I want to enable my students to mobilize sound studies not just as an analytic filter to help them understand the world, but as a method enabling more meaningful engagement with it. This post, an abbreviated version of the paper I recently gave at the Invisible Places, Sounding Cities Conference in Viseu, Portugal on July 18, 2014, explores my pedagogical efforts to move my sound studies work from theory to methodology to praxis in the classroom and in my larger community. In particular, I am working to intervene in the production of social difference via listening and the process by which differential listening practices create fractured and/or parallel experiences of allegedly shared urban spaces.
Inspired by ongoing efforts such as ReBold Binghamton–the visual arts group alluded to by my assignment’s title– Blueprint Binghamton, and the Binghamton Neighborhood Project, I wanted to articulate sound studies methods with long-term community engagement interventions. I decided to task the upper-level undergraduate students in my Spring 2014 “How We Listen” course with designing community engagement projects that identified and addressed an issue in Binghamton, the de-industrialized town in upstate New York housing our university. My students’ proposals ranged from rain-activated sound art, to historical sound walks that layered archival sounds with current perceptions, and a “noise month” sound-collection and remix project designed to challenge entrenched attitudes. They then presented the projects via a public poster session open to faculty members, administrators, community representatives, and peers.
Working with local residents and using asset-based theories of civic engagement, the students’ projects sought to re-sound Binghamton, enhancing existing forms of communication, amplifying hidden sounds and histories, and creating new sounds to resound throughout Binghamton’s future. While the students initially set out to “fix” Binghamton—bringing year-round residents into the world as their largely 18-21 selves heard it—the majority opened their ears to alternative understandings that left them questioning the exclusivity of their own listening practices. Students realized that while they may have been inhabiting Binghamton for the past few years, they hadn’t been perceptually living in the same town as year-round residents, and, conversely, that the locals’ tendencies to hear students as privileged nuisances had historical and structural roots.
The historical, theoretical, and methodological groundwork that scholars of sound have laid in recent decades toward heightened social and political understandings of sound—fantastic in volume, quality, AND reach—have equipped sound studies scholars with powerful critical tools with which to build a more directly, civically engaged sound studies, one as much interested in intervention and prevention as continued reclamation and recovery. Scholar-artists such as Linda O’Keeffe have begun to fuse audio artistic praxis with the more social science-oriented field of urban studies. O’Keeffe’s community project, highlighted in “(Sound)Walking Through Smithfield Square in Dublin,” set out to solve an audio- spatial problem at the very heart of the city: why did the city’s efforts to “rehabilitate” the landmark Smithfield Square—which had been a public market for hundreds of years—bring about its demise as a thriving public space rather than its rejuvenation? Equipping local students with recorders, O’Keeffe documented the students’ understanding of the space as “silent,” even though it was far from absent of sound. She noted local teenagers felt repelled by the newly wide-open square; the reverberation of their sounds as they grouped together to chat made them feel uncomfortable and surveilled—so it remained an isolating space of egress rather than a gathering place.
Importantly, O’Keeffe’s conclusion moved beyond self-awareness to political praxis; she presented her students’ self-documentation to Dublin city planners, intervening in Smithfield’s projected future and attempting to prevent similar destruction of other thriving city soundscapes unaligned with middle-class sensory orientations. O’Keeffe’s work sparked me to think of listening’s potential as advocacy and agency, as well as the increasing importance of reaching beyond the identification of diverse listening habits toward teaching people to understand the partiality and specificity of their sonic experience in combination with the impact listening—and the power dynamics it is enmeshed in—has on the lives, moods, and experiences of themselves and others. Listening habits, assumptions, and interpretations do not just shape individual thoughts and feelings, but also one’s spatial experience and sense of belonging to (or exclusion from) larger communities, both actual and imagined. Learning to understand one’s auditory experience and communicate it in relation to other people enables new forms of civic engagement that challenge oppression at the micro-level of the senses and seeks equitable experiences of shared space to counter the isolating exclusion compelled by many urban soundscapes.
O’Keeffe’s project also made me rethink how space-sound is shaped through social issues such as class inequity, particularly in my community of Binghamton, a small town of approximately 54,000 currently facing profound economic challenges. The end of the Cold War devastated Binghamton’s economy—then primarily based in defense—and the economic downturn of the early-1990s provided a knock-out punch, severely impacting the region in ways it has yet to recover from: the behemoth local IBM relocated to North Carolina, manufacturing jobs permanently decreased by 64%, and the population shrank almost by half. Recent climate-change induced disasters have also left their mark; massive floods in 2005 and 2011—on a geographic footprint historically flooding only 200-500 years—displaced thousands of low-income residents, destroyed many businesses, and collectively caused close to 2 billion dollars in damage. The global recession of 2008 left over 30% of Binghamton’s residents below the poverty line, including 40% of all children under 18.
The campus, 12,000 undergraduate students strong, often seems remote from the city I just described. Only 6% of BU students are drawn from its surrouding Broome County. The vast majority (60%) of BU’s students hail from the New York City metro area, a site of racialized economic tension with the rest of the state, evidenced by campaigns such as “Unshackle Upstate.” Indeed, Binghamton’s student body is more racially diverse than Binghamton the city (Vestal, where the university is located, is 88% white), and even though the relatively low-cost public university–approximately eight thousand dollars a year for in-state tuition– serves many first-generation college students, students with generous financial aid packages, and students employed while matriculating, the city’s poverty amplifies even slight class privilege.
These long-term structural fissures have led to tensions between the university students—whom some Binghamtonians problematically peg as wealthy outsiders and/or racially target—and full-time residents, dubbed “Townies” by many students and dehumanized as the backdrop to their college experience. While students and year-round residents inhabit the same physical spaces in Binghamton, they are not in fact living the same place and they often experience, interpret, and act on the same auditory information in drastically different ways. Binghamton sounds differently to each group, in terms of the impressions and interpretations of various auditory phenomena as well as the order of importance an individual gives to simultaneous sounds at any given moment.
Embodied aural perceptions shaped by class, race, age, and differing regional experience may in fact drive many of the “town and gown” conflicts—noise complaints most obviously—and exacerbate others, particularly mutually distorted perceptions that students bring Binghamton down and that residents are, as one student cruelly stated in the campus newspaper, “creatures” from “an endless horror movie.” So how to address this divide? And how to use sound studies to do it? I knew I did not want to impose a community project on my students that did not have their buy in and creative energy behind it. I decided on a group-sourcing project that asked students to work together to design a sound-studies based community project. I envisioned the assignment as the first phase of a longer-term project, with the most workable idea serving as the basis for a full-blown service learning experience in future courses. However, the assignment proved to be pedagogically valuable in its own right, not just as a prelude to future work.
I arranged my course around the proposal assignment, providing students with the critical thinking skills to imagine a project of this type. We began with theoretical and methodological materials that would introduce them to sound studies—none of my students were familiar with the field and its assumptions—and ground their thinking in the idea that listening is a complex sociocultural, political, and critical practice. While we read and discussed multitude of pieces on listening, the students reported four scholars as especially inspirational to the project: Yvon Bonenfant’s theorization of “queer listening” as a listening out (rather than the more normative taking in), Regina Bradley’s work on race and listening in American courtrooms that focused on how white lawyers discredit witnesses speaking patois and African American Vernacular English, Maile Costa Colbert’s artistic imagining of a “wayback sound machine,” and Emily Thompson’s work on noise and time/space/place, particularly in her new interactive “Roaring Twenties” project. Student Daniel Santos reported in a survey following the project,
The relationship between sound and time was very useful to our project; we understood the concept that no city ever sounds the same after a long period of time, and we sought to take advantage of this fact. Through our residents’ stories, we learned that Binghamton was once booming with sound from numerous, lucrative industries. Walking into a factory brought an industrial cacophony: card punchers thudded as steel was pounded against steel. However, today, a walk into these factories results in an eerie silence. We wanted our soundwalk participants to realize and become affected by this lack of and difference in sound, and raise pertinent questions: what happened to these sounds? Why is there such a large difference in sound levels? Where do I place myself within this soundscape?
I worked with Binghamton’s Center for Civic Engagement—a model program founded in 2010—and in particular with Assistant Director Christie Zwahlen, to equip students with basic-but-solid knowledge that would enable a new understanding of community work. Zwahlen brought home two major principles to students: 1) service learning has a pedagogical component; it is important to a project’s success that students learn something through their work rather than merely donating time or skills, 2) Community engagement works best when based on identifying and mobilizing a community’s assets rather than implementing an external project addressing perceived deficits. These two concepts meshed especially well with the students’ evolving understanding of listening as multifaceted, political, and deeply impacted by temporal and spatial contexts, because it required the students to engage directly with community members and learn how to listen to their voices, histories, and needs.
For both civic engagement and sound studies, Zwahlen and I introduced students to the various methods used to solve problems and answer our most important questions. For civic engagement, Christie focused on the asset map, which forced students to think of the surrounding community in terms of its strengths rather than the weaknesses they could already readily list. This exercise not only flipped their perspective but also helped them imagine and hone their project by identifying community stakeholders who would be receptive to their inquiries.
In terms of sound studies, I introduced them to a multiplicity of methods through readings, experiential activities, and process writing, in particular sound provocations and sound walks. According to student Hannah Lundeen’s post-project survey, the sound walks she performed proved especially fruitful:
Initially, solving a community issue through sound seemed next to impossible. It wasn’t until sitting down and thinking about the sound studies methods of soundwalks that it became clear. I liked soundwalks because they are a way to engage anyone in sound studies. They are an easy concept to explain to people who may not have thought much about their soundscape previously. They are an active and fun way to engage all community members in listening well.
As Lundeen relates, interweaving these methods formed the foundation of their community projects, enabling their inquiries regarding understanding differences in listening, how to enable people to recognize and discuss aspects of their listening, and to provoke some kind of impactful social change.
The final third of the semester was devoted to working on the final project [Click these links for the Rubric for Final Poster Presentation we used to assess the projects as well as the assignment sheet with Tips for Successfully Completing this Project both of which I handed out on day one! ]. Following an initial period of research and discussion, students narrowed down their project ideas, identified and met in person with potential community partners–ReBold Binghamton, Binghamton’s Center for Technology & Innovation, the Parks Department and several City Council members were especially helpful– and put together their proposals, emphasizing their new understandings of listening and its relationship to space and place via community mobilization. Students prepared a 7-minute gloss of their projects for public presentation that
- identified an issue (supported by research)
- described how project addressed the issue
- presented community asset map as a foundation
- shared list of potential community partners
- discussed sound studies methodologies supporting the project
- estimated benchmarks for the project’s completion
- projected the project’s long-term outcomes
- prepared personal reflections on the process.
Here is a sampling from the rich palette of student project pitches:
- Restoring the Pride: A public art initiative building rain-activated sound sculptures.
- BUCS: Binghamton Unites Community with Sound: A public group karaoke project.
- Safe and Sound: A “kiosk walk” of 10-interactive electronic sound art pieces that increase downtown destination traffic by day and operate as a “blue light” safety system by night.
- Blues on the Bridge Junior: A children’s music stage at one of Binghamton’s most popular yearly events.
- Happy Hour: A weekly campus radio show designed to combat seasonal depression.
- Listen Up!: Sound Month Binghamton: An annual themed digital “sound collection month” in March with accompanying “sounds of Binghamton” remix project. This project fosters community habituation to “Others’” sounds while also tracking long-term changes in the soundcape and in residents’ ideas of noise.
- A Sound Walk Through Binghamton: Historical soundwalks through several areas in Binghamton, where archival sounds of the past (some compiled from recordings, some performed) are placed in continuity and contrast with contemporary soundscapes.
Zwahlen and I understand that this iteration of the project does not constitute civic engagement as of yet. Certainly, the students raised more questions than solutions: how to work with—and equitably solicit contributions from—community members rather than organize classroom-first? How to increase community involvement on a campus that is a foreboding maze at best—and how to increase student traffic in the many sites not reached by Binghamton’s limited public transportation? Most importantly, How to share sound studies epistemology beyond the classroom, creating listening experiences that not only take differences into account but potentially re-script them?
As we move forward with long-term development, we will undoubtedly encounter more questions. However, even at its earliest stages, I believe guiding my students to integrate sound studies methodologies with asset-based service learning provided them with a transformative experience concerning the powerful resonance of applied knowledge and sparked the kind of self-realization that leads to civically engaged citizens. It created meaningful connections between them and a local community suddenly made significantly larger. For my students, listening became more than a metaphor or an individualized act of attention, rather they began to understand its role as a material conduit of location, outreach, and connection. As an anonymous student shared in my teaching evaluations: “This class was different, but in a very good way. It has been so involved with the human experience, more so than with other classes.” In the middle of the so-called “humanities crisis,” this response points to the potential power of a civically engaged sound studies, a branch of the field combining research with praxis to reveal the role of listening in the building, maintenance, and daily experiences of diverse communities in the city spaces they mutually inhabit but often do not fully and equitably share.
Featured Image by Shea Brodsky, (L to R) Binghamton University Students Robert Lieng, Daniel Santos, and Susan Sherwood, Director of Binghamton’s Center for Technology & Innovation (CT&I)
Jennifer Stoever is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sounding Out! She is also Associate Professor of English at Binghamton University and a recipient of the 2014 SUNY Chancellor’s Award in Teaching.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Sounding Out! Podcast #13: Sounding Shakespeare in S(e)oul– Brooke Carlson
Deejaying her Listening: Learning through Life Stories of Human Rights Violations– Emmanuelle Sonntag and Bronwen Low
Audio Culture Studies: Scaffolding a Sequence of Assignments– Jentery Sayers
I am not usually one to listen and tell, but this time I feel the need to publicly confess, Katy Perry-style. A few weeks ago, I heard a symphony orchestra. And I liked it. I might even go so far as to say it fairly delighted me. What warmth and depth of sound! What a potent tension between distinguishable instruments and commonly held notes! And oh, the violas! My pleasure in this experience, however, has thrust me in ethical, epistemological, and ontological crisis mode, leaving me to wonder: Who am I? and What on earth has happened to me?
If anyone had told me even six months ago that I would be making this declaration, they would have received a fairly withering sardonic look. Classical music has never been my thing—by politics, class, birth, or taste (of course, if you ask Pierre Bourdieu, taste is hopelessly bound up in the first three, anyway, whether we acknowledge it or not). My working class roots have eschewed Capital-C “Classical” music listening as far back as I can trace: most immediately, “classical” to my father means one of his musical holy trinity: the Beatles, the Stones, or Hendrix. Next to the electrically-charged and vocally-driven musical traditions that raised me, classical has always seemed sonically uninteresting and unavailable, even as rebellion against Woodstock (unless of course it was the synth patch work of Wendy Carlos that was switching me on to Bach).
However, it wasn’t solely that classical music didn’t speak to me—it was also a matter of what it said when it did. I have encountered some version of classical in so many forbidden, intimidating, and privileged spaces that it often seemed as if the music itself drew borders around me, its booming kettle drums warning me to “keep out” while its mincing violins suggested I had better put on a uniform and grab the hors d’oeuvres tray should I decide to stay. From the report on Haydn I was assigned for 7th grade Music Appreciation to the metronymical Beethoven ticking off my many minimum wage hours at the mall—the lilting soundtrack to the security footage my boss collected every night from the cameras not-so-subtly trained on me—my encounters with classical have almost always been connected with the imposition of power. More recently, I found myself waiting for a bus in downtown L.A. around 2 a.m., where I was pummeled with high-volume classical music blasting from the doorways of high-end condos, echoing down the unusually empty streets. Apparently, building managers feel amplified classical deters homeless people from seeking shelter there, without annoying their well-heeled residents. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, “The music that seems to do the best job of driving people away. . . is baroque”. . .the music characteristic of Bach and my old friend Haydn. I wonder if my 7th grade teacher knows this.
Given experiences like these, I have been unable to simply ignore classical music throughout my life, but I have officially considered myself “a hater.” I have been that punk rocker hooting and hollering for their cello-playing friend in the pin-dropping silences between movements, wishing that everyone would turn around and glare. I have actually called up my local NPR-classical combo station during pledge drives and told them I will increase my donation if and only if they banish the bassoons and switch to a full-time news format. Like all that classical vinyl clogging up the dollar bins at record shows, public classical programming is an ideological holdover from the turn-of-the-last-century, when classical was aligned with white middle class respectability. The streets of my neighborhood in Binghamton, for example—chock full of aging Victorians that were once a sign of industrial prosperity—are named after Schubert, Mozart, and Beethoven, which the local residents of these now crumbling buildings, since chopped up into rooming houses, defiantly call “Beeeeeth-oven.” In the early twentieth century, labels like Victor pumped out classical discs to convince Americans of the “respectability” of the gramophone—that the new machine wouldn’t be used solely to spread Tin Pan Alley, or worse yet, jazz—while offering a lower-cost alternative to expensive opera houses for poorer folks. Distilling orchestra onto portable 12-inch discs has the veneer of democratization and agency, sure—shouldn’t everyone have access to the listening habits of the rich and powerful in their very own homes?—but the practice enforced and upheld the 19th century split between so-called high and low cultures that we still wrestle with today.
Lawrence Levine described this as the division between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” culture. It deemed non-white and/or working class cultural production—categorized as “pop,” “folk,” and/or “vernacular” musics—as the gauche and corrosive soundtrack of lesser minds, while constructing the Eurocentric symphonic hall and the opera house as sacred cultural sites (long with museums and libraries—see Aaron Trammell’s recent post). Elite white gatekeepers in the 19th centuries drew both sonic and discursive borders between “high” and “low” culture, deliberately excluding African American artists, for example, from music’s elite spaces by using language to redact “Othered” sounds from the category of “music” itself. In the white press reception of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, for example—a touring group who combined black musical tradition with European concert performance styles in the 1870s, the first to do so on American stages—recurrent descriptors such as “weird” and “rude,” show white critics attempting to interpellate a new cultural force into their pre-existing musical value systems—marked of course, as “universal”—in ways that would neither threaten nor reveal the white cultural supremacy that undergirded them. The best efforts of the Jubilee Singers were repeatedly presented by white reviewers as uncultivated, emotional, ephemeral, racialized sound that, while
mesmerizing, was not to be categorized as “music”—universal, eternal, artistic—alongside the German composers in vogue at the time. Levine argues that these elites constructed the physical and discursive sites of music as demanding a certain type of discipline, purpose and “most important of all—a feeling of reverence” (146). The term “classical” is part and parcel of this reverence, appearing in the early 19th century, and, according to Alex Ross—the classical music critic for The New Yorker who for the record hates the term—“mirrored the rise of the commercial middle class, which employed Beethoven as an escalator to social heights.”
From my first record purchase—The Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat (1980)—to my latest, Cee Lo’s The Ladykiller (2010)—I have been on a search for reverence elsewhere, most often smashed up against a sweaty crowd of people, feeling the waves of the giant speaker stack reverberating through my body, shouting along until my vocal chords were completely raw. Jimi Hendrix called this form of reverence “the electric church” in 1969, and Paul Gilroy does a beautiful homage to its power in “Some Soundscapes of the Black Atlantic” describing Hendrix’s vision of music as an inclusive ritual event whose high volumes not only deliver a proper wake-up-call to those who need it, but “promote a direct encounter with the souls of the people involved” (383). Unlike the concert hall’s rarefied air, the sonic cervices of the “electric church” seemed to welcome all comers. Sadly, since moving to Binghamton—a smallish town in upstate New York—my tithes to the electric church have dwindled; against my will, I have become one of those Christmas and Easter types. I hadn’t realized my extreme musical privilege growing up in Los Angeles’ shadow until I found myself in the outer limits of America’s musical infrastructure. However, as my recent symphony encounter has proved, being locked out of the “electric church” has made me more open to the power of musical sound wherever I find it. Not to mention that, in my anxious mental deconstruction of my new appreciation of the orchestra’s roar, I couldn’t help but think that it was because—barring the Dolby soundsystem at the local movie theater—the symphony was easily the loudest thing I have experienced in almost a year.
And maybe that’s it. I have a new loud. Between moving to Binghamton and edging deeper into my 30s, my seemingly immovable aural palate has experienced a major tectonic shift. When I recently discussed my odd ecstatic experience over dinner with visiting sound artist and Binaural Fellow Maile Colbert, she suggested that age may have a lot to do with it. Colbert posited that we don’t fully understand the physical inscription of sound on the body, especially the connection between pleasure and the ways in which sound waves strike our bodies beyond the ear. So, shifting tastes in music may not just be a
factor of nostalgia or just plain becoming uncool, as marketers would have us believe, but rather a visceral reaction to the new ways in which sound resonates with our thinning skin, hollowing bones, slackening muscles, and disintegrating organs. After turning 30, I found, inexplicably, that I suddenly liked black licorice, so maybe an affinity for the symphony is similarly inevitable. I almost surrendered to this promising explanation, as it meant liking the symphony was part of a natural process that was out of my control, but unfortunately I have read enough Judith Butler—and 19th century music writing—to know that my experience of the “natural” processes of my body are always affected by cultural narratives. Much of what we currently consider to be “old people’s music” was once thought to corrupt and inflame the passions of youth a century ago. So, if I could not safely blame my sudden symphonic pleasures on age, then what?
Before you offer up that perhaps I just heard the “right” performance, the Guinness experience of sound after a lifetime of the aural equivalent of Coors Light, I need to make a second confession. The symphony performance I heard was not the New York Philharmonic doing Mahler’s 6th Symphony, or even the Binghamton Phil’s recent performance of Enigma Variations. Actually, I took my almost-two-year-old to hear the Binghamton University Symphony Orchestra’s 2010 Children’s Concert All Creatures, featuring “Peter and the Wolf” and other pieces of music designed to evoke animals via sound. So the concert was perhaps not your typical orchestra experience, unless it has become common practice to let you touch a spitting cockroach from Madagascar on your way to your seven-dollar seat. I brought my little guy to All Creatures not out of a desire to impose “good music” on him, but because he loves sounds of all kinds and a.m. concerts are few and far between. Older folks like me were visibly in the minority at All Creatures, and the air was hardly rarified; not only was it the most diverse orchestra crowd I have seen to date, but you could wriggle in your seat and clap all you wanted. To the orchestra’s credit, they played as passionately for a sea of six-year-olds as I am sure they would for state dignitaries, and it was fairly stunning to watch young musicians so obviously still falling in love with their instruments.
I’d like to be able to conclude by telling you that I heard the orchestra anew through my son’s still-forming, wide-open ears—an experience I have imagined in an earlier blog—but I have to make one last confession: he was asleep within two minutes of the orchestra tuning up, a chip off the old block. His impromptu snooze left me alone to wrestle with my old nemeses Beeeth-oven and Haydn, as well as the questions rooting the blossoms of my newfound guilty pleasure. Given who I am and where I have come from, was it transgressive to be sitting in the third row of a symphony hall, letting the sound touch me? Or, perhaps, this listening experience was more about where I am now than where I started from. No longer waiting in the wings or cleaning the bathrooms, I am a university faculty member with a front row seat. Was I unconsciously giving in to the powerful (and Eurocentric) aural propaganda of the orchestra, with its visible hierarchies and overwhelming harmonic quest for everything in its “proper” place—precisely the privileged perspective that I daily attempt to dismantle? Or, more than likely, the suddenness of my errant desire simply allowed me to hear new traces of an old refrain: where listening is concerned, resistance and subjection can never be easily separated, let alone painlessly resolved.