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SO! Reads: Steph Ceraso’s Sounding Composition: Multimodal Pedagogies for Embodied Listening

Pedagogy at the convergence of sound studies and rhetoric/composition seems to exist in a quantum state—both everywhere and nowhere at the same time.  This realization simultaneously enlightens and frustrates. The first page of Google results for “sound studies” and “writing instruction” turns up tons of pedagogy; almost all of it is aimed at instructors, pedagogues, and theorists, or contextualized in the form of specific syllabi. The same is true for similar searches—such as “sound studies” + “rhetoric and composition”—but one thing that remains constant is that Steph Ceraso, and her new book Sounding Composition (University of Pittsburgh Press: 2018) are always the first responses. This is because Ceraso’s book is largely the first to look directly into the deep territorial expanses of both sound studies and rhet/comp, which in themselves are more of a set of lenses for ever-expanding knowledges than deeply codified practices, and she dares to bring them together, rather than just talking about it. This alone is an act of academic bravery, and it works well.

Ceraso established her name early in the academic discourse surrounding digital and multimodal literacy and composition, and her work has been nothing short of groundbreaking. Because of her scholarly endeavors and her absolute passion for the subject, it is no surprise that some of us have waited for her first book with anticipation. Sounding Composition is a multivalent, ambitious work informs the discipline on many fronts. It is an act of ongoing scholarship that summarizes the state of the fields of digital composition and sonic rhetorics, as well as a pedagogical guide for teachers and students alike.

Through rigorous scholarship and carefully considered writing, Ceraso manages to take many of the often-nervewracking buzzwords in the fields of digital composition and sonic rhetorics and breathe poetic life into them. Ceraso engages in the scholarship of her field by demystifying the its jargon, making accessible to a wide variety of audiences the scholar-specific language and concepts she sets forth and expands from previous scholarship (though it does occasionally feel trapped in the traditional alphabetic prison of academic communication).. Her passion as an educator and scholar infuses her work, and Ceraso’s ontology re-centers all experience–and thus the rhetoric and praxis of communicating that experience–back into the whole body. Furthermore, Ceraso’s writing makes the artificial distinctions between theory and practice dissolve into a mode of thought that is simultaneously conscious and affective, a difficult feat given her genre and medium of publication. Academic writing, especially in the form of a university press book, demands a sense of linearity and fixity that lacks the affordances of some digital formats in terms of envisioning a more organic flow between ideas. However, while the structure of her book broadly follows a standard academic structure, within that structure lies a carefully considered and deftly-organized substructure.

Sounding Composition begins with a theory-based introduction in which Ceraso lays the book’s framework in terms of theory and structure. Then proceeds the chapter on the affective relationship between sound and the whole body. The next chapter investigates the relation of sonic environments and the body, followed by a chapter on our affective relationship with consumer products, in particular the automobile, perhaps the most American of factory-engineered soundscapes. Nested in these chapters is a rhetorical structure that portrays a sense of movement, but rather than moving from the personal out into spatial and consumer rhetorics, Sounding Composition’s chapter structure moves from an illustrative example that clearly explains the point Ceraso makes, into the theories she espouses, into a “reverberation” or a pedagogical discussion of an assignment that helps students better grasp and respond to the concepts providing the basis for her theory. This practice affords Ceraso meditation on her own practices as well as her students’ responses to them, perfectly demonstrating the metacognitive reflection that so thoroughly informs rhet/comp theory and praxis.

Steph Ceraso and students share a “sonic meal.” Photo by Marlayna Demond, UMBC.

Chapter one, “Sounding Bodies, Sounding Experience: (Re)Educating the Senses,” decenters the ears as the sole site of bodily interaction with sound. Ceraso focuses on Dame Evelyn Glennie, a deaf percussionist, who Ceraso claims can “provide a valuable model for understanding listening as a multimodal event” (29) because these practices expand listening to faculties that many, especially the auditorially able, often ignore. Dame Glennie theorizes, and lives, sound from the tactile ways its vibrations work on the whole body. From the new, more comprehensive understanding of sound Dame Glennie’s deafness affords, we can then do the work of “unlearning” our ableist auditory and listening practices, allowing all a more thorough reckoning with the way sound enables us to understand our environments.

The ability to transmit, disrupt, and alter the vibrational aspects of sound are key to understanding how we interact with sound in the world, the focus of the second chapter in Sounding Composition. In “Sounding Space, Composing Experience: The Ecological Practice of Sound Composition,” Ceraso situates her discussion in the interior of the building where she actually composed the chapter. The Common Room in the Cathedral of Learning, on the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus, is vast, ornate, and possessed of a sense of quiet which “seems odd for a bustling university space”(69).  As Ceraso discovered, the room itself was designed to be both vast and quiet, as the goal was to produce a space that both aesthetically and physically represented the solemnity of education.

Cathedral of Learning Ceiling and Columns, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Image by Flickr User Matthew Paulson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

To ensure a taciturn sense of stillness, the building was constructed with acoustic tiles disguised as stones. These tiles serve to not only hearken back to solemn architecture but also to  absorb sound and lend a reverent air of stillness, despite the commotion. The deeply intertwined ways in which we interact with sound in our environment is crucial to further developing Ceraso’s affective sonic philosophy. This lens enables Ceraso to draw together the multisensory ways sound is part of an ecology of the material aspects of the environment with the affective ways we interact with these characteristics. Ceraso focuses on the practices of acoustic designers to illustrate that sound can be manipulated and revised, that sound itself is a composition, a key to the pedagogy she later develops.

Framing the discussion of sound as designable—a media manipulated for a desired impact and to a desired audience–serves well in introducing the fourth chapter, which examines products designed to enhance consumer experience.  “Sounding Cars, Selling Experience: Sound Design in Consumer Products,” moves on to discuss the in-car experience as a technologically designed site of multisensory listening. Ceraso chose the automobile as the subject of this chapter because of the expansive popularity of the automobile, but also because the ecology of sound inside the car is the product of intensive engineering that is then open to further manipulation by the consumer. Whereas environmental sonic ecologies can be designed for a desired effect, car audio is subject to a range of intentional manipulations on the listener. Investigating and theorizing the consumer realm not only opens the possibilities for further theorization, but also enhances the possibility that we might be more informed in our consumer interactions. Understanding the material aspects of multimodal sound also further informs and shapes disciplinary knowledge at the academic level, framing the rhetorical aspect of sonic design as product design so that it focuses on, and caters to, particular audiences for desired effects.

Heading Up the Mountain, Image by Flickr User Macfarland Maclean,(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sounding Composition is a useful and important book because it describes a new rhetoric and because of how it frames all sound as part of an affective ontology.  Ceraso is not the first to envision this ontology, but she is the first to provide carefully considered composition pedagogy that addresses what this ontology looks like in the classroom, which are expressed in the sections in Sounding Composition marked as “Reverberations.”   To underscore the body as the site of lived experience following chapter two, Ceraso’s “reverberation” ask students to think of an experience in which sound had a noticeable effect on their bodies and to design a multimodal composition that translates this experience to an audience of varying abledness. Along with the assignment, students must write an artist statement describing the project, reflecting on the composition process, and explaining each composer’s choices.

To encourage students to think of sound and space and the affective relationship between the two following chapter three, Ceraso developed a digital soundmap on soundcities.com and had students upload sounds to it, while also producing an artist statement similar to the assignment in the preceding chapter. Finally, in considering the consumer-ready object in composition after the automobile chapter, students worked in groups to play with and analyze a sound object, and to report back on the object’s influence on them physically and emotionally. After they performed this analysis, students are then tasked with thinking of a particular audience and creating a new sonic object or making an existing sonic object better, and to prototype the product and present it to the class. Ceraso follows each of these assignment descriptions with careful metacognitive reflection and revision.

Steph Ceraso interviewed by Eric Detweiler in April 2016, host of Rhetoricity podcast. They talked sound, pedagogy, accessibility, food, senses, design, space, earbuds, and more. You can also read a transcript of this episode.

While Sounding Composition contributes to scholarship on many levels, it’s praxis feels the most compelling to me. Ceraso’s love for the theory and pedagogy is clear–and contagious—but when she describes the growth and evolution of her assignments in practice, we are able to see the care that she has for students and their individual growth via sound rhetoric. To Ceraso, the sonic realm is not easily separated from any of the other sensory realms, and it is an overlooked though vitally important part of the way we experience, navigate, and make sense of the world. Ceraso’s aim to decenter the primacy of alphabetic text in creating, presenting, and formulating knowledge might initially appear somewhat contradictory, but the old guard will not die without a fight. It could be argued that this work and the knowledge it uncovers might be better represented outside of an academic text, but that might actually be the point. Multimodal composition is not the rule of the day and though the digital is our current realm, text is still the lingua franca. Though it may seem like it will never arrive, Ceraso is preparing us for the many different attunements the future will require.

Featured Image: Dame Evelyn Glennie Performing in London in 2011, image by Flickr User PowderPhotography (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Airek Beauchampis an Assistant Professor of English at Arkansas State University and Editor-at Large for Sounding Out! His research interests include sound and the AIDS crisis, as well as swift and brutal punishment for any of the ghouls responsible for the escalation of the crisis in favor of political or financial profit. He fell in love in Arkansas, which he feels lends undue credence to a certain Rhianna song. 

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On the Poetics of Balloon Music: Sounding Air, Body, and Latex (Part One)

I see them in the streets and in the subway, at dollar stores, hospital rooms, and parties. I see them silently dangling from electrical cables and tethered to branches of trees. Balloons are ghost-like entities floating through the cracks of places and memories. They are part of our rituals of loss, celebration and apology. Yet, they are also part of larger systems, weather sciences, warfare and surveillance technologies, colonialist forces and the casual UFO conspiracy theory. For a child, the ephemeral life of the balloon contrasts with the joy of its bright colors and squeaky sounds. Psychologists encourage the use of the balloon as an analogy for death, while astronomers use it as a representation for the cosmological inflation of the universe. In between metaphors of beginning and end, the balloon enables dialogues about air, breath, levity, and vibration.

The philosopher Luce Irigaray argues that Western thought has forgotten air despite being founded on it. “Air does not show itself. As such, it escapes appearing as (a) being. It allows itself to be forgotten,” writes Irigaray. Air is confused with absence because it “never takes place in the mode of an ‘entry into presence.'” Gaston Bachelard, in Air and Dreams, calls for a philosophy of poetic imagination that grows out of air’s movement and fluidity. For Bachelard, an aerial imagination brings forth a sense of the sonorous, of transparency and mobility. In this article, I propose exploring the balloon as a sonic device that turns our attention to the element of air and opens space for musical practices outside classical traditions. Here, the balloon is defined broadly as an envelope for air, breath, and lighter-than-air gases, including toy balloons, weather balloons, hydrogen and hot-air balloons.

PLACE /

Vertical Dimension: Early Experiments in Ballooning, Sounding, and Silence

On September 1939, Jean-Paul Sartre was assigned to serve the French military in a meteorological station in Alsace behind the frontline. His duties consisted of launching weather balloons, monitoring them every two hours and radioing the meteorological observations to another station. Faced with the dread of war and an immediate geography that he compared to a “madmen’s delusion,” Sartre took his gaze upwards to the weather balloon and its surrounding atmosphere to find refuge. In Notebooks from a Phony War, Sartre describes the sky as my vertical dimension, a vertical prolongation of myself, and also abode beyond my reach.” The balloon becomes a vessel for an affective relationship with the atmosphere that is mediated by the sounding of meteorological data. While gazing into the upper air, Sartre experiences a tension between the withdrawn”frozen blackness” of the atmosphere and the pull for feelings of oneness with it.

Falling Stars as Observed From the Balloon, Travels in Air by James Glaisher, 1871

The first balloonists to explore the atmosphere felt similar sensations of belonging by moving along masses of air, and at the same time, experiencing a deep sense of otherworldliness. Despite the dangerous enterprise, early balloon travelers repeatedly recounted expressions of the sublime associated with the acoustic qualities of the upper air. Late 18th and 19th-century balloon literature features countless textual soundscapes of balloon ascents that reveal how the experience of sound and silence helped frame early narratives of “being in air/being one with air.”

Ballooning developed in France and England among the emergent noise of industrialized urban life. The balloon prospect, as the author Jesse Taylor put it, spoke to “the Victorian fantasy of rising above the obscurity of urban experience.”  Floating over the city, the English aeronaut Henry Coxwell describes hearing “the roar of London as one unceasing rich and deep sound.” In the same spirit, the balloonist James Glaisher compares the “deep sound of London” to theroar of the sea,” whose “murmuring noise” is heard at great elevations. Ascending to higher altitudes, Coxwell hears the sounds from the earth become “fainter and fainter, until we were lost in the clouds when a solemn silence reigned.”

L’exploration de l’air, In Histoire des ballons et des aÇronauts cÇläbres, 1887

The balloon not only allowed access to a panoramic and surveilling gaze in the midst of boundless space but also a privileged access to a place of quietude and silence. In the memoir Aeronautica (1838), Thomas Monck Mason speaks to this point when he writes, “no human sound vibrated (…) a universal Silence reigned! An empyrean Calm! Unknown to Mortals upon ‘Earth.” According to Mason, when the balloonist goes “undisturbed by interferences of ordinary impressions,” like the sounds from terrestrial life, “his mind more readily admits the influence of those sublime ideas of extension and space.”

The experience of silence in the upper air brought forward in the Victorian white elite the longing for freedom, individuality, and assertion of social identity. Balloon flights provided a form of escapism from the confines of city walls reverberating with the aural manifestations of the Other. In Victorian Soundscapes, John Picker examines the struggles of London’s upper class of creatives (academics, doctors, artists and clergy) in finding spaces of silence away from the bustling noise of the urban environment. During the mid-19th century, the influx of immigration and the rise of commercial trade and street musicians altered the soundscape of the city. As Picker documents, the English elites rallied against this emergent aurality through racialized listening made evident by the use of sonic descriptors like invasion and containment that underlined anxieties related to the dilution of national identity, culture, class division and territory. For the elite, to physically ascend above the noise of the Other into the silent regions of the atmosphere via balloon, an instrument that dramatizes scientific prowess, validated an auditory construction of whiteness organized around ideals of order, rationality and harmony.

Circular View From the Balloon in Airopaidia by Thomas Baldwin, 1786

The descriptions of balloon ascents featured in James Glaisher’s book Travels in the Air (1871) are a vivid manifestation of these ideals. Experiences of floating at high altitudes were often met with poetic reports on the “sublime harmony of colors, light and silence,” the “perfect stillness,” and the “absolute silence” reigning “supreme in all its sad majesty.” The nineteenth century’s constructs of “harmony” and “quietude,” argues Jennifer Stoever, were markers of whiteness used to segregate and de-humanize those who embodied an alternative way of sounding. The Victorian balloon memoir echoes the construction of this sonic identity rooted in the white privilege of being lighter-than-air and claiming atmospheric silence. The balloonist Camille Flammarion, upon hearing “various noises” from the “dark earthbelow, questions what prompts “the listening ear” to be sensitive to difference. “Is it the universal silence which causes our ears to be more attentive?” asks the aeronaut.

Balloon Prospect, In Airopaidia, Thomas Baldwin, 1786

Balloonist’s encounters with silence in the upper air and the sigh of “boundless planes” andinfinite expanse of sky” were accompanied by feelings of safeness and overwhelming serenity. Elaine Freedgood argues that the balloon with its silk folds and wicker baskets were a perfect container for states of regression and the suspension of the boundaries of the self into an oceanic feeling of at-oneness with the atmosphere. According to the author, the self and sublime become momentarily entangled originating a sense of heroic masculinity, power, and the rehearse of imperial and colonial ventures. This emotional state justified an unprecedented mobility and the sense of losing oneself to the whims of the wind with no preoccupations of where to land. However, in an image that contrasts the privileges of mobility, Frederick Douglass uses the metaphor of the balloon as the terrifying anxiety of uncertain landing – either in freedom or slavery. The novel Washington Black (2018) by Esi Edugyan, deals with similar issues by fictionalizing the balloon ascent and traveling of a young slave, whose hearing is tuned to the “ghostly sound of human suffering coming from beneath.

By late 1780s, thousands of people witnessed the European wave of balloon flights, but only a small fraction had access to them. Mi Gyung Kim, author of The Imagined Empire, draws attention to the silence imposed on the figure of the “balloon spectator” whose dissident voices were erased by the dominant colonial narrative of aerial empire. Mostly, the balloon spectator is featured in Victorian texts within a soundscape of affects characterized by “vociferations of joy, shrieks of fearandexpressions of applausethat advanced the dominant colonial narrative.

Ascent of a Balloon in the Presence of the Court of Charles IV by Antonio Carnicero, 1783

Although explorations in sound were one of the many goals to legitimize the balloon as an instrument in modern natural philosophy, the scientific utility of the balloon succumbed to spectacle and entertainment. Early aeronauts tried to use their voices and speaking trumpets to sound the atmosphere and experiment with echo as a measurement of distance. Derek McCornack in his book Atmospheric Things, says that these balloonists were most of all “generating a sonorous affective-aesthetic experiencewith the atmosphere. Along with scientific tools, balloonists often ascended with musical instruments and, in other instances, the balloon itself became the stage for operatic performances. More than a century before modern composers had transformative encounters with silence in anechoic chambers, aeronauts had already described its subjective qualities and effects in detail. In 1886, the photographer John Doughty and reluctant balloon traveler, while floating in a silent ocean of air, recalls hearing only two bodily sounds: “the blood is plainly heard as it pulses through the brain; while in moments of extra excitement the beating of the heart sounds so loud as almost to constitute an interruption to our thoughts.”

Travels in the Air, James Glaisher, 1871

PROBE /

I feel like a balloon going up into the atmosphere, looking, gathering information, and relaying it back. Rachel Rosenthal, 1985

The first untethered balloon ascents happened between 1783 and 1784. In current literature, this period is most cited for the patent of the steam engine, the beginning of the carbonification of the atmosphere by the burning of coal, and the start of the Anthropocene. In the industrialized society, the balloon floats through irreversibly modified atmospheres. “We are still rooted in air,” writes Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos. However, this air is partitioned and engineered to facilitate consumerism, war, terror and pollution.

Contemporary art practices using the balloon address some of these concerns. The balloon functions as an atmospheric probe that reveals “invisible topographies” andpolitics of air” such as human interference, air quality, air ownership, borders, surveillance and the privileges of buoyancy. As a playful, non-threatening object, the balloon can elicit practices of inclusivity (e.g. balloon mapping) and affect. The transmission and reception of sound and music through the balloon help manifest air’s qualities and warrants artistic and social encounters with weather systems.

“Travels in the Air” by James Glaisher, 1871

During the 6th Annual Avant-Garde Festival parade going up Central Park West in 1968, the body of the cellist Charlotte Moorman rose a few feet above the floor attached to a bouquet of helium-filled balloons. This led the police to chase her and demand an FCC license for flying, to which Moorman replied: “I’m not flying – I’m floating.” Moorman was performing a piece called Sky Kiss, conceived by the visual artist Jim McWilliams that involved cello playing suspended by balloons.

In an interview for the book Topless Cellist by Joan Rothfuss, McWilliams explains that the original concept of Sky Kiss was to sever the connection between the cello’s endpin and the floor and expand the idea of kiss to an aerial experience. According to Rothfuss, McWilliams intended this piece to be an expression of the ethereal. But Moorman preferred the playfulness and the communal experience of the airspace. Instead of avant-garde music, she played popular tunes like “Up up and away” and “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Dressed with a super-heroin satin cape, Moorman infused Sky Kiss with humor and visual spectacle, posing a challenge to the restrictive access to buoyancy.

Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik, Sky Kiss by Jim McWilliams, above the Sydney Opera House Forecourt, 1976, Kaldor Public Art Project 5, Photo by Karry Dundas

Furthermore, Charlotte Moorman collaborated with sky artist Otto Piene to establish the right quantities of lighter-than-air gas to reach higher altitudes. Otto Piene, was a figure of the postwar movement Zero and coined the term Sky Art to describe his flying sculptures, multimedia balloon operas, and kinetic installations. For Piene, a child growing up during World War II, “the blue sky had been a symbol of terror in the aerial war.” The balloon collaboration between Charlotte Moorman and Otto Piene was a form of acknowledging aerial space in a musical and peaceful way. In his manifesto Paths to Paradise (1961), Piene questions: why do we have no exhibitions in the sky?(…) up to now we have left it to war to dream up a naive light ballet for the night skies, we have left it up to war to light up the sky.

Phil Dadson’s work Breath of Wind (2008) lifts an entire brass band of 24 musicians into the sky with 17 hot-air balloons. Brass instruments, usually associated with moments of revelation in religious texts, serve here as a calling for an aesthetic experience of wind and air currents. Since 1970s, Dadson’s environmental activism has brought forward sonic tensions between the human subject and Aeolian forces, as in Hoop flags (1970), Flutter (2003) or Aerial Farm (2004).

Similarly, the artist Luke Jerram displaces the experience of a concert hall to the sky. His project Sky Orchestra comprises of seven hot-air balloons floating across a city with speakers playing a soundscapes design to induce peaceful dreams. The hot-air balloon orchestra ascends at dawn or dusk so the airborne music can reach people’s homes during sleep or while in states of semi-consciousness. The sound-targeting of residential areas during periods of dimmed awareness exposes the entangling capacities of airspace, and the vulnerability of the private space.

Artist and architect Usman Haquem utilizes a cloud of helium balloons as a platform to identify and sonify changes in the electromagnetic spectrum. This project, Sky Ear (2004), reveals our meddling with the urban Hertzian culture via mobile phones and other electronic devices. Andrea Polli’s environmental work features sonifications of data sets captured by weather balloons. These sonifications provide audiences an emotional window to frame complex climate data. In Sound Ship (descender 1) by Joyce Hinterding and David Haines, an Aelion harp is attached to a weather balloon that ascends into the edges of space. The result is a musical trace of the vertical volume of our atmosphere and the sonification of masses of air as the balloon journeys upwards.

Haines and Hinterding, Sound Ship (decender1), 4-min extract, 2016

Yoko Ono and John Lennon created similar exercise in sounding in the film Apotheosis (1970). A boom microphone and camera attached to a hydrogen balloon ascends over a small English town documenting a sonic geography of the upper air. The artists stay in the ground as the balloon rises. In a period of great media spectacle, the couple choses to stay with trouble while balloon records Earth’s utterances slowly fading into atmospheric silence.

It is important to note that these musical and sound based works that expose the physicality of air movements and assemble affective meanings with atmosphere and weather systems are not particular to contemporary practices. The scholar Jane Randerson draws attention to indigenous modes of knowing and sensing air and the weather that incorporate sounding instruments. In Weather as Medium, Randerson writes: “in Indigenous cosmologies, the sense of interconnectedness “discovered” in late modern meteorological science merely described what many cultures already sensed and encoded in social and environmental lore.”

The balloon has a lighter than air object mediates our relationship with the airspace and offers opportunities to expand our aerial imagination. By sensing changes in the atmosphere, the balloon is a platform that generates knowledge and can help us experiment with new forms of being-in-air some inclusive and empowering, others much more invested in exclusivity sounded through the rare air of silence and the silencing power dynamics fostered via the view from above.

I would like to express my immense gratitude to Jennifer Stoever for editing this paper and for sharing her scholarship and input on this article. Thank you to Phil Dadson for sharing his video.

 

Featured Image: Scientific Balloon of James Glaisher, 1862, Georges Naudet Collection, Creative Commons

Carlo Patrão is a Portuguese radio producer and independent researcher based in New York city. 

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Sonic Contact Zones: An Interview with DJs MALT and Eat Paint in Koreatown, Los Angeles

On Sunday, February 21, Atlanta-based hip-hop photographer Gunner Stahl will be DJing at a raw space being built at 4317 Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles’ Koreatown as part of the Red Bull Music Festival. Red Bull suggests that many of the photographer’s artistic subjects, such as Tyler the Creator, Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert, Gucci Mane, and/or The Weeknd might make guest appearances during his set. This star-studded stage with financial backing from the drink that gives you wings will stand across the street from Vilma’s Thrift Store, DolEx Dollar Express, Gina’s Beauty Salon, and Botanica Y Joyeria El Milagro. Tickets are a modest $15. At first glance, the location choice might seem odd; why not the legendary Wiltern Theater just down the street on Western? Or why not set up a stage inside MacArthur Park? Those are definitely options, and many performers do grace the stage of The Wiltern for fans in Koreatown and the greater Los Angeles area. However, for those who know Los Angeles’ Koreatown gets down, discounted snacks and pedicures a stone skip away from millionaires sounds just about right.

Figuring out these connections between sound, capital, culture, ethnicity, and art in LA’s Koreatown has been a popular pursuit in recent years. The year was 2014. The place was The Park Plaza Hotel on the outskirts of Los Angeles’ Koreatown. The people performing were TOKiMONSTA (Jennifer Lee), Far East Movement (Kevin Nishimura, James Roh, Jae Choung, and Virman Coquia), Dumbfoundead (Jonathan Park), and others. The reporter was Erik Kristman for Vice Media’s Thump. In the article titled “SPAM N EGGS Festival Was a Window to LA’s Multiculturalist Underground Movement,” Kristman proclaims: “Koreatown’s spectrum of sound, a culture hidden beneath its mid-Wilshire scenery, is no doubt one of the few remaining jewels of the LA underground.”

In Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital (1996), Sarah Thornton writes that DJs “play a key role in the enculturation of records for dancing, sometimes as an artist but always as a representative and respondent to the crowd. By orchestrating the event and anchoring the music in a particular place, the DJ became a guarantor of subcultural authenticity” (60). Asian American DJs performed in Koreatown, so the electronic music and hip hop they mixed was enculturated not only with a Los Angeles neighborhood flair but also with an ethnic twist.

Park Plaza Hotel, Taken by Flickr User Cathy Cole (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Park Plaza Hotel, now The MacArthur, has its own important history as a venue as well. Built in the 1920s by prominent Los Angeles-based architect Claud Beelman, the building has hosted the racially exclusive Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, night clubs such as Power Tools with attendees such as Andy Warhol, and has been a site of numerous films and music videos such as Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” (2017). It survived the demolishing of similar Art Deco buildings during the 1980s. It survived the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of four police officers who beat Rodney King and the killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du, the Korean-born convenience store owner of Empire Liquor on 91st Street and Figueroa Avenue. It survived, if not flourished, in the subsequent gentrification of the Wilshire Center area with eager real estate agents and endowed buyers who are made nostalgic by the building’s Art Deco façade. The right DJs playing in a prime spot such as The MacArthur could definitely guarantee a level of Los Angeles subcultural authenticity for attendees. But what kind of authentic? And was that something anyone was trying to go for?

Kristman’s caricaturization of Koreatown certainly reveals how this visage of authenticity affected him. In his words, Koreatown is a diamond waiting to be mined. Koreatown is hidden. Koreatown’s “spectrum of sound” takes the singular verb “is,” meaning it functions as a unified, indistinguishable whole. Kristman has “no doubt” about his analysis of his authentic trip to Koreatown.

The openers of Spam N Eggs that night were two techno DJs and producers named MALT (Andrew Seo) and Eat Paint (Vince Fierro). Together, they run the Los Angeles-based Leisure Sports Records. We met at the Seoul-based coffeehouse Caffé Bene in Los Angeles to share misugaru lattes and talk about Kristman’s statement.

“I definitely wouldn’t call ‘Koreatown’ very underground,” says Vince. “It’s certainly become a new social center to LA’s night life, and there was a time when there was a feeling of great potential for a solid underground movement. But sadly, there have not been any significantly artistic home-grown breakthroughs coming from K-Town.”

Vince continues: “Rather, it serves as a new landing pad for the very commercialized Korean hip-hop and EDM cultures in Los Angeles. These genres dominate the K-Town club landscape. Unfortunately [pause] to me, anyway [pause] it’s success not won with any kind of daring artistry or underground legitimacy but rather with familiar aesthetics and neon lights.”

“[Los Angeles] helps them, too,” adds Andrew. “They’ll close off streets and bring in vendors because it gets people out spending money. A lot of the Korean stars come out for these events, but the thing is [pause] what kinds of people are these events attracting? Obviously, Koreans, or people that are fans of Korean music. I think Korean people here have a lot of pride, and they see that there is a rise in the culture and the area’s popularity and they’re jumping on that. They’re trying to make it bigger and better. If you walk around Koreatown, you’ll see gentrification happening everywhere.” He references the Wilshire Grand Center, the Hanjin Group-owned skyscraper that stands taller than any other west of the Mississippi, and its surroundings as evidence.

Urban studies carried out by Kyonghwan Park and Youngmin Lee, Kyeyoung Park and Jessica Kim, and others on Koreatown’s fraught relationship with surges of capital have made similar acknowledgments in wonderful detail. These surges are not evenly distributed among clubs; there are many more “secret” dimly-lit rave spots that pop up throughout the district than there are widely advertised above-ground clubs in Koreatown. Even relatively established clubs such as Union at 4067 West Pico Boulevard or Feria at 682 Irolo Street were not glamorous (and both have closed since the time this recent interview was conducted); they are surrounded by predatory lending offices and abandoned shops. Andrew gave me the address of an upcoming rave spot in Koreatown; it was basically under an apartment complex.

“I think they just want to bring what they build in Korea over here because that’s how they do it over there,” adds Andrew. “They just have apartments and then clubs and restaurants underneath or underground. It’s kind of like how Tokyo is.”

If this “hidden, underground” Koreatown culture does exist, as Kristman suggests, then finding it requires ignoring the flashing lights of Spam N Eggs and seeking out the darker warehouse raves. It also requires a level of suspended disbelief that Koreatown is untouched by hipster gentrification and instead an embracing of a subcultural essence that goes beyond city architecture and real estate. The physical space of sections of Koreatown might not be as important as the potential for the production of space in terms of creating sonic contact zones.

sign in Koreatown, Los Angeles by Flickr User vince Lammin (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The zones created by artists such as Malt and Eat Paint are mobile and fleeting as they pop up whenever and wherever these DJs perform. Like Josh Kun famously put forward in his book Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (2005), the music these musicians produce and mix has the ability to create audiotopias “of cultural counter that may not be physical places but nevertheless exist in their own auditory some-where” (2-3). Electronic music, and perhaps similarly this “jewel-like” spectrum of Koreatown sound, has the ability to implant identity into the buildings and surrounding neighborhoods. What once was a Mexican restaurant and is now abandoned becomes a pulsating techno club attracting those Angelenos who shy away from the more commercial scenes.

Perhaps Kristman was focusing more on the Asian American DJs themselves than the types of music they were spinning or The Park Plaza Hotel and its situation in Koreatown. As Asian Americans, these DJs represent and are representative of an authentic subculture to which Kristman bears witness. However, many artists shy away from or sometimes outright deny any racial or ethnic connections being made between their art and their identities. Andrew and Vince shared personal and well-known examples of ambivalent attitudes toward such labeling. Jason Chung, also known as Nosaj Thing, is one of the best-booked electronic performers today, flying around the world sponsored by Adidas or playing huge shows with Flying Lotus. Vince, who worked very closely with Jason just as his career was taking off, reflects on Nosaj’s rise: “Everyone here in K-Town thinks Nosaj Thing is a god. But if you ask him about his pride in being Korean, he won’t say anything.”

Andrew adds: “It’s just like how Qbert is for the Filipino community – that’s who Nosaj Thing is for Koreans today. When I went to South Korea to perform, they would ask me how I was affiliated with him, although I’m not really. South Koreans are amazed to see a Korean guy make it in the music industry in America with a sense of originality, not having to sell out.”

Both Andrew and Vince shift the conversation suddenly to Keith Ape and his debut as a trap music artist. Keith Ape’s success was due in part to spectacle (as the genre demands), to the power of hallyu promotion, but more so to simple respect from established artists such as Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame. In a Noisey documentary about his first U.S. performance at South by Southwest (SXSW) in 2015, Keith Ape is translated as saying: “You know, I’m Asian. And I heard stories of how Asians are still looked at as outsiders in the States. And I heard it’s even worse when it comes down to hip-hop.”

While his successful Atlanta trap-style set at SXSW ultimately assuaged those fears of acceptance, for many beginning and working Asian American DJs and performers, this perceived and sometimes enforced musical barrier is daunting. While Andrew seemed to have his criticisms about how Korean promoters of Korean artists seem to be strictly focused on the commercial payoff of such events, he did not condemn their tapping into the United States market. Furthermore, he never mentioned that performing in the electronic music genre was either assisted or hindered by his ethnicity. Rather, much like Nosaj Thing, Malt lets the music do its work and create an audiotopia in which race and ethnicity are not under the spotlight. Literally, most of the shows Malt performs at do not feature the performer; the DJ is often in the dark, putting the focus almost exclusively on the music.

MALT, courtesy of Leisure Sports Records

Vince adds: “Korean American artists like Nosaj Thing and TOKiMONSTA and David Choe – all these people are doing their own thing. They’ve got these ‘don’t see me as Asian’ mottos, these ‘just think I’m dope’ vibes.”

Instead of searching for authenticity in the racial or ethnic identities of performers, Andrew is more interested in breaking stereotypes about the dangers associated with techno music, raves, and drug use. Andrew concludes: “I think first impressions are very, very important to Korean people. Looks are everything. South Korea is like the biggest plastic surgery country in the world. I went to Korea to visit my grandma, who I hadn’t seen in a long time, and all she would ask me was like, ‘Are you eating well? Look at your hair!’ Just purely about my looks. I was telling her, ‘Grandma! I run a label back in LA! I’m trying to be a musician!’ At our events, random Korean people walk by, they’ll come in for five seconds, listen to the music, and label it as ‘drug music,’ like something you listen to when you’re messed up. The same thing could be said about trap or EDM, right? But they don’t associate it with that. Hopefully, if the right timing comes, we can change that somehow.”

Featured Image: TOKiMONSTA by Twitter User Henry Faber, 2011 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Shawn Higgins is the Academic Coordinator of the Undergraduate Bridge Program at Temple University’s Japan campus. His latest publication is “Orientalist Soundscapes, Barred Zones, and Irving Berlin’s China,” coming out in the 2018 volume of Chinese America: History and Perspectives.

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