Tape Hiss, Compression, and the Stubborn Materiality of Sonic Diaspora
In an article for Pitchfork, music critic Adam Ward reminisces about digital music files that sound as if they’re “being played through a payphone,” and calls the extreme compression of the low-quality MP3 “this generation’s vinyl crackle or skipping CD.” The crackles, hisses, and compression that characterize such sound files are what I term “encoded materiality.” Focusing on the encoded materiality of the digital helps us to reconfigure our approach to sonic media, understanding how the compression of early MP3s and tape hiss remind us not only of lost fidelity, but also of the richness of exchange. These warm and stubborn sonic impurities, having been encoded in our digital listening formats and thus achieving repeatability and variability, act as persistent reminders that we can think diaspora beyond melancholy and authenticity, sidestepping the questions of purity and loss that so often characterize dialogues in the field of diaspora studies.
In Mechanisms, his work on electronic textuality, Matthew Kirschenbaum proposes a “material matrix governing writing and inscription in all forms” composed of four elements: “erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability” (xiii). The defects of sonic technology that become encoded in digital files are one such type of inscription. Tape hiss and other recording accidents–such as Casey Kasem ruining your attempt to tape record the first Western song you fell in love with after leaving Hong Kong by fading the outro and butting in with his banter–achieve repetition and survival during the digital encoding process, becoming a welcome reminder of time and place. Such materiality helps us to better understand the politics of diaspora. It clues us in to how the elements of textual encoding (erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability) become embedded within diaspora’s complex logic.
To think through these complex moments of exchange, let me offer a story about my experience with tape hiss. I grew up listening to music touched by this particular sonic grain: a ground level of noise upon which my sonic experiences were built. After I received my first iPod in 2005, I connected a tape player to the input of my computer, recorded a stack of tapes, and then manually split them into MP3s—pseudo-piracy committed in earnest. A few weeks ago, I dug up these same files and put them on my phone, once again returning the buried albums to their former glory on a constant rotation playlist. I keep returning to these particular files, rather than finding the now easily available digital versions, because I admire the survivability of their materiality. The materiality of these tracks allowed me to trace the complexity of my own history—the tape hiss is just as much a part of this history as the songs themselves.
After first moving to Canada from Hong Kong, my family and I established ourselves by unswervingly performing the same routine each weekend. We would have late lunch at our favorite dim sum restaurant, drive around for a bit, and then relax at home; there wasn’t much to do in the ex-urbs of Toronto. On those drives, we listened to selections from a stack of cassette tapes in the glovebox of our old Pontiac Bonneville. Sally Yeh’s 1987 album Blessing was on constant rotation and received its fair share of wear. This was one of the tapes I recorded to my computer, destined for digitization.
Because I hit the record button a few seconds early, my MP3 of Sally Yeh’s Blessing begins with a few seconds of silence. It’s enough to trick me into thinking that the song isn’t playing. In a quiet enough spot, I can hear that it’s actually tape hiss. No matter where I am, on the road or in the shower, my mind fills in the blank with the thick ker-chunk of the cassette entering that Pontiac stereo right before that familiar tape hiss would fill the car, always giving us a few sometimes-needed, sometimes-awkward moments of silence before the music started. The sonic texture of that tape stems from its material nature as plastic and metal. The hiss itself is due to the size of the magnetized particles on the plastic. Because of these sounds, the song tells its own story. It recalls our shared sonic and material experience as I migrate it from device to device.
Before Blessing made its way into our car, it was one of the few cassette tapes that my parents carefully packed into a dozen cardboard boxes and shipped by sea to Canada in the late 1980s. This was in the midst of the countrywide protests in China that led to the events at Tiananmen Square. That insistent ker-chunk of plastic on metal that my brain inserts every time I play the MP3s keeps my experience of the music grounded in this earlier history, too. Strange that a fluffy pop song would remind me of the serious political strife taking place on the doorstep of a Hong Kong nervously awaiting its “handover.” This sonic anchor’s ability to recall to me these snippets of history, both personal, national, and transpacific has been crucial in the development of my own diasporic identity. Listening to this particular recording of Blessing helps me to keep track of my self and my history.
The act of withdrawal that many of us perform in order to interface with our sonic technologies, as Alexander Weheliye shows in his reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in Phonographies, can play a powerful role in understanding one’s own racial subjectivity. Weheliye focuses on the scene in which the titular narrator-protagonist retreats to a subterranean cave-like space to listen to Louis Armstong’s recorded, disembodied voice in complete solitude. He asserts that the narrator builds his own subjectivity through a recognition of the self by projecting that self onto Louis Armstrong’s “vocal apparatus,” that is, his voice coming through a phonograph (143). “The phonograph’s ability to disconnect the singing voice from its face, or rather to replace it with a technological visage, further heightens its materiality, which impels the protagonist to imbue Armstrong’s voice with a surplus of signification” (Weheliye 145).
More than a black and white photo or a stern historical lecture from the elders, the “heightened materiality” of the digital format, a type of “technological visage” cathects my own diasporic history most forcefully to the sonic anchor of tape hiss because it acts as a “voice without a face” in the same way as the phonographic Armstrong. But despite the privacy of the phonographic listening act in this scenario, Weheliye suggests that
the phonographic listening modality also bears the traces of sociality… since the listening subject is drawn out of him/herself by encountering the technologically mediated sounds of other subjects—we might even go so far as to suggest that the phonograph itself functions as a subject, especially in its interfacings with various humans. (165)
So it is with similar sonic technologies that can encourage the “eschewing [of] the social” such as iPhones, CDs, and, yes, cassette tapes. Like Ellison’s narrator interfacing with the mechanical apparatus that conveys Armstrong’s voice, the insistent “defects” kept on the digital file keep the mechanism of its delivery at the fore, allowing me first to understand that diasporic feeling of dis-ease—and to imagine beyond it.
What I gain from the digital yet still stubbornly material tape of Blessing is not any overt lyrical or thematic gesture to a diasporic subjectivity on the artist’s part, but rather an induction into what Giorgio Agamben calls, “the idea of an inessential commonality, a solidarity that in no way concerns an essence” (18), or perhaps a community based on “belonging itself” (84). Likewise, Weheliye’s “diasporic citizenship coarticulate[s] the national and transnational instead of playing a zero-sum game with political identification” (369). If diaspora is defined by the perpetual desire to seek an imagined originary point of true identity that inevitably leads to melancholy, as psychoanalysis maintains, tape hiss and other encoded materialities turn the gaze away from the mists of origin, validating instead the development of diasporic identity in the aftermath of emigration. Of course, loss and melancholy are legitimate psychic aspects of the diasporic experience, as persuasively demonstrated by scholars such as David Eng, Shinhee Han, Anne Anlin Cheng, but they neither define the whole experience nor are they mutually exclusive to it. It is in this way that we can think of diaspora as a community of belonging by becoming.
A consideration of the stubborn ways that materiality is encoded in the digital helps us to think of diaspora as more than psychic fait accompli—it is also a ‘coming community’ characterized by the process of belonging. Kirschenbaum’s matrix provides the right foundation for a study which considers how material inscriptions are related to our diasporic lives. The inscription that defined my diasporic becoming came from the cassette tape that travelled across the ocean in a boat for five weeks, escaped erasure, survived repeated playings, became digital, and lives on now as a hissing reminder of our history of emigration. What else may we find about our own becoming and belonging if we attune our ears to the encoded materialities of sonic diaspora?
Featured image “Decayed Cassette” by darkday @Flickr CC BY.
Chris Chien is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Southern California working variously in the areas of sound, diaspora and transpacific studies, all with a distinctly queer bent. He completed his M.A. in English Literature at Loyola Marymount University and his Honors B.A. in English Literature and Latin at the University of Toronto. Chris has presented papers on angelic gender fluidity in John Milton’s Paradise Lost and post-colonial affect in the work of Herman Melville and Amitav Ghosh at the Rocky Mountain MLA and South Atlantic MLA conferences respectively. He is currently developing a paper that examines the performativity of diaspora, masculinity, and the capitalist ethos in Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat and its adaptation as an ABC sitcom.
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Pushing Play: What Makes the Portable Tape Recorder Interesting?—Gus Stadler
SANDRA BLAND: #SayHerName Loud or Not at All — Regina N. Bradley
Listening (Loudly) to Spanish-language Radio — Dolores Inés Casillas
Brasil Ao Vivo!: The Sonic Pleasures of Liveness in Brazilian Popular Culture — Kariann Goldschmitt
Living with Noise
[O]ne of the chief values of living with music lies in its power to give us an orientation to time.– Ralph Ellison, “Living with Music” (1955)
Early this past fall, my wife and I moved back to Brooklyn after three years in central New York State. We spent two of those years on a back street in a mostly rural area of Cortland, NY, where are there are more dogs than people and more cows than dogs. Those dogs were probably the most intrusive neighborhood sound—a barker would get going and that’d set off a chain reaction from yard to yard, like a real life version of the “Twlight Barking” from 101 Dalmations. Still, I could get used to it, ignore it, zone out. The only other sounds that penetrated our home were the nearby freight trains, but their sounds are almost soothing—the rhythm of the clacking rails like Paul Simon singing “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance. . .” or a relaxation tape.
Now back in New York City, I am very aware of the different degree, frequency and quality of sounds I am subjected to while in my living space. Reconsidering living with noise put me in the mind of Ralph Ellison’s 1955 essay “Living With Music” from High Fidelity magazine. Like the living situation Ellison describes, our new place is a rear-facing apartment and we get the sound of echoing voices, car horns or yowling cats (fighting and/or making more cats) bouncing off the back wall of a garage on the next street. However, as most city-dwellers know, it is our neighbors that provide the most persistent and profound sonic disturbances. Ellison himself was disturbed at an upstairs neighbor’s overzealous singing, vocalizing “[f]rom morning until night.” In our case, another four-family apartment house abuts ours and through the two brick walls sandwiched by two layers of plaster, we can frequently hear the shrill cries of teenage anguish. The violent screaming between teenaged siblings or between one or more of them and their parents can shake the walls. It is difficult to ignore.
The noise of children in New York City apartments was a topic of a New York Times feature a couple of years ago, but in that article the age of the children makes it easy to sympathize with the parents and to cast the complainers as insensitive villains. Little children cannot be expected to regulate their own crying or the seemingly ceaseless energy that is so easily transformed into cries of glee or the galloping of those baby shoes. In the case of my neighbors, it harder to sympathize when the sound is from near-adult children screaming about how life isn’t fair, or getting forced into frequent violent disagreements with a similarly aged sibling with which they must share a tiny part of an already tiny space—a New York City apartment.
It is easy to get angry when they get going. A teenager is not a chorus of barking dogs, a small crying child, or even some jerk honking his horn a block away who doesn’t realize how far the sound can travel, but ostensibly someone developing into a functional adult. The things they are screaming about can often seem beyond ridiculous to older people, and thus their need to scream about them is particularly offensive when I am simply trying to enjoy a evening of catching up on Mad Men or (more importantly) an afternoon writing my dissertation. As my wife often asks, “Why don’t their parents regulate?” But I try to remind her, it is the attempt to regulate their behavior that often starts the screaming matches. Like a 2-year old testing the range of her voice, these teens are exploring their own boundaries. Furthermore, unlike the class entitlement permeating the NYT Real Estate section feature, the economic reality of living in row houses in Bensonhurst changes expectations regarding the living experience.
The sonic disturbances often come when I am trying to get some writing done, so it is not hard to think about Ellison’s essay, since writing was also what he endeavored to do when bedeviled by his neighbor’s practice of “bel canto style.” The way noise can carry in these apartments creates a form of anonymous intimacy. Think of Duke Ellington’s “Harlem Airshaft,” a musical representation of just that urban intimacy.
As he said of the apartment airshaft that inspired that piece,
You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great loudspeaker, you hear people praying, fighting and snoring.
While I don’t know my neighbors better than a polite nod of hello when I pass them sitting on the stoop, I am ear-witness to their dramas, and more than that I am sometimes drawn into them, finding myself banging the wall with a forearm and calling through the wall “enough already!” Or spending time discussing the family’s private affairs with my wife, speculating about the arguments. Similarly, Ellison’s trepidations about trying to silence his neighbor come from how her practice makes him intimately aware of her aspirations, even as that same intimacy drives him to build a stereo to blast at her in an attempt to conquer their shared sonic space.
Urban sonic intimacy is tightly tied to Ellison’s assertion regarding music and our orientation to time. However, Ellison’s observations can be expanded beyond music, because remember one person’s music is another person’s noise, as Scott Poulson-Bryant discussed in his Sounding Out! post on music and New York City apartment life in “The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own” (August 2010). A noise can likewise orient me in time: the sound of freight trains will bring me back to my time in Cortland, and more profoundly, that teenaged screaming brings me back to my own volatile adolescence, asking me to reconcile that version of me with the one I am now.
In Ellison’s essay, he arrives at two conclusions regarding music. The first is the above-mentioned orientation to time and the second is deep sympathy that arises from that realization, as he associates his upstairs neighbor’s intrusive singing practice with his own childhood attempts to master the trumpet. The orientation to time he discusses is not only a matter of looking back and making associations with a younger self’s relationship to music, but also comes from an adult understanding that there were those “who were willing to pay in present pain for future pride. For who knows what skinny kid. . .might become the next [Louie] Armstrong?” The anonymous intimacy of city-living has made me reflective regarding these screaming matches and I have begun to develop a sympathy that lets me tolerate the disturbance, to understand it in a context of living and growing. For how do I know that those volatile teenaged emotions might not develop into the sensitive and thoughtful adult attitude I try to have in my own life? There is no need to imagine that these kids will grow into anyone special (though the world could certainly use a couple more Louis Armstrongs or Ralph Ellisons), but their noise is a signal for the need for empathy, to remember our own ability to make noise not only through simply living but in trying to grow, to become. . .
Ellison may have thought that “the enjoyment of music is always suffused with past experience,” but I think enjoyment is just the tip of an iceberg of sonic experience, because it also holds out the possibility for an affective relationship with sound that can shift from annoyance to understanding without actually having to enjoy. It is not just music, but noise that “gives significance to all those indefinable aspects of experience, which. . .help to make us what we are.” Noise transforms in the cramped urban setting from a residue of life into a connective tissue that signals a challenge to boundaries, requiring greater empathy and patience. The very noise that endangers our peace is also a reminder of how close and alike we really are. It is only time that separates me from the screaming of a teenager and it is only time that stands between me and a screaming teen of my own.
Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and ABD in English at Binghamton University.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Summer Soundscapes, East Coast Style–Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman
The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own–Scott Poulson-Bryant
Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil–Leonardo Cardoso