The volume on early modern sexualities that I have co-edited with Prof. Linda L. Carroll and Prof. Katherine A. McIver has just been sent to Ashgate’s production department to be printed! I’m very excited! The essays are marvelous, of course, and it now bears a comprehensive index, courtesy of Samantha Bassler. Thank you to our contributors: Catherine Baxter, Paul Schleuse, Catherine Lawless, Anthony Cummings, Flavio Rurale, Christophe Brouard. And a special thanks to my co-editors Katherine McIver and Linda Carroll.
The volume on Lady Gaga that I co-edited with Martin Iddon (Leeds), Lady Gaga and Popular Music: Performing Gender, Fashion, and Culture, is now out! Exciting stuff! And I’m already thinking about my next dip in to Gaga Studies–still not “Gagad out” yet. That will be a paper on Gaga, liveness and social media. It’s a bit of a change from writing about Gaga, cake and ice cream, and a big change from Italian Renaissance sexualities (my other big project at the moment).
Talking of cake, not long after kissing the proofs of my Gaga chapter good bye, I found that Lady Gaga had indeed sent Gaga cakes to collaborators: V Magazine, Zedd and DJ White Shadow. In my chapter, I note that many Gaga cakes that I read about online are vanilla with buttercream icing—a confection with an interesting gender history, as it was the classic bride’s cake of weddings past (think Miss Havisham, and Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman). The paleness was no coincidence, as it symbolized the innocence of the virgin bride. Cutting in to the bride cake stood in for another form of penetration. Gaga’s cakes were not vanilla but dark chocolate with butterscotch truffle ganache, and the sugar work Gaga was a skull with ponytail.
— Zedd (@Zedd) January 12, 2013
Tomorrow I will be participating via Skype in Rethinking Liveness: Music, Performance and Media Technology at University College Cork. I’m going to be joining a round table discussion. I’ve never done this via Skype before, so it’ll be an interesting experience (and peculiarly appropriate for a conference on liveness!).
I’ve been asked to consider liveness in relation to Lady Gaga. I’ll be drawing on various performances, including her recent turn at the VMAs (below) that was somewhat overshadowed by Miley Cyrus’ assertion of her sexual womanhood at the expense of black women. (And talking of which, Cyrus’ observation that her performance generated 306.000 tweets per minute, or something, reminds me of the liveness of Twitter, too. Gaga is known for her adept use of social media, but is it always Stefani Germanotta who does the tweeting? Or is it the Gaga assemblage? [My understanding of assemblage is courtesy of Craig Owens' contribution to the forthcoming essay collection on Gaga that I co-edited with Martin Iddon.])
Then there’s all the staging of death and dying in Gaga videos. Anyway, I still have time to get my head around this, just….
Delighted to report that my co-editor, Martin Iddon, has submitted our edited essay collection, Lady Gaga and Popular Music: Performing Gender, Fashion and Culture, to Routledge and it should be published in mid-September. My own contribution is very clearly the work of someone with gestational diabetes. It’s about cake and ice cream.
And on that note…. I was going to keep personal info off the website, but the main reason for my prolonged silence was a complicated pregnancy with months of very dull bed rest followed by the birth of a wonderful, healthy baby. She isn’t yet saying gaga or googoo but it won’t be long before she adds consonants to her vocalizations.
Just a heads up: Han-earl Park has collected his live tweets from the ImproTech conference and gigs at freedom, machine subjectivity and pseudo-science: twitter transcript – io 0.0.1 beta++ and he will be following up with a longer post soon. There’s some consideration of historical context, politics of performance, as well as comments and questions about the techniques, performance styles on display, and on the presented papers themselves (e.g. George Lewis on imbuing machines with “integral subjectivity”). It’s certainly worth keeping an eye out for the follow up blog post.
My blog has been a tad quiet recently. This was not entirely by choice, but I can’t go in to the reasons here. Anyway, I’m resurrecting it with a post that I wrote on 17 May. I haven’t gone through and edited my original text. What I’d want to spell out more clearly, were I to rewrite this, is that the problems I’m struggling with are in part (perhaps largely) to do with the conventional way of understanding the dynamics between performers and composers. In many cases, performers playing works written for them have lengthy conversations with the composers, and in fact make a substantial input into the piece. This can be recognised by composer, performer, and programme writer, or the piece can be performed and written about in a conventional way. Some of the performances I discuss below staged their creative work in a way that highlighted the collaboration and did away with the customary hierarchy of composer over performer. Others did not. And in the two performances that did not, there were very specific intersections of gender and race.
Last night, I went to hear ImproTech Paris/New York 2012: Improvisation & Technology at the Roulette. It was a gig bringing together musicians from three institutions: IRCAM in Paris, New York University and Columbia University. The gig prompted lively conversation afterwards over a late night diner meal. (I could just have been hungry—it was almost midnight—but I swear the eggplant rollatini I had at the diner was the best diner food I’ve ever had.)
So, who played what? The line up was:
- Bernard Lubat, piano, Gerard Assayag, OMax interaction, Improvisation
(Source: ImproTech Paris / NYC 2012 Schedule)
I guess it was not a complete surprise to have so few women in the gig, although it was disappointing, particularly since public funding (from the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche) went into the event; there were also private institutional sponsors.
What I want to think through here is not so much the gender imbalance of the gig in terms of numbers, but rather the ways in which gender and race appeared to intersect in some of these performances. I have more questions than I do answers. (Isn’t that always the way?) And I am sure there are other, perhaps more positive, ways to read this. I hope there are, because what I have come up with isn’t exactly heart warming and affirming.
Numbers 2 and 4 were a pair, in a way. In each, a white woman performed a woodwind instrument in front of several music stands. They appeared to be compositions rather than improvisations, although there could well have been moments of improvisation built in. The electronic wizardry happened off stage: those performers (the composers?) were not visible. In each case, the women were the only performers on the stage. And they staged a particular kind of femininity. The notes they played were written by someone else (perhaps the music stand ‘stands in’ for the composer). There is doubtless a degree of agency in how they interpreted the scores, but in effect they were using their bodies and instruments to sound someone else’s compositional voice. (To my knowledge, there isn’t yet an adequate theoretical model to account for a performer’s input into a specially-written composition and/or a performance. Convention dictates that, even if the performers had substantial input, the concert programme identifies only ‘the’ composer.) And in each case, that person had written some kind of algorithm (I think) to take that sound and respond to it, sometimes with a kind of echo and reverb, sometimes with some more complicated process that produced contrasts rather than repeats. At some points, especially at busy, climactic moments, it became hard, even impossible, to distinguish the sounds coming from the clarinet or the flute from the processed responses, in effect merging the human and the digital into one. A kind of transcendental loss of the self, perhaps? But only of the female performing self: the composer self was controlling almost everything anyway, and already disembodied, invisible but audible. In #4, the embodied performer/disembodied composer had a different spin, in that the performer was also source material for live video, her face and upper body and flute appearing superimposed on to nature walks, including a close up of a tree trunk, and the whole subject to further processing, blurring so that just as the sounds melded human and digital, the images melded human and nature. And in this, I think gender is significant again: in Western societies, women are often considered to be closer to nature than men.
I found it very hard not to see these performances as reinforcing a particular set of binary oppositions, that woman = body, man = mind; woman = reproducer, man = creator; woman = nature, man = culture (or perhaps science, or perhaps technology; all of those work). The woman is visible, and yet is not always audible, often indistinct, with blurred boundaries.
The performer ostensibly generated the sounds, but they were composed by someone else: this is a kind of ventriloquism. The disembodied, invisible composer occupies the performer, in a way, which could sound kind of cool in terms of cross-dressing/trans-of-some-kind, except the performer’s self is subordinate to, subsumed/overwhelmed by the composer’s: it is an occupation. The electronics were reactive to ‘her’ stimulus. The electronic performer reacts to his sounds coming from her embodied instrumental presence. But these electronic systems did not appear to be interactive systems, despite the descriptions, since it seemed that the women were playing already notated music from which they could not deviate. They could not respond to what they were hearing. And nor could the algorithms deal with visual cues in the way that a live performer would. In one particularly memorable moment, almost at the end of the flute piece, the flautist made the most assertive gesture of finality, punctuating the end with her body, her head movements, only to have this ignored as the electronic sounds continued on, as if the performer and the physical stimuli she produced were utterly irrelevant. The performer finished and was flushed with the effort and the intensity; the disembodied performer kept going.
This is in contrast to the two ensemble improvisations with women, in which women had their own creative voices. Mari Kimura (#3) triggered her own live electronics, as did another member of the trio. All three improvised, interacted; all three were on the stage. Geri Allen improvised with George Lewis on trombone and an improvisatory system of Lewis’s devising which played the second piano. This seemed to actually interact—to respond to Allen and Lewis, and they in turn responded to it, just as an all-human ensemble works. No sign of a one-way relationship with the electronics. But it is possible my ears missed something. And in each case, all performer-improvisor-composers were on stage. Indeed, that was true of, I think. every piece in the concert save numbers 2 and 4.
I find myself wondering if it is any coincidence that the pieces in which the performer-on-stage is at times indistinguishable from the disembodied-performer-off-stage, where only the instrumental performer has a body but in effect has no voice, and the little she does is easily con-fused with the digital/electronic manipulation…. Was it a coincidence that those performers were white women, or appeared to be? Is this a kind of good girl white femininity being staged here?
What a contrast, too, with the Roscoe Mitchell/David Wessel duo. Both on stage, both embodied and apparently enjoying it, both improvising, and both interacting with each other: two way communication. (And I had no idea it is possible to circular breathe on the flute.)
Congratulations to Bonnie Gordon (University of Virginia) for busting some Jefferson myths for a wide audience with her article in Slate on Thomas Jefferson: The sounds of Monticello, from patriotic songs to the slap of the whip. Great piece! Gordon outlines how Jefferson managed his sonic environment and his sonic legacy, if you like: how he muffled, or tried to muffle, certain sounds in his immediate soundscape, in his notebooks, and in his archive.
Takeaway point for me: silences in accounts, collections and archives can speak volumes if you listen.
Gordon organized two conferences at the University of Virginia on Jefferson and soundscapes. I attended one earlier this year.
I’m accustomed to tales of librarians sticking up for our rights to read whatever we like. Attendees at the Music: Parts and Labor conference at New York University recently were treated to exactly that kind of demonstration, as Columbia University librarian and activist Aliqae Geraci discussed a variety of labor and access issues (including the move away from owning an item toward licensing of e-journals and e-books: when an item is only licensed, it can easily be removed without the purchaser’s agreement. And even open access e-journals/e-books, she suggested, still have problems, including the hidden labor involved in creating and maintaining them). I also remember the librarians sticking up for Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men in 2002. To be honest, it has been a while since I encountered a recent tale of library censorship, but it transpires that Florida libraries have removed an erotic novel from their shelves: Fifty Shades of Grey banned from Florida libraries (Guardian).
Libraries ‘protecting’ readers from encountering erotic material has a pretty long history. The l’Enfer collection in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France was created in the nineteenth century to make sure erotic materials could only be seen by those who would not be affected by them. (This is the odd thing about censorship: the censors look at stuff that they may then decide would deprave or corrupt others. I’m not a fan of pornography—much of it is misogynistic, and I don’t find misogyny erotic—but I don’t think the way to deal with misogyny is to sweep it under the carpet and pretend it’s not there.) Many books on historical erotic materials open with authors’ accounts of going to the BNF and being taken in to a private room (so they couldn’t corrupt other readers) and having to be supervised while consulting images, pamphlets, poems and books. But back in 2007/8, the BNF put on a public exhibition of materials from the collection, and the catalogue is still available.
The equivalent in the British Library is the locked case book. I read sixteenth/seventeenth century Italian editions of Pietro Aretino’s works that were treated like any other rare book: they arrive, you give your seat number when you collect the book, you carry the book back to your seat and work away until you finish. When I read a modern English translation of Aretino (from the 1970s or 1980s), however, it arrived in a locked case. I had to switch desks within the Rare Books & Music reading room so that the music librarian could watch over me; the issuing librarian brought the case over to me and unlocked it at my new desk. After that, it was the same. But it was really quite bizarre: you can order up any number of English-language scholarly books about Aretino or about eroticism, and even more recent translations don’t seem to be in a locked case, but this book, for some reason, was considered particularly precious. Perhaps it was the only copy left in the world, although I don’t think that explains the locked case since most of their rare books aren’t in locked cases. However, at least I could consult the book, which is more than can be said for Florida library users who want to read Fifty Shades of Grey.
Sarah Werner has posted the text of her paper at the recent ‘Geographies of Desire’ conference at the University of Maryland: where material book culture meets digital humanities » Wynken de Worde. It’s a really useful overview of and reflection on the utility of digitized versions of early books and digital aids for studying books. Apparently it is possible to measure dirt on manuscripts:
One recent paper about the use of densitometers to study levels of dirt on the pages of medieval manuscripts suggests that we can learn about book usage through analyzing how and where dirt is distributed across a book. It might seem obvious that pages that are used more often will be dirtier, and that is in part what the author found, but the use of the densitometer revealed that it’s more complicated than we can always assess with the naked eye. The paper’s author, Kathryn Rudy, points out, for example, that she had assumed that two different patterns of dirt on an opening came from two different users, but the densitometer’s analysis suggested that the patterns were similar enough that they were likely to have been made by the same person—perhaps they held the book in different ways suitable for different prayers. The analysis also pointed out that even books that retain visible marks might have been cleaned by modern owners to such a degree that the dirt is no longer viable as an analytical tool, something that might help us think about the changes books undergo during modern ownership.
That reminded me of the controversy over Thomas Jefferson’s little-used sheet music at the Soundscapes of Early America conference at the University of Virginia that I mentioned in my previous blog post. I wonder if densitometers might be useful there, too? Although to be honest I think there’s so much at stake in that debate that any kind of analysis is going to be controversial.
I spent the last few days of March and the first few days of April in Charlottesville, Virginia, attending a two-day conference at the University of Virginia on the Soundscapes of Jefferson’s America, organised by the ever energetic Prof. Bonnie Gordon and her stimulating and equally energetic grad students (high energy must be a UVa recruitment requirement). While I was there, I guest taught a grad class for Bonnie (I think I probably learned more from the marvelous discussion than anyone else did), sat in on one of her undergrad classes (a lively and enjoyable conference debriefing), and met up with a UCC graduate Sarah O’Halloran who is now a UVa Jefferson Fellow working on her doctorate in composition. I would like to thank UVa Department of Music, particularly Bonnie Gordon and Prof. Richard Will, for giving me such a warm welcome and generously including me in the conference hospitality. I learned such a lot from the people I met, and I hope we can stay in touch. I really enjoyed my brief time in such a vibrant environment. I also thank Bonnie’s family for putting up with me for almost a week.
It was a particularly interesting time to be talking about the use of sound to create racialised experiences because the complex history of slavery and racism that I heard about that weekend, and interpretations of the US Constitution, lies behind so many then-current news stories—the lynching of Trayvon Martin for walking while black, for example, and the murders by police of Dane Scott Jr., and Kenneth Chamberlain, an elderly veteran who was shot and killed in his own home. I’d suggest there may also be racist and sexist thinking behind the attempts to limit women’s access to contraception and abortion: rich women may be able to buy their way around those limits (paying the full price for contraception, and traveling for abortion services if necessary [that is what happens in Ireland]), but poor women (of all ethnicities and races) are hit with a double whammy. And that touches not only every heterosexual woman who is sexually active before menopause, but also any woman who takes contraception for other reasons, as Sandra Fluke reminded the House Democratic Steering & Policy Committee back in February. What these forms of discrimination have in common, it seems to me, is a return to a narrow definition of ‘men’: men as Thomas Jefferson at the time of the Declaration of Independence seem to have understood it: wealthy, land-owning, adult, white males, rather than men in the expanded notion that means US people of all ethnicities and races and sexes and abilities. That is, an individual killing a young black man for being suspicious, the state’s initial failure to charge and prosecute that murder; a state’s murder of black men even outside of the ‘due process’ of trial, verdict and death penalty (moreover, as many death penalty abolitionists point out, black men make up disproportionate numbers of those in prison and on death row); and a state’s requirement for unnecessary penetration of a woman’s vagina removes each woman’s right to determine what happens to her body (since she is not even asked to consent, she no longer has full rights over her body: the state is claiming rights over her body—and slave owners like Thomas Jefferson claimed rights over their slaves’ bodies, male and female: how much choice did Sally Hemings really have when it came to bearing TJ’s children?)…. All these actions suggest that, to certain conservatives, only elite, white men like Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich and other male former GOP candidates for nomination, are entitled to bodily integrity, autonomy, subjectivity, personhood, and constitutional rights. In effect, there is an attempt to scale back the advancements that recognize all US citizens and residents as ‘men created equal’ with ‘certain unalienable rights’ including ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’.
So, what follows is a brief ‘review’ of some of the papers from the first day that really stuck in my mind. It’s by no means comprehensive and I haven’t tried to summarise every single paper. I intend to write a future post taking in the concerts, and the second day of the conference, but that’s going to take me a little longer still. (Although I’ll try not to do that at such great length.)
The conference has an associated exhibition, Sound in Early America, curated by Bonnie Gordon, Amy Coddington, Stephanie Doktor, Emily Gale, Courtney Kleftis and Gretchen Michelson. It is on display in UVa’s Small Special Collections Library until 20 August 2012. Their close examination of Thomas Jefferson’s music library invited conclusions that have caused controversy in some circles. While TJ’s daughters’ music was used heavily, the violin music does not look like it has ever been played and that casts doubt on TJ’s reputation as a violinist.
Bonnie Gordon’s introduction set the tone of the conference: this was to be no Thomas Jefferson love-in, but rather a critical evaluation. Gordon’s paper was so rich I can’t do it justice here, but three points Gordon made about soundscapes at TJ’s home, at UVa and in present-day Charlottesville particularly stuck in my mind. Thomas Jefferson lived in a large house on a hill, Monticello, carefully oriented so that he and his family were not disturbed by the existence of their plantation slaves; Bonnie memorably argued that the careful design and the plate glass windows were equivalent to noise-canceling headphones. The architecture and landscaping was soundscaping that blocked out the sounds of his slaves housed out of sight at the bottom of the hill. And as Bonnie notes, the University of Virginia and Charlottesville more generally are not exempt from a racially charged sonic history. As Gordon noted, the bell that called privileged young white men to their higher education also sounded to exclude slaves and former slaves. Henry Martin, who rang this bell on the hour, every hour, from 4am until 10pm, was himself a freed man.(1) In effect, Martin was a tool of the institution and spent his life re-sounding his exclusion, except for one day after the Civil War when students silenced the bell by cracking it. Finally, Bonnie noted that this history of segregated sound worlds persists into present-day Charlottesville. Inadequate public transport links, among other structural inequalities, make it hard for those living in predominately African American neighbourhoods to get to the main music institutions. And live performances of hip hop are just not heard in Charlottesville.
A couple of days after the conference, I was walking through Charlottesville and came across the morris dancers pictured above, their bells claiming a sonic presence in the town that it seems is not available to other groups. And the historical significance of tying bells on bodies varies by community: for these men, perhaps it is a way of sounding their connection to a long-standing European folk tradition. But bells on bodies could mean something entirely different: slaves were sometimes braced or welded in to ‘ponderous’ with bells so they could be heard if they tried to escape.(2)
That detail came from a book co-authored by the second conference speaker, Prof. Shane White. White spoke about the kinds of noises that Jefferson excluded from his house: the sounds of slavery (the title of his book, in fact). These ranged from plantation bells, the crying of people whose family were sold away, the sound of vicious beatings, baying dogs, as well as sounds that slaves made for themselves to commemorate the dead, to celebrate, to entertain. (Themselves and their owners: Sally Hemings’ sons played dance music for TJ’s daughters.) Slave masters had varying responses to the music produced by African American slaves and in African American churches: some were intrigued, others dismissed it as noise. And there’s plenty of evidence that the white perception of African American music as noise persists into the present. Jazz may have become America’s classical music, through a process Jeff Farley examines in a freely-available paper, ‘Jazz as a Black American Art Form: Definitions of the Jazz Preservation Act’(3), and President William Jefferson Clinton could play jazz saxophone at one of his inauguration balls, but that wasn’t always the case, and some outgrowths of jazz (and I know I’m stepping into a contentious area here) are rejected as too noisy by the jazz mainstream and too ‘jazzy’ by the mainstream (if that’s the right word) of experimental music. I’m thinking here of free jazz/free improvisation/creative music in particular, but Farley suggests various fusions of jazz with pop/rock also upset the Jazz Police (the latter not Farley’s phrase). This is just one example: as George Lewis asserts, ‘virtually every extant form of black music has been characterized as “noise”.'(4)
Prof. Mary Hunter (Bowdoin) gave a brilliant paper on the work of Thomas Jefferson’s daughters. Hunter pointed out that there are real problems with simplistic notions of amateurism and professionalism, and music was women’s work even though they were not paid for it. TJ’s daughters, and no doubt many women like them, practiced daily and felt guilty if they didn’t do their work. The music written for them gave them an opportunity to show the fruits of their labour (‘It’s no accident that I play this passage correctly three times in a row; it’s the result of diligent work.’), and to display their bodies. And in this regard, it turns out women rubbed almond paste into their arms. Apparently almond paste is advocated by some today as a skin whitener. If that is what it was for back then, I would guess that accentuating pale skin would further highlight the ‘refinement’ of being able to spend most of one’s time indoors and out of sunlight.
Richard Will, with the aid of some students, gave a lively lecture-recital arguing on Scottish song as America’s national song. The thing that really interested me about this, as a Scot, is that I didn’t know any of the songs (maybe one; I don’t now remember) that were the best known songs in Virginia and America at that time, even though several Americans in the conference audience knew the songs. I’m not sure whether that was because I’m not a huge folky, or whether that’s the difference geography makes. Anyway, I was really taken with Ellen Randolph Coolidge’s description of encountering ‘a sweet Doric’ in her visit to Scotland. I know the Doric as the dialect spoken in the area I grew up in—I used to have a few words of it myself. Yet Coolidge seemed to be using it to describe the probably quite well-to-do accents of those she met in Edinburgh. This seems to a different usage from that current in Scotland at the time, when the Doric was a term used to describe the dialect spoken by low-status country dwellers.
Prof. Sophia Rosenfeld (Virginia) gave an excellent talk on ‘Atlantic Revolutions and the Right to be Heard’. This was about the relationship to the French Revolution and who gets to talk in parliament/national assemblies. Again, this has contemporary significance, since the ability to speak and to be heard is something that people have been thinking about quite carefully in the Occupy movement.
In many ways, the conference, even though it was ostensibly about the past, really connected to current political events as well as to current scholarly debates. And that is one of the things that made it such a successful and exciting event.
(1) On Henry Martin, see this fascinating roundtable discussion from UVa earlier this year. It’s well worth the hour. The final three panelists share important critical insights into the stories told by and about Martin, the politics around his life and his commemoration by UVa.
(2) Shane White and Graham White, The Sounds of Slavery (Boston, MA: Beacon Press 2005), 6.
(3) Jeff Farley, ‘Jazz as a Black American Art Form: Definitions of the Jazz Preservation Act,’ Journal of American Studies 45 (2011): 113-129.
(4) George E. Lewis, ‘Too Many Notes: Computers, Complexity and Culture in “Voyager”,’ Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 10 (2000), 33-39: 34.