Tag Archive | Aesthetics

SO! Reads: Norma Mendoza-Denton’s Homegirls

“When I wear my eyeliner, me siento más macha (I feel more macha) I’m ready to fight” (54)

SO! Reads3Makeup has long been an intentional part of a chola aesthetic: in particular, the skillful sign of bold black eyeliner or a carefully arched, thin, brow. The quote above by Norteña Xótchil, one of author Norma Mendoza-Denton’s interviewees, reminds us that make-up not only creates a sense of empowerment but also evokes the idea of physical strength (“feeling macha”). Norma Mendoza-Denton’s ethnographic study Homegirls: Language and Cultural Practice among Latina Youth Gangs (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008) presents a project of high ambition, and even higher execution, in its carefully crafted discussion of the linguistic and cultural practices of Latina youth gangs at Sor Juana High School in northern California. Homegirls offers much needed insight into the relationship between language style and the cultural, lived experiences of Latina youth gangs. She centers her analysis on the linguistic, the cultural, and the phonetic, and in this way she pushes students of ethnic studies and sound studies to consider how young Latinas craft and articulate their own identity through meaning-making practices that challenge tropes of deviancy that are often unfairly cast on young women of color.

Throughout the book, speaking chola – an urban, gendered variation of Chicana English – becomes an audible badge, a marker of experience rather than a punch line, a culturally appropriated costume, a music video fad, or linguistic variety in need of policing. Recently, celebrity white or non-Latina women, such as Gwen Stefani and Lana Del Rey, have adopted telltale signs of a chola aesthetic – the crisp centered hair part, baggy pants, big hoops and/or only-the-top-buttoned plaid shirt. By focusing on the language styles of cholas, Mendoza-Denton encourages readers to think beyond the stereotypical images and sounds that so often circulate in mainstream media about cholas. Homegirls offers Sound Studies and Chicana/o Studies scholars a notable addition to the growing literature on the intersections of language, race, and sound.

Image by Illusive Photography @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND

Image by Illusive Photography @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND

“You gotta take pride to do your clothes
you know I have to iron,
when I go out I have to iron my shirt for half an hour
or forty-five minutes, you know,
my pants, you know
they gotta be
cre::ased
you know they gotta-” (56)

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 8.53.23 PMHomegirls joins conversations on Latinas and gang culture (Fregoso 2003; Miranda 2003; Ramírez 2009), which have historically been male-centered. Thelma, one of the Norteña girls, demonstrates in the quotation above her engagement with an aesthetic practice often linked with Latino gang members. Although the topic of language and linguistic identities, specifically bilingualism and translating, are emerging topics within Chicana/o Studies, Mendoza-Denton’s work joins that of a small number of scholars who take on Latina/o language practices and identities as the central focus of their work. She observes, in fact, how identity and meaning-making processes are intertwined to language, as are other social markers of identity such as race, class, gender, ethnicity, and accent. Homegirls joins recent discussions that demonstrate specifically how accents are vocal stand-ins for a person’s racialized, classed, and gendered experience. Where Fregoso and Miranda center their discussion on the cinematic representations of cholas and a historical account of pachucas respectively, Mendoza-Denton’s work is more in line with Miranda’s ethnographic approach to Latina youth gangs. Homegirls listens to the women’s voices and allows them to speak for themselves. This approach yields a work that reminds us how language identities are racialized when conflated with other racial markers, how they negotiate power relations (in/out group dynamics), and how they can also function as political forms of resistance.

“My dad dice que me miro como lesbian (says I look like a lesbian), my mom dice que qué guangajona (complains that it’s baggy). How much you wanna bet that I can go outside like this y no me dicen nada (they won’t say anything)” (151)

Maureen, a 14-year-old participant, speaks above to the code switching that many of the young women in this study practice. Mendoza-Denton re-imagines the chola as an innovator, highlighting the role of language and the body in creating new cultural practices. For example, in Chapter 5, the author heralds an exciting discussion on play and applying makeup as forms of gendered performances expanding on notions of beauty and grooming amongst Latina youth. She writes, “The symbolic and unconventional use of makeup among the girls claiming Norte and Sur at Sor Juana High School literally painted gender and ethnicity on their bodies,” marking a critical intervention in how the chola aesthetic racializes and genders bodies, yet also functions as a self-directed performance (152). In paying close attention to the symbolic meaning of makeup and its application, the ritual of carefully drawing the brow dismantles the mainstream appropriation of this often-criminalized look.

Mendoza-Denton’s close phonetic analysis demonstrates how the visual aesthetic coupled with a sonic aesthetic speaks to the political implications of embodied linguistic and cultural practices. The chola vocal aesthetic challenges traditional notions of femininity, closely associated with politics of respectability through Spanish honorifics like “usted,” within the Chicano family. This idea echoes other studies that show how pachucas, precursors to contemporary homegirls, with their extravagant attire and deviant behavior embody an adolescent rebellion against the patriarchal Chicano family and how pachuquismos forged a stylized linguistic resistance. Such stylized linguistic and embodied resistance can be seen in the excerpt below from T-Rex, one of Mendoza-Denton’s most candid participants in her study.

T-Rex:            A girl could be more macha than some guys. For example me.
Norma:           You think you’re more macha than guys?
T-Rex:            I am more macha.
Norma:           What makes you macha?
T-Rex:            The way I act. The way I don’t let them step on me. (164)

In this brief excerpt, T-Rex articulates her notions of being ‘macha,’ a prime example of a discursive and material Latina youth practice that transcends the boundaries of normative gendered expressions for Latina youth. We are accustomed to seeing urban cholas with curiosity, envy, or both. Mendoza-Denton allows us to hear them and gain a deeper understanding of their social practices.

Image by Amor Eterno Arte @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND

Image by Amor Eterno Arte @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND

In framing the chola aesthetic as a transgressive type of beauty, Mendoza-Denton poses that the cholas in this study act as cultural producers who assign alternative meanings to femininity through their body and speech. Recalling Xóchitl’s remarks about mascara, the eyeliner serves in one form as a tool for a racialized feminine ideal of beauty, while simultaneously a sign for “willingness to fight” for other girls (154). Eyeliner, in this example, very visibly displays the complex interactions and negotiations of gender norms and agency. In this sense, Mendoza-Denton grants the reader a primary example of how cholas participate in a type of feminine gender expression that challenges expected ways of acting, which includes speech.

From Mendoza-Denton’s conversation with T-Rex, we see that speech and accent are just as meaningful in the construction of this alternative aesthetic. T-Rex, explains how the eyeliner is a “power-based interpretation” that when correlated with a tough, or even threatening, manner of walking—the use of the body—cholas command power and respect. Here, her intervention serves not only to gain a deeper understanding of Latina youth practices but also frames the chola as an empowered, vocal (what some would consider, mouthy) woman. Too often cholas receive harsh criticism or complete disregard for their assumed subversive behavior, criminality, and social deviance. In Homegirls, Mendoza-Denton challenges those notions by finding the symbolic capital in how these young women employ discursive, material, and phonetic practices.

The final two chapters of the book focus on the specific linguistic features relevant to studies of language and sound. Mendoza-Denton highlights phonetic variation among the girls speech in how their realization of /I/ demarcates core speakers from members of the group in the periphery yet points to similar speaking characteristics for girls of both gangs. The author’s focus on the stigmatized Th-Pro set (i.e. something, nothing) in the speech of Latina girls demonstrates how it discursively positions theses young women’s interactions and group affiliation due to its frequency and saliency. These later chapters demonstrate one of the author’s most significant contributions: projecting a specific accent is often linked to the creation of an identity. As Mendoza-Denton writes, “How speakers pronounce their words says a lot not only about the identities that they wish to project, but also about the history of the language(s) that they speak” (231). These linguistic variations give readers insight on the importance of how distinctive discourse markers are vital in the creation of stylized identities for young women of color.

Norma Mendoza-Denton has produced a rich account of a community largely ignored and misinterpreted in the conversations on Latina youth culture in the United States. As she reminds readers in her conclusion, Homegirls is one of the only studies of its kind that documents gang dynamics outside of discussions regarding violence, control over territory, or drug trafficking. While this approach provides a much-needed focus on the self-making and cultural processes amongst youth of color, I wonder if some significant discussions might be left out with this approach. Although there is large need for research on this topic that deviates from traditional approaches (such as criminality, violence, drug trafficking) when working with youth, particularly women of color, in her effort to subvert these sociological mainstays Mendoza-Denton avoids certain experiences that leave out pertinent context.

Image by Joey Ortega @Flickr CC BY-ND

Image by Joey Ortega @Flickr CC BY-ND

For example, in her discussion of the young women’s makeup practices, Mendoza Denton mentions the perceived threat they pose to teachers and police at school but does not go into more detail. These questions are not to discount the contributions of the book but rather to introduce future considerations for work surrounding Latina youth gangs. However, for Mendoza-Denton, the focus on the creativity and agency these young women embody is never lacking:

“So when you walk down the street,
you got the special walk, [begins to walk deliberately, swinging her upper body]
you walk like this,
you walk all slow,
just checking it out.
I look like a dude, ¿que no?
I walk, and then I stop.
I go like this [tilts head back – this is called looking “in”]
I always look in, I always look in,
I never look down.
It’s all about power
You never fucking smile.
Fucking never smile” (155-6)

Image by Amor Eterno Arte @Flickr CC BY-ND

Image by Amor Eterno Arte @Flickr CC BY-ND

Homegirls is at its finest when the reader is presented with excerpts like the quote above where T-Rex’s assertive physical and mental stance illustrates the linguistic and cultural practices that Mendoza-Denton seeks to highlight in her work. Mendoza-Denton’s contribution to this topic privileges the symbolic capital in linguistic, embodied, and cultural practices which sets up a platform for future work on Latina identities. When we read cholas in popular culture we might think of the aesthetic, the stereotypes, the big hoops, the dark lips, and the mascara. When we read Homegirls, Norma Mendoza-Denton compels us to consider the complex web of how linguistic and cultural practices (through material and vocal embodiments) speaks to the intersections of race, gender, and class amongst Latina youth gangs.

Featured image is of Yasmin Ferrada (the author’s sister) as photographed by King Kast. It is used with permission by the author.

Juan Sebastian Ferrada is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His work investigates the intersections of language and sexuality among LGBTQ Latina/o communities. Specifically, Sebastian explores the politics of Spanglish as a method for articulating ideas of sexuality and family acceptance within an LGBTQ Latina/o community organization. Sebastian earned a B.A. in Global Studies, in addition to a B.A. and M.A. in Chicana and Chicano Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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Deaf Latin@ Performance: Listening with the Third Ear — Trevor Boffone

A Brief Review of Australian Radio Art

Magnavox_AM2

Welcome to the second part of Radio Art Reflections, a series on radio art that brings together the thoughts of three practitioners who have been researching the field from Canada, Australia and the UK.

In the first part Canadian sound and radio artist Anna Friz  discussed how transmission art has shaped her practice and how it has become an important current within the expanded territory of radio art. Following this, musician and sound artist Colin Black reflects on the particularities of Australia’s radio art history, analyzing the effects of ongoing cutbacks at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Black fears a distinctive Australian soundscape-based radio art is in danger of being lost, while identifying a current renaissance in narrative based radio features which currently shape ABC radio output, and considers the potential of ABC’s new Creative Audio Unit. ​

– Guest Editor Magz Hall

As an artist growing up in rural Australia, I was hugely influenced by how state-owned radio engaged with sound-based practitioners. For decades, radio not only gave voice to some of the more exploratory artists and their works, it allowed artists and audiences from all over this vast continent to find a space in which experimental works could, with financial support, gestate, be realized and propelled onto a world stage, often receiving international acclaim for their distinctive perspective.

In recent years I have come back to those works as a PhD researcher, interviewing thirty five international practitioners, theorists and producers on Australian radio art thereby gaining a new appreciation of its particular aesthetic practices and approaches. This article draws on some of these interviews to highlight national and international perceptions about where Australian radio art has been, while also demonstrating its potential to influence a new generation of artists to explore beyond mainstream media formats.

Figure One - Murray Higgins, ABC Adelaide Drama

Murray Higgins, ABC Adelaide Drama supervising engineer recording various armaments on the deck of a Royal Australian Navy ship. This actuality was used for a live broadcast of a radio play scheduled for broadcast on the same day of recording. (Photo taken April 8, 1945 by an unknown photographer)

THE LISTENING ROOM

While there are a few early examples of Australian radio art, consistant programming and commissioning of radio art effectively commenced in the 1980s with the formation of the ABC Arts Unit during 1984-85 and the acoustic arts programme The Listening Room, which aired from 1988 to 2003. Although long-decommissioned, The Listening Room was still one of a very few signposts that my interviewees cited when trying to understand the properties of Australian radio art. The Listening Room’s founding executive producer Andrew McLennan, who expanded the boundaries of ABC radio from 1976 onwards, had a clear take on the aesthetic framework of the show, stating in one internal ABC report (c1990) that the programme was a:

… venue for the exploration, the cross-pollination of radio forms. … you can hear new radio plays, audio essays, acoustic features, sound documentaries, new music, sound-scapes and sculptures, audio installations, acoustic art forms …

This approach was broader than that of other international radio art programs. Here is a quote from the formative executive producer of Deutschlandradio Kultur, Götz Naleppa, who took a much more “aesthetic” approach for his well-known Klangkunst programmes in Germany:

The difference to other radio-art-forms like radio-play is simple: sound-composition [a term Naleppa prefers to radio art] shares with them the same elements: sound, text (voice) and music. But in radio-play text (dialogue) is in the foreground and the other elements SERVE it (often in an illustrative way). And in (radio)sound-composition we have the same elements – but they are EQUAL, they are simply MATERIAL in the hands of the composer [Götz Naleppa, e-mail message to author July 28, 2005].

Of the two, The Listening Room clearly had a wider scope. Thus a number of ABC works, like On the Raft, All at Sea (by Robyn Ravlich and Russell Stapleton), placed the text in the foreground as the narrative is primarily driven by the use of spoken dialogue and the other elements are used to serve the text in a chiefly illustrative fashion. By definition Naleppa would call this a “radio-play” and not necessarily neues hörspiel or radio art, and definitely not a radio “sound-composition.”

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Extract from On the Raft, All at Sea (2002) by Robyn Ravlich and Russell Stapleton (courtesy Robyn Ravlich and ABC Radio)

Figure Two: The Listening Room, program logo postcard designed by Antart (c 1990).

Figure Two: The Listening Room, program logo postcard designed by Antart (c 1990).

“AUSTRALIAN” RADIO ART

Alongside this inclusiveness of a wide scope of work, my research uncovered a range of other ideas about the identifiable properties of Australian radio art. Austrian Elisabeth Zimmerman claims that with Australian work there is “a certain tradition” that favours the “use of environmental sounds … but in a very composed way.” Andrew McLennan supports Zimmerman’s viewpoint and states: “it’s always hard to say and it is probably a bit of a cliché … [however he] often think[s] of it as quite environmentally driven.” Douglas Kahn, an American, is more skeptical, observing that “The Australian stuff was much broader range … I don’t think you can say that there was an Australian aesthetic because there were so many different artists that were brought in to do things.” Although later Kahn does state that a common thread heard in Australian work was its “really high quality production values … really nice complex mixes … people playing the mixing board like it was a piano in a really sophisticated way.” Kaye Mortley from her Australian French background describes Australian work as “radiophonic art, of various sorts, more experimental in nature, some produced by composers.” While not a composer, Australian Virginia Madsen supports Mortley’s viewpoint when she describes her own work as “experimental … it combines music, theatre performance, and documentary really.” The common theme that emerges from my research is the openness and commitment to experimentation that exists alongside a highly professional approach to the art form within Australian radio art culture.

My interviews also indicated that radio art plays a role in the perceived amorphous and multi-faceted notion of national identity, while confirming Kahn and Nicholas Zurbrugg’s earlier observations that radio art has critically contributed to the overall arts ecology in Australia. As a practitioner, I would also describe my own work as having an experimental approach that is influenced by the high quality production levels of programs like The Listening Room. While much of my work is environmentally driven, my artistic focus is to create multi-faceted, intimate aural geographies in which human imprint is present.

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Extract from Alien In The Landscape (2007) by Colin Black (courtesy DeutschlandRadio Kultur). This extract features synchronous field recordings made by a Rodes NT4, X-Y configured stereo microphone and Fender Stratocaster with additional strings attached as pictured below.

Figure Three: The author conducting field recordings at the edge of the Great Sandy Desert in Australia, 2006.

Figure Three: The author conducting field recordings at the edge of the Great Sandy Desert in Australia, 2006.

THE CREATIVE AUDIO UNIT AND AUSTRALIAN RADIO TODAY

When The Listening Room was decommissioned in 2003, explorative radio was forced in two directions: ABC Radio National programmed some word-based works, while ABC Classic FM aired another set of works that Kate Dundas (Director of ABC Radio) has called “Shorter-form pieces, maybe perhaps down the sound-based acoustic end or radiophonic end of the spectrum.”Budgets were dramatically reduced and diverted, resulting in the effective abandonment of regular commissions and airtime for long-form sound-based works. In 2012 ABC management decommissioned book readings and Creative Instinct (a “feature program that reflects and explores the creative world”) and The Night Air (described as “aural equivalents of the avant-garde cut-up: a montage of interviews, location sound, music and found audio”). Moreover management oversaw the dismantling of the Airplay programme, which included “hour-long dramatic fictions [sic] experiment with formeffectively ending an 80-year tradition of Australian radio drama. In replacing these programmes, the Creative Audio Unit (CAU) was planned and American-style low budget radio production techniques for dramatic short stories (as championed at the 2012 ABC run Radio Beyond Radio conference) were put on the table as the future of radio.

In 2013 the ABC recruited a whole new team (who collectively had very little direct engagement with prior radio drama and The Listening Room production budgets and procedures), to setup, oversee and run the CAU. This transition was so atypical of past ABC changes that it raises questions as to whether this was an orchestrated act of cultural amnesia. It is perhaps not surprising that one of the major challenges this new team faces is the lack of resources, which impedes the magnitude of new works commissioned. This also raises questions as to how the previous budgets from Airplay, The Night Air and Creative Instinct have been reassigned. Another challenge is this unit’s extremely wide area of responsibility (that was previously spread across a number of ABC Units) ranging from radio drama and essays on the Radiotonic programme (effectively replacing the entire radio drama department) to what it claims to be a “portal into radio art, performance, soundscapes and composed audio features” on its Soundproof programme.

While Soundproof makes gestures to re-stimulate radio art activities in Australia, in sampling its first twenty episodes it becomes apparent that a very large percentage of airtime is heavily driven by the spoken dialogue narrative, more in line with radio drama or documentary. Furthermore, the episodes that contain the more interesting sound works seem to be frequently interrupted by extended contextual dialogue and therefore, for the most part, present only extracts or shorter form radio art works. Therefore, as a practitioner who runs the risk of being excluded from future CAU activities, I would nevertheless argue that for the most part, the CAU is doubling up on its focus on radio drama and documentary style productions and has not to date reached its goal of fully exploring and presenting sound rich radio art features, as it claims (please see Soundproof episode mp3 downloads dated between 11 May to 21 September 2014). Moreover, Soundproof is much more constrained, even backward-looking, when compared to its predecessors and is therefore aiming to attract a much less adventurous radio audience. More glaringly, the first twenty episodes lack a strong presence for new Australian works when compared to The Listening Room that broadcast sixty-four Australian works with a total duration of fifty hours in its first year of operation. As an inquisitive listener it seems that, to date, Soundproof has forgotten its own lineage without offering anything new or innovative and in doing so, has also forgotten audience members like myself in Australia and throughout the world.

I sometimes wonder what the conclusions from my research study would be if it were only focused on current practice. Would today’s Australian radio art still play a role in the perceived multi-faceted notion of Australian national identity? Would it still be perceived to have an experimental approach with high quality production levels that favour the use of environmental sounds? Is it still a critical contributor to the overall arts ecology in Australia? Audience members who have little prior knowledge of Australian radio art, may think so or may not conceive of its potential to do so. However, given sustained support, the space for experimentation and a clear inventive vision for the future, building on the legacy of past achievements, Australian radio art clearly has the potential to regain its status on a world stage.

Featured Image: Beastman mural on Brisbane Radio by Flickr User JAM Project

Dr Colin Black is an internationally acclaimed composer/sound artist having won the 2003 Prix Italia Award and achieving the final round selection in the 2010 and 2011 Prix Phonurgia Nova for his creative feature length works. As a result of this acclaim, Black has received multiple national and international commissions to create innovative long-form works for broadcast across major Australian and European networks. Black’s curator credits include, international festival/showcases of award winning Australian acoustic art and radio art at London’s Resonance104.4fm, Kunstradio (ÖRF, Austria) and Toronto’s New Adventures In Sound Art. In 2013 he also curated the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Sound Fix: Your Weekly Dose of Transmitted Audible Art series. He is a PhD graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music where he was a recipient of the University of Sydney Postgraduate Awards Scholarship. More recently Black has been engaged as an academic lecturing at the University Technology, Sydney; moreover he has authored a number of conference papers and peer reviewed journal articles including “An Overview of Spatialised Broadcasting Experiments With a Focus on Radio Art Practices” in Organised Sound. Black is also the founding member of The International Radio Art (and Creative Audio for Trans-media) Research Group. For more information see: www.colinblack.com.au

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Sounds of Science: The Mystique of Sonification

Hearing the Unheard IIWelcome to the final installment of Hearing the UnHeardSounding Out!s series on what we don’t hear and how this unheard world affects us. The series started out with my post on hearing, large and small, continued with a piece by China Blue on the sounds of catastrophic impacts, and Milton Garcés piece on the infrasonic world of volcanoes. To cap it all off, we introduce The Sounds of Science by professor, cellist and interactive media expert, Margaret Schedel.

Dr. Schedel is an Associate Professor of Composition and Computer Music at Stony Brook University. Through her work, she explores the relatively new field of Data Sonification, generating new ways to perceive and interact with information through the use of sound. While everyone is familiar with informatics, graphs and images used to convey complex information, her work explores how we can expand our understanding of even complex scientific information by using our fastest and most emotionally compelling sense, hearing.

– Guest Editor Seth Horowitz

With the invention of digital sound, the number of scientific experiments using sound has skyrocketed in the 21st century, and as Sounding Out! readers know, sonification has started to enter the public consciousness as a new and refreshing alternative modality for exploring and understanding many kinds of datasets emerging from research into everything from deep space to the underground. We seem to be in a moment in which “science that sounds” has a special magic, a mystique that relies to some extent on misunderstandings in popular awareness about the processes and potentials of that alternative modality.

For one thing, using sound to understand scientific phenomena is not actually new. Diarist Samuel Pepys wrote about meeting scientist Robert Hooke in 1666 that “he is able to tell how many strokes a fly makes with her wings (those flies that hum in their flying) by the note that it answers to in musique during their flying.” Unfortunately Hooke never published his findings, leading researchers to speculate on his methods. One popular theory is that he tied strings of varying lengths between a fly and an ear trumpet, recognizing that sympathetic resonance would cause the correct length string to vibrate, thus allowing him to calculate the frequency. Even Galileo used sound, showing the constant acceleration of a ball due to gravity by using an inclined plane with thin moveable frets. By moving the placement of the frets until the clicks created an even tempo he was able to come up with a mathematical equation to describe how time and distance relate when an object falls.

Illustration from Robert Hooke's Micrographia (1665)

Illustration from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665)

There have also been other scientific advances using sound in the more recent past. The stethoscope was invented in 1816 for auscultation, listening to the sounds of the body. It was later applied to machines—listening for the operation of the technological gear. Underwater sonar was patented in 1913 and is still used to navigate and communicate using hydroacoustic phenomenon. The Geiger Counter was developed in 1928 using principles discovered in 1908; it is unclear exactly when the distinctive sound was added. These are all examples of auditory display [AD]; sonification-generating or manipulating sound by using data is a subset of AD. As the forward to the The Sonification Handbook states, “[Since 1992] Technologies that support AD have matured. AD has been integrated into significant (read “funded” and “respectable”) research initiatives. Some forward thinking universities and research centers have established ongoing AD programs. And the great need to involve the entire human perceptual system in understanding complex data, monitoring processes, and providing effective interfaces has persisted and increased” (Thomas Hermann, Andy Hunt, John G. Neuhoff, Sonification Handbook, iii)

Sonification clearly enables scientists, musicians and the public to interact with data in a very different way, particularly compared to the more numerous techniques involving vision. Indeed, because hearing functions quite differently than vision, sonification offers an alternative kind of understanding of data (sometimes more accurate), which would not be possible using eyes alone. Hearing is multi-directional—our ears don’t have to be pointing at a sound source in order to sense it. Furthermore, the frequency response of our hearing is thousands of times more accurate than our vision. In order to reproduce a moving image the sampling rate (called frame-rate) for film is 24 frames per second, while audio has to be sampled at 44,100 frames per second in order to accurately reproduce sound. In addition, aural perception works on simultaneous time scales—we can take in multiple streams of audio data at once at many different dynamics, while our pupils dilate and contract, limiting how much visual data we can absorb at a single time. Our ears are also amazing at detecting regular patterns over time in data; we hear these patterns as frequency, harmonic relationships, and timbre.

Image credit: Dr. Kevin Yager, data measured at X9 beamline, Brookhaven National Lab.

Image credit: Dr. Kevin Yager, Brookhaven National Lab.

But hearing isn’t simple, either. In the current fascination with sonification, the fact that aesthetic decisions must be made in order to translate data into the auditory domain can be obscured. Headlines such as “Here’s What the Higgs Boson Sounds Like” are much sexier than headlines such as “Here is What One Possible Mapping of Some of the Data We Have Collected from a Scientific Measuring Instrument (which itself has inaccuracies) Into Sound.” To illustrate the complexity of these aesthetic decisions, which are always interior to the sonification process, I focus here on how my collaborators and I have been using sound to understand many kinds of scientific data.

My husband, Kevin Yager, a staff scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, works at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials using scattering data from x-rays to probe the structure of matter. One night I asked him how exactly the science of x-ray scattering works. He explained that X-rays “scatter” off of all the atoms/particles in the sample and the intensity is measured by a detector. He can then calculate the structure of the material, using the Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) algorithm. He started to explain FFT to me, but I interrupted him because I use FFT all the time in computer music. The same algorithm he uses to determine the structure of matter, musicians use to separate frequency content from time. When I was researching this post, I found a site for computer music which actually discusses x-ray scattering as a precursor for FFT used in sonic applications.

To date, most sonifications have used data which changes over time – a fly’s wings flapping, a heartbeat, a radiation signature. Except in special cases Kevin’s data does not exist in time – it is a single snapshot. But because data from x-ray scattering is a Fourier Transform of the real-space density distribution, we could use additive synthesis, using multiple simultaneous sine waves, to represent different spatial modes. Using this method, we swept through his data radially, like a clock hand, making timbre-based sonifications from the data by synthesizing sine waves using with the loudness based on the intensity of the scattering data and frequency based on the position.

We played a lot with the settings of the additive synthesis, including the length of the sound, the highest frequency and even the number of frequency bins (going back to the clock metaphor – pretend the clock hand is a ruler – the number of frequency bins would be the number of demarcations on the ruler) arriving eventually at set of optimized variables.

Here is one version of the track we created using 10 frequency bins:

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Here is one we created using 2000:

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And here is one we created using 50 frequency bins, which we settled on:

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On a software synthesizer this would be like the default setting. In the future we hope to have an interactive graphic user interface where sliders control these variables, just like a musician tweaks the sound of a synth, so scientists can bring out, or mask aspects of the data.

To hear what that would be like, here are a few tracks that vary length:

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Finally, here is a track we created using different mappings of frequency and intensity:

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Having these sliders would reinforce to the scientists that we are not creating “the sound of a metallic alloy,” we are creating one sonic representation of the data from the metallic alloy.

It is interesting that such a representation can be vital to scientists. At first, my husband went along with this sonification project as more of a thought experiment rather than something that he thought would actually be useful in the lab, until he heard something distinct about one of those sounds, suggesting that there was a misaligned sample. Once Kevin heard that glitched sound (you can hear it in the video above), he was convinced that sonification was a useful tool for his lab. He and his colleagues are dealing with measurements 1/25,000th the width of a human hair, aiming an X-ray through twenty pieces of equipment to get the beam focused just right. If any piece of equipment is out of kilter, the data can’t be collected. This is where our ears’ non-directionality is useful. The scientist can be working on his/her computer and, using ambient sound, know when a sample is misaligned.

procedure

It remains to be seen/heard if the sonifications will be useful to actually understand the material structures. We are currently running an experiment using Mechanical Turk to determine this kind of multi-modal display (using vision and audio) is actually helpful. Basically we are training people on just the images of the scattering data, and testing how well they do, and training another group of people on the images plus the sonification and testing how well they do.

I’m also working with collaborators at Stony Brook University on sonification of data. In one experiment we are using ambisonic (3-dimensional) sound to create a sonic map of the brain to understand drug addiction. Standing in the middle of the ambisonic cube, we hope to find relationships between voxels, a cube of brain tissue—analogous to pixels. When neurons fire in areas of the brain simultaneously there is most likely a causal relationship which can help scientists decode the brain activity of addiction. Computer vision researchers have been searching for these relationships unsuccessfully; we hope that our sonification will allow us to hear associations in distinct parts of the brain which are not easily recognized with sight. We are hoping to leverage the temporal pattern recognition of our auditory system, but we have been running into problems doing the sonification; each slice of data from the FMRI has about 300,000 data points. We have it working with 3,000 data points, but either our programming needs to get more efficient, or we have to get a much more powerful computer in order to work with all of the data.

On another project we are hoping to sonify gait data using smartphones. I’m working with some of my music students and a professor of Physical Therapy, Lisa Muratori, who works on understanding the underlying mechanisms of mobility problems in Parkinsons’ Disease (PD). The physical therapy lab has a digital motion-capture system and a split-belt treadmill for asymmetric stepping—the patients are supported by a harness so they don’t fall. PD is a progressive nervous system disorder characterized by slow movement, rigidity, tremor, and postural instability. Because of degeneration of specific areas of the brain, individuals with PD have difficulty using internally driven cues to initiate and drive movement. However, many studies have demonstrated an almost normal movement pattern when persons with PD are provided external cues, including significant improvements in gait with rhythmic auditory cueing. So far the research with PD and sound has be unidirectional – the patients listen to sound and try to match their gait to the external rhythms from the auditory cues.In our system we will use bio-feedback to sonify data from sensors the patients will wear and feed error messages back to the patient through music. Eventually we hope that patients will be able to adjust their gait by listening to self-generated musical distortions on a smartphone.

As sonification becomes more prevalent, it is important to understand that aesthetic decisions are inevitable and even essential in every kind of data representation. We are so accustomed to looking at visual representations of information—from maps to pie charts—that we may forget that these are also arbitrary transcodings. Even a photograph is not an unambiguous record of reality; the mechanics of the camera and artistic choices of the photographer control the representation. So too, in sonification, do we have considerable latitude. Rather than view these ambiguities as a nuisance, we should embrace them as a freedom that allows us to highlight salient features, or uncover previously invisible patterns.

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Margaret Anne Schedel is a composer and cellist specializing in the creation and performance of ferociously interactive media. She holds a certificate in Deep Listening with Pauline Oliveros and has studied composition with Mara Helmuth, Cort Lippe and McGregor Boyle. She sits on the boards of 60×60 Dance, the BEAM Foundation, Devotion Gallery, the International Computer Music Association, and Organised Sound. She contributed a chapter to the Cambridge Companion to Electronic Music, and is a joint author of Electronic Music published by Cambridge University Press. She recently edited an issue of Organised Sound on sonification. Her research focuses on gesture in music, and the sustainability of technology in art. She ran SUNY’s first Coursera Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in 2013. As an Associate Professor of Music at Stony Brook University, she serves as Co-Director of Computer Music and is a core faculty member of cDACT, the consortium for digital art, culture and technology.

Featured Image: Dr. Kevin Yager, data measured at X9 beamline, Brookhaven National Lab.

Research carried out at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials, Brookhaven National Laboratory, is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, under Contract No. DE-AC02-98CH10886.

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Tofu, Steak, and a Smoke Alarm: The Food Network’s Chopped & the Sonic Art of Cooking

On Sunday evening, Susan discovered the tofu had gone bad. Unfortunately, the entrée for the evening was to be tofu with sweet chili sauce.  We connect on Skype at 3:30pm, as Susan is cutting up vegetables. Usually, she has classical music on while she cooks; it helps her concentrate. She’s cut up so many vegetables in her life, that she finds music sweetens the repetitive activity. However, today I hear only the rewarding sound of her knife bisecting baby bok choy.

Susan and I don’t talk about this sound, but it is certainly familiar. She says she cuts up the pieces small, as Mimi likes the chunks of bell pepper to be as little as possible.

My ethnographic work on cooking is birthed from a very personal place: Susan is my Aunt and Mimi my mother.  They live together in Kingston, Massachusetts, where Susan’s cooking nourishes Mimi through her ongoing chemo and radiation treatments.  Using Skype, I watched and asked questions remotely from Raleigh, North Carolina on three consecutive evenings during their dinner preparation in order to more deeply understand cooking as an art. From the first moment of preparation each night, Susan and I talked about the meal, the cooking techniques, and her feelings about cooking and eating–and I noted that sound emerged as central to her culinary process.

Opening my ethnographic practice up to sonic analysis enables new definitions of both chef and kitchen as lively, complex sites, constantly negotiating with each other. Taking the role of sound into account in the practice of cooking allows me to construct new interpretations of cooking artistry that considers everyday negotiations and embodied limitations not as “threats” to the cooking art, but, instead, as elements that enrich its artistry.

My sonic analysis specifically chafes against dominant formations of  “cooking as art” in the contemporary moment, exemplified by reality television programs such as The Food Network’s Chopped, which constructs a static configuration of space with the cook as subject and the meal as art object.  On Chopped, four chefs are given thirty minutes and four ingredients. Using these items, they must make a dish to be judged by a panel of food experts. These items are often strange or incongruous: on one episode, they had to make an appetizer out of frosted wheat cereal, baby red romaine lettuce, black garlic, and quahog clams. The success of a dish is measured by the chef’s ability to balance the necessary experimentation with an implied universal of good taste, texture balance, and pleasuring preparation. In other words, Chopped collapses art-making and capital into the “art object-meal,” reproducing  a tired definition of “high art” that necessitates access to wealth and privilege, because the creation of “art” requires expensive foodstuffs, sophisticated kitchen technologies, and a highly controlled visual and sonic environment.

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In my Aunt Susan’s kitchen, there are a number of sonic and spatial negotiations that preclude her cooking from the singular criteria of artistry perpetuated by Chopped. Specifically, my Aunt Susan’s cooking does not meet Chopped’s standards because it requires negotiations related to her personal mobility and my mother’s health. My Aunt uses a wheelchair to get around her house, and, as a result, some kitchen appliances are harder to reach. My mother’s chemo and radiation treatments mean that she has both complicated limitations to her diet and fluid culinary desires.

In seeking to understand the fluid challenges of Susan’s cooking, I designed my virtual sensory ethnography by combining two methods, defined respectively by Sarah Pink and Jenna Burrell. In Sensory Ethnography, Pink proposes that the ethnographer is immersed in smells, tastes, sights, and sound during the ethnographic process. Things that might seem mundane such as the sound of onions being chopped, for example, can actually reveal a complex set of relations about the cook and their process. The cook might be listening to the chopping as a rhythm in her process, like background music: the pleasing sound as it hits the cutting board. But if the onion isn’t fresh, the sound is less crisp, less crunch, the sounds changes to speak of a different type of knowledge, and she must act differently in response.  In “The Field Site as a Network,” Burrell proposes an understanding of the ethnographic field site as a network rather than a singular object. The field site, in other words, is a heterogeneous set of connections, always expanding. Using a technology like Skype to do ethnography is not “ethnography at a distance,” she implies, rather it is the field site manifested through a multiplicity of connections. It simply reflects the ever-changing set of relations that comprise our world.

Tools for the sensory ethnography of the kitchen. Borrowed from Travelin' Librarian @Flickr.

Tools for the sensory ethnography of the kitchen. Borrowed from Travelin’ Librarian @Flickr.

After Susan has cut up all the longer-cooking vegetables and set the chili sauce to simmer, we disconnect. At 5:15pm, we connect again. Susan unwraps the tofu, and something isn’t right. She calls Mimi into the kitchen, and, after some deliberation, they decide that steak will need to replace the tofu. It’s a disappointment as the tofu would have tasted best with the sweet chili sauce.

The sonic landscape of Susan’s kitchen has been, up to this, point, fairly solitary and controlled. When Susan welcomes Mimi in, the kitchen becomes a lively space of conversation, interaction, and negotiation. The production of the sonic space in the kitchen, from solitary preparation to lively interaction, is a crucial part of Susan’s art. The kitchen has undergone what Brian Massumi, in his essay “Floating the Social,” calls a “modulation of the dimension of perception [rather] than an encoding of separate pieces of data or a sequencing of units of meaning” (41). Such a sonic modulation challenges the narrative of lone artist-chef creating object-meal. Rather than segmenting the meal into a set of data blocks (chef, food, preparation time, and eater), Susan orchestrates the art of cooking as participatory with Mimi.

In the kitchen, Mimi also examines the tofu. She offers some information about it, and then joins Susan to figure out what other protein might work.

Once the steak is decided upon, Mimi exits and Susan works again at preparing dinner.

Susan’s sonic modulations, in this case conversation, allow for immersion and engagement in the lively sonic space of her kitchen. Mimi and Susan create a co-constitutive relationship between chef and eater.  Unlike on Chopped, the eater is a participant rather than a judge.

Susan and I disconnect from Skype to give the steak time to thaw. We connect once again, at 6:20PM, once the steak has been properly thawed. As we discuss how Susan learned to cook, the smoke alarm suddenly comes to life.

An unplanned sonic intervention has occurred. The smoke alarm has its own desires; it insists on total control of the sonic space. Susan’s response is a necessary modulation. She counters the smoke alarm’s desire for sonic control with words, saying that it triggered accidentally because of the steak, sizzling in the pan. The interruption of the smoke alarm exemplifies how Susan’s cooking technique is not one of dominance. Rather than producing clear boundaries between chef and eater, the food and the preparation, the kitchen and its outside, Susan allows for fluid boundaries, welcoming chance and the unknown into her art.

Smoke Pan

Setting off the alarm image borrowed from Gwenaël Piaser @Flickr.

In the context of Susan’s kitchen, Massumi’s definition of modulation applies, however subtle. These domestic modulations are not a movement toward total control, but, instead, a lively negotiation with a set of partly unpredictable relations – an orchestration of the sonic space. The idea of sonic orchestration allows us to consider the complex set of possibilities existing between the choices made by the subject, here, the chef, and the presence of a set of potentialities, such as the smoke alarm.  To Susan, the art of cooking is not the reduction or elimination of “threats”; her art is the negotiation of modulations. In contrast to Chopped, where careful boundaries are constructed in order to protect the privilege inherent in its definition of art, Susan’s art lies in her engagement with the lively potentialities of the sonic art of cooking.

Seth Mulliken is a Ph.D. candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program at NC State. He does ethnographic research about the co-constitutive relationship between sound and race in public space. Concerned with ubiquitous forms of sonic control, he seeks to locate the variety of interactions, negotiations, and resistances through individual behavior, community, and technology that allow for a wide swath of racial identity productions. He is convinced ginger is an audible spice, but only above 15khz.

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