Tag Archives: digital pedagogy

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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.

 

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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

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.