Archive of posts tagged with "tech"

February 6th, 2013

School Bell Nuh Ring?

Here’s another ten-years-gone re-post from the initial instantiation of my blog, back in 2003 when Rebecca and I moved to Jamaica for six months of doctoral research — and, as a side gig (if one deeply intertwined with my research), a series of digital music workshops in schools and prisons.

What I’m going to do in this case is cobble together and remix two overlapping posts by yours truly and my “companion on Hope Road” — detailing a trip to a nearby high school where we conducted one of our first workshops after moving to Kingston, exactly 10 years ago today. Mainly, what I want to share here are the ebullient sounds of students at St. Andrew High School for Girls freestyling about an upcoming teacher’s strike — and working up some first-time beats.

FL workshop @ st.andrew'sFL workshop @ st.andrew's

Cue Becca:

Howard Campbell is a teacher at St. Andrew High School for girls, just down the road from us in Halfway Tree. He is the head of the computer labs and the coordinator for all kinds of technology education at St. Andrew. We met him at the Harvard-Jamaica Association meeting where he had come with his friend Marvin, not because they were from Harvard or cared at all about a Harvard Alumni Association, but because they were educators interested in our project. In fact, it seemed that from experience both Howard and Marvin had learned that top-down organizations, such as the association we were forming and the school system in Kingston-St. Andrew were not the best way to get things done. They encouraged us to start from the teachers in the schools if we wanted to get in and start working. After seeing Wayne’s demo, Howard offered St. Andrew as a good place to start. Yesterday we went to St. Andrew for the first time.

At 8am we had a class of 4th formers (10th grade). We were to do a demo with them in this period and then a workshop with them from 10-11 in the computer lab. When Wayne got Fruityloops up on the screen and started talking, the class was polite and paid attention. Once he hit the first kick drum, they began to look really interested. And as soon as he put up a little hip-hop beat and then turned it into the grindin’ beat, they were hooked. (Side note: from Cambridge to Kingston, it seems that kids everywhere are loving the grindin’ beat and banging it out on their desks. Way to go Neptunes.) They started dancing in their chairs when he showed them how to make some dancehall. Next he made a song with the class, getting a few brave souls to make some noises and sing a bit and putting it together into a dancehall rhythm:

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[2013 Wayne here just pointing out the obvious reference here to "In Da Club," another ubiquitous song at this time.]

At 9 they reluctantly left for their next class, seemingly a combination of a particular attachment to Mr. Campbell, interest in what Wayne was doing, and dislike of whatever they would have to do for the next hour.

At 10, girls piled in and sat one or two to a computer. Wayne managed to hold their attention for a few minutes to repeat some basics. And they got started. I was glad I had watched Wayne so much and messed around on Fruityloops myself because there were too many questions for Wayne to handle by himself. Girls went at different paces and made every kind of music from dancehall to techno. As they would run into trouble, Wayne would go to them and give them a few pointers to keep them moving in a good direction. At 11 they were all still going strong. Howard came and told us that it was their lunch period, but if we didn’t mind, they could stay. We didn’t mind. Most of them stayed through most of their lunch period and came away with some pretty good little songs.

build yuh riddimlining up some beats

Cue 2003 Wayne:

the workshop proved to be quite productive, if a little cacophonous at times. (half a dozen computers blasting beats together in a small room can create quite a sound clash, to use the local term; headphones are helpful). through their own predilections, and the contingent curve-balls of the creative process, the girls came up with some diverse stylings. “catherine’s rock rhythm” (as she titled it), probably takes its name from the “dirty-guitar” sample that, unfortunately, is missing here since i seem to be missing it in my own sound bank (i am converting it to mp3 on my laptop today, away from the school). nevertheless, it puts a strong foot forward with its bouncy bed of techno–not the most popular genre here but one in which a couple of girls decided to create.

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sydoney and zelieka collaborated to create a rhythm that, while borrowing from the neptune’s ubiquitous grindin’ beat (in the third and fourth bars of each six-bar, AABBAA phrase), almost defies category with its future-funk, electro-slanted hip-hop.

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and “shanika’s hip-hop beat” is, quite honestly, one of the illest things i have heard in a while. not bad for a first try!

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we went home to have lunch and do laundry. at two o’clock we headed back to the school to do another demo–this one for an afterschool music club, which seemed like an appropriate audience. howard told us on the way down hope road that a buzz was already passing through the school, accelerated in part by my famous name. we had some time to see the grounds before the music club meeting, so howard showed us around. most impressive was a front courtyard where girls were hanging out and waiting to be picked up from school.

one group of girls stood in a circle under a tree, coaxing a makeshift rhythm out of an empty coke bottle and an igloo thermos. they were DJing, laughing, dancing and exhorting each other. it was an absolutely wonderful moment of improvisation and collective music-making. as howard (with his video camera), i (with mic and laptop), and becca (with her digital camera) moved in for some samples, it was clear that this cipher was no rehearsal. these girls were not only creating extemporaneous raps in DJ-style, they were humorously riffing on the topic of the hour: the imminent teachers’ strike and the small holiday the students would enjoy.

ting-a-ling-a-ling school bell nuh ringno school! no school!

as the girls waited for the beat to begin again (having located another empty coke bottle), one called out for them to freestyle, dubbing the day “freestyle friday” — a reference to a popular segment during a music-video program on BET. the seamlessness of this reference in the context of the girls’ play is another testament to the fluidity of cultural forms here: hip-hop and other american exports are absorbed and spun back out, sometimes more and sometimes less like a copy. today was no copy. the girls may have assimilated the hip-hop term for in-the-moment rap, but their form was strictly dancehall. [Indeed, though I didn't realize it at the time, they were closely riffing on a beloved Shabba ranks routine.]

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hear the distinctive 3+3+2 dancehall beat, the staccato, end-rhyme style of the vocals, the chorus of gun-shot-big-ups that follow the first good rhyme, the “booyaka” refrain — more onamatopoetic gunfire — that cracks everyone up. listen closer for the topicality of the text: “ting-a-ling-a-ling / school bell nuh ring / go and mek the teacher buy the bling-bling.” the call to give the teachers some money to buy jewelry and other nice things [but also basics, like "dumpling"] is at once a crack at those not providing for their teachers and a good-natured ribbing for the teachers themselves (who are either impoverished or greedy by implication). and lest one think these students are disappointed about school being cancelled, they dispel any such notions with a “no school” celebratory chant.

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back to Bec for a sec:

“No school, no school!” was the main refrain and the main topic of conversation. Why? A nation-wide teacher’s strike is scheduled for Monday and Tuesday as a demonstration of dissatisfaction with the wage increase that the teacher’s union and the government have negotiated. Here, as in the U.S. but on a more extreme scale, the teachers are drastically underpaid and their work undervalued. Howard takes the problem quite seriously and is an active participant in organizing some form of peaceful resistance. He is clearly a caring and beloved teacher. He supports programs like ours as a way to move education forward in Jamaica. He is just the sort of person one would want to see standing up for the rights of teachers because it is teachers like him who demonstrate how much a teacher’s work is worth.

And I’ll pile on just a little more:

many of the students were worried about the strike, including a number of them pursuing a rumor that howard, a clear favorite at st. andrews, would be resigning. as various girls ran up to greet him after school, howard assuaged their fears and pointed out that, although he may be “on strike,” as they could see, he was still at school, and well into afterschool hours. as we continued walking through the grounds, on our way back to the computer lab, we came across a girl practicing piano in a large performance hall that stands in the middle of the campus. i got a little of her rendition of beethoven’s moonlight sonata on my laptop, a chord of which ended up in the song i created with music club, who decided to do their own little version of sean paul’s terribly popular, “gimme the light.” [n.b.: fairly horribly harmonized -- or not at all, really -- on my part]

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after the demo, which was received positively, complete with (in true jamaican style) some fairly formal and very charming thanks from the music club’s spokesperson, i went back to the lab to collect the tracks that the students had created in the morning so that i could post them on the blog. at four o’clock on a friday afternoon, the lab was full of girls making music, most of them new. very promising indeed.

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January 30th, 2013

Music Ontology Mixtape

Ok, it’s more of a playlist, but now that I’ve got your attention…

the "little man" on the 1s & 2sthe "little man" on the 1s & 2sthe "little man" on the 1s & 2sthe "little man" on the 1s & 2s

Today in my other class, Music 97c (Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective), I threw a few limit cases at my students, inviting them to think about where people draw lines between music and non-music and why it’s worthwhile to acknowledge these as we seek to develop a deeper understanding of the diversity — but also the unity — of world musical practice.

One of our readings for this week takes on this project with full steam and inspiring empathy. John Blacking’s “Humanly Organized Sound,” a classic of the literature and the opening salvo in a profound larger work, How Musical Is Man?, seeks to understand what exactly constitutes musical capacity. Concise and provocative, the title of the chapter has become a useful shorthand definition of “music” for me and many others, if while drawing a possibly unnecessary and unfounded species-specific line around the phenomenon — but that’s a central part of the question.

“Humanly organized sound” is a very flat and encompassing way of defining music and its value to people. Among other trenchant points, Blacking wonders why the broadly distributed learned abilities to take part in musical happenings he observes in, say, Venda culture are oddly denied even as they’re exploited in the so-called West: in the US and UK, he notes, one hears on the one hand of exceptional musical geniuses and virtuosi and, on the other, of folks who learn to describe themselves as tone-deaf or left-footed. But at the same time, the near total suffusion of public and private spaces with music in these societies takes for granted — indeed targets — a baseline capacity for perceiving sonic order and interpreting it as music with meaning or message.

Against this background, having endured a little too much talk about who’s “primitive” and who’s made the most “progress,” Blacking minces no words, and his anti-elitist (indeed, anti-elite) politics ring clear:

Does cultural development represent a real advance in human sensitivity and technical ability, or is it chiefly a diversion for elites and a weapon of class exploitation? Must the majority be made “unmusical” so that a few may become more “musical”?

Recalibrating our sense of musicality in this manner demands, Blacking continues, that as good ethnomusicologists (aka, the scholars formerly known as comparative musicologists),

We need to know what sounds and what kinds of behavior different societies have chosen to call “musical”; and until we know more about this we cannot begin to answer the question, “How musical is man?”

Well, we now know a lot more about such matters, though to what extent that knowledge has redirected or reformed the prevailing ideologies of musical talent and value here in the US is another question. The fact that “Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective” remains a requirement of music majors at my present institution is itself a testament to the beachhead ethnomusicology has made and to the work that remains to be done.

At any rate, though this doesn’t directly speak to Blacking’s concerns as outlined above, here’s the first ontologically unstable sound object I played in class –

The description of the video reads as follows:

David Cope used his Experiments in Musical Intelligence program to compose Zodiac, twelve short works for string orchestra in the style of Vivaldi. This is Taurus. The video is also algorithmically created.

One might not fancy the rendition above all that much, if begrudgingly accepting that it resembles Vivaldi. Some might find it too computery to sound “human” — unnatural violin attacks like glimmers in a replicant’s eyes. But few would deny that it was in some sense a piece of music.

Arguably, Cope’s software’s opus is “humanly organized sound” in at least a couple ways: 1) a human organized the thing that organized the sound; and 2) human listeners perform acts of pattern recognition. In another way, of course — ie, having been generated by some lines of code — it is not. There is a degree of non-human input/output that unsettles. But should we care if we can’t pass a musical Turing Test? If human listeners — not to be confused with dolphins — organize the patterns of sound that reach our ears, why not call it music?

Well, by that reasoning, this would be music too:

But since we can’t really ask a hermit thrush or a line of code whether what they’re doing is “music” (at least not without being suspicious of the answer), we would do well to consider examples of patterned “non-musical” sound directly produced by humans.

For instance, this ol’ gem of the ethnomusicological canon:

If you’re not familiar, that’s James Koetting’s 1975 recording of postal workers cancelling stamps at the University of Ghana post office. The important gloss here is that although the workers were obviously whistling tunes (in this case a hymn by a Ghanaian composer) and banging out rhythms, the idea that they were making “music” instead of simply doing their job would have, according to Koetting, seemed quite strange to them and their co-workers. “It sounds like music and, of course it is,” writes Koetting,

but the men performing it do not quite think of it that way. These men are working, not putting on a musical show; people pass by the workplace paying little attention to the “music.”

Another example along these lines —

For certain devout Muslims, Koranic recitation (as well as call to prayer) is not to be confused with music. Indeed, for some (though Islam is a wide, wide world), “music” is haram, prohibited, an indulgence that distracts from virtuous worship. That said, a strong investment in sounding practices is more than audible here; it is practically crucial. To refit the Koetting prose above: This man is reciting, not putting on a musical show. But yeah, for many, to quote Koetting directly: “it sounds like music.”

This example led to a brief digression into a sound object about sound objects: a Radiolab segment which takes as its subject the tonal dimensions of spoken languages. The first 4.5 minutes result in host Jad Abumrad entertaining more or less the same question as our class: “What exactly is music, really?”

When speech — or anything else not performed as music per se — somehow, as a suddenly dialectical sound object, becomes music, has it also in some sense, then, passed beyond understanding? Beyond a certain degree of communication? From one metaphorical register to another, more ambiguous one? Is this implication of irreducible multivalence what makes “music” so odious, so haram, to some?

I raise the question of musical communication because it animates the other piece we read today, which will lead me to my final set of examples (though these aren’t about the same sort of ontology exactly). Steven Feld’s “Music, Communication, and Speech about Music” is a dazzling and humbling examination of how rich, complex, and slippery — or in Feld’s words “changeable” and “emergent” — the listening experience almost always is (not to mention the processes of communication it entails).

To illustrate the various, simultaneous, non-hierarchical “interpretive moves” we make as we listen, Feld offers the admittedly charged but usefully provocative “Spangled Banner Minor” by Carla Bley & her band. I’ve been working with this article and this piece for a while now, and let me tell you: it works every time.

Spangled Banner Minor And Other Patriotic Songs by The Carla Bley Band on Grooveshark

Of course, I couldn’t resist pairing Bley’s recording with a more recent example, which you might say inverts the effect, rendering Michael Stipe’s über-emo anthem far more shiny-happy than the wildly (and suprisingly?) popular original. I’m talking about “Recovering My Religion” of course, the Melodyne-assisted remix of REM’s 1991 hit which has raised hackles among the hey-kids-get-off-my-CD-tower crowd, but which is, especially for those of us who had the original tune brutally committed to memory by remarkably repeated exposure, a really striking twist of tone and, accordingly, message and meaning.

Major Scaled #2 : REM – “Recovering My Religion” from major scaled on Vimeo.

As fun and interesting as I think these philosophical/ontological questions about music(ness) can be — and as much as I subscribe to Blacking’s and Feld’s commitment to radical, relativist-universalist studies of music as social life — when it comes down to it, I think maybe humanly re-organized sound is what really pushes my buttons. But we’ll save that distinction for another date.

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January 29th, 2013

Musical Publics

Here is the syllabus for a new course I’m teaching this spring at the Big H. It’s the culmination of a few years of piqued curiosity about “public” as term and concept, noun and adjective. As happy as teaching technomusicology made me, this sort of course — an intense, focused series of readings on a subject I find fascinating — has few parallels as far as intellectual pleasures go. Here’s hoping I have a good team of co-readers glad to read along. (I’ll note that, aptly, a great number of these readings are available, ahem, publicly.)

Without further ado…

Music 208r: Musical Publics

me, a phone, a receiver, a bike ride

Spring 2013
Tues 4-6pm
Davison Room


In the age of technological reproducibility and mass media, and especially since the advent of the Internet, the Web, and social media, the notion of the public is an ever shifting but paramount concern. Thanks to its special affordances and remarkable ubiquity, music offers a powerful lens into questions of publicness and public spheres. How do musicians and musical texts—never mind musicologists—address particular publics, and how has this changed over time?

To better understand music’s role in public culture, this course examines the idea of the public sphere in historical and theoretical perspective. From philosophy to the social sciences to more recent theoretical propositions and ethnographic work, we will consider a variety of publics, the (musical) media that bring them into being, and the implications for acknowledging music as part and parcel of collective experience. Our study will span the rise of print culture, the broadcast era, and the more recent development of what have been dubbed networked publics.


Week 1 / Jan 29 — Introduction
Syllabus review, preliminary discussion

Week 2 / Feb 5 — Foundational Texts
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. (p. 1-78)

Habermas, Jurgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991 [1962]. (browse all, but esp: 1-56, 159-243)

Week 3 / Feb 12 — Critique & Elaboration
Calhoun, “Introduction.” In Habermas and the Public Sphere, 1-42. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.

Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text 25/26 (1990): 56-80.

Hansen, Miriam. “Unstable Mixtures, Dilated Spheres: Negt and Kluge’s The Public Sphere and Experience, Twenty Years Later.” Public Culture Vol. 5, No. 2 (1993): 179-212.

Week 4 / Feb 19 — Print Cultures & Imagined Communities
Anderson, Benedict. “Imagined Communities.” In Nations and Nationalism, a Reader, eds. Philip Spencer & Howard Wollman, 48-59. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

Bohlman, Philip V. “Composing the Cantorate: Westernizing Europe’s Other Within.” In Western Music and Its Others, eds. Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh, 187-212.

Kay Kaufman Shelemay. “Musical Communities: Rethinking the Collective in Music.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 64, No. 2 (Summer 2011): 349- 390.

Week 5 / Feb 26 — Mass Culture’s New Musical Publics
Middleton, Richard. “‘Roll Over Beethoven’: Sites and Soundings on the Music-Historical Map.” In Studying Popular Music, 3-33 (esp 3-16). Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1990.

Suisman, David. “Prologue,” “When Songs Became a Business,” and “The Musical Soundscape of Modernity.” In Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music, 1-54, 240-72. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Gitelman, “The Phonograph’s New Media Publics.” In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 283-303. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Hilmes, “Radio and the Imagined Community” In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 351-62. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Week 6 / March 5 — Aural Public Spheres
Hirshkind, Charles. “Cassette Sermons, Aural Modernities, and the Islamic Revival in Cairo.” In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 54-69. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Ochoa Gautier, Ana María. “Social Transculturation, Epistemologies of Purification and the Aural Public Sphere in Latin America.” In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 388-404. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Byron Dueck. “Public and Intimate Sociability in First Nations and Métis Fiddling.” Ethnomusicology Vol. 51, No. 1 (Winter 2007): 30-63.

Week 7 / March 12 — Racial Authenticity as Public Form
Radano, Ronald. “Music, Race, and the Fields of Public Culture.” In The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, eds. Clayton, Herbert, and Middleton, 308-316. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Gilroy, Paul. “‘After the Love Has Gone’: Bio-Politics and Etho-Politics in the Black Public Sphere.” In The Black Public Sphere, ed. The Black Public Sphere Collective, 53-80. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995.

Diawara, Manthia. “Homeboy Cosmopolitan.” In In Search of Africa, 237-78. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Novak, David. “Cosmopolitanism, Remediation, and the Ghost World of Bollywood.” Cultural Anthropology 25:1 (2010): 40-72.

Week 8 / March 19 (No class – Spring Recess)

Week 9 / March 26 — Counterpublics
Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2002. (p. 1-188)

Bickford, Tyler. “The New ‘Tween’ Music Industry: The Disney Channel, Kidz Bop and an Emerging Childhood Counterpublic.” Popular Music 31/3 (October 2012): 417–36.

Week 10 / April 2 — Networked Publics (part 1)
Castells, Manuel. “Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society.” International Journal of Communication 1 (2007): 238-266.

Ito, Mizuko. “Introduction.” In Networked Publics, ed. Varnelis, 1-14. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.

Varnelis, Kazys. “The Meaning of Network Culture.” In Networked Publics, ed. Varnelis, 145-64. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.

Week 11 / April 9 — Networked Publics (part 2)
Benkler, Yochai. “Emergence of the Networked Public Sphere.” In The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, 212-72. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

boyd, danah, “Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications.” In A Networked Self, ed. Papacharissi, 39-58. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Week 12 / April 16 — Publics & Social Media
Baym, Nancy & danah boyd. “Socially Mediated Publicness.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 56:3(2012): 320-329.

Marwick, Alice and danah boyd. “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.” New Media & Society, 7 July 2010: 1-20.

Crawford, Kate. “Following You: Disciplines of Listening in Social Media.” In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 79-90. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Sterne, Jonathan. “The MP3 as Cultural Artifact.” New Media & Society 8:5 (2006): 825–842.

Week 13 / April 23 — Precarious Publics & Platform Politricks
Dean, Jodi. “Why the Net is not a Public Sphere.” Constellations Vol. 10, No. 1 (2003): 95-112.

Gillespie, Tarleton. “The Politics of ‘Platforms.’” New Media & Society Vol. 12, No. 3 (2010): 347-64.

Kelty, Christopher. “Preface: Crowds and Clouds.” LIMN 2 (March 2012).

Gillespie, Tarleton. “Can an Algorithm be Wrong?LIMN 2 (March 2012).

Droitcour, Brian. “Public Spaces.” The New Inquiry, October 29, 2012.

Week 14 / April 30 — Class presentations

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January 15th, 2013

It Takes a Little Sharing

In honor of the late, great Aaron Swartz, pictured above, I’m making an overdue effort to get some of my own works out from behind walls of various sorts and into the open. (This is always my practice, but sometimes there’s more of a lag than I’d like.) I can’t say that I ever met Aaron, despite no doubt crossing paths in Cambridge over the years. But I have so many friends who counted him a friend, his loss resonates on a personal level as well as an intellectual one. Of course, I was well aware of Aaron’s work and keenly curious about the JSTOR case as it proceeded, and like many others I find myself disgusted and galvanized by the tragedy of his persecution and death.

While there is a general effort, if not concerted movement, among academics to take the opportunity to make their own articles openly accessible in tribute to Aaron, aptly enough the PDFs I want to share here are in their own ways deeply concerned with the (un)fettered and often creative circulation of texts, files, media, ideas, riffs — whatever you want to call em. In these particular two cases, mashups and remixes.

The first piece is something I wrote many years back but only published in book form more recently. “Mashup Poetics as Pedagogical Practice” grows out of a series of talks I was giving at the time, offering an aesthetic explication of mashups while also posing the form as one we might embrace for teaching and publishing alike. Obviously, it’s something of a technomusicological manifesto, building on earlier riffs about musicking about music and offering examples from my own bloggy oeuvre. Indeed, I did a little something along these lines in the mix I made to accompany the second PDF I’d like to share. But first, here’s a link & a cite:

Wayne Marshall, “Mashup Poetics as Pedagogical Practice.” (PDF) In Pop-Culture Pedagogy in the Music Classroom: Teaching Tools from American Idol to YouTube, ed. Nicole Biamonte, 307-15 (Scarecrow Press, 2010).

The second PDF I want to share was co-written a couple years back with Jayson Beaster-Jones, an anthropologist who knows a heckuva lot about the Indian music industry and the role of “remix” therein. We casually started cooking up the article over coffee at UChicago — and later up on Devon Avenue — some 6 years ago, so this was really quite a welcome fruition of a longstanding project (which I first blogged about way back in July 08). For helping to bring this into the world, I’d like to thank another dear colleague, Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, an old ethno-friend and the co-editor of the special issue of South Asian Popular Culture in which our article appeared:

Wayne Marshall & Jayson Beaster-Jones, “It takes a little lawsuit: The flowering garden of Bollywood exoticism in the age of its technological reproducibility.” (PDF) South Asian Popular Culture 10(3) [2012]: 1-12.

You may know the story of how DJ Quik sampled an obscure Bollywood song for Truth Hurts’s “Addicted” and got Dr.Dre sued for a cool $500M, but you might yet be surprised by some of its twists and turns. While the song has been written about quite a bit, especially as an example of US orientalism and illicit appropriation, for our article, Jayson and I wanted to focus on the meanings generated by each new iteration of the song, attending to content as well as context, and placing our emphasis on cosmopolitan agents making creative and, yes, charged choices about musical representation. As we write in our conclusion, we can’t bring ourselves to care nearly as much about rich guys suing rich guys than we do about all the amazing and wonderful stuff that people do in the midst of it all.

Here’s the abstract:

The Hindi film song ‘Thoda resham lagta hai’ [It takes a little silk] written by the music director Bappi Lahiri for the film Jyoti (1981) was a long forgotten tune before being rediscovered in 2002 by American music producer DJ Quik. Based around an unauthorized 35-second sample of the recording, the Truth Hurts song ‘Addictive’ famously inspired Bappi Lahiri to sue Quik’s associate Dr Dre (executive producer of the song), Aftermath Records, and Universal Music (Aftermath’s parent company and distributor) for $500 million. Beyond Lahiri’s claims of cultural imperialism, obscenity, and outright theft, DJ Quik’s rearrangement of the song was, in turn, adopted by music producers, including Lahiri himself, in a wide variety of international genres. This paper tracks the use and reuse of the melody in Indian, American, and Jamaican contexts, focusing on the song’s remediation for new audiences. Yet even as this well-traveled tune evokes different historical and local meanings, it evokes an eroticized Other in each context, including its original context.

And I’m pleased to note that while I only have a measly “supplemental materials” page for the mashup article, for our piece about the peregrinations of an apparently addictive melody, I’ve cooked up the obviously obligatory mega-mix!

In addition to hearing all the recordings we reference in the article, and a few more, you’ll also hear a variety of details that — for space concerns alone — must go unremarked in our essay but will not go unheard in the mix: surprise appearances by Lady Saw and Tanto Metro and Snoop Dogg (via England, the Netherlands, and Belgium, respectively); and a host of seemingly spontaneously generating remixes made by dhol-drum and sample-pack wielding desi artists across the globe (s/o to the Incredible Kid for helping source some of these!). Polytonality and recontextualization reign supreme as the riffing and remixing runs rampant. Mirrors reflecting in mirrors, it’s an all Other everything party. Legal briefs buried beneath transduced outhereness.

Among other things, I like how the mix can show how strong a stamp Quik put on the song — or/and how in Bappi’s own attempt to capitalize on its popularity, he modifies his own composition to resemble Quik’s while attempting to upgrade it with distorted but deadening drums and heavily reverbed vocals that pale in comparison to Lata’s legendary warble. I also like how it registers — with its variable levels of compression and inconsistent metadata — the very state of circulation, the shape media take when they travel unlikely distances, the footsteps of my digital sleuthing. “Real audio” becomes a Baudrillardian phrase when ripping clips from Kannada filmi vendor sites.

While more or less chronological, and so attempting to provide an audible sense of the chains and ripples of influence, toward the end of the mix I get especially playful with genealogy. When one starts tracking a melody in this way, one gets glimmers in unexpected places. I swore that I heard the familiar tune drifting in and out of a moombahton track by Max LeDaron (remixed by DJ Melo) — and indeed, I had been mixing it with versions of “Thoda Resham Lagta Hai” and “Addictive” for months when I asked LeDaron if it was an intentional nod; according to him, it wasn’t an intentional homage, but he was struck by the resemblance and willing to cop to subliminal influence. (Can’t locate our Twitter exchange at the moment, but there’s this. [updated 1/16])

The other playful inclusion is more likely a stretch of my musical imagination, but I’ll leave it to your ears (with some suggestion on my part, as abetted by Ableton). It seems somehow more unlikely that a synth-stabbing Belgian would have seen Jyoti in 1987 than an African-American Angelino in 2001. Then again, if it’s true that the “typical elements” of the New Beat sound as heard on Nux Nemo’s “Hiroshima” include “the samples and the ethnic influences,” then, more than just hearing things, I may actually be hearing things. At any rate, to my ears, and perhaps evermore to yours, it will have to be a part of the strange and lively social life of a striking little contour and the rich complex of resonances around it.

w&w, “It Takes a Little Sharing” (MP3)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Oh, and here’s the tracklist in all its mangled metadata glory, bearing artifacts and effects of circulation — and my own idiosyncratic paths to acquisition — that in their own ways also register in the audio:

08 Thoda Resham Lagta Hai
01 – Do It (‘Til You’re Satisfied)
04 Bollywood Riddim
02 – Addictive [Explicit]
02 Addictive Indian Mix
10 dhola
Kaliyon Ka Chaman
Unknown – 14. Kaliyon Ka Chaman
Dj Leikers vs.Dj doll – Kaliyon kachaman(Bubbling)
06 Kaliyon Ka Chaman
Ee Deshadalli Karunaadu
04 Bollywood Riddim
05 Addiction
12 Soca Taliban
03 Max Le Daron – El Caramilo Diabolico (Dj Melo Remix)
El Caramillo Diabolico 2011

Since it seems befitting for a story with no real beginning to also have no ending, here’s to further circulations and recontextualizations. More FreeDFs to follow soon!

addictive megamix ableton layout

Update! [2/27] — I totally forgot that I uploaded some figures we had originally planned to run with the article but then scrapped because of the ridiculous permissions-culture that we would have had to navigate. Instead I’m posting them here with no permission from anyone. Fair use, mofos!

it takes a little lawsuit: supplementary materials

it takes a little lawsuit: supplementary materials

it takes a little lawsuit: supplementary materials

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November 26th, 2012

The Kind of Drones We Like

Hard to believe the fall semester is already coming to a close, but we’re going out with a bang in Technomusicology (see & hear some of our projects here and there): Thursday’s final class session will feature a visit from none other than Jace Clayton, aka DJ /Rupture, globe-trotting artist, writer, label honcho, three-turntable magician, & one of the finest non-card-carrying technomusicologists in “the field”!

Jace will be presenting Sufi Plug Ins, his recently launched, semi-crowdsourced, collaboratively-produced, free (!) audio software / art project. As described over at Beyond Digital, Sufi Plugs Ins includes

four software synthesizers hardwired to North African maqam scales with quartertone tuning built-in, a device called DEVOTION which lowers your computer’s volume 5 times a day during call to prayer (presets include Agnostic, Fervent, Devout), and a drone machine

Now that’s what I call technomusicology! Check it out –

Jace is always very thoughtful (see, e.g., his own post on the project), so I’m quite looking forward to the demonstration & conversation. My students have been using Ableton all semester while reading across the history of sound technologies and how people have made them musical — what Jonathan Sterne refers to as their plasticity — so they should have a good vantage on the ways Sufi Plug Ins exploits the special affordances and constraints of contemporary techno-musical media.

Whether or not you too have been reading along and messing with Ableton, the event is free and open to the public, so if you’re interested in joining us from 3-5pm this Thursday, Nov 29, please do.

Here are the details:

Music 190r: Technomusicology presents…


a conversation with Jace Clayton (DJ /Rupture)
Arts @ 29 Garden (corner of Garden and Chauncy Streets)
Harvard University
Thurs, Nov 9, 3-5 pm

Maybe see & hear you there!

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November 19th, 2012

The Montage Is the Method

Last week the students in my technomusicology class submitted their video études. The assignment was relatively straightforward: make a montage of YouTube-sourced videos interlinked by some (musical) subject, theme, or tune. One additional challenge, if made far easier by Ableton’s video capacity, was to attempt to bring the various performances into a kind of musical coherence via tempo-warping and key-modulation, with the ultimate goal of producing a video that follows a specific thread in order to give an audible and visible sense of the vast world of musicking on YouTube — spanning professional and amateur domains, innumerable contexts, and a wide variety of genres, including some that are downright YouTube-specific — and, importantly, is also engaging to watch.

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 baião 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 Tropicália, with Gonzagão 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!

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November 14th, 2012

Selected Student Essays, Transduced

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 – 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 “paper” becomes not only overwhelming, but overwhelming to the point that I must abandon work with a very definitive “fuck this paper.” I venture outside into Harvard Square where meaningless interaction forms a melody. “Hey” defines the relationship I have with the grand majority of my acquaintances – an acknowledgement of each other’s existence is all we share. However, “hey” leaves me craving for real social interaction, and I do summon a friend upon stumbling on a musical gem in the Harvard Square “pit.” 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. “Why, why, why” is procrastination always halted when it gets good? The answer: it’s procrastination, it’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 Düdük) and electronic sounds (Çakk?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 Valódia 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/ Ouví aquele nome/ Inesquecível/ 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 maracatú (“Será” 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 “Será,” 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, “Será” 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 Marshall’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. It’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:

Jamaican Taxiscape from wayneandwax on Vimeo.

Before the end of the semester, I hope to have some amazing videos and mixes to share with you too. Thanks for listening along!

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September 11th, 2012

I’m Not a Harvard Man, I’m a Harvard, Man

harvard music dept.

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 music’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 students’ 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 “bi-musicality” represented cutting-edge musicological literacy, today’s technology suffused world may call for the development of something akin to “technomusicology.” 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.

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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


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.


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.

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April 13th, 2012

Technomusicologically Speaking

I’ll be talking twice in the next two days about a thing I’ve been calling technomusicology.

avs media demo watermarks, visualized

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:

>> TODAY!!! Friday, April 13, 4pm :: Marlboro College

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.

>> TOMORROW: Saturday, April 14, 2:30pm :: NECSEM @ Tufts University

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).

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March 13th, 2012

On RETV the Girls Dem See Me

Bigups to my man Marvin Hall, aka @hallsoflearning, aka the guy we’ll be thanking someday for the Jamaican turn in robotics — or something equally astounding — for uploading an old reel from RETV (Reggae Television) dating back to 2003. That’s the year I was living in Kingston with my better-half, doing dissertation research alongside digital music workshops, from South Camp to Camperdown. Not at all coincidentally, it’s also the year I started blogging.

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?

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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


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