Longtime W&W readers will no doubt hear echoes of my own experiments in this regard — namely, Gasodoble & Bump con Choque — and perhaps a little bit of YouTube collage master, Kutiman, as well. Despite that I have not found many other examples along these lines, I think there’s great potential for this sort of form, or method even, to demonstrate and delve into the wide, weird world of YouTube — which is to say, the wide, weird world, period — despite that the site is also an incomplete, ephemeral, willy-nilly archive hosted on corporate servers.
As you’ll see in selected submissions below, students embraced the assignment with panache, producing wonderful little documents of the varied social and cultural lives of such things as recent pop hits, well-worn war-horses, video game themes, public domain experiments, and Elvis impersonators.
First, a veritable YouTube chorus performing the 2012 pop hit, “Call Me Maybe,” showing how quickly a popular song can enter into myriad genres of performance, presentation, and play (including some YouTube-specific ones, like stitching together political speeches to make presidents stutter along too):
Or this one, combining a handful of home versions of the Halo theme, seeking specifically to document the “resurgence” (or at least newfound visibility) of “amateur” musical practice and appreciating how even people’s mistakes “actually add some character” to the performances –
Another student sought to plumb the YouTube depths for impersonations of Elvis, uncovering in the process not simply the expected plethora of examples but an interesting recent wrinkle: most of these would-be Kings are lip-synching not to an original Elvis recording but to Junkie XL’s popular 2002 remix of Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation.” My student found it notable that so many of the Elvises he encountered on YouTube “aren’t so orthodox in their impersonation”; I do too!
Several students went beyond the American pop repertory (which provides no end of subjects thanks to its imperial ubiquity) in order to explore YouTube instantiations of tunes that originated and enjoy rich social lives elsewhere.
Take, for example, this beat-matched collection of performances of “Asa Branca,” which my student describes as “a classic Brazilian baiĂŁo composed by accordionist Luiz Gonzaga and lyricist Humberto Teixeira in 1947.” He continues –
This song has become so emblematic of so many things — Northeastern Brazilian regionalism, Brazilian diasporic identity, environmentalist movements, Brooklyn world music hipness — that I wanted to juxtapose as wide a variety of interpretations as I could, while choosing versions that retained the pulse of the original. From Korean fusion to muscle-metal play-along to small-town talent shows to arena TropicĂˇlia, with GonzagĂŁo himself making the occasional approving cameo as a backup singer.
Or this one, documenting the variegated “going public” of a recent lullaby from Taiwan. (Notably, the student has only made the video semi-public — requiring a direct link — given concerns about unauthorized use of children’s performances, which she’s seeking explicit permission to include. Such ethical questions have been a recurring theme of the course, and I always encourage students to think about them as they record, copy, and manipulate the sounds and images of others.)
Finally, here’s a montage of a tune popular in both Turkey and Greece (and in both Turkish and Greek): “Kalenin Bedenleri” / “Siko Horepse Koukli Mou.” One curious thing that emerges here is how songs outside of the (Western) pop canon tend to be characterized on YouTube less by remixxy, YouTubey confections and more by familiar stagings of home, community, and local TV contexts. That said, a few clips of webcam-style pedagogy — a popular YouTube genre to be sure — make it into the mix too.
Here’s hoping that our experiments might lead to others in this vein and beyond. No doubt there is material aplenty to work with: YouTube reports (currently anyway; these figures keep changing) that 72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. What a willy-nilly, wonderful world!
I’m happy to report that the semester has been going swimmingly. Sorry for the dearth of posts here, but I’ve been rather engaged with reading, for one course, across a vast and dense literature on music, race, & nation while exploring, in another, the history and potential of music’s (and sound’s) deep entanglement with technologies of transduction & reproduction.
As we barrel almost unbelievably toward the end of the term, we’ve managed to produce a pretty striking set of technomusicological etudes. While two big assignments remain (a video montage and a DJ mix), the students have produced soundscapes, radio collages, sample-based beats, and mashups. Impressed and entertained by them all, I want to share a few exemplary pieces to give people a (musique) concrete sense of what we’ve been up to. We recommend listening with headphones.
First, a couple entries from the soundscape assignment (including requisite if brief prose descriptions):
Sunday afternoon shopping [for soy sauce!] at the Boston Chinese Supermarket (C-mart).
In this tasty space, life takes many different forms: the entrance music that occupies its own territory 0:00-0:20; 2:36-end); people conversing on their wants and needs in Cantonese (0:21 – 0:40; 2:10-2:22); living lobsters/crabs breathing in tank [with running water] waiting to be picked, killed and consumed (0:45-1:15; 2:23-2:35); frozen dumplings resting in ice cases (1:22-1:26), listening to the check-out machine busy reading barcodes (starting 1:27 through 1:53, transposed); butchers cleaning, peeling and chopping off fish head using their fine/scary collection of life-taking tools (1:46 – 2:09).
All is intertwined and yet at the same time irrelevant. One eats to live, others live to be eaten. Together we breathe.
This recording encompasses the tragedy I face in procrastination â€“ enjoyment of the meaningless which ends as soon as it metamorphoses into the meaningful. This tragedy is composed of five chapters. At first, the frustration with the ominous â€śpaperâ€ť becomes not only overwhelming, but overwhelming to the point that I must abandon work with a very definitive â€śfuck this paper.â€ť I venture outside into Harvard Square where meaningless interaction forms a melody. â€śHeyâ€ť defines the relationship I have with the grand majority of my acquaintances â€“ an acknowledgement of each otherâ€™s existence is all we share. However, â€śheyâ€ť leaves me craving for real social interaction, and I do summon a friend upon stumbling on a musical gem in the Harvard Square â€śpit.â€ť However, reality freezes the real pressure I have found in The Square. I am reminded that the ominous paper is still, in fact, in need of being submitted, and I am forced to retract into my study lair. â€śWhy, why, whyâ€ť is procrastination always halted when it gets good? The answer: itâ€™s procrastination, itâ€™s temporary. Oh, the tragedy that is procrastination.
The second pair of examples comes from the week we devoted to (Boston) radio collages, and each offers a rather interesting portrait of a particular slice of the local airwaves:
This soundscape/radioscape takes all of its material from a cheap radio clock in a bedroom in Cambridge, MA. The sounds were collected at about 2:00 PM on a weekday afternoon.
The goal in creating a weekday afternoon radioscape of Boston is to represent Boston radio at a time that I’ve always considered to be the least interesting time of day for radio. Because it lacks the audience that rush hour in the morning and evening (and to some extent lunch hour as well) draw, radio in the afternoon does not cater to a specific audience other than those who happen to be driving, are listening to radio as they work, or have nothing better to do for one reason or another. The music tends to be generic and fairly random, the talk shows discuss mundane topics in order to save more important thoughts for the busier hours, and there is no concerted effort to create a certain ambience, as in evening radio.
Strangely enough, though, this all serves to loosen radio to a certain extent, encouraging hosts to let their hair down a bit, and allowing each station to be a little less authoritarian in their choices of music. While listening to the radio for easy entertainment or interesting concepts may be difficult in the afternoon, listening with a critical ear at this times can become immensely entertaining. It is that strange combination of humor, flair, mediocrity, and commercialism that I am trying to convey in this piece, representing most of the material I found while striving to keep the pace entertaining for the listener, who doesn’t have the comfort of being at the control. I used a lot of layering, blending, and automation to splice events together convincingly, as well as some other effects like looping, delay, reverb, and mixing in cleaner recordings of songs in order to give a little surrealism and extra realism to the sound, which was limited by the reception of the radio.
The piece starts out with quick flipping through a few channels, then settles in with a couple of announcements about the time and place. The first section mainly moves back and forth between songs on different channels, but as we go on, new characters are and themes are introduced, such as talk radio, advertisements, a discussion about receipts, a sportscast and the ever-present (in New England) Dunkin Donuts. Finally, we close with a “goodbye” and a contrast between upbeat folk-classic music that evokes a kind of “simple gifts” feel characteristic of old-time New England and some inspirational words in Spanish. And maybe one last quip about Dunkin Donuts and their great coffee.
The voice is often used as a symbol of personal interaction. In early descriptions of radio, the feeling of such interaction and indeed of intimacy through the radio was often dependent on speech and the voice. In this exercise, I have edited short clips of radio recordings taken on October 14 and 15 in Allston, MA. The resulting mix produces a simulated radio world that is all talk, all voices speaking in different registers, different levels of excitement, and different languages. The listener’s relationship to the various voices depends on many markers of identity – religious, political, linguistic, sports, etc. This collage is thus a reflection on the limits of radio voices to convey intimacy.
Our third assignment required students to get into the aesthetics of sample-based hip-hop, combining samples of their choice with two classic breakbeats I provided (the Funky Drummer and Apache). Here’s a few fun standouts (including one dubsteppy excursion):
On the surface, this piece is a hip hop beat that goes on for a couple of minutes, and this is probably all that’s really apparent when listening. In some ways, it’s all that really needs to be apparent; when putting this together I was trying to make a new piece out of the materials that I sampled from a few other songs, but there is some thought that went into the choices of material. The beat takes sounds from the Funky Drummer and Apache breakbeats, cut up and made into new rhythms: pretty standard. The harmonic and melodic material, though, all comes from a couple of songs by Billy Joel and Elton John. For some reason, maybe because they’re both rock/pop pianists, I’ve always considered Billy and Elton to be two sides of the same coin, so I wanted, at least intellectually, to put them together in one piece. I don’t really feel like the interaction is audible, mostly because I limited myself to just one or two samples each from two songs by Elton and one by Billy, cut down to the point where they are really just a note or two in most cases and often edited until they don’t resemble the original at all (for instance, slowed and deepened until a medium-high synth sounds almost like dubstep) but I still like the idea of them both being in there.
Turkey is sometimes known as the crossroads of the world, and here, the shape (Dilli DĂĽdĂĽk) and electronic sounds (Ă‡akk?d?) of Turkish popular music mix with the rhythms (Funky Drummer) and jazzy lines (Apache) of Western samples. Their interaction makes a dense sonic fabric, and there is some tension scattered throughout, but ultimately, the two pairs of samples serve to reinforce and advance each other.
I decided to be quite liberal with the Funky Drummer sample provided to us, and chopped it down to individual sounds. I then put this on a new drum rack and treated it with a filter delay, reverb, and a couple other elements to create a dub-like effect. The tempo and syncopation is reminiscent of most dubstep tracks, with a BPM of 140 and the snare falling on the third beat. The melody and vocals of the track come from chopped samples of the 1970’s Angolan protest song ValĂłdia by Santocas. Samples are treated with various filters and reverb as well as sidechained to the kick drum via a compressor. We hear a looped verse, “Bem longe/ OuvĂ aquele nome/ InesquecĂvel/ dos filhos de Angola” (Far away/ I heard that name/ Unforgettable/ to Angola’s children).
And one last example, a rather esoteric mashup from one of the grad students in the course:
Here’s a mash-up of a Brazilian maracatĂş (“SerĂˇ” by Siba e a Fuloresta) and an unaccompanied Cretan rizitiko song performed by Vasilis Stavrakakis. Instead of mashing two pieces of similar tempo, I decided, inspired by the a capella intro to “SerĂˇ,” to liberally chop up the unmetered Cretan song and manipulate it in various ways (pitch changes, overlapping punches, the creation of drones) to frame and comment on various musical events in the Brazilian song. Aside from a small gap inserted near the beginning, “SerĂˇ” is basically intact; the challenge was to isolate and reconfigure phrases, both short and extended, from Stavrakakis’ performance to give the impression of a melodic, harmonic, and phrasal dialogue with Siba, the chorus, and the brass band. I especially like how, though the melodic trajectories of the two songs are similar, they often treat the second and sixth degrees of the scale in opposite ways (minor second and major sixth from Crete, major second and minor sixth from Brazil). This adds a nice pinch of tension without spoiling the soup (at least to my modally biased ears), and points to the manufactured nature of the operation.
It’s been a real thrill to hear what these talented students have cooked up this term. The best of these productions really speak for themselves. And that’s the point: how can we make audible stories about audition in the age of technological reproducibility? Toward that end, I was delighted to stumble across these thoughts just yesterday:
I think of the Marshallâ€™s taxicab soundscape, how it captures not only the sonic communications of Jamaican cab drivers, and the broader dancehall soundscape in which they live, but also something of the musicologist himself. Itâ€™s just an essay transduced. What if students and academics were to pursue the craft of phrasing and editing sound, photographs, and film with the same doggedness with which we pursue the written word, aiming for the same sophistication that we do in our written texts? What would anthropology sound, look, feel like then?
“It’s just an essay transduced”! I like that. Gonna run with it — or take it for a ride? On that note, let me leave you with an intentionally schizophonic video mashup of my “Taximan” piece (as discussed here) set to soundtrack a trip down the Palisadoes to Norman Manley International Airport, where I chat a bit (in my own odd wavering accent) about Sunday radio in Jamaica (an old fave topic) with the driver:
I’m very pleased to report that I’ll be teaching full-time in the Music Department at Harvard this year, filling the big shoes of two ethnomusicolleagues on leave, Ingrid Monson & Richard Wolf. This is an honor and a pleasure, and even as a one-year non-renewable gig, it sure beats the adjunct beat I was walking last year. Plus, I can walk to work, so that’s nice.
Best of all, though, is that the fine people here are happy to let me offer the kinds of courses that I’d like to — namely, courses that grapple with some of the themes central to my research — which apparently complement the ongoing offerings here rather well. This semester I’m teaching two seminars, to a mix of undergrads and grad students, and I’m happy to share the syllabi here.
The first, Music 207r: Music, Race and Nation (PDF), takes as its subject the entanglements between these three things, entanglements that readers of this blog know have been central to my work on reggae, hip-hop, reggaeton, and nu world music, to name a few. After reading several pieces which attempt to clarify the meanings of these terms and their uses in the musicological (and anthropological) literature, we will turn to a series of case studies. Allow me to share the description here, but feel free to download the PDF for closer perusal:
This seminar reviews recent theoretical perspectives on race, nationalism, and music, both from within ethno/musicology and beyond, including general works and a series of specific studies articulating music’s relationship to such projects and ideas. Examining how musical representations and experiences figure in the creation of public and private notions of race and nation, our course grapples with musicâ€™s power to mediate imagined and inscribed cartographies of self and other.
While the course will give students a broad foundation for discussing matters of music, race, and nationalism, our study of various forms of modern encounter with musical difference centers on European imperialism, the transatlantic African diaspora, and their myriad intersections. Coursework will center on readings (typically between 80-100 pages/week) and in-class discussion, brief weekly writing assignments, and a final paper of studentsâ€™ own design.
The second class, Music 190r: Technomusicology (PDF), is, as I’ve noted here before, something of a concept that I’m making up as I go along. Really, though, it’s an idea that I’ve been working through on this blog for many years now, and I’m simply delighted that I’m getting a chance to bring some of these experiments in multimedia forms of music scholarship/play directly into the classroom as our primary object and method. Here’s the description:
If in a previous moment â€śbi-musicalityâ€ť represented cutting-edge musicological literacy, today’s technology suffused world may call for the development of something akin to â€śtechnomusicology.â€ť This course concentrates on the longstanding and increasing interplay between music and technology while exploring new modes of technologically assisted research and publication.
Beginning by reading across the growing literature that attends to music in the age of its technological reproducibility, we will then turn to a series of exercises or etudes, alongside germane readings, to explore some technologically-mediated forms and practices as potential openings for new directions in music scholarship.
In addition to developing an historical grasp on the imbrication of music and tech, students will cultivate competencies in audio and video editing, sampling and arranging, mixing and remixing, producing mashups and composing soundscapes. Occasional evening tutorials will be available over the course of the semester to assist with ongoing projects and to help get familiar with the software we will be using: Ableton Live.
Did I mention that I secured an internal arts-making grant to buy all of my students Ableton? Pretty cool, eh? And that we will have at least two technomusicological luminaries as guests this semester? (Namely, Jace Clayton talking Sufi Plug-Ins, and Harmonix’s Matt Boch talking interactive musical video game design.) I don’t know about you, but I would have killed to take this course as an undergrad — or as a grad student for that matter. Here’s hoping we produce a series of experiments that stand as shining examples and help to move this fledgling “field” forward (technomusicology, that is — shouts to my ethno-sistren Kiri Miller for her own efforts in this regard).
Of course, as is always the case, I’m already considering additions and revisions to the syllabi. For one, I think the Music, Race and Nation course would be nicely rounded out by reading the recent book by the Comaroffs (who also arrived at Harvard this fall), Ethnicity Inc.. And after listening to Keith Fullerton Whitman’s live-mix of early recordings by pioneer ethnomusicologist / field-recordist Hugh Tracey, I’m seriously considering adding a “remix the Harvard audio archives” project to Technomusicology. This is a really stunning and wonderful way to work with audio archives, and we’ll certainly be giving it a good listen and some thought together (bravo, Keith!) —
In the spring I will be offering my own version of Music 97c (Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective), focusing on the music of North America, Latin America/Caribbean, and Indonesia, as well as a graduate seminar on “Musical Publics.” But I’ve still got some work to put into those syllabi, so if these titles pique your curiosity, please check back later in the semester. Between now and then, I hope to have lots of interesting things to share as they emerge from this term’s offerings.
Like some of the obscure, amazing devices & recordings & stories Dave seeks out and recombines in his inimitable way, I had heard for years about the “vocoder book”; and I was more than pleased when it finally arrived — and delivered on a decade’s (or, really, lifetime’s) work putting together some rather odd-fitting puzzle pieces. I’ll let Dave mix it up for you (via the teaser for his talk on Thurs) –
Invented by Bell Labs in 1928 to reduce bandwidth over the Trans Atantic Cable, the vocoder would end up guarding phone conversations from eavesdroppers during World War II. By the Vietnam War, the “spectral decomposer” had been re-freaked as a robotic voice for musicians. How To Wreck A Nice Beach is about hearing things, from a misunderstood technology which in itself often spoke under conditions of anonymity. This is a terminal beach-slap of the history of electronic voices: from Nazi research labs to Stalin gulags, from World’s Fairs to Hiroshima, from Churchill and JKF to Kubrick and Kinski, The O.C. and Rammellzee, artificial larynges and Auto-Tune. Vocoder compression technology is now a cell phone standard–we communicate via flawed digital replicas of ourselves every day. Imperfect to be real, we revel in signal corruption.
Dave’s writing is deeply by textured by hip-hop, and so much else. I wish everyone could so pursue their own muses and speak in such tongues and find their voice as he has. I argued as much in a review I wrote of the book for Current Musicology a couple years back. Indeed, I took the opportunity to recommend that more academics read and teach books like Dave’s (or at least Dave’s book — not sure what else is like it) — and that we also challenge ourselves and our students to write with less care for convention and more attention to voice and narrative. I guess I’m just a hopeless humanist / postmodernist or something (but both of those things sound kinda wack to me too). More likely, as with Dave (I venture), I might lay the blame at hip-hop’s altar, where cultivating and appreciating distinctive voices are time-honored forms of worship and devotion.
Anywayyy, ironically, the prose in my review seems pretty strait-jacketed itself, despite what I critique and what I endorse. Maybe I’m just not able to do it. Or maybe there are unhelpful institutional pressures making us all write like computers, and not very funky ones. Either way, all one can do is try to refreak the machinery.
I’m going to post my review below for those who’d like to read it. It’s been “published” for a while, but that hardly makes it public in any significant way. I’m happy to report that I managed — or attempted anyway — to bring Dave’s book into conversation with Steve Goodman’s (aka Kode9’s) Sonic Warfare, another recent text that made a strong impression on me. The two books’ subject matter overlaps to a striking degree, but the writing is very different. Even so, while I may not be as big a fan of Steve’s prose, I do think his book is profound and provocative, issuing important challenges to scholars of music and sound and really to anyone who fancies themselves a listening agent.
But if you’re in town, go see Dave talk this Thursday at 5pm in room E14-633 at MIT. For my part, much as I love the vocoder stuff, I sorta wish he was talking about his current project — a really promising “natural history of Miami bass” that takes the phrase sustained decay and runs absolutely wild. I heard a preview at EMP which predictably knocked off socks, even without working A/V.
One more thing: I understand the piece below as one of a trio of reviews where I take the opportunity to critique the disciplines and institutional elitism that seem to produce writing about music which, in my mind, too often fails to rise to the occasion. (I’m saying: if you’re gonna dance about architecture, you better be a damn good dancer.) Some of these reviews are more supportive, some are more critical. I do, for the most part, attempt to be generous as a reviewer. At any rate, I’ve been wanting to share them, together, for a while. So look out for the other two to follow soon.
At first glance, Dave Tompkinsâ€™s How to Wreck a Nice Beach and Steve Goodmanâ€™s Sonic Warfare would seem to have a lot in common. Both books feature the creative â€śabuseâ€ť of military technology by musicians, an abiding appreciation for Afro-sonic futurisms, prose styles at times so idiosyncratic as to be arcane, and brief but key appearances by William Burroughs. Both also depart, whether implicitly or explicitly, from the general preoccupation with form still guiding the musicological status quo. This formalist bias affects both how we tend to listen as well as how we write. Instead, these books, each in their own way, propose novel and provocative modes of grappling with and making sense (or nonsense) of music and sound.
In contrast to the lionâ€™s share of academic writing about music, these texts eschew too straightforward a tack. They take shape in a manner often as unpredictable as their strange and slippery subjects. Goodmanâ€™s work, while principally written for other scholars, proceeds in a seemingly non-linear manner, using non-chronological dates to mark each brief chapter, suggestively (but often without explication) yoking each unitâ€™s theme to a particular historical moment. His lexicon is at times dense, at other times playful, bearing the marks of British cultural studies, continental philosophy, and Afrofuturism. Writing for a more general audience, but in perhaps an even more abstruse register, Tompkins generally proceeds chronologically while worm-hole hopping, juxtaposing chapters on military experimentation with those on musical innovation, an estranging effect that serves to heighten the topicâ€™s unexpected intersections of Cold War technology and hip-hop. Neither author talks much about pitch content, harmony, or song form; in place of musical transcription, we encounter viruses and anarchitectures, robots and dinosaurs.
In other respects, these books could hardly be more different, especially with regard to tone and language. But reading them, especially together, makes for a refreshing exercise. By investing in and projecting their own idioms so strongly, both offer something sorely lacking in music and sound studies: theory that dances.
Tompkinsâ€™s book is a study of the â€śdouble lifeâ€ť of the vocoder, which, for those who arenâ€™t aware, is â€śperhaps the only crypto-technology to serve the Pentagon and the roller rinkâ€ť (20). A vocal encryption process that enjoyed a second life as a musical effect, the vocoder attained a sort of audible ubiquity in the dance-pop of the 1970s and 80s, appearing on hundreds of records and spanning such disparate genres as progressive rock and electro-funk. Appropriately, in rendering this amazing story, the author himself becomes a cryptologist. Because Tompkins is not an academic and not beholden to its disciplines, he hardly writes like one. But despite publishing regularly in such outlets as the Wire, Vibe, and the Village Voice, he doesnâ€™t exactly write like a journalist, either. He writes like Dave Tompkins. â€śThe best hip-hop writer ever born,â€ť blurbs similarly lauded hip hop historian Jeff Chang, only half-joking, on the back of the book. Tompkins describes writing the book as something that he felt he â€śowedâ€ť to hip-hop, and he has clearly absorbedâ€”and made his ownâ€”hip-hopâ€™s love of language, of whimsy and slippage, orthogonal riffs and sudden twists, personified things and dehumanized folk. In some cases, itâ€™s not clear that anyone but Tompkins will understand how certain non-sequiturs actually follow. Plenty of readers will be frustrated by passages that defy comprehension. I recommend granting him some poetic license and going happily, dizzily along for the ride.
Tompkins manages something that few music writers do: to rise to the occasion, to meet what Charles Seeger called â€śthe musicological junctureâ€ť head-on, to make words make sense about soundâ€”or, when such a task seems utterly impossible, to sing along in noise and nonsense. The bookâ€™s title embodies this fundamental problem as well as Tompkinsâ€™s tack. How apt that the phrase, a machine-mangled version of â€śhow to recognize speech,â€ť also happens to describe what happened, as coordinated via trans-Atlantic vocoder duets between Roosevelt and Churchill, at Normandy or Iwo Jima. This is one of dozens of landmine-like puns that Tompkins finds scattered across IBM techniciansâ€™ notebooks, in wartime cables, and on obscure electro-funk jams. Is it only a coincidence that one of early hip-hopâ€™s deftest musicians, Pumpkin, bears a nickname that was also a misheard word in a Churchillian vocoder transmission (224)? Most likely, but Tompkins doesnâ€™t miss a chance to make the connection for us in a cheeky caption (and the bookâ€™s margins are crawling with such side-commentary).
Or take, for example, though no single passage can stand for the sprawling range of his style, the following description of Peter Frampton performing his talk-box anthem, â€śDo You Feel Like I Do,â€ť in the concert immortalized as Frampton Comes Alive (1976):
Imagine ice cubes and Doritos cracking up inside your head. Replace that with Madison Square Garden losing its voice. Replace larynx with guitar. Listen to teeth. Calcareous conduction. Frampton opens mouth, drool catches light and there it is, a word, or at least the shape of one. â€śEeeeel.â€ť (131)
Without sacrificing the sort of economy on display here, Tompkins seems to squeeze into the book every bit of signification he can, enlisting chapter titles, subheadings, captions, epigraphs, and all manner of marginalia along the way. The creative use of oblique epigraphs in particular illustrates how Tompkins approaches his craft and burdens the reader. They are figurative, funny, and sometimes fictional. (On page 281, for instance, he offers a â€śmisheardâ€ť lyric from a Mobb Deep recording.)
Research and reading are interpretive endeavors, and Tompkinsâ€™s kitchen-sink style, where jokes and personal anecdotes sit alongside archival documents and vinyl plates, serves to remind readers that, as with vocodered vocals, it helps to know what goes in to understand what is coming out. In this sense, it is fitting that the author interweaves stories of his youth, and of myriad odd encounters with the vocoder and other talking machines, into the narrative. Indeed, the idiosyncratic inflections that give the book its distinct shape and tone seem, to this reader, among the textâ€™s most important (and hopefully influential) features. Tompkins interweaves the personal, the popular, and the geopolitical, as if all are of equal importance. Tompkins does an admirable job of cross-fading all the crosstalk about this machine and how it affected so many peopleâ€™s lives, including his own. After a while one starts to suspect that the vocoder was invented so that Tompkins could write this book.
While the vocoder never recedes from earshot, Tompkinsâ€™s investigation takes the reader to many unexpected places. Among other things, readers receive: 1) an overdue and alternative narrative of early hip-hop that centers on New York, Los Angeles, and the seemingly peripheral but fascinating site of North Carolina, where Tompkins grew up and where we learn a lot about rapâ€™s early circulation and reception; 2) a secret history of late twentieth century robot-enraptured pop culture, connecting Neil Young and Herbie Hancock, Georgio Moroder and Laurie Anderson, Detroit techno and Disneyâ€™s Dumbo; 3) some truly astounding and unexpected musical genealogies and circulations of material culture, like how a vocoder-ed imitation of a record executive saying â€śfreshâ€ť became the most scratched syllable of all time (250-5), or how ELOâ€™s machine ended up in the hands of Man Parrish, â€śthe gayest vocoder expert to make a hip-hop ode to the Bronxâ€ť (212). The book also includes what must have felt like an obligatory afterword on Auto-Tune (302-3), the popular software plug-in often mistaken for the vocoder but actually a distant cousin, which itself emerged from Cold War science to help people sing like machines.
It is easy to be glib about crooning cyborgs, but Tompkins offers a more nuanced portraitâ€”a gallery, actuallyâ€”of how humans dance with technology, of the deep drive so many of us feel to transform, with a little mechanical help, our voices, our realities, and ourselves, often from an early age. Or, as he puts it, â€śTalking to fans is as much a part of growing up as interrogating ants with a magnifying glassâ€ť (268). In the end, the book is less about machines than human characters: Alan Turing and Afrika Bambaataa, Homer Dudley and Michael Jonzun, and Tompkins, his late brother, and his childhood friend, Nate. One of the most interesting and touching parts of the text is the penultimate chapter, a profile of vocoder devotee and pioneer Rammellzee, the sui generis hip-hop iconoclast who passed away earlier this year. It reads as a fitting coda to everything.
Although he synthesizes an impressive amount of odd informationâ€”much of it encyclopedic and hitherto uncompiledâ€”Tompkins burdens readers additionally by taking a great deal of knowledge (or perhaps just Google-ability) for granted, allowing him at times to say what he wants, rather than, perhaps, what he should. This represents another way that the author departs from certain scholarly norms. (Thereâ€™s no glossary, either.) But donâ€™t get your cables twisted: despite few genuflections to standard scholarly procedure, there is a great deal of evidence throughout that Tompkins has done his share of research, especially when it comes to combing archives and interviewing everyone from retired World War II-era scientists to classic rock icons to hip-hop vocoder freaks. (To their credit, the hip-hop guys he talks toâ€”Bambaataa, Grandmaster DXT, Rammellzeeâ€”are all convincingly unsurprised to learn about the vocoderâ€™s crypto-military provenance.) This book was a decade in the making, but it reads more like a lifeâ€™s work.
Finally, and this is not to be underappreciated: the book itself, published by Stop Smiling Books, is a beautiful thing. Elegantly laid out and lavishly illustrated, with photographs and drawings appearing on nearly every page, the book is best appreciated as a chunky hardcover, despite that it might be funâ€”whenever the e-text arrivesâ€”to hear it read by a robot.
In Sonic Warfare Steve Goodman, a lecturer in Music Culture at the University of East London, calls the vocoder â€śthe upside to the militarization of everyday lifeâ€ť (166). It is one of the few optimistic notes in the book. The rest of the text examines all the downsides, with particular attention to the role of soundâ€”and sonic technologiesâ€”in producing what Goodman calls, after Mike Davis (2000), an â€śecology of fear,â€ť a sonically triggered state of agitation and foreboding, produced under an increasingly global regime of â€śmilitary urbanismâ€ť and the looming threat of preemptive capitalism foreclosing possible futures. On the way, Goodman proposes some radical ways of approaching how we theorize sound, the transmission of culture, and the power of popular music. Sonic Warfare is an occasionally paranoid, consistently provocative text, all the more so because of how it takes explicit aim at prevailing frames of musicological inquiry.
Unlike Tompkinsâ€™s book, which mounts an implicit critique of contemporary music writing, Goodmanâ€™s includes direct salvos at music and sound studies. If, as he relates, the Italian futurists proposed an â€śassault on the harmonic orderâ€ť (6), Sonic Warfare might be said to launch a similar campaign. Goodmanâ€™s route to a critical position vis-Ă -vis musicologyâ€™s â€śharmonic orderâ€ťâ€”its lingering biases toward musical form, semiotics, and phenomenologyâ€”is not via recourse to sound, seeking to flatten longstanding hierarchies between pitch content, rhythm, timbre and the like, but through a focus on frequency and an exploration of what he calls â€śunsound.â€ť Vibrating at or beyond the peripheries of the audible and the tactile, unsound includes infrasound (lower than 20 Hz) and ultrasound (higher than 20 kHz), as well asâ€” in a bit of poetic licenseâ€”the â€śunactualized nexus of rhythms and frequencies within audible bandwidthsâ€ť (xv). It may come as little surprise that many of the weapons surveyed in Sonic Warfare target this synaesthetic threshold of the heard and the felt. The way that sound and unsound can physically affect bodies means that, for Goodman, they operate at the level of affect, a â€śsubsignifyingâ€ť realm. He is primarily concerned, then, not with â€śsound as textâ€ť but rather â€śsound as forceâ€ť (10). For those in music or sound studies who might bristle at an approach so concerned with what â€śimpresses on but is exterior to the sonic,â€ť Goodman throws a small but sharp dart, referring almost dismissively to â€śthe narrowband channel of the audibleâ€ť (9)!
Ultimately, he contends, a â€śnonrepresentational ontology of vibrational forceâ€ť (xv) can productively â€śsidestepâ€ť recent preoccupations of music studies, namely â€śrepresentation, identity, and cultural meaningâ€ť (9). While not naming names, Goodman professes no love for popular music studiesâ€™ â€śdismal celebrations of consumerism and interminable excuses for mediocrityâ€ť (17). (He also includes some snarky asidesâ€”troll bait for popular music scholarsâ€”for instance, when he remarks that this is not a book about â€śwhite noiseâ€”or guitarsâ€ť [xv].) While acknowledging recent work on the use of music to produce pain or torture (e.g., Cloonan and Johnson 2002; Cusick 2006 and 2008), Goodman seeks to counter â€śthe evangelism of the recent sonic renaissance within the academyâ€ť by focusing on soundâ€™s â€śbad vibes,â€ť including the use of pop as torture, never mind LRAD cannons and Mosquito™ repellents. Further, he charges that any account of sonic culture must grapple with that which exceeds unisensory perception, with so-called â€śsonicâ€ť experience that opens into tactile realms, for instance (9).
Barbed critiques notwithstanding, Goodman is writing from soundâ€™s corner. While his academic training and affinities span media and cultural studies as well as philosophy, his scholarly attention has consistently been devoted to the reggae-inflected sound system culture of the Black Atlantic, especially the UK-based genealogy of styles and approachesâ€”from jungle, through garage, to dubstepâ€”famously and controversially dubbed â€śthe hardcore continuumâ€ť by critic Simon Reynolds; moreover, under the moniker Kode9, Goodman is a practicing producer of electronic dance music, a globe-trotting DJ, and the head of acclaimed record label Hyperdub. Notably, he seems to prefer metaphorical language that borrows from sound, rather than, say, as we â€śseeâ€ť more typically, from ocularcentric discourse. So weâ€™re told, for instance, that vibrational force is an important missing dimension in music and sound studies because of the â€śethico-aesthetic paradigm it beckonsâ€ť (xv, emphasis mine). We also hear of things resonating and rippling, while modulation, if borrowed more directly from Deleuzean philosophy than compositional techniques, figures as a key term throughout. But while such subtle linguistic choices may stem from efforts to resist an ocularcentric framework, Goodmanâ€™s focus on sound as physical force, as something subpolitical and pre-ideological, is intended to needle the more profound bias in music and sound studies toward an overriding emphasis on phenomenology and signification, rather than ontology and affective mobilization. For Goodman, such preoccupations miss the boat by overlooking the more elemental workings of sound. His wide-ranging and deeply synthetic projectâ€”drawing from philosophy, cultural studies, physics, biology, fiction, and military and musical history (81)â€”constitutes an important and incisive contribution to our growing, shifting appreciation of how sound works and how it figures in the sensorium.
Opening with the 2005 sound bombing of the Gaza strip, Goodmanâ€™s narrative would appear to be firmly situated in a certain politics, but the author also takes pains to theorize at a more micropolitical level. He seeks to understand and explicate how sound produces â€śvirtualizedâ€ť fear in individuals as well as populations, whether in Palestine or elsewhere. Like the sound of an actual incoming shell, sound bombs and other sonic weapons possess power to trigger â€śthe same dread of an unwanted, possible futureâ€ť (xiv). Considering military-urbanismâ€™s â€śfull spectrum dominance,â€ť an analysis of how sound worksâ€”and how certain technologies exploit sonic forceâ€”is imperative. For Goodman, the sonic is â€śparticularly attunedâ€ť for examining â€śdread,â€ť one strand of the ecology of fear, or one key dimension of the affective status quo at a historical juncture in which the â€śmilitarization of the minutiae of urban experienceâ€ť turns war into an â€śontological conditionâ€ť that â€śreconstitutes the most mundane aspects of everyday existence through psychosocial torque and sensory overloadâ€ť (33). As an â€śaffective tonality,â€ť modulated by vibrational force, fear enters the remit of sonic warfare. Thus, even while writing against a â€śunisensoryâ€ť perspective (and continually returning to soundâ€™s crucial â€śvisceralityâ€ť ), Goodman finds it useful that, within the affective sensorium, â€śSound is often understood as generally having a privileged role in the production and modulation of fearâ€ť (65).
Given the permeation of everyday urban lifeâ€”not simply in warzones of the Global South but in city soundscapes of the so-called developed world as wellâ€”by what Goodman terms the â€śmilitary-entertainment complex,â€ť sonic warfare extends beyond obvious weapons such as sound bombs and nausea-inducing crowd-control devices to forms of (preemptive) sonic branding, including â€śpredatory earwormsâ€ť and holosonics (186), or precisely targeted â€śbeamsâ€ť of sound that might implant a commercial jingle into a moving body. With regard to the latter phenomena, Goodman dabbles in speculative fiction, imagining a future, if one in tune with contemporary capitalism, in which weâ€™re bombarded with audio advertisements for products that donâ€™t yet necessarily exist, subconsciously building brand loyalty. Mirroring the unreliable and often occultist information about sonic weapons under developmentâ€”whether issuing from government reports or press accounts, or circulating among conspiracy theory enthusiastsâ€”Goodman is refreshingly candid about the ways that dystopic projections can seep into thinking about such matters: â€śFor sure, a certain amount of paranoia accompanies this micropolitics of frequencyâ€ť (188). The deployment of the Mosquito, a device used at malls and other quasi-public, commercial spaces that emits a tone so high it repels teenagers while remaining inaudible to adults, suggests to Goodman that (pun intended), â€śthe future of sonic warfare is unsoundâ€ť (183).
If this all sounds rather dire, Goodman develops another side to the story of contemporary sonic dominance. Counterposed to the military-entertainment complexâ€™s insidious deployments of sound and unsound is another set of experiments in vibrational force and affect modulation: sound systems, patterned on the Jamaican model but today dispersed globally, serving as labs for â€śaffect engineering and the exorcism of dreadâ€ť (5). Considering Goodmanâ€™s overarching concern with ecologies of fear, it is a convenient bit of resonance that a complex notion of dread is already emically embedded in reggae discourse. Goodman hears and feels the forcefulâ€”and often subsonicâ€”projections of sound systems, whether playing dub reggae or funk carioca, as meeting a certain â€śmasochisticâ€ť desire for the â€śactive production of dreadâ€ť (27) or, in other words, â€śfear activated deliberately to be transduced and enjoyed in a popular musical contextâ€ť (29). This is an innovative and suggestive reading of practices that have already been examined in great detail in the reggae literature (e.g., Bilby 1995; Stolzoff 2000; Henriques 2003; Veal 2007).
He pursues the idea of an alternative and recuperative practice of sonic dominance, and inflects it with a Black Atlantic (if not Jamaican) accent, by examining what he calls â€śdub virology,â€ť a model of â€śaffective mobilizationâ€ťâ€”later glossed as a way â€śto move the body in danceâ€ť (157)â€”rather than the â€śmodulation of preemptive capital,â€ť the use of sound and unsound to manipulate mood and incite creativity and commerce (155). Goodman argues, without offering much detail about the techniques in question, that â€śthe virologies of the Black Atlantic â€¦ constitute a wealth of techniques for affective mobilization in dance,â€ť but that, in turn, â€śvirosonic capital hijacks these techniques â€¦ for modulationâ€ť (162). The â€ścore focusâ€ť of an audio virology is, therefore, the â€śdecreasing gap between mobilization and modulationâ€ť (162).
In chapters 24-27 Goodman carefully sketches out what is entailed by an â€śaudio virologyâ€ť and how such an approach is better suited than memetics for understanding how power relations infuse the contemporary circulation and transmission of culture. Given the intense uptake around memes in the Web 2.0 era, Goodmanâ€™s intervention here is useful. If memetics carries an intrinsically cognitivist bias with its focus on information, in contrast, an audio virology â€śentails a nexus that synthesizes the flows of information, matter, and energy into a virulent rhythmic consistencyâ€ť (138). Such an â€śassemblage,â€ť according to Goodman (nodding again to Deleuzian philosophy), goes beyond memetics in recognizing that â€śreplicatorsâ€ť are always â€śembedded in an ecology,â€ť in a material environment. Memes themselves â€śare material processes,â€ť pulse patterns emitted by â€śbillions of networked neurons.â€ť Rather than transmission networks, Goodman suggests we think of â€śaffective vectorsâ€ť and â€śaffective contagions,â€ť and though he notes that we already have the fairly neutral but useful concept of affection available to us, a model of infection appeals to him as a way to â€śdramatizeâ€ť the concern with power that he accuses memetics of lacking (130). Viruses, or virological models, are also important to Goodman because they pose â€śthreats to cybernetic control societiesâ€ť (179), the looming threat of capitalist affect modulation.
If there is a clear politics in this book, the most specific it ever gets is anti-capitalist, but the best way to characterize it might be, more broadly, anti-colonialist. Goodmanâ€™s perspective is informed by the anti- and postcolonial discourses running through British cultural studies and Afrofuturism alike, and his concerns move from geopolitical frames to the more subtle but perhaps more worrisome micropolitical colonization of our thoughts, our bodies, our futures. For this reason, mobilizationâ€”and understanding soundâ€™s relation to itâ€”stands at times as an idealized end in itself. Goodman stops short of discussing why one would want to mobilize collective populations, however, and he takes pains to distance his analysis from obvious ideological commitments. He is far more interested in â€śmodels for affective collectivity without any necessary political agendaâ€ť (175). The battle ground for Goodmanâ€”and it is a literal field of combatâ€”is the affective status quo, modulated by sonic weapons of all sorts. More generally, Goodman appears concerned with understanding â€śhow audition is policed and mobilizedâ€ť (189), which, to his credit, is not really the sort of question that musicologists ask. He makes a persuasive case that music and sound studies would do well to turn some attention this way.
The closest Goodman comes to offering an interpretation of sonic mobilization is to suggest that bass materialist affect modulationâ€”that is, using palpable bass frequencies to vibrate bodiesâ€”constitutes a â€ścultural pragmaticsâ€ť that can â€śmake existence bearableâ€ť in what is increasingly, again following Mike Davis (2006), a â€śplanet of slumsâ€ť (172). Theorizing across contemporary global sound system culture (â€śPlanet of Drumsâ€ť), Goodman argues that they construct â€śtemporary bass ecologies to hijack sonic dominanceâ€ť and to â€śattract and congeal populationsâ€ť (173). But it would be naive, he contends, â€śto pretend that there is a necessarily politically progressive agendaâ€ť underlying the organization of sound system parties (174). Goodmanâ€™s overall aim here is laudable: to shift focus from questions of content and meaning and toward understanding the â€śmore basic power of organized vibrationâ€ť (172). For the most part, this allows him to purposefully sidestep a great number of questions about the discursive realm. Itâ€™s a provocative bit of bracketing, with enough barbs planted in the introduction and the footnotes to set seminar discussions ablaze.
Ultimately, Goodman allows sound to guide his project. He places sound, via vibration, at the center of everything. â€śOne way or another, it is vibration, after all,â€ť he notes, â€śthat connects every separate entity in the cosmos, organic or nonorganicâ€ť (xiv). Although his theories of affect and rhythm are underpinned by some heady philosophical discussions, stretching from Spinoza through Deleuze to Massumi and connecting the dots between Bachelard, Lefebvre, Bergson, and Whitehead, Goodman claims to be less concerned with bringing theory to bear on sound than in the reverse. Instead, sound â€ścomes to the rescue of thought,â€ť undermining the â€ślinguistic imperialismâ€ť and â€śphenomenological anthropocentrismâ€ť that animate â€śalmost all musical and sonic analysis.â€ť But rather than resorting to a â€śnaive physicalism,â€ť Goodman asserts that what is key is â€śa concern for potential vibration and the abstract rhythmic relation of oscillationâ€ť (82). Using sound to unsettle theoretical frames, while synthesizing a diverse and demanding philosophical literature, Goodmanâ€™s efforts recall more than any other recent work Shepherd and Wickeâ€™s ambitious Music and Cultural Theory (1997), another text that could have resonated more strongly in musicological circles.
It remains to be seen whether Sonic Warfare will speak to musicologists and the increasingly transdisciplinary enterprise of sound studies. If I express some pessimism here about its potential uptake, that has more to do with the textâ€™s unorthodox and challenging dimensions. While brimming with ideas and sharp provocations, the book sometimes seems designed to stymie comprehension. Although Goodman rarely takes anything akin to Tompkinsâ€™ flights of fancy, his prose can be disorienting and at times nearly impenetrable. (At least thereâ€™s a glossary for help.) Although each chapter, most of them quite short, could no doubt be read as an autonomous â€śsingularity,â€ť as the author recommends (xvii), there are several chapter-spanning sections of the book sustaining arguments that, a la carte, might go unappreciated. (Chapters 15-20, for instance, elaborate on the philosophical core of â€śrhythmanalysis.â€ť) His use of non-chronological but pregnant dates to mark each chapter, although interesting conceptually, also proves problematic. Many of the dates go entirely without explication, so they can seem arbitrary or orthogonal to the discussion. As much as I appreciate and would like to see greater formal experimentation in music and sound studies, too often the organization of Sonic Warfare comes to feel like a conceit of sorts, an afterthought, or an evasion of hard, connective writing.
As the asymmetry in this joint review suggests, these books also differ insofar as one, written from within and directed toward the academy, is working at the level of an overarching argument which can be summarized, debated, and re-deployed in future research, whereas the other resists any sort of boiling down or segmentation. Tompkinsâ€™ book is an irreducible thing, not least because of its often untranslatable idiom, and I like that about it. I do not mean to privilege one or the other, nor to confer some greater degree of legitimacy on either. In the end, what makes these texts relevant to an academic readershipâ€”to those working in music and sound studies, whom I address hereâ€”should have little to do with their institutional pedigree or even their form and everything to do with how they contribute to rigorous debates about the place of music and sound in our world. Do their ideas effectively invite response, revision, and/or citation? Both books have the power to continue opening up the musicological conversation, to let some new vibes in, and to shake things around a bit.
Taken together, these books should help to retune (or is that detune?) the study of music and sound. They force us to ask hard questions of ourselves: What is our subject? What is our lexicon? How do we make sense of our audible past and present without foreclosing possible sonic futures? How do we engage, or ignore, the role of sound and music in the context of creeping, global militarism? If taken up with the vigor they merit, Sonic Warfare and How to Wreck a Nice Beach may better prefigure the future of music and sound studies than many other contemporary offerings.
Bilby, Kenneth. 1995. “Jamaica.” In Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae, ed. Peter Manuel, 143â€“182. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Cloonan, Martin and Bruce Johnson. 2002. “Killing Me Soflty with His Song: An Initial Investigation into the Use of Popular Music as a Tool of Oppression”. Popular Music 21(1): 27â€“39.
Cusick, Suzanne G. 2006. “Music as Torture/Music as Weapon.” Revista Transcultural de MĂşsica/Transcultural Music Review. 10:1â€“18.
_______. 2008. â€ś’You Are in a Place That is Out of the Worldâ€¦’: Music in the Detention Camps of the Global War on Terror.” Journal of the Society of American Music 2(1):1â€“26.
Davis, Mike. 2000. Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. New York: Vintage.
_______. 2006. Planet of Slums: Urban Involution and the Informal Working Class. London: Verso.
Henriques, Julian. 2003. “Sonic Dominance and the Reggae Sound System Session.” In The Auditory Culture Reader, ed. Michael Bull and Les Back, 451â€“80. Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers.
Shepherd, John and Peter Wicke. 1997. Music and Cultural Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Stolzoff, Norman. 2000. Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica. Durham: Duke University Press.
Veal, Michael. 2007. Dub: Soundscapes & Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
I’ll be talking twice in the next two days about a thing I’ve been calling technomusicology.
If in a previous moment bi-musicality represented cutting edge musicological literacy, today’s tech-suffused world would seem to call for the development of something akin to technomusicology — which might also include a sort of technomusicality.
Aside from bringing into conversation work that focuses on the entanglements of music and technology, a crucial dimension of technomusicology — at least as I’m proposing — should also entail exploring new modes of tech-assisted research and publication (and obviously I’m thinking in terms of digital and networked tech at this point).
Indeed, I’m currently developing a course called “Technomusicology” for the fall. Beginning by reading across the growing lit that attends to music in the age of its technological reproducibility (Lysloff & Gay, Meintjes, Katz, Suisman, Sterne, et al.), in the second half of the course we will appraise and attempt a variety of new forms and practices — mashups and remixes, DJ-style mixes and audio & video collages, multimedia storytelling, archival representation — as potential openings for new directions in music scholarship, with a final project that engages some new form and aims for publication in range of new venues for such work. More about that in a few!
Anyway, if you want to hear more — literally! — and you’re in New England, you’ll have two chances in the next couple of days, beginning this afternoon! (Pardon the late notice. It’s been a busy month.) Here’s the deets:
My talk today is entitled “Technomusicology” and I’ll be discussing the practice as both musicological and creative endeavor, demonstrating and explicating a number of projects in this vein. Thanks much to Matan Rubinstein for the invitation.
Here I’m giving a brief presentation as part of a roundtable discussion called “Ethno Tech Talk” alongside the venerable David Locke and Eric Galm. I like that the title evokes the somewhat horrid 90s phenom “ethnotechno,” but I believe we’ll mainly be talking about pedagogical strategies — the subtitle is “A Conversation about Applied Technology within Ethnomusicology” — and I don’t think anyone is going to mention Enigma or Deep Forest (though now I’m tempted to).
Marvin’s the guy responsible for bringing me into Jamaican schools back then, including to Camperdown, where he formerly taught and where the segment below was shot. He also provided the link to RETV, which was an especially exciting institution in Jamaica in the pre-YouTube days, finally offering a platform for local videos in an MTV and BET dominated media landscape.
The video catches me toward the end of our 6-month sojourn on Hope Road, one product of which was my dissertation (which I’m planning to finally post here soon), another was Boston Jerk, and another was, as you’ll see, a rather skinny me — a downright mawga man in local parlance. Quite a trip, e?
Before I offer an embed, allow me to cut-n-paste their poignant, soulful framing of the project and its settings & subjects –
Colony Collapse is filmed at sites of ecological friction, the fault lines of conflict between humanity and (the rest of) nature. For examples we used….
Lapindo (Sidoarjo) Mud Disaster is an eruption of scalding mud and flammable vapors triggered by a gas drilling gone awry. It has buried more than a dozen villages and blocked a major highway, and is expected to keep expanding for the next 25 years. Lapindo is located close to the home town of the the director (Tooliq) and singer (Nova).
Below a freshly shattered dam on the shoulder of Merapi mountain. This required a meeting with an important Islamic mountain shaman, who wanted to know we weren’t up to anything frivolous or disrespectful. After the vetting he sent his crew to guide and protect us, some men went upriver a few kilometers to warn us by mobile phone if a new flood was coming down.
Bantar Gebang is a landscape of trash. Garbage stretches farther than the eye can see. Mountains, rivers, and even villages where the trash-pickers live. Not something easy to summarize in words.
A supermarket nested in a mega-mall within a skyscraper. Air conditioning, shopping carts, muzak, just like any posh supermarket. But right outside is a the permanent traffic jam of Jakarta, a sprawling mega-city of at least 10 million.
Thanks to the many who graciously tolerated us filming in the midst of their disasters: be it a sea of toxic mud or just the daily commute. Extra thanks to those who hosted, drove, filmed or loaned gear. And of course it wouldn’t have been possible to complete without all of you who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign.
It’s a vivid, stunning piece of work. If you have the luxury, take Filastine’s advice and watch it in HD with some headphones or through speakers with a good subwoofer. If you don’t, no doubt there remains plenty to see and hear here –
We’ve got another promising Boston premiere this week (that’s Tuesday 2/7) at Beat Research.
Ekip Ritual is an ongoing collaboration between “nordestino” electro-percussion wiz, Kiddid, and Brazilian reggae/alt-pop vocalist Massarock. Drawing on soundsystem culture, Afro-Brazilian rhythms, and pop music sensibilities, the duo ride the “global bass” wave with aplomb.
Another strong offering, “Arroxa na EcuridĂŁo,” shows that the vintage-contempo combo goes well beyond gimmickry —
Indeed, Kiddid has been going pretty deep into some of these sounds recently. Much of what you hear in the tracks above — despite an uncanny resemblance to time-honored beat-boxes — are sounds and (virtual) instruments he made himself. A longstanding passion and more recently a vocation, Kidid has been working for Puremagnetik for the past year, designing instruments for Live, Logic, and Kontakt, including his first big project, released last month: modeled after the Yamaha DX7, the DeeEx offers access to some classic-sounding 80s-esque synthesis. Apparently, he’s also just finished a project using the Operator and Analog synths and his designs are being considered for inclusion in Ableton Live 9.
As someone who’s been using Kiddid’s killer tracks as secret weapons for years now, none of that last paragraph comes as a surprise. But it sure whets my appetite for tomorrow’s show! Yours too? If so, you know where to find us –
I’ve got a piece in this week’s Boston Phoenix discussing the spectacular shuttering of Megaupload and the collateral damage produced by an increasingly aggressive copyright regime in tandem with a remarkable nonchalance about preserving the digital libraries we build. Some will recognize this as but the latest instance of platform politricks, just another rug yanked out from under folks tryna dance with each other. (Though it looks like another series of SoundClowns may be on its way!)
Anyway, check it out and tell me what you think. Shouts to Carly Carioli for reaching out about the piece and, along with Sara Rosenbaum, helping to whittle it down into something pretty darn sharp, if I say so.
As for this space, allow me to share a few linked-up grafs below that ended up on the cutting room floor, as well as some germane and entertaining media:
As with its predecessors, the sudden shuttering of Megaupload leaves a whole lot of holes in the e-ther. Among other random disappearances to tick across my timeline: the only copy of a personal video a friendâ€™s father had recently stored there; and the sole upload of Nehru Jackets, the acclaimed new mixtape from Himanshu Suri of Das Racist (at least until a few hours later, as Suriâ€™s supporters quickly re-upped the zipfile to similar sites). No doubt thousands of other innocent files were disappeared on January 19, but none are likely to get their day in court.
Of course, itâ€™s hard to sympathize with anyone whoâ€™s thinking is so clouded that they would entrust their only copy of something to a service that explicitly warned, in both its ToS and FAQ, of the possibility of complete data loss (with no liability on their part). And itâ€™s even harder to sympathize with Kim Dotcom, the cartoonish founder of Megaupload. So apparently full of money, food, and hubris is Dotcom that Hollywood could hardly hope to cast a better villain. Indeed, few embody the foreign rogue in the crosshairs of SOPA and PIPA as well as Dotcom with his extravagant nose-thumbing at the MPAA and RIAA â€“ never mind prior convictions for computer fraud, insider trading, and embezzlement.
But if Dotcom comes across as an odious parasite, itâ€™s telling that many seem to prefer him as their middleman over more established gatekeepers. In the weeks before it was shut down, Megaupload had been getting under the skin of the recording industry not simply because of piracy; rather, the site was becoming a special thorn in the side because some of the industryâ€™s marquee artists were publicly endorsing it. A promotional song and video (see below) featuring testimonials from the likes of Kanye West, will.i.am, Lil Jon, and Sean Combs began to make the rounds, as did rumors that producer Swizz Beatz had become CEO of the company. In the wake of the raid, Busta Rhymes took to Twitter to defend Swizz Beatz and Megaupload alike, arguing that the site offered a more promising and direct revenue stream to artists than Spotify.
Even if Megaupload was an obvious target, that doesnâ€™t make it easier to hear the pathetic giant paper-crumpling sound of thousands of non-infringing files disappearing behind a JPG of an eagle carrying a bad pun in its talons. As the chilling effects spread to similar sites, one has to wonder whether Megauploadâ€™s demise heralds the beginning of the end of yet another functional but far too ad-hoc system for sharing media with each other.
And just in case you can’t appreciate the logo on the right up there, here it is a little more up close, deconstructing its own silly self and making a mockery of our supposedly noble National Bird –
Actually, as the title of my piece implies, the real National Bird looks more like this –
The first time one of my daughters said “internet,” I was deeply curious about what she might understand it to be. So I asked. Here’s how it went down:
“Did you get it on the internet?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m just saying ‘internet.’ … Internet.”
It was an awesome bit of backpedaling, but it’s not like Nico didn’t know what she was talking about. Surely I had told her many times before that I was getting some video or other “on the internet” (although this time I was just searching for an mp4 on our harddrive).
Of course, defining “the internet” in plain terms is no simple task, even/especially for experts — never mind elected officials (for whom even the proposal of a relatively reasonable metaphor, say a “series of tubes,” can lead to eternal ridicule).
Anyway, as tweeted, we had occasion yesterday to revisit the exchange. This time both Nico and Charlie offered up awesome answers — with no evasions — and I even got it all on video!
As we were getting back in our car after lunch at a local diner, Charlie asked me if I wanted to buy a newspaper. I told her I didn’t and then said something to the effect that I could read the same stories on my phone — that is, on the internet. At which point I had to ask, in a somewhat strange and serious and playful voice, “What. Is. The. Internet?”
To which Nico replied, rather reasonably, if in her own strange voice (a “boy’s voice,” she tells us)–
I thought that was great, so I took out my internet phone and asked her if we could re-run the Q&A for the camera. The kids love seeing themselves on video, so Nico agreed, and that’s what you see up there (with my question inadvertently truncated).
After which, natch, Charlie needed a turn. At first it seemed like she was just going to rehearse the same exchange herself (complete with funny voice), but instead, operator-style, she threw a curveball. A hilarious curveball, especially after my follow-up —
Today I’ve got a Q&A with Jared Demick at his site The Jivin’ Ladybug, a “Skewered Journal of the Arts” or in slightly plainer terms, “an online arts journal devoted to word-whittlers, picture-pizzazzers, & sound-slingers, all over this here globe!” Though the latter most obviously describes me, and the middle option may seem more dubious, I like to consider myself all three. (I mean, look at that picture of a ladybug drawn in sidewalk chalk — full of pizzazz!)
At any rate, Jared asked a bunch of questions about the stuff that I do and think about, and because I think it offers a good glimpse at my current thoughts about blogging and DJing and meaningful mixes, world music 2.0 and appropriation, and platform politricks, to name a few, I’m cross-posting the convo here too. Without further ado–
How does your DJing & academic work connect with each other?
I discover a lot of music in my research, and DJing allows me to “activate” these tracks in a new social setting, to sit with them and hear and feel them in new ways, and to share them with other people. As someone who studies DJ culture, and as something of an old-school participant-observer, I think it’s pretty crucial to put my intellectual work into practice in this way. Another way to look at it, though, is that my abiding love for music propels all that I do, and I’ve managed — or attempted — to chart a course where sharing music is central to my life and work.
What got you blogging so extensively?
I started blogging back in 2003 when I moved to Jamaica to do research for my dissertation, which largely consisted of visiting dancehall events and recording studios and turning my own apartment into a collaborative space for making and talking about music. (One result of which, apart from the disseration, was my self-released album, Boston Jerk.) Initially I figured the blog would only be read by academic peers and family and friends, but I was happily surprised when it turned out that a wider readership of people who were interested in taking hip-hop and reggae (and their interplay) seriously had also found their way to my research-in-progress and thinking-aloud. More than anything, the deeply encouraging feedback loop of a community of co-readers (for I think of myself as engaged in a collective process of interpretation) is what turned the blog from a research experiment into the most important and fulfilling part of my work.
Does this â€śworld music 2.0â€ť (or as you cheekily dub it â€śglobal ghettotechâ€ť) phenomenon, this global mix nâ€™ match of genres, leading to greater musical variation or homogenization? In other words, is it a scenario of capitalism doing cultural colonization or is it reflective of increased diasporic movements?
As much as I’m suspicious of how capitalism shapes and circulates culture, I don’t buy the “cultural grey-out” anxiety that haunted so much globalization theory in the 1990s. Examining hip-hop or reggae as a global phenomenon (which is to say, a trans-local thing) gives the lie to any sense that local transformations of these forms are simply imitative. It has been well observed, of course, that capitalism thrives in the production of novelty, so one could argue that the lack of homogenization is, in a sense, just as useful for selling things. At any rate, I think it would be hard to make a case for anything other than greater variety in terms of the music to which we have access today, and whereas “world music” used to be a fairly exotic product, I find some optimism in the newly quotidian qualities of “the world out there” in an age when media travels so instantly and rapidly, especially when coupled with an increasing recognition that our own neighborhoods (at least in fairly cosmopolitan cities) are amazing and rich repositories of world culture. To the extent that exposure to new sounds — rather than simply the products of the media capitals of the US — might engender a more mutual regard for each other, a respect and tolerance for difference, is about as good as it could get. That, and radical wealth redistribution. (But I wouldn’t wait on “world music” to deliver that.)
Are these emerging musical trends sticking around or do they rapidly rise and fade? Who are the primary producers and consumers?
The whole “world music 2.0″ scene is still pretty small and definitely marked by a hype-cycle dynamic. This is perhaps reflective of the “Western hipster” base for a lot of this stuff — at least once it’s been remediated by DJs and bloggers. But for every bandwagoneer, there are people whose interest in new sounds serves to drive their curiosity about other places, about other histories and narratives, and even about other people in their own local communities. Of course, we shouldn’t let out of sight that lots of these exciting sounds from around the world are emerging from rich local scenes which could care less about a few downstream DJs and bloggers (although, on the other hand, there are clearly some opportunities to be had, lest only the middlemen make the metropolitan money). But the production of the music that circulates on blogs and Soundcloud as a sort of “WM2.0″ is no longer entirely “outsourced,” if you will. Rather, instead of simply “digging” for far-flung sounds and scenes (a la funk carioca, kuduro, cumbia), as the case of moombahton shows, new genres have emerged that partake of the templates and circuits for “global ghettotech” while being almost completely unmoored or grounded in any particular place, hence inviting a broader sort of participation (especially from more privileged corners) and perhaps entailing a different approach toward exoticism.
Why do economically disadvantaged urban areas (the ghetto, favela, barrio, shantytown, and its many other manifestations) play such a prominent role in the circulation of this material?
For all their actual impoverishment (or one might say because of it), ghettos are also immense sites of creativity — and, part and parcel of that, powerful repositories of authenticity. I would alter your question to note that while these places play a prominent role in the production of this material, they are less involved in its circulation. Increasingly, grassroots producers from around the world are using “social media” to share their productions with their peers and wider audiences, but a lot of the wider circulation of these genres is being initiated by web-trawling bloggers and DJs who are enthralled by the stuff they’re hearing. Sometimes the grounds for that fascination and/or empathy are spurious, sometimes sincere.
Do you see any political ramifications to this increased cultural dialogue?
It’s not always clear to me that this phenomenon entails a “dialogue” except in a rather vague (and one-sided) sense. I do think that playing music for local audiences (say, here in the US) which is not what they typically encounter can do a sort of political-cultural work insofar as it reforms ideas about us/them. I tend to reserve my greatest hope for the locally transformative power of these engagements — that is, we can work in Boston or New York to reshape our own sense of our soundscapes and our neighbors, and ourselves.
What makes the contemporary musical practice of appropriating and recontextualizing sounds so prominent and attractive?
The relatively novel ease of cut-and-paste is what accounts for the prominence of these methods. As for their attractiveness, I think that recontextualization, reframing, and remaking culture is simply an elemental way that we make sense of the world and share that sense with others. Of course, the advent of the global internet also means that distant appropriations are easier and more commonplace than ever.
Youâ€™ve talked about how this emerging global musical culture is precariously archived within corporate platforms. How could we create a public, non-privatized space on the internet?
This is a serious problem for posterity, and even for present practice. It reflects both a corporate capture of “public” spaces as well as a new prioritization on the part of music-makers and -sharers toward immersion and participation. Toward remedying that — to the extent that people care to — I think we really need to develop (and invest in) new platforms that allow people to personally host (or better, collectively distribute) the media that we make or care to share. I wish there were a will to do this at a municipal or even federal level — to really do it with public funds, as an investment in infrastructure — but there are too many conflicts, I suspect, to make this possible now. So, this has to start with a collective but individual move toward our own servers, and with insisting that we keep copies of everything we post to the corporate platforms whose only value — beyond the user-interface they provide — is entirely generated by our presence and participation there. An open-source alternative to Facebook / Twitter / Soundcloud / YouTube that allows people to maintain more control over their digital culture would be a killer app to be sure.
In both your essays and your mixes, you chart out the routes of particular sounds such as the dembow riddim or the â€śzunguzung memeâ€ť as they get reappropriated in a variety of different contexts. What kinds of insights about contemporary musical culture does such a method provide?
Since — as I think such mixes make audible — it’s not so easy to generalize about “appropriation” when a tune or drumbreak can clearly take so many forms and support such a diversity of messages, the most consistent insight has more to do with the fundamental flexibility and reconfigurability of musical forms (and cultural forms more generally). Although I think this phenomenon far predates the age of technological reproducibility — and results from the essentially mimetic basis of culture — I do think that, with regard to the contemporary, these mixes show not only that it’s easy and commonplace to appropriate or allude to or otherwise invoke and rework previous performances, but that a great deal of creativity, and localization of the power to affect an audience, is very audibly a part of the process.
Which of your currents projects are you most excited about?
I’ve got an ongoing project about the Boston soundscape that I’ve just extended recently with the publication of “Love That Muddy Ether” / Boston Pirate Party — a brief reflection on the rise of Caribbean low-power / pirate radio here in Boston and an audio collage that tries to encapsulate, and take some poetic liberties with, this city’s segregated soundscape. I’m also embarking, after a couple trips to Rotterdam last fall, on a book project about bubbling, the Dutch-Caribbean hyperactive twin of reggaeton, which seems, like kindred genres such as jungle and bhangra, to speak volumes about the musical mediation of a changing sense of place.