Episodes

Ep. 21: A Life Based on an Experiment (Siavash Amini)

Episode 21 presents a portrait of Iranian experimental composer Siavash Amini. His music, which moves seamlessly between contemplative ambience, menacing dissonance, and spacious melodicism, has been released on experimental imprints such as Umor Rex and Room40. His latest, A Mimesis of Nothingness, just came out on the Swiss label Hallow Ground.  

Siavash tells host Mack Hagood that his entire life is based on an experiment and he doesn’t yet know what its outcome will be. This episode traces the contours of that story, from his boyhood as a metalhead in a small Iranian port town to his role in the development of Tehran’s lauded experimental music scene. Along the way, we drill down on the international and internal politics that add danger and difficulty to the life of this outspoken leftest composer. 

Amini is forced to navigate not only the authoritarianism of Iranian government censorship, but also the authoritarianism of western tastemakers, who sometimes want him to make the “Middle Eastern music” they hear in their own heads. Steadfast in his individuality, Siavash makes sounds that resist these authorities–the defiant anthems of an imaginary land, population: one.

Most of the music in this episode is by Siavash Amini–listen to it again in this Spotify playlist and check out this great introduction to his music on Bandcamp.

This episode was edited by Mack Hagood.  

Ep. 20: What is Radio Art (Colin Black)

What is radio art? It’s a rather unfamiliar term in the United States, but in other countries, it’s a something of an artistic tradition. Today’s guest, Dr. Colin Black  is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning radio artist and composer. He speaks to us about his practice as a radio artist and the influence the Australian radio program The Listening Room had on Australia’s sonic avant garde. We then listen to his piece Out Of Thin Air: Radio Art Essay #1, which both explores and exemplifies the possibilities of radio art. It’s both informative and a total treat for the ears!

The piece was originally commissioned by the Dreamlands commissions for Radio Arts, funded by the Arts Council England and Kent County Council.

Out Of Thin Air: Radio Art Essay #1 is a meta-referencing poetic reflection and meditation on radio art underpinned by an artistic treatment of dislocation, transmission, reception and place as a thematic underscore. The work is in the form of an abstract song cycle that chiefly oscillates between “songs” originating from High Frequency (HR) radio static/broadcasts between 3 and 30 MHz and those from interviewees replying to questions relating to radio art. Location recordings, sound effect and musical composition weave this originating material together to form a sonic confluence and juxtaposition of elements to stimulate the listener’s imagination while offering an insight into the work’s subject matter.

Interviewees (in order of appearance): Armeno Alberts, Tom Roe, Jean-Philippe Renoult, Gregory Whitehead, Götz Naleppa, Andrew McLennan, Elisabeth Zimmermann, Heidi Grundmann, Andreas Hagelüken, Teri Rueb and Kaye Mortley

Producer and Composer: Colin Black
High Frequency (HR) radio receiver operator: Dimitri Papagianakis

Duration: 00:25:10

Music for this episode is by Blue the Fifth. 
 
We also hear a brief excerpt of Things Change,Things Stay the Same by Rik Rue. 

Ep. 19: Under Construction

It’s been a minute, so in this short episode, we update you on what’s happening with Phantom Power and what’s coming in 2020.

The big (and sad) news is that co-host cris cheek is departing. After two years of lending his unique voice, ideas, and turns of phrase to the show–not to mention producing fantastic episodes like his interview with This Heat’s Charles Hayward–cris has decided to refocus on his many other creative endeavors. 

We will miss cris, but the show will go on. And he’s been kind enough to let us continue using his golden intro! Check out the pod to hear about some of our upcoming 2020 episodes, with guests including Colin Black, Harriet Ottenheimer, Jonathan Sterne, and Siavash Amini.   

Ep. 18: Screwed and Chopped (Re-cast)

Houston slab with neon in trunk

Slab trunks feature sound systems and visual displays.

Today we re-cast one of our favorite episodes, an interview with folklorist and Houston native Langston Collin Wilkins, who studies “slab” culture and the “screwed and chopped” hip hop that rattles the slabs and serves as the culture’s soundtrack.

Since the 1990s, many of Houston’s African American residents have customized cars and customized the sound of hip hop. Cars called “slabs” swerve a slow path through the city streets, banging out a distinctive local music that paid tribute to those very same streets and neighborhoods.

Wilkins shows us how sonic creativity turns a space—a collection of buildings and streets—into a place that is known, respected, and loved.

In this show we hear the slow, muddy, psychedelic sounds of DJ Screw and The Screwed Up Click, including rappers such as Lil Keke, Fat Pat, Big Hawk, and UGK–as well as songs by Geto Boys, Willie Dee, SwishahousePoint Blank, Biggie Smalls, and MC T Tucker & DJ Irv.

Photos by Langston Collin Wilkins.

[low humming and static playing]

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power.

 

[Tamborine beat blends in]

 

Episode 7: Screwed and Chopped.

 

[Hip hop music with vocals cuts in]

 

Parental discretion is advised. Welcome to Phantom Power. I’m cris cheek. Today on the seventh and final episode of our first season, my co-host Mack Hagood converses with Langston Collin Wilkins. Langston is a folklorist an ethnomusicologist active in both academia and the public sector. Working as a traditional art specialist at the Tennessee Arts Commission. Mack spoke with Langston recently about his research into Houston’s unique slab, car culture. The city’s relationship to hip hop and hip hop’s to community. Enjoy.

 

[Different hip hop music plays]

 

[MACK HAGOOD]

So before we get into the research of Langston Collin Wilkins, maybe we should get one question out of the way. Why would a folklorist be studying hip hop? Don’t they study things like folk tales or traditional music or quilting? Well, in fact the folklorist I know study things like bodybuilding and fashion and internet memes. Folklorists study everyday creativity. One contemporary definition of folklore is “artistic communication in small groups.” As Langston shows, it’s the way a town like Houston gets a look and a sound all its own, but folklore didn’t lead Langston to hip hop. In fact, it was quite the other way around.

 

[Hip hop music cuts out]

 

[LANGSTON COLLINS WILKINS]

Back when I was a kid, around 12 years old, I received my first hip hop record, which was the “Ghetto Boys Resurrection Album”  in 1996.

 

[A song from the album plays]

 

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, the south side, where Scarface is from that same area. The Ghetto Boys in my hometown heroes as they are for everyone growing up in Houston in those communities. I just became obsessed with hip hop, and not just the music, but just the larger culture and community surrounding it. I was reading everything I could get my hands on about hip hop, I was watching everything, just studying the culture and that kind of continued through college. When I got the grad school, I went hoping to study hip hop in some form or fashion. It was through hip hop that I learned about folklore and became interested in it. I spent a year doing ethnographic research in Houston amongst the hip hop community there. I focus mostly on I guess the more street oriented or gangsta rappers, and we’re studying the artists and producers connection to place. I was looking at how and why these artists was so deeply connected to the city itself, apartment buildings, streets, neighborhoods,  and how these attachments and connection to place have been reproduced in their musical output.

 

[Different hip hop song plays]

 

Why do Houston Raptors always shout out, call out, give dedications to places that they are familiar and intimately connected with?

 

[Several places are listed through hip hop songs]

Washington, Armstrong, Mainwelles and St. Williams. Robinson, Thomas Hopes, we all be chillin but when a sucka starts illin’, the chillin gets rough, and like (inaudible) we tie an ass up.

 

[song continues, then ends]

 

[LANGSTON]

That’s what I studied and as I was doing that research I realized that this car culture slab, which originated in Houston Texas, was a part of this place identity that these artists were projecting.

 

[Street sounds with cars, motors running, and people talking]

 

It originated amongst working class African Americans in the early 1980s. It’s hard to offer a concrete definition of slabs, but mostly they’re older modeled cars, older model American luxury cars. So we’re talking Cadillacs, Lincolns,old mobiles, if you can find those, and they’re modified in various ways. Some of the core components include the rims or wheels which are in the community call swingers or elbows depending on who you talk to. These are 30 spoked home like wheels made of chrome. That’s a core fundamental aspect to slap culture. Then you have the paint, which is typically called candy paint, really shiny, glossy, paint with bold colors, and beyond that you have the stereo systems which are also important components of the culture. These stereo systems feature multiple speakers, subwoofers that feature incredible bass sounds. They’re typically powered by multiple batteries. Essentially, slab is a modified, customized car and the components are unique to Houston because there are various car cultures, modified car cultures around the country, but I think the combination of the candy paint, the swingers, the elbows, and the stereo systems make slab unique to Houston.

[Street sounds fade out]

 

[MACK]

Was there anything from your training in folklore that made you see this phenomenon and maybe even hear it in a different way?

 

[Hip hop music plays in the background]

 

[LANGSTON]

I had seen these cars going up, but I’d never really appreciated them. They were just how people got from A to B. That’s how they traveled. My uncle who I’m close to, he had not a slab, but he had a modified car, but that was just his car. Going through the program and learning about how cars and other forms of material culture are results of both individual and communal creativity, I began to look at the cars more deeply.

 

[MACK]

It’s interesting what you’re saying there, that these material objects we come up with, almost as these reasons we create spaces to come together and generate a sense of community, but also promote this arena for individuals to show off their distinct abilities at the same time. It’s funny, because the automobile has formed that space for a lot of different subcultures. Those old codgers who have their vintage car things like in the parking lot of the Cracker Barrel, or whatever.

 

[LANGSTON]

Right, absolutely.

 

[MACK]

Maybe not that different in some ways.

 

[LANGSTON]

I don’t think it is. Beyond that, as I was taking the music, the cars were constantly referred to in these rappers’ verbal output. So, that’s what turned my attention for staying in the cars because I figured out that they were both an interesting form of creative culture in themselves, but also a fundamental part of Houston rappers, creative output.

 

[Another rap song fades in, then fades out]

 

People who own slabs aren’t going to your local car audio store to get their systems put together, they go to the audio guy in their neighborhood, who knows the culture, knows the community, and knows the aesthetic to put these sounds together. We were just talking about multiple speakers, heavy bass, and the base, you have to be able to feel the bass that’s part of the aesthetic. Actually, you’re able to see the music. That’s another part of this, that your slab is supposed to rattle, and the truck is supposed to rattle and kind of bump when you’re listening to your music which is typically local hip hop.

 

[Hip hop plays from what sounds like a car stereo. You can hear the base.]

 

At least in slab culture, in the music it’s meant to be felt and heard and seen. I think that’s why you get these terms like bang or bump, to refer to the sound systems.

 

[The bass has completely taken over. Hip hop music slowly fades back in to show how the bass fits. Both sounds fade out]

 

[MACK]

You mentioned that it’s local music. Can you talk about the kind of music that’s associated with this culture?

 

[LANGSTON]

There was a major economic downturn recession in Houston in the early 1980s that resulted in a lot of people being out of work, a lot of black people being out of work, I’ll say.  At the same time in the early 1980s, you saw the rise of crack cocaine and that offered a kind of an economic pathway for many of those guys in those communities. So that’s kind of the context. There’s this community of dope dealers in the south side who wanted to flaunt their wealth and wanted their names, and their presence to be as big as possible in the cars and the music, the local hip hop sound. Scared, Screwed and Chopped, kind of allowed them to do that.

 

[Another hip hop song plays]

 

Essentially, screwed means to slow a record down. Screwed records typically are between 60 and 70 beats per minute. It kind of creates a muddy, slow and somewhat psychedelic sound for hip hop. The pioneer of the sound is DJ Screw who passed away in 2000. He was from the south side of Houston, Texas, again, from these working class communities.

 

[A song from DJ Screw plays. It sounds like a hip hop sound that has been slowed down.]

 

[MACK]

Anybody who’s familiar with dance music or hip hop production will know that 60 to 70 beats per minute is really slow.

 

[LANGSTON]

I think the slowness of the music is heavily influenced by the car culture, because these cars kind of originated out of the street culture in the mid 1980s. Pioneered by local drug dealers who kind of used modified cars to flaunt their wealth. They would put together these cars and they would drive them slowly, to  parade them to the streets of Houston. Very slowly so people could pay attention to him and focus on him.

 

[Hip hop song continues]

 

DJ Screws first mixtapes were being purchased by these local drug dealers. They would play them in their cars as they were traversing the streets. You had this slow experience, these slow parades going on through the streets of Houston. You also have the drug culture the lean, the Serb culture, which just makes you move extra slow, and that was certainly a part of the screwed and chopped culture and certainly a part of the slap culture as well.

 

[Different hip hop song plays, this one with with a faster tempo]

 

Lean, also called syrup. There’s other names for depending on who you talk to. It’s essentially prescription strength, cough syrup, mix with some sort of sweetener. I could be soda, or people put candy in the cough syrup. When you drink it, it slows your faculties down. You move slower, you you lose your sense of balance, which is why it’s sometimes called lean because people on the drug kind of lean over so, and again, kind of like slab, it became a marker of local hip hop identity.

 

[Hip hop song continues]

 

So you have this slow, muddy kind of psychedelic sound, that’s the screwed part. Chopping is a fundamental part of the hip hop DJ aesthetic, but what DJ Screw would do was that he would take two copies of the same record, put them on two different turntables, but he would play one record a little behind the other record. When he would mix back and forth, he would repeat phrases.

 

[An example of DJ Screw’s mixing]

 

That became the chopping part of screwed and chopped. Repeating phrases and sometimes repeating percussive sounds, so that the mix between the slowness and these repeated phrases. That’s essentially screwed and chopped music.

 

[An example of screwed and chopped music plays]

 

I think if you get down into DJ Screw’s mixtapes which they were maybe 250 plus of, if you haven’t been part of the culture, it’s hard to really understand what’s going on there, what he’s doing, and how complex it is.

 

[MACK]

When you say it’s hard to know how complex what he’s doing is, is it because someone who isn’t familiar with the original songs that he’s mixing can’t tell how he’s chopping them?

 

[LANGSTON]

Yeah, I think so. I think because he’s mixing at any given time, maybe five or six records together, and he’s manipulating them in real time and then he’s going back and slowing it all down. It’s just these record,s these songs are hard to navigate.

 

[Upbeat, childlike music plays]

 

[CRIS]

People, people, help us out just a little bit here. Go to iTunes, give us a rating. It’ll take under five seconds. If you have more time, a small review helps us bring this to you. Give us some feedback on Facebook. Hit us up on Twitter. You know the score.

 

[Upbeat music fades out and slow hip hop music fades in]

 

[MACK]

So far, Langston has shown us how some of south side Houston’s African American residents customize cars, and customize the sound of hip hop. The slab swerved a slow path through the city streets, banging out music that paid tribute to those very same streets and neighborhoods. In the process, individuals made names for themselves as makers of money or cars or sound systems or music while at the same time, the community made a name and an image and a sound for itself. This is the everyday artistic communication folklorists look for. It’s also the way of space, a collection of buildings and streets, becomes a place that is known, respected, and loved. All of this is taking place on the consumption side of the music, but as Langston explained to me, a similar social process was taking place on the production side. When DJ Screw and screwed up click rappers like Little Kiki, Fat Pat, ESG, and Big Hawk made tapes at house parties.

 

[Hip hop music winds down and ends]

 

[LANGSTON]

the screwed and chopped mixtapes. Essentially, he would invite rappers over to his house, maybe 3, 4, 5. They would have a big party, and in the midst of this party, he would begin playing music and recording a mixtape. What you’re getting on these mixtapes are a social experience.

 

[A mixtape is played. We hear music with rappers talking and laughing over it.]

 

This whole culture was rooted in the drug game, and so you had a lot of early deaths in these communities in the late 1980s early 1990s. You had a lot of memorial mixtapes, mixtapes that were created in dedication to someone who had just lost their life. You also had mixed tapes that were for someone’s graduation celebration. You had mixtapes to celebrate someone in community who had given birth. All of these tapes has some sort of social function to them.

 

[Mixtape continues. We hear a rapper come up with a wrap.]

 

[MACK]

So in that context then, DJ Screw is basically DJing and a party and then people are free styling.

 

[LANGSTON]

Yeah he’s DJing a party, people are drinking, eating, having fun, talking crap to each other, and then he would hit record and he would do his mixes. If you’re a rapper in the space, you can come up and you can freestyle. Then they go back to partying for a couple hours. Then he would start recording again, and some other rappers could come up. If you talk to different members of screwed up click they’ll tell you that some of these quote unquote recording sessions will last all night. You would go over to Screw’s house around 7pm and you’d leave at maybe 9 o’clock the next day, the next morning. These are just kind of social events organically captured on tape. That’s what happening.

 

[MACK]

While it’s happening in real time, the beat is actually faster, it’s the original.

 

[LANGSTON]

Yeah, they’re recording it regular speed.

 

[Mixtape continues, then fades out]

 

The DJ Screw would take the recordings, put them into his four track, and use the piss control knob to slow the speed down.

 

[An example of this slowed down track plays]

 

[MACK]

Wow.

 

[Track continues]

 

[LANGSTON]

In my eyes, makes especially their rap performances much more interesting because most of those freestyles were done completely off the top of the head, and they were completely extemporaneous and performed in real time. These rappers don’t get the credit that they deserve for being incredible freestylers.

 

[MACK]

So maybe we should talk a bit about what that does to the voice.

 

[LANGSTON]

Just a darker, almost otherworldly tone to the voice. I think again, that goes hand in hand with the drugs that were being consumed, to drug market based environment that they’re coming from, and also the slab culture. It just kind of produces an almost ghostly vocal sound.

 

[Mixtape continues, then fades out]

 

[MACK]

I don’t know if you’ll agree with this, but I almost feel like to me, this music sounds more like west coast hip hop from the 1990s then the sort of, at least the stereotype of Southern hip hop.

 

[Different hip hop track plays, this one with a slightly faster tempo]

 

I was wondering if there’s some kind of connection there between,, like that car culture you’re talking about? Where there’s just something about this, that it sounds like riding music to me.

 

[LANGSTON]

I think there’s a deep connection. I think you’re correct for multiple reasons. One, DJ Screw, the pioneer of this whole culture, his favorite artists were from the west coast. We’re talking, Ice Cube and CBOE from Sacramento, California. Much of the music on those early screw tapes and even towards the end of his life were comprised, most of the music was West Coast based, hip hop, gangster rap.

 

[MACK

Just that endless, ribbon freeway.

 

[LANGSTON]

Right, there you go. I mean, you have to have a car to get anywhere in Houston. Our public transit system wasn’t great. You have to have a car to get around. Therefore, people spend a lot of time in their cars. The culture seems similar. It seems like you have to have some sort wheels to get around in Los Angeles. I think just the sheer geographic sizes of  these two hip hop centers creates a relationship between the two. I think that manifests in the similarities between Houston and west coast based hip hop.

 

[Hip hop song continues, then fades out]

 

[MACK]

In the 2000s, both slabs and the chopped and screwed sound spread beyond Houston south side, and eventually beyond Houston itself.

 

[LANGSTON]

Between 2004 and 2007, local hip hop culture for the second time, because the first time was with the ghetto boys in the early 1990s, rose to national and maybe international prominence through music that was created on the northside of Houston, through this label called Swish a House. Rappers like Paul Wall, Mike Jones, and Slim Thug.

 

[One of these artist’s songs plays]

 

It was through them that screwed and chopped music rose to the mainstream, and they did it I think, by using car culture, because the first few songs that came out in that era from local hip hop artists were songs that were dedications to car cultures. Still Tippin was about SAP culture. Come Millionaires, Riding Dirty was about local car culture and the criminalisation of it.

 

[Hip hop song continues, then fades out]

 

[MACK]

It’s fascinating to me, because growing up in New Orleans, Houston and New Orleans are pretty close, as close as any place in Texas can be to anywhere, because Texas so big. It’s around that same time DJ Screw was creating his innovations, in New Orleans there was just really fast hip hop that was happening. With producers like Mannie Fresh, Hot Boys, Little Wayne, juvenile in this kind of bounce music sound with the trigger man beat.

 

[Another hip hop song plays, very fast tempoed, then fades out]

 

It just seems kind of interesting that these cities are so close together and yet their music couldn’t be more opposite, at least to my ears.

 

[LANSTON]

It is fascinating, and I will say that bounce and all of  that New Orleans music had a strong presence in Houston as well, and we did also see it end up on DJ Screw’s mixtapes and such. I think the special thing about hip hop when I was growing up, and I hate to sound like old man, at least to me was the fact that  hip hop in New York didn’t sound like hip hop in Houston and hip hop in Houston didn’t sound like hip hop in New Orleans even.

 

[Another hip hop song plays, more moderately tempoed]

 

Each region has its own unique sound. I thought that was a beautiful and incredible thing. The internet kind of has broken down those regional barriers and has made different regional sounds readily accessible to everyone around the country. In some respects, that’s awesome. I’m glad that sounds have changed. I’m glad that hip hop has grown and is continually reorienting itself, but I wish there was some sense of regional or local uniqueness because I just think that’s virtually disappeared in the culture and in the industry.

 

[MACK]

It’s almost like the regions are the different regions of the internet now. Like, you have SoundCloud rap, that’s a neighborhood in internet land.

 

[LANGSTON]

Exactly. I think connection to place is a fundamental aspect of hip hop culture. It exposes an intimate relationship between the person and their place. Place in itself is something very different now.

 

[Hip hop song continues, then fades out. Another hip hop song fades in]

 

[CRIS]

That’s it for this episode, and this season of Phantom Power. Thank you again to Langston Collin Wilkins, and we’ll be back in the fall with season two. We hope to connect with you then. You can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to some of the things we’ve heard and talked about a phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts, and we’d love it if you’d rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. Tell us what you thought about the show on Facebook, give us a shout on twitter @PhantomPod. Today’s show featured music by DJ Screw and the Screwed Up Clique. Our interns are Natalie Cooper and Adam Whitmer. Phantom Power is made possible through a generous grant from the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

[Hip hop song fades out]

Ep. 17: The Sounds of Silents

What did going to the movies sound like back in the “silent film” era? The answer takes us on a strange journey through Vaudeville, roaming Chautauqua lectures, penny arcades, nickelodeons, and grand movie palaces. As our guest In today’s episode, pioneering scholar of film sound, Rick Altman, tells us, the silent era has a lot to teach us about why sound works the way it does at the movies today. And as our other guest, sound and film historian Eric Dienstfrey tells us, “What we think of today as standard practice is far from inevitable.” In fact, some of the practices we’ll hear about are downright wacky. 

Audiences today give little thought to the relationship between sound and images at the movies. When we hear a character’s footsteps or inner thoughts or hear a rousing orchestral score that the character can’t hear, it all seems natural. Yet these are all conventions that had to be developed by filmmakers and accepted by audiences. And as Altman and Dienstfrey show us, the use of sound at the movies could have developed very differently.

Film sound scholar Rick Altman and Mack after their interview at the University of Iowa.

Dr. Rick Altman is Professor Emeritus of Cinema and Comparative Literature in the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature, University of Iowa. Altman is known for his work on genre theory, the musical, media sound, and video pedagogy. He is the author of Silent Film Sound (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), Film/Genre (Bloomsbury, 1999), and A Theory of Narrative (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

Dr. Eric Dienstfrey is Postdoctoral Fellow in American Music at the University of Texas at Austin. Eric is a historian of sound, cinema, and media technology. His paper “The Myth of the Speakers: A Critical Reexamination of Dolby History” won the Society of Cinema and Media Studies’ Katherine Singer Kovács Essay Award for best article of the year in 2016.

[ominous music plays]

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power.

[MACK HAGOOD]

Episode 17…

[low horn instruments play]

[CRIS]

The Sounds of Silents

[ERIC DEINSTFRY]

We think of going to movies as going to the movies but for a lot of audiences, they were going to hear a live concert that was accompanied by motion pictures. And there’s this great anecdote that Anna Windisch uncovered in their scholarship in Viennese practices from the turn of the century. And they found a series of films, I believe, where you had the motion picture printed on film, but you also had a visual recording of the conductor, conducting a score that was meant to go along with that film. So I believe it was sort of like a superimposed image. So when you screen the film, you’ll see the conductor on screen conducting. And then the orchestra that was live in the theater playing would take its cues from the conductor that was on screen.

[conductor taps baton, and orchestra plays]

[MACK]

It’s Phantom Power. I’m Mack Hagood.

[CRIS]

And I’m cris cheek. So what are we listening to here, Mack?

[MACK]

This is Eric Deinstfry. He’s a historian of sound technology and sound media working at the University of Texas, Austin. And he knows a lot about the history of sound in motion pictures.

[CRIS]

So what’s he talking about?

[MACK]

It’s this crazy story told me about the silent film era in Vienna. You know, back in the early days of film, people had to figure out how to combine music and film. And as you can imagine in Vienna they had this illustrious classical music today. With fame conductors, and it seemed like a good idea to just  put the conductor in the film and let the local orchestras where the film was being shown just sort of follow his conducting.

[CRIS]

Yeah, but I’m imagining this didn’t go so well.

[MACK]

No, it didn’t.

[orchestra music continues]

[ERIC]

And, like a lot of these practices, they’re fine. They’re enjoyable, but they don’t always work. like nothing ever really works the way that it’s supposed to. In this case, it definitely didn’t work. Because as films were distributed over time, with real changes and as pieces of the film are cut out, you lose seconds, or fractions of a second of the conductor moving his baton, which means you might actually you may lose the downbeat, you may lose various other cues or whatnot. So becomes very different to play as a symphony. When watching a conductor that’s missing frames.

[orchestra continues with occasional stops, as if parts have been cut out]

[CRIS]

So this is that sense that we all experience sometimes of the sound and the image being out of sync, right?

[MACK]

Yeah, yeah. Like if this film is kind of beat up and it’s missing some frames, then Suddenly the whole orchestra is off of the beat.

[CRIS]

Which is comedic.

[MACK]

It must have been hilarious. And that’s really what our show is about today. Where does the relationship between sound and images at the movies come from? I mean, it might sound like a weird question because it seems completely natural to us, right? You take a film class at college, you learn about diabetic sound.

[CRIS]

That’s the sound,am I right, that comes from the world being represented in the images like a horn blowing in the street, or a clinking teacup in a Victorian palace?

[MACK]

Yeah, you the characters hear it, and the audience hears it. It comes from the world of the film. And then there’s what they call non diabetic sound.

[CRIS]

the sound that the characters don’t hear, like the orchestral score or pop soundtrack or the narrator the film talking to the audience.

[MACK]

Exactly. And this seems entirely natural to us that there’s music playing that the characters can’t hear. Right. But all of this is just a set of conventions. And these conventions are habitual to us. But someone had to invent them, right? Someone had to figure all of this stuff out and kind of the audience’s needed to buy into it.

[CRIS]

It’s a lot of trial and error. 

[MACK]

Yeah, exactly.

[ERIC]

What we think of today is just sort of standard practices is far from inevitable. And there were a lot of experiments going on ways to try and think of the merge of motion pictures and music as much more of a multimedia experience and So we’re we arrived at if anything is far more conservative in conventional than what was actually being practiced in that early era. And I think that’s why this early era attracts so many people, because you just see of just this. So many creative practices that, you know, have since been lost but that you know, there are records out for when you uncover them. It’s just really funny to see like, this is what cinema could have been maybe in an alternative universe.

[slow menacing music plays]

[CRIS]

I really liked that idea. And I hear it in many different kinds of disciplines. The sense that we’ve lost potential things that could have been really great to pursue have been put in put into the disciplined track.

[MACK]

Yeah. And so if you really want to understand the film soundtrack as we know it today, you need to go back to its prehistory in the so called silent era. Luckily, I got to talk with one of the OG scholars of the silent film era.

[CRIS]

I ask you what’s an OG scholar? It feels like it’s missing the M.

[MACK]

Original gangster. He’s an original gangster of silent film sound scholarship.

[RICK ALTMAN]

Hi, my name is Rick Altman, I used to teach at the University of Iowa. Now I am an emeritus faculty member, still teaching a graduate seminar on film sound.

[MACK]

Rick is the author of a lot of things. But most importantly for our purposes, he wrote this book Silent Film Sound that came out in 2004 and Columbia University Press. It’s this multiple award winning book full of archival finds and insights and really great pictures. It’s kind of a large format book. And in one poll, it was voted one of the top five books on film of its decade.

[CRIS]

He doesn’t sound like a gangster at all.

[MACK]

No, he doesn’t. Sounds like a nice man who lives in Iowa. But when Rick got started in his research, silent film sound was not exactly a hot topic. 

[RICK]

People seemed to think that everything that needed to be said about silent film, and silent film sound in particular, had already been said. I came along and thought to myself, this is going to make it very easy for me to write the first chapter of my general history of film sound.

[MACK]

So, you know, Rick thought that he was just going to be able to, like summarize all of this work that had already been done on silent film and silent film sound. And that was just going to be a chapter in this longer Opus about the history of sound and film. There was just one problem.

[RICK]

Unfortunately, when I went to the library, I found that the whole area was un-interegated.

[MACK]

Basically, Rick was gonna have to do this research himself. So he starts digging into historical materials, newspapers, trade magazines, technical documents ephemera from the silent film era. But as he did it, 

[RICK]

I kept running into confusion about what I was dealing with what I was reading about, I would be reading about sound effects. And they would be called, somehow music. Well, I didn’t understand how that was possible. But every time I would find this confusion of terminology, it sent me to a new domain and made me realize I was dealing with a much more complex situation than had been presented in my professional press.

[MACK]

So what Rick altman discovered is that the story of silent film sound was multiple. It was really the story of a whole bunch of other forms of 19th century entertainment.

[vaudeville music plays]

[RICK]

I worked a lot on vaudeville. I worked a lot on the history of magic lanterns. I dealt with the architecture of concert halls, I found that photography was absolutely central to the work that I wanted to do.

[CRIS]

So, some of this history goes way back. Right? I mean, the magic lanterns develop out of the camera obscura in the middle of the 17th century. The camera obscura goes right back to Leonardo. Those kinds of people were playing around a lot of painters were playing around with the camera obscura. 

[MACK]

So the camera obscura was like the pinhole camera that went,

[CRIS]

You could see what was going on outside projected into the wall. And the Magic Lantern introduces gradually a lens by which you can focus that image. So you know, you can write on glass, you can paint on glass, you can see those kinds of shadows moving around inside your house. I love to do that. I spend my days doing that kind of thing. And in the kind of late 17th, early 18th century, they began to adapt this technology for all sorts of purposes. Some of it was for storytelling, but also people began to use the magic lantern for lecture circuits, they began to use it scientific teaching and so forth.

[MACK]

And do you know what they use to create the light to illuminate the the slide and projected onto the wall?

[CRIS]

It became Limelight, right? Before then it was candle lights.

[MACK]

A burning piece of line. Which is where we get the term limelight from.

[CRIS]

Right, right. That’s right. That’s a really good connection to make. And, we actually don’t know the full history of the development of the magic lantern. Some of them are coming out of China size of complex history of the development of a technology. And I really like that, too, that it’s being used in various different contexts by various different people to diverse purposes.

[MACK]

Yeah, and I mean, I think what this shows us is that motion pictures weren’t born in a vacuum, right? There were already these technologies and different kinds of traveling shows and entertainment. And they all use sound in different ways. So people had already been projecting still images and telling stories. And of course, the song and dance and light poetry of vaudeville was a really dominant entertainment at the time, right. So when the motion pictures arrived, all of these different players see film as an extension of what they were already doing. They all have different conceptions of what this technology is and what it’s for, and what it’s even called. So Altman is looking at all of this and he realizes that he has to avoid This pitfall of thinking about the past that we so often fall into, it’s the way that we think that the present arrangement of things, the way we use sound in films today is the foregone conclusion. And he says, no, this really could have gone a different way. This was this crisis moment in the history of film. And so he says, what he has to do is something he calls crisis historiography.

[CRIS]

And that’s great.

[different vaudeville music plays]

[RICK]

Crisis historiography is something that I came up with, in order to explain to myself what I was doing. Most historical accounts are really aiming to explain a single phenomenon. I found constantly that I couldn’t deal with my materials as a single phenomena. There were Many different phenomena. When film is called advanced vaudeville. You realize, wait a minute, we’re not even sure what the topic is that we’re studying. So that it’s not film as we see it today, as we understand it today and trying to understand how film as we see it is existent today. Instead, it was a competition among various approaches to sound. So, we’re dealing with Wurlitzer organs. 

[organ music plays]

We’re giving a song sides, we’re dealing with lecturers and lecturers. We’re dealing with projectors, we’re dealing with ballyhoo outside the Nickelodeon. Come on, ladies, come down and check out our show. We’ve got a show that is really more important than anybody else’s. Only a nickel lady. Come on, come right in, come right in if you put your nickel right there. 

[sound of a coin going into a slot]

Think about this. Where were the first accompaniments to film? Well, they weren’t in the theater. They were outside the theater because the film was being accompanied by the ballyhoo sound. This is a technique borrowed from the carnival, you want to let everybody know on the Midway, that you’ve got a show that they want to see. And so it was only after having ballyhoo for your music, that you begin to realize, Oh, I guess we could use this same sound inside in the theater. So film sound, you gotta deal with the whole business.

[music ends]

[MACK]

So it sounds like a moment not that dissimilar from our own where we have all of these different digital fans that crop up, or certain apps that become a craze and then maybe disappear not long after, or, you know, one sort of social media website dies off and another takes over and seems to establish itself. And that, just like we’re still coming to terms with how to conceptualize all of these new digital media that we’ve had over the past decade or so, at that moment, there was this same similar kind of crisis or excitement, but also people not sure what to make of it, how to monetize it, and so on.

[RICK]

Let me tell you just how similar it is these crises. They, they don’t last forever, but they always get replaced by another crisis. Eventually, for example, what’s a computer? Well, computer something that computes, isn’t it? When’s the last time you use your computer to compute anything? No, no, we don’t do that. Because we are borrowing the identity from a previously existing system. But yes, we used to have computers that actually computed now we have computers that do different things. And we have iPods, we have iPads, we have iPhones, we have all kinds of things that are constantly in confrontation, one to the other.

[digital music plays then fades out]

[MACK]

So in his book, Silent Film Sound, Rick altman tells us that new media technologies aren’t simply born and given a name. They begin nameless in a crisis of identity. And there are three components to this identity crisis.

[RICK]

One is multiple identity.

[MACK]

The second one is jurisdictional conflict.

[RICK]

Constant competition among the various approaches to sound And then eventually,

[MACK]

An overdetermined solution arises.

[RICK]

There is an agreement among these systems that makes it possible for everybody to come out doing well.

[MACK]

So let’s talk about this multiple identity concept. 

[older upbeat music plays]

The movies are said to have been invented in 1895. In 1896, no less than six different film projection technologies all made their debut in the market at once, each one at a different name.

[different names are listed off in an over the top manner]

It wasn’t just these technologies that were competing. with each other, this is where this concept of jurisdictional conflict comes in. 

[CRIS]

This is like Betamax and VHS.

[MACK]

Yeah. And but they were also like, totally different visions of what the technologies were even for. Like, is this a visual aid that you’re going to use on those lecture circuits you were talking about? Is that a prop for vaudevillians to us? Is it a replacement for vaudeville itself? Some people call it views. Some people call it advanced vaudeville. In the first couple of decades of their existence, no one was even calling these things motion pictures.

[CRIS]

And I bet as things getting mixed and remixed and scrambled and confused. You get some really peculiar arrangements and practices in those situations.

[MACK]

Yeah, definitely. And the Chautauqua is a perfect example of that.

[RICK]

Chautauquas were organizations usually rural. They started out in upstate New York that were dedicated to the lecture circuit.

[My Country Tis of Thee played by a band plays]

And the lecture circuit started in the mid 19th century in Boston, but before too long it took over the entire country. Sometimes these lectures were illustrated, they were often illustrated by magic lanterns. But then the makers of these magic lantern slides decided that during the summer, they would travel to Europe, to Fiji Islands, to the new national parks in the United States. This would give them every year product differentiation, they would have stuff that nobody else had because they had spent the summer taking pictures. It may seem strange to think, well wait a minute. You’re studying lectures. Why are you studying lectures if you’re talking about film? Well, because lectures and film were part of the same routine, they can’t be thought of as entirely separate as we would normally think of them today.

[MACK]

So in this sort of practice, then there would be documentary film being shown. And someone would literally be narrating the film lecturing over it about the locations that we’re looking at.

[older narration is heard]

[RICK]

Absolutely, and they were really good at that. And they had been well practiced in it.

[MACK]

But the way the film was used in Chautauqua was completely different from the way it was used in say the Nickelodeon.

[CRIS]

So, as we move into the early 20th century, kind of somewhere around 1905 ish, we get post the peep show and into the Nickelodeon era.

[MACK]

Well, I think maybe we should explain peep shows because you might have just scandalized people.

[CRIS]

There were kind of they were Penny Arcade peep shows.

[MACK]

I thought those were those the kinetic scopes. Are the ones that can fit inside the machine to see the film. 

[CRIS]

You’re right. It wasn’t a whole bunch of people. And what made the kinetic scope specific is that it was one person.

[MACK]

One at a time. And so yeah, the motion picture or what would come to become the motion picture was,

[CRIS]

The Nickelodeon’s was a whole bunch of people at a time, often in a kind of storefront or a converted storefront. With hard seats, a varying repertoire of material in predominantly working class or kind of emergent middle class locations and neighborhoods. You paid a nickel right? You paid a nickel to go into the Nickelodeon. And the odean bit is from the Greek meaning that it’s a kind of a roof in theater.

[MACK]

Yeah. And the Nickelodeon was the site for one of these kind of strange technological arrangements that didn’t really survive to our day.

[RICK]

Almost every Nickelodeon had a magic lantern as part of its system. But starting around 1898 something new happened and it was very important that they figured out a way to add what was called a motion head in front of the magic lantern. The motion head had the system for introducing a film. And the same sound source could be used for both the Magic Lantern and the motion head. So in the same theater, you would actually have slides showing alternately with films, the films would go through the motion head, the slides would be in the slide transport for the magic lantern. And there you see the beginning of a way in which these two very different systems, film and slides, were able to share the same space. And that’s the kind of thing that happens in a crisis is two things that are entirely competitive, will eventually find a way to live together, maybe not the way they had originally expected. But eventually in a way that satisfies both sides.

[more older music plays]

[MACK]

So in these spaces like vaudeville houses and the Nickelodeon, we have practices that would seem pretty unrecognizable to us today as going to the movies, those Magic Lantern slides that you were talking about. They were often used for something called illustrated songs. So you’d have a good singer belting out the latest pop tunes, while different painted images inspired by the songs were projected behind them.

[music fades out]

[RICK]

These illustrated song slides were glass slides, which were based on photographs, which slides were then colored by teams of women. In vaudeville, there were hand colored slides, and sheet music that served the purpose of illustrated songs. But they were props that were used by individual vaudeville performers. So there was only one copy of them just as well. Let’s say if you had a dog show in vaudeville, you’d have to bring in the dogs, you’d have to bring in the hoops you’d have to bring in the stands. Well, this was a little bit different. You had to have the magic lantern. And in the Magic Lantern, you put these hand covered slides. They weren’t mass produced at that point. They were simply a vaudeville prop.

[CRIS]

So I’m interested in this whole thing of the hand colored slides and the teams of people doing the hand coloring because it begins to sound like an animation studio.

[MACK]

Yeah, but what you’re saying about like, these slides being like part of something like a big animation house today actually comes into fruition after the advent of the Nickelodeon, because then the role of the slides and the illustrated songs really changes.

[different older music plays]

[RICK]

Starting after the turn of the century, and particularly after 1905. There were companies who decided there was money to be made by making their slides because they knew that if the slide was made to accompany a recent song, then Tin Pan Alley would be happy to pay them for the slides because it became a good way to advertise their sheet music and sheet music was a big deal in those days. Virtually everybody had a panel and the sheet music sold not just thousands and in some cases, hundreds of thousands and even in one case or to multiple millions. So we’re talking big money. The slides were eventually distributed through exchanges, as were the films. So what we have here is a situation where you have Laville performers. You have slide makers, you have the distributors, you have the exhibitors who use these illustrated song slides to attract an audience.

[MACK]

Yeah, I just love this story because it reminds me of like, radio or MTV and what that used to do for record sales.

[CRIS]

Absolutely. Yeah. And I’m thinking about the explosion of video, pop integrations.

[MACK]

Yeah, this kind of synergy or, you know, cross platform synergy was a thing even back in the early 1900s.

[CRIS]

I mean, it’s part of the generation of effect, right in terms of bringing people towards the music and making them feel excited about it is that they associate that listening experience with seeing that sequence of images.

[MACK]

Yeah, and you’ve got like, all of these little, like you said, these little middle class, Nickelodeon’s that are hungry for content. The motion picture industry really hadn’t been quite created as we know it yet. You know, it was just on the cusp of being there. And so these Nickelodeon’s were just hungry for content and the illustrated songs really filled that gap.

[RICK]

At the beginning, Nickelodeon’s didn’t have enough product there might be four Nickelodeons on the block, or relatively smaller, like mom and pop shops. But the problem was that all four of these Nickelodeons were playing the same films, because there was not enough production. So the theaters really went for the illustrated songs, because that made up for the time that they might have been showing the films.

[CRIS]

I’m thinking the proliferation of the video store in the 1980s.

[MACK]

I could see the parallel today. So you would plunk down your nickel at the Nickelodeon. And you might hear an illustrated song, and then they would play a silent film. And then while they were getting the next film ready to go, you could hear another illustrated song. And I think, when we picture this in our minds were picturing like, an old timey piano blinking along. But Rick said it wasn’t always like that. In fact, sometimes there was

[RICK]

No sound at all.

[crickets chirping]

Now come on, that can’t be. Where did you get that idea? Well, I got that idea by reading a whole lot of biographies and reading a whole lot of reviews that made it clear that there was a period when films were shown without any sound whatsoever. So what was the piano doing there? Well, the piano was doing what it had to do to solve the needs of the theater. The theater had illustrated song slides. So when the slides were being projected, it was absolutely necessary for the pianist to be playing. But when the pianist had finished playing for the illustrated song, the pianist was told that this is the time when he can go and spend a little time to have a cigarette and he’ll be called back later for the next illustrated song slot. So what we find out is that the fact that these were Multi Purpose theaters that they had films as well as illustrated songs, suggests that we’re dealing with a situation where constantly the theater changes from one face to another. It’s a film theater, or its illustrated song theater.

[CRIS]

Yeah, I’m people would be making sound they would be talking. They would be expressing in relation to what they were seeing.

[MACK]

Laughing shouting at the screen.

[CRIS]

Absolutely, yeah, exactly.

[MACK]

So at this time, you know, it probably felt like the crisis was resolved, right. Like, you knew what, what these films were. They were they were something that you went and saw at the Nickelodeon and, you knew what to expect for your nickel. 

[CRIS]

It was cheap. You got a half hour, you had fun.

[Mack]

Yeah, half hour of some illustrated songs and some silent films.

[CRIS]

And maybe it kind of collect a strange, collective, responsive interactive environment.

[MACK]

Yeah, yeah, a little, you know, lowbrow fun.

[RICK]

But little by little, the makers films started providing more product. And when they started providing more product, well guess what the filmmakers were wanting more and more to take over the portion of the program that was being run by the illustrated song slides. So we get rid of the illustrated song slides in 1913. Literally, they just dropped off the map entirely in 1913 because the film producers wanted to take back a portion of the program and they were able to do that, in part because they now had enough product from an increasingly large park of film producers, so there’s a situation where the illustrated song it lives about two decades. It serves the vaudeville purpose to begin with. It serves the Magic Lantern purpose. After that, it eventually has to be pushed out in order to serve the purpose of the film producers. And it really isn’t until that point that film starts being called moving picture and having a very clear existence, no longer called us no longer called Advanced vaudeville.

[CRIS]

So the entertainment industry applause a vacuum. I mean,I could have said capitalism, but that’s a little too strong. When are we going to be able to say with some certainty, though, that what we’re seeing resembles the movies that we know today.

[MACK]

Well, by this period, when the Nickelodeon starts to wane, and the big movie palaces start to rise, so we’re talking about, by 1915 or so, the movie theaters are getting bigger and the motion pictures are getting longer. And this is when the term feature film is coined. And we get these incredible movie palaces. And in the smaller and mid sized theaters, pianos and tiny orchestras are still common, but in these grander venues, we might find Wurlitzer Oregon’s or 50 piece orchestras. But you know, even at this point, that we’re still practices that might seem quirky from our perspective today. So here’s another story that film scholar Eric Deinstfry told me. [ERIC]

There’s another interesting practice that I read about in William Paul’s book When Movies Were Theater, and there’s a theater in Detroit, he writes about where I believe it was like a duplex, and you had two theaters that shared the same wall and that’s where the screen was. And what that allowed for was allowed for the same Symphony. Orchestra, it wasn’t full Symphony to move back and forth in the same pit space.

[sound of people walking, then an orchestra playing, then walking, then music]

Basically, the orchestra would walk under the wall and play for one movie then move back under the wall and play for another movie was kind of like this weird watching the symphony orchestra move and sort of do their work was also part of the attraction of going to the movies there.

[music continues, then applause]

[CRIS]

I love this sense of an interrupted watching and listening experience where all sorts of other kinds of people who are on the sidelines maybe even the woman selling ice cream, and the person taking the tickets and so forth are all part. They’re all indicated into that experience.

[MACK]

Yeah, you know, it reminds me a little bit of, what I read about opera and the way it functioned early on where it was an entertainment where there would be a lot of stuff going on. Prostitutes plying their trade in the balcony, people drinking, carousing, having a good time. And then after the Romantic period, the way people started to treat classical music, in a period where religion had kind of started to wane, and we get this more humanist version of spirituality, where you go to the classical music concert hall, and sit in silence, and meditated on the music and have this kind of inner rich experience. And I feel like we’re learning that a similar transition happened with film where it used to be this fun, interactive entertainment that wasn’t taken that seriously and then it became high heart.

[CRIS]

That’s right. And maybe now. I don’t know. You go to the movies now and there’s people getting up and going to the bathroom, they’re eating their popcorn in the middle of the kind of the, the most dramatic moment in the narrative, they’re looking at their cell phones as the opening and the closing of the light in the door from the lobby. So it sounds like by the 1920s or so the crisis had been resolved and some kind of not necessarily solutions, but onward developments have been found and settled on.

[MACK]

Silent film, as we think of it today has finally evolved and film kind of enters this golden era until the talkies emerged. It’s a crisis all over again. By the late 1920s, relatively reliable technologies like the Vita phone, which was a sound on Disk System start to appear, and then we get this entirely new crisis.

[RICK]

So you’ve got a silent film theater, and you want to turn it into a sound theater. Okay. Let’s dismiss the musicians. We don’t need them anymore.

[music is suddenly cut off]

We can use the sound on disk.

[music from a disk plays]

Now, wait a minute. What about my projectionist?

[sound of film reeling]

He says he wants to be in charge of everything, including the screen and the sound system and the electrical system but the electricians want to do that. Oh, wait a minute. It’s not just the electricians and the projectionist, it’s the stage hands and the IATSE Union. What we find is that all kinds of conflicts are operating in such a way as to each be counter posed to the others. And it’s only after a strong and interesting period of competition, that we settle into a situation where the various unions, the various specialties, the various companies all get their own way.

[MACK]

I don’t know if they all got their own way to me. 

[CRIS]

I think I think quite a lot of people got stuffed. 

[MACK]

Yeah. Not sure about that happy ending.

[CRIS]

You know, the studio’s made a lot of money. And then there were an enormous number of technicians who didn’t get paid so well.

[MACK]

Yeah. And you’re paying one orchestra to play the score one time instead of orchestras FROM the country.

[CRIS]

Yeah, it’s putting a huge number of live musicians out of business.

[MACK]

Well, be that as it may, what I really like about Rick Altman’s work is just This focus on the crisis and this sort of indeterminate nature of these things that they really could be different.

[CRIS]

I like it and to wonder whether we are in another crisis moment, and we don’t even yet know the constituent parts of it.

[MACK]

I think that’s definitely happening right now.

[CRIS]

Well, viewing habits and cinema going habits and what’s going on with the movies and the fact that everyone’s watching series, and what can be played out through a bunch of episodes on TV that’s totally different from how you could structure a film, and how domestic viewing habits and listening habits have changed because of the mobility of technology around the domestic sphere and so forth.

[MACK]

I think for our time period, the question is, will the crises ever be resolved? Or are we just in a period of endless crises I mean, I guess that’s what Rick’s work really tells us is that it has always been us.

[vaudeville music plays]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thank you to Rick Altman and Eric Deinstfry for being on the show. You can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to some of the things we talked about at Phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you would rate and review us on Apple podcasts, pretty please. or tell us what you thought about the show on Facebook or give us a shout out on Twitter at Phantom Pod. Today’s show was edited by Craig Ellie and me, Mack Hagood. Our intern is Gina Moravec. Phantom Power is made possible through the generosity of the Miami University Humanities Center, the Robert H and Nancy J. Blaney, endowment and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ep. 16: Soar and Chill (Robin James)

Why do certain musical sounds move us while others leave us cold? Are musical trends simply that—or do they contain insights into the culture at large? Our guest is a musicologist who studies pop and electronic dance music. She’s fascinated by the way EDM privileges timbral and rhythmic complexity over the chord changes and harmonic complexities of the blues-based rock and pop music of yore. However, Robin James is also a philosopher and she connects these musical structures to social and economic structures, not to mention structural racism and sexism. 

Robin James

In this episode, cris and Mack have a lengthy, freeform interview and listening session with Robin in which she breaks down the sounds of EDM, pop, hip hop, “chill” playlists, and industrial techno, conceiving them as varied responses to neoliberalism’s intensification of capitalism. Her analysis includes lyrical content, but her main focus is the soars, stutters, breaks, and drops that mimic the socio-economic environment of the 21st century. It’s an environment that demands resilience from all of us—and especially from women and people of color.

 

[ominous music plays]

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power.

[techno music fades in]

[MAC HAGOOD]

Episode 16.

[CRIS]

Soul and chill.

[MACK]

Hey, I’m Mack Hagood, and yes, you are hearing Calvin Harris on Phantom Power, the podcast on the sonic arts and humanities. Why you might ask? Well, our guest today spends a lot of time listening to Calvin Harris and David Guetta. She calls them the Coke and Pepsi of pop, electronic dance music or EDM. As a musicologist, she’s fascinated by how EDM pushes beyond tonality. That is the harmonies and chord progressions that are the focus of blues based rock and pop music. EDM cares more about Tambor, and rhythmic complexity, ear catching sounds and intense Sonic experiences. moments when the vocal stutters for the beat drops moments like this one, where the entire song begins to soar.

[music continues]

But Robin James isn’t just a musicologist. She’s also a philosopher. She really wants to know what these songs can tell us about society. And while many cultural analyses of pop songs focus on song lyrics, with a few vague gestures towards sound, Robin James brings her musical logical experience to bear connecting musical structures to economic structures, not to mention structural racism and sexism. To my mind, the strength of her work is that she makes admirably bold and clear claims about why certain kinds of popular music are popular in a given moment. And whether or not you decide you agree with those claims by the end of the show, you may never hear an EDM sore quite the same way again. In today’s episode, my co host cris cheek and I have a lengthy freeform conversation and listening session with Robin, in which she breaks down EDM pop songs featured in her book “ Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism Neoliberalism.” We also get into a bit of hip hop, as well as songs from her current research into chill music in the streaming era. Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte, and co editor of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. For the 2019-2020 academic year. She is also visiting Associate Professor of Music at Northeastern University. And by the way, she got her started musicology and philosophy as an undergraduate at Miami University in Ohio, where cris and I teach.

[music fades out]

[ROBIN JAMES]

So I started college as an oboe major back in the 90s. Yeah.

[CRIS]

You were playing oboe at Miami?

[ROBIN]

Yes. 

[CRIS]

Okay.

[ROBIN]

I played Piccolo in the marching band. I thought I wanted to be a conductor. I was taking philosophy classes. And I realized that sort of the questions that music theorists ask sometimes are similar to the questions that philosophers asked and that the questions that I was interested in about music were like,why do people think this sounds good, right? For it to music to go this way, as opposed to some other way? Why does music sound certain ways in particular socio historical moments? And those are really philosophical questions about music.So then when I was deciding what kind of graduate program do I want to go into? Do I want to go into, like a musicology program, you want to go into a gender studies program? Do I want to go to a philosophy program? I said, Well, in philosophy, I can do all of that stuff.

[CRIS]

So in terms of good,is it that it makes you feel good? Or is it that it’s good in relation to aesthetic standards that one has had brought down to you when you’re thinking about music? 

[ROBIN]

Both. And often, I think the interesting things to think about when those two are in conflict, yes. So Khalifa San is optimism article came out in 2004. And that’s when I was writing my dissertation. I finished it in 2005. And poptimism, is the idea that pop music or music traditionally devalued, because its associated with like, team girls, is just as worthy of critical and intellectual attention as music that’s traditionally received that attention, such as jazz, or rock or music or something like that. So I was writing my dissertation at that time. And part of what I was trying to think about was sort of the conflict between, you know, the elite aesthetic standards and what people like, right? So for example, one of the things I did in the dissertation was show how, in some ways, Nico was the first poptimist. With his arguments, that Italian opera because they make you feel good, and they’re kind of not sensical, and just fun, is better than German.I was kind of thinking about the instances where what makes people feel good is in conflict with what the elite say is good, capital G.

[CRIS]

So kind of, I don’t know, low art versus high art will be another way of putting this. 

[ROBIN]

Yeah. 

[CRIS]

The kind of the things that you feel that you ought to develop an appreciation for. Because they’re held to be culturally iconic as as distinct from the thing that you just like.

[ROBIN]

Right. And for me, as a scholar of gender and race, that’s interesting, because there’s those two factors are often deeply deeply behind The conflict between the sort of critical standards and,

quote, unquote, guilty pleasures, right?

[MACK]

Yeah. It seems like a lot of your work is asking what is it about the social environment that makes certain musical sounds? Like you said, feel good, or feel pertinent, become popular? But then we could also flip that and say, what can the rise of certain musical sounds tell us about our society? Is there a way that musical sounds can tell us what’s actually going on?

[ROBIN]

Yeah, and that’s a great way to sort of describe what I try to do, because I think, in a lot of ways, what I’m interested in is understanding society and relations among people, so we can be better at it. And society is obviously vast and complicated, but pop songs are three minutes long. So they’re much easier to study in their completeness. We understand songs, because they contain structures that make sense to us as a structure. And those structures that we hear in songs also structure things in the world. So gender would be one example. We use gender to organize everything from like, what kind of bag what we call the kind of bag someone carries to bathrooms to all sorts of things, right. But we also use gender to organize relationships among songs, right? And I love Susan McLaren’s famous example about you know, the cadence, or the song that ends on a strong beat is called masculine. And the song that ends on a weak beat is called feminine because we associate masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness, right? So I try to find these structures in songs as sort of analogs or microscopic versions of the structures or logics or relationships that we experience macroscopically in our relations with each other with the world out in society.

[MACK]

Yeah. Is this a different question from what we might call like a hermeneutics of music?

[ROBIN]

Um, this is maybe where I get all nitpicky philosopher. So I would understand hermeneutics to be something where you’re interpreting a hidden meaning, right? You’re revealing something underneath the surface? And that’s one way of understanding meaning, like a hidden content, but I don’t know that I’m necessarily doing that. I’m not finding the, the expressed or hidden meaning so much as trying to figure out how it works. And why does it work this way? If that makes sense, right. And in that way, I think I’m thinking kind of like a music theorist.

[CRIS]

Can we have a look at some of the ways in which you break these pop songs down to show how they’re working? And what kind of effect they’re producing? 

[ROBIN]

Sure.

[MACK]

Yeah. Yeah, maybe we could start with one musical feature that you have studied, which is the sore?

[ROBIN]

Yeah. So the sore is a device that I identify as sort of coming from early 21st century dubstep.

[dubstep plays]

Then sort of filtering up into the early 2010s, top 40, right? Remember this sort of EDM boom? 

[EDM music plays]

It’s been around for a while, but it kind of rose to the top of the pop charts and became kind of a common language in pop songwriting around 2009 2010. And what it does is, it’s a way to build and release tension in a song, right, to build a climax is what it does. So what the sore does is it uses rhythmic intensification to build the song up to a climax and then release that tensions. You guys have probably heard of Zeno’s paradox, right? That’s the thing where you go half the distance, and then half of that again, and then half of them half again, down to infinity. So that’s what the sore kind of does with rhythmic events, right? Take like a hand clap from like, quarter notes to eighth notes, 16th notes. And oftentimes, it’ll try to approach the sort of limit of human hearing.

[music continues]

Things are going so fast, you can’t hear distinct event. So that’s kind of what the story trying to do. And that’s how it creates tension. It’s acting like it’s trying to break the limit of your hearing.

[music continues]

So this is an example of a sore in an early ish dubstep song. This is Scream’s sort of, most well known breakout single. So if we’re talking kind of the origins of dubstep, this would be recognized as a significant song. Listen to the hand claps. See how it just doubled. Then there’s the drop and the downbeat.

[CRIS]

And, so maybe this will go nowhere as a question. But if you’re on the dance floor, what happens?

[ROBIN]

Usually, that’s the moment where there’s like, everybody sort of takes a breath. And then sort of when I would be dancing, like you emphasize that downbeat. Like it makes the next downbeat. feel like it’s falling harder. Because that’s kind of like the big moment sometimes like at festivals, people will scream, right during the drop.

[CRIS]

Right, right. Right, right, right.

[ROBIN]

Yeah, so this is LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem. This is kind of the quintessence of big, dumb, EDM pop. I love this song. It’s just fun, and loud and off the chain is what I’d say. Okay, it’s gonna start now.

[song continues]

So it’s sort of building up to this climactic moment, and then releasing the tension on the downbeat.

[MACK]

Yeah, totally.

[ROBIN]

So in some senses, what the sore is doing is it’s replacing dissonance, like harmonic dissonance. So like a blues song or a rock song would build that tension with chord changes, but pop chord changes have never been sort of especially central to pop. And this, the source sort of lets them fall entirely, sort of to secondary status, right? Because they’re not the thing driving the building of tension and release. It’s really sort of rhythmic and tangible instead of harmonic.

[MACK]

Yeah, yeah. I think those two examples really show it quite clearly. And your explanation is super clear. So maybe we can get you to sort of take off your musicologists hat now and put on your philosopher hat. Because, I mean, what you do in your book “Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music Feminism Neoliberalism” is you note how this musical feature of the sore gets deployed in millennial pop music? It seems like it gets paired with certain kinds of lyrical content and certain kinds of identities. And so you sort of unpack that for the reader, and then you have a critique of it. So could you get into that for us?

[ROBIN]

Sure. So you remember how I said the sore is like, implying the transgression of the limits of human hearing? So what I do in the book, so the titular word, resilience is a word you hear a lot. So this idea of overcoming limitations or damage or harm, to be, you know, stronger than you were before, or turning a crisis into a resource. So whatever given the book is that the sore is sort of a sonic representation of this logical resilience, right, it sort of creates this tension, and then implies this Sonic transgression or damage, that then becomes the sort of right, it’s not actually harmful. But aesthetically, what it gives you is a sort of an increased or augmented pleasure on the experience of the next downbeat. So that’s the, it’s representing in music, the sort of experience that resilience is supposedly are in theory, supposed to be right, you turn harmed things that damage you into advantages, right. So in the book, what I do is I note that a lot of the discussion of resilience just sort of in general, tends to take women and women’s experiences of the harms of patriarchy as sort of Central examples of resilience. So and you can see this in a lot of what Sarah Bennet wiser calls popular feminist discourse, right, this idea that women are capable of sort of individually overcoming the limits or the harms that patriarchy does them. So, you know, you experience sexual harassment at work, but you overcome it and you become an entrepreneur and now, a successful business person. Or, you know, like, perhaps you are a poor girl of color, but you study really hard and get into Harvard or something. So this narrative of resilience is really pervasive. And it’s often used as a sort of foe solution for the harms of oppression.

[CRIS]

Concrete jungle where dreams are made of there’s nothing you can’t do. Yeah. Weird juxtaposition to. And not quite. But what doesn’t kill you makes you dance.

[ROBIN]

Well, yeah. Or I think in the book, I call it something like Nisha, and Kanye’s, what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

[MACK]

Can we listen to some examples of this pairing of the sore of this intensification with, you know, lyrical content about resilience?

[ROBIN]

Sure. Um, do you want to do the ludicrous song? You kind of have to hear the lyrics. Because they’re all about taking risks, right risks, that could be overwhelming. But doing it anyway, and winning, right? So there’s this logic of sort of, I’m going to expose myself to all this potential harm. But that’s necessary in order for me to live my best life.

[Ludicrous plays]

If you live for something, you’re not alone my friend. So fill up your cup and get a lighter, a toast to life.They say what don’t kill me, makes you stronger. 

[ROBIN]

Right, so he’s talking about all these kinds of transgressions. A fast life.

[song continues]

Here comes the sore. There’s this really interesting, sort of like the American flag and David Guetta appear, right at the, at the climax of the source. So there’s this weird sort of gesture towards American nationalism and whiteness, as though those are the two things that allow black men talking about risk taking to succeed rather than succumb to those risks, right? Because we all know that, like, black men are one of the most criminalized populations in the States, and, you know, even doing law abiding things, they get arrested and beaten up and stuff like that, right? So risk taking is even more risky for them, right. But here we have this sort of song about risk taking is good, I’m going to expose myself to all this damage. But the thing that insulates me from the negative consequences of that, oh, the American flag and David Guetta.

[MACK]

Maybe this would be a good time to dive a little more deeply into your critique here of neoliberalism. Because I want to draw out why it would be advantageous to sort of represent people of color and women as taking these chances and overcoming things like that, that I think, you know, people might be surprised to hear that a feminist philosopher is actually rather critical of these kinds of representations that it might seem like that would be something that you would celebrate. So could you talk a little bit about that?

[ROBIN]

Sure. So overcoming the harms of oppression is something that oppressed people have had to do for centuries. But what’s different now and what’s different with with resilience discourse? Is that it like all aspects of neoliberalism it privatizes it right, it makes individuals responsible for fixing systemic issues. But it also sort of takes the fixing or healing that one might need to do in response to the harms of oppression and basically co ops it for those mechanisms of oppression so that the healing process doesn’t actually fix anything, it just feeds the oppression and contributes to it. If that makes sense.

[MACK]

So if old school capitalism was, you know, you work for the same employer your whole lifetime, and you’re a company, man, man intended there, right? Like, it was definitely hierarchical and patriarchal and racist. But it did also have its kind of a certain kind of safety to it. Which, you know, there’s a lot of nostalgia for it now. Among people like Donald Trump, neoliberal capitalism, offers a whole lot more under the guise of freedom, it takes away this social safety net, it says anybody can come in women are invited, minorities are invited. In fact, you’re required to come in and work because the social safety net has been removed. Lifetime employment is gone. Because, you know, life has become liquid, and corporations are allowed to fire you whenever they want. We enter the gig economy. And so you are required to be resilient, no matter who you are, you need to overcome, right, all of these things that this intensification of capitalism, and this deregulation of markets have thrown our way. Is that a fair way to sort of characterize what you’re talking about here?

[ROBIN]

Yeah, yeah, exactly. And, of course, the sort of lower social status you have, or the lower you are on the privilege hierarchy, the more stuff you have overcome. 

[MACK]

Yes, yes. Yeah. And so maybe one thing that I really like about what you do in your book, you really integrate, because there are a lot of critiques of neoliberalism out there. But not all of them focus on the roles of race and gender the way you do.

[ROBIN]

Neoliberalism is all about efficiency, right? It tries to achieve the goals of old school capitalism and classical liberalism, with less of a cost, right? So you could police the purity of identity categories. And that’s sort of what you know, the one drop rule would be an example of right, you were policing the purity of whiteness. But that takes a lot of resources to do, right, you have to work very hard at that, be vigilant about it. So one of the ways that neoliberalism upgrades, old school forms of sexism and racism, and all the other isms is by basically deregulating those boundaries, right, so we’re not going to police the boundaries of purity, we are going to instead demand mixing, right. But we’re going to do this in a field where the background conditions are rigged. So that even though we’re sort of not policing boundaries, it will be more or less impossible for the individuals that have been traditionally excluded to succeed.

[CRIS]

My God, so I’m reminded of a lyric from the early hip hop days from last night a DJ saved my life, there ain’t a thing that I can’t fix, because I can put it in the mix.

[ROBIN]

Yeah, yeah. And Lester Spence, actually has a couple of books that talk about sort of hip hop cultures, adoption of the rhetoric of neoliberalism. Right. So, you know, he talks about how the, you know, that we’ve got the figure of the hustler is sort of a black version of the Neo liberal entrepreneur. 

[MACK]

And so the sore is kind of an example of how this resistance and resilience get co opted, or this kind of message of resistance, right, like, this would have been a transgressive message at some point in time. And yet, it’s able to get sort of sort of appropriated by the system that it was resisting. And yet, for the individual who’s enjoying this music, it’s still sort of like equipment for living, so to speak, right? Like that experience of listening to that music, dancing to the sore, feeling that intensification. To my mind, and maybe this is my chance to nitpick, but it goes beyond representation, right? It’s not just representing this kind of neoliberal capitalism, but it’s but it’s doing it to the body, right, your body, your nervous system, is, is experiencing this, and then coming out of the other side of it feeling invigorated and feeling stronger. And in that way, it’s like the kind of thing that helps people move through their lives, right. So I feel like there’s something really interesting happening here, where, from the subjective position of the individual, this music is helping people get through their day or get through their week, they can’t wait for the weekend to come and dance to this music. And yet, it can still be supportive of the system that’s making their life such a trivial to begin with.

[ROBIN]

Yeah, and I think that’s just popular music in the 20th and 21st century. You know, commercial music is inherently part of this exploitative system. And I think you could even go all the way back and say things like, well, racism and sexism have been baked into our aesthetic norms, since we’ve had the idea of race or gender. So there’s never going to be this sort of problematic artwork that we can experience. So the fact that there’s this dynamic where, on the one hand, these songs are literally sort of, you could either say they’re kind of training us in the experience of resilience, or they make sense to us. And we like them because we’ve already been so inculcated in this ideology, that, that we want our leisure time activities to also take the same shape that we have to form our lives into in our in sort of work in work. Right. But I think we I mean, I like those songs. I think they’re fun songs. And I think the thing about art, and it’s sort of interpretive, and I think, more importantly, and it’s sort of social context, it can be more than what it is as a commodity, or just as an object. Right. That’s, that’s the awesome thing about art, right, by listening to this music or dancing to it together, or by talking about it, we’re sort of participating in social relations that have the potential to not be as messed up or oppressive as the sorts of logics perhaps encoded in some of the if that makes any sense at all. Right. Like, yeah, it’s the making and sharing and being together that the artworks foster that, I think, is really that’s the work of freedom, right? If you want to put it that way. Right. Like, that’s the cool thing about art that I think lets it work for social justice.

[MACK]

What Victor Turner called communitous.And, there are some examples that you give of types of musical forms that may be provide that sort of being together yet also, maybe throw a little sand into the gears of neoliberal capitalism instead of greasing the wheels? Could you maybe talk about an example of that?

[ROBIN]

Sure. So this will be the sort of other word of the title melancholy. So what got me thinking this was people’s reaction to Rihanna’s response to Chris Brown after he assaulted her, right? So her unapologetic album came out, and she did a duet with him. And people were furious, because that was not the proper sort of, quote, unquote, feminist response. She didn’t disavow him, she didn’t perform the overcoming right? Like, oh, I was, I was assaulted. I reject myself, the person who assaulted me I have overcome the damage. I’m a quote unquote, feminist now. So initially, I saw the sort of rejection of resilience in just in Rihanna’s own behavior. But then I listened to the album. And what you can hear on the album are structures that gesture towards the sore, but don’t do the work that they do. Right. They don’t sort of build this climax. So in the same way that Rianna didn’t sort of perform resilience for the pleasure of her fans. The songs don’t perform sours for aesthetic pleasure, if that makes sense.

[MACK]

Yeah, maybe you can we listen to an example of that?

[ROBIN]

Sure. Did you want to do diamonds?

[MACK]

Yeah, yeah. Okay, so let’s listen to diamonds by Rihanna.

[Diamonds begins to play]

[ROBIN]

I think it’s important to note that the lyrics are all about shining like diamonds, right? So this is, on the one hand about sort of celebrating strength, and beauty and things but it doesn’t sound like a celebratory song.

[Diamond continues]

We’re coming up to the where the sore should be…this is where the sore should be. You’ve got the, the repetitions in the lyrics, but it doesn’t go anywhere. So we’re back at another verse.

[CRIS]

In some ways, it was happening in the keyboards and the strings. The keyboards went from being these more statuesque chords that we’re hearing right now, and to doubling. And then we had strings doing staccato intervals built off the doubling of the keyboards.

[ROBIN]

It’s sort of gesture there. There wasn’t the right there was some doubling, but then it didn’t,quadruple. So yeah, that’s what I mean, it’s gesturing towards this, but not completing it.

[CRIS]

But also, we’ve got this, this other thing that you’ve talked about a lot, which is the stuttering or the sampling of the voice to repeat. And I’m thinking about a really old fashioned term, like delayed gratification.

[ROBIN]

Yeah, yeah. So I’m part of pop songwriting. Now, and this is in part due to streaming. Right. So you have to get people to, to listen for more than 30 minutes. But part of it just due to other aesthetic factors, but delayed gratification is something that you don’t just if it’s not important, right, because that structure of the discipline in order that you need in order to sort of wait and delay runs against the kind of risk taking and imperative to transgress that you heard about, for example, from ludicrous. So it’s not like it’s trying to delay gratification. It’s almost more just like, saying something like, I know what you expect me to do enough to sort of gesture out it, but I’m refusing to do the work that you want from me. I’m not gonna give you I’m not going to do the work of performing pleasure for you or generating that energy for you.

[CRIS]

So it’s not just resilience, its resistance.

[ROBIN]

But it reads as failure. It’s refusal, but it reads as failure. And the reason why I called it melancholy was because traditionally, melancholy is the inability to get over something. Right. So Freud distinguishes between morning, which is sort of, you know, getting some resolution after a loss of something. And then melancholy would be the failure of mourning, right? Like you never actually come to terms with a loss. So that’s a melancholy traditionally means then you can sort of think of it as the refusal of resilience, right? It’s the failure to overcome sufficiently.

[CRIS]

or I’m thinking about the JIRA, the classic JIRA image of melancholy, melancholia, that that sense of dwelling in a refusal to overcome.

[ROBIN]

So from the perspective of resilience, dust discourse, that’s what the refusal to overcome looks like now, from the perspective of the person doing that refusal, it might feel fine.. It just appears to be a failure and sort of this, I don’t know what you call a misery or a total downer from the perspective of resilience. 

[CRIS]

So there’s a certain satisfaction, or even arguably a pleasure in dwelling in the resistance to the dwelling in the refusal to overcome.

[ROBIN]

Yeah, and it may actually be a healthy response to trauma. Because what I’m arguing is that resilience discourse masks itself as a sort of helpful response to trauma, but what might actually be helpful for individual people in various social locations might look entirely different. So doing what you actually need to recuperate from the trauma will appear pathological from the perspective of resilience discourse, but at the sort of level of individual subjects. It’ll feel maybe not fine, but at least it will feel something like some kind of healing or resolution or moving on or something.

[CRIS]

That’s great. So that’s kind of like a different version of what Mack was talking about earlier, from a very different direction in terms of equipment for living.

[ROBIN]

And one of the things I also thought was important to, to mention in the book is that oftentimes, people in oppressed groups will perform what could otherwise be considered resilience or overcoming or whatever, but because of their identities, they will be judged as failing at it, right? So in the same way that like criminalisation works, such that, you know, you know, Lisa Cashow and the introduction to her book on criminalization and social deaths contrasts the way victims of Katrina and black victims of Katrina were described when they went out looking for food. One was people were looking for food and the other was looting. Right? So there’s a similar dynamic at work with resilience or melancholy, right? The same behavior is going to be differently evaluated or described, from that perspective, depending upon the identities of who’s doing it, and how we perceive those. Those identities, if that makes sense.

[MACK]

Yeah, that’s fascinating. And I mean iit gives us a way to think about the sort of dark, melancholy sound that has crept into hip hop over the last decade, you know, and, and Kanye Heartbreak was kind of considered like a bit of a failure of an album at the time, but gosh, it was like, it was a real harbinger of what was to come. And also, there seems to be a sort of kind of refusal with sort of so called mumble rappers, to really perform

[Kanye begins to play]

It’s kind of similar refusal that I see and Rihanna’s work where she’s like, this is for me, this isn’t necessarily for you at all.

[ROBIN]

So what’s interesting is that those rappers are almost entirely men. And there might be a way to sort of read this as a sort of refusal of resilience as gendered feminine. That sort of this idea of resilience has become gendered and racialized as a feature of low status groups. So in order to be able to be the most resilient, you have to start at the bottom. So I think, back in 2015, when the book came out, this sort of maximalism was gendered masculine, right, so if you think about what ludicrous was talking about, I think, the next verse that we didn’t listen to, he talks about, basically something like if I lose my balance, in case I fall, just know, it’ll be from women, weed and alcohol, right. So it’s this sort of macho transgression? 

[MACK]

I mean, we could even go further back because I remember when, when I was first teaching university students dubstep was the province of like, nerds, you know, a certain kind of music nerd. Yeah. And then it became like, you know, so called bro step. And it was all the fraternity dudes with a much more hegemonic vision of masculinity dancing through their heads. It was really interesting to see that transformation take place. So it’s interesting for me to hear that this idea that this kind of intensification has become gendered female.

[ROBIN]

In these past four years, right, it’s happened like that. But what you see now, you know, the sad rappers but you also even the EDM inflected top 40 stuff is much less maximalist. We might even call it chill. So there’s been the sort of pivot away from remember YOLO? You only live once?

[MACK]

Sadly, yes.

[ROBIN]

Yeah. Yeah, there’s been a sort of pendulum swing away from that maximalism. And towards a more sort of chill tone down, right. I mean, Taylor Swift even has a song telling people to calm down in the title.

[Taylor Swift plays]

And it’s just happened so rapidly, but I think it definitely has happened to the point that we might even be moving on to something else.

[CRIS]

Yeah, in some senses that’s already that’s that’s what you’re mapping is beginning to imitate a night out with kind of people getting into this kind of sort of, you know, raging ecstatic moments around midnight, one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock in the morning, and then and then chill out the ambien space.

[MACK]

We’re at the after after party. It’s almost time to go to the diner for breakfast. So maybe let’s talk about chill. I’m trying to think about if there’s a musical form an analog to the sore that we could talk about, because I like how concrete the sore is.

[ROBIN]

Yeah, so it’s really present today in just talk tones down sores, sores are still there. But they’re at like, two rather than 11. So the build is much more subtle. So you’ll have that same sort of structure, like, there’s a little bit of a build, and a drop, and then the downbeat. So do you want to talk about Thank You Next?

[Ariana Grande plays]

The sore is so miniscule, it’s like an ariana size sore. And there is was, you just have that little sort of smooth, or cymbal roll. And then there is the downbeat, and it’s over.

[MACK]

Your work lately, you’ve moved from identifying soars into identifying this kind of more chill form that is dominating pop music right now. Do you want to talk about like, any analogous changes that you going on socially, that are making this feel like it makes sense? And sounds good, as you put it?

[ROBIN]

Sure. Yeah. So um, I think Thank you Next is a really good example of it, because it’s about Grande sort of overcoming a breakup and learning to love herself. And that’s literally the narrative of the lyrics. So it’s something we might frame as a kind of resilience. But the way it’s expressed or represented, is totally different than what we got five or 10 years ago, right. It’s all about sort of her expressing her capacity to, I like to put it as sort of maintain productivity amid outrageous circumstances. So Chris Richards, The Washington Post, music critic, talked a few years ago, he had a piece about this guy. Anyway, he had a piece on the sort of the popularity of people talking about Xanax and pop music. So anti anxiety medicine is really common now for probably good reason, right? Like, you know, the world seems to be falling apart around us, both in literal and figurative ways. So this idea of, sort of taking anti anxiety medicine or listening to a chill playlist, or being mindful is a way to sort of maintain your productivity, and keep on going amid all of this stuff, right, so it’s a way to sort of keep people working, and distract them and keep them sort of doing what they otherwise should be doing, when in fact, we should be outraged. Right?

[MARK]

Yeah, this is what, you know, my recent book is all about using sound technologies to be able to concentrate when you need to concentrate and sleep when you need to sleep. So sort of manage your own affect. And, and it’s interesting to look at sort of like the ads for noise cancelling headphones, and the beats, noise cancelling headphones, are really aimed at women and people of color and marketed through experiences of racism and sexism. But the message, as you said earlier about music, it’s really about individualizing seeing these problems and giving someone a technology to tune it out. The way you rise above is to not hear the haters.

[ROBIN]

Yeah, yeah, exactly. Exactly. Be resilient, overcome it. Tune it out. Yeah. So the effect of this and you see this in Taylor Swift’s new single, right, is that outrage becomes seen as something belonging to people of either low social status or odious political beliefs? Right, rather than something that like, yeah, we should we should be. We should be outraged at the destruction of the environment. We should be outraged at concentration camps full of children. 

[MARK]

And so this move to chill. I mean, we see this in the very technology of the streaming platforms, right, where the streaming platforms are built more around desired moods, affects, type of activity that you’re going to do to the music, productivity, working out, then they are organized around genres, the way that music stores, were, you know, still are those that exist.

Could you maybe talk about that a little bit?

[ROBIN]

Sure. Um, lyst Peli gave a really good talk about this at pop con last year. And I think it was published in the Baffler a few months ago. But she did, she took a deep dive into Spotify as she did that, That’s her thing. And she tried listening to sad playlist, right playlist about grief playlist about feeling bad. And she noticed that she was almost immediately redirected to feel good stuff. And so she looked into the way that Spotify represented itself to advertisers, you know, sort of how it talked about itself to advertisers. And she argues that Spotify wants people to feel good when it’s listening to Spotify, because advertisers want listeners to feel good about the brands advertised on Spotify.

[CRIS]

I love this.

[ROBIN]

Yeah. So Spotify doesn’t want you to feel bad, because its advertisers don’t want you to associate negative emotions with their brand. Right? So Spotify has this own sort of business interest in mood management, user management.

[MACK]

So if you buy Spotify Premium, are you allowed to listen to sad music?

[ROBIN]

Who knows? 

[MACK]

It’s ad free.

Yeah. Yeah, I don’t know.

[CRIS]

Maybe that’s why YouTube keeps trying to get me to take out one of their ad free subscriptions because I never listened to anything uplifting.

[MACK]

You just listen. Yeah, dense walls of noise cris.

[CRIS]

I’m interested in listening to steam trains and things like that, cars on the freeway.

[ROBIN]Well, that’s interesting, because I think one of the sorts of places in the pop music world that is definitely until these days and it is tied to a progressive politics is industrial techno.

[CRIS]

Absolutely.

[industrial techno music plays]

[ROBIN]

Not all the artists are totally sort of politically engaged. But people like Paula Temple in particular and Perk also, they’re both queer artists, who have released explicitly political music from a progressive perspective. And that I think does express. Some people like to call it hard or angry music. But interestingly, both of them have said in various ways, I don’t think my music is angry. I think it’s joyous. But again, I think that’s an example of just strong emotion. Which chill like I said earlier codes as either pathological or politically regressive. So I think it’s interesting to look for places where sort of Sonic maximalism in a strong emotion it implies are explicitly associated with that. And I think that’s one place, I think you can find it and I’ve been calling it at one point I called it angry melancholy but then I found the interviews where the artists were like, it’s not angry. So I’m, I’m trying to find an adjective to describe what kind of melancholy it is, because it’s not this sort of melancholy that I talked about in the book, but it’s it’s melancholy and that it’s a similar for their failure to perform the required an effective attunement, right which in this case would be something like chill.

[MACK]

Cameron on a guillotine was that Yeah, was that inspired by the Black Mirror episode with the pig? 

[ROBIN]

Yeah. So it’s definitely about Brexit. I actually first heard the song on a rinse FM show the day after the Brexit vote. So it’s sort of circulating as an anti Brexit song.

[music plays]

[MACK]

Sounds so retro to me. It makes me nostalgic.

[ROBIN]

But it’s kind of itchy and frenetic? Yeah, so to me that sort of represents like, when I’m tapping my toe, and I just know, I’m full of energy, and I can’t calm down and I’m nervous. It’s definitely not chill.

[MACK]

All right. This has been great. Do we have anything else that we should discuss? Like any things that we haven’t covered?

[CRIS]

So what’s the next book about?

[ROBIN]

It’s called the Sonic Esteem. And it’s about how theorists pop science writers use concepts of sound to create qualitative versions of the relationships that neoliberalism creates quantitatively. So like, one of the things I talk about is how pop science writers use the idea of resonance to translate the probabilistic math behind either some kinds of data science or some kinds of string theory into terms that people can understand.

[CRIS]

That sounds great, that sounds great.

[ROBIN]

So that’s out in December.

[CRIS]

Is that something that you wanted to talk about that we haven’t done? 

[ROBIN]

No, I think we covered it, thank you all so much. It’s been a pleasure to chat.

[MACK]

Oh, it’s been so much fun. Thank you for for talking with us. This one will be it’ll be really interesting to edit.

[CRIS]

Mack’s gonna be spending the next four months making it into a two minute piece. Thank you so much. 

[ROBIN]

Thank you guys. Bye.

[calm music fades in]

[CRIS]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thanks to Robin James for being on the show. You can learn more about Phantom Power, find transcripts and links to the things we talked about, and previous episodes of the show, all at Phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you’d rate and review us in Apple podcasts. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter. Today’s show was edited by Mack Hagood. Our intern is Gina Moravec. Phantom Power is produced with support from the Robert H and Nancy J. Blaney endowment, the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

[calm music fades out]

Ep. 15: Goth Diss (Anna M. Williams)

With My Gothic DissertationUniversity of Iowa PhD Anna M. Williams has transformed the dreary diss into a This American Life-style podcast. Williams’ witty writing and compelling audio production allow her the double move of making a critical intervention into the study of the gothic novel, while also making an entertaining and thought-provoking series for non-experts. Williams uses famed novels by authors such as Anne Radcliffe and Mary Shelly as an entry point for a critique of graduate school itself—a Medieval institution of shadowy corners, arcane rituals, and a feudal power structure. The result is a first-of-its-kind work that serves as a model for doing literary scholarship in sound. 

Anna M. Williams

This episode of Phantom Power offers you an exclusive preview of My Gothic Dissertation. First, Mack Hagood interviews Williams about creating the project, then we listen to a full chapter—a unique reading of Frankenstein that explores how the university tradition can restrict access to knowledge even as it tries to produce knowledge. 

You can learn more about Anna M. Williams and her work at her website
This episode features music from Neil Parsons’ 8-Bit Bach Reloaded

[ominous music plays]

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power. Episode 15: Goth Diss.

[sound of wind blowing]

[ANNA WILLIAMS]

It’s May 4th 2017, and I’m in room 311 of the English philosophy building. 

[jazzy music plays]

Room 311 is a windowless closet crowded with a conference table and rolling chairs that currently contain the five members of my dissertation committee. A radio scholar, A romanticist, an 18th century-ist education theorist and Victorianist.

[MALE VOICE]

So we’re here to talk prospectus and I welcome you with my colleagues. And we’re interested in raising constructive questions that will help you with clarifying focus, the scope, and the process because the process is so interesting.

[ANNA]

It’s the job of these five people to advise me over the next months, or more likely years as I write my dissertation, which is the only thing standing between me and my doctorate in English. What we’re here to discuss today, isn’t my dissertation per se, but rather my prospectus, a Microsoft Word document spanning anywhere from six to 20 pages that describes the dissertation, the one I haven’t written yet. In this way, think of the prospectus as a sort of dissertation permission slip, a sheet of paper that once signed allows me to climb on board the bus and head into the field of academic literary criticism. And if I don’t earn my committee signatures at the end of this meeting, then I guess I’m going to have to stay behind and eat my bag lunch all by myself.

[music fades out]

[MACK HAGOOD]

Hey, everyone, its Phantom Power. Sounds about sound, the podcast where we explore sound in the arts and humanities. I’m Mack Hagood. My partner, cris cheek is out vagabonding. It’s summer, I caught sight of him via social media on the Appalachian Trail. As you hear this, he may be in London or Rome. cris, if you’re listening, I hope you brought your recorder with you pick up some good sounds for us. And yeah, it’s summer. But there was something I wanted to share with you because it’s hot off the audio presses. One of the really nice and unexpected fringe benefits of doing this show is we’ve started to get invites to come and talk to folks about how to do academic work in sound, and what the potential of podcasting is in the world of sharing ideas. And so I was giving one of those talks at the University of Iowa. And people were telling me we have a PhD student who is doing her dissertation in podcast form. The author’s name is Anna M. Williams, and her project is called My Gothic Dissertation.

[carnival sounds and music play]

It’s a study of the Gothic novel, something that many literary critics, like Williams have studied in the past. But she does it in podcast form. And she uses the Gothic novel as a venue as an avenue into a critique of graduate school itself. So it’s sort of this narrative about being a graduate student about that the actual practice of writing a dissertation, and how that experience is, in itself, a very Gothic style experience. You totally do not have to be a literary scholar, to understand and to, in fact, enjoy this podcast. It’s a compelling project. It’s really nicely produced. And it’s a peek behind the curtain into what grad school is really like.

[sounds and music end, replaced with victorian music]

[ANNA]

It’s as if I’ve been lowered into a mind maze, or like the heroines of the literary genre that developed contemporaneously with the Enlightenment, the Gothic novel, maybe I’ve been lowered into a crumbling ancient castle.

[organ music plays]

What led me to this place is the prospect of a life devoted to literature of professing it as a career. But once I arrived, the prospect of a professorship began promptly to fade from view, like the Gothic ghost that it is. And now I’m trapped here in this Gothic castle known as grad school, with its intricate system of locked passageways, trap doors and dead ends, all lorded over by the mysterious Cult of the profession. The only way out for me, the intrepid heroine, trembling with trepidation, is to figure out the secrets of the ancient cult. To gain some knowledge that for the next 500 pages or so will continue to evade my grasp. I’ve got to show my mastery of the rules of literary criticism, but at the same time critique them. I’ve got to outsmart the Baroque villain of the grad school Gothic, the dissertation itself by doing it, while also simultaneously undoing it. And like those breastfeeding readers enraptured by the illicit world of the Gothic and the 18th and 19th centuries, you’re invited along to witness my own daring PhD adventure, because this is my Gothic dissertation.

[music ends, the sound of thunder is heard]

[MACK]

Like I said, this thing is hot off the presses so hot, in fact that the final episode has not yet been produced, because that’s the episode where Anna Williams defends her dissertation. So I don’t even know she defended it successfully. We’ll have to wait and see. But I want to share an interview that I just did with her this morning. And then I’m also going to share a chapter that she did on the novel Frankenstein, because I think it’s a really interesting reading that she does, and it’s a lot of fun to listen to.

[sound of thunder is heard again]

[ANNA]

So there were three primary things that I wanted to accomplish in this dissertation. And the first one was that it was my actual dissertation. And so I needed to make some kind of critical intervention. So what I ended up doing was highlighting some under recognized educational themes that run through the Gothic. The second thing that I wanted to accomplish was just to share the lived experience of what it’s like to be a grad student, in this particular historical moment in the humanities, because I think there are a lot of hidden obstacles, and a lot of them are emotional, and psychological. And those things don’t get talked about a lot. And so I was pointing out these like emotional factors, this kind of like emotional privilege that people have this, like a thick skin, or whatever you want to call it, that helps certain people succeed more easily than others in academic settings. And then the third thing that I wanted to do, because I didn’t want it to be purely critique, I wanted to offer some positive alternatives for how we might do better in graduate education to make things more accessible. And just a healthier environment for education overall, in general.

[MACK]

One of the really distinctive things that I think is happening here is that you’ve written the dissertation that is impart a critical reflection on the process of writing a dissertation. So this idea of this sort of reflective peek behind the curtain. And in fact, the podcast format itself, were those in the game plan from the beginning?

[ANNA]

They were, the podcast part especially because I had, I had kind of a real one day, this one day and the summer of 2016, I was out walking and listening to this American life. And it was an episode in which Ira Glass and Hannah Jaffe Walt, were talking about their work life balance in their 30s, which was like, exactly where I was, I had just turned 30, I was trying to figure out what to do with my professional life. And they were both talking about how much they love their job, they love making radio, and how difficult it was to balance that with raising children and, and having friends and that kind of thing. And I was thinking like, God, I, maybe this is an unusual response. But I was like, I would love to have a job that I loved that much that I didn’t want to stop doing it at the end of the day. And then all of a sudden, I think this idea had been brewing for a long time, because of the way that I was listening to this American life as like a budding literary scholar, it just occurred to me like what they do is tell stories, and then explain why those stories matter. And that’s what we are supposed to be doing as literary critics like at the very fundamental level. So it just occurred to me, I could totally make a career, doing literary criticism in the same kind of podcast format that has been so successfully pioneered by This American Life. And that very afternoon, when I got home from my walk, I went, you know, I’m gonna see if Iowa Public Radio has any job openings, just on a whim, they’re probably not even based in Iowa City where I live, but I’m just going to check. Long story short, I ended up interning there for a year, while I was writing my perspective. So that is a very long way of telling you that, yes, the podcasting aspect of this project was, that was first, the subject matter came second.

[MACK]

What a cool story. And that really like answers a question that I had, because, you know, this sort of self reflexive move that you make of dissertating about dissertating. I immediately heard that as being in the tradition of, you know, two decades of NPR, and podcast shows, since This American Life, right. I mean, like, show like Sarah Canucks Cereal, you know, that show is as much about the process of reporting the story as it is about the story itself. 

[ANNA]

Yeah. 

[MACK]

One of the things that I really liked about your project is you do what a dissertation is supposed to do, which is sort of like make a critical intervention into a specialized field, right? But at the same time, you also do what a dissertation almost never does, which is frame the work in a manner that is accessible to a wider audience. So being able to do that double move, I thought, like, showed a lot of sort of dexterity on your part, as a writer, and as a producer of audio. 

[ANNA]

Thank you. 

[MACK]

So in the spirit of that, I want to make sure that we define our terms, it’s something I always try to do on the podcast. So what is a gothic novel?

[ANNA]

Sure. So a lot of times people define what makes something a gothic novel based on like a certain set of characteristics that it has. So it’s often set in like a medieval, an imaginary medieval past. And so that’s where the term Gothic originally comes from. Like it’s referring to Gothic architecture, which was, the cathedrals and everything that were built throughout Europe, in the Middle Ages. That’s the style of architecture. So the type of novel in which these characters are living and having their stories played out in the medieval past. That’s why they call it Gothic. So other characteristics are, they often take place in castles or monasteries. So setting is really important. There will usually be some kind of supernatural element or as in the case of Ann Radcliffe, something that seems supernatural at first, but is actually later it has a totally rational explanation. It’s the typical movie made by Scooby Doo as well. You know, and in the Gothic too like Scooby Doo, there will be some kind of villain who is out for personal gain. And they’re trying to scare people away from discovering their plot, with these supernatural or fake supernatural elements anyway. So those are some of the main characteristics of a gothic novel. And the heyday of the Gothic people say, was from about, you know, Horace Walpole 1760s, up until about 1820, which is right after the publication of Frankenstein, which is one of the most famous examples of a gothic novel.

[MACK]

So early on, you talk about an influential approach to the Gothic novel among literature scholars, which sees the genre as a sort of critique of pre modern institutions and ways of thinking, right?

[ANNA]

Yeah, yeah. David Punter and Chris Baltic, and Jared Hogole, I think are three of the major critics who look at the Gothic that way.

[MACK]

And then you extend this critique to the university itself? So you point out that the university is in fact, a premium modern institution.

[ANNA]

In a lot of ways. The university as we know it, began in the Middle Ages and the public imagination, I think, conjures up images of like, Gothic style, gray stone buildings with arches and covered in ivy, when we think about unit, the term university or college. And, I mean, that just speaks to like the medieval roots of this institution. So another element of the Gothic that these critics have pointed out when the Gothic represents these medieval institutions, which typically are the Catholic Church and feudal aristocracy. What they say the Gothic is critiquing about those institutions is the power dynamics that have traditionally ruled those places. 

[MACK]

So in the Gothic novel, we have these sort of sinister characters who have the shadowy institutions behind them. And in grad school, you have the PhD advisor, it’s a publish or perish situation for the student. And there’s a lot of sort of, perhaps arcane symbols and rituals that the student perhaps doesn’t entirely understand and yet needs to be initiated into, in order to gain the approval of this figure.

[ANNA]

Exactly. And, like, described in this way, I know that it sounds, I guess, melodramatic, and I’m totally aware of that. And the Gothic does have a lot of melodramatic elements to it. And so invoking the Gothic to describe the experience of the modern day graduate student is meant to be tongue in cheek, it’s meant to be like partly humorous, but it’s also meant to be partly serious, because that was kind of the tone that I think the Gothic successfully struck. Sorry, go ahead.

[MACK]

And I think you successfully strike that tone through audio production, particularly the way you use music. So sometimes you’re making this kind of argument, or you’re letting a character a graduate student character speak about their experience. And the music behind them is a sort of melodramatic soundtrack, you know?

[ANNA]

Yeah, yeah. And it’s not meant at all to like, undercut what they’re saying. It’s actually meant to evoke their psychological experience of what they’re talking about. Because it can feel very confusing, like you experienced these things as very emotionally painful sometimes and trying. But when you share these things with people, sometimes it can feel hard to be believed. And so you can start to really doubt yourself. And then it’s like this feeling like, you don’t have a right to feel the way that you’re feeling. It’s a complex emotional experience, which is another reason that I think the Gothic fits so well as a lens through which to view it because gaslighting is a phenomenon that often happens in the Gothic. And I think some form of that can happen in graduate school as well, even if it’s not intentional.

[MACK]

Let’s talk about that a little bit. The concept of gas lighting, in some of these Gothic novels, you point out that, there will be a character and there’s a, perhaps a secret passage that enters into her bedroom, and she finds evidence that someone has been opening this passage way into her bedroom. And she’s in this very insecure position. And then, you know, the master of the house is like, there’s no secret passageway into your bedroom. Like, I don’t know what you’re talking about. And you’re being emotional. Right?

[ANNA]

Exactly. Yeah.

[MACK]

So in what ways is, is the relationship with the grad school advisor like that this sort of emotionally invalidating relationship as you put it?

[ANNA]

Well, I think it’s hardly ever intentional. But I think that for that reason, there needs to be more intention around how PhD advisors interact with their advisors, because I think sometimes PhD advisors forget how much authority they have in the eyes of the people that they advise. In terms of the advisee being invalidated, I think it happens often in terms of just inconsistency from one interaction to the next with the advisor like, and it could just be the advisors busy and forgot that they told them last time, something totally different than what they’re telling them now. But for the advisee, it feels so confusing and distressing.

[MACK]

Yeah. I remember having that experience. And I’m so afraid that I’ve probably perpetuated the same thing. As a professor at this point, you know?

[ANNA]

Well, I think that I’m I am almost certain that I’ve done the exact same thing to my own students. I like I said, I don’t think that it’s intentional. Like just being invested  and knowing what their experience of you is, and like seeking feedback, and not being afraid of their feedback is something that I think is really important for all of us to incorporate into our teaching practices, including myself.

[MACK]

So I’m, I guess, a Gen Xer. I don’t know how much stock we should put in these labels. But I think what your project really made me think a lot about this criticism that I hear from people of my generation about millennials, that they’re too thin skinned, or that the work environment has to change for them. And I’m always just like, confused by that, because I’m like, isn’t that a good thing? Like, the, the whole criticism seems to be like, well, why can’t they just suck it up? And just accept the same crappy things that we accepted? Do you have any thoughts about that?

[ANNA]

Sure. Um, so I just don’t personally, like put a whole lot of stock into the like lumping everybody born in between certain years into a category as being like, enough of the same to talk about. If I was going to accept the millennial category, as something worth talking about, I think, an entire group of like, generally young people who are pushing for things to be different, and for things to be better. Like, I don’t understand why people would think of that as a bad thing. Especially if these are academic humanists who are making this argument about millennials, that seems really ironic to me. Because so much of post-structuralist theory, has taught us to do the very thing that they’re telling us, we shouldn’t be doing. That very attitude that you’re describing of like, well, I went through this, and I survived, and I maybe am even better for having done it. So you have to do it too. And you should just suck it up. That is used as a rationale to cover like, all manner sense, if it’s young people, mainly, quote unquote, Millennials who are challenging these systems. Like, maybe it makes sense, maybe it’s because the times have changed, the economy has changed and the way that we train people needs to change to like to fit better.

[carnival music plays again]

[MACK]

That’s Anna Williams, PhD candidate in English at the University of Iowa, and author of My Gothic Dissertation. And now without further ado, let’s listen to a chapter from Anna’s dissertation. It is chapter two, entitled Frankenstein, or the Modern Lift Master Part One.

[music fades out, eerie music replaces it]

[FEMALE VOICE]

Follow me, please.

[ANNA]

When Frederic Frankenstein inherits the estate of his grandfather, Victor in the 1974, Mel Brooks classic Young Frankenstein it’s not the infamous laboratory or equipment that interested him most.

[FEMALE VOICE]

This is your room. It was your grandfather Victor’s room.

[ANNA]

It’s the library.The books.

[MALE VOICE 2]

Well, seem to be quite a few books.

[FEMALE VOICE]

This was Victor’s. The barons Medical Library.

[MALE VOICE 2]

And where’s my grandfather’s private library?

[FEMALE VOICE]

I didn’t know what you mean, sir.

[MALE VOICE 2]

Well, these books are all very general, any doctor might have in this study.

[FEMALE VOICE]

This is the only library I know of Dr. Frankenstein.

[MALE VOICE 2]

Frankenstein. Well, we’ll see.

[ANNA]

After initially being deflected by Cloris Leachman as faur blooker, the housekeeper of the estate and in this retelling Victor Frankenstein’s former lover, Frankenstein played by Iowa’s own Gene Wilder eventually discovers a secret passageway that leads to what he desires.

[MALE VOICE 2]

What is this place? A music room?

[FEMALE VOICE]

But there’s nothing here but books and papers. 

[MALE VOICE 2]

Books and papers? It is! This is my grandfather’s private library! I feel it. Look, look at this!

[ANNA]

laid out on his grandfather’s desk is a large volume with the comedic Mel Brooksian title, how I did it by Victor Frankenstein. The it of course, being how he created his infamous monster.

[thunder sound effect]

Frankenstein proceeds to read it from cover to cover. This is what he’s been looking for all along the precise knowledge of his grandfather’s notorious work. The instructional guide for making a monster, the very thing he’s been insisting he doesn’t care about, has distanced himself from with the revised pronunciation of his name. As it turns out, he did care a little bit after all.

Although the film Young Frankenstein purposely even gleefully re inscribes a lot of early Hollywood’s inaccuracies in depicting Mary Shelley’s work, things that were never actually in the novel like the hunchback assistant, the Gothic castle the bolt of lightning causing the monster to come to life. Frankenstein’s interest in his grandfather’s books is actually a pretty insightful moment that harkens back to the 1818 text.

[violin music plays]

Subtitled the modern prometheus, the original novel Frankenstein deals like so many stories in Western civilization with forbidden knowledge. It’s a reference to the Titan Prometheus, who in ancient Greek mythology, disobeyed the wishes of Zeus and stole fire from Mount Olympus to give to the humans. This fire is often interpreted as a metaphor for the divine spark of knowledge that once lit can continue being kindled to become evermore large and powerful.

And in the hands of the humans, it’s not only life giving but also potentially destructive in the literal sense that it like burns things, and also in the metaphorical sense that it challenges the omnipotence of the gods. The more the humans know, the less power the Olympians have over them. And this is why Zeus decreed that Prometheus would be chained to a rock and tortured forever. His liver being eaten out of him by Eagles every day, only ro regenerate overnight for the next round.

[orchestra music plays]

Subtitling her novel The Modern Prometheus casts Shelley’s protagonist Victor Frankenstein as a similar figure who filters knowledge from the divine realm. Only he does sell at the University of Engleshtops in the late 18th century. There after years of intense study in his rented student lodgings, he discovers the secret to creating human life. But here’s where the insightful moment by Mel Brooks comes in. Frankenstein’s years of intense study focused among other things, on three ancient philosophers that people in positions of authority didn’t want him reading. Old,forbidden books, the stuff of private libraries, and those who didn’t want this modern for me theist reading these things. The Zeuses of Marry Shelley’s story where Victor’s own father Alphonse Frankenstein, and one of his professors at the university, a crass old natural philosopher named Maziar Cremp. And the ancient philosophers they didn’t want Victor reading?

[CREMP]

Paris office, an arrogant foolish swift. Albertus Magnus, his nonsense with exploded 500 years ago. What’s your name?

[FRANKENSTEIN]

Victor Frankenstein, sir, of Geneva.

[ANNA]

This imagined first exchange between Victor and Cremp is from the 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And it isn’t far off from what Victor really says about his discouraging educational history in the novel, The occasion for which is often forgotten by modern readers. Shelley’s story begins with a frame narrative, in which an ambitious naval explorer named Robert Walton finds a hagard near death Victor drifting across the Arctic sea on an iceberg.

[ROBERT WALTON]

His limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully Amai seated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition.

[ANNA]

His startling appearance, coupled with the fact that Walton ship is trapped motionless in a sea of ice gives Victor good reason to tell us tale. Beginning with the early years growing up in Geneva, and how one summer he made a chance discovery that would change the course of his life forever.

[FRANKENSTEIN]

When I was 13 years of age, we all went on a party of pleasure to the baths near Tronton. The clemency of the weather obliged us to remain a day confined to the inn. In this house, I chanced to find the volume of the works of Cornelius Agripo. A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind.

[ANNA]

Agrippo was a 16th century theologian, and scholars have generally assume the book Victor found was one of the three volumes of his day occult philosophy, or of a cult philosophy, a kind of compendium of both learned and folk ideas about magic. Victor recalls how dazzled he was by his discovery. But when he presented the book to his father, he quote, looked carelessly at the title page, recognized Agrippo’s name,

[VICTOR’S FATHER]

Ah, Cornelious Agrippo.

[ANNA]

And said,

[VICTOR’S FATHER]

My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this, it is sad trash.

[ANNA]

After recounting this memory, Victor pauses to tell Walton that on reflection, it’s this moment that set into motion the series of events that would lead him to create a monster and bring about his life’s ruin. And this is important because as far as I know, no other literary scholars have given this moment the credit it’s due. Frankenstein has widely, famously been read as a novel about hubris, overreaching ambition, and pride. People consider Victor’s conquering of human mortality, to be motivated by an impulse to challenge the power of God and achieve personal immortality through things. But in my reading, it’s not God that Victor’s challenging, it’s his teachers. Those who cast themselves as the mortal keepers of knowledge, who can dictate to Victor what is sad trash and what is not. And what he really wants isn’t fame. Rather, it’s to redeem the work that so captivated his imagination, to show his father and Crimp not only that they were wrong and trying to forbid him from reading those books. But also that the forbidding of any knowledge from interested students is just bad pedagogy.

[FRANKENSTEIN]

I cannot help remarking here the many opportunities instructors possess directing the attention of their pupils to useful knowledge, which they utterly neglect.

[ANNA]

In other words, when they say things like, do not waste your time upon this, it is sad trash.

This moment at the end with his father is the first in a series of intellectual confrontations, episodes of what Sherry traffic would call epistemic violence that caused Victor to rebel. As he tells Walton, had his father had a little more patience. Have you taken the time to explain that, quote, modern science had just proven Agrippo’s theories and therefore had, quote, much greater powers. Then Victor says he probably would have dropped it. But, like Prometheus is challenging Zeus. Victor was only made more defiant by his father’s cursory glance, the careless brushing off of his intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm. He doubled down in his obsession with the occult, determined to demonstrate the worthiness of his interests, despite his father’s attempts to divert them to deem them unworthy of serious pursuit, to block has access with shame.

[FEMALE VOICE 2]

For now, please wait

[ANNA]

On a dreary morning and November, about six months after passing my prospectus, and then my 2800 accord, a slowly drifting iceberg straight into the sea of cars waiting to get into the parking lot of the EPB, the English philosophy building. We’re all just idling here and patiently waiting for people to exit the lot. So we can enter. It’s a one in one out situation you’d expect from some kind of nightclub. Only the spot we’re waiting to enter is actually four and a half floors of poorly lit brutalist architecture that was recently voted the ugliest building in the state of Iowa. Still, though, it’s a campus hotspot because it has is to underfunded general education courses that are every student is required to take rhetoric and the interpretation of literature, which is what I need to get into teach. Okay,I am in my car, hold on, gotta move up. Two people actually, three people just gave up in front of me, turned around and drove away. But I’m going to go try to talk to some of the other people who are sitting in line. On this day, it begins to dawn on me, this whole parking lot situation feels like a metaphor for the general feeling of blocked access that’s plagued me through this entire grad school experience. And since I have a kit of recording equipment from the radio essays class I’m taking, I work up the nerve to get out and interview the people in front of me. I want to know who they are, why they need to get into the lot. And if they find this situation, as frustrating as I do. The first car I approach is a blue Mercedes SUV, ask you a few questions. The driver seems startled, but agrees to talk to me. How long have you been waiting in this line?

[DRIVER 1]

I think it’s already 10 minute. Yeah.

[ANNA]

Do you have a class in there?

[DRIVER 1]

Oh, yeah. I have a class. It’s in the linguist center I think?

[ANNA]

The linguist center, probably the second ugliest building in the state of Iowa. It houses the education department. He tells me that he’s an undergrad, a sophomore. And he waits in this line three days a week like me.

[DRIVER 1]

So basically, my classes start at 12:30. So you know, I always come here at 11:40. You know, and maybe always with to the total as I can go in and.

[ANNA]

30 minutes to get it. pretty typical. That giant work was so by the way, is it the nearby power plant, and it signals that it’s now 12 o’clock. Meeting 30 minutes is also the amount of time I have before I should be calling roll in front of my classroom. Sorry, Did I scare you? 

[DRIVER 2]

Yeah just a little bit.

[ANNA]

I’m doing a radio story on the HPV parking lot line. Would you be willing to answer a couple questions for me? 

[DRIVER 2]

Sure. 

[ANNA]

Okay, so what’s your name? 

[DRIVER 2]

Paula.

[ANNA]

Okay. Hi, Paula. I’m Anna. So how long have you been waiting in this line today?

[DRIVER 2]

I’ve been waiting approximately one hour. 

[ANNA]

One hour? I find out that Paula is another undergraduate student. And unlike most, she’s not actually waiting to get into a class. She’s been in this line for an hour, she tells me because she needs to pick up a computer from her friend. 

[DRIVER 2]

So the person like can’t leave the building. And obviously, I can’t like park my car and go in. So I’ll just wait about which is fine. I currently don’t have anything to do. So it all works out. 

[ANNA]

Unfortunately, I do have something to do. So for me, it doesn’t really all work out. But I thank Paula for her time anyway, and move on. I did this thing for three days, getting out of my car and interviewing the people in front of me. And each time every single person I talked to was an undergraduate student and one of them was one of my undergraduate students. Hi, Thomas. I’m Anna, you look familiar. Were you one of my students?

[THOMAS]

Yeah. First our rhetoric class. 

[ANNA]

Yeah, you are my rhetoric student. Hey, how are you doing? As nice as it is to see them. It doesn’t feel quite right to be competing for resources with my own students. But what also doesn’t feel right is that while I was conducting all these interviews with the undergrads in front of me, there was something else happening to right beside us there was this other line that we were all restricted from entering. Or really, it’s kind of a non line because there’s never any one in it. It’s reserved for faculty members. And periodically as we were talking, they would zoom past us and enter the lot with their prepaid passes. No 30 minute wait, not even a one minute wait. They just pull up, swipe a card and go right in. And if that’s not frustrating enough, once they got through the there’s also be these large swaths of empty parking spaces on reserve for them just lying in wait to receive their Subarus and Volkswagens taunting all of us in the plebeian line. Every time a faculty member would zoom past, I’d asked the undergrad I was interviewing how they felt about it, including this Junior named Shana. At first, she said that no one should get special privileges. But then she made one important caveat.

[SHANA]

No, no, I don’t I don’t think so. Besides teachers, because I know there that’s important for them to be there on time, but they already have so they can go like they can go ahead and go in. So

well. 

[ANNA]

Actually, I’m a teacher. Teachers already have a line she was saying. The one people were zooming past us and when I revealed to her that I’m a teacher, she seemed kind of shocked at first, but then she asked something pretty telling.

[SHANA]

Do you lead discussion? Or are you like a teacher like the?

[ANNA]

The question is whether I’m a real teacher or mearly a discussion leader, a graduate teaching assistant who does things like take attendance grade papers, and lead breakout discussion groups once a week for large lecture classes. Still a person for the record who does very important things and deserves reliable access to their workplace. And I did serve as a discussion leader for intro to the English major when I first came here back in 2013. But for the past four years, I’ve been independently teaching the same intro level courses as the faculty members in my department. Even though I’m still technically called an assistant. Unwittingly, Shana’s question revealed the divide she had many others seem to see between grad students and real teachers, the divide between me and the ones that can glide right past this gate.

[jazz music plays]

Just like the line for the EP parking lot, only so many make it through this gauntlet of PhD work in the United States. According to the Council of graduate schools, only about 50% of students who start doctoral programs in the humanities will finish, at least in their first 10 years. And while that may seem like a long time, according to a 2016 report by the Modern Language Association, the average number of years it takes to complete a PhD in the humanities is 9.2. To get an MD, that is to be a medical doctor, and trusted with other people’s lives, takes just eight years of grad school. Of course, that doesn’t include all the residences that follow but still, postdocs are a common path for humanities PhDs as well. Meaning that in the United States, the time it takes to be able to teach Shakespeare to college kids is not all that different from the time it takes to be able to perform surgery on them. Why? What could possibly be so important about teaching college lit courses that it takes this long for someone to prove they’re worthy of doing it? Who are what are the lift masters in that process? And what is the freaking hold up? 

[music fades out]

For those of us trapped in the pursuit of our English PhDs, Lift masters come in many forms, and a lot of them are psychological.

[FEMALE VOICE 2]

Lot is for now. Please wait.

[ANNA]

Now back in the car, I’m stuck idling indignantly behind this lift master again, the master of lifting or not lifting the gates. And from here I can’t help it see its unwavering arm as reminiscent of another kind of barrier I’m stuck behind as well. My own feeling of intellectual subordination at this stage in my career. It says if the 12 foot reflective steel arm morphs before my eyes into the Alphonse is and Cramps of my own education story. The ones who, in their well intentioned and less blunt way have nevertheless told me my ideas are sad, trash, and not worth pursuing. Because every step so far, my comps exam, the perspectives meeting, it all feels like trying to prove that my ideas, my interests and powers of perception, are enough to grant me access to some kind of PhD Promised Land, my own personal spot in academia. Each time It feels like I’m being asked to produce some sort of pass that adheres to a set of English discipline rules I don’t completely understand. And I’ve managed to keep producing one up until this point that somehow, bafflingly turned out to be valid. But every time it seems to be just barely so

and it’s just barely ness makes my ability to produce it the next time even less surefooted. Because I’ve lost faith in its validity. In my validity. I feel ashamed that such important people seem to find my perspective, so flawed, but it’s the same time like with Victor, there’s this hard headed persistence to through all of this, it feels like the only thing keeping me from being one of those 50% that turn around and give up. Maybe driving to the nearest marketing firm or Starbucks drive through to submit a resume is my own sheer stubbornness. This conviction that I do deserve a spot in that lab. I’m more than just some undergrad who needs to pick up a computer from her friend. And in this process of getting my PhD, the more I feel like I’m being treated that way, like some frivolous underling on a mundane mission, easily brushed off and invalidated, the more hard headed I become. When Victor arrives at the University of English shot in some undisclosed year of the late 18th century, he’s immediately met with more disregard of his interests. Another unyielding gate standing between him and what he wants to study. Soon after arrival, he meets with Crimp. And although it occurs a bit differently in the novel than in the film version you heard earlier, the outcome is pretty much the same.

[FRANKENSTEIN]

He received me with politeness and asked me several questions concerning my progress and the different branches of science pertaining to natural philosophy. I mentioned it is true with fear and trembling The only authors I had ever read upon those subjects. The professor starRed.

[ANNA]

Sure enough, in response to Victor’s meek proposal of his academic interests, cramped assumes the familiar position of indifferent authority. scoffing Have you really spent your time in reading such nonsense?

[CRIMP]

Every minute? every instant that you have wasted on those books is utterly lost. An entirely lost your burden your memory with exploded systems and useless names? Good God. What does it land if you lived, where no one was kind enough to inform you that these fantasies which were so greedily imbibed, or 1000 years old, and is musty as they are ancient, I little expected in this enlightened and scientific age to find a disciple of Albertus Magnus and para Celsius, my dear sir, you must begin your studies entirely anew.

[ANNA]

although Victor claims he was, quote, not disappointed because he had long considered those authors useless. Thanks to his father. He still harbors an admiration for them and feels contempt for modern scientist. Because why is it exactly that Mr. Crump and Alphonse Frankenstein are so quick to disregard Victor’s interest? A lot of critics take the answer for granted. But really, why exactly are a group of parasitosis and Albertus Magnus sad trash and nonsense? This matters a lot in my reading of the novel, which I see as a sort of Tales, Victor’s one pree creature and one post. Pre creature Victor is the one with an interest in the occult, a curious student whose imagination has been kindled and he thinks he’s found something valuable that his teachers have overlooked. Despite their discouragement, he secretly pursues those interests in an effort to prove them wrong, which turns out to work. Combining occult knowledge with modern science, Victor discovers the method to reanimate dead matter, which is an astounding accomplishment in the realm of human knowledge. Victor was right about the potential of those forbidden books all along. The only thing that makes the creature into a monster was Victor’s abandonment of it, which I read as a moment in which he becomes a turncoat, a traitor to his own convictions, a sellout who gives in to his intellectual detractors. So again, I ask, what exactly were those detractors saying? What message about science and knowledge did Victor internalize from his father and Crimp that led to the making of a monster? What epistemic gate had been constructed in modern science, that Victor worked all those years to furtively tear down, only to end up abandoning it, and siding with the lift masters after all. To answer this question for myself, I reached out to Palma Muno, a history professor at Middlebury College and author of Solomon’s secret arts, a book about attitudes toward the occult during the Age of Enlightenment, Professor Muno was overseas in Oxford at the time, so our Skype connection here is a little less than optimal. But I asked him why someone like Victor’s father, a magistrate, for the government of Geneva and the late 18th century, would have called a group of sad trash.

[PALMA MUNO]

Well, it wasn’t taken very seriously by that time. It was it was regarded as a product of superstition and as something that had more to do with the period in which it was written, then, it had more to say to pre reformation society, even though Agrippo was a Protestant, probably were not certain of that. And the reputation of Geneva was for sort of Calvinist rationalism. So it’s, it’s not at all surprising that that would be the case. The image of Geneva is a very straight laced rationalist society. And so I think this is meant to bolster that image in the mind of the reader.

[ANNA]

I see. He’s referring, of course, to John Calvin, the puritanical theologian best known for his theory of predestination. 200 years before, Calvin had promoted the Protestant Reformation from Geneva, and his brand of rationalism or the belief that reason always trump’s emotion is reflected in his theory that all human wisdom consists of two parts, knowledge of God, and knowledge of oneself. knowledge of God and here’s the rational part, can only be attained through the reading of Scripture and the exercise of one’s reason in interpreting that scripture. Unlike this text and reason centric theory of knowledge, a cultist like Agrippo believes in the knowledge of God could be attained through secrets embedded in nature itself. Muno talked about this when I asked him about Albertus Magnus, who’s not actually in the book, Solomon secret hearts because, as it turns out, he was never really an occultist.

[PULMA]

And those who think that, you know, this, nature holds a cult secrets, hidden revelations, come to believe that Albertus was somehow privy to them in the same way King Solomon was pretty to them. I mean, this is but this is the myth of Solomon on which the title of the book is based. The idea that Solomon had this knowledge of all things in the world, and because he had that knowledge, he knew also the hidden things in the world. And the hidden things in the world were secrets that were put there by God that would, could raise you to a higher spiritual plane.

[ANNA]

So being thinkers of the occult tradition, a grip and parasitosis believes that nature helps secret divine knowledge that if humans could find it would bring them closer to God. Or according to their pious critics could usurp the divine knowledge of God that humans were never meant to wield. But for a Calvinist rationalist like Alphonse Frankenstein, the belief that knowledge could be attained this way, would have looked like superstition, naive, magical thinking that he didn’t want his son falling for. This debate surrounding the way we know things is also what crime seems to take up when he calls the work of a grip and the like, nonsense and exploded systems. But of course, Victor didn’t rely on mere superstition or magical thinking to gain his knowledge. He combined the old with the new. In my reading, it was never that he wanted to prove that the old way was the right one. Just that the rationalist distinction his father and crimp were making was too simplistic and closed minded. Sure, Victor came to Ingolstadt devoted to his medieval occult philosophers. But he did delve into the modern sciences with quote, an order that was the astonishment of his fellow students and a proficiency that all his teachers, including Crimp. Within two years, Victor tells Walton, he had maxed out his teachers abilities. by their own admission, he had nothing left to learn from them, and so he was considering leaving Ingolstadt and going home. What made him decide stay? Was the decision to set off on a kind of independent study, to answer this question that had continued to nip at his mind, a vestige of his still lingering admiration of occult philosophy.

[FRANKENSTEIN]

One of the phenomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and indeed, any animal and dude with life wins, I often ask myself, did the principle of life proceed?

[ANNA]

In other words, what makes things alive?

[FRANKENSTEIN]

It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery. Yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness to not restrain our inquiries?

[ANNA]

He decides to be brave and break through that careless restraint. Combining his advanced skills in the modern sciences, things like anatomy, chemistry, physics, biology, with the occult belief that such a question can be answered. Victor goes on to fulfill his quest. He proves that modern and occult science aren’t mutually exclusive, as his father in crime would have him believe. It’s alive. He guns it through that intellectual gate and earns himself a permanent spot in any academic lot he deserves. And then he gives it all up. But that’s next time in My Gothic Dissertation. Back to my own dreary morning, or now afternoon in November, it’s 12:21. I’m second in line, and someone’s leaving. Oh, no. There’s a faculty member creeping up in the other in the other lane. Thomas hasn’t pressed. Okay, Thomas is pressing the button but I think that when these faculty members go in, I won’t be able to go in. Let’s see what happens okay. Thomas is going here. I go to faculty members both press the button before me.

[FEMALE VOICE 2]

Please press the button then take the parking ticket. 

[ANNA]

Sweet. 

[FEMALE VOICE 2]

Please take the parking ticket. Please enter following the guide.

[ANNA]

Up goes the lift master and I drive to find a place to park after 36 minutes spent in the car behind my own former student. I now have nine more before the beginning of my class, which translates to just enough time to find a spot. gather my motley assortment of bags, get inside, drop the motley assortment of bags in my basement office and dash up to my second floor classroom. There will be 50 minutes of discussing Wuthering Heights that an hour back in the basement coaching students on their essays or alternately fielding grade complaints about their essays. Then another 50 minutes of discussing weathering heights with another set of students. Finally, I’ll gather my belongings and head home to keep working on my dissertation. And after two more days, I’ll be back to do it all again. Because I’m chained to this rock for as long as it takes me to finish writing this thing. 

[birds cawing]

It’s kind of the inverse of Prometheus’ liver actually, after what feels like an eternity behind the gate. My past keeps materializing just in time, only to disappear for me to remake all over again the next round, like this chapter, now complete, but dissipating into the stark realization that after all of this, I have to write another one.

[rock music plays then fades out, electric pop plays]

[MACK]

That’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thanks to Anna Williams for being on the show. Her podcast does not have a home yet, but you can hear more excerpts at her website. The link is in the show notes for this podcast and on our website. Where as always, you can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to the things we talked about, as well as find previous episodes of the show. It’s all at Phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. And we’d love it if you would rate and review us in Apple podcasts. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter. Today’s show was edited by me Mack Hagood with music from Neil Parsons Eight Bit Bach album. We’ll put a link to the band camp page for that in our show notes. And our intern is Gina Moravec. Phantom Power is produced with support from the Robert H and Nancy J. Blaney endowment, the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ep. 14: Resonant Grains (Craig Eley on Carleen Hutchins)

In the 1950s, a schoolteacher named Carleen Hutchins attempted a revolution in how concert violins are made. In this episode, Craig Eley of the Field Noise podcast tells us how this amateur outsider used 18th century science to disrupt the all-male guild tradition of violin luthiers. Would the myth of the never-equaled Stradivarius violin prove to be true or could a science teacher with a woodshop use an old idea to make new violins better than ever? 

Violin design innovator Carleen Hutchins

We also learn about the mysterious beauty of Chladni patterns, the 18th century technique of using tiny particles to reveal how sound moves through resonant objects–the key to Hutchins’ merger of art and science. 

In this episode, we hear the voices of:

  • Quincy Whitney,  Carleen Hutchins biographer and a former arts reporter for the Boston Globe.
  • Myles Jackson, a professor of the history of science at Princeton.
  • Joseph Curtin, a MacArthur-award winning violin maker.
  • Sam Zygmuntowicz, an extremely renowned violin maker and creator of Strad3D.
  • Carleen Hutchins herself. 

You can subscribe to Craig Eley’s Field Noise podcast to hear the original version of this story. 

This episode was edited by Craig Eley and Mack Hagood. Music is by Blue Dot Sessions and Marc Bianchi. The archival interview clips of Carleen Hutchins were provided by filmmaker James Schneider. The interview with Quincy Whitney was recorded by Andrew Parrella at New Hampshire Public Radio.

[ominous music plays]

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power.

[MACK HAGOOD]

Episode 14.

[CRIS]

Resident grains.

[a whirring sound plays, then a string being plucked]

[CARLEEN HUTCHINS]

What I’m interested in now is to see what the waves that are traveling through the woods are like. And those are the things that I think are making a lot of difference in the way, energy and the waves of energy can go through the wood itself. And wood is all sorts of sort of discontinuity, if you will, that will make the energy have to slow down or go around something, it’s a little bit like a river flowing. And if you put some rocks on the edge of a river, you’ll change the whole flow of the river downstream. Think that’s what’s happening in violins. There are certain ways that those blockages, the discontinuity can be worked out. And that’s the kind of thing I’m looking for us to see what happens. Because some of the beautiful issues that I’ve been working with and testing show that there’s a good deal of this sort of thing going on.

[CRAIG ELEY]

Well, let’s just back up a little bit. There’s a line of thought, which is that every object vibrates according to its nature.

[A more persistent humming, then fades out]

[MACK]

Welcome to another episode of Phantom Power. I’m Mack Hagood.

[CRIS]

And I’m cris cheek.

[MACK]

Today we have the pleasure to speak with one of our collaborators, Craig Eley. Craig is a producer on Phantom Power. And he’s also the producer of his own podcast, a podcast called Field Noise. Hi, Craig.

[CRAIG]

Hey, guys. Thanks for having me.

[CRIS]

Yeah, thanks for being with us.

[MACK]

Alright, so Craig, we’re doing a little bit of a swap-a-roo this week. We’re going to hear basically an episode of your podcast Field Noise. Do you want to tell us a little bit about your show?

[CRAIG]

Yeah, you know, the idea has always revolved around my own research interests: sound studies, history of technology, environmental history, and just the sort of relationship between sound and technology in the environment. You know, when I finished graduate school, I actually did do a research postdoc for a year, but then I ended up working in public radio. And I’m trying to incorporate some of my own research, but also just do some original reporting and just kind of follow my ears as it were for some stories that I’m that I’m interested in trying to tell.

[MACK]

So today, you’re bringing us an episode of Field Noise that is about an outsider who revolutionized the field that she entered.

[CRAIG]

That’s absolutely right. This is a story about a woman named Carlene Hutchins. She wasn’t exactly self taught as a violin maker, but in some ways, she was an amateur who entered this field. She was a school teacher, she was very intellectually curious. And she drew on this old technique of vibrating plates. These are called Kauladney Patterns from this guy, Ernst Kauladney, and she applied that technique to violin making. This work starts in the 1940s and into the 1950s. And the results, frankly, turn the entire violin world upside down.

[CRIS]

So, let me just say up front, Mack said you can either listen to it in advance or it might be interesting if you don’t, I have no idea what you’ve done. So this is gonna so I’m kind of like you’re very weird listener.

[CRAIG]

Yeah, that’s great. Well, you know what, it’s the more I listened to it, I think it’s like a totally weird piece. So maybe between the three of us, we can try to make some sense.

[violin music plays]

[QUINCY WHITNEY]

She was at a point in her career where she had a chance to take on about five jobs. And this is the way she told it to me, that she could have had, but she realized that she couldn’t stay married in that time, in the late 1920s, 30s. She couldn’t have that domestic life too and do these jobs. So there was a frustration there was a tension always building in her.

[MACK]

So who are we hearing right now Craig?

[CRAIG]

Quincy Whitney. She became Carlin’s biographer and published a biography on Carlene and before that, she was an arts journalist for the Boston Globe. So she’s sort of our guide through this episode.

[QUINCY]

When she’s teaching at the school for the first time, she finds out that her colleagues like chamber music, and they’re all playing stringed instruments. And so they invite her to come to a session one night and she’s a trumpet player from college, right? She studies the trumpet and she brings her trumpet. And after one session, they of course, all turned to her and say, you know, the trumpets too loud for a Manhattan apartment, we really need a viola as every string ensemble always needs a viola. And so she goes out and buys a $75 viola, because she largely wants community, right. She’s tense about the fact that she can’t do what she wants to do. And so playing the viola with this chamber music group, and her friends, that becomes her community.

[string music continues]

Eventually, it sort of sits in her hand, and she’s been carving, which since she was five years old, she was a master woodcarver by the time she was in high school. So she keeps looking at this viola thinking, gee, maybe I can make one.

[CARLEEN]

I’ve been interested in wood and loved it ever since I can remember. I learned a lot about woodcraft, which has given me a feel for the trees and the woods and how they relate. This can be used for the half of the top of a violin. And the piece, the other piece we had is, well, this will be one half of it. Here’s the other half. And this will make the top of a viola when it’s put together. Now they’re a couple of knots in here. And the plan is to try to work around those knots so that they won’t make trouble.

[QUINCY]

And so she made this Viola and she’s showing it around to her chamber music friends, and they’re playing it. And Helen rice says, we really ought to go meet Frederick Saunders. He’s a retired Harvard physicist who lives out in western Massachusetts near my farm, we really ought to go and have him, just look at your instrument. So she does that. She hands him the instrument. Saunders takes it plays it, taps it, looks at it closely, and turns to her and says this is really a great first instrument. I’ll be fascinated to see your next one. And at that point, she had not planned to make another one. And so Saunders hands her a couple copies of his scientific articles that he’s done about violent acoustics, primarily in his retirement as a sort of a passion that he’s following, because he’s an avid string player. So he’s written up some papers. They’ve been published. And now he hands his reprints to Carlene. She’s a biologist, she’s reading these papers written by a physicist, and she’s thinking, you know, I didn’t really understand the jargon at that point. And so she said, but the one thing I do notice, Dr. Saunders, is that most of the experiments you’ve been doing, are putting the weight on the top of a bridge and testing it in a sound chamber. And he said, Well, yes, because I, as a passionate person who loves the instrument, I don’t want to ruin the instrument. And she said, Well, what would you do if if somebody could make you instruments that works expendable that could be used in experiments? And he said, Well, that sounds really rather crazy. Like what Luther would be crazy enough to make instruments that they’re going to be destroyed. And she says, I will.

[violin music stops]

She ends up doing her research by reading about Felix Var. And what he does, with suggesting about play tuning. And so she’s the first person who sort of puts together this idea of doing the cloudy patterns, or its cloud and he had developed this method of seeing sound bite, putting particles on a plate and vibrating and discovering that there were all these amazing geometric patterns at different frequencies.

[a consistent rumbling plays then fades out]

[CRIS]

This is great, Craig. I’m really enjoying just listening. And fascinated by the idea of making instruments to effectively damage or destroy, but in the cause of experimentation.

[CRAIG]

Yeah, I mean, this is sort of the beginning of the sense we get, of really just how radical her approach to this is going to be she I mean, she’s, she’s a woodworker first, right? Right. And so she doesn’t really have a sort of reverence for the violin, as a violin, right? To her this is a wood carving project. And then, when she meets this this guy Saunders, it becomes a science project. And, you know, she went to Cornell, I think, got a little taste of acoustics, but also sort of a taste of the scientific method. And that really, really influenced her approach to violins.

[MACK]

Yeah, she’s an intermediary. She’s got one foot in each of two different worlds. She’s got a foot in the world of music, and she’s got a foot in the world of the scientific method. It actually reminds me of someone that I’ve done research on, which is Amar Bose, the inventor of the noise cancelling headphones and a lot of familiar Bose products. He was an amateur violinist, a passionate amateur violinist, and also an engineer. And it was having a foot in each one of those worlds that allowed him to be such an innovator.

[CRAIG]

Yeah. What’s great about Carlene too is that kind of depending on who you ask, it’s like, she had a foot in both worlds. But more like she actually had like a toe in them. She really was enthusiastic more than anything. I mean, her experiences as a violent builder and a player were very minimal. Her experiences as a scientist were undergraduate. You know, that was her terminal degree. And so, not only is she just very interested in both of these fields, but she’s approaching them with like, almost like none of the hang ups of being a professional in them.

[CRIS]

You know, there’s something interesting here about somebody who is investing in the sound of the material itself, not necessarily how the construction of the material produces other sounds.

[CRAIG]

Yes, a violin plate is very lively to touch it. This guy’s described it to me, it’s almost like you’re holding a little tiny xylophone. Like, you can touch it and all these little places and hear it resonate. And so there is, you know, she didn’t totally invent this notion of oh, let’s let’s think about how the plate sound. I mean, there is a history of violin makers doing this sort of tapping and being interested in its own sound as a sort of, you know, what little secrets can those taps reveal to them?

[CRIS]

Yeah, sure.

[CRAIG]

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, she has a real keen. I feel like this is sort of a sound studies phrase that that is popular right now. But she has a real keen sense of the materiality of sound.

[MACK]

I love that this connects to those fascinating vibrational patterns in sand invented by Kladney. Mr. Kladney?

[CRAIG]

Yeah, yeah, yeah. In fact, that’s a great segue, because the next section here that we’re about to listen to, goes back in time to tell us a little bit about Kladney. I did a Skype interview with a really great historian of science named Miles Jackson, who has a book about this stuff called Harmonious Triads.

[ethereal music plays]

Can you just take a minute or two for someone who’s a total layperson and describe what he was doing in his experiments?

[MILES JACKSON]

Right, so the experiments that Kladney is interested in and he gets the the idea of doing this by reading the work of a rather famous physicist of the time experimental natural philosopher called (inaudible). And what he did was literally to render the invisible visible, but in this case, electric sparks. So he was interested in looking at kind of the characteristic patterns. So you can see sparks, but you don’t see the patterns that they leave behind. So that if a spark jumps over a non conductive material, and if you sprinkle powder in that area, the non conductive material, if it’s from a positively charged conductor, you’ll see like a really beautiful star tree pattern, and if it’s a negatively charged conductor, the powder will form actually, cloud formation and Klaudney was fascinated by this, and recommend, and it turns out correctly, that, you know, maybe vibrations in the form of sound would leave similar patterns. So what he’s interested in doing is to render these vibrations visible, as well as audible at the same time. So he takes the metallic square plate, puts it on a stand, sprinkles grains of sand on the plate, and then he takes a bow and then he bows the plate perpendicular to one of the edges. And he also places his fingers on various portions of the plate. He takes though he bows with his right hand and touches the plate with his left in order to influence the way in which the plate vibrates.

[plate vibration sounds]

So what he does is he generates these amazing figures, quite aesthetically pleasing figures. But he’s interested, really, in seeing what the actual patterns are, and how that corresponds to pitch, because he’s first and foremost interested in inventing musical instruments, which he does. And his argument is where the where the dust settles, where you have those Klaudney lines, that’s where there are no vibrations, that’s where the plate is at zero, the vibrations of the play cancel each other out. Kaludney’s interest in the bits of a metal plate that’s not vibrating with the view of locating that bit so that you could put a piece of metal or piece of glass or piece of wood, and he wouldn’t change the volume or the pitch of the instrument.

[string music plays again]

[MACK]

Okay, so these cloudy patterns there, these beautiful, sort of geometric shapes that are made in sand when a plate vibrates beneath the sand, right?

[CRAIG]

Yep.

[MACK]

And they’re kind of hard to describe some of them, it looks sort of like a kind of Mandela or a kind of some kind of cryptic symbol. Yeah, they look kind of like that.

[CRAIG]

Yeah, they’re they’re kind of like haunting. I mean, and actually, people talk about this when they were first sort of revealed people there was this, late 1700s. Well, is it a language from beyond the grave, you know, and so it’s like this sound and the dead thing again. But yeah, I mean, what what’s happening there is that as the plate vibrates as they sort of explain, the the sand settles in the areas of the plate that aren’t vibrating.

[MACK]

And this is so fascinating, because we think of the sound wave as the natural representation of sound, the natural visual representation of sound today, right? Like, anytime you look on the internet, you know, whether it’s SoundCloud or if you’re working in an audio editor, we always get this waveform. And if you ask somebody, what is that this thing on the on the screen, they’ll just say, Oh, well, that sound. But that is not the only, you know, visual manifestation of sound. And in fact, Klaudney came first. Soundwave comes from the experiments of another German Hermann von Helmholtz. And he was the one who took a tuning fork, and hooked up the tuning fork to a stylus and put a kind of piece of paper beneath it and move the paper and those vibrations of the tuning fork were sort of traced in this linear left to right manner that we think of as the sound wave today. And so we just think of that as being sound. And yet, I kind of like to imagine a world in which these beautiful Klaudney patterns would be our way of interacting with sound and conceiving of it, it’s radically different.

[CRAIG]

Yeah. And it’s, yeah, I mean, I think that’s the thing is like, then as now, you can’t help but be drawn to them. They feel artful. And they feel kind of organic. They feel true to I think, what we know about sound, which is that it’s this really kind of complex thing that’s just vibrating all around us. Yeah, you like me, just, it just gives you this cool feeling. It tells you something that the waveform doesn’t quite tell you.

[MACK]

All right, somebody make me a Klaudney pattern audio editor. Alright, but let’s get back to Carleen Hutchins, how she applied cloud nice technique.

[CARLENE]

So then she thought, Well, what what happens if we, if we try that on a violin plate. So now she’s looking at this really unusual shape, which is the shape of a violin plate. Already, you got an hourglass shape with a waist and in the top and the bottom, and it’s all curved and serpentine. And then she says, what happens if you put the glitter on the plate and then vibrate it, what happens? So she starts to by focusing on particular modes, particular sound patterns, at a certain frequency, she starts to see patterns that basically help her figure out where the plate is too thick, you know, she’s got 10 plates she’s working on there’s this plates not got that perfect shape with the glitter. So I guess I need to, you know, carve it more in that spot. So she starts to use them, to tune them in the sense that she’s really having a visual aid to see about the arching of the plate, how to make her uniform arching at the plate and make it work. It becomes a visual tool for the Lucier to see what he’s doing.

[violin music plays]

That kind of innovation is what she discovers that the Luthiers hate her, because she’s asking them to bring science into the workshop. You know, and even though music has been assigned since the beginning of time, they have basically done things intuitively with their hands, and they’re not in interested in science.

[CRAIG]

The next section includes interviews with two really renowned violin makers. One of them is Joseph Curtain, and the other is a guy named Sam Zygmuntowicz

[JOSEPH CURTAIN]

Initially, I was pretty skeptical about science, you know, sort of butting into violin making. But when I met Carlene, I was very impressed by her energy and enthusiasm. And I think I heard her give a talk at a conference. And  that was what led to me inviting her to give this this workshop. What play tuning was intended to solve, I think, from her point of view was given a vast variety of wood that you find, as violin would, how do you how do you optimize it for a given instrument, and, you know, there’s a notion that you can tune it to some ideal frequency, and that should do the trick. Typically, violin makers, you know, feel the stiffness of the wood, they bend in various ways and use normal workshop practice to arrive at graduations, there’s no evidence that the old Italians or anyone else really had done plate tuning or not nonscientists anyway. But she was proposing a practical system for use in the workshop. And as such, it was very appealing.

[SAM ZYGMUNTOWICZ]

There was a famous cover of Scientific American in the 80s, which showed a number of photographs of violin tops and backs with the the vibration patterns revealed through there was little bits of glitter or tea leaves. And the violins had been vibrated in the the tea leaves bounced off the areas where it was vibrating and settled in the areas where it wasn’t vibrating. And Carlene had done demonstrations of that on a few different frequencies. And there was this very striking cover. And I think that that was the first time that many people had that view of the instrument. And it was like, Whoa, this is more like, you know, it’s Mr. science project. It’s not a renaissance artist project. So the fact that you could see these vibration patterns, and you could tune them meant that that’s what people were focusing on.

[violin music and tapping]

[JOSEPH]

The thing is, she left out how heavy the plates were. And if you don’t know how dense the wood is, then tuning the plates to get some ideal frequency, it can lead to counter intuitive results. She also had got caught up with this notion of tuning and octaves, which is sort of a seductive notion that  the proportion of an octave, you know, goes back to the sort of the music of the spears type of thinking, but there is really no scientific basis in that. So I think she got a little off, a little astray with that. She claimed to have measured up the plates of a violin and found that it was in octaves, at least two octaves. And I don’t doubt that that exists, that it happens, they tend to arrive naturally with normal graduations in the area of an octave. But there’s two problems. One is if it isn’t octaves that make any difference to the final sound. And the second, why would it? I mean, you know, look, you’ve got to actually establish a causal connection before you try and convince violin makers to use it. But she kind of skip that step. As far as I can tell.

[violin music continues]

[SAM]

You know, as soon as people could see the pattern on the top and back with the tea leaves, they thought, Okay, well, you know, look at a few good violins, and we think the top should be tuned to 360. And then should be half of that for mode two, and then mode one should be half of that again. And if all three are lined up, that was an idea, try tone tuning, which meant there was all in octaves. And people really worked to get that and you can get it. Turns out that the good violins in general are not tunes and try tones, but it was a very satisfying idea. So a lot of people spent a lot of time doing tri tone tuning. And I’m sure a lot of them got very nice results too. However, if you do a broad study of old violins is not what you see. In fact, there’s the tuning of the top and the back, it’s just one of 100 factors, and not necessarily the most important one. You know, the project that I was involved with, strat 3d, was the first attempt to capture the vibration patterns of strategy and coronaries in 3d. So you could see how much it was moving forward and backwards side to side. And then to create animations that you could see for any given note or any given frequency, you could see in what way the violin was vibrating. And one of the things about the violin, which is when you actually see all these patterns, which is totally unexpected, it is the violin is not vibrating in one way, it is vibrating in 100 different ways, all simultaneously or many of them simultaneously. So it’s like a horse galloping, and on the horse is the saddle. And on the saddle is a person and on the person is a fly, and they’re all doing things at the same time. And we’re all moving and the Earth is spinning, and it’s all moving through the universe. It’s almost that level of complexity for violent, everything’s happening at the same time. So it’s quite difficult to tease out single motions. But you know, the implication is clear that the very tantalizing promise for a maker is that if you could see the structure, then you’d have a shot at changing the structure. And if you could change the structure, you could change the sound. So that was a real switch, that the romance of the violin is sort of built around the idea that there’s this object, it’s been designed by man, but almost with divine intervention. And it works in ways that we don’t understand and we can’t even do it nowadays, sort of the mythology involved some lost knowledge. And then it is a very romantic vision and one that I enjoy as well. However, if you are a composer, you don’t want to hear that Beethoven’s the only guy that can compose. And if your violin maker, you don’t want to hear that Stradivarius the only guy who can make violins. To move from that to a vision of the violin is a thing, an object made out of real materials very much like they had back in the old days, behaving in the same way and obeying the same physical laws. It’s very empowering. I think the ability to use the scientific findings is still a work in progress. But just the knowledge that it is a potentially knowable phenomena was a huge one.

[soft violin music plays]

[JOSEPH]

There’s this notion wildly popular around the world that science somehow is not up to discovering the mystery of Stradivari. There’s sort of an archetypal announcer saying, you know, for centuries, scientists have struggled in vain to discover the secrets of Stradivari. Really? In vain? Why in vain? Have you read the papers is actually fantastic work done, what was never done and could have been done is to do blind tests and see if there really was a difference between Stradivarius and any other instruments sound. So before you want to invent a theory about why a certain phenomena is the case, you want to make sure that it exists and no one really bothered to do that until the last few years when we started doing double blind tests. We got first in Indianapolis and in Paris, we got in Paris, we had 10 violin soloists and six old Italian violins, five of them strands and six new instruments and had the soloist blind test them. And it turned out that the soloist, the most preferred violin easily was a new violent, the least preferred was a Strad. And we did the same thing with audience, audiences found the new one projected better. And the subsequent test from New York showed that they also preferred new, they preferred what projected better. So there was absolutely no evidence that the strands had any qualities that even first rate players could detect. None of them could tell the difference between new and old that better than chance. So it was a big, kind of a big anticlimax, and we got a lot of publicity, and there’s probably people who still don’t believe it. But that’s it’s pretty hard science. I didn’t know. But what else can we learn? That’s a very iconic plastic finding. Either violin making has got a lot better in recent decades, and or there was never such a big differences to the public imagination as supposed. I think there’s been a big advance because a there’s a market, there’s a you know, huge number of violinists, and very few old violins left and not any of those are very good. So as soon as you have a market, then you can actually earn a living making a violin now, you couldn’t really, in past decades. You had to do repairs and restoration. So there’s that then there’s the crucial thing, which I think Carlene Hutchins helped with, which was sharing of information. The traditional European guild system held things very private. So as soon as you get sharing, and a bunch of people doing things, things are going to get better. I mean, violin makers, professional violin makers will look at her and say, Wow, she’s really a scientist. And I think some scientists would look at and say, Well, she’s really a violin maker. But I think everyone, certainly the scientists I’ve talked to who know, would absolutely creditor with in a major way with you know, getting the field going in America at the time.

[music fades out]

[CRIS]

So there goes the antique file in market.

[CRAIG]

Exactly.

[MACK]

Or does it, because this is the thing, it was all about the mystique apparently.

[CRIS]

Right, the object, it has value regardless of how it sounds.

[CRAIG]

I think that’s the question that these new makers are asking is, do these violins actually sound better? Or is it just the mythology of them that has become so deeply ingrained in violin playing culture and in violin making culture.

[MACK]

And styles and tastes change, and a certain kind of sonic palette is going to be preferred in one moment, compared to the next. I mean, there could even be the influence that recording technology, digital recording, technology feels a lot more high frequencies that people have gotten used to hearing. And people might start to want a violin that can repeat reproduce those frequencies, more or less.

[CRAIG]

There’s this other interesting question that people raise, and like, the obvious way is like, what is a new instrument today going to sound like in 300 years?

[CRIS]

Right.

[MACK]

One of the things that I really liked was talking about this cloud knee technique. And because it revealed a certain propensity of the instrument, or a certain dimension of the instrument. People really zeroed in on that and thought that that was the key to making an instrument sound good. And then what one of your experts shares with us is like, well, no, that’s just one of 100 things that the instrument is doing in any moment.

[CRAIG]

Totally, you know, you can kind of read between the lines when when these Lucier say things like, well, that idea was appealing, or that idea was seductive. And what they’re sort of getting at here and in some cases, say explicitly is what that idea was, is for a lot of people, it felt like a shortcut. And so for people who are invested for example, in what Joe Curtain calls normal workshop practice at one point, that’s also a little bit of a code there, right as saying, like, well, you know, those of us who have studied this and have apprenticed and sort of come up and the traditional way, you know, we weren’t as willing to take the shortcut. Or we were skeptical about it from the beginning.

[MACK]

Yeah, because on the one hand, you have people saying that, look, science will cut through the mystique, and reveal the true essence of what’s going on with an instrument. And yet, science has its own mystique, right? We have a way of grabbing onto something, precisely because the aura of science is around it.

[CRIS]

Right.

[MACK]

And I’m not belittling the scientific method, I think it’s amazing. But whatever we zero in on where that means that we’re leaving something else in the periphery of our vision,

[CRAIG]

I think, yeah, that’s exactly right.

[violin music starts again]

I mean, I think this was a moment where the old myth of the Strad, right, like, well, it’s unlocked, you know, it’s solved now. And we have science. And that idea took a little bit of hold in the 1980s. But I think what Joe Curtain and Sam Zygmuntowicz are kind of telling us is that the science, the science moved on. And that is actually the important part of Carleen’s work. It’s not that the science was perfect, but it’s that she published her work, it’s that she published her findings, she did experiments, she got violin makers in a room, talking to each other. And so whether or not the science was right, is actually not the important part of her contribution to violin making. And I think that the fact that you and I can have this conversation and that Luther years are willing to talk to me publicly about their craft. That’s a radically new concept from the guild method, right? I mean, these guys would study in their workshops for untold years on end and guard their work, the seat like the secret that it was. And so the fact that we’re now running double blind tests on violinists and audiences, that’s Carleen’s work. It’s not the plate tuning.

[violin music continues then ends]

[MACK]

So Craig, we’re coming to the conclusion of our story here, but we really haven’t addressed the theme that’s sort of been lurking in the background this entire time, which is, Hutchins was a woman, a school teacher, back in the 1950s and 60s, when she revolutionizes violin making in America. I mean, gender must come into play here, right?

[CRAIG]

I mean, it’s critical to the story, it’s fundamental to how this whole thing unfolded, how her ideas developed, because it’s not just that she was an outsider, as a violin maker or an outsider, as a scientist. She was also outside both of those fields on a sort of deeper, more fundamental level as a woman. You know, there’s this notion that the violin makers don’t want science kind of butting into their workshop practices. But I think that underlying all of that is this often unspoken thing, which is like, well, who is this woman? And why does she think she can tell us what to do?

[MACK]

Yeah.

[CRAIG]

You know, the other important role of gender and Carlin’s life is that she makes this decision early on to be a school teacher, as opposed to being more of a career woman. She makes her violins in the context of basically staying at home for large portions of her life. She has the summers off as a teacher, she raises several kids at home. And her home is also where her workshop is they’re one in the same thing. So her practice from the very beginning is a practice that is sort of prescribed by her gender roles in the 1950s and 1960s. And so, her embrace of this sort of open violin culture, from the very beginning is I also think about a woman seeking out community in a professional and intellectual space, where she doesn’t often get to experience that in her everyday life.

[violin music starts again]

[QUINCY]

Her legacy is nothing short of overturning the violin world in several different ways. I think if Carleen had been a man, she would have been coronated for field. Carleen open the door and started a dialogue. Suddenly, there was not the secrecy of centuries, and people guarding their work. Well, I don’t know if a man had come along with he have had the same inclusive paradigm, I don’t know. And whether it was gender only, her paradigm was to be open, and to share. And I have to say that there wasn’t that paradigm before. She would want the science to move on. She was open to the dialogue. You know, she did it. She did everything she wore every hat you could possibly wear in her field. You know, author, catalyst, editor, she did it all, and transformed the whole climate.

[upbeat, hip hop violin music plays]

[CRIS]

And that’s it for this episode, and this season of Phantom Power. A quick programming note then, after doing two seven episode seasons, we’re going to switch to dropping episodes as soon as they’re done. Look for the first one in your feed this summer. Thanks to Craig Eley for being on the show. You can hear the original version of Craig’s piece by subscribing to the Field Noise podcast wherever you get your podcasts. And you can learn more at fieldnoise.com. As always, you can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to the things we talked about, including those beautiful plagne patterns. It’s all at Phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. And please, we’d love it if you’d rate and review us in Apple Podcasts. That does make a big difference. Find us on Facebook and Twitter. Today’s show was edited by Craig Eley and Mack Hagood. Music was by Blue Dots Sessions, except for the piece you’re hearing now which is courtesy of Mark Bianchi. The archival interview clips of Carleen Hutchins were provided by filmmaker James Schneider. The Interview with Quincy Whitney was recorded by Andrew Perella at New Hampshire Public

Radio. Thanks to our season two intern Gina Moravec. Phantom Power is produced with support from the Robert H and Nancy J. Blaney endowment, the Miami University Humanities Center, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

[violin music fades out]

[MACK]

Being a Luthier of violins.

[CRIS]

Derived from the word loot, originally a loot maker.

[MACK]

Oh, really? That’s where the word comes from?

[CRIS]

That’s right.

[MACK]

Wow, that’s that’s so Renaissance Festival.

[CRIS]

Oh, yeah. I got my little furry tale already.

[MACK]

That is another whole topic like how did cosplay become something that you see at the Renaissance Festival? I totally don’t get it.

[CRAIG]

Season Three phantom power.

[MACK]

I’d even seen Furies at the Renaissance Faire. I mean, people are jousting. And there’s like a giant mascot sitting next to me.

[CRIS]

We’re not going there.

Ep 13: Jams Bond (cris cheek)

In an unusual episode, we listen back to field recordings that co-host cris cheek made in 1987 and 1993 on the island of Madagascar. It’s a rich sonic travelogue, with incredible musicians appearing at seemingly every stop along the way. Mack interviews cris, who discusses the strangeness and surprises of listening back to the sounds of that other time and place–and listening to the voice of an earlier version of himself. The BBC broadcast some of this material on Radio 3 as ‘The Music of Madagascar,” produced by John Thornley. It won the Sony gold radio award for ‘specialist music program of the year in 1995. A longer version aired as “Mountain, River, Rail and Reef,” produced by Phil England and Tom Wallace for Resonance FM, the world’s first radio art station as part of 1998’s Meltdown Festival at the South Bank Centre, curated by John Peel. This episode takes its name from a boat cris traveled on in Madagascar.  

[ominous music plays]

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power.

[sound of glass being smashed]

[MACK HAGOOD]

Episode 13.

[CRIS]

James Bond.

[MACK]

Welcome to another episode of Phantom Power, the podcast about sound in the arts and humanities.

[CRIS]

Who are you?

[MACK]

*laughs* I’m Mac Hagood.

[CRIS]

I’m cris cheek.

[MACK]

And today we have a very unusual episode because I get to interview cris.

[CRIS]

Yay!

[MACK]

cris has brought in a program that he produced for the legendary community radio station in London, Resonance FM. Based on your travels in Madagascar, actually two trips you took right?

[CRIS]

That’s right 1987, 1993, yeah.

[MACK]

cris, why don’t you tell us a little bit about this show?

[CRIS]

It was originally broadcast on the BBC. And there was some format things that got in the way of it being a longer show on the BBC. And I wanted to let some of the recordings play a little bit more than they could do in the original.

[MACK]

In resonance, it was much more of a sort of freeform kind of space where you could let something like that stretch out right?

[CRIS]

It was pretty emergent as a station at that point, but also yeah, the BBC wanted to cut me distinctly to just under half an hour.

[MACK]

And why Madagascar? Maybe we should start off with where is Madagascar?

[CRIS]

Madagascar is off the east coast of Africa. It’s in the Indian Ocean. Fourth largest island on the planet. 90% unique in flora and fauna. Really extraordinary mixtures of people who came from

From Polynesia, down the Amoni Arab coast from particularly Southwest India, pirates. Did I mentioned pirates yet?

[MACK]

No, you didn’t.

[CRIS]

There were several pirate bases in Madagascar.

[MACK]

Yeah, and the musical traditions that resulted from that mix are really, really incredible.

[CRIS]

They are, and the people are really incredible.

[MACK]

So what we’re going to hear, I’ve heard a little bit of it already. It’s gorgeous music and really some delicious sounds recorded, just delectively. I just really love these recordings and sort of what interests me beyond this sonic travel log that you’re presenting to us, is just the fact that I’m going to hear the you that I didn’t know from 20 years ago, and then you’re also going to sort of hear yourself, the person that you used to be back then.

[CRIS]

Yeah, that’s why I brought this. I mean, I brought it because we’ve been talking in so many different ways about listening about paying attention to the sounds that are around you, the things that are at the edges of our attention, and really concentrating on those. It felt like it was in conversation with so many of the other programs that we’ve made.

[MACK]

Great well, so maybe what we should do is just let it roll, check in, and debrief?

[CRIS]

We’ll stop.

[MACK]

Okay. This is Mountain, River, Rail and Reef by cris cheek.

[upbeat, almost latin style music plays]

[CRIS]

Mountain, River, Rail and Reef. A field sound narrative.

[music continues then fades out, a low drumroll plays]

Monday, March the 13th, 1993. It’s so hard to see out of those distortionary plastic Lawson shaped windows. We’re flying in land over the north western coast of Madagascar now. An island of ancestors, ghost voices. And below the countryside is veined and rotted by streams and rivers. Each Delta stained red by silver deposits bleeding out into the Mozambique channel. Outcrops of rock and tiny villages of no more than a half dozen buildings rise into focus.

Longhorn cattle, zebu, being driven along dirt tracks turned on to otherwise empty stretches of tarmacked road. Further inland, more and more carts and then cars become visible. A hustle and bustle of people activities, thickening towards the capital and tender leave. On the trip into the city center, I’m told by my mirror shaded taxi driver that the rainy season has already been and gone. Red brick houses with pierced wooden balconies are baking in the golden late afternoon sun. Groups of children. One chases a metal hoop with a stick or running home from school through crowded narrow streets. They dance in pungent clouds of steam from blackened parts where rice is coated roadside stalls.

[street sounds are heard]

Tana as it’s cold is high up on the central plateau of this, the fourth largest island in the world. It combines a huge Central Market Square or Soma, facing onto the train station, a couple of lakes, ones colonial hillside suburbs, and a spreading girth of makeshift encampments.

[music and people talking fade in. Flutes and drums are primarily heard]

Most weekends somewhere in these mountains you’ll find the hero gosh or songs of the Malagasy taking place. It’s like a friendly match or flighting between local singers, dancers and musicians, and the visiting troupe from out of town. In the round roller coaster of folk performance, from chaos to pathos, including prototypical rap, improvisational cabaret, martial dances and a somewhat rough band.

[People singing and chanting is heard, they are keeping a beat]

Each group performs twice and a typical performance lasts about a half an hour.

[singing and chanting continues]

Towards the end of each round of the hero gash, a near riot of fanfares, featuring those highly

overenthusiastic drummers breaks down. Everybody keeping themselves going with delicious fish samosas dipped in berry sauce.

[sound of a fast car speeding by]

Monday, March 22nd. I’m leaving the capital and heading for the southwest of Madagascar, where the music the people and their ways are still far less well known.

[sound of a train going by is heard]

The train rumbles it’s sleepers through cornfields dotted with pink perrywinkles and scalloped rice paddies fitting snugly into the mountainside.

[A horn is blown]

Every station as a throng of gesticulating people selling fruit and sausages through open windows to the passengers inside. I got out of the place of big salt, walked up to a Highland Lake nearby. Jade water edged by steep white cliffs, then cut directly West in a taxi Bruce, that’s an open back pickup truck with a canopy, nearly always holding more passengers that is really comfortable. In a bar along the way, for a welcome stretch. I heard the dancing sound of a cobalt. It is a box mandolin, stronger than flexible reed. The Cabalist incorporates the striking of a bass string into his playing, whilst the young boy uses a recycled can holding rice as a shaker.

[The two playing is heard, then street sounds are heard]

The end of this road or certainly as far as the bus goes. The onward road was washed out weeks ago by torrential rain. It’s one of the hottest and most humid places on the island. It translates to waiting for a wife. Well, I’m here hoping for a boat. Pouring down the surrounding mountains, a giant river runs zigzag towards the sea. As I walk along its banks under the mango trees. The evening air cools and heavy rain on the corrugated roofs begins.

[Fast paced music plays, then a crowd claps]

[Street and outdoor sounds are heard once again. A dog barks, and metal is clanging against itself.]

In the half hour or so of dawn light, I’m sitting on a balcony, listening to this small town waking up. Men are hollowing out trees to fashion boats. Goats and sheep hold a rally at the podium in the town square.

[animal noises are heard]

There’s a large insect trying to make passionate overtures, or kill itself against my microphone. One of the endearing features of this lodging house is when I empty the washbasin by some freak of the plumbing system, an airlock perhaps, creates a phantom drummer  rising from the black hole.

[the sound of pouring water, then the phantom drumming is heard, starting slow then gaining speed]

All day we followed the River City Venus currents in a small dugout canoe. Storks and herons perched out on those flows fishing from nest of twisted weed and each night we camped out on the riverbank and makeshift tenants made from cut bamboos.

Sometimes we’d simply drift.

[sound of rushing water]

gliding down through rain forest in silence, having been warned not to speak if I saw anything unusual. To do so would be taboo.

[guitar like music plays, children cheering, then fading out]

[MACK]

This is just incredible stuff. You know, I did a lot of backpacking in the 1990s myself around East and Southeast Asia. the scenarios that you’re painting are so familiar, right you got to get in the back of the pickup truck to go somewhere, and then wait for the boat, and maybe the boat’s going to come this evening or maybe it’s going to come tomorrow or whatever. But the thing that I did not experience is you keep making these little pit stops at these places where you have to wait. But they’re these killer musicians are just making the most incredible music in these places. And that’s something that I wish I had experienced in my travels. I definitely heard a lot of great music but not just sort of at these rest stops.

[CRIS]

There seem to be musicians everywhere. And it was it was what you do while you’re waiting.

But a lot of people who were in the traveling party if you like, weren’t particularly interested. They were kind of impromptu rest, stop cafes, just like you’re describing, and now I’m remembering almost certainly most of this was on a Sony Walkman pro cassette recorder with a tiny little microphone. And and I would say to people, do you mind if I put my recorder out? And they would be yeah, sure, don’t worry about it. But because I put my recorder out, everybody else would suddenly get interested. So they would be then listening to what this traveler this vasar, as they say this stranger was finding interesting about this music that they were taking for granted.

[MACK]

Yes, yes. I’ve had that exact same experience with my own field recordings and you pull out the recording and people are like, wait a minute, is there something I should be listening to here? Why is this strange guy from far away so interested in this?

[CRIS]

It was very, very, very interesting and the musicians would also say thank you afterwards as if they were suddenly being taken seriously as somebody who had something to bring to the situation rather than just being used as background. Everyone would as they say in contemporary departments, lean in. Sometimes there was a bit of applause and it was like, it’s like I’d staged an impromptu concert by putting my tape recorder down, which I found incredibly difficult to fathom. It was full of so many paradoxes.

[MACK]

Well, speaking of things that are difficult to fathom and paradoxical when it comes to recording, one other thing I was thinking about is, we’re both sitting here next to each other listening to this. And I’m imagining everything that’s going on, while you’re remembering everything that’s going on. So I’m just kind of wondering what it’s like for you to be sitting here and listening to something you made 20 years ago.

[CRIS]

Yeah, that’s a super interesting question. It’s as if sound and particularly recorded sound can act as a time portal. It’s very odd for me to listen to my own voice too. Because although you might not hear it, my voice has changed a lot, partly by being here in the US for such a long while. So I’m listening to a very different kind of performance of British masculinity, from a very different moment in time, from a different moment in my life, but also a different a different post colonial context.

[MACK]

So you raised that question of the post colonial context. So, I know that since I was backpacking, and making field recordings, I’ve been exposed to a lot of things and read a lot of things that have made me look back on those activities in the early 90s in a different way. Thinking about the fact that I was following in the footsteps of colonialists who probably gave me the privilege to be able to be so mobile and to visit these places. And then just as they extracted certain things of value, I with my recorder was extracting aspects of their culture and taking them out of context and bringing them back with me. Right. And so I have a sort of feeling of discomfort around some of that.

[CRIS]

Me too.

[MACK]

That I never had before. So yeah, I was wondering what you thought about that.

[CRIS]

Well I’m really glad to hear you raise it because those discomforts register for me really powerfully, they’re registered at the time. And they register even more strangely now because I’m listening to the sound that I produced from those discomforts, a two decade distance.

[MACK]

Yeah. It’s a complex issue because you also had the experience of bringing cassette recordings that were made by earlier Western travelers and playing those for people there. You want to talk about that?

[CRIS]

Well, yeah, French missionaries. Actually the recordings released on the Acorah label are beautiful recordings from this French label Acora. And I literally would arrive in a small village and people would come and talk to me, you know, where are you coming from? What are you up to? What are you interested in? And I was, particularly in the second time I visited on a mission not a missionary, but I was on a mission to because I was particularly interested in recordings that I’d heard of forms of poetry, song poetry that were used for healing purposes in the

southwest of the island. So my whole journey was to go there to try to hear some of this. And I would, people would come, I would play them a little bit of this recording and they put on the headphones, because there was no speaker on a Sony Walkman Pro. And their faces would light up. And then they’d start to laugh. Oh my god. I remember this stuff. Some of them would say, huh, you know, it was a little bit along the lines of having people at the road stop, get interested in the music, the local music. This was also a moment at which people registered that somebody from outside was really interested in a cultural aspect of their culture. So I’m with this malagasy couple traveling down a river. And one night we stop. We make benders out of the bendable branches at the riverside and malcash guy walks up past and walks past holding a crocodiles jaws shut in one hand and doing a breath rhythm, like *sound of breathing* and I copied him. As he went past I just did exactly the same thing back. And the next morning this couple were alive with questions like Where did you learn that stuff? And I said, What stuff? And they said, you know, this, this rhythmic stuff? And I said, I don’t know, I do strange things with my voice. So we arrived at a village The following night, and they disappeared. I sat and looked after the boat and brought the entire village with them and asked me to do a performance. So I had to do this kind of really weird impromptu sort of sound, poetic voice rhythm, performance. And then the villagers all went away and they came back down with their cassette machine and played me examples of what you’re about to hear. And we went on down the river, and we got to this place and all these people showed up, because word had gone out in the forest, from village to village, that there was this guy who was particularly an expert in or interested in this kind of interlocking voice performance. And that’s what happened.

[MACK]

That’s amazing.

[music plays, are back to cris’ recordings]

[CRIS]

After four and a half intense days on this river we arrived at Billow. There in a moonlit courtyard, I witnessed nine young men perform a vocal music that I’d never heard before.

[Male vocals are heard, sound like onenote fluctuating]

They referred to it as cognac key, rapid interlocking rhythms made with a voice. It’s hard work keeping it going for long. And they produce this extraordinary style by kind of whiplash pecking movement of the upper body to project their open breath.

[singing continues]

They’d fall apart into weeps of laughter. Have a cigarette and a drink strictly lemonade for all of them except the chorus master preferred rum, and then start again.

[sounds of bugs humming]

I journeyed on down the south coast for several days. Firstly in a break out of modern dawn, than a dugout canoe with a single patchwork sale or lacken, mostly the village is only accessible by boat. *names of villages* The fishing villages of the veighs.

[sound of water running]

It was ravishingly come surfing over the coral, listening to what the Malagasy called

the colors of the sea. Or simply rowing when the wind stayed put. You can get some inkling of the philosophy of these parts of the island if you know what their place names mean. Take Chepotra. When you walk through it barefoot on the red Earth, you might as well be strolling through a firing kelm. The name means not hot. Typical Malagasy sense of humor.

[town sounds are heard]

I brought a little tape record

with me and a copy of some of the recordings made along this coastline in the 1960s whenever I could if it seemed appropriate. I played this tape to someone in a village and asked if there were any people still singing such songs. More often than not, they got quite excited. They’d call their friends over and ask if I could make a copy and send it to them for the archive or their local school, for example. Listen to this, they’d say it’s that old song poetry from the 1960s.

[A song poetry song is played, with a man and woman singing]

[town sounds are heard]

Impatie is almost as close as Madagascar gets to a resort. Onne of the tourist villages around which the developments are gathering is called Mora Mora, slowly, slowly or take it easy. I stayed in Mangeelie. It’s a small place set back from the beach, sea foam and plush running squid like Creole bungalows with strangers like me are expected to rest. Not that I was any less of a stranger for all that. In the evenings, there’s a huge roughly fenced open air bar where local people gather to drink and dance the minusk. This might sound like a bit of a low fidelity recording. In fact, my microphone is placed directly on the bar, picked exactly what it sounded like.

[distorted fast paced music is heard]

[electric guitar is heard]

Just a few hundred yards away. There are groups of young musicians promenading in the villages, playing acoustic versions. They sling large box like mandolins around their shoulders. The instruments come in several different sizes roughly small, medium and large. And this passionate quirky music is led by exuberant singers accompanied by some virtuoso football whistling. It can go on for hours.

[this type of music is heard, with people talking in the background, then becomes the forefront. People sing and whistle, then fade out]

[a low rumbling is heard in the background]

[MACK]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. All the recordings you heard today are by cris cheek, with the exception of that extract from Possession and Poetry in Madagascar, recorded by Bernard Coachland in 1969. Today’s episode was produced by cris cheek and Mack Hagood. Mountain River Rail and Reef was produced by Phil England and Tom Wallace for Resonance FM, the world’s first radio art station as part of 1998’s meltdown festival at the Southbank Centre curated by John Peel. The BBC broadcast some of this material on radio three as the music of Madagascar, produced by John Thorn Lee. And by the way, it one the Sony gold radio award for Specialist Music Program of the year back in 1995. You can subscribe to our show at Phantompod.org or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you’d rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter at Phantompod. Thanks to our intern Gina Moravec. Phantom Power is produced with support from the Robert H and Nancy J. Blaney endowment, the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ep. 12: A Book Unbound (Jacob Smith)

What would it be like if scholars presented their research in sound rather than in print? Better yet, what if we could hear them in the act of their research and analysis, pulling different historical sounds from the archives and rubbing them against one another in an audio editor?

In today’s episode, we get to find out what such an innovative scholarly audiobook would sound like–because our guest has created the first one! Jacob Smith‘s ESC (University of Michigan Press) is a fascinating sonic exploration of postwar radio drama and contemporary sound art, as well as a meditation on how humans have reshaped the ecological fate of the planet.  Before we listen to an excerpt of ESC, Mack interviews Jake about how his skills as a former musician came in handy for his work as an audio academic. 

You can listen to ESC: Sonic Adventure in the Anthropocene in its entirety for free courtesy of the University of Michigan Press. 

You can also watch Jake’s 90s band The Mysteries of Life perform in the “bad music video” Jake mentions or on Conan O’Brien.

Jacob Smith is founder and director of the Master of Arts in Sound Arts and Industries, and professor in the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University. He is the author of three print-based books on sound: Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media (University of California Press 2008); Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures(University of California Press 2011); and Eco-Sonic Media (University of California Press, 2015). He writes and teaches about the cultural history of media, with a focus on sound and performance.

Today’s show was edited by Craig Eley and featured music by Blue Dot Sessions. Our intern is Gina Moravec. 

[ethereal music plays]

 

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power.

 

[MACK HAGOOD]

Episode 12.

 

[CRIS]

A book unbound.

 

[MAN ANNOUNCER]

Tired of the everyday grind? Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? Want to get away from it all? We offer you escape. Escape, designed to free you from the four walls of today. For a half hour of high adventure.

 

[old, dramatic music plays. In between are people listing off natural disasters.]

 

[MACK]

Hey everyone. Welcome back to another episode. This is Mack Hagood. My partner chris cheek is out, so you just got me today. What you just heard is an excerpt from ESC. A fascinating project that’s one part podcast, one part audiobook. And it’s produced by my guest today, Jacob Smith. Jake is the founder and director of the Master of Arts in Sound Arts and Industries program at Northwestern University, where he’s also a professor in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film. So, for those of you who are regular listeners to the show, you know that I work in this disciplinary space that gets called sound studies. So we have all these folks working in this space of sound studies. And yet, how do we publish all of this research that we generate? We publish it in print, or in pixels on the screen, right? We do it via the written word. And that’s why I was so excited about having Jake Smith on today because he is challenging that paradigm, working in sound, and doing something that really could only be done in sound. His new project ESC is an audio native audiobook.

 

[guitar music plays]

 

So what do I mean by that? So basically, this is a book length critical reading of a CBS radio drama from the 1940s and 50s called Escape. But instead of just reading about the radio drama, we actually hear the radio drama itself. And through Jake’s excellent production techniques, we also hear his criticism, and we hear these sounds sort of matched up against the work of contemporary sound artists. The through line argument of the the piece is that this moment in the 40s and 50s, after World War Two, when this radio drama was being produced, is also the moment that was sort of a tipping point in the Earth’s geological history. It’s the moment when human beings start having a larger impact on the Earth’s ecology than any other natural force does.

[guitar music fades out]

So it’s an adventurous project. It required an adventurous editor, which Jake was able to find in Mary Francis at the University of Michigan press. So we’re going to listen to this interview with Jake about the production. We’re also going to listen to excerpts of the production and then at the end of this podcast we’ll listen to a nice long chunk of the first episode of ESC. But first, we started off by talking about the iconic theme song for the show.

 

[theme song plays, which is Night on Bald Mountain]

 

[JACOB SMITH]

So first of all, I can’t take credit for writing the theme song. That’s Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.

 

[MACK]

Oh, right. Okay.

 

[JACOB]

It’s the theme song to the show escape. When I was doing the proof of concept. I’d had these conversations with Mary like, maybe it could just be audio. Maybe I could just make this argument in sound. Instead of just having a few clips, maybe I could really weave my discussion

into actually listening to the episode and to the story. It would be kind of like a DVD commentary, but with my commentary just kind of woven into the audio itself and bring in work by these other amazing sound artists, etc. So Mary was like, well, let’s just just try it, do a proof of concept, do one episode, and see if it works. And at that point, I totally panicked. This could not work at all, you know, conceptually, this might work. And so one of the first things I decided to do was make a theme song. And so maybe I could make my own version of the escape theme. But again, this is the very early stages, and I’m thinking, this might not work at all that maybe this is a terrible idea. I sat down with my guitar Okay, I’ll learn the song, let’s see if this will work. I have no idea if this will translate into something that I could make. But I had this great Omen, which is I sat down and played the opening theme from escape. And it was in A minor. If you’re a guitar player, you know this was not E flat minor or you know, C sharp It was a flat so I could just pick up my guitar and just strum this big open cord and I was like, this is gonna work because I can play this. It’s an A minor. So  that was the first moment where I felt like oh, maybe my embodied skills as a musician intersect here with my scholarly work because I can play in A minor and I can play version of this theme song. So that was kind of the beginning of the proof of concept working for me. I was a musician and recorded music for many years playing in bands and touring around in a van and making records, making some really bad music videos.

 

[Jacob’s music plays, which is mainly vocals and guitar. Song fades out.]

 

That it ended up being something that was kind of disconnected from my academic work. I still wrote about music and sound and voice. But any recording or musical performance that I did was something kind of separate and different. It had its own little separate section on my CV at the end of my CV there’s something like additional professional work and would list all the musical things I did, but it didn’t really live with the other stuff it wasn’t, didn’t count as a publication. It ended up being really exciting for me to try to recombine those. To think about how working with sound sound editing, my own vocal performance might be woven back into the spectrum of my academic work.

 

[low, ethereal music plays]

 

The radio drama series escape, ran on the CBS Radio Network between 1947 and 1954. Escape was an anthology drama, which meant there was a new original story for each episode. It’s earned a place among the pantheon of shows that are considered to be classics of the Golden Age of American Radio. When it came time to do a new project, what I decided I really want

wanted to do was to bring ego criticism into sound studies or to explore how might those things live together? What might sound studies bring to ego criticism, what my ego criticism bring to sound studies? And one way that I found that those two things met was around the concept of the Anthropocene. Scientists and environmental critics differ about when the Anthropocene begins, but many see a decisive shift occurring immediately following World War Two.

 

[explosion sound effect plays]

 

At that time, fallout from nuclear explosions left a mark in the planet’s geological strata, and a great acceleration in resource extraction, population growth and energy consumption, meant that the world’s ecosystems began to change more rapidly and extensively than in any other comparable period in human history. I was really compelled by the fact that that’s also the end of the Golden Age of American Radio Drama, when radio was such a vibrant way of telling stories and a powerful narrative media form in American cultural life. I started to get really interested in how might I hear the birth of the Anthropocene in this era of Golden Age Radio.

 

[older radio show plays]

 

[MALE ANNOUNCER]

The Columbia Network takes pleasure in bringing you “Suspence.”

 

[omminous music plays]

 

“Suspense.” Colombia’s parade about standing thrillers. Produced and directed by

William Sphere and scored by Bernard Herrmann. The notable melodramas from stage and screen, fiction and radio presented each week to bring you to the edge of your chair to keep you in suspence.

 

[JACOB]

So I’m listening to lots and lots of Golden Age radio partly inspired by my colleague Neil Varmus work, partly inspired by this sense that it’s a time that’s coinciding with the birth of the Anthropocene. At the same time, I’m listening to all this wonderful work by contemporary sound artists working in the area of field recording, using digital tools to go out into the world, allowing us to listen to the natural world in a really dramatic new way.

 

[nature sounds play]

 

I found myself wanting to create a mashup of those two things. It felt like two very different Golden Ages of sound work. On the one hand this. studio based radio drama of the late 40s and early 50s.

 

[MALE ANNOUNCER]

We offer you “Escape.”

 

[JACOB]

And then this beautiful new flowering of field Recording by people at Chris Watson, Yana winter, Sally Mcintyre, Christina Cooper, Peter Cosack, really inspiring work that was opening my ears to the non human world. I wanted to bring these two things together. I find myself listening to these incredible cinematic field recordings, but then wanting it to turn into a narrative. Like the Golden Age radio shows I was listening to.

 

[MALE VOICE]

I awoke late in the afternoon, a sharp hunger picking at me.

 

[JACOB]

Then while I was listening to these Golden Age radio shows, I kept on wanting it to stop for a minute and just immerse me in a space, the way the field recordings would.

 

[animal and nature sound play]

 

So in each episode, I tried to leave a lot of space for sound to let the work of sound artists speak for itself, or to let that kind of interesting mashup of post war, adventure storytelling collide with field recordings. To create a very different kind of emotional experience. So I found myself

reimagining the argument in all kinds of ways in the process of doing it in sound. I also found that the emotional element of the argument would come out in all kinds of different ways. It starts to become much more of a musical experience. And for me, at least, that meant a more emotional kind of experience. It just really changed the process of writing for me.

 

[Sad, slow music plays]

 

[MACK]

Yes, the use of sound to actually open up an idea. And I think it’s particularly important, as you said, because it provides that emotional level but also because it provides time for people to process what they’ve just heard. Because when you’re reading a book, you can look up and God knows I do this all the time. I swear, when I read, I think I spend more time looking at the ceiling then at the book, which is why I’m such a slow reader. I just get interested in an idea that I just want to sit there and think about it. The podcast, if you’re just talking the whole time, you’re not providing anyone time to do that. To make their own contribution to the conversation in their head.

 

[JACOB]

Yeah, I think that was one of the biggest things I learned in the process of working on ESC was that kind of temporality. Very different from writing, where it’s just kind of one idea after the other. I really started to feel the places where I needed to slow down and leave some space, or bring in sound to give the listener room to digest or think about an idea. And that was one thing that, for me was really beautiful about engaging so closely with these Golden Age radio narratives. Because those guys really knew what they were doing. You know, they’re really tight 30 minute narratives. And at just the moment where you need to catch a breath, they’ll be this little beautiful little three second musical riff.

 

[More of the audio drama plays. A man speaks, followed by a music interlude.]

 

I ended up using those all the time throughout ESC, because it would be at that point in my analysis where it was like we need to break, we need to catch our breath. So just the rhythm and the temporality of making an argument in sound, felt different and could move more into music or into umbeyonce. And I really loved those transitions.

 

[MACK]

Yeah, and that’s something I really like about your podcast is that those little musical breaks or Sonic breaks, sometimes you made them. Sometimes a sound artists made them in the past decade. Sometimes they come from decades in the past. And so they’re all these different textures of those pauses, which I find is super rich in sonically just stimulating.

 

[JACOB]

That’s one thing I’ve really learned from Neil Verma. He’s really showed me how one of the exciting things about sound studies now is starting to think across sounds, and get a broader sense of the history of audio work. It’s kind of only now in some ways that we’re able to line up these different traditions of sound art and sound work in a way that say filmmakers have been doing for a long time. I think about New Hollywood directors who are constantly making references to classical Hollywood in the 30s, 50s culture in 70s films. We’re kind of used to that interesting polyphonic dialogue in film culture. And that’s one of the things that I wanted to bring to ESC. That it’s not just about this podcasting moment, but how can we line up this podcasting moment with exciting things going on and field recording and sound art but also with this earlier era of sound work that has its own kind of wonderful nuance all these things might live together in new kinds of ways. And I think that’s one of the things that the emergence of sound studies is helping us to hear.

 

[MACK]

And now, here’s more from Jacob Smith’s ESC Sonic Adventure in the Anthropocene.

 

[JACOB]

Let’s get started with one of the most popular stories told on escape, which begins like this.

 

[Epic music plays]

 

[MALE NARRATOR]

Tonight, we escaped to a lonely Lighthouse of the steaming jungle coast of French Guiana and the nightmare world of terror and violence as we bring you again in response to hundreds of requests, Three skeleton Key starring Vincent Price.

 

[theme song plays]

 

[JACOB]

This is the opening of the Escape adaptation of George Gustaf’s short story, Three Skeleton Key. As you can hear from that reference to hundreds of requests. This was a popular story and Escape broadcasted on three different occasions in 1949, 1950, and 1953. Not only was Three Skeleton Key one of the most popular episodes of escape, but it features some prominent themes that cut across the entire run of the show. In particular, it’s one of 70 episodes of Escape that take place along the network of global shipping. This means that more than one third of Escape stories took place in the mid century network of ocean going ships, ports, and in this case, lighthouses. So, Three Skeleton Key is a representative episode of escape, because the theme of ties is a global news network of travel and trade, but it also depicts the infrastructure of that network in a state of disruption and collapse. In this and the next two episodes of my podcast, we’ll be listening to some of Escapes infrastructural adventures. This means I’ll be paying attention to the infrastructure in the narrative, and to the narrative of the infrastructure, to how sites like lighthouses can be the fictional settings for adventure, as well as features of the environment with their own history. We’ll see that this kind of infrastructural disposition is a useful way to help us bring an environmental awareness to these shows. Infrastructure sites can be contact zones between human networks and non human creatures, and they require that we think about multiple levels of scale from the personal to the global. We’re listening to a recording that was made by the sound artist Alan lamb. These are sounds made by an abandoned telegraph wire in the Australian outback. By bringing those wires to life, lambs work is a great example of how sound art can have an infrastructural disposition.

 

[the sound plays]

 

At the start of Three Skeleton Key, we meet Jean played by Vincent Price. Jean’s a member of a three person crew that maintains the lonely lighthouse described in the opening announcement. Jean sets the scene.

 

[JEAN]

Picture this place, a gray tapering cylinder welded by iron rods and concrete to the key itself. A bear Black Rock 150 feet long, maybe 40 wide. That’s at low tide. At high tide, just the lighthouse rising 110 feet straight up out of the ocean. Set in the base of the light was a watertight bronze door, and in you went, and up. Yes, up and up and round and round past the tanks of oil in the coils of rope casks of wicks, racks of lantern, sax of spots, and cartons and cans and up and up and up around and around. Over the light store room was the food store room and over the food store room was the bunk room where the three of us slept. And over the bunk room…

 

[JACOB]

This opening sequence establishes the broadcast as what Nicole Starosielski calls a nodal narrative. That’s a story that takes place within the node of an infrastructural network like this lighthouse. The lighthouse was an essential node in the network of international shipping and Jean explains that his lighthouse exists to warn ships away from dangerous submerged reefs.

Lighthouses like Jean’s proliferated in the second half of the 19th century, with the rise of steam powered shipping and increased calls for coastal aids to navigation. We’re listening to the sound of foghorns, a sonic component in this ship to shore technological infrastructure. The construction of lighthouses on the bare rock of an exposed coast required sophisticated tools and new engineering techniques, and they were recognized as a stunning technological achievement comparable to the great suspension bridges, railways and early skyscrapers of the era. Francis coastal light technology was considered to be the gold standard at this time, which makes it fitting that Three Skeleton Key is set in a French lighthouse. Moreover, French Diana had a reputation as an outpost at the edge of the civilized world, and was widely considered to be uncolonisable by Europeans due in part to it’s dangerous harbors and malarial swamps. That reputation was reinforced when it became a French penal colony in the 1850s. That history is referenced in the story. When we learned that the name Three Skeleton Key refers to three convicts who escaped from the penal colony, only to die of hunger on the rocks. When they were discovered, all that remained of them was their bones picked clean by the birds. It’s here that we should note that escape had preferred sites of adventure, and it’s episodes tended to cluster in particular geographical areas, like the South Sea Islands, South America, Africa, India and the Caribbean. This is a reminder that the years when escape was on the air coincide not only with the golden age of radio and the dawn of the Anthropocene, but with the period of decolonization and whatever else it might be. The show is an archive of sensibilities shaped by Western imperialism, colonial and corporate exploitation, racism, and white male heterosexual fantasy.

So listening adventurously to Escape will require a post colonial as well as an eco critical ear.

The French Diana setting also amplifies the sense that the lighthouse is a network node that situated precariously within its surrounding environment.

 

[JEAN]

And all about it the churning water, great greens scum dappled warm like soup and sweet

warming with gigantic back like devil fish, great violet schools of Portuguese men of war and yes, sharks, the big ones, the 15 footers. If this weren’t enough, there was a hot, dank rotten smelling wind that came at us day and night off the jungle swamps at the mainland, a wind that smelled like death.

 

[JACOB]

So from the perspective of an infrastructural disposition, the opening minutes of Three Skeleton Key signal that this will be a nodal narrative in which strategies of installation will play a central role. In other words, this is going to be a drama about a struggle to keep the lighthouse separate from its surrounding environment. To stabilize the steady flow of traffic through the global shipping network.

[sound of water]

 

That dramatic tension is enacted on the level of the show’s sound design. Jean ends his tour of the lighthouse in the gallery, where his description of the light is accompanied by shimmering orchestra stabs.

 

[JEAN]

She was a beauty. big steel and bronze baby with a son gleaming through the glass wall. All about bouncing blinding little beams of the big shining reflectors, delivering and refracting through her lenses. The whole gigantic bulk of our balance like a ballerina on the glistening steel axle have a rotary mechanism. She was a sweetheart of a light.

 

[sound of a clicking light]

 

[JACOB]

I want to think more about this sound, the clicking of the lights mechanism. So I’ve looped this section of the broadcast. This is another strategy that I’ll be using throughout the podcast to reboot Escape for an era of digital audio. Now that Escape’s episodes exist as digital files available online. Not only can I match them up with contemporary sound art, but I can manipulate them. Zooming into details that were left in the background of the original broadcast.

The sound of the steady regular clicking of the light in operation is what Roland Barton might call a Russell, the sound of the good functioning of a machine. It’s happy machines that Russell Bart writes. Like the PR have a well tuned engine. The clicking of the light provides a reassuring sign of multiple parts in coordinated motion, the smooth working of a complex integrated mechanical system. The sonic contrast to the light’s reassuring Russell arrives in spectacular form. When Jean and his co workers notice a derelict ship heading directly towards the reef.

 

[dramatic music plays]

 

[JEAN]

A green master a big one about a half mile off and coming down out of the north northwest coming straight for us. You must understand our light was what it was for a very good reason. Dangerous submerged reef surrounded us and ships kept clear, but this one, this sailing vessel was coming straight on.

 

[JACOB]

Once the ship gets close enough to observe with binoculars, the men are horrified at what they discover.

 

[JEAN]

I had to focus and then my breath froze in my throat. The decks were swarming with a dark brown carpet that looked like a gigantic fungus but undulating and on the mass and yards the guys and all were hundreds no thousands no mil- I don’t know. An endless number of enormous rats.

 

[JACOB]

The ship crashes against the reef and the mass of hungry rats and circle and ingolf the lighthouse.

 

[MAN]

Look, see them?

 

[JEAN]

No. Oh yes, I do. up at the other end of the rock. Millions.

 

[MAN]

They smell us. Here they come. Close the door.

 

[sound of rats scurrying and a door struggling to get closed]

 

[JACOB]

This non human multitude is a showcase for stunning sound effects. The squealing rats were created in the studio by rubbing wet corks on a sheet of glass. The sound effects of the show were admired by radio professionals as well as audiences as indicated by this announcement at the end of the episode.

 

[MALE ANNOUNCER]

sound effects on Three Skeleton Key created by Cliff Thorsness and executed today by Mr. Thorsness,  Gus Bays, and Jack Smith had been awarded the best of the Year by Radio and Television Life magazine.

 

[JACOB]

Later in the show, the chaotic sound of the rats is contrasted with the soothing Russell of the machine. During a scene in which the animals cover the gallery windows and admit pained screeches when the beam from the rotating light touches them.

 

[JEAN]

The light drove them mad as it swung slowly and smoothly she blinded them with a fierce, stabbing bar of light moving continually about. Moving around and around and they twitching and shuttering eyes flaming when they were struck by the light. The bright light moving and behind on the dark side of the room so close so close. I did not turn my back but you cannot help turning your back when you’re in a room made of glass and the dark side of the room you could not see them only their eyes, thousands of black, lights blinking and twinkling lights like the czars of hell.

 

[JACOB]

The dissonant harmony of Russell and squeak is the sonic representation of the tension between infrastructure and environment that structures the story. Remember that one of my goals is to concretize the abstract spaces of escapes adventures. I’ve already added some concrete details about the lighthouse to ground it in a history of French colonialism and modern engineering. What might happen if we learn some more concrete details about the rats? Ships rats, like the ones in this story are often the example of a worst case scenario of an invasive species.

 

[mellow music plays]

 

One famous account of the devastating impact that ships rats can have on a fragile Island ecosystem concerns a small volcanic island northeast of Australia. In June of 1918, a ship called the SS Mocambo struck a reef off of Lord Howe Island and rats from the ship scurry to shore, causing an immediate and drastic reduction in birdlife on the island. Within three years of the rat’s arrival, five species of endemic forest birds had become extinct. In 1921, a resident of the island wrote that just two years earlier, the forests of Lord Howe Island where joyous with the notes of myriad birds, large and small, and of many kinds. Two years later, the ravages of the rats had made the call of a bird a rarity, such that the quietness of death reigns were all was melody.

Sally-anne McIntyre is a sound artist whose work addresses the issue of extinction.

 

[SALLY-ANNE MCINTYRE]

ThIS IS THE hollow type of the Lord Howl Swamp Hen. Extinct. There are two skins of this bird in existence. One here at the Natural History Museum. And one in Liverpool at the World Museum. There are also several paintings and some fossil bones.

 

[JACOB]

McIntyre goes to museums and makes recordings of specimens of extinct birds, like this Lord Howe Island swamp Hen. The eerie silence of these stuffed birds, is a powerful way to draw our attention to the irrevocable loss of extinction.

 

[silence]

 

McIntyre is the kind of ecologically minded sound artist whose field recordings I want to put in conversation with Escape’s studio based adventures. In another work, McIntyre transcribed written accounts of the call of the extinct Hooya bird to be played on music boxes.

 

[the bird call is played]

 

She then playback he’s ghostly sounds in the birds original habitat. We call Baquteen’s example of the abstract spaces of adventure. For a shipwreck one must have a sea, but which particular sea, makes no difference at all. When we listen to Adventure this might be true. It doesn’t make much difference at the lighthouse is off the coast of French Diana, or Africa or India or New Zealand. But if we listen adventurously from the perspective of island ecosystems like Lord Howe Island, then concrete geographical and ecological details about the history of ships rats, for example, start to make a great deal of difference. And Three Skeleton Key begins to sound in a different way. By telling the story of an isolated island community under siege by a horde of ships rats, Three Skeleton Key facilitates a mode of adventurous listening from a non human perspective, placing us in the position of lard, how islands extinct fan tales, fly eaters and starlings.

 

[ethereal music plays]

 

[MACK]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. To hear ESC in its entirety, head over to the University of Michigan website. The link is in the show notes for this podcast and on our website where as always, you can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to the things we talked about. And also find previous episodes of our show. It’s at Phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you’d rate and review us in Apple Podcasts. And you can also find out about us on Facebook and Twitter. Today’s show was edited by Craig Eley with music by Jake Smith Span, the Mysteries of Life and Blue Dot Sessions. Thanks to our intern Gina Moravec. Phantom Power is produced with support from the Robert H and Nancy J. Blaney Endowment, the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities