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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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


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.


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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Inhabiting the (aural) Aesthetic Dimension

A practice space at rest, in between bookings.

A practice space at rest, in between bookings.

Numerous memoirs, social-scientific studies, and anecdotal tales of passion and failure reveal cultural work to be a profoundly ambivalent affair. On one hand there are – at least superficially – numerous opportunities for self-expression and self-actualization compared to many other occupations. Work as a musician, sound engineer, animator, comedian, model, computer programmer, or graphic designer often affords a modicum of autonomy unavailable elsewhere. Beyond that, producing cultural objects seems – again, superficially – inherently meaningful in ways that garbage collecting or steel manufacturing do not. The flipside of this is of course exploitative internship practices, low wages, long hours, precarious employment, and what often amounts to a negative income (i.e. at the end of the day, you’re losing money in these occupations). Much of my recent research on work life in U.S. media industries builds on these observations in order to see how these opposites resolve themselves in the everyday experience of cultural work.

Now, the inherent “meaningfulness” of cultural work seems to stem from the fact that people in the music, film, or literary industries work and toil among the objects of our everyday leisure activities. Why wouldn’t you love playing video games as part of your programming job? Why wouldn’t you love being around music all day? Everyday? Perpetual, unrelenting, exposure to objects of sensorial excitement comprises an integral, though perhaps understudied, component of work within cultural industries.

What for the bulk of us, as consumers, comprises our most joyful aesthetic experiences constitutes the bulk of the material environment within cultural or “creative” firms. The sounds and images of our pleasure appear as someone else’s workaday world. Given working lives fully suffused by the objects of our joys as audience members and consumers (i.e. the culture in cultural industries), does this pleasure in aesthetics, sonorous or visual, carry over into the workplace, engendering positive relations between firm and employee? Or does culture in these cultural industries drift into the background, becoming nothing but an incessant flickering of frames or droning of sounds.

With this bundle of admittedly impressionistic questions, I’d like you all to contemplate the following recording from the hallways of a “full service creative space” in Los Angeles, CA. This company provides recording and rehearsal studios to a variety of musicians at various stages of their career. This recording represents the sonic backdrop for the employees. Listening to the clip, I think that you will find a bit of pleasure and a bit of dreary droning. You will hear thrashing hardcore punk blending with bluesy indie rock and then transforming into a group of Korean businessmen noodling over MIDI backing tracks.

Everyday the studio rents out eight rehearsal rooms to a wide variety of musician clients. Some of these clients, you might recognize from your own music collection, others you will never hear. Demanding divas with major label contracts and comically inept teenagers make use of the same spaces to hone their craft. Traversing the hallways while working here presents employees with an ever-shifting sonic topography, the volume of which seems not unlike the experience of a steel mill or manufacturing plant was for a previous generations of blue-collar employees. “After work my ears are ringing,” said one informant. “After a full day, I don’t want to listen to music. You’ll find me watching TV or reading,” said another. With that in mind, give this sonic walkthrough of my field site a listen.

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