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.

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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.’

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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

teaching

Digital Vernacular Music-Cultures (v. 2.0)

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

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

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

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

Video: here

teaching

“The Mixtape Project” Assignment: learning through critical making

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

Here is the assignment prompt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

research

SEM/AMS/SMT Call for Abstract: Digital (Ethno)Musicology

For SEM 2012, I plan to form a panel on the theme of digital/computational explorations within and around the disciplines of ethnomusicology, musicology, amd music theory. The panel would be titled “Digital (Ethno)Musicology.” In this session, the panelists would address the ways in which, via an engagement with digital media and technology, they have extended and transformed the conventional modes of music research and inquiries: archival and sonic analysis, fieldwork, and ethnographic representation. Since this is a combined meeting with AMS and SMT, I welcome panelists with predominantly musicological inquiries as well.

I plan to present some work that I did in my dissertation on the Asian American experiences of playing independent rock music, using my Myspace scraping/mapping project as a case study of digital ethnography to discuss the implications of computational field research methods in the study of contemporary music-culture. Theoretically, this paper will revisit the notion of of cyberpunk in the context of the racial politics related to Asian identities on the Internet.

Any takers? Anyone interested in being a part of this panel? Abstracts are due January 17. In order get the submission ready in time, I would need to have a draft of your paper abstract by January 15 or so. Contact me via email (hsuw [at] oxy.edu) or Twitter (@wendyfhsu) if you are interested!

For amusement, here’s a video of my early attempt at becoming a cyborg:

performance research

Off-SEM2011 Video – How to Rock Asian America

This 3-part video addresses the issues of (in)visibility, Asian American identities, and reflexive performance as public scholarship. This video is based on a paper that would have been given at the Society of Ethnomusicology meeting in Philadelphia in 2011. In lieu of my physical presence at the conference, I have made a video to share my work in a form of a mass video.

Direct link to this video playlist on Youtube

performance research video

A Preview: My Off-SEM Video

I’m making a video in lieu of my physical presence at the Society of Ethnomusicology meeting in Philadelphia this weekend. My intention is to insert this video — on performance = public scholarship — into the (virtual) mix at the conference. I plan to release this video on Youtube and on this blog by the time of my scheduled presentation at SEM tomorrow morning at 10AM EST. I’m bummed that I will not be able to join you in person. But my sound and body will be with you in a virtual and hopefully meaningful way this weekend. Here I’m leaking a couple of pictures from the making of this video: