Education is never politically neutral. Many of us advocate for social justice when we’re outside of the classroom but struggle to continue that work inside as well, especially with issues that appear on the surface largely unrelated to our disciplines. This inaction maintains the centering of the white experience, continuing to normalize and prioritize it at the expense of all others. Marginalized voices remain marginalized. We don’t need our own students to be directly impacted by policies to advocate on behalf of those who are. This is work we all must do.
While social issues have made important inroads within musicology and ethnomusicology, they rarely make an appearance in music theory or composition, especially in a classroom setting. To begin these conversations, we must expand the scope beyond the purely technical and examine the ways in which music is a social and cultural phenomenon. Understanding how a triad functions, for example, is only part of the story. We must also recognize that any musical activity involves a network of people who might be engaged in any combination of producing, performing, buying, selling, listening, analyzing, teaching, institutionalizing, and so on. Discussing these networks means discussing their persistent systemic inequalities and power differentials, and understanding that these are social and not just musical issues. Cultivating this awareness is crucial in the development of our students as critical thinkers who can question the society in which they live, who can locate injustice and fight to advance social good. Abstract music theory is important, but music theory combined with a social awareness is vital.
Georgetown University hosts an annual Let Freedom Ring! initiative, a recurring project to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. “Teach The Speech,” in particular, is a cross-campus curriculum project where interested faculty and staff incorporate that year’s selected work by Dr. King in our courses and workshops, sparking campus-wide conversations rooted in themes of social justice. The first time I joined the “Teach the Speech” efforts, I redesigned my basic theory class to include guiding principles from King’s entire body of work. In addition to covering the expected chords, scales, and other technical material, we discussed the disparity in representation faced by women and POC within music, viable modes of protest in music, and the possible roles of government sponsorship and censorship of artists. We rooted these issues in the real-life examples of the Grammy’s, the Women’s March, and the threats by the Trump administration to cut funding to the NEA and the NEH. Final projects based on these bigger-picture topics provided students further opportunity to reflect on the ways in which these and similar topics manifest in their own lives, transcending a preoccupation with “notes on a page.”
My second time participating in the “Teach the Speech” initiative, I used a recording of Dr. King delivering “I Have Been to The Mountaintop” as part of a module on sampling for my DJing and production class. Students had to create short tracks using this recording as the only permissible sound source. Anything resembling a kick, snare, hi-hat, melody, or harmony had to be constructed from a sample. Using something we don’t typically consider to be music as the sound source for creating music demonstrates the power of the studio and illustrates just how far creative slicing, dicing, and processing can take us. Beyond these important practical applications, though, the use of speech provides us with a framework for discussing why context matters. Do context and history always travel alongside the immediate acoustic phenomenon of sound? Can we identify something as “the music itself”? Through wrestling with these and related questions, students begin to understand sample-based composition as both a musical and a moral undertaking.
The process of sampling is largely a process of curation, involving a responsibility not just for the product but also for the source. If a student chooses to sample a large-enough portion of Dr. King’s speech, so that one can recognize words, phrases, even full sentences, then her choice includes the layers of extra-musical meaning attached to those words in addition to their musical qualities. “Violence,” for example, has a particular sonic profile and meaning that most listeners understand. How we actually interpret this word depends on many factors, including the context in which it is used in the original source, the identity of the speaker, and any audio processing that students might apply. The addition of distortion, for example, will influence the impact of that word on and its reception by the listener. The sampled word might be a fragment of a larger word, “violence” snipped from “nonviolence,” and never appear in its own right in the source. These and other complex issues involved in the process of sampling exist whether or not the student chooses to engage with them.
If the student samples an extremely small fragment of the Dr. King speech, obscuring the source and working with sound on an almost molecular level, then perhaps these questions go away. Can we still discuss the attendant connotations and denotations of indecipherable fractions of words or slices of the ambient hiss between the words? In this situation, is the origin of the sample still relevant for the work being done? When the ties connecting a heavily processed source to the finished product are untraceable, does it matter where we sampled from? Is white noise simply white noise?
Arriving at these kinds of questions is largely the point of the exercise. With a little deliberation, students realize that there is a very clear distinction between sampling the word “violence” from a speech by Trump and from a speech by MLK. There is a context, a lineage, and a history to samples that lives outside the phenomenon of pure sound, and this holds true even at the molecular level. This is crucial for students to understand, and its implications extend far beyond a music class.
We can, for example, ask students to consider the related question about whether or not it’s possible to separate art from the artist. Can we ever listen to pre-MAGA Kanye with the same ears? How do we interpret a post-MAGA Kanye song about uplift and resilience? What does it mean to watch a film where Harvey Weinstein had a major role in producing? A minor role? Moral dilemmas form a part of every media interaction we have, and similar questions comprise other aspects of our lives. Can we continue to allow the misappropriation of Dr. King’s “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” without acknowledging the “radical” Dr. King? Can we reconcile a country built on expropriation, slavery, and genocide with one whose propaganda extolls the principles of equality and freedom? These are indeed crucial lines of moral inquiry, and our pretending otherwise enables current systems to remain in place. Sampling King’s speech enables my students to engage with those lines of inquiry from an angle they have not considered before: at the level of sound.
This is work we all must do. Within academia, we need to combat injustice inside the classroom as well as outside to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. One way we can engage is through careful attention both to the examples we choose and the way we contextualize them. Students and educators alike need to understand the political nature of education that is too often a means of upholding the power structures within society that position whites at the top, and white males at the very top. These largely invisible systems have very real impacts on our lives, and the only way we can evolve to a more just society is by questioning their seeming inevitability. We must foster dialogue that transcends the classroom. We must engage with social problems. We must look beyond the accumulation of knowledge as an end in itself. We must, in short, to do good. This is work we all must do.
Featured image: “Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial” by Flickr user Cocoabiscuit, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Dave Molk teaches composition and theory at Georgetown University. He’s close friends with producer Olde Dirty Beathoven, a founding member of District New Music Coalition, and a board member of New Works for Percussion Project. Outside of music, Dave is a leader of CCON, an organization devoted to supporting undocumented communities in higher ed in the DMV. Find him online at https://www.molkmusic.com/ and @DaveMolkMusic.
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A Listening Mind: Sound Learning in a Literature Classroom–Nicole Furlonge
In the summer of 2016, optimistic about a full-time teaching position at a minority-serving institution, yet unsure about what the U.S. election would mean for immigrants’ rights, I played the Hamilton soundtrack daily. Lin Manuel Miranda wrote the Pulitzer-prize winning musical inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography on the United States’ founding father because, he believed, Alexander Hamilton’s life embodied hip hop. My repeated listenings urged me to assign the musical as homework in my courses.
Colleagues with whom I engage on Twitter provided resources with which to begin. A public historian, Lyra Monteiro, wrote an important review for Public History,“Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,” which provide one key angle of critique. Latinx Theater scholar and SO! writer Trevor Boffone created an online syllabus, #Syllabus4Ham, that provided important critiques of the musical, news coverage of its growing popularity, and initial scholarly analyses of the cultural historical significance of the musical’s popularity. Pedagogically, Miranda’s archival research in addition to his belief that Hamilton’s life embodied hip hop sparked an interest to bring the production to my gender and interdisciplinary studies classrooms. While colleagues works’ inspired ways to discuss the musical in class, post-election coverage and the release of the Hamilton Mixtape provided more material to discuss. Teaching children of hip hop whose lives embody the struggle that Miranda made the central force behind his re-writing of Hamilton’s contribution to United States’ history, I wanted to develop lessons drawing on those relations.
By the spring 2017, I had done preliminary reading on the syllabus Boffone provided and replaced the musical with the Mixtape as my car ride soundtrack. When organizing my syllabus, I assigned tracks from the mixtape against the musical’s soundtrack with the intent of assigning students excerpts in both both my introductory Gender Studies course and Interdisciplinary Research Methods courses, but with a unique twist for each class. Gender Studies engaged with the content contextualized by discussions of immigration and citizenship. I assigned my Research Methods course Monteiro’s critique of race-consciousness of the musical against the mixtape and the musical. While students were in solidarity with Montiero’s argument, I invited them to consider Miranda’s original intent, the mixtape, which may have informed the themes Miranda prioritized.
Few of them had heard of the musical before my class and less had heard of the mixtape. Their limited exposure necessitated historicizing both Miranda’s career and the evolution Hamilton’s, which begins with 2009 Miranda’s White House performance. Miranda, invited by President Obama to perform a song from his previous hit In the Heights, instead decided to introduce his new project, a mixtape based on Alexander Hamilton.
Through discussion, I proposed that the students consider that the production, in 2009 envisioned as an album, served as a strategic catalyst to bring attention to his forthcoming mixtape. That attention evolved into encouraging Miranda to produce the musical; it would take a few more years till the intended mixtape was produced. Even though produced later, I speculated that the mixtape thematically benefited from the popularity of the musical because the musical’s focus on Alexander Hamilton rewrites the context of the mixtape.
Teaching Hamilton the musical and the mixtape felt politically necessary at a minority serving institution in this historical moment of anti-immigrant, and anti-black sentiment. Having, in the past, worked with other youth to mobilize youth empowerment through hip hop, Hamilton provided an avenue in which I could discuss its political potential because of its popularity not only in spite of it. In breaking down Miranda’s cultural and political significance, I summarized the evolution of awards he and the musical’s cast had won as well as the preliminary cast’s reflections on participating in Hamilton, along with what it means to have the success of the musical produce a wider audience for the mixtape.
After more than a semester working with students who grow frustrated with the traditional research paper and because of my own work producing research-based fiction and poetry, teaching the musical and mixtape provided an important example of research-based art. Because some students approach interdisciplinary research methods not understanding the possibilities of the relationship between art and research and some students are unsure of how to connect learning outcomes to their aspiring performance careers, I find teaching Miranda’s work remains necessary. Further, Miranda provides an avenue through which I could relate to students because of our shared interest in music as well as our conflicted relationship with consuming hip hop.
Teaching a student population that is 25% Latinx and who are either directly or indirectly affected by immigration policies, my students related, often quite deeply and intimately, to the message of the song. I watched their faces as they listened, particularly to “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done),” and their kinesthetic responses showcased what many of us ache for our students to experience: wonder, appreciation, and the illumination of insight.
I then guided them to hone in specifically on Puerto Rican rapper Residente rapping about the Mexican immigrant struggle in Spanish, emphasizing how he sonically and rhetorically urges a Latin pan-ethnicity while using his U.S. citizenship privilege to historicize border crossing Mexicans. Residente’s lyrics create an opportunity to discuss Puerto Ricans’ cultural reality of being perceived as immigrants while being legally defined as citizens, all the while calling back to the lyrical connection to the “Battle of Yorktown” from the musical.
I highlighted Miranda’s rhetorical strategy in building a song around one line that contexts changes across either song. The “Battle of Yorktown” centers on the contributions of immigrants to gaining freedom. During the lecture, I drew connections between the lyric that would become a song and the lyric subtly referencing the lack of freedoms for black people who were enslaved in the U.S. I asked about the parallels before explaining them, using the intentionality behind creating and compelling a racially diverse cast to script a narrative about who could and who had built the United States. What does it mean to hear these voices emanating from this cast, telling this story?
Pedagogically, teaching music in either course served the intent of reimagining the purpose and potential of sound, whether from a musical or a mixtape, as a site of critical thinking. Popular musicians’ cultural authority slowly decenters the white fragility I have come to expect from difficult conversations such as the ones Hamilton and The Hamilton Mixtape allow me to have. Furthermore, the call-and-response between the mixtape and the musical work address the silence of the unrecognized, exploited, and/or enslaved labor that continues to build this country. For my students, hearing musicians they like or who perform in their favorite genre, speaking truth to power about poverty, struggle, and not being thought of as good enough shifted not only our classroom energy, but many students’ perspectives.
Teaching the Hamiltons helped my student population make sense of their “invisible” status in the U.S. and want more than what’s expected. They gained something in being able to hear their stories in the classroom—not just read them on the page—but hear them from people who look and sound like them. Hungry for more material that speaks to their disenfranchisement, my students wondered why more songs that sound the complex beauty of our resilience and struggle are not on the radio. They wanted to know how they can ask for more.
Featured Image: Screen capture from “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” remix video
Erika Gisela Abad, Ph.D, is a Queer Latina poet, born and raised in Chicago. She received her PhD in American Studies in 2012. Since completing her degree, she has worked as: a customer service associate and a scheduler at a phone interpreter call center, head counselor for a caddy program affiliated with a high school scholarship fund, field director for an education policy campaign, an oral historian and ethnographer. Since August 2016, she has been a full time assistant professor teaching gender studies. Twitter: @lionwanderer531; @prof_eabad
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“Don’t Be Self-Conchas”: Listening to Mexican Styled Phonetics in Popular Culture*–Sara V. Hinojos and Dolores Inés Casillas
Each of the essays in this month’s “Medieval Sound” forum focuses on sound as it, according to Steve Goodman’s essay “The Ontology of Vibrational Force,” in The Sound Studies Reader, “comes to the rescue of thought rather than the inverse, forcing it to vibrate, loosening up its organized or petrified body (70). These investigations into medieval sound lend themselves to a variety of presentation methods loosening up the “petrified body” of academic presentation. Each essay challenges concepts of how to hear the Middle Ages and how the sounds of the Middle Ages continue to echo in our own soundscapes.
The posts and podcast in this series begins an ongoing conversation about medieval sound in Sounding Out!. Our opening gambit in April 2016, “Multimodality and Lyric Sound,” reframes how we consider the lyric from England to Spain, from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, pushing ideas of openness, flexibility, and productive creativity. We will post several follow-ups throughout the rest of 2016 focusing on “Remediating Medieval Sound.” And, HEAR YE!, in April 2017, look for a second series on Aural Ecologies of noise! –Guest Editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman
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Medieval charms run the gamut from offering protection for journeys (travel was often perilous) to warding your cattle from thieves (the runic letter for ‘cattle’ also means ‘wealth’) to various kinds of healing for people, animals and even the earth. Many of them include verses that are meant to be sung.
What is the sound of magic? How do you sing it properly without notation? Does it affect the efficacy of the charm if you sing it wrong?
‘Sing ðis gealdor’ Sing this charm the Anglo-Saxon texts command. The words are even linked as ‘galdorsangas’ incantations, but the doom-and-gloom 11th century preacher Archbishop Wulfstan uses that term in the pejorative sense of things to avoid, lumping it together with ‘sorceries’ as things to avoid. In its time the right way of singing was understood but, as is the case about much of the social context, we have lost the specifics.
How to recreate an Anglo-Saxon charm in a modern sound file then? If you’re going to do it right, how do you capture the magic in a way that’s true to the source material and yet accessible to a modern audience (even if it’s just my students)? I was determined to do it and do it right.
K. A. Laity is the author of the novels White Rabbit, Knight of the White Hart, A Cut-Throat Business, Lush Situation, Owl Stretching, Pelzmantel, The Mangrove Legacy, Chastity Flame and the collections Unquiet Dreams and Unikirja, as well as editor of Weird Noir, Noir Carnival and Drag Noir, writer of other stories, plays and essays. Her stories tend to slip across genres and categories, but all display intelligence and humour. Myths and fairy tales influence much of her writing. The short stories in Dreambook [originally Unikirja] found their inspiration from The Kalevala, Kanteletar, and other Finnish myths and legends: the stories won the 2005 Eureka Short Story Fellowship and a 2006 Finlandia Foundation grant.
Dr. Laity teaches medieval literature, film, digital humanities and popular culture at the College of Saint Rose, though she was at NUI Galway as a Fulbright scholar for the 2011-2 academic year.
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Mouthing the Passion: Richard Rolle’s Soundscapes–Christopher Roman
EPISODE LI: Creating New Words from Old Sounds–Marcella Ernest, Candace Gala, Leslie Harper, and Daryn McKenny
SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig. You’re welcome!
Pause for a moment.
What do you hear?
Is it the quiet hum of a furnace or fan? Perhaps the muffled chatter of your colleagues or children down the hall? Can you hear sirens or birds or the passing of a car or train? Likely, these are sounds that, over time, you have learned to tune-out. Perhaps you have even complained about such ‘noise’ as something that distracts you from your work or disrupts you from your sleep.
But are these sounds really just noise? What would it mean to move beyond hearing such sounds as noise and instead (re)learn to listen to these soundscapes of the everyday as representative of community?
From February to April of 2016, #hearmyhome encourages users to play, innovate, and compose soundscapes through a series of eight sonic events. In doing so, our goal is to help users ‘tune-in’ to their everyday surroundings. By (re)learning to listen to the sounds that surround them, participants may begin to better understand community. In other words, #hearmyhome considers how hearing difference and listening to community may (re)educate our senses by attuning to the rhythms and reverberations of culture.
Currently in its earliest phases, #hearmyhome, led by Jon M. Wargo and myself, explores how choosing to ‘tune-in’ facilitates not only an increased awareness of the acoustic territories and rhythmic rituals which surround us, but also the impact of such sonic experiences on our bodies. In doing so, #hearmyhome interrogates how, with and through sound, people write and compose community.
Each of us became interested in studying soundscapes through different avenues. For Jon, his interest in sound and sonic composition emerged from his longitudinal ethnographic examination of LGBT youth writing with mobile media. Sound was a medium used by many of the young people to architect experience and write community. As a traditionally neglected mode, he was curious how historically marginalized youth (LGBT youth of color) used sound to compose counter-narratives of self and community.
Sparked by travels abroad, I first began capturing soundscapes while in Indonesia during Ramadan. Using Snapchat’s video tool, I not only captured the sounds of the call to prayer, but also sounds across Southeast Asia—from the busy streets of Jakarta to the dropping of coins into the 108 bowls within the Temple of Reclining Buddha in Bangkok, Thailand. Through these sonic experiences, I began to question how sound might be used by educators and youth to explore difference and diversity amongst local and global communities.
Developing materials on a multitude of scales—from local community asset maps in teacher education classes to the larger collaborative of networked sounds—each is created with the goal of hearing, recognizing, and sustaining community. #hearmyhome takes heed of the frequencies and rhythms of culture in hopes to architect, design, and teach towards equitable landscapes for learning. Refracted through the aural perspective, we see sound re-teaching the senses by working with participants to compose constructs like ‘home’ and ‘place.’ Geared towards PK-16 teachers and students, #hearmyhome is a pedagogical endeavor. Yet, as a research project, we are interested in examining the following research questions: What are the soundscapes of a networked collaborative? How do users and participants compose with sound, attune towards difference, and write with place?
Towards a Networked Vision for Tuning-In to Sound
#hearmyhome’s vision is guided by three central tenets: collaboration, pedagogy/praxis, and research
Focusing on “everyday” cultural heritage, #hearmyhome invites youth and adult participants to “earwitness” community through expansive personal learning networks (PLN). At the conclusion of the sonic events, participants’ soundscapes and ambient acoustics will be archived on an open-networked soundscapes map. We hope that these will be accessed as curricular resources for youth and teachers globally. #hearmyhome is an “affinity space” wherein participants share both knowledge and life experiences (hosted and inspired through their sonic events series). Through this map, for instance, a teacher in Montana may have access to the sounds of Chicago’s subway while simultaneously youth in Michigan may opt to write with the sounds of a kookaburra captured by second graders in Australia. Ideally, an “affinity space” helps to form interpersonal relationships and collaboratively create a fuller understanding of community and culture for participants. As the community expands through new partnerships and members, we hope it serves as a hub connecting participants with research opportunities, (g)local initiatives—integrating and making the more global knowledge local—and online resources and tools.
One of #hearmyhome’s larger goals is to develop curricular materials for teachers via the collaborative network and shared space on writing with and through sound. As an “open” project, resources will be shared widely via the #hearmyhome website as well as across our social media platforms as we hope to develop powerful practices of hearing, listening, and witnessing sound across communities. Interested in contributing? While our sonic events are available now, throughout the summer #hearmyhome’s homepage will be updated with additional curricular resources. If you are an educator, please consider contributing to this crowd-sourced effort. Join us by signing up for our weekly emails here or like our page on Facebook for more information on each sonic event, or simply ‘lurk and learn’ by following the #hearmyhome hashtag across Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter!
Supported by the Cultural Heritage Informatics Fellowship and the National Council of Teachers of English’s Conference on English Education Research Initiative, #hearmyhome explores the sonic possibilities of writing with sound. We use sound to amplify what Steph Ceraso calls “multimodal listening,” or attending to the bodily, material, and contextual aspects of sonic interactions and relations. Sound allows for more expansive understandings of space, place, and self. We decided to hang our research on the hashtag, #hearmyhome, to aggregate data because it allows us to index user-produced soundscapes while attending to the wider goal of exploring the multiple homes of our global participants. The research component of the project investigates how the acoustic territories of the everyday write culture. For example, how might the writing of a ‘Where I’m From…’ poem shift if one does not choose to write using alphabetic print, but instead chooses to use sound? However, #hearmyhome by its very nature is open to everyone regardless of participation in the formal “research” study. Researchers will always seek members’ consent before sharing any work beyond the online community networked collaborative. For more on this, please see our standards of research statement.
Follow Along with #hearmyhome’s Sonic Events
Joining #hearmyhome is as simple as opting in to our sonic events. To do so, visit the #hearmyhome homepage and select “Sonic Events.” Then, after reading across the prompt, use your phone or another device to record the soundscapes that are the focus of the sonic event. You can easily upload and share your recording using Instagram, Twitter, or Soundcloud. By including the #hearmyhome hashtag as well as the appropriate hashtag for the sonic event you are responding to (ex. #SE5 for sonic event 5), your response will be indexed in the #hearmyhome stream. To later be included in our networked map, it is important to also turn on the geotag to demarcate your location. Your contribution will then be accessible to teachers and youth as they explore different communities and writing with and through sound!
While there is no right or wrong way to participate in #hearmyhome, we wanted to share an example from one of our participants, sound scholar Steph Ceraso. By clicking the Soundcloud link below, you can listen to how Steph responded to the prompt for our fifth #hearmyhome sonic event that asked participants to share the sounds of the ‘in-between’ moments of their day. We chose Steph’s example as it illustrates not only the beauty of noise, silence, and everyday hearings, but also for her ability to remix these sounds into a song all of their own.
Although the sonic events go “live” during the weeks listed on the homepage (February 7 to April 1 2016), we encourage you to use these sounds in any way and to join the #hearmyhome collaborative at any time. Reading across the soundscapes of networked participation, we ultimately believe attuning towards difference and “hearing” home and community will help (re)mediate learning about culture by voicing stories of the everyday, highlighting the rhythmic resonances of ritual, and attuning towards community difference.
Cassie J. Brownell is a Graduate Fellow in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities and a doctoral student in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education at Michigan State University.
Jon M. Wargo, an International Literacy Association (ILA) 30 Under 30 awardee, is a University Fellow and doctoral candidate in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education at Michigan State University. In Fall 2016, Jon will join the Wayne State University faculty as an Assistant Professor of Reading, Language, and Literacy.
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SO! Amplifies: Cities and Memory–Stuart Fowkes