DIY Histories: Podcasting the Past
This is article 3.0 in Sounding Out!‘s April Forum on “Sound and Technology.” Every Monday this month, you’ll be hearing new insights on this age-old pairing from the likes of Sounding Out! veteranos Aaron Trammell and Primus Luta along with new voices Andrew Salvati and Owen Marshall. These fast-forward folks will share their thinking about everything from Auto-tune to techie manifestos. Today, Salvati asks if DIY podcasts are allowing ordinary people to remix the historical record. Let’s subscribe and press play. –JS, Editor-in-Chief
Was Alexander the Great as bad a person as Adolph Hitler? Will our modern civilization ever fall like civilizations from past eras?
According to Dan Carlin’s website, these are the kind of speculative “outside-the-box” perspectives one might expect from his long-running Hardcore History podcast. In Carlin’s hands, the podcast is a vehicle for presenting dramatic accounts of human history that are clearly meant to entertain, and are quite distinct from what we might recognize as academic history. Carlin, a radio commentator and former journalist, would likely agree with this assessment. As he frequently emphasizes, he is a “fan” of history and not a professional. But while there are particularities of training, perspective, and resources that may distinguish professional and popular historians, an oppositional binary between these kinds of historymakers risks overlooking the plurality of historical interpretation. Instead, we might notice how history podcasters like Carlin utilize this new sonic medium to continue a tradition of oral storytelling that in the West goes back to Herodotus, and has since been the primary means of marginalized and oppressed groups to preserve cultural memory. As a way for hobbyists and amateurs to create and share their own do-it-yourself (DIY) histories, I argue that audio podcasting suggests a democratization of historical inquiry that greatly expands the possibilities for everyone, as Carl Becker once said, to become his or her own historian.
Frequently listed among iTunes’ top society and culture podcasts, and cited by several history podcasters as the inspiration for their own creations, the popularity of Hardcore History stems from Carlin’s unconventional and dramatic recounting of notable (but sometimes obscure) historical topics, in which he will often elaborate historical-structural changes through contemporizing metaphors. Connecting the distant past to more immediate analogies of present life is the core of Carlin’s explanatory method. This form of explanation is quite distinct from the output of academic historians, who assiduously avoid this sort of “presentism.” But as the late Roy Rosenzweig (2000) has suggested, it is precisely this kind of conscious and practical engagement with the past – and not the litany of facts in dry-as-dust textbooks – that appeals to non-historians. Rosenzweig and David Thelen claim have found that most Americans perceive a close connection with the past, especially as it relates to the present, through their personal and family life. Using the medium of podcasting to talk about the past is a new way of making the past vital to the present needs and interests of most people. This is how podcasters make sense of history in their own terms. It is DIY insofar as it is distinct from professional discourse, and less encompassing (and expensive) than video methods.
Podcasts can present an alternative model for making sense of the past – one that underscores the historymaker’s interpretive imprints, and which cultivates a sense of liveness and interactivity. Admittedly, Dan Carlin’s own style can be rambling and melodramatic. But to the extent that he practices history as a kind of storytelling, and acknowledges his own interpretive interventions, Hardcore History, like other independently produced history podcasts (I am thinking about a few of my favorites – Revolutions, The History Chicks, and The British History Podcast) give their listeners the sense that history is not necessarily something that is “out there,” or distant from us in the present, but part of a living conversation in the present. Podcasters construct a dialogue about history which, when combined with the interactivity offered by website forums, draws the listener into a participatory engagement. Rosenzweig and Thelen’s explain, Americans interested in popular history are skeptical of “historical presentations that did not give them credit for their critical abilities – commercialized histories on television or textbook-driven high school classes.” Such analytic skills are precisely what we as historians and teachers aim to develop in our students. Podcasting, when it constructs a collaborative dialogue in which audience and producer explore history together, can both be a valuable supplement to traditional historiography, and a way for people to connect with the past that overcomes the abstraction of textbooks and video.
But is the podcast as intellectually freeing as it might seem? Jonathan Sterne (et. al., 2008) notes that podcasting encompasses a range of technologies and practices that do not necessarily determine the liberation of content production from the dominance of established institutions and economies of scale. Indeed, there are many professional historians and media producers who have utilized audio (and sometimes video) podcasting to reach a wider audience. While the History Channel has not (yet) entered the field, one can surely imagine the implications of corporate-produced history content that homogenizes local and cultural particularities, or which present globalized capitalism as a natural or inevitable historical trajectory.
The kind of podcasts I am concerned with, however, are created by independent producers taking a DIY approach to content production and historical inquiry. While their resources and motivations may differ, podcasts produced on personal computers in the podcaster’s spare time have an intimate, handcrafted feel that I find to be more appealing than, say, a podcasted lecture. Ideally, what results is an intimate and episodic performance in which podcasters can, to use Andreas Duus Pape’s phrasing from an earlier Sounding Out! post, “whisper in the ears” of listeners. This intimacy is heightened by the means of access – when I download a particular podcast, transfer it to my iPhone, and listen on my commute, I am inviting the podcaster into my personal sonic space.
Complimenting this sense of intimacy is a DIY approach to history practiced by podcasters who are neither professional historians nor professional media producers. Relatively cheap and easy to produce (assuming the necessary equipment and leisure time), podcasting presents a low barrier of entry for history fans inspired to use new media technologies to share their passion with other history fans and the general public. Though a few podcasters acknowledge that they have had some university training in history, they are usually proud of their amateur status. The History Chicks, for example, “don’t claim to know it all,” and that any pretense toward a comprehensive history “would be kinda boring.” Podcasting and historical inquiry are hobbies, and their DIY history projects allow the relative freedom to have fun exploring and talking about their favorite subject matter – without having to conform to fussy disciplinary constraints. For Jamie Jeffers, creator of the British History podcast, most people are alienated by the way history gets taught in school. However, “almost everyone loves stories,” he says, and podcasting “allows us to reconnect to that ancient tradition of oral histories.” Others justify the hobby in more bluntly. For the History Chicks, women in history is “a perfect topic to sit down and chat about.” Talking about history, arguing about it, is something that history fans (and I include myself here) enjoy. Podcasting can broaden this conversation.
Despite my optimistic tone in this post, however, I do not want to suggest uncritically that the democratizing, DIY aspects that I have noted (among just a handful of podcasts) comprises the entire potential of the format. Nuancing a common opposition between the bottom-up potential of podcasting with the prevalent top-down (commercial) model of broadcasting for example, Sterne and others have asserted that rather than constituting a disruptive technology – as Richard Berry has suggested – podcasting realizes “an alternate cultural model of broadcasting.” Referring to earlier models of broadcasting – such as those Susan Douglas (1992) described in her classic study of early amateur radio – Sterne and company assert that analyses of podcasting should focus not on the technology itself, but on practice; not on the challenge podcasting poses to corporate dominance in broadcasting, but rather how it might offer a pluralistic model that permits both commercial/elite and DIY/amateur productions.
Adapting these recommendations, I argue that podcasting can help us conceptualize an alternate cultural model of history – one that invites reconsideration of what counts as historical knowledge and interpretation, and about who is empowered to construct and access historical discourse. Rather that privileging the empirical or objective histories of academic/professional historians, such an expanded model would recognize the cultural legitimacy of diverse forms of historiographical expression. In other words, that history is never “just” history, or “just” facts, but is always a contingent and situated form of knowledge, and that, as Keith Jenkins writes, “interpretations at (say) the ‘centre’ of our culture are not there because they are true or methodologically correct … but because they are aligned to the dominant discursive practices: again power/knowledge” (1991/2003, p. 79). But to reiterate Sterne’s (et. al.) caution however, such an alternative model would not necessarily determine a role-reversal between professional and DIY histories. Rather through podcasting, we might discover alternative ways of performing history as a new oral tradition – of becoming each of us our own historian.
Andrew J. Salvati is a Media Studies Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University. His interests include the history of television and media technologies, theory and philosophy of history, and representations of history in media contexts. Additional interests include play, authenticity, the sublime, and the absurd. Andrew has co-authored a book chapter with colleague Jonathan Bullinger titled “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past” in the recent edited volume Playing With the Past (2013), and has written a recent blog post for Play the Past titled “The Play of History.”
Featured image: “Podcasts anywhere anytime” by Flickr user Francois, CC BY 2.0
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“Music is not Bread: A Comment on the Economics of Podcasting”-Andreas Duus Pape
“Pushing Record: Labors of Love, and the iTunes Playlist”-Aaron Trammell
“Only the Sound Itself?: Early Radio, Education, and Archives of ‘No-Sound’”-Amanda Keeler
Further Experiments in Agent-based Musical Composition
Editor’s Note: WARNING: THE FOLLOWING POST IS INTERACTIVE!!! This week’s post is especially designed by one of our regulars, Andreas Duus Pape, to spark conversation and provoke debate on its comment page. I have directly solicited feedback and commentary from several top sound studies scholars, thinkers, artists, and musicians, who will be posting at various times throughout the day and the week–responding to Andreas, responding to each other, and responding to your comments. Look for commentary by Bill Bahng Boyer (NYU), Maile Colbert(Binaural/Nodar, Faculdade de Belas Artes da Universidade do Porto), Adriana Knouf(Cornell University), Primus Luta (AvantUrb, Concrète Sound System), Alejandro L. Madrid (University of Illinois at Chicago), Tara Rodgers (University of Maryland), Jonathan Skinner (ecopoetics), Jonathan Sterne (McGill University), Aaron Trammell (Rutgers University, Sounding Out!) and yours truly (Binghamton University, Sounding Out!). Full bios of our special respondents follow the post. We wholeheartedly wish to entice you this Monday to play. . .and listen. . .and then share your thoughts via the comment page. . .and play again. . .listen again. . .read the comments. . .and share more thoughts. . .yeah, just go ahead and loop that. –JSA, Editor-in-Chief
I’m a musician and an economist. Sometimes you will find me playing acoustic folk rock and blues on guitar, harmonica and voice. And at other times I will be at work, where I apply my expertise in game theory to the computer modeling of social phenomena. I create simulations of people interacting – such as how people decide which way to vote on an issue such as a tax levy, or how people learn to sort objects given to them in an experiment. In these simulations, the user can set up characteristics of the environment, such as the number of people and their individual goals. After things are set up, users watch these interactions unfold. The simulation is a little story, and one need only tweak the inputs to see how the story changes.
As a musician, I was curious if a program that generates social stories could be refashioned to generate musical pieces. I wanted to build a music-generation engine that the listener could tweak in order to get a different piece each time. But not just any tune – a piece with some flow, some story. I like that tension between randomness and structure. On one hand, I want every song to vary in unpredictable ways; on the other hand, I want to create music and not structureless noise.
I created a basic story of predators and prey, whimsically naming the prey “Peters,” represented by rabbits, and the predators “Wolves.” My simulation depicts a plain in the savannah with a green oasis. The prey seek the oasis and the predators seek the prey. Each character has its own goals and the closer they are to achieving them, the happier they are. Both predators and prey want to have stomachs full of food, so naturally they want to be close to their target (be it prey or oasis). As they travel through the savannah, they learn what choices (directions of movement) make them happier, and use this experience to guide them.
So how does this story become music? To this question there are two answers: a technical one and an intuitive one. The intuitive answer is that in real life the story of predators and prey plays out geographically on the savannah, but musically this is a story that plays out over a sonic landscape. To elaborate, I abstracted the movement of the prey and predator on the geography of the plain into the musical geometry of a sonic landscape. The farther north an agent travels, the higher the pitch. And, the farther east an agent travels the longer the duration. In other words, as an agent travels to the northwest, she makes longer-lasting tones that are higher pitched. I also mapped happiness to volume, so that happy agents make louder tones. Finally, so that each agent would have a distinct voice as they traveled through this space, I chose different instruments for each agent.
In the video below I assigned the “church organ” sound to prey, and the “brass section” sound to predators.
Ultimately, there are some things that I like about this piece and others that I do not.
As a harmonica player, I improvise by creating and resolving tension. I think this piece does that well. The predator will pursue the prey into a quiet, low-pitch corner, creating a distant, rumbling sound – only to watch prey escape to the densely polyphonic northwest corner. There is an ebb and flow to this chase that I recognize from blues harmonica solos. In contrast to my experience as a harmonica player, however, I have found that some of the most compelling parts of the dynamics come from the layering of notes. The addition of notes yields a rich sonic texture, much like adding notes to a chord on an organ.
Unfortunately, for largely technical reasons, there is a lack of coherent rhythm and pacing. The programming platform (agent-based modeling software called NetLogo) is not designed to have the interface proceed in real-time. Basically, the overall speed of the piece can change as the processing load increases or decreases. I found that as agents learnt more about their surroundings (and more system resources are allocated to this “memory”), they became slower and slower. To fix this, I capped the size of their memory banks so that they would forget their oldest memories. The closest I have come to a rhythmic structure is by ordering the way that the agents play. This technique makes the piece have a call-and-response feel. If only the piece to had a coherent rhythm, then I could imagine playing harmonica along with it.
One last comment on pitch: while an earlier version of this piece mapped each step in space to a semitone, things sounded too mechanical. Even though this was the easiest and most intuitive decision from a technical standpoint, it was aesthetically lacking, so I have now integrated traditional musical scales. The minor scale, in my opinion, is the most interesting as it makes the predator/prey dynamic sound appropriately foreboding.
You can play this piece yourself. Simply go to this link with Java enabled in your browser (recommended: Google Chrome). Pressing “Setup” then “Go” will create your own run of the piece. As it is running, you can adjust the slider above the graphic window to change the speed. Press “Go” again to stop the model, adjust any parameters you wish and press “Setup” and “Go” again to see how the piece changes. Here are some parameters to try: instA and instB to change the instruments associated with prey and predators; PlayEveryXSteps to change the pace of the piece (higher results in a slower paced piece); Num-PackAs and Num-PackBs changes the number of prey and predators; the vertical PeterVol and WolfVol adjust the overall volume of prey and predators.
In regards to my version of “Peter and the Wolf,” I have a number of things that I’m curious about.
First, how does this relate to what you think of as music? Do you like listening to it? Which elements do you like and which do you dislike? For example, what do you think about about the tension and rhythm – do you agree the first works and that the second could be improved? Would you listen to this for enjoyments’ sake, and what would it take for this to be more than a novelty? What do you think about the narrative that drives the piece? I chose the predator and prey narrative, admittedly, on a whim. Do you think there might be some other narrative or agent specific goals that might better drive this piece? Is there any metaphor that might better describe this piece? As a listener do you enjoy the experience of being able to customize and configure the piece? What would you like to have control over that is missing here? Would you like more interaction with the piece or less interaction?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what do you think of the premise? Can simple electronic agents (albeit ones which interact socially) aspire to create music? Is there something promising in this act of simulation? Is music-making necessarily a human activity and is this kind of work destined to be artificial and uncanny?
Thanks for listening. I look forward to your thoughts.
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Andreas Duus Pape is an economist and a musician. As an economist, he studies microeconomic theory and game theory–that is, the analysis of strategy and the construction of models to understand social phenomena–and the theory of individual choice, including how to forecast the behavior of agents who construct models of social phenomena. As a musician, he plays folk in the tradition of Dylan and Guthrie, blues in the tradition of Williamson and McTell, and country in the tradition of Nelson and Cash. Pape is an assistant Professor in the department of Economics at Binghamton University and is a faculty member of the Collective Dynamics of Complex Systems (CoCo) Research Group.
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Guest Respondents on the Comment Page (in alphabetical order)
Bill Bahng Boyer is a doctoral candidate in music at New York University who is completing a dissertation on public listening in the New York City subway system.
Maile Colbert is an intermedia artist with a concentration in sound and video, living and working between New York and Portugal. She is an associated artist at Binaural/Nodar.
N. Adriana Knouf is a Ph.D. candidate in information science at Cornell University.
Primus Luta is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art; he maintains his own AvantUrb site and is a founding member of the live electronic music collective Concrète Sound System.
Alejandro L. Madrid is Associate Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a cultural theorist and music scholar whose research focuses on the intersection of modernity, tradition, globalization, and ethnic identity in popular and art music, dance, and expressive culture from Mexico, the U.S.-Mexico border, and the circum-Caribbean.
Tara Rodgers is an Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies and a faculty fellow in the Digital Cultures & Creativity program at the University of Maryland. As Analog Tara, she has released electronic music on compilations such as the Le Tigre 12″ and Source Records/Germany, and exhibited sound art at venues including Eyebeam (NYC) and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (Toronto).
Jonathan Skinner founded and edits the journal ecopoetics, which features creative-critical intersections between writing and ecology. Skinner also writes ecocriticism on contemporary poetry and poetics.
Jonathan Sterne teaches in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies and the History and Philosophy of Science Program at McGill University. His latest book, Mp3 The Meaning of a Format comes out this fall from Duke University Press.
Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman is co-founder, Editor-in-Chief and Guest Posts Editor for Sounding Out! She is also Assistant Professor of English at Binghamton University and a former Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University (2011-2012).
Aaron Trammell is Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out! and a Ph.D. Candidate in Media and Communications at Rutgers University.