Category Archives: research

community arts design research

Nakashi: making sound and place, from Taipei to Los Angeles

Cross-posting from the MovableParts blog — I’m writing to introduce a new series that explores the intersection between my research on nakashi street music-culture and contribution to the concept design for Movable Parts.

I revisited our project concept as I was preparing for our talk in the Arts and Electronics for Designers class at UCLA Extension. The latest version of my vision for Movable Parts is: to deploy a sound/place-making paradigm transplanted from Taiwan in order to spark bustling experiences in Los Angeles. In this post, I will elaborate on the meaning and practice of the nakashi (那卡西) street music-culture and connect to it our current creative engagement in and with Los Angeles. This is an attempt to bridge my research on Taiwanese and more broadly global practices and platforms of mobile performance with the Movable Parts design and build project.

What is Nakashi?

Nakashi is an itinerant performance practice in Taiwan. Brought over from Japan during the Japanese Occupation Era, Nakashi in its original Japanese is “Nagashi” (流し), meaning “flow.” Flow refers to a flexible mode of performance that has spatial and social connotations. Nakashi musicians use sounding objects such as instruments and loudspeakers to create ad hoc, mobile stages. Traditionally, using acoustic guitar and accordion, Nakashi musicians traveled on foot to perform popular songs of their time in tea parlors and hot springs resorts. Over time, nakashi performers innovate their practices by constructing stages on pickup trucks and farm tools to set up performances in the streets and public areas such as temple plazas. Equipping these mobile stages with loudspeakers, they turn toward the streets and public spaces as their stage  and spontaneously attract audiences. The photo below is an example of a performance troupe that traveled on a truck bed while disseminating sounds of their performance in the streets. Notice the loudspeaker that’s mounted on top of the mobile mini shrine.

“Sound truck for a temple god in Yngge” – CC-licensed photo by Joel Haas

The sound truck is a pervasive model in the nakashi street culture in Taiwan. It has become a platform for vendors to generate mobile and spatially flexible audiences and clientele.  The practice of mounting speakers on a moving vehicle is common among street vendors (ex. “dirt-roasted chicken” 土窯雞, freelance recyclers, and campaign trucks). These moving sound trucks make up a distinctively Taiwanese soundscape. Representing the voice of a migrating urban underclass, sound trucks constitute the gritty sound of the loudspeaker culture that is increasingly disciplined by informal and formal noise control in urban Taiwan.

On my last field trip in Taipei, I encountered a sound truck that in many ways represents the Nakashi performance platform and sensibility. Parked across from Lungshan Temple, the largest temple in Taipei in Mejia (Monga) district, the Exhortation Touring Tricycle is a mobile sounding platform that functions as a store that sells religious and folk recordings to passersby. The multi-colored LEDs, calligraphy writings, and custom-built shelving add to the down-home, ostentatious sensibility of nakashi. Encased within hand-built cabinets that are mounted in the back of the truck, the speakers broadcast popular Taiwanese tunes mixed with didactic music that teaches taoist morality and buddhist cosmology. Mobility serves as a dissemination tool. Sounds of exhortation move while extending its messages through the streets.

"Exhortation Tricycle", Taipei, photo by Wendy Hsu

“Exhortation Tricycle”, Taipei, photo by Wendy Hsu

On sound trucks or in stationary performances, amplification is a critical element in nakashi performances. Stationary nakashi performances typically take place in public spaces such as parks and metro stations. They are all unabashedly powered by diesel generators.

On my trip, I stumbled upon a performance in a park across the street from Lungshan Temple. Sound of amplification becomes aestheticized and is often heightened in a nakashi performance. In addition to its utility, the generator becomes an invisible sonic constituent that underlies all of these performances. In the video below, listen to the sound of the generator that powers the sound amplification. An overdriven amplified sound results a distorted, gritty, and lo-fi timbre. With an added effect of reverberation (in the vocals usually), nakashi amplification make up a uniquely textured sound-space.

What nakashi provides us is a mobile performance paradigm that intersects sound and place making through the use of low-resource technology. The constituents of both sound and place are inseparable. They make up the utilitarian and aesthetic core of the nakashi culture. Sound constitutes the social experience of a place; and vice versa. Sound plays a central role in creating not just any kind of space, but a bustling place where people congregate and form transient but meaningful micro-communities.

Sound/Place-Making for a Bustling LA

So how does this streetside practice in Taiwan relate to Movable Parts, a project based in Los Angeles? LA has an unusual history as a metropolis without distinctive sites of urban density. A city built for highways and suburbs, its decentralized structure makes location-based vibrancy a scarcity. At my day job where I work as an Arts Manager with the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, we routinely come up against the city’s geography as physical and social barriers when we administer arts and cultural resources.

To mitigate the geographical and social fracturing that marks the LA experience, we at Movable Parts thought to make human-scale creative systems. Developing systems that generate a creative friction against the urban sprawl, coupled with event design and community collaboration, we spark place-based social interactions.

As a sound ethnographer of Taiwan, I’m interested in recreating a particular notion of bustling – renal 熱鬧. Re means “heat” (often used to describe the heated, hyper state of human presence) and nao means “loud.” Together, with an abundance of human and sonic energy, renao represents a specific kind of vibrancy that is lacking in LA. I’d like to think that what we’re doing is to create a platform to ignite an abundance of energy in a city that lacks these elements of social life, particularly in the public; or otherwise, to amplify the less legible social energy in an a city with compartmentalized and hard-to-access publics.

In the video, LISTEN to the embeddedness of conversations, scooter sounds, and lo-fi music blasting from the Exhortation Tricycle’s homemade speaker cabinets. Pay attention to the dynamic between sound and place-making in this scenario. This immersive multilayered sound environment is culturally desirable in Taiwan. A sonic and spatial experience at once, this recording comes close to embody the meaning of renao, a place-based abundance of social energy.

On a slow sound walk through the Menjia Night Market, I captured layers of nightlife cacophony saturating the bustling “Old Taipei.” Sound sources in this location recording include pervasive pinball arcade, children’s bantering over games, passing scooters, and pre-recorded techno music and sales messages piped in through lo-fi loudspeakers mounted discreetly in the semi-outdoor vendor’s booths. I love how one could identify the human, mediated, and (analog) machine elements of these sound sources in the recording. This variegated texture signifies social multiplicity and technological vicissitudes as, I would argue, key meanings of renao.

Provoking a Bustling Downtown at CicLAvia

For the first iteration of our project, we designed and built a pedal-powered generator that provides electricity for a set of PA speakers. Each piece of the system — the battery and the hub motors — could be transported via bicycles. By bringing people together to pedal in order to generate electricity (I blogged about the social meaning of power generation earlier), we create a Movable Party. Resonating with the classic nakashi model of generator-powered performances, the Movable Party is an outcome of our engagement with sound and place making through a combination of low-tech and high-tech modes of practices.

I captured this video at our performance at Ciclavia last October. Teaming up with a group called DanceLAvia, we set up our bicycle generator in front of Grand Park in downtown LA to encourage CicLAvia participants to slow down for a dismount point. There we spontaneously recruited passersby as participants including the young participants shown in the video. On that day, we made progress toward our goal of making a bustling micro-community in LA.

Does this embody the Taiwanese notion of bustling – renao? Who could we mobilize individuals to participate in the making of bustling in LA? What would renao in Los Angeles sound and feel like? Does it depend on the neighborhood and other social and geographical factors? I hope that by asking these questions, we will continue to productively experiment with this wild transpacific sound and place-making paradigm.

research

Recap of Digital Ethnomusicology talk at SEM (slides with notes)

I came back from the 2013 Society of Ethnomusicology meeting in Indianapolis. Our roundtable on Digital Ethnomusicology went well and was superbly productive. The roundtable consisted of 4 young scholars’ take on digital methodology in their work [read abstracts].

A group of engaged interlocutors participated from the audience. Our short presentations on respective digital methods provoked questions related to the ethics, privacy, licensing, and boutique and vernacular tools for digital ethnomusicological research. In addition, a discussion about technological literacy was sparked providing a context for the roundtablists to speak to how each of us came to engage with digital practices as researchers, but more importantly, to foreground the necessity of collaboration in digital projects.

This was probably the first time words like “digital ethnomusicology” and “big data” (ala Daniel Shanahan‘s paper “Using Big Data to Examine the Effect of Environment on Listening Habits”) appeared on session titles at SEM. In the coming year, I hope to further organize this conversation into a formalized and better distributed form.

I’ve  posted my the slides with notes from my talk “Multimodality and Scalability: A Deepened Engagement with Software and Physical Materiality of Music-Culture” here. Let’s keep the conversation rolling.

event research

SEM Preview: Digital Ethnomusicology, a roundtable

I’m thrilled to be chairing a roundtable on Digital Ethnomusicology at the Society of Ethnomusicology (SEM) meeting in Indianapolis in November. Come chat with us about the affordances, limitations, and sociopolitical implications of digital methodology, and interact with the bright minds in the room. Below is the roundtable abstract that I proposed, along with the individual abstract provided by the five roundtablists.

[UPDATE: the roundtable is taking place on at 8:30 - 10:30AM on Thursday November 14, 2013, first session at the meeting. And Ben Tausig, due to his flight schedule, will not be joining us.]

Digital Ethnomusicology: the affordances, limitations, and sociopolitical implications of digital methodology

Which digital tools can extend our listening, communicating, and field data collecting and processing? How do we approach the study of communities that straddle the boundaries between on- and off-line, high- and low-tech, digital and analog? How do we integrate emerging media and technologies in our methods while maintaining sensitivity to issues of access and representation? This roundtable will discuss a range of methodological and critical approaches to digital and computational ethnography. The conversation will be expansive and yet focused on how the digital creates a host of possibilities for a new, multimodal engagement with teaching, fieldwork, and ethnographic representation. The roundtablists will present on the role of digital processes including social media analysis, topic modeling, mapping, webscraping, spectrograms, and field recording within the context of their research. The roundtablists will offer insights on their work, and provocative claims and questions for the purpose of initiating a broad-based discussion with the audience on the affordances, limitations, social and political implications of digital methodology in ethnomusicological endeavors.

————————– Individual paper abstracts ————————–

Challenges and Opportunities in Mapping Traditional/Folk Music: Musical World Map as A Case Study
Ozan E. Aksoy, The Graduate Center, CUNY

I developed Musical World Map, a digital mapping project about folk and traditional music around the world, as a pedagogical framework for my students. The Musical World Map was designed to map audio examples taken from free archives and sources such as the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, and other public and private archives including my own. Built in the Google Map environment, this web-based project enables users to navigate online while listening to the music associated with that particular location on the map. The project’s content is drawn from current scholarship in ethnomusicology and comparative analyses. The goals of the project were to highlight sonic commonalities in neighboring countries and to demonstrate the tension between sonic, cultural, and national borders. In this roundtable, I will talk about the challenges I faced during the mapping process, especially questions of representation of specific ethno-religious groups. I will also talk about the technical challenges in digitizing, categorizing, and mapping recorded music in an “unbiased” and “representative” fashion. I will share my thoughts on the sound-to-location mapping algorithms that I applied as a way to initiate a discussion on theoretical and practical opportunities and implications of mapping traditional and folk music.

Community Listening in Isle Royal National Park, a sonic ethnography
Erik DeLuca, University of Virginia

Sounds not only change physically as they travel across and through spaces and places, but they also change, and shape, dense webs of relationships between people and things across sociocultural contexts. Within this space, what can we learn from individualized listeners? And what can we learn by listening to how these peo­ple listen? My contribution to the roundtable will focus on one of these relationships. Blurring the line between soundscape composition, audio documentary, and sonic ethnography, my work documents how I listened to, and became part of a dialogue between the leading wolf biologist of the longest running wildlife study and a community of wolf-listening park visitors. I focus on this unique way of listening from my field research. Similar to Colin Turnbull, Steven Feld, and Michelle Kisliuk, I am also interested in how this way of listening exists within, and is tied to a place. During the multimedia presentation I will discuss the recording, interpretation, and representation of my field interactions. I will discuss how this particular way of listening is intrinsically and symbiotically tied to the ecological well-being of the park, which is currently at risk. The wolves in this isolated environment play a vital role in maintaining this health and they are on the brink of extinction. This in turn will endanger this profound community-based listening practice.

Multimodality and Scalability: A Deepened Engagement with Software and Physical Materiality of Music-Culture
Wendy Hsu, City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs

This paper focuses on how we as ethnographers might use computational technologies to deepen our engagement with the nuances of software and physical materiality of music-culture. I will draw from two distinct moments in my field research in order to illustrate the usefulness of a computational exploration of field content. First, I will discuss how the development of a set of custom-built software tools enabled me to visualize the geographical contour and boundaries in a “digital diaspora” formed by American rock musicians on Myspace. Second, I will talk about my experimentation with spectrograms as a method to visually identify the characteristic contours of vocal timbres of musicians performing in the postcolonial itinerant style in Taiwan known as Nakashi. Finally, I will offer a few theoretical remarks regarding the ethnographic objective of immersion in light of emerging media and technologies. I argue that the deployment of computational methods can augment empirical precision and generate further questions and inquiries. This layer of pattern exploration can provide a productive analytical tension with embodied and qualitative meanings. With the multimodality and scalability that computers afford us, we can begin to consider challenging questions that simultaneously relate to the general scope of our field, however multi-sited, multimediated, or hypertextual, and to the depth and nuanced meanings in embodied and material culture.

Approaches to Analyzing Online Discourse about Music
Christopher Johnson-Roberson, Brown University

Many ethnographers have sought to uncover the hidden layers of enculturated meaning with which acts and discourses are imbued. Although researchers in statistics and computer science have historically pursued different aims, they too have dedicated considerable effort to inferring latent structures from observational data. These approaches can be fruitfully combined in the study of online environments, where social signifiers such as verbal communications or the reified relational ties of a social network are stored in quantities that make them amenable to statistical analysis. I explore the application of two methods — social network analysis and “topic modeling,” a computational means of inferring themes from textual data — to the study of the online community Rap Genius. This community, focused on the exegesis of hip-hop lyrics, consists of thousands of users who annotate songs with line-by-line interpretations and interact with each other via message boards and live chat. In my study of Rap Genius, an ethnographic approach provides a glimpse into how users conceptualize the process of annotation on the site as a form of scholarly activity, while computational methods provide a bird’s eye view of their interactions and illustrate how the site’s scoring system and editorial hierarchy condition users’ experiences. This case study shows how qualitative and quantitative approaches can complement each other, providing new insights to scholars interested in online discourse about music.

The Limits of Digital Ethnography in a Low-Fi World
Benjamin Tausig, New York University

Digital ethnographic methods are fast becoming a part of ethnomusicology, as well as many other disciplines that rely on interpersonal exchange in research. Technology undoubtedly opens useful new portals. In order to sufficiently theorize these methods, however, researchers must be aware not only of their affordances but of their constraints. There are broad spectrums of online access and digital literacy, as well as a range of ways of using and experiencing digitality. These ways are as culturally determined as any other dimension of human life. Music is reproduced, circulated, critiqued, and reworked in digital fora with great diversity, to which scholars must be sensitive. Evgeny Morozov has recently critiqued a universalist digital optimism that may be classist and Eurocentric in its assumptions. I suggest, in line with Morozov and based on my own ethnographic fieldwork on protest music in Bangkok, epistemological caution as the discipline moves forward with its (absolutely necessary) embrace of digital methods. To ensure that these methods are robust will require that we get our hands dirty with the local particulars of ethnographies of digital sound, that we listen as seriously to the tinny signal from a reverse-engineered iPod as to a high-bitrate stream of a premium account on a celestial jukebox.

fieldnotes press research

More politics in sounds than what’s printed

An article about sounds in Taiwan came out in Taiwan Today, an online news digest in English published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Republic of China (the official, government-sanctioned name of Taiwan). The author of the article Steve Hands contacted me a few weeks ago asking me a set of interview questions regarding my recent field (recording) trip to Taipei. My answers reflect a critical angle, particular of the government; but only parts of my personal narrative and ethnographic research rendered as apolitical were included in the final version of this tourist-friendly article. I’m happy to engage in a conversation about Taiwan’s unique soundscape. But I thought that I would provide my complete answers to his interview questions in this post. With context, I hope to nudge this dialog to move alongside some of the social and political issues at stake.

Taiwan Today: What is your favorite Taiwan sound?

Me: The street vendors in Taiwan use the available technology, often low-resource materials like a megaphone or a car stereo system hooked up to a loudspeaker, to make audible their presence and whatever products or services they’re selling. Among these sound street vendors, I am most fascinated by the sound of the mobile street vendors. An ingenious setup, street vendors can create a space of their own through sound, using sound to form a sonic public with invisible and moving boundaries. This sonic and mobile structure covers much more space than a stationary vending setup, because sounds travel through air and in space much farther than visual and stationary objects.I have very fond memories of hearing the sound of truck vendors that sell clay-roasted ducks around my neighborhood. There are less motorized versions like the sweet potato (Yam) vendor who uses a rattle to attract people. Specifically I went around Taipei looking for recyclers who peddle through the city on a tricycle (sometimes motorized) on this trip. These recyclers use a sound system to project messages to inform local residents of their service to pick up recyclable goods like bottles and jars, scraps of paper, metal and plastic, and sometimes electronics.

The city-sanctioned trash trucks have followed this practice to make audible their pickup service, except other than using a person’s voice pre-recorded onto tape or CD, the city trash pickup sounds more institutionalized with its pre-programmed MIDI of classical music (Beethoven’s Fur Elise). The choice of “classy” sound, I think, is intended to draw distinctions from other unsanctioned street vendors. These sound trucks are also used outside of commercial contexts. I have seen versions of musical trucks (a wide variety including nakashi trucks and Electric Flower Truck 電子花車), and recorded one — the Exhortation Tricycle that Tours Taiwan — that sits in front the Longshan Temple on this trip. I have recorded some political campaign trucks that are set up similarly, using loudspeakers to project live and recorded campaign related messages.

Unfortunately, these mobile street vendors rarely broadcast sounds into the streets as they travel. The sonic publics that they create are disappearing. I have a feeling that their vanishing is a result of the noise ordinance and regulations due to the interest of developers and private-public partnerships, and and other gentrification related issues.

Taiwan Today: At one point you mentioned the Chinese concept of renao. Could you elaborate on this a little? Is this a big difference between East and West, a love versus a dislike of noise? What are the best places for a tourist to experience Taiwan’s renao?

Me: Renao is a rich concept and it’s more complex in practice. “Re” 熱 refers to heat, or a heated state of being and sociality. Nao 鬧 refers a space or an event that is marked by noisiness, loudness, and movement. Together, renao as a term refers to a hyper state of social energy that is expressed through movement. The closest concept to renao in the Anglophone world is bustling. Bustling suggests a social state that marked by people’s movement through space.

What marks renao as a unique concept is that sound is a core expression and constitution of its physical manifestation. Richness in sound and movement makes up the transient experience of a “heated” sociality. Traditionally, one could experience renao or ken renao (看熱鬧) in front of the temple of the town or village, where there is the most foot traffic. It is also there where street vendors, musicians, and beggars gather forming the infrastructure for an informal local economy.

Nowadays, renao is experienced in public spaces like parks, markets (day market or night market), and occasionally in the streets during temple festivals and political campagins. Definitions of noise are socially constructed. What’s considered to the loud and noisy in one cultural context can be constitute the everyday life in another culture. (My friend Yun Emily Wang has written a MA thesis about the meaning of sound in Taipei. In it, she draws a distinction between renao and chaonao 吵鬧 in the way people use these terms to make social boundaries.) My sense is that renao as a practice is being challenged at the moment. Renao has been linked with the lowerclass. With the shrinkage of public spaces, and the government’s efforts behind cleaning up the streets (in corroboration with private entities like developers), renao has begun to decay in sound and in practice.

community arts fieldnotes research

A DJ’ed set on Taiwan’s street music on KChung Radio

Archive of my guest DJ’ed set on Taiwan’s street music on KChung Radio: nakashi, niange/唸歌 (folktale songs), light music/輕音樂, field recordings

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

 

fieldnotes research

Flash Field Notes: Listening to the Wandering Underclass of Taipei


research

Fieldnotes from Taiwan, Part I: Day Market and Nakashi Cassette Culture

This is part one of a series of field notes of my project on nakashi, a postcolonial itinerant music-culture in Taiwan. I will publish the “Fieldnotes from Taiwan” series in parts.

———————————————————————————————

TWO MONTHS!! It’s been taken me more than two months to unpack from my trip to Taiwan. I finally got around to look at the last unpacked item: a dozen of nakashi cassette tapes enwrapped inside two pink-and-white-striped plastic bags. I haven’t listened to these tapes; and frankly, I haven’t had any desires to unwrap this bag of goodies.

Bag of Tapes on Shelves Tapes inside a plastic bag

The plastic bags themselves remind me of the field encounters I had this summer. The plastic bags not only represent a kind of Taiwanese local street culture that is sometimes associated with the working-class; but they also provide a clue for my quest for the meaning of nakashi in contemporary Taiwan. Here how it all unfolds.

I spent a quite bit of time wandering in the Wuxing Day Market (吳興市場, a great photo series). This is partly because my dad’s dental office is located literally inside the day market that runs from daybreak until about noon. Day markets in Taiwan are a kind of street-based “traditional markets” (傳統市場) that are set up in an semi-ad-hoc manner. Day markets are where mobile produce and meat vendors set up their stands. These vendors transport their goods in vans and oftentimes in blue pick-up trucks from one location to another based on the day of the week. Butchers hang their meats; vegetables come in crates; poultry sometimes come as live animals. Occasionally you would find dried goods, cooked food, and other living essentials like socks, underwear, and leisurely goods like music and movies. The vendor stands usually have no refrigeration; but are generator-powered to run electricity for lighting and background music. Music and recorded sales pitches project from boomboxes and loudspeakers. The day market is a great example of the Chinese notion of renao (熱鬧), liveliness, hustling, or bustling.

Wuxing Day Market

Bargaining is a common practice at the day market. The social and economic structure of the day market is complex and it seems quite distinct from the rest of rationalized system in Taiwan that is either state-sanctioned or corporatized. A more visible counterpart to the day market is the night market, which appeals to young people and has become an emblematic symbol of Taiwan in the overseas communities. In contrast to convenience stores and super markets, both associated with the urban elites, the majority of the clientele of the day market are the economically underprivileged, notably lower-middle-class housewives and the elderly. I got a glimpse of the day market because of an incidental interaction I had with a music vendor.

On a sultry early afternoon, I wandered downed Wuxing Street as the vendors at the day market were packing up. I spotted a music stand. From an empty storefront, this vendor stand extended via a line of adjacent folding tables. What caught my eyes was a box of cassette tapes, a medium rather uncommon in contemporary Taipei. I exclaimed, internally and loudly while trying to maintain my coolness so as to not appear as a visitor, “These are the nakashi tapes that I’ve been looking for!” These tapes contain mostly instrumental tracks of popular songs from the repressed genre of Taiyuge, meaning “Taiwanese language songs.” These songs are sung in Taiwanese Hokkien dialect that originated in southern China. While a large part of this repertoire consisted of Taiwanese reinterpretation of Japanese enka songs, a subset of these songs came out of the 1930s recording industry during the Japanese Occupation era. While most of these tapes contain instrumental tracks, some of them are “greatest hits” compilations of full (vocals included) tracks of the same repertory.

I was surprised to see that these tapes were not covered in dust. I asked the woman vendor, who appeared to be in her 40s, “Do people still listen to these tapes?”

“Of course! Taxi and truck drivers listen to these because many of the commercial vehicles are equipped with cassette decks still. And of course, baba and mama (“dads” and “moms”) listen to tapes because they haven’t switched over to CDs. But we sell everything and we have something for everyone here,” she explained.

“Oh, I didn’t know that! But that makes a lot of sense. I like these tapes because of the music.” I looked in the box and picked out 8 or so tapes.

“Yea, we carry a lot of things that are hard to find these days. Here, go ahead and pick out a couple more tapes. I’ll give you a discount. Buy ten get one free!”

I thanked her profusely and she put the tapes inside a pink-and-white-striped plastic bag. These bags are the generic plastic shopping bag in Taiwan. They are often used by market vendors probably because they are inexpensive and sturdy. I remember them from my grandparents’ grocery story inside the Nanmen Day Market (南門市場) near Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial.

I paid the lady and scurried away. It was 1:30pm in the afternoon. The pacific heat wave on a small island near the tropics was brutal. I had a plan to cool off inside Taipei 101, Taiwan’s architectural pride, also a symbol of its financial power. The subtropical heat and island humidity got to me. By the time I walked to the Starbucks inside the upscale, super-air-conditioned mall that’s attached to Taipei 101, my head was spinning. I sat down to work on a conference paper. Afterwards, I trotted over to the Eslite Bookstore, an elite mega book seller in Taiwan, seeking a relieve from the heat and got dinner. I eventually made it through the hottest time of day and got back to my dad’s apartment only to discover that my bag of tapes was missing.

I subsequently spent the next day tracing my steps through the day market and the upscale Xinyi district near Taipei 101 looking for my nakashi tapes. At the day market, I saw no traces of the music vendor. Their spot was occupied by a vegetable stand.

Hilarity ensued when I approached the staff members at Starbucks, Taipei 101, and Eslite to inquire about my lost nakashi tapes. The attendant that I talked to at Taipei 101 asked what kind of “shopping bag” my nakashi tapes were in. I told her that it was a just ordinary pink-and-white-striped kind. She seemed mystified that such an ordinary item would appear inside this fancy shopping mall. The contrast between a kind of underclass localism, associated with the ordinary plastic bag, and an acclaimed architectural symbol of transnational financial power, seemed ludicrous.

The sales representative at the Eslite Bookstore was similarly perplexed by my request to find cassette tapes, which seemed so out of her framework of a multilingual mega book and music store, with a massive online store, that carries titles ranging from imported arts magazines from the United Kingdom to Chinese-language academic books on prewar music in Taiwan. The ostensibly comprehensive music section inside the Eslite building didn’t have any music recordings that would fall into the genre of nakashi. There were, in fact, no analog cassettes in stock. Instead, I encountered was a giant glowing hipster-y display constructed out of cassette tapes. Hipsters in Taipei are apparently not vinyl- or cassette-crazy. [Not yet, at least.] Needless to say, I didn’t find my tapes that day; but I learned much about the physical and symbolic separation between these two worlds.

I had a faint memory of the music vendor’s fluid schedule – every Tuesday or Wednesday, or “sometimes every other week.” We went back to the day market the following week. The stand was there, as if it never moved. The tapes were still there, the same sales staff, one woman and a man, working diligently.

The woman said to me, “I was worried that you weren’t coming back. I saved your tapes, but left them in the van. Go ahead and pick out eleven tapes. Here, we do ethical business. We sold you some things, and now they belong to you. We will not scam you.” Rest assured, I found more tapes and got a bag more goodies (including nakashi instrumental CD sets that feature shamisen and instrumental music for square dancing).

Now that I’m done speculating about the meaning of the plastic bags, I think I’m ready to listen to the tapes that are inside the bags. There is much to be unfolded about the Wuxing Day Market. There is a bit of nakashi magic — quiet but lively — happening in the area. An old-school music store run by a nakashi musician [that I blogged about from my last trip] is right down the street. Through acquiring and losing these tapes, I witnessed a social intimacy between this analog music-culture, the hustling and bustling and the fluid economy at the day market, and the dynamics of the elderly generation and the cab-and truck-driving working-class in Taiwan. I look forward to finally listening to these tapes. Perhaps it will help me unwind this cluster of meanings regarding place, music, and economy.

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.

 

performance research

The Sound of Racial Melancholia: Listening to and Performing Indie Rock in Asian America

[I presented this paper at the Inter-Asia Pop Music Studies Conference, the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM-Asia) chapter meeting, at the National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei on July 15, 2012.]

Early in my explorations of Asian American experiences of rock music, I encountered a peculiar song. “Oriental American” is a hidden track on the 1998 album Two Cents Plus Tax, by indie rock band Versus. Unlike the other hidden tracks of this era, the song only surfaces when the listener manually rewinds from the beginning position of track one on the CD for 4 minutes and 36 seconds. This song’s physical position on the album makes it almost impossible to listen to it. It’s like a ghost that hovers between the front edge of the plastic Compact Disc and its programmed tracks. It lives behind the digital codes that store sounds. I kept it as a secret, until I confronted with “racial melancholia”—both as an intellectual concept and a lived experience—a few years later.

I read an article co-written by David Eng, a Chinese-American literary scholar, and Shinhee Han, a Korean-American clinical psychoanalyst. In this article, Eng and Han offer a productive reading of their clinical observations of the patterns of depression among significant and growing number of Asian American college students. The authors deploy the logic of “melancholia,” first defined by Freud, and apply it to understand the racial dynamics in the United States from the minority perspective [slide: concept]. They posit that “racial melancholia” occurs when a racial minority individual, while holding on to the democratic ideal of equality, experiences an interminable grief over the loss of being and feeling fully integrated into the society. These feelings, in the case of Asian Americans, are rooted in a perpetual loss of the sense of “social comfort and familiarity, national belonging, language, family, social connections” (Eng and Han 2003: 349)[1]. These feelings can be both experienced broadly in their social lives, and more specifically inherited from their immigrant parents, in the case of the second- or 1.5-generation Asian Americans [slide: concept]. To put it simply, we can’t seem to ever “get over” the conflicts, ambivalences, and other feelings of loss associated the difficulties of immigration and assimilation (Eng and Han 2003:345).

Following from Eng and Han’s activist scholarship, in this paper, I intend to make audible the sound of racial melancholia—projecting the under-heard voices of Asian American minority individuals who withstand societal pressures of conformity and self-erasure. This paper stems from my personal empathy and struggle with the social state of melancholia. Today, I will animate the sounds of racial melancholia from two distinct angles. First, I will offer an extended close reading of the song “Oriental American.” I argue that this song articulates the ghostly presence of the Asian American melancholic subject position in the U.S.-based indie rock music canon. In the second part of the paper, I will move into a reflexive rhetorical position to explore the psychosocial processes of the performing agent. I ask: How I, as an Asian and Taiwanese American artist, have engaged with the personal and social condition of melancholia through performing vintage Taiwanese pop music.

Unleashing the Ghost in the Machine

The indie rock band Versus formed in New York City in 1990. The ethnic membership of Versus has been predominately Filipino-American. The Wikipedia entry on the band describes it as a “prominent example of American indie bands emerging in the 1990s which featured Asian American members.”[2] Despite their visibly Asian American identity, members of the band rarely mention their Asian or Filipino heritage in their songs, with the exception of their song “Oriental American.”

In the studio version of the song, guest vocalist Asako Fujimoto (of Japanese descent) repeatedly speaks the line “I am Oriental-American.” She notably swallows while obscuring the word “American.” Her vocal delivery sounds like a stutter. A looped tape-delayed sample foreshadows Fujimoto’s stuttering vocalization, sandwiched between a guitar riff in the foreground and a programmed drum beat in the background. With an addition of reverb, Fujimoto’s vocals carry an ethereal quality as they drift in and out of the sonic texture.

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The song ends with these lines spoken by Fujimoto: “Did they tell you what kind of thing just this is / Just say the word what kind of you wanted anything / Something that’s funny / Cute / Something dark / Something serious.” Now placed in the foreground of the mix, these lines are delivered with even more reverberation than previously. Further obscured by the effect of tape delay, the first line of this section ends with an audio overlay of two words “just” and “this is,” resulting in the stuttering of a word that sounds like “justice.” Similarly, the delay effect obscures the words “you wanted” resulting in a synthesized voice stammering “nuance.”

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I refuse to read the studio effect of stuttering as a literal reflection of the loss of language that immigrants experience after arriving in a new country. Instead, I’m interested in reading the stuttering a cultural product of racial melancholia. This opaque utterance resonates with the ghostly subject position as occupied by Asian Americans in rock music discourse. New York Times writer Neil Strauss comments in a 1995 review of The Ear of the Dragon tour, a series of performances that feature bands with Asian American members, including Versus. Strauss commends the bands for reclaiming their ethnic identity within the hegemonic mainstream rock music scenes. He notes, “It’s a brave move for groups that want their music to be considered on its own terms within the broader context of rock instead of as outsider rock made from an Asian-American perspective” (1995: 17).

Strauss’s remark not only points to the risk of race-based ghettoization in labeling oneself as “Asian American.” It also indirectly brings into relief a double standard within the ostensibly liberal colorblindness that is embedded in the ways in which people act and talk about rock music in the U.S.. Within this ideological structure of colorblind liberalism, Asian Americans, as well as other minority artists, are made to feel included, in spite of the unspoken norms within the scenes that rule out or stigmatize their experiences. I argue that this covert, racially determined double standard manifests as an instance of “American exceptionalism and democratic myths of liberty, individualism, and inclusion” (Eng and Han 2003: 347). Dominant discourses “force(s) a misremembering of these exclusions, an enforced psychic amnesia that can return only as a type of repetitive national haunting—a type of negative or absent presence” (Eng and Han 2003: 347; my emphasis). Rock music discourse in the United States can be repressive of minority voices. But these voices can return ghosts.

I let the uncanny stuttering ring in my head and infuse this writing. I work while insisting on hearing the ghostly and distorted utterance by Asian American music-making individuals, in spite of the erasure of these voices. Inspired by the song, I work throughout my dissertation research while insisting on hearing the ghostly and distorted utterance by Asian American music-making individuals. I became interested in unearthing the marginal voices of Asian American artists working on the fringes of American rock music. I began digging through CD bins, music blogs, mp3 download sites, and online social media hubs while looking for friendly ghosts of my kind. A few years of research on this topic inspired me to begin to engage with this sonic haunting in personal and performative ways.

A Performance Engagement: Dzian!

Near the end of my fieldwork, I started a band (if you saw our performance at the Underworld on Friday, then you got a taste of the full band, a six-piece band). I consider my band a post-fieldwork project of public scholarship: a playground to experiment critically with concepts of race, ethnicity, and postcolonialism formulated in my research. The band is my performative response to the persistent questioning regarding my research by academic and non-academic outsiders: “Is there rock music in Asia?” “Who are the rock musicians of Asian descent?” “Which bands are you talking about?” Alongside my band-mates, I perform to inscribe Asia and Asian America into rock music discourses. And our performance, as a form of cultural work, is aimed to resolve the feelings of loss of a sense of heritage and social comfort for Asian American individuals.

We call ourselves “Dzian!” – borrowing the Taiwanese idiom of “supercool” to evoke our solidarity with Taiwan. The band officially got together for a benefit concert in the wake of Typhoon Morakot (88水災). I was moved by this surge of support for Taiwan generated by the Taiwanese American community. Using D.I.Y. social media and event organizing, these Taiwanese American artists reached their audiences across the U.S. and in Taiwan spreading their support for Taiwan. I decided to organize a similar event to join the efforts of many in the community across the U.S.. To bring the Charlottesville and the University of Virginia (UVa) communities together for Taiwan, I envisioned a live enactment of “Nakashi”, sometimes spelled as “Naaski” (那卡西) , an iconic itinerant music performance style that emerged in Taiwan in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation era. I gathered a number of musician friends from the UVa music department to learn a hand-picked selection of some of my grandparents’ favorite Taiwanese enka songs, as well as surf and garage rock songs from 1960s and 1970s Taiwan and its neighboring countries such as Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, and Cambodia . I also enlisted a number of dancer-friends who choreographed specifically for the performance to complete the theatrical aspects of the Nakashi performance. Joining efforts with the Taiwanese Student Association at UVa and a local Taiwanese café, we raised almost $1000 from the evening’s festivities.

Dzian! has imprinted itself in heritage communities locally and regionally in the Unite States. The band has performed at several heritage celebration events organized by various Taiwanese and Chinese American organizations in Los Angeles, New York, and Virginia. After performing at the Passport to Taiwan Festival, we were invited to perform at the Hello! Taiwan Rocks concert at the Taiwan Center.

“We don’t care if it’s uncool to be F.O.B., “fresh off the boat.” We have unleashed all of our foreignness, defying the social norms of assimilating. We are back on the boat! No shame, no ambivalence!”

At a more personal level, my performances with Dzian! have mediated my own struggle with racial melancholia. In particular, these performances have offered a fruitful ground to ameliorate a fraught relationship with my mother. Eng and Han note that immigrants themselves experience grief over the “losses of cultural comfort and familiarity, national belonging, language, family, social connections” in the process of immigration and over time. And these feelings of unresolved feelings of loss can be inherited by the children of these immigrants (2003: 352). My mother, for a while, held onto the notion of having a physician daughter, long after I confronted her with my desire to pursue a degree as not as a medical doctor, but as a musicological doctor. During my fieldwork, I discovered that this particular parental expectation is, in fact, is a recurring trope among many of my musician-colleagues. We have commiserated over how we have struggled with the inter-generational melancholic manifestation in the sense of guilt, usually articulated as the following in their parents’ voices: “We’ve lost everything to come here to start afresh just so that you will have a better future.” Choosing a career path (in the arts) against a stable profession would seem like an act of denial and could sometimes cause relationship severance.

With my new interest in songs from 1960s and 1970s Taiwan, I began to approach my mom as a source of knowledge regarding the music of “her era.” We have had a number of exchanges about the lyrical content of the songs, while sharing Youtube performances to discuss our stylistic preferences. Since the very first performance of Dzian!, my mom has been a frequent guest performer in the band. In particular, I have asked my mom to perform a Taiwanese A-Go-Go song entitled “Mama Give Me A Guitar” (媽媽送我一個吉他) with me. During the performance of this song, my mom and I exchange lines in a call and response, enacting the story depicted in the song lyrics about a young girl pleading her mother to buy her a guitar. The song describes the girl’s desire to sing and dance alongside her mother. In performance, we enact our aspiration for keeping each other company. I put a boa feather around her and we sing arm in arm. Through the power of musical performance, we convince not only the audience but also ourselves of our close relationship. The crowd cheers on. We hug each other, both feather boa-clad , forging a musical harmony that seeps into our relationship offstage. And I know, to an extent, I have fulfilled the rock star dream that my mother probably has always had.

Conclusion: A Post-Fieldwork Cultural Work

My goal in this paper was to address, perhaps ambitiously, the practice of public scholarship as a scholar-performer, and to add to the theoretical conversation about critical positionality in ethnography (Kisliuk 1998; Wong 2008). I have offered a set of narratives that illustrate my involvement as a scholar-performer in rock music performance. I have explained how my music analysis and performance can act as a kind of post-fieldwork cultural work.

This is beginning of my effort to depathologize racial melancholia, recontexualizing its association with the personal to consider it as a collective, social phenomenon. Racial melancholia is a structure of feeling and cultural impediments that have loomed over our existence. If the cycle of performing, ethnographic writing, and then back to performing can relieve us from this matrix, let us continue to do so.


[1] For more on Eng and Han’s conception of racial melancholia, read “A Dialogue on Racial Melancholia.” Loss: The Politics of Mourning, edited by David L. Eng and David Kazanjian. Berkeley and Los Angeles, C.A.: University of California Press.

[2] The most complete biography of the band Versus is found on Wikipedia. More, read: Wikipedia contributors, “Versus (band),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Versus_(band)&oldid=418761492 (accessed March 22, 2011).