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This podcast is an effort to understand the cultural practices which surround the recovery of “lost sounds.” These are early linguistic sounds that have been forgotten after years of cultural and martial violence toward indigenous communities in America.
From the very beginning of the invasion of the Americas that began in 1492, Eurocentric ideologies overwhelmingly failed to recognize the strengths of American Indian cultures. Evaluating Native people as “savage,” efforts to westernize the tribes alternated between genocide and acts of removal. Government supported education, amongst other things, became the primary means to accomplish the forced eradication of Indian language. The loss of language as a component of ongoing colonization is what Hawaiian scholar Noenoe K. Silva has called “linguicide.” The results of “linguicide,” as the suppression of indigenous languages and cultures in the United States, has been catastrophic for American Indian and Alaska Native peoples.
For Indigenous people, the spoken language is a cherished intellectual treasure. Each sound captures how we see the world. Native American languages are oral, but some of them have been written in the last three centuries. There are over two hundred different North American languages still spoken by peoples of the United States and Canada. That is, of the over three hundred pre-contact languages originally spoken, only two hundred languages still remain. Fortunately, Native communities are fighting hard to keep these languages alive through sustainability efforts and revitalization projects.
I wonder about the relationship between “lost sounds,” indigenous language, and personal experience. How did we come to lose the language in our own homes? How does this loss continue today? What is being done to “find lost sounds”? How are we, as Native people, searching for the sounds, and what does that process mean to us? The conversation in this podcast is not about the science of linguists, it is not about history or the methods of linguistic preservation. Instead, it is a conversation about the experience of listening and trying to hear how we once were.
Marcella Ernest is a Native American (Ojibwe) interdisciplinary video artist and scholar. Her work combines electronic media with sound design with film and photography in a variety of formats; using multi-media installations incorporating large-scale projections and experimental film aesthetics. Currently living in California, Marcella is completing an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Drawing upon a Critical Indigenous Studies framework to explore how “Indianness” and Indigenity are represented in studies of American and Indigenous visual and popular culture, her primary research is an engagement with contemporary Native art to understand how members of colonized groups use a re-mix of experimental video and sound design as a means for cultural and political expressions of resistance.
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Sounds of Science: The Mystique of Sonification – Margaret Anne Schedel
Radio and the Voice of the Aymara People – Karl Swinehart
The “Tribal Drum” of Radio: Gathering Together the Archive of American indian Radio – Josh Garrett-Davis
Editor’s Note: July 18th, 2012 has been designated as World Listening Day by the World Listening Project, a nonprofit organization founded in 2008 “devoted to understanding the world and its natural environment, societies and cultures through the practices of listening and field recording.” World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us. This year, Sounding Out! has decided to observe World Listening Day by planning a month-long special forum of posts exploring several different facets of listening such today’s offering by SO!‘s Multimedia Editor Aaron Trammell on listening’s relationship to the body and next week’s discussion by novelist Bridget Hoida on the impact of listening on her writing process. We will also explore questions that we need to remember when we celebrate listening as a cultural, embodied act. What happens when listening is interrupted? distorted? A post on tinnitus by Mack Hagood will help us think through what happens when we take listening (and the able body) for granted as a universal, normative experience. We’ll also publish a special bonus multi-sensory post by our newest regular writer, Maile Colbert, on World Listening Day itself and we will launch our regular quarterly spring podcast for on July 12th, which will feature Eric Leonardson, director of the World Listening Project. In addition to being interesting as all hell, the podcast will suggest some ideas for how to get involved in WLD activities–or how to embark on a listening project of your own this July. Enjoy our ear-opening extravaganza and please keep those comments coming. We’d love to hear from you! –JSA, Editor-in-Chief
What happens when the body translates sound from one medium to another? How is the body both affected by a song (when listening), and affecting it’s content (when writing)? In this post, I will relate my experience transcribing the lyrics of the song “Hexbreaker!” by The Fleshtones in an effort to answer these questions.
I love to sing. Often, I feel that it is only through singing that I feel that I can adequately relate to the emotions, ideas, and narrative of the songwriter. This relational practice is called embodiment. While psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung had at one point considered this sort of emotional relationship to be a libidinal drive – either to the phallus (in Freud’s case), or a unifying mythological symbol like the mandala (in Jung’s). These feelings, or drives, in classical psychoanalytic theory are part of our interior psyches, the unconscious mind.
Contemporary physiological research has departed from the sharp dichotomy of the conscious/unconscious mind. Instead, emotions are looked at as exterior phenomena – invisible links which form between bodies. As Lisa Blackman (2010) explains in her essay Embodying Affect: Voice-hearing, Telepathy, Suggestion and Modelling the Non-conscious: “The voices can be materialized through particular technologies of inscription such as neuro- imaging scans, and can even be located within the right temporal-parietal lobe, showing the capacity of the right brain not only for psychological attunement, but also for registering the affects of others” (166). Other theorists such as Sara Ahmed (2004) have argued that emotions float between and stick to bodies. Julian Henriques (2010) has even noted the ways that sonic vibrations work to activate reciprocal affective moods in others (75), a point very much in line with Blackman’s musings on the voice’s centrality to “psychic,”right brain, linkages. To these points, it is important to consider exactly what it means for the body to work as a medium of translation. What emotions can a song activate in my body, and how do these feelings become words, stored in the mnemonic confines of paper?
Because listening is central to the transmission and construction of emotional bonds, I will now detail my experience transcribing “Hexbreaker!”.
The Fleshtones are a band that I love. Their songs find the perfect balance of Animal House cool, Swinging Medallions style garage rock, and campy B-movie flavor. They have cred too, as they were a frequent act in the late-70s CBGB punk scene who shared a rehearsal space with The Cramps (a similar, but notably more famous band). Their song “American Beat” was key in the soundtrack of Tom Hanks’ shlocky 1984 film Bachelor Party. Peter Zaremba, the group’s singer, was a host on MTV’s interview based program, I.R.S. Records Presents the Cutting Edge. And, best of all, The Fleshtones have been largely eclipsed by bands with more visible albums, members, and histories. The band is all mine, and they serve as the perfect accent to any mixtape or conversation trivia at a mixer.
The digital footprint left by The Fleshtones is surprisingly sparse. Only a handful of key songs (from movie soundtracks) come up when a search for “fleshtones lyrics,” is queried on Google. A search for guitar notation or chord charts is completely fruitless, a rare feat in today’s search ecosystem. Even their vintage releases, 1982’s Roman Gods and 1983’s Hexbreaker!, were hard to pin down until the Australian label Raven re-released them on CD in 2011. For whatever reason, this sense of scarcity does nothing but excite me. It makes me feel an increased sense of intimacy and ownership. The Fleshtones, in this sense, are a knowledge commodity that has been underappreciated. By transcribing “Hexbreaker!”, and submitting it to the lyrics archive at lyrics.com (yet to be posted), I feel that I am laying claim to a space of knowledge and expertise neglected by many others.
Transcription is generally dull. Having transcribed many interviews in the past, I admit to regarding it as a job that requires patience more than practice: Press play. Listen for ten seconds. Jot down what was said. Forget half of what I was writing. Rewind five seconds. Listen again. Not quite enough to replace when I missed. Rewind eight seconds. Finish constructing the first sentence. Repeat. Hang in there for a few hours. Slow, repetitive, and monotonous is the work of interview transcription. In lieu of my previous experiences, I was happy to learn that the work of song transcription is notably more pleasurable. Although it came with its own share of frustrating and repetitive points, the presence of melody, cadence, and rhyme schemes made the entire process much more endearing and predictable.
One of the most engaging portions of song transcription came with the puzzling-out of unintelligible lyrics. The second verse of “Hexbreaker!” begins with a line that sounded like “With ____-____ mud and a hoodlum stack, finding fire in a mangled park” on first listen. It wasn’t until I had listened to each phrase five times in a row that I was able to revise to, “Well knee-high mud, and a moon lit shack, fightin’ flies in a mangled marsh.” Still not confident with that wording, I decided to do a dictionary search for similar words. To my elation after I had typed m-a-n-g into the dictionary the first word to appear was “mangrove,” the perfect word which I would never have guessed (it’s a weed-like tree found in coastal swamps!). Next I was spirited to discover that the following line evoked images of conquistadors sailing and exploring: “Well knee-high mud, and a moon lit shack, fightin’ flies in a mangrove marsh / Sendin’ sabres across the seven seas, or any foreign shores they may wash / I need a hexbreaker!”
After I was able to get a gist of the overall narrative through transcription, I went back through the piece and was better able to make educated guesses about what the lyrics were. Although Zaremba often takes an unintelligible pitch when singing, the context of 17th century exploration helped me to piece together many of the tougher bits of the song. For instance, I revised the beginning of the chorus from “Well toss it back / [The bottles they break],” to fit the overall theme of colonial exploration, “The cause is had. / [The bodies they break].” Although, I’m not certain that these are the words to the song, I’m very confident because they match the overall theme. The practice of song-transcription has been fulfilling in the same way that figuring out a jigsaw, or tangram is exciting. It is a creative sort of problem solving, one that combines both analytic (left brain) and spatial, metaphoric (right brain) intelligence.
Emotionally, however, I did not feel the same satisfaction that I do when singing. Perhaps this has something to do with transcription alternate mode of embodiment. Transcription, and the pleasures associated – problem solving, precision, and permanence – are all of an analytical, and somewhat strategic sort. These are the pleasures of a conduit, processes associated more with the enduring construction of emotional bonds (belonging, and community), than the lucid enjoyment of them. It is my hope that one day another Fleshtones fan plumbs the depths of Google to find the lyrics of “Hexbreaker!” and that the fruit of my efforts, a completed transcript on lyrics.com, greets them and helps them to sing along and revel. Until then, it is enough to know that the work of transcription, for myself at least, is analytic and dry–definitely worlds apart from the euphoric mode of singing where my entire body vibrates in rhapsody to the melody, rhythm, and harmony of song.
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and multimedia editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University.
His moment has come. After having scoured each vector of a ten by ten grid, the young tactician makes his move. “G-4,” he announces, possessing some intelligence of a large ship in the south-west quadrant of enemy territory. There is a moment of tension, as his dad sizes up the situation. “It’s a hit,” Dad admits, smiling, as he resignedly lifts a token from his board. The women in the family beam proudly from the kitchen. For a brief moment the social hierarchy is undermined as the house patriarch on the front of the Battleship box concedes victory to his progeny.
Sound has been integrated in different ways into the production of simulated warfare after World-War II. Simulated warfare involves, namely, the cybernetics of paper machines (as board games have been coined by Matthew Kirschenbaum), and the gradual effacement of oral mediation therein. As technologies of interactivity improve, the need for oral communication amongst the games participant’s decreases. The following is a case study of four Battleship commercials that aims to chronicle a set of shifting cultural tendencies parallel to the integration of sound-effects within the material game-form.
As Ong (1982) has noted, writing is powerful because it mediates the vastness of imagination. Once spoken words become grounded in text and inscribed on paper, they become, “locked in our visual fields forever” (p. 11). This is not as totalizing as it sounds, for as words are recirculated in oral cultures, the trace of writing yields slowly to the performative nature of ritual, oral culture. The rules of tabletop games, such as Battleship, although first established in the manual included with the game, are passed through oral ritual more often than not (Fine, 2002; Bowman, 2010). The oral maintenance of game rules is a practice which lends itself, critically, to the cultural attitudes of the group which maintains them. As is evident in the box art above, the game of Battleship is a gendered space where the rules have likely been explained (and maintained) by the household patriarch, then shared with his enthusiastic son.
There is an ideological element at play here as well. The box art for Battleship is unmistakably American. From Milton Bradley’s strong red-and-blue branding to the white trim of the son’s shirt, dad’s sweater and the soap suds in the kitchen. After all, the company owed its success to America and the war effort. A 1940s bailout saw Milton Bradley producing landing gear for fighter planes and gunstock for soldiers alongside portable game kits for soldiers seeking diversions in their down-time. The production of board games in post-World War II America owes as much to the military-industrial complex, as the production of video games does today (Dyer-Witherford and dePeuter, 2009). The relationship between the military production and simulation has been well documented by Crogan (2011), who has argued that the production of game interfaces, from the start, has been the by-product of a military desire to map real space onto the virtual in the design of ballistics. To this point, the bombastic introduction to a late-1960s commercial for Battleship (see video below) should come as no surprise. The sonic blast of a real-world battleship is calculated to lure consumers into believing that the game is an authentic simulation of maritime warfare.
The players in this commercial are actively engaged in a discussion amongst themselves. They laugh, and joke as they engage one-another in a tactical crossfire. In some cuts, the players seem particularly engrossed in the games strategy. Even though the commercial showcases two players actively engaged in oral communication, it is important to note that the players are both white males, and that the winner callously gloats as his opponent tumbles into the water. Milton Bradley’s connection to the American military is distinct here, and it plays out as a set of social relationships between the players. Reminiscent of Cold-War politics, the games action plays out as a series of tactical exchanges. Consumers are urged to practice at winning in their living-rooms, or on the go. The portable elements of Battleship are played down in an advertisement about 15 years later. Here, Battleship is situated as a centerpiece of family life.
Also integrating stock footage of real-world military battleships the narrative in this mid 1980s commercial begins with a squabble over domestic space. The actors are (at first) two boys (10 and younger), playing Battleship in the bedroom. After winning, the older boy banishes his younger brother, presumably forever, from his bedroom. Although this act could easily be imagined as selfish, in the context of the 1985 nuclear family, competition is fostered and encouraged. In a second skit, the older boy emerges again victorious at Battleship, his opponent (and father) slouches, consoled by the mother while the grandfather eagerly congratulates the young victor. Electronic Battleship is introduced here as a product as well, and the players are depicted commanding the electronic elements of the game. Feedback is given to the players sonically, as programmed game moves result in dynamic military explosions. There is still a residue of oral communication here, notably the father lamenting, “You sunk my battleship,” as the older boy lets out a strong cheer. Even though the embarrassed father is a commercial trope designed to stimulate the consumer imagination of aspiring child tacticians, it also functions as an in-joke for caring parents looking to instantiate intellectual (mathematical) competition as a centerpiece of domestic life in the age of Reagan’s Star Wars economics and family values.
Ten years later, the commercial narrative has more to do with overt warfare than family life. The competing children are spliced alongside clips of competing Navy officers performing various technical tasks on a real Battleship. As the background music takes on a tense, and somewhat militaristic tone, a command to “Man your battle stations,” is echoed as the two boys careen into their chairs. No longer is the narrative established as a civil exchange between two military masterminds, Electronic Talking Battleship uses sound to enhance the player experience of the simulation. When a hit is scored, a quick shot of the player pumping their fist and shouting is quickly replaced by stock footage of a battleship-explosion. Even wavy radio-lines are used to enhance the over-the-top comic feel of the product’s sound. A number of shots showcase the players programming their battle-stations. The commercial explicitly connects the discourse of soldier-controlled military technology, to player controlled information technology. Good players are able to program on their toes, the only conversation between players is a series of taunts and cheers. At one point, a player refers to the rules. Electronic Talking Battleship is evidence of the increasing capital of information technologies, and deterioration of orality in electronic games in the mid-1990s.
A final, 1997, commercial for Electronic Talking Battleship disposes entirely of the oral element of gameplay. The commercial begins with a child in what seems like an office conference room. After he presses a green button, a virtual matrix appears before him, and two navy officers materialize across the table from him. The viewer is to assume that one is an officer, and the other his superior. The narrative has the Navy officers desperately trying strategies against a hooting and smiling child. The Navy officers are a metaphor for the game’s computer, which can, at this point, serve as a virtual Battleship opponent. The affective work of companionship, which was once performed by one’s friends and family is now, in at least this commercial, replaced by a machine interface. The oral communication, which once governed the rule-set in a social space, has been outsourced to a machine which governs the rules, precisely, in cybernetic space
As computers begin to take a more active role in our culture, a by-product is the exchange of oral ritual for cybernetic participation. This odd shift can be read as having both positive and negative potential. One positive aspect is the estrangement of the social hierarchies which have been a necessary for the ritual infrastructure of oral communication dating back to Homeric times. While the children in the commercials (and on the original box) seem increasingly autonomous, they also begin to dialogue less with themselves, and more with the game. This, unfortunately, is the negative potential of this cybernetic shift.
Where the early advertisements of the game depicted a product which provided a potential escape from a war-ravaged world, later advertisements seek to situate the consumer in the center of the action. A common thread amongst these social, and technical shifts is the instantiation of an electronic voice and interface as keeper of the rules. And, with this shift, the military discursivity of the game-form and its accompanying electronics is inscribed, and made to seem innocent in our imagination and understanding of childhood games and play.
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and multimedia editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD student at Rutgers University.