Category Archives: teaching

research teaching

Visiting RMIT

I did a mini-residency at RMIT University in Melbourne a few weeks ago. The generous folks of the Digital Ethnography Research Center invited me to give a talk + workshop on my research related to digital ethnography. I wrote up this description of my talk + workshop entitled “Digital Ethnography Design Workshop”:

How do ethnographers engage with the changing form of culture as it becomes increasingly mediated by digital technology? This workshop explores emerging digital methods for collecting, analyzing, visualizing, and narrativizing ethnographic materials. In the first hour, I will introduce the utility of digital tools and computational approaches – including webscraping, mapping, and visualization – for ethnographic inquiries. Drawing empirical examples from my research on Asian American musicians’ digital diaspora, the street music-culture in Taiwan, and my research/design work with the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, I will discuss the affordances (and limitations) of the digital extensions of participant-observation. The second hour of the workshop will be a speculative research design lab in which we collectively explore touch points with the digital in the participants’ own research processes and come up with potential research designs.

I introduced some of my new research ideas related to touchpoint, a pivotal point that allows the researcher to theorize and design research methods to interrogate the digital-analog interfacing in contemporary social life. The touchpoint concept is built on Fabian Girardin’s work on friction. Presentation documentation: slides; annotated slides.

The workshop portion of the event provided an interactive co-exploration of digital-analog touchpoints in the participants’ own research projects. The flow of the workshop is guided by questions on this handout.

touchpoint schematics 3b

Additionally, I gave a talk titled “Performing research / researching performance? A multimodal approach to knowledge and creative production” to a group of music industry students. In this talk, I examined the creative intersection between ethnographic research, performance, and arts organizing.

community arts design research software teaching

What I do these days

Many people have asked me what I do these day. To respond to a request from my home department at UVa, I wrote a blurb about my job earlier today. I’m sharing it more broadly to show how I’m utilizing my graduate training in music studies (ethnomusicology!) and digital humanities and give visibility to postdoctoral careers outside of the conventional academic path.

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Me at work, photo by Sonia Hsu

As an ACLS Public Fellow, I work with the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA). I use the phrase “research & design” to encapsulate my role here at DCA. The goal of my fellowship is to help the department augment its digital relevance by developing information systems and resources to increase public engagement and transparency. I hope to contribute to the early efforts of establishing the department as a public cultural broker in the information age, shifting the role of government away from a regulator to an enabler and educator.

At work, I ask prickly questions about the intersection among the arts experience, civic participation, and technology. Combining my training in ethnomusicology and digital humanities, I spend my days making sense of data culture at the city and understanding large amounts of arts and cultural data from various departmental programs. I research innovative forms of information technologies across sectors, keeping abreast of academic and public discourse about the ethics and civil rights concerning information culture. My research produces recommendations for data and information system redesign. I help implement some solutions by generating prototypes for arts data mapping and impact data storytelling, for instance. I also engage in staff education through teaching new methods of research, analysis, and communication including geospatial information system (GIS), digital photo story, and data visualization. My recommendations often speak to social issues related to culture and technology touching on topics such as big data, public-private partnerships, gentrification, and neoliberalism. I strive to make effective procedural and occasionally programmatic recommendations based on my observations and participation of municipal work, as the city government transitions into a new information era.

Within DCA’s divisional structure, I work closely with the Marketing and Development Division. Currently, I’m co-leading the departmental website project with our Assistant General Manager and Communication Director with the goal to design a suite of digital services. To help increase transparency and build trust among our constituents and related stakeholders, I manage social media (@culture_LA) and develop digital communication guidelines, articulating the department’s mission and impact to the public.

Additionally, I serve as the department’s liaison with the Mayor’s Office, consulting and developing inter-departmental projects including the Open Data initiative and the Great Streets program. I interpret Mayor’s requests for data-driven approaches to quantify arts and cultural programming and design possible implementations that are sensitive to the richness and sometimes immeasurability of cultural experiences.

Aside from my work with DCA, I continue to publish my research and lead digital and public scholarship projects including Movable Parts, a socially engaged maker project; and Paperphone, a scholarly audio app funded by Duke’s Franklin Humanities Institute. I also write songs and perform in Bitter Party, a band that reanimates my research findings related to Asian American melancholia and postcolonial wartime musics.

community arts research teaching

Sounds of Learning: a collaborative sound ethnography

I’m happy to present the Sounds of Learning project, featuring the fruits of our creative labor — of students from my MUSIC112 Digital Music-Cultures course and a group of sixth graders from Annandale Elementary School in Highland Park.

Liner notes:

The Sounds of Learning CD is the culmination of a 6-week collaboration between sixth graders from Annandale Elementary School and students of Occidental College enrolled in MUSIC 112 Digital Music-Cultures. What began as an idea modeled afterRadio Diaries, a citizen radio documentary project, the Sounds of Learning project transformed into a multifaceted engagement during which students from both groups learned through the close listening of sounds and spaces in their everyday life. Learning was reciprocal: on one hand, the sixth graders acquired the technical skills to record audio materials and engaged in creative modes of self-expression; the college students, on the other hand, gained hands-on experiences of ethnographic research (study of social interactions and cultural meaning) and mentorship.

At the first encounter, in Annandale’s auditorium, the Occidental students introduced themselves, taught their sixth grade partners how to use an audio recording device, and gave suggestions as to what to record. From here, the sixth graders individually took the equipment into contexts of their choosing to record sounds and dialogues they thought were meaningful to their learning and identity, while applying their newly acquired skills. Once the recording equipment returned to Oxy, the Occidental students listened to the sounds and prepared interview questions related to the recordings. When the Annandale students visited Oxy, the two groups collaborated once again to review the recordings and brainstorm ideas; production was underway. After a few weeks of editing, arranging, and composing, the Occidental students revisited Annandale to premiere their final works to their partners.

The sonic outcome of this creative partnership is presented here on this CD. The pieces are stylistically diverse, ranging from soundwalk to remix, from hip hop beat to audio documentary. They articulate the life and culture of a sixth grader in Northeast Los Angeles. They walk us through the youth’s school life, pop culture, and life at home. More than just a music project, these tracks tell stories of identity, heritage, transformation, and empowerment. We hope that you enjoy this compelling collection of “Sounds of Learning.”

— CJ Cruz, class of 2014; Professor Wendy Hsu

Credits HERE

 

building research teaching

Toward a sound-based scholarship

[I’m cross-posting this from the Digital Summer Institute’s blog at Oxy. This post is meant to ignite some conversations on alternative argumentation from the perspective of sound.]

To forward the theme of digital and media fluency for this year’s DSI, I’d like to start a conversation about the role of audio and sound in multimedia scholarship. There are, of course, obvious applications of sound in fields such as musicology and media studies. But I would like to broaden the engagement with sound to non-music-specific disciplines. There are a few ways to think about this. I will outlinen these approaches in the following:

1. Soundscape: In ethnographic scholarship, there is an emerging practice of sound-specific fieldwork. Some of this scholarship is based on the work of Pierre Schaeffer, a composer and philosopher who coined the term “musique concrete” to radically consider environmental sounds as being musical. In the case of field research, anthropologists have considered the observations of sound as a cultural practice. This could be useful for the urban studies. For instance, what is the soundscape of a working-class neighborhood that is bounded by highways and factories? Carey has written a fantastic post about her “sonification of social life” assignment. In terms of research, a couple of examples of a soundscape-based multimedia ethnography include the Unspeakable Things series hosted by Sensate Journal;  a map of sound segmentation of Jerusalem. There’s also a group out of the anthropology department at UC Irvine that is interested in sound-specific inquiries.

2. Sonic representation of culture: Sound can be a medium to represent culture and knowledge. Some humanistic scholars and journalists have begun to convey their works in the form of a podcast, radio documentary, oral history, and digital storytelling. Here, we can begin to explore about the role of sound in structuring writing and composition assignments for students; and to make space for students to develop critical listening skills for analyzing audio-based scholarly content. An example of scholarly podcasts is the Pop Conference podcast series hosted on the Experience Music Project iTunesU.

New addition: Also check out Jentery Sayers’ syllabus for “Sonic Culture and Media Activism” for exemplary analysis and making assignments On sound as culture.

3. Sonification of non-sound-specific texts: An emerging group of non-music researchers have looked at their objects of study by bringing works into the sonic domain. This approach can be particularly useful for the study of poetry, theater, and (foreign) language. A compelling example of this kind of research is Tanya Clement’s use of sound tools to explore patterns of sound in Gertrude Stein’s poetry.

On the side of teaching, both Suzanne and I integrated audio assignments into our CSP courses last fall. Suzanne did a fan autoethnography assignment. In my CSP course on Race and Gender in Popular Music, the first assignment is a musical autobiography. I asked my students to not only locate their own personal connections to music but to also embody their voice in a sonic form. A rather radical approach to bring writing into sonic and vocal register, I asked my students to record their own autobiography, using Audacity, in their own voice. This assignment is inspired by Eve Sedgwick’s “Experimental Critical Writing” course syllabus.

The reason for constructing this assignment is that I often see students attempting to sound “scholarly” in writing. The purpose of this exercise was to disabuse them of their notions of having to sound scholarly. Instead of sounding like a generic scholar, whatever that is in their heads, I wanted them to take control, to reclaim their own voice, and to embody argumentative writing on their own terms. I asked them to record their own autobiography in their own voice. I also asked them to integrate meaningful sounds into their recording. After they posted their sonic autobiography, I asked them to do a critical listening exercise: What do your voice sound like? Do you have a confident voice? Timid? Anxious? Casual? Informal? Cogent? Introspective?

Here’s an example of a student’s musical autobiography as shared on SoundCloud (a sound-based community where users post, share, and comment on audio works). In this example, the student integrated sounds that represent her early experiences of music.

 

building teaching

Making songs to learn about songs: mobile music-making with iPad

Last week, we hosted the first of our Studio Sessions in the CDLR. Harnessing my interest in popular music, as a scholar and a performer, I thought that I would experiment with multi-track audio production using the iPad. I was inspired by all the iPad bands that are burgeoning on Youtube and especially empowered by to see that this emerging genre is heavily populated by women in Asia.

From my days of playing experimental music, I found that libraries are not only a day-job shelter for some of the most innovative experimental artists that I know (Khate, Jimmy Ghapherhy, Sharon Cheslow). Created for people to treat information and knowledge with care, libraries make a fantastic space for experimenting with the modes of production of cultural and intellectual content.

At the event, I transformed the CDLR into a mobile music recording studio. I moved some furniture out of the way. Using table cocktail tables, I set up multiple stations to track various instruments: electric guitar/bass, MIDI controller, USB voice/acoustic instrument. The guitar interface made by Apogee Jam makes it possible to plug an electric guitar directly into the iPad to control the built-in digital amp models. Via an Apple Camera Connection Kit, the MIDI controller and the USB microphones were connected to the iPad. The MIDI controller enabled the user to control and record various software instruments (fancy keyboard sounds like vintage organs and synths). I set up a “vocal booth” using the USB mic in the small compartment inside the CDLR to record sounds that travel through the air. We did a couple of close mic experiments. Tom Burkdall of the Center for Academic Excellence recorded his a capella version of an Irish pub song. Throughout the course of the session, Utsav, a student participant, recorded a cover of “Hey Soul Sister” that features his baritone ukulele.

The GarageBand Studio Session was the first event of CDLR’s “Year of Collective Learning through Critical Making + Code.” We designed this series with the intention to encourage the Oxy community to experiment with technology in ways that go beyond the end-user / consumer roles. I can say with confidence that the event achieved the goal of critical learning through making.

Let me illustrate this point by narrating my interactions with Amanuel, a first-year student at Oxy. He told me that he has had no experience in songwriting and audio production. He indicated that he didn’t feel comfortable starting out the session by playing with an instrument. I thought this would be a great opportunity to play with the sampler feature in the GarageBand app, which allowed the musically uninitiated to play with samples of sounds that are programmed to fit the (western) scalar tonal system. He quickly migrated into the Smart Percussion and Smart Keyboard. In a couple of hours, Amanuel made complex patterns of instrumental sounds.

While I was thrilled with Amanuel’s progress, he appeared to be discontent with his work. He told me that his music doesn’t sound right. After probing him, he revealed that his music doesn’t sound like Kanye West’s music. I recommended for him to sit down and study Kanye West’s music. We discussed principles and elements of pop song form. I left him to his own device to do some close listening. Without prompting him, I saw that he listened closely and jotted down notes about the song’s sections and structure. A little later, he tapped on my shoulder, “yo, this song sounds like really simple. The form is simple and is built on a few simple tracks.”

I said, “well, you’re totally right. Kanye West’s music is pretty simple in terms of its form. If you cam either be like him, make simple forms with your songs, or you can go with a form more complex than Kanye’s.” He seemed surprised by my claim.

He scratched his head and then went back to listen more examples of his favorite music. He played for me his recent favorite song “Tommy Chong” by the Blue Scholars as an example of a single-track keyboard introduction. Shaking his head, he indicated that he wished he could write a cool keyboard melody like the Blue Scholars. I said to him, “well, it’s not as hard as you think. This keyboard riff is in a pentatonic minor scale.” Then I showed him how to limit the keys on the GarageBand keyboard to only the tones in the specific preset scale. Bang! He instantly heard the difference between a pentatonic minor scale and a major scale by interacting with the keyboard algorithms in the app. [And if this were my Race and Gender in Popular Music class, then I would go on to the talk about the song’s keyboard riff in light of the group’s Asian American identities and explain the semantic significance of the pentatonic scale in the representations of the east in western music and media. I may even throw out Orientalism as a theory to contextualize this musical sound.]

Contrary to how I usually teach the concept of scale, via musical notations drawn on a chalkboard, coupled with a demo on a piano, the method of learning music through making a song on a tablet seems incredibly efficient and effective. The immersive practice of constructing a song, enabled by the tactile and visual components of the GarageBand app seems to me a more holistic approach to learning musical principles. By piecing together elements like tone, timbre, scale, harmony, section, melody, and rhythm for the task of building a song, students can learn the relationship among these musical components through a series of sonic and visual exercise, trials & errors. Not only that, this process also demystifies songwriting and could help students gain a critical perspective on the “artistry” of popular music.

I have talked about the cycle of learning, making, and then back to learning—as illustrated in my title “making songs to learn about songs.” From here, I’m interested to see what other music scholars and teachers have said about learning through making, in particular mobile music-making as a pedagogical practice. Wayne Marshall has theorized on mashup as “musically expressed ideas about music.” While he has mostly suggested mashup as a scholarly practice to articulate music analysis, I’d be curious to see how he develop his theory to include it as pedagogical practice for students to explore in a classroom. Ultimately, I want to produce a mixtape containing critical songs about songs made by students. Maybe next spring.

Listen to our set of tracks from our GarageBand Studio Session [FYI: track 3 “Our Desert Sounds a Little Different” is by yours truly; track 2 “Like Sardine in the CDLR” is by Carey Sargent]:


Before I wrap up this post, I want to riff on one corollary related to gender [that is perhaps the beginning of another central point about critical making]. There were no female participants at the event, except for one student’s friend who was invited to come into the studio to record a vocal harmony part. This is especially surprising because among the four adults staffing the event, three were women. And I, as someone who was visibly female, was clearly running the show. Is a recording studio a conventionally masculine space? Does the name GarageBand imply an old boy network? Yes and yes. At times, the CDLR felt like a music instrument store where male student participants took up substantial sonic space, noodling loudly on an electric guitar. And no one, including me, stopped them. I was bothered by it, but I didn’t want to impede their explorations by “being anal.” It felt disruptive to me, but I wasn’t sure how much it was affecting the sonic space of the other participants in the room. I was timid, as other female participants would’ve felt in that space.

I should consider this observation within the current discussion on the gender issues in the DH making/coding community instigated most recently by Miriam Posner. I agree with Miriam and those who spoke up this week against a kind of (gender/color) blind liberalism in the DH making/coding community. The “yourself” in the DIY communities isn’t necessarily white boys, but it could be in many instances. But we should probably do what we can make sure not only that there’s room for others, but that these others are sufficiently empowered in ways that they desire to be. We will have to introduce e-textile and softwear at the future iterations of our studio session. And/or we may just institute a Riot Grrrl studio series or a Grrrl(THAT)Camp.

 

teaching

Digital Vernacular Music-Cultures (v. 2.0)

I’m excited that Irene Girton of the Music Department at Occidental offered me the opportunity to teach an entry-level course on popular music. I decided to revamp the syllabus for Digital Vernacular Music-Cultures, an inter-session, January-term course that I co-taught with Carey Sargent at UVa in 2009. Here’s my proposed course description. Any thoughts?

Pop music blogs, online social networks, home recording studios, and mashup/remix communities are emerging musical spaces in the digital era. In this course we will study music-cultures that are enabled and generated by digital media and technology. We ask broadly, how the digital shape the mode of production, transmission, and reception of contemporary popular music. Using principles of ethnomusicology, we will examine how music as a “digital vernacular” creates a sense of place and self in the increasingly globalized world; how social, media, and technological institutions organize 21-century music participation at the grassroots, independent-level.

We will approach these questions with a two-prong approach: critical commentary and making. First, we will read critical literature from ethnomusicology, sociology, and media studies that address the relationship between music, technology, and culture. We will also engage in the practice of making digital media, experimenting with technology in ways that go beyond the consumer roles that we are often expected to play. Example course themes include: remix/mashup, 2.0 (new) world music, analog revival, DIY experimental noise/music, video game music, mp3 culture, and mobile music production. Students will apply course concepts to their own experience, researching a digital music-culture of their choice. By the end of the course, students will be able to address debates about the values of digital cultural production with evidence about its process and effects; and gain skills in media analysis, (digital) field research, and basic new media production.

Exercising Restrain & the Art of Listening with Kenneth Yates: building a sound of wall with amps and cymbals, The Bridge PAI, 2009

Video: here

teaching

“The Mixtape Project” Assignment: learning through critical making

I teach courses on popular music. With analog nostalgia hip in our digitally enabled environment, the mixtape as an object and a metaphor now carries some fun resonance. In this blog post, I want to reflect on the Mixtape Project, an assignment that I designed with the intention for students to reflect on their own, immediate popular music worlds in critical ways, while utilizing course concepts learned from class readings and discussions. I adapted the practice of mixtape-making to achieve the pedagogical goal of learning through critical making.

Here is the assignment prompt:

The Mixtape Project provides an opportunity for you to curate your own music compilation. The content of this compilation is based on a theme of your choice.  In your “liner note” essay (7-8 pages), you will define a theme while responding to the existing playlists and narratives related to genre, canon, place, time period, and/or the social contexts (race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality) in which musical events take place. Example themes include: women rappers of the 1990s, Riot Grrrrl of color, Chicano rock, cross-over, from soul to neo-soul, taqwacore, Taiwanese hip hop, etc. This essay consists of your commentary and analysis of the musical materials that you have selected. You also need to prepare an oral presentation to introduce your compilation and your thesis ideas to the class at the end of the course. You are required to engage with the making of the playlist while reflecting upon the concerns regarding medium, audience, and distribution of the mixtape. This is a multi-stage project with a proposal, abstract, playlist, abstract, and multiple drafts due at various points throughout the semester. I will provide specific instructions for each stage of the assignment.

I’ve used this assignment in various courses that I’ve taught both at UVa and Occidental. Last semester, I taught a course in the freshman core Cultural Studies program at Oxy with a focus on race and gender in popular music. To fulfill the aim of fall semester CSP courses – of teaching students the craft of constructing arguments, I tweaked the assignment with the following goals in mind:

  • To understand and critique the construction of a musical canon
  • To make a multimediated argument
  • To engage with the music community beyond the classroom

I was really pleased with the learning outcome of the assignment last semester. The students came up with highly creative playlists based on their own musical interest and the critical concepts that we discussed in class. You can get a sense of the topics by reading the students’ mixtape project proposals.

To hone their skills on constructing thesis statements, I asked my students to present their thesis statement and a sample music analysis to their peers prior to submitting the mixtape essay. Most students made PowerPoint and KeyNote slides to display their arguments and media. A few students made a Prezi presentation. This Prezi on female-led alternative bands in the 1990s is particularly outstanding.

At the end of the course, students submitted a “liner note” essay (PDF of a traditional position paper) and a playlist of sorts to distribute the music that they curated. I prepped them by asking them to reflect on their mixtape’s intended audience and methods of distribution. (Since this part of the assignment was optional, the results were rather spotty.) To distribute the media portion of the mixtape, most students made a post embedding Youtube vids on the course blog. Here’s an instance of a blog post populated by Youtube vids of songs by KPOP girl groups. Other students created a Youtube playlist external to the course blog. Here’s an example of a list of Anglo-Arabic Hip-Hop songs on Youtube. Some of the students went out of their way to create (fancy!) blogs to aggregate their mixtape content. Check out a student’s blog on Latin love ballads; one on women in hip-hop; another one, white female rappers.

I regularly tweeted the progress of students’ Mixtape assignment (at #racegenderpop). Jade Davis, a PhD student in Communication Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, tweeted shoutouts to my students for their work:

I think that the next time I implement this assignment, I will make a blog to aggregate all the student-generated content and media in this project. Having a blog would help prescribe a format in which they can present both the critical commentary (traditionally done in the essay) and the media content of the mixtape in a systematic way. [This would streamline their and my workflow, but would remove the element of their selecting a medium to distribute media content, unfortunately.]

With a mixtape blog, I could call for instructor-collaborators with an interest on deploying the Mixtape Project assignment in their course, inviting their students to contribute the blog. Perhaps we could even create our own Youtube channel, extending this critical mix into vernacular music-browsing hubs on the Internet. Shanna Lorenz in Music at Oxy had adapted this assignment for her Global Hip Hop course this term.

If you’re an instructor interested in using this assignment, send me an email. We can chat about collaboration possibilities.

Oh, lastly, we made a collective mix for the world. Just for fun.

research teaching

Passing or Covering? Social Transcendence through Music

Today in my seminar Music in Asian America, a student presented a chapter from Deborah Wong’s book Speak It Louder. The issue of passing impressed deeply upon my students. This question refers to the practical invisibility, historical and current, of Asian American artists within the music industry.

The student presenter asked her peers: Is it enough (for a formerly silenced ethnic minority) to “simply be there” in the music industry? Or should the artists address aspects of race and ethnicity in their musical output and image?

One student argued for the latter. She commented on the importance of contextualizing music with social meaning, ensuring that the right ethical messages are heard in the reception of music. Another student discussed the potential political work done by sheer visibility. She used the example of Obama: The iconicity of a minority president could empower minority individuals, especially among children.

In the chapter, Wong considers the Mountain Brothers’ (Philadelphia hip-hop group circa 1990s) methodical veiling of their names, pictures, and other indications of their Asian American ethnicity as a form of passing. The MB won a Coca-Cola-sponsored contest while concealing their ethnicity. She writes, “The Mountain Brothers passed that ultimate test, but they ‘passed’ (in at least two ways) because they knew the rules of hip-hop authenticity and were savvy enough to abide by them — on their own terms” (252).

So the MB passed and excelled within the musical standards of hip-hop. But what does this mean in terms of race and ethnicity? The word “passing” implies a hard line between betraying the minoritarian cause (of collective freedom) vs. assimilating to the majority. I think there’s a middle space between the two. Wong points out this space in her analysis, asserting that this passing is far from selling out. She gives the MB credit for creating a social space for themselves in the industry. “This social space is racialized in particular ways: as Chris Wang [of the MB] said, it’s Asian American because they are. Yet of course it is, and isn’t, that simple. This aural space is defined by Asian American voices making musical sounds that they are careful to claim as their own, through performance” (253).

Maybe because of Jim Crow segregation, “passing” is associated with upward social mobility. It implies a transcendence beyond a race-defined minority status into a majority status. I’m not interested in accessing whether the MB’s passing as a legitimate hip-hop act has earned for themselves an honorary membership within the culturally black community, in spite of their outside status.

What seems more useful in this example is perhaps the notion of musical passing – a form of aural expression that allows the sound-maker to be heard without being seen. Music allows the possibility of a colorblind reception: anyone can sound like anybody. Sound is not naturally bound to any race-related embodiment of phenotype, although artists make choices, deliberately or not, based on what they perceive as meaningful. While sound may be meaning-ful, it mediates meanings. This (moment of) semantic opacity is worthy of reflection.

I want to think deeply about this quality of opacity or mediation, allowing it develop into a theoretical apparatus that may help me articulate something that I’ve had a hard time conveying since the onset of my dissertation project: a (imagined) state of race-free liminality, or liberation, as described by many musicians that I’ve met in my field research. They often speak of their discomfort with the term “Asian American” as a designation for their music and/or ethnicity. In writing, I have interpreted it as a gesture of refusal to pigeonhole oneself. But I think there’s more to it than that.

A race-free sonority can be utopic for racial minorities. For minority artists, the cage built by racial meanings is still looming. This cage imprisons individuals of color in the reception of their image. To utilize this race-free sonority is to sell out. It is a worry-free presence in comfort. Perhaps this liminality suggests a moment of agency in face of a world where conversations about race mostly exist as a subtext – where people skirt around the topic of race, where people only talk about race in accusatory or threatening moments of outburst.

So, how progressive is this sonic race-free liminality? Is it liberatory for only the artists? How does this liberatory state translate itself in sonic reception? Is it merely a momentary state of self-indulgence considering the age-old fight for equality? Does an audio-scape create social change? I can’t answer these questions right now. But I think I will spend a long time trying to answer this question.

Rather than passing, maybe a more useful term is “covering,” as suggested by Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at Yale. In the preface of his book Covering, Yoshino writes “Everyone covers. To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream.” Individuals cover their stigmatized traits in their daily life. “Covering is a hidden assault on our civil rights.”

The notion of passing seems insufficient in capturing the complexity of how my informing musician-colleagues relate to the world. Maybe they cover more so than pass. If that’s the case, then playing music is an ongoing struggle with the covering and dis-covering of one’s traits, construed as different or stigmatizing in this imperfect world.

teaching

Hiep Le and Trang Vo Visit Summer Course on Global Pop

We had the pleasure of having guest performers Khanh Hiep Le and Diem Trang Vo in our class MUSI207/307 Global Pop this week. A song-writer, guitarist, and vocalist, Khanh Hiep Le now works an electrical engineer in San Diego. Le also played professional soccer when he was younger. Vocalist Trang Vo now works as a realtor and lives in Northern Virginia. Both Le and Vo came to the United States from Vietnam in the 1980s.

In their lecture, Hiep and Trang talked to us about their experiences of music-making in the transnational Vietnamese communities on the east and west coast of North America, and across the Pacific Ocean in Vietnam. Recently, Hiep released a solo record of all original songs. The money made from CD sales will go toward a charity group that helps families in Vietnam. In order to accommodate for the project’s charitable aims, Hiep produced the CD in Vietnam. Collaborating with a Vancouver-based videographer, Hiep made a music video for “Cuoc Tinh” off of the album.

Trang has performed as a vocalist for over thirty years. She leads the Diamond Band, an 8-piece band consisting of three vocalists. The Diamond Band performs at least once a week for weddings and other celebrations and events in the multiethnic Northern Virginia. Of high demand, the band is booked up until next summer. Trang’s son Ken Nguyen explained that the mission of band is to bring people together through music. The band performs a diverse repertoire ranging from pop songs in Vietnamese to American oldies and Iranian tunes.

Hiep and Trang generously offered their talent to the class. Hiep performed a couple of songs from his album. Interspersed with stories of personal relationships and inspiration and vivid answers to the students’ questions, Hiep’s performance and talk showed not only his passion for music, and more importantly, the deeply meaningful role of music in his life. Trang blessed us with her beautiful voice. With Hiep’s acoustic guitar accompaniment, Trang sang “Noi Long” and “Crazy”, one in Vietnamese and the other in English, reflecting their linguistic and cultural versatility. According to Ken, “it was a real treat,” because Trang never performs without a proper microphone and sound system.

The class reciprocated with their loudest applause. After class, a number of students came up to express gratitude and exchange words with the guests. We thank you, Trang and Hiep!

Here’s Hiep’s video for “Cuoc Tinh”:

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This entry was originally posted on July 1, 2009 on Yellowbuzz.

pop culture & media teaching

Race and “Air and Simple Gifts” at the Presidential Inauguration

I’m teaching a 400-level seminar called “Music in Asian America” this semester. Last Tuesday, instead of a class meeting, I created an “inauguration assignment.” The objective of the assignment is to ask the students to examine the musical representations at the inauguration ceremony in light of the current media discourse about Obama’s politics with regards to race and ethnicity. The assignment first asks the students to read SF Gate’s “Asian Pop” columnist Jeff Yang’s controversial article: “Could Obama be the first Asian American president?” and explore a slew of responses to Yang’s article. Then it asks them to post their analysis to the class blog.

The class did a marvelous job discussing the representational politics of multicuturalism exuded by the classical music performance at the ceremony. Immediately, they noticed the seemingly contrived selection of four minority musicians: Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman, Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, African American clarinetist Anthony McGill, and a U.S.-based Venezuelan national pianist named Gabriela Montero.

Introducing a Puritanesque theme, McGill plays the familiar “Simple Gifts”, 19th century Shaker hymn most notably known for American composer Aaron Copland’s citation in Appalachian Spring. Combined with the “Air”, a popular song form of the 16th and 17th century England, this arrangement by pop classical music composer John Williams presents a continuity of the American ‘folk’ culture from its European/English roots. Most explicit part of the musical message perhaps is couched in the role of “Simple Gifts” in the arrangement. In this section of the performance, the musicians, working in intimacy and collaborating with a performed (lip-synched!) vigor, displayed Obama’s politics of social unity in a literalist and sensational way. Also, the reference to Appalachian Spring is no coincidence. Similar to the effect in Copland’s ballet, the “Gifts” citation symbolizes freedom as promised by living a hardworking and simplistic life. Associated with the American ideology of meritocracy or the American Dream, the themes of freedom and hard work, also are evoked by Obama during his inauguration speech.

In his controversial article, Jeff Yang links Obama’s belief in educational achievement and work ethic to what he calls “Asian values,” the impetus to pull up by the bootstraps as perceived to be adopted by Asian immigrants. One student pointed out in class that Yang’s assumption risks reinforcing the model minority myth. Yang’s thesis is better argued in his NPR interview. In it, Yang claims “race more as a metaphor”, as a transmigratable concept away from biological and cultural essentialism, away from the binary and toward the multiplistic approach. I think he’s onto something here. Obama’s multiracial ethnicity and transcultural/transnational upbringing could embody a more fluid way of conceptualizing race and ethnicity. Yang finds these qualities in the present Asian American communities.

Present-day identity politics is not one-dimensional as once it had been in the 1960s and 1970s. Identity politics could work in such a way to allow room for identification “as” and “with.” Many individuals of social groups identify with Obama. And Obama’s unity politics seems to allow him to breach various social divides. Yang’s article should’ve been more accurately titled as “Could Obama identify with Asian America?”

I asked my students, “are there any dangers in conceiving of race as a metaphor? Is race really transmigratable?” Histories of oppression associated with race are still around us. We decided that only parts of race can be deconstructed through cultural criticism, although we hope that someday that race as an social institution and ideology will transmigrate completely and sublimate into thin air.

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This entry was originally posted on January 27, 2009 on Yellowbuzz.