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.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
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.
This year’s American Studies Association meeting in Baltimore, Maryland (October 19th-23rd) marks a real tipping point for Sound Studies within the interdisciplinary field of American Studies. First of all, there was the publication of Kara Keeling and Josh Kun’s co-edited special issue for American Quarterly, Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies, this past September 2011. Packed with 17 cutting-edge essays—culled from a record breaking 80+ submissions—this must-read issue is, according to Keeling and Kun’s introduction, “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). In addition to its vibrant blend of emerging scholars and senior folk, the issue is notable for its head-on engagement of sound and power in multiple, intersecting dimensions: race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and national identity. The issue’s intervention tracing the aural edge to U.S. citizenship privilege is especially important, and game-changing for both American Studies and Sound Studies. If you have access to Project Muse, you may download the entire issue (or selected essays) through this link here. The issue also kicks off a new audio-visual web interface for American Quarterly, and you can look here to see and hear more from several authors in the issue.
We at Sounding Out! are proud to be mentioned in the introduction to AQ’s Sound Clash and to have five members of Team SO! featured in the issue: yours truly, Editor-in-Chief and Guest Posts Editor Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, and guest authors, D. Inés Casillas, Nina Eidsheim, Tara Rodgers, and Gayle Wald. Look for Sounding Out! posts in 2012 from more of the AQ special issue’s contributors, including Mack Hagood, D. Travers Scott, and Roshanak Kheshti. If you are headed down to B’more and you’d like to hear from many of these folks in person, American Quarterly is sponsoring a roundtable panel on Saturday, October 22nd, bright and early at 8:00 a.m. at the Hilton Baltimore Holiday Room 5. It will be moderated by Josh Kun (USC) and will feature Kara Keeling (USC), Asma Naeem (University of Maryland, College Park), Dustin Tahmahkera (Southwestern University), and Roshnak Kheshti (UCSD) as panelists. Look also for unscheduled guests to appear from the issue, such as Gayle Wald (George Washington) and myself (SUNY Binghamton)—ASA rules do not permit formal participation in more than one panel—and know that, despite the early tip-off time, Keeling and Kun will be taking full advantage of the session to give Sound Clash an enthusiastic and proper send off. Between now and then, I’ll be frantically figuring out how to clone myself, because a couple of the issue’s contributors, Tara Rodgers (University of Maryland) and Barry Shank (Ohio State), are unfortunately scheduled in two excellent competing sound studies panels that very morning (scroll down for full details)! Hopefully, when the ASA Sound Studies Caucus gets fully up and running, there will be less tortuously tantalizing research pile-ups like this one.
That’s right, I said the ASA Sound Studies Caucus. If the publication of the AQ special issue wasn’t awesome enough news, the word on the street is that next year, I may not have to do Sounding Out!’s beloved ASA conference pre-game round-up. Sound Studies is in the process of gaining that all-important indexing in the front of the American Studies Association conference program through the brand-new Sound Studies Caucus. Through ASA, the caucus is hoping to sponsor specific sound-related panels for forthcoming ASA meetings. This year’s reception is a planning session where interested parties can introduce themselves and become more involved in some of the caucus’s administrative tasks. The official meet up takes place on Saturday, October 22nd from 4-6 p.m. at the upstairs bar area of the Pratt Street Ale House (206 W. Pratt Street) and Team ASA SSC will be selling limited edition T-Shirts to fund raise for the group. Interested folks can join the Sound Studies Caucus Googlegroup in advance of the meeting and catch the latest breaking news.
The ASA Sound Studies Caucus came out of a 2010 working group of UC faculty called “Sounding Race” generously funded by a UC Humanities Research Institute Grant. The caucus centralizes race, gender, and sexuality to the study of sound and vice versa; in the words of their grant: “A new direction in sound studies suggests that sound, indeed, racializes, queers, and genders both the speaking subject as well as the listener.” The grant was authored by Deborah Vargas (UC Irvine), Roshanak Kheshti(UC San Diego), D. Inés Casillas (UC Santa Barbara and frequent Sounding Out! blogger), and Kevin Fellezs (formerly at UC Merced, now at Columbia University). We at Sounding Out! are thankful for their scholarship, enthusiasm, and their critical administrative labor; we look forward to hearing more from this collective both at the caucus meeting and at the sure-to-be-excellent roundtable: “ASA Committee on Ethnic Studies: Sounding Race” on Friday October 21st, at 10:00 a.m. in Hilton Baltimore Peale B. It will be moderated by Herman Grey (UC Santa Cruz) and will also include Kirstie Dorr (UC San Diego). Look for me at both events—I will be the one live-Tweeting furiously with a huge grin on my face, excited to be gathering with so many Sound Studies colleagues from across ASA’s many (inter)disciplines.
In addition, I will be representing Sounding Out! on a panel organized by Nicole Hodges Persley (University of Kansas) and sponsored by the American Studies Women’s Committee called “Digital Displays: Women Imagining Blogospheres as Alternative Public Spheres,” on Saturday, October 22nd from 2:00p.m. to 3:45 p.m. at the Hilton Baltimore Holiday Ballroom 4. I will be joining Tanya Golash-Boza (University of Kansas, author of the blog Get a Life, Ph.D), Judy Lubin (Howard University, author of the blog Judy Lubin’s Leading Voices) and Jamie Schmidt Wagman (Saint Louis University) in a conversation about the role and power of blogging in contemporary academic careers. In particular, my paper, “Sounding Off About Sounding Out!: Emerging Scholars in an Emerging Field” will focus on the mission and history of our blog and its interventions in the problem of access for women, junior scholars, and scholars of color. Sounding Out! will continue the conversation beyond Saturday afternoon by publishing excerpts from my paper post-ASA. We hope that you will join us, either in person or by contributing your thoughts and comments when that post eventually goes live.
Below you will find Sounding Out!’s picks for panels, papers, and events of interest to Sound Studies scholars at ASA 2011. We’d like to thank IASPM (the US branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music for compiling the Popular Music Panels a few weeks back and add that our version of course understands “sound” more broadly: you’ll find music panels among work on urban soundscapes, theorizations of listening, research on sound and space, sound and race, sound and citizenship, as well as new research in the digital humanities for those interested in blogging and other audio-visual technologies, methodologies, and pedagogies. In addition to panels, I have also copiously trolled through the program looking for events of interest to sound studies scholars as well as individual papers housed on panels not ostensibly or exclusively about sound (another important measure of the health, usefulness, and influence of Sound Studies methodology across the board). If you find that I have missed you—or have placed your paper here in error—drop me a line at email@example.com and I will rectify the situation ASAP.
Finally, I want to give a quick shout out to local organizations and research projects in Baltimore that study sound, both as a gambit for Sound Studies scholars at ASA to think about how to foster relationships with site-specific colleagues and professionals at this and future meetings, but also as a way of introduction (or a welcome back) to the city that we will live in and be a part of for a few precious days this week. Here are links to the Baltimore Soundscape Project, an interactive, collective soundmap facilitated by the private nonprofit group The Hearing and Speech Agency, which began in Baltimore in 1926 and functions as a “direct service provider, information resource center, and advocate for people of all ages and incomes who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have speech-language disabilities”; Baltimore Sounds, a website run by Joe Vaccarino, a local musician, writer, and restaurateur, “dedicated to the history of past and present pop musicians throughout the Baltimore regional area” that features an extensive “Big List” of all musicians and groups in the area between 1950 and 2000; and the enjoyable Sounds of the Baltimore Oriole for a ornithological taste of “wild” Baltimore beyond the built environment. Take a good listen and I’ll see you all very soon. For the virtual experience, look for my live tweets via our Facebook and Twitter pages or on the official ASA backchannel: #2011asa.
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.
2:00 pm – 3:45 pm
African American Soundscapes and Sound Theory, Hilton Baltimore Tubman B
CHAIR: Alexander Weheliye, Northwestern University (IL)
PAPERS: Anthony Reed, Yale University (CT), “Some Echo of Haunting Melody”: W.E.B. Du Bois’ Musical Modernity
Noelle Morrissette, University of North Carolina, Greensboro (NC), James Weldon Johnson’s Soundscape of Modernity: Black Manhattan
Benjamin S. Glaser, Cornell University (NY), “They require(d) of us a song”: Psalm 137 and the Negro Renaissance
Carter Mathes, Rutgers University, Newark (NJ), Narrative Acoustics: “Free” Writing Black Consciousness
Towards a Sensual Politics: Nation, Race, and Sense Perception, Hilton Baltimore Peale B
CHAIR: Todd Carmody, University of California, Berkeley (CA)
PAPERS: Britt Rusert, Temple University (PA), Fugitive Senses: Race and Empiricism in the Early Republic
Erica Fretwell, Duke University (NC), Sensitive Citizenship, Passing, and Other Nervous Conditions
Patrick Jagoda, University of Chicago (IL), How Videogames Think
COMMENT: Nihad Farooq, Georgia Institute of Technology (GA)
4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
Folk, Pop, and Indie Rock: Race and Ethnicity in American Music, Hilton Baltimore Carroll B
CHAIR: Ulrich Adelt, University of Wyoming (WY)
PAPERS: Lorena Alvarado, University of California, Los Angeles (CA), Ambiguous Anthems: Narratives of the Immigrant Subject and Popular Music
Nicholas Francisco Centino, University of California, Santa Barbara (CA), Raza Rockabilly: Reclaimed Space, History, and Identity in Contemporary Los Angeles
Matthew Mace Barbee, Siena Heights University (MI), The Unseen Power of the Picket Fence: How Black Nationalism Created Indie Rock
Voicing a Riff: The Village Voice Music Section and Its Critical Legacy, Hilton Baltimore Johnson B
CHAIR: Eric Weisbard, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa (AL)
PANELISTS: Joshua Clover, University of California, Davis (CA), Ann Powers, Independent Scholar, Greg Tate, Independent Scholar, Eric Weisbard, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa (AL)
12:00 pm – 1:45 pm
Nijah N. Cunningham, Columbia University (NY), Strident Light, Radiant Sound: Reparation and Redress in a Flyer for a Forsaken Life, Reparative Justice and the Failures of Government, Hilton Baltimore Brent
4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
Patricia Herrera, University of Richmond (VA), Sonic Memorials to Roberto Clemente, The Nuyorican Movement, Aesthetics, and Feminism, Hilton Baltimore Peale B
10:00 am – 11:45 am
Performative Black Christianity and the Logics of Religious Representation, Hilton Baltimore Holiday Ballroom 4
CHAIR: Daphne A. Brooks, Princeton University (NJ)
PAPERS: Ashon T. Crawley, Duke University (NC), Arthur, Crunch, and the Sound of Blackness in Baldwin’s Just Above My Head
Ronald Neal, Wake Forest University (NC), Spike Lee Can Go to Hell! Tyler Perry, Religion, and Southern Masculinity
Terrion L. Williamson, Michigan State University (MI), Juanita Bynum: Black Religiosity and the Making of a Good Christian Girl
COMMENT: Fred Moten, Duke University (NC)
Affective Histories, Critical Transformations: A Roundtable Discussion, Hilton Baltimore Latrobe
CHAIR: Jasbir K. Puar, Rutgers University, New Brunswick/Piscataway (NJ)
PANELISTS: Mel Y. Chen, University of California, Berkeley (CA), Dana Luciano, Georgetown University (DC), Robert McRuer, George Washington University (DC), Karen Tongson, University of Southern California (CA)
ASA Committee on Ethnic Studies I: Sounding Race, Hilton Baltimore Peale B
CHAIR: Herman S. Gray, University of California, Santa Cruz (CA)
PANELISTS: Deborah R. Vargas, University of California, Irvine (CA), Kirstie A. Dorr, University of California, San Diego (CA), Kevin Fellezs, Columbia University (NY), Dolores InÈs Casillas, University of California, Santa Barbara (CA), Herman S. Gray, University of California, Santa Cruz (CA)
12:00 pm – 1:45 pm
Musical Migrations, Political Transformations: Reassembling Caribbean Musics in the Post-War United States, Hilton Baltimore Johnson B
CHAIR: Brent Hayes Edwards, Columbia University (NY)
PAPERS: Alexandra Vazquez, Princeton University (NJ), Listening in the Cold War Years
Nadia Ellis, University of California, Berkeley (CA), From a Broken Bottle, Traces: Haunt and the Poetics of Diasporic Repair
Shane Vogel, Indiana University–Bloomington (IN), Madam Zajj and U.S. Steel: Duke Ellington’s Calypso Theatre
COMMENT: Brent Hayes Edwards, Columbia University (NY)
Transforming Scholarly Research in the Digital Age (Sponsored by the Digital Humanities Caucus), Hilton Baltimore Key Ballroom 09
CHAIR: Wendy Chun, Brown University (RI)
PANELISTS: A. Joan Saab, University of Rochester (NY), Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, University of Pennsylvania (PA), Tara McPherson, University of Southern California (CA), Mark Williams, Dartmouth College (NH)
2:00 pm – 3:45 pm
The Musical Imaginary: Race, Class, and Authenticity, Hilton Baltimore Paca A
CHAIR: Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Pennsylvania State University, University Park Main Campus (PA)
PAPERS: William Fulton, City University of New York, Graduate School (NY), Re-inventing Authenticity: Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills as Haight-Ashbury Counterculture Statement
Sonnet Retman, University of Washington, Seattle (WA), Muddy the Waters: Other Stories of Love and Theft in the Making of the Delta Blues
Elizabeth Yeager, University of Kansas (KS), “Find[ing] myself a city to live in”: Middle Class American Imagination and Phish Scene Identity
Jack Hamilton, Harvard University (MA), Being Good Isn’t Always Easy: Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and Janis Joplin in the 1960s
COMMENT: Danielle Heard, University of California, Davis (CA)
2:00 pm – 3:45 pm
Daylanne English, Macalester College (MN), ArchAndroids and Their Antecedents: The Roots of Janelle Monae’s Afrofuturistic Post-human, Afrofuturism, Hilton Baltimore Peale A
4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
Marisol Negron, University of Massachusetts, Boston (MA), From Mambo to Hip Hop: (Re)Imagining ìNuyoricanî with HÈctor LaVoe and La Bruja, Imagining Latinidad and Citizenship in Popular Cultures, Hilton Baltimore Brent
8:00 am – 9:45 am
American Quarterly Theme Session I: Sound in American Studies, Hilton Baltimore Holiday Ballroom 5
CHAIR: Josh Kun, University of Southern California (CA)
PANELISTS: Kara Keeling, University of Southern California (CA), Asma Naeem, University of Maryland, College Park (MD), Dustin Tahmahkera, Southwestern University (TX), Roshanak Kheshti, University of California, San Diego (CA)
**Other scholars appearing in the issue are invited to attend and participate. Confirmed attendance as of this posting: Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, SUNY Binghamton (NY), Gayle Wald, George Washington University (DC)
Sounds of Response in the Age of Communicative Capitalism, Hilton Baltimore Key Ballroom 07
CHAIR: Travis Jackson, University of Chicago (IL)
PAPERS: Ruby Tapia, Ohio State University, Columbus (OH), Sonic Architectures of Memory: Digital Re-mixes and Structured Mournings at the Virtual WTC
Barry Shank, Ohio State University, Columbus (OH), Imagination and Transformation in Alarm Will Sound’s 1969
Shana Redmond, University of Southern California (CA), Manifold Music: On Markets and the Limits of Racial Exchange
COMMENT: Travis Jackson, University of Chicago (IL)
Automation or Imagination? Aesthetics and Politics in the History of Electrical Communication, Hilton Baltimore Holiday Ballroom 4
CHAIR: Patricia Ticineto Clough, City University of New York, Queens College (NY)
PAPERS: Mara Mills, New York University (NY), The Politics of Reading Machines, 1912–1971
Drew Daniel, Johns Hopkins University (MD), What Is a Digital Sound Object?
Tara Rodgers, University of Maryland, College Park (MD), The Liveliness of Synthesized Sound: From Helmholtz and Darwin to the Cybernetic Imagination
Orit Halpern, New School University (NY), The Autonomous Eye: Cybernetics, Perception, and Bio-politics
COMMENT: Patricia Ticineto Clough, City University of New York, Queens College (NY)
10:00 am – 11:45 am
Musical Lives and Imaginaries in B’More and the Chocolate City, Hilton Baltimore Carroll B
CHAIR: Lester Kenyatta Spence, Johns Hopkins University (MD)
PAPERS: Natalie Hopkinson, Independent Scholar, Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City
Al Shipley, Independent Scholar, Tough Breaks: The Story of Baltimore Club Music
Gavin Mueller, George Mason University (VA), The Ecology of Go-Go’s Informal Markets
COMMENT: Lester Kenyatta Spence, Johns Hopkins University (MD)
2:00 pm – 3:45 pm
ASA Women’s Committee: Digital Displays: Women Imagining Blogospheres as Alternative Public Spheres, Hilton Baltimore Holiday Ballroom 4
CHAIR: Nicole Hodges Persley, University of Kansas (KS)
PAPERS: Tanya Golash-Boza, University of Kansas (KS), How Academics Can Benefit from Blogging and How to Get Started
Judy Lubin, Howard University (DC), Reframing Shirley Sherrod: Black Women Bloggers and the Intersection of Race, Class and Gender
Jamie Schmidt Wagman, Saint Louis University (MO), A Woman’s Sphere: The Pill, The Net, and What’s Next
Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, State University of New York, Binghamton (NY), Sounding off about Sounding Out!: Emerging Scholars in an Emerging Field
COMMENT: Nicole Hodges Persley, University of Kansas (KS)
4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
Transforming Sound(s): A Reading and Discussion, Hilton Baltimore Tubman B
CHAIR: Jonathan Peter Moore, Duke University (NC)
PANELISTS: Mark McMorris, Georgetown University (DC), Nathaniel Mackey, Duke University (NC), Evie Shockley, Rutgers University, New Brunswick (NJ)
8:00 am – 9:45 am
Allison Perlman, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJ), Regulating the Color Line: Univision, Spanish Language Broadcasting, and Latino Speech Rights, Regulation, Citizenship, and Communication Technologies,Hilton Baltimore Armistead
10:00 am – 11:45 am
Jason William Loviglio, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (MD), Radio Free Baltimore: Neoliberal Transformation on the Local Public Airwaves, Behind The Wire, Hilton Baltimore Holiday Ballroom 6
Fran McDonald, Duke University (NC), Supreme Laughter: The Reparative Function of Laughter in the American Courtroom, Humor Studies Caucus: Humor as Reparation and Representation, Hilton Baltimore Key Ballroom 09
Lerone Martin, Eden Theological Seminary (MO), Play It Again!: The Phonograph and the Re-imagination, Reparation, and Transformation of Black Protestantism, 1925–1941, The Arts of African American Faith: Social Transformation and the Black Religious Imagination, Hilton Baltimore Peale B
12:00 pm – 1:45 pm
Felicidad Bliss Cua Lim, University of California, Irvine (CA), Audible/Visible: Racialized Stardom and Language in Philippine Cinema, American Quarterly Theme Session III: Visuality and Race, Hilton Baltimore Holiday Ballroom 5
2:00 pm – 3:45 pm
Clare Corbould, Monash University, Australia, Performance and the Oral History of Slavery: The WPA Ex-Slave Narratives of the Interwar Years, Imagined Spaces and Reparative Performances: Constructing Public Memory in the Americas, Hilton Baltimore Johnson B
James Deutsch, Smithsonian Institution, Hark the Noisy Streets: The Nineteenth-Century Sounds of Baltimore, The City and Its Spaces, Hilton Baltimore Peale C
4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
Hishaam Aidi, Columbia University (NY), Hip Hop, Public Diplomacy and Indigenous Islam, Islamophobia: 10 Years after September 11, 2001, Hilton Baltimore Johnson A
8:00 am – 9:45 am
Business Meeting of the Science and Technology Caucus, Hilton Baltimore Chase
12:00 pm – 1:45 pm
Business Meeting of the Digital Humanities Caucus, Hilton Baltimore Stone
4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
Business Meeting of the ASA Women’s Committee, Hilton Baltimore Chase
ASA Sound Studies Caucus Meeting, Pratt Street Ale House, 206. W. Pratt Street, Baltimore, 21201
10:00 am – 11:45 am
The Golden Years: Fifties TV and Radio, Hilton Baltimore Key Ballroom 07
CHAIR: Candace Moore, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (MI)
PAPERS: Benjamin Min Han, New York University (NY), Cold War Talent: Ethnic Performers, Music, and Variety Shows in 50s America
Susan Murray, New York University (NY), Colortown: NBC’s Investment in Color, 1950–1959
Christina Abreu, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (MI), From the Bronx to I Love Lucy: Lived and Televised Latinidad at the Tropicana Club in the 1950s
Patrick Roberts, National-Louis University (IL), Soul Machine: Agency and the Art of the Gimmick on Chicago R&B Radio, 1955–1963
COMMENT: Joel Dinerstein, Tulane University (LA)
Reparative Warhol, Hilton Baltimore Peale A
CHAIR: Eric Lott, University of Virginia (VA)
PAPERS: Jonathan Flatley, Wayne State University (MI), Liking and Likeness: Across the Color Line in Warhol
Homay King, Bryn Mawr College (PA), Moving On: Andy Warhol and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable
Gustavus Stadler, Haverford College in Pennsylvania (PA), Andy’s Wife: Fidelity and Faith in Warhol’s Aural Practices
COMMENT: Eric Lott, University of Virginia (VA)
10:00 am – 11:45 am
Albert Sergio Laguna, Columbia College (IL), Listening to Change: Radio, Humor, and the Future of Cuban Miami, Humor Studies Caucus: Ethnic Humor: Pleasures and Problems, Hilton Baltimore Key Ballroom 10
10:00 am – 11:45 am
Grace Wang, University of California, Davis (CA), Tiger Moms and Music Moms: On “Asian” Parenting; and Tamar Barzel, Wellesley College (MA), …pater le Punkeoisie—No Wave’s Queer and Jewish Interventions into Punk Rock’s Semiotic Terrain, Disciplining Gendered Bodies: The Strategic Performance of Ethnic Identity in Musical, Literary, and Visual Culture, Hilton Baltimore Peale C
“The engaged voice must never be fixed and absolute but always changing, always evolving in dialogue with a world beyond itself” –bell hooks, quoted by d. Sabela Grimes at Show and Prove, 9.18.10
This past Saturday, I got up before dawn and bussed it into New York City to attend Show and Prove , a conference on “the tensions, contradictions, and possibilities of hip hop studies in practice,” organized by my friend and colleague, Imani Kai Johnson. The conference was excellent—intense, earnest, and busting at the seams with ideas—and was one of the few in recent memory that left me energized and ready to put pen to paper ASAP. In fact, I scratched out the rough draft of these lines in my notebook on the bus ride home, all Eminem 8 Mile-style. So embedded somewhere in my words will inevitably be the thick chug of the engine, the squeaky bounce-bounce of the shocks, the ocean-like roar of (the)17, and the steady tsk-tsk-tsk-tsk of hip hop pumping from my fellow commuter’s earbuds. Across the bus aisle, this secondhand beat called to me and challenged me to think about ways that sound studies can reach across the (inter)disciplinary aisle to hip hop (and vice versa). So that’s where my head’s at right now: what does sound studies bring to hip hop’s platform? And what does hip hop offer in return?
I should say first off that I don’t necessarily see an intellectual conflict between these two fields—although Norma Coates’ 2008 Cinema Journal piece, “Sound Studies: Missing the (Popular) Music for the Screens?” makes a compelling case for institutional turf wars on the horizon between sound studies, media studies, and popular music study writ large—I actually came to sound studies through hip hop, and obviously haven’t left hip hop behind (and neither has Sounding Out!: peep Liana Silva and Scott Poulson-Bryant’s recent posts). Among the many things that hip hop has done for me and to me—personally, socially, and politically—was to open my ears to all sorts of amazing and important sounds, which eventually translated academically into frustration with the limits of popular music study back in the early 2000s. I found many texts that deconstructed hip hop lyrics and visual imagery, parsed MC’s personas, dropped some socio-historical science, and traced capitalist networks like you wouldn’t believe, but when it came down to the constitutive element of the medium itself, the sonic art through which it devoted itself to moving heads, hearts, and butts simultaneously, there was silence (and not because Doug E. Fresh said so).
Outside of Tricia Rose’s landmark chapter on “flow, layering, and rupture” in 1994’s Black Noise, I found precious few texts that were willing or able to engage with the primary way in which hip hop put in work “if not in the word, in the sound” as Frederick Douglass once put it a long time ago. Hip hop was, true to its word, bringing the noise, and traditional music studies wasn’t making meaning of it in even part of the way that hip hop audiences were. To signify on Shante Smalls’s comment at Show and Prove in reference to trying to teach Murs’s “Dark Skinned White Girl” to an NYU class, hip hop sounded to popular music scholars just like a guy talking over some beats—all flattened out. So I strapped on my headphones night after night, trying to fill this void by listening and writing, writing and listening. You can read my early attempts in a discography of Los Angeles hip hop called “Audible Angels” I published online in 2004, in which I tried to capture the sonic signature of each artist I wrote about, integrating it with their vocal style, lyrical themes and historical and regional context. The fact that one of the artists in the discography sent me a remastered version of their record based on some of my commentary not only suggested that I did a halfway decent job, but also that the artists themselves are clamoring for scholars to take their sound as seriously as they do.
Because of the bus, my experience at the conference was shorter than I would have liked, so I can’t remotely claim full coverage (I am especially sorry to have missed Antonio T. Tiongson, Jr.’s talk on Filipino DJs and contemporary U.S. racial formations, which I know would have (re)mixed sound, race, and hip hop, hamster style), so I will have to sample the bits and bytes that I did hear.
In a panel on “Methodology, Pedagogy, and Educational Practice,” M.C. K-Swift talked about the sonic differences between standard English, Black English, and Hip Hop English and what it means to code switch between all three. Johan Söderman discussed similar issues about hip hop in Sweden, especially the way in which hip hop enables marginalized Swedish youth to sound and signify differently in the same language.
In the panel I moderated, “Aesthetic Dimensions of Hip Hop”—in which there were amazing papers by Naomi Bragin on popping in Northern California’s East Bay and Jessica Pabón on the “feminist masculinity” of female graffiti in Brasil, Mexico, and the US—sound was largely a shadow presence, animating limbs, accompanying film, and being punctuated by muscle pops and krylon hisses. Jens Althoff discussed 1970s samples briefly in his talk on the influence of blaxploitation cinema on hip hop but there was really only one paper that explicitly addressed sound, Joshua Bennett ’s “I Love it When You Call Me Big (Poppa).” Bennett used Barthes’ “The Grain of the Voice” to give an evocative and nuanced reading of the “palpable sense of surplus” in Notorious B.I.G’s voice, the way in which his heavy timbre comes together with his “wheezing undertone” to re-present his corporeal body as superabundant rather than substandard.
Finally, in the afternoon, I was fascinated by Nicole Hodges Persley’s exploration of the sound of cross-racial appropriation both in her paper, “People in Me” and in her performance, in which she used both voice and gesture to represent a white suburban teen, a young Asian graffiti writer from Silverlake, and a Senegalese student drawn to the U.S. by hip hop. Persley raised important questions about who has “the right to talk black” while addressing the pleasures and the politics of using the body as a remixing agent and translator of hip hop, accent, culture and immigrant experience.
So of course I came to Show and Prove eager to take in some talk about sound—and I wouldn’t say I was disappointed. Surprised (slightly) and challenged (totally), but not disappointed. Sound wasn’t as center stage as I expected, but it certainly wasn’t marginalized either. Instead, it was ubiquitous; sound in hip hop studies seems to be taken for granted in the same way that vision is just about everywhere else. Although hip hop is understood to be an audio-visual art, its organizing metaphors are sonic: remixing, sampling, scratching, and Dj-ing all describe sonic phenomena as well as aural frameworks for understanding the world. The way in which hip hop studies take sound for granted presents both a lesson and an opportunity for sound studies.
While I had been hoping to hear more papers that brought the conversation back around to the beat, I felt that all the papers spoke through it, even if the topic reached beyond it to bodily movement, visual culture, theatre, and pedagogy. And that is where I think hip hop studies asks sound studies to step up its game—to take seriously sound’s intersection with the other senses, using sound as a jumping off point and not always a final destination. In Jeff Chang ’s Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip Hop, dancer Rennie Harris described bodily movement as “just the last manifestation of sound,” which blew my mind, because even though sound and motion are so fluidly entangled, we usually talk about them as if they are separate entities.
On the flip side, one of the things that distinguishes sound studies from popular music study is its methodology—the way in which sound is treated as an active process, a way of thinking and being, rather than solely an object of study. And this methodology is what I think sound studies can offer hip hop studies—a sustained conversation on listening in a multiplicity of forms. Listening practices are what knits the different elements of hip hop together, what links artist to producer to audience, sometimes in the very same body at the very same time. What happens when we think of hip hop artists as listeners? What if we viewed them not only as producers of tracks but also of listening practices? Is there such a thing as hip hop listening? If so, what are its ethics and aesthetics? How might hip hop listening practices impact and feed into the various modes of hip-hop performance in music and beyond: dance, cinema, theatre, literature, graphic design?
So, while hip hop studies and sound studies have quite a bit to show and prove to each other, I can’t be the only one eager for the collabo.