Phantom Power is an aural exploration of the sonic arts and humanities, that launched in March 2018 with Episode 1: Dead Air (John Biguenet and Rodrigo Toscano) Hosted by poet + media artist cris cheek and sound + media scholar Mack Hagood, this podcast explores the sounds and ideas of artists, technologists, producers, composers, ethnographers, historians, cultural scholars, philosophers, and others working in sound. Because Phantom Power is about to kick off its second season on February 1, 2019, we thought we’d dig a little deeper into who they are and who they’d like to reach with their good vibrations.
Funded through a generous grant from the Miami University Humanities Center and The National Endowment for the Humanities, Phantom Power was created with the goal of bringing together three important streams of conversation in the humanities
(1) diverse and interdisciplinary scholarly pursuits, taking place under the umbrella of “sound studies,” that analyze and critique the sonic entanglements and practices of human beings;
(2) experimental aesthetic practices that use sound as a medium and inspiration to expand the boundaries of art, music, and poetry;
and (3) the nascent use of podcasting as a mode of scholarship, intra-/interdisciplinary communication, and public outreach.
The public-facing podcast draws on the extensive radio experience of co-host cris cheek, creator of Music of Madagascar, made for BBC Radio 3 in 1994, which won the SONY GOLD AWARD, Specialist Music Program of the Year. In 1998 he made crowding, a three and a half hour live-streamed webcast of largely improvised speech and sound events, commissioned as part of Torkradio from by Junction Multimedia in Cambridge. In 2004, cheek was part of the BBC series Between the Ears, on the subject of speaking in tongues, in conversation with the artist and film-director Steve McQueen, exploring the boundaries of vocal expression with actress Billie Whitelaw, and linguistics professor William Samarin. cheek appears in the first episode talking about the many contradictory experiences of “dead air” in an age of changing media technologies.
Phantom Power also alchemizes the scholarship of co-host Mack Hagood (see Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control forthcoming in March 2019 from Duke University Press and his 2012 SO! post “Listening to Tinnitus: Roles of Media When Hearing Breaks Down”) as well as his audio production background as a musician, producer, and radio DJ—skills he has long incorporated into his scholarship and teaching. At Indiana University, for example, he and his students and won the Indiana Society of Professional Journalists’ 2012 Best Radio Use of Sound award for our documentary series “I-69: Sounds and Stories in the Path of a Superhighway.” The first episode even featured music by Hagood and by Graeme Gibson, who was touring on drums with Michael Nau and the Mighty Thread at the time. Additional sound is by Cl0v3n.
“We spend a lot of time on the production aspects of this podcast,” says Hagood, “because we want it to be a sonic and affective experience, not just an intellectual one. Many of us in sound studies have complained that we always find ourselves writing about sound. Phantom Power is our attempt to treat sound not only as an object of study, but also a means of understanding and feeling sound scholarship. This makes our show very different from most academic podcasts, which are usually lo-fi discussions between scholars about recent books. We love that kind of podcast but we build upon it by using narrative, sound design, and music to tell a compelling story that we hope will appeal to the public and sound specialists alike.”
In addition to their exploration of “dead air,” Phantom Power’s inaugural season included longform interviews with urban scholar Shannon Mattern (Episode 2, “City of Voices”), sound artist Brian House (Episode 3, “Dirty Rat”), Australia-based sound composer, media artist and curator Lawrence English (Episode 4, “On Listening In” ), and with scholar and SO! ed Jennifer Stoever (Episode 5, “Ears Racing”). The final two episodes explored what “the future will sound like” on World Listening Day (July 18th) [Episode 6: Data Streams (Leah Barclay and Teresa Barrozo) and featured Houston’s SLAB car culture [Episode 7: Screwed & Chopped (Langston Collin Wilkins)].
“I’m super excited about Season Two,” says Hagood. “Our opener stars one of my favorite sound scholars, NYU’s Mara Mills. It also uses one of my favorite formats that cris and I have developed, where one of us brings in some crazy sounds for the other to listen and react to, then we gradually develop the backstory to the sounds through our guest’s words, eventually landing on the sonic and cultural implications of it all. It’s like a fun mystery, where one co-host acts as guide and the other gets to stand in for the listener—reacting, laughing, and questioning.”
When Phantom Power returns next month, other new entries will feature cheek’s interviews with Charles Hayward of legendary experimental rock band This Heat and poet Caroline Bergvall, whose work has been commissioned by such institutions as MoMA and the Tate Modern. “I interview amazing sound scholars, but I’m a bit star struck by some of the musicians, sound artists, and poets cris interviews!” says Hagood.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
SO! Amplifies: Cities and Memory–Stuart Fowkes
SO! Amplifies: #hearmyhome and the Soundscapes of the Everyday–Cassie J. Brownell and Jon M. Wargo
This is the opening salvo in Sounding Out!‘s April Forum on “Sound and Technology.” Every Monday this month, you’ll be hearing new insights on this age-old pairing from the likes of Sounding Out! veterano Primus Luta, along with new voices Andrew Salvati and Owen Marshall. These fast-forward folks will share their thinking about everything from Auto-tune to productivity algorithms. So, program your presets for Sounding Out! and enjoy today’s exhilarating opening think piece from SO! Multimedia Editor Aaron Trammell. —JS, Editor-in-Chief
We drafted a manifesto.
Microsoft Research’s New England Division, a collective of top researchers working in and around new media, hosted a one-day symposium on music technology. Organizers Nancy Baym and Jonathan Sterne invited top scholars from a plethora of interdisciplinary fields to discuss the value, affordances, problems, joys, curiosities, pasts, presents, and futures of Music Technology. It was a formal debrief of the weekend’s Music Tech Fest, a celebration of innovative technology in music. Our hosts christened the day, “What’s Music Tech For?” and told us to make bold, brave statements. A kaleidoscope of kinetic energy and ideas followed. And, at 6PM we crumpled into exhausted chatter over sangria, cocktails, and imported beer at a local tapas restaurant.
The day began with Annette Markham, our timekeeper, offering us some tips on how to best think through what a manifesto is. She went down the list: manifestos are primal, they terminate the past, create new worlds, trigger communities, define us, antagonize others, inspire being, provoke action, crave presence. In short, manifestos are a sort of intellectual world building. They provide a road map toward an imagined future, but in doing so they also work to produce this very future. Annette’s list made manifestos seem to be a very focused thing, and perhaps they usually are. But, having now worked through the process of creating a manifesto with a collective, I would add one more point – manifestos are sloppy.
Our draft manifesto is a collective vision about what the blind-spots of music technology are, at present, and what we want the future of music technology to look like. And although there is general synergy around all of the points within it, that synergy is somewhat addled by the polyphonic nature of the contributors. There were a number of discussions over the course of the day that were squelched by the incommensurable perspectives of one or two of the participants. For instance, two scholars argued about whether or not technical platforms have politics. These moments of disagreement, however, only added a brilliant contour to our group jam. Like the distortion cooked into a Replacements single, it only serves to highlight how superb the moments of harmony and agreement are in contrast. This brilliant and ambivalent fuzziness speaks perfectly to the value of radical interdisciplinarity.
These disagreements were exactly the point. Why else would twenty academics from a variety of interdisciplinary fields have been invited to participate? Like a political summit, there were delegates from Biology, Anthropology, Computer Science, Musicology, Science and Technology Studies, and more. Rotating through the room, we did our introductions (see the complete list of participants at the bottom of this paper). Our interests were genuine and stated with earnestness. Nancy Baym declared emphatically that music is, “a productive site for radical interdisciplinarity,” while Andrew Dubber, the director of Music Tech Fest, noted the centrality of culture to the dialogue. Both music and technology are culture, he argued. The precarity of musical occupations, the gender divide, and the relationship between algorithm and consumer, all had to take a central role in our conversation, an inspired Georgina Born demanded. Bryan Pardo, a computer scientist, announced that he was listening with an open mind for tips on how to best design the platforms of tomorrow. Though collegial, our introductory remarks were all political, loaded with our ambitions and biases.
The day was an amazing, free-form, brainstorm. An hour and a half long each, the sessions challenged us to answer a big question – first, what are the problems of music technology, then what are some actions and possibilities for its future. Every fifteen or twenty minutes an alarm would ring and tables would exchange members, the new member sharing ideas from the table they came from. At one point I came to a new table telling stories about how music had the power to sculpt social relations, and was immediately confronted with a dialogue about problems of integration in the STEM fields.
In short, the brainstorms were a hodgepodge of ideas. Some spoke about the centrality of music to many cultural practices. Noting the ways in which humans respond to their environments through music, they questioned if tonal schema were ultimately a rationalization of the world. Though music was theorized as a means of social control many questions remained about whether it could or should be operationalized as such. Others considered different conversations entirely. Jocking sustainability and transduction as key factors in an ideal interdisciplinarity and shunning models that either tried to put one discipline in service of another, or simply tried to stack and combine ideas.
Some of the most productive debates centered around the nature of “open” technology. Engineers were challenged on their claim that “open source technology” was an unproblematic good, by Cultural Studies scholars who argued that the barriers to access were still fraught by the invisible lines of race, class, and gender. If open source technology is to be the future of music technology, they argued, much work must still be done to foster a dialogue where many voices can take part in that space.
We also did our best to think up actionable solutions to these problems, but for many it was difficult to dream big when their means were small in comparison. One group wrote, “we demand money,” on a whiteboard in capital letters and blue marker. Funding is a recurrent and difficult problem for many scholars in the United States and other, similar, locations, where funding for the arts is particularly scarce. On points like this, we all agreed.
We even considered what new spaces of interactivity should look like. Fostering spaces of interaction with public works of art, music, performance and more, could go a long way in convincing policy makers that these fields are, in fact, worthy of greater funding. Could a university be designed so as to prioritize this public mode of performance and interactivity? Would it have to abandon the cloistered office systems, which often prohibit the serendipitous occasion of interdisciplinary discussion around the arts?
There are still many problems with the dream of our manifesto. To start, although we shared many ideas, the vision of the manifesto is, if anything, disheveled and uneven. And though the radical interdisciplinarity we epitomized as a group led to a million excellent conversations, it is difficult, still, to get a sense of who “we” really are. If anything, our manifesto will be the embodiment of a collective that existed only for a moment and then disbursed, complete with jagged edges and inconsistencies. This gumbo of ideas, for me, is beautiful. Each and every voice included adds a little extra to the overall idea.
Ultimately, “What’s Music Tech For?” really got me thinking. Although I remain skeptical about the United States seeing funding for the arts as a worthy endeavor anytime soon, I left the event with a number of provocative questions. Am I, as a scholar, too critical about the value of technology, and blind to the ways it does often function to provoke a social good? How can technological development be set apart from the demands of the market, and then used to kindle social progress? How is music itself a technology, and when is it used as a tool of social coercion? And finally, what should a radical mode of listening be? And how can future listeners be empowered to see themselves in new and exciting ways?
What do you think?
Our team, by order of introduction:
Mary Gray (Microsoft Research), Blake Durham (University of Oxford), Mack Hagood (Miami University), Nick Seaver (University of California – Irvine), Tarleton Gillespie (Cornell University), Trevor Pinch (Cornell University), Jeremy Morris (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Diedre Loughridge (University of California – Berkley), Georgina Born (Oxford University), Aaron Trammell (Rutgers University), Jessa Lingel (Microsoft Research), Victoria Simon (McGill University), Aram Sinnreich (Rutgers University), Andrew Dubber (Birmingham City University), Norbert Schnell (IRCAM – Centre Pompidou), Bryan Pardo (Northwestern University), Josh McDermitt (MIT), Jonathan Sterne (McGill University), Matt Stahl (Western University), Nancy Baym (Microsoft Research), Annette Markham (Aarhus University), and Michela Magas (Music Tech Fest Founder).
Read the Manifesto here and sign on if you dig it. . . http://www.musictechifesto.org/
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University. His dissertation explores the fanzines and politics of underground wargame communities in Cold War America. You can learn more about his work at aarontrammell.com.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Sounding Out! Podcast #15: Listening to the Tuned City of Brussels, The First Night— Felicity Ford and Valeria Merlini
“I’m on my New York s**t”: Jean Grae’s Sonic Claims on the City— Liana Silva-Ford
Editor’s Note: Welcome to the third installment in our month-long exploration of listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18, 2012. For the full introduction to the series click here. To peep the previous posts, click here. Otherwise, prepare yourself to listen carefully as Mack Hagood contemplates how sound studies scholars can help tinnitus sufferers (and vice versa). –JSA
One January morning in 2006, Joel Styzens woke up and life sounded different. Superimposed over the quiet ambience of his Chicago apartment was a cluster of sounds: pure, high-pitched tones like those of a hearing test. Loud, steady, and constant, they weren’t going away. He walked to the bathroom to wash his face. “As soon as I turned on the water on the faucet,” he told me in an interview, “the left ear was crackling… like, a speaker, you know, being overdriven.” Joel was 24 and a professional musician, someone who made his living through focused and detailed listening.
As days passed, he grew more fearful and depressed. For two months, he barely left the house. The air brakes of a city bus or a honking horn were painful and caused his heart to race. His sense of himself, his environment, and his identity as a musician were all undermined. This man who lived through his ears now faced the prospect of a life of tinnitus (ringing or other “phantom sounds”) and its frequent companion, hyperacusis (sound sensitivity sometimes accompanied by distortion). Joel could even identify the dominant pitch of his torment: it was A sharp.
We humanistic and qualitative sound scholars—particularly those of us focused on media and technology—can learn a lot from listening to tinnitus and the people who have it. Scholars of science and technology studies (STS) often utilize moments of technological breakdown to reveal the processes and mechanisms that constitute things we take for granted. Tinnitus and hyperacusis are, in the words of anthropologist Stefan Helmreich, “moments when hearing and listening break down” (629). Because sound scholars understand sound, hearing, and listening not only as the material effects of physics and physiology, but also as culturally and technologically emergent phenomena, we can potentially contribute much to the growing public conversation around tinnitus.
And there is a lot at stake. Tinnitus affects 10-15% of adults and is the top service-related disability affecting U.S. veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Tinnitus and hyperacusis are also fairly common among musicians who work in loud performance and media production environments. It is perhaps ironic, then, that mediated sound and music are audiologists’ primary tools in helping people recover from these conditions.
My own study of tinnitus centers on its articulation with audio-spatial media—devices such as bedside sound machines, white noise generators, and noise-canceling headphones, all used to fabricate a desired sense of space through sound. People with tinnitus are among the most avid users of these devices, carefully mediating their aural-spatial relations as tinnitus becomes more evident in quiet spaces and hyperacusis flares up in noisy ones. During my fieldwork in audiology clinics and conferences, tinnitus support groups, and online forums, I observed that audio media were being deployed as medicine and technologies of self-care. Gradually, I came to the realization that the experience, discourse, and treatment of tinnitus is always bound up in mediation. In fact, I believe that tinnitus signals the highly mediated nature of our most intimate perceptions of sound and self. Below, I sketch just a few of the places I think aural media scholarship could go in conversation with tinnitus and hyperacusis.
The sound of media aftermath
Hearing experts do not consider subjective tinnitus to be a disease, but rather a condition in which individuals experience the normal, random neuronal firing of their auditory system as sound. Although it may be tied to various diseases and disorders, tinnitus itself is benign and does not inherently signal progressive hearing loss nor any other malignant condition.
Nevertheless, research shows a frequent association between tinnitus and reduced auditory input, comparable to a sound engineer turning up the volume on a weak signal and thus amplifying the mixing board’s inherent noise. This “automatic gain control” theory neatly explains a classic 1953 study, in which 94 percent of “normal hearing” people experienced tinnitus in the dead silence of an anechoic chamber. Unfortunately, it also helps confirm the fear that the ringing heard after a night of loud music is due to hearing loss, known clinically as “temporary threshold shift.”
As Joel’s case suggests, when repeated, such threshold shifts lead to permanent damage. Audiologists increasingly see media-induced hearing loss and tinnitus as an epidemic, with ubiquitous earbuds often positioned as the main culprits. I have heard clinicians express dismay at encountering more young people with “old ears” in their offices, and youth education programs are beginning to proliferate. These apparent relations between aural pleasure and self-harm are an intriguing and socially significant area for sound and media scholarship, but they should also be considered within the context of moral panics that have historically accompanied the emergence of new media.
Objectifying phantom sound
For both clinicians and sufferers, one of the most frustrating and confounding aspects of tinnitus is how hard it is to objectify, either as a subject of research and treatment or as a condition worthy of empathy and activism. For both clinicians and sufferers, media are the primary tools for converting tinnitus into a manageable object.
Although media scholars haven’t yet studied it as such, the audiologist’s clinic is a center of media production and consumer electronics retail. Having audio production experience, I felt a sense of recognition on seeing the mixer-like audiometer in the control room of Joel’s audiologist, Jill Meltzer, separated by a pane of glass from the soundproofed booth where her patients sit. It was a studio where Meltzer recorded hearing rather than sound, as she attempted the tricky work of matching the pitch, volume, and sensitivity levels of tinnitus and hyperacusis. Since medication and surgery are not effective treatment options, the remedies for sale are media prosthetics and palliatives such as wearable sound generators, “fractal tone” hearing aids, Neuromonics, and sound machines that help distract, calm, and habituate patients to the ringing. Meltzer and other clinicians consistently told me that they have only two tinnitus tools at their disposal—counseling and sound.
The subjectivity of tinnitus is most frustrating for sufferers, however, who often encounter impatience and misunderstanding from family, friends, bosses, and even their doctors. Again, media serve to externalize and objectify the sound. Joel did this through music: “A Sharp,” Styzens’ first post-tinnitus composition, represents tinnitus with chordal dissonance and hyperacusis with a powerful change of dynamics on a guitar. He eventually recorded an entire album that explored his condition and raised awareness.
Other individuals, in an attempt to communicate the aural experience that drives their sleeplessness, depression, anxiety, or lack of concentration, create YouTube videos designed to recreate the subjective experience of tinnitus.
The American Tinnitus Association, an advocacy group, has used broadcast and social media to raise awareness and research funding, as we see in this PSA from 1985.
However, such dramatic uses of media may be in some ways too powerful. In fact, “raising awareness of tinnitus” might be as bad as it literally sounds.
In the process of externalizing their experience for others to hear, people with tinnitus can make their own perception of the sound grow stronger. They may also generate anxiety in others, encouraging them to notice and problematize their own, previously benign tinnitus.
Neuroscientist Pawel Jastreboff’s groundbreaking and influential neurophysiological model of tinnitus postulates that tinnitus becomes bothersome only when the auditory cortex forms networks with other areas in the brain, resulting in a vicious circle of increasing perception and fear. The implication of this model, now substantiated by clinical research, is that the way people think about tinnitus is a much greater predictor of suffering than the perceived volume of the sound. As Jastreboff told me in an interview, “Incorrect information can induce bothersome tinnitus.” Information, of course, circulates through media. It may be productive, then, to think of tinnitus suffering as a communicable dis-ease, one strengthened in circulation through networks of neurons, discourse, and media.
I think there is both a need and an opportunity in tinnitus for an applied sound studies, one that intervenes in this mediated public discourse, works against moral panic and hyperawareness, and suggests the quieting possibilities that open up when we grasp the constructed nature of our aurality. Listening to tinnitus as a networked coproduction highlights the ways in which our most subjective aural perceptions are also social, cultural, and mediated—perhaps the fundamental insight of sound studies. My hope is that by listening to tinnitus we can speak to it as well.
*Featured Image Credit: A representation of Tinnitus by Flickr User Jason Rogers, called “Day 642/365–Myself is against me”