Editors’ note: As an interdisciplinary field, sound studies is unique in its scope—under its purview we find the science of acoustics, cultural representation through the auditory, and, to perhaps mis-paraphrase Donna Haraway, emergent ontologies. Not only are we able to see how sound impacts the physical world, but how that impact plays out in bodies and cultural tropes. Most importantly, we are able to imagine new ways of describing, adapting, and revising the aural into aspirant, liberatory ontologies. The essays in this series all aim to push what we know a bit, to question our own knowledges and see where we might be headed. In this series, co-edited by Airek Beauchamp and Jennifer Stoever you will find new takes on sound and embodiment, cultural expression, and what it means to hear. –AB
In November 2016, my colleague Imani Wadud and I were invited by professor Sherrie Tucker to judge a battle of the bands at the Lawrence Public Library in Kansas. The battle revolved around manipulation of one specific musical technology: the Adaptive Use Musical Instruments (AUMI). Developed by Pauline Oliveros in collaboration with Leaf Miller and released in 2007, the AUMI is a camera-based software that enables various forms of instrumentation. It was first created in work with (and through the labor of) children with physical disabilities in the Abilities First School (Poughkeepsie, New York) and designed with the intention of researching its potential as a model for social change.
Our local AUMI initiative KU-AUMI InterArts forms part of the international research network known as the AUMI Consortium. KU-AUMI InterArts has been tasked by the Consortium to focus specifically on interdisciplinary arts and improvisation, which led to the organization’s commitment to community-building “across abilities through creativity.” As KU-AUMI InterArts member and KU professor Nicole Hodges Persley expressed in conversation:
KU-AUMI InterArts seeks to decentralize hierarchies of ability by facilitating events that reveal the limitations of able-bodiedness as a concept altogether. An approach that does not challenge the able-bodied/disabled binary could dangerously contribute to the infantilizing and marginalization of certain bodies over others. Therefore, we must remain invested in understanding that there are scales of mobility that transcend our binary renditions of embodiment and we must continue to question how it is that we account for equality across abilities in our Lawrence community.
Local and international attempts to interpret the AUMI as a technology for the development of radical, improvisational methods are by no means a departure from its creators’ motivations. In line with KU-AUMI InterArts and the AUMI Consortium, my work here is that of naming how communal, mixed-ability interactions in Lawrence have come to disrupt the otherwise ableist communication methods that dominate musical production and performance.
The AUMI is designed to be accessed by those with profound physical disabilities. The AUMI software works using a visual tracking system, represented on-screen with a tiny red dot that begins at the very center. Performers can move the dot’s placement to determine which part of their body and its movement the AUMI should translate into sound. As one moves, so does the dot, and, in effect, the selected sound is produced through the performer’s movement.
Could this curious technology help build radical new coalitions between researchers and disabled populations? Mara Mills’s research examines how the history of communication technology in the United States has advanced through experimentation with disabled populations that have often been positioned as an exemplary pretext for funding, but then they are unable to access the final product, and sometimes even entirely erased from the history of a product’s development in the name of universal communication and capitalist accumulation. Therefore, the AUMI’s usage beyond the disabled populations first involved in its invention always stands on dubious historical, political, and philosophical ground. Yet, there is no doubt that the AUMI’s challenge to ableist musical production and performance has unexpectedly affected and reshaped communication for performers of different abilities in the Lawrence jam sessions, which speaks to its impressive coalitional potential. Institutional (especially academic) research invested in the AUMI’s potential then ought to, as its perpetual point of departure, loop back its energies in the service of disabled populations marginalized by ableist musical production and communication.
Facilitators of the library jam sessions, including myself, deliberately avoid exoticizing the AUMI and separating its initial developers and users from its present incarnations. To market the AUMI primarily as a peculiar or fringe musical experience would unnecessarily “Other” both the technology and its users. Instead, we have emphasized the communal practices that, for us, have made the AUMI work as a radically accessible, inclusionary, and democratic social technology. We are mainly invested in how the AUMI invites us to reframe the improvisational aspects of human communication upon a technology that always disorients and reorients what is being shared, how it is being shared, and the relationships between everyone performing. Disorientations reorient when it comes to our Lawrence AUMI community, because a tradition is being co-created around the transformative potential of the AUMI’s response-rate latency and its sporadic visual mode of recognition.
In his work on the AUMI, KU alumni and sound studies scholar Pete Williams explains how the wide range of mobility typically encouraged in what he calls “standard practice” across theatre, music, and dance is challenged by the AUMI’s tendency to inspire “smaller” movements from performers. While he sees in this affective/physical shift the opportunity for able-bodied performers to encounter “…an embodied understanding of the experience of someone with limited mobility,” my work here focuses less on the software’s potential for able-bodied performers to empathize with “limited” mobility and more on the atypical forms of social interaction and communication the AUMI seems to evoke in mixed-ability settings. An attempt to frame this technology as a disability simulator not only demarcates a troubling departure from its original, intended use by children with severe physical disabilities, but also constitutes a prioritization of able-bodied curiosity that contradicts what I’ve witnessed during mixed-ability AUMI jam sessions in Lawrence.
Sure, some able-bodied performers may come to describe such an experience of simulated “limited” mobility as meaningful, but how we integrate this dynamic into our analyses of the AUMI matters, through and through. What I aim to imply in my read of this technology is that there is no “limited” mobility to experientially empathize with in the first place. If we hold the AUMI’s early history close, then the AUMI is, first and foremost, designed to facilitate musical access for performers with severe physical disabilities. Its structural schematic and even its response-rate latency and sporadic visual mode of recognition ought to be treated as enabling functions rather than limiting ones. From this position, nothing about the AUMI exists for the recreation of disability for able-bodied performers. It is only from this specific position that the collectively disorienting/reorienting modes of communication enabled by the AUMI among mixed-ability groups may be read as resisting the violent history of labor exploitation, erasure, and appropriation Mills warns us about: that is, when AUMI initiatives, no matter how benevolently universal in their reach, act fundamentally as a strategy for the efficacious and responsible unsettling of ableist binaries.
The way the AUMI latches on to unexpected parts of a performer’s body and the “discrepancies” of its body-to-sound response rate are at the core of what sets this technology apart from many other instruments, but it is not the mechanical features alone that accomplish this. Sure, we can find similar dynamics in electronics of all sorts that are “failing,” in one way or another, to respond with accuracies intended during regular use, or we can emulate similar latencies within most recording software available today. But what I contend sets the AUMI apart goes beyond its clever camera-based visual tracking system and the sheer presence of said “incoherencies” in visual recognition and response rate.
What makes the AUMI a unique improvisational instrument is the tradition currently being co-created around its mechanisms in the Lawrence area, and the way these practices disrupt the borders between able-bodied and disabled musical production, participation, and communication. The most important component of our Lawrence-area AUMI culture is how facilitators engage the instrument’s “discrepancies” as regular functions of the technology and as mechanical dynamics worthy of celebration. At every AUMI library jam session I have participated in, not once have I heard Tucker or other facilitators make announcements about a future “fix” for these functions. Rather, I have witnessed an embrace of these features as intentionally integrated aspects of the AUMI. It comes as no surprise, then, that a “Battle of the Bands” event was organized as a way of leaning even further into what makes the AUMI more than a radically accessible musical instrument––that is, its relationship to orientation.
Perhaps it was the competitive framing of the event––we offered small prizes to every participating band––or the diversity among that day’s participants, or even the numerous times some of the performers had previously used this technology, but our event evoked a deliberate and collaborative improvisational method unfold in preparation for the performances. An ensemble mentality began to congeal even before performers entered the studio space, when Tucker first encouraged performers to choose their own fellow band members and come up with a working band name. The two newly-formed bands––Jayhawk Band and The Human Pianos––took turns, laying down collaboratively premeditated improvisations with composition (and perhaps even prizes) in mind. iPad AUMIs were installed in a circle on stands, with studio monitor headphones available for each performer.
Jayhawk Band’s eponymous improvisation “Jayhawks,” which brings together stylized steel drums, synthesizers, an 80’s-sounding floor tom, and a plucked woodblock sound, exemplifies this collaborative sensory ethos, unique in the seemingly discontinuous melding of its various sections and the play between its mercurial tessellations and amalgamations:
In “Jayhawks,” the floor tom riffs are set along a rhythmic trajectory defiant of any recognizable time signature, and the player switches suddenly to a wood block/plucking instrument mid-song (00:49). The composition’s lower-pitched instrument, sounding a bit like an electronic bass clarinet, opens the piece and, starting at 00:11, repeats a melodically ascending progression also uninhibited by the temporal strictures of time signature. In fact, all the melodic layers in “Jayhawk,” demonstrate a kind of temporally “unhinged” ensemble dynamic present in most of the library jam sessions that I’ve witnessed. Yet unexpected moves and elements ultimately cohere for jam session performers, such as Jayhawk Band’s members, because certain general directions were agreed upon prior to hitting “record,” whether this entails sound bank selections or compositional structure. All that to say that collective formalities are certainly at play here, despite the song’s fluid temporal/melodic nuances suggesting otherwise.
Five months after the battle of the bands, The Human Pianos and Jayhawk Band reunited at the library for a jam session. This time, performers were given the opportunity to prepare their individual iPad setup prior to entering the studio space. These customized setup selections were then transferred to the iPads inside the studio, where the new supergroup recorded their notoriously polyrhythmic, interspecies, sax-riddled composition “Animal Parade”:
As heard throughout the fascinating and unexpected moments of “Animal Parade,” the AUMI’s sensitivity can be adjusted for even the most minimal physical exertion and its sound bank variety spans from orchestral instruments, animal sounds, synthesizers, to various percussive instruments, dynamic adjustments, and even prefabricated loops. Yet, no matter how familiar a traditionally trained (and often able-bodied) musician may be with their sound selection, the concepts of rhythmic precision and musical proficiency––as they are understood within dominant understandings of time and consistency––are thoroughly scrambled by the visual tracking system’s sporadic mode of recognition and its inherent latency. As described above, it is structurally guaranteed that the AUMI’s red dot will not remain in its original place during a performance, but instead, latch onto unexpected parts of the body.
Simultaneously, the dot-to-movement response rate is not immediate. My own involvement with “the unexpected” in communal musical production and performance moulds my interpretation of what is socially (and politically) at work in both “Jayhawks” and “Animal Parade.” While participating in AUMI jam sessions I could not help but reminisce on similar experiences with the collective management of orientations/disorientations that, while depending on quite different technological structures, produced similar effects regarding performer communication.
Being a researcher steeped in the L.A. area Salsa, Latin Jazz, and Black Gospel scenes meant that I was immediately drawn to the AUMI’s most disorienting-yet-reorienting qualities. In Timba, the form of contemporary Afrocuban music that I most closely studied back in Los Angeles, disorientations and reorientations are the most prized structural moments in any composition. For example, Issac Delgado’s ensemble 1997 performance of “No Me Mires a Los Ojos” (“Don’t Look at Me In the Eyes”)– featuring now-legendary performances by Ivan “Melon” Lewis (keyboard), Alain Pérez (bass), and Andrés Cuayo (timbales)—sonically reveals the tradition’s call to disorient and reorient performers and dancers alike through collaborative improvisations:
Video Filmed by Michael Croy.
“No Me Mires a los Ojos” is riddled with moments of improvisational coalition formed rather immediately and then resolved in a return to the song’s basic structure. For listeners disciplined by Western musical training, the piece may seem to traverse several time signatures, even though it is written entirely in 4/4 time signature. Timba accomplishes an intense, percussively demanding, melodically multifaceted set of improvisations that happen all at once, with the end goal of making people dance, nodding at the principle tradition it draws its elements from: Afrocuban Rumba. Every performer that is not a horn player or a vocalist is articulating patterns specific to their instrument, played in the form of basic rhythms expected at certain sections. These patterns and their variations evolved from similar Rumba drum and bell formats and the improvisational contributions each musician is expected to integrate into their basic pattern too comes from Rumba’s long-standing tradition of formalized improvisation. The formal and the improvisational function as single communicative practice in Timba. Performers recall format from their embodied knowledge of Rumba and other pertinent influences while disrupting, animating, and transforming pre-written compositions with constant layers of improvisation.
What ultimately interests me the most about the formal registers within the improvisational tradition that is Timba, is that these seem to function, on at least one level, as premeditated terms for communal engagement. This kind of communication enables a social set of interactions that, like Jazz, grants every performer the opportunity to improvise at will, insofar as the terms of engagement are seriously considered. As with the AUMI library jam sessions, timba’s disorientations, too, seem to reorient. What is different, though, is how the AUMI’s sound bank acts in tandem with a performer’s own embodied musical knowledge as an extension of the archive available for improvisation. In Timba, the sound bank and knowledge of form are both entirely embodied, with synthesizers being the only exception.
Timba ensembles and their interpretations of traditional and non-Cuban forms, like the AUMI and its sound bank, use reliable and predictable knowledge bases to break with dominant notions of time and its coherence, only to wrangle performers back to whatever terms of communal engagement were previously decided upon. In this sense, I read the AUMI not as a solitary instrument but as a partial orchestration of sorts, with functions that enable not only an accessible musical experience but also social arrangements that rely deeply on a more responsible management of the unexpected. While the Timba ensemble is required to collaboratively instantiate the potential for disorientations, the AUMI provides an effective and generative incorporation of said potential as a default mechanism of instrumentation itself.
As the AUMI continues on its early trajectory as a free, downloadable software designed to be accessed by performers of mixed abilities, it behooves us to listen deeply to the lessons learned by orchestral traditions older than our own. Timba does not come without its own problems of social inequity––it is often a “boy’s club,” for one––but there is much to learn about how the traditions built around its instruments have managed to centralize the value of unexpected, multilayered, and even complexly simultaneous patterns of communication. There is also something to be said about the necessity of studying the improvisational communication patterns of musical traditions that have not yet been institutionalized or misappropriated within “first world” societies. Timba teaches us that the conga alone will not speak without the support of a community that celebrates difference, the nuances of its organization, and the call to return to difference. It teaches us, in other words, to see the constant need for difference and its reorganization as a singular practice.
The work started with the AUMI’s earliest users in Poughkeepsie, New York and that involving mixed-ability ensembles in Lawrence, Kansas today is connected through the AUMI Consortium’s commitment to a kind of research aimed at listening closely and deeply to the AUMI’s improvisational potential interdisciplinarily and undisciplinarily across various sites. A tech innovation alone will not sustain the work of disrupting the longstanding, rooted forms of ableism ever-present in dominant musical production, performance, and communication, but mixed-ability performer coalitions organized around a radical interrogation of coherence and expectation may have a fighting chance. I hope the technology team never succeeds at working out all of the “discrepancies,” as these are helping us to build traditions that frame the AUMI’s mechanical propensity towards disorientation as the raw core of its democratic potential.
Featured Image: by Ray Mizumura-Pence at The Commons, Spooner Hall, KU, at rehearsals for “(Un)Rolling the Boulder: Improvising New Communities” performance in October 2013.
Caleb Lázaro Moreno is a doctoral student in the Department of American Studies at the University of Kansas. He was born in Trujillo, Peru and grew up in the Los Angeles area. Lázaro Moreno is currently writing about methodological designs for “the unexpected,” contributing thought and praxis that redistributes agency, narrative development, and social relations within academic research. He is also a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and producer, check out his Soundcloud.
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Introduction to Sound, Ability, and Emergence Forum –Airek Beauchamp
Experiments in Agent-based Sonic Composition — Andreas Duus Pape
Welcome to our 100th post! It’s me, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief, Guest Posts Editor, and Co-Founder of Sounding Out! : The Sound Studies Blog, which has been faithfully “pushing sound studies into the red since 2009.” Together with Liana Silva, Co-Founder and Managing Editor, and Aaron Trammell, Co-Founder and Multimedia Editor, we thank you for your faithful readership, your enthusiasm, and of course, your likes, shares, retweets, and good, old-fashioned word-of-mouth!! We are going to keep serving up sound studies’ latest and greatest for a long time to come, for anyone who wants to listen. Keep a look out for our site redesign coming in January 2012: same good stuff, just that much easier on the eyes.
In honor of this momentous occasion, I am going to get all “meta-“ on you and take you behind the scenes of Sounding Out!, sharing some of the reasons why we decided to start a public conversation about sound studies on the Internet. A manifesto of sorts, this post is adapted from a talk I gave a few weeks back at the American Studies Association annual meeting in Baltimore as part of an excellent panel called “Digital Displays: Women Imagining The Blogosphere as Alternative Public Spheres,” sponsored by the American Studies Women’s Committee, organized by Nicole Hodges Persley (University of Kansas) and featuring the excellent work of Tanya Golash-Bolaza, Judy Lubin, and Jamie Schmidt Wagman.
With all that has happened in the short time that has passed since mid-October—especially at #Occupy sites across the country and around the world—I am only more convinced of the need to empower ourselves by building our own microphones, platforms, and audiences, rather than wait for “official” channels to open up; more often than not, they are cut off, nonresponsive, non-existent or just plain hijacked. Without stretching the metaphor too far or confusing what we do with front-line activism—no one is pepper spraying SO!, let’s be real—I’d like to think that the story of Sounding Out! is also a tale of occupation in its own way. In that spirit of solidarity and D.I.Y. information exchange, here’s a bit about why I blog. I hope to inspire you to join in the conversation.
In their introduction to the hot-off-the presses special issue of American Quarterly on sound studies—which actually mentions Sounding Out!, on page 451! Yes!—editors Kara Keeling and Josh Kun report receiving an unusual number of submissions from junior faculty members and graduate students, which they describe as “a sign not only of sound’s quantitative currency but the promise of its future as a field of ongoing inquiry, and its importance and relevance to the future of American Studies itself” (452). Keeling and Kun’s editorial openness to newer work is a wonderful exception in traditional academic publishing, where issues of access can loom large for emerging scholars struggling to publish and build a national reputation, particularly for women, scholars of color and/or first-generation scholars, whose expertise in their particular fields is rarely taken for granted. I use the term access here to refer to breaking into the centers of power on our campuses and/or in our respective fields. When you are a “nontraditional” scholar frequently isolated at and from your institution, marginalized in your field, and excluded from formal and informal networks of power, all key characteristics cited by Rosabeth Kanter’s influential study of “Tokenism,” gaining a foothold in the increasingly bleak academic landscape can seem insurmountable.
Because Sound Studies is not yet fully institutionalized—there are beginning to be sound studies masters’ concentrations at a few schools like NYU and the New School, but there are still no “sound studies” departments in the United States—I believe the kind of intervention that I am helping to stage with Sounding Out! is even more important. Scholars working in audio cultures are spread across, and often isolated in, many fields that are themselves identified as white and male dominated, both in terms of demographics and research agenda: media studies, the history of science and technology, popular music, sound art and design, and film studies, to name a few. When considered alongside the abysmal numbers of many professional fields for sound practitioners, like video game design, radio announcing, and audio recording—the Women’s Audio Mission reports that 95% of the professional recording industry is currently male—the need is even more clear for two-way channels that increase the access of women and people of color to the central conversations of their industries and academic fields while improving the access of other scholars and wider reading publics to our work.
Rather than wait for a platform for our sound studies scholarship to arise, I helped to build a public conversation in a medium that could not only be more responsive to the lightning-paced nature of sound studies’ breakthrough moment, but also one that could be more responded to: open, collaborative, and in conversation with a wide range of interested parties. Way back in 2009, there were few traditional publication venues for research on sound; sound studies scholars had to rely on rare special issues or occasional essays on the margins of various disciplines’ journals. The first print journal primarily devoted to sound launched in Summer 2008, Music, Sound, and the Moving Image, but it still left large gaps for those not working in film. Not only did we lack the considerable resources necessary to start a print journal, but the medium wasn’t quite up to our tasks. A blog seemed much more flexible, able to build a continuously updated, networked, public archive of sound studies scholars, while sustaining what Kathleen Fitzpatrick describes as “an open, post-publication review process [that] is a non-anonymous discussion by a community of scholars working together on collective issues” in her September 30th, 2011 interview with Inside Higher Ed.
Paul Krugman called such interventions “breaking in from anywhere” in his October 18th, 2011 blog for the New York Times, “Our Blogs, Ourselves,” arguing that the blogosphere makes academia’s “magic circles” seem “less formal and less defined by where you sit or where you went to school.” Krugman argues blogging has “showed what things are really like. If some famous economists seem to be showing themselves intellectually naked, it’s not really a change in their wardrobe, it’s the fact that it’s easier than it used to be for little boys to get a word in.” We at Sounding Out! like to think we’re also helping women (little, big, or otherwise) to join this conversation, and more importantly, to change it.
While voices like those on Team Sounding Out! are often central to the “ground floor” conversations that shape a new field at conferences, online, and/or at our home institutions, they are often left behind when a field crystallizes in print journal publishing, which, given its limited space and slower-pace, favors the seasoned scholar. Publishing a blog can both complement peer-reviewed research and intervene in its recalcitrant institutional practices. As Claire Potter, author of the blog Tenured Radical, writes, the blogosphere “works against the stultifying tendency of the academy to keep untenured people in as subservient a state as possible for the longest possible time.” Sounding Out! enables our untenured but knowledgeable editorial crew to approach the field with agency and gusto, actively seeking out the “ground floor” intellectual labor and innovation happening in sound studies, making it audible and visible in a public forum that is far from ghettoized. We deliberately curate an integrated, and dynamic collaboration between junior scholars, senior scholars, graduate students, and sound professionals. Thanks to you, we’ll be topping 50,000 hits this week.
Before this all sounds too rosy, I should also be clear that running Sounding Out! is plenty of work, even with a brilliant editorial team. I am constantly surprised at how much time I spend just wrestling with WordPress, let alone the cooler parts of the gig. Not to mention, its role in my tenure case remains to be seen. However, even when the hours get long (squeezed in on nights and weekends after already impossibly long days and weeks), I will also say that it is work that is deeply satisfying and creative, work that feels both truly my own and yet deeply connected to a worthy collective goal.
I am also thrilled to report that several members of my non-academic family have told me that, thanks to the blog, they “finally understand what the hell it is I do,” which is one of the highest compliments I have received in a long while. As Editor-in-Chief, one of my main missions for Sounding Out! has always been for the blog to become—and remain—a smart, well-written, and informative-yet-irresistible venue for the work of emerging sound studies scholars for academics and non-academics alike. That is ultimately why we work so hard over here at SO!: to share the most vital and important findings of our field in a way that impacts lives as well as careers.
Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman is co-founder, Editor-in-Chief and Guest Posts Editor for Sounding Out! She is also Assistant Professor of English at Binghamton University and a Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University.