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Unsettling the World Soundscape Project: Soundscapes of Canada and the Politics of Self-Recognition

Unsettling the World SS ProjectWelcome to Unsettling the World Soundscape Project, a new series in which we critically investigate the output of early acoustic ecology and assess its continuing value for today’s sound studies. The writings and subsequent musical compositions of original WSP members like R. Murray Schafer, Barry Truax, and Hildegard Westerkamp have been the locus of much critical engagement; ubiquitous references to their work often contain tensions born from the need to acknowledge their lasting influence while critiquing the ideologies driving their work. Yet little attention has been paid to the auditory documents produced by the WSP itself as its members experimented their way through the process of developing methodologies for soundscape research. Drawing on the notion of “unsettled listening” that I wrote about here on Sounding Out! last summer, we pay particular attention to issues of cross-cultural representation in the work of the WSP and ask how their successes and failures can inform new investigations into the sonic environments of the world.
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In the first post Mitchell Akiyama unpacks the WSP’s most ambitious piece, the ten-hour Soundscapes of Canada radio series produced for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1974. Akiyama situates the broadcast’s innovative work historically and points to the problem of how to represent an increasingly diverse nation by way of sound while calling for new ways to think about what such a project should sound like in the 21st Century. Ultimately, he argues that what the broadcasts exclude is perhaps more important than what they include. In the following weeks, posts from myself and Vincent Andrisani will further the conversation geographically, temporally, and methodologically. It is our hope that this series will spark new interest in the output of the World Soundscape Project while prompting debate about how best their legacy can be made useful for today’s researchers and practitioners doing critical work on the role of sound in understanding relationships between people and the places in which they live. 

— Guest Editor Randolph Jordan

In October of 1973, two young sound recordists embarked on an ambitious field trip across Canada, traversing over 7000 kilometers to commit the national soundscape to tape. From St. John’s, Newfoundland to the harbor of Vancouver, British Columbia, Bruce Davis and Peter Huse pointed their microphones at the things they felt best exemplified their vast country.

Bruce Davis recording in the field June 1974

Bruce Davis recording in the field, June 1974

These recordings would become the backbone for Soundscapes of Canada, a series of ten hour-long radio programs carried across the country by the national broadcaster, the CBC. Conceived and produced by the World Soundscape Project (WSP)—a research group formed at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University in the late 1960s and helmed by the composer and sound theorist, R. Murray Schafer—in its entirety Soundscapes of Canada was an impressively sprawling, eclectic document. Comprised of guided listening exercises and avant-garde sound collages, the program’s stated goal was to open the ears of Canadian listeners to the importance of sonic experience, and to alert them to what they warned was the degradation of the soundscape thanks to the mounting din of industrial modernity.

But there was much more happening out of earshot. Created at a time when Canada’s cultural identity was rapidly changing thanks to an unprecedented swell in immigration from non-European countries, the WSP’s portrait of the nation all but ignored its First Nations and its “visible minorities,” as they would come to be known. While the series was an important statement in the WSP’s larger efforts to bring sound to the forefront of cultural conversation, it is arguably more important to listen to Soundscapes of Canada for what it leaves out, for voices silent and silenced.

For Schafer, the industrialized world had grown measurably louder and qualitatively noisier, which troubled him for both environmental and social reasons. In his 1977 book, The Tuning of the World, Schafer would write, “For some time, I have…believed that the general acoustic environment of a society can be read as an indicator of social conditions which produce it and may tell us much about the trending and evolution of that society” (7). Given the worryingly poor state of the soundscape, for Schafer it followed that society was in bad shape. He was wistful for quieter times, for the days of Goethe, when the cry of the half-blind night watchman of Weimer was within earshot of every one of the town’s inhabitants. Unstated, but implied, here, was the notion that as communities expanded beyond every member’s ability to hear a familiar sound, their common identity would necessarily be eroded. And for Schafer, this was precisely what was happening to Canada.

Father Jean Racine, Percé, Québec, 1974

Father Jean Racine, Percé, Québec, 1974

The WSP’s discussion of “soundmarks” in parts three and four of the series was perhaps their most powerful statement about the stakes for preserving and promoting the nation’s sonic heritage. A “soundmark” is, in the WSP’s lexicon of neologisms, roughly analogous to a landmark: it’s a sound that is supposedly instantly recognizable to members of a community, an irreplaceable acoustic feature of a particular place. In the conclusion to program three, “Signals, Soundmarks and Keynotes,” Schafer intoned, “It takes time for a sound to take on rich, symbolic character—a lifetime perhaps, or even centuries. This is why soundmarks should not be tampered with carelessly. Change the soundmarks of a culture and you erase its history and mythology. Myths take many forms. Sounds have a mythology too. Without a mythology, a culture dies.”

So it seems fair to ask: exactly whose mythology stood to be snuffed out? For Schafer, Canadian culture was (or ought to be) synechdochal with the land, with the nation’s vast, largely uninhabited expanses that stretched all the way to the North Pole. Canadians were (or ought to be) a rugged, self-reliant people—stoic pioneers who shunned cosmopolitan (read ethnic) urban centers, opting for a quiet life in harmony with the country’s settler heritage. This was certainly reflected in program four, “Soundmarks of Canada.” Over the course of an hour CBC listeners would have heard an austere montage almost entirely comprised of mechanical alarms (foghorns and air sirens) and church bells. Each sound presented, carefully, discreetly as though displayed in a museum, free from any traffic noise or sidewalk bustle that might distract the listener. Anyone unfamiliar with the Canadian soundscape would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the world’s second largest nation was a bastion of early industrial machinery, a sanctuary for quiet, self-reliant, God-fearing folk.

“Soundmarks of Canada” not only omitted the soundmarks of Canadian cities, it also excluded any sonic trace of the country’s vibrant ethnic and First Nations communities. Produced in the years following the passage of the 1971 Multiculturalism Policy of Canada—which had been adopted in response to a boom of immigration from non-European nations—their portrait of a pastoral, post-colonial British outpost shunted the country’s sizeable non-Christian, ethnic population squarely out of earshot. It should also go without saying that the soundmarks they so prized were deeply entangled with a silencing of Canada’s indigenous population; of a protracted, often violent and brutal, campaign of assimilation that replaced one set of sonic practices with another. For generations of Indigenous Canadians, the sounds of church bells would likely not have connoted community or belonging, but would have rather reverberated with echoes of the “reeducation” in settler religion and language that many were forced to endure in Canada’s residential schools—church-run institutions to which countless children were spirited away against their parents and communities’ wishes.

Canada's First Protestant Church Bell

Canada’s First Protestant Church Bell

This is not to say that any of this was intentional, that the WSP deliberately plugged their ears to Canada’s marginal communities, or that they intended to slight these groups in any way. It may be more accurate to ascribe ignorance and omission to the project, structural forms of inequality that dog even the most well meaning white settlers. Regardless of intent, however, the result is the same.

Soundscapes of Canada shows a troubling politics of self-recognition in action that is far too common throughout the nation’s history. By disproportionately representing the voices and sounds of European Canadians the series necessarily supported the idea that they were, if not the only ones, then at least “ordinary” and incumbent. Projects like these promote and condition a sense of unity and similarity that constitute the nation’s imagination of itself. Benedict Anderson famously observed that nations come into being and are maintained through the cultural work that leads its citizens to identify with the state. Institutions and practices from censuses, maps, nationally available print journalism, etc. all allow people in far-off locales to imagine themselves constituting a limited and sovereign community. In his classic book, Imagined Communities, Anderson proposes that nations have also historically been conceived, created, and ratified through sound. Writing specifically of national anthems, Anderson coins the term “unisonance” to describe the power that sound can have to seemingly erode the boundaries between self and other: “How selfless this unisonance feels! If we are aware that others are singing these songs precisely when and as we are, we have no idea who they may be, or even where, out of earshot, they are singing. Nothing connects us all but imagined sound” (149).

It is significant that the WSP chose the radio—the CBC in particular—as the vehicle for their ambitious project. In the mid-1970s, not only did radio offer the widest reach of any sonic medium, but it also had a particular cultural resonance for Canadians. A nation as vast and varied as Canada could have only come about thanks to mediation; its vastness has always required means of traversing or shrinking space to secure its borders, both psychic and geographical. The westward expansion of the post-indigenous nation was accomplished first by canoe, then by rail, and, beginning in the 1920s, by radio. Appropriately, it was the Canadian National Railway (CNR) that produced the first transnational radio broadcast in 1927—the national anthem performed by bells on the carillon of the Peace Tower—broadcasting the event to railway passengers and home listeners alike. Since the middle part of the 20th century, the national broadcaster has been understood as something of a bulwark against encroaching American culture.

Passengers listening to radio broadcast aboard train, location unknown, 1929

Passengers listening to radio broadcast aboard train, location unknown, 1929

The history of the Canadian airwaves is profoundly mired in struggles to promote, produce, and foster content that might keep the national identity from being completely subsumed under the sprawl and heft of the American culture industry. Schafer had mixed feelings about the medium. On the one hand, he was skeptical of his one-time teacher and mentor, Marshall McLuhan’s, analysis that radio, by its very nature, enfolded listeners in a shared acoustic space, effectively “retribalizing” society. Schafer felt that the airwaves had been packed to such a dense and frenetic level that they actually created “sound walls” that effectively isolated listeners in their own solipsistic, acoustic bubbles. But there was hope for the radio in that it could also facilitate a return to a more wholesome and connected state of being and of listening. Schafer noted this duality in his essay “Radical Radio,” writing, “If modern radio overstimulates, natural rhythms could help put mental and physical well-being back in our blood. Radio may, in fact, be the best medium for accomplishing this” (209). Sonic technology was a source of ambivalence for Schafer; he coined the term “schizophonia” to describe the separation of sound from source that recording effected. He believed that it was problematic to populate the world with copies he deemed inherently inferior to the “original” sonic event. Given the opportunity to reach such a wide swath of the Canadian public, Schafer swallowed his distaste for the schizophonic medium and offered a sonic missive on how to compose a healthy and prosperous nation.

Forty years on, Soundscapes of Canada still stands as a unique experiment in imagining how to build and maintain a nation through sound. But in the same regard it also serves as a troubling reminder of how sonic media can work to occlude the voices of marginal citizens, thereby preventing them from fully finding the place in the national soundscape, simply by ignoring their soundmarks and aural practices. If a nation needs a myth, it can do better than telling stories about the necessity of shoring up a colonial legacy whose time has come.

Readers interested in listening to the full series can stream all ten episodes through the website of the Canadian Music Centre.

Mitchell Akiyama is a Toronto-based scholar, composer, and artist. His eclectic body of work includes writings about plants, animals, cities, and sound art; scores for film and dance; and objects and installations that trouble received ideas about perception and sensory experience. Akiyama recently completed his Ph.D. in communications at McGill University. His doctoral work offers a critical history of sound recording in the field and examines an eclectic range of subjects, from ethnographers recording folksongs in southern American penal work camps to biologists trying determine whether or not animals have language to the political valences of sound art practices.

Featured image: “Toronto” by Flickr user Kristel Jax. All other images via the author.

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Within a Grain of Sand: Our Sonic Environment and Some of Its Shapers — Maile Colbert

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Listening (Loudly) to Spanish-language Radio

World Listening Month3This is the third post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015.  World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us.  For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening, and, as Inés Casillas prescribes, a wider understanding of the power and meaning of volume as material sensation as well as listening practice, particularly in communities marginalized by U.S. racial and ethnic hierarchies.  “Listening loudly in the face of anti-immigrant public sentiment,” Casillas tells us, “becomes a form of radical self-love, a sonic eff-you, and a means of taking up uninvited (white) space.”   –Editor-in-Chief JS

Chicana and Chicano friends across the southwest share different renditions of a similar childhood memory. The one where Mexican parents or grandparents crank up the rancheras -mournful, classic Mexican melodies – on an early Saturday morning or what seems to be an inappropriate, way-too-late weeknight. They reminisce about listening as children in wonderment to the familial, communal sing-along that seemed to instinctively take place among extended kin. That, or they tell of listening, cringing in silence, in fear that the non-Mexican neighbors will overhear the radio and spontaneous serenade; a telltale sign that their family is, indeed, Mexican. “As if,” shared Deborah Paredez in her account, “those few white neighbors somehow didn’t already know you were Mexican.”

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“Woman Doing a Mexican Grito” by Flickr User Nan Palmero

For unfamiliar ears, the sounds of Spanish, the mariachi ensemble, and/or accented karaoke all work together to signal brownness, working-class, and even, according to Jennifer Stoever, illegality. To me, the most provocative detail in these recurring childhood stories rests more on the volume, often stationed on one of two settings – “loud” or “real loud.” Excessive, “loud accouterments,” according to Deborah R. Vargas, are heard and identified as unforgiving, racialized and queer forms of surplus; what she calls “lo sucio” (a vernacular for dirty or grimy). The high volume allows Mexicans and Chicanas/os to publically flaunt their brown identities under the increasingly watchful gaze of a post-9/11 state, during a record-deportation Obama era, and when Latinos have officially outnumbered whites in the Golden (now brown) state of California. Listening loudly in the face of anti-immigrant public sentiment becomes a form of radical self-love, a sonic eff-you, and a means of taking up uninvited (white) space.

These stories, strikingly similar, often point to the ranchera song-style, specifically, the talents of Vicente Fernández and his regal voice as the beloved malefactor. The timbre in Fernández’s famed voice rouses (drunken) merriments of Mexico, with lyrical utterings about acrimonious, heteronormative loves and losses. The gritos or sentimental cries that accompany such songs are gendered, nostalgic stand-ins for an affect of displacement shared by both Mexican immigrants and Chicana/os. Simon O’Sullivan insists that, “you cannot read affects, you can only experience them.” I would add, “through sound” to stress the ways in which sound travels and emotionally anchor a listener’s body. The fact that so many Chicanas and Chicanos have these recollections and several (read: me) reproduce these loud practices with our own children says more about the continued racialized, brown experiences of Mexicans and Chicana/os in the U.S. than perhaps the prowess of rancheras themselves.

Chente singing

Vicente Fernández Performing Live in 2010, Image by Flickr User Jennifer Cachola

In many ways, the workings of race, language and labor resonate through radio. I argue that the very public nature of Spanish-language radio listening represents a communal, classed, and brown form of listening that differs markedly from “white collar” modes of listening, which offers more solitary practices, promoted by commuting in private cars and listening to personal satellite radios, iPods, or Internet broadcasts.

glenwood springs

Workers listen to the radio in the kitchen of Taqueria El Nopal in Glenwood Springs, CO, Image by Andrew Cullen, High County News

For instance, one can routinely overhear loud Spanish-language broadcasts from the back kitchens of restaurants (regardless of the ethnic cuisine); outside bustling construction sites and Home Depot storefronts as day laborers await work; or from small radio sets balanced heroically on hotel housekeeping carts. On-air salutations heard throughout the day on Spanish-language radio are vocal nods to worksites as radio hosts greet washeros (car wash personnel), mecánicos (mechanics), fruteros and tamaleras (fruit and tamale street vendors), and those, presumably farmworkers, toiling under the sun. Despite the passivity in terms such as informal, invisible, and “under the table” to characterize a significant component of both U.S. and transnational economies, these recurrent and strong vocalizations of work and worksites makes audible the statistics of economist Lisa Catanzarite. She cites that recently immigrant Latino men constitute 40 to 71% of low-level service work such as “construction, agriculture, and manufacturing jobs, including waiters’ assistants, gardeners and groundskeepers, cooks, farm workers, and painters.” Not only do patrons and those passing by overhear radio at/near such worksites but radio also makes routine reference to labor and laborers. These “brown-collared” occupations coupled with the swift growth in Spanish and bilingual (Spanish-English) stations, have crafted a not-so-discrete, brown form of listening.

Arguably, it’s difficult to not hear the growth of Spanish-language radio as heavy metal, oldies, and jazz radio dials have surprised English-dominant listeners by switching to banda, norteños, and morning chatter in Spanish. In 1980 the Federal Communications Commission identified sixty-seven Spanish-oriented radio stations on the air. The 2010 figures list over 1300 radio stations broadcasting exclusively in Spanish. Proving all too well that those media pundits and scholars championing the digital era do not tune into broadcast Spanish-language radio.

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“We espeekinglish tu!!!” Los Angeles, 2007

Spanish-language radio stations openly cater to a working-class and immigrant-minded listenership by advertising their call numbers and radio personalities at public transit stops. Latinos, loyal listeners of Spanish-language radio, are more likely to ride a bus or subway than to drive in a carpool lane to get to work. As an acoustic ally, these broadcasts not only assume listeners are a mix of undocumented persons, legal residents, and from mixed-status families, but radio hosts and radio programs openly rally in solidarity of their listeners’ civil rights, a provocative feat, given the recurrent changes in immigration politics. In fact, promotional billboards for radio stations often double as political statements. This one, for instance, featured Univisión’s then top rated morning host. The slogan symbolically pokes fun at unfriendly English-only attitudes and keenly reminds drivers that the United States is the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world.

Sounds of Belonging (NYU Press, 2014)

Dolores Inés Casillas’s Sounds of Belonging (NYU Press, 2014)

The portable and inexpensive cost of radio sets makes it possible for Latinos to tug their sets to work with them. Indeed, a recent listening report verified that the average Hispanic radio listener makes less than $35,000 a year and tunes in as early as 4am; indicative of graveyard, swing shifts and/or early treks to work. Closely aligned with my own assumptions about listening, Jose Anguiano’s doctoral study includes an insightful chapter on the listening preferences of custodial workers during late night shifts; in particular, how workers decided on where to place radio sets to optimize the acoustic sound of empty building spaces.

Yet, a troubling National Public Radio (NPR) segment devoted to the difficulty of finding a simple radio set bared the distinct classed uses of radio and radio listening. Producers visited high-end specialty stores in search of an AM/FM radio. The program broadcasted their collective laments at finding one radio set at their fifth store. Of course, their pursuit would have ended much earlier if they had visited a local swap meet, a K-Mart, or asked any of said laborers above where they had purchased their radio set. During my own research for Sounds of Belonging, twenty-seven of the thirty-three immigrant focus group participants interviewed indicated that a radio set was their first media purchase in the U.S.

Espascio 2

Inside Espacio 1839 in Boyle Heights, California, retail and performance space and home of RADIO SOMBRA, a 24/7 community-based Internet radio station, Espacio is located at 1839 E. 1st Street and is open Wed-Sun, 12-8 pm.  Image by Oliver Wang for KCET Artbound

Of course, such lucrative opportunities to woo radio listeners are not lost on corporate media. Latino listeners (whether they identify as Spanish-dominant or not) tune in to radio an average of three hours a week more than the “general” (white) U.S. radio listener, with an impressive 13.5 percent of all U.S. radio now broadcasting in Spanish. Univisión, a name long associated with Spanish-language television, now reigns as the empire of radio, owning the most Spanish-language radio stations in the United States.

Although tabulated figures showcase the popularity of left-leaning political broadcasts on Spanish-language commercial radio, Mari Castañeda and Monica de la Torre remind us of the significance and efficacy of community-based, Low Power FM radio for rural, Spanish-dominant Latino communities. Without the privilege of corporate sponsors such as  McDonalds, or Kohls, small and fiercely independent, community-based bilingual and Spanish-language radio still thrives in farmlands across the U.S.

Sound, especially at high volume, daringly seeps and trespasses across public, racial boundaries. The policing of sound, according to Derek Vaillant, beginning in the nineteenth century were orchestrated civic attempts to eliminate unsightly and “noisy” cries from poor, ethnic immigrant street vendors peddling their goods. Another instance, during World War II, foreign language broadcasts were outlawed out of monolingual American fears that enemies were communicating via radio. City transits often post rules asking that passengers use audio/video equipment only with headphones. Public etiquette about appropriate levels of volume enforced through noise ordinances and ways of listening (privately) speak to larger issues about race, labor, and class. Not only do these public campaigns and transit rules privilege the dominant, western ear but it also, according to Jennifer Stoever, focuses on white sensory orientations of noise which inherently positions those most marginalized as the “noise makers.”

Lowrider Trike with Sound System, Image by George Garcia

Lowrider Trike with Sound System, Image by George Garcia

For generations, Chicana/o and Mexican listeners have gravitated to radio for far more than the musical sounds of homelands imagined or left behind. Raising the volume on Spanish-language radio sends neighbors a racialized sign of “Mexican-ness” often heard as unruly, “noisy,” and perhaps worse, unassimilated. High volume from the private spaces of homes and cars disrupts the quiet, public acceptance of ear buds while also providing sheer, public glee. An audible, unabashed reminder of other forms of “lo sucio” – high credit card debt, more than 2.2 children, vegetable gardens in front yards, too-much-cologne or Virgin de Guadalupe adornments – and the brown refusal to tone, much less, to turn it down.

*Inspired by my six year old’s attempts to grito along with “Volver, Volver.”

Featured Image: Inside Espacio 1839 in Boyle Heights, California, retail and performance space and home of RADIO SOMBRA, a 24/7 community-based Internet radio station, Espacio is located at 1839 E. 1st Street and is open Wed-Sun, 12-8 pm.  Image by Oliver Wang for KCET Artbound

Dolores Inés Casillas is an associate professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies and a faculty affiliate of Film & Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She writes and teaches courses on Latina/o sound practices, popular culture, and the politics of language.  Her book, Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-language Radio and Public Advocacy, was published in Fall 2014 by New York University Press as part of their Critical Cultural Communication series. 

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Speaking ‘Mexican’ and the use of ‘Mock Spanish’ in Children’s Books (or Do Not Read Skippyjon Jones)“–Dolores Inés Casillas 

Óyeme Voz: U.S. Latin@ & Immigrant Communities Re-Sound Citizenship and Belonging” –Nancy Morales

Sonic Brownface: Representations of Mexicanness in an Era of Discontent“–reina alejandra prado saldivar

Chicana Radio Activists and the Sounds of Chicana Feminisms“–Monica De La Torre

Alan Lomax’s Southern Journey and the Sound of Authenticity

100 Years of Lomax4Welcome back to 100 Years of Alan Lomax, Sounding Out!‘s series dedicated to remembering, rethinking and challenging our understanding of this crucial figure in folk music history.

In contrast to the first post in the series by Mark Davidson, which looked at how we have branded Alan Lomax, Parker Fishel‘s post considers how Alan Lomax fashioned himself—as both a collector and a publisher of other peoples’ music. The complexity of this task is inherent in the social and political ramifications of “saving” sound by making it “ours,” both in terms of singular ownership of singular recordings that had previously “belonged” to a community as well as the extent to which this practice brought these sounds to the wider culture.

Here, Fishel invites the reader to consider this complicated history that surrounds collecting and copyrighting folk music, what (and whom) the practice has excluded as well current performers who have been inspired by this preservation of our sound culture to perpetuate the practice: making it “theirs” and “ours” once again.

— Guest Editor Tanya Clement

The more one listens, views, and reads the work of pioneering folklorist Alan Lomax, the more inscrutable it becomes. Even if we set aside the sheer size and diversity of his collection, we are still left with a set of materials that eludes easy interpretation. Too mainstream for the academics and too academic for the mainstream, Lomax’s defiant, passionate quest to bridge the two worlds pioneered the study of sound as an embodiment of social and community dynamics. Yet in promoting American vernacular culture, Lomax also fashioned himself a folk hero, leaving us a legacy where the collector threatens to overshadow the collection. As arguably the world’s most famous folklorist, Lomax is responsible for much of the sound understood as authentic Americana.

Consider one vignette of many: the “Southern Journey,” a 1959-1960 recording trip that Alan Lomax undertook with Shirley Collins throughout Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. A world unto itself, the story of the Southern Journey reveals how these tensions shaped Lomax’s work and, to an extent, our understanding of a national cultural heritage.

"Radio Recording, Late 20th Century" by Flickr user Mike Licht, CC BY 2.0

“Radio Recording, Late 20th Century” by Flickr user Mike Licht, CC BY 2.0

To begin with, the Southern Journey sounded different than previous collecting trips due to the technological sophistication of the field recording set-up. Starting with a 1933 trip accompanying his father John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax’s previous recording expeditions in the South had relied first on Edison cylinders and then on disc-based recorders that had particular weaknesses in terms of fidelity. Surface noise obfuscated certain frequencies and reminded the listener that his or her experience was mediated. During the Southern Journey though, open reel magnetic tape, excellent microphones, and a mixer were employed to make what Lomax, in his tendency towards self-aggrandizement, claimed to be the “first” stereo field recordings in the South. Whatever the reality, the recordings were early efforts to use stereo in the service of field recording to capture more detail and nuance of a performance and its context.

Writing of the opportunity stereo presented for folklore, Lomax noted that “Folk music which, in its natural setting, is meant to be heard in the round, comes into its own with multi-dimensionality, for more than concert music, designed to project from the stage into an auditorium.” According to this reasoning, a good recording in stereo is more inclusive, grounding the listener’s position inside the soundscape of folklore’s community-based practice.

Yet, by nature folklore recordings have certain limitations. As jazz record producer Orrin Keepnews noted, “Our job is to create what is best described as ‘realism’ — the impression and effect of being real — which may be very different from plain unadorned reality.” This murky dividing line is problematic in the context of ethnographic documentation. In the case of Alan Lomax, it’s further complicated by multiple motivations and goals that transform this line into a shifting set of markers.

"30th January 2014" by Flickr user themostinept, CC BY-SA 2.0

“30th January 2014” by Flickr user themostinept, CC BY-SA 2.0

Luckily, through diligent scholarship and Lomax’s own documentation, we are fairly aware of how this “realism” tension shaped his recordings in real-time performance and its public reception. Lomax sometimes auditioned performers when arriving in a new area; his book The Land Where The Blues Began (in part an reconstruction of the Southern Journey) was written 30-plus years after the fact from memory and a few scribbled notes on the back of tape boxes. However this knowledge impacts the supposed reality of the field recordings, it would be a mistake to reduce the extensive documentation of Lomax’s decision-making process to debunking. Rather, it is an aid for understanding what we’re hearing. By accounting for ethnographic and popularizing tendencies, what is really being developed is a guide for critical listening.

Part of that involved bringing in the recording industry. Starting with the 1939 Musicraft release of Leadbelly performances on 78-RPM discs, Lomax consistently used record companies as one means of bringing folklore to a wider audience. Commenting on the flurry of activity that accompanied Lomax’s 1959 return to the United States after nearly a decade abroad, noted folklorist Roger Abrahams commented, “To this writer it would appear that Mr. Lomax stayed up nights thinking of ways to sell folk-things to publishers, record companies, etc., ergo to the public.”

The Southern Journey was one such project, bankrolled by Atlantic Records. From nearly 80 hours of recorded material, Lomax curated two sets of releases in 1960, a seven LP Atlantic Records collection named the “Southern Folk Heritage Series” and the 12-LP “Southern Journey” series for Prestige International. In notes for reissues of the Atlantic set, Lomax admitted, “The set reflects, to some extent, what the Erteguns [Ahmet and Nesuhi, founders of Atlantic] felt might best reach their pop audience.” Examining how these recordings became canonical is to look at how new modes of cultural transmission affected folklore traditions.

Sales Fact Sheet for Atlantic’s “Southern Folk Heritage Series”

Sales Fact Sheet for Atlantic’s “Southern Folk Heritage Series”

We can hear another tension being negotiated in the way Lomax celebrated performances, which today justly rank alongside those of the Great American Songbook. Yet, to see them that way negates the core strengths of folklore: flexibility to situation and contingency to community. In the field, Lomax asserted that “every performance is original, a fresh and intentionally varied re-creation or rearrangement of a piece.” At the same moment, however, Americanizing processes were transforming these flexible local improvisatory practices into fixed inscriptions of national character. With his public visibility and prestige, the pieces in Lomax’s books and records carried weight as definitive versions – claims Lomax perpetuated in order to unify some of his cultural theories. (It also didn’t hurt that the practice of early folklorists was to copyright these compositions, giving them a financial stake in perpetuating those performances as examples of exceptionalism.) As a result, the public adopted a set of arbitrary songs and sounds as markers of authenticity.

These concerns remain important in the music’s continuing, living traditions. Groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops or The Ebony Hillbillies perform the full, eclectic spectrum of early African-American string and jug bands traditions. While Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton forges similar terrain using the African-American songster and blues singer as a model, Frank Fairfield addresses Anglo-American folk traditions. All of these projects remind listeners of the arbitrary divisions of authenticity forced on musicians practices by the race recording industry, which partitioned sounds as white and black and led to our modern taxonomy of genres. These performers use folklore to expose parts of the under-documented past, re-appropriating musical styles and often re-creating that world through the adoption of early 20th century language, clothes, and mannerisms.

Other contemporary performers handle these issues differently. Megafaun, Fight The Big Bull, and Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) form the nucleus of Sounds of the South, a “loving reinterpretation of the sound, structure, lyrics, and spirit” of the Southern Journey recordings. Engaging both the African-American and Anglo-American traditions documented on that trip, the group finds its sound in their overlap. This a space shaped in part by the popularizing processes Lomax set in motion, a space where generations of listeners have been introduced to Mississippi Fred McDowell through a Rolling Stones cover. Approaching the music from this perspective and not from the background of a Forest City Joe or an Almeda Riddle, authenticity necessarily exists in a different realm: re-interpretation. The resulting arrangements, such as that of Estil C. Ball’s sacred composition “Tribulations,” give one illustration of how these dynamics play out sonically within the world of folklore and music that Lomax left behind.

For this particular piece, the words and melody of Ball’s “terrifying meditation on the end of days” are kept as links to the original recording. This frees the ensemble to follow its muse into the musical landscapes of the intervening 50-plus years, shaped as they were by the introduction of the vernacular into the mainstream (and vice versa). Ball’s melody evokes an archetype, the high lonesome sound of Appalachia; a trope it inspired in the first place. Yet, in this cultural confluence, there is also space for something like Matthew E. White’s soul-influenced electric guitar. In introducing of a style, tradition, and sound beyond the original recording, a color line is crossed that, while maybe not explicitly heard, was certainly present in the Jim Crow context of the Southern Journey. For Sounds of the South, authenticity exists beyond mere re-creation.

What might Lomax’s reaction to the Sounds of the South project be? Reflecting on the 1960s folk scene, Lomax wrote, “The American city folk singer, because he got his songs from books or other city singers, has generally not been aware of the singing style or the emotional content of the folk songs, as they exist in tradition.” On the other hand, Lomax might be heartened that many, whether cultural heritage institutions or record labels, are following in the footsteps of his own Association for Cultural Equity. Working on the scale that digital resources facilitate, these organizations are providing access to field recordings and their context in ways never before possible. (What remains to be seen is how this might impact the process of codification discussed above.)

In another way, the Sounds of the South marks a return to tradition. While the Southern Journey recordings are the primary inspiration, Sounds of the South member Joe Westerlund describes the project as something larger: “We wanted to include everything that we’re into, not just the traditional folk music that’s on this box set…We’re doing our whole experience as musicians.” That experience involves collaboration with folk artists like the Blind Boys of Alabama and Alice Gerrard, as well as investment in their local cultural communities of Durham, NC, Richmond, VA, and Eau Claire, WI.

Alan Lomax (left) with Richard Queen of Soco Junior Square Dance Team at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina; via the Library of Congress Lomax Collection

Alan Lomax (left) with Richard Queen of Soco Junior Square Dance Team at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina; via the Library of Congress Lomax Collection

Lomax’s pedagogy of folklore situates authenticity as a function of these very types of activities. “Folk song lives in a rather mysterious world close to the heart of the human community and it is only through extended and serious contact with living folk traditions that it can be understood.” The particular tradition in which one participates makes little difference; rather emphasis is on the process of engagement and contact, which replicate older patterns of folklore transmission. So even if Lomax may have claimed there was a bit too much bel canto to suit his tastes, one can imagine his appreciation for Sounds of the South’s dedication to the meaning and spirit of the music.

Considering Alan Lomax, his work, and his legacy is a complex and often frustrating enterprise. Yet amidst parts that give us pause, there remain bits of enduring wisdom. Addressing a gathering of folklorists, Lomax asserted that “Underneath we are all morally, emotionally and esthetically involved with our material, and so all of us are artists and cultural workers, and there is no escape from that.”

Few of us devote ourselves to this kind of music (or any kind of music for that matter) as a detached academic exercise. It can take an example of the living tradition like Sounds of the South looking backwards and forwards to remind us of the full scope of our responsibilities. I can’t think of any more fitting tribute on the occasion of his centenary than to re-commit ourselves not to Alan Lomax, but to what caught his ear in the first place: the transcendent experience of sound.

Parker Fishel is an archivist, writer, and researcher living in Brooklyn, New York. Presently he is the archivist at Grey Water Park Productions and an occasional DJ on WKCR-FM. As co-founder of Americana Music Productions, Parker is the producer of a forthcoming set of music, photographs, and scholarship documenting the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival. He is also at work on Georgia Griot, a bio-discography of jazz musician Marion Brown. While getting an MSIS from the University of Texas at Austin, Parker worked with the UT Folklore Center Archives and the John Avery Lomax Family Papers at the Briscoe Center for American History.

Featured image: “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender” by Flickr user Bee Collins, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Living with Noise

Image by Flickr User Bill Selak

Image by Flickr User Bill Selak

[O]ne of the chief values of living with music lies in its power to give us an orientation to time.– Ralph Ellison, “Living with Music” (1955)

Early this past fall, my wife and I moved back to Brooklyn after three years in central New York State. We spent two of those years on a back street in a mostly rural area of Cortland, NY, where are there are more dogs than people and more cows than dogs. Those dogs were probably the most intrusive neighborhood sound—a barker would get going and that’d set off a chain reaction from yard to yard, like a real life version of the “Twlight Barking” from 101 Dalmations. Still, I could get used to it, ignore it, zone out. The only other sounds that penetrated our home were the nearby freight trains, but their sounds are almost soothingthe rhythm of the clacking rails like Paul Simon singing “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance. . .” or a relaxation tape.

Now back in New York City, I am very aware of the different degree, frequency and quality of sounds I am subjected to while in my living space. Reconsidering living with noise put me in the mind of Ralph Ellison’s 1955 essay “Living With Music” from High Fidelity magazine. Like the living situation Ellison describes, our new place is a rear-facing apartment and we get the sound of echoing voices, car horns or yowling cats (fighting and/or making more cats) bouncing off the back wall of a garage on the next street. However, as most city-dwellers know, it is our neighbors that provide the most persistent and profound sonic disturbances. Ellison himself was disturbed at an upstairs neighbor’s overzealous singing, vocalizing “[f]rom morning until night.” In our case, another four-family apartment house abuts ours and through the two brick walls sandwiched by two layers of plaster, we can frequently hear the shrill cries of teenage anguish. The violent screaming between teenaged siblings or between one or more of them and their parents can shake the walls. It is difficult to ignore.

Manhattan-MiniThe noise of children in New York City apartments was a topic of a New York Times feature a couple of years ago, but in that article the age of the children makes it easy to sympathize with the parents and to cast the complainers as insensitive villains. Little children cannot be expected to regulate their own crying or the seemingly ceaseless energy that is so easily transformed into cries of glee or the galloping of those baby shoes. In the case of my neighbors, it harder to sympathize when the sound is from near-adult children screaming about how life isn’t fair, or getting forced into frequent violent disagreements with a similarly aged sibling with which they must share a tiny part of an already tiny spacea New York City apartment.

It is easy to get angry when they get going. A teenager is not a chorus of barking dogs, a small crying child, or even some jerk honking his horn a block away who doesn’t realize how far the sound can travel, but ostensibly someone developing into a functional adult. The things they are screaming about can often seem beyond ridiculous to older people, and thus their need to scream about them is particularly offensive when I am simply trying to enjoy a evening of catching up on Mad Men or (more importantly) an afternoon writing my dissertation. As my wife often asks, “Why don’t their parents regulate?” But I try to remind her, it is the attempt to regulate their behavior that often starts the screaming matches. Like a 2-year old testing the range of her voice, these teens are exploring their own boundaries. Furthermore, unlike the class entitlement permeating the NYT Real Estate section feature, the economic reality of living in row houses in Bensonhurst changes expectations regarding the living experience.

The sonic disturbances often come when I am trying to get some writing done, so it is not hard to think about Ellison’s essay, since writing was also what he endeavored to do when bedeviled by his neighbor’s practice of “bel canto style.” The way noise can carry in these apartments creates a form of anonymous intimacy. Think of Duke Ellington’s “Harlem Airshaft,” a musical representation of just that urban intimacy.

As he said of the apartment airshaft that inspired that piece,

You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great loudspeaker, you hear people praying, fighting and snoring.

While I don’t know my neighbors better than a polite nod of hello when I pass them sitting on the stoop, I am ear-witness to their dramas, and more than that I am sometimes drawn into them, finding myself banging the wall with a forearm and calling through the wall “enough already!” Or spending time discussing the family’s private affairs with my wife, speculating about the arguments. Similarly, Ellison’s trepidations about trying to silence his neighbor come from how her practice makes him intimately aware of her aspirations, even as that same intimacy drives him to build a stereo to blast at her in an attempt to conquer their shared sonic space.

Urban sonic intimacy is tightly tied to Ellison’s assertion regarding music and our orientation to time. However, Ellison’s observations can be expanded beyond music, because remember one person’s music is another person’s noise, as Scott Poulson-Bryant discussed in his Sounding Out! post on music and New York City apartment life in “The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own” (August 2010). A noise can likewise orient me in time: the sound of freight trains will bring me back to my time in Cortland, and more profoundly, that teenaged screaming brings me back to my own volatile adolescence, asking me to reconcile that version of me with the one I am now.

Ellison - Living with musicIn Ellison’s essay, he arrives at two conclusions regarding music. The first is the above-mentioned orientation to time and the second is deep sympathy that arises from that realization, as he associates his upstairs neighbor’s intrusive singing practice with his own childhood attempts to master the trumpet. The orientation to time he discusses is not only a matter of looking back and making associations with a younger self’s relationship to music, but also comes from an adult understanding that there were those “who were willing to pay in present pain for future pride. For who knows what skinny kid. . .might become the next [Louie] Armstrong?” The anonymous intimacy of city-living has made me reflective regarding these screaming matches and I have begun to develop a sympathy that lets me tolerate the disturbance, to understand it in a context of living and growing. For how do I know that those volatile teenaged emotions might not develop into the sensitive and thoughtful adult attitude I try to have in my own life? There is no need to imagine that these kids will grow into anyone special (though the world could certainly use a couple more Louis Armstrongs or Ralph Ellisons), but their noise is a signal for the need for empathy, to remember our own ability to make noise not only through simply living but in trying to grow, to become. . .

Ellison may have thought that “the enjoyment of music is always suffused with past experience,” but I think enjoyment is just the tip of an iceberg of sonic experience, because it also holds out the possibility for an affective relationship with sound that can shift from annoyance to understanding without actually having to enjoy. It is not just music, but noise that “gives significance to all those indefinable aspects of experience, which. . .help to make us what we are.” Noise transforms in the cramped urban setting from a residue of life into a connective tissue that signals a challenge to boundaries, requiring greater empathy and patience. The very noise that endangers our peace is also a reminder of how close and alike we really are. It is only time that separates me from the screaming of a teenager and it is only time that stands between me and a screaming teen of my own.

Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and ABD in English at Binghamton University.

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Summer Soundscapes, East Coast Style–Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman

The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own–Scott Poulson-Bryant

Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil–Leonardo Cardoso

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