Archive of posts tagged with "review"

January 6th, 2016

Arcademish Ish

Last year I published a couple reviews that land somewhere between the realm of ethno/musicology and music criticism — a netherworld I obviously like to explore. One piece engages with the multimedia work of Arca; the other with a cheeky French rap video. One appeared in an academic journal devoted to Latin American art and literature; the other in a museum in Europe alongside an installation of the video and other critical commentary (and then, in an actual book). See below for links and excerpts.

Marshall, Wayne. 2015. “Contortions to Match Your Confusion: Digital Disfigurement and the Music of Arca.” Literature and Arts of the Americas 48(1): 118-22. (PDF)

“Día de los Muertos,” a mix released in late October 2014 by Houston’s Svntv Mverte (aka Santa Muerte), a DJ duo with a name invoking “Mexico’s cult of Holy Death, a reference to the worship of an underground goddess of death and the dead,” opens with an ominous, arresting take on reggaeton. A moody, flickering bed of synths struggles to spring into action before the snap of slow, syncopated snares whips up a perreo-worthy dembow over a bassline so deep that its pitch seems negligible, indeterminate, a force more palpable than audible. As the low-end nearly collapses under its own weight, an upper register synth slices through the atmosphere, soaring and faltering, more Icarus than Superman. The haunting but hopeful lead flutters across a foreboding sonic landscape, ghostly trails of reverb in its wake. A bittersweet tune, it could be cloying but for its warbling, almost pathetic qualities. Instead, a poignant frailty undercuts the digital promise of perfection. The baleful melody traverses a shifting ground of textural breaks and freaky filters, shimmering as it shape-shifts. Remarkably through-composed for loop-centered music, Arca’s “Thievery” seems as committed to repetition and rhythm as variation and development. As such, it is an excellent opening for a set, and a fine introduction to the distinctive sound of Arca, aka Alejandro Ghersi. …

///

Marshall, Wayne. “Who Deserves It?” Seismographic Sounds: Visions of a New World, Theresa Beyer, Thomas Burkhalter, Hannes Liechti (eds.), 54-5. Bern: Norient Books, 2015. (HTML)

… Low-fi but slick, Charni employs repetition, rhythm, and simple but delirious digital effects to furnish Banane, Waltaa, and friends with Tumblr-esque cascades of free-floating objects of desire: cash, weed, sportswear, nostalgic devices like skypagers and flip phones. Also, French fries and kebab. And faces – many faces, often close up, showcasing a crew as motley as proletarian Paris. They are so fresh that their fashion and facial gestures, in the hip register of the day, appear as flat in affect as their vintage clothes are crisp. Less like they’re looking into a camera than a mirror, or a smartphone. …

2 comments - Add a comment -

January 6th, 2016

Legions of Book

As published in issue 377 of The Wire (July 2015), here’s my joint review of two recent books about soundsystem/DJ culture, each of them impressive efforts of deep documentation and deliberate framing even as each takes a rather different approach to the project. Together, they further round out our understanding of the soundsystem as global form and local culture.

Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews In The San Francisco Bay Area
Oliver Wang
Duke University Press, 232 pp

Sonidero City: Exploring Sound Systems In Mexico And Colombia
Mirjam Wirz & Buzz Maeschi (Editors)
Motto, 224 pp

The sound system has been a paradigm of musical experience for over half a century, but only recently has a global picture begun to emerge. While such legendary sites as New York, Chicago, Kingston and London boast substantial literatures devoted to the genesis and development of disco, hiphop, house and reggae, the amazing stories of how record-wielding disc jockeys and discerning, dancing audiences reshaped the musical and social lives of, say, Rio de Janeiro, Rotterdam or Cairo are only just coming to light. Oliver Wang’s Legions Of Boom and Mirjam Wirz’s Sonidero City offer welcome contributions to this emerging world history, bringing rich portraits of the San Francisco Bay Area’s mobile DJ crews, Mexico’s sonidos, and Colombia’s picós into the mix.

At a glance, the two texts provide rather different portraits of mobile sound system scenes. While one is written in academic but accessible prose, collegially situated in the domain of popular music studies, the other is nearly wordless and self-published, a collection of hundreds of poignant and telling images. But both stand as impressive, textured documents that should be of interest to anyone curious about how sound systems take on local colour and meaning.

Of all the local scenes that have gathered around the live playing of dance records, few outside the pantheon have enjoyed so detailed and attentive a treatment as Legions Of Boom gives to the Bay Area’s mobile DJ crews of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a scene centred around disco-derived, blend-oriented continuous mixing and underpinned by a burgeoning Filipino community. Wang’s account strikes a careful balance between oral history and analysis, grounded in ethnography while also working to interpret and elaborate the significance of the story. He chronicles the rise and fall of the scene, charting its course from suburban garage parties to spectacular large scale showcases to the emergence of scratch DJs who would one day play a part in the scene’s dissolution. The Bay Area has, of course, long been on the map thanks to such Filipino turntablist luminaries as Q-Bert, Shortkut, and Mix Master Mike, and Wang’s book gives their sudden appearance on the world stage crucial context, explaining how “the scratch scene’s roots grew in soil first tilled by the mobile crews”.

While narrating according to the scene’s chronology and its participants’ testimony, Wang also considers more abstract questions, such as what it means to be a scene (and not, he insists, a subculture), how the lack of mass media access encouraged peer to peer interactions, and why class and gender are often elephants in the rec room. Wang devotes two central chapters to the scene’s “preconditions” by which he refers to such “internal” factors as “the allure of social status, the aura of work as a DJ, and the appeal of homosociality” (and the consequent reproduction of masculinity), as well as to such “external” “soft infrastructure” as the social networks connecting crews and audiences: “peer-run student and church groups, middle-class parents and relatives, and Filipino community groups”. He also gives an apt amount of space to the remarkable degree of collective labour involved in producing a single mobile DJ event, never mind an entire scene.

Wang develops his account of the scene over a series of chapters, each framed with an event flier that serves as a focal point for a particular moment in time and dimension of the scene. These help to give a vivid picture of the do it yourself material culture at the heart of the mobile DJ scene. For all its crucial images, however, as an annotated oral history at its core, Legions Of Boom is a book centred on the words of the scene’s participants and Wang’s insightful perspectives as a scholar, a journalist, and a DJ.

In contrast, Sonidero City puts images front and centre in its representation of sound system culture in Mexico and Colombia. Mirjam Wirz presents herself as a photographer, a humble explorer inspired by the world of sound system cumbia to go on a “spontaneous research undertaking”: “I headed out onto the streets, talked to people, visited living rooms, courtyards, and dance events, and captured with the camera whatever the trail led me to”. Indeed, there is little in the way of framing in the book save for that of the photographs themselves. As for those, they are often powerful, ranging from documentary snapshots of audiences and sonideros in action to more intimate, artful portrayals of individuals and their cherished artifacts: luridly painted speaker boxes, handwritten signs and well worn vinyl, yellowing stationery and posters. On their own, many shots are arresting, carrying a sense of intimacy and eye for detail; in the aggregate, they produce a sensuous, variegated picture of sound system communities in Mexico City, Monterrey and Barranquilla.

Sonidero City includes a small booklet offering context and credit, including an annotated index of every image in the book as well as some suggestive fragments. Wirz rehearses a big picture history of cumbia but turns quickly to the more recent, local histories of cumbia as working class sound system culture in Mexico, where sonidos have reshaped cumbia and salsa as hip-hop did funk, reggae did R&B, and disco did soul, and in Colombia, where soukous has served as musical muse and raw material for local reinvention. The booklet effectively intersperses brief histories with interview excerpts as well as a transcription of a sonido talkover session (with cumbia lyrics in capital letters), a direct but playful representation that speaks volumes without explication: “THINKING OF YOU, THINKING OF YOU, LOVING YOU – here goes for Angelo, the Incorrigible… Curly from Moctezuma and his old lady, because Susanita is old. LOVING YOU…”

Add a comment -

February 20th, 2015

The Amplification of Souls (review)

Gilles Aubry’s The Amplification of Souls is a meticulously composed and conceived “audio-essay” (Aubry’s term) on Kinshasa’s charismatic churches and the broader soundscape they inhabit and inflect. I reviewed the CD, along with its 80 page booklet, in Issue 371 of The Wire (January 2015).

As usual, I am posting the final draft I sent my editor, or what I like to call the “director’s cut.” You can see the piece as it ran c/o Aubry’s website. Special thanks to David Font-Navarrete — ethnomusicolleague, friend, artist, and author of the incisive “File Under ‘Import’: Musical Distortion, Exoticism, and Authenticité in Congotronics” — for helping me think aloud here.

Gilles Aubry
The Amplification of Souls
ADOCS Verlag CD+8K

As speaker hum and empty plosives congeal into a stuttered mic-check for Jesus, a slight squeal suggests the looming threat of feedback. Because so many of Kinshasa’s churches are open-air affairs, the rumble of motorcycles and automobiles accompany the ambience of a band slowly tuning up and worshippers gathering. Preachers punch through the din with bursts of noise louder than anything else, the flat lines of distortion making palpable the power of their authority. Handmade PAs hit their limits as microphones bear witness to the possession of souls and of space. And then, sudden quiet save for the faint buzz of the sound system. Speakertowers of Babel from the Heart of Darkness, respectfully recorded and remixed for headphones and museums thousands of miles away.

The jump cuts are jarring, reminding that this is no straightforward documentary. The voice of the artist, Gilles Aubry, resounds here too. The Amplification of Souls is, according to its careful and copious framing, Aubry’s “audio-essay” on Kinshasa’s religious soundscape. Congolese charismatic churches are a laudable focus given the immensity of the phenomenon and the general indifference to it in the wider world, perhaps because megachurches and prosperity gospel seem more essentially American than African. Attempting what the artist contends is “a material-based form of cultural interpretation” the work stands as a studious, self-aware approach to sonic ethnography. Aubry’s project is so steeped in reflexivity and rigorous attention to the sounds and their contexts and meanings, it clearly seeks to pre-empt perfunctory charges of appropriation. “He doesn’t even understand what we’re saying,” says a churchgoer quoted in the liner notes, “Them, the whites, they record anything.”

What constitutes understanding here is a crucial, vexing point. A dozen minutes in, the tongues begin. The glossolalia is striking in itself, alien and arresting and enjoying an undistorted sonic clarity in contrast to the punchy preachers. It also seems to mirror the varied textures of the audio-essay itself, composed of multiple sound sources created by different people with different objectives: church services and evangelical street campaigns, radio and video, cooking and football. At one point, a burst of traditional music, full of clapping and ululation, points more toward continuities than contrasts, while the appearance of local rap and meandering Hawaiian guitar suggest other Others to be heard. All the while, Aubry’s own voice emerges in the layering of samples, their stereo spatialization, and the inevitable narrative arc that emerges from his rearrangement of such disparate sonic documents.

Presented as academic sound art, The Amplification of Souls comes with an 80 page booklet including an interview with Aubry that contains the phrase “neo-colonial representation” in its subtitle. It also boasts an essay on “The Sonic Materialities of Belief” by a musicologist and cultural anthropologist which notes, among other things, that Congolese charismatic movements themselves “appropriated” the patina, and hence the power, of noise and distortion from Pentecostal missionaries. Performed previously as a sound installation and now as an ongoing set of public performances, Aubry’s remixed recordings stand at once as an impressionistic refraction of Kinshasa’s soundscape and as the material embodiment of sounds that he would like to let speak for themselves. One way that Aubry does so is to pair his collage with a 34 minute excerpt of a spiritual deliverance service that provides a great deal more context and less composerly initiative, though the profound act of framing remains. In another show of transparency, Aubry’s original recordings of the service in full have been archived online.

Even so, what makes this anything other than churchy Congotronics? Why choose Kinshasa instead of Kansas City? Or, for that matter, Berlin? Not only does the city that Aubry calls home play host to numerous charismatic churches itself, some are even Congolese. Obviously, the specific site of these recordings is crucial to their circulation as art in Europe and the US, but it is deeply ironic that, against the coolness of Kinshasa trance traditionalists like Konono No 1, Aubry must seek out possessed Christians to locate the hot exoticism Western audiences expect. How would Kinshasa’s charismatic communities receive this project? Would it sound like understanding? Should that guide the way audiences elsewhere experience it? The emphasis on sound as material culture suggests that we’re not meant to attend to the content so much as the deracinated affects of the audio. Perhaps glossolalia itself offers an answer. Does the lexical register matter when all that we’re waiting for is the outbreak of the unintelligible?

Wayne Marshall

[listen to excerpts at earpolitics.net]

Add a comment -

December 22nd, 2014

Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circencis (review)

I reviewed Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circencis, a re-issue of the classic salvo in Brazil’s tropicalia movement, for Issue 367 of The Wire (September 2014). Happily, this one’s also a nice chunky review; nice to get a little leeway on the wordcount for a verbose dude like yours truly. Here’s a director’s cut of sorts, somewhere between the semi-final and final version.



Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circencis
Various
Soul Jazz Records CD/LP

A charming but sardonic cha cha for Christopher Columbus, a rock anthem quoting Latin liturgy as it bears witness to the hungry poor and the bloodstained tables of the rich, a dada-esque word puzzle that possibly alludes to Batman, a dreamy bossa nova telling listeners to eat ice cream and learn English (in Portuguese) — these are just a few points of contrast and conversation threaded through an album that aspired to no less than naming and giving voice to a new cultural movement, and succeeded spectacularly.

Yet despite its firm place in the history of Brazilian music, Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circensis, the coproduced and collaborative creation of Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé, Os Mutantes, Nara Leao, Gal Costa, Rogério Duprat, and many more, has long suffered from a conspicuous lack of circulation beyond Brazil. All the more strange considering the album’s uncanny incorporation of UK psychedelic rock into a Brazilian idiom.

“We were ‘eating’ The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix,” remembers Caetano Veloso in his memoir Verdade Tropical, invoking a foundational imperative to cannibalize — culturally, that is — proposed in the 1920s by modernist poet, Oswald De Andrade. Taking to heart Andrade’s call for Brazilian artists not to imitate but to devour whatever they encounter, in the late 1960s the tropicalistas would initiate a cultural turn by their brave commitment to a voracious aesthetic at the height of a military dictatorship that would later arrest and exile both Gil and Veloso (who would return years later as luminaries, with Gil eventually serving as Minister of Culture in the 2000s under Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva).

In the decades since its resonant debut, much ink has spilled over tropicalia’s significance, and listeners outside of Brazil have been introduced to the music via retrospectives released by Soul Jazz, Luaka Bop and others. Still, the album’s singular expression of the movement has yet to enjoy widespread reception on its own terms. Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, with segues and sequencing, Tropicalia wants to be heard as a unit, in a single setting, or over and over.

As if responding to the dearth of access to physical copies for so long, Soul Jazz is only releasing the album in physical form and with faithful, facsimile repackaging, including the original art (an inclusive, symbol-laden, family-style photo), unusual approach to song credits, and dramaturgical liner notes from the back of the record sleeve. They do so with reason. As with other concept albums of the day, Tropicalia was produced as a total package and placed remarkable emphasis on acknowledging the contributions of all involved while underscoring the collaboration at the heart of the project. Beside the song titles sit the songwriters’ (first) names, followed by the performers’ names in parentheses. Writing and performing each other’s songs, and honoring as they blur the distinct voices of the group, Veloso, Gil, et al, appear more as a true collective — a movement, even — than a conventional group.

Boxed in by an opposition between the West and the Rest that they wanted neither to deny nor accept, the tropicalistas developed a pointedly diverse sound by drawing as much on resilient local accents as international codes. “We wanted to participate in the worldwide language,” Veloso recounts, “both to strengthen ourselves as a people and to affirm our originality.” Eschewing homogenous fusion for a chunky syncretism, the music on Tropicalia moves with conviction from psych rock fantasia to tweaked bossa nova, cheeky mambo to treacly ballad, sometimes within the span of a single track.

The album is tight but never stiff, at once made supple by ebullient performances and substantial by the critiques smoldering between the lines. The opener, “Miserere Nobis” sets up this double-edge straight away with its church organ intro and chorus plea to “have mercy on us”, deploying Catholic referents and what Veloso refers to as “noble images enveloping a political commitment that is far more implicit than stated”. As the track shifts from quick, jangly strumming, rolling drums, and a double-time shaker to a staccato, reedy riff, Gil rehearses a simple set of ideals in Portuguese: “Hopefully one day, one day…for all and always the same beer” and that “the table of the people has bananas and beans”. Language aside, “Geléia Geral” would hardly sound out of place on Pet Sounds with its elaborate, layered arrangement, except for the samba section that erupts half-way into the song. The chorus, “Ê bumba iê iê boi”, in arch-tropicalist fashion, slyly coaxes a rock-inflected “yeah-yeah” out of a folk song from the North East of Brazil.

Elsewhere, using a Dylan inspired mix of plainspokenness and oblique metaphor, Os Mutantes’ “Panis Et Circensis” explicitly needles the complacent middle class during a moment of crisis and possibility: “I unfurled the sails on the masts in the air / I set free the tigers and the lions in backyards / But the people in the dining room / Are busy being born and dying”. After a couple minutes of haranguing the bourgeois, the hurdy-gurdy dirge slows to a stop, as if the power went out and the record stopped spinning. Seconds later, the “busy being born and dying” line returns as a mantra chanted over a galloping, Beatles-esque backbeat complete with twittering trumpets. The music gathers speed until it crashes with a hard tape splice into the mundane din of clinking glasses and inane chatter over muted strains of Blue Danube.

If elaborately orchestrated rock, especially the kind of multitracked whimsy and ambition of Sgt Pepper’s, is the album’s most obvious exotic touchstone, then arranger Rogério Duprat, who stands as a central member of the motley crew on the album cover, is the collective’s George Martin, providing a swell of strings or bursts of fanfare when needed, or, say, a bass clarinet figure bubbling briefly in the left channel. Duprat’s soaring arrangement for Veloso’s cover of Vicente Celestino’s “Coração Materno” supplies crucial support to a triumphant tribute, reanimating reviled schmaltz in order to undermine a prevailing elitism that the tropicalistas wished to resist.

Occasionally the lyrics and sonic signposts are less veiled — as when Gil and Veloso ironically sing the praises of Cristóvão Colombo “who, to our delight, came with three caravels”. Then there’s the pathetic pomp of the final track, “Hino Do Senhor Do Bonfim”, a nationalistic anthem which eventually brings the album to a close with eerie moans, the cavernous knocks of a distant cannon, and silence. It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way a military dictatorship might interpret such a work of smoking agitpop.

Wayne Marshall

[hear clips at the Soul Jazz site]

-

December 22nd, 2014

Rolê – Novos Sons Do Brasil (review)

I reviewed Rolê – Novos Sons Do Brasil, a new compilation from Brazil’s Mais Um Discos, for Issue 365 of The Wire (July 2014). Given my prolix proclivities, I was glad to get a little longer leash (i.e., wordcount) for this one. Nice to be able to stretch out a bit — and dig in — given how short record reviews tend to be. I was also especially happy to get the phrase “Carne vale, my ass” into print!

Rolê – Novos Sons Do Brasil
Mais Um Discos

As prior Mais Um compilations have also trumpeted new waves, it’s striking that so many of these forty-three tracks spanning ten Brazilian states sound deeply familiar, even on first spin. In terms of sound — of musical forms and signs — little here seems new. The recordings were made recently, sure, but as far as the music’s references, nearly every track grins like a cat with a carnival feather dangling from the side of its mouth. Carne vale, my ass. The so-called new sounds of Brazil are still fully in thrall to the time-honored Brazilian tradition of anthropofagia, or cultural cannibalism.

If you enjoyed Luaka Bop’s retrospective takes on tropicalia and MPB (Música Popular Brasileira), much here will resonate as an extension of that mongrel approach to Brazilian and international influences alike. Stewing together such bottomless local wellsprings as samba, bossa nova, capoeira, and tecno brega with rock, cumbia, electro, and afrobeat, the compiled acts give voice to the fecundity of the present moment’s access to the recorded past.

Amidst an omnivore’s dilemma of musical choices, the iconic instruments and accents of Brazil serve as rudders in the flow of international currents. The opener, very much in this vein, may be the best of the bunch. Brimming with allusions, effects, and textural shifts, Lucas Santtana’s “Amor meu grande amor” emerges from a cocoon of vinyl crackle and street static as a sweet song with clarion, close-miked vocals redolent of canonical bossa nova. A swirling organ sets the voice on an anthemic pedestal before a deep, dubwise groove moves in to support and unsettle. Santtana’s neat trick, anchoring an otherwise slippery arrangement with a suave singer, appears again on the very next track and threads its way through the compilation. Apanhador Só’s “Mordido” begins as a glitchy, frantic bossa buoyed by calm crooning but after two twitchy verses culminates in a grungy dirge that, to its credit, doesn’t feel nearly as non sequitur as it should. These salvos are followed by swampy cumbias that borrow beats from cheesy axé thigh-burners and fuzzy guitars and sundry other permutations of familiar sounds and signposts, local and non.

The compilation is organized into two parts, the second half allegedly devoted to “post baile-funk” dance music though it features as many live ensembles and mid-century styles as the first disc includes samples and synths. Moreover, a lot of the tracks on “Disc Dois” could have been made before funk carioca’s national and global diffusion and hardly seem to register its influence. But several fun, bass-propelled productions manage to capture the spirit, if not the sound, of the funk ball: Lurdez da Luz’s “Ping pong” channels Missy Elliott while teasing a berimbau sample; distorted cuicas drive another sort of musical feijoada on Thiago França’s off-kilter, one-minute interlude, “Picardia”; pandeiros float above the digital thump of DJ Mam’s smoothly recalibrated take on classic carioca forms, “Cuz Cus De Canô”; and it’s fitting to hear US producer but longtime Rio-resident Maga Bo contribute a dancehall reggae romp in which the Jamaican presets have been replaced with local inputs, a slowly building track that puts vocals front and center all the while threatening to usurp their pride of place with growling bass.

More apparent than funk carioca here is the familiar boom-ch-boom-chick of Afrodiasporic genres like reggaeton or zouk, most popularly localized via axé and tecno brega, two genres often dismissed as proletarian schmaltz — brega means cheese — but clearly a presence in several selections, from the electronic grooves of Strobo’s “Amazônia bang bang” to the nu-tropicalia of Tulipa’s “Megalomania.” Peba’s “ARROZX” sounds almost like a Jersey club take on tecno brega, while Gang do Eletro point toward the genre’s eletro melody wing, as well as funk, with their carioca-cadence raps, half-time habanero, and the kind of cloying synths that drive dancers mad at Belem bailes.

Whether or not they meet the conceit of “post baile funk” dance music, other tracks here merit your time. Joined by no less than Tony Allen on drums, Meta Meta’s “Alakoro” is a jittery jam with angular, interwoven riffs and starkly rendered instrumentation. Bixiga 70’s “Kalimba” engages soukous and afrobeat with its latticework guitars, horn blasts, and propulsive drumming, only to nod to cumbia and classic rock a few minutes in. It’s somewhat startling to hear such straightforward, synth-driven cumbia as Sistema Criolina’s “Pequi week bar,” but there it is, and it’s not bad.

The mix of fresh and rote on Rolê suggests a different kind of curation might have produced a more broadly representative collection of Brazil’s newest new waves. Conspicuously absent here are rough-and-ready uploads to Soundcloud or the scandalous, viral dance tunes that garner millions of views on YouTube and inflect all manner of Brazilian pop, from MPB to axé to the country-pop of sertaneja. Such grassroots productions and their mainstream reflections are crucial constituents of the Brazilian soundscape but they go unheard on this otherwise ambitious compilation. Plumbing the ongoing give-and-take between the legacies of tropicalia and the insurgencies of funk could have made for a more trenchant take on the new, or at least contemporary, sounds of Brazil.

Wayne Marshall

///

This track is the standout for me, by far (but you can listen to the whole thing here) —

-

December 22nd, 2014

Salvadora Robot (review)

I reviewed Salvadora Robot, the latest album from Colombia’s Meridian Brothers, for Issue 364 of The Wire (June 2014).

Meridian Brothers
Salvadora Robot
Soundway CD/DL/2xLP

Cutting their own odd swath though a tangle of urban musicians now embracing their country’s regional, grassroots popular traditions, Meridian Brothers’ newest offering is a genre-hopping, funhouse reflection of the Colombian music landscape. On Salvadora Robot, the Bogota based musicians set their nimble jazz hands to wringing fun, funny songs out of charged local materials, cosmopolitan flourishes, and a battery of resonant, vintage sounds. Inflecting local idioms like vallenato and salsa with gestures and arrangements more redolent of Tom Zé or Tortoise than Joe Arroyo, the group scrawls its skittery signature all over the map.

While the warbling electric guitars sometimes tug at the surf-rock roots of Andean cumbia – “El Gran Pájaro De Los Andes” is audibly steeped in Peruvian chicha – the combination of tropical and psychedelic takes many shapes on the album, including the psych-rock salsa of “Doctor Trompeta”. Surprising, delightful synth lines dart in and out of several songs, and a panoply of intricate riffs and rhythms, especially the interplay between the drums and keyboards, conjure all manner of classic Colombian band traditions – and perhaps other allusions as well: “Somos Las Residentas”, the frisky album opener, recalls Raymond Scott with its slinky horn-riffs and locomotive drive. Throwback keyboards and guitars often jump out of the texture, but the lively kit drumming is the album’s combustible engine.

Salvadora Robot is expansive and inclusive in its references, and finds Meridian Brothers attentive to the bounds of tradition but willing to take risks. Several songs end in maniacal laughing, entranced singing, or animal braying, and the album’s lyrics are colorful, uproarious, and often surreal, with “burning butterflies”, “pregnant dolls in the trash”, and a tale of a man sentenced to the electric chair for dancing to reggaeton. That song, “Baile Último”, despite its conceptual bite, offers a rare moment when the group seems to stray from the prevailing spirit of the project. Salvadora Robot carries a studious attention to local wellsprings without slavish devotion to convention, but when the tribute turns tongue-in-cheek, it undercuts the song’s critique, which is leveled not at reggaeton, but its elitist critics. The group’s lurching, out-of-sync take on reggaeton, more for the bourgeois than the boulevard, falls flat. But for the most part Salvadora Robot is a thoughtful and fruitful engagement with, and resistance to, the twin trappings of nostalgia and novelty.

Wayne Marshall

-

December 22nd, 2014

Beyond Addis (review)

This past year I began reviewing records regularly again, mostly for the wonderfully serious London-based publication, The Wire, which has been pushing lots of interesting releases across my desk.

It’s been a great experience working with the editors over there and trying to bring my prolix, punny, occasionally-too-precious style in line with their more exacting house rules (e.g., no using the word band!). As per usual, if a bit late, I’m going to archive the pieces here at W&W.com, usually in the form they appeared in the magazine. Sometimes it’s a little tricky to track down the final draft after many backs-and-forths, so there’ll be a mix of “director’s cuts” in these re-posts as well.

We’ll start at the beginning. First up: Beyond Addis, a compilation of new groups — dare we call them bands? — working in the Ethio-jazz style, as reviewed in Issue 363 of The Wire (May 2014).

Beyond Addis
Various
Trikont CD/2xLP

Beyond Addis compiles recent interpretations of Ethio-jazz from outside of Ethiopia, bearing witness to the remarkable recent diffusion of this distinctive style. Thanks to the Éthiopiques compilations, the Broken Flowers soundtrack, and such longstanding musical torchbearers as the Either/Orchestra, the swinging Addis sound of the early 1970s has grown into a repertory of its own for jazz groups and kindred groove collectives, especially those that like vintage funk with a loping waltz, or wah-wah guitar with baritone sax. At once foreign and familiar, and suitable for ensembles of all sizes, Ethio-jazz’s moody, modal melodies and triple-time romps have won over a new wave of devotees.

Like the explosion of Afrobeat a decade ago, Ethio-jazz is the new frontier of fusion in the broadest sense, enticing sundry instrumentalists to play with its recognizable but varied palette. Beyond Addis showcases kindred tunes, rhythms, and forms – all head-solo-head instrumentals – carefully rendered by groups from across Europe and the US. For all their devotion to a classic Ethio-jazz sound, each puts forward their own take on the synthesis of free jazz, psych rock, hard bop, funk and traditional music that Mulatu Astatke and compatriots were exploring four decades ago. Paris group Akalé Wubé open the collection with the reverent but distorted “Jawa Jawa”, and several other tracks are cut in that mold, but London band The Heliocentrics bend piano, harp, and flute around jangly percussion and a lurching beat; Imperial Tiger Orchestra (Geneva) offer up a sweet, swaying ballad; New York’s Budos Band grind out a dirge punctuated by blasts of brassy noise; and Boston’s Debo Band close the proceedings with an accordion, violin, and tuba driven composition that channels Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus as much as the spirit of Swinging Addis. While some performances may be more devoted than inspired, and although the whiff of sonic orientalism or 1970s nostalgia may always haunt such gestures, many of the ensembles here have collaborated with Ethiopian musicians and labor to execute a vision that is faithful without being inert and innovative without contortion. In this way, the best of the groups on Beyond Addis not only bring the great Ethio-jazz fusion project full circle but carry it to new places too.

Wayne Marshall

-

January 24th, 2014

Groovin’ on Groove Music

Appended below is the “director’s cut” (or unabridged author’s version) of a book review I wrote almost a year ago, which will soon finally see the light of day in the Journal of Popular Music Studies. The book is Mark Katz’s Groove Music, and I say enough below that I needn’t say more here, but as you’ll see, my review is quite supportive. If you’re interested in the history of the DJ, or hip-hop, or just good music writing and scholarship, I highly recommend you check this one out.

Bonus beats: here’s an interview Katz did with/for the IASPM blog last year.

ps — here are the proofs if you like PDFs, but do see below for the full monty!

Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ by Mark Katz
Oxford University Press, 2012, 336 pages, ISBN: 9780195331127

With Groove Music, Mark Katz has written a definitive history of the hip-hop DJ, filling a conspicuous void in the hip-hop literature while contributing more broadly to studies of music technologies—or perhaps better, to our understanding of how people make technologies musical. For Katz, the transformation of the turntable from a mere playback machine to a remarkably flexible and responsive control device—a musical instrument, no less—stands as “the signal contribution of the hip-hop DJ to modern musical culture” (5). This is quite a claim, but Katz represents, as hip-hop parlance would have it, offering historical, ethnographic, and analytical perspectives on hip-hop DJing, from roots to offshoots, with an unprecedented degree of thoroughness and attention to what matters to practitioners and audiences.

Like Joe Schloss’s authoritative works on beat-making and b-boying, Making Beats (2004) and Foundation (2009), which Groove Music should now sit alongside on shelves and syllabi, this is a lucid and deeply grounded work on a pillar of hip-hop practice and artistry informed by dozens of interviews, years of participant-observation, and deft close readings of live performances, canonical recordings, and oral histories. Groove Music fleshes out the growing (if still lagging) musicological literature on the DJ (Fikentscher 2000, Lawrence 2003, Butler 2006) by shifting focus from the relatively suave mixing of disco, house, and techno DJs to the more explicit performativity of hip-hop DJs, as embodied most audibly by the scratch—or zigga zigga as Katz sometimes glosses it.

To his credit, even while engaged in important acts of translation for his primary reading public (i.e., colleagues and students), Katz sets out to write the book that hip-hop DJs themselves would want to read. As such he commits himself to a chronological and narrative approach, and to a down-to-earth and occasionally playful prose style, peppering the text with such useful terms as “badassery” (168). The book is all the better for this approach, addressing the wider publics that these stories deserve to reach.

The rhythmically stuttered introduction of “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration” (1989), a hallmark production of the hip-hop DJ as hands-on artist—Here’s a little story that must be told—serves as an unremarked but undergirding imperative. While DJs such as Premier have been telling the story themselves and various works in the hip-hop literature address the subject in some detail (Chang 2005, Fricke & Ahearn 2002), no single text prior to Katz has sought to synthesize an overarching story of hip-hop DJing from its beginnings in 1973 to the present. Moreover, with the literature so focused on the foundational work of hip-hop’s hallowed trinity (Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash), little attention has been paid to the changing aesthetics and contexts of the hip-hop DJ in the decades since the form’s origins in the Bronx, especially how scratching has moved in and out of the spotlight in hip-hop and more broadly in American and global popular culture.

Throughout the text, Katz touches on numerous signposts, among them: the crucial feedback loop with dancers (14-16); influences from funk, reggae, and salsa (23-32); hip-hop’s ties to disco, however disputed (32-5); the urban context of the Bronx (35-42); the world of DJ-producers (121); the Bay Area’s Filipino DJ scene, dominant in the world of turntablism (145-7); the rise of mix-and-scratch academies (230) and virtual video games like DJ Hero (237). But it is Katz’s clear periodization of hip-hop DJ history, always grounded in ethnographic analysis of the political economy, material culture, and aesthetics of the enterprise, which emerges as the key contribution of the book.

Most crucially, in chapter 2, “Mix and Scratch,” Katz details the development of the turntable as a musical instrument, focusing on the mechanical and stylistic innovations by the likes of Grandmaster Flash and GrandWizzard Theodore (generally credited with inventing the rhythmic scratch). A centerpiece of Katz’s argument is his close reading of Flash’s seminal seven minute showcase, “The Adventures Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (1982), elaborating the techniques and effects, technologies and repertories involved in the performance. Grandmaster D.ST’s standout scratching on Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” (1983) also serves as a key text in the popularization and reimagination of the turntable as instrument. Katz’s simple but profound point is that these DJs took a technology of sound reproduction and used it for “real-time manipulation” of sound (62). This story of transformation finally comes full circle toward the end of the book when Katz examines the rise of digital vinyl (e.g., the Serato or Traktor systems), which embodies the utter shift of the vinyl record from a storage medium to a control surface.

Other chapters divide up the history of the hip-hop DJ according to the strange and sometimes circuitous paths the tradition has taken. Chapter 3, “Out of the Bronx and into the Shadows,” addresses the question of how hip-hop, despite its beginnings as a DJ-driven phenomenon, would soon enough be synonymous with rap. According to Katz, the rise of the MC and concomitant decline of DJ, relegated to back-up band or, by the late 1980s, even replaced by DAT machines, actually served in its way to make room for new forms of hip-hop DJing. Despite the DJ’s recession during hip-hop’s commercial and cultural ascent, where other hip-hop chronicles tend to depart and leave DJs in the shadows, Katz remains stalwart in his focus, turning to the expansions of DJ practice in chapter 4, both in terms of scratch technique (and Philadelphia’s specific contribution: the “transformer”), as well as the art of beat-juggling. Katz carefully describes new techniques as they develop, putting them into aesthetic, functional, and socio-cultural context, noting the emergence of new contexts for DJ practice, particularly the rise of the competition circuit. Indeed, chapter 6 is entirely devoted to the forms, rituals, tools, and techniques of the DJ battle, judiciously examining points of aesthetic conflict and consensus.

Given Katz’s abiding concern with the instrumentalization of the turntable, the advent of turntablism in 1990s is an obvious watershed, and chapter 5 explores this practically autonomous and increasingly abstracted realm of hip-hop DJ practice. Katz explores the symbiosis between turntable, needle, and crossfader design, noting that while initially many of these features were ad-hoc innovations on the part of tinker-DJs and their “vernacular technological creativity,” by the mid-1990s manufacturers were taking notice and incorporating them into their products. Here, as elsewhere, we’re treated to some sharp material culture analysis: new mixers and crossfaders enabled innovative new techniques such as the “crab scratch” where technical limits had previously made them impossible.

In chapter 7, Katz turns to the new ubiquity and legitimacy that scratching enjoyed between 1996-2002, not in hip-hop itself, notably, but in “almost every corner of popular music” (182): pop, rock, jazz, electronic music, and even the classical world. The scratch comes to mean any manner of things in a wide variety of contexts: “With the mainstreaming of hip-hop, signifiers started to float freely” (180). This creates further room for experimentation, giving rise to the “cult favorites” the DJ albums made by the likes of DJ Shadow, Qbert, and Kid Koala, rich and remarkable works to which Katz devotes some overdue analysis.

The question of “Falling Barriers” in chapter 8 reads as a fitting coda, bringing the story of the turntable’s instrumentalization back to its beginnings in important if unexpected ways. Contrasting the rejection of CDJs with the embrace of “digital vinyl systems” allows Katz to make an insightful point about vinyl’s place in hip-hop aesthetics as “precious,” “authentic,” “elemental,” and “fundamental” (218). Vinyl’s tenacity as a control surface not only speaks to these values, grounded in decades-old practice, but to the ontology of the turntable as instrument: a seemingly sudden crossfade that makes total sense in retrospect.

Notably, rather than a CD insert (which would have been an enormous tangle of licensing permissions), Oxford University Press offers a useful companion website full of media referenced in the text. These may be mostly links to YouTube videos, leaving their stability in question, but it’s a rich resource all the same, especially if readers use it soon, before the inevitable link degradation.

Groove Music represents a strong monographic extension of Katz’s previous work in Capturing Sound (2004) and the recent anthology he co-edited with Tim Taylor and Tony Grajeda, Music, Sound, and Technology in America (2012). All of these works are animated by a concern with registering the plasticity of sound technologies, or how people find their own creative uses for such things. In the history of sound recording and reproduction, there may be no more spectacular example than the advent of performative hip-hop DJing, and Katz has given the tradition a fitting monument. The specter of legitimation may yet haunt the hip-hop literature, but efforts such as Groove Music help to push beyond such entrenchments precisely by taking the subject so seriously that no hint of novelty or condescension corrupts it.

Works Cited

Butler, Mark. Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Music. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006.

Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: Picador, 2005.

Fikentscher, Kai. “You Better Work!”: Underground Dance Music in New York City. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

Fricke, Jim and Charlie Ahearn. Yes Yes Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade. New York: Da Capo, 2002.

Katz, Mark. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004.

Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2003.

Schloss, Joseph. Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.

_______. Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Taylor, Timothy, Mark Katz, and Tony Grajeda, eds. Music, Sound, and Technology in America: A Documentary History of Early Phonograph, Cinema, and Radio. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2012.

3 comments - Add a comment -

May 29th, 2012

No Logos?

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.

“No Logos?”
JPMS 23(2): 190–194 / June 2011
Wayne Marshall

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

Dances With Words

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

WAYNE MARSHALL

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.]

2 comments - Add a comment -

May 8th, 2012

How To Wreck a Nice Book

How To Wreck a Nice Beach

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.

Current Musicology
number 90/fall 2010

WAYNE MARSHALL

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” [220]), 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.

Bibliography

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.

3 comments - Add a comment -

Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

Month

Tag Cloud

academic aesthetics af-am africa anthro arab art audio baby babylonia beatresearch blogging bookish boston brazil cambridge caribbean chicago commerce copywrong cumbia dance dubstep ethno europe events funkcarioca gigs global globalghettotech hip-hop humor industry internet interview jamaica jazz juke kwaito latin lifey linkthink mashup media mexico middleeast mixx nation newyork panama politricks pop public puertorico r&b race radio reggae reggaeton remix review riddimmeth0d rock sampling seasonal sexuality soundscape tech techno traxx UK video whirledmusic worldmusic youth

 

Creative Commons License

chacarron chacarronchaca-riggity-ron