Seminar in Ethnomusicology and Sound Studies

Featuring lectures by leading scholars who have adventurous takes on musical and sonic cultures, the Seminar in Ethnomusicology and Sound Studies has a particular grounding in anthropology, sound studies, and ethnomusicology. The series has been convened by Professor Jason Stanyek since 2012.

We typically hold two or three seminars each academic term. Our standard meeting time is on Thursdays at 5pm and events usually take place at St John’s College; for events at the St John’s College “Barn”, click HERE for a map (the Barn is number “19” on the provided key).

Our seminars are open to all and admission is free.

For details of all our forthcoming talks in the series, please visit our public seminars page.

For 2023-24 academic year, we’re delighted to announce the following talks:

  • Thursday, 12 October (St John's College Barn), 5pm: Nomi Dave (University of Virginia): “Listening to White Supremacy on Trial: Audio Remote Access and the Limits of Open Justice”
  • Thursday, 19 October (St John's College Barn), 5pm: Noel Lobley (University of Virginia): “Sound Fragments: Collaborative Curation with The Black Power Station”
  • Wednesday, 22 November (ONLINE), 5pm: Lauren Redhead (Goldsmiths, University of London); Tom Attah (Leeds Arts University); Byron Dueck (Open University): Title TBD
  • Tuesday, 6 February (The Auditorium, St John's College), 8pm: Rita Medeiros and Dr Heloisa Feichas (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil): 'Sounds from Brazil (a lecture-recital)
  • Thursday, 29 February (St John's College Barn) 5pm: Peter McMurray (Cambridge): 'Revelation like a Bell, or the Aural Metapoetics of Islamic Hadith'

If you have any questions about the series please contact Professor Stanyek.


Popular music in post-civil war Angola: The kuduro electronic dance music phenomenon of Luanda
Thursday 28 February 2013 (17:00-18:30)
Dr Frederick Moehn (Lecturer in Music, King’s College London)

The electronic music genre kuduro began to emerge in Luanda, the capital of Angola, when the country was still in the throes of the devastating civil war that followed decolonization in 1974. Since the end of the war in 2002, kuduro has become the dominant musical genre of Luanda, and it has gained new audiences around the world, particularly in Europe. DJs and mix engineers attuned to global trends have incorporated it into their repertoire of grooves. It has been compared to the funk carioca of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with both genres sometimes labeled as ‘global ghettotech’. To the outsider, the vocals in kuduro can sound like another local form of rap music. Some observers hold that for urban youths it has supplanted the older genre semba as the musical avenue for expressing angolanidade, that is, Angolan-ness. In this colloquium I examine the historical and cultural setting in which kuduro emerged, and I contrast the genre with selected earlier forms of Angolan popular music. I discuss how the music is produced in the local setting. I also consider its global reception, and briefly compare it with funk carioca, arguing that the genres are different in important ways. I present selections from the audiovisual materials I collected in my field research. Finally, I propose that the framework of national identity (angolanidade) is insufficient for understanding the place of kuduro in contemporary Luanda.

Ethnography of a SideWoman
Thursday 2 May 2013 (17:00-18:30)
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)
Dr Amanda Villepastour (Lecturer in Ethnomusicology, Cardiff University)

This talk lets the audience into the inner world of a living pop musician using unprecedented access to diaries, letters and intimate conversations with an ethnomusicologist. While scholars generally seek vocalists and band leaders, Villepastour will lead the audience into the life of a session musician who has worked alongside some of Britain’s biggest stars. By describing some of the general issues around conducting ethnography, Villepastour approaches the lecture both as one who was once in the industry, and as an ethnomusicologist.

Growing into Music
Thursday 9 May 2013 (17:00-18:30)
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)

Dr Lucy Durán (Lecturer in African Music, SOAS) and Dr Geoff Baker (Reader in Musicology and Ethnomusicology, Royal Holloway – University of London)

Growing into Music, a film-based research project funded by a major grant from the AHRC’s ‘Beyond Text’, is a collaboration between SOAS, University of London (Lucy Durán: Principal Investigator, and Mali specialist; Nicolas Magriel – Research Assistant, India specialist); Royal Holloway, University of London (Geoffrey Baker: Co-Investigator, Venezuela and Cuba); and Sanubar Baghirova, (Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences); with additional contributions from Michele Banal (PhD student, SOAS).

Listening to the Aesthetics of Popular Culture
Thursday 24 October 2013 (17:00-18:30)
Ertegun House, St Giles, University of Oxford

Bob White (Professor of Anthropology, Université de Montréal)

In the last fifty years, Congolese popular dance music (also known as “Congolese rumba”) has become something of a musica franca for much of sub-Saharan Africa. As Congolese like to say, the captivating sound of their music, firmly grounded in Africa’s encounter with afro-Cuban culture, has “colonized the rest of the continent”, but the music has gone through a series of important aesthetic changes since it first emerged in the urban colonial centers of the Belgian Congo. Despite this rich history, limited research has been done on the subject and very little has been published on Congolese popular music from the point of view of aesthetics. By tuning in on local conversations about certain aspects of the music’s structure and form, this text attempts to understand how Congolese popular dance music attempts to transcend the ugliness of an ongoing political and economic crisis that has become increasingly acute since independence (la conjoncture) and how this particular expression of beauty enables us to better understand the relationship between aesthetics and politics more generally. The perception of “noise” in the analysis of popular music reveals more about our inability to understand non-Western aesthetic criteria than about popular music per se. Drawing from the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer, the metaphor of listening is used to argue that the difficulty of hearing music from someone else’s point of view should not be used to justify a retreat into the self.

Orientalism and Musical Mission: an Oxford Ethnomusicology
Thursday 21 November 2013 (17:00-18:30)
Ertegun House, St Giles, University of Oxford
Rachel Beckles-Willson (Professor of Music, Royal Holloway, University of London)

Rachel’s recent book, Orientalism and Musical Mission, offers a new way of understanding music’s connections with imperialism, drawing on new archive sources and interviews and using the lens of ‘mission’. Influenced by religious and secular missions from Europe and North America since the mid-nineteenth century, institutions such as churches, schools, radio stations and governments have consistently claimed that music provides a way of understanding and reforming Arab civilians in Palestine. In her talk Rachel will situate her research in the context of the legacy of Edward W. Said, and within discussions of postcolonial theory more broadly.

Songs on the Dissecting Table: Ethnomusicology and the German Laboratory Tradition
Thursday 23 January 2014 (17:00-18:30)
Ertegun House, St Giles, University of Oxford
Rachel Mundy (Assistant Professor of Music, University of Pittsburgh)

A reader scanning music journals from the 1920s and ‘30s discovers the recurrence of a gruesome metaphor, one that compares snatches of melody to the broken body of a vivisected laboratory animal. This talk explores the role of the German physiological laboratory in early ethnomusicology, tracing the empirical tradition that tied together physical bodies and musical ones. I argue that visual traditions of knowledge in the laboratory framed music as a “body” that could be cut into and examined.  Moving from the inscriptions of nineteenth-century laboratory instruments to the scratches of the stylus in early wax cylinders, I show how laboratory traditions instrumentalized this approach.  But while this musical “laboratory” legitimized the study of non-Western music, it also imposed an impossible conflict between acquiring greater knowledge about foreign cultures, and expressing greater sympathy for them.

Carmen Miranda’s Musical Performances in Brazilian and Hollywood Films (1932-1953)
Thursday 8 May 2014 (17:00-18:30)
Ertegun House, St Giles, University of Oxford
Dr Lisa Shaw (Department of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies, University of Liverpool, UK)

This talk will consider the performance style of singer Carmen Miranda (1909-1955) in her film roles in Brazil and the USA. Already a famous radio performer and recording artist, her film career in Brazil was closely bound up with the musical styles associated with Rio de Janeiro’s carnival in the 1930s, especially the Afro-Brazilian samba. Before leaving for the USA in 1939, she appropriated the ethnically loaded persona of the ‘baiana’, polemically adopting the costume of Afro-Brazilian female street vendors of the colonial era. This talk will examine how she adapted this screen persona for her Hollywood screen roles,‘whitening’ the ‘baiana’, and will analyse her performance style in the corresponding musical numbers.

The Acoustic-Unconscious: Recovering Marshall McLuhan
Thursday 22 May 2014 (17:00-18:30)
Ertegun House, St Giles, University of Oxford
Professor Veit Erlmann (Endowed Chair of Music History, Professor of Ethnomusicology and Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin)

Marshall McLuhan is considered to be a founding figure of sound studies, but he is also (in)famous for his techno-determinism, Orientalism and, most importantly, oral/literate dichotomy. By contrast, his concept of “acoustic space” is often overlooked. Erlmann argues that it is time to revisit McLuhan’s contribution to early sound studies and to examine the place of “acoustic space” in his theory of media. In so doing he hopes to broaden the current debate about sound on the edge or the “unsound” to what Erlmann calls the “acoustic-unconscious.”

Village – Environment – Studio: ‘Doga için Çal’ and the Cartographies of Modern Turkey
Thursday 30 October 2014 (17:00-18:30)
Ertegun House, St Giles, University of Oxford

Eliot Bates (Lecturer in Ethnomusicology and Popular Music Studies, University of Birmingham)

Doga için Çal, literally ‘play for nature’, is a video series featuring hundreds of amateur and professional musicians ostensibly playing or singing for environmentalism. This highly acclaimed, corporate sponsored series quickly went viral after its initial segment aired online in 2011. But the specific political valences of the project are unclear, and in many regards Doga için Çal, with its uncontroversial folksong repertoire and absence of any ethnic language songs, is quite conservative. I argue that the series is perfectly ‘natural’ with regards to Turkey’s nearly ninety-year history of state-driven national folklore projects. Rather than a radical departure, Doga için Çal serves to ‘remap’ both Turkish nationalized folklore and the practices and spaces of the recording studio onto the Turkish Republic and Turkish diaspora – and in doing so heralds the ‘death of the village’ and underscores the asymmetrical economic development of different regions. My talk uses these videos to explore the audible aspects of how maps and mapping practices come to make space more sensible.

The Virtual Dimension of Sound
Thursday 27 November 2014 (17:00-18:30)
Ertegun House, St Giles, University of Oxford
Eleni Ikoniadou (Senior Lecturer in Media and Communication, Kingston University)

In the age of computational media, sound and its subcultures can offer dynamic ways of accounting for bodies, events, and their perceptions. Particularly in the last decade, an emerging audio culture, crossing both theory and the arts, echoes an attempt to resist the tyranny of ocularcentrism and enable the consideration of new modes of thought. This talk explores the traces and potentialities prompted by the sonic and the engagement that it affords with the speculative and potential aspects of the event. It proposes that a notion of rhythm detached from the idea of counting and regularity can unlock the virtual dimension of sound, coexisting with but not exhausted by what is actually heard, sensed, and consciously perceived.

Toward a Sloanist Theory of Popular Music Production
Thursday 22 January 2015 (17:00-18:30)
Ertegun House, St Giles, University of Oxford

Justin Williams (Lecturer, Department of Music, University of Bristol)

While a number of scholars have theorized links between music and industrial production developments within Fordist and post-Fordist frameworks, these studies often neglect a related aspect to such capitalist strategies: the upgrading or updating of cultural products (e.g. cars, computers, iPhones). This paper begins to outline the key aspects of what could be termed ‘Sloanism’ in cultural production. Using examples from pop production teams such as The Trackmasters, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and Stock, Aitken and Waterman (SAW), a Sloanist perspective may help to provide a deeper understanding of not only popular music more generally, but also cultural products such as pop cover versions, film remakes, franchise re-boots, as well as the emphasis on speed in the updating/upgrading of certain musical products.

Toward a Sloanist Theory of Popular Music Production
Thursday 22 January 2015 (17:00-18:30)
Ertegun House, St Giles, University of Oxford
Justin Williams (Lecturer, Department of Music, University of Bristol)

While a number of scholars have theorized links between music and industrial production developments within Fordist and post-Fordist frameworks, these studies often neglect a related aspect to such capitalist strategies: the upgrading or updating of cultural products (e.g. cars, computers, iPhones). This paper begins to outline the key aspects of what could be termed ‘Sloanism’ in cultural production. Using examples from pop production teams such as The Trackmasters, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and Stock, Aitken and Waterman (SAW), a Sloanist perspective may help to provide a deeper understanding of not only popular music more generally, but also cultural products such as pop cover versions, film remakes, franchise re-boots, as well as the emphasis on speed in the updating/upgrading of certain musical products.

Folia Voices: A Tribute to Elizabeth Travassos
Thursday 5 March 2015 (17:00-18:30)
Ertegun House, St Giles, University of Oxford
Suzel Ana Reily (Reader, Anthropology and Ethnomusicology, Queen’s University Belfast and Universidade de Campinas)

This paper draws its inspiration from Brazilian ethnomusicologist Elizabeth Travassos, who dedicated the final years of her life to constructing an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the voice. The paper begins by looking at how the voice has been addressed in ethnomusicology and anthropology, noting that each discipline has tended to focus either on the sung or the spoken voice. In many ritual settings, however, speech and song work together to construct an intricate ‘voicescape’ in which the very mode of articulation (speech or song) and vocal ‘grain’ employed in each vocal genre contributes to the aesthetic environment of the event; indeed, the very properties of the vocalisation articulate the ‘voice as sound’ to the ‘voice as agent’. Through an ethnography of the folia de reis, a popular Catholic ritual tradition of South Eastern Brazil, I aim to show how the interplay of vocal genres during folia performances evinces multiple and complex layers of signification, grounded within a moral economy of the voice.

Sound and Safe: A History of Listening Behind the Wheel
Thursday 7 May 2015 (17:00-18:30)
Ertegun House, St Giles, University of Oxford
Karin Bijsterveld (Professor of Science, Technology & Modern Culture, Department of Technology & Society Studies, Maastricht University)

Many people enjoy listening and singing along to music while driving—it is their auditory break in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. But how did the car, noisy and open as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century, develop into a space for celebrating auditory privacy? This lecture unravels the history of the sonic ideals and acoustic practices of automotive engineers, marketing departments, and consumers. It shows how drivers learned to shift their auditory attention from the engine to the car radio, and how car sound design helped to sustain the visual ideal of the cinematic drive and the illusion of freedom on the road. It also reflects on how to study sensory experiences of people in the past.

Hearing with Two Ears at Once
Thursday 28 May 2015 (17:00-18:30)
Ertegun House, St Giles, University of Oxford
Gascia Ouzounian (Lecturer and Head of Performance Studies, School of Creative Arts, Queen’s University Belfast)

We take for granted that hearing is a spatial and directional phenomenon, and that ‘space’ can be described in acoustic terms. However, in the late-nineteenth century the concepts of binaural audition and acoustic space were widely contested in medicine, psychology, and philosophy. This paper will examine a century of conceptual, technological, scientific and musical developments from 1850- 1950 that led to the emergence of ‘spatial music’ in the mid-twentieth century. It will draw upon medical and musical literature, newspapers and magazines, trade journals and advertisements to show how music became spatialised, especially in connection to sound reproduction and transmission technologies.

Intertexuality in Protest Music Post-3.11
Thursday 15 October 2015 (17:00-18:30)
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)
Noriko Manabe (Assistant Professor, Department of Music, Princeton University)

Many protest songs throughout history have referred to pre-existing works. This intertextuality has particular utility in Japan: the media censors itself, making it difficult to address the nuclear issue directly. Starting from Genette and considering global examples, Manabe formulates a typology of intertextuality in political situations: hypertextual (large-scale) approaches including covers (often with changed lyrics), hip-hop remakes, mash-ups, remixes, and known allegorical narratives; shorter quotations; paratextual practices; and architextual style adoption. These are combined with co-occurring indexes of the present issue. She also discusses the success or failure of intertextual techniques depending on the space in which they are performed.

Speed Listening by Blind Readers and the History of Audio Time-Stretching
Thursday 19 November 2015 (17:00-18:30)
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)
Mara Mills (Assistant Professor, Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University)

Talking Books for blind readers spurred the commercialization of mainstream audiobooks after World War II, but the two formats soon diverged in terms of reading strategies. This talk will discuss the cultural imperative for aural speed reading that drove early time-stretching innovations in the magnetic tape era, allowing playback rate to be changed without affecting pitch.

From Iron Cage to Digital Bubble via the Zombie Apocalypse: Mobile Listening Devices and the City
Thursday 28 January 2016 (17:00-18:30)
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)
Nick Prior (Head of Subject, The University of Edinburgh)

The image of a mass of plugged in, zoned out urban dwellers – iZombies – has come to signify what it is to live in fast-paced, information-saturated, societies. This paper takes its cue from long-standing debates about the atomizing nature of modern cities and some of my own empirical investigations into young peoples’ use of mobile audio devices to explore how users strategize, reflect on and interact with such devices. It will interrogate the metaphor of the “digital bubble” (Bull, 2005), searching for something more nuanced by way of an analysis of how these devices are lightly, multiply and provisionally deployed in practice.

Sounds of Bolivian Insurrection? Re-hearing Past and Future through a Regional Heritage Declaration
Thursday 18 February 2016 (17:00-18:30)
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)

Henry Stobart (Royal Holloway, University of London), presenting a text co-authored with Michelle Bigenho (Colgate University, USA)

Despite UNESCO’s language of “safeguarding” and focus on cultural rights, intangible heritage declarations are often motivated by ownership claims or economic interests, such as tourism. Such a picture often holds true for the case of Bolivia where the lure of tourism futures and discourses of cultural theft―whether by neighbouring countries, regions or towns―are ubiquitous. Perhaps surprisingly, given its anti-neoliberal and decolonising rhetoric, such positions have become increasingly entrenched under the pro-indigenous government of President Evo Morales. Even the President himself of this now renamed Plurinational State has entered into hostilities with neighbouring countries over intangible heritage issues.

Meaningful Music, Unmediated Sound: An Evolutionary History (What and How Does Music Mean?)
Thursday 3 March 2016 (17:00-18:30)
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)
Elizabeth Tolbert (Department of Musicology, The Johns Hopkins University)

I suggest that the conditions of representation that allow for music to be apprehended as socially and emotionally meaningful are biologically grounded in our evolutionary history. Specifically, I propose that music emerged from the evolution of the human capacity for culture (Tomasello 1999, 2005), and is a means of creating joint attentions and intentions in order to achieve social goals.  The evolution of a uniquely human form of social intelligence resulted in human symbolic systems such as music and language that give rise to an inherent phonocentrism (Derrida 1976), a perceived immediacy of vocally communicative sound. Although decades of ethnomusicological research have debunked the myth of music’s literal unmediatedness, I maintain that the experience of music’s immediacy, indeed the experienced immediacy of any symbolic communication, is what allows it to be intelligible in the first place.

Wilderness isn’t What It Used to Be: The ecology of experimental music performance in Canada.
Thursday 5 May 2016 (17:00-18:30)
The Barn at St John’s College
Ellen Waterman (School of Music, Memorial University of Newfoundland/Robinson College, University of Cambridge)

In the 20th century, Canada was defined by tropes of nature and place, most famously the “idea of north” that was first expressed in experimental music in Glenn Gould’s famous 1969 radio collage of the same name, and made manifest in R. Murray Schafer’s massive Patria series of environmental music theatre works (1965 – ), several of which are performed in “wilderness” locations.  These days, experimental music in Canada is more likely to riff on contemporary issues such as multiculturalism, neocolonialism, and indigeneity. When Tanya Tagaq improvises Inuit throat singing as an ironic commentary on the classic 1922 “documentary” Nanook of the North, it is easy to hear the changing ecology of experimental music performance in Canada.  In this presentation, I take a critical look at this changing ecology in the context of a large-scale comparative ethnography of experimental music festivals across Canada by bringing together insights from acoustic ecology and performance studies.

Jazz Utopias, Then and Now
19 October 2016 (17:00-18:30)
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)

Ingrid Monson (Quincy Jones Professor of African-American Music, Harvard University)

My paper addresses, freedom, liberation, and the creation of sound worlds and communities through music, in short the ethical imagination of the jazz tradition. I follow visions of freedom through the works of Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, Carla Bley, Robert Glasper, Terence Blanchard and Kendrick Lamar.  If mid-twentieth century jazz liberation was conceived in trialogue with the American Civil Rights Black Power, and Anti-Vietnam War Movements, today’s visions of freedom are emerging against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter, gender and sexuality, immigration, economic inequality, and global fear of Islam. The utopian thrust of the jazz imagination, as always, is tempered by the injustice of the world in which we live. It is especially important to trace are the relationships between avant-garde and populist aesthetic perspectives on jazz, utopia, and critical social commentary.  A commitment to experimental sound aesthetics in the creation of utopian sound words characterized many admired projects and collectives of the past, associating the invention of new approach to sound and improvisation with social critique and utopian communities.  These aesthetics also placed American and European artists in collaborative international dialogue.  Many of recent American contributions to musical social commentary and community, however, are more populist in their aesthetic perspective, drawing especially on the legacy of American hip-hop and R&B.  The Black Lives Matter movement, formed in response to the many police killings of unarmed African American in past few years has created a particularly fervent moment in contemporary music.  How musicians draw on the icons and symbols of past, how they link domestic and international issues, and the future of aesthetic collaborations between Europe, the U.S. and the global south seem especially important right now.

Taking the Gift Out and Putting It Back In: From Cultural Goods to Commodities
24 October 2016 (17:00-18:30)
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)

Timothy Taylor (Professor, Ethnomusicology, and Director of the Ethnomusicology Archive, University of California, Los Angeles)

This presentation considers how musicians and others create or increase the economic value of cultural commodities in the capitalist marketplace. There are two means: the first is supply-chain capitalism as theorized by Anna Tsing, in which value is created at various nodes of a supply chain through processes of translation and purification that appear to strip away the noncapitalist social relations and noneconomic forms of value that went into the production of a particular cultural good. While Tsing views promotion simply as a different way to create value, I argue that these capitalist supply chains that create what Tsing calls inventory frequently necessitate this other means of the creation of value, processes of consecration and/or promotion (broadly understood as advertising, marketing, and branding) that reanimate cultural commodities with values that masquerade as noneconomic forms of value—firms need to claim that their inventory is superior to others’. In essence, this paper argues that, through supply-chain capitalism and processes of translation, capitalism appears to takes the gift out of the commodity by alienating labor and masking social relations, but through advertising, marketing, and branding inserts representations of unalienated labor and social relations to make the commodity seem like a gift again.

The Social Life of Chords
26 January 2017 (17:00-18:30)
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)
Byron Dueck (Open University)

How do musicians acknowledge and extend relationships through the sounding materials they deploy? 
What kinds of connections do these deployments establish, and with whom (intimates, strangers, abstract publics, spirits)? This paper considers two sites where western harmony was initially disseminated under colonialism, drawing on fieldwork conducted in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, and the city of Winnipeg in western Canada. In Yaoundé, the focus is sacred and popular music played by xylophone ensembles (mendzaŋ); in Canada, it is gospel and country music performed by musicians of Indigenous (First Nations and Métis) heritage. In both sites, the talk explores how harmony mediates social ties.

Sound and Handicraft in 1960s Poland
16 February 2017 (17:00-18:30)
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)
Andrea F. Bohlman (University of North Carolina)

This paper explores the the distribution of music through Poland beyond the socialist state’s official record labels. I focus on an unusual format that was pervasive and cheap: the homemade flexidisc. These so-called “sound postcards” were crafted and decorated by amateur recordists out of paper and cheap laminate, circulated through back channels and, most often, worn out by repeated playback. In my presentation, I unpack the media fluency and domestic labor of their makers, connecting the work and the private listening that such bootlegs demanded to other economies (and aesthetics) of handicraft under state socialism. The sound postcards—artifacts of material investment and creative production at once—offer an opportunity to rethink accessibility and music behind the Iron Curtain.

Sound Archiving and the Heritage of War
4 May 2017 (17:00-18:30)
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)

Carolyn Birdsall (University of Amsterdam)

In recent years there have been renewed calls – for historians and cultural researchers alike – to pay attention to the archive “as subject” rather than only “as source” (Stoler 2009). With this challenge in mind, this presentation will examine the creation of sound archives in European radio broadcasting from 1930 onwards. I will take a critical look at the rapid expansion of sound archiving – both in scale and prestige – during National Socialism in Germany (1933-1945). On the one hand, regime officials now recognised radio as a potential object of scholarly knowledge, resulting in support for a new academic discipline of radio studies (Rundfunkwissenschaft). On the other hand, the perceived value of radio recordings meant that sound collections were taken from across German-occupied Europe during World War II, and subsequently, in 1945, Nazi-era recordings were confiscated by Allied Forces, some of which are still held in the British Library today. The presentation raises questions about how we might frame such sound collections today: not only as the product of specific archival processes, but also their status as forms of conflict heritage in the present. It also reflects on how to study sound archival politics and the heritage of war.

The Revival Will Be Televised: Technologies of New Orleans Jazz
18 May 2017 (17:00-18:30)
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)
Andy Fry (King’s College, London)

Typically located among scratchy 78s and toothless musicians, The New Orleans Revival Movement of the mid-twentieth century is also a story of cutting-edge technologies: from radio networks to multi-track recording to stereophonic sound. I focus on two moments. First, the California radio shows that were, at the start of the war, among the first to broadcast New Orleans veterans such as Bunk Johnson and Kid Ory, nationally and internationally. Second, the pioneering label Audio Fidelity that, in the late 50s, made the young, white Dukes of Dixieland standard bearers of stereo—and surprise winners of a 1962 Battle of the Bands on television.

The Call: Interpellation and the Ethical Turn in Electronic Dance Music
12 October 2017, 5pm
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)
Luis-Manuel Garcia (University of Birmingham)

Recently, electronic dance music (EDM) discourse in cities around the globe has shown an increasing interest in rediscovering the genre’s roots in subaltern communities. Prompted by the contemporary “EDM boom” and concomitant worries about historical “whitewashing,” this trend is most visible in the proliferation of revisionist-historical articles, polemics, “thinkpieces,” and oral histories published in EDM media. This discursive shift coincides with a period of increasing political polarization, which has re-politicized dancefloors by making explicit the affinities and aspirations already implicit in these nightlife worlds. These conditions have given rise to an “ethical turn” in EDM discourse and practice, which has taken a markedly activist form in Berlin. This paper tracks the “call to ethical action” in that city, attending to the various forms it takes as nightlife organizers summon dancer-listeners to political engagement. Such appeals manifest as musical invocations, sonic conjurations, verbal appellations, and visual demonstrations. Althusser’s notion of “interpellation” highlights the coercive ideological force of the call as well as its impact on subjectivity. In Berlin’s EDM scenes, such calls often oscillate between a “call out,” addressing listeners as complacent or complicit with hegemony, and a “call on,” hailing them as the politically progressive, “woke” subjects that many of them imagine themselves to be. Importantly, these calls are usually intended for the same audiences, using negative/confrontational language to shake them awake and then positive/encouraging language to channel their energies towards concrete political action. This paper provides an account of this emerging appellative practice, which seeks to reshape audiences by hailing them as political subjects.

Music as Technology
19 October 2017, 5pm
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)
Mark Katz (University of North Carolina)

In this lecture I argue that technology does not stand apart from music, influencing it from the outside, but is a part of music, integral to every aspect of musical activity and musical life. Technology has been a part of human music-making since at least the Paleolithic Age. In fact, history has no record of a pre-technological age of music. Humans are, and have always been, creatures of technology and of music. If we want to understand how music is made and experienced, if we want to know how music travels and how it gains meaning in human societies, we must investigate its relationship—ancient and inextricable—with technology.

Polyphony – Systematics and Ontogenesis
26 February 2018, 5pm
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)
Simha Arom and Robert Kaddouch

To produce a melody is one thing; to couple it with a second one is yet another; but to create unity between several different parts at the same time is a major problem that has called for solutions in different historical epochs and in various cultural contexts. Polyphony – the simultaneous unfolding of several voices – is precisely the art of making different melodic sequences coexist as a whole, which transcends each one of them separately, while preserving its own individuality. It is fascinating to observe how, across places, eras and cultures, people have used similar polyphonic techniques. Through comparative listening, we will identify polyphonic processes common to different musical heritages, chosen independently of epochs and geographical areas. We will discover unsuspected kinships, particularly between the polyphonies of the Pygmies of Central Africa and those composed in Europe in the Middle Ages, as well as between the traditional polyphonies of Georgia and those of the early Renaissance.

After Simha Arom’s presentation involving comparative listening to various polyphonic processes common to different forms of musical heritage, chosen independently of the time periods, geographical areas and modes of transmission (written or oral), Robert Kaddouch will comment on videos of very young children (between eight months and six years old) in improvisation situations during which they spontaneously draw on some of these processes. The concept of conductibility will shed light on these manifestations.

"Working Catfish Row: Writing, Teaching, and Singing Porgy and Bess"
10 May 2018 at 5pm
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)
Naomi André (Associate Professor, University of Michigan)

Through an evaluation of the historical context for Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, set in the 1920s and first performed in 1935 during Jim Crow, I also consider how this work creates multiple meanings when it is performed today. Now over 80 years later we have seen the Civil Rights movement, an era where policies around incarceration have been called the “New Jim Crow,” and a current climate where many contend that #blacklivesmatter. Porgy and Bess has a special place in American music history and Gershwin referred to it as a “folk opera.” Yet these three terms—“American,” “folk,” and “opera”—resonate differently for black and white communities; the sonic representation of blackness through language (dialect) and vocal style projects meaning through embodiment. While the work was created by a white and Jewish American compositional team, it was performed by black artists. Indeed, Porgy and Bess voices many experiences. After singing in the chorus of a recent production of this work, it is clear that it has withstood the test of time with such memorable tunes and lyricism, even while it is embedded in problematic stereotypes. In writing about, teaching, and singing Porgy and Bess, I find it an opera that is easy to love and so difficult to hate; yet the bigger story is more complicated.

The Itineraries of Portuguese Fado: From the Afro-Brazilian Roots to UNESCO’s Patrimonialization
29 May 2018, 5pm
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)
Rui Vieira Nery

Abstract: The history of Portuguese Fado is a long process of intercultural exchange. In the multicultural context of colonial Brazil, African rhythms and dance patterns combine with European harmonies and musical forms to generate a sung dance of a strong sensuality which in the 1820s and 30s crosses the Atlantic to reach the Lisbon working-class neighborhoods along the harbor of the Tagus. The interaction between the Brazilian original model and the local Portuguese song and dance traditions will lead to a gradual disappearance of the dance component and the softening of the syncopated rhythms, in favor of a nostalgic and plaintive narrative song, usually performed with a strong rubato and an intense emotional expression of the poem. When the bohemian aristocracy and the urban middle classes come into contact with Fado, in the 1860s and 70s, the genre reaches the Vaudeville stage, is published in sheet music for domestic performance and will eventually become, from 1900 on, one of the pillars of the record industry in Portugal. But at the same time, in its original working-class context, it is used as a militant song associated with the beginnings of the Labor and socialist movement in the country.

Subjected to a stern censorship and to strict regulations under the Dictatorship established by the military coup of May 1928, Fado becomes a professional activity located mostly at the new “Fado houses”, but also expands throughout the country thanks to the beginnings of Radio (mid-1920s), and later of Television (1957). Thanks to the iconic figure of Amália Rodrigues, from the mid-1940s on, it enters the world show business circuit. Both Amália and later Carlos do Carmo will have a decisive role in the poetical and musical renovation of the genre, but the frequent association of Fado to the official ideology of the Dictatorship will lead to its temporary rejection after the democratic revolution o April 1974. Starting in the 1900s, however, a new generation of Fado singers emerges, with great impact not only within the younger audiences in Portugal but also internationally, in the context of the so-called “World Music”. On November 27th, 2011 Fado is inscribed by UNESCO in the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Douglas Kahn and Seth Kim-Cohen
13 June 2018, 3pm
The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)

Douglas Kahn: “Sounds and Vibrations Are Two Energies among Others”
Sound is one energy among others—physically, sensorially, experientially, rhetorically, artistically, technologically, culturally, environmentally, historically, etc.—as is vibration. On aggregate early sound studies were grouped around the ear, especially viz. the eye, cinema analysis with the sound turned off, visual studies and the visual arts, whereas over the last decade cultural theories of vibrations in music and the arts have moved from the ear out over the body and onward to other hopeful sites of materiality, have pulsed across dance floors and further still across the vacuum of outer space since the big bang downbeat in rhythmic beats-per-universe. This talk will ask how larger fields of energies beyond the mechanics and acoustics of sound and vibration might provide possibilities to artistic and analytical practices closer to home.

Seth Kim-Cohen: “The Pages Are In French: Scritti Politti’s Messthetics”
Scritti Politti’s work in the 1980s, despite their avowed intentions, is “conceptual” in a particular sense of that term. It relies explicitly on its parerga: on history (writ large) and the band’s own history, as well as a set of discursive supplements, to formulate its meanings. As slick as Scritti Politti’s music gets, it is never slippery enough to fully evade the entanglements of its sites and citations. Whatever meaning the music generates or acquires, it does so via this dispersed interaction with context. While the band may have turned their collective back on the lessons of Art & Language, and of conceptual art more broadly, the extrinsic construction of meaning is not something the artist can accept or reject. This construction is the product of the unconscious (Lacan), of hegemony (Gramsci), of differance (Derrida). All aesthetics is messthetics. 

Seeing Sound
Wednesday, 10 October 2018 at 5pm
St John’s College Barn
Barbara London

Sound as an art medium emerged during the 1960s from foundations that had been laid for it over the preceding fifty years. In the spirit of counterculture and revolution, artists were experimenting with time-based art that was intangible and difficult to commodify and collect. Their seat-of-the-pants approach to process and materials was well suited to the artist-run, rough-and-ready exhibition spaces sprouting up in cities the world over. Distinctions between visual artists and composer-musician-performers blurred as young artists started to thrive in the fertile middle ground between disciplines.

Listening to personalized sound has become a private experience, attainable by using leading-edge earpieces and immersive systems that circulate through the long-distance transmission of computerized sonic information. In “Seeing Sound” Barbara London discusses the impact of new technologies on the ways sound art exhibitions are communal explorations of how and what we hear, and what we might make of it. London looks in particular at acoustic objects that are exhibited in a gallery context and also performed/“played” live in events that are becoming more telematic. London asks whether ‘predictive’ listening tendencies—to draw on the analogy with predictive text messaging—have any impact on sound as art made in late 2018.

Watch the Throne: Critical Excess and the New Gilded Age
Thursday, 25 October 2018 at 5pm
St John’s College Barn
J. Griffith Rollefson

Jay Z and Kanye West’s 2011 Watch the Throne is a self-avowed “luxury rap” album centered on Eurocentric conceptions of nobility, artistry, and race.  In this paper, I examine how the album alternately imagines and critiques the mutually reinforcing ideas of Europe, nobility, old money, art, and their standard bearer, whiteness.  Articulating black Atlantic, postcolonial, and critical theory to work on the prophetic nature of music, I argue that the album brings the idea of Europe to its logical conclusion and heralds the final stage of late capitalism—our current one-percenter era, “the New Gilded Age.”  Tracking how Jay and Ye exceed the “excellence, opulence, decadence” of the white royalty that reside at the heart of the idea of Europe, I conclude that their performance of critical excess on the album seems to exceed the limits of conspicuous consumption and usher in an age of deeply ambivalent hypercapitalism.

Is Minimalism Experimentalism? Historiographical and Hermeneutic Notes, with Terry Riley in the Foreground
Thursday, 22 November 2018 at midday
St John’s College Barn
Sumanth Gopinath

In 2006, Steve Reich made a striking comment that “I do my experiments at home, and you don’t hear ’em.” In contrasting experimentalism to the art of composition and implicitly attributing the notion of the unfinished piece to the former, Reich’s comment suggests a few lines inquiry regarding the relationship between experimentalism and minimalism. First, while musical minimalism (at least from Nyman on) has been seen as a stream within US-American (mostly) white experimentalist music, two interrelated perspectives might be added to this particular view of minimalism: first, following Reich, that minimalism (especially for figures like Reich, Glass, and Adams) became a kind of post-experimental music, involving finished works, ambitions of creative greatness tied to those works, and a related revivification of conservative aspects of the Western art tradition (commissioning for established, conventional ensembles and performance modalities); and second, that the minimalist “capture” of a certain proportion of experimentalism in the 1970s and after had as much to do with this anti-experimentalist retrenchment as it did with specific sonic/stylistic choices (the adoption of drones, diatonicism, repetitive groove patterns, etc.).

However, within this general trend represented by musical minimalism’s first generation, Terry Riley stands as a partial outlier, eschewing a consistently work-based practice in favor of a much more shambolic and ritually oriented one, at least through the 1970s (and prior to the commissions he received from the Kronos Quartet in the 1980s and after). In examining a variety of moments in Riley’s music from the 1960s and 1970s, this talk seeks to propose and elucidate signifiers of the “shamanic,” both in an attempt to better understand US-American experimental music and to point to an impulse in his music that is perhaps less easily recuperated by the classical music industry—and, correspondingly, less frequently viewed as aesthetically successful than the music of the rest of his minimalist cohort.

‘If You Should Lose Me’: The Archive, the Critic, the Record Shop, and the Blues Woman
Thursday, 21 February 2019 at 2.30pm
St John’s College Auditorium
Daphne A. Brooks

This talk examines the problem of iconic blues women who’ve been “lost” to history, Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, as well as the critics who’ve loved and chased after them. By placing the politics of queer archival studies and black performance theory in conversation with canonical blues historiographies, the talk will explore the aesthetics and cultural resonances of Wiley and Thomas’s rare recordings.  It aims as well to trace a black feminist counter-history of record collecting and listening publics in order to tell a different story of blues lives that mattered.

Verses and Flows: Migrant Lives and the Sounds of Crossing
Thursday, 9 May 2019 at 5pm
St John’s College Barn
Alex E. Chávez

In his award-winning book Sounds of Crossing: Music, Migration, and the Aural Poetics of Huapango Arribeño (Duke 2017), Dr. Alex E. Chávez explores the contemporary politics of Mexican migrant cultural expression manifest in the sounds and aural poetics of huapango arribeño, a musical genre originating from north-central Mexico. In this presentation, he draws on this work to address how Mexican migrants voice desires of recognition and connection through performance, and the politics such desires attain amidst the transnational context of migrant deportability. As a researcher, artist, and participant, Chávez has consistently crossed the boundary between scholar and performer in the realms of academic research and publicly engaged work as a musician and producer. In this presentation, he draws on these experiences to address the politics of his intellectual and creative work and how he engages both to theorize around the political efficacy of sound-based practices, the “voice,” and the disciplinary futures of borderlands anthropology.

DJs and PLOs in Berlin’s Electronic Jazz Scene: The Case of Jazzanova
Thursday, 17 October 2019 at 5pm
St John’s College Barn
Kristin McGee (University of Groningen)

In “Subjectivity in the Groove,” Bernardo Attias uncovers two reoccurring anxieties expressed as new technologies transform musical cultures: that they “degrade the fidelity of musical recordings” and “threaten to undermine the development of musical technique” (Attias 2013, 20-21). As jazz pundits have consistently advocated for the committed study of canonical recordings to elevate instrumental techniques, the incursion of new technologies during the digital era re-animated such anxieties within the reception of especially electronic jazz. In Berlin, a city celebrated for its post-industrial exploration of electronic soundscapes within dance cultures, new technologies such as digital sound production and drum sequencing significantly transformed the aesthetics of jazz inspired musical recordings. One of Berlin’s most established jazz inspired PLOs (producer-led outfits) is Jazzanova, a collective featuring DJs and producers who are often praised for their exceptional record production aesthetics. This presentation examines the under-researched role performed by DJs and producers in revitalizing jazz culture, especially in the post-reunification city of Berlin. Drawing from ethnographic research, I posit that such collectives cultivated a committed transnational jazz community because of their artistic expansion of record production techniques in ways blurring the lines between live jazz performance practice and studio engineered jazz production techniques. Ultimately, the adaptation of new production techniques within this ‘phonographic art’ has earned electronic jazz a significant place within European jazz culture in part by re-acquainting youth cultures with a jazz-oriented archive and by reinvigorating dance as a participatory act in an era during which jazz was increasingly viewed as static and conservative.

Narco Rap, Creative Agency and Academic Knowledge Production 
Thursday, 24 October 2019 at 5pm
St John’s College Barn
Hettie Malcomson (University of Southampton)

Scholarship suggests that musicians servicing Mexican narcos have little agency due to the dangers of challenging orders. Drawing on interviews with an ex-narco and rappers who willingly accept narco-commissions in 2010s Tamaulipas, Mexico, this paper explores how rappers exert power creatively, despite the risks. It interrogates how rappers shape narco-aesthetics, contribute to narco-ethics, and mould narco-masculinities. The paper also addresses the methodological and ethical issues this research raises, particularly around academic authority, sensationalism and trauma.

Curating sound at Soul Jazz Records
Thursday, 21 November 2019 at 5pm
St John’s College Barn
Stuart Baker (Soul Jazz Records)

Stuart Baker is the founder of Soul Jazz Records. Founded 30 years ago Soul Jazz Records releases and documents many diverse areas of music—from Brazilian music, jazz, acid house, reggae, disco, latin, punk, country—ccompanying the music with large contextual notes that document the social, historical and aesthetic origins of the music. Soul Jazz Records has also recorded albums in Haiti, Brazil, Nigeria, Guadeloupe, Belize, Cuba and elsewhere, and has published a number of books on subjects such as voguing, Jamaican dancehall, voodoo in Haiti, revolutionary jazz in the USA, and more besides.

Thursday, 23 January 2020 at 5pm
St John’s College Barn
John Mowitt (University of Leeds)

In his two volume study of the cinema Gilles Deleuze proposed that the medium generated the concepts by which to think its effects.  Since then Alain Badiou and Bernard Stiegler have, in different ways, entertained the proposition that the cinema “thinks.”  In my remarks, I will take up the late Bob Marley’s 1977 recording, “Jamming” to explore in what ways it might be said to think the concept of ‘improvisation.”  Crucial here are the signifying sparks generated by the title, and its lyrical/rhythmic functions within the tune, sparks I will propose are figured in Jacques Lacan’s early characterization of the nonhuman animal as a “jammed machine.”  In a moment where our profession is anguishing over how to think and thus evaluate the research status of “artistic practice,” these remarks may well take on a timeliness they might otherwise lack.

Megaphones Hiding in Trees: Civic Instruction via Mediated Soundscapes in Places of Natural Scenic Beauty in China
Thursday, 27 February 2020 at 5pm
St John’s College Barn
Shzr Ee Tan (Royal Holloway)

Places of ‘scenic beauty’ in China – national parks, panda enclosures, holy mountains, private gardens – have been sites where encounters with nature have been constructed through idealisations of particular ecologies. Often, in these environments, the sonic design of space predicates as much on ‘organic’ elements as on deliberately-engineered and broadcast ‘artificial’ sounds. Loudspeakers are hidden in trees and rocks. Broadcasting ambient sounds throughout the course of the day, they send signals ranging from Chinese classical music to spoken descriptions of local objects of interest, to exhortations to walk in an orderly fashion, to religions chants. Sometimes, the broadcasts are presented in overt articulations in invocation of public service announcements or tourist information posts. Based on multi-sited fieldwork in Northern, Eastern and Southern China, this paper considers such mediated soundscapes along four axes of analysis. First, I contextualise such sonic ‘atmospheres’ within surveillance culture in China and civic instruction through public address. Second, I examine them within a longer, well-known history of Taoist philosophy that positions man in relationship to the cosmos through a perspective of ‘artifice’ embedded in oppositional co-existence with ‘nature’. Third, I explore these articulations as multisensorial experiences found in ecotouristic brands. Finally, I critique these sonic mediations in interaction with perceived ‘natural’ sounds within broader theorizations of ecomusicology developed by Guy (2009) and Rees (2016), coming to conclusions on national vs local acoustic ecologies of the ‘natural’ Chinese world.

“Groomed from girlhood”: music is the instrument of violence against black women on YouTube.
Thursday 21 October 2021, 5pm
Online (Zoom)
Kyra Gaunt, SUNY at Albany

If chronic exposure to racism causes weathering in the lives of Black women, what does chronic exposure to sexism and misogynoir in music do to Black girls and women? What surrounds us, shapes us and sexist music as violence is muting us — Black girls and women.

Turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to turning up to musical misogynoir or anti-Black sexism against Black women is rooted in the YouTube founders’ willingness to exploit the misery of Janet Jackson to kickstart their entrepreneurial dreams after launching a dating site on Valentine’s Day that became the largest digital playground in human history since 2005.

When very young Black girls upload culturally-appropriate bedroom twerking videos, both girls and general-audience users are groomed and exploited by sexual and privacy predators in YouTube’s wickedly complex systems of music monetization. Algorithmic recommendations and Content ID perpetuates the stereotyping and stigmatization that leads to sexually exploiting and silencing Black women. My next book sounds the alarm of music as a public health risk to girls, particularly girls of colour.

Poetic justice: ethnography, listening and translation.
Thursday 28 October 2021, 5pm
Online (Zoom)
Deborah Kapchan, NYU

Listening is part of the ethnographic method, but it is also essential to the art of translation. In this presentation, Professor Deborah Kapchan discusses how decades of doing research in Morocco prepared her to translate not just poetry, but its cultural context.