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.

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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, musicology PhD student Mike D’Errico 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!”

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

UCLA is providing lunch for event participants!! Please RSVP to Mike D’Errico (michael.derrico@ucla.edu) 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.

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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.

#PosmeSalto

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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Seashell Sound: Eerie and Eary Doubles

Mural by Robert Reid in Library of Congress’s Jefferson Building, ca. 1896.

Mural by Robert Reid in Library of Congress’s Jefferson Building, ca. 1896.

At Cabinet Magazine Stefan Helmreich speaks shells and:

“puts an ear to popular science and poetry, following a history that has, first, shells singing, speaking, sighing, and echoing distant oceanic and communal pasts, and next, shells reflecting back the personal and present moment, and, then, as we approach today, delivering sounds imagined deep inside, rather than outside, human bodies. At stake are changing models of the relation between hearing, the world, and the self, with the avowedly mystical and communal gradually replaced by the secular, scientific, and individual—though, with the arrival of the blood-in-the-ears interpretation, infused anew with an element of the mythical.”

Read on for “blood music,” “eerie and eary doubles,” “ethno-conchology,” and more.

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Performing the Sound Ethnography Project, Concord

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I was recently invited to curate and perform the Sound Ethnography Project at Concord, an artist-run gallery and trans-disciplinary collective in Los Angeles, for the opening of their PS 1010: Road Felt exhibition. I selected and mixed fieldrecordings produced by colleagues and myself  for the Project. I appropriated a DJ-style setup to perform and mix the recordings. The sounds of a technologically-assisted ghost hunt seeped into the static-saturated radio of a bus in Beirut. A televised South Korean computer gaming championship faded into bird calls in the Brazilian Amazon. I also projected associated images and film to accompany–but not overwhelm–the sounds. I experimented with an ethnographic surrealism to try to highlight the importance of sound in our research, environments, and day-to-day lives.

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Concord’s Road Felt an exhibition based on their recent “research adventure” in a teal school bus traveling between LA, New Orleans, Memphis, and Oakland. They “returned with a mess of memories and documents (photos, notes, soil samples, rips in our clothes). Somewhere in between memory and this documentation is our archive.” They then organized their by feeling:

Feeling is a peculiar mode of organization. It can’t be disagreed with, like place or date. But unlike intuition or chance, it can be explained, explored, and justified. Feeling is neither subjective nor objective—a contradiction the difference between emotion and affect is supposed to clarify. Rather, feeling mediates the divide—a feature that capital enjoys poaching as a technology and a commodity.

The exhibition really impressed me with how they embraced the excess and the messiness of the archive, seeming to question its boundaries. Photographs, sound recordings–pick up those unmarked headphones on the wall–pages from books, video, various documents were displayed to dizzying effect.

I also was lucky to share the evening with  Bitter Party an LA-based band which “celebrates the melancholy of life” experimenting with “ghost pop” from Asia. They “thrive on musical adventures across media. Parsing and mixing content from dusty tapes, vinyls, songbooks, and YouTube channels, they enliven song memories across the Pacific to haunt their post-cosmopolitan, post-digital living.”

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Preserving Sound: A documentary on the British Library’s Sound Archive

The Wire goes underground into the vaults of the British Library’s Sound Archive.

“The 20th century was about audiovisual material, our memory of the 20th century is heavily audiovisual, but our sense of the 21st century is going to be a different kind of audiovisual…. archiving is not going to be so much about what we can bring in, but about what to exclude. Otherwise you’re going to end up with a white noise of information which is completely incomprehensible,” says Will Prentice, British Library Audio Engineer and Conservation Specialist.

This  documentary presents an insider tour of the Library’s vast archive and of its digitization and curating activities with key sound specialists. Nathan Budzinski interviews Popular Music Curator Andy Linehan, Audio Engineer & Conservation specialist Will Prentice, and Wildlife Sounds Curator Cheryl Tipp.

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