Tag Archive | Women’s Audio Mission

Sounding Out! Occupies the Internet, or Why I Blog

Ticker Tape Parade, New York City Financial District, by Kitty Wallace

Welcome to our 100th post! It’s me, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief, Guest Posts Editor, and Co-Founder of Sounding Out! : The Sound Studies Blog, which has been faithfully “pushing sound studies into the red since 2009.”  Together with Liana Silva, Co-Founder and Managing Editor, and Aaron Trammell, Co-Founder and Multimedia Editor, we thank you for your faithful readership, your enthusiasm, and of course, your likes, shares, retweets, and good, old-fashioned word-of-mouth!! We are going to keep serving up sound studies’ latest and greatest for a long time to come, for anyone who wants to listen.  Keep a look out for our site redesign coming in January 2012: same good stuff, just that much easier on the eyes.

In honor of this momentous occasion, I am going to get all “meta-“ on you and take you behind the scenes of Sounding Out!,  sharing some of the reasons why we decided to start a public conversation about sound studies on the Internet.  A manifesto of sorts, this post is adapted from a talk I gave a few weeks back at the American Studies Association annual meeting in Baltimore as part of an excellent panel called “Digital Displays: Women Imagining The Blogosphere as Alternative Public Spheres,” sponsored by the American Studies Women’s Committee, organized by Nicole Hodges Persley (University of Kansas) and featuring the excellent work of Tanya Golash-Bolaza, Judy Lubin, and Jamie Schmidt Wagman.

With all that has happened in the short time that has passed since mid-October—especially at #Occupy sites across the country and around the world—I am only more convinced of the need to empower ourselves by building our own microphones, platforms, and audiences, rather than wait for “official” channels to open up; more often than not, they are cut off, nonresponsive, non-existent or just plain hijacked. Without stretching the metaphor too far or confusing what we do with front-line activism—no one is pepper spraying SO!, let’s be real—I’d like to think that the story of  Sounding Out! is also a tale of occupation in its own way.  In that spirit of solidarity and D.I.Y. information exchange, here’s a bit about why I blog. I hope to inspire you to join in the conversation.

(P.S. Check our November 2011 coverage of the acoustics of the #Occupy movement thanks to guest writers Gina Arnold and Ted Sammons)


In their introduction to the hot-off-the presses special issue of American Quarterly on sound studies—which actually mentions Sounding Out!, on page 451! Yes!—editors Kara Keeling and Josh Kun report receiving an unusual number of submissions from junior faculty members and graduate students, which they describe as “a sign not only of sound’s quantitative currency but the promise of its future as a field of ongoing inquiry, and its importance and relevance to the future of American Studies itself” (452). Keeling and Kun’s editorial openness to newer work is a wonderful exception in traditional academic publishing, where issues of access can loom large for emerging scholars struggling to publish and build a national reputation, particularly for women, scholars of color and/or first-generation scholars, whose expertise in their particular fields is rarely taken for granted.  I use the term access here to refer to breaking into the centers of power on our campuses and/or in our respective fields.  When you are a “nontraditional” scholar frequently isolated at and from your institution, marginalized in your field, and excluded from formal and informal networks of power, all key characteristics cited by Rosabeth Kanter’s influential study of “Tokenism,” gaining a foothold in the increasingly bleak academic landscape can seem insurmountable.

The Logo of the Women's Audio Mission: Changing the Face of Sound

Because Sound Studies is not yet fully institutionalized—there are beginning to be sound studies masters’ concentrations at a few schools like NYU and the New School, but there are still no “sound studies” departments in the United StatesI believe the kind of intervention that I am helping to stage with Sounding Out! is even more important.  Scholars working in audio cultures are spread across, and often isolated in, many fields that are themselves identified as white and male dominated, both in terms of demographics and research agenda: media studies, the history of science and technology, popular music, sound art and design, and film studies, to name a few.  When considered alongside the abysmal numbers of many professional fields for sound practitioners, like video game design, radio announcing, and audio recording—the Women’s Audio Mission reports that 95% of the professional recording industry is currently male—the need is even more clear for two-way channels that increase the access of women and people of color to the central conversations of their industries and academic fields while improving the access of other scholars and wider reading publics to our work.

Blast from the Pre-Sounding Out! Past: BU Sound Studies Collective Logo Circa 2008

Blast from the Pre-Sounding Out! Past: BU Sound Studies Collective Logo Circa 2008

Rather than wait for a platform for our sound studies scholarship to arise, I helped to build a public conversation in a medium that could not only be more responsive to the lightning-paced nature of sound studies’ breakthrough moment, but also one that could be more responded to: open, collaborative, and in conversation with a wide range of interested parties. Way back in 2009, there were few traditional publication venues for research on sound; sound studies scholars had to rely on rare special issues or occasional essays on the margins of various disciplines’ journals. The first print journal primarily devoted to sound launched in Summer 2008, Music, Sound, and the Moving Image, but it still left large gaps for those not working in film. Not only did we lack the considerable resources necessary to start a print journal, but the medium wasn’t quite up to our tasks.  A blog seemed much more flexible, able to build a continuously updated, networked, public archive of sound studies scholars, while sustaining what Kathleen Fitzpatrick describes as “an open, post-publication review process [that] is a non-anonymous discussion by a community of scholars working together on collective issues” in her September 30th, 2011 interview with Inside Higher Ed.

Paul Krugman called such interventions “breaking in from anywhere” in his October 18th, 2011 blog for the New York Times, “Our Blogs, Ourselves,” arguing that the blogosphere makes academia’s “magic circles” seem “less formal and less defined by where you sit or where you went to school.” Krugman argues blogging has “showed what things are really like. If some famous economists seem to be showing themselves intellectually naked, it’s not really a change in their wardrobe, it’s the fact that it’s easier than it used to be for little boys to get a word in.”  We at Sounding Out! like to think we’re also helping women (little, big, or otherwise) to join this conversation, and more importantly, to change it.

While voices like those on Team Sounding Out! are often central to the “ground floor” conversations that shape a new field at conferences, online, and/or at our home institutions, they are often left behind when a field crystallizes in print journal publishing, which, given its limited space and slower-pace, favors the seasoned scholar. Publishing a blog can both complement peer-reviewed research and intervene in its recalcitrant institutional practices.  As Claire Potter, author of the blog Tenured Radical, writes, the blogosphere “works against the stultifying tendency of the academy to keep untenured people in as subservient a state as possible for the longest possible time.”  Sounding Out! enables our untenured but knowledgeable editorial crew to approach the field with agency and gusto, actively seeking out the “ground floor” intellectual labor and innovation happening in sound studies, making it audible and visible in a public forum that is far from ghettoized.  We deliberately curate an integrated, and dynamic collaboration between junior scholars, senior scholars, graduate students, and sound professionals. Thanks to you, we’ll be topping 50,000 hits this week.

Before this all sounds too rosy, I should also be clear that running Sounding Out! is plenty of work, even with a brilliant editorial team. I am constantly surprised at how much time I spend just wrestling with WordPress, let alone the cooler parts of the gig. Not to mention, its role in my tenure case remains to be seen.  However, even when the hours get long (squeezed in on nights and weekends after already impossibly long days and weeks), I will also say that it is work that is deeply satisfying and creative, work that feels both truly my own and yet deeply connected to a worthy collective goal.

I am also thrilled to report that several members of my non-academic family have told me that, thanks to the blog, they “finally understand what the hell it is I do,” which is one of the highest compliments I have received in a long while. As Editor-in-Chief, one of my main missions for Sounding Out! has always been for the blog to become—and remain—a smart, well-written, and informative-yet-irresistible venue for the work of emerging sound studies scholars for academics and non-academics alike. That is ultimately why we work so hard over here at SO!: to share the most vital and important findings of our field in a way that impacts lives as well as careers.

Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman is co-founder, Editor-in-Chief and Guest Posts Editor for Sounding Out! She is also Assistant Professor of English at Binghamton University and a Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University.

Play it Again (and Again), Sam: The Tape Recorder in Film (Part Three on the 1980s)

[If you missed the first two installments, hit “pause” and rewind to June’s piece on Noir, and July’s discussion of Walter Murch].

The third and final installment of my summer series on the top 6 appearances of the tape recorder in film focuses on the 1980s, a decade obsessed with what Hillel Schwartz called “the Culture of the Copy.” While the taped recordings made in earlier films such as Double Indemnity (1944) and Touch of Evil (1958) remained essentially records, discrete evidence of a moment in the past, 1980s films throw the recording itself into question. After all, the mass production of professional grade recording equipment increased the chances that the power once wielded by police, teachers, and audiophiles now lay at the fingertips of say, Ferris Bueller.
Furthermore, with the development of ever-higher fidelity, gone are the garbled screes of The Conversation (1974) and the feedback squelches of Touch of Evil: 1980s tapes are crystal-clear stand-ins for the original itself, which makes the idea that they could be altered or faked even more terrifying.  There is a sense of both excitement and fear in 1980s’ culture that copies can either best or replace the originals. Remember “Is it Live or Is it Memorex?”? or, my personal fave, the Maxell Guy?
As the wind blasting the Maxell guy’s oh-so-perfect 80’s coiffure shows, copies have a palpable impact on the world. Copies can defy space, moving orchestras into one’s living room. They break the bounds of time, appearing not to age or die. They can be sped up, slowed down, edited, remixed. Perhaps most anxiety-producing of all is that, unlike human beings, copies can theoretically be  flawlessly reproduced, all but instantaneously. Or, conversely, flawed copies can proliferate with frightening speed. All these powers invested in the tape recorder reflected and shaped a mixture of awe and terror about recording’s afterlife —what happens after it leaves its maker’s hands?  And, like Jean Baudrillard famously asked in Simulacra and Simulation(1981) does the original even matter (or exist) anymore? Or, will all originals be subsumed in an ironic (and seemingly insatiable) cultural lust for authentically manufactured reality?

The Diva (Wilhelmenia Fernandez) Sings

At the center of this lust is the female voice, turned fetish in the 1980’s films Diva and Blow Out. Whether screaming in terror, singing the heights of the sublime, or confessing the depths of a passionate hatred, both movies construct women as emotive objects to be recorded, often against their will, and the recordists in these films clamor for and are repelled by the female sounds they capture. (For additional Sounding Out! of the “problem” of women’s voices in contemporary media culture see last week’s post, Liana Silva’s “Eye Candy” and Aaron Trammell’s recent “GLaDOS, the Voice of Postfeminist Control“). In fact, this series has traced the cultural construction of the “sound man”: how mainstream films naturalize recording as the province of men (and, with the exception of Touch of Evil, of white men). The tape recorder’s increasing accessibility should have meant that women were using the equipment in greater numbers, but according to Hollywood, tape recorders continued to mediate power relationships between (white) men. Think Walter Neff and Barton Keyes. Harry Caul and his anonymous boss. Ferris and Principal Rooney..

Christina Aguilera and Alicia Keys at the console recording "Impossible" (VH1)

With such a proliferation of representations of male recorders, it can be difficult to imagine a female hand twiddling the knobs, so much so that 95% of the professional recording industry is now male, according to the nonprofit organization Women’s Audio Mission, that works to increase the number of women behind the boards through youth outreach and training programs. While the sole responsibility for this chronic and widespread underrepresentation does not rest entirely on the shoulders of America’s dream factory—an NPR story from 2003 on Women Music Producersby Neda Ulaby discusses additional reasons “Why Female Producers Are a Rare Breed”—we must also acknowledge that cinematic images actively shape reality, they do not just passively reflect it. Representations limit our imaginations as much as as they embolden them. The images of recording in 1980s films remind us that the mere presence of women’s voices is not enough to enable gender equity in our increasingly mediated and technologized public sphere, women must also “man” recording equipment, structuring (and shifting) the conditions under which their voices are recorded, framed, heard, and remixed into public consciousness.


Changing the Face of Sound: Lauren Tabak Punches in (courtesy of Women's Audio Mission)

Okay, for all the completists out there, a quick recap, the first two films are: 1. Double Indemnity (1944) and 2. Blackboard Jungle (1955), with a little Mike Hammer for good measure: Kiss Me Deadly (1955).  The second two are: 3. Touch of Evil (1958) and 4. The Conversation (1974), and a leap into the 1980s: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).

5. Diva (Les Films Galexie, 1981, Dir. Jean-Jacques Beineix):

The global sex trade. Transatlantic circulation of music and capital. International piracy rings. The Vietnamese diaspora. Imperialist fetishizing of the bodies (and voices) of women of color.  Taiwan as a rising force in the international economy. Police stings and gangland killings. Operatic performance and fan worship. Described by Frederic Jameson as “the first French postmodernist film” in Signatures of the Visible (1990), Diva is a rich, multilayered narrative that locates the tape recorder at the center of the vast cultural flows and postcolonial power struggles of late capitalism. As much fun Diva sometimes has with copies—there are duplicate cars, convenient doppelgangers, random mannequins, multiple decoy tapes—it also explores the melancholic cultural loss caused by a medium that holds out the promise of saving everyone, at the rate of 38.1 centimeters per second.
At its heart, Diva is an intertwined tale of two tapes, both highly volatile recordings of women’s voices that threaten to escape masculine control.  The first is a bootlegged performance of an acclaimed African American opera singer, Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelminia Wiggins Fernandez) made by Jules (Frédéric Andréi), a young, mild-mannered moped-riding postal delivery man who blows his meager checks on top-of-the-line recording equipment and opera tickets. The second is a self-made confession by the tragic Nadia (Chantal Deruaz), a prostitute and the mistress of Jean Saporta (Jacques Fabbri), a crooked cop and underworld kingpin who sends hit men to kill her as she stumbles barefoot down a crowded Parisian street, en route to turning herself in to the cops.  Nadia’s dying act is to sneak the incriminating cassette into Jules’s messenger bag, unbeknownst to him, and he spends most of the film zipping around the city on his “mobillette” wondering why both the cops and the bad guys are chasing him.  All he wants to think about is his Diva, Cynthia, and the secret recording he has made of her latest performance.


Well, it was secret. Until Jules lends it out to impress a preteen roller skating, record-stealing Vietnamese fashionista named Alba (Thuy An Luu) who plays it for the (way) older man she lives with in a creepy ambiguous arrangement, a fortysomething Zen Buddhist hipster tough guy named Gorodish (Richard Bohringer), who then tries to arrange a deal with two nameless, emotionless, mirrored-sunglass wearing, carbon copy Taiwanese business men (yellow peril much?) who are willing to pay top dollar for the tape.  As Cynthia’s manager eventually warns her in the most realistic moment of an otherwise over-the-top film, “the quality of the recording is perfect. . .and Taiwan never signed any international copyright agreement!”

Jules (Frédéric Andréi) and his Nagra

Diva asks audiences to imagine that Cynthia has never been recorded—she wants to preserve the aura of her performances as “unique moments”—and she considers pirated recordings as akin to “theft, rape even.” The metaphor is uncomfortably extended by the sexualized recording sequence when Jules finally captures her voice, squirming and fiddling with his recorder, hidden underneath a jacket on his lap, as tears stream down his face.  After the show, he steals the Diva’s dress and returns to his apartment to clutch it while listening, over and over, to her voice. Eventually even the  illicit sonic reproduction cannot contain Jules’s desire to possess Cynthia; he tries to create a reproduction-in-the-flesh by seeking out a black prostitute and paying her to wear the stolen gown.

Through unsettling images such as these, Diva depicts the tape recorder as a technological phallus. It isn’t only that women are fetishized recording objects, but they are actively chased away from the machine.When an excited Alba reaches out to grab Jules’s Nagra, he pushes her away, barking “Don’t touch my stuff. It is precious. Don’t touch it. . .The levels were precisely set.”  She backs off, sighing, “You and your Nagra,” in a tone that is both taunting and resigned. The only woman to make her own recording, Nadia, ends up dead, although grateful that her tape will at least allow her to “pick the time and place to die. There will be witnesses and evidence.” At least she hopes so.


6.  Blow Out (MGM 1981, Directed by Brian DePalma):

Jack Terry (John Travolta) and his shotgun mic

Fresh off the success of Grease and Urban Cowboy, 70s hearththrob John Travolta brings macho swagger to the role of Jack Terry, a burned out sound designer who is complacent about getting the “perfect” female scream for B-grade horror flicks. When his director busts his chops about finding some “new wind”—he had been squeaking by with library sounds—he finds himself doing some midnight lurking in a Philadelphia park. Armed with his trusty shotgun microphone, he is ready when an out-of-control car careens around a corner and plunges off a bridge.  Instantly casting his equipment to the ground—oh! not The Nagra III!!!—he pulls a drowning woman from the car, the woefully vulnerable Sally (Nancy Allen).   As if this isn’t bad ass enough to beef up the rep of “sound guys” for eternity, Jack cockily lets the investigating detective have it when he insinuates that Jack misheard what happened on the bridge: “I know what an echo sounds like, all right? I’m a sound man! The bang was before the blow out, all right?”

Carrying overtones of Chappaquiddick, the incident that Jack earwitnessed involved the death of a very prominent governor who was headed to the White House. The powers that be want to silence Sally and erase all traces of her presence in the passenger seat, so they turn a deaf ear toward Jack’s insistence that he has a tell-tale shot on tape that proves the “accident” was really murder. Ostensibly about the tenuous relationship between politics and “the truth,” Blow Out also asks audiences to press pause and consider the disposability of women in our contemporary culture–how their real lives are often mixed down, edited out, and even erased, while their recorded representations are hyperamplified and hungrily consumed.

Terry, listening for the telltale shot

Inspired by The Conversation and Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 Blow Upin which a swinging London photog enlarges a photo to reveal a killer—Blow Out depicts Jack on an obsessive rewind rampage, listening and re-living the incident on the bridge trying to prove the murder. The tape recorder is a both a necessary foundation of the film’s plot and a figurative device sparking audiences to listen again and to listen differently, to simultaneously question what they hear and to stake their lives on it. Interestingly, in a movie obsessed with sound and depictions of careful listening, audio itself cannot tell the whole story; it is only after Jack merges his soundtrack with a DIY film reconstructing the murder via newspaper photos that he feels his voice will finally be heard. Ultimately, however, the brash and principled sound man fails to find a listener. The haunting ending of the film, which I will not reveal, suggests that American culture mainly values “reality” and “truth” when it comes packaged as throwaway entertainment and that the female voice in terror is at the very heart of this titillating cycle of consumption.


And in a supporting role. .  . 

Real Genius (Tristar, 1986, Director Martha Coolidge.  This film is notable for having five women on the sound team, editors Anna BoorstinVirginia Cook-McGowanJulia EvershadeRoxanne Jones, and assistant editor Christy Richmond).

"Math on tape is hard to follow, so please listen carefully!"

The tape recorder slyly appears in the midst of this sarcastic blast to the late cold war that chronicles the revenge exacted by a band of brilliant college students (led by a young Val Kilmer) when they find out that the laser they developed for their university was intended for use by the U.S. government as an airborne weapon. Appearing in the first of two iconic 80s montages—this one set to the Comsat Angels’ “I’m Falling”—the vector-like proliferation of tape recorders silently communicates much anxiety about the technological landscape of the 1980s.  When our irrepressible uber-nerd protagonist Mitch (Gabriel Jarrett) first begins his semester, he arrives at a full math lecture, barely noting the peppering of small personal recorders nudged to the corners of his classmate’s desks.  As time passes, the camera revisits Mitch, still earnestly scribing notes alongside what is now only a handful of other students; he is surrounded by a sea of boom boxes the size of bread boxes and flat black slimline recorders, with a few candy apple red models thrown in for ‘80s hipness.

Finally, the earnest Mitch arrives alone, notebook in hand, only to find a completely empty lecture hall, save for the spinning spools of various tape recorders. The professor, too, has left the building—a reel to reel drones on at the head of the classroom, in front of a chalkboard that states, “Math on tape is hard to follow: so please listen carefully.” The pained look on Mitch’s face says it all: the meritocratic world of ideas that he once expected to inherit quite simply no longer exists, if it ever had.  And, in a contemporary moment where online courses and “webinars” are the rule of the day and we stockpile podcasts like we have thousands of years to live, the humor of the tape-to-tape lecture cuts a little too closely. Suddenly I want to tap the mic and ask: “is this thing on? Bueller? . . .Bueller?”

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