remediation and ethnographic sound work

in my recent ethnographic sound work, i have been exploring problems of remediation through experiments with what one could call a conceptual soundscape: rather than aiming for verisimilitude, as has much ethnographic sound work, these pieces actively mediate field recordings, creating a fantastic or impossible piece that nonetheless explores an historically specific way of hearing. hip hop has informed the practices of such sound work, which creates new pieces through layering and looping sounds in order to show or make a problem of their relationships. because this kind of ethnographic sound work departs from the documentary quality dominant among anthropologists and ethnomusicologists, it might be useful to talk about the conceptual background of conceptual soundscape work

although anthropologists would not generally confuse ethnography with documentary presentation, such a definition guides most sound work in the discipline. this type of documentary work can be usefully contrasted with conceptual soundscape work in terms of the dominance of one of two types of remediation: immediacy versus hypermediation (see bolter and grusin 2000)

documentary immediacy

anthropologists and ethnomusicologists might spend many hours in the studio to create sound pieces; however, this work aims at an effect of “being there.” for example, the work of steven feld always includes what he calls an “indexical track” recorded with binaural microphones, which posits in the sound work the real presence of a listening subject (see the piece on feld’s method in coping with the past). through such recording and studio work, documentary recording achieves a kind of iconicity. we might consider the effect of this kind of remediation—mixing a listener’s presence, environmental sounds, and resonance back in—what bolter and grusin have called in their work remediation as “immediacy.” in other words, the documentary form selects for a kind of mediation in which the presence of the media has been erased or elided. indeed, the dominant trope in this kind of production is authenticity. the relationship of documentary sound work to its sources is conservative and in a sense somewhat naïve. it attempts to present and preserve and often denies its own status as an intervention. recording, editing, and mixing practices all aim at this effect of documentary immediacy, rather than exploring the possibilities of media to pose new questions of recorded sources

hypermediation and conceptual soundscape work

in contrast, conceptual soundscape work is reflexive and theoretical. rather than aiming at an erasure of the role of media in its construction, conceptual soundscape work actively points out its mediated quality, in order to demonstrate a set of possibilities and problems arrived at through engagement with its sources. if documentary work continues a romantic project of musical repatriation, placing musics back into their lived contexts, conceptual soundscape work takes schizophonia as its condition of possibility. conceptual soundscape work may thus situate its sources in a variety of relationships, some contextual but others topological. for example, in order to demonstrate relationships between musical practices and quality of life discourses, a conceptual soundwork piece could mix the sound of taiwanese garbage trucks, which play “the young maiden’s prayer” or “für elise,” with public service announcements and traffic noise from archival sources from the 1970s and 1980s. conceptual soundscape work could also edit and loop announcements from public transportation and other public amenities to pose questions about public multilingualism. it could also show how musical pieces animate a musical archive shared by certain listeners (and perhaps not by the target audience) by mixing parts of this archive into recordings. because such projects index rather than elide their mediated quality, they pose questions of translation or rhetoric. in other words, they share with contemporary anthropology an awareness of the worked quality of ethnography and aim to pose questions rather than conserve or present authentic experiences of hearing

to give a sense of these contrasts, i will provide illustrations from my work on my soundcloud site

one way of thinking of the contrast is that of how one defines context or, better, the site of articulation for recorded sources. is the site of articulation that of a sonic environment that the ethnographer attempts to represent, denying schizophonia? or is the site of articulation already constituted by schizophonia, placing the source in a media network? how does one work through the role of mediation in the composition of a lived soundscape? because that soundscape might refer to a media landscape as well as the environment, the challenge in mixing–more a component of field recording work than one would at first realize–is to think about what sort of context to add

in the first piece i will introduce here, i thought that the context to provide was that of other musical pieces, as well as the sound of the ocean, which constantly exerts its sonic presence in a’tolan. the reason is that this song, “the bus stop at a’tolan,” indexes other songs of taking leave and longing in its lyrical and melodic form. so in mixing the recording, i placed parts of these references back in, including a clip from a traditional song of longing recorded last year. recorded at an informal drinking party, “bus stop at a’tolan” wouldn’t have the same feeling if the mix were too clean. so i’ve also tried to keep the feeling of a party where memories, songs, and stories flow as quickly as the beer. the song was likely composed in the 1970s and belongs to a genre of songs written about the experience of working on the far ocean fishing fleet, a trade in which men from a’tolan left home for three to five year stints, traveling to harbors throughout the pacific. the lyrics convey a sense of abjection in addition to the pain of taking leave: wangawangsa can refer both to the gesture of waving goodbye and to a condition of deprivation, much as the anxious question, “when will my pockets be heavy” contrasts with the sorrow of taking leave expressed in the phrase marorom ko harateng. featured on this recording are a group of youths from a’tolan and the artist siki sufin. the musical form is derived from the enka, known as a musical embodiment of “tears of longing” (see christine yano’s book of the same title)

siyataw no a’tolan

o siyataw sato a’tolan, o kairiwen ako
anohacowa do kareteng, to alofo’ no mako
wangawangsa kiso ina, marorom ko harateng
anohacowa do karateng, to alofo’ no mako

the bus stop of a’tolan, it is the place of my longing
when will they be heavy, my empty pockets
you wave, my mother, with pain i think of it
when will they be heavy, my empty pockets

a more radical approach to the issue of media as a site of articulation appears in another mix that i made of the song, as well as a piece from last year on sugar factories and nostalgia

the second piece, which is a drinking song, required a bit of the environmental context of informal get togethers in a’tolan. in that regard, the approach resembles documentary work more closely. the recording, made on a rainy evening on which a group of women in their early 60s gathered to sing, is a good example of the kind of participatory musicking that ‘amis people value. people join the musical activity, singing parts of songs they know, making vocal gestures, conversing, clapping, and dancing. the point of the musical practice here is not the recording or a performance, but for everyone to participate in some fashion. the song is a good choice for such a gathering; it’s relatively easy to sing, and gives important instructions in the lyrics–in sowalo no ‘amis, mandarin, and japanese. maybe someone should write some english lyrics to the meter? here’s a provisional translation of the song as sung by amui and her friends at her betelnut and grocery store:

oh my friends, we’ve gathered for a tipple, for some good mijiu
you might get drunk. if you do, don’t speak rashly
but singing is good, and dancing, too
yes, my good friends

the mix brings more layers of environmental sound and physical movement, in order to provide a sense of being at such a gathering in a’tolan on a rainy evening. in contrast to the first piece, this mix aimed at versimilitude rather than presenting the piece within a conceptual / musical space. i hope that the joy of their singing together, as well as the pedagogical character of the song (as well as their singing it for me) is clear in the recording. the role of the recording, as i see it, is to explore musical being as deeply ethical, as a practice that reproduces social relationships a’tolan ‘amis consider beautiful

of the two pieces, the first is admittedly more experimental. although i make a strong case for the value of conceptual soundscape work above, i’m not always sure which of the two methods is better; in fact, one of my questions about ethnographic sound work has been whether it should aim for immediacy, a sense of being there in the moment, or strive to present sounds that, while impossible to hear in actuality, raise important questions about how humans differently apprehend the world through hearing and sounding. it would be interesting to hear what people think about this question. i’d make the strong argument that some of the most important lessons ethnographic sound work can learn might actually come from hip hop. what do y’all think?

link to soundcloud (1)
link to soundcloud (2)

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