Summer vibes really on lock all a sudden, eh? Boston tropical and ting! (In fact, the main reason I’m finally getting around to writing this post — best intentions notwithstanding — is on account of IT IS TOO HOT TO SLEEP.)
The dog daze arrived just in time, tho, for I’m delighted to report that this very evening, FRIDAY JUNE 22, on only the second or so night of summer, I’ll have the pleasure of plumbing some seasonal depths by playing what has become, hands down, my favorite dance party in town: PicĂł Picante. And alongside no less than my pardner-in-beatresearch, DJ Flack, & other local luminaries —
Can’t wait! Nuff props to Pajaritos for making the space. It’s really an honor to finally get behind the decks (if while triggering a laptop) to rock the reliably great crowd they rally. You’ll find few sessions in Boston as welcoming and warm. Expect plenty reggae/ton from me. Time to get some dembow into dem bones!
The second gig I want to mention here isn’t actually mine at all, but it’s well worth your consideration — and as it happens, it’s being put on c/o two good friends: Pacey “Library of Vinyl” Foster and local author Elijah Wald (who, I’m pretty tickled to say, was a student in my global hip-hop course this spring).
Elijah is a real polymath and a serious scholar, and when he sets out to write about something — whether the blues or narcocorridos — he sure digs deep. His last book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock’n'Roll, is an indispensable history of US popular (dance) music during the first half of the twentieth century, no less worth your time for its polemical title (which is really more of a subtext).
I’m pleased to note that Elijah’s new book bears at least as provocative a title as the last, especially for those of us who grew up a little closer to hip-hop than r’n'r —
This new tome, hot off the presses, is the subject of Elijah’s talk this Sunday night at Pace’s place (accompanied by germane musical selections by the vinyl-librarian himself), the first of what I hope will be many such “salons” Pacey hosts at his awesome East Cambridge loft. Here’s the deets:
“The Dirty Dozens: From Mississippi Blues to Gangsta Rap”
A talk/listening session with Elijah Wald, author of “The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama”
Sunday, June 24, 8-10 PM
Library of Vinyl Experience @ The Chicken Loft (above the “Live Poultry Fresh Killed” sign)
613 Cambridge St., Cambridge, MA. 02141
$5 Tickets at Brown Paper Tickets
Snacks and beverages will be available. Also copies of the new book.
Limited to 30 People! Get your tickets now to reserve your spot.
DJ Pace will be spinning dirty classics before and after the talk. Friend the new Library of Vinyl on Facebook for information about this and future events.
And here’s a little about the book, including some pretty killer blurbage:
A century before gangsta rappers took dirty rhyming to the top of the charts, Mississippi barrelhouse pianists were singing lyrics as hardcore as anything in the rap canon. In fact, they were singing some of the same lyricsâ€”the nasty insult rhymes known as â€śthe dozens.â€ť A form of verbal dueling popular in rural fields and on urban streets, the dozens is one of the basic building blocks of African American vernacular virtuosity, and has overlapped into pop songs, comedy routines, instrumental cutting sessions, and rap freestyle battles.
Tracing back to African ritual poetry, the dozens is part of a vast tradition of unashamedly sexual verse that consistently flourished in African diaspora communities but rarely surfaced on record or in print, except in heavily censored or bowdlerized versions. Some popular rhymes have endured in oral culture since the nineteenth century, turning up in the work of artists as disparate as Jelly Roll Morton, Zora Neale Hurston, George Carlin, and Flavor Flav.
“This book is sexy… and poignant, smart and a piece of history.”
“This impeccably researched study of the classic black insult game may be the funniest work of serious scholarship ever published.”
–Terry Teachout, Artsjournal
“The Dozens are in very good hands here. Wald gives them the detailed, broad, and serious consideration they have long deserved.”
–Tricia Rose, author of Black Noise and The Hip Hop Wars
Maybe I’ll see you or your mom there?
Finally, I just want to remind that we’ve got our next session of Beat Research coming up next week, and buay is this one gonna be a doozy!
Click on that flyer above for an “invite” and check the video promo below c/o D’hana, aka Chubrub –
Not much more to add here. But get yourself ready for a full-on live performance from LE1F, plus a set from Boston’s own Micah, and yeah, we really couldn’t be more thrilled to host the first appearance of ZOMBIE NU LIFE. (Pretty sure Rizzla DJ is my favorite people-mover on the planet right now.)
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.
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): 190â€“194 / June 2011
This journal aims to encourage â€śwriterlyâ€ť 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 â€śmusicological juncture,â€ť or the inevitable slippages more folksily described as â€śdancing about architectureâ€ť: 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 musicâ€”with all the p-word entails, from commerce to contextsâ€”to words on a page. Admittedly, the enterprise of representing rap music as lyrics abstracted from recorded performances or any particular encounter with themâ€”indeed, as poetryâ€”goes well beyond questions of â€śwriterlyâ€ť approaches. But it also presents a sort of limit case. In an effort to perform a kind of alchemy on hip-hopâ€™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 â€śgrainâ€ť of the voice to the inextricable entrainment of a lyricâ€™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 â€śestimable body of contemporary poetryâ€ť (xxxiii), would downplay the genreâ€™s sonic dimensions. But in justifying their project, the authors go so far as to assert that rapâ€™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 â€śthe words are finally the best reason for the beatâ€ť (xxvi). He marshals this rhetorical flourish to affirm the larger goal of the anthology: positioning rap, as Gates puts it, in the â€śnew vanguard of American poetryâ€ť (xxvi). Gatesâ€™s primary strategy here is to ennoble rap by linking its rhymes to the African-American oral traditionsâ€”the dozens, signifyin(g)â€”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 â€śall 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 voicesâ€ť (xxii). Clearly, all of these aspectsâ€”many of which we might include in the realm of the musicalâ€”are indispensible aspects of a performanceâ€™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 editorsâ€™ introduction, whether theyâ€™re casually referring to rapâ€™s â€śfundamental literary and artistic natureâ€ť (xxix)â€”see what they did there?â€”or asserting, with no support other than their own authority, that lyrics constitute â€śthe most enduring partâ€ť (xxxiv) of hip-hop songs and that, moreover, lyrics â€śgenerally retain much of their resonance and meaning when isolated from their musicâ€ť (xxxv). O rly? Sounds scientific enough, I suppose. Adding insult to injury, the editors have the audacity to employ â€śthe musicâ€ť synecdochically: â€śThe parody of rap as doggerel does not touch truly on much of the musicâ€ť (xxii). In its way, of course, such a slip registers the musicâ€™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. â€śThis anthology treats rap as a literary form,â€ť write the editors, â€śalbeit one primarily experienced as musicâ€ť (xxxv). Thereâ€™s a lot riding on that â€śalbeitâ€ťâ€”a lot that never truly gets addressed. Instead, sleight of hand is meant to suffice: â€śFar from denying rapâ€™s value as music,â€ť they defend, â€śreaders stand to gain a renewed appreciation for rapâ€™s music by considering the poetry of its lyricsâ€ť (xxxv).
What this means is profoundly unclear, especially as the previous page finds the editors willingly enlisting unwieldy Eurocentric critiques of rap as â€śunmusicalâ€ťâ€”a surprising and needless concession: â€śThe very qualities that leave rap open to criticism as musicâ€”heavy reliance on 4/4 beats, limited use of melody and harmonyâ€”are precisely what make it such an effective vehicle for poetryâ€ť (xxxiv). Would a hip-hop waltz be better? Perhaps something in 7/8 time? Is a â€ślimited use of melody and harmonyâ€ť really an accurate or fair description of the staggering variety of rapâ€™s tonalities and omnivorous musical borrowings? The editorsâ€™ eagerness to throw rapâ€™s music under the bus raises flags, to say the least. Indeed, this is one place where the bookâ€™s inherent conservatism betrays itself: Bradley and DuBois seek to admit hip-hopâ€™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-hopâ€™s poeticsâ€”and a central reason for the genreâ€™s resiliency and appealâ€”is a refusal to measure up to old models (aka, â€śall that jazzâ€ť). Following an imperative to flip the script, hip-hop artists, producers, and entrepreneurs have consistently opened doorsâ€”whether aesthetic or commercialâ€”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 rapâ€™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 songâ€™s poetics. The editorsâ€™ subordination of musical wholes to an abstracted logos is not only misguided, itâ€™s irresponsible, playing back into the hands of rapâ€™s rarefied critics rather than elucidating hip-hopâ€™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 itâ€™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 reasonâ€”and began chapter 3 with the revealing tale of encountering some racist, and familiar, opposition from the chairman of Brownâ€™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 bookâ€”and had that conversationâ€”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 â€ścan help sustain a culture that already sustains itself.â€ť 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 â€śsanctifyingâ€ť projectâ€”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 rapâ€™s lyrics to the level of poetry works as a humanizing gestureâ€”for â€śthe people and the situation,â€ť as she put it, though she also said she didnâ€™t want to â€śfreight the thing.â€ť
Obviously, itâ€™s plenty fraught already. Still, Iâ€™d like to be a good relativist of sorts. Itâ€™s a wide world after all. And I donâ€™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 editorsâ€™ ears, and in their minds, the beats stand in the background, or, ironically, as the ground itself, â€śthe perfect sonic climate for poetically sophisticated lyrics to flourishâ€ť (xxxv). But respecting the editorsâ€™ 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-hopâ€™s artistic (or, if you must, â€śliteraryâ€ť) merits for granted, and then proceeds to ask other questions about how its poetics function (and, necessarily, how theyâ€™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-hopâ€™s â€śgolden ageâ€ť idealsâ€”rap as â€śedutainmentâ€ťâ€”could finally find some real footing in the academy. Until we make that space for ourselves, weâ€™re doomed to reproduce a certain wackness.
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 handâ€¦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:
â€¦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.
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 â€śTechnocratsâ€ť to task, Stockhausen decried their use of what he called â€śpermanent repetitive languageâ€ť and recommended that they each listen to various compositions of his own that might lead them away from â€śice cream harmoniesâ€ť and other â€śkitschyâ€ť 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 boyâ€™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 Adornoâ€™s critique of the culture industry and the fashioning of fascism, Stockhausen raises the specter of corrupting, repetitive â€śAfricanâ€ť rhythm yet again in order to assail a track by Richie Hawtin (a.k.a. Plastikman):
It starts with 30 or 40â€”I donâ€™t know, I havenâ€™t counted themâ€”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 (â€śDo you reckon he can dance?â€ť 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 divergentâ€”if, for many, rather relatedâ€”musical aesthetics. The value for todayâ€™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 todayâ€™s â€śelectronic music.â€ť For it would seem clear that Stockhausen demonstrates to anyone who values the kind of music one hears in â€śdancing bars,â€ť 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 â€ś(post-)African,â€ť 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 musicâ€”a quality utterly taken for granted and celebrated by EDM devoteesâ€”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, andâ€”if, ironically, less commonlyâ€”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 letâ€™s set that aside for now.
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.
At first glance, Dave Tompkinsâ€™s How to Wreck a Nice Beach and Steve Goodmanâ€™s Sonic Warfare would seem to have a lot in common. Both books feature the creative â€śabuseâ€ť 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 lionâ€™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. Goodmanâ€™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 unitâ€™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 topicâ€™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.
Tompkinsâ€™s book is a study of the â€śdouble lifeâ€ť of the vocoder, which, for those who arenâ€™t aware, is â€śperhaps the only crypto-technology to serve the Pentagon and the roller rinkâ€ť (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 doesnâ€™t exactly write like a journalist, either. He writes like Dave Tompkins. â€śThe best hip-hop writer ever born,â€ť 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 â€śowedâ€ť to hip-hop, and he has clearly absorbedâ€”and made his ownâ€”hip-hopâ€™s love of language, of whimsy and slippage, orthogonal riffs and sudden twists, personified things and dehumanized folk. In some cases, itâ€™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 â€śthe musicological junctureâ€ť head-on, to make words make sense about soundâ€”or, when such a task seems utterly impossible, to sing along in noise and nonsense. The bookâ€™s title embodies this fundamental problem as well as Tompkinsâ€™s tack. How apt that the phrase, a machine-mangled version of â€śhow to recognize speech,â€ť 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 techniciansâ€™ notebooks, in wartime cables, and on obscure electro-funk jams. Is it only a coincidence that one of early hip-hopâ€™s deftest musicians, Pumpkin, bears a nickname that was also a misheard word in a Churchillian vocoder transmission (224)? Most likely, but Tompkins doesnâ€™t miss a chance to make the connection for us in a cheeky caption (and the bookâ€™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, â€śDo You Feel Like I Do,â€ť 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. â€śEeeeel.â€ť (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 â€śmisheardâ€ť lyric from a Mobb Deep recording.)
Research and reading are interpretive endeavors, and Tompkinsâ€™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 textâ€™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 peopleâ€™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, Tompkinsâ€™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 rapâ€™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 Disneyâ€™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 â€śfreshâ€ť became the most scratched syllable of all time (250-5), or how ELOâ€™s machine ended up in the hands of Man Parrish, â€śthe gayest vocoder expert to make a hip-hop ode to the Bronxâ€ť (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 portraitâ€”a gallery, actuallyâ€”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, â€śTalking to fans is as much a part of growing up as interrogating ants with a magnifying glassâ€ť (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 informationâ€”much of it encyclopedic and hitherto uncompiledâ€”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. (Thereâ€™s no glossary, either.) But donâ€™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 toâ€”Bambaataa, Grandmaster DXT, Rammellzeeâ€”are all convincingly unsurprised to learn about the vocoderâ€™s crypto-military provenance.) This book was a decade in the making, but it reads more like a lifeâ€™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 funâ€”whenever the e-text arrivesâ€”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 â€śthe upside to the militarization of everyday lifeâ€ť (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 soundâ€”and sonic technologiesâ€”in producing what Goodman calls, after Mike Davis (2000), an â€śecology of fear,â€ť a sonically triggered state of agitation and foreboding, produced under an increasingly global regime of â€śmilitary urbanismâ€ť 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 Tompkinsâ€™s book, which mounts an implicit critique of contemporary music writing, Goodmanâ€™s includes direct salvos at music and sound studies. If, as he relates, the Italian futurists proposed an â€śassault on the harmonic orderâ€ť (6), Sonic Warfare might be said to launch a similar campaign. Goodmanâ€™s route to a critical position vis-Ă -vis musicologyâ€™s â€śharmonic orderâ€ťâ€”its lingering biases toward musical form, semiotics, and phenomenologyâ€”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 â€śunsound.â€ť 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 asâ€” in a bit of poetic licenseâ€”the â€śunactualized nexus of rhythms and frequencies within audible bandwidthsâ€ť (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 â€śsubsignifyingâ€ť realm. He is primarily concerned, then, not with â€śsound as textâ€ť but rather â€śsound as forceâ€ť (10). For those in music or sound studies who might bristle at an approach so concerned with what â€śimpresses on but is exterior to the sonic,â€ť Goodman throws a small but sharp dart, referring almost dismissively to â€śthe narrowband channel of the audibleâ€ť (9)!
Ultimately, he contends, a â€śnonrepresentational ontology of vibrational forceâ€ť (xv) can productively â€śsidestepâ€ť recent preoccupations of music studies, namely â€śrepresentation, identity, and cultural meaningâ€ť (9). While not naming names, Goodman professes no love for popular music studiesâ€™ â€śdismal celebrations of consumerism and interminable excuses for mediocrityâ€ť (17). (He also includes some snarky asidesâ€”troll bait for popular music scholarsâ€”for instance, when he remarks that this is not a book about â€śwhite noiseâ€”or guitarsâ€ť [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 â€śthe evangelism of the recent sonic renaissance within the academyâ€ť by focusing on soundâ€™s â€śbad vibes,â€ť 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 â€śsonicâ€ť experience that opens into tactile realms, for instance (9).
Barbed critiques notwithstanding, Goodman is writing from soundâ€™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 approachesâ€”from jungle, through garage, to dubstepâ€”famously and controversially dubbed â€śthe hardcore continuumâ€ť 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 â€śseeâ€ť more typically, from ocularcentric discourse. So weâ€™re told, for instance, that vibrational force is an important missing dimension in music and sound studies because of the â€śethico-aesthetic paradigm it beckonsâ€ť (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, Goodmanâ€™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 projectâ€”drawing from philosophy, cultural studies, physics, biology, fiction, and military and musical history (81)â€”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, Goodmanâ€™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 â€śvirtualizedâ€ť 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 â€śthe same dread of an unwanted, possible futureâ€ť (xiv). Considering military-urbanismâ€™s â€śfull spectrum dominance,â€ť an analysis of how sound worksâ€”and how certain technologies exploit sonic forceâ€”is imperative. For Goodman, the sonic is â€śparticularly attunedâ€ť for examining â€śdread,â€ť one strand of the ecology of fear, or one key dimension of the affective status quo at a historical juncture in which the â€śmilitarization of the minutiae of urban experienceâ€ť turns war into an â€śontological conditionâ€ť that â€śreconstitutes the most mundane aspects of everyday existence through psychosocial torque and sensory overloadâ€ť (33). As an â€śaffective tonality,â€ť modulated by vibrational force, fear enters the remit of sonic warfare. Thus, even while writing against a â€śunisensoryâ€ť perspective (and continually returning to soundâ€™s crucial â€śvisceralityâ€ť ), Goodman finds it useful that, within the affective sensorium, â€śSound is often understood as generally having a privileged role in the production and modulation of fearâ€ť (65).
Given the permeation of everyday urban lifeâ€”not simply in warzones of the Global South but in city soundscapes of the so-called developed world as wellâ€”by what Goodman terms the â€śmilitary-entertainment complex,â€ť sonic warfare extends beyond obvious weapons such as sound bombs and nausea-inducing crowd-control devices to forms of (preemptive) sonic branding, including â€śpredatory earwormsâ€ť and holosonics (186), or precisely targeted â€śbeamsâ€ť 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 weâ€™re bombarded with audio advertisements for products that donâ€™t yet necessarily exist, subconsciously building brand loyalty. Mirroring the unreliable and often occultist information about sonic weapons under developmentâ€”whether issuing from government reports or press accounts, or circulating among conspiracy theory enthusiastsâ€”Goodman is refreshingly candid about the ways that dystopic projections can seep into thinking about such matters: â€śFor sure, a certain amount of paranoia accompanies this micropolitics of frequencyâ€ť (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), â€śthe future of sonic warfare is unsoundâ€ť (183).
If this all sounds rather dire, Goodman develops another side to the story of contemporary sonic dominance. Counterposed to the military-entertainment complexâ€™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 â€śaffect engineering and the exorcism of dreadâ€ť (5). Considering Goodmanâ€™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 forcefulâ€”and often subsonicâ€”projections of sound systems, whether playing dub reggae or funk carioca, as meeting a certain â€śmasochisticâ€ť desire for the â€śactive production of dreadâ€ť (27) or, in other words, â€śfear activated deliberately to be transduced and enjoyed in a popular musical contextâ€ť (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 â€śdub virology,â€ť a model of â€śaffective mobilizationâ€ťâ€”later glossed as a way â€śto move the body in danceâ€ť (157)â€”rather than the â€śmodulation of preemptive capital,â€ť 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 â€śthe virologies of the Black Atlantic â€¦ constitute a wealth of techniques for affective mobilization in dance,â€ť but that, in turn, â€śvirosonic capital hijacks these techniques â€¦ for modulationâ€ť (162). The â€ścore focusâ€ť of an audio virology is, therefore, the â€śdecreasing gap between mobilization and modulationâ€ť (162).
In chapters 24-27 Goodman carefully sketches out what is entailed by an â€śaudio virologyâ€ť 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, Goodmanâ€™s intervention here is useful. If memetics carries an intrinsically cognitivist bias with its focus on information, in contrast, an audio virology â€śentails a nexus that synthesizes the flows of information, matter, and energy into a virulent rhythmic consistencyâ€ť (138). Such an â€śassemblage,â€ť according to Goodman (nodding again to Deleuzian philosophy), goes beyond memetics in recognizing that â€śreplicatorsâ€ť are always â€śembedded in an ecology,â€ť in a material environment. Memes themselves â€śare material processes,â€ť pulse patterns emitted by â€śbillions of networked neurons.â€ť Rather than transmission networks, Goodman suggests we think of â€śaffective vectorsâ€ť and â€śaffective contagions,â€ť 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 â€śdramatizeâ€ť the concern with power that he accuses memetics of lacking (130). Viruses, or virological models, are also important to Goodman because they pose â€śthreats to cybernetic control societiesâ€ť (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. Goodmanâ€™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, mobilizationâ€”and understanding soundâ€™s relation to itâ€”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 â€śmodels for affective collectivity without any necessary political agendaâ€ť (175). The battle ground for Goodmanâ€”and it is a literal field of combatâ€”is the affective status quo, modulated by sonic weapons of all sorts. More generally, Goodman appears concerned with understanding â€śhow audition is policed and mobilizedâ€ť (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 modulationâ€”that is, using palpable bass frequencies to vibrate bodiesâ€”constitutes a â€ścultural pragmaticsâ€ť that can â€śmake existence bearableâ€ť in what is increasingly, again following Mike Davis (2006), a â€śplanet of slumsâ€ť (172). Theorizing across contemporary global sound system culture (â€śPlanet of Drumsâ€ť), Goodman argues that they construct â€śtemporary bass ecologies to hijack sonic dominanceâ€ť and to â€śattract and congeal populationsâ€ť (173). But it would be naive, he contends, â€śto pretend that there is a necessarily politically progressive agendaâ€ť underlying the organization of sound system parties (174). Goodmanâ€™s overall aim here is laudable: to shift focus from questions of content and meaning and toward understanding the â€śmore basic power of organized vibrationâ€ť (172). For the most part, this allows him to purposefully sidestep a great number of questions about the discursive realm. Itâ€™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. â€śOne way or another, it is vibration, after all,â€ť he notes, â€śthat connects every separate entity in the cosmos, organic or nonorganicâ€ť (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 â€ścomes to the rescue of thought,â€ť undermining the â€ślinguistic imperialismâ€ť and â€śphenomenological anthropocentrismâ€ť that animate â€śalmost all musical and sonic analysis.â€ť But rather than resorting to a â€śnaive physicalism,â€ť Goodman asserts that what is key is â€śa concern for potential vibration and the abstract rhythmic relation of oscillationâ€ť (82). Using sound to unsettle theoretical frames, while synthesizing a diverse and demanding philosophical literature, Goodmanâ€™s efforts recall more than any other recent work Shepherd and Wickeâ€™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 textâ€™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 Tompkinsâ€™ flights of fancy, his prose can be disorienting and at times nearly impenetrable. (At least thereâ€™s a glossary for help.) Although each chapter, most of them quite short, could no doubt be read as an autonomous â€śsingularity,â€ť 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 â€śrhythmanalysis.â€ť) 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. Tompkinsâ€™ 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 readershipâ€”to those working in music and sound studies, whom I address hereâ€”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, 143â€“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): 27â€“39.
Cusick, Suzanne G. 2006. “Music as Torture/Music as Weapon.” Revista Transcultural de MĂşsica/Transcultural Music Review. 10:1â€“18.
_______. 2008. â€ś’You Are in a Place That is Out of the Worldâ€¦’: Music in the Detention Camps of the Global War on Terror.” Journal of the Society of American Music 2(1):1â€“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, 451â€“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.
And while we’re on the topic of awesome online flip-page book scans (check that first URL above), this is a fine time to share a link to a flippy version of Tomo, the art/architecture/design magazine edited by some of the same DF denizens who were crucial in making the event an event (or a series of them). I’m happy to report that my post on graf en La Ciudad has been translated & excerpted to run in the latest issue of the magazine, devoted to Postopolis DF. Looks sharp!
Finally, I want to append to the discussion another resonant passage about all the writing on the walls in Mexico. This comes from John Ross’s “phantasmagoric” history of Mexico City, El Monstro (p. 145-6):
Painting walls was a Mexican art even before the people had a name — ancient caves from one end of the country to the other are enlivened with prehistorical glyphs. The Toltecs embellished the walls of their short-lived empire with painted images of the gods. The Mayas decorated the chamber of their dead emperors with messages to the future. The Aztecs daubed the snake wall that fortified their sacred precinct with fantastic serpents. The messages advertised on these rough canvases often depicted the gods’ predilection for the peoples who had painted them and the peoples’ heroic supremacy over their hapless enemies.
I’ve been trying to get Dave Tompkins to come do a reading in town this spring from his much anticipated and well-worth-waiting-for book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop (Stop Smiling 2010). An afternoon at MIT followed by a night of vocoder-animated Beat Research seemed pretty apropos, but thanks to Dave’s busy touring schedule, that’ll have to wait for the fall when the students are back in town.
For now, I’m enthused to report that Dave will be striking while the book’s hot off the presses — and rounding up several of the knowingest headz in the Greater Northeast to drop robot-vox’d electro jams and other space oddities in support. For reals, with a lineup featuring the likes of Chairman Mao, Hua Hsu, 7L, and Brian Coleman, we’re talking about some serious rapmuzik braintrust in the house. And the Good Life has a pretty accommodating system for big slabs of thunder-croak proto-crunk.
There’ll be a slide show too, and believe me, you want to see these pics blown up. I’ve been working my way through Dave’s book in little sittings for a couple weeks now, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold. Almost every page has some awesome (and awesomely captioned) photo in it. (Props to Stop Smiling for making this sort of package pretty affordable.) The whole thing is just brimming with arcane knowledge jewels. And Dave has long been one of my favorite hip-hop writers, a man with his own muse to be sure. Plenty of times he’s way over my head (and maybe in over his own — though I don’t get that impression). Either way, I want more music writing to be like his: informed, imaginative, idiosyncratic.
To whet, here’s one of my favorite passages so far, drawn somewhat at random since, really, such nuggets are a dime a dozen (all dimes well spent, I might add). Fifty pages into the strange history of the vocoder, we’re told that –
Hollywood would have to wait. All things wondrous, stupendous, complicated and confusing must report to the army first. Though the World’s Fair could make claims on the future, the military officially had dibs on tomorrow. Long before the vocoder played the voice of a missile-happy Cold War supercomputer in 1970’s Colossus: The Forbin Project, it held an underground desk job, scrambling the phone calls of the army’s triple-chinned brass. Patriotic orders to fill, eggs to scramble. Things to come, things to do.
Writing in the New Yorker, Martian-mongerer H.G. Wells precidcted that the World’s Fair would introduce teleconferencing, a snooze button of a prophecy but less dooming than the atomic conflict he foresaw in his 1914 book The World Set Free. Ray Bradbury, the loud blond dreamer, was terrified. No squid lady could distract him from the prospect of the sky above whistling straight to hell.
Those at the Fair who eavesdropped on Bradbury’s free call to Los Angeles probably just admired the clarity, marveling at voices shooting across time zones. Perhaps they mistook his modulated quaver for homesickness, not the fear that he’d never again see his parents. I love you. I miss you. I’m broke.
“We were a few days away from World War Two,” he tells me. “The sense then was that in a few months the world was going to destroy itself. The world then proceeded to kill forty million people. I thought I might be destroyed too. I looked up into the sky, smelled gun powder and saw the war coming.” That night, July 4th, standing in the glow of the fireworks, the world’s blindest stegosaurus fan saw the sky on fire and cried.
from Raquel Rivera to wayne marshall, Deborah Pacini Hernandez date Wed, Jul 15, 2009 at 11:38 AM subject riddle me this
Hi dear compis.
I still don’t quite understand how the amazon sales work, but I got a big kick out of seeing us #1 in salsa and and #1 reggae. And #11 in rap.
* Amazon.com Sales Rank: #53,648 in Books (See Bestsellers in Books)
Popular in these categories: (What’s this?)
#1 in Books > Entertainment > Music > Musical Genres > Ethnic & International > Salsa
#1 in Books > Entertainment > Music > Musical Genres > Reggae
#11 in Books > Entertainment > Music > Musical Genres > Rap
And we now seem to be #4 on the reggae chart, behind three Bob Marley books (actually #3 is just the Kindle version of #2). Considering that 7 of the 10 reggae bestsellers are books about Marley, that’s pretty decent placement.
At any rate, this has got to be an indicator of something — and something more than Amazon’s surprisingly crappy metadata. Also, the books in the rap section are more solid for some reason, so getting up to #11 on that chart is not too shabby, fwiw. (Of course, we’re now down to #20, so…)
As for the dictionary entry, I’m glad they agreed with us on orthography. Pretty funny/telling that it made it into Merriam-Webster before the RAE. That Solo Para post is hilarious.
Some bookish things to report, including the latest re: Reggaeton — namely, that tomorrow, Wednesday May 27 (which happens to be my born day), I’ll be appearing alongside co-editor Raquel Rivera on WNYC’s Soundcheck.
The show airs live at 2pm EST. I believe it’s carried by a number of NPR stations nationally, or can be listened to online. If you’d like to hear something like the /Rupture radio show but a little more NPR-ish this is your best bet.
[Late update: I couldn't make the trek to NYC today after all, so it's just gonna be my capable compaĂ±era-de-libro, Raquel. Check (and comment on) the segment here.]
There are two other new music books I’m excited about & I think you maybe shouldbe too –
1) Joe Schloss’s Foundation is an ethnography and history of b-boy culture just out on Oxford University Press. Joe is a good friend, a fellow hip-hop ethnomusicologist, and one of the most lucid and sensible thinkers about hip-hop I know. Check the technique from a recent review by Adam Mansbach –
Both the coherence of b-boy culture and its under-the-radar status, Schloss argues, can be attributed to the form’s relative lack of commodification. Graffiti exploded onto the gallery scene in the early ’80s; rap records were selling millions of copies by 1979. B-boying proved more difficult to package. It was a process, not a product, so it escaped back underground, relatively unscathed.
The unmediated nature of b-boying also accounts for the dearth of scholarship on the subject. According to Schloss, writers are accustomed to analyzing the artifacts hip-hop offers the market; lamentably, this “puts the theory in the hands of the scholar” and “relieves [him] of the obligation to actually engage with the community.”
Schloss’s approach is quite different, and the result is the best work ever produced on b-boying, and one of the finest books yet to emerge from the swiftly proliferating ranks of hip-hop scholarship. In researching “Foundation,” the author spent five years attending every b-boy event in New York City; not only did he interview the craft’s leading practitioners, he apprenticed himself to them, learning the dance physically, intellectually, and spiritually.
Once a cornerstone of all hip-hop expression, the mentor-apprentice relationship is another victim of the culture’s marriage to mass media. Many graffiti writers, for example, claim that the biggest change their art form ever underwent occurred when professional photographers began documenting it; this allowed neophytes to learn style from photos instead of masters.
But in b-boying, apprenticeship is alive and well. “The vast majority of serious b-boys and b-girls in New York,” Schloss tells us, “have studied directly with the elders,” pioneers who have been “refining their aesthetic for upwards of three decades . . . and are barely even in their 40s.”
The second book is perhaps a little more eye-catching (though I quite like the Foundation design) –
2) Elijah Wald, a true pop-musical polymath, has a new book out (also on Oxford U, as it happens), bearing the provocative title, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Elijah, who is also a friend and who I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with at several music conferences (much to my edification), offers up a meticulously researched, funny, and sometimes surprising account of the history of US pop from the late 19th into the late 20th century, taking apart a number of myths and filling large lacunae while proposing a rather grand narrative of his own.
Here’s how he describes the work, and his rockist/poptimist motivation to write it, in an email I received today –
it began to bother me that virtually all pop music history has been written by roots, jazz and rock fans–people like me–who tend to take pride in our unique tastes and despise mainstream pop. And we tend to write the history of what we like rather than the history of what happened. So this is an attempt to give a clearer picture of how pop music evolved, looking at changing dance styles, technologies, and the lives of working musicians and regular listeners from the dawn of ragtime to the dawn of disco–with some fun stories to back it all up.
Elijah’s email also included some simple, sensible tips for those of you who are interested in supporting authors and booksellers in these strange days. I’ll leave you with these thoughts then, and the mild suggestion that you might consider doing the same for our querido librocito –
Since book publishing seems to be getting shakier by the year, I
wanted to include a few ideas about what one can do to help out any book
or author one likes.
1. Spread the word–as the “mainstream” media are replaced by infinite
capillary streams, more and more of us are relying on the reports of
friends and acquaintances.
2. Call up your local library and ask them to order a copy. Libraries,
even in these days of tightened budgets, respond to readersâ€™ requests.
3. As a dedicated browser, I always recommend that you buy from your
local bookstore (hoping that you have one), and if your local bookstore
doesnâ€™t have the book, you can suggest that they carry it.
4. Wherever you buy the book (or take it out of the library, or
whatever), if you like it, take a moment and post a review on Amazon
and/or other online sites. Crazy as it sounds, positive reader reviews
really make a difference.
I love the moment at 0:21 in this credit card commercial:
It’s obvious why, no?
MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” — a “work” which, in addition to the song itself, includes as a part of its whole a now iconic video, known as much for its choreography as parachute pants — has become a part of the whole that is Rick James’s “Super Freak.”
Why has that happened? Because we say so, hear so, see so, know so.
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of Ă¦sthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.
Which is not unlike what Nicolas Bourriard recently proposed (via /Jace):
These artists who insert their own work into that of others contribute to the eradication of the traditional distinction between production and consumption, creation and copy, readymade and original work. The material they manipulate is no longer primary. It is no longer a matter of elaborating a form on the basis of a raw material but working with objects that are already in circulation on the cultural market, which is to say, objects already informed by other objects. Notions of originality (being at the origin of) and even of creation (making something from nothing) are slowly blurred in this new cultural landscape marked by the twin figures of the DJ and the programmer, both of whom have the task of selecting cultural objects and inserting them into new contexts.
But what I like about Eliot saying this in 1922, more than Bourriard in 2009, is that this essential cultural process long predates mechanical and digital reproduction. It’s the stuff of poets and philosophers, as well as DJs and hackers, walkman-wearing dancers and credit card commercials. It’s just how culture works. Always has, always will. Can’t stop, won’t.
So thanks for the songs & dances, guys; now they’re ours.