Editors’ note: As an interdisciplinary field, sound studies is unique in its scope—under its purview we find the science of acoustics, cultural representation through the auditory, and, to perhaps mis-paraphrase Donna Haraway, emergent ontologies. Not only are we able to see how sound impacts the physical world, but how that impact plays out in bodies and cultural tropes. Most importantly, we are able to imagine new ways of describing, adapting, and revising the aural into aspirant, liberatory ontologies. The essays in this series all aim to push what we know a bit, to question our own knowledges and see where we might be headed. In this series, co-edited by Airek Beauchamp and Jennifer Stoever you will find new takes on sound and embodiment, cultural expression, and what it means to hear. –AB
A stage full of opera performers stands, silent, looking eager and exhilarated, matching their expressions to the word that appears on the iPad in front of them. As the word “excited” dissolves from the iPad screen, the next emotion, “sad” appears and the performers’ expressions shift from enthusiastic to solemn and downcast to visually represent the word on the screen. The “singers” are performing in Christine Sun Kim’s conceptual sound artistic performance entitled, Face Opera.
The singers do not use audible voices for their dramatic interpretation, as they would in a conventional opera, but rather use their faces to convey meaning and emotion keyed to the text that appears on the iPad in front of them. Challenging the traditional notions of dramatic interpretation, as well as the concepts of who is considered a singer and what it means to sing, this art performance is just one way Kim calls into question the nature of sound and our relationship to it.
Audible sound is, of course, essential to sound studies though sound itself is not audist, as it can be experienced in a multitude of ways. The contemporary multi-modal turn in sound studies enables ways to theorize how more bodies can experience sound, including audible sound, motion, vibration, and visuals. All humans are somewhere on a spectrum between enabled and disabled and between hearing and deaf. As we grow older most people move farther toward the disabled and deaf ends of the spectrum. In order to experience sound for a lifetime, it is imperative to explore multi-modal ways of experiencing sound. For instance, the Deaf community rejects the term disabled, yet realizes it is actually normative constructs of hearing, sound, and music that disable Deaf people. But, as Kim demonstrates, Deaf people engage with sound all of the time. In this case, Deaf individuals are not disabled but rather, what I identify as difabled (differently-abled) in their relationship with sound. While this term is not yet used in disability scholarship, it is not completely unique, as there is a Difabled Twitter page dedicated to, “Ameliorating inclusion in technology, business and society.” Rejection of the word disabled inspires me to adopt difabled to challenge the cultural binary of ability and embrace a more multi-modal approach.
Kim’s art explores sound in a variety of modalities to decenter hearing as the only, or even primary, way to experience sound. A conceptual sound artist who was born profoundly deaf, Kim describes her move into the sound artistic landscape: “In the back of my mind, I’ve always felt that sound was your thing, a hearing person’s thing. And sound is so powerful that it could either disempower me and my artwork or it could empower me. I chose to be empowered.”
For sound to empower, however, cultural perception has to move beyond the ear – a move that sound studies is uniquely poised to enable. Using Kim’s art as a guide, I investigate potential places for Deaf within sound studies. I ask if there are alternative ways to listen in a field devoted to sound. Bridging sound studies and Deaf studies it is possible to see that sound is not ableist and audist, but sound studies traditionally has suffered from an aural fixation, a fetishization of hearing as the best or only way to experience sound.
Pushing beyond the understanding of hearing as the primary (or only) sound precept, some scholars have begun to recognize the centrality of the body’s senses in sound experience. For instance, in his research on reggae, Julian Henriques coined the term sonic dominance to refer to sound that is not just heard but that “pervades, or even invades the body” (9). This experience renders the sound experience as tactile, felt within the body. Anne Cranny-Francis, who writes on multi-modal literacies, describes the intimate relationship between hearing and sound, believing that “sound literally touches us,” This process of listening is described as an embodied experience that is “intimate” and “visceral.” Steph Ceraso calls this multi-modal listening. By opening up the body to listen in multi-modal ways, full-bodied, multi-sense experiences of sound are possible. Anthropologist Roshanak Kheshti believes that the differentiation of our senses created a division of labor for our senses – a colonizing process that maximizes the use-value and profit of each individual sense. She reminds her audience that “sound is experienced (felt) by the whole body intertwining what is heard by the ears with what is felt on the flesh, tasted on the tongue, and imagined in the psyche” (714), a process she calls touch listening.
Other scholars continue to advocate for a place for the body in sound studies. For instance, according to Nina Sun Eidsheim, in Sensing Sound, sound allows us to posit questions about objectivity and reality (1), as posed in the age-old question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Eidsheim challenges the notion of a sound, particularly music, as fixed by exploring multiple ways sound may be sensed within the body. Airek Beauchamp, through his notion of sonic tremblings, detaches sound from the realm of the static by returning to the materiality of the body as a site of dynamic processes and experiences that “engages with the world via a series of shimmers and impulses.” Understanding the body as a place of engagement rather than censorship, Cara Lynne Cardinale calls for a critical practice of look-listening that reconceptualizes the modalities of the tongue and hands.
As these scholars have identified, privileging audible sound over other senses reinforces normative ideas of communication and presumes that individuals hear, speak, and experience sound in normative ways. These ableist and audist rhetorics are particularly harmful for individuals who are Deaf. Deaf community members actively resist these ableist and audist assumptions to show that sound is not just for hearing. Kim identifies as part of the Deaf community and uses her art to challenge the ableist and audist ideologies of the sound experience. Through exploring one of Christine Sun Kim’s performance pieces, Subjective Loudness, I argue that we can conceptualize sound studies in the absence of auditory sound through the two concepts Kim’s piece were named for, subjectivity and loudness.
In creating Subjective Loudness, Kim asked 200 Tokyo residents to help her create a musical score. Hearing participants were asked to use their bodies to replicate sounds of common 85 dB noises into microphones. The sounds Kim selected included: the swishing of a washing machine, the repetitive rotation of printing press, the chaos of a loud urban street, and the harsh static of a food blender. After the list was complete, Kim has the sounds translated into a musical score, sung by four of Kim’s closest friends. The noises then become music, which Kim lowers below normal human hearing range for a vibratory experience accessible to hearing and non-hearing individuals alike; The result is music that is not heard but rather felt. As vibrations shake the walls, windows, and furniture audience members feel the music.
Kim’s performance expands upon current understandings of the body in sound by incorporating multiple materialities of sound into one experience. Rather than simply looking at an existing sound in a new way, she develops and executes the sound experience for her participants. Kim types the names of common 85 dB sounds, what most hearing people may call “noise” on an iPad – a visual representation of the sound.
By asking participants to use their bodies to replicate these sounds – to change words into noise – Kim moves visual representation moves into the audible domain. This phase is contingent on each participant’s subjective experience with the particular sound, yet it also relies on the materiality of the human body to be able to replicate complex sounds. The audible sounds were then returned to a visual state as they were translated into a musical score. In this phase, noise is silenced as it is placed as musical notes on a page. The score is then sung, audibly, once again shifting visual into audible. Noise becomes music.
Yet even in the absence of hearing the performers sing, observers can see and perhaps feel the performance. Similar to Kim’s Face Opera, this performance is not just for the ear. The music is then silenced by reducing its volume beyond that of normal hearing range. Vibrations surround the participants for a tactile experience of sound. But participants aren’t just feeling the vibrations, they are instruments of vibration as well, exerting energy back into the space that then alters the sound experience for other bodies. The materiality of the body allows for a subjective experience of sound that Kim would not be able to as easily manipulate if she simply asked audience members to feel vibrations from a washing machine or printing press. But Kim doesn’t just tinker with the subjectivity of modality, she also plays with loudness.
In this performance Kim creates a think interweaving of modalities. Part of this interplay involves challenging our understanding of loudness. For instance, participants recreate loud noises, but then the loud noise is reduced to silence as it is translated into a musical score. The volume has been dialed down, as has the intensity as the musical score isolates participates. The sound experience, as the score, is then sung, reconnecting the audience to a shared experience. Floating with the ebb and flow of the sound, participants are surrounded by sound, then removed from it, only to then be surrounded again. Finally, as the sound is reduced beyond hearing range, the vibrations are loud, not in volume but in intensity. The participants are enveloped in a sonorous envelope of sonic experience, one that is felt through and within the body. This performance combats a long-standing belief Kim had about her relationship with sound.
As a child, Kim was taught, “sound wasn’t a part of my life.” She recounted in a TED talk that her experience was like living in a foreign country, “blindly following its rules, behaviors, and norms.” But Kim recognized the similarities between sound and ASL. “In Deaf culture, movement is equivalent to sound,” Kim stated in the same talk. Equating music with ASL, Kim notes that neither a musical note nor an ASL sign represented on paper can fully capture what a music note or sign are. Kim uses a piano metaphor to make her point better understood to a hearing audience. “English is a linear language, as if one key is being pressed at a time. However, ASL is more like a chord, all ten fingers need to come down simultaneously to express a clear concept in ASL.” If one key were to change, the entire meaning would change. Subjective Loudness attempts to demonstrate this, as Kim moves visual to sound and back again before moving sound to vibration. Each one, individually, cannot capture the fullness of the word or musical note. Taken as a performative whole, however, it becomes easier to conceptualize vibration and movement as sound.
In Subjective Loudness, Kim’s performance has sonic dominance in the absence of hearing. “Sonic dominance,” Henriques writes, “is stuff and guts…[I]t’s felt over the entire surface of the skin. The bass line beats on your chest, vibrating the flesh, playing on the bone, and resonating in the genitals” (58). As Kim’s audience placed hands on walls, reaching out to to feel the music, it is possible to see that Kim’s performance allowed for full-bodied experiences of sound – a process of touch listening. And finally, incorporating Deaf and hearing individuals in her performance, Kim shows that all bodies can utilize multi-modal listening as a way to experience sound. Kim’s performances re-centers alternative ways of listening. Sound can be felt through vibration. Sound can be seen in visual representations such as ASL or visual art.
Through Subjective Loudness, it is possible to investigate subjectivity and loudness of sound experiences. Kim does not only explore sound represented in multi-modal ways, but weaves sound through the modalities, moving the audible to the visual to the tactile and often back again. This sound-play allows audiences to question current conceptions of sound, to explore sounds in multi-modalities, and to use our subjectivities in sharing our experiences of sound with others. Kim’s art performances are interactive by design because the materiality and subjectivity of bodies is what makes her art so powerful and recognizable. Toying with loudness as intensity, Kim challenges her audience to feel intensity in the absence of volume and spark the recognition that not all bodies experience sound in normative ways. Deaf bodies are vitally part of the soundscape, experiencing and producing sound. Kim’s work shows Deaf bodies as listening bodies, and amplifies the fact that Deaf bodies have something to say.
Sarah Mayberry Scott is an Instructor of Communication Studies at Arkansas State University. Sarah is also a doctoral student in Communication and Rhetoric at the University of Memphis. Her current research focuses on disability and ableist rhetorics, specifically in d/Deafness. Her dissertation uses the work of Christine Sun Kim and other Deaf artists to explore the rhetoricity of d/Deaf sound performances and examine how those performances may continue to expand and diversify the sound studies and disability studies landscapes.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Introduction to Sound, Ability, and Emergence Forum –Airek Beauchamp
The Listening Body in Death— Denise Gill
Technological Interventions, or Between AUMI and Afrocuban Timba –Caleb Lázaro Moreno
“Sensing Voice”*–-Nina Sun Eidsheim
HAPPY 5th BLOG-O-VERSARY! Parabéns!
As I write this, I am sitting on the return flight from Portugal, where I spent an utterly transformational four days at the Invisible Places, Sounding Cities conference (deftly organized and elegantly curated by Raquel Castro), a sensory torrent that still has me buzzing. While there, I was thrilled, provoked, taken, shaken, intrigued, pleased, taught, energized, exhausted, re-energized, puzzled, lifted up. . .all of the things I hope a truly great meeting will do (and then some). What I wasn’t prepared for—and when going to a conference featuring sound artists and performers, I imagine myself ready for anything—was the flood of gratefulness and gratitude that I felt every time I had a conversation about Sounding Out!, every time all of our stickers disappeared off the registration table, every time I introduced myself and there were nods of recognition from people I had never met—people located thousands of miles from my home IP address—and every time my scouting attempts were met with enthusiasm that matched (and often rivaled) my own.
And, while I cannot deny that I my work on Sounding Out! has generated personal pride—speaking honestly, sometimes I go to soundstudiesblog.com just to LOOK at it—but the feeling I enjoyed in Viseu was different from “accomplishment.” I felt grateful for the support of our editors, writers, and podcasters—sharing the best of themselves, tirelessly and without compensation other than mad props and ‘nuff respect—for our readers, ever stretching across the globe, sharing, liking, and ReTweeting, until this endeavor became a networked community, and for our fans—Yes! We have received fan mail!—whose enthusiasm always seems to arrive at the right time, the Hail Mary eleventh hour when the editors are fighting sleep and/or needing another reason to allow Dora the Explorer to play a little longer to steal time to finish a piece. I also felt gratitude for the diverse and full-bodied sound studies community, particularly its rigorous but generous, inviting embrace, which extended to the fledgling Sounding Out! experiment five lightning-quick years ago.
In that time, I hope we have expressed our gratitude in return, by deepening and extending our mutual community, binding us in new and unexpected ways, showcasing our best and giving air to our challenges, and, most importantly, enabling us to greet each other as familiar colleagues—in Viseu, Berlin, Toronto, San Juan, Los Angeles, Copenhagen, New York, Sao Paolo. . .—even if we had never before met “In Real Life.” Know that as we continue to grow and renew the site that the function of community will always remain a prime directive of SO!. I welcome the responsibility we have collectively invested in Sounding Out!; it makes my decisions both more contemplative and surefooted. Thank you, everyone, for the last five years—lets raise a glass of Grão Vasco Dão Tinto toward many more together!
As we sip, let’s also partake in the annual SO! tradition of taking stock of the last action-packed year, with soundtrack supplied by another artist having a #flawless year, Ms. Beyoncé Knowles herself. . .
- “Irreplaceable” (Goodbye, Liana): I write this first update completely under protest. I know I am not supposed to admit to affective reactions, especially in cyberspace and especially as a woman with her feet in several male dominated fields, but when Liana Silva-Ford, our stalwart and smoothly bad-ass Managing Editor and Co-Founder, told me she was considering leaving SO!, my eyes welled up instantaneously. Okay, so she very straightforwardly told me she was leaving—even now I still have to sneak in the modifier “considering.” Liana was recently named Editor-in-Chief of the longstanding publication Women in Higher Education (now on Wiley-Blackwell)—read her first “Editor’s End Notes” here—and she is embarking on a book project on her not-so-secret passion, postcards. Liana has, rightly and deservedly, decided to bestow more of her time on these two *amazing ventures. Even though none of us has yet to successfully visualize SO! without her, we know this is right and we wish her all and only the best. Thank you, Liana for your steady hand but light touch, your sharp yet generous editorial eye, and the intelligence, professionalism, and enthusiasm you brought to every meeting, every challenge, and every writer. Working (and SO!-hiveminding) with you has been an exquisite pleasure. And thank you for letting me twist your arm into a permanent “Editor-at-Large” position (whew!).
- “Green Light” (Welcome Cara, Neil, Will): On the other hand, I am pleased to announce that the O.G. SO! triumvirate has happily expanded to a sextet. Media scholar Neil Verma (Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University) our new ASA/SCMS Special Editor, came on board in late 2013, curating our new Thursday stream that launched in January 2014. Neil has already proved himself to be a skilled editor, an intuitive curator, and a natural at the brand of humor and enthusiastic tomfoolery we thrive on behind the scenes. We initiated our “L.A. Office” in December with the addition of William Stabile, our new Assistant Visual Editor, who is responsible for many of the mighty fine layouts that that you have seen this year. He is flexible, patient, and extremely gifted in the visual arts, with a wit dryer than Riverside, California this time of year. We value his work and presence immensely. And, drum roll please (especially with our crowd), we are pleased to announce right here today, that Cara Lynne Cardinale is our new Managing Editor, coming to us live from the East Bay in Northern California with a soaring collection of great ideas and her feet firmly planted on the ground of spreadsheets, calendars, and deadlines. Cara graduated in 2010 with her Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Riverside, with a brilliant dissertation that I am constantly telling my graduate students to seek out: “‘Through the Eyes’: Reading Deafened Gestures of Look-Listening in Twentieth Century Narratives.” A unanimous selection for her intensity, sharpness, and style-for-miles, Cara will undoubtedly turn this mother out!.
- “Upgrade U” (Thursday Stream!): You may have noticed that there has been twice the SO! to love in 2014, thanks to Neil Verma’s work on the Thursday stream, with his cadre of guest editors and an array of media-related subjects that has greatly expanded and deepened the site’s threshold. The year is only a little more than half-over and already we have been treated to forums on Cuban radio history (Tom McEnaney’s “Radio de Acción”), Lou Reed’s voice and sonic influence (NV’s “Start a Band”), and Justin Burton’s rumbling “The Wobble Continuum” of dubstep sounds and scholarship. Jump on the most current series of the stream, “Sculpting the Film Soundtrack” (guest edited by Katherine Spring), a collection of posts that re-frames the cinematic soundtrack to to be heard anew. The media stream + our monthly podcast series + SO!’s monthly pass-the-mic “Sound Off! // Comment Klatsch” = vibrant sounding Thursdays. We like this new math.
- “Check on It” (“SO! Amplifies”) b/w “Schoolin’ Life” (Book Reviews): Sounding Out!, by design, is not a clearing house for any-and-all sound-related events [however, you CAN get all that information by following us on Twitter, liking us on Facebook, and Tumbling with us too]. BUT, we realized this year that relationships are built and connections are made through support of one another’s work, and, more often than not, it takes more than 140 characters to properly accomplish this important task. So, in 2014, we launched two new ongoing series, “Sounding Out! Reads,” reviewing the latest monographs of interest to Sound Studies peeps, and a curatorial series called “SO! Amplifies” that enables selected makers, artists, authors, researchers, designers, and other creative/creating folks to introduce their work and tell SO! readers how/why it is important to them (and should be to us). In addition to amplifying the signal sent out by our featured works, we also hope to enable the production of new research, art, and other types of projects and connections through the introduction of these new tools, models, information, and archives. At the very least, we will be hipping your ears and eyes to some seriously cool new ish.
- “Satellites” b/w “Rocket” (War of the Worlds collabo extravaganza): Neil Verma came to the SO! team last summer in search of a site to host observations on the occasion of the 75th Anniversary of Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. Knowing the brilliance and exceptional quality of Neil’s work—please buy and devour his 2012 Theater of the Mind (University of Chicago Press, SCMS First Book Award Winner) ASAP—I automatically said an enthusiastic “YES.” BOOM. Just like that, an international multimedia fandango was born. On the ground, or since we are talking radio, terrestrially, #WOTW75 sounded like a three-hour radio broadcast on Binghamton University’s WHRW 90.5 with 2 hours of original content produced by Team SO! (one of them live!) bookending a re-broadcast of Welles’ original at the precise date and time of its debut, 8:00 PM EST, October 30th [1.5 hours are available via our podcast series: EPISODE XXII: Remixing War of the Worlds presents an original creative sound composition by Monteith McCollum and his Performative Processes class at Binghamton University that re-imagined act three of WOTW and EPISODE XXIII: War of the Worlds Revisited, the new 60-minute audio documentary featuring interviews with top media scholars engineered by our very own Multimedia editor Aaron Trammell]. BUT, out in the aether and Twittersphere, #WOTW75 looked like so much more: simultaneous listening parties dotting the globe—a special shout out to Jake Smith’s event at Northwestern U in Chicago—a months-long supergroup collabo between the Sounding Out! crüe and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Antenna—mad props to Andrew Bottomley—a real-time Twitter conversation using the hashtag #WOTW75 that sparked myriad reactions from excitement to snark—NV has curated the best of these for the upcoming sound special issue of Velvet Light Trap—academic panels, radio interviews, podcasts—thank you Aca-Media!—TV interviews, live dramatic radio performances—you rock, Charles Berman and the WHRW drama dept—a live collaging project put on by Toronto’s Collage Collective at the Textile Museum of Canada, martian-themed cupcakes, commemorative T- shirts by artisanal screen printers Muckles Ink, a theme-song (!!) written and performed by Binghamton’s finest ambient surf-noise band The Short Waves, and, we dearly hope, renewed excitement for the experience of “liveness” in the twenty-first century, an experience greatly changed since 1938, but no less vital in importance and thrilling in affect.
- “Run the World” (Citations, Reposts, and Writer Updates): It has been a great year for our writers, who have found their work cited and re-blogged in many venues including The Society Pages, The Feminist Wire, Twentieth Century Music, The New Inquiry’s Sunday Reading, Radio Survivor, Repeating Islands, Past and Present, About Place Journal’s 1963-2013 Civil Rights Retrospective, and American History Now [for the full bibliographic details see our SO! Media page].
We also congratulate our writers on their recent news and updates!
- Kaj Ahlsved is working hard on his PhD dissertation “Music and sport: soundscape, identity, context and function.” He published his first article in the 2013 Yearbook for the Finnish society for Ethnomusicology. His second article, “Let’s Play Hockey,” is currently under peer review. He is also part of a research project called Kiekkokansa that will publish a book on Finnish ice hockey culture in April 2015. For this project he and a few other researchers had the opportunity to do ethnography in Minsk during the 2014 World Ice Hockey Championships.
- Regina Bradley released her video dialogue series called Outkasted Conversations. She has a chapter titled “Kanye West’s Sonic [Hip Hop] Cosmopolitanism” in the collection The Cultural Impact of Kanye West. She also has an article forthcoming on Edward P. Jones’ The Known World and the Hip Hop Imagination in Southern Literary Journal.
- Dolores Inés Casillas was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
- Kariann Goldschmitt will be a Visiting Lecturer in the Faculty of Music at the University of Cambridge this upcoming October. Her essay on mobile tactics in the Brazilian independent music industry has been published in The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies, Volume 1.
- Carter Mathes saw the release of his new book this year, titled Imagine the Sound: Experimental African American Literature after Civil Rights.
- Jonathan Sterne is co-organizing, with Nick Mirzoeff and Tamar Tembeck, the first-ever sound studies-meets-visual culture studies conference. Called Sound, Vision, Action, it puts scholars and artists in dialogue across sonic and visual traditions. They are especially interested in how each field addresses questions of power. The lineup is still being confirmed, but it will be hosted by Media@McGill in Montreal, 14-15 November 2014. Sterne is teaching a graduate seminar in conjunction with the conference in the Fall. More details will be available at http://media.mcgill.ca.
- Jennifer Stoever was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure at the State University of New York, Binghamton where she was also awarded a 2014 Chancellor’s Award in Teaching.
And now. . .because this is how we do year after year, roll up your rug or roll down your partition, please, it is time to celebrate our #flawless 5.0 blog-o-versary, ‘Yonce-style. –JS, Editor-in-Chief
Jennifer Stoever is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sounding Out! She is also Associate Professor of English at Binghamton University.
Click here for Sounding Out!‘s Blog-O-Versary #Flawless 5.0 mix with track listing