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

community arts design performance

Movable Party: Redirecting the Flow of Power

I recently started a community arts project working with a group of students and student volunteers at Occidental alongside community artists and technologists to build a bike-powered interactive generator. My role within the project is to manage and help conceptualize all the moving parts, from materials to individuals. I began blogging at MovableParts.org and my first post, also a cross-post here, is about the social implications of the project.

How many times have you gone to a charge station at an airport only to find that all the plugs are being used? Have many conversations not mediated by a cell phone or other mobile computing devices have you witnessed in public spaces lately? It’s true that people don’t engage with one another in an embodied, face-to-face anymore. But sometimes people come into physical proximity when they need something – electricity. They crowd around charge stations or sit awkwardly in spaces around electrical outlets in order to gain access to electricity.

Charging station in waiting lounge, image CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by ariffjamili

A group of students – Judy Toretti, Jacob Brancasi, Maria Lamadrid, and Cory Bloor – at Art Center College of Design recognized this social pattern and took it to heart in their design of an interactive media system for a homeless youth organization called Jovenes in east LA. Working with the youth participants, the student designers came up with Conversation Space, an interactive cellphone charging booth that requires at least two individuals to step on a foot pedal in order to activate electrical current. The design calls for a coordinated effort on the part of the users. To achieve the common goal of charging cell phones (and other handheld devices critical to the lifeline of homeless youth), users must engage in a face-to-face social interaction. It could be as much as a conversation, as little as a nod, an eye contact, or a chin-up.

Conversation Space @ Jovenes , design by Judy Toretti & Jacob Brancasi

Conversation Space @ Jovenes

The design of Movable Party is meant to accomplish something similar. Like the foot pedal charging booth, our system attempts to transform people’s interactions by redirecting the flow of electricity. We don’t mean this in a strictly physical sense [don’t ask me explain the physics behind the flow of electrons, ask Joe.] What I’m referring to is a design that yields particular desirable social sequences. This design challenges power consumption, a behavioral norm in most public and urban spaces in this country, and shifts our normative relationship to electrical power from consumptive to generative.

Our efforts aim at creating opportunities to generate, instead of compulsively consuming, power. Pedaling is an exciting, eco-friendly, and embodied practice. At an advocacy event like Ciclavia, collective cycling can instantiate the power of human-scale transportation. Moreoever, pedaling comes with a direct consequence of powering a musical performance within our system. This is a participatory event that involves lots of agents including the cyclists on the generator, DJs who will be spinning records, and bystanders and passersby who may be dancing to the music. The embedded sensors and Arduino microcontrollers will interface the system to fine-tune the interactivity among all the participants.

Through a system that re-routes the flow of energy, we hope to articulate the generative impact of pedaling, a goal that involves the translation of the significance of electricity from the physical into the social and symbolic domain. We want people to congregate in a public space. We want them to realize that the outcome of the event – a musical performance – is contingent upon a collaborative process of generating power.

We can’t take electricity for granted. Electricity is not just a physical resource; it is also a kind of social resource that can be harnessed to bring people together. Electricity can be used to power communication that happens in mediated platforms. But we know that already. We hope on at the Ciclavia event on April 21, we will start to see how electrical power plays a critical role in igniting positive and communal social interactions.

* * *

Incidentally, at the airport before my flight took off from LAX, I went looking for an electrical outlet to charge my laptop.

I shared an electrical outlet in the airport terminal with a lady who struck up a friendly conversation with me. “Is that plug available?”

I said, “of course!”

She and I exchanged stories about the overwhelming presence of mediated communication in our society today. She told me that she just saw a mother and her young son of eight or nine years of age dining somewhere. The mother was on the phone the entire time. The son was left to entertain himself.

“Isn’t that ridiculous that we are so dependent on these devices? What did people use to do before cell phones? I guess they talked to people around them,” she remarked.

I said, “It’s funny that we’re talking about this. I’m working on a project that involves the building of a bike generator to power a music event.” I told her the rest of the project.

A few minutes later, with my laptop charged at 84 percent, I disengaged from the electrical outlet and packed up my gear.

Before I scurried off to board my flight, she smiled and said, “good luck with your project!”

Thank you, lady, whoever you are, for your kind reinforcement of the meaning of our project.

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.

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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).

 

building research

A multimodal musical analysis: visualizing diaspora

Since I work in the CDLR, I get to raise all kinds of wild questions that don’t fall into the purview of traditional, disciplinary bound scholarship. To prepare for my presentation at the Pop Conference (instituted by Experience Music Project in Seattle), this year combined with IASPM-US (International Association for the Study of Popular Music), I became preoccupied with the question: “How do I visualize a music analysis about space and place?”

My paper extends my dissertation work on The Kominas, a South Asian American punk band tied to the alternative Muslim subculture self-labeled as Taqwacore. In this paper, I chose to focus on the band’s music. Through a couple of song readings, I investigate the form and content of diasporic spaces as articulated by the band’s music. I argue that this unique geo-musical formation discursively moves seamlessly between a conventional notion of diaspora—migration of people away from an ancestral homeland—and a minority-centered, multi-diasporic space. Through a recent engagement with multimodal scholarship, I challenged myself to think beyond writing, a mode that conventionally represents academic work. I already use the concepts such as cartography and mapping as metaphors. Why should I limit the expression of my ideas to text only? Why not create a map of my music analysis especially since it’s about space and place?

Visualizing a musical analysis is nothing new. Music theorists have used music notations to represent sonic patterns key in their interpretation. More recently, theorists and information scientists used computational means to process sonic materials for patterns. Visualization became a way to explore patterns, bringing sounds into a (visual) domain that were previously inaccessible with the human senses.

My paper, however, does not engage with the use of the computational technologies to process sonic materials. It does something rather old-school. It simply draws several points on a map and then links them. It does not overlay demographic or musical data. It displays a couple of different geographical formations that illustrate the changing contour of a musical diaspora, a geographical space comprised of lyrical, sonic, and choreographic references. [I deployed Josh Kun’s concept of “audiotopia” to argue for the social and cultural effects of this geo-musical space.]

I began with a hand-drawn map. I used the Penultimate app on my iPad.

I quickly realized that my hand drawn diagram is not only messy but almost illegible. Through searching and playing, I settled with the web-based mapping program Scribble Maps to map this unique diasporic spaces. Using features such as vector graphics, media imports, and baselayer settings, I created a couple of maps that best approximate the geo-musical entities for which I argue in my analysis.

This map articulates The Kominas’ worldview. I positioned South Asia in a visually central spot, with the cultural region of Punjab and the city of Lahore highlighted. The song “Par Desi” articulates this geographical formation:

The song’s title explicitly figures the South Asian diaspora. Vocally and lyrically, the song evokes an ethnic and geographical quandary. The singer and bassist Basim’s voice shivers as he sings the chorus line, ‘In Lahore it’s raining water, in Boston it rains boots.’ The subject in the song defines his physical home in Boston, where he experienced an assault by skinhead punks. He sings, ‘They tried to stomp me out, but they only fueled the flame.’ The song narrates a history of migration and the emotions of displacement. It raises the questions, ‘Where do I point to blame, when men scatter like moths? /…  how’d I get here, from a land with long monsoons?’

The song’s references to traditional bhangra, a dance music genre that originated in Punjab, further complicates this geo-musical formation. In my analysis, I argue that the band projects a transnational bhangra-punk sound:

An 8-second analog sample of live bhangra percussion comes into the musical present. Immediately, this sample transports me, the listener, away from the emotional space of the lament. Continuing the triplet pattern of the bhangra sample, the band transforms the bhangra rhythm into a collective punk-style chanting of ‘la-la-la’ in the final section of the song. This chant rejoices in the form of a Clash-like punk choir, roughly in unison with a distorted guitar.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

This bhangra-punk aesthetic is projected from a South-Asian- or desi-identified ethnic space: imagined somewhere between Punjab, 1970s punk England, and present-day home in the northeastern United States. The Kominas, I contend, elides its physical home in Boston and the U.S.; at the same time, the band self-consciously embeds itself into historical punk England to reclaim a new musical home.

I discovered a different but related diasporic configuration in “Tunnnnnn.” This song articulates a minoritarian, multi-diasporic space.

The Kominas alludes to the original roots reggae version of the song (“Armagideon Time” Jamaican artist by Willi Williams). In doing so, the band resituates their version of the song into a Rastafari time-space. The Kominas locates its own battleground, while borrowing from the Rastafari visions of Armageddon.

I hear The Kominas calling for its own ‘Armagideon,’ in the new lyrics written in Punjabi. According to Basim’s translation, the first verse states: ‘We will only drink that / That they are drinking in Iraq / We will only drink that / that they would drink in Karballah (sic).’ It is not a coincidence that both Iraq and Karbala are iconic battle sites both in the past and present. The War in Iraq after the events on September 11 has been a topical preoccupation by The Kominas since its first album (entitled Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay). The band has made clear its stance of castigating the western world, in particular the United States, for waging a war motivated by Islamophobia, militarism, and imperialism. Following the Punjabi lyrics, Basim evokes the overthrow of 21st century Babylonians. In English, he sings the lines, ‘A lot of people won’t get justice tonight / A lot of people wont’ get no supper tonight / Just remember to / Kick it over / And praise Jehovah / And kick it out.’

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The Kominas’ musical alliance with roots reggae, the music of those in Jamaica as well as the Jamaican immigrants, rewrites the history of the racial dynamics in 1960s and 1970s England. Challenging the history of “paki-bashing” in England, The Kominas’ music prominently figures the South Asian subjectivity. This musical geography has discursively reorganized the racial relations between blackness, whiteness, and Asianness. It also forges a musical alliance between a South Asian American band and the Afro-Caribbeans in Jamaica and the U.K..

In its overlays, these maps bring into relief various sites of geopolitics related to postcolonial struggles. This spatial articulation, I contend, is a minority-centered project of reterritorialization. It points away from the band’s physical home in the United States to re-focus on geographical sites symbolic of resistance. Its identification with loci of anti-white-supremacy and anti-imperialism, I argue, is a response to the post-9/11 social alienation and melancholia. Through the creative adaptations of Punjabi musical roots and transnational routes via the U.K., Jamaica, and Lahore, the band has built a psycho-social home in its music.

Coda: These two maps are extensions of my work at UVa’s Scholars’ Lab where I made a series of Myspace friendship distribution maps of a handful of bands (including The Kominas) featured in my dissertation. I’m happy that I’m in the position to use experimental and digital methods to further my explorations of the relationship between pop music and postcolonial geography. This cluster of ideas and modes of inquiry truly excites me.

 

 

 

 

 

building

Improving WordPress Search Function: Plugin Fun

I recently decided to start sharing my reflections on my day-to-day as a postdoc in digital scholarship at Oxy. I welcome feedback on my work because at times I feel as if much of our work could go unnoticed in a world so dominated by conventional notions of research and learning. Anything alternative to traditional research (i.e. publishing) and teaching (within the curriculum) — or labeled as #altac — could get lost in the mix.

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One of the faculty projects associated with the CDLR (Center for Digital Learning + Research) is Lisa Wade’s Sociological Images, one of the most visible and influential public sociology sites in the blogosphere. To follow up on our last meeting with Lisa, I scoped out the use of a plugin as a possible solution to improve the search function on a WordPress site. Specifically I played with a WordPress search plugin called Relevansii because of its high ratings and robust documentation community.

On the backend, the admin can configure the setting of the search to enable a specific combination of AND/OR queries. For instance, it could run a AND query first and if no results return, it would run an OR search. It does a good job with phrase search with quotes (e.g. “hillbilly music”). And it has fuzzy matching (matching partial words if complete words don’t match).

With a bit of script tweaking, with the help from Relevansii’s documentation page, I got the plugin to work pretty well on my course blog for CSP 27 Race and Gender in Pop Music. I have it set so that it searches the post content, title, tags, and categories. I gave more weight to post titles than  tags and comments. Based on the configured algorithm, the search gives a “relevance score” which determines the order of the research results. I also got the result page to highlight the search terms in excerpts and indicate the number of hits.

To display the number of search results, I tweaked the one-line code that I found on the documentation page and inserted it into the line scripted to return the search term in the header section of the code in search.php. [The WP theme that I use for the blog is Twentyeleven.]

<?php printf( __( $wp_query->found_posts . ' Search Results for: %s', 'twentyeleven' ), '<span>' . get_search_query() . '</span>' ); ?>

One could further tweak the look of the search results; for instance, changing the length of the excerpts, font style of the search terms, etc.

What’s cool about this plugin is that one could do a category/tag filter in the search. This restricts the search to process only the documents labeled with a selected category/tag term [similar to the search on commercial sites like newegg.com or Amazon]. I tweaked the standard searchform.php using the example code snippet that I found on the documentation page. This is the bit of code that I ended using:

<form method="get" id="searchform" action="<?php echo esc_url( home_url( '/' ) ); ?>">
 <label for="s" class="assistive-text"><?php _e( 'Search', 'twentyeleven' ); ?></label>
 <input type="text" class="field" name="s" id="s" placeholder="<?php esc_attr_e( 'Search', 'twentyeleven' ); ?>" />
 <?php wp_dropdown_categories(array('show_option_all' => 'All categories'));
     /*this is code snippet from relevansii for category filter */
  ?>
 <input type="submit" class="submit" name="submit" id="searchsubmit" value="<?php esc_attr_e( 'Search', 'twentyeleven' ); ?>" />
</form>

On my blog, I have it set up so that the search results can be filtered by the existing post categories (namely, reading responses, assignment, etc). In the case of Sociological Images, it would be useful to restrict the search using the existing tags on the site. Alternatively, one could further refine the structure of the posts by assigning them with higher-level category terms.

Give it a shot and play around: http://cdlrsandbox.org/wordpress/racegenderpop/

 

 

building teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 

building research

Back at it again: Tinkering with Maps

I played with Google Map API v.3 in OpenLayers today with the mission to fix a couple things broken on my Myspace Friendship Web Map. All of this is inspired by my recent revisit of my spatial (ethno)musicology at my UCLA talk on digital ethnography and the NCCSEM roundtable on alternative careers for ethnomusicology PhDs at Santa Clara University this past weekend. I also want to make some new visualizations for my talk at the upcoming EMP/IASMP meeting in New York in a couple of weeks.

More significantly, I’ve been preoccupied with how I can build on my music-map project. With the goal to develop tools to visualize the relationship between music and space, I want to go a step further than visualizing socio-musical communities to find a way to visualize the spatial patterns in the sound and lyrics of songs. This constellation of impulses and mini codling practices will contribute to my eventually goal of building a site, web hub for music scholars to rethink how the digital would enhance the spatial understanding of music and music-cultures.

I set aside a large chunk of time today to read and code today. I read Julie Meloni’s webcraft book to learn the syntax of JavaScript so that I could decipher the OpenLayers script that Joe and I worked on at the Scholars’ Lab. I read about DOM and reviewed some introduction to the basic structure, objects, and syntax of JavaScript. I also found out the some time early last year, Google came out with a Google Map API version 3. They are in the process of phasing out, or to use their language, “deprecating” version 2. So I set out to learn how to make the Google Map API version 3 work with the OpenLayers script that I came up with, while working with Joe (Gilbert) at the Scholars’ Lab.

I read the source code of the OpenLayers Google Map V.3 example and inserted parts of it into my original OL script. By the end of the day, I was able to get V3 to work in a new version [Kominasmap5.html]. In this version, Google Map layers download properly with the Spherical-Mercator projection. The loading time for the GM layers is much faster than better. The block-by-block layer download is replaced by a much faster download of the entire map. But the WMS layers (such as world_regions and muslim_majority) that the Scholars Lab created, however, are currently malfunctioning at this point. I took those parts of the script [var Layers] out to avoid brokenness.

I also learned how to center the map on specific lat-long coordinates. I decided to center the map with Singapore (103.8, 1.3667). I figured this way I can concentrate the friendship patterns in Asia, in particular South and Southeast Asia.

Here is the snippet of code that’s related to centering and projection:

new OpenLayers.Projection("EPSG:4326"),
map.getProjectionObject()
), 5);

I have no idea why “EPSG:4326″ is used in the OpenLayers Google Map v.3 example. This is especially puzzling when it explains in its comments that “Google.v3 uses EPSG:900913 as projection, so we have to // transform our coordinates.” In order to solve this puzzle, I may need to read about how projection works in OpenLayers.

In addition, the zoom is still broken (as it is in the previous version–kominasmap3–the public one hosted on beingwendyhsu.info) in the new version. The map can’t be zoomed all the out to the inter-continental level as before. I was not able to fix this in this iteration. A perhaps related problem is that the zoom bar on the left side of the map panel disappeared in this version.

I’m happy to be back at hacking, coding, and building again. It makes me feel incredibly productive. It feeds my inner child who loves to learn new things and imagine possibilities.

Goals for the next round:
– place a continent layer back into the map
– insert a zoom bar
– read parts of Julie M’s book on variables, functions, etc (ch 16 + 17)

Some OpenLayers zoom examples:
http://openlayers.org/dev/examples/fractional-zoom.html
http://openlayers.org/dev/examples/zoom.html
http://openlayers.org/dev/examples/fractional-zoom.html