“Music has always confounded value,” writes interdisciplinary artist and writer Jace Clayton in Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture (FSG Originals, 2016, 22). Recounting his extensive international travels performing as DJ /rupture, Clayton presents a flow of cosmopolitan musical experiences that illustrate complex collisions between music and value around the world. Whether writing about homemade sound-systems in tropical clubs in Brooklyn, or about shellac preservation at the Arab Music Archiving and Research Foundation in Beirut, Clayton considers the technologies by which we make — and place value on — musical sounds in “a world where worth is created in radically different ways from what the market teaches us” (24).
Uproot is a narrative about the ways working musicians experience globalization. “Our music seems to sound the way global capital is — liquid, international, porous, and sped up,” the author writes (16). This homology between sound and economic processes echoes the theories of sociologists like Anthony Giddens and the late Zygmunt Bauman, both of whom argue that modern life is characterized by fluidity and fragmentation: employment is precarious, experience is mediated, and ethical decisions are full of ambiguity. These ideas clearly inspire Clayton’s narrative; that said, Uproot is not an academic publication. As Atossa Araxia Abrahamian writes at the Nation, the book evades genre, “at once travelogue and cultural ethnography, pop philosophy and memoir, a guide to contemporary music and a fanzine.”
The book begins with a discussion of the history of Auto-Tune. While Clayton’s claim that Auto-Tune was the “first truly new sound effect of the internet era” might be overstated, his distinction between “corrective Auto-Tune” and “cosmetic Auto-Tune” is useful, the first of many moments of clarity in parsing the ways we use and mis-use musical media today. “The robot voice signifies differently everywhere you go,” he writes, an observation that becomes central to the book (49). By refusing to take a deterministic stance toward technology, Clayton empowers the musicians he writes about, acknowledging the ways in which artists mold trends to their own regional and local purposes. Of collaboration with a violinist in Morocco, Clayton writes: “We may have thought similarly, yet our ‘default settings’ were so far apart as to be almost incompatible” (185).
Uproot offers intimate insights into a range of tools and techniques of production, such as compression artifacts, “refixes,” and dozens of music-making interfaces, including Clayton’s own “music software-as-art project,” Sufi Plug Ins.
Even language itself is conceived as a form of technological mediation, as when Clayton compares Arabizi — a phonetic spelling of colloquial Arabic — to the hybrid sounds of mahraganat music that the language is used to describe. Of these “wandering genealogies” that emerge from international conversations, Clayton suggests that any hybrid genre we can imagine likely already exists: “Accordions and African techno? It’s called funaná” (102). The book describes at least a dozen other music traditions and microgenres–some very old, some just coalesced–from dabke to zar, each the product of a unique fusion of vocabularies.
Clayton on Mazaher (182): “Umm Sameh, Umm Hassan, and Nour el Sabah: these three women are some of the only people in Egypt keeping zar alive.”
Clayton’s own prose style, replete with metaphor and fluent in informal language, mirrors the ethos of music production he explores in the book: eclectic, energetic, and bursting with detail. What better way to describe Auto-Tune’s effect than as liquification of sound into a “bright neon stream, as if a dial-up modem and a river have fallen in love” (53)? Clayton’s technological travelogue extends beyond aural sensation alone. This is a story of “sidewalk vendors, radios, mosque loudspeakers,” (106) but it is just as much about “jerk chicken, fish tea, goatskin soup” (73). When Clayton describes his surroundings, we can touch the orange blossoms and smell the cigarettes.
The book’s recurrent question is how DJ practices in different locations are both constrained and inspired by financial flows. In any context, Clayton argues, “[m]oney runs to the people with the least imagination” (24). Early on, he establishes this view that musical experience is priceless, more valuable than any profit derived from rhythms of supply and demand, which reward the wrong people. That said, Clayton isn’t naive about musicians’ inevitable need for income, and throughout the text, readers are asked to inhabit ethical dilemmas that artists encounter throughout the world. At one point, Clayton describes his own moral quandary when asked to perform in front of a giant Red Bull logo, a “glowing lump of techno-fascist DJ furniture.” Later, Clayton critiques the hegemony of “Red Bull patronage” and similar systems of support for artists who are desperate for funding (121). He makes clear his disdain for corporate sponsors, companies that “appear generous as they let us know that our music is literally worthless to them” (123).
A tradeoff emerges between pragmatism and idealism. Clayton pokes holes in the empty rhetoric of “authenticity” that marketers encourage and exploit, even as we sense that he hasn’t yet relinquished his belief in something essentially good about the human spirit. Listening is a powerful social practice that, in Clayton’s view, gives true meaning to music in a global economy that otherwise undervalues it. “The heavier the workaday grind to escape from, the more a party transports us” (73), he writes, suggesting that listeners extract their own surplus value.
At times, Clayton’s observations could benefit from an engagement with ethnographic methods that can help mitigate fieldwork biases. For example, although the book does involve open discussions of gendered inequalities, they are limited in scope. At one point Clayton calls attention to “macho wrangling over propriety and womanhood” among managers and producers in Agadir, Morocco (52); he describes his own futile attempt to acquire a frank interview with female singers amid the patriarchal structure there. But despite Clayton’s awareness of gendered power dynamics, he does not critique the male musicians and producers who propagate such imbalances.
When female figures do appear, they are often treated as side characters. Rihanna, for example, is presented as exemplary of the business model of “singer as mouthpiece” (50), a person for whom others do the work. Clayton isn’t wrong to call attention to the large networks of employees that work behind any celebrity brand, but it is risky to do so at the expense of female workers, especially in the midst of a book that elsewhere describes women as decoration for the musical environments in which men perform what are presumably more important tasks. “Naked girls on pedestals [who] got their bodies painted” (19), “photoshopped young women” (49) and “demure girls” (49) all set scenes for tales of male creativity. This is not to critique how some women may choose to participate in music scenes, but rather to point out that women’s concerns and perspectives are not Clayton’s focus in these passages, nor in much of the book.
On Berber Auto-tune star Saadia Tihihit (49-50): “Like Justin Beiber or any child groomed to be a media star, Saadia Tihihit occupies a place at least initially defined more by the commercial strategies of those around her than by any desire for artistic autonomy.”
Comparably, Clayton’s conception of music and global inequality is sometimes uneven. Drawing stark divisions between the “civilized” and otherwise, he resorts to clichéd language when he writes of “backwater Uzbekistan” (31) and “war-torn Africa” (81). When he describes towns and villages near Casablanca where “ancient rhythms of life still hold sway” (33), he reproduces exoticizing tropes of African music. Elsewhere in the book, Clayton addresses musical accusations of fetishism, stating: “I know that Africans and blacks have been fetishized for centuries now, perhaps millennia. Who cares? You simply exist in all your complexity and let them deal with it. Fetishism is so vague” (84). He also Clayton critiques what he calls the “spectacle of a so-called ancient culture” (99) that is often at the heart of “world music” scenes, but then describes Appalachian musical performance as “the old-timey way with banjos and fiddles and washtub percussion” (32), opposing these practices against technological advancement, a false dichotomy that ethnomusicologists work to complicate, if not avoid.
Clayton brings these issues to a head during the book’s extensive discussion of “world music” as a marketing category. His commentary on the conundrums of appropriation surrounding figures such as Paul Simon, M.I.A., and Moby feels familiar, but he surpasses the usual analysis of these common case studies with more personal insights into “world music,” beginning with crate-digging excursions at record shops with deep international selections, such as the now-defunct RRRecords in Lowell, Massachusetts. Clayton contrasts his own on-foot exploration of foreign sounds with what he calls “World Music 2.0,” an internet-driven network of musical discovery based around the commodification of information and attention, in which middlemen reign supreme. His ambivalence is exemplified by this claim: “At its worst, World Music 2.0 offers the clubland equivalent of a package vacation. At its best, it propels some of the most exciting music in the world” (104-105).
The book’s ideas occasionally undermine themselves, but there is no question that the author ultimately intends to advocate for people on the margins. As Max Pearl has noted at the LA Times, Clayton consistently defends lo-fi, lo-tech, and lo-res sonic expression — that which is “distorted, homespun, libidinous” (80) — as valuable in its own right. Further, Sukhdev Sandhu has suggested at the Guardian that the book’s attention to homologies between “the movement of sounds and of migrant bodies” serves to recognize the struggles of global refugees and affirm their humanity.
Among Uproot’s many mentions of transport, readers never receive a clear statement about what, precisely, the relationship between music and motion is, or how exactly value emerges from that pairing. Rather than a weakness of the book, however, maybe such equivocation should be taken as an accurate reflection of the nebulous circumstances in which many of us find ourselves — creators and listeners who are regularly uprooted, usually at the mercy of those whom the money follows. Faced with this precarity, let Clayton’s enthusiasm for all sounds ground you.
Uproot is accompanied by an online Listening Guide that includes audio and visual examples of music from the book: http://www.uprootbook.com.
Elizabeth Newton is a doctoral candidate in musicology. She has written for The New Inquiry, Tiny Mix Tapes, Real Life Magazine, the Quietus, and Leonardo Music Journal. Her research interests include musico-poetics, fidelity and reproduction, and affective histories of musical media. Her dissertation, in progress, is about “affective fidelity” in audio and print culture of the 1990s.
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“Genres, styles form around places of cohesion, of transport, of passage. Not an instrumental mathematics (though it can be that too), but a speculative one that seeks out locations of collective affect, of resonance between micro and macro spheres.” –Marcus Boon, “One Nation Under a Groove”
Yes. Punk, is a way of living, being, thinking, and relating to the world. Yes, it is bigger than borders. . .greater than the sum of than any number of bands or even the label of “musical genre” altogether. Its dynamic style visually signifies; its DIY mode-of-operations can empower, even as its more capitalist-oriented versions can frustrate and exploit.
YES YES YES.
But also, NO!
Even if punk’s sound intentionally evades classification and clichéd high-fidelity top-ten lists like Keanu Reeves dodges bullets in the Matrix, it nonetheless exists. and means. and incites. and motivates. and creates powerful structures of feeling that resonate through entire lifetimes, reverberations of that one all-ages basement show.
How do we know? Because, at the absolute very least, both of us have heard it with–and through–our bodies. It has moved us, and not just symbolically, intellectually, politically, and metaphorically. It has quite literally vibrationally, kinesthetically, heart-throbbingly, finger bleedingly, head-bangingly, body-smashing-up-against-others-bodily, in the pit of our stomachs-y, angry tear cryingly, skin tinglingly moved us.
Without universalizing our respective experiences in the Jersey and Inland Empire/SoCal punk scenes of the 1990s/early 2000s–and our wide listenings and local involvements since then–we want to say simply that punk sound is not an abstract and negative entity. Punk sounds–and punk’d sounds–form distinct sonic calls to some of us out there in the world that our bodies yearn to answer.
And its listeners’ understanding of and relationship to punk’s sound(s) matters. In her essay “On Not Playing Dead,” Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and (the) Julie Ruin lead singer Kathleen Hanna described one of the key powers of punk’s live sound as creating a threshold of physical exchange, a vibration drawing folks into “one of the only spaces where we give and receive pleasure publicly” to friends and strangers alike, which she argues “seems radical for a myriad of reasons, especially because it challenges the idea that sexuality/pleasure is only for people in straight/monogamous relationships and not something we as a community can have through music.” Punk sound constructs, enables, and sometimes downright demands a variety of participatory responses, both individual and social.
In short, just ask a punk about what punk sounds like! They know! And they will tell you about it! It’s up to us to figure out how to listen. And what better space to try in the audiovisual ‘zine that is Sounding Out!, started by folks whose scenes taught them how to forge and sustain community with and through sound.
This series (and its follow up in Spring 2017) calls bullshit on the related notions that punk sound is either simple presence–ye olde “three chords,” a misnomer that is always already more geographically and historically specific than popular discourse allows–or overdetermined absence, a too-open, too-inclusive sound that, to riff on Green Day, is simultaneously “nothing and everything all at once.” And we very deliberately use “sound” rather than “music” as our guiding framework to think through punk’s sonic pull, not because punk “isn’t music” (a stale but ever present dis on the genre), but because punk itself sounds out the limitations of musical study ( in addition to Alice Bag’s musical manifesto below, see Leandro Donozo’s “MANIFIESTO POR UNA MUSICOLOGÍA PUNK” suggested to us by Alejandro Madrid).
Our Punk Sound series implicitly argues that sound studies methodologies are better suited to understanding how punk works sonically than existing journalistic and academic conversations about musical genre, chord progressions, and/or genealogies of bands. Alexandra Vasquez’s sound-oriented work on Cuban music, for example, in Listening in Detail (2014) opens up necessary conversations about the “flashes, moments, sounds” in music that bear its meanings and its colonial, raced, classed, and gendered histories in material ways people can hear and feel. While retaining the specificity of Vasquez’s argument and the specific sonic archive bringing it forth, we too insist on “an ethical and intellectual obligation to the question: what do the musicians sound like” (12) and how do folks identifying with and through these musical sounds hear them?
In this series, we invite you to amplify varied historicized “details” of punk sound–its chunk-chunk-chunk skapunk riffs, screams, growls, group chants, driving rhythms, honking saxophones–hearing/feeling/touching these sounds in richly varied locations, times, places, and perspectives: as a pulsing bead of condensation dripping down the wall of The Smell in Downtown LA (#savethesmell), a drummer making her own time on tour, a drunk sitting too near the amp at a backyard party, a queer teenager in their bedroom being yelled at to “turn it down” and “act like a lady[or a man]”. . .and on and on. Today’s essay is by Gretchen Jude. Listen along as she reflects on growing up through listening to Team Dresch’s Personal Best. And keep coming back every Monday in November for more!
–Aaron Sounding Out! + Jenny Sounding Out!
In the spirit of Critical Karaoke, first introduced by Joshua Clover at the Experience Music Project annual Pop Conference, this piece was written to be read with the album playing alongside. In anchoring my text/your reading so directly/literally in the sound, I hope those who have not had first-hand experience of growing up queer can understand on a more visceral level how I have heard/felt/lived through this music. Sounds work on bodies in non-verbal ways, so the sharing of these queer(ing) vibrations may allow fans to sense an underlying queerness in all punk sound.
Released in January 1995, Personal Best, the first album from Pacific Northwest quartet Team Dresch, rode the crest of the Queercore wave, itself propelled by decades of feminist, gay rights, and AIDS activism. The lesbian-identified band—Donna Dresch (guitar and bass), Jody Bleyle (guitar, bass, and vocals), Kaia Wilson (guitar and vocals) and Marci Martinez (drums)—was also fueled by the punk energy and DIY ethos that flared back to life with the Seattle grunge scene and Riot Grrrl movement.
The quartet’s technical skill showed their commitment to music; Dresch (who also produced the album) and Bleyle co-released the band’s debut on their respective labels, Chainsaw and Candy Ass Records. At the same time, the group’s cohesiveness and cooperation was evidenced in the complexity of their compositional strategies: self-produced albums, multiple time changes, shifts between guitar effects. Personal Best managed to rage without outward aggression. The band seemed to feel, like me, an anger that was full of anguish, a pointed fury at the causes of their anguish—yet leavened with humor (‘I spent the last ten days of my life ripping off the Smiths’).
The following is a critical listening of Personal Best.
Something still remains in my body from the very first time I heard this album. The audaciously-titled “Fagetarian and Dyke” goes off like an alarm, with insistent guitar string strikes that ring in my ears and run down my spine with a shock. Once the drums come in, I am already swaying in time as the vocalist demands a breathless ‘how’ before rapidly morphing into a long-held growl—‘searching for you’. It was the music I had long needed without knowing.
The second song starts spare to the point of hesitance, a thin bassline with ominous guitar jangles and a backbeat promising a break in the intensity—until the band coalesces around Wilson’s rhythmic chant bristling with articulate screams. But contrary to the title—“Hate the Christian Right—I hear less hate than angry frustration. Bleyle’s vocals take the fore with melancholic power, making explicit the fundamental feeling, ‘the fear, fear I’m sick with it.’. The sound is dense and close, mixed with no reverb so I feel like I’m deep inside the music, sweating with the band. My hand moves with a will of its own toward the volume control, I crank it to feel the kick beating inside my chest like another heart, I can’t stop moving my feet, my legs, I am impelled to motion.
Looking back twenty-one years at this musical moment, it’s hard to fathom how much society has changed—in terms of both the structures of musical production/distribution and our understandings of gender/sexual identity. Yet when I encounter these songs once again, my listening remains fully present. How is it that this album still works to electrify me even today? Pressing play now, I hear this album through the patina of nostalgia. Even calling it an ‘album’ evokes another time, conjuring the act of flipping through stiff pages of family photos. There are tactile similarities—I slide the vinyl disc from its paper sleeve, grasp the edges of the cardboard dust jacket, leisurely run my eyes over the hand-scrawled track listing. I regard the cover image and recall my pleasurable smirk at the in-joke. But even back in 1995, when I listened on cassette and CD Walkman, I wanted to take this album with me everywhere.
Jangly guitar riffs, popping tom hits and Wilson’s clear soprano in multi-tracked harmony give “She’s Crushing My Mind” a jaunty opening. But the tension amps up with feedback on ‘she was born this way,’ and Wilson punches the verse: ‘she wants to (forget it)’. The song ends abruptly, no resolution, reflecting the unrequited queer love the lyrics express.
Even the words I use to describe the world have changed since 1995. I came out in 1986, before the word ‘queer’ was wrested from the verbal fists of homophobes. In retrospect, it was a brief moment, after feminism came out as lesbian, but before the ‘lesbian body’ was deprived of its ‘radical’ prefix—a time when it made sense to call lesbians ‘avengers’ or even ‘amazons’ (always in the plural). By 2016, having come out so many times in so many ways, I am no longer sure what others hear when they regard me pronouncing myself ‘queer’. And yet then as now, the energy I feel in this music goes beyond representation. The sound moves me with what Julian Henriques terms an “energetic patterning of vibrations” (76), setting in motion a sort of sympathetic resonance that shakes off labels and identity categories.
Just as I wonder when the darkness will end, “Freewheel” gallops in, cavalier, and drags me into the afternoon grass for some silliness. Wilson and Bleyle’s sweetly ironic harmony on ‘you can go back to your boyfriend’ sidelines ‘that girl,’ instead placing camaraderie front and center.
Nowadays, like most, I listen digitally, soft noise-reduction earbuds squished into my ears. Through my headphones, the violence of the 21st century bleeding light-speed across my mediated vision makes the sheer vulnerability underlying Team Dresch’s mad sounds even more striking. As a teen, I avoided mosh pits. Bony boy-elbows shot out at exactly the height of my eye sockets, and even combat boots weren’t enough protection from the public risk of my female body. At home or with friends, I sometimes reveled in the nihilism voiced by male punk bands. But the performance of an all-inclusive anger blindly striking out at society-at-large (which often seemed to involve getting drunk and fighting) mostly felt intimidating to me. Team Dresch retuned the timbre of punk rage—from frustration with authority-as-abstraction to lamentation over first-hand experience of oppression—then directed that incisive anger toward fundamentally feminist self-protection and catharsis.
The sincerity and solemnity of the riff that opens “She’s Amazing” bloom into a punk ballad that resonates with my best experiences of friendship. Wilson and Bleyle alternate and harmonize in tribute to female wisdom and strength. Even as the vocalists acknowledge their deep self-doubt and insecurity, the decisive instrumentals bolster them up.
It’s not that I didn’t feel angry. It’s that angry men sounded scary.
In a moment of stillness, I hear echoes of Patti Smith’s amazing(ly bent) cover of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” (1976). Smith’s fearless androgyny, her working-class snarl, her performance of desire for a woman exhilarate even today. Another old favorite rings in my ears: The Slits, playing as outlaws-on-the-lam. Underclass anthem “Shoplifting” (1979) double-dared me to flaunt needless authority, as Ari Up’s breathy vocals accelerate to an almost feline scream—‘run!’—and jangling guitars veer chromatic. I adored The Slits for their fearless extroversion—audacious yet always girly. I am ready, hungry for more.
(RECORD FLIP INTERLUDE)
“Fake Fight” opens punchy, with space in the bass and insistent hi-hat. Bleyle’s reedy tomboy alto alternately croons low and close into the mic (as if directly into my ear), then shouts along with synched noise pedal interludes: ‘I can see a brave tomorrow, don’t let this spaceship bring me down’.
Yvon Bonenfant describes the practice of queer listening—of listening as deeply feeling—as an attempt to recuperate queerness as community: “Queer listening listens out for, reaches toward, the disoriented or differently oriented other. So far, there are no majority queer cultures. Queer is always listening out through the static produced by not-queer emanations of vocalic bodies. Queer can like, love and enjoy those bodies in every way, but still needs to twist around and negotiate through them to find other queer” (78). For years I did this by instinct, paying attention to any hint of coded lesbian tendencies. In the pre-Ellen world, this was a survival technique.
Quirky “#1 Chance Pirate TV” shifts into high gear with 4/4 drumsticks and a vigorous punch on the toms. The song (a tribute to Sinead O’Connor) then suddenly slows into restful repetitions; ‘Sometimes it feels all right,’ Bleyle intones again and again—in a kind of mantra for getting through all the times when it doesn’t.
By the time I heard Personal Best, I had all but given up listening for my own bodily experiences—in the specifics of its love, anger, desire, suffering—offered back to me in music. Sure there were decades of lesbian folk music (yawn). But with Team Dresch, I didn’t need to engage in recuperative queer listening—this was unapologetically queer sounding. I was bowled over with this feeling—when you can give yourself over to the music because the people making the sounds know exactly what you’ve gone through, what you are living through. The reality you know by heart but have never heard affirmed in the voices around you.
“D.A. Don’t Care” rocks like a regal lullaby, but on a theme so heavy it presses my heart to diamond. Wilson’s caustic deployment of the cliché ‘and how was he supposed to know’ subverts the always-overdone ‘her word against his.’ From here the band rushes the album to its apotheosis, as Bleyle proclaims her own physical autonomy in the wake of abuse: ‘I know what to do with this body.’ The following verse leaves behind the dry vocal mix of the rest of the album, as the haunting image of a ‘polyester basketball uniform’ is buried deep in heavy bass, chilling with reverb.
In the hard-earned, bittersweet privilege of reaching my middle-age, I still shiver at Beyle’s chorus—not for myself now, but on behalf of those now young: the trans and genderqueer kids, an upcoming generation of dykes and fags—the ones mistreated, raised to have their own bodies and hearts turned against themselves. I want them to find music that catalyzes the scream: ‘I KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH THIS BODY.’
Barely time to breathe and then the grinding lead-in to “Growing Up in Springfield,” a confessional of rejection and isolation in small-town America. Unlike Wilson’s, my mother didn’t ‘cry when I shaved my head.’ Nevertheless, the biting affirmation, ‘Those were the worst years of my life,’ rings satisfyingly through a burst of white noise.
With Personal Best, Team Dresch generates a synergy of sound and affect that engages me beyond nostalgia. The band weaves together multiple elements—voices with instruments, tempo and pedal shifts, the trajectory of song order, and lyrics that express the fallout of a queer girlhood in the rural Northwest isolation—to transform fear and self-hatred into courageous resistance. This synergy reflects (to paraphrase Adrienne Rich) a visionary, cleansing anger that dares me to feel new possibilities, both personal and political. Guitars chorus, drums pop sharp and clear, and vocals lie low but clear in the mix, embedded in a basement mix of mourning and menace. The keening rage in this album lances like a healing needle.
The lo-fi opening lines of “Screwing Yer Courage” break into Bleyle’s full-on howl. The heavy cacophony of the band feels like body-surfing like a 10-foot wave of sound. Even as she voices the desire to ‘move to the woods,’ the band’s sound performs a sense of community. The album ends with a tornado of noise, a storm that spins at exactly the right speed for me to join in. Softly, then more insistently Bleyle murmurs then cries: ‘I love you, baby, I love you.’ With one final delicious guitar arpeggio, slowly drawn out, the album is…
The music itself, the specificity of its vibrations, is of the essence. Attending to the experiential conditions of our listening is equally fundamental, and through articulating both sounds and contexts we may move past merely gesturing towards taste and invoking genre as shorthand for what we already value. As Nina Eidsheim describes, “in encounters through and with music, we are physically touched and we tangibly touch others” (183). In the case of punk and its queer progeny, we vibrate together in and with a visceral noise that harmonizes through its very dissonance.
Cover image is of crowd surfing at a 2006 Team Dresch reunion show by Flickr User Frances, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Gretchen Jude is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at the University of California Davis and a performing artist/composer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her doctoral research explores the intersections of voice and electronics in transcultural performance contexts, delving into such topics as presence and embodiment in computer music, language and cultural difference in vocal genres, and collaborative electroacoustic improvisation. Interaction with her immediate environment forms the core of Gretchen’s musical practice. Gretchen has been studying Japanese music since 2001 and holds multiple certifications in kotoperformance from the Sawai Koto Institute in Tokyo, as well as an MFA in Electronic Music and Recording Media from Mills College in Oakland, California. In the spring of 2015, a generous grant from the Pacific Rim Research Program supported Gretchen’s intensive study of hauta and jiuta singing styles in Tokyo. This podcast (as well as a chapter of her dissertation) are direct results of that support. Infinite thanks also to the gracious and generous assistance of Shibahime-sensei, Mako-chan and my many other friends and teachers in Japan.
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Malcolm Gladwell, who recently wrapped the first season of his podcast Revisionist History, has been on a roll lately. Not a particularly endearing one, though. I’ve been trying to locate his nadir, but it’s not easy with so many options to choose from. Is it in the New Yorker, when he condescendingly exclaims “Of course not!” in response to whether Caster Semenya should be allowed to compete in the 800-meter at the Olympics? He follows up with the assertion that no track-and-field fan disagrees with him, as if the complexity of gender identification is somehow best left to a majority appeal. Or is it in Revisionist History’s Episode 9, “Generous Orthodoxy,” when he chides Princeton students protesting the use of Woodrow Wilson’s name around campus? Calling one student “angry”—a loaded word to lob at a black woman—and surmising she would later “regret her choice of words,” Gladwell advises the students to instead threaten to leave the university if their requests aren’t honored. Why? Because otherwise “every crotchety old Princeton alum” wouldn’t believe they actually care about the university.
For those keeping score, that’s Gladwell, who spent an entire other episode of his podcast lamenting that we don’t “capitalize” people’s educational potential well enough, counseling black students to separate themselves from an Ivy League education as a way to make a point about a pro-segregationist president. Gladwell’s seventh episode, “Hallelujah,” where he discusses musical genius, is not obviously about the kind of systemic inequalities he bumbles in the Semenya and Princeton examples. But the conclusions he draws about genius and the anti-pop aesthetic judgments he claims are informed by the same bad gender and race politics that would put a person’s gender identification in other people’s hands and place the burden of sacrifice on the aggrieved in matters of racial injustice.
The episode “Hallelujah” revolves around two songs that Gladwell argues reached their peak of genius years after they were initially recorded: “Deportees Club” (1984) by Elvis Costello and “Hallelujah” (1984) by Leonard Cohen. In each case, Gladwell asserts that the first recordings were flawed but that they attained a certain beauty in later versions that reveals something about how genius works, though each attained that genius status by different routes. While Costello is responsible for the version of “Deportees Club” that Gladwell loves—he re-recorded it as “Deportee” in 1985 (it wouldn’t be released until 1995 on a re-issue of Goodbye, Cruel World)—“Hallelujah” would peak for Gladwell in a series of covers, most famously by Jeff Buckley (1994), performed by artists other than Cohen. Gladwell’s focus on the process by which a song reaches genius status is a riff on David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses theory. Here, Costello and the litany of “Hallelujah” coverers display a process of genius called “experimental innovation,” where the first draft is never the final draft, and genius is only unlocked after years of work. I’ll return to Gladwell’s notion of musical beauty and how it relates to his bad politics momentarily, but I first want to unpack the theory of genius that enthralls him in this episode.
Galenson’s notion of genius is a binary, where some geniuses (“conceptual innovators”) are very young, decisive artists and others, like the “experimental innovators” responsible for “Deportee” and “Hallelujah,” are endless tinkerers who tend to reach their creative potential later in life. Gladwell uses the same paradigmatic examples that Galenson does to categorize geniuses; conceptual innovators are Pablo Picasso, while experimental innovators are Paul Cézanne. Curiously, Gladwell notes that this theory of genius may be best exemplified in music, but he doesn’t seem aware that music scholars have already laid out this same broad theory of genius with easy comps: Mozart the young genius and Beethoven the old master. Moreover, Gladwell doesn’t seem aware that this is a lousy theory of genius.
I’ve written elsewhere about genius myths, and there’s a rabbit hole of problematic ideas out there about classical music genius that run from benignly self-serving to violently racist. One critique is particularly useful for pushing back against Gladwell, as it highlights the gender and race problems with Gladwell’s approach to genius. Tia DeNora’s Beethoven and the Construction of Genius (1994) is a painstaking deconstruction of Beethoven’s genius. While DeNora’s argument includes a number of moving parts, it can be summarized as a demonstration of the way “genius” isn’t so much innate talent as it is a combination of several social and political ideals intersecting with a person’s talents or insights.
It was the 90s, when postmodernity crested in musicology, and the aim of DeNora’s analysis is quintessentially postmodern: undo the Great White Man myth to make room for other kinds of histories and notions of genius to be accommodated. If we understand Beethoven’s genius to be firmly rooted in a number of social and political attitudes—including the reflexive belief that only a white man could be a genius—that tipped in his favor, then we can understand that history isn’t telling us that only men or only white people can be geniuses; rather, history is showing its biases. This sort of deconstruction doesn’t really move the academic needle now—most college freshmen can articulate the Great White Man critique—largely due to the work of DeNora and other deconstructionists who effectively cleared the space for us to build other kinds of scholarship on top of their work.
Alas, though, the 90s truly must be all the rage right now, because Gladwell is wading right back into Great White Man territory. To be clear, he isn’t doing it on purpose, for whatever that’s worth. In Episode 9, the one where he counsels the black Princeton students to threaten to leave the school, he performs a whole Great White Man rant to establish his credibility as A Guy Who Gets It. But beyond understanding that there are too many things named after white men, Gladwell doesn’t indicate that he knows what the rub really is, that the name on a building or School is a tiny piece of a much bigger, systemic problem of race and gender. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, his ideas about musical genius betray his own tendency to set up hierarchies where Great White Men are always on top. So excuse me while I pump some air in my Reeboks, hitch up my Guess jeans, and douse myself in CK1; we have some 90s theory to attend to.
Gladwell doesn’t—and perhaps can’t—articulate what’s genius about the versions of “Deportee” and “Hallelujah” he reveres, and his assessment of the originals is similarly vague. About 1984’s “Deportees Club,” he exclaims, “Oh, god, It’s awful!” For Cohen’s 1984 “Hallelujah,” Gladwell borrows a line from Michael Barthel, who could’ve just as well been describing Gladwell’s podcast: “The entire performance is so hyperserious that it’s almost satire.” [Historiographic aside: Barthel, who is now a researcher for the Pew Research Center, seems to be the under-cited source for the “Hallelujah” history in both Gladwell’s podcast and Alan Light’s book on the song]. Gladwell may suffer a poverty of aesthetic language to describe what is or isn’t good about these songs, but by considering what he does and doesn’t like—what counts as genius or not for him—we can understand where his aesthetic allegiances lie.
Gladwell finds beauty in music whose emotional content is as stripped down as the acoustic guitar textures on the later recordings of “Deportee” and “Hallelujah.” The line he quotes from Barthel misses the point: Barthel likes the satirical nature of the original “Hallelujah” and finds the famous Buckley version—which becomes something of an ürtext for all the covers that came after it—an unfortunate telescoping of emotional range, a “Hallelujah” that only knows lament instead of the many “holy, broken, profane, transcendent” hallelujahs Cohen first explored. But all those hallelujahs, along with the “angry, loud, and upsetting” original “Deportees Club,” don’t seem to suit Gladwell, who prefers versions of the songs where both the emotional and musical content are as straightforward as possible.
That Gladwell is drawn to the versions of Buckley’s “Hallelujah” and Costello’s later “Deportee” that feature an acoustic singer-songwriter coffeehouse vibe isn’t a coincidence. The villain in his account of genius is pop. Noting that both songs were initially recorded in 1984, he reminds us that year’s “biggest album” was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “pop music glossed to perfection…not a single stray note or emotion on that record.” “Thriller” was the final single from an album two years old, and it peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, so Gladwell’s definition of “biggest album” is suspect, but he’s looking for “the antithesis of ‘Deportee’ and ‘Hallelujah,’” so I’ll engage on his terms and zero in on his aesthetics by figuring out what he thinks is wrong with pop music like “Thriller.”
Gladwell offers a couple other assessments of pop aesthetics in his description of producers. Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who co-produced the Goodbye, Cruel World album “Deporteees Club” appeared on, are the ill-fitting pop perfectionists who try to harness Costello’s sound but only manage to screw it up. Trevor Horn is the guy spending four weeks—“a month,” Gladwell bemoans—shaping a snare sound for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” (1983). Whether it’s Langer and Winstanley, Horn, or Quincy Jones (who Gladwell doesn’t name but who produced “Thriller”), Gladwell has no space for the behind-the-glass work of sound design and sonic processing in his aesthetics of genius. He argues, citing Costello’s own assessment, that glossy pop perfection couldn’t capture the “dark, emotional, bitter songs, gritty and spare,” pouring out of Costello. For Gladwell, pop music production is the villain because it short circuits the true, raw emotion that he finds beautiful.
The problem with Gladwell’s aesthetics is that he’s mistaking his taste for genius, then reverse-manufacturing an explanation of genius that privileges a specifically white masculine mode of expression. “Glossy pop perfection,” in his estimation, covers up something beautiful, obscuring real emotion. But directly sharing one’s emotions—whether musically or politically—is more acceptable for some than for others. We need look no further than Gladwell for proof. If you’re Elvis Costello or Jeff Buckley singing laments? You’re a genius. If you’re a black woman protesting Woodrow Wilson at Princeton? You’re “angry.”In fact, the danger of directly expressing oneself underlies a wide array of black aeshetics, from Gates’s Signifying Monkey to Shana Redmond’s analysis of Janelle Monae’s “Cold War.” Redmond cites Darlene Clark Hines’s “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West” to highlight Monae’s engagement with “the acts of dissemblance that have long characterized black women’s participation in the public sphere” (398). Hines argues that Black women developed “a cult of secrecy, a culture of dissemblance” to protect themselves in public spaces, “creating the appearance of disclosure…while actually remaining an enigma” (Hines 915). It is Monae’s rupture of pop conventions—she breaks down and cries, dropping her lip synch even as the track plays on—that, on the one hand, creates the space for her to step outside of that culture of dissemblance and, on the other hand, marks the cover those pop conventions provide, the strategic, protective secrecy available under so much glossy pop perfection. In his 2002 “Feenin,’” Alexander Weheliye homes in on glossy pop voice-processing, the vocoders and filters (and, several years after his article, AutoTune) that render the R&B voice machinic, and contends that these processing techniques yield human desire that “can be represented only in the guise of the machinic” (39, emphasis mine). In other words, the gloss isn’t a bad thing. It’s a strategy that plugs technology into humanity in order to project ways of being beyond the white liberal humanist subject. In both Redmond’s and Weheliye’s analyses, the sound of pop, the glossy perfection that Gladwell holds up as the antithesis of genius, is employed by Black musicians to enable emotionality in a world that is otherwise hostile to such expression.
Gladwell’s bad aesthetics, his refusal to recognize beauty in pop music, is also bad politics. By holding up an aesthetic that prizes stripped-down, straightforward emotionality, a form of expression available to some but not others, Gladwell ends up in the same Great White Man genius bind DeNora and others unraveled in the postmodern 90s. So I’ll sum it up with a 90s phrase: genius is always already political. Denora argues—and Gladwell inadvertently demonstrates—that labeling artists as genius relies on politically volatile aesthetic judgments that reinforce existing power hierarchies, in this case along the lines of race and gender. Like his response to Princeton students and his armchair adjudication of Semenya’s gender identity, Gladwell’s theory of musical genius proves to be less a revision of history and more a revival of history’s worst politics.
Featured image: “Malcolm Gladwell” by Flickr user Ed Schipul, CC BY-SA 2.0
Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, and a regular writer at Sounding Out!. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his current book project is called Posthuman Pop. He is co-editor with Ali Colleen Neff of the Journal of Popular Music Studies 27:4, “Sounding Global Southernness,” and with Jason Lee Oakes of the Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies (2017). You can catch him atjustindburton.com and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.
Pop’s Chill Thrills Aren’t So Cheap-Robin James
Trap Irony: Where Aesthetics Become Politics-Justin D. Burton
I’m fortunate to have quite a few friends with eclectic musical tastes, who continually expose me some of the best, albeit often obscure, sources for inspiration. They arrive as random selections sent with a simple “you’d appreciate this” note attached. Good friends that they are, they rarely miss the mark. Most intriguing is when a cluster of things from different people carry a similar theme, converging to a need on my part for some sort of musical action.
A few years back I received a huge dump of gigabytes of audio and video. Within it were some concert footage and performances this friend and I had been discussing; I consumed those quickly in an effort to keep that conversation going. Tucked amidst that dump however, was a copy of the movie Liquid Sky. I asked the friend about it because the description of the plot–“heroin-pushing aliens invade 80’s New York”–led me to believe it wasn’t really my thing (not a big fan of needles). Although my friend insisted I’d enjoy it, it took me several months if not a whole year before I finally pressed play.
Even though Liquid Sky was not my favorite movie by any measure, it was immediately apparent to my ears why my friend insisted I check it out. The film’s score was performed completely on a Fairlight CMI, capturing the synthesized undercurrent of the early 80’s New York music scene, more popularly seen in the cult classic Downtown 81, starring Jean Michel Basquiat. While the performances in that movie are perhaps closer to my tastes, none of them compare to one scene from Liquid Sky that I fell in love with, instantly:
The song grabbed me so much, I quickly churned out a cover version.Primus Luta “Me & My Rhythm Box (V1)”
While felt good to make, there remained something less than satisfying about it. The cover had captured my sound, but at a moment of transition. More specifically, the means by which I was trying to achieve my sound at the time had shifted from a DAW-in-the-box aesthetic to a live performance feel, one that I had already begun writing about here on Sounding Out! in 2013. Interestingly, the inspiration to cover the song pushed me back to my in-the-box comfort zone.
It was good, but I knew I could do more.
As I said, these inspirations tend to group around a theme. Prior to receiving the Liquid Sky dump, I had received an email out of the blue from Hank Shocklee, producer and member of the Bomb Squad. I’ve been a longtime fan, and we had the opportunity to meet a few years prior. Since then he’s played a bit of a mentoring role for me. In the email he asked if I wanted to join an experimental electronic jazz project he was pulling together as the drummer.
I was taken aback. Hank Shocklee asking me to be his drummer. Honestly, I was shook.
Not that I didn’t know why he might think to ask me, but immediately I started to question whether I was good enough. Rather than dwell on those feelings, though, I started stepping up my game. While the project itself never came to fruition, Shocklee’s email led me to building my drmcrshr set of digital instruments.
A year or so later, I ran into Shocklee again when he was in Philadelphia for King Britt’s Afrofuturism event with mutual friend artist HPrizm. By this time I had already recorded the “Me and My Rhythm Box” cover. Serendipitously, HPrizm ended up dropping a sample from it in the midst of his set that night. A month or so later, HPrizm and I met up in the studio with longtime collaborator Takuma Kanaiwa to record a live set on which I played my drmcrshr instruments.Primus Luta x HPrizm x Takuma Kanaiwa – “Excerpt”
Not too long after, I received an email from NYC-based electronic musician Elucid, saying he was digging for samples on this awesome soundtrack. . .Liquid Sky.
The final convergence point had been hanging over my head for a while. Having finished the first part of my “Toward a Practical Language series on Live Performance” series, I knew I wanted the next part to focus on electronic instruments, but wasn’t yet sure how to approach it. I had an inkling about a practicum on the actual design and development of an electronic instrument, but I didn’t yet have a project in mind.
As all of these things, people, and sounds came together–Liquid Sky, Shocklee, HPrizm, Elucid–it became clear that I needed to build a rhythm box.
What stands out in Paula Sheppard’s performance from Liquid Sky is the visual itself. She stands in the warehouse performance space surrounded by 80’s scenesters posing with one hand in the air, mic in the other while strapped to her side is her rhythm box, the Roland CR-78, wires dangling from it to connect to the venue’s sound system. She hits play to start the beat launching into the ode for the rhythm machine.
Contextually, it’s far more performance art than music performance. There isn’t much evidence from the clip that the CR-78 is any more than a prop, as the synthesizer lines indicate the use of a backing track. The commentary in the lyrics however, hone in on an intent to present the rhythm box as the perfect musical companion, reminiscent of comments Raymond Scott often made about his desire to make a machine to replace musicians.
My rhythm box is sweet
Never forgets a beat
It does its rule
Do you want to know why?
It is pre-programmed
Rhythm machines such as the CR-78 were originally designed as accompaniment machines, specifically for organ players. They came pre-programmed with a number of traditional rhythm patterns–the standards being rock, swing, waltz and samba–though the CR-78 had many more variations. Such machines were not designed to be instruments themselves, rather musicians would play other instruments to them.
In 1978 when the CR-78 was introduced, rhythm machines were becoming quite sophisticated. The CR-78 included automatic fills that could be set to play at set intervals, providing natural breaks for songs. As with a few other machines, selecting multiple rhythms could combine patterns into new rhythms. The CR-78 also had mute buttons and a small mixer, which allowed slight customization of patterns, but what truly set the CR-78 apart was the fact that users could program their own patterns and even save them.
By the time it appeared in Liquid Sky, the CR-78 had already been succeeded by other CR lines culminating in the CR-8000. Roland also had the TR series including the TR-808 and the TR-909, which was released in 1982, the same year Liquid Sky premiered.
In 1980 however, Roger Linn’s LM-1 premiered. What distinguished the LM-1 from other drum machines was that it used drum samples–rather than analog sounds–giving it more “real” sounding drum rhythms (for the time). The LM-1 and its predecessor, the Linn Drum both had individual drum triggers for its sounds that could be programmed into user sequences or played live. These features in particular marked the shift from rhythm machines to drum machines.
In the post-MIDI decades since, we’ve come to think less and less about rhythm machines. With the rise of in-the-box virtual instruments, the idea of drum programming limitations (such as those found on most rhythm machines) seems absurd or arcane to modern tastes. People love the sounds of these older machines, evidenced by the tons of analog drum samples and virtual and hardware clones/remakes on the market, but they want the level of control modern technologies have grown them accustomed to.Controlling the Roland CR-5000 from an Akai MPC-1000 using a custom built converter
The general assumption is that rhythm machines aren’t traditionally playable, and considering how outdated their rhythms tend to seem, lacking in the modern sensibility. My challenge thus, became clearer: I sought out to build a rhythm machine that would challenge this notion, while retaining the spirit of the traditional rhythm box.
Challenges and Limitations
At the outset, I wanted to base my rhythm machine on analog circuitry. I had previously built a number of digital drum machines–both sample and synthesis-based–for my Heads collection. Working in the analog arena allowed me to approach the design of my instrument in a way that respected the limitations my rhythm machine predecessors worked with and around.
By this time I had spent a couple of years mentoring with Jeff Blenkinsopp at The Analog Lab in New York, a place devoted to helping people from all over the world gain “further understanding the inner workings of their musical equipment.” I had already designed a rather complex analog signal processor, so I felt comfortable in the format. However, I hadn’t truly honed my skills around instrument design. In many ways, I wanted this project to be the testing ground for my own ability to create instruments, but prior experience taught me that going into such a complex project without the proper skills would be self defeating. Even more, my true goal was centered more around functionality rather than details like circuit board designs for individual sounds.
To avoid those rabbit holes–at least temporarily, I’ve since gone full circuit design on my analog sound projects–I chose to use DIY designs from the modular synth community as the basis for my rhythm box. That said, I limited myself to designs that featured analog sound sources, and only allowed myself to use designs that were available as PCB only. I would source all my own parts, solder all of my boards and configure them into the rhythm machine of my dreams.
The wonderful thing about the modular synth community is that there is a lot of stuff out there. The difficult thing about the modular synth community is that there’s a lot of stuff out there. If you’ve got enough rack space, you can pretty much put together a modular that will perform whatever functionality you want. How modules patch together fundamentally defines your instrument, making module selection the most essential process. I was aiming to build a more semi-modular configuration, forgoing the patch cables, but that didn’t make my selection any easier. I wanted to have three sound sources (nominally: kick, snare and hi-hat), a sequencer and some sort of filter, which would all flow into a simple monophonic mixer design of my own.
For the sounds I chose a simple kick module from Barton, and the Jupiter Storm unit from Hex Inverter. The sound of the kick module was rooted enough in the classic analog sound while offering enough modulation points to make it mutable. The triple square wave design of the Jupiter Storm really excited me as It had the range to pull off hi-hat and snare sounds in addition to other percussive and drone sounds, plus it featured two outputs giving me all three of my voices on in two pcb sets.
Filters are often considered the heart of a modular set up, as they way they shape the sound tends to define its character. In choosing one for my rhythm machine the main thing I wanted was control over multiple frequency bands. Because there would be three different sound sources I needed to be able to tailor the filter for a wide spectrum of sounds. As such I chose the AM2140 Resonant Filter.
The AMS2140 PCB layout, based on the classic eMu filter
I had no plans to include triggers for the sounds on my rhythm machine so the sequencer was going to be the heart of the performance as it would be responsible for any and all triggering of sounds. Needing to control three sounds simultaneously without any stored memory was quite a tall order, but fortunately I found the perfect solution in the amazing Turing Machine modules. With its expansion board the Turing machine can put out four different patterns based on it’s main pattern creator which can create fully random patterns or patterns that mutate as they progress.
I spent a couple of weeks after getting all the pcb’s parts and hardware together, wiring and rewiring connections until I got comfortable with how all of these parts were interacting with each other. I was fortunate to happen upon a vintage White Instruments box, which formally housed an attenuation meter, that was perfect for my machine. After testing with cardboard I laid out my own faceplates, which and put everything in the box. As soon as I plugged it in and started playing, I knew I had succeeded.Early test of RIDM before it went in the Box
I call it the RIDM Box (Rhythmically Intelligent Drum Machine Box). I’ve been playing it now for over two years, to the point where today I would say it is my primary instrument. Almost immediately afterward I built a companion piece called the Snare Bender which works both as a standalone and as a controller for the RIDM Box. That one I did from scratch hand wired with no layouts.
My current live rig with the RIDM Box and the Snare Bender (on the right)
While this is by no means a standard approach to modern electronic instrument design (if a standard approach even exists), what I learned through the process is really the value of looking back. With so much of modern technology being future forward in its approach, the assumption is that we’re at better starting positions for innovation than our predecessors. While we have so many more resources at our disposal, I think the limitations of the past were often more conductive to truly innovative approaches. By exploring those limitations with modern eyes a doorway opened up for me, the result of which is an instrument like no other, past or present.
I will probably continue playing the two of these instruments together for a while, but ultimately I’m leaning toward a new original design which takes the learnings from these projects and fully flushes out the performing instrument aspect of analog design. In the meantime, my process would not be complete if I did not return to the original inspiration. So I’ll leave you with the RIDM Box version of “Me & My Rhythm Box”—available on my library sessions release for the instrument.
Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications.
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Heads: Reblurring The Lines–Primus Luta