Sound Braid Workshop

Rooted in combined interests in interactive sonic worlding, a small knot of York University social anthropology PhD students is proposing a workshop centred around Sound Braid for the 2023 SpokenWeb Symposium in Edmonton. What is Sound Braid? Projected to go live in fall 2022, Sound Braid is an emergent web platform committed to exploring incommensurable spaces rooted in captured and ongoing sonic experiences that are at least somewhat remote from expressions of human language or music. Once live, braid collaborators—others interested in exploring sonic worlding from diverse perspectives—will be invited to react with previous posters as moments of sound hosted on the braid plait with possible emanations.

The proposed contribution of Sound Braid organizers to the SpokenWeb Symposium would involve introducing participants to the platform; leading conversations about matters of conceptualizing through sound; engaging in critical inquiry into the rapidity or conversely the slowness in social science and multimodal research; discussing the limitations of sound-based work, and collectively workshopping a sonic thread response—or numerous responses—to an existing thread/s. Sound Braid’s organizers are flexible in terms of attending the conference in-person, online, or otherwise. In contrast to the shock and urgency of much of today’s digital life, by opening a gradually self-formulating and non-predictive space, Sound Braid will provide room for thoughtful listening, contemplation, and inquiry into what sound is doing.

Sensing Plastic

(Workshop presented with Georgia Koumantaros)

This 90-minute collaborative and experimental ethnographic practice-based workshop on plastic fantasies will engage participants in an ethnographic phantasmagorical experience that drifts somewhere between the real and the imaginary, the digital and tactile, and between gauzes and gazes. Participants will venture into a plastic sensorium, unite in exploring the hands-on plastic worlds of found objects, consider the possibilities of becoming plastic and plastic becoming, and participate in polymer-driven storytellings that drip with uneasy anthropological mirth. The format of the workshop includes a video-enhanced slideshow presentation exploring plastics historically, ritually, geologically, and ethnographically; a simultaneous social media engagement; and a series of curated provocation-based tasks inviting collaborative and collective explorations of plastic surplus fantasies. Participants are asked to bring fully charged smart devices (phones, tablets) and wear clothes that can support movement.

Hmmronk, Skrrrrape, Schttttokkke: Musical Automatism?

Surrealist Manifesto”(s) author and prominent movement head André Breton iterated repeatedly about the integral connection between automatism and surrealist expression. While works created via automatic processes are readily found within literature and visual arts, musical articulations are rare and not altogether instilled with the Bretonian surrealist ideal of “pure psychic automatism” (Breton, 1924 Surrealist Manifesto). Music from surrealism’s early days in Paris failed to capture sonic automatism for several reasons. Not only was music disfavoured by prominent surrealists such as Breton himself, and by extension not promoted or included, but the dearth of readily available devices able to record more than three and a half minutes of sound made the documentation of automatic music unlikely. Eclipsing the by-comparison minor problem of capturing sonic expression, political tensions leading up and into the Second World War contributed to a splintering and near dissolving of surrealism altogether. It became not only a non-priority, but a life and death liability for a number of artists associated with the movement, along with a great many others. The connection between automatism and surrealistic practices is somewhat dissonant. Automatism, with few exceptions has been and continues to be mediated by craft. While juxtaposition and collage have been used fairly extensively in the music of the avant-garde, studies of musical automatism are scant. In the search for automatic music, this talk discusses music made by art brut collector Jean Dubuffet, the work of so-called outsider musicians, post-war pieces by American and European avant-gardists, and the work of free improvisers.

Red, White, and Grey: Un-defining Popular Music in Canada

The typical trajectory of investigation into Canadian popular music culture involves microscopic inspection and analysis of cultural pockets which are then situated as mosaic-like pieces within a larger framework. This approach parallels the common metaphor that Canadian culture is just that: a comprehensive whole made up of sometimes disparate, though seemingly well-defined segments. In the proposed chapter, the merits of these studies go largely undisputed due to the insight into the specific cultural worlds they provide. However, this chapter investigates cultural activities that take place within the margins of these more clearly defined spaces. Frameworks provided by artistic practice, venue, and genre nudge the work of those included as examples of this chapter into what might be considered popular milieus. Yet, the examples (including investigations of the Hillside Uke Workshop and the Toronto DIY venue Double Double Land) could not be considered universally popular. This is not because of their failure to achieve mass acclaim; but rather it is because of the liminal nature. Drawing not from inside/outside dichotomies, cogs of a greater “musicking” whole (Small), or theories of crossover, this chapter instead derives from the concept of liminality (van Gennip) in its cultural form. Using examples from ethnographic work, I invest in the contributions of those working in grey cultural spaces, and demonstrate that a truer picture of culture includes the activities of those working beyond positions of privilege, dominance, and/or popularity. A more complete cultural picture is comprised of those serving liminal roles in marginal places in addition to those more directly engaged with what is popular. It is not only the various well-defined pieces of a mosaic that make up the more complete whole, but the mortar that sets them apart from each other.

Stone-Faced Portraits, Teeth Painting, and Precious Gems: A Brief Journey into Jandek’s Visual, Lyrical, and Sonic World

Initial visual encounters with the so-called outsider musician Jandek often come by way of onlookers’ observations of Jandek’s album covers. These feature—among occasional other themes and motifs—surreal interiors, generic exteriors, and enigmatic portraits. Images, appearing as recurring tropes, emerge only to later retreat into the ever-evolving arachnidan skein that characterizes the Jandek project. Sometimes captured in close temporal proximity to each other, many of the cover art images are released years apart, disturbing the temporality of visual series. Lyrical themes develop in like fashion but function more tangibly in the larger narrative, one that is—according to Jandek’s distributor Corwood Industries—autobiographical.

Remarkable in its longevity and marked by its iconic subcultural status, the Jandek project evades easy description and the public eye. Briefly introduced by the infamous but since recoiled Manny Farber essay “White Elephant Art Vs. Termite Art” (1962), this paper explores Jandek’s world of interconnected themes by investigating its temporally displaced visual subjects, the use of repetition in song lyrics for the purpose of re-contextualization, and the multifaceted gem “European Jewel,” the ubiquitous riffs of which appear 37 times over three releases. Unique in their persistence, motivic remnants of these riffs trailed the last full iteration of “European Jewel” for a decade after the final release of the song proper.  Aesthetically similar to the qualities described by Farber, what Jandek presents through the use of images, words, and sound rambles through “termite”-like orneriness for decades.

Thematic Interconnectivity as an Innate Musical Quality: An Investigation of Jandek’s “European Jewel” Guitar Riffs

This dissertation is divided into two main areas. The first of these explores Jandek-related discourse and contextualizes the project. Also discussed is the interconnectivity that runs through the project through the self-citation of various lyrical, visual, and musical themes. The second main component of this dissertation explores one of these musical themes in detail: the guitar riffs heard in the “European Jewel” song-set and the transmigration/migration of the riff material used in the song to other non-“European Jewel” tracks.

Jandek is often described in related discourse an an “outsider musician.” A significant point of discussion in the first area of this dissertation is the outsider music genre as it related to Jandek. In part, this dissertation responds to an article by Martin James and Mitzi Waltz which was printed in the periodical Popular Music where it was suggested that the marketing of a musician as an outsider risks diminishing the “innate qualities” of the so-called outsider musicians’ works. While the outsider label is in itself problematic-this is discussed at length in Chapter Two-the analysis which comprises the second half of this dissertation delves into self-citation and thematic interconnection as innate qualities within the project.

Explored at length in this dissertation are the guitar riffs of the Jandek song “European Jewel,” the closing track of the artist’s debut album, Ready for the House (1978). The riffs are heard 37 times over the course of five different versions of the song. Elements of the riffs also appear in tracks that are not labeled as “European Jewel” variants. A larger structural form in which the song-set is situated has been observed. When heard outside of the “European Jewel” song-set the riffs appear in fragmented form. Continued use of the “European Jewel” riff material lasts until the album One Foot in the North (1991). Much attention has been given to the interconnection between certain visual and lyrical ideas present in the project by Jandek fans; however, Jandek has not been investigated at any great length in music scholarship, popular or otherwise. In part, this investigation contributes to the breadth of popular music scholarship by exploring this underrepresented act. It also delves into the sonic qualities which are intrinsic to Jandek. This type of sonic analysis is performed in order to separate Jandek’s sonic qualities from non-sonic discussions of the project. Finally, this dissertation poses the question of whether or not these qualities are of value to fans and scholars.

The LMN and Op: Pre-Web Social Networking and the Labours of Love

Before there was file sharing there were mixed tapes passed among friends. And before there was the Internet boom with its continuous stream of music-related websites, blogs, tweets, and fan pages there were do-it-yourself grassroots magazines like Op. In 1979, KOAS FM—a community radio station broadcast from Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington—printed its first issue of Op magazine. Op was edited by John Foster, supported by his brain-child the non-profit educational organization the Lost Music Network (LMN). The LMN was described in Op as “a national non-profit clearinghouse for information and ideas about music.” Both Op and the LMN were dedicated to providing interested readers with printed matter on anything and everything musical, though specific efforts were made to cover “weird,” lesser-known, or otherwise harder to come by musics. If “big-name artists” were reviewed or mentioned it was for an album or artist’s “merit.” The bulk of Op’s issues were released alphabetically, beginning with the series’ “A” issue, featuring articles on The Art Institute of Chicago and Alabamian music, among others, to the last of Op’s run, the “Z” issue of 1984.

This paper/presentation overviews Op’s history from its early community radio centered days to its glossy- covered, ad-filled end. Op’s increased reliance upon advertisement as opposed to listener and reader support will be covered, as will the magazine’s changes in layout and artists featured. Also included is a more general discussion of printed materials released during the years leading up to the digital boom as providing interactive social networking experiences comparable in nature to those of today’s online era.

The Rise and Fall of the Key of Z: The Dubious Beginnings and Endings of Outsider Music

The controversial genre of outsider music loosely derives from the more recognized movement of outsider art, with the roots of the latter established by German psychiatrist and art critic Hans Prinzhorn in the early twentieth century. Eighty years later, radio programmer and journalist Irwin Chusid in the introduction to Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, describes the inception of outsider music as possibly resulting from damaged DNA, psychotic seizures, alien abduction, or perhaps even bad beer. Although Chusid (who originally coined the term “outsider music”) claims that the book was never intended to be scholarly, recent researchers have latched onto the concept, viewing it critically as Mitzi Waltz and Martin James did in an October 2009 article appearing in the academic journal Popular Music.

In this paper I explore social issues concerning outsider music before comparing two songs by quintessential and influential so-called outsiders, Daniel Johnston and Jandek. Sonic attributes including a lack of rhythmic regularity, unconventional treatment of pitch, and distinctive vocal delivery are examined, all of which lead the listener beyond certain “horizons of expectation”—to borrow philosopher Tzvetan Todorov’s phrase—about the genre. Finally, I discuss outsider music’s dissolution in recent years as musicians distanced themselves from the classification. Along with challenging aesthetic and cultural values held by many listeners, this essay explores social narratives within a contentious genre.

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