Tag Archive | Josh Ottum

Sound at IASPM-US 2014

For the second weekend in March, the U.S. chapter of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM-US) will be holding its annual meeting at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Like sound studies, popular music studies is fueled by an interdisciplinary spirit, and many of the questions that currently occupy the popular culture corner of sound studies have much in common with those of us who take the study of music seriously. This year’s conference offers a unique theme, “Music Flows,” that centers around questions of water, flows, and liquidity. The conference theme also offers more expansive ideas to flows, including mobility, embodiment, sonic materialities, and ecology. While the theme may strike some as unconventional, it ends up being an excellent metaphor for those of us who study musical flows in fields that prefer static works and communities over transient ones.

The James Taylor Bridge in his native city of Chapel Hill, North Carolina

The James Taylor Bridge over Morgan Creek in his native city of Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Since this is a popular music conference, many of the papers at this meeting take musical texts as their focus (including mine); however, there are still many panels and individual papers that might interest scholars from a sound studies perspective. After all, sound travels better in water than in air, and following that logic, water and sound both feature waves. Indeed, there are papers that take the water waves and sound waves as their inspiration. Compare, for example, SO! guest writer Mack Hagood’s discussion of an early popular recording of water waves against Robin James’s philosophical theorizing about sound waves and Neo-Liberalism in the music of Ludacris. Similarly, many papers take their inspiration from the sounds that come from water or are performed in it: Peter Schultz specifically tackles the sound-design of watery environments in video games, while SO! guest writer Josh Ottum investigates the sounds from the floating garbage island in the middle of the ocean. These papers offer attendees the opportunity to consider the large theoretical consequences of changes to the water and waves in recordings.

Some papers approach water from a perspective focused on materiality and mediation. Craig Eley’s paper offers a historically grounded study of the hydrophone and underwater recording. Peter McMurray’s paper analyzes the problem of making music for watery environments and the challenges of water’s sonic conduciveness. For an athletic perspective on hearing music in the water, Niko Higgins talks about the music that swimmers use in their athletic training. These perspectives on liquid mediation offer a tremendous opportunity to expand sound studies beyond its general dependence on sounds that happen in the open air.

Beyond the more literal takes on the water in music flows, a large portion of the papers have taken their inspiration from the metaphor of social mobility, liquidity, and trade. There are panels and papers that emphasize transnational sonic flows, such as the panel “In and Out of Africa,” and Jason Robinson’s work on recording challenges in a transatlantic jazz collaboration. Two papers in particular deal with the role of African Americans in U.S. diplomatic relations: Darren Mueller’s paper on Dizzy Gillespie as a jazz ambassador, and Kendra Salois’s work on hip-hop diplomacy. Along a similar vein, Yvonne Liao specifically considers ports and their relationship to musical trade in Shanghai’s jazz scene. There is also a paper on the role of music as a social lubricant by Luis-Manuel Garcia that promises to be a real treat.

Megafaun serenades a Chapel Hill, North Carolina crowd, Image by Flickr user  abbyladybug

Megafaun serenades a Chapel Hill, North Carolina crowd, Image by Flickr user abbyladybug

There are also numerous papers that tackle flow and water as a metaphor in music-making and mediation. They include SO! guest writer Mike D’Errico’s study of embodiment and interactivity in digital media, Rebecca Farrugia and Kelly Hay’s study of women’s flow in a Detroit hip-hop scene, and Jonathan Piper’s paper on “sludge” metal. “Anointing Sounds” is a roundtable on music’s materiality and the sounds of religious experience through the Christian metaphors of “anointing” and “healing waters.”  Finally, for those scholars seeking the rare paper on record eaters and collecting, check out SO! guest writer Shawn VanCour and Kyle Barnett’s paper.
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Other highlights include a keynote by Louise Meintjes, whose book Sounds of Africa! took the musical recording process in studios as a serious object of study, and one of the last papers of the conference, Matthew Somoroff’s study of James Baldwin as a listener and ethnographer..

Finally, it is worth mentioning how many papers address sound studies’ long-standing relationship with soundscapes, ecomusicology, and the environment. There is a panel called “Ecologies of Place” with papers on ecologically-minded music from places as far flung as India, Iceland, Appalachian Ohio, and Canadian parks. There is also a panel on “Urban Soundscapes,” including Robert Fry’s paper on sound, music, and branding at a hot spring resort and Mathew Robert Swiatlowski’s paper on the boom box and the Walkman in urban space.

Many in sound studies cite Jonathan Sterne’s critiques of ocularcentrism in cultural criticism. This conference encourages us to think beyond the air and stasis and shift our focus to the possibilities of liquid metaphors in cultural change.

Scroll down for Kariann’s handpicked panels and papers of interest for sound studies folks perusing IASPM-US.  

Featured Image: One of Chapel Hill’s many ponds, at the Outdoor Education Center, Image by Flickr User Kat St Kat

Kariann Goldschmitt is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at New College of Florida and Ringling College of Art and Design. She holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from UCLA (2009) and was the 2009-2011 Mellon Fellow of Non-Western Music at Colby College in Maine. Her scholarly work focuses on Brazilian music, modes of listening, and sonic branding in the global cultural industries. She has published in The Journal of Popular Music Studies, American Music, Yearbook for Traditional Music, and Luso-Brazilian Review and contributes to the South American cultural magazine, Sounds and Colours.

"Franklin Street, Chapel Hill" by Wikimedia user Caroline Culler, CC BY 3.0

“Franklin Street, Chapel Hill” by Wikimedia user Caroline Culler, CC BY 3.0

Friday, March 14

9:30
“The Fluid “Field”: Recording and Performance in Transatlantic Collaboration”–Jason Robinson, Amherst College
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“Swimming What You Hear: The Music of Distance Swimmers”– Niko Higgins, Columbia University
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10:15-11:45
“In and Out of Africa: From Biodiversity to Cultural Diversity: Negotiating Cultural Sustainability, Difference, and Nationhood through World Music in France,” Aleysia Whitmore, Brown University
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“American Afrobeat: Perception and Reception of Antibalas in Nigeria,” Stephanie Shonekan, University of Missouri
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“African Sounds in the American South: Community Radio, Pan-Africanism, and Historically Black Colleges, 1950-1986,” Joshua Clark Davis, Duke University
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“Thinking the Anthropocene Through Sound ‘Apeman’: The Kinks’ Romantic Expression of Environmental Politics and the Paradox of Human Evolution,”
Sara Gulgas, University of Pittsburgh
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“Coming of Age in the Post-3.11 Waterscape: Music and Silence in Japanese Animated Cinema and Children’s Art,” Kyle Harp, University of California, Riverside
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“Sounds Like Garbage: Paddling Through an Island of Trash Toward a New Sonic Ecology,” Josh Ottum, Ohio University
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“Watery Textualities: The Perceptual Flow of Metric (Re)evaluation in Radiohead’s ‘Bloom,'” Michael Lupo, CUNY Graduate Center
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“Splash, Bubble, and Clink: Topic and Timbre in Aquatic Video Game Environments,” Peter Shultz, University of Chicago
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“Just Ludacris Enough: Wave-Forms & Neoliberal Sophrosyne,” Robin James, University of North Carolina-Charlotte
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12:00-1:30
Keynote Lecture: Louise Meintjes, Duke University
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1:45-3:45
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“Embodiment and Mediation: Riding the ‘Sound of Here-and-Now’: Locating Groove in Japanese Garage Punk,” Jose Neglia, University of California, Berkeley
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“Air Flows: Breath, Voice, and Authenticity in Three Recordings,” Greg Weinstein, Columbia College Chicago
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“‘Them boys kin shore tromp on the strings’: Down-Home Virtuosity in Rural Variety Radio,” David VanderHamm, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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“‘Less Work, More Flow’: Embodied Interactivity and the Ecology of Digital Media,” Mike D’Errico, University of California Los Angeles
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1:45
“Secret Sonic Weapon on Record: Dizzy Gillespie and the Ambassadorial Politics of Jazz,” Darren Mueller, Duke University
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“The Costs of Being Fluid: Popular Music and the Lubrication of Social Frictions,” Luis-Manuel Garcia, Max Planck Institute for Human Development
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2:15
“Soft Power in Hard Times: Affect, Labor, and Ethics in US ‘Hip Hop Diplomacy,'” Kendra Salois, University of Maryland, College Park
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2:45
“Listening with Your Face: The Neo-colonial Politics of Underwater Music,” Peter McMurray, Harvard University
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James Taylor Bridge, Public Domain

So nice we put it twice, The James Taylor Bridge, Public Domain

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Saturday, March 15

8:30
“Voices of Americas – The Sound of the Radio Programs About Folk Music in Brazil and the USA under the Pan American policy (1936-1945)”–
Rafael Velloso, UFRGS/Brazil & University of Maryland
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“The Sound of Sludge: Groove, Materiality and Bodily Experience in Sludge Metal”–Jonathan Piper, Independent Scholar
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8:30-10:00
Urban Soundscapes
“I Can’t Live Without My Radio”: The Sony Walkman & the Stereo Boombox in the Urban Soundscape of the 1980s”–Mathew Robert Swiatlowski, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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“Sounding Hot Springs: Music and Branding in America’s Spa City”–Robert Fry, Vanderbilt University
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“Hip Hop Flows (through Detroit): Women’s “Legendary” Work Mapping Marginalization and Sustainability in Urban Sonic Spaces”–Rebekah Farrugia, Oakland University, Kellie Hay, Oakland University
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10:15-11:45
“Mediating ‘Natural’ Sounds Going Deep: The Hydrophone and the History of Underwater Recording”–Craig Eley, Penn State University
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“Early Digital Waves: Irv Teibel’s Environments and the Psychologically Ultimate Seashore”–Mack Hagood, Miami University
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“Sigur Rós and the Soundtrack to Selling Planet Earth”–Matt DelCiampo, Florida State University
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10:45
“Port sounds: Jazz(-scapes) in 1930s and 1940s Shanghai,” Yvonne Liao, King’s College London
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1:45-3:45
Ecologies of Place
“Music, Dance, Theater, Water:  Environmental Justice and Ananya Dance Theatre,” Allison Adrian, St. Catherine University
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“Stone and Ice: Resonant metaphors of Jón Leifs ecological music in Iceland’s soundscape,” Leslie C. Gay Jr., University of Tennessee
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“Sounds of Recovery and Protest in Appalachian Ohio,” Brian Harnetty, Ohio University
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“Mediated Ecomusicological Flows: The Nexus of Sonic Materiality and Ecotourism in the National Parks Project,” Kate Galloway, Memorial University of Newfoundland
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2:45
“Music, Mobility, and Streaming: A Multimedia Lecture by the Killer Apps, Iowa City’s Best All-Mobile-Phone Cover Band,”Kembrew McLeod, University of Iowa and Loren Glass, University of Iowa
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"Cheerleaders, UNC, 1989" by Flickr user North Carolina Digital Heritage Center, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Cheerleaders, UNC, 1989” by Flickr user North Carolina Digital Heritage Center, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Sunday, March 16

8:30
“Tracking Edible Phonography: Record Eating, Collecting, and Musical Taste,” Shawn VanCour, NYU and Kyle Barnett, Bellarmine University
8:30-10
“Anointing Sounds: Holy Ghost Reservoirs in an Age of Mass Media (Roundtable),”  James Bielo, Miami University, Anderson Blanton, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Rory Johnson, Miami University
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11:45
“Voices Above His Head: James Baldwin as Listener and Ethnographer,” Matthew Somoroff, Duke University
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Chapel Hill's finest, WUNC, image by Flickr user Keith Weston

Chapel Hill’s finest, WUNC, image by Flickr user Keith Weston

Sounding Boards and Sonic Styles: The Music of the Skatepark

Sound and Sport2Welcome back to our summer series on “Sound and Sport.”  In today’s post, Josh Ottum discusses the sonorous sounds and unique rhythms of the sport of skateboarding. For an instant replay of last month’s post, click Tara Betts‘s “Pretty, Fast, and Loud: The Audible Ali.” For May’s post, click Melissa Helquist‘s “Goalball: Sport, Silence, and Spectatorship.”  Next month’s grand finale will feature a doubleheader on Brasil, with a post by Kariann Goldschmitt on the promotional sounds of FIFA 2014 and a podcast by Andrea Medrado entitled “The Sounds of Rio’s Favelas: Echoes of Social Inequality in an Olympic City.” We’ll close with another take on the Olympics, excerpted from David Hendy‘s recent Noise broadcasts for BBC Radio 4 on the politics of boos at the games. For now, get out your board, strap on your helmet, and prepare to jam. —J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief

Seven layers of screen-printed, sugar pine maple whack the concrete. Aluminum axles pivot on rubber bushings as they slide across steel coping. Circular, molded polyurethane encases lubricated bearings that spin in midair before slamming onto birch. Vocal cords are strained as exclamations are made in response to a maneuver. These are the unmistakeable sounds of the skatepark. As skaters ride through the park, a unique sonic tapestry emerges revealing a constantly shifting array of timbre, pitch, and rhythm. This sliding aural space is similar to the compositional flow between rehearsed maneuvers and improvisatory actions, connecting skaters in the skatepark to musicians improvising in a jam session.

Just as the results of a musical performance depend on acoustics of the venue and the idiosyncrasies of the instrument, the skater is beholden to a similarly complex signal chain. The aural atmosphere of the skatepark relies on the number of other players, as well as their chosen instruments, and unique approach to playing. While surveying the sonic and social dynamics of four skateparks in Ohio and California for this study, the line between performer and listener was often unclear. Skaters are consistently sliding between roles as passive observers and active participants, watching and being watched, making sound and listening to the sounds of others. And, just as an improvising musician aims to develop her own unique voice, the skater intertwines sonic and visual elements into a unique stylistic signature all her own. In this study I will look at the skatepark as a site for skaters to express themselves much in the same way that a musician plays an instrument at a jam session. I will explore the board and terrain, the importance of style, and the culture of the park itself. To begin, I will contextualize the ways in which the skateboard has been constructed as a sonic instrument.

The Instruments

As a skater lands an ollie in the Vans Skatepark in Orange, California, the sound of hard polyurethane wheels slamming against a hollow birch ramp emanates throughout the warehouse, entangling with distinctive sounds made by other participants. The listener is made acutely aware of each skater’s instrument and stylistic approach to performance. What differentiates the rider on a board in the skatepark from a guitarist playing in a rock club? Just as the materials of the electric guitar and its signal chain inform the sonic nature of the instrument, the skateboard and its engaged terrain sound out unique and identifiable characteristics of each device. I spoke with a skater at Flipside Skateboard Shop in Athens, Ohio about the specifics of wheel construction and his own personal preferences:

2 flipside wheel chart

Abrasion test chart, Flipside Skateboard Shop, Athens, Ohio

Just like the layered wood of an electric guitar body, boards are made through a multistep manufacturing process that involves layering thin plies of wood. Maple is most commonly used with the relative flexibility of the deck determining qualities of audible resonance as a skater ollies or railslides. And trucks, which function as axles, can be heard grinding along a surface such as pool coping, a painted curb, or a handrail.

In order for these materials to make sound they must be controlled by a rider and engage with some kind of terrain. The combination of what materials are chosen and how they are used result in a rider’s unique approach. In the skatepark, skaters swathe themselves in clothing, pads, and helmets while riding devices wrapped in visual signposts of self-expression that sound out the priorities of the particular rider.

Sonic Style

Following Henri Lefebvre, Iain Borden speaks of the skateboard as a “lived component of the body, its actions and its self-image in relation to the terrain” (28). Similarly, from my time spent at skateparks in Ohio and California, I have noted the malleability of terrain as a domain to express one’s own unique style. Skaters use their devices as instruments, playing the park, repeating phrases, overlapping with sounds emitted from their peers. All the while, advertisements adorn both bodies and instruments and maneuvers mimic the iconic moves of sponsored skaters viewed in magazines. Visiting Focus Boardshop across the street from the Etnies Skatepark in Lake Forest, California reminds the observer that the elusive, focal point of style in the world of skateboarding is not only confined to the visual realm. As reissued decks from Powell Peralta, Slimeball wheels, and multiple videos adorn the walls of the shop, teenage skaters hang out, asking to bend and stand on decks and spin wheels, all the while watching and listening to newly released videos. Just as guitars and synthesizers reflect the users aesthetic outlook, the look and sound of skateboards signal to a skater’s audience (often other skaters in the park) what kind of skater he or she is.

Tara Rodgers’ insightful article on wood paneling on synthesizers for Sounding Out! has its analogue in the spiritual aura of the object in skateboarding. Bound up in this aura are genre-shaping histories that have taken the sport in innumerable directions. Whether it is the catwalk ethos of Vision Street Wear, Danny Way’s connection with Monster and Red Bull energy drinks, or enjoi’s self-referential marketing, the graphics that wrap around skate gear carry with them weighty connections to the sport’s most original moments. These moments are, of course, defined by marketing campaigns, hosted in influential magazines such as Thrasher and Transworld, and the zietgeist of the time. Intertwined with these branded materials is the sonic quality of the instrument. The sound of the instrument itself reflects the particular ethos of the skater who selected it. In the clip below, an employee working at Focus Boardshop in Lake Forest, California talks about the particular way his board’s sound reflects the idiosyncratic nature of its components. Notice how he skater speaks about the sound of his bearings as a direct link to his style, connecting to Borden’s idea of the board as a lived component of the body.

During my visit to the community skatepark in Athens, Ohio I come across two skaters who have returned to the sport after a two-decade break. One skater sports a longboard with 70a wheels so soft you can’t hear him skate through the concrete pool. Immediately after interacting with the longboarder, another skater finishes a session in the pool at the Athens skatepark with a long slide. I ask him about the role of his wheels and what he calls “the best sound in the world”:

Soft Wheels

Hard Wheels

Skaters related the histories of their boards to me with a sense of fond nostalgia. These histories functioned, primarily, as a mode of individuation, through which those observed were seen refining their identities within the community through conversation. As more time is spent at each of the parks, I begin to notice communal flows of conversation between skaters and their engaged terrain as well. Competitive aspects to out-do each other, synchronized maneuvers, and vocal responses are percolate the soundscape. As listeners perform and performers listen, connections with well-formed cultural codes of improvisational music begin to emerge.

Jamming the Skatepark

Improvising musicians often use the context of the jam session as an opportunity work out new ideas and rehearse repertoire. Minton’s Playhouse in New York is one of the original sites for the jazz jam session. Here, “cutting contests” allowed players the opporunity to outplay each other with virtuosic displays of improvisational prowess. Musicians play to hear each other individually and as a unit, often pushing each other to extremes. The sound is composed, listened to, and then reacted to. Skateparks provide a similar atmosphere. A trick (like an ollie) is immersed in the sonic flows of the surrounding skaters. The skatepark is simultaneously encouraging and competitive, forgiving and relentless.

When I visited the Vans Skatepark on National Go Skateboarding Day park employees tempted skaters to display their best moves throughout the park with the promise of free swag. The environment remained friendly and encouraging as skaters rose to the challenge, welcoming the pressure.

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The rituals of the skatepark are varied in their scope. When a skater lands a difficult trick, it is common to hear the tapping of board tails on the ground; applause. Vocal reactions to maneuvers (landed or failed) are also quite common.

What sets the sonic atmosphere of the skatepark apart from the sound of skating outside the park is the palpable lack of intruding sounds from the outside world. As communities continue to accept the skatepark as part of their permanent landscape, the once transgressive sound of the sport takes on a new meaning. The scrapes and slides that once signaled intrusion are now contained in a controlled space. While visiting these jam sessions, it became clear that the sounds of the skatepark remain a mostly male-dominated activity. While the instruments and terrain remain available to the wider public the sound of the skatepark reflects a relatively closed environment often shrouded in platitudes of youth culture. However, once a sense of acceptance and experimentation is cultivated, some other aspects of the skatepark are revealed. The skatepark is a place to play and explore the range of one’s repertoire. It is a place to engage with the limitations of the instrument and one’s own physical faculties. And, it is an environment that encourages friction, noise, and distortion. The skatepark is a communal amplifier, obscuring and reflecting sound as the players immerse themselves in the ultimate sounding board.

Bonus Material:

While immersing myself in the sounds of the skatepark for this project, the idea came up to reimagine the sounds of the skatepark as a musical composition. I asked musicians Michael Deakers, Casey Foubert, Junior High, and Ryan Richter to make a piece that used any portion of the recordings of the four skateparks I visited. Their work reflects a deep connection to the rehearsed and improvisational aspects of music-making and skateboarding. The sounds of these pieces emerged from hours of practice and spontaneous decisions allowing for a particularly effervescent creative outcome. To hear these, check out out my Soundcloud here.


Featured Image, “Grinding” courtesy of Luke Hayfield Photography

Josh Ottum holds an MFA in Integrated Composition Improvisation and Technology from UC Irvine and is currently a PhD student at Ohio University in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts. His research interests include sound, energy extraction, Van Dyke Parks, Southern California, library music, and synthesizers. As a singer-songwriter, composer, and producer, Josh has released multiple records on various labels, completed numerous international tours, and composed music that has appeared on MTV, AMC’s Mad Men, and NPR.

tape reel

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Sounding Out! Podcast Episode #5: Sound and Spirit on the Highway–David Greenberg

Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil”–Leonardo Cardoso

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