Recently, in a Harvard graduate seminar with visiting composer-scholar George Lewis, the eminent professor asked me pointedly if I considered myself a “sound artist.” Finding myself put on the spot in a room mostly populated with white male colleagues who were New Music composers, I paused and wondered whether I had the right to identify that way. Despite having exploded many conventions through my precarious membership in New York’s improvised/creative music scene, and through my shift from identifying as a “mrudangam artist” to calling myself an “improviser,” and even, begrudgingly, a “composer” — somehow “sound artist” seemed a bit far-fetched. As I sat in the seminar, buckling under the pressure of how my colleagues probably defined sound art, Prof. Lewis gently urged me to ask: How would it change things if I did call myself a sound artist? Rather than imposing the limitations of sound art as a genre, he was inviting me to reframe my existing aesthetic intentions, assumptions, and practices by focusing on sound.
Sound art and its offshoots have their own unspoken codes and politics of membership, which is partly what Prof. Lewis was trying to expose in that teaching moment. However, for now I’ll leave aside these pragmatic obstacles — while remaining keenly aware that the question of who gets to be a sound artist is not too distant from the question of who gets to be an artist, and what counts as art. For my own analytic and creative curiosity, I would like to strip sound art down to its fundamentals: an offering of resonance or vibration, in the context of a community that might find something familiar, of aesthetic value, or socially cohesive, in the gestures and sonorities presented.
I have spent most of my musical life wondering how the sounds I produce intersect with specific vectors of social belonging. The sounds emanating from my primary instrument — the mrudangam, a South Indian drum — are situated within a complex lattice of social difference, resonating within and across communities as disparate as the predominantly privileged-caste audiences of Chennai’s elite Karnatik sabha-s and the cosmopolitan connoisseurs who show up to find a home in New York City’s myriad intercultural and experimental music spaces. The sounds I produce are also inflected by the multivalent referentiality of my own socially situated body — as a queer, privileged-caste, Indian-American woman — simultaneously slicing through and answering to sonic environments organized around particular notions of rigor, virtuosity, and beauty.
For me, what began as a creative path rooted in the mimesis of an artistic lineage eventually settled in a versatile expressive voice, shaped by a decade of aesthetic (and ethical) nomadism. From my vantage point as a female percussionist in the South Asian diaspora, I have always been aware of the cracks in the veneer of tradition and other normative structures, and perhaps this fueled my musical vagrancy. Over time, my sound has accumulated the resonances of Karnatik music, ‘jazz’ drumming, bharatanatyam footwork, and Afro-Cuban rhythms, among others.
Certainly, this convergence of sonic layers is mediated by the rich specificity of interpersonal relationships and positionalities within larger networks. Power and positionality mediate the shape, audibility, and versatility of sounds as they become coupled with the implied (or actual) encounter of socially situated bodies. Yet, sounds somehow continue to exist in excess of the mechanisms and bodies that attempt to explain, produce, and contain them: idiom, tradition, space, culture, nation, race, gender, and sexuality. Therein lies their potency and mystery, and I intend to briefly explore the sensation of sonic excess in the hopes of honing a more sensitive analytic and creative perspective.
I am yet to become comfortable thinking in terms of sound, due to the longtime privileging of structure and technique in my musical upbringing. However, this is beginning to unravel as I am forced to deal with sound, particularly the sound of what Patrice Pavis and Jason Stanyek have called the “intercorporeal” aspect of intercultural performance. The predominantly improvised sounds that resonate through my mrudangam often emerge on the edge of my dynamic embodied consciousness, arranging themselves chaotically in real-time, interacting with others’ emergent soundings and sensory yearnings. Some of it may be mediated by parallel perceptual and idiomatic forms, but achieving a core interactive flow involves a fundamental immersion in sound.
Mat Maneri, feat. Rajna and Anjna Swaminathan
Tongues Series, curated by Amirtha Kidambi
ISSUE Project Room — June 18, 2016
For instance, take this impromptu piece presented by violist Mat Maneri, violinist Anjna Swaminathan (my sister), and me in 2016. It took place in the wonderfully resonant vaulted space of ISSUE Project Room, in front of an unsuspecting audience that had convened to hear the back-to-back juxtaposition of two improvisational “tongues” — a set of Maneri’s rich microtonal experiments, followed by a Karnatik concert of voice, violin, and mrudangam. However, this impromptu ludic exchange of sonic offerings — particularly Maneri’s incredible, chameleon-like ability to confound the sounds of Karnatik ornamentations with his own microtonal reflections — guided attention away from comparison and toward the sounds as they bounced eerily around the resonant architecture. Faced with the technically daunting Karnatik repertoire that Anjna and I were to play subsequently with vocalist Ashvin Bhogendra, the echoes of our interstitial collaboration allowed us to reorient ourselves and breathe a little easier.
From an analytic perspective, it is irresponsible to distill these sounds, to capture and conceptualize them as distinct from the bodies, histories, and discourses that participate in their co-creation and interpretation. Yet, riddled as they are with generations of power asymmetries and complex emotions, it is clear that these resonances have a secret life of their own. As musicians, we are not often given the opportunity to explore these clandestine, almost Baudelairean, correspondences, except perhaps when we discover them by accident. For instance, sonic ambiguities like those spun during the trio encounter play on sonic excess to spur new ways of listening and relating, with a direct ethical impact on the ensuing music.
John Blacking’s definition of all music as “humanly organized sound” is perhaps an early articulation of this idea, although the word ‘organized’ contains a bias toward formal structure and stability. To be sure, organizing principles always exist at the local level of socially situated perception and expression, which Nina Sun Eidsheim calls the ‘figure of sound.’ However, the kind of sound art I’m proposing revels in excess, or as Eidsheim puts it — “not only aurality, but also tactile, spatial, physical, material, and vibrational sensations [that] are at the core of all music” (5). We can even turn to how Jacques Attali poetically describes composition — as “a labor on sounds, without a grammar, without a directing thought, a pretext for festival, in search of thoughts,” a practice wherein “rhythms and sounds are the supreme mode of relation between bodies once the screens of the symbolic, usage and exchange are shattered,” one that neither marks nor produces the body, but allows for “taking pleasure in it” (143). By focusing on the multi-sensory, pleasurable valences of sound, and on the ways in which sonic excess allows for new patterns of coexistence, we can outline a ‘sound art’ practice and analytic that aren’t circumscribed by Western institutional definitions and technological/perceptual biases.
Thinking in this way about sound and vibration helps to eradicate the mind-body problem that continues to plague certain areas of music studies and music making. Sound forms an elusive common denominator that doesn’t rely heavily on colonial taxonomies of form or hierarchical theories of art. It even accounts for the subversive or incommensurable resonances that tend to emerge at the unstable threshold between so-called ‘producers’ and ‘receivers’ of music. After all, sound is in the ear of the beholder, and social asymmetries are embedded in the way we hear and listen. Through the notion of vibration, we are further attuned to the visceral space in which it reverberates, and the ways in which its echoes live on in the bodies of those who experience it.
Finally, there is the other definition of sound in English, which indicates a level of trust and holism. Taking this path to becoming ‘sound artist’ focuses attention on the artist. I don’t intend to focus on the ‘chops’ conventional to a field of aesthetic practice. Rather, I am interested in the more obscure meaning: a ‘sound artist’ as one that ethically occupies space as an artist.
How might this emerging sound art, as analytic and creative practice, work to interrogate the very ethics and politics of art, while succumbing to the contingency and volatile excess of sound? I don’t claim to hold the answers, but if we are in any way sounding out against the grain of dominant modalities, then at some level we must attend seriously to sound: in its excess, as it overwhelms bodies and spaces, and as it stretches the realm of the known.
Featured Image: “The great Rajna Swaminathan,” from Teju Cole tweet, 5 October 2013.
Rajna Swaminathan is an accomplished mrudangam (South Indian percussion) artist, a protégé of mrudangam legend Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman. She has performed with several renowned Indian classical musicians, most notably mentor and vocalist T.M. Krishna. Since 2011, she has been studying and collaborating with eminent musicians in New York’s jazz and creative music scene, including Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, Miles Okazaki, and Amir ElSaffar. Since 2013, Swaminathan has led the ensemble RAJAS, which explores new textural and improvisational horizons at the nexus of multiple musical perspectives. Swaminathan is active as a composer-performer for dance and theatre works, most notably touring with the acclaimed company Ragamala Dance and collaborating with playwright/actress Anu Yadav. Swaminathan holds degrees in anthropology and French from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is currently pursuing a PhD in cross-disciplinary music studies at Harvard University.
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On October 4-6, 2013 ESSA – The European Sound Studies Association – will have its first conference in Berlin. This initiative is just the latest sign that an institutionalization is taking place within the inter-disciplinary field of sound studies. Erik Granly Jensen, who is one of the founding members and vice-chair of ESSA, tells the story here:
During the past decade, the field of sound studies – or auditory culture if you will –has been growing immensely. International conferences and seminars, numerous dissertations, monographs and research articles have shaped a vibrant, interdisciplinary area of study that of course has a much longer history within the more traditional disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, but which during the past 10-15 years has morphed into a discipline of its own. Just last year, two extensive collections of theoretical texts appeared with major publishing houses, The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (ed. Trevor Pinch & Karin Bijsterveld) on Oxford University Press and The Sound Studies Reader (ed. Jonathan Sterne) on Routledge. A second edition of the classic Auditory Culture Reader (ed. Michael Bull) is in the making and supposedly another Routledge anthology is being planned as well. Furthermore, in 2010 three European journals on sound cultures appeared within just a few months: the Holland-based Journal of Sonic Studies, the Ireland-based journal Interference and the Denmark-based SoundEffects; all three of them international online journals devoted to the analysis of sound cultures with an explicit ambition to integrate sound into academic analysis. To give an illustration of the interest that these journals are already enjoying is the fact that SoundEffects in 2012 alone had 15,000 individual article downloads.
With all these activities taking place, supplemented by the high number of research networks and transnational research projects throughout Europe, for instance “Sound in Media Culture” sponsored by the German Research Foundation or “The Nordic Research Network for Sound Studies” sponsored by the Nordic Research Foundation, Nordforsk, it seemed to be a question of time before the area of sound studies would take yet another disciplinary step and bring all the efforts together in an association. For even if the field of sound studies is alive and well, the advantage of creating a lasting academic platform where researchers, practitioners and artists can meet annually to exchange ideas and build new networks should not be underestimated. The existence of an association and an explicit reference to a global community for research and artistic practice into sound could be the decisive argument for both the introduction of university programs and job positions within sound studies. ESSA, The European Sound Studies Association that was founded last year could become such a forum.
As is so often the case, the idea for a sound studies association arose at an occasion that was scheduled for other purposes. In January of 2012, twelve members of the Nordic Research Network for Sound Studies were gathered in Copenhagen to plan the activities of the Nordic research network, www.sdu.dk/norsound. During discussions of a possible doctoral school that would include not just doctoral students from the Nordic countries, but be a traveling European doctoral school, the idea for both a European summer school and for a forum that could facilitate sound studies throughout the European continent was put on the table. Everybody present (including Anahid Kassabian, Michael Bull, Heikki Uimonen, and Marcel Cobussen to mention a few) agreed that this was both a great and a timely idea and the association ESSA, European Sound Studies Association, was born.
ESSA is a groundbreaking organization, bringing together the widest range of approaches to the study of sound. It’s exciting to be involved in its earliest stages and to participate in shaping this new community. I’m very much looking forward to its growth over the next few years and to ESSA becoming a productive environment for scholars working with many aspects of sound. –Anahid Kassabian, University of Liverpool
During the past year, an ESSA website was launched and discussions of a possible legal statute of the association have been circulating in the group parallel with the planning of the first ESSA conference. The reason for the working of the legal statute is, that ESSA in the future will be run by membership donations and through a democratically elected board of members.
In particular musicologist Morten Michelsen from the University of Copenhagen and Holger Schulze, professor of historical anthropology of Sound at the Academy of Arts in Berlin (two other members of the founding group) have been the driving forces of ESSA in this initial phase. At this point where everything is still waiting to happen, it is of course hard to predict what ESSA will be and what kind of an association it can be in the future. However, the ambition is to provide “a forum where those involved in the study of sound can meet and exchange ideas.” ESSA will also encourage “the development of research and systematic study in topics and in areas where such study in not well developed” as is stated on the website. In addition to these overall ambitions, the initial idea of a European doctoral summer school for sound studies still has a high priority as a future goal for ESSA.
With the founding of the European Sound Studies Association – the study of sound in all it’s inter-disciplinary richness and diversity now has an independent institutional voice for the first time. The range of sonic scholars that is converging on Berlin for ESSA’s first annual conference in October is evidence of both the need and the success of ESSA. The presence of ESSA will provide a platform, not just for European scholars, but for all those working on sound globally. –Michael Bull, University of Sussex
The theme for the upcoming conference in Berlin is “Functional Sound.” The conference will focus on existing as well as emergent and cutting-edge approaches to functional sound design, sonification, auditory culture, everyday soundscapes, artistic concepts and popular culture. In particular, the conference encourages presentations that include both theoretical and practical aspects and presentations that address everyday contexts within which sound—in its relation to media, technology, and the arts—is constitutive for new ways of thinking, listening, and becoming. The conference is a joint venture with the international research network “Sound in Media Culture” (led by Holger Schulze). During the three conference days, paper presentations in six parallel streams will cover topics such as “Soundscape of the Urban Future,” “Sound Design Practices,” “Sonic Artistic Practices and Research,” and “Cultural Politics & Sonic Experience.” [Editor: Click here for the full program, which includes several Sounding Out! editors and writers: Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Neil Verma, reina alejandra prado saldivar, Mack Hagood, and Regina Arnold. –JSA]
The confirmed keynote speakers are all leading scholars in the field and include Douglas Kahn, who is professor of Media and Innovation at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Professor Kahn has been a driving force for the development of sound studies, primarily due to his influential 2001 book Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Jason Stanyek, professor at the Faculty of Music at Oxford University, is also a keynote speaker. Professor Stanyek is a musicologist, who specializes in Brazilian hip-hop and Pan-African Jazz. Also he is the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies. The final keynote speaker is Thomas Macho, professor in cultural history at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Professor Macho has published on numerous subjects but of special interest for the sound studies field is his work concerned with the human voice and most recently his book on synchronization, Kulturtechniken der Synchronisation from 2011.
For those who cannot make it to Berlin this year, the place and dates for the 2014 ESSA conference have already been decided. It will take place in Denmark on June 27-29 2014 at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. To be updated about ESSA and future events, please visit the website, http://www.soundstudies.eu, and sign up.
Featured Image Courtesy of Mediateletipos. In 2008, artist Akio Suzuki presented a sound installation around Berlin’s water tower focused on listening to everyday situations, directing listener’s attention through audial symbols painted on the ground.
Erik Granly Jensen is associate professor at the Department for the Study of Culture at the University of Southern Denmark. He is the research leader of The Nordic Research Network for Sound Studies, sponsored by Nordforsk 2011-2014. He is also the co-editor of the online journal SoundEffects and a founding member of ESSA, The European Sound Studies Association. His most recent research areas include historical sound archives and radio art. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Sound at ASA 2012–Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman