Theorizing sound writing

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

Theorizing Sound Writing

Deborah Kapchan, editor (2017) Theorizing Sound Writing. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

My doctoral advisor Alex Ruthmann, when evaluating some piece of technology used for music education or creation, asks: what does the technology conceal or reveal? Writing is what Foucault called a “technology of the self,” and as such, conceals and reveals as well. Sound writing is a way to transduce the ephemeral bodily experience of listening to the timelessness of the page. What does this transduction conceal? What does it reveal?

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White nationalist music in Sweden

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

Benjamin Teitelbaum’s study of Nordic nationalist music could not be any more timely.

Lions of the North

Gramsci diverged from classic Marxism when he argued that shifts in the cultural sphere create the conditions for political or economic change, rather than the other way around. Since Swedish nationalists do not have enough majority appeal for electoral politics, they see better prospects in the social diffusion of ideas and cultural values, i.e. “metapolitics.”

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What is culture?

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

All of my social science professors have asked the class to define “culture” and no one is ever able to give a concise or satisfying answer. If a culture is discretely bounded and object-like, how do we understand the culture of people in borderlands, or migrants, or residents of big complicated places like New York City? Calling anthropology as “the study of culture” is not so much a description of what anthropologists do so much as it describes “the politics of inclusion whereby an author seeks to find a common underlying theme for a plethora of disciplinary projects” (Borofsky et al, 2001).

Culture Club

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Ethnomusicology and the voice

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

Kane (2014) critiques Schaeffer’s notion of “reduced listening,” which ignores a sound’s referential properties and considers it independently of its causes or its meaning. Bracketing the question of whether this is even possible, is it desirable to restrict musical discourse so much by neglecting sound’s signifying properties? Kane’s critique is especially apposite when we consider the voice.

Pink Trombone

Is it possible to hear a human voice (or an instrument that sounds like one) without imagining the body that produced it? Kate Heidemann argues that when we listen to singers, we imagine ourselves having the bodily experience of producing their voice. Thus the pleasure of Aretha Franklin is the opportunity she gives us to imagine being relaxed while still producing a loud and authoritative voice.

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The Vocoder, Auto-Tune, Pitch Standardization and Vocal Virtuosity

Writing assignment for History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See a more informal introduction to the vocoder here.

Casual music listeners know the vocoder best as the robotic voice effect popular in disco and early hip-hop. Anyone who has heard pop music of the last two decades has heard Auto-Tune. The two effects are frequently mistaken for one another, and for good reason—they share the same mathematical and technological basis. Auto-Tune has become ubiquitous in recording studios, in two very different incarnations. There is its intended use, as an expedient way to correct out-of-tune notes, replacing various tedious and labor-intensive manual methods. Pop, hip-hop and electronic dance music producers have also found an unintended use for Auto-Tune, as a special effect that quantizes pitches to a conspicuously excessive degree, giving the voice a synthetic, otherworldly quality. In this paper, I discuss the history of the vocoder and Auto-Tune, in the context of broader efforts to use science and technology to mathematically analyze and standardize music. I also explore how such technologies problematize our ideas of virtuosity.

Ableton vocoder

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Ethnomusicology and the body

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

It is such a strange artifact of Cartesian dualism that we have to specify experiences as being “bodily,” as if there were some other kind. It’s like specifying that a place is in the universe.

René Descartes

Blacking (1977) observes that we can understand the convention of the mind/body dichotomy as a cultural construct, a reflection of the way that capitalism divides manual and mental labor, and puts pressure on us to use our bodies in a lopsided way (see, for example, my being hunched over my computer right now.) Furthermore, the mind-body split symbolizes the left brain/right brain split. The arts require both sides of the brain, and this may be their biological function in humans: to activate both brain hemispheres and let us attain a more complete and unified consciousness.

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The value of music

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

In a capitalist world, one job of anthropologists is to explain behavior that is “irrational” or “inefficient” (what even is the difference, right?) Anthropologists also get hired to understand the mindset of consumers, since economics has tended to regard individual humans as black boxes. When we decide what to buy, we must be constructing our unique individual or ethnic identities and forging social ties. However, the world of cool market-based appraisal and the jungle of irrationality in our cultural lives may not be so cleanly separated. Graeber (2005) points out that in English we use the same word for “having good values” and “getting good value for our money.”

We prefer to separate the sphere of the market, where goods are fungible, to the sphere of ethics, where we hope they aren’t. “Exchanges within a sphere are commensurable; conversions between spheres are incommensurable and incite moral anxiety” (Lambek 2013, 143). This makes me think of the Simpsons episode when a home security system salesman admonishes Homer: “But surely you can’t put a price on your family’s lives!” Homer responds: “I wouldn’t have thought so either, but here we are.”

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Ethnomusicology and world music

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

People like me listen to world music to hope for and imagine a world without imperialism. I’ve sampled Central African pygmy music in my own work, and while I do a better job of attributing my sources than Deep Forest does, I’m motivated by the same impulse.

Timothy Brennan attributes the popularity of African diasporic music among white people to our unconscious desire to resist imperial capitalism. The same is true of world music.

More than just expanding tastes, world music characterizes a longing in metropolitan centers of Europe and North America for what is not Europe or North America… It represents a flight from the Euro-self at the very moment of that self’s suffocating hegemony, as though people were driven away by the image stalking them in the mirror (Brennan 2001, 46).

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The vocoder and Auto-Tune

This post documents a presentation I’m giving in my History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See also a more formal history of the vocoder.

The vocoder is one of those mysterious technologies that’s far more widely used than understood. Here I explain what it is, how it works, and why you should care. A casual music listener knows the vocoder best as a way to make that robot voice effect that Daft Punk uses all the time.

Here’s Huston Singletary demonstrating the vocoder in Ableton Live.

This is a nifty effect, but why should you care? For one thing, you use this technology every time you talk on your cell phone. For another, this effect gave rise to Auto-Tune, which, love it or hate it, is the defining sound of contemporary popular music. Let’s dive in!

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Toward a Methodological Stance

Final paper for Approaches To Qualitative Inquiry with Colleen Larson

Section 1: Reflections on Received View of Research

I was raised by two medical researchers and a former astrophysicist, surrounded by stacks of quantitative journals. I rarely questioned the assumption that quantitative empirical research is the gold standard of truth, and that while subjective accounts are interesting and illuminating, they are not ultimately reliable. From scientists I learned that stories belong to mythology, while facts do not necessarily organize themselves in ways that can be apprehended so easily. Creation myths tell the story of a human-scale world in which humans are the most important element. Astrophysicists tell us that the universe is unfathomably vast and incomprehensibly old, and that we are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, while evolution teaches that we are more like mushrooms or daisies than unlike them. It is axiomatic for scientists that reality is empirically knowable, and while social and emotional considerations are a fact of life, they are noise to be filtered out.

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