Sounds of the New Age, Part 1: Singing Crystals

Josef N. Wieland, an anthropology graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, shares some of his current research tracking global gemstone networks spanning from Brazilian miners to luxury consumers in southern California. This is the first of Josef’s tw0-part series on Sounds of the New Age.

I first encountered “singing crystals” at a gem and mineral show at a Holiday Inn in Santa Ana, California several years ago. I was among a group of crystal customers lingering in hotel room that had been converted to a metaphysical shop for the weekend.

“Wow, singing crystals,”  a woman next to me read from a small paper sign next to a tray of small, slender Brazilian quartz crystals with a light pinkish hue. Picking up the crystals for the first time, I was surprised by the high pitched “clink” that they made when I rolled them around in my hand. It was oddly calming, almost cathartic. In New Age spiritual communities, singing crystals are thought to hold a powerful centering vibration that can help release creative energies. Some crystal healers jingle a few singing crystals in the palm of their hand during healing sessions, and others have suggested that the resonance of singing crystals can transform the body’s subtle energies during meditation practices.
During fieldwork at the Tucson Gem Show last month, I purchased a bag of random crystals, and upon opening the bag, I noticed that some of the crystals “sang” while others only thudded against each other.  One friend explained to me that the temperature of formation and purity of the crystals causes them to resonate at a distinct frequency, but I am awaiting a gemologist to verify this!
In the video I have separated the singing crystals from the “regular” crystals. The sonic differences, in my opinion, are striking. While researching the global New Age quartz crystal market, I’ve tried to look beyond the use of sight, the most obvious sense employed in evaluating and categorizing crystals’ luster, shape, and color. Singing crystals are unique in that they invite a much different sensory engagement with quartz and its metaphysical properties. What can the resonance of these crystals tell us about the subtle role that sound plays in other global commodities, from designer electronics to luxury car engines?
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Provoke! A Special Collection of Digital Sound Studies

Cross-posted on Innovating Communication in Scholarship

Screen-Shot-2015-01-06-at-12.05.12-PM-e1420564088283Provoke!  published its first online collection of sonic scholarship, making scholarly communication just a little noisier. As the editors write:

“Provoke! creates a home for creative-critical projects by makers, documentary artists, and sound scholars whose work presses at the boundaries of scholarship. Envisioned as ‘provocations’ to existing forms of publication, these projects relate to one another through their deep engagement with sonic materials and innovative formal presentation….

The editors, known collectively as Soundbox, wish to see audio material featured more abundantly and creatively in scholarly settings. At the heart of our collaboration is a bold aspiration to hear sound used as a primary means of knowledge production.”

Their website privileges listening. Hovering one’s cursor over different projects triggers related sound. The range of scholarship and approaches are impressive. Perhaps the challenges of working between media and fields of expertise fostered frequent collaboration. Dancers, composers, ethnomusicologists, curators, sound artists and others worked together. The pieces include “a city symphony of sounds” collected before the 2010 earthquake in Port-Au Prince; recordings from a music studio set up in the Richmond, VA jail; and an audio effects processor, Paperphone, for giving scholars tools to ‘sonify’ their presentations.

As part of Paperphone’s debut at the UCLA, I had agreed to become one of experimenters. Using the MaxLive software plug-in, I performed “Mixtape Rio,” weaving together soundscapes I recorded with my vocal narration. Everyone’s varying uses of the software revealed and opened up new possibilities for scholarly communication and artistic creation.

But, what of credit and evaluation for this kind of scholarship? How does the work register as scholarship and what challenges does it present for the standardized peer-review model of publishing? Support and guidance from well-respected individuals and institutions helps; Duke’s Franklin Humanities Institute and PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge sponsored the initiative. Also, the online iteration of Provoke! Digital Sound Studies will be followed by an edited volume to be published by Duke in Fall 2015. Perhaps, these multiple modes of publishing can work together to strengthen and push the possibilities for scholarship– sonic or otherwise.

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Feliz Navidad from San Miguel de Allende!

Last night, Christmas Eve San Miguel de Allende reverberated with bells from every direction. The city’s three-hundred or so churches each seemed to have their own, slightly different schedule for ringing in la navidad. The Parroquia, the city’s main parrish church in the main square, the Jardin, dominated the soundscape with its bells ringing for about five minutes each hour.  After night fell, fireworks boomed through the air from seemingly every family’s party. Feliz Navidad!

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Standardardizing Species: Listening to, Representing, and Universalizing Bird Sounds in the 20th Century

I’m excited for Alexandra Hui’s upcoming talk November 4th at UC Davis and for the chance to act as discussant of her paper. She will be the second invited speaker of our Innovating Communication in Scholarship and Center for Science and Innovation Studies Speaker Series.  If you can attend,  RSVP for the paper.


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Singing on the Train

If traveling by train from Sicily to mainland Italy, the train is cut in half and boards a ferry. The ferry, carrying its cargo of train cars and passengers, crosses the Strait of Messina- a narrow passage connecting the Ionian Sea to the south with the Tyrrhenian Sea of the north.

Sicily was being left behind, but the Sicilians aboard the train made their presence known up through Calabria into Catania, finally arriving at dusk, pulling into Napoli Termini.

For an hour, a man had been singing along to his radio a couple compartments ahead of mine. I read and watched the scenery pass before I even thought to take out my i-phone and record what I had been hearing. It was so casual, so woven into the fabric of the sound waves of travel, that I hadn’t thought anything of it.

Of course when I hit record, he sang a few more lilting notes before falling silent.
Later someone else picked up the tune in a whistle.

I never saw either of them. When I walked up on deck, girls were taking selfies, curly tendrils of hair whipping across their faces in the wind.


My first day in Naples. There is a church on the top of Spaccanapoli- the narrow street the cuts through old Naples like a knife.

Inside half a dozen old women were reciting the rosary. My friend Mahriano indicated my phone and whispered, “Record this, no?”

The church echo and monotony of the women’s recitations cast a spell. I don’t know how long they had been there that day and I don’t know how much longer they stayed after we slid out. What Mahriano did tell me was that they come everyday. But only the old and devout. The ritual will die out when they die.

When we stepped out onto Spaccanapoli, bells from a neighboring church began ringing through the air. The cacophony of the street began.

-Nadia Szold

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Paperphone, a Scholarly Voice Playground

Digital humanist Wendy Hsu and experimental music artist Jonathan Zorn have been hard at work on Paperphone, an audio effects processor designed for scholarly papers exploring the nexus between humanities and sound. Version 1.0 boasts 16 effect presets including Operatic, Stairwell, Walkie Talkie, Femme, Butch, Lo-fi, Robot, Garage, Eavesdropping, and Hypothetical.

They will launch Paperphone in a couple of weeks with a workshop/demo at UCLA. I’m excited to join them and fellow experimenters,Wendy Hsu and artist James Raymond, to demonstrate the possibilities of Paperphone. I’m planning on doing a live sound essay by mixing and narrating field recordings I’ve done in Rio de Janeiro to create a mixtape of the city.

As Wendy writes, “We are excited to play with our audio processing application in and outside of the expected rituals of scholarly knowledge production. In addition to the demo, we will engage with users with an interest to implement Paperphone in a workshop format. Come and play with us!”


May 15, noon – 2pm.
UCLA Schonberg Music Building, Room 1230

UCLA is providing lunch for event participants!! Please RSVP to Mike D’Errico ( by May 14th.

UPDATE:                                                                                                                                                   Unfortunately I did not record my “mixtape of the city” at UCLA. I did, however, record a non-narrated mini-mix I made while playing around with and learning Paperphone. I used field recordings that I made in March 2014 in Rio de Janeiro. Listen in for forro, a Northeastern regional music, played live in Brazil’s largest favela; Bossa Nova in Copacabana’s Bip Bip bar, a tiny 50 year old samba establishment; marmosets in the Laranjeiras neighborhood; and birdsong recordings piped into the metro station in Rio’s city center.

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Fare protest!

On December 20th of last year, I made the attached recording at a subway station in Mexico City.  On it, the normal voices of travelers resound a bit more loudly than usual through the expansive above-ground station.  There is shouting and a man on a megaphone.  Other organizers (like the one you’ll hear on this recording) were jumping turnstiles without paying and explaining their protest to others.

The transit protests came to Metro Ciudad Universitaria  as they came to many Metro stations in Mexico City this winter.  Police stood by to watch, a coterie of journalists followed alongside them with boom mics and video cameras, and a small crowd held their phones up to take photos.

Photographing the protest

Ciudad Universitaria, or CU, is a busy Metro stop at the southern end of the Green Line that runs all the way down from Indios Verdes in the north of Mexico City. It is a main access point to both the working-class neighborhood of Santo Domingo (made somewhat famous by anthropologist Matthew Gutmann in his 1996 book on masculinity in Mexico) and the massive campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónomo de México, which sit to either side of the station, as well as to buses that take passengers even further on.

Metro prices have been low.  In 2011, when I first began to visit this city, a ticket cost $3 MXN ($0.26 USD at the time)* with support from the municipal government.  That rate is still available– to female heads of households, unemployed people, and poor students willing to stand in very long lines and file paperwork.

They are not, however, available to anyone else.  At the end of 2013, Manuel Mancera’s PRD city government put it to a vote and 55.7% of voters supported an increase in fares to cover basic maintenance and expansion of the Metro system.


Fares went up to $5 MXN from $3 MXN.  It’s not much: in USD a ticket costs $0.38 now.  But it’s enough. Minimum wage in Mexico is $64.76 MXN per day in high-paid areas like Mexico City, which does not allow much room for even a small increase in the cost of daily transit.

The chart to the right, which demonstrates the constraints of living on such a budget, made the rounds on Tumblr.

I’ve  found notes all winter stuck to official notices about the fare changes in Metro trains, listing hashtags or naming stations, dates, and times for people to come and jump turnstiles.


Which leads us back to the protest at CU underneath the huge mural of Mexican revolutionaries.

The protest I saw was nonviolent, like many other transit protests written up in the local papers this winter.

The sounds you can hear on this recording were made by maybe 30-some protesters, most dressed like students.  They echo a bit threateningly, and were an overwhelming sensory experience for me after a day in the archives.

All the official reports I’ve read are about peaceful demonstrations.  In the past months, though, I’ve also heard stories about protesters abusing people verbally and physically when they chose not to hop turnstiles and join in during an event like the one I’ve recorded here.  

These stories are apocryphal but ominous.  I paid my fare, and so did plenty of the people in the photograph above, standing with their cell phones aloft.  But do you think you could hear it, in this recording, if the protesters were harassing passersby?  I wish I had recorded more than the urgent voice of the protester here– I wish I could present you with eye rolls,  sympathies, and worries that come up in conversations about these protests, too.

The stories of violence are, I think, an undercurrent to everything that I’m giving you to listen to here.  I heard the first one only a few days after I recorded this.  The rumors, though, are harder to capture than the roar.

*The $ sign is used to designate prices in Mexican pesos the same way it is used to designate prices in dollars.
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