Contributors. Myron M. Beasley, Regina N. Bradley, Steph Ceraso, Tanya Clement, Rebecca Dowd Geoffroy-Schwinden, W. F. Umi Hsu, Michael J. Kramer, Mary Caton Lingold, Darren Mueller, Richard Cullen Rath, Liana M. Silva, Jonathan Sterne, Jennifer Stoever, Jonathan W. Stone, Joanna Swafford, Aaron Trammell, Whitney Trettien
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About the Author
Darren Mueller is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester.
Whitney Trettien is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.
Read an Excerpt
ETHNODIGITAL SONICS AND THE HISTORICAL IMAGINATION
RICHARD CULLEN RATH
I raised my hand, uncertain but determined. The professor, Africanist John Thornton, had asked if anyone knew music. I hesitated. It was 1988 and I was an adult scholar newly returned to school to pursue my BA. I was uncertain whether I was qualified for anything at that point. I had been playing guitar for about fifteen years and had a basic understanding of music theory, but I was not formally trained. But I thought, "I'm paying my tuition, so ..." I raised my hand, narrowly beating out another student who later told me she hesitated a moment longer than I had. The decision set off a chain of events that profoundly affected my trajectory through life and career.
The document Thornton gave me was just three or four photocopied pages from an old book that he had found on a research trip. The book was Hans Sloane's Voyage to the Islands (1707), a natural history of the islands off the west coast of Africa and in the Caribbean, where he focused most of his attention on Jamaica. The pages in question contained a paragraph or so of text describing the music and dance taking place at a gathering of enslaved Africans on a Jamaican plantation in 1688; an engraving of a pair of stringed instruments and some vines used to clean teeth (and perhaps used as strings); and two pages of music described and transcribed by Sloane and his musician friend Baptiste that fell under three headings — Angola, Papa, and Koromanti.
Over the course of the next two-going-on-three decades, my interest in ethnographic history and the emerging field of sound studies was transformed by the introduction of digital sound to personal computers. This article traces that trajectory and its evolution into what I am calling "ethnodigital sonics," a term that emerged from a conversation with David A. M. Goldberg at the University of Hawai'i Digital Arts and Humanities Initiative over what it was exactly that I did with sound in my research and my music as well as in our collaborative work in the initiative.
"Ethno" refers to the expanded interdisciplinary approaches that ethnohistorians and ethnomusicologists follow to understand histories and musics that are otherwise somewhat incomprehensible through traditional single-disciplinary approaches. In this case, I have drawn on linguistics, history, anthropology, and musicology to arrive at conclusions not available had I taken any single approach in isolation. In contexts other than the one used in this chapter, I have employed this "ethno" approach to western subjects, so the label describes the approach, not who or what is studied. Uncertainty is inherent to this project, given that in this sort of work, the sum of the source material still adds up — according to ethnohistorian Patricia Galloway — to fragmentary, multiply biased, partially understood glimpses. By making the "ethno" prefix characterize the method rather than the object of the study, I hope to bypass the justifiable criticism that ethnohistory replicates colonial power relations by offering different types of history for colonial actors than are offered for their "others." I think the methodological innovations of the approach are too substantial to warrant simply jettisoning the term. It shares this ecumenical approach with cultural studies and its related fields, so perhaps the prefix will end up being irrecoverable. I don't want to lean too heavily on it when the thing can be named in other ways.
While much ink has been spilled and many bits flipped on the subject of method in ethnomusicology, my reading has always been specific and goal-oriented: understanding a fragment of music or a snatch of transcription in the context of a particular time and place. For the African music in Jamaica project, my key sources from ethnomusicology are the foundational work of J. H. Kwabena Nketia on the music of Africa and Ken Bilby's groundbreaking work on the music of Maroons in Jamaica. Although I am aware of the many limitations inherent in Western musical transcription, the fact remains that in history the fragmented glimpse is often all we get. I cannot, as one ethnomusicologist suggested, "go back out into the field" for more. Galloway's warnings to interpret cautiously and suspiciously and the historian's stance of uncertainty are the talismans here, since the questions do not vanish just because the methods are inadequate.
As for the "digital" component of the term, digital audio was slowly emerging as an accessible technology in the 1990s. The Musical Instrument Digital Interface standard (MIDI, introduced in the previous decade) became available, for better or worse, on every personal computer with a sound card, and it opened up new music-making opportunities along with the cheesy game tunes. By the mid-1990s relatively inexpensive full duplex sound cards came to market that brought the recording of CD-quality digital audio within reach on personal computers. Macs became the tool of choice for musicians, but I could never quite afford one, and PCs — first running Windows and then much later Linux — slowly caught up while offering more choice, complexity, and ways to go wrong at a cheaper price. Somewhat reluctantly, I became caught up in the latter two systems. By the end of the decade, audio-file compression made the storage and exchange of music feasible for professional sound artists and musicians, with the unintended side effect of setting off a revolution of sorts on the consuming end when the algorithms broke free. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, digital synthesis and recording moved seriously into the realm of the personal computer with the maturing of consumer-priced digital audio workstations (DAWs) and the introduction of the VST and AU plugin formats that they hosted. Professionals also had another, costlier format for the Pro Tools DAW called RTAS. In particular, software brought samplers — a high-cost piece of hardware in the 1980s and 1990s — within range of any budget. By using a sampler, a MIDI pattern editor, and a player called a sequencer, I have been able to create and play instruments that would have otherwise been impossible on one or the other front.
I use the term "sonics" to signify the full range of thinking about, listening to, feeling, and making sound, including but not constrained to the field of sound studies as it emerged in tandem with these digital innovations. Historians working within sound studies should note that hearing comes into play in two ways. First, hearing has a history: the senses are culturally and temporally shaped, and soundscapes of previous times are recoverable. One could take the paragraphs above as a personal, somewhat technology-driven version of this, as dozens (if not hundreds) of books and articles of wider scope have appeared over the past fifteen or twenty years. Second, we can hear history: that is, we can use our ears to understand the past, which is the topic of the remainder of this essay.
Early on in this journey, before sound cards were available and somewhat affordable, I puzzled obsessively over the few pages Thornton had given me and tried to imagine the sounds. I concocted instruments to test ideas, one of which I have kept around to this day. Putting my fingers to homemade or adapted sound makers and playing the written music made it clear that certain instruments were used on particular parts of the score — a kind of embodied sonic knowledge that I could not get from the text or images. In the Angola piece, the two-stringed banjo-like instrument shown in the engraving was played in the bass register because of the fingering it demanded. The upper register of that piece was almost certainly played on the eight-stringed harp, as it had eight notes in total, and they sounded somehow better when they rang out harp-like than when muted by left-hand fingering on a neck. (The upper register probably indicated the vocal melody as well.)
My task in interpreting Sloane's pages was to exercise what I call the historical imagination. I was not trying to reconstruct "authentic" performances, then or now. I was learning through the combination of touch and hearing that is fundamental to much music making. The interesting dynamic of the emic (roughly, the insider listening out) and the etic (the outsider listening in) came into play, since obviously I was in the latter, outsider position (which is of course my emic). I was trying to imagine my way into the sounds and the history, not only from reading and thinking but also through doing and making. My idea was to make sounds using the principles that I thought the musicians Sloane and Baptiste used rather than create an "accurate" reconstruction, the latter a task too fraught to even begin. Some of the principles were aesthetic, others were implied by the constraints of Atlantic slavery, and one was discovered in the failings of the transcriber but not the transcription. A sampling of the principles would include: the choice of one scale over another in music deriving from a particular region; improvisation in the making of instruments using the materials at hand rather than a free selection; microtonal tunings, syncopation and polymeter; and choices about particular timbres. While I can make no claims to have achieved insider understanding, I found much to value and learn from trying.
The music I have made for this project over the years requires as much imagination on the listener's part as on mine. I do not know how the night sounds and fire crackling in the background of my most recent digital attempts are made. Ultimately, I ended up getting closest to the sound of a live setting from an utterly artificial set of processes — sampling and sequencing — but that waited until the hardware and software had come within my reach. The setting on the Jamaican plantation in 1688 was obviously different from the conditions of reception, whether reading or listening, and layers of meaning exist in the distinction between audience and performer that would have been foreign to the Africans playing the music, although such distinctions are intrinsic to current understandings.
The stakes in these historical imaginings are high. For example, I am unwilling to take on the voice of enslaved Africans myself, and I am equally queasy about making it a singalong with audiences of mostly white folk providing the handclaps and the "Alla, Alla" refrain of the Angola piece. In light of the long history of minstrelsy (a tradition that perhaps lingers in the form of white suburban consumption of hip-hop), such a performance would adumbrate the power relations of both historical and present-day race relations and elide cultural appropriation into feel-good, irresponsible pop history. I think we can learn as much from what is left undone, unsung, and unplayed as we can from what is not, and I will not give voice to singing that linguistic and musical evidence conveys as having been hauntingly spectral, the voices of a community carried far from home to a strange and brutal land.
I was game to try the music, though, encouraged in that direction by the way musicians constantly borrow across cultures without the same sort of constraints that arise with vocal performance. I also could learn from what was absent as well as from what was there — drumming is made mostly of patterned absences, after all. The drums were missing altogether in the Sloane music. He reported that the musicians' use of drums "in their Wars at home in Africa" made them "too much inciting ... to Rebellion, and so they were prohibited by the Customs of the Island." In West African music, particularly that from the region that Koromanti designates, drums served as an immanent display of state power. They meant serious business in the Americas as well. Slave revolts, including a successful one in Jamaica a decade or so before Sloane's visit, were often organized around a drumbeat, sometimes a particular one recognized by the rebels as both a signal and a sign under which they fought for freedom. Their absence is thus as meaningful and significant as the presence of other instruments.
I used a cheap nylon-string guitar to stand in for the two-stringed banjo-like instrument. I played the two top strings of it in a dropped tuning and wove a thin strip of torn paper between the strings to create a dull, buzzing sound, a trick I learned as a teenager when I wanted a fuzzy electric guitar effect and only had an acoustic. I wanted the buzzing for three reasons. First, the image showed an instrument with no bridge, which would make it sound muted and buzzy. Second, the aesthetics of much West African music value this buzzing, a preference that not coincidentally can be found in the fuzzy, distorted guitars in modern music from early electric blues onward. Third, the instrument in the background in the images of African music and Jamaica, used for comparison, is either a South Asian tanpura (which also has a flat bridge that imparts a characteristic buzzy and harmonically rich sound called jivari) or, alternatively, it is a Native American instrument made by forced-labor immigrants sold from the Carolinas into slavery in Jamaica at a rate of two enslaved indigenous people for one enslaved African. Either is possible, since Sloane collected instruments from India and was an ardent comparativist in his study of natural history with proclivities toward the "cabinet of curiosities." He just labeled the comparative instrument in the engraving as "Indian," so it is impossible to determine with certainty what he meant. I opted to emulate the South Asian instrument because of the buzzing.
The eight-stringed harp, which played the eight-note upper register in the Angola piece, was another adaptation of what I had at hand. This time I took two acoustic guitars (one nylon string and one steel string, since that is what I had), wove in the paper strips, tuned eight of the open strings to the notes of the upper register, set the guitars next to each other, and picked out the melody. This captured the open, sustained sound of a harp as well as the characteristic buzzing. Again, as a reconstruction I have no idea of how it fared — I like to think reasonably well — but as a tool for figuring out which instrument played which part, it was a useful exercise in historical imagination that helped me understand the music and musicians.
The Papa piece was too short to make much of, and the three pieces subsumed under the Koromanti title did not fall neatly into instrumental patterns when played on my emulations of the two-stringed banjo and the eight-stringed harp. For the Koromanti pieces I returned to Sloane's textual description of a musician playing on "the mouth of an empty Gourd or Jar." Since the other instruments did not seem to fit these musical passages as well as in the Angola piece, I surmised, with no great certainty, that Sloane only saw the mouth of the gourd and the musician's hands and had missed that it held a sansa (thumb piano) that used the empty bowl as a resonator. This is speculation, and it is possible to play the Koromanti pieces on a modern banjo, but they become much more difficult on the two-stringed banjo because of the long ascending and descending passages, which are impossible on the eight-stringed harp. The sansa's keys, which sound consecutive notes in a scale on alternating sides, facilitate exactly such ascending and descending runs.
I thought about the constraints the musicians were under. They had the knowledge and principles of the sansa but an impoverished access to materials and tools. What could they make with what was at hand? Probably nothing with the metal keys of modern African sansas — the ones usually known as mbiras — as metal would be valuable and scarce. Plus, the instrument would need to make a sound too distinctive to be mistaken for percussion. I guessed that they used thin strips of wood or bamboo as the keys to a sansa-like instrument.
I wondered how to emulate the sound. At the time, I was working at a shoe store to pay for tuition, rent, and food. New shoes often came stuffed with paper in the toe and a thin, eight- or nine-inch-long strip of flexible but sturdy bamboo that held the paper in place. I began saving them. I checked their sound by holding one end to the edge of a desk and plucking the other end. Lengthening or shortening the overhanging distance changed the pitch recognizably, but it still had a satisfyingly woody, buzzing, percussive thunk. I collected eighteen of the best-sounding ones and with a strip of wood trim pinned them to the bottom of an old dresser drawer that a previous tenant had left in the basement of my apartment. The drawer had a nice resonant sound. A slim-diameter piece of dowel jammed under the bamboo strips on one side of the wood trim made a bridge. I suppose if I had been attempting a reconstruction rather than practicing historical imagination, I would have waited for fall and gotten a big round gourd rather than a dresser drawer.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Digital Sound Studies"
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Table of ContentsPreface vii
Introduction / Mary Caton Lingold, Darren Mueller, and Whitney Trettien 1
I. Theories and Genealogies
1. Ethnodigital Sonics and the Historical Imagination / Richard Cullen Rath 29
2. Performing Zora: Critical Ethnography, Digital Sound, and Not Forgetting / Myron M. Beasley 47
3. Rhetorical Folkness: Reanimating Walter J. Ong in the Pursuit of Digital Humanity / Jonathan W. Stone 64
II. Digital Communities
4. The Pleasure (Is) Principle: Sounding Out! and the Digitizing of Community / Aaron Trammell, Jennifer Lynn Stover, and Liana Silva 83
5. Becoming OutKasted: Archiving Contemporary Black Southernness in a Digtal Age / Regina N. Bradley 120
6. Reprogramming Sounds of Learning: Pedagogical Experiments with Critical Making and Community-Based Ethnography / W. F. Umi Hsu 130
III. Disciplinary Translations
7. Word. Spoken. Articulating the Voice for High-Performance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship (HiPSTAS) / Tanya E. Clement 155
8. "A Foreign Sound to Your Ear": Digital Image Sonification for Historical Interpretation / Michael J. Kramer 178
9. Augmenting Musical Arguments: Interdisciplinary Publishing Platforms and Augmented Notes / Joanna Swafford 215
IV. Points Forward
10. Digital Approaches to Historical Acoustemologies: Replication and Reenactment / Rebecca Dowd Geoffroy-Schwinden 231
11. Sound Practices for Digital Humanities / Steph Ceraso 250
Afterword. Demands of Duration: The Futures of Digital Sound Scholarship / Jonathan Sterne, with Mary Caton Lingold, Darren Mueller, and Whitney Trettien 267
What People are Saying About This
“This much-needed book inaugurates a new and interdisciplinary field—digital sound studies—at the intersection of sound studies and digital humanities. Its contributors rigorously explore a wide array of methodologies and practices—pedagogy, archival work, computational analysis, deformation, and platform building—to mark out the possibilities and risks of working in an emerging discipline through experimental modes.”
“Listen up. Be provoked. This adventurous book offers experiments, meditations, analyses, and ideas for a noisier digital humanities, for creative play with the intersection of print and sound recording, and for humanistic approaches to sound that could be rendered in the digital realm. Teachers, theorists, and scholar-artists who want to take new risks will find it timely and refreshing.”