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.