May 30th, 2012
Ok, Boston Massive, the time has come! Tonight we kick off our new monthly edition of Beat Research with none other than NYC’s DJ Rekha!
What (more) can we say? Flack & I have been wanting to get Rekha up here for ages; we’ve both had the pleasure to open for her at local shows; and we both love playing a bhangra track or three in our sets. I’m not sure anyone else in the house tonight will be quite as excited as we are, and that’s how it should be.
A lot of people, myself included, throw the term “ambassador” around when talking about Rekha, and that’s because it’s an entirely fitting description. Rekha’s been along for the ride — and piloting her own course — since just about the beginning of bhangra’s urbanization and transnational spread. For 15 years she’s helmed Basement Bhangra, and she facilitated the stateside premieres of no less than Panjabi MC, Tigerstyle, and MIA in the US. More recently she’s been collaborating with Zuzuka Poderosa, the NYC-based carioca vocalist. Yup, Rekha knows what’s up.
Moreover, though it should go without saying, Rekha’s Bhangra & Beyond approach — and, especially, how bhangra itself constantly opens into and refigures what lies beyond its borders — makes her a quintessential Beat Research guest. Even were she to play a set entirely comprising bhangra, you’d also hear plenty of dancehall, hip-hop, house, garage, and any other groove worth grafting onto bhangra’s big, sticky tree. It’s remix music par excellence, as likely to please conservatives and/or progressives as make them bristle. Here’s how she put it on NPR last year —
…theres a lot of debate around certain aspects of bhangra. Bhangra, if one would technically break it down, it is a male folk dance. It is a very specific rhythm, actually. So what is considered bhangra today is one of many rhythms, not exactly the bhangra rhythm. But as language evolves, culture moves forward, things start to mean other things. So bhangra has become sort of a ubiquitous term to describe a certain style of music and it’s definitely a battleground for tradition versus modernity.
And yet, despite contemporary, urban bhangra being about as “nu whirled” as it gets, I also think there’s something conspicuous about it’s general exclusion from the global / tropical bass repertory. Sure, there are echoes and flirtations here and there (especially if enabled by the likes of Timbaland), and some blogs have been consistently committed to staying up on the latest desi bangers, but for the most part, I’m pretty sure there’s a classic bit of brown-isn’t-black-or-white, ahem, coloring the reception and circulation of bhangra. And I’m pretty sure das racist.
Anyway, I was hoping to feature a little interview with Rekha here about that sort of thing, but she’s been too consumed by travel (to Bolivia last week w Zuzuka Poderosa!), so we’ll just have to chat about it later tonight. Looking forward to her perspective on it, but not as much as her set!
Don’t miss it!
Indeed, you might consider getting there early, if you’re up for it, as we’ve got quite an amazing warm-up act in Scotland-born but Salem’s own — that is, Salem the town in Massachusetts — world-class skweee devoteee, Radio Scotvoid.
Scotvoid is the resident DJ of the Boston 8bit collective & hosts The Curios Show online, spinning a mix of skweee, 8bit & bass music. He recently released a couple tracks on French record label Tiburoni Records. Check this promo mixxx he did for the release:
The main thing you should know for tonight is that Scotvoid is serious about skweee, the semi-obscure but thoroughly awesome and remarkably sinuous synth music based outta Sweden and Finland. Given that its a recent phenomenon, you may be surprised — but then again, not if you’re familiar with the analog-love at the heart of skweee — to hear that a lot of skweee labels issue their music on 7″ vinyl. And Scotvoid is the type of guy (the only guy?) who can put together an hour-long skweee set entirely from 45s. Which is what he’s gonna do. Which is bonkers.
We’ll get things started around 9pm, so come make a night of it with us. Wiggle your mind, baffle your behind.
MAY 30 (AKA 2NITE!)
w/ DJ REKHA
And since I can’t resist sharing, allow me to tease the incredible summer of Beat Research we’ve lined up:
June 27 – LE1F & NU LIFE
(RIZZLA, D’HANA, MICAH)
Yes! Next month we’ll be hosting LE1F of critically acclaimed mixtape Dark York, and the producer of such varied material as epic #seajunk daydream songsuites and the winking-ha of “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” and this ol Burial remix I used to drop in my BR sets years ago.
So this also feels like a long time coming, and I couldn’t be thrillder (trillder?) about LE1F’s support that evening c/o of the NU LIFE crew, who just last week got some well-deserved local love —
I’ve long thought that what Rizzla & D’hana & co have been cooking up at NU LIFE and other things around town is pretty much one of the best — and most original — things Boston has going for it. They bring some real vision to the party, as the article delves into, and/but the way their particular musical address — including the songs of Buju Banton, their orthogonally anti-gay comrade (I’ll have to explain that one sometime) — hails a particular cross-section of actually existing Boston diversity.
Ironically (or not?), NU LIFE is going out on top, ending their 3-year residency at Zuzu in Central Square next Tuesday (June 5), and shifting toward being more mobile & flexible. Sounds like a good move to me; I look forward to the next edition, wherever it may pop up. Meantime, we couldn’t be more happy to host a special post-NU DEATH jam with the NU LIFERS, including a rap set c/o Micah Domingo. Need I say more?
Better to let them say it themselves. Here’s a lil blurb they wrote for the Phoenix to provide a little context for their driving NU DEATH mix (which puts me in such fine company, I’m blushing):
Nu Life has hosted some incredible DJ’s and producers, including Kingdom, Venus X, LE1F, Wayne Marshall, Jubilee, Massacooramaan and Physical Therapy. The vibe can range from 90’s dance b-sides to underwater reggaeton house party. This mix is a blend of some styles we love – club and vogue beats, afflicted big room house, juke and harder rave music with twerk vocals. It’s a mixture of Rizzla’s own remixes and productions, the new school anthem YOU by Fade to Mind label head Kingdom, queer vocalists and amazing Boston-based producers like False Witness, Dev/Null, and Wheez-ie.
Or just listen —
July 25 – TONEBURST REUNION
feat. DJ C, Ripley, Hrvatski, Flack & more!
I can’t even begin to describe how amped I am for this. It’s a little incredible, to say the least, that all of these amazing DJs — who have all pursued impressive solo paths — will be back in town and in the same building, stirring up some good ol cross-genre, art-rave sociability like they used to make together, on the regular, as the Toneburst Collective.
This is an absolute dream bill, far as I’m concerned, and a historic occasion. I’m grateful to all of these folks for helping to make it happen! For the record, I was never a member of the collective, though as I recollected admiringly some 7 years ago (!!) —
as more of an occasional party-goer than a core participant, i first approached [the Toneburst aethetic] with a fair deal of wonder and curiosity. sounded like some stuff i’d heard before, but then again it didn’t. i liked that it somehow represented boston (a town woefully marginal on the musical map), but i wasn’t sure how exactly. somehow the music was both smart and gritty, though, which seemed right.
Given the way things have turned out in this mashy, remixxy world — not to mention how Jace & Jake & Keith & Larisa &c have all fared in their own pursuits — I’d say they were onto to something back then.
Beat Research is but one local torch still held aloft for the Toneburst spirit, and I couldn’t be happier about how brightly we’re gonna burn this summer.
They call us Boston Light, Beacon Hill…
May 29th, 2012
Ok, rounding things out, here’s the 3rd review/polemic in the 3-part series I’ve been running here (see parts 1 and 2). This one’s the most recently published, hardly a year old! (That’s not bad for lag, as these things go.) On the surface, it’s a review of 2010’s Anthology of Rap (Yale); but again, while offering specific commentary on the text in question, I also take the opportunity to weigh in on some trends in music scholarship — in particular, with regard to ye olde juncture of writing-about-music.
First off, let me note that I think Kalefa Sanneh already had the last word on this basically, so my own “review” is pitched more directly at music scholars. For other sharp responses following the book’s publication, check out Sam Han’s own anti-logocentric critique and the comedy of errors examined by Paul Devlin at Slate.
My own take appeared last June in the Journal of Popular Music Studies‘ newly launched “Amplifier” section — a venue for short pieces that break from the traditional mold in published music scholarship. Yes, my own piece is relatively traditional as a book review, but, I’m also happy to report that it’s a far shorter piece than the other two reviews I’ve ran here in recent weeks. So this time I’ll let you get to the kicker — another good one, IMO — all on your own.
JPMS 23(2): 190–194 / June 2011
This journal aims to encourage “writerly” approaches to our various encounters with popular music. And sensibly so. After all, despite some recent and relatively modest multimedia enhancements, this is a space primarily for words.
A writerly tack embraces the peculiar challenges of bridging what Charles Seeger referred to as the “musicological juncture,” or the inevitable slippages more folksily described as “dancing about architecture”: in other words, the problems inherent to translating sonic material and embodied experience into written text. As the quip about dancing implies, many seem to think that such a project dooms itself to reducing, recoding, and reifying its subject. But if such outcomes are, in their way, unavoidable, better to acknowledge the mediation and embrace the medium. To press our words to rise to the occasion, and dance. Or more modestly, we think there is space for such discourse, and we want this space to offer some.
Against this ideal, the recent publication of The Anthology of Rap (Yale University Press, 2010), edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, offers a timely reminder of what can get lost in the translation from popular music—with all the p-word entails, from commerce to contexts—to words on a page. Admittedly, the enterprise of representing rap music as lyrics abstracted from recorded performances or any particular encounter with them—indeed, as poetry—goes well beyond questions of “writerly” approaches. But it also presents a sort of limit case. In an effort to perform a kind of alchemy on hip-hop’s texts, the anthology highlights, by their very absence, how crucial dimensions of popular music as actually encountered demand a special sort of textual recognition.
From the so-called “grain” of the voice to the inextricable entrainment of a lyric’s sonic shape and setting to the meanings these things take on in different times and places, the texts (in the broadest sense) of popular music beckon for language that registers as it grapples with questions of form and force, interpretation and affect. It may be unsurprising that a collection edited by two professors of English, seeking to read rap as an “estimable body of contemporary poetry” (xxxiii), would downplay the genre’s sonic dimensions. But in justifying their project, the authors go so far as to assert that rap’s poetics can be examined with no reference to matters of sound.
The Anthology of Rap exhibits a pervasive and often bald logocentrism even as it bears subtle and consistent witness to rap as a fundamentally musical phenomenon. In his foreword, Henry Louis Gates concludes that “the words are finally the best reason for the beat” (xxvi). He marshals this rhetorical flourish to affirm the larger goal of the anthology: positioning rap, as Gates puts it, in the “new vanguard of American poetry” (xxvi). Gates’s primary strategy here is to ennoble rap by linking its rhymes to the African-American oral traditions—the dozens, signifyin(g)—that Gates built his own career around recuperating and recoding. But, tellingly, in order to draw us into the narrative, Gates highlights a number of crucial, performative qualities that resist easy render to the page. Recalling what arrested him as a young man watching his father recite Stagolee stanzas, Gates calls our attention to “all that a virtuosic performer possessed: an excellent memory, a mastery of pace and timing, the capacity to inflect and gesture, the ability to summon the identities of different characters simply through the nuance of their voices” (xxii). Clearly, all of these aspects—many of which we might include in the realm of the musical—are indispensible aspects of a performance’s poetics, and yet the anthology, its editors, and Gates himself all ask us, implicitly and explicitly, to set them aside.
A bias toward the words of rap, and against its music, rears its head throughout the editors’ introduction, whether they’re casually referring to rap’s “fundamental literary and artistic nature” (xxix)—see what they did there?—or asserting, with no support other than their own authority, that lyrics constitute “the most enduring part” (xxxiv) of hip-hop songs and that, moreover, lyrics “generally retain much of their resonance and meaning when isolated from their music” (xxxv). O rly? Sounds scientific enough, I suppose. Adding insult to injury, the editors have the audacity to employ “the music” synecdochically: “The parody of rap as doggerel does not touch truly on much of the music” (xxii). In its way, of course, such a slip registers the music’s refusal to recede from our imaginative engagements with hip-hop.
For all this rationalization, the collection suffers from a central and ultimately unacknowledged paradox. “This anthology treats rap as a literary form,” write the editors, “albeit one primarily experienced as music” (xxxv). There’s a lot riding on that “albeit”—a lot that never truly gets addressed. Instead, sleight of hand is meant to suffice: “Far from denying rap’s value as music,” they defend, “readers stand to gain a renewed appreciation for rap’s music by considering the poetry of its lyrics” (xxxv).
What this means is profoundly unclear, especially as the previous page finds the editors willingly enlisting unwieldy Eurocentric critiques of rap as “unmusical”—a surprising and needless concession: “The very qualities that leave rap open to criticism as music—heavy reliance on 4/4 beats, limited use of melody and harmony—are precisely what make it such an effective vehicle for poetry” (xxxiv). Would a hip-hop waltz be better? Perhaps something in 7/8 time? Is a “limited use of melody and harmony” really an accurate or fair description of the staggering variety of rap’s tonalities and omnivorous musical borrowings? The editors’ eagerness to throw rap’s music under the bus raises flags, to say the least. Indeed, this is one place where the book’s inherent conservatism betrays itself: Bradley and DuBois seek to admit hip-hop’s spectacular vernacular into the hallowed halls where people teach poetry. To do so, they embrace, rather than subvert, the elitist politics of canon. But a paramount part of hip-hop’s poetics—and a central reason for the genre’s resiliency and appeal—is a refusal to measure up to old models (aka, “all that jazz”). Following an imperative to flip the script, hip-hop artists, producers, and entrepreneurs have consistently opened doors—whether aesthetic or commercial—on their own terms, smashing canons in the process.
Moreover, while rap is doubtless a verbose genre at heart, even a casual survey of listening habits reveals that devotees and even casual listeners attend to a great deal more than rap’s lyrics, sometimes ignoring lexical content altogether to focus on the beats or flows, on the timbres and textures and rhythms of a recording, all of which crucially contribute to a song’s poetics. The editors’ subordination of musical wholes to an abstracted logos is not only misguided, it’s irresponsible, playing back into the hands of rap’s rarefied critics rather than elucidating hip-hop’s poetics on their own terms.
It is especially ironic to find prose neglecting, if not dismissing, the musical dimensions of a musical genre in a book that carries a clear agenda of validation. Legitimacy has been a hobgoblin haunting much of the academic literature on hip-hop. Such a stance may have made sense at a certain time, when hip-hop was roundly attacked in public media even as it made its commercial ascent, and it may yet make sense in certain contexts (English and music departments come to mind). But it’s a revealing and distracting preoccupation, saying more about the academic contexts in which young scholars seek sanction to teach hip-hop in their classes than, say, the wider world, where hip-hop pervades popular culture. Rap conquered the world some time ago, and as it happens, universities are demonstrably eager to offer and promote large-enrollment courses centered on the genre. Tricia Rose called her groundbreaking book Black Noise for a reason—and began chapter 3 with the revealing tale of encountering some racist, and familiar, opposition from the chairman of Brown’s music department: “Well, you must be writing on rap’s social impact and political lyrics, because there is nothing to the music” (62). But she wrote that book—and had that conversation—nearly twenty years ago. Hip-hop has moved on, and so should we.
At a launch event in Cambridge last November, Bradley asserted that the anthology “can help sustain a culture that already sustains itself.” This seems disingenuous, or at best, wrong. As Rose herself told me as an aspiring hip-hop scholar some ten years ago, hip-hop needs no help from academics. If anything, the academy could use some help from hip-hop. And while we might read the anthology as an attempt to stage such an intervention, we might better see it as a telling symptom of the ways that elite institutions such as universities and university presses inform the shape of our own cultural production. Looking for a silver lining, at the same event Jamaica Kincaid praised the anthology as a “sanctifying” project—an interesting choice given the etymological linkage between canonization and sainthood. As Kincaid elaborated, however, what she meant by this was that this rather humanities-style elevation of rap’s lyrics to the level of poetry works as a humanizing gesture—for “the people and the situation,” as she put it, though she also said she didn’t want to “freight the thing.”
Obviously, it’s plenty fraught already. Still, I’d like to be a good relativist of sorts. It’s a wide world after all. And I don’t mean, in turn, to disrespect or dismiss a valid listening position on the part of the anthologizers: that one important set of meanings of popular music do stem from abstractions and analyses of song texts. Clearly, to the editors’ ears, and in their minds, the beats stand in the background, or, ironically, as the ground itself, “the perfect sonic climate for poetically sophisticated lyrics to flourish” (xxxv). But respecting the editors’ right to read rap as they will, and understanding their approach in relation to the political economy of scholarly production and academic promotion, does not mean that one cannot also remain a strong advocate for popular music scholarship that cares more about the power of music and the power relations shot through our various engagements with it, than in further consolidating power and prestige for certain kinds of academic labor.
The longstanding attempt to legitimize hip-hop for our colleagues and patrons distracts from more meaningful research, the sort of work that takes hip-hop’s artistic (or, if you must, “literary”) merits for granted, and then proceeds to ask other questions about how its poetics function (and, necessarily, how they’re anchored in sonic and social experience). If such work could also aspire to be writerly, to dance on the page in a manner commensurate with its subject, perhaps one of hip-hop’s “golden age” ideals—rap as “edutainment”—could finally find some real footing in the academy. Until we make that space for ourselves, we’re doomed to reproduce a certain wackness.
May 23rd, 2012
Following up on the last post/review, I’m running the next in the triad I described there: a series of book reviews written over the last few years which together bring matters of form — and its institutional (re)production — to the fore.
This one — a review of Mark Butler’s Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music (Indiana 2006) — was written first of the three, and is a lot less recent. Indeed, this first saw the light of day (if in the dark corner of a subscription-only music theory journal) way back in 2009, though I wrote it in 2006! And here I am finally sharing with you in 2012. Don’t ask me why it took so long. (One funny result is that one term I use throughout, EDM — an umbrella-term long wielded by scholars of “electronic dance music” — has in the last year or so become a new buzz word in the music biz, more or less akin to electronica in the late 90s. I do not mean it in that way here.)
Ok, I’ll tell you, at least in part, what took me so long. One reason I’ve not re-publicized the review until now is that I had an email exchange with the author where he bristled at the treatment the book was receiving. “Thus far, then, my work has been reviewed solely by ethnomusicologists,” he explained to me, since at that point — the point where he also happened to be up for tenure — the only reviews to emerge were by me and Vijay Iyer (who, no, is not an ethnomusicologist). Butler also took umbrage at my suggestion that disciplinary pressures served as a significant force in producing his book. He wanted to own it as a work of theory, which I understand, and which I agree with.
If that’s the case, I guess I still find such works of theory lacking. And I’m glad that one of the premier journals of the field, Spectrum, gave me the chance to say so, even if the implication to Butler was that they didn’t care to send it to a theorist. I can see how one might feel doubly on the margins in such a situation, and as a (white) popular music scholar trying to work in either Music or Africana Studies departments, I can relate. All that said, I’m happy to report that Butler received tenure some years ago and enjoys some stature as a Professor with a big P. I, on the other hand…write a well-regarded blog.
Anyway, here’s one thing I said in my emails to him, to put too fine a point on it:
Frankly, I respect your work immensely and I’m glad that you’re doing it. The gist of my review is that, for all of the book’s strengths, it still seems reigned in by the rearguard of Eurocentric/elite/art theory. I’d rather read the book you’d write if you weren’t up for tenure, if you know what I mean.
I mean, I do think it’s important to be generous in a book review, but I’m no fan of simple summaries. Given how much time goes into them (and how little career reward), I also think it’s important to say something with teeth — to take the opportunity to make an essay out of it. That’s what I was invited to do by Spectrum at any rate.
So, although Butler’s objections gave me pause, I still stand by the piece and its critiques — which are, in my opinion, more about institutions than about one particular scholar. And I remain proud a few turns of phrase, which aspire to the ideal I’m arguing for. At least, I do think I finish with a kicker of a kicker:
…music scholarship not only needs more theorists that dance, it needs more theory that dances.
And though I don’t think I myself often (ever?) match up to that standard, it’s certainly something to strive toward, and I’m heartened by increasing signals that the sea is changing in this regard. I’ll excerpt the juicy intro below, but it’s far too long to reprint here in full; if you want to read the whole dang thing, here you go.
Music Theory Spectrum 31 (2009): 192-99
Butler, Mark J. Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006, xi + 346 pages.
In an infamous exchange set up by The Wire magazine in 1995, Karlheinz Stockhausen was asked to comment on music produced by several contemporary electronic music makers thought to be, according to well-worn narratives, his techno-musical heirs. Taking the so-called “Technocrats” to task, Stockhausen decried their use of what he called “permanent repetitive language” and recommended that they each listen to various compositions of his own that might lead them away from “ice cream harmonies” and other “kitschy” indulgences. To Richard D. James (a.k.a. Aphex Twin), he offered the following advice:
I think it would be very helpful if he listens to my work Song of the Youth, which is electronic music, and a young boy’s voice singing with himself. Because he would then immediately stop with all these post-African repetitions, and he would look for changing tempi and changing rhythms, and he would not allow to repeat any rhythm if it were [not] varied to some extent and if it did not have a direction in its sequence of variations (Witts 1995, 33).
Yoking his unrepentant elitism and staunchly Eurocentric modernism to Adorno’s critique of the culture industry and the fashioning of fascism, Stockhausen raises the specter of corrupting, repetitive “African” rhythm yet again in order to assail a track by Richie Hawtin (a.k.a. Plastikman):
It starts with 30 or 40—I don’t know, I haven’t counted them—fifths in parallel, always the same perfect fifths, you see, changing from one to the next, and then comes in hundreds of repetitions of one small section of an African rhythm: duh-duh-dum, etc., and I think it would be helpful if he listened to Cycle for percussion, which is only a 15 minute long piece of mine for a percussionist, but there he will have a hell to understand the rhythms, and I think he will get a taste for very interesting non-metric and non-periodic rhythms. I know that he wants to have a special effect in dancing bars, or wherever it is, on the public who like to dream away with such repetitions, but he should be very careful, because the public will sell him out immediately for something else, if a new kind of musical drug is on the market (Witts 1995, 33).
Although Stockhausen and the Technocrats seem to talk past each other rather than truly converse (“Do you reckon he can dance?” asks James in a cheeky retort), the exchange is a valuable one at least insofar as it provocatively puts questions of (electronic) musical craft in the context of a broader conversation about the cultural connotations and social implications of quite divergent—if, for many, rather related—musical aesthetics. The value for today’s music theorists, perhaps, is that Stockhausen issues a challenge, at least to those whose iPods place Hawtin next to Haydn, to find a new language, a more appropriate poetics to describe, defend, and even to dissent from today’s “electronic music.” For it would seem clear that Stockhausen demonstrates to anyone who values the kind of music one hears in “dancing bars,” or wherever, the utter inadequacy of traditional (or even avant-garde) music theory for understanding the power and, if one must, the complexities of electronic dance music (EDM).
The central position of repetition in the debate, and its dubious racialization as “(post-)African,” is not only deeply revealing of the texts and subtexts at hand, it directs us to the vexing question of so much discourse around electronic dance music: how to argue for the aesthetic value of deeply repetitive music—a quality utterly taken for granted and celebrated by EDM devotees—without falling into two common traps: (1) searching for the hidden complexities of seemingly simple sounds; (2) foregoing any sort of music analysis at all, in favor of socio-cultural exegesis, and thus implying that EDM does not need it (but also, perhaps, does not merit it). A great many journalists, cultural critics, ethnomusicologists, practitioners, and aficionados have been involved in the intertwined projects of explicating and celebrating EDM as social phenomenon, as cultural product and practice, and—if, ironically, less commonly—as music. Music theorists may be (fashionably?) late to the party, but I reckon they can dance (if they want to). More important, I reckon that if anyone can convince the Stockhausens of the world (if one could possibly posit such a singular plurality) to attend more closely, and openly, to the forms and contents of EDM, it would be music theorists. The next obvious question, of course, might be: why bother? But let’s set that aside for now.
[Read the rest here.]
May 8th, 2012
This Thursday at MIT, Dave Tompkins will be giving a talk based around his book, How To Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II To Hip-Hop. I’ve not given the book a full treatment on the blog, but I’ve been recommending it to anyone I talk to about music or technology or writing. It’s really one of my favorites of the last couple years.
Like some of the obscure, amazing devices & recordings & stories Dave seeks out and recombines in his inimitable way, I had heard for years about the “vocoder book”; and I was more than pleased when it finally arrived — and delivered on a decade’s (or, really, lifetime’s) work putting together some rather odd-fitting puzzle pieces. I’ll let Dave mix it up for you (via the teaser for his talk on Thurs) —
Invented by Bell Labs in 1928 to reduce bandwidth over the Trans Atantic Cable, the vocoder would end up guarding phone conversations from eavesdroppers during World War II. By the Vietnam War, the “spectral decomposer” had been re-freaked as a robotic voice for musicians. How To Wreck A Nice Beach is about hearing things, from a misunderstood technology which in itself often spoke under conditions of anonymity. This is a terminal beach-slap of the history of electronic voices: from Nazi research labs to Stalin gulags, from World’s Fairs to Hiroshima, from Churchill and JKF to Kubrick and Kinski, The O.C. and Rammellzee, artificial larynges and Auto-Tune. Vocoder compression technology is now a cell phone standard–we communicate via flawed digital replicas of ourselves every day. Imperfect to be real, we revel in signal corruption.
Dave’s writing is deeply by textured by hip-hop, and so much else. I wish everyone could so pursue their own muses and speak in such tongues and find their voice as he has. I argued as much in a review I wrote of the book for Current Musicology a couple years back. Indeed, I took the opportunity to recommend that more academics read and teach books like Dave’s (or at least Dave’s book — not sure what else is like it) — and that we also challenge ourselves and our students to write with less care for convention and more attention to voice and narrative. I guess I’m just a hopeless humanist / postmodernist or something (but both of those things sound kinda wack to me too). More likely, as with Dave (I venture), I might lay the blame at hip-hop’s altar, where cultivating and appreciating distinctive voices are time-honored forms of worship and devotion.
Anywayyy, ironically, the prose in my review seems pretty strait-jacketed itself, despite what I critique and what I endorse. Maybe I’m just not able to do it. Or maybe there are unhelpful institutional pressures making us all write like computers, and not very funky ones. Either way, all one can do is try to refreak the machinery.
I’m going to post my review below for those who’d like to read it. It’s been “published” for a while, but that hardly makes it public in any significant way. I’m happy to report that I managed — or attempted anyway — to bring Dave’s book into conversation with Steve Goodman’s (aka Kode9’s) Sonic Warfare, another recent text that made a strong impression on me. The two books’ subject matter overlaps to a striking degree, but the writing is very different. Even so, while I may not be as big a fan of Steve’s prose, I do think his book is profound and provocative, issuing important challenges to scholars of music and sound and really to anyone who fancies themselves a listening agent.
But if you’re in town, go see Dave talk this Thursday at 5pm in room E14-633 at MIT. For my part, much as I love the vocoder stuff, I sorta wish he was talking about his current project — a really promising “natural history of Miami bass” that takes the phrase sustained decay and runs absolutely wild. I heard a preview at EMP which predictably knocked off socks, even without working A/V.
One more thing: I understand the piece below as one of a trio of reviews where I take the opportunity to critique the disciplines and institutional elitism that seem to produce writing about music which, in my mind, too often fails to rise to the occasion. (I’m saying: if you’re gonna dance about architecture, you better be a damn good dancer.) Some of these reviews are more supportive, some are more critical. I do, for the most part, attempt to be generous as a reviewer. At any rate, I’ve been wanting to share them, together, for a while. So look out for the other two to follow soon.
number 90/fall 2010
Dave Tompkins. 2010. How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, The Machine Speaks. Chicago and Brooklyn: Stop Smiling/Melville House.
Steve Goodman. 2010. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press.
At first glance, Dave Tompkins’s How to Wreck a Nice Beach and Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare would seem to have a lot in common. Both books feature the creative “abuse” of military technology by musicians, an abiding appreciation for Afro-sonic futurisms, prose styles at times so idiosyncratic as to be arcane, and brief but key appearances by William Burroughs. Both also depart, whether implicitly or explicitly, from the general preoccupation with form still guiding the musicological status quo. This formalist bias affects both how we tend to listen as well as how we write. Instead, these books, each in their own way, propose novel and provocative modes of grappling with and making sense (or nonsense) of music and sound.
In contrast to the lion’s share of academic writing about music, these texts eschew too straightforward a tack. They take shape in a manner often as unpredictable as their strange and slippery subjects. Goodman’s work, while principally written for other scholars, proceeds in a seemingly non-linear manner, using non-chronological dates to mark each brief chapter, suggestively (but often without explication) yoking each unit’s theme to a particular historical moment. His lexicon is at times dense, at other times playful, bearing the marks of British cultural studies, continental philosophy, and Afrofuturism. Writing for a more general audience, but in perhaps an even more abstruse register, Tompkins generally proceeds chronologically while worm-hole hopping, juxtaposing chapters on military experimentation with those on musical innovation, an estranging effect that serves to heighten the topic’s unexpected intersections of Cold War technology and hip-hop. Neither author talks much about pitch content, harmony, or song form; in place of musical transcription, we encounter viruses and anarchitectures, robots and dinosaurs.
In other respects, these books could hardly be more different, especially with regard to tone and language. But reading them, especially together, makes for a refreshing exercise. By investing in and projecting their own idioms so strongly, both offer something sorely lacking in music and sound studies: theory that dances.
Tompkins’s book is a study of the “double life” of the vocoder, which, for those who aren’t aware, is “perhaps the only crypto-technology to serve the Pentagon and the roller rink” (20). A vocal encryption process that enjoyed a second life as a musical effect, the vocoder attained a sort of audible ubiquity in the dance-pop of the 1970s and 80s, appearing on hundreds of records and spanning such disparate genres as progressive rock and electro-funk. Appropriately, in rendering this amazing story, the author himself becomes a cryptologist. Because Tompkins is not an academic and not beholden to its disciplines, he hardly writes like one. But despite publishing regularly in such outlets as the Wire, Vibe, and the Village Voice, he doesn’t exactly write like a journalist, either. He writes like Dave Tompkins. “The best hip-hop writer ever born,” blurbs similarly lauded hip hop historian Jeff Chang, only half-joking, on the back of the book. Tompkins describes writing the book as something that he felt he “owed” to hip-hop, and he has clearly absorbed—and made his own—hip-hop’s love of language, of whimsy and slippage, orthogonal riffs and sudden twists, personified things and dehumanized folk. In some cases, it’s not clear that anyone but Tompkins will understand how certain non-sequiturs actually follow. Plenty of readers will be frustrated by passages that defy comprehension. I recommend granting him some poetic license and going happily, dizzily along for the ride.
Tompkins manages something that few music writers do: to rise to the occasion, to meet what Charles Seeger called “the musicological juncture” head-on, to make words make sense about sound—or, when such a task seems utterly impossible, to sing along in noise and nonsense. The book’s title embodies this fundamental problem as well as Tompkins’s tack. How apt that the phrase, a machine-mangled version of “how to recognize speech,” also happens to describe what happened, as coordinated via trans-Atlantic vocoder duets between Roosevelt and Churchill, at Normandy or Iwo Jima. This is one of dozens of landmine-like puns that Tompkins finds scattered across IBM technicians’ notebooks, in wartime cables, and on obscure electro-funk jams. Is it only a coincidence that one of early hip-hop’s deftest musicians, Pumpkin, bears a nickname that was also a misheard word in a Churchillian vocoder transmission (224)? Most likely, but Tompkins doesn’t miss a chance to make the connection for us in a cheeky caption (and the book’s margins are crawling with such side-commentary).
Or take, for example, though no single passage can stand for the sprawling range of his style, the following description of Peter Frampton performing his talk-box anthem, “Do You Feel Like I Do,” in the concert immortalized as Frampton Comes Alive (1976):
Imagine ice cubes and Doritos cracking up inside your head. Replace that with Madison Square Garden losing its voice. Replace larynx with guitar. Listen to teeth. Calcareous conduction. Frampton opens mouth, drool catches light and there it is, a word, or at least the shape of one. “Eeeeel.” (131)
Without sacrificing the sort of economy on display here, Tompkins seems to squeeze into the book every bit of signification he can, enlisting chapter titles, subheadings, captions, epigraphs, and all manner of marginalia along the way. The creative use of oblique epigraphs in particular illustrates how Tompkins approaches his craft and burdens the reader. They are figurative, funny, and sometimes fictional. (On page 281, for instance, he offers a “misheard” lyric from a Mobb Deep recording.)
Research and reading are interpretive endeavors, and Tompkins’s kitchen-sink style, where jokes and personal anecdotes sit alongside archival documents and vinyl plates, serves to remind readers that, as with vocodered vocals, it helps to know what goes in to understand what is coming out. In this sense, it is fitting that the author interweaves stories of his youth, and of myriad odd encounters with the vocoder and other talking machines, into the narrative. Indeed, the idiosyncratic inflections that give the book its distinct shape and tone seem, to this reader, among the text’s most important (and hopefully influential) features. Tompkins interweaves the personal, the popular, and the geopolitical, as if all are of equal importance. Tompkins does an admirable job of cross-fading all the crosstalk about this machine and how it affected so many people’s lives, including his own. After a while one starts to suspect that the vocoder was invented so that Tompkins could write this book.
While the vocoder never recedes from earshot, Tompkins’s investigation takes the reader to many unexpected places. Among other things, readers receive: 1) an overdue and alternative narrative of early hip-hop that centers on New York, Los Angeles, and the seemingly peripheral but fascinating site of North Carolina, where Tompkins grew up and where we learn a lot about rap’s early circulation and reception; 2) a secret history of late twentieth century robot-enraptured pop culture, connecting Neil Young and Herbie Hancock, Georgio Moroder and Laurie Anderson, Detroit techno and Disney’s Dumbo; 3) some truly astounding and unexpected musical genealogies and circulations of material culture, like how a vocoder-ed imitation of a record executive saying “fresh” became the most scratched syllable of all time (250-5), or how ELO’s machine ended up in the hands of Man Parrish, “the gayest vocoder expert to make a hip-hop ode to the Bronx” (212). The book also includes what must have felt like an obligatory afterword on Auto-Tune (302-3), the popular software plug-in often mistaken for the vocoder but actually a distant cousin, which itself emerged from Cold War science to help people sing like machines.
It is easy to be glib about crooning cyborgs, but Tompkins offers a more nuanced portrait—a gallery, actually—of how humans dance with technology, of the deep drive so many of us feel to transform, with a little mechanical help, our voices, our realities, and ourselves, often from an early age. Or, as he puts it, “Talking to fans is as much a part of growing up as interrogating ants with a magnifying glass” (268). In the end, the book is less about machines than human characters: Alan Turing and Afrika Bambaataa, Homer Dudley and Michael Jonzun, and Tompkins, his late brother, and his childhood friend, Nate. One of the most interesting and touching parts of the text is the penultimate chapter, a profile of vocoder devotee and pioneer Rammellzee, the sui generis hip-hop iconoclast who passed away earlier this year. It reads as a fitting coda to everything.
Although he synthesizes an impressive amount of odd information—much of it encyclopedic and hitherto uncompiled—Tompkins burdens readers additionally by taking a great deal of knowledge (or perhaps just Google-ability) for granted, allowing him at times to say what he wants, rather than, perhaps, what he should. This represents another way that the author departs from certain scholarly norms. (There’s no glossary, either.) But don’t get your cables twisted: despite few genuflections to standard scholarly procedure, there is a great deal of evidence throughout that Tompkins has done his share of research, especially when it comes to combing archives and interviewing everyone from retired World War II-era scientists to classic rock icons to hip-hop vocoder freaks. (To their credit, the hip-hop guys he talks to—Bambaataa, Grandmaster DXT, Rammellzee—are all convincingly unsurprised to learn about the vocoder’s crypto-military provenance.) This book was a decade in the making, but it reads more like a life’s work.
Finally, and this is not to be underappreciated: the book itself, published by Stop Smiling Books, is a beautiful thing. Elegantly laid out and lavishly illustrated, with photographs and drawings appearing on nearly every page, the book is best appreciated as a chunky hardcover, despite that it might be fun—whenever the e-text arrives—to hear it read by a robot.
In Sonic Warfare Steve Goodman, a lecturer in Music Culture at the University of East London, calls the vocoder “the upside to the militarization of everyday life” (166). It is one of the few optimistic notes in the book. The rest of the text examines all the downsides, with particular attention to the role of sound—and sonic technologies—in producing what Goodman calls, after Mike Davis (2000), an “ecology of fear,” a sonically triggered state of agitation and foreboding, produced under an increasingly global regime of “military urbanism” and the looming threat of preemptive capitalism foreclosing possible futures. On the way, Goodman proposes some radical ways of approaching how we theorize sound, the transmission of culture, and the power of popular music. Sonic Warfare is an occasionally paranoid, consistently provocative text, all the more so because of how it takes explicit aim at prevailing frames of musicological inquiry.
Unlike Tompkins’s book, which mounts an implicit critique of contemporary music writing, Goodman’s includes direct salvos at music and sound studies. If, as he relates, the Italian futurists proposed an “assault on the harmonic order” (6), Sonic Warfare might be said to launch a similar campaign. Goodman’s route to a critical position vis-à-vis musicology’s “harmonic order”—its lingering biases toward musical form, semiotics, and phenomenology—is not via recourse to sound, seeking to flatten longstanding hierarchies between pitch content, rhythm, timbre and the like, but through a focus on frequency and an exploration of what he calls “unsound.” Vibrating at or beyond the peripheries of the audible and the tactile, unsound includes infrasound (lower than 20 Hz) and ultrasound (higher than 20 kHz), as well as— in a bit of poetic license—the “unactualized nexus of rhythms and frequencies within audible bandwidths” (xv). It may come as little surprise that many of the weapons surveyed in Sonic Warfare target this synaesthetic threshold of the heard and the felt. The way that sound and unsound can physically affect bodies means that, for Goodman, they operate at the level of affect, a “subsignifying” realm. He is primarily concerned, then, not with “sound as text” but rather “sound as force” (10). For those in music or sound studies who might bristle at an approach so concerned with what “impresses on but is exterior to the sonic,” Goodman throws a small but sharp dart, referring almost dismissively to “the narrowband channel of the audible” (9)!
Ultimately, he contends, a “nonrepresentational ontology of vibrational force” (xv) can productively “sidestep” recent preoccupations of music studies, namely “representation, identity, and cultural meaning” (9). While not naming names, Goodman professes no love for popular music studies’ “dismal celebrations of consumerism and interminable excuses for mediocrity” (17). (He also includes some snarky asides—troll bait for popular music scholars—for instance, when he remarks that this is not a book about “white noise—or guitars” [xv].) While acknowledging recent work on the use of music to produce pain or torture (e.g., Cloonan and Johnson 2002; Cusick 2006 and 2008), Goodman seeks to counter “the evangelism of the recent sonic renaissance within the academy” by focusing on sound’s “bad vibes,” including the use of pop as torture, never mind LRAD cannons and Mosquito™ repellents. Further, he charges that any account of sonic culture must grapple with that which exceeds unisensory perception, with so-called “sonic” experience that opens into tactile realms, for instance (9).
Barbed critiques notwithstanding, Goodman is writing from sound’s corner. While his academic training and affinities span media and cultural studies as well as philosophy, his scholarly attention has consistently been devoted to the reggae-inflected sound system culture of the Black Atlantic, especially the UK-based genealogy of styles and approaches—from jungle, through garage, to dubstep—famously and controversially dubbed “the hardcore continuum” by critic Simon Reynolds; moreover, under the moniker Kode9, Goodman is a practicing producer of electronic dance music, a globe-trotting DJ, and the head of acclaimed record label Hyperdub. Notably, he seems to prefer metaphorical language that borrows from sound, rather than, say, as we “see” more typically, from ocularcentric discourse. So we’re told, for instance, that vibrational force is an important missing dimension in music and sound studies because of the “ethico-aesthetic paradigm it beckons” (xv, emphasis mine). We also hear of things resonating and rippling, while modulation, if borrowed more directly from Deleuzean philosophy than compositional techniques, figures as a key term throughout. But while such subtle linguistic choices may stem from efforts to resist an ocularcentric framework, Goodman’s focus on sound as physical force, as something subpolitical and pre-ideological, is intended to needle the more profound bias in music and sound studies toward an overriding emphasis on phenomenology and signification, rather than ontology and affective mobilization. For Goodman, such preoccupations miss the boat by overlooking the more elemental workings of sound. His wide-ranging and deeply synthetic project—drawing from philosophy, cultural studies, physics, biology, fiction, and military and musical history (81)—constitutes an important and incisive contribution to our growing, shifting appreciation of how sound works and how it figures in the sensorium.
Opening with the 2005 sound bombing of the Gaza strip, Goodman’s narrative would appear to be firmly situated in a certain politics, but the author also takes pains to theorize at a more micropolitical level. He seeks to understand and explicate how sound produces “virtualized” fear in individuals as well as populations, whether in Palestine or elsewhere. Like the sound of an actual incoming shell, sound bombs and other sonic weapons possess power to trigger “the same dread of an unwanted, possible future” (xiv). Considering military-urbanism’s “full spectrum dominance,” an analysis of how sound works—and how certain technologies exploit sonic force—is imperative. For Goodman, the sonic is “particularly attuned” for examining “dread,” one strand of the ecology of fear, or one key dimension of the affective status quo at a historical juncture in which the “militarization of the minutiae of urban experience” turns war into an “ontological condition” that “reconstitutes the most mundane aspects of everyday existence through psychosocial torque and sensory overload” (33). As an “affective tonality,” modulated by vibrational force, fear enters the remit of sonic warfare. Thus, even while writing against a “unisensory” perspective (and continually returning to sound’s crucial “viscerality” ), Goodman finds it useful that, within the affective sensorium, “Sound is often understood as generally having a privileged role in the production and modulation of fear” (65).
Given the permeation of everyday urban life—not simply in warzones of the Global South but in city soundscapes of the so-called developed world as well—by what Goodman terms the “military-entertainment complex,” sonic warfare extends beyond obvious weapons such as sound bombs and nausea-inducing crowd-control devices to forms of (preemptive) sonic branding, including “predatory earworms” and holosonics (186), or precisely targeted “beams” of sound that might implant a commercial jingle into a moving body. With regard to the latter phenomena, Goodman dabbles in speculative fiction, imagining a future, if one in tune with contemporary capitalism, in which we’re bombarded with audio advertisements for products that don’t yet necessarily exist, subconsciously building brand loyalty. Mirroring the unreliable and often occultist information about sonic weapons under development—whether issuing from government reports or press accounts, or circulating among conspiracy theory enthusiasts—Goodman is refreshingly candid about the ways that dystopic projections can seep into thinking about such matters: “For sure, a certain amount of paranoia accompanies this micropolitics of frequency” (188). The deployment of the Mosquito, a device used at malls and other quasi-public, commercial spaces that emits a tone so high it repels teenagers while remaining inaudible to adults, suggests to Goodman that (pun intended), “the future of sonic warfare is unsound” (183).
If this all sounds rather dire, Goodman develops another side to the story of contemporary sonic dominance. Counterposed to the military-entertainment complex’s insidious deployments of sound and unsound is another set of experiments in vibrational force and affect modulation: sound systems, patterned on the Jamaican model but today dispersed globally, serving as labs for “affect engineering and the exorcism of dread” (5). Considering Goodman’s overarching concern with ecologies of fear, it is a convenient bit of resonance that a complex notion of dread is already emically embedded in reggae discourse. Goodman hears and feels the forceful—and often subsonic—projections of sound systems, whether playing dub reggae or funk carioca, as meeting a certain “masochistic” desire for the “active production of dread” (27) or, in other words, “fear activated deliberately to be transduced and enjoyed in a popular musical context” (29). This is an innovative and suggestive reading of practices that have already been examined in great detail in the reggae literature (e.g., Bilby 1995; Stolzoff 2000; Henriques 2003; Veal 2007).
He pursues the idea of an alternative and recuperative practice of sonic dominance, and inflects it with a Black Atlantic (if not Jamaican) accent, by examining what he calls “dub virology,” a model of “affective mobilization”—later glossed as a way “to move the body in dance” (157)—rather than the “modulation of preemptive capital,” the use of sound and unsound to manipulate mood and incite creativity and commerce (155). Goodman argues, without offering much detail about the techniques in question, that “the virologies of the Black Atlantic … constitute a wealth of techniques for affective mobilization in dance,” but that, in turn, “virosonic capital hijacks these techniques … for modulation” (162). The “core focus” of an audio virology is, therefore, the “decreasing gap between mobilization and modulation” (162).
In chapters 24-27 Goodman carefully sketches out what is entailed by an “audio virology” and how such an approach is better suited than memetics for understanding how power relations infuse the contemporary circulation and transmission of culture. Given the intense uptake around memes in the Web 2.0 era, Goodman’s intervention here is useful. If memetics carries an intrinsically cognitivist bias with its focus on information, in contrast, an audio virology “entails a nexus that synthesizes the flows of information, matter, and energy into a virulent rhythmic consistency” (138). Such an “assemblage,” according to Goodman (nodding again to Deleuzian philosophy), goes beyond memetics in recognizing that “replicators” are always “embedded in an ecology,” in a material environment. Memes themselves “are material processes,” pulse patterns emitted by “billions of networked neurons.” Rather than transmission networks, Goodman suggests we think of “affective vectors” and “affective contagions,” and though he notes that we already have the fairly neutral but useful concept of affection available to us, a model of infection appeals to him as a way to “dramatize” the concern with power that he accuses memetics of lacking (130). Viruses, or virological models, are also important to Goodman because they pose “threats to cybernetic control societies” (179), the looming threat of capitalist affect modulation.
If there is a clear politics in this book, the most specific it ever gets is anti-capitalist, but the best way to characterize it might be, more broadly, anti-colonialist. Goodman’s perspective is informed by the anti- and postcolonial discourses running through British cultural studies and Afrofuturism alike, and his concerns move from geopolitical frames to the more subtle but perhaps more worrisome micropolitical colonization of our thoughts, our bodies, our futures. For this reason, mobilization—and understanding sound’s relation to it—stands at times as an idealized end in itself. Goodman stops short of discussing why one would want to mobilize collective populations, however, and he takes pains to distance his analysis from obvious ideological commitments. He is far more interested in “models for affective collectivity without any necessary political agenda” (175). The battle ground for Goodman—and it is a literal field of combat—is the affective status quo, modulated by sonic weapons of all sorts. More generally, Goodman appears concerned with understanding “how audition is policed and mobilized” (189), which, to his credit, is not really the sort of question that musicologists ask. He makes a persuasive case that music and sound studies would do well to turn some attention this way.
The closest Goodman comes to offering an interpretation of sonic mobilization is to suggest that bass materialist affect modulation—that is, using palpable bass frequencies to vibrate bodies—constitutes a “cultural pragmatics” that can “make existence bearable” in what is increasingly, again following Mike Davis (2006), a “planet of slums” (172). Theorizing across contemporary global sound system culture (“Planet of Drums”), Goodman argues that they construct “temporary bass ecologies to hijack sonic dominance” and to “attract and congeal populations” (173). But it would be naive, he contends, “to pretend that there is a necessarily politically progressive agenda” underlying the organization of sound system parties (174). Goodman’s overall aim here is laudable: to shift focus from questions of content and meaning and toward understanding the “more basic power of organized vibration” (172). For the most part, this allows him to purposefully sidestep a great number of questions about the discursive realm. It’s a provocative bit of bracketing, with enough barbs planted in the introduction and the footnotes to set seminar discussions ablaze.
Ultimately, Goodman allows sound to guide his project. He places sound, via vibration, at the center of everything. “One way or another, it is vibration, after all,” he notes, “that connects every separate entity in the cosmos, organic or nonorganic” (xiv). Although his theories of affect and rhythm are underpinned by some heady philosophical discussions, stretching from Spinoza through Deleuze to Massumi and connecting the dots between Bachelard, Lefebvre, Bergson, and Whitehead, Goodman claims to be less concerned with bringing theory to bear on sound than in the reverse. Instead, sound “comes to the rescue of thought,” undermining the “linguistic imperialism” and “phenomenological anthropocentrism” that animate “almost all musical and sonic analysis.” But rather than resorting to a “naive physicalism,” Goodman asserts that what is key is “a concern for potential vibration and the abstract rhythmic relation of oscillation” (82). Using sound to unsettle theoretical frames, while synthesizing a diverse and demanding philosophical literature, Goodman’s efforts recall more than any other recent work Shepherd and Wicke’s ambitious Music and Cultural Theory (1997), another text that could have resonated more strongly in musicological circles.
It remains to be seen whether Sonic Warfare will speak to musicologists and the increasingly transdisciplinary enterprise of sound studies. If I express some pessimism here about its potential uptake, that has more to do with the text’s unorthodox and challenging dimensions. While brimming with ideas and sharp provocations, the book sometimes seems designed to stymie comprehension. Although Goodman rarely takes anything akin to Tompkins’ flights of fancy, his prose can be disorienting and at times nearly impenetrable. (At least there’s a glossary for help.) Although each chapter, most of them quite short, could no doubt be read as an autonomous “singularity,” as the author recommends (xvii), there are several chapter-spanning sections of the book sustaining arguments that, a la carte, might go unappreciated. (Chapters 15-20, for instance, elaborate on the philosophical core of “rhythmanalysis.”) His use of non-chronological but pregnant dates to mark each chapter, although interesting conceptually, also proves problematic. Many of the dates go entirely without explication, so they can seem arbitrary or orthogonal to the discussion. As much as I appreciate and would like to see greater formal experimentation in music and sound studies, too often the organization of Sonic Warfare comes to feel like a conceit of sorts, an afterthought, or an evasion of hard, connective writing.
As the asymmetry in this joint review suggests, these books also differ insofar as one, written from within and directed toward the academy, is working at the level of an overarching argument which can be summarized, debated, and re-deployed in future research, whereas the other resists any sort of boiling down or segmentation. Tompkins’ book is an irreducible thing, not least because of its often untranslatable idiom, and I like that about it. I do not mean to privilege one or the other, nor to confer some greater degree of legitimacy on either. In the end, what makes these texts relevant to an academic readership—to those working in music and sound studies, whom I address here—should have little to do with their institutional pedigree or even their form and everything to do with how they contribute to rigorous debates about the place of music and sound in our world. Do their ideas effectively invite response, revision, and/or citation? Both books have the power to continue opening up the musicological conversation, to let some new vibes in, and to shake things around a bit.
Taken together, these books should help to retune (or is that detune?) the study of music and sound. They force us to ask hard questions of ourselves: What is our subject? What is our lexicon? How do we make sense of our audible past and present without foreclosing possible sonic futures? How do we engage, or ignore, the role of sound and music in the context of creeping, global militarism? If taken up with the vigor they merit, Sonic Warfare and How to Wreck a Nice Beach may better prefigure the future of music and sound studies than many other contemporary offerings.
Bilby, Kenneth. 1995. “Jamaica.” In Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae, ed. Peter Manuel, 143–182. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Cloonan, Martin and Bruce Johnson. 2002. “Killing Me Soflty with His Song: An Initial Investigation into the Use of Popular Music as a Tool of Oppression”. Popular Music 21(1): 27–39.
Cusick, Suzanne G. 2006. “Music as Torture/Music as Weapon.” Revista Transcultural de Música/Transcultural Music Review. 10:1–18.
_______. 2008. “’You Are in a Place That is Out of the World…’: Music in the Detention Camps of the Global War on Terror.” Journal of the Society of American Music 2(1):1–26.
Davis, Mike. 2000. Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. New York: Vintage.
_______. 2006. Planet of Slums: Urban Involution and the Informal Working Class. London: Verso.
Henriques, Julian. 2003. “Sonic Dominance and the Reggae Sound System Session.” In The Auditory Culture Reader, ed. Michael Bull and Les Back, 451–80. Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers.
Shepherd, John and Peter Wicke. 1997. Music and Cultural Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Stolzoff, Norman. 2000. Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica. Durham: Duke University Press.
Veal, Michael. 2007. Dub: Soundscapes & Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.