“Genres, styles form around places of cohesion, of transport, of passage. Not an instrumental mathematics (though it can be that too), but a speculative one that seeks out locations of collective affect, of resonance between micro and macro spheres.” –Marcus Boon, “One Nation Under a Groove”
Yes. Punk, is a way of living, being, thinking, and relating to the world. Yes, it is bigger than borders. . .greater than the sum of than any number of bands or even the label of “musical genre” altogether. Its dynamic style visually signifies; its DIY mode-of-operations can empower, even as its more capitalist-oriented versions can frustrate and exploit.
YES YES YES.
But also, NO!
Even if punk’s sound intentionally evades classification and clichéd high-fidelity top-ten lists like Keanu Reeves dodges bullets in the Matrix, it nonetheless exists. and means. and incites. and motivates. and creates powerful structures of feeling that resonate through entire lifetimes, reverberations of that one all-ages basement show.
How do we know? Because, at the absolute very least, both of us have heard it with–and through–our bodies. It has moved us, and not just symbolically, intellectually, politically, and metaphorically. It has quite literally vibrationally, kinesthetically, heart-throbbingly, finger bleedingly, head-bangingly, body-smashing-up-against-others-bodily, in the pit of our stomachs-y, angry tear cryingly, skin tinglingly moved us.
Without universalizing our respective experiences in the Jersey and Inland Empire/SoCal punk scenes of the 1990s/early 2000s–and our wide listenings and local involvements since then–we want to say simply that punk sound is not an abstract and negative entity. Punk sounds–and punk’d sounds–form distinct sonic calls to some of us out there in the world that our bodies yearn to answer.
And its listeners’ understanding of and relationship to punk’s sound(s) matters. In her essay “On Not Playing Dead,” Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and (the) Julie Ruin lead singer Kathleen Hanna described one of the key powers of punk’s live sound as creating a threshold of physical exchange, a vibration drawing folks into “one of the only spaces where we give and receive pleasure publicly” to friends and strangers alike, which she argues “seems radical for a myriad of reasons, especially because it challenges the idea that sexuality/pleasure is only for people in straight/monogamous relationships and not something we as a community can have through music.” Punk sound constructs, enables, and sometimes downright demands a variety of participatory responses, both individual and social.
In short, just ask a punk about what punk sounds like! They know! And they will tell you about it! It’s up to us to figure out how to listen. And what better space to try in the audiovisual ‘zine that is Sounding Out!, started by folks whose scenes taught them how to forge and sustain community with and through sound.
This series (and its follow up in Spring 2017) calls bullshit on the related notions that punk sound is either simple presence–ye olde “three chords,” a misnomer that is always already more geographically and historically specific than popular discourse allows–or overdetermined absence, a too-open, too-inclusive sound that, to riff on Green Day, is simultaneously “nothing and everything all at once.” And we very deliberately use “sound” rather than “music” as our guiding framework to think through punk’s sonic pull, not because punk “isn’t music” (a stale but ever present dis on the genre), but because punk itself sounds out the limitations of musical study ( in addition to Alice Bag’s musical manifesto below, see Leandro Donozo’s “MANIFIESTO POR UNA MUSICOLOGÍA PUNK” suggested to us by Alejandro Madrid).
Our Punk Sound series implicitly argues that sound studies methodologies are better suited to understanding how punk works sonically than existing journalistic and academic conversations about musical genre, chord progressions, and/or genealogies of bands. Alexandra Vasquez’s sound-oriented work on Cuban music, for example, in Listening in Detail (2014) opens up necessary conversations about the “flashes, moments, sounds” in music that bear its meanings and its colonial, raced, classed, and gendered histories in material ways people can hear and feel. While retaining the specificity of Vasquez’s argument and the specific sonic archive bringing it forth, we too insist on “an ethical and intellectual obligation to the question: what do the musicians sound like” (12) and how do folks identifying with and through these musical sounds hear them?
In this series, we invite you to amplify varied historicized “details” of punk sound–its chunk-chunk-chunk skapunk riffs, screams, growls, group chants, driving rhythms, honking saxophones–hearing/feeling/touching these sounds in richly varied locations, times, places, and perspectives: as a pulsing bead of condensation dripping down the wall of The Smell in Downtown LA (#savethesmell), a drummer making her own time on tour, a drunk sitting too near the amp at a backyard party, a queer teenager in their bedroom being yelled at to “turn it down” and “act like a lady[or a man]”. . .and on and on. Today’s essay is by Yetta Howard. Yetta discusses the pre-, post- and proto- punk movements that resisted the hegemony of a dominant punk sound from within. How is resistance be productive of a radical identity?
–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)
The radical impulses of punk sound are generally thought to encompass noisiness, inaccessibly, and inconsistency. Beyond the three chords, anti-virtuosity, and “fuck you” to dominant culture that came to define punk is its spirit of provocation. Punk’s ability to be categorized as a type of identifiable chaos is both what allows it to be readily commodified (in the case of pop-punk), and paradoxically what allows it to coalesce as identity (insofar as punk is the sound of marginal experience). Perhaps, in punk, we can listen for a sense of cultural libertinism, in line with what José Muñoz discusses as “the desire, indeed the demand, for ‘something else’ that is not the holding pattern of a devastated present, with its limits and impasses” (98). Where we hear musical norms challenged in terms of non-heteronormative erotics, like in Bad Brains’ “Pay to Cum,” or as reflecting authoritarian violence, as in the Dead Kennedys’ “Police Truck,” is equally where we may locate punk’s fluidity and refusal to maintain a uniformity of sound.
While punk’s sonic offense to authority and legitimacy was initially cast as a mode of rejecting mainstream politesse and a reflection of a class-specific youth revolt, I want to suggest that these offenses can be made palpable as non-visually-inclined gendered and sexual incitements–inhabitations of sound that are physically felt as anti-normative auditory expression. We hear these expressions today in Xiu Xiu’s “Stupid in the Dark” (2014), set to an uncontrollable pulse “in the moonlight,” the non-normative embrace of violence and the erotic are tangible within the texture of this sinister sound. By listening here to punk’s fringes, I aim to highlight how it actively distorts normativity, disrupts readability, and refuses consistency. I propose that when disobedience is cast as a sexual or gendered event, punk incoherence moves closest toward sounding like a stiff middle finger to dominant uptake–an incoherence that signifies radical identity formation outside the dominant.
While punk became and continues to be legible as one of the most significant cultural upheavals of late-twentieth-century music, its anti-establishment ethos is most pronounced when it reflects gender and sexual transgression. This is most clear in a handful of punk’s first wave and, counterintuitively, in contexts that would not necessarily be called punk. Indeed, its proto-punk predecessors and postpunk experimenters become compelling places to listen to punk’s sonic spirit.
Embodying sexual and ethnic difference as audible protest, Alice Bag of the Bags and the Alice Bag Band, cultivated punk anger as both a menacing scream and a revision of white masculinist rage. As documented in Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), while performing “Gluttony,” Bag aggressively meshes with the crowd and, wearing a pink mod dress, pushes slam-dancers out of her way. Uttering “watch the calories,” she fiercely shifts from a reproachable timbre to strident shrieks. In her Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage: A Chicana Punk Story (2011) memoir, Bag includes stories about witnessing her father abuse her mother as well as her struggles with dieting and abortion, all of which obliquely and explicitly informed the female bodily revolt we hear in her raw, counter-melodic vocalizations. As gendered, these forceful contestations of conformity extend to the rejection of homogenizing punk style heard on “We Don’t Need the English” (1979).
Also moving against social-sexual normativity, The Cramps’ version of Hasil Adkin’s psychobilly “She Said” on their Smell of Female (1983) live album—featuring a sex theater on its cover—conspicuously emerges as a sonic resistance to the status quo of mid-eighties sexuality. Alongside the frenzied vibrations of Poison Ivy’s and Kid Congo Powers’s sharp guitar plucking, Lux Interior narrates the hungover morning after a one-night stand using explosively orgasmic, hysterical repetitions of “wooo, eeee, ah, ah!” What we hear in these oppositionally tuned shrieks, grunts and cries is punk loudly throwing its disregard for accessibly and popularity into the ears of general decorum.
The lo-fi and brutish contours of punk have existed for decades along the margins of the genre. Before punk was called punk, before industrial became recognizable as its own genre within postpunk, Throbbing Gristle, which included members Genesis P-Orridge, Peter “Sleazy’ Christopherson, Cosey Fanni Tutti, and Chris Carter, crafted their sound with a broken bass, a homemade modular synthesizer, and a set of cassette-players fed through a keyboard. Using “industrial” to describe their noise pieces and eventually to name their label, the group had a creative friendship with Brion Gysin and William Burroughs. Burroughs employed Gysin’s cut-up technique in/as his writing, which he described/subsequently cut-up: “Images shift sense under the scissors smell images to sound sight to sound sound to kinesthetic” (RE/Search #4/5, 36). If the literary extremes of Burroughs’s words operate in the same scope as their synesthetic ambiguity, then the anti-music provocations that they suggest become something heard in Throbbing Gristle as gender non-normativity, bodily lawlessness, and erotically minoritarian practices.
In an early performance art show and exhibition titled “Prostitution” (1976), members of Throbbing Gristle (who began in 1970 as COUM Transmissions) made full use of accoutrements associated with the abject body: the exhibition featured images from the Playbirds series, pornographic magazine layouts of Tutti, and P-Orridge’s TAMPAX ROMANA, a mixed-media installation that included used tampons. The volume of these images is disruptive, their performative effects straddling the sonic-visual extremes of artistic practice. Appearing in Marie Losier’s The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (2011), the more recent bodily equivalent is P-Orridge and the late Jaye’s “Pandrogeny” project, a corporeal cut-up: both underwent plastic surgery to look like each other—the physical reference points, like Throbbing Gristle’s sounds’ connections with its sources, became lost as they became one, with P-Orridge getting tattoos of Jaye’s beauty marks, for instance. This is the anti-legibility that characterizes punk’s visionary sonic limits. In their modification of flesh, they embody the material alteration of what is heard in heavily processed tape, ruthless loops, and use of non-musical objects as modes of radical resignification.
Contemporaneous with Throbbing Gristle, Chrome’s formation in 1975 firmly placed its industrial experiments in anticipation of punk with their sonic legacy continuing as postpunk sound. In what is a typical two-ish minute duration of a punk song—say, the Germs’ “Manimal”—Chrome’s “Animal” from Red Exposure (1980) sounds as if it were made of chrome. Tinny, metallic tape manipulations and synthesized guitar make each note sound as if it were sinking in deep, murky water. It is a groove emerging from a bath of acid. For the less-vanilla-inclined ear, this combination of sounds is also immensely erotic. Listening to these multiple sonic elements against the logic of normative arrangement means listening to queer forms of relationally. Here, aural encounters are defined by misalignment rather than complementarity.
The equally confrontational sounds of proto-punk duo Suicide, consisting of the late Alan Vega’s often-terrifying vocals and alarming sparseness of Martin Rev’s keyboard work, ushered in what became No Wave. No Wave, New York’s downtown art-film-performance underground of the 1970s, was a cultural anti-movement that contested the increasing popularity of New Wave as subcultural sound. Visually documented in Kris Needs’s Dream Baby Dream: Suicide: A New York Story (2015), Suicide was one of the first to put “punk music” on fliers for their early 1970s gigs at avant-jazz venues and underground art spaces. We hear punk in Suicide when listening for deviations from punk’s dominant formulae of masculine, churning guitar-rock.
While Suicide’s shows were notoriously destruction-inviting as performances, the antagonism of their sound was established through the use of drum machines instead of drums, incorporation of shadowy forms of disco’s repetition, and, at times, a crooning gone awry. Accordingly, “Girl” on their self-titled 1977 album chill-drips sex as Rev’s opening sequence of full-bodied, low tones undulate at angles for its listeners. Less expected as an accompaniment is Vega’s quivery “turn me on,” murmured “yeahs,” and carnal utters of “oh girl,” which reassign any sense of typically gendered desire. He pleads “touch me soft” before fully offering himself up: these tortured requests morph into submissive orgasmic expressions of desire. Here we might call up the temporally correct yet misplaced mixture of black female sexual agency as disco rhythm and vocal moan-cries in Donna Summer mixed with Iggy Pop’s gravelly appeal on The Stooges’ “Penetration.” Punk’s transgressions are not merely sexual in this case, rather, they embody auditory forms of a sexual avant-garde.
Coming out of New York’s No Wave milieu, Sonic Youth, whose “The Good and the Bad” from their self-titled EP Sonic Youth (1982) defines punk in the negative, by forcing us to revel in dissonance. Thurston Moore plays heavy bass as Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo continuously build endless dissonance. The song collapses onto itself until it becomes a rebellious pleasure, an oppositionally melodic omen. The song ends with the heavy bass that initially introduced the song. In opposition to the three-minute Ramones single, it is eight minutes of exhilaratingly wrong notes and inconsistent drumming. The song doesn’t champion “bad,” it breaks down the binary: it refuses to be read as good or bad. Similarly, a live version of this song featuring some vocal work by Moore and Gordon is named “Loud and Soft”—a key description functioning all at once to signal the refusal to be named or the need for classificatory stability—sonic, social, or otherwise.
The musical analogue to Jamie Reid’s Nowhere Buses (1972) image, used for The Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” (1977) single, is the vocalization of “no future.” Perhaps there was no future for punk’s initial impact if comprehensibility implied watering it down for dull masses. At stake in the politics of punk sound are the identities negotiated at its incomprehensible fringes–they productively and spiritually account for marginal experience. In Xiu Xiu’s “Stupid in the Dark”, we can detect a dark renewal of The Pistols’ not wanting a “holiday in the sun.” Like the others I have pointed to in this essay, Xiu Xiu recognizes how the prurient dangers of night are necessary for non-normativity and discordant strangeness to flourish. In Dirty Beaches’ distanced echoing we can listen for a bloody smirk in the muffled vocal of “Night Walk” (2013) and, rather than necessarily take that bus to nowhere, go somewhere by taking that walk on the other sides of the conventional.
Cover image is “Cramps-3” by Chad Johnson CC BY-NC-ND.
Yetta Howard is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University. She specializes in gender and sexuality studies, queer studies, and feminist theories of race and ethnicity. Emphasizing visual and auditory texts, her research and teaching focuses on 20th- and 21st-century American cultural studies with an investment in unpopular, experimental, and underground cultural production. Some of Howard’s work appears in TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, The Journal of Popular Culture, and Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. Her book manuscript, Ugly Differences: Queer Female Sexuality in the Underground, is under contract with the University of Illinois Press.
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Enacting Queer Listening, or When Anzaldúa Laughs – Maria P. Chaves Daza
Feeling Through the Keen and Grind: Team Dresch’s Personal Best – Gretchen Jude
Live Through This: Sonic Affect, Queerness, and the Trembling Body – Airek Beauchamp
This week, Sounding Out! dropped its 51st podcast episode. As the curator and producer, I thought it necessary to commemorate the occasion with some fanfare. I want to shout from the hilltops about how proud I am that our little podcast has turned 51!
Erm…at least I’m posting about it.
Also, I want to clear the air a little about what it is that we do. I’ve received feedback here and there over the years about how the sound of our podcasts, that we sound “different” and/or “inconsistent,” that we need to normalize the sound a bit: hello out there, audiophiles! Today, I want to say, once and for all, that our sound is intentional and that we are proud of it, hiss, distortion, and all! We think what some hear as “imperfections” are all part of what sets us apart from the ever-growing pack of podcasters. SO!’s podcast has sounded different since we MacGyvered our first episode from an epic talk, a few great ideas, and a rogue tape recorder at River Read Books in Binghamton, NY in April, 2011.
The Sounding Out! Podcast began as a series of conversations within the editorial team back in 2011. We knew that the blog was “talking the talk” in new, excellent, and often provocative ways, but that something was missing to keep pushing the form into the red, not just the content. We knew we needed something more—a little snap, crackle, and pop, if you will—a way to show how Sounding Out! was always listening, and a way for thinkers, artists, provocateurs, and more to engage with sound more directly. In 2011, podcasts were accumulating in the shadows waiting to lunge forth to center stage. They seemed really cool, but there were relatively few, and fewer still (if any at all) on the topic of sound studies. Even though we knew that podcasts were going to be a big thing eventually, we had no idea that they would blow up so quickly.
While we flipped around many ideas, we decided to put our energies behind what was then an occasional series of podcasts that allowed us to capture important yet fleeting moments—too quick and dirty to really transcribe. While our our initial vision for the podcast was to capture these rare and powerful moments, over the past 5 years we have kept this mission consistent while evolving to better accommodate artists and theorists alike. During that time we have hosted mystics and librarians, shared fieldwork from São Paolo, Brazil to Lodi, Ohio, interviewed theremin players and visionaries. See the full list of episodes here. Even though our content has been wide ranging and eclectic, we’ve made it a point to privilege access and immediacy in all of our episodes.
As I listen back to the past five years, I realize that our contribution to the fields of sound studies and podcasting has not just been in terms of who we broadcast and what we amplify, but through the sound of our podcasts themselves. Our podcasts don’t sound perfect. They’re spiritually aligned by the raw production ethic of bands like The Minutemen, who always privileged the emotive qualities of immediacy, access, and intimacy over the brooding qualities of studio production. Particularly because we founded the podcast upon these same principles, I have strived to prioritize radical visions and ideas and to amplify new voices above all else. I want each podcast to arrive in your queue like a wrapped gift—topic, content, production, and sound all equally mysterious. Some of our podcasts were recorded on cellphones and others were recorded in high-end studios and recording booths. Our 51st anniversary isn’t the perfect occasion, either. But, hey, we’re proud of these audible distortions.
“The Minutemen: #1 Hit Song”
So what do I mean that our podcast sounds different? Well, I mean two things: First, we sound different than what episodic radio sounds like. Our DIY—or, more accurately, we will help you “Do It Yourself”—ethics deliberately dial back radio’s genre conventions: smooth identifiable hosts, heavy compression, sound-proof rooms with the latest in equipment. We encourage and construct out podcast with a deliberate sonic diversity, providing little sonic conistency from episode to episode in order to challenge regimes of production that threaten to make all recordings sound the same. We have many many different announcers and hosts, for this podcast to be the space of radical discourse that we intend, it’s important to cast our net wide. This isn’t to say that we don’t care about “quality,” but rather that we define quality differently. Rather than an audiophilic emphasis on the sorts of tone found most frequently in microphone technique, sound booths, and—when all else fails—postproduction, we believe that a “quality” podcast—particularly one about sound—should explore sounds that we rarely here and allow its artists freedom over how they present their work.
I curate our podcast as a sonic refuge from the invisible regime of auditory production that has slowly constricted and strangled radio this past century. And I’m proud to share podcasts that have been recorded on in impromptu circumstances, Episode XXXIX: Soundwalking Davis, CA and New Brunswick, NJ, for example. We want artists to show more than they tell, Episode XII: Animal Transcriptions, Listening to the Lab of Ornathology is a perfect example of this. Here Skinners brilliant exploration of animal sounds perfectly balances sound and interview invites listeners to compare sounds to speech, and vice versa. Another example of this ethic is film professor Monteith McCollum’s remix of the original War of the Worlds broadcast. Although McCollum offers some commentary at the start of the recording, what follows is a unique and dazzling sonic experience. Giving radical ideas both the space and platform to be heard is this podcast’s mission. So far, so good!
The second way our podcast sounds different has to do with our deliberate curatorial resistance to consistency between our episodes. When programs bend to the whims of genre conventions, creativity is all but snuffed out. For our podcast to excel as a form for sharing visions, ideas, and experiments, we must allow our composers, authors, and auditors the freedom to explore sonic space. We celebrate Sounding Out!’s anniversary annually with a series of mixes hand-picked by our stable of authors (Listen to years 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 here!), we’ve entertained interviews, panels, and sound art alike. You may have missed it, but we even have an episode diving into the work of ambient sound in a Dungeons and Dragons game.
While I do think about the sound of our podcast aesthetically—I used to run a music production studio out from the trunk of my car—we do not cultivate a DIY anything-goes ethic strictly for a “cool factor” or just for its own sake. Rather, we have calibrated our different sonic approach in deliberate defiance of styles of production which are all too frequently celebrated within the cultures of straight white men. (Check out SO! Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Lynn Stoever’s epic three-part treatise on the tape recorder in popular film to glean some sense of the tape-recorder’s role as an instrument of masculine control. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). The standards of taste which have long governed the domain of radio production (and audio production, as a whole) are historically connected to the communities of practice which have occupied invisible yet powerful roles as audio producers, engineers, critics, and marketers.
As Jonathan Sterne explains in MP3, the science of audio fidelity has historical roots within a corporate logic that privileges sounds that are easily shared through telephone cables. “AT&T encountered hearing as an economic problem once its options for extracting additional profit through price were limited,” Sterne says, “Among other strategies, it sought to learn which frequencies could be excluded from the market for telephone signals” (14). In other words, the entire craft of audio engineering has historical roots in privileging sounds that make money above all else. Not only this, but the standards of fidelity cultivated by engineers allow them to gatekeep and demand money at the outset, blocking access to the means of production. These standards are more often than not embedded within the cultures of listening and sales fostered by the radio industry. Fortunately, podcasts have been able to challenge many of these genre tropes, We’re proud to contribute to this momentum and to propel it forward as we continue our series. And we’re not stopping! Up on deck in 2016 we have some amazing compositional sound art, more from Marcella Ernest’s trek to uncover lost sounds, and some notes on a forthcoming project in archiving one city’s local music scene.
So, in the spirit of Sounding Out!’s annual blog-o-versary we’re popping the cork for our podcast’s 50th episode with a few of the milestones we hit this past five years.
We found a theme song. This was a small but important step in our development. What would a podcast about sound be without some kind of awesome anthem representing it? (Nothing, that’s what!) We need to officially thank the members of Hunchback (Miranda, Mike, Jay, and Craig) for donating their song “Feeling Blind” to our podcast. Hunchback was a legendary horror-surf band from the NJ basement scene who endeavored to produce highly visceral sonic experiences of the highest caliber in their songwriting. You can still find a ton of their recordings on the internet. Thanks, crew!
We got listed on iTunes and Stitcher. It bears mentioning that quite a bit of technical muscle is involved in establishing a podcast. We would have gotten nowhere without Andreas Duus Pape’s help and guidance during our earliest moments. Andreas was instrumental in opening up the hood of the podcast and making it purr. Not only did he donate his time to plug us into iTunes’ network of podcasts, but he also shared some excellent philosophical thoughts on the topic. You can listen here and read them here.
We went monthly. Originally we had conceived the podcast as more a haphazard, occasional treat for our readers. Slowly but surely as demand and interest grew, we began to carve out a more regular calendar space for our podcast. First we switched to a bi-monthly format, and then we started with monthly broadcasts. Can’t slow this beat down.
We are the sonic archive of a sound art conference. That’s right, we featured sonic mixdowns of the entire Tuned City of Brussels sound art festival. Over the course of the festivals three days, we featured daily mixdowns of the prior day’s key sounds and moments. Each mixdown is brilliant and a testiment to the raw passion of our podcast contributors. They worked round the clock to produce such an amazing series. Check out the night before, and days 1, 2, and 3.
We produced a LOT of soundwalks. If you’re a listener you know that we love our soundwalks. We’re proud to be host to play host to a variety of soundwalks from cities around the world. Last month’s Yoshiwara soundwalk by Gretchen Ju challenged listeners to critically engage with the city’s fraught history of sex work. Other contributors in our soundwalk series like James Hodges have considered how the ambient music of big box stores and shopping malls are part of the architecture of commerce. Finally others like Frank Bridges have taken us to the edge of history and soundwalked the grounds of Thomas Edison’s workshop in Edison, NJ. No matter what the locale, our soundwalks are part of our podcast’s signature.
We found a regular contributor. Regular contributors are the heart and soul of Sounding Out! They lead the conversation on sound and work to bring you the best, most interesting content. For these reasons we’re proud to announce that Marcella Ernest will be joining our podcast as a regular contributor with her series “Searching for Lost Sounds.” Marcella will be interviewing a variety of sonic practitioners in an effort to give voice to the voiceless. Her most recent entry in the series was posted last Thursday. You can listen here.
We’re going to keep it coming. That’s our promise to you! We’ll be producing great content as long as you’re listening. Take a moment to subscribe to our iTunes or Stitcher accounts and also explore our Episode Guide to see if you missed anything this past 5 years. It’s been a rewarding adventure so far and we guarantee that we’ve already got some great content lined up in the coming months.
Aaron Trammell is a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar for Faculty Diversity in Informatics and Digital Knowledge at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He earned his doctorate from the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information in 2015. Aaron’s research is focused on revealing historical connections between games, play, and the United States military-industrial complex. He is interested in how military ideologies become integrated into game design and how these perspectives are negotiated within the imaginations of players. He is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of the journal Analog Game Studies and the Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out!
Featured image is “Roscoe Considers Recording a Podcast” by zoomar @Flickr CC BY-NC.
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Sounding Out! Podcast #1: Peter DiCola at River Read Books – Peter DiCola
It’s Our Blog-O-Versary — Jennifer Lynn Stoever
Sounding Out! Podcast #51: Creating New Words from Old Sounds – Marcella Ernest
We are living in strange times. Our experiences, especially our musical experiences, have become fragmented and odd. The album has been declared dead, live concerts are now silent, listened to on headphones, and some of our favorite performers exist in a faux-holographic space between life and death. The fragmentation of our musical experiences is indicative of a larger set of changes that encourage sound studies to pay attention to fragmented, outlying, and diffuse sonic phenomenon. In his new book Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation, part of Jonathan Sterne and Lisa Gitelman’s “Sign, Storage, Transmission” series at Duke University Press, David Novak pays attention to one such fragmented and outlying realm, Noise music. Novak’s contribution to sound studies is to encourage us to deal with the fragmented complexity of sonic environments and contexts, especially those where noise plays a crucial part.
The past decade has seen growing public attention to noise as pollution, as problem, and as a poison. Examples of noise as a social issue needing immediate response abound, but one letter to the editor from the Wisconsin Rapid Tribune epitomizes the way that noise is sometimes read as a problem to be overcome. Novak’s book is one a few recent books, including Eldritch Priest’s Boring Formless Nonsense, Greg Hainge’s Noise Matters, and Joseph Nechvatal’s Immersion Into Noise, that complicate the idea of noise as problem. What sets Novak’s book apart from these is how his ethnographic approach allows him to approach Noise music from both the macro-perspective of its historical context and the micro-lens of his personal relationship to it.
For Novak, Noise music is a trans-cultural, transnational interaction that is both material and abstract. His analysis of it works to blur the boundary between both large-scale networks of exchange and the highly individuated experience. Novak relates the story of Noise music as originating in Japan in the 1980s. Noise musicians working separately caught the ears of American fans. Some of these fans were well-known musicians themselves, who brought Noise recordings and eventually the performers themselves to a wider U.S. audience. At the time, Noise was generally understood as taking one of two binary positions. Either Noise music was understood as a uniquely Japanese cultural expression, or it was instead theorized as a product of the Western imaginary motivated by the production of Japan as the anti-subject within modernity (24). Novak wisely recognizes the limited nature of these two positions, and seeks a more sophisticated method of understanding the circulation that creates Noise music, contributing, ultimately, a theory of feedback. Here the transnational circulation of materials, ideas, and expressions constitutes a culture itself, one that is not distinct from either the Japanese or the U.S. manifestations of Noise music (17). This a welcome contribution to compositional and intersectional perspectives on cultural exhange.
If Noise music is a circulation, a set of experiences and contexts, flows and scapes, ecologies and environments, then genre boundaries can not adequately describe the contextual and historical exchange of sound. Though genre must be considered, Japanoise does not find Novak searching particularly rigorously. He chooses two key Noise musicians, The Nihilist Spasm Band from Canada and Merzbow from Japan and describes their historical context, reception, and influence. But other than those descriptive basics, he is unsuccessful in finding anything new to say about Noise as genre. Concluding the chapter, he casually states that the existence of Noise threatens the boundaries of other musical genres. Though this fascinating statement would have been worthy of a chapter, and certainly foundational to his central idea (that Noise music is diffuse), Novak misses an opportunity to better support these connections in his chapter on genre.
Most interesting, however, is Novak’s focus on the material conditions of the production of Noise music. In describing the diffuse flows and scapes of Noise music, he addresses a plurality of experience: from the technological to the spatial to the private dimensions of listening. These concerns put him in conversation with Louise Meintjes’ Sound of Africa and Julian Henriques’ Sonic Bodies. Like these scholars, Novak refuses to locate the material conditions of production as solely economic, technological, or cultural. Instead, Noise music results from of an assemblage of conditions and possibilities. This is best exemplified by how Novak distinguishes the live music experience from the recorded. Here, Novak resists the neat distinction, long established in musicology, that hears the live experience as collective and interactive, and recorded music as individuated and passive. Instead, Novak suggests “liveness” and “deadness.” Liveness and deadness are not bounded to the dichotomy of the live performance with the recording, but rather two qualities that float through and with both experiences. “Liveness is about the connection between performance and embodiment… deadness, in turn, helps remote listeners recognize their affective experiences…” The experience of live Noise music, according to Novak, often challenges the boundaries of what is often expected when hearing live music. I have seen this in my own experiences standing in an audience surrounded by shrieking, booming, droning noises.
Truth be known, I’m as taken with Noise music as Novak. If his book confesses to being written by a critical but vehement fan, then I ought to confess the same of the music which I love so dearly. I had the chance to see Merzbow perform in Raleigh in August. He strummed obviously homemade instruments, turned fader pots, and concentrated intently on his laptop. A fan was crawling through the crowd on their hands and knees; occasionally they stood to sway, then returned to crawling. I thought that this behavior might seem odd, but in the context of Merzbow’s performance, it was as legitimate as any other. Through these odd behaviors, the fan demonstrated Novak’s conception of individuation within Noise music. The material conditions of the performance, the screeching Noise, made it impossible for me to ask the person what they were doing or feeling. I experienced the fan and the Noise in a tension from which there is no resolution. We were both uncomfortably located in a multiplicity of experiences. These experiences don’t resolve to a whole, but rather pulsate and echo and feed back into each other, intertwining with expectations of behavior, material conditions, and embodiment(s).
Japanoise raises many important questions. What social processes lead us to foreground the sonic experiences in our lives? And further, how does a critical understanding of these processes help to advance the work of understanding the power and politics of sound? But, for me, Novak’s work serves best to remind me of how much value is found in fragmented, diffuse, outlier experiences, like Noise music. Because sound occupies a crucial role in our social and political lives, Novak encourages us not to resolve tensions, rather to exist amongst them and hear them as lively and productive.
For those readers who might be unfamiliar with the music Novak describes, the book’s website has a fantastic collection of supplemental media for you to enjoy: http://www.japanoise.com/media/.
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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It’s no secret that over the course of the twentieth century, aesthetic productions have drawn increasingly on recycled and re-appropriated materials. Perhaps, for this reason, the above video – a rendition of Michael Jackson’s Thriller on the newly minted Mario Paint Composer – sounds absolutely mundane. Nothing new, just another curiosity born out of the collective consciousness we cannily refer to as the Internets, which we understand jokingly as a series of tubes, notably Youtubes. Laffs aside, this phenomena complicates many traditional modes of interpretation.How do we hear the music of a convergence era when within it lies a devious set of connotations, each serving to reorient the listener to its own particular theme? What tactics do listeners take when interpreting this semiotic collision of sound, icon and song? These questions complicate the topic of genre, where a social consensus traditionally guides the collective organization of a medium. What social and sonic forms shape our understanding of Thriller as it was reproduced by Mario Paint Composer on Youtube in 2008?
Before delving too deeply into a discussion of genre, it is important to situate the phenomena of convergence in a pre-digital context. Although the user-centric nature of web 2.0 has certainly helped to accelerate this process, one needs to look no further than Dick Hebdige’s “The Meaning of Mod,” in the anthology Resistance Through Rituals, to sense an earlier precedent to the mash-up culture we observe today. Drawn to the adventure of a dangerous soHo night-life culture, “The mod dealt his blows by inverting and distorting the images (of neatness, of short hair) so cherished by his employers and parents, to create a style, which while being overtly close to the straight world was nonetheless incomprehensible to it.” Although Hebdige is writing in 1974, long before computers would become mainstream, he makes a worthy point here about the appropriation of fashion. Constructing it as an act of distortion,Hebdige argues that early 1960s mods (understood here as a working class youth movement), through their stylistic appropriations were able to undermine the fabric of British society. By acting as criminals, but lauding the style of white collar workers – suits, short hair – mods help to show that semiotic convergence is not something new, instead it can be read as a stance of resistance.
In the case of Thriller, resistance is too strong a word. I prefer distortion, it is value neutral, although it can easily be understood in the context of resistance. Thriller on Mario Paint Composer distorts Thriller by Michael Jackson. By simplifying the song to a series of 16-bit samples, the song’s transcriber geoffnet1, translates it all to the symbolic language of Mario Paint – where mushrooms sound like drums, hearts are bass notes, ships are cymbals, flowers are horns, cars are synth pads and game-boys sound like blips. geoffnet1’s Thriller is a distortion of the Mario Paint Composer sound as well; originally a part of the 1992 Super Nintendo cartridge, Mario Paint, Mario Paint Composer is now a fan-modded update of its original form. Unlike the original Mario Paint Composer has been designed with functionality taking a precedent over accessibility. Originally marketed as an intuitive music scripting software, the following limitations were part and parcel of the platform (These restrictions have been copied from Tombobbuilder’s page, a musician who works with the limits of Mario Paint Composer as it was originally distributed.):
1. Only 24 measures are available.
2. No more than three notes at a time.
3. You can not double notes on the same line or space.
4. Tempo is restricted.
5. There is no fluctuation in dynamics (volume).
6. No sharps or flats are available.
7. Can only compose using the “white keys” from the piano.
8. Only two of each letter name are available (except A, where there is only one).
9. C major and A natural minor are the only keys to compose in.
Of these restrictions, Thriller only conforms to the third: “You can not double notes on the same line or space,” in this regard it distorts what most people understand as the Mario Paint sound as well. By no means am I calling this work inauthentic, instead I am calling attention to the stability of sonic tropes in our cultural memory. The sound of Mario Paint is not remembered for the limitations described above, instead, there is a stable and distinct sonic fingerprint which is derived from the alchemy of icon, sound and song though which genre can be constructed and maintained.
Thriller is 8-bit music, even though there is nothing 8-bit about it. Similar to the way in which mods subverted the British status-quo, Thriller puts the idea of genre into crisis. This is not a crisis that works to undermine the existence of genre as a phenomenon, it is instead a crisis of interpretation, where the traditional means through which a genre can be identified are called into question. No longer can the easy answers be found at Allmusic or Wikipedia, some sounds have become more epistemically ellusive. Ultimately, this is a good thing, as it encourages listeners to take a critical ear to what they are listening to – and how they come to understand it.