Tag Archive | masculinity

Riot Grrrl, Punk and the Tyranny of Technique

PUNKSOUND

Image of Alice Bag used with her permission (thank you!)

For full intro and part one of the series click here. For part two, click here.

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 Tamra Lucid. Here, Tamra offers her thoughts on how both technique and expression reinforce a gendered understanding of music. When punk sound plays with extremes, how can artists who feel trapped by these polemics resist?

SOUND!

NO, SOUND!

–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)

“Don’t touch that!” a virtuoso guitarist had once told me when as a kid I reached for his guitar.  The same phrase would later be delivered by a punk guitarist at a gig where I offered to replace a string broken during his performance.  As noted in the book Girls Rock , women are often told not to touch these sacred instruments (18).  I remember thinking that guitar was as complex as a car engine and as dangerous as a circular saw. Technique and theory are meant to liberate musicians (so that their dexterity can follow wherever imagination and inspiration may lead), but when experiencing gender discrimination from instructors and fellow instrumentalists, technique and theory can seem antagonistic. In this essay I show how the elite and virtuoso focus on technique and theory has catalyzed punk musicians to cultivate the raw, expressive, qualities of punk sound. Yet, paradoxically, I point out how movements toward a raw and visceral sound constitute a cage of their own, alienating an equally radical and virtuoso community of women in the punk scene. How do these sonic contours in the 1990s riot grrrl scene tell a story about injustice and community building through sound?

Iconic guitarist Eddie Van Halen, shredding. Technique can be a form of gendered gatekeeping. Image by K. Todd Storch @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

Iconic guitarist Eddie Van Halen, shredding. Technique can be a form of gendered gatekeeping. Image by K. Todd Storch @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

Theory and technique become a cage when they are used by sexist cliques, such as the heavy metal scene, which sought to maintain hegemony over local scenes and resources.  For the gatekeepers, there are many benefits to this form of discrimination–women are encouraged to act as doting fans rather than joining bands. As a teenager I saw many young women told by male musicians that their only permissible roles were those of sex object or fan. Early in my musical career when I put out an ad searching for band mates some male musicians would call just to laugh at me.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s when canons of punk tone and composition ironically became defined by an athletics-like dedication to speed, precision and endurance, riot grrrl bands were criticized for their primitive skills.  However, by removing the barriers to self-expression that this emphasis on technique and theory created, many people, not only female or female identified, were empowered to create music similar to performance art.  As Liam S. Ruin of the Columbia, South Carolina hardcore band Shirley Temple of Doom (1993-1996) said in an interview I conducted with them for this essay: “I still think emphasis on technique is gross and ableist and boring and obvious.”

In this time of sonic reform, some scenes came to prize sincerity over skill. Here, a new canon of theory and technique evolved–another cage.  Some related to the riot grrrl scene found themselves accepted by their community while receiving praise for abandoning a commitment to simplicity.  For example Associated Newspapers News North West previewed a gig by Sleater Kinney in Manchester, UK by describing them as “too musically competent to be a Riot Grrrl band.” Likewise, the female hardcore bands Girl Jesus and Free Verse (though politically aligned with riot grrrl) found little support in a scene that viewed them as a threat. It was as if the language of technique and theory was the language of oppressors, and using it implied submission to the status quo.  The directness of purpose which had liberated so many artists, became a new kind of cage for others.

Shot of Girl Jesus from 1995. Image used with permission by the author.

Shot of Girl Jesus from 1995. Image used with permission by the author.

As a roadie for Girl Jesus, I witnessed the immediate dismissal (including groans of disappointment) they suffered when confronting male bands at gigs many times.  Despite these jeers I also saw the way their ferocious music and performance, anchored by guitarist Gina Rush’s use of middle eastern scales, Shell Davina’s unique and unusual drumming style, and Grit Maldonado’s flamenco-like bass lines, reduced many male bands to discouraged silence and listless performances.  I remember thinking that riot grrrl, or what was left of it in 1993, would welcome such a powerful example of female creativity.  The feeling of competence I felt as Girl Jesus approached each gig with confidence in their music and technology helped me to reinvent myself, encouraging me to graduate quickly from roadie to musician.

Gina Rush carefully chose her amps and had them modded by an expert.  Shell used a vintage drum-kit that would make any collector drool.  But these distinctions were rejected by the riot grrrl audience who found them elitist and classist.  Though Girl Jesus was a band of working class lesbians they were treated the same way as male bands in the scene.  As Shell reported in an article entitled “Queercore: Ready to Face the Market” by Brent Atwood in the May 6, 1995 issue of Billboard Magazine: “As a female band, we expected a strong network of women in music to stick together.  Instead we found a lot of competition.”  She also pointed out: “We’ve had more club owners be sexist to us than homophobic.”  Despite their embrace of technology and technique, two domains that code as masculine, Girl Jesus nurtured into existence two of the more popular riot grrrl bands in mid-90’s Los Angeles, Patsy and my own band Lucid Nation, which began by rehearsing in Girl Jesus’s garage using their equipment.  The name of Girl Jesus’s first cassette demo succinctly captured the problem: “Afraid of Our Own.”

The cover of Free Verse's "Access Denied" album. Image used with permission by the author.

The cover of Free Verse’s “Access Denied” album. Image used with permission by the author.

A similar trajectory was found by the all female hardcore band Free Verse, whose first record “Access Denied” was released by the indie label Brain Floss Records.  Free Verse began in Lawrence, Kansas in 1995 and in 1998 relocated to Seattle.  Lucid Nation toured nationally with  Free Verse in the summer of 1998.  The experience was similar to what I observed as a roadie for Girl Jesus.  Male bands who looked down upon female musicians with disdain were stunned by their display of skill and ferocity.  However, when we played in Olympia, Washington, the riot grrrl community cowered against the back wall, clearly uncomfortable.  On the road we smiled ruefully over the irony of masculinist male bands becoming fans while female fans who shared our politics turned their backs.  This created a conundrum for Free Verse.  Although they were able to deliver a feminist message to scenes and individuals who were hostile to feminism, they could not enjoy the community of like minded women who identified as riot grrrl.

Over time, Free Verse earned enough respect that they were able to open for leading bands from a variety of scenes.  From Hardcore bands like The Blood Brothers to indie stars like Sleater Kinney.  From queer core bands like The Need and The Butchies to riot grrrl supergroup The Cold Cold Hearts.  Though Free Verse were chosen to participate in the Northwest Coalition For Human Dignity’s anti-racism tour October 2002, a tour sponsored by Ms. magazine and featured in ROCKRGRL magazine, the band was never able to achieve the following or recognition of the bands they shared bills with, information about them is hard to find on the internet today.

Liam S. Ruin, now one of the guiding lights of the new Riot Grrrl Intersectional movement, provides a more intimate look at how the pressures of technique and theory influenced Shirley Temple of Doom: “Not really any RG [riot grrrl] activity in Columbia SC.  Um, Slant 6 played there once.   Our scene was extremely nuclear. We played with our friend’s bands, The Trema, Erector Set, Guyana Punch Line.  We were pretty much all in each other’s bands or dating each other or whatever. Making it up as we went along.  Jessica saw me in the halls at school wearing a Pearl Jam shirt and told me ‘you’re way too cool to be listening to shitty bands.’ She made me a mix cd that was mostly D.C. Emo and Hardcore but it had Bratmobile, Bikini Kill and L7, too. Then she lent me her bass.  I practiced with Joy Division and Heavens To Betsy covers till I could play along.  We started a band with her boyfriend. Half of our band were really into Straight Edge H/C and the other half were into Huggy Bear, Fugazi, NOU, etc.”

Donita Sparks of L7. Image by Dena Flows CC BY-NC-ND.

Donita Sparks of L7. Image by Dena Flows CC BY-NC-ND.

Shirley Temple of Doom, despite reflecting a riot grrrl like platform in their lyrics received little attention from the riot grrrl community.  Eventually the band collapsed due to internal tensions regarding technique–as if the rhetoric of extremes around technique and expression had become an expertly baited, misogynist trap.  As Liam informed me: “The guys in the band were very technical and pushed me to play more technical bass lines but honestly, I get bored with proficiency. I’ve heard what guitars are supposed to sound like. I wanna hear what they’re not supposed to sound like. We split because of ideological differences. I got really into visceral bass-feels and wanted to sound like a disaster, and they wanted to be on Victory Records.”

How did the cage of technique and expression, evolve in a style of music that advanced freedom as its guiding praxis?  Early on, rock musicians were considered unskilled when compared to classical, jazz and country musicians. Later, virtuosity became central to rock music as bands like Yes, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, sought radical sounds to accommodate an aesthetic cultivated by Cannabis and LSD.  As What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and It’s History puts it: “Rock musicians now had a responsibility to create sophisticated music using whatever means were available.” Soon after this turn to virtuosity, guitarists like Eddie Van Halen became the Paganinis of their time, displaying jaw-dropping finger speed and impressive knowledge of scales and musical theory.

Later, punk rock crashed the party.  First in the hands of the MC5 and The Stooges, and then the New York Dolls, The Ramones, the Sex Pistols and many other bands, rock music turned again towards primitive and cathartic sincerity.  Musical virtuosity was literally spit upon.  The Ramones famously told The Clash that they needn’t worry about improving their musicianship before playing live because “as you’ll see tonight, we suck.”  Ferocity replaced dexterity.  Nihilistic and cathartic lyrics displaced idealistic flights of fancy. Punk quickly developed its own criteria to indicate mastery of the genre.  Bands like Fugazi and F.Y.P. typified a performance style that required frenetic motion while preserving the lockstep rhythm and hand speed, if not the musical knowledge and experimentation, of the earlier virtuosos.  Then riot grrrl arrived, freeing a generation of punk women who were uncomfortable with the athletic performance style of these bands.  For example, one of L.A.’s favorite riot grrrl bands Crown for Athena would perform at times with one member of the band sitting on the stage singing while clinging to the pant leg of another who stood immobile and emotionless.  Frenetic performance and blazing chord speed was no longer a requirement for legitimacy on the punk stage.

Flier advertising an International Woman's Day celebration featuring Lucid Nation. Image used with permission by the author.

Flier advertising an International Woman’s Day celebration featuring Lucid Nation. Image used with permission by the author.

Riot grrrl liberated me from the odious trial of confronting sexist music teachers, store clerks, booking agents, and record companies.  I learned from the movement that I could get by with simple barre chords. I could use cheap and borrowed gear and I didn’t have to worry about great tone. One of the bands I admired, Foxfire, a band of female high school students from Los Angeles, used an oven pan instead of a snare drum. Riot grrrl bands emphasized community by booking shows with each other and with activist groups like Food Not Bombs.  We made our own labels to distribute each other’s records.  When Lucid Nation opened for Bikini Kill at Terraza Jamay in Montebello, Kathleen Hanna took tickets at the door.

As my musical skills developed I found myself feeling restricted by the aesthetics of riot grrrl.  Beginning with Lucid Nation’s DNA record (2000) we began exploring cliches of what we called “butt rock,” now more popularly known as classic rock.  While we attempted to master the techniques of classic rock our intent was to deconstruct them by introducing unexpected twists of sound (like chaotic analog synth and noise pedals) and lyrics containing feminist perspectives.  At this point, we had moved on to other scenes, for example, the melange of Peace Punks, Black Panthers, and riot grrrls at Koo’s Cafe in Santa Ana, CA.  We played hemp rallies and non-riot grrrl political events like fundraisers for Big Mountain and other Native American causes.

1997 Image of the author with her "surrealist assemblage." Image used with permission by the author.

1997 Image of the author with her “surrealist assemblage.” Image used with permission by the author.

Eventually I developed a fascination with improvisation inspired by freestyle rap and augmented by the writing of Gertrude Stein and the recordings of Jack Kerouac. By the time our most successful album was released, the improvised Tacoma Ballet (2002), I prized musicianship and encouraged experienced collaborators, like Patty Schemel of Hole on drums and Greta Brinkman of Moby’s live band on bass, to bring to bear the breadth and depth of their musical knowledge.  I was delighted that Rick King of Guitar Maniacs in Tacoma allowed us to use his highly valuable collectible gear such as a 1967 Gibson Flying V and an array of legendary vintage pedals when we recorded the album.  I was proud when Patty said in an interview about Tacoma Ballet: “…there are always ideas that I have–interesting beats and such–that I could never incorporate into Hole or any other project.  In Lucid Nation I got to incorporate all my weirdness.” Though Tacoma Ballet made it to #1 on the New Music Weekly Chart of College and Secondary Market Radio Stations in December 2002 it received very little attention in riot grrrl circles. I found myself silenced again, not by advocates of technique, but by a community who valued raw expression.

Of course, in 2002 riot grrrl was less popular than it had been a decade before–it mostly consisted of isolated zine writers and bands.  Still, those who remained in the scene ignored Tacoma Ballet despite its success. When I asked them why, they explained that although they admired our work and the songs spoke to their experience, our band just wasn’t riot grrrl.  I was told that the skills and awareness of musical history displayed on the record were too self conscious, that I had become ambitious, or as more than one zine writer said, I had sold out.  Since I made no money on that record despite the attention it got, and we couldn’t tour behind it since the music was improvised, I found it hard to understand how such a purely artistic lark could be viewed as selling out.  I didn’t sell out, my increased respect for theory and technique just felt wrong when viewed from the perspective of the riot grrrl canon.

EDM and the new politics of punk sound. Image by Patrick Savalle CC BY-SA.

EDM and the new politics of punk sound. Image by Patrick Savalle CC BY-SA.

While new music hardware and software have helped level the field in ways that were not possible in the 90’s, the cage of expression and technique continues to govern a new world of highly individuated scenes.  EDM continues to fetishize the drop. Live performers need no longer be concerned about vocal pitch or knowledge of vocal harmony. Hardware like the Digitech VLFX, available on Amazon for under $200, corrects pitch and provides easy and automatic harmony vocals.  In this device, music’s ability to create unexpectedly cathartic experiences has been diminished, while the simple mimicry of technique has been elevated.

Perhaps new regimes of data are to blame.  Specific canons of theory and technique function as points of data that help define marketing audiences.  After all, bands often succeed by conforming to the sonic norms of their given scene.  For this reason, there is a tension between conservation and innovation.  An artist must conserve as much of their scene’s identity as possible while finding subtle ways to innovate.  Today, anyone can share their music on the internet regardless of traditional criteria. Despite this, a desire for acceptance and success continues to pressure musicians into accepting limitations to their creativity like technique and expression.

Cover image is of Tamra Lucid and by TheInfinite314 @Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA.

Tamra Lucid is an executive producer of Viva Cuba Libre: Rap is War the award winning documentary about Cuban hip hop legends Los Aldeanos, a producer of Edward James Olmos Presents Exile Nation: The Plastic People, and associate producer of The Gits documentaryWriting from her riot grrrl zines was reprinted in A Girl’s Guide To Taking Over The World: The Zine Revolution by Karen Green and Tristan Taormino,and in Hilary Carlip and Francesca Lia Block’s Zine Scene. Tamra blogs for Exterminating Angel Press and for Reality Sandwich where her most recent project has been a series of interviews with water protectors and filmmakers at Standing Rock.  She’s a founding member and primary singer of Lucid Nation.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Listening to Punk’s Spirit in its Pre-, Proto- and Post- Formations  – Yetta Howard

Feeling Through the Keen and Grind: Team Dresch’s Personal Best – Gretchen Jude

SO! Amplifies: Indie Preserves – Norie Guthrie and Scott Carlson

‘A Clateryng of Knokkes’: Multimodality and Performativity in “The Blacksmith’s Lament”

Medieval SoundEach of the essays in this month’s “Medieval Sound” forum focuses on sound as it, according to Steve Goodman’s essay “The Ontology of Vibrational Force,” in The Sound Studies Reader“comes to the rescue of thought rather than the inverse, forcing it to vibrate, loosening up its organized or petrified body (70).  These investigations into medieval sound lend themselves to a variety of presentation methods loosening up the “petrified body” of academic presentation. Each essay challenges concepts of how to hear the Middle Ages and how the sounds of the Middle Ages continue to echo in our own soundscapes.

The posts in this series begins an ongoing conversation about medieval sound in Sounding Out!. Our opening gambit in April 2016, “Multimodality and Lyric Sound,” reframes how we consider the lyric from England to Spain, from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, pushing ideas of openness, flexibility, and productive creativity. We will post several follow-ups throughout the rest of 2016 focusing on “Remediating Medieval Sound.”  And, HEAR YE!, in April 2017, look for a second series on Aural Ecologies of noise! –Guest Editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

The “Blacksmith’s Lament” is late medieval alliterative poem that rails against the disruptive, urban sounds of blacksmiths working late into the night. Catalogued by Rossell Hope Robbins in his 1955 Secular Lyrics of the XIV and XV Centuries, and now broadly anthologized, the poem is a 15th century addendum to a largely 13th century Norwich cathedral priory manuscript, now BL Arundel 292. The manuscript is comprised of Latin, French, Anglo-Norman and Middle English texts, and contains bestiaries, prayers, sermons, romances, prophecies, riddles and alliterative poems. As such, Arundel 292 might be categorized as a miscellany, what Ralph Hanna argues in “Miscellenaity and Vernacularity: Conditions of Literary Production in Late Medieval England,” is a kind of bespoke production that “represent[s] defiantly individual impulses—appropriations of works for the use of particular persons in particular situations” (37). Because each text included in a miscellany reflects one person’s desire to inscribe and compile, there are no “customary generic markers;” instead one finds a rich admixture of hands, images, texts, styles, forms, languages, and histories (Hanna 37). I argue that the inclusion of “Blacksmiths” in this miscellany is congruent with the poem’s own odd relationship to sound. In its multimodal blending of the onomatopoetic and the lyric as well as its consideration of manual labor, the “Blacksmith’s Lament” can be understood as an instantiation of specifically masculine medieval identity.

Modern medieval masculinity. Image by David Williss @Flickr CC BY.

Modern medieval masculinity. Image by David Williss @Flickr CC BY.

Multimodality, Presentism and the Medieval Miscellany

The theoretical concept of multimodality is rooted in late 20th-century critique of semiotic systems. As the New London Group argued in “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures,” “effective citizenship and productive work” in the late 20th and early 21st centuries “now require that we interact effectively using multiple languages, multiple Englishes, and communication patterns that more frequently cross cultural, community and national boundaries” and that we the best way to do so is via methods that accommodate more than mere text (62-64). This engagement with the multiple modes of text, image, and video, among others, makes multimodality an ideal critical tool with which to analyze complex, hybrid compositions.

However, many theories of multimodality privilege a historical lens primarily afforded by 20th and 21st century literacy, dependent as it is on reading and looking (at screens or pages) as opposed to listening (to human voices). Indeed, Jeff Bezemer and Gunther Kress have observed in “Writing Multimodal Texts: A Social Semiotic Account of Designs for Learning” that because images predominate in 21st-century culture, textual “writing is now no longer the central mode of representation in learning materials” (166). In short, writing and images work in tandem to educate. Yet even though they note the different modes of text and image, Bezemer and Kress do not interrogate the fact that both depend on a single sensory ability: sight. Whether or not images have supplanted printed text in pedagogical documents, this assumption of the centrality of visuality as the singular mode of representation—in learning materials and elsewhere—is itself an historical phenomenon—as Walter Ong discusses in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word—one dependent on the technology and dominance of print itself.

People do not depend only on seeing and reading text. They might also participate actively in “listening communities,” wherein one visually literate person reads aloud a text to a group who listens, ruminates over, and perhaps memorizes that text. Medieval “reading” is in fact an aural practice of recitation, memorization and listening as well as textual examination, a hybrid practice dating to the beginning of the medieval. Evidence of this hybrid practice can be found in the opening folio of Corpus Christi MS 61, which features Chaucer reciting Troilus and Criseyde to a royal audience. Studded with images and illuminations, musical notation and marginalia, medieval manuscripts often offer a complex multimodal relationship between graphics and written text, color and music, the visual and the aural.

An example of an illuminated manuscript. Image by Richard White @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

An example of an illuminated manuscript. Image by Richard White @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

Long before print or digital media, “reading” manuscripts required a sophisticated multimodal form of interpretation. Arundel 292 is minimally illuminated, but it too must be understood as a flexible, multimodal form composed for a mouth reading aloud the words on the folio page as well as a group of listeners receiving those words. It offers a heterogeneity that mixes languages, genres, images, hands and modes. Indeed, there is little about this miscellaneous manuscript that might be categorized as using exclusively what Kress defines as “formalized, monolingual, monocultural, and rule-governed forms of language,” given its multilingual, multicultural, multi-genre variety of language forms, none of which take precedence over any other.

 

Onomatopoeia and the Medieval Lyric

The dependence of poetry upon aural and oral performance complicates the relationship between writing, sound, the body, and the intentionality of “design,” or the deliberate visual arrangement of words, images, and ideas. Like other time-bound, performative aesthetic genres such as music, dance, or theater, poetry exists in the moment of its performance as much as it does on the fixed, static page and only peripherally occupies the written mode. Ancient poetry has been preserved by manuscript and print technology, but the roots of the genre include both oral recitation and memorization. Because it depends simultaneously upon the modes of reading, writing and recitation, both historically and into the present day, poetry might be considered quintessentially multimodal. This is particularly true for medieval poetry, given its use of sound-dependent effects such as alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, meter and rhyme.

Figure 2.

Figure 2 is BS MS Arundel 292, reproduced with permission from the British Library

Edmund Reiss has argued that “Blacksmiths” is the “earliest sustained onomatopoetic effort extant in English” in The Art of the Middle English Lyric: Essays in Criticism (167). But for an onomatopoetic poem that so carefully represents in language the sounds of men engaged in physical labor—from their “clateryng of knockes,” to the ringing exertion of iron on iron heard in “tik.tak.hic.hac.tiket.taket.tyk.tak/ lus.bus.lus.das” and the “stark strokes thei stryken on a stelyd stokke”—”Blacksmiths” is surprisingly unconcerned with its own visual appearance on the page. One turns the page in Arundel 292 and suddenly there is a neat chunk of prose with no other visual indication other than faint hashmark that one is looking at poetry. This is not unusual, for as Ardis Butterfield has recently observed in “Why Medieval Lyric?”, in many manuscripts containing lyric poetry or its traces, “there is no visual fanfare; nothing marks [the poetry] out” (322). Medieval scribes instead often use scripture continua—continuous script—to record the lyric, and “Blacksmiths” is no exception (Fig. 1). In short, “Blacksmiths” looks like prose, but sounds like poetry. Its insistent use of alliterative onomatopoeia, furthermore, suggests the poem might gain performative shape if addressed to both the mouth and the ear.

An aurally derived verbal pleasure, onomatopoeia exemplifies poetry’s general obsession with sound and performativity as it depends on the representational delight of hearing sounds that are the very things that they sound like. Onomatopoeia forces us into a strange ontological space in which a word is at once both signifier and sign. The bee buzzes, in other words; it has no other voice than the sound it creates, and we have no other way to describe that sound but to do so literally. This can produce the sounds of children’s babble as well as the more figurative pleasures found in “Blacksmiths.” The mimetic allure of using words that create the very sound of their own meaning is in many ways embedded in language itself. “Blacksmiths” calls our attention to sound, noise and listening, forcing further reflection upon the relationship between what is textually recorded and what is performed.

 

Blacksmithing and Masculine Poetic Labor

Salter argues persuasively in “A Complaint Against Blacksmiths” that the poem’s appearance in a priory cathedral manuscript suggests that the speaker’s resistance to blacksmithing may be the result of “older religious attitudes” about night labor and rioting (200). But given the fact that “Blacksmiths” is a poem concerned with labor likely written by a man about other men, I wonder if there is room as well for an additional consideration for the discourses of gender and labor that so consumed the late medieval period and how the poem interrogates these notions. While Salter resists categorizing the poem into any clear genre, noting that the poem is so realistic that it is frequently used as historical evidence [note], “Blacksmiths” draws attention to the lyric experiences and emotional expression of a presumably masculine first person speaker and in so doing might be categorized, as Robbins does, as a lyric.

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 5.21.10 PM

Beyond a single, reflexive pronoun, “me,” we know nothing about the poet except the evidence of his poetic making—the poem itself. In the poem, there are two literary skills at work. There is narrative exposition and description and there is onomatopoetic mimicry. Both are dependent on verbal artistry and are held together by the tensile patternings of alliteration. Narratively speaking, the poem identifies the blacksmiths by what they look like and what they wield. They are “swarte, smekyd” and “smateryd with smoke,” swarthy dirty men who “spitten and spraulyn and spellyn many spelles,” and “gnauen and gnacchen thei gronys togedyr.” They are addressed pejoratively as “knauene,” and “cammede,” pug nosed knaves, who “blowen here bellewys that al here brayn brestes.” These alliterative lines represent the work of the forge as rhythmic, repetitive, harshly sibilant. Brains might get hyperbolically blown out in blowing the fires needed to produce metal goods, and dissonance is created by the groans and cries and tooth-gnashing of the workmen. The edge of the human blurs into the flame of the forge. Men use “hard” and “heavy hamerys” and “her schankes ben schakeled for the fere flunderys;” they work so long standing near the forge it seems that their ankles are shackled to the sparks. As those fiery images suggests, there is a nightmarish element to the poem. The speaker laments: “sweche dolful a dreme the deuyl it to dryue.” And he uses that infinitive “to dryue” when he begins the poem; the workmen might “dryue me to death with den of here dyntes.” The heavy repetition of the “d” in these lines mirrors the thudding of hammers on hot metal.

Image borrowed from Hasib Wahab @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

Image borrowed from Hasib Wahab @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

It is only in the second line of the text that the speaker identifies himself. He is “me,” an “I” making a poem and speaking to an implied addressee. And in his use of the first person, he might be understood as having engaged in what A.C. Spearing has called “self-pointing,” those moments in late medieval poetry where the poet identifies himself as a poet, in a meta-commentary on vernacular poetry and its performance. Obviously, the poet does not state his profession in this line. But the fact that he speaks in the first person is significant. His is the voice, and the descriptive rage, that drives the poem. Further, the alliterative matrix of the poem’s lines unmistakably reminds us that this is a poem, a work of art, a made thing. The repetition of alliteration is a bending of ordinary language into something clearly and pointedly artificial, a rhythmic joinery that is obviously not prose, and it requires a certain sonic attention. The speaker expresses his frustration in a pattern of sibilants, voiceless palatal consonants and voiced palatal g’s, as well as hard stops at dental and palatal phonemes. Indeed, the poem mimics the sounds of the smith’s labors, placing their calls and cries and bellows within the poem. The smiths “kongons cryen after col col,” and “huf puf seyth that on haf paf that other.” The poem is ostensibly about the speaker being awoken by the night labor of “Blacksmiths.” “Such noys on nyghtes ne herd men neuer,” he says, hyperbolically. In describing this never-before-experienced problem, the speaker creates a smithing cacophony so loud that it overwhelms his own voice.

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 5.20.51 PM

Image borrowed from Hans Splinter @Flickr CC BY.

Image borrowed from Hans Splinter @Flickr CC BY.

The smiths are so loud, so noxious, and I would argue, so much more manly, that they threaten to hijack the poem itself. It is through this sleight of hand, wherein the labors of blacksmithing obscure the poet-cleric’s own small voice, that the speaker makes his implicit argument about masculinity, poetry, and labor. As Kellie Robertson has argued, late medieval writing is concerned with the common profit. Some forms of labor contribute to the common profit while others do not. For the most part, profitable labor is material; it produces actual goods that can be used and sold. And profitable medieval English labor is gendered as almost exclusively masculine, as only men can be masters and authorities. Only men are blacksmiths, and only men are priory scribes. Yet the practice of blacksmithing cannot be separated from materiality. The blacksmiths, however badly skilled the speaker may declaim they are, produce goods to be used for vital purposes. The newly-shod horse will pull the cultour through the fields; the sharp scythe will bring in the harvest; the knife will butcher animals. Moreover, the labor of the blacksmiths is productive even if it is done at night. It can be done as the work demands, all night long if necessary to finish the job. But the clerical poet cannot do scribal work at night without serious consequence. His labor—copying, scraping, blotting, correcting, reading, blotting— depends on daylight, silence, and decent sleep.

The clerical poet, like the speaker of “Blacksmiths,” is engaged in “immaterial labor,” to use Italian Marxist Maurizio Lazzarato’s term, which, as he explains in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics is “labor that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity” (133). Clerical poetic labor is abstract, one of inscription, composition and performance. Within the material economy of the later middle ages, poetic labor produces nothing of concrete value. Making, inscribing and reciting poetry, in the words of Harry Bailly, “doost noght elles but despendest tyme” (VII.931). “Blacksmiths” thus asks: what does it mean to make poems—immaterial, multimodal, performative things that are not things at all—from within society where material production is consonant with masculine virility?

The sequestered clerical maker and scribe, scratching away in the silent priory, might have been furious over being disrupted by the athletic, kinesthetic activities of the blacksmiths. The poem might be read as a kind of homosocial lament about what men’s work is and what it means. To write is to not engage in more busily productive, material labor, and the anxiety around what writing is and what it does can also be seen throughout late medieval poetry. The workers make noise and heat deep into the night, producing metal goods. But the maker of the “Blacksmiths” offers a poem that represents the “Blacksmiths”’ loud labor and that also serves as evidence of his own “travaillous stillness,” in the words of Hoccleve (RoP l.1013). In doing so, he calls attention to his own skill as a maker of verse. His labor, however immaterial, can verbally represent noise and sweat and physicality. His prosopoeia is a contribution to the common profit, in that he can make you see and hear the blacksmiths long after their hammers have been laid away. And his hastily composed poem has outlasted even the best-made medieval horseshoe.

Image borrowed from Peter Grima @Flickr CC BY-SA.

Image borrowed from Peter Grima @Flickr CC BY-SA.

To conclude, I’d like to point out that it is no wonder that “Blacksmiths” is set in the dark, and that the speaker himself cannot see his tormentors but only hear them. Because it is out of this darkness that the speaker can name, and in doing so—as Daniel Tiffany observes in Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife and Substance (97)—call attention to his own aesthetic power. As Martin Heidegger has argued in Poetry, Language, Thought (73), naming is “the lighting of what is,” and I wonder if verbal naming is in itself a wonderful kind of literary power. To name is to point out to another, to claim, to damn. To point out, however obliquely, who you might be and how your work might be remembered.

Featured image “Succor” by Walter A. Aue @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

Katharine Jager is a poet and medieval scholar.  She is associate professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown, where she teaches medieval studies, creative writing, literature, and composition.  Recent publications include essays on aesthetics in Chaucer’s Sir Thopas (Medieval Perspectives) and masculine speech acts in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Medieval Feminist Forum, forthcoming); and poetry in such journals as Found Magazine, Friends Journal, The Gettysburg Review, Commonweal and the anthology on the religious lyric Before the Door of God (Yale University Press).  She was for many years co-author with Jessica Barr of the Chaucer chapter for the Year’s Work in English Studies (Oxford), and is currently editing the interdisciplinary volume Vernacular Aesthetics in the Later Middle Ages: Politics, Performativity, and Reception from Literature to Music, to which she is also contributing an essay on lyric aesthetics, manuscript placement and the texts of 1381 (Palgrave’s New Middle Ages series, forthcoming).

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
SO! Podcast #45: Immersion and Synesthesia in Role-Playing Games–Nick Mizer

“HOW YOU SOUND??”: The Poet’s Voice, Aura, and the Challenge of Listening to Poetry–John Hyland

Pretty, Fast, and Loud: The Audible Ali–Tara Betts

Of Resilience and Men: How Bieber, Skrillex, and Diplo Play with Gender in “Where Are Ü Now”

Justin Bieber caught me off guard last year. There I was, minding my own business, listening to a pop station, and this breathy little thing, this delicate vocal wrapped in a halo of shimmering effects starts piping through my car. I didn’t even realize it was him at first; it had been so long since I’d heard a new Bieber song. And I had no clue the production was from Skrillex and Diplo (from their 2015 Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü), which is why I was probably also not ready for the drop, that moment when the song’s tension releases and I’m suddenly gliding across a syncopated bass synth while Bieber’s vocals are pinched into a dolphin call. Somehow, two of the most notoriously unsubtle producers and the posterboy for “too much, too soon” had snuck up on me with “Where Are Ü Now” (WAÜN).

Jack_U_Where_Are_U_Now_RemixesWAÜN’s drop from nowhere isn’t brand new. Subtle soars and understated drops are officially A Thing. More importantly, they do work beyond the sonic aesthetic. In this case, I want to listen to WAÜN in the context of Bieber’s performance of gender, specifically with an ear toward the way Skrillex and Diplo mix elements from dancepop’s 2015 toolkit to produce a track that plays on feminine tropes, which articulate a kind of masculinity. Listening to WAÜN alongside Robin James’s Resilience & Melancholy (2015) amplifies the male privilege at play in WAÜN. James calls attention to the way drops can sonify feminine resilience, and WAÜN’s surprise drop toys with that resilience in a thoroughly heteromasculine way. I’ll first set up how drops usually work, then read James in the context of Bieber’s gender performance as heard in WAÜN.

Drops, at their most basic, are climactic moments when a song’s full instrumental measure hits (hence “drop”), often after some key elements of the instrumental have been removed so that the climax can sound more intense. At that broad level, any genre can employ a drop of some sort. EDM and dancepop drops—the kind that most directly inform the music of Skrillex, Diplo, and Bieber—are bass-heavy and typically follow a soar that intensifies volume, texture, rhythm, and/or pitch: you soar to a sonic plateau or a cliff, and with a “YEEEEEES!!!!!” coast on some wobbly goodness to the next verse.

The pre-chorus soar in the Messengers/Sir Nolan/Kuk Harrell-produced “All Around the World” from Bieber’s 2012 Believe is a solid example. In the video below, the soar starts at 0:45, the chorus enters at 1:00, and the drop lands at 1:15. It’s textbook: the instrumental is stripped back and filtered, and in the opening moments, we hear a descending bass glide. A filter does what its name suggests–it filters out a prescribed set of frequencies so that we only hear a certain range, and in this case it’s the low end that comes through. The effect makes the synths sound like they’re pulsating through water, and the higher frequency overtones take on a shimmery quality. Over the course of the 8-measure soar, the higher frequency range is brought into earshot, and then, on the second half of the eighth measure…nothing. This nothingness is integral to James’s central argument in Resilience & Melancholy: nothingness intensifies what follows. In these eight measures, we’ve glided down to the low end only to soar up up up until all that’s left is Bieber’s voice, confident, nasally, with just a touch of autotune as he sings the titular line that will take us to the chorus. That chorus bangs harder because of the soar to oblivion before it.

WAÜN’s drop lands at 1:09. For full context, start from the beginning and listen for the soar. (If you also need to stare dreamily into Bieber’s eyes, then by all means.)

There’s not really a soar there. No intensifying volume, texture, rhythm, pitch. The not-soar (starting at 0:48) is even a weird length, clocking in at 12 measures after an 8-measure intro and 16-measure verse have established a multiples-of-8 structural rhythm; even if we were expecting a drop, it comes four measures early. The clearest sign we get that a drop is imminent is that moment where the instrumental reduces to a quiet hiss for two measures as Bieber sings “Where are you now?” That hiss is the structural equivalent of the nothingness we hear just before “All Around the World”’s chorus, and with no traditional soar before it, we have just enough time to think “Oh shit, are they gonna….?” before we’re off, clutching tight to Justin Bieber as we ride a dolphin through the more tender parts of Skrillex’s and Diplo’s musical oceans.

Until that nothingness, this could just as easily be one of those heartfelt Bieber tunes where he reaches to the high end of his range for a chorus full of feels. That Bieber? He’s incredibly self-assured, bearing his soul because he’s certain you’ll love him. The bait-and-switch of WAÜN’s soarless drop highlights Bieber’s insecurity in this song—he’s just dolphin calls and “Where are you now”s—by creating expectations for a different persona.

So what we have here is an atypical drop, a drop that calls attention to itself by behaving differently than we expect it to, a drop that’s a study in understatement–all courtesy of three of dancepop’s resident maximalists.

15279624985_5e03109369_k

“143 Diplo and Skrillex at Burning Man 2014 Opulent Temple” by Flickr user Duncan Rawlinson, CC BY-NC 2.0

Atypical soars and drops aren’t new, as producers will always toy with musical conventions as a way to disrupt expectations. Skrillex’s own “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” (2010) includes a pre-drop that doesn’t soar at all. In 2015, two big acts in the dance scene, Disclosure and The Chemical Brothers, released singles that don’t soar right, either. Disclosure, whose big 2013 hit “Latch” soared rather traditionally into Sam Smith’s chorus, is coyer on “Bang That” and “Jaded.” “Bang That” includes three separate 8-measure phrases (at 0:30, 0:45, and 1:01, respectively, in the linked video) that never take off, finally settling into a descending bass line (starting at 1:09) that just repeats a rhythmic motif, running out the clock on the final four measures before the chorus. “Jaded,” at the other end of the spectrum, includes only a 4-measure pre-chorus (1:18-1:27) that seems to be sweeping upward like a traditional soar, then roller coasters down and back up over the final two measures. The instability of this soar/not-soar is punctuated with an additional eighth note tacked onto the end of the fourth measure, throwing the chorus off-kilter. The Chemical Brothers employ a similar roller coaster sweep in “Sometimes I Feel So Deserted” that marks out an even eight measures (0:58-1:13) without either intensifying rhythmically or pushing to a pitch ceiling at the drop.

These soars and drops stand out precisely because, like WAÜN’s, they aren’t the norm. To help theorize WAÜN’s not-soar, I want to think with Robin James, whose Resilience & Melancholy hears soars and drops in the context of contemporary race and gender politics. James situates soars and drops as the sonic equivalent of resilience–a performance of feminine overcoming that ultimately only strengthens the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that inflicts the damage that is being surmounted. In other words, women can only attempt to overcome through the damage that white supremacist capitalist patriarchy inflicts upon them. Sonically, the soar is an accrual of damage that is spectacularly (and profitably) overcome in the drop, the music that resiliently endures on the other side of nothingness. Melancholy, on the other hand, is failed resilience, a handling of damage that does not directly profit white supremacist patriarchy and that could sound any number of ways, including like a non-traditional soar. While admittedly these soars and drops aren’t always about gender politics, R&M opens space for us to think about gender and soars/drops together.

I don’t think WAÜN’s non-soar/drop is resilient or melancholic, but I do think it’s helpful to think of it as being about resilience and melancholy. This is where Bieber’s performance of masculinity comes into play. From his earliest poofy-headed, babyfaced performances, Biebs has done a modified bro thing: his heart’s on his sleeve, but mostly as a strategy for sexual conquest. “All Around the World,” again, is exemplary. In the lyrics, Bieber uses his worldly experiences to woo a potential lover, who he also negs, keeping himself in a position of power as someone who knows more, has seen more, and is willing to accept this woman despite her obvious flaws.

22833476797_db3cd2a01d_h

“143 Diplo and Skrillex at Burning Man 2014 Opulent Temple” by Flickr user Duncan Rawlinson, CC BY-NC 2.0

In WAÜN, though, I hear his performance of masculinity complicated further, as he tries out a number of more feminized tropes all at once. Lyrically, Bieber is the scorned lover who claims to have done all the care work in his relationship. Visually, he’s the pop icon whose body is ogled, scrutinized, and marked. Vocally, he receives the pitch-shift treatment that has most recently been associated with DJ Snake’s production of diva vocals (think “You Know You Like It” and “Lean On”). He also sings in a breathy style that James has elsewhere noted mimics Ellie Goulding’s vocals. Musically, Skrillex and Diplo give him the soar/drop construction to undergird his pain, a musical technique that most often signifies feminine resilience.

What bubbles up is a heteromasculine play on resilience and melancholy. Skrillex and Diplo liquidate the soar until all that’s left is a nothing-hiss before the drop. In the context of the other feminized tropes Bieber is messing with in WAÜN, this failed soar could feel melancholic, a refusal to spectacularly overcome. Overcome what, though?  Bieber gets to sound resilient or melancholic without ever experiencing damage. That’s his male privilege. James points out that one of the most violent outcomes of resilience discourse is the re-enforcement of damage. If resilience is the way women become legible and profitable, then the damage inflicted by ablist white cisheteropatriarchy becomes a necessity, something that must be endured to gain access to power and resources. This is the lynchpin of James’s critique: resilience is a harmful discourse because it ultimately benefits the system it purports to overcome. Melancholy turns resilience logic on its head by refusing to treat damage as something an individual is responsible for overcoming. WAÜN, though, erases damage altogether in its initial drop. WAÜN’s feminized tropes ultimately highlight instead of unsettle Bieber’s performance of hetero-masculinity: what’s more man-ly than accessing power and resources without the threat of institutional violence?

Importantly, these feminized tropes don’t undermine Bieber’s heteromasculine performance; rather, they only seem to add nuance to the slightly bro-ier [that’s a word] Bieber performance we’ve become accustomed to. That’s what I mean when I say WAÜN is about resilience and melancholy; Skrillex and Diplo use the markers of queer or feminine overcoming and failed overcoming to re-construct Bieber’s masculinity, to toss some more ingredients into his manly mix, and the not-soar is a big component of that. Skrillex and Diplo tap into this soar experimentation, then drop it into the middle of a slightly more gender-fluid Bieber.

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 8.38.11 PM

Screenshot from “Where Are Ü Now” official video

WAÜN’s high water mark is a few months behind us at this point, but Bieber remains hotter than ever, with “What Do You Mean?,” “Sorry” (another Skrillex production credit), and “Love Yourself” still dominating US and UK charts. Several more singles from Purpose (including two more Skrillex collaborations) are poised to do the same in 2016. Each of these singles extends some of the same tropes Bieber, Skrillex, and Diplo explore in WAÜN—breathy vocals, misunderstood and mistreated pop icon, resilience and contrition and care in the face of a failed relationship—and I hear WAÜN’s initial drop as the sonic moment that preps Bieber’s return to the pop charts. He wades back into the mainstream with a more complex performance of heteromasculinity and reaps the profits that come with it.

Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, and a regular writer at Sounding Out!. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his current book project is called Posthuman Pop. He is co-editor with Ali Colleen Neff of the Journal of Popular Music Studies 27:4, “Sounding Global Southernness,” and with Jason Lee Oakes of the Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies (2017). You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Vocal Gender and the Gendered Soundscape: At the Intersection of Gender Studies and Sound Studies — Christine Ehrick

They Do Not All Sound Alike: Sampling Kathleen Cleaver, Assata Shakur, and Angela Davis — Tara Betts

Tomahawk Chopped and Screwed: The Indeterminacy of Listening–Justin Burton

Finding My Voice While Listening to John Cage

Gendered Voices widget

Editor’s Note: Today I bring you installment #4 of Sounding Out!‘s blog forum on gender and voice! Last week Regina Bradley put the soundtrack of Scandal in conversation with race and gender. The week before I talked about what it meant to have people call me, a woman of color, “loud.” That post was preceded by Christine Ehrick‘s selections from her forthcoming book, on the gendered soundscape. We have two more left! In the next few weeks we’ll have A.O. Roberts with synthesized voices and gender, and lastly Robin James with an analysis of how ideas of what women should sound like have roots in Greek philosophy.

This week guest writer and professor Art Blake shares with us a personal essay. He talks about how his experience shifting his voice from feminine to masculine as a transgender man intersects with his work on John Cage. So, lean in, close your eyes, and try not to jump to conclusions before you listen. –Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor

When I walked into the packed lecture theatre at the start of the Fall term 2012 I was hoping, more than any other year, to sound convincing. I had been teaching for 11 years by that time so I knew what I was doing. But I was walking into class as a man, for the first time. I was not sure if my newly thickening vocal chords would hold me at a convincing “male” pitch or if I would be able to project that developing voice to the back of the room. I thought I looked “manly” enough; but would I sound manly?

I had been researching and teaching about sound since 2003 but had not confronted myself as a potential object of study until I was preparing to return to teaching in 2012 following the early phase of my transition from female to male. My notions of “masculinity” have never been conventional: as a somewhat incompetent butch-ish lesbian I’d attempted but never “mastered” the appropriate vocal or bodily swagger. I abandoned those conventions to evolve my own more elfin, more queer swish. But on that first day back in the classroom, and for much of that term, I felt I needed to produce “normal guy”—a gender-identity category I didn’t believe in or want to become—so I might feel secure enough later to explore and tweak my newly gendered voice and body. I wanted a baseline from which I could re-build. I wasn’t ready to be out as trans* in the classroom. Yes, I was in a closet; but I needed it to serve as a dressing room, a place of private preparation, rather than as a long-term hiding place.

I started testosterone therapy in January 2011, on a low dose as is the standard of care. As my doctor increased my dose over the months, I noticed the beginning of the physical changes I’d been waiting for: more body hair, muscle development, and a hoarsening voice. I earnestly weighed and measured myself, worked out at the local YMCA, chose a new name and made it legal … and dealt with months of severe anxiety and depression. Puberty isn’t fun, and doing it again in my forties, as part of gender transition, was not the seamless story of celebration familiar from the YouTube videos I’d watched obsessively charting other guys’ transitions. Those videos were mostly about looking male, not sounding male, and rarely addressed transitioning at work, within a profession.

I spoke to a transman, also an academic, to discuss the challenges of transitioning in our profession. His version of masculinity was more conservative than I had expected, and a bit homophobic, but what really worried me was his concern about my voice: “I really hope for your sake your voice changes,” he said. What did he mean? Would I fail the test of public masculinity not only because I wasn’t wearing a jacket and tie but because I sounded feminine?

"Byron Pitts Lecture" by Flickr user roanokecollege, CC BY 2.0

“Byron Pitts Lecture” by Flickr user roanokecollege, CC BY 2.0

All those images of authoritative, sonorous, academic masculinity flooded me with panic. Testosterone wasn’t going to make me any taller, give me an Adam’s apple, or bigger hands and feet. I was going to be a small guy, standing at the front of the classroom with years of academic expertise, but a mismatched voice might undermine that basic authority. Female academics, like most female professionals, have to work harder for the respect of students as well as colleagues; we all have seen or know of evidence for this sexism. Men, just by being perceived as male, get more generous teaching evaluations from undergraduates. As I transitioned I found myself grasping for that authority in a way I hadn’t imagined before.

In search of help, I went to see Dr. Gwen Merrick, a therapist in the Speech Pathology section of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital. Gwen is known in the trans* community and trans* health networks for her work with transwomen. To my surprise I was her first transmale patient. While admitting her lack of experience she also welcomed the challenge to help masculinize my voice and lessen my anxiety around my vocal-gender dysphoria.

So we began: she examined my vocal chords (properly “vocal folds”). We then moved on to discuss my goals and concerns, and began the process of recording my voice—measuring its volume and tone, listening to the digital recordings, and training me to hear and then adjust my vocal pitch and speech rhythms. She gave me vocal exercises for homework, and taught me how to relax and move my larynx lower in my throat to lengthen it and create a lower pitch. Gwen also encouraged me to imagine myself into the vocal change I sought. I tried taking up more space as I sat in her office, head up and chest out, adopting an attitude of greater confidence, channeling the burliest and butchest of my cismale friends.

My scholarly life took a nosedive during those months on medical leave. The first piece of scholarship I re-engaged with during this time was something I’d been thinking about for years: an article about the composer John Cage‘s voice. I wanted to write about the disconnect I had heard between Cage’s speaking voice and my assumptions about him based on his appearance. I sought to hear Cage’s voice in the context of the post-1945 period when he rose to great prominence as a composer. What I gradually came to hear as I returned to this research was how and why Cage’s voice, within the context of the 1950s in particular, spoke to me so profoundly as I emerged publically as trans*.

"Photograph of John Cage talking to another guest at a drinks reception at the Cage/Cunningham Residency at the Laban Centre, Laurie Grove, London, July 1980" by Flickr user Laban Archive,

“Photograph of John Cage talking to another guest at a drinks reception at the Cage/Cunningham Residency at the Laban Centre, Laurie Grove, London, July 1980” by Flickr user Laban Archive,

I first heard his recorded speaking voice while teaching some of his work in an early iteration of my sound studies seminar. I’d seen photographs of Cage as a middle-aged and older man; from those images of a tall, craggy-faced guy in a sports jacket or woolly sweater, I had expected to hear a baritone, chest-resonant, rich “masculine” voice. Instead, Cage’s voice was light, with very little chest register, almost breathy sometimes, and inflected with the rhythm and occasional sibilance of what I “recognized” as a gay male (American) voice.

How had Cage navigated the homophobia of the 1950s with a voice like that? Was what I heard as his audible difference perceived that way in the postwar period as he rose to prominence as a modernist composer? According to some older gay men I’d interviewed for my 2004 radio documentary on the early gay leather scene in the 1950s, they had consciously altered their voices in everyday situations where they didn’t want (or couldn’t risk) being heard as gay. As one guy mentioned, for such circumstances he adopted his “gas station voice”—a vocal pitch and style to get him through such commonplace moments of public masculinity as talking to the gas station attendant. I wondered if Cage also kept one voice in the closet and adopted another one he needed based on circumstance.

As I sought my own “gas station voice” in the fall of 2012, returning to Cage and listening to his voice in his 1956 composition Indeterminacy helped gradually lessen my anxiety about audibly “passing.” Listening to Indeterminacy, a series of stories occasionally interwoven with a piano, allowed me to not only hear but also admire Cage’s voice and the political resonance it may have held in McCarthy-era America.

John Cage with David Tudor

John Cage with David Tudor

I looked for examples of Cage speaking outside of his own compositions, someplace more public—someplace where I might hear him put his voice in the closet and butch himself up for the public ear. I looked for ways to contextualize Cage’s voice in the era of determinacy — mainstream 1950s America, high modernist, planned, and in love with postwar military-industrial efficiency and the performance of expertise.

My urban history self focused on New York in the 1950s, listening for other voices resonant with the era’s “structure of feeling.” If heard by a 1958 resident of New York City, Indeterminacy might have sounded somewhat familiar. The experience of listening to all or parts of Indeterminacy resonated with the interruptions, the drowned-out words, the overlapping and oppositional sounds, the proximity of people and machinery, which characterized Manhattan (in particular) in the late 1950s. Cage spent periods of time in New York City as well as upstate in the 1950s, moving between different art scenes. What did New York sound like in the 1950s? The Puerto Rican migration and urban renewal re-shaped the city’s soundscape on the west side, as documented by sound recordist Tony Schwartz and re-presented through the musical West Side Story. I had written about those encounters with audible difference but now wanted to listen more closely. What did the city’s infamous urban planner, master of urban renewal, Robert Moses sound like? What did his outspoken critic Jane Jacobs sound like? And how might I hear their contemporary John Cage in this context with reference to the notion of “indeterminacy”?

Within a Cold War-McCarthyist context, voices represented an aspect of the suspect-self available for investigation, interrogation, and pathologizing. I identified, to an extent, with such a predicament, such a fear of exposure and of the negative consequences I presumed would follow. While I listened to John Cage’s and others’ voices from this period, I listened for how Cold War authorities may have heard them. John Cage’s voice offers indeterminacy itself, hovering in the margins of the tonal, rhythmic, and pitch ranges of conventionally “masculine” and “feminine” voices at mid-century. Despite our contemporary resistance to stereotyping, one hears in Cage’s gendered oscillation, mixing minor chest resonance with the higher, softer, breathier sounds, a definitive type of “gay” male voice: the sissy voice. As Craig Loftin has argued in “Unacceptable Mannerisms: Gender Anxieties, Homosexual Activism, and Swish in the United States, 1945-1965,” during the 1950s gay men as well as the heteronormative majority, produced intense hostility to the archetype of the “sissy,” whose voice and body movements marked him as politically problematic in the context of both homophile activism and Cold War homophobia.

Paul J. Moses aimed to analyze in his 1954 book, The Voice of Neurosis (one of the many works in the field of “personality studies” popular in the 1950s) the personality from the speaking voices of his subjects with a method he called “creative hearing.” Moses’s work suggested that the voice revealed the “true” personality, belying a person’s efforts to disguise themselves through dress, work or relationships. Such secrets could be heard, or listened for, through Moses’ “creative hearing.” Of course, when he published his work in 1954, the Cold War made aural surveillance, the use of listening devices, as well as the “creative hearing” of expert listeners, a crucial weapon in a war of secrets.

"IGASLogo" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

“IGASLogo” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

In January 1960 John Cage appeared as a contestant on the popular television game show I’ve Got a Secret (CBS, 1952-1967), a show that perfectly channeled concerns about hidden identities at the heart of public and Congressional anti-Communism within Cold War politics in the United States. Derived from the radio show What’s My Line in which a celebrity panel tried to discover a person’s job, in I’ve Got a Secret the panel tried to uncover the contestant’s “secret,” normally something unusual or perhaps embarrassing. The I’ve Got a Secret format played with the tension between who knew and who did not know the contestant’s “secret.” After being introduced by name and hometown, the show’s host asked each contestant to whisper their secret in his ear. During the on-camera intimacy of mouth-to-ear divulgence, text of the revelation scrolled up over the TV screen for the viewers at home and was visible to the studio audience. The panel of celebrity inquisitors could only observe the studio audience’s responses of laughter, shock, or titillation.

John Cage’s appearance on the show was devoted to the performance of his “secret.” Cage whispered to host Garry Moore that he had made a musical composition using a bathtub, jugs, a blender, radios, a piano, a tape recorder, a watering can, and other common household objects. In an absurdist version of a laboratory experiment, Cage darted from one to the other object, pressing buttons, pouring liquids, hitting radios, putting flowers in a bathtub, all the while holding and responding to the stopwatch in his hand. Cage performed inefficiency and absurdity, inviting laughter, the opposite of industrial modernism’s demand for logic, order, and compliance to norms. Cage’s non-compliant, queer performance and composition satirized the efficiency experiments of twentieth century time-management experts; the “Water Walk” “instruments”, all objects from everyday life, bear no productive relation to each other and are not arranged in a manner producing efficiency. Cage thus queered the modern, as typified in mid-20th century American industry, corporate capitalism, and national infrastructure projects such as urban renewal.

Cage’s voice provides an added and unexpected queer flourish to his TV appearance on I’ve Got a Secret. The sound of Cage’s voice (soft, higher-pitched, lilting, slightly sibilant) contrasts with his formal attire and hetero-normative environment. Cage’s voice reveals a “secret”—his homosexuality—different from the “secret” featured on the show. Like most Cold War secrets, it was not a secret to him or his close friends but was supposed to function as a secret in that historical context. Cage resisted, consciously or not, the vocal closet; he made no attempt, as far as I can hear, to alter his voice in the very public context of a live television show. John Cage appears happy, playful, and delighted to perform for the audience. His antic performance of “Water Walk” endeared him to a mid-century audience who came ready to enjoy the show’s pleasurable revelation of secrets.

Other “hearings” of Cage’s non-normative self might well have produced a less relaxed response from those same audience members: his voice at a Congressional HUAC hearing; his voice overheard on the street or in a cafe. The gay or gender non-conformist audience members may have thrilled to Cage’s double-edged performance of his “secrets,” or they may have cringed at such possible revelations, in fear of their also being heard as different but lacking the protection of Cage’s (albeit limited) celebrity.

Standing at the front of the lecture theatre in September 2012, I felt I too had a secret, and my heart pounded, my stomach jittered for fear of its revelation. But, as I continued to listen to Cage’s voice on a recording of Indeterminacy, and to think through his TV performance on I’ve Got a Secret, I grew more able to let go of my fear of being heard as trans*. I heard and saw Cage as a man who resisted convention and a culture of fear and judgment.

Four years on, I no longer worry whether or not my voice signals my transmasculinity. I can’t control how my students or anyone else hears me, or the joy, confusion, curiosity, or disgust their hearing me may produce in them. My last term’s teaching evaluations, from Fall 2014, for that same large lecture class I first taught in Fall 2012, included many positive comments about my teaching; they also included a student’s written comment describing my voice as “gentle” and thus sometimes harder to hear. I will wear a microphone for volume, if needs be, to increase my audibility. But I feel no need to alter what that student heard as “gentle.” I can live with gentle, for which I thank John Cage.

Featured image: from Issue Project Room

Art Blake is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Ryerson University, Toronto, where he also teaches and supervises grad students in the Communication and Culture program. He is completing his second book, Talk To Me: Mediated Voices in 20th Century America. His new research concerns contemporary international urban “maker” cultures.

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Music to Grieve and Music to Celebrate: A Dirge for Muñoz—Johannes Brandis

On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice—Yvon Bonefant

Sound as Art as Anti-environmentSteven Hammer

%d bloggers like this: