art that integrated both audio and visual elements of fieldwork in Mexico City, and Brazil. Dry Signals by Michael Silvers (University of Illinois Urbana – Champaign) invites the auditor to “touch the screen” and listen to field recordings. The touchscreen of the laptop displays an image of a painting of a small town surrounded by mountains, near water.
I put the headphones on and touched a part of the image of the town that caught my attention: a traditional forró trio standing on the porch of small pink house (no.8). In the headphones I immediately heard the rhythmic music produced by the musicians playing the drum, the accordion, and a triangle.
Silvers describes the inspiration for Dry Signals as an exploration of
the sounds of drought in northeastern Brazil. From trickling reservoir spillways… to the music and shuffling feet of dance parties in dusty fields, these sounds tell stories of labor, birds, politics, agriculture, plants, mass media, corruption, water, and the quotidian experience of life in the semi-arid Brazilian hinterlands.
The artists take advantage of touchscreen technology to give the viewer a chance to curate their own soundtrack of their experience of the painting. There is no lag in the experience of touching, listening and viewing the village and surrounding landscape. Even though the field recordings are not uniform in sound quality, I enjoyed the experience of hearing an ethnographic audio record of a small town in northeastern Brazil, by touching an image of it.
Anthony Rasmussen (UC Riverside) provides an opportunity to peek in on urban street scenes filmed throughout Mexico City in his work, El Caracol: A Stroll through Space and Time in Mexico City.
Some of the most compelling scenes in the 20 minute loop of video and audio depict street protests in Mexico City which are accompanied by ambient sounds from the field recording, combined with subtle music, and seemingly unconnected background conversation.
The artist explains that
the video element consists of footage captured while walking through various sites in Mexico City and represents the phenomenological ‘present’. The audio element provides a counterpoint to the visual; as the loop begins the audio corresponds to the action on screen, but with increasing frequency (based on the ‘Fibonacci Spiral’) the contemporary sounds will be ‘ruptured’ by historical recordings of Mexico City that drift further back in time.
I particularly enjoyed the sections where the connection between the audio and the video was unclear. Toby Butler’s article “A walk of art: the potential of the sound walk,” traces the efforts of different artists and their uses of the sound walk in their work, but he does not describe any endeavors like Rasmussen’s, where ethnographic footage is the prime source of the walk. I wondered about the position of peering through the hole to watch Rasmussen’s field recording of Mexico City, and I realized that at times, gazing through the hole gave me the sense that I was the ethnographer gathering footage.
“always more sound to experience”
I visited the Sounding Board exhibit several times while attending the SEM conference. Every time I left I felt like there was always more sound to experience. I wanted to hear all of the numerous field recording of Son Jarocho material presented by Campbell’s Schizophone; Miller’s Radio Texas International changed every time I listened and I wondered what ethnographic material I might encounter the next time I tuned in. I never tired of Lina Dib’s Pool of Sound because it gave me the chance to perform the gurgling of water, using gesture. Apart from the evocative expressions of ethnology as art, Sounding Board converted The Companion Gallery into an interactive playground of sound.
The live performances in the gallery on Friday night brought the ethnographic sound art to life. When I listened to at least twenty members of the Comunidad Fandango of Austin perform and dance Son Jarocho music in the gallery on Friday evening, I began to make connections to the field recordings that I heard in Schizophone. When Bruno Vinezof and Forró de Quintal took the stage to play forró music from northeastern Brazil, I could feel the groove of the drum that was merely suggested in the field recording that I had listened to in Dry Signals. It was a unique pleasure to observe and participate in these musical traditions with my body, after having encountered them earlier through headphones as sound art.
When I spoke with Cardoso he was especially grateful to the Son Jarocho community of Austin, who volunteered to participate in the show by gathering in The Companion Gallery for a Fandango. He emphasized the grassroots aspect of this community music making event which came about because Cardoso knows the group and their passion for Son Jarocho music.
Cardoso plans to expand the variety of works and disciplines involved in next year’s Sounding Board to include media studies, literature, film, and the visual arts. As SEM 2016 will be meeting in Washington DC and co-hosted by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings (and George Washington University), this should not only be possible, but especially exciting.
Featured image: Lina Dib’s “Pool of Sound” by Matt Morris
Jay Loomis is a composer, a performer, and a graduate student in ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University with a particular interest in transnationalism, soundscapes, improvisation, wind instruments, and electronic music. He hosts a radio show called “Face the Music,” and recently curated a sound installation called “SOUNDREAMS” at Stony Brook University, which used geo-located sounds and music strategically placed around the university campus which people heard by using a smart phone app called Recho. Jay hand crafts Native American and other kinds of flutes, and leads flute making workshops in local libraries and schools. He plays a variety of wind instruments from around the world. He recently led workshops in a contemporary music festival in Cuenca, Ecuador (FIMAC: Festival Internacional de Musica Academica Contemporanea). Participants in Jay’s workshops arranged music and created flutes as a practical way to examine how indigenous music making practices and pre colonial instruments can contribute to the world of contemporary academic music.
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