Karaoke Theory / Karaoke Therapy

Below are edited excerpts from a performative panel-presentation I delivered at X-disciplinary Congress on Artistic Research and Related Matters, Vilnius Academy of Arts & SODAS 2123, 14-17 October 2021. In preparing this presentation, I realised that the key issue I sought to address was a perceived inhibition about singing in public. Noting that many ‘non-literate’ cultures use song as a vehicle for knowledge and as a ‘memory code’, according to researcher and author Lynne Kelly, I wonder what we ‘Westernized Moderns’ are missing out on, especially with reference to the academic formatting of knowledge as it is occurring in the arts. The discussion at the conference honed in on notions of perfection, but the issue of a kind of ‘performance anxiety’ around singing in public remains compelling. 

‘Singing has been somehow colonised out of us!’
I approach song as a learning tool, as a means to convey knowledge and structure feeling. In particular, I would like to address a perceived inhibition about singing in public, which I propose is a kind of trauma. This was prompted by the Helsinki-based filmmaker and stand-up comedian, Roxana Sadvo, who recently told me that she suspects that ‘singing has been somehow colonised out of us’.

In his 2006 book This Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J Levitin, a North American cognitive neuroscientist, author, musician and sound engineer, notes that it is only recently that a distinction was made between classes of music performers and music listeners in Western societies.

Only relatively recently in our own culture, five hundred years or so ago, did a distinction arise that cut society in two, forming separate classes of music performers and music listeners. Through out most of the world and for most of human history, music making was as natural an activity as breathing and walking, and everyone participated. (Levitin, 2006)

As a neuroscientist, Levitin has researched how music alters our moods and brain chemistry and cites studies that demonstrate how music stimulates all areas of the brain. Indeed, in his 2008 book The World in Six Songs, he argues that the human brain evolved with song:

Before there was language, our brains did not have the full capacity to learn language, to speak or to represent it. As our brains developed both the physiological and cognitive flexibility to manipulate symbols, language emerged gradually, and the use of rudimentary verbalizations—grunts, calls, shrieks, and groans—further stimulated the growth potential for the types of neural structures that would support language in the broadest sense. (Levitin, 2008)

Singing as ‘Soma Technique’
Recently I came across the work of the Finnish ethnomusicologist, musician and therapist Anne Tarvainen, who also claims that in the West, singing is split between those can sing — that is, those who are gifted, trained and professionalised — and those who cannot, who are cast as audiences, admirers and connoisseurs.

Tarvainen works with singers, both amateur and professional, who due to illness or injury, now experience difficulty vocalising. She expands on the work of the North American (pragmatist) philosopher Richard Shusterman who has been developing a concept of ‘Somaesthetics’ since the 1990s. As Tarvainen explains in a recent article for the Journal of Somaesthetics:

One of the main ideas of somaesthetics is that bodily experience can be cultivated. By practicing body consciousness, one can free oneself from harmful bodily manners and improve one’s overall quality of life. Shusterman suggests that a researcher working in the field of somaesthetics should not only approach things analytically but also critically examine the physical practices of our culture, suggest new forms of somatic conventions, and put them into practice. (Tarvainen 2019, p.8)

Tarvainen is developing a branch of this field that she names ‘vocal somaesthetics’ alongside a form of vocal therapy, ‘Voicefulness’, in which Tarvainen encourages her clients to approach singing according to what feels good in their body, rather than adhering to established music conventions. Such ‘unorthodox’ singing is a means of transforming the body — it is a way of doing the body. Singing as ‘soma technique’. So if singing makes us feel good and make us smarter, why aren’t we karaoking everyday?

RUB


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The cyclical originates in the cosmic, in nature: days, nights, seasons, the waves and tides of the sea, monthly cycles, etc. The linear would come rather from social practice, therefore from human activity: the monotony of actions and of movements, imposed structures. (Lefebvre 2004, p.8)

Having re-purposing EDM as ‘experimental dance music’, I’m wondering how practices of rhythm abstraction modulate what Lefebvre describes as ‘linear rhythms’. These are structured institutionalised rhythms that one associates with work, transport schedules, school; how one organises time to meet deadlines, juggle commitments and other time-sensitive institutional pressures, with the social also being an institution. These rhythms run concurrently with ‘cyclical rhythms’ such as the setting and rising of the sun and the phases of the moon. Cyclical rhythms can expand out to cosmological proportions, can they also be perceived at the level of particles?

During this time of pandemic and while bracing for a Northern winter, I’ve been thinking to open a room in an online multiuser audio streaming platform; an EDM ‘club’ on SonoBus that is also open to sound clash and other kinds of interventions.

Naming the room ‘RUB’ is a joke of sorts, because it’s not physically possible to do so in such a space. RUB is a club with a no body policy — literally no bodies in the room — but you can take the club to your room and to your body. While this absent-presence might spark braindance-induced sonic fictions, it also emphasises sonic friction, given that physically gathering may be difficult during these times. As a room for deep bass explorations, beat psyence and riddim methodologies, RUB emphasises sound as a haptic sensation, as changes in air pressure vibrate the sensitive organs of our inner ear; sound pressure that scales up with volume.

Scheduling RUB on the night of the new moon, a ‘cyclical rhythm’ according to Lefebvre and the darkest night of the lunar phase cycle, situates a practice of abstracting rhythms within interacting rhythmic categories. Rather than selecting a regular day of the Gregorian calendar (eg the first Tuesday of each month as is fugitive frequency), RUB proposes to modulate the governance of patterns and habits that arise from them. It’s seemingly irregular placement (Wed 6 October, Thur 4 November, Sat 4 December in 2021) is akin to a ‘shifting one’ in music composition, where the stress or the accent of the beat moves (with repetition) over time. Will RUB synergise with or clash against other scheduled events? Will anyone listen? Would anyone intervene? Given that RUB will begin on the first new moon following the Autumn Equinox (22 Sept 2021), it seems fitting that it’s first season should run until the Spring Equinox (20 March 2022). I’m told timing is everything…

Theory On The Radio / Theory in the Mixxx

Vestax Spin

Last night I was listening to music, the way I used to when I was a child: lights off, sitting in front of the speakers and emotionally available to go with the sound… but now with high quality headphones that detect the fine production details. It made a significant difference to the music I usually only hear when I mix and I found myself listening to certain tracks by the Two Lone Swordsman, Jlin and Kode 9 several times over, fascinated by their subtle productions techniques; arguably listening with respect for the time and experience that went into their making.

This is very different to when I mix, which is intuitive. I often playing with tracks I haven’t listened to all the way through, teasing out their possibilities as they unfold. I suppose this is why ‘tracks’ are called ‘DJ tools’. I tend towards eclectic mixes. I don’t stick to genres, nor the latest releases. I’m not part of any scene, so I lack insider knowledge and don’t get sent anything exclusive. Also, I don’t mix regularly. I tell people I stopped more than a decade ago and the entry level Vestax controller I bought around that time is proof of it. (The company went bankrupt in 2014, which I only learned when I recovered my barely used Spin last year from storage).

I digress. After last night’s listening session I decided I would push these tracks to front of my ‘crate’ in Mixxx (free and open source) and shape my collection around them. I’ve noticed there is a lot of footwork in this folder, old and new. Today, I read some interviews with Jlin. Living in Gary, Indiana her early points of reference were footwork from Chicago, and she describes her sound as ‘EDM: Electronic Dance Music.’

I’ve been thinking about a notion of ‘riddim discursivity’. With reference to ‘urban dance music’ (UDM?), there is an established discourse about how certain looped samples laid the foundation for specific genres. Think of the ‘Funky Drummer’ in hip hop, the ‘Sleng Teng’ riddim in ragga, the ‘Amen Break’ in jungle, the ‘Volt Beat’ for funk carioca, reggaeton’s ‘Dem Bows’. I could happily spend hours (days, months, years) traveling down these wormholes, exploring the genealogies of such genres, but that’s not what I want to do right now. Notably, all of these genres emerged out of specific locals, often lower socio-economic enclaves of big cities — hip hop from the Bronx, New York; ragga from downtown Kingston, Jamaica; jungle, garage and grime from the estates of London; funk from Rio’s comunidades. With their unique histories and handful of pioneers these genres have since globalised and mutated. They have been opened up by a range of artists and production techniques and new/sub genres have emerged as music travels across peer-to-peer networks, blogs and file-sharing platforms; cross-infecting genres of bass.

So, I wonder what exactly is EDM? Most recorded music these days goes through some form of electronic, or more precisely, digital production. How does EDM differ from say, Electronica? It reminds me of IDM — ‘Intelligent Dance Music’. I don’t know where this term popped up. I vaguely recall reading an interview with Richard Devine in Cyclic Defrost, a zine associated with the weekly ‘Frigid’ nights organised by Sub Bass Snarl (Luke Dearnley and Seb Chan) in Sydney in the 1990s and early 2000s, that discussed IDM as a genre emerging as access to software, equipment and time became easier. It inferred some class dimension to this music. It probably encompassed producers such as Squarepusher and Autechre, to which I would add DJ Spooky, Matmos, Amon Tobin — I don’t know, who isn’t intelligent? Jace Clayton AKA DJ/Rupture used to describe himself as ‘the world’s smartest DJ’, or words to that effect. Richard D. James AKA Aphex Twin and Grant Wilson-Claridge, perhaps mischievously, named their label ‘Braindance’, to describe an electronic music movement and ‘way of life’ that: ‘encompasses the best elements of all genres’. Perhaps IDM simply announced a shift away from ‘four-on-the-floor’ rhythms into more ‘abstract’ styles of production that were not perceived to be so dance-floor friendly and better suited for headphone listening? IDM might also have signalled a delinking of production from geographically-locatable scenes, as music dispersed via networks rather than, say, record stores?

Anyhow, back to EDM. In a 2017 interview, Jlin discusses connecting online with the late DJ Rashad, regarded as one of the founders of footwork (a genre of urban dance music), when she started out as a producer. In a 2016 interview Jlin divulges that she hates clubbing and I began to wonder about her scene; who does she make music for? Jlin says her main sounding boards are her mother and best friend. Next I read an ‘up-to-the-time’ guide to footwork by Chicago-based producers RP Boo, Jana Rush, and DJ Manny and was surprised by their inclusion of tracks from producers based in Poland and Berlin.

While I’ve been collecting footwork and juke since before I withdrew as a DJ, the genre currently comprises much of a folder on my desktop labelled ‘Next Level’. Not all of the music gathered here is new, indeed tracks by the Two Lone Swordsmen date back to 1998. I’m enjoying the process of working out what stays in the mix, what gets culled and then figuring out what is missing — ‘curating my crate’, you might say.

I find that the music that remains is not necessarily music I like or that I feel ‘represents’ me or that I would listen to in another way — say, if I was going about some chores. Rather, what stays is music that I am curious to mix. Furthermore, with DJ software, the speed of a track — BPMs — need not necessarily govern what is most readily beat-matched. Pushing tracks well beyond their speeds (+/-24 is enough for me, but this range can easily be widened), opens up what is possible and introduces some novelty. While I know producers who have long designed their tracks to switch between tempos (80/160 BPM seems to be the footwork standard), lately I‘ve developed new respect for tracks that ‘connect’ between different genres.

Although I’ve a life-long fascination with rhythm, I’ve noticed that I habitually drop my interest in dance music (or any other genre), returning to it some years later, enthused to find ‘something new’. This pattern of behaviour is arguably a rhythm in itself. Another habit is to reach out to theory and then stumble into ways of doing theory that are not strictly academic. Hence, ‘Theory on the Radio / Theory in the Mixxx’ as the headline for this post and a description/prediction of how this ‘urban artistic-research’ project might evolve over the coming year/cycle.

I often find music by reading rather than listening; reading about producers, scenes and genres. Recently chatting to a friend and philosopher Bruno Besana, who sometimes collaborates with experimental musicians, he observed that music — and all art — is accompanied by a context or discourse that frames it, and that indicates what to be attentive to. But I’m also interested in what Kodwo Eshun termed ‘sonic fiction’, the interplay between close listening (or dancing or reading or looking or in other ways sensing), thought and the construction of narratives and concepts. Indeed, Eshun described himself as a ‘concept-engineer’ in his bio for More Brilliant than the Sun (1998) and this book alone is proof of how discourse can fold back to influence the music or whatever material that was initially being addressed, or diverge altogether into different fields. So, while I take pleasure in listening to finely detailed productions, I wouldn’t describe myself as an audiophile. Rather, I enjoy thinking with music, as a embodied process, recalling Kodwo Eshun observing his body reacting to jungle ‘faster than the speed of thought’. Another digression.

I write this in an attempt to articulate what I mean by pursuing an ‘eclectic sound’; a sound that connects to a broader, lifelong project about how to be in an ever-evolving present, marked by crises and inequality. Currently, I’m thinking with Sylvia Wynters’ urgings for specifically Black, colonially-oppressed and gendered people, to break from historical scriptings, and embrace invention [PDF]. Simultaneously, I’m thinking about Eshun’s speculation that the kinetic rhythms and forward pressure of jungle were somehow re-training or upgrading our bodily organs for what was to come. This is something that Steve Goodman AKA Kode9 picks up on in his book Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear (2010) in which he discusses (amongst other things) the ‘(sub)politics of frequency’ — by which the affective manipulation of sound (notably bass) is used to modulate the tensions of urban life, ‘transforming deeply engrained ambiences of fear or dread into other collective dispositions’ (p. xx). In a 2013 interview he says:

… for me, if the sound is right, then the politics are secondary. That is one of the key powers of music, to overload and short circuit people’s value systems and produce an intense encounter in which all other issues temporarily subside. It’s great where the music resonates with what you might think politically, but it’s not necessary, because the burden of political correctness can also be the ultimate vibe killer.

How can an eclectic sound might contribute to an effort to inhabit the world differently? Can alternative rhythms alter brain patterns and behaviours? What about communities who gather around these practices; might pursuing an ‘eclectic sound’ become ‘a way of life.’ A decade ago, my first point-of-reference as an eclectic selector was DJ/Rupture, these days it is Zíur who springs to mind.

It seems, mixing for me is a somewhat improvised, but no less habitual approach to elaborating on emancipatory impulses that are also ‘faster than the speed of thought’. Drives. So in this spirit of experimentation, this post concludes with some notes cribbed from last night’s listening session:

‘If Deejay was your trade’
and your job was to modulate bodies and time through sound — ‘vibes’;
emotions and energy,
push-and-pull people through rhythmic abstractions.
(You might)
manipulate the tick-tock passing of time and textures that trigger memory, nostalgia, fantasy and curiosity
dread
with speed and volume
(with or without chatter).
At best, a subjective experience transferred to others.
Find your niche and push it.

Karaoke Theory

Karaoke Theory

I argue that karaoke, the non-professional singing of popular songs as a social practice and entertainment, is a way of engaging with emotions in public and suggests the therapeutic potential of singing popular songs. Pop songs often capture a moment, ‘the feeling’ of an era and are a means of circulating ideas and experiences around the world, across cultures and over generations. By participating in karaoke, people identify with these songs and thus build a temporary sense of community and belonging.

By communally singing pop songs, we share history, thoughts, emotions, but for many there are still significant social inhibitions to overcome. Why is it so difficult to sing in public? How did singing become humiliating? Does karaoke’s performance of emotions betray a vulnerability that somehow carries across privilege; forcing a humility that reminds us of a shared precariousness. As Judith Butler (2009) insists, life is always interdependent.

After a recent voicing event I organised with the artist Suva Das in Helsinki, the filmmaker and performer Roxana Sadvo observed that singing is somewhat taboo in many western cultures, proposing that singing had ‘somehow been civilised out of us.’ All this makes me wonder about cultures who do sing — what do they know that we don’t? What are we missing out on? What is the power of song?

Nisha Ramayya (2019), a scholar of tantric poetics, writes that the Sanskrit the word for voice is vaac. Sanskrit was the ancient language of those born into the highest-caste of India’s tiered society. Amongst other things, young Brahmin boys would learn to recite mantras soon after they could speak; chants or songs capable of revealing higher truths and obtaining special powers. Ramayya claims that many people suspected that ‘speaking’ or language was only a small part of what the voice — vaac — could do, and that they were somehow being suppressed by language. Nevertheless India’s multiple spiritual traditions are evidence that ‘lower-caste’ people developed their own magical songs.

Karaoke Theory is an embodied practice that attempts to address this phenomenon. It attempts to a name a thing that is happening and that I argue goes beyond a mutual appreciation of consumable cultural products. Julian Henriques (2011), a theorist of Jamaican sound system culture notes the difference between listening to music on headphones and being in a dancehall ‘bashment’. In the former you put the music in you, in the latter you are in the sound. With Karaoke Theory, I seek to understand what happens when you put the song into you; allow the words to shape your body, the melody pass through you as you sway to its rhythm. When one becomes a vessel for the song, does it possess you?

Radio As Method

Kone Foundation Blog: Radio As Method

A short piece published on the Kone Foundation blog.

fugitive radio approaches radio as a network medium. Rather than a one-to-many broadcast model, with the privileged broadcaster sending out a signal to listeners who tune in from different locations, fugitive radio pursues radio as an event that is collectively produced and distributed across networks. ‘By many for many’, or more accurately, by a few with other like-minded enthusiasts. For me such radio is poetic, in this atomised era of pandemic when we are locked-down at home dependent on our devices for the vestiges of physically co-present social life.

More at the Kone Foundation.