Since its inception at the World Soundscape Project in the 1970s, soundwalking has emerged as a critical method for sound studies research and artistic practice. Although “soundwalking” now describes a diversity of activities and purposes, critical discussions and reading lists still rarely represent or consider the experiences of people of color (POC). As Locatora Radio hosts Diosa and Mala have argued in their 2018 podcast about womxn of color and the sound of sexual harassment in their everyday lives and neighborhoods, sound in public space is weaponized to create “sonic landscapes of unwelcome” for POC.
While we often think of soundwalks as engines of knowledge production, we must also consider that they may simultaneously silence divergent worldviews and perspectives of space and place. In “Black Joy: African Diasporic Religious Expression in Popular Culture,” Vanessa Valdés explored alternate conceptions of space held by practicioners of Regla de Ocha, epistemologies rarely, if ever, addressed via soundwalks. “Within African diasporic religions . . . including Palo Monte, Vodou, Obeah, Macumba, Candomblé – there is respect for the seemingly inexplicable,” Valdés remarks, “there is room for the miraculous, for that which can be found outside the realms of what has been deemed reasonable by systems of European thought. There is room for faith.” Does current soundwalk praxis—either as research method, public intervention, artistic medium, field recording subject, or pop culture phenomenon—impose dominant ideas about space and knowledge production as much as—if not more–they offer access to alternatives? Are there alternate historiographies for soundwalking that predate the 1970s? Can soundwalks provide such openings, disruptions, and opportunities without a radical rethinking? What would a decolonial/decolonizing soundwalk praxis look and sound like?
Soundwalking While POC explores these questions through the work of Allie Martin, Amanda Gutierrez, and Paola Cossermelli Messina. Today, Allie Martin kicks off the series with a powerful reframing of the soundwalk as a black feminist methodology. —JS
In July 2018 I visited Oxford, Mississippi for the first time, to attend a workshop on conducting oral histories. Upon walking with a friend back to our accommodations on the University of Mississippi campus, we heard a voice calling to us from far away, up a hill somewhere. It was a catcalling voice—that much I definitely recognized—but I also felt sure that I heard the word “nigger.” My friend, who is also a black woman, heard the taunting sounds of the voice but not that word specifically. Herein lies one of the difficulties of black womanhood: I was unable to distinguish which of my two most prominent identity markers (blackness and womanhood) the speaker was using to harm me in that moment. I found it ironic that I came to Mississippi to learn best practices for listening to people’s stories, but could not hear my own story, could not say for sure what had happened to me.
In the time since that visit, I have come to embrace the speculative sonic ephemerality of black womanhood and utilize it on my soundwalks. Soundwalks are a popular method for understanding the everyday sonic life of a place. Reminiscent of Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City,” soundwalks offer the kind of embodied experience missing from other more static soundscape recordings. I argue here that soundwalks can operate as black feminist method, precisely because they allow me to center the complex, incomplete sonorities of black womanhood, and they are enough in their incompleteness. One of our foremost thinkers on black feminism, Patricia Hill Collins, has argued that black women’s knowledge is subjugated (1990). I understand this to mean that my knowledge is tainted somehow, too specialized or not specialized enough, and not considered fit for application by a broader audience. Soundwalks as method, though, rely on my own subjugated knowledge. What did I hear? Black feminism centers and humanizes black women, and I utilize soundwalks to humanize myself in a soundscape that would otherwise disregard my sonic perceptions in favor of white hearing as the default standard of sound.
I began soundwalking in Washington, DC as a part of my dissertation project, which explores the musical and sonic dimensions of gentrification in the city. Gentrification is often considered in visual terms, meaning that a neighborhood is considered gentrified because new coffeeshops, bike lanes, and dog parks make it “look” different from what was once there. I recognize these new additions as important markers of gentrification, but what do they sound like? And what do these sonic markers reveal about the sonorities of race?
I have taken up the sonic exploration of gentrification, drawing inspiration from Jennifer Stoever’s Sonic Color Line and Regina Bradley’s exploration of the criminalization of black sound. As SO! writer and ethnic studies scholar Marlén Rios Hernandez has noted in her work on racial and spatial shifts in early punk in 1970s Los Angeles, it is crucial to work on “delinking gentrification as exclusively spatial and analyzing it as also a sonic force of expulsion.” Having spent time researching the auralities of gentrification in DC, I understand it to be a process that silences poor and marginalized populations while amplifying the concerns of those privileged enough to have the ear of the DC Council and developers. Gentrification displaces musicians and music genres, while increasing tensions around music and noise in “public” space. More than these changes, though, gentrification changes the soundscape of the city.
My soundwalks focus on the Shaw neighborhood in the Northwest quadrant of DC, part of the fastest gentrifying zip code in the country. Before the explosion of development, Shaw was a cultural hub of black DC, only blocks away from the U Street Corridor, formerly known as Black Broadway. From Pearl Bailey to James Brown, prominent black entertainers frequented the neighborhood because they were unable to perform in or have accommodations in other areas of the city. As the neighborhood shifts and transforms, the soundscapes grow louder with new nightclubs and quieter due to increased reporting of noise violations. The neighborhood diversifies in terms of languages, increases in siren whoops, and new sounds appear, such as the beep of a dockless scooter. Shaw has seen a concomitant increase in property values, community gardens, and bars; a Whole Foods is set to open in the neighborhood by 2020.
[The recording here is of a soundscape at 7th street and Florida Avenue NW, a busy intersection at the north edge of Shaw. Recorded on a mid-September afternoon, you can hear go-go music (DC’s indigenous subgenre of funk), engines idling, and the whoop of a siren. In the past two months, this intersection has become a battleground for cultural erasure, as artists, activists, and councilmembers attempt to legitimize the go-go music that has been playing in the area since 1995.]
During the day, Shaw oscillates between a quiet neighborhood and a busy city space. Traffic, horns, and sirens are frequent, yet so are the sounds of children at recess and old men chatting outside on their stoops or outside of corner stores.
Conducting soundwalks as a black woman in this gentrifying neighborhood is a curious space to tarry in. I am in some ways an outsider as a non-resident, mindful of who and what I record at any given moment because part of what makes gentrification such a tense and terrifying process is the lack of control that residents (particularly renters) have regarding their futures, and often their presence too. I am also an insider, a black woman in this space where being a black woman is not (yet) anything out of the ordinary. In fact, as the months went on, more of my recordings feature me speaking to people on the street, some I had come to know and some still strangers to me.
One of my favorite interactions on a soundwalk came early on, in late February of 2018. I was running late for an interview, listening intently to what was going around me, when I walked past a black man, seemingly in his 30s, on a narrow sidewalk. The exchange went something like this:
Man: Whoa, whoa, why you running up on people?
Me: My bad, my bad!
Man: It’s okay. Hey sis, you know how to make grits?
Me: [laughing], Nah, I don’t know how to make grits.
Man: What about pancakes?
Me: Yeah, I can make some pancakes.
Man: Ayyyee, I’m tryna get some breakfast!!
Me: I don’t know about all that!
The exchange, not quite a catcall but not quite comfortable either, consistently faded in volume, because during the entire time we spoke, I continued to walk away from him. I was in a position of wanting to speak, because I know the politics of being an outsider in a gentrifying neighborhood and not greeting folks as you walk by. However, I also know the dangers of being a black woman walking alone, and so I negotiated a lighthearted exchange while making my way to my destination. My soundwalks, then, act as a sonic record of gentrifying space as well as my attempts to keep myself safe.
These moments also inform the contours of my dissertation project on hearing gentrification in DC. The larger project involves passive acoustic recording in the same neighborhood, a methodology that entails creating a large amount of short soundscape recordings over a long period of time. Understanding both my soundwalks and passive acoustic recording as black feminist method allows for the consideration of multiple sonic perspectives of the neighborhood, rather than one record. When once describing passive acoustic recording to a colleague at a digital humanities workshop, they celebrated the idea that I would be able to “objectively” hear what was occurring in the neighborhood, instead of relying only on pieced together accounts from community members.
However, just as black feminist thought amplifies my “tainted” knowledge, it also mutes the authoritative “objective” knowledge of a rooftop recorder. The sounds of the stationary recorder placed on a rooftop at 7th and Florida are as partial and positioned as the recordings of my footsteps as I move around the neighborhood. As I continue to walk, be it through the unfamiliarity of Mississippi or my hometown DC, I do so with the reassurance that what I hear is enough.
Featured Image: Shaw From Above, by author.
Allie Martin is a PhD Candidate at Indiana University in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. Her dissertation project explores the musical and sonic dimensions of gentrification in Washington, DC, using a combination of ethnographic fieldwork, archival research, and soundscape recordings. Originally from the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, she received her BAs in music performance and audio production from American University.
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Radio Preservation Task Force Conference Information
Friday: Library of Congress, Washington, DC 9-5pm
Saturday: University of Maryland- College Park, 9-5pm
Schedule at: www.radiopreservation.org,
RPTF Federal Page (associate list linked at the left tab): https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-recording-preservation-plan/about-this-program/radio-preservation-task-force/
This conference is free and open to those in the academic/archival/curatorial/preservation community who would like to attend.
On Feb. 26 and 27, the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) of the National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB) will hold the first national digital humanities media history conference at the Library of Congress on Friday and the University of Maryland on Saturday. The schedule can be found here. Eminent sound historian Michele Hilmes (Wisconsin) directs the conference program with Christopher Sterling (GWU), Chair of the National Recording Preservation Board. Distinguished historian of British broadcasting Paddy Scannell (Michigan) commences the conference as academic keynote. I write this update as national research director for the project.
The RPTF is tasked with preserving local, noncommercial, and otherwise unprocessed recordings stored at local radio stations, libraries, archives, and garages, and identifying strategies to process and facilitate engagement with these materials. Scholars, curators, sound preservationists, and archivists from more than 100 universities, museums and libraries will converge on Capitol Hill to discuss steps toward preserving radio’s aural history, including the many historical events captured by nontheatrical broadcasts such as news, town hall meetings, public forums, sporting events, and community outreach programs.
The conference is a culmination of roughly 18 months of initial work (largely built out of service labor by academic media historians), and contributes a new dimension to the emergent discipline of sound studies with its focus on the history of mass media storytelling, sound art, and for the first time, the nontheatrical sounds of radio history. Participants have been confirmed from NPR, the Smithsonian, Pacifica, the Library of Congress, and multiple academic research groups. National presses, blogs, and magazines will also be present to cover the RPTF. Our conference Twitter hashtag is #RPTF. Presenters will discuss the common goal of how to best assess, protect, preserve, and implement current and future findings, with reference to conventional history work, museum curation, classroom pedagogy, and material preservation actions. Tours for scholars and archivists began yesterday at NPR and the Library of Congress’s Packard Campus.
— Jennifer Waits (@SpinningIndie) February 25, 2016
The RPTF was formed thanks to a mandate by sound preservation pioneer and former NRPB Chair Sam Brylawski, practitioner keynote for the conference. The mandate was issued to identify what, where, and how many recordings might still be extant from radio history. Our early findings have been both compelling and disappointing. Over the RPTF’s first two aggregation cycles, the consortium turned up 350,000 recordings spread over roughly 350 participating archives. We expect that number to reach well over one million after our next search cycle, and for our affiliate archive list to increase to over 1000 with the inclusion of radio stations. Enormous numbers to be sure.
— nprchives (@nprchives) February 26, 2016
However, if one conducts a thought experiment about how many recordings might have aired between the mid-1920s and the mid-1980s, the number seems meager at best. I’m terrible at math, but if one begins with a low-ball assumption (very low for some markets) that there have been 25 stations per median market, producing daily content between 1925 and 1985, it’s not hyperbole to speculate that our findings, while not total or comprehensive, reveal that only a fraction of content has survived. Most materials have been incinerated or trashed thanks to “consolidation” of the media market after the Telecommunications Act of 1996. As stations changed hands, moved sites, and reorganized spaces, station archives were the first to go. Protecting and storing records, DATs, reel-to-reels, and internal documents, simply haven’t made sense for bottom lines. It’s safe to anecdotally contend that we’ve certainly already lost over 75% of radio history, and perhaps as high as 90%.
— NPR RAD (@npr_rad) February 25, 2016
Why is this important? The short answer is that radio has held a unique and important position in U.S. cultural history. Radio has been a media industry that developed a mature art form through storytelling and entertainment, while acting as a communications technology that has been utilized for community building and public discourse. After print media, the history of radio provides an unmatched reflection of the historical development, experience, and reception of cultural and political events. And as I’ve written previously at FlowTV, radio sometimes contains the only remaining historical expression of specific moments and social movements.
— Jennifer Waits (@SpinningIndie) February 25, 2016
As the task force has progressed since late 2014, it’s become conspicuously apparent to our consortium that a core goal of cultural research – increasing the visibility of marginalized histories – is well served by exhuming and studying the artifacts of radio history. By increasing the nontheatrical radio archive in particular, we increase and build continuity lines for histories that simply haven’t been told due to lack of primary sources. It’s very much a nuts and bolts, trial and error process. A lot of the project will culminate around a sprawling big data interface in 2017 – a collaboration between the RPTF, ARSC, and Indiana University. This potentially makes the RPTF the largest digital humanities project in Film and Media. And we plan for the interface to feature syllabi, lesson plans for all educational ages, and recordings that fall under the domain of “fair use.”
To make invisible histories audible turns out to consist of quite a few steps, and a careful study of the conditions necessary to conduct preservation work, which requires an understanding of the regulatory, historical, and organizational precedents and restrictions by which materials can be shared. In this way, the RPTF also represents an emergent research path for media and sound studies – dedication to the study and implementation of logistics for social recognition. Actively studying the contemporary political economy of how hidden information might come to be circulated, and devising strategies to protect and circulate voices for the first time, makes a strong contribution to social justice work.
— Monica De La Torre (@digitalxicanafm) February 26, 2016
There’s still much to learn about these processes, and that’s the purpose of the conference. We’re putting together experts in multiple spheres for the first time to begin a conversation about how a national infrastructure might be organized to address the mechanics that comprise the ethics we associate with the study of sound history. Participants will present historical research, while panels and workshops discuss everything from material sound preservation methods, to educational approaches to teaching sound in film and media classrooms, to contemporary curatorial methods regarding presentation of media art.
[Ed note: SO! Ed. in Chief J. Stoever will be speaking in as part of a Radio Pedagogy Workshop this afternoon at 1:30 (along with Special Ed. Neil Verma and SO! writers Amanda Keeler and Kathy Battles; other SO! fam in the house include Inés Casillas, Monica de la Torre, Alex Russo, Shawn VanCour, Suzanne Smith, Alejandra Bronfman, Christine Ehrick, Bill Kirkpatrick, Josh Sheppherd and Andrew Bottomley. It’s an SO! fam reunion over here!]
Among projects commencing immediately after the conference, the RPTF will be applying for preservation and curation grants with our partners at multiple universities, as well as with Pacifica Radio Archives, considered by many to be the great collection of postwar local and community radio history in the U.S. Since there are so many recordings to process, the RPTF has organized eight content-based caucuses in which faculty experts will be working with archivists to unite split collections, and determine which recordings are most in need of research and circulation. Caucuses will meet for the first time at the conference, as horizontally organized research units that will act as grant-writing bodies. The results of their preservation actions will be linked or shared at the RPTF big data site. Here is a list of the caucus chairs and their themes:
- Kathleen Battles, Oakland University – LGBT Radio
- Mary Beth Haralovich, University of Arizona – Gender and Feminist Radio
- Laura Schnitker, University of Maryland and Jennifer Waits, Radio Survivor – College, Community, and Educational Radio
- Sonja Williams, Howard University – African American and Civil Rights Radio
- Jon Nathan Anderson, CUNY-Brooklyn – Labor Radio
- Michael Stamm, Michigan State – Radio Journalism
- Inés Casillas, UC-Santa Barbara – Spanish Language and Bilingual Radio
- David Jenemann, University of Vermont – Sports Radio
In collaboration with the National Recording Preservation Foundation, the RPTF has already distributed its first grant: to the Lily Library at Indiana University to digitally process, preserve, and distribute the complete Orson Welles radio broadcasts. This will be the first time these recordings — which are all now in the public domain — have been made available in completion. We expect to build a special website with these materials sometime in 2017.
— Jane Gilvin (@jg88354) February 26, 2016
Josh Shepperd is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Catholic University in Washington D.C. He teaches courses related to critical, conceptual, and methodological approaches to media studies. He is also actively involved in digital humanities media preservation, and currently serve as the National Research Director of the Radio Preservation Task Force for theNational Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress.
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