Category Archives: research

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.

event research

A couple of things for Open Access at SEM

Instead of a physical participation at the Open Access roundtable at the annual meeting of Society of Ethnomusicology (SEM) in Pittsburgh today, I’ve offered my thoughts in the form of an audio recording and a post for Ethnomusicology Review (reblogged by JustPublics@365 out of CUNY). In this post, I traced the lifecycle of two of publishing projects from fieldwork to journal articles and argued for a productive tension between blogging and academic writing.

To sum up the post, I end with the following:

Publishing, to me, in its simplistic sense, is to make something public. If our public precludes those who have been our research associates, or individuals without institutional affiliations or access to scholarly journals, then we should rethink how we communicate our scholarship. Lastly, I return to the question of research impact, an inquiry central to the ethnographic perspective and a critical step of the ethnographic feedback loop. The issue of transparency can set the course of impact of our research. Having an open and transparent channel of communication is the beginning of a meaningful dialogue we ethnomusicologists can foster with the public. Informational openness, however, is a complex discourse that requires further contextualization and its discussion would not complete without a full consideration of access, ethics, and responsibility (Christen 2012). We’re living in a moment where the value of scarcity associated with industrial mode of production (Suoranta and Vadén 2008:131) is being challenged by the dispersed openness afforded by digital media. The scholarly publishing industry itself is a cultural field with policies and infrastructures driven by commercial values (Miller 2012) that mostly defy public interests. We should maintain our critical viewpoints as we engage with our own scholarly communication practices.

For a more personal framing on the meaning of open access publishing for a young off-tenure-track scholar, listen to this short audio recording. It’s kind of a pep talk.

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.

research

Digital Ethnography Paper Is Out!

Digital Ethnography article in JDH byWendy Hsu

I’m thrilled to announce that my article entitled “Digital Ethnography Toward Augmented Empiricism: A Methodological Framework” is finally out in the latest issue of Journal of Digital Humanities. This paper is the culmination of a series of making, coding, experimenting, writing, and reframing efforts to redefine the role of ethnography in the age of digital information. I open with the following provocation:

Culture takes variegated forms, including lived experiences, social interactions, memories, rituals, transactions, events, conversations, stories, gestures, and expressive disciplines like music and dance. These processes and artifacts of social life make an ethnographer’s job as analyst and cultural documentarian dynamic and challenging. The increasing digital mediation in the field of ethnographic inquiry is undeniable. Through the engagement of individual users, governments, corporations, and even grassroots organizations, the ubiquity of computational technology has a far-reaching impact on social life. These technologies mediate culture by documenting, sharing, sensing, tagging, locating, trading, synchronizing, filtering, automating, remixing, and mining the everyday experiences of our research associates. Rather than walking away from the digital, we ethnographers should give serious considerations to software as infrastructure and materiality at the sites of our research. We should also be mindful of our own digital research practices as we utilize digital technology to organize, manage, and publish our field findings.

A preview of what my paper delves into:

In this article, I examine how working with a variety of digital tools, including webscraping, mapping, and sound visualization, could widen the scope of ethnographic work and deepen our practice. I stay within the domain of data gathering in part one. In part two, I talk about the process of interpreting field data and the value of geospatial visualizations. The last part explores digital methods that magnify our perception of physical senses like sound, sight, and space. Throughout these discussions, I will also comment on the methodological, and where relevant, the social implications of these approaches.

Finally, I end with the call:

Digital ethnography as I have methodologically reframed is not fundamentally different from traditional ethnography. We have learned much from doing things across the silos of the society and the academy because doing in the form of participation, as opposed to thinking or theorizing alone, is humbling and it pushes the boundaries of our horizons. This multiplicity—in senses, modalities, information sources, languages, categories, data types, and frames of analysis—speaks to a juncture at which technology underlies the change in form and content in our social life. In addition to speculating and theorizing this change, we should heed the praxis axiom of ethnography to open up the black box of ethnographic methodology, so that we can experiment with how we practice, embody, and enact the lessons from the field. Maybe then we can be better informed as we shape the development of technologies that undergird our work.

This paper wouldn’t be possible without the thoughtful feedback from Bethany Nowiskie, Tricia Wang, and JDH editor Stephanie Westcott; and support from the University of Virginia’s Scholars Lab (special shoutout to Joe Gilbert!) and Occidental College’s Center for Digital Learning + Research. I am grateful of you.

For those who are code-curious, I appended the webscraper code to the article.

 

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