Tag Archives: critical making

community arts design research

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

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

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

What is Nakashi?

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

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

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

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

"Exhortation Tricycle", Taipei, photo by Wendy Hsu
“Exhortation Tricycle”, Taipei, photo by Wendy Hsu

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

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

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

Sound/Place-Making for a Bustling LA

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

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

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

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

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

Provoking a Bustling Downtown at CicLAvia

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

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

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

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.

 

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