Twitchy Ears: A Document of Protest Sound at a Distance
“I compare New York to Bangkok all the time,” a young activist told me, just moments before he joined a small, media-ready protest at the Thai consulate in midtown Manhattan. On a pleasant day this past July, along a quiet side street lined with the gold plaques of consulates general, his comparison felt strained—Thailand is currently governed by a free speech-averse military junta that seized power last year, and mourning a deadly terror attack. In Thailand, the tension and fear are acute; in New York, the local delivery driver was whistling.
The young activist, an ocean removed from Bangkok, sought ways of speaking politically, knowing well that he could and would be heard across that ocean When he returns, if he returns, he may be imprisoned, intimidated, or injured. In front of the consulate in New York, those problems were imperceptible to the uninitiated. But they weighed heavily on all of us. Whenever the group chanted or sang, their voices rose through the low ambience like heavy weights, and stopping they fell away without receiving a response. There was a perverse aural disjuncture between the easy rhythms of the day and the harrowing risk that we knew was present in every utterance.
I had come to participate in the event, to speak against the military junta’s recent arrest of fourteen university students for protesting peacefully. I had also come to make a sound recording, and as usual to consider the odd phenomenon of protests staged to create media artifacts rather than to influence people in the flesh. The purpose of the protest was not to negotiate risk but to invite it. It barely mattered that New York City didn’t hear the protest as it occurred. Where it needed to sound potent, it would. Recorded sound surely renders all protest multi-sited; protest sound is a speech-act spatially and temporally deferred.
However, for protests staged at great physical distance from what’s being protested, the specter of comparison and difference between sites and movements can be profound. New York is in certain ways friendly to protest; the city is liberal with permits, and even unpopular opinions are expressible. Relative to most of Thailand, this is a welcome distinction. Of course, such freedom can blunt the acuity of dissenting speech — protests limited to a specific place and time, accompanied by two polite cops indifferent to the issue at hand, are easy to tune out. The United States has its own instruments of containing dissenting speech.
Furthermore, as responses to both Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter movement have shown, organizational structure and subjectivity make some actions more vulnerable to state violence than others. There are moments when a single word can provoke repression here in no less crude a fashion than the Thai junta prefers. But the game has wholly different rules, and these rules engender different strategic responses. Protesting at a distance is both a way of threading multiple sites together and of reflecting on how protesters in different places and movements choose to speak. In the mind of a young activist accustomed to Thailand’s particular labyrinth of political expression, the contrast with his own country can become a source of ideas.
“When I first came here,” the activist continued with a note of awe in his voice, “Occupy Wall Street just started, so it’s like, there is this obvious difference that really intrigued me in how people organize or react to causes. In Thailand we still kind of are using older ways to organize, kind of like really centralized, some figures pretty much
To develop a political movement in the United States is a different challenge than doing the same in Thailand, to put it mildly. In the United States the left risks triviality; in Thailand, it literally risks death. Thai communists were hunted by soldiers in the jungle in the twentieth century, and left-wing political parties are still forbidden today. Republicanism is treason. And with the ascent of the military junta, many trials are now held in secret, and intimidation of political critics is routine. A movement cannot attempt to run headlong toward whatever it wants to topple; circuitous end-runs are necessary. This explains the increased appeal of decentralized protest tactics to Thai activists. The young man I met was far from the first in his country who has espoused such an approach.
The protest began with one woman playing an acoustic guitar, leading the twenty of us assembled in a folk-style singalong. The sincere, uneven rendition of “Song of the Common Man,” currently popular among anti-junta protesters in Thailand, was followed by nervous laughter, and the honk of a nearby taxi. The lyrics are mild and the structure formulaic, but the song has caught on among the junta’s most outspoken critics – notably, one recording available online was made by a band whose songs are strident enough that they were pursued by the military, and forced to flee to Laos. The song lasted less than two minutes, and an American, who worked for a freedom-of-speech NGO in Southeast Asia, ensured that the group moved on to the next part of the tight half-hour schedule. Every moment was brief but assiduously documented.
We took selfies wearing masks shaped like the faces of the fourteen students who were set to appear before a military court that day. The Thai consulate employees watched with bemusement, and briefly chatted with us in the low, serious hush filled with polite participles that characterizes formal conversation in Thailand. The event ended, and the quiet side street remained undisturbed.
One moment was particularly chilling. The American was leading the group in a series of “what-do-we-want-when-do-we-want-it” chants, which though adapted to concerns of the anti-junta movement felt pro forma and out of place. That cadence and call-and-response pattern is almost never heard at protests in Thailand, and the protesters were not accustomed to it. When someone suggested chanting in Thai rather than English, the group naturally fell into a different rhythm. The repetition of Prayuth aawk bpai, an insulting demand that coup leader General Prayuth Chan-Ocha go away, was much sharper. The chant hearkened to protests of recent years against illegitimate Thai governments. A recording of it would, without doubt, be very risky once heard by the wrong ears in Thailand. Its potency was not only in its direct semantics, but in the connection it formed between the current protest and protests of the recent past. Protest in an age of ubiquitous media tends to form such links across boundaries of time and space.
But a curious thing happens when protest movements can readily observe one another. Comparisons are made all the time, but so are convergences. Rhetoric and strategy become cosmopolitan, not native to any place, and protests increasingly echo other protests. Contemporary Thai dissidents have been influenced by Argentinian horizontalism, and they swap documentaries about the Arab Spring online, for example. The watertight conditions of a geopolitical place have more leaks than was thought. And as ideas travel, the places themselves can become fertile grounds for the growth of those ideas in practice.
Sound is vital to this process. Perhaps because it is often regarded as the most visceral expression of the body, sound has a special relationship to protest. Sound and self need not be romanticized as coterminous in order to appreciate that speech acts feel very close to the body. But listen again. Sound can both feel immediate and be radically disembodied. It can be a material for experimentation, for feeling out how to speak in the immediate present, and be by the same stroke a final product to be audited by the twitchy ears of the junta. The July protest was and will be both.
Benjamin Tausig is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University, where he works on sound studies, music, and protest in Bangkok and other urban spaces. He is on Twitter @datageneral
Featured image: Picture of #FreeThe14 protest in New York City this past July. From Thai Students Center for Democracy(@TSCD_EN) tweet on July 7, 2015.
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Sound at SEM 2014
Hot on the heels of the American Musicological Society and Society for Music Theory’s joint annual meeting in Milwaukee, the Society for Ethnomusicology will hold its 59th Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh, November 13-16, 2014, hosted by the University of Pittsburgh. SEM is arguably one of the conferences most hospitable to sound studies, and several panels feature strong papers.
On Wednesday, Nov. 12, the “Music and Labor” pre-conference symposium features some fascinating papers of interest to sound scholars and includes a keynote address by Dr. Marcus Rediker, Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh. With panels titled “(Re) Conceptualizing Music and Labor,” “The Labor of Music in Transitioning Economies,” “Art as Work: Defying Capitalist Hegemony and National Narrative through Musical Activism and Creative Adaptation,” and “Transformation of Music Labor Regimes in Socialist and Post-Socialist Southeastern Europe,” even the papers that aren’t especially sound studies-related have the potential to demonstrate deft interdisciplinary approaches that would be applicable (and fruitful) in sound studies research.
One of the first sound studies events of the conference program is the annual meeting of the Sound Studies Special Interest Group. Dr. Allen Roda, Jane and Morgan Whitney Research Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and I are currently co-chairs of the SIG; anyone interested in sound studies will not want to miss our meeting on Thursday, November 13 at 12:30-1:30 PM in the Duquesne Room. This year’s meeting will mark the SIG’s 6th anniversary since it was formed in 2009. The group now has over 100 members and is represented on several panels at the 2014 conference in Pittsburgh. One co-chair seat will become vacant this year, and the group will hold elections to fill this position at the meeting; we also plan to discuss plans for more visibility online and among the academic community.
Before the meeting, come early to the 8:00-10:30 AM session in that same room to catch Molly McBride’s paper, “The Sounds of Humor: Listening to Gender in Early Barn Dance Radio,” or see a whole sound studies panel titled “Auditory Histories of the Indian Ocean: Hearing the Soundworlds of the Past” in the Alleghany Room.
If you can’t make those early panels on the first day, the convention boasts numerous, high-quality sound studies sessions, many of which convene simultaneously. There have been several sound studies-related panels and individual papers at past meetings, but the number of high-quality papers is certainly trending in favor of more sound studies.
Also, the last several annual meetings have featured a soundwalk hosted by the Sound Studies SIG. This year is no different; however, rather than having a guided walk around the host city, this year’s soundwalk will be self-guided. Using the Twitter hashtag #semsoundwalk, participants will listen to Pittsburgh, the acoustic environment of the conference itself, the coffee shop where they stop for refreshment, or wherever they happen to find themselves between 1:15 – 6:00PM on Friday, Nov. 14. Be sure to follow the hashtag – even if you’re not in Pittsburgh – to “listen” along with conference participants.
I am delighted to see that this year’s conference unites the SEM’s commitment to the study of world musics and cultures and sound studies, particularly in panels such as “Auditory Histories of the Indian Ocean: Hearing the Soundworlds of the Past,” “Contemplating Voice in Cross-Cultural Perspective,” and “Regulating Space, Regulating Sound: Musical Practice and Institutional Mediation in São Paulo, Brazil.” This year also highlights the SEM’s strong interdisciplinary bent and makes even more room at the epistemological table for the examination of technoculture and its implications for sound studies and the larger ethnomusicological community.
Because of the sheer volume of sound studies activities, rather than listing my “picks” for the conference, I’ve listed most of the relevant papers and sessions, leaving the hard decision up to you. In fact, there are so many genuine sound studies panels and papers (or papers on closely related topics) its easy to see why the blurry line that demarcates “sound studies” from “music studies” seems blurriest at SEM. For those who cannot attend the conference, some of this year’s panels will be live-streamed. The Special Interest Groups for Sound Studies and Ecomusicology are also co-hosting a roundtable on Saturday morning. For more information about the conference and to catch the live-streamed sessions, visit the conference website at http://www.indiana.edu/~semhome/2014/.
Michael Austin is Assistant Professor of Media, Journalism, and Film and coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program in the School of Communications at Howard University where he teaches courses in music production, sound design for film and audio production. He holds a Ph.D. in Humanities – Aesthetic Studies (with a specialization in Arts and Technology) from the University of Texas at Dallas and music degrees from UT-San Antonio and UT-Austin. He is also affiliated with the Laboratoire Musique et Informatique de Marseille, an audio/music technology and informatics lab in Marseille, France, and is co-chair of the Society for Ethnomusiciology’s Special Interest Group for Sound Studies.
Featured image: “Musician” by Flickr user Joanna, CC BY-NC 2.0
WEDNESDAY, November 12
8:00 am – 8:00 pm
Ballroom 3, Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh Downtown Hotel
Pre-Conference Symposium: “Music and Labor”
THURSDAY, November 13
8:30 – 10:30 am
“The Sounds of Humor: Listening to Gender on Early Barn Dance Radio,” Molly McBride, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Session: Auditory Histories of the Indian Ocean: Hearing the Soundworlds of the Past
“Wonders and Strange Things: Practices of Auditory History before Recorded Sound,” Katherine Butler Schofield, King’s College London
“Notes in the Margins: Sumatran Religious Hybridity and the Efficacy of Sound, “ Julia Byl, King’s College London
“Contact, Contestation and Compromise: Sound and Space in 19th-Century Singapore,” Jenny McCallum, King’s College London
“A ‘Wayang of the Orang Puteh’?: Theatres, Music Halls and Audiences in High-Imperial, Calcutta, Madras, Penang and Singapore,” David Lunn, King’s College London
10:45am -12:15 pm
Sterling 3 Room
“Sounding Neoliberalism in the Richmond City Jail,” Andrew C. McGraw, University of Richmond
“The Color of Sound: Timbre in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man,” Sydney A. Boyd, Rice University
12:30 – 1:30 pm
Special Interest Group for Sound Studies
1:45 – 3:45 pm
Sterlings 1 Room
“Radio Archives and the Art of Persuasion: Preserving Social Hierarchies in the Airwaves of Lima” Carlos Odria, Florida State University
Ft. Pitt Room
Session: Mediated Musics, Mediated Lives
“Uploading Matepe: The Role of Online Learning Communities and the Desire to Connect to Northeastern Zimbabwe,” Jocelyn A. Moon, University of Washington; Zachary Moon, Independent Scholar
“Staging Overcoming: Disability, Meritocracy, and the Envoicing of Dreams,” William Cheng, Dartmouth University
“As Time Goes By: Car Radio and Spatiotemporal Manipulations of the Travel Experience in 20th-Century America,” Sarah Messbauer, University of California, Davis
“’How Can We Live in a Country Like This?’ Music, Talk Radio, and Moral Anxiety,” Karl Haas, Boston University
Sterling 3 Room
Session: Oxide and Memory: Tape Culture and the Communal Archive
Oxide and Memory: Tape Culture and the Communal Archive
“Magnetic Tape, Materiality, and the Interpretation of Non-Commercial Cassette and Reel-to-Reel Recordings from Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula,” Laura Risk, McGill University
“Family Sense and Family Sound: Home Recordings and Greek-American Identity,” Panayotis League, Harvard University
“The Memory of Media: Autoarchivization and Empowerment in 1970s Jazz,” Michael C. Heller, University of Massachusetts, Boston
“Reimagining the Community Sound Archive: Cultural Memory and the Case for ‘Slow’ Archiving in a Gaspesian Village,” Glenn Patterson, Memorial University of Newfoundland
4:00 – 5:30 pm
Sterlings 1 Room
Panel: Contemplating Voice in Cross-Cultural Perspective
“The Gravest of Female Voices: Women and the Alto in Sacred Harp,” Sarah E. Kahre, Florida State University
“Re-sounding Waljinah: Aging and the Voice in Indonesia,” Russ P. Skelchy, University of California, Riverside
“Katajjaq: Between Vocal Games, Place and Identity,” Raj S. Singh, York University
Sterlings 3 Room
Session: Rumors, Sound Leakages and Individual Tales: Disruptive Listening in Zones of Conflict
“From the Struggle for Citizenship to the Fragmentation of Justice: Reflections on the Place of Dinka Songs in South Sudan’s Transitional Justice Process,” Angela Impey, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London
“Internet Rumors and the Changing Sounds of Uyghur Religiosity: The Case of the Snake Monkey Woman,” Rachel Harris, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London
“The Cantor and the Muezzin’s Duet at the Western Wall: Contesting Sound Spaces on the Frayed Seams of the Israel-Palestine Conflict,” Abigail Wood, University of Haifa
Session: Historiography, Historicity, and Biography
“A Sonic Historiography of Early Sample-Based Hip-Hop Recordings,” Patrick Rivers, University of New Haven
“Biography as Methodology in the Study of Okinawan Folk Song,” Kirk A. King, University of British Columbia
“Sounding the Silent Image: Uilleann Piper as Ethnographic Object in Early Hollywood Film,” Ivan Goff, New York University
FRIDAY, November 14
7:00 – 8:00 am
Special Interest Group for Voice Studies
8:30 – 10:30 am
Commonwealth 1-2 Room, live streaming
Session: Sound Networks: Socio-Political Identity, Engagement, and Mobilization through Music in Cyberspace and Independent Media
*Sponsored by the Popular Music Section and Special Interest Group for Sound Studies
“Technological Factors Conditioning the Socio-Political Power of Music in Cyberspace,” Michael Frishkopf, University of Alberta
“Cyber-Mobilization, Informational Intimacy, and Musical Frames in Ukraine’s EuroMaidan Protests,” Adriana Helbig, University of Pittsburgh
“Countering Spirals of Silence: Protest Music and the Anonymity of Cyberspace in the Japanese Antinuclear Movement,” Noriko Manabe, Princeton University
“Living (and Dying) the Rock and Roll Dream: Alternative Media and the Politics of ‘Making It’ as an Iranian Underground Musician,” Farzaneh Hemmasi, University of Toronto
Sterling 1 Room
Session: Affective Environments and the Bioregional Soundscape
*Sponsored by the Special Interest Group for Ecomusicology
“’Landscape is Not Just What Your Eyes See’: Battery Radio, the Technological Soundscape, and Sonically Knowing the Battery, Kate Galloway, Memorial University of Newfoundland
“Re-sounding Caribou: Musical Posthumanism in Being Caribou,” Erin Scheffer, University of Toronto
“Cold, Crisp, and Dry: Inuit and Southern Concepts of the Northern Soundscape,” Jeffrey van den Scott, Northwestern University
Discussant, Nancy Guy, University of California, San Diego
“The Sound of Affective Fact,” Matthew Sumera, University of Minnesota
1:15 – 6:30 pm
Soundwalk: A Sonic Environmental Survey of the SEM Annual Meeting
*Sponsored by the Special Interest Groups for Sound Studies and Ecomusicology. Follow the walk on Twitter: #semsoundwalk
(Meet in Wyndham Grand main lobby at 1:15pm. Reconvene in lobby at 6:00)
1:45 – 3:45 pm
Session: Strident Voices: Material and Political Alignments
*Sponsored by the Special Interest Group for Voice Studies
“Registering Protest: Voice, Precarity, and Assertion in Crisis Portugal,”Lila Ellen Gray, University of Amsterdam
“Quiet, Racialized Vocality at Fisk University,” Marti Newland, Columbia University
“’The Rough Voice of Tenderness’: Chavela Vargas and Mexican Song,” Kelley Tatro, North Central College
Discussant: Amanda Weidman, Bryn Mawr College
4:00 – 5:30 pm
Session: Celebratory Sounds and the Politics of Engagement
“Creating Zakopower in Postsocialist Poland,” Louise J. Wrazen, York University
“Merry-Making and Loyalty to the Movement: Conviviality as a Core Parameter of Traditionalism in Aysén, Chile,” Gregory J. Robinson, George Mason University
“Sounding the Carnivalesque: Changing Identities for a Sonic Icon of the Popular,” Michael S. O’Brien, College of Charleston
SATURDAY, November 15
8:30 – 10:30 am
Sterlings 1 Room
Roundtable: Sound Studies, Ecomusicology, and Post-Humanism In/For/With Ethnomusicology
*Sponsored by the Special Interests Groups for Ecomusicology and for Sound Studies
P. Allen Roda, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Jennifer Post, University of Arizona
Mark Pedelty, University of Minnesota
Michael Silvers, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Ben Tausig, Stony Brook University
Zeynep Bulut, King’s College London
10:45 am – 12:15 pm
Benedum Room, live streaming
Musical Instruments, Material Cultures, and Sound Ecologies
“Bulgarian Acoustemological Tales: Narrativity, Agrarian Ecology, and the Kaval’s Voice,” Donna A. Buchanan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Sterling 1 Room
Session: Theorizing Sound
“Water Sounds: Distance Swimmers and Ecomusicology,” Niko Higgins, Columbia University
“Telephone, Vacuum Cleaner, Couch: Senses and Sounds of the Everyday in Postwar Japan,” Miki Kaneda, Boston University
Discussant: Benjamin Tausig, Stony Brook University
SUNDAY, November 16
8:30 – 10:30 am
Session: Regulating Space, Regulating Sound: Musical Practice and Institutional Mediation in São Paulo, Brazil
*Sponsored by the Latin American and Caribbean Section
“Music under Control? São Paulo’s Anti-Noise Agency in Action,” Leonardo Cardoso, University of Texas at Austin
“Music Producers in São Paulo’s Cultural Policy Worlds,” Daniel Gough, University of Chicago
“’Small Universes’: The Creation of Social Intimacy through Aesthetic Infrastructures in São Paulo’s Underground,” Shannon Garland, Columbia University
Discussant, Morgan Lurker, Reed College
“Hear What You Want: Sonic Politics, Blackness, and Racism-Canceling Headphones,” Alex Blue, University of California, Santa Barbara
“Sound and Silence in Festivals of the French Revolution: Sonic Analysis in History,” Rebecca D. Geoffroy-Schwinden, Duke University
10:45 am – 12:15 pm
Session: Sounding Nations
“Building the Future through the Past: The Revival Movement in Iranian Classical Music and the Reconstruction of National Identity in the 1960s and the 1970s,” Hadi Milanloo, Memorial University of Newfoundland
“Sounding Citizenship in Southern Africa: Malawian Musicians and the Social Worlds of Recording Studios and Music Education Centers,” Richard M. Deja, University of Illinois
“Unity in (Spite of) Diversity: Tensions and Contradictions in Performing Surinamese National Identity,” Corinna S. Campbell, Williams College