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Hearing Change in the Chocolate City:  Soundwalking as Black Feminist Method

Since its inception at the World Soundscape Project in the 1970s, soundwalking has emerged as a critical method for sound studies research and artistic practice. Although “soundwalking” now describes a diversity of activities and purposes, critical discussions and reading lists still rarely represent or consider the experiences of people of color (POC). As Locatora Radio hosts Diosa and Mala have argued in their 2018 podcast about womxn of color and the sound of sexual harassment in their everyday lives and neighborhoods, sound in public space is weaponized to create “sonic landscapes of unwelcome” for POC.

While we often think of soundwalks as engines of knowledge production, we must also consider that they may simultaneously silence divergent worldviews and perspectives of space and place.  In “Black Joy: African Diasporic Religious Expression in Popular Culture,” Vanessa Valdés explored alternate conceptions of space held by practicioners of Regla de Ocha, epistemologies rarely, if ever, addressed via soundwalks. “Within African diasporic religions . . . including Palo Monte, Vodou, Obeah, Macumba, Candomblé – there is respect for the seemingly inexplicable,” Valdés remarks, “there is room for the miraculous, for that which can be found outside the realms of what has been deemed reasonable by systems of European thought. There is room for faith.”  Does current soundwalk praxis—either as research method, public intervention, artistic medium, field recording subject, or pop culture phenomenon—impose dominant ideas about space and knowledge production as much as—if not more–they offer access to alternatives? Are there alternate historiographies for soundwalking that predate the 1970s? Can soundwalks provide such openings, disruptions, and opportunities without a radical rethinking? What would a decolonial/decolonizing soundwalk praxis look and sound like?

Soundwalking While POC explores these questions through the work of Allie Martin, Amanda Gutierrez, and Paola Cossermelli Messina. Today, Allie Martin kicks off the series with a powerful reframing of the soundwalk as a black feminist methodology.  —JS

In July 2018 I visited Oxford, Mississippi for the first time, to attend a workshop on conducting oral histories.  Upon walking with a friend back to our accommodations on the University of Mississippi campus, we heard a voice calling to us from far away, up a hill somewhere.  It was a catcalling voice—that much I definitely recognized—but I also felt sure that I heard the word “nigger.”  My friend, who is also a black woman, heard the taunting sounds of the voice but not that word specifically.  Herein lies one of the difficulties of black womanhood: I was unable to distinguish which of my two most prominent identity markers (blackness and womanhood) the speaker was using to harm me in that moment.  I found it ironic that I came to Mississippi to learn best practices for listening to people’s stories, but could not hear my own story, could not say for sure what had happened to me.

In the time since that visit, I have come to embrace the speculative sonic ephemerality of black womanhood and utilize it on my soundwalks.  Soundwalks are a popular method for understanding the everyday sonic life of a place.  Reminiscent of Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City,” soundwalks offer the kind of embodied experience missing from other more static soundscape recordings. I argue here that soundwalks can operate as black feminist method, precisely because they allow me to center the complex, incomplete sonorities of black womanhood, and they are enough in their incompleteness.  One of our foremost thinkers on black feminism, Patricia Hill Collins, has argued that black women’s knowledge is subjugated (1990).  I understand this to mean that my knowledge is tainted somehow, too specialized or not specialized enough, and not considered fit for application by a broader audience.  Soundwalks as method, though, rely on my own subjugated knowledge.  What did I hear?  Black feminism centers and humanizes black women, and I utilize soundwalks to humanize myself in a soundscape that would otherwise disregard my sonic perceptions in favor of white hearing as the default standard of sound.

I began soundwalking in Washington, DC as a part of my dissertation project, which explores the musical and sonic dimensions of gentrification in the city. Gentrification is often considered in visual terms, meaning that a neighborhood is considered gentrified because new coffeeshops, bike lanes, and dog parks make it “look” different from what was once there.  I recognize these new additions as important markers of gentrification, but what do they sound like?  And what do these sonic markers reveal about the sonorities of race?

Rowhouses in the Shaw neighborhood, image by author

I have taken up the sonic exploration of gentrification, drawing inspiration from Jennifer Stoever’s Sonic Color Line and Regina Bradley’s exploration of the criminalization of black sound.  As SO! writer and ethnic studies scholar Marlén Rios Hernandez has noted in her work on racial and spatial shifts in early punk in 1970s Los Angeles, it is crucial to work on “delinking gentrification as exclusively spatial and analyzing it as also a sonic force of expulsion.”  Having spent time researching the auralities of gentrification in DC, I understand it to be a process that silences poor and marginalized populations while amplifying the concerns of those privileged enough to have the ear of the DC Council and developers.  Gentrification displaces musicians and music genres, while increasing tensions around music and noise in “public” space.  More than these changes, though, gentrification changes the soundscape of the city.

My soundwalks focus on the Shaw neighborhood in the Northwest quadrant of DC, part of the fastest gentrifying zip code in the country. Before the explosion of development, Shaw was a cultural hub of black DC, only blocks away from the U Street Corridor, formerly known as Black Broadway.  From Pearl Bailey to James Brown, prominent black entertainers frequented the neighborhood because they were unable to perform in or have accommodations in other areas of the city.  As the neighborhood shifts and transforms, the soundscapes grow louder with new nightclubs and quieter due to increased reporting of noise violations.  The neighborhood diversifies in terms of languages, increases in siren whoops, and new sounds appear, such as the beep of a dockless scooter.  Shaw has seen a concomitant increase in property values, community gardens, and bars; a Whole Foods is set to open in the neighborhood by 2020.

[The recording here is of a soundscape at 7th street and Florida Avenue NW, a busy intersection at the north edge of Shaw.  Recorded on a mid-September afternoon, you can hear go-go music (DC’s indigenous subgenre of funk), engines idling, and the whoop of a siren.  In the past two months, this intersection has become a battleground for cultural erasure, as artists, activists, and councilmembers attempt to legitimize the go-go music that has been playing in the area since 1995.]

During the day, Shaw oscillates between a quiet neighborhood and a busy city space.  Traffic, horns, and sirens are frequent, yet so are the sounds of children at recess and old men chatting outside on their stoops or outside of corner stores.

Conducting soundwalks as a black woman in this gentrifying neighborhood is a curious space to tarry in.  I am in some ways an outsider as a non-resident, mindful of who and what I record at any given moment because part of what makes gentrification such a tense and terrifying process is the lack of control that residents (particularly renters) have regarding their futures, and often their presence too.  I am also an insider, a black woman in this space where being a black woman is not (yet) anything out of the ordinary.  In fact, as the months went on, more of my recordings feature me speaking to people on the street, some I had come to know and some still strangers to me.

One of my favorite interactions on a soundwalk came early on, in late February of 2018.  I was running late for an interview, listening intently to what was going around me, when I walked past a black man, seemingly in his 30s, on a narrow sidewalk.  The exchange went something like this:

Man: Whoa, whoa, why you running up on people?

Me: My bad, my bad!

Man: It’s okay.  Hey sis, you know how to make grits?

Me: [laughing], Nah, I don’t know how to make grits.

Man: What about pancakes?

Me: Yeah, I can make some pancakes.

Man: Ayyyee, I’m tryna get some breakfast!!

Me: I don’t know about all that!

The exchange, not quite a catcall but not quite comfortable either, consistently faded in volume, because during the entire time we spoke, I continued to walk away from him.  I was in a position of wanting to speak, because I know the politics of being an outsider in a gentrifying neighborhood and not greeting folks as you walk by.  However, I also know the dangers of being a black woman walking alone, and so I negotiated a lighthearted exchange while making my way to my destination.  My soundwalks, then, act as a sonic record of gentrifying space as well as my attempts to keep myself safe.

Shaw from a rooftop perspective, Image by author

These moments also inform the contours of my dissertation project on hearing gentrification in DC.  The larger project involves passive acoustic recording in the same neighborhood, a methodology that entails creating a large amount of short soundscape recordings over a long period of time.  Understanding both my soundwalks and passive acoustic recording as black feminist method allows for the consideration of multiple sonic perspectives of the neighborhood, rather than one record.  When once describing passive acoustic recording to a colleague at a digital humanities workshop, they celebrated the idea that I would be able to “objectively” hear what was occurring in the neighborhood, instead of relying only on pieced together accounts from community members.

However, just as black feminist thought amplifies my “tainted” knowledge, it also mutes the authoritative “objective” knowledge of a rooftop recorder.  The sounds of the stationary recorder placed on a rooftop at 7th and Florida are as partial and positioned as the recordings of my footsteps as I move around the neighborhood.  As I continue to walk, be it through the unfamiliarity of Mississippi or my hometown DC, I do so with the reassurance that what I hear is enough.

Featured Image: Shaw From Above, by author.

Allie Martin is a PhD Candidate at Indiana University in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology.  Her dissertation project explores the musical and sonic dimensions of gentrification in Washington, DC, using a combination of ethnographic fieldwork, archival research, and soundscape recordings.  Originally from the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, she received her BAs in music performance and audio production from American University.  

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SO! Amplifies: Listening to the City Handbook

Sounding Out! Podcast #2: Springtime in KC: Soundwalking Kansas City—Liana Silva

Unlearning Black Sound in Black Artistry: Examining the Quiet in Solange’s A Seat At the Table–Kimberly Williams


SO! Reads: Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s Personal Stereo

In Personal Stereo, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s eminently readable history of the Walkman and its kind, it is telling to learn that Sony founders Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita were prone to conversing in ‘something akin to a private shared language’ or idioglossia. “They would sit there,” recounts Morita’s eldest son, “and we would listen but we had no idea what they were saying” (21).  In later life, following strokes, both lost the ability to speak; Ibuka’s son characterises their subsequent relationship as “communicating without words’.” Even the name Sony itself, notes Tuhus-Dubrow, with its origins in the Latin sonus and the English slang “sonny,” was ultimately “a word in no language’” (13).  It is as though aural perception, delivered on an intimate scale, is somehow revelatory in a way that transcends the typical organising principles of language. The incorporation of the sonic into everyday life forever approaches a kind of affective intensity.

Personal Stereo tunes into this frequency and – by virtue of its array of research and skilful marshalling of social and cultural history – offers a compelling map of its coordinates. If, as part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, one of its central tasks is to apprehend the affective resonance of the inanimate, it is testament to Tuhus-Dubrow’s work that she is able to manage the breadth of her material into an adroit and concise narrative while at the same time allowing space for her writing to approach these contained moments of intensity. “When I think of [the Walkman] now, I think of joy,” she writes in the introduction (1). While acknowledging that undue celebration of the past can stymie the present, she offers a quietly persuasive case for an examination of nostalgia amid the anxiety of contemporary life, which almost serves as a rallying cry for a generation pinioned between the two: ‘The past, whatever its shortcomings, has the virtue of having already happened. And we survived it.’

As iTunes – like the glory of the world – passes into epilogue, it is again time to consider how we might frame obsolete technologies as echoes of a particular moment in our lives, anchored between progress and decay. As texts, they harbour a kind of degraded cartography: a summation of meaning and collapse.

The story of the Walkman begins in the bombed-out ruins of 1940s Tokyo, as Ibuka and Morita establish the foundations of the company that would become a consumer electronics giant as part of Japan’s ill-fated post-war boom. It is striking how much of the Walkman’s development was shaped by the ravages of warfare: Tuhus-Dubrow notes how its antecedent, the tape recorder, was first used in the German military, and early headphones were issued to fighter pilots. It is possible to read the subsequent commercial adoption of personal listening devices as an attempted refashioning of the domestic interior, transgressed so violently in acts of conflict. One of Ibuka’s founding principles for Sony was to “apply highly advanced technologies…developed in various sectors during the war to common households” (12).  Tuhus-Dubrow also recounts the case of Andreas Pavel, a native of post-war Berlin, who emigrated with his family to São Paulo and developed what we might term a “counter-prototype” to the Walkman, partly inspired by the internal acoustics of his mother’s home – “a mecca of sound” – in Cidade Jardim. Object lessons are formed through disintegration and salvaged materials. Morita compares his formative partnership with the older Ibuka to a newly-established familial unit: “It was almost as though an adoption were taking place” (13).

Akio Morita (left) and Masaru Ibuka (right), 1961. Courtesy of Sony

This elides neatly with Tuhus-Dubrow’s central chapter, which is also the strongest. Here, she discusses the reception of private listening within the public domain, and how existing societal norms apprehended this new sonic phenomenon. It is intriguing, and at times hilarious, how much of the reaction operates as moral critique: from a 1923 article comparing the very act of solo listening to alcohol abuse or a drug habit, to rather more recent takes that foreshadow the current intergenerational culture wars. “The personal stereo,” harrumphs A.N. Wilson, ‘became the archetypal accessory of the me-generation” (68).

Tuhus-Dubrow’s research is smart and on point, not least because it leads to a productive consideration of how the cathartic element of the private soundtrack becomes something that society struggles to assimilate. She takes to time to weave in personal testimonies and reminiscences that are effective and somehow touching: “the Walkman,” she admits, “was a source of elation and comfort” (85). A friend recalls how “[my] inner world was enriched by the freedom to explore music on my own” (84).  Pavel describes how the first use of his prototype, in the snows of St Moritz, evoked “a state of ecstasy,” in which life temporarily assumed a cinematic quality. “Suddenly,” he remembers, curiously switching to the present tense, “I’m inside a film” (27).

Darryl with a new Walkman, December 25, 1982, Image by Flickr User Kent Kanouse

Others speak of how musical accompaniment aids a more immersive interaction with the world around them, and it is here that perhaps the real strength of Tuhus-Dubrow’s work emerges: the generosity of an approach that permits mutual recognition; the summoning of an experiential quality that is elusive in its definition but vivid and immediate in its resonance. It is a mode of writing – and indeed a mode of listening – that is resolutely contemporary, formed in a firestorm of technological innovation that was both oppressive and liberatory, attuning us to new ways of being at the same time as it degrades and erodes old certainties.

It bears resemblance to what Tuhus-Dubrow recognises as “the logic of our own bodies, with organs and limbs whose motions are connected to their functions, and which are susceptible to injury and gradual breakdown” (102).  Earlier she writes, “as one song neared its end, I would begin to hear the opening chords of the next in my head.”

What is it, this sense of auditory anticipation?

It is the forming of new waves. We have blood in our ears.

Featured Image: “Walkman through the cassette” by Flicker User Narisa (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Lewis Jones is a writer and itinerant based in Brighton, UK. He received an MA in Literature, Culture and Theory from the University of Sussex, having previously graduated in English Literature from the University of Winchester. He is interested in how artistic and aesthetic mediums might be used to develop new theoretical approaches to culture and society. He particularly likes urban spaces, as visual and auditory environments, and the intersections between music, movement and the body. He thinks that dancing about architecture is a perfectly valid exercise.

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SO! Reads: Hiromu Nagahara’s Tokyo Boogie-Woogie: Japan’s Pop Era and Its Discontents–Shawn Higgins

SO! Reads: Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder’s Designed For Hi Fi Living–Gina Arnold

SO! Reads: Susan Schmidt Horning’s Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP— Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo

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

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 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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Queer Timbres, Queered Elegy: Diamanda Galás’s The Plague Mass and the First Wave of the AIDS Crisis– Airek Beauchamp

Botanical Rhythms: A Field Guide to Plant Music -Carlo Patrão

Sounding Our Utopia: An Interview With Mileece–Maile Colbert

On the Poetics of Balloon Music: Sound Artist Judy Dunaway (Part Two)

Last week, Carlo Patrão published “On the Poetics of Balloon Music: Sounding Air, Body, and Latex (Part One),” which examined the history of the association between balloon travel and experimentation and the idea of silence, along with a round up of conceptual artists who have used balloons in their work.  Today’s post continues this exploration with an in-depth conversation between the author, producer Marina Koslock and sound artist Judy Dunaway.

We look at alien grace,


by any determined form,

and we say: balloon, flower,

heart, condom, opera,

lampshade, parasol, ballet.

Hear how the mouth,

so full

of longing for the world,

changes its shape?

Excerpt from Difference, by Mark Doty


Against Levity: Experimental Music and the Latex Balloon

The term balloon music gained some virality in 2011 after Finn, the protagonist of the animated series Adventure Time, rubbed a toy balloon and improvised a rap over its squeaky sounds. “Balloon music is the future,” says the character. This few second-long scene became an instant meme, inspiring many to share their own versions of the “futuristic sound of balloon music.”

Balloons themselves are viral objects. Designed to infect our moods, they are part of social rituals ranging from the deeply personal to collective (political) euphoria. They are cheap, amusing and awe-inducing. As resonant chambers, balloon membranes are sonically responsive to touch while, at the same time, highly tuned to the vibrations of the environment. To start playing a balloon, no prior experience is required. In this sense, the balloon is a democratic instrument whose sonic textures circumvent expensive music equipment.

The Jazz composer Anthony Braxton was once asked why he used balloons in his Composition 25 (1972). Braxton replied: “I didn’t have enough money for the electronic equipment that could make those kinds of sounds. I’m interested in the expanded reality of sound opened up by the post-Webern continuum, but I’m restricted to using cheap materials. So, you know, I was walking down the street one night and I thought, Hey! I gotta have balloons!”

Anthony Braxton, B-Xo/N-0-1-47a or Composition 6G, w/ Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith and Steve McCall, with balloon sounds, 1969

“For me, that piece (Composition 25) really best demonstrates the full symbolic meaning of the balloon in the early avant-garde,” says balloon music composer Judy Dunaway. “I’ve discussed this with Braxton himself – the balloon replicated electronic equipment that he couldn’t afford at the time, but he also saw it as a way to open up the minds of the performers to get them to think differently about how they were improvising and how they were interacting in the piece.” Braxton’s Composition 25 is scored for 250 balloons and musicians are required to produce sound by squeezing, rubbing and popping balloons. “I like the idea that he breaks down the hierarchy,” adds Dunaway, “black musicians were discriminated against and they didn’t have the financial means that the white musicians had… and he was using this as a way to get beyond that and say: Here, I’m going to do electronic sounds without any electronics, I don’t need to go buy a Buchla or be associated with an academic institution that can give me access to equipment, right?”

Judy Dunaway, Mother of Balloon Music, Innova Recordings, 2006

Producer Marina Koslock and I met Judy Dunaway at MassArt in Boston to talk about her balloon-based sculptural sonic performances and the ready-made latex balloon as a sound producing instrument. For the past 25 years, Dunaway has been developing a singular specialization in the balloon as a medium for sound and music. You can keep just broadening out and do more things with a concept; or you can work in a particular parameter as an artist and keep digging deeper and deeper and deeper, and that for me as been more interesting, is to pursue that line”, explains Dunaway.

As a consequence, her balloon work has spanned out through several records (e.g. Balloon Music and Mother of Balloon Music), scores, sound sculptures, solo performances, ensembles, and numerous installations. The poetics of the latex balloon as a sound producing instrument contrast with the atmospheric balloon explored in part one of this article. The balloon, no longer buoyant, stays in close proximity to the body of the performer. The surface of the balloon is vibrated through rubbing, stroking, squeezing, pulling, popping and through the control of air releases. These sonic tactile acts bring forth dialogues between the performer’s body and the latex body of the balloon. “I limited my playing techniques to the balloons and my body,” says Judy Dunaway, “it was essential to be able to feel everything that was happening with the balloon in order to be able to fully explore all the sonic possibilities.”

The Balloon Music, DF#, by Tina Touli, 2013-2015

The balloon functions as an external sensory organ, like a skin, that vibrates when sound passes through. In Deaf culture, balloons have a long history of being used as resonating chambers that amplify vibration and facilitate hearing. Deaf people use them at concerts, musicals, clubs and raves to hear the music through the vibration of the balloon’s membrane. David Toop writes about Alexander Bell in the 1870s encouraging students from a Boston school for deaf children to hold balloons in their hands while walking on the street as a safety measure in order to hear the vibrations from the cobblestones as fast horse-drawn wagons passed by. Vibrational information is processed in the same way as sound information. As the scholar Steph Ceraso proposes, the common definition of listening needs to be expanded to include the sensory, contextual, and material aspects of a sonic event. Dunaway’s sound installation Manual Eardrums invites participants to a different mode of listening through the vibration of the balloon. “You are given earplugs at the door and an inflated balloon, and you hold it between your hands as you walk around the space. There’s a low tone playing that sweeps between 100Hz and 150Hz and it causes different vibrational patterns in the room that you can feel and map them out,” explains Dunaway. “Your eardrum is the balloon that you’re holding.”

Judy Dunaway performing Amplified Twister Balloon, Photo by Mizuki Nakeshu

Judy Dunaway started to play balloon music in the late 1980s, first as a preparation for guitar string and soon after as a solo instrument. It was in the midst of the AIDS Crisis and Dunaway was part of the downtown improv scene in NYC. “Many of my friends were dying,” she recalls. “Everybody was saying what caused this? Nobody knew how the disease was being spread,” adds Dunaway. “Then, of course, there was this discovery that it was sexually transmitted and you could prevent transmission with latex condoms. Suddenly, they had this power,” she says, “latex had this power to save people’s lives, and I say that that is when balloons really began to speak to me. They were something beyond a mere mechanism to make sound.” Within the envelope of the balloon Dunaway found space for memory, life, and sensuality.

From the beginning, her balloon work has articulated tensions between explicit and implicit meaning around issues relating to social activism, environmentalism, and feminism. “In an era, which continues to be that a woman’s control of her own body is restricted or attempts are being made to restrict our bodies, I coupled myself to this instrument that expresses sensuality, sexuality, and humanity,says Dunaway. The balloon, as a resonating chamber, bypasses western musical traditions that mechanize the body and gender stereotype musical expression. For Dunaway, the balloon generates a “non-judgmental somatic relationship.”

Seeing my connection to the body of the balloon, that to me served as an unspoken rebellion against the patriarchy, against the power structures that have oppressed women and, ultimately, all humankind by severing the psyche and the body,” says Dunaway. Following the scholar Robin James, the patriarchy is not just a “relation among people but is also a “relation among sounds that are coded in a gender system of masculine absolute/feminine other. “The way I approach the balloon is not nailed or fixed or part of this history,” clarifies Dunaway. The balloon as an instrument has allowed Dunaway to develop a musical lexicon outside of a male-dominated classical heritage.     

Judy Dunaway performing Piece for Tenor Balloon, written notation with improvisational passages, 2002

For example, this is her description of the round balloon as a sounding instrument:

Imagine a string, a string on a violin or guitar, and this string is held taut on either end by a the tuning pegs and the bridge now imagine that string suddenly melted and spun out into an orb and it’s all held tight by a column of air. . .this is the palette that I have to access when I play the Tenor Balloon, I have all these harmonics on this curved shape, and I control it partially with my knees.

The Tenor Balloon is placed between both knees and Dunaway applies and releases pressure on the balloon producing microtonal changes on its surface. “And I also use water,” she adds, “copious amounts of water, warm water on the balloon and on my hands because that’s the way I get this stick and slip mechanism to work.” The hands gliding on the balloon’s surface act similar to a bow on a string reaching different nodes and moving through harmonic series.

Judy Dunaway performing “Hommage à Kenneth Noland”, for amplified giant balloon, vibrators, synthesized tones, and projected video, with Max/MSP/Jitter interface, 2017

Each balloon requires its own specific touch or sounding technique. On the piece Amplified Giant Balloon, vibrators are used to resonate the surface of a giant balloon creating a low drone sound.It’s like vibrating a giant bass string”, says Dunaway, ”I tune my vibrators, I go to the sex shop and I listen to vibrators, and I tune the vibrators to each other so there’s a little beating pattern between them that I can control.”

Around 2015, Dunaway added a new balloon to her solo performances, the Amplified Twister Balloon. The twister balloon is equivalent to the long balloons used to make balloon-animals. Due to its string-like shape, the sounds produced through rubbing or gliding differ from the sounds of a round balloon. “The harmonic series isn’t so predictable,” she continues, “the tension is highest close to the navel of the balloon and that makes it microtonal different from one end to the other like an out-of-tune bugle.” Visually, the Amplified Twister Balloon performance delivers a feminist affirming statement. Defying the tradition of the male guitarist stroking the female form of the guitar, Dunaway finds musical material in a phallic-shaped balloon. “I sort of invert this”, she says, “now I have the penis form that I’m stroking and caressing and I’m taking this phallic power for myself in the Amplified Twister Balloon.”

“My work doesn’t come out of a void,” states Dunaway. In the article My Beautiful Balloon, Dunaway maps out a detailed history of the balloon in experimental and avant-garde music. Many Fluxus artists used the balloon in events, concerts and instructional scores. The sounds of the balloon embodied Fluxus’ humorous/satirical attitude towards art and the collapse of hierarchies of experience by reframing everyday life objects. Balloons are used by DIY artists that re-invent, hack and create new music instruments (Jean Francois Laporte, Thierry Madiot, Aaron Wendell, Tom Nunn, Javier Bustos). Balloon sounds are explored by many artists with backgrounds ranging from improvised music, rock, electronic or electro-acoustic and sound installation (Ricardo Arias, David Bedford, Mauricio Kagel, Alvin Lucier, Terry Day, Tod Dockstader, Christine Sun Kim, Davide Tidoni, Sharon Gal, Eugene Chadbourne, Matmos, EVOL, Alan Nakagawa, to name a few).

Balloon Music Compilation

To develop a practice around the accessibility of latex is to engage with politics of mass-production and exploitation of resources and labor. Dunaway mentions the connection between the air and breath that fills the balloon and the mass-extraction of latex from the lungs of the Earth. “[Balloons] are literally the blood from a tree in the Amazon,” says Dunaway, “and there’s a whole history of how the indigenous people there were and still are persecuted. Now, they are mostly farmed in Malaysia,” she adds.

Latex being collected from a tapped rubber tree, Wikimedia Commons

Between 1890 and 1920, a rubber fever led to a boom of extraction and exploitation of rubber-bearing plants in the Amazonian countries and to the forced displacement, slavery and mass killing of its indigenous people. The same happened in many African countries. As John Tully writes in his book The Devil’s Milk, “it is still true that where there is rubber there is often human suffering.” Ricardo Arias, a Columbian composer working with balloons (balloon kit) since 1987, has acknowledged this suffering through his balloon work. In  Musica Global, Arias composed a series of 20 short balloon pieces called Caouchu: The Weeping Tree/El Árbol Que Llora in memory of the native Americans tortured and killed by the North American and European hunger for natural rubber latex.

These ontological relations between the balloon’s materiality and the environment inform Dunaway’s work. “I’m writing a piece for a large 30 to 35 person balloon ensemble. This piece is called Wind Ensemble and is all about the air going out of the balloon, and the sound of the mouthpiece being vibrated as the air comes out.” Dunaway shares a video recording of this work and the room is filled with high pitched sounds changing at different speeds. The experience is immersive; a meditation on air and vibration. “It’s rather minimal in the concept because I really want you to notice the small changes and nuances over time.” The performative element of the piece has balloon players squeezing the balloon’s mouthpiece and bending over large balloons to make them vibrate until the balloon’s last breath. “Ideally, I would like 60 balloon players, that would be great!” she exclaims. The embodied relationship that Dunaway has developed with the balloon over the past decades resulted in an artistic practice extremely tuned to the sonic proprieties of every inch of the latex balloon.

Still from Le Ballon Rouge by Albert Lamorisse, 1956

The poetics of balloon music bring forth alternative narratives that challenge dominant hierarchies of music production, bypassing expensive technology and expectations of gendered musical expression. The balloon as an object of childhood and of playfulness is charged with emotional resonance and invites the construction of meaning while offering an opportunity to build upon subversive themes. In this two-part article, the balloon was analyzed as an object that is able to generate a vertical dimension of self and the construction of a sense of Place within the silence of the upper air regions that informed the “listening ear” to perceive difference. As a Probe, the balloon navigates the irreversibly altered constitution of the airspace, sonifying masses of air and weather data. Filled with breath or air, in Play, the latex balloon is an extra ear attached to our bodies that vibrate in sympathy with the terrestrial agitations of the Earth. Maybe Finn from Adventure Time is on to something. “Balloon music is the future.”

Thanks to Judy Dunaway for the interview and records; Marina Koslock for co-producing the interview with Judy Dunaway; and Jennifer Stoever for your help and excellent editing.

Featured Image: Judy Dunaway, photo by Alice Bellati

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

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