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On “The Dream Life of Voice:” A Rerecording of Bernadette Mayer Reading from The Ethics of Sleep

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Voices CarryWelcome to Voices Carry. . . a forum meditating on the material production of human voices the social, historical, and political material freighting our voices in various contexts.  What are voices? Where do they come from and how are their expressions carried? What information can voices carry? Why, how, and to what end?  Today John Melillo offers us a multi-track rerecording of Bernadette Mayer reading from The Ethics of Sleep. He urges us to “value illegibility over legibility and the abstract over the figured. If we deemphasize voice, we acknowledge the ways in which voices can undo themselves in their production.”  –SO! Ed. Jennifer Stoever


What separates voice from noise? At what point does a voice dissipate into the sounds that surround and, at times, threaten to overwhelm it? In “The Dream Life of Voice,” I draw special attention to the ways in which attending to voice—and its precarity—entails a heightened sensation of noise. Through my manipulation of recorded audio in this project, I argue that noise is not merely an unwanted or surprising sound: it is the material sonic trace of an unconscious listening that continues to work beneath, around, and within a conscious listening to voice.

In this audio recording, I have taken a selection from a reading by the poet Bernadette Mayer that I recorded for the Tucson-based poetry and arts organization, POG, on February 6, 2016. I used a standard SM58 microphone, a digital audio recording interface, and the software program Logic. Mayer is known as a poet who has tested the boundaries of poetic statement through poems that engage with the conscious and unconscious uses of language. In this selection, she reads a long poem from her book The Ethics of Sleep (Trembling Pillow Press, 2011) on the power of dreams and dream language. In the performance, the poem and her voice create a sense of continuous movement, with quick and unpredictable turns of phrase sutured together by a syntactic and rhythmic familiarity. In this audio project, I flatten the sonic space in this recording of Mayer in order to abstract the voice and place it within a wider frequency spectrum of noise. Just as Mayer’s words engage her book’s title, my audio project argues for the possibility of an unconscious but engaged listening to noise.

Bernadette-Mayer4

“Bernadette Mayer’s 1971 performance piece, Memory, for which she shot a roll of 35 mm film and composed a journal entry every day for a month, addresses issues of time, narrative, nostalgia, narcissism, and documentation, along with the possibilities of art and poetry in relation to perception and remembrance.” – Marcella Durand, Hyperallergic

Roland Barthes famously defined listening as “a psychological act” and hearing as a mere “physiological phenomenon” (Barthes 246). In a kind of doubling of listening’s action, the work of formulating or understanding a voice involves a selecting for sounds as a significant figure—the mark of a person or persona. Yopie Prins calls the recorded, mediated voice of 19th century poetry a “voice inverse,” a prosthetic figure composed out of its imprint by mechanical means, whether those means be metrical, print-based, or phonographic (48). Of such mechanical means—in particular, audio recording—Charles Bernstein argues, “the mechanical semblance of voice has become the signal in a medium whose material base is sonic, not vocal. In such a phonic economy, noise is sound that can’t be recuperated as voice” (110). In taking up this binary phonic economy, however, I want to hear how voice and noise interweave and interpenetrate, with the sonic figuration of voice as a threshold that opens out to other sounds not ostensibly included in its composition.

Press Play to hear “The Dream Life of Voice” by John Melillo, a rerecording of Bernadette Mayer reading from The Ethics of Sleep.

In this 12’43” audio recording, I have devised an analytic and synthetic method that allows listeners to reframe and refocus their hearing toward the trace of noise in voice, as well as the voice’s trace in noise. The final recording is composed of three simultaneous tracks, each of which represents a different “noise regime” in relation to the poet’s voice.

The first, original, track contains the “straight” recording of Mayer’s voice and speech: one hears her performance of the poem loud and clear. This is the imprint of voice on the recording mechanism in a phonic economy of voice and noise, in which voice seems to counteract and silence its opposite.

The second track contains a manipulated version of the original track, in which I have removed all the audio of Mayer’s voice and constructed a “background noise” track from what remains. In this method, I simply cut out Mayer’s voice from the audio file, keeping only the “silent” moments of the reading. I then combined and looped these fragments to create an amplified track of the background sounds—sounds of the people in the room, cars outside, a train passing, and the recording medium itself (hiss). In this way, I flip the binary toward that which is explicitly unheard in the recording.

For the third track, I manipulated the original recording by applying a Fast Fourier Transform with the software program Spear. This method breaks down the sounds into a collection of sine wave frequencies that can be graphically manipulated in the software program. I then removed the loudest frequencies (present mostly as Mayer’s voice) in order to emphasize the upper partials and continuous non-vocal frequencies masked by the force of the voice. This track marks a synthesis in which voice blends with and disappears into the frequency spectrum.

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“Unsmoothed” by Flickr user Felix Morgner, CC BY-SA 2.0

I combined these three tracks and slowly adjusted the volume for each one. The track with Mayer’s voice starts off as the loudest of the three. Her comments on the noise from a train that has just passed begin the montage. This track then undergoes a long, slow diminuendo, and by the end of the piece, it is silenced. At the same time, the background noise track becomes louder and peaks in the middle, interfering with and working alongside the voice. The track of synthesized frequencies slowly crescendos so that it is loudest at the end of the piece.

By distributing the volumes in this chiasmatic way, I want to call attention to the layered listenings happening within the situation of Mayer’s reading. Just as the figure of voice arises out of the ground of noise, it also contains frequencies that are not so easily differentiated from their background. A voice is an acoustic entity figured by a body and a performance. However habitual and repetitive the action is, it takes effort to suture vocal sounds to the body, place, and apparatus that they emanate from. In this track I want to find a way to hear a drifting, unconscious meandering within that focused effort. I want to materialize listening’s paratactic wavering of attention to one thing after another.

In the production of this movement toward noise, I value illegibility over legibility and the abstract over the figured. If we deemphasize voice, we acknowledge the ways in which voices can undo themselves in their production—which is the ethics of dream life that Mayer argues for and illuminates within her poem. The outside within the voice is a frequency scatter that connects the dissipation of an emitted sound in space with all the other sounds that interfere or resonate with that sound. The strange whisper music that ends my audio project “flattens” the sonic space idealized by the division of figure and ground. By abstracting Bernadette Mayer’s performance, I seek a synthesis that brings the noisy dream life of voice into relief.

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Featured Image: “Scream” by Flickr user Josh Otis CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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 John Melillo is an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Arizona. His book project, Outside In: The Poetics of Noise from Dada to Punk, examines the ways in which poetry and performance make noise during the twentieth century. He has written and presented work on empathy in sound poetry, folk-song utopianism, the post-punk band DNA, and tape noise in Charles Olson. John performs music and sound art as Algae & Tentacles.

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Listening to the Beautiful Game: The Sounds of the 2018 World Cup

I heard them before I saw them. Walking to my apartment in Moscow’s Tverskoy District, I noticed a pulsating mass of sound in the distance. Turning the corner, I found a huge swath of light blue and white and—no longer separated by tall Stalinist architecture—was able to clearly make out the sounds of Spanish. Flanked by the Izvestiia building (the former mouthpiece for the Soviet government), Argentinian soccer fans had taken over nearly an entire city block with their revelry. The police, who have thus far during the tournament been noticeably lax in enforcing traffic and pedestrian laws, formed a boundary to keep fans from spilling out into the street. Policing the urban space, the bodies of officers were able to contain the bodies of reveling fans, but the sounds and voices spread freely throughout the neighborhood.

Moscow is one of eleven host cities throughout Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which runs from June 14 to July 15. Over one million foreign fans are expected to enter the country over the course of the tournament, and it is an important moment in Vladimir Putin’s attempt to reassert Russia’s power on the global stage. Already, it has been called “the most political tournament ever,” and discussions of hooliganism, safety concerns, and corruption have occupied many foreign journalists in the months leading up to the start. So gloomy have these preambles been that writers are now releasing opinion pieces expressing their surprise at Moscow’s jubilant and exciting atmosphere. Indeed, it seems as though the whole world is not only watching the games, but also listening attentively to try to discern Russia’s place in the world.

Police officers during World Cup 2018 in Russia, Image by Flickr User Marco Verch (CC BY 2.0)

Thus it comes as no surprise that the politics of sound surrounding the tournament have the potential to highlight the successes, pitfalls, and contradictions of the “beautiful game.” Be it vuvuzelas or corporate advertising, sound and music has shaped the lived experience of the World Cup in recent years. And this tournament is no exception: after their team’s 2-1 win over Tunisia on June 18, three England fans were filmed singing anti-semitic songs and making Nazi salutes in a bar in Volgograd. That their racist celebrations took place in Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad and the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, added historical insult and even more political significance. The incident has shaped reception of England fans and their sounds across the country. As journalist Alec Luhn recently tweeted, police cordoned off singing England supporters in Nizhny Novgorod after their victory over Panama, ostensibly keeping the risk of hooliganism at bay. The incident stands in stark contrast with the police barrier around the Argentina fans, who were being protected not from supporters of other nationalities, but rather from oncoming traffic.

More than anything, however, sound has facilitated cultural exchange between fans and spectators. In recent years, historians and musicologists have paid more attention to the multivalent ways musical exchanges produce meaningful political and social understandings. Be it through festivals, diplomatic programs, or compositional techniques, music plays a powerful role in the soft power of nations and can cultivate relationships between individuals around the globe. More broadly, sound—be it organized or not—shapes our identity and is one of the ways by which we make meaning in the world. Sound, then, has the potential to vividly structure the experience of the World Cup—a moment at which sound, bodies, individuals, and symbolic nations collide.

At the epicenter of all of this has been Red Square, Moscow’s—and perhaps Russia’s—most iconic urban space. The site of many fan celebrations throughout the World Cup, Red Square’s soundscape brings together a wide variety of national identities, socio-economic considerations, and historical moments. To walk through Red Square in June 2018 is to walk through over five-hundred years of Russian history, emblematized by the ringing bells and rust-colored walls of the Kremlin; through nearly eighty years of Soviet rule, with the bustle and chatter of curious tourists waiting to enter Lenin’s tomb; and through Russia’s (at times precarious) global present, where fans from Poland join with those from Mexico in chants of “olé” and Moroccan supporters dance and sing with their South Korean counterparts. The past, present, and an uncertain future merge on Red Square, and the sonic community formed in this public space becomes a site for the negotiation of all three.

Map of Red Square

In the afternoon of June 19, I walked through Red Square to listen to the sounds of the World Cup outside the stadium. At the entrance to Red Square stands a monument to Grigory Zhukov, the Soviet General widely credited with victory over the Nazis in World War II. Mounted upon a rearing horse, Zhukov’s guise looms large over the square. In anticipation of that evening’s match between Poland and Senegal at Moscow’s Spartak Stadium, Polish fans were gathered at the base of Zhukov’s monument and tried to summon victory through chants and songs (Poland would end up losing the match 2-1.) Extolling the virtues of their star player, Robert Lewandowski, the fans played with dynamics and vocal timbres to assert their dominance. Led by a shirtless man wearing a police peaked cap, the group’s spirit juxtaposed with Zhukov’s figure reiterated the combative military symbolism of sporting events. Their performance also spoke to the highly gendered elements of World Cup spectatorship: male voices far outnumbered female, and the deeper frequencies traveled farther across space and architectural barriers. The chants and songs, especially those that were more militaristic like this one, reasserted the perception of soccer as a “man’s sport.” Their voices resonated with much broader social inequalities and organizational biases between the Women’s and Men’s World Cups.

From there, I walked through the gates onto Red Square and was greeted by a sea of colors and hundreds of bustling fans. Flanked by the tall walls of the Kremlin on one side and the imposing façade of GUM (a department store) on the other, the open square quickly became cacophonous. Traversing the crowds, however, the “white noise” of chatter ceded to pockets of organized sound and groups of fans. Making a lap of the square, I walked from the iconic onion domes of St. Basil’s cathedral past a group of chanting fans from Poland, who brought a man wearing a Brazil jersey and woman with a South Korean barrette into the fold. Unable to understand Polish, the newcomers were able to join in on the chant’s onomatopoeic chorus. Continuing on, I encountered a group of Morocco supporters who, armed with a hand drum, sang together in Arabic. Eventually, their song morphed into the quintessential cheer of “olé,” at which point the entire crowd joined in. I went from there past a group of Mexico fans, who were posing for an interview while nearby stragglers sang. The pattern continued for much of my journey, as white noise and chatter ceded to music and chants, which in turn dissipated either as I continued onward or fans became tired.

Despite their upcoming match, Senegalese fans were surprisingly absent. Compared to 2014 statistics, Poland had seen a modest growth of 1.5% in fans attending the 2018 World Cup—unsurprising, given the country’s proximity to Russia and shared (sometimes begrudgingly) history. Meanwhile, Senegal was not among the top fifty countries in spectator increases. That’s not to say, of course, that Senegalese supporters were not there; they were praised after the match for cleaning up garbage from the stands. Rather, geography and, perhaps, socio-economic barriers delimited the access fans have to attending matches live as opposed to watching them from home. With the day’s match looming large, their sounds were noticeably missing from the soundscape of Red Square.

Later that evening, I stopped to watch a trio of Mexico fans dancing to some inaudible music coming from an iPhone. Standing next to me was a man in a Poland jersey. I started chatting with him in (my admittedly not great) Polish to ask where he was from, if he was enjoying the World Cup so far, and so on. Curious, I asked what he thought of all the music and songs that fans were using in celebrations. “I don’t know,” he demurred. “They’re soccer songs. They’re good to sing together, good for the spirit.”

Nodding, I turned back toward the dancing trio.

“You are Russian, yes?” The man’s question surprised me.

“No,” I responded. “I’m from America.”

“Oh,” he paused. “You sound Russian. You don’t look Russian, but you sound Russian.”

I’d been told before that I speak Polish with a thick Russian accent, and it was not the first time I’d heard that I did not look Russian. In that moment, the visual and sonic elements of my identity, at least in the eyes and ears of this Polish man, collided with one another. At the World Cup, jerseys could be taken off and traded, sombreros and ushankas passed around, and flags draped around the shoulders of groups of people. Sounds—and voices in particular—however, seemed equal parts universal and unique. Emanating from the individual and resonating throughout the collective, voices bridged a sort of epistemological divide between truth and fiction, authenticity and cultural voyeurism. In that moment, as jubilant soccer fans and busy pedestrians mingled, sonic markers of identity fluctuated with every passerby.

I nodded a silent goodbye to my Polish acquaintance and, joining the crowd, set off into the Moscow evening.

Featured Image: “World Cup 2018” Taken by Flickr User Ded Pihto, taken on June 13, 2018.

Gabrielle Cornish is a PhD candidate in Musicology at the Eastman School of Music. Her research broadly considers music, sound, and everyday life in the Soviet Union. In particular, her dissertation traces the intersections between music, technology, and the politics of “socialist modernity” after Stalinism. Her research in Russia has been supported by the Fulbright Program, the Glenn Watkins Traveling Fellowship, and the Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Research Fellowship from the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Other projects include Russian-to-English translation as well as a digital project that maps the sounds and music of the Space Race.

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Brasil Ao Vivo!: The Sonic Pleasures of Liveness in Brazilian Popular Culture

Sound and Pleasure2After a rockin’ (and seriously informative) series of podcasts from Leonard J. Paul, a Drrty South banger dropped by SO! Regular Regina Bradley, a screamtastic meditation from Yvon Bonenfant, and a heaping plate of food sounds from Steph Ceraso, our summer Sound and Pleasure series gets even louder with Kariann Goldschmidts work on live events in Brazil. Brasil Ao Vivo! –-JS, Editor-in-Chief

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Brazilians pray, cheer and celebrate in public and often in close physical proximity to each other.  From the nearly 3 million people that flocked to Copacabana Beach to hear Pope Francis lead a mass in 2013 to the huge crowds that regularly turn out for concerts at Maracanã stadium, Brazilians earn their global reputation for large-scale public events. Of course there is Carnival in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador; the largest LGBT Pride Parade in the world held in São Paulo; and then there is football.

The relationship between large-scale public events and sound hit home as the country reacted to the national team’s humiliating loss to Germany in the semi-final round of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The world witnessed a different kind of public outpouring as the Brazilian public mourned. Within hours of the initial shock at the lopsided score, images of Brazilian football fans weeping and screaming in the stadium and on the street became a humorous meme with music and sound playing a prominent role. By the next day, most Brazilian football observers were taking pleasure in the public spectacle of weeping fans.  With the abundance of images featuring hysteria,  videos mocking the intensity of the crying went viral with dramatic musical scores. One observer proclaimed : “essa capacidade de rir de nós mesmos é uma das melhores qualidades”; the capacity to laugh at ourselves is one of our best qualities. That Brazilians express all varieties of emotions and annual passages together in public for everyone to witness, even when they border on campy excess, allow for everyone to feel the pleasures of community and the power of public performance.

"Abschlussfeier Maracana Fifa WM 2014" by Flickr user Marco Verch, CC BY 2.0

“Abschlussfeier Maracana Fifa WM 2014” by Flickr user Marco Verch, CC BY 2.0

All of this led me to believe that such a public culture has an effect on the aesthetics of what performance studies scholar Philip Auslander calls “liveness” in recorded music and related viral media. Auslander argues that the appeal of liveness for television broadcasts, concerts, and other stage performances allows audiences to feel the immediacy of the moment even if the presence of mediation, such as screens and on-air censorship, is obvious. The international spectacle of Brazilians emoting en masse, then, has a direct relationship with Brazilian sonic aesthetics. Nowhere, I argue, is this more prominent than in the (sometimes viral) popularity of live recordings.

That immediacy Auslander speaks of spreads to many aspects of Brazilian popular culture, including the popularity of concert DVDs and albums which are regularly listed among the most popular domestic recordings. In fact, concert records tend to be more popular than the studio albums that inspire the tour. These live albums often carry the designations Ao Vivo, live or MTV Acústico (the equivalent of the Unplugged albums popular in the United States), and they are often recorded in such a way so as to feature the interaction of the crowds. In place of the draw for authenticity (a value that permeates the MTV Unplugged recordings) is the love for community, and for experiencing big emotions together no matter how obviously they are mediated through cameras, microphones and other technology. Through the example of the continued popularity of live albums in Brazil, there is an opening for a different theorization for sounding liveness; in place of celebrating canonic performances and virtuosity, the valorization of liveness in Brazil reinforces the importance of crowds and the so-called “popular classes” at the root of the politicized singer-songwriter genre MPB or Música Popular Brasileira.

The pleasure and preference for live recordings also extends to social media. For meme chasers, a good example of this is Michel Teló’s 2011 hit “Ai Se Eu Te Pego.” The song and video were recorded ao vivo before a crowd dominated by young women. A close listen reveals that sounds of Teló’s female audience members are just as important as his voice  even if his voice is only slightly louder in the mix. There is barely a moment in the recording when the audience stops making itself heard; the engineering revels in their presence. This is especially obvious during the opening seconds of the track when Teló and his audience sing “Nossa, nossa / assim você me mata / Ai, se eu te pego / Ai, ai, se eu te pego” [Wow, wow / you kill me like that / Ah, if I could get you / ah, ah, if I could get you] in unison at nearly the same volume in the mix. When the accordion and electric bass (crucial instruments for the song’s forró style) finally enter over the screaming audience, there is a noticeable break in the tension set up by the audience and Teló singing together. Their cries, like those in other live recordings, illustrate Teló’s appeal to the crowd in that moment while also allowing other listeners to imagine themselves there.

Teló’s song went viral (as of this writing, the official version currently has nearly 580 million views on YouTube and over 72 million plays on Spotify), with alternate video versions teaching the song’s dance steps and others highlighting global football stars dancing and singing along to the song. At one point Neymar, the national team’s biggest hope for World Cup victory, sang with Teló in front of a crowd. In general, Teló’s live songs easily outpace his studio recordings in terms of virality, and, I would argue, that a major part of the appeal of “Ai Se Eu Te Pego” is its provenance in a concert setting. It is just as important that the screaming throngs of women are audible as it is for those dance steps to be easy and recognizable. The liveness of the recording is so important, in fact, that the screaming audience appears as sampled snippets in the Pitbull remix. In its viral form, Teló’s song united the popularity of live spectacle with Brazil’s enthusiasm for other live events, merging concert goers with football fans.

The popularity of Teló’s live song is not an isolated incident. Look, for example, at record sales figures for all time.  Two are live albums by artists who do not appear elsewhere on the list. Other albums that have sold more than 2 million copies in Brazil alone are by Roberto Carlos (Acústico MTV) and the teen pop/rock duo Sandy and Júnior (As Quatro Estações ao Vivo and Era Uma Vez… Ao Vivo). In 2011, five of the top ten albums in Brazil fit the ao vivo mode with little regard to genre: MPB stars Caetano Veloso and Maria Gadú are there alongside sertanejo artists Paula Fernandes and Luan Santana. In 2012, three of the top 20 best-sellers were live albums. Meanwhile,  DVDs of concerts in Brazil continue to be strong sellers. Thus, the communal pleasure palpable on-screen translates to that experienced in the home.

"Eric Clapton - Unplugged" by Flickr user Ian Alexander Martin, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Eric Clapton – Unplugged” by Flickr user Ian Alexander Martin, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Compare this with the status of live records in the United States in the last few years where they have rarely seen any chart success. If anything, liveness continues in YouTube clips and Spotify Sessions but not in physical sales and downloads. This is probably because live albums for U.S. based artists are embedded with different values having to do with the rock authenticity rather than communal pleasure. These performances demonstrate the chops of the musician and valorize the concerts (and tours) as events. The double live albums from the 1970s such as as Frampton Comes Alive, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s One More From The Road, and Kiss Alive! hold a prized place in the classic rock canon, often as much for extended guitar solos rather as the screaming throngs of fans. In the late ‘80s and early ’90s live albums, especially MTV Unplugged, re-inscribed a love of liveness through acoustic instruments and songs that reached back into the roots of American popular music. Eric Clapton’s Unplugged (1992) even topped the Billboard album charts and won 6 Grammy awards including Album of the Year while other records such as Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York and U2’s Rattle and Hum were multi-platinum hits. While there is the occasional top-40 live single, these songs are the exception to a genre of that has has moved liveness  to YouTube rather than streaming and MP3 markets.

SO! contributor Osvaldo Oyola has noted there is a tension between the efforts recording engineers often go through to make studio recordings sound as immediate as possible, and those that call attention to the recording process. Live records replace the need to sound polished with the need to sound spontaneous, often reveling in mistakes and banter. That immediacy is something I enjoy when listening to live recordings and it has a parallel for many people who participate in the reception of major events in real time through social media.

In Brazil, audiences enjoy the immense power of participation in live events.  As part of a larger work in progress I’m particularly fascinated by how this power and pleasure is mediated through the sonic experience of recordings and viral social media. Whether they are sharing tears over an international football loss or singing along to “Ai Se Eu Te Pego”  Brazilians extend Auslander’s liveness by prolonging and replaying the  immediacy of the crowds to experience that shared sonic moment, again and again.

Kariann Goldschmitt is a Visiting Lecturer in the Faculty of Music at University of Cambridge. Her scholarly work focuses on Brazilian music, modes of listening, and sonic branding in the global cultural industries. She has published in the Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies, Popular Music and Society, American Music, Yearbook for Traditional Music, and Luso-Brazilian Review and contributes to the South American cultural magazine, Sounds and Colours.

Featured image: Adapted from “Gloria” by Flickr user Lourenço Fabrino, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil— Leonardo Cardoso

Calling Out To (Anti)Liveness: Recording and the Question of Presence–Osvaldo Oyola

Hello, Americans: Orson Welles, Latin America, and the Sounds of the “Good Neighbor“– Tom McEnaney

A Tribe Called Red Remixes Sonic Stereotypes

The Wobble Frequency2

Welcome back to “The Wobble Continuum,” a three part series here on Sounding Out!. When we last left you, Mike D’Errico had brought us to the intersection of patriarchal cultural norms, music production practices and aesthetics, and the Military Entertainment Complex. His particular focus was on the sounds and practices of brostep (be sure to check out D’Errico’s  SO! Comment Klatsch from last week on gendered sounds, too), and some of those sounds leak through to today’s post from Christina Giacona. Giacona turns her ear to the group A Tribe Called Red in order to hear how they reappropriate and redress the sounds of colonization and racism.

As the series’ title suggests, her essay entails another journey to the low end, where things will once again get wobbly.

Guest Editor Justin D. Burton

Since first contact, Native Americans have consistently needed to combat the European stereotypes that portray them as inferior and uncivilized. Barraged with echoes of the same handful of Native tropes since Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows, contemporary American society often treats the stereotypical Native American princess, chief, and savage as historical truths, represented recently in Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto in The Lone Ranger. But it is not just the visual image of the Native American that has been stereotyped, so has their sonic sensibility. As documented in the film Reel Injun, Native languages and musics have consistently been “faked” by Hollywood with tricks like backwards English, pig-Latin, and Westernized imaginings of a ubiquitous Native music based on a pan-Indian society that never actually existed. Hollywood often uses Native American music to show a “primitive” society where music’s sole function is to prepare for war. However, the “Indian” drumbeat that accents the first beat of a group of four cannot be found in any traditional Native American or Aboriginal music.

While Native American-directed motion pictures such as Smoke Signals, Powwow Highway, and Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner finally gave agency to Natives in film, it was the all-Native DJ collective A Tribe Called Red’s self-released album and popularization of the Electric Powwow that directly challenges the perception of Native American music in modern society. In this post, I analyze the sonic composition of ATCR’s song “Braves,” exploring how A Tribe Called Red challenges North American stereotypes of Native Americans through the cultural re-appropriation of racist sounds.

“A Tribe Called Red – Hall 4 (1)” by Flickr user Trans Musicales, CC BY-NC 2.0

“A Tribe Called Red – Hall 4 (1)” by Flickr user Trans Musicales, CC BY-NC 2.0

After World War I, intertribal powwow gatherings served as a place to celebrate newfound unity among Native Nations returning home from the war. By the 1950s intertribal powwows had spread throughout North America. With the continued strength and importance of the powwow in contemporary Native society, urban Natives in locations like New York City and Ottawa, Canada, have begun to search for ways to create the same sense of unity in urban venues. In 2008, DJs NDN and Bear Witness formed the DJ collective “A Tribe Called Red” and began curating performances in Ottawa the second Saturday of every month called the Electric Powwow: a “wild party” focused on showcasing native talent and aboriginal culture. ATCR’s website describe the music as “ the soundtrack to the contemporary evolution of the powwow.“ Bear elaborates in an interview with NOW magazine, “[the Electric Powwow] was also about creating a space for our community within the club environment.” Hip-hop DJ and turntable champ DJ Shub was invited to join the group in 2010, and the trio spent the next two years evolving the sound of the Electric Powwow into a mash-up of powwow and First Nations music with contemporary club sounds including hip-hop, dubstep, and dance hall.

“Tribe Called Red” by Flickr user Dav Yaginuma, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Tribe Called Red” by Flickr user Dav Yaginuma, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Much like Fela Kuti’s popularization of Afrobeat in the 1970s, made up of a combination of traditional Nigerian Yoruba polyrhythms with a blend of Western jazz and funk, and Reggaeton’s fusion of Caribbean rhythms with the aesthetics of American hip-hop in the 1990s, the Electric Powwow merges a historically traditional and non-syncretic music with popular and cosmopolitan music in a way that both honors cultural heritage and makes it relevant to a new generation. As NDN points out on Noisey, even their name follows this trend, simultaneously referencing the introduction of Nations at powwows and famous Afrocentric hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest. The Electric Powwow events are not just about the creation of a new genre of music, but they also serve as a site for ATCR to speak publicly about aboriginal issues and represent themselves as a contemporary face for the urban Native youth renaissance. ATCR’s music videos and live-show projections extensively sample racist imagery from movies and cartoons including old westerns, Back to the Future III, Bugs Bunny, and Disney’s Peter Pan. As a result of their audio-visual activism, the group has become the unofficial soundtrack for the Idle No More movement, which is attempting to reassert Indigenous sovereignty rights and previously signed treaties in Canada.

By taking both visual and sonic symbols that depict racist stereotypes out of their cultural contexts, ATCR draws attention to both the specific racism of each individual image and the ubiquity of racist stereotypes. In their track “Braves,” A Tribe Called Red takes on the U.S. baseball team the Atlanta Braves by remixing the baseball organization’s Tomahawk Chop anthem, itself adopted from Florida State University.

ATCR’s version transforms the innocuous-sounding chant by showcasing its core as a Hollywood-esque stereotype of Native American song. By re-contextualizing the anthem, “Braves” prompts listeners to reinterpret this facet of American sports culture as a racist pageantry of “savage violence.”

The association of the “war chant,” the motion of the Tomahawk Chop, and the fact that these actions call for one team to attack all make it clear that American sports culture appropriates Native Culture as an example of “savagery” and “uncivilized” behavior. The Tomahawk Chop also forgoes the use of a language-based text entirely and instead chooses to use vocables that cannot be attributed to any particular Native nation, ceremony, or meaning. Like Hollywood’s use of backwards English and the war drumbeat to represent “Indians,” the Tomahawk Chop bears no resemblance to any real Native Nation’s music, acting as yet another imagined primitive stereotype that marginalizes actual Native American music.

On A Tribe Called Red’s SoundCloud page, “Braves”’s description reads, “We wanted to make a song for all the racist and culturally inappropriate sports teams that are still used today!” The group accomplishes this by creating dissonance between contemporary electronic drumbeats and the “traditional” paramilitary marching band arrangement of the “Tomahawk Chop.” “Braves” utilizes a standard dubstep song structure in 4/4 at 140 beats per minute that includes an intro, two main sections that include melodic materials, a breakdown/buildup section, a vocal “drop” which announces and is followed by the climax of the piece, and an outro that brings the track to a close. However, “Braves” does differ from other dubstep songs in the marked separation and interaction between the Tomahawk Chop samples performed by voices and marching band and the composed elements of the song performed as the Wub—a deep, wobbly synthesized sound—and accompanied by a HiHat cymbal pecking away at syncopated rhythms. Even though all the melodic content of “Braves” is based on variations of the Tomahawk Chop melody, ATCR never fully integrates actual samples of the Tomahawk Chop into the composition. The marching band and chant samples are treated as an unwanted and unexpected visitor to a party; they seem important at the entrance, but they are given an increasingly diminished role until they finally exit with a whimper.

Written as a protest against racist sports organizations to help convince them to stop using characterized ceremonies and mascots, “Braves” contains that struggle within the composition itself: dubstep, sounded as the Wub and HiHat, eventually renders the Tomahawk Chop sonically impotent. The “Tribe” drop, when ATCR marks the song by saying “tribe,” acts as the turning point in “Braves.” After this point the Wub and HiHat consistently overwhelm the sampled material. In a standard dubstep song, the tribe drop would be followed by the climax: the strongest, most complex musical section of the piece. However, the Tomahawk Chop sample that follows this drop is immediately swallowed up by a low-pass filter that rubs out the tune, starting with the highest pitched sounds, over the course of sixteen measures, heightening the lower end of the sonic spectrum. Only then does the true climax occur. The Wub and HiHat appear here for the first time without the sample band or vocalizations. After the “Tribe” drop, the samples of the Tomahawk Chop are either dominated by the Wub or swallowed up by low-pass filters and fades.

“Tomahawk” by Flickr user Lorianne DiSabato, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Tomahawk” by Flickr user Lorianne DiSabato, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In this way, “Braves” acts as a three-minute sonic story of reappropriation. The marching band arrangement and vocables represent the common stereotypes of Native American music perpetuated by Western Culture. The Wub and HiHat act as disapproving commentary on these stereotypes. “Tribe,” the only word used in the entire song, not only sounds ATCR as a group, but also marks the point in the song when ATCR begins to create their own image of Native music while simultaneously disempowering the strength of the marching band.

Just like the rebel American marching band’s reappropriation of the song Yankee Doodle in the Revolutionary War, A Tribe Called Red employs irony: in order to get the song the audience has to understand the racism, and while that sort of understanding seems to represent a steep learning curve for a culture so saturated in racist stereotypes, it is also exactly the sort of understanding a multicultural nation needs in order to thrive. Like Afrobeat, Reggaeton, and the more recent alternative hip-hop group Das Racist, ATCR is an underground voice within American popular culture that speaks with reverence for its own traditions while challenging the popular perception of race relations and breaking new ground in contemporary art. “Braves” proves that the reappropriation of sonic space is a powerful tool in the fight for cultural agency.

Featured image: “ATCR 4” by Flickr user MadameChoCho, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Christina Giacona is the Director of the Los Angeles New Music Ensemble and Instructor of Music at the University of Oklahoma. Dedicated to performing and researching the music of her generation, Christina teaches courses in Native American, World, and Popular Music. Since founding the Los Angeles New Music Ensemble in 2007, Christina has commissioned and premiered over twenty new works for the ensemble; run an international composers competition, recorded three albums, and collaborated with DJs, MCs, animators, choreographers, projectionists, and film producers. 

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