By Nour Mobarak
Below is an edited transcript of a presentation by the artist Nour Mobarak on Allophone Movements, a composition and performance that makes use of recordings from the UCLA Phonetics Lab archive, followed by a conversation with Nikita Gale, Alexander Provan, and C. Spencer Yeh. Mobarak performed Allophone Movement III at the Hammer Museum as part of Omniaudience (Side Three) on June 19, 2019. (Click here to view a video documenting the performance.)
I’m going to talk about a body of work that I’ve been developing called Allophone Movements, which makes use of the UCLA Phonetics Lab archive. Allophone Movements is a performance built from the vocal material that forms human languages. I compose multiple tracks by collaging samples from the sounds of over two hundred languages that have been recorded and are archived by the Phonetics Lab. The relationship between the tracks is sometimes harmonic, sometimes dissonant. The sounds are separated into six individual channels, with each outputted on its own speaker. The speakers are positioned based on the architecture of the space. The installation can exist on its own, but is meant to be the foundation for a performance. While the multichannel composition is playing, I move through the space while singing, or, more specifically, while uttering allophones.
Allophones are speech sounds that represent a single phoneme. A phoneme is the constituent component of language. For instance, in the word hello, hell is a phoneme and oh is a phoneme. You put those together and you get a morpheme. Allophones are all the variations that happen within phonemes.
I want to clarify that I’m not approaching the archive as a linguist, nor as a critical race scholar, nor as a musicologist. However, all of these disciplines—and my interest in them as an artist—are, inevitably, evoked by the work. Allophone Movements is a project born from my interest in exploring the scope of the human voice as material, and the human body as its physical carrier. I’m interested in relating Allophone Movements to the work of musicologists like Nina Sun Eidsheim, who presented at the last installment of Omniaudience and wrote The Race of Sound (2019), which articulates many of the ideas I’ve had while listening to tracks from the phonetics archive. Eidsheim’s book explores the acousmatic question: acousmatic, as defined by electronic music pioneer Pierre Schaeffer, refers to a sound that one hears without seeing or knowing what causes the sound. Eidsheim’s book applies this question of naming what we hear in a recording to recordings of voices, which enables her to put into relief racist and objectifying aspects of recordings that equate particular characteristics of voices with particular kinds of people.
Eidsheim asserts that no voice is unique, and that the timbre of a voice is also a location of sociopolitical negotiations—both in the speaker and in the listener, who hears the voice. She then goes on to list three tenets: 1) the voice is not singular, but collective; 2) the voice is not innate, but cultural; 3) the source of the voice is not the singer, but the listener. On the third point, she goes on to say that singers are always also listening to themselves, shaping their voices within their own symbolic paradigms.
Regarding the Phonetics Lab archive, we can ask: what can we know about a language when we consider that the sound of a voice is not created solely by the speaker, but also by the listener—who, in hearing the voice, builds and applies an entire symbolic order around what the voice means? And who is the speaker who comes to act as the standard for the language being spoken? In the case of the Phonetics Lab archive, many of the recordings are from the 1950s and ’60s, and involve an interlocutor directing the speaker as to what to say.
Let’s listen to a recording of a southern !Kung person from the Kalahari desert speaking Ju|’hoan with an interlocutor. [Audio plays]
I hear the interlocutor’s voice in many samples. He speaks directly to the speakers, telling them what to say. My imagination of the interlocutor has to do with my own biases: I hear a white guy with a pith helmet. He’s blonde. He’s tall. He’s got a strong jaw. He’s educated and upper class. I have in mind a colonizer fetish figure. I’m predisposed to judging him and being angry at him, honestly. He’s directing the speakers, turning them into subjects, specimens. Of course, rationally, I know how to dismantle the stereotypes that inform my listening, but to do that I must be aware of how I imagine and create this human through listening to the voice.
After the interlocutor, we hear the speaker, who’s being asked to represent the Platonic idea of the Juǀʼhoan language. The archive provides no details about this person. He is simply the speaker of the language, who enables a collection to be built—and, later, made fully accessible online. Which is incredible, given the amount of data and the fact that so many languages are in danger of becoming extinct. The archive is a true treasure.
That said, in hearing these recordings, I wanted to mess with them, because they are artifacts of colonial subjugation, while also being reserves of traces of languages, which might counter the linguistic homogenization of our globalized world. I wanted to consider my own subjective position in relation to the voices as I listen to—and create—them. I’m a vocalist. I’ve been singing all my life. I’ve been insatiably listening to vocalists all my life. I took voice lessons and learned many different vocal techniques between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one. I’ve worked with my voice in many capacities: as a jazz singer in retirement homes; as a singer of Italian arias; as a home recording artist; as a singer in choirs and in various bands. Since I was eighteen, I’ve played music as an experimental and improvisational vocalist, attempting to find as many new sounds as I could with my voice. I also write and read poetry, so I’ve done a lot of poetry readings and used my voice in that capacity. I’ve also been trained as a voiceover artist, as a narrator; I’ve worked as a commercial voice actor and recorded narrations for artworks by other artists. The voice actor profession, by the way, is built on capitalizing on ridiculous vocal stereotypes: you become marketable as a “sexy”, “sophisticated”, or “urban” voice, and those categories are built on ideas about the relationship between voices and bodies that are gendered, classist, and racist.
I’m a Lebanese immigrant, and I’ve spent much of my life traveling, listening to different languages, most of which I could not understand. My father spoke four languages fluently and more than four additional languages rudimentarily when I was growing up. Since I was a teenager, he’s had a disease which has limited his memory to thirty seconds. He can still speak and translate all of his learned languages. However, for the past fifteen years, my relationship with him has been based on playing language games, or on using our voices to do interlingual—or even extralingual—call and response. This may be more than you care to know about me. But I think it’s important to establish who I am, subjectively, as a listener when I’m singing along to the archive.
My position as a vocalist and an immigrant plays a major role in sculpting my perceptions of the people whose voices I hear. The work I’m doing is a proposal for a way of listening to these archives, a way of working with these sounds. I’m decontextualizing the phonemes and the allophones; I choose the languages semi-randomly and use the recordings to explore the potential of the human voice as material and vibration. Of course, it’s a complete myth that any race is predisposed to sound any particular way; the sounds we make with our voices have to do with techniques and styles that we are conditioned to use. We listen to ourselves when we speak. We learn to speak within frameworks of power. We police ourselves; others listen to us and create our voices based on their own and cultures and assumptions. As Eidsheim writes: “It is both the curse and the beauty of the collective process that, through listening, we can either reinforce or refuse to engage naturalized notions and values. Listening is not a neutral assessment of degrees of fidelity but instead is always already a critical performance—that is, a political act.”
Much of my composition is shaped randomly and visually, because of the sheer amount of data: I often pick sound waves that look visually clear or dynamic, then enter them into the timeline of the composition. I listen and shape as I go, and I often make choices based on what I find pleasurable. Then I improvise, with my voice and body, when I perform, in response to the space and the voices on the six speakers; I’m acting as an active listener as I compose and perform.
What does it mean to use such an imperfect archive? The Phonetics Lab archive cans voices, using imperial methodologies that have been employed to locate, nominate, and categorize speakers from around the world. It’s also an incredible resource of vocal sounds. In my work, I’m trying to undermine the intended use in order to explore the multiplicity of voices that might be possessed or constructed by anyone. As Eidsheim writes, “Neither speakers nor singers use the entire range of their voices’ infinite timbral potentialities.”
Eidsheim argues that no one has a unique voice, and that timbre is based on sociopolitical factors. I’m interested in the voice as a way of accessing irrational impulses, touching parts of my body that are otherwise repressed. But I don’t believe in the idea that everybody’s voice is transcendent, beautiful, or unique. I think that training and listening to the voice can, however, change how people communicate, how they understand each other and themselves.
Nikita GaleThere’s this notion of the archive as illustrating how a system listens, or how an institution listens, which has to do with the interlocutor directing the speakers. Is UCLA the steward of the archive or is the lab actively collecting the data?
MobarakA huge amount of the recordings were made by a few people in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. And now people in Los Angeles are making recordings of different languages. But, otherwise, I don’t know very much about how the archive was built.
GaleThe collection seems to be about the listener as much as the speaker. Which makes the archive seem less messed up, inasmuch as it’s constantly being recreated based who’s listening.
Alexander ProvanWas the archive ever used to train speech recognition software, or to provide a corpus for that kind of software? That tends to be the case for a lot of similar collections of recordings of different speakers, or different kinds of speech, especially when the focus is phonemes. The phoneme is the constituent element of language, so it’s also often used to break down speech quantitatively and train software to understand language as voiced by a variety of speakers. Corpuses created for this purpose often include specific dialects tied to region and race. And with the corpuses created in the U.S. in the 1950s and ’60s, for instance, Midwestern white people were disproportionately represented. (In comparison, the Phonetics Lab archive is really wide-ranging, but lacks depth in any particular area of speech.) Many of the technologies that we currently use for voice and speech recognition are built from such corpuses.
The disproportionate representation of certain kinds of speech and the speaker has benefits and drawbacks: the result is that some people are more legible to these technologies and some are less legible. Now, of course, researchers are getting more and more data about more and more speakers, which is enabling those speakers to be identified—and have their identities marked as associated with these kinds of speech. How does this connection between voice and identity connect with your work? (We’ve already discussed the question—I even sent you an article—so this exchange is highly staged.)
GaleWell, you know, Alex, it’s funny that you mention this! In fact, I created a video work that relates to the question! [Laughter] I started with a sound file—a super cut of performers, mostly hip-hop performers, saying “uh.” It wasn’t language, but a vocalization that marked space, or located the voice in the song, signaled presence. The accompanying videos featured vast depictions of landscapes without people in them.
ProvanAs a speaker, you identify as a DR8 Army Brat, right?
Gale[Laughter] Yeah. In the Triple Canopy article you sent, Timothy Leonido describes the categorization of speakers based on regional dialects. One of them was DR8 Army Brat. My dad was in the military, so we moved around a lot; I never picked up a specific accent.
MobarakNikita, this makes me think of your work with the Tina Turner song “River Deep—Mountain High,” produced by Phil Spector. Your performance deals with the role of the studio—and of Spector—in masking or overpowering the vocal performance, which becomes a technological feature of the production. I’ve been thinking about the forms of erasure or silencing that are enacted through these processes, which exclude or suppress the qualities of certain types of voices.
ProvanAnd that means certain voices are or aren’t able to be heard by an audience as representing a specific identity—which means reducing them to a category but also enabling them to be heard in different ways by different listeners.
MobarakYeah, absolutely. And that helps to explain why Turner’s song didn’t do well in the U.S. but was a hit in Britain.
C. Spencer YehWhen you were talking about speech recognition, I was thinking about how selfies that use face filters enable companies to harvest your face as data. So many technologies that supposedly exist for the pleasure of the consumer actually exploit the user as a human battery, you know? In terms of the voice, you become less legible—your voice becomes harder to extract as data—if you can’t be placed or identified. I was talking about this with an Iranian friend who lived in Sweden but doesn’t really have an accent when she speaks Swedish, and has a fairly unique accent when she speaks English. Her experience of migration has marked her, but not in a way that’s easily categorizable. And she couldn’t have trained herself to speak the way she speaks, right?
MobarakI wish there were a linguist here to talk about current methodologies in postcolonial or critical race analysis of voices and their modulation, objectification, etc. Anyone? If not, we might have to save that question for next time.
ProvanAll of these devices and technologies that track how we listen, where we listen, when we listen, etc., are also about the embodiment involved in listening. It’s not so simple as breaking down the components of speech into phonemes and assigning certain numeric values to them. It’s how relationships and moods govern interactions with songs, for instance. As Spencer points out, the ways in which we speak and listen are fundamentally connected to embodied experience, and the goal for these technologies must be to crack that code.
MobarakWhen I found this archive, it was really exciting to me because I spend a lot of time figuring out what my voice and my mouth can do. I started using that experimentation as a basis for performance, rather than listening to, you know, Joan La Barbara or Meredith Monk. When I’m listening to the archival recordings, I’m trying to stage a dialectical encounter; I’m trying to do whatever I can to avoid mimicking what I hear. I’m experimenting with creating a voice and an accent that comes from being a conscious listener.
The Sound of Getting Out
By Harmony Holiday and Lynnée Denise
What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation between Harmony Holiday and Lynnée Denise at Coaxial Arts as part of Omniaudience (Side Two) on May 5, 2019. Denise, an artist, scholar, and producer, presented a multimedia essay that employed recordings of interviews and performances to portray the experiences of Black artists in the music industry, which she identified as an economic institution that emerges from chattel slavery; Holiday, a dancer, writer, and archivist, spoke about traditions of collective improvisation and diasporic gathering, and read from an essay for Triple Canopy on Black silence. (Click here to read the essay, “The Black Catatonic Scream,” and here to listen to a conversation between Holiday and Ben Ratliff at Black Hauntology, a listening session at Triple Canopy on October 30, 2019.)
Harmony HolidayI grew up hearing my dad, a soul singer, screaming and singing the songs he wrote for other people. But there was another side to him, like with Thelonious Monk, like with a lot of Black performers. We don’t think about their private lives, because we have the luxury of not having to, but I didn't grow up with that luxury. I always had to think about the consciousness behind the performance, and some performers are really driven mad—not in a figurative sense. This has always been on my mind when I see Black people in the public eye.
I don’t think we’ve necessarily addressed the code switching that happens: we’re taught to show pain in a way that’s so performative, as if to get people off our backs. In the essay I’m working on for Triple Canopy, I write about catatonia, and about the acoustics of the slave ship. There had to be periods of complete silence. We can’t scream for so many months on end.
Lynnée DeniseInteresting. First of all, I’m grateful that we are two Black women talking about jazz and music. That’s something that I’ve longed to see for years. A lot of times I feel that jazz is a male discourse.
DeniseThere are a lot of silenced voices—silenced Black women, musicologists, and writers. And that makes me feel a sense of camaraderie. That said, I’m so glad that you brought up Amiri Baraka: because he’s inspired me to take ownership over the writing of Black music. There are so many white people writing about black music, which makes discussion less nuanced, less likely to deal with the interior lives of Black people. And so I appreciate the effort to engage with Black musicians beyond the stage, and to think about the patterns that we’ve witnessed in their lives. For instance, I think it’s absolutely, amazingly sad that Whitney Houston and Bobbi Kristina Brown died in bathtubs. The deaths are so traumatic that we don’t know how to talk about them. The two documentaries about Houston’s life are told largely through the lens of white men who are fixated on the addiction, and they aren’t pushing a healthy conversation about addiction as socially induced, as a response to patriarchy and white supremacy.
I think it’s important for us to be writing books like A Jazz Funeral for Uncle Tom, and to be taking ownership of these stories—or to be writing with white people who are committed to doing that work, to humanizing these stories and not presenting them in a sensational mode, not packaging them for American movies.
HolidayThis goes back to Fred Moten’s take on Marx’s idea about commodities that speak, which he writes about in In the Break (2003). Marx says that commodities only appear to speak, but Moten argues that recordings of Black music do speak: they carry traces of speech that can’t be reduced to the value of the commodity. These commodities can’t speak in the same way to white audiences, if what they’re speaking about is Black power. So they cause a sense of exclusion. But how do you commodify a message of Black power and not alienate the purchasing audience?
DeniseAnd not alienate the purchasing audience. Hold on! [Laughter] Let’s sit with that for a moment. [Laughter] That is powerful! The role of improvisation is key: earlier, you said you were listening to an interview with Fred Moten where he talked about improvisation as preparation for the unforeseen, and about jazz as rooted in improvisation.
HolidayExactly. He’s talked about this in relation to “fugitivity,” too. He’s all about running away. The question related to sound is: what are the acoustics of getting the hell out of here? [Laughter] How is that going to sound?
DeniseVery true. What is the sound of getting the fuck out of here? [Laughter] That’s actually—that’s the sound right there. [Laughter]
HolidayYeah, and how can that sound? It’s weird how, with capitalism—or whatever the hell we want to call it—that sound can be brought back into the state as the music of the ambassador, you know? Then you have people doing jazz tours in Russia, playing at the embassy.
DeniseIt’s true! The American jazz ambassadors of the 1960s.
HolidayAnd what don’t people talk about because of that impression of the music? Not giving people the whole story can act as a form of protection, but I’m not sure to what degree that’s really been the case with Black performers. Silence is a privilege, I guess.
DeniseWell, you can dig into the context; you can find the stories of the people behind the image on the album by reading the liner notes. Baraka taught me to be a student of liner notes.
HolidayA lot of Black theorists and musicians never really went to school: they were reading the liner notes in albums since they were ten.
DeniseFor sure. And Prince’s 1999—trying to decode the symbols. [Laughter]
HolidayYeah. And Marvin Gaye!
DeniseMarvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? Or Midnight Love? That album is radically different because of Gaye’s relationship to the synthesizer. He’d gone to Europe and he was in quiet spaces, holding on to his sobriety, sitting in front of a synthesizer. The musicians on What’s Going On? were hardcore Motown session players. Gaye goes from that to an 808 drum machine on “Sexual Healing.” I often think about the role of electronic music beyond house, techno, and hip-hop: these older, veteran musicians, including Herbie Hancock, were really pushing the technology forward.
AudienceHarmony, what about being a performer pushed your father to the edge? Who was he performing for?
HolidayLos Angeles drives a lot of people crazy or kills them. He would have died if he’d stayed. He came to LA after being a sharecropper; he was literally dirt poor, as in living off the dirt, and then he came to LA and had success and money. That meant he had to perform all the time. And he played a specific role: He did A&R for United Artists Records for a while, and without having a formal education he crossed over. I started thinking about catatonia in part because he never learned to write: I have notes from him where he’s trying to write my name and he can’t. He was a songwriter, though, and one of the few Black musicians in his era who got credit for his songs. He did that by being very vocal in the white world—and navigating the world of white women. The singer Jackie DeShannon worked with him on one of his bigger songs, and he got credit by having this woman fall in love with him and write everything down for him. Point blank. [Laughter]
My mom ended up playing the same role. But then he moved back to Iowa, and I think he got to play both roles, which was confusing. He stopped taking his meds and the manic part of him came back—the part of him that had gotten him through his time in LA but had also been triggered by LA. He was trying to bring his two identities together in a way that never really worked, I guess. You can’t, once you’ve been fragmented. Think about what these Black performers have seen and what they’re expected to do on stage. Think about Billie Holiday being grabbed by her hair on the bus, then being expected to go and sing love songs for white people. What the hell, you know? The people I respect the most are the ones who went crazy, like Nina Simone, who finally said, “Fuck it. Yeah, I tried to kill this guy.” [Laughter] You have to go crazy to be honest in that position.
AudienceThere’s something strange that happens when you put these songs to paper, when you codify the energy, feeling, and gestures—and when you turn the performance into a recording that’s contracted to a record company. What happens when the performance becomes scripted—an effort to capture the emotional energy that characterizes the unscripted performance?
HolidayYeah, I think a lot of performers from my dad’s era were liberated by their lack of education and indoctrination. I feel like my dad was freer than I am with language, because he didn’t have all this junk in his head. He said what he meant. I was thinking about this the other day because I’ve been trying to get through the syllabus for a class that Sun Ra taught at Berkeley in 1971: The Black Man in the Cosmos. One of the books, The Loom of Language (1943), is a guide to mastering many languages. The book starts with a chapter on the origins of the alphabet, which talks about how literate cultures always made fun of preliterate cultures, but the preliterate cultures were always able to do more interesting things with the language: they could be more inventive because they didn’t have a sense of what they were and weren’t supposed to do. That’s what my dad and a lot of songwriters were doing, I think. I always ask myself if I could write songs. Songs are so hard to write! But we don’t think about why, especially when we think about soul songs, the kind of songs that James Brown wrote. Brown talks about not having any point of reference, about having to do what he felt.
AudienceDo you have any fear of what you listen to or read exerting too much influence on you, or having a narcotic effect? Are you afraid of having too many points of reference, of losing the sense of not knowing?
HolidayWell, my archive is in defiance of what’s written down. I’m trying to archive the oratory, the spoken words that never get transcribed, like Amiri Baraka’s LPs. So maybe that’s a way of getting around the anxiety. I’m definitely superstitious about going down the wrong path: I won’t read something that I think is bullshit; I’m not going to be convinced by something that my soul doesn’t vibe with, you know?
A few years ago, I got really into finding records of speech, like Henry Dumas talking to Sun Ra, poetry being recited on LPs, Joseph Jarman’s self-published books of poems—people having conversations and forming theories outside of the typical channels. People were doing this work without even trying to submit to a commercial publisher. Actually, Sun Ra submitted to a commercial publisher and got a response saying that his writing was like an alien language, and he was happy about that! [Laughter]
I’ve been furiously buying every record with liner notes by Baraka for a book—which we should edit together! I’m on the cause every day: if you don’t give me this record … that’s it. [Laughter] I want to archive that work without having to bow down to the structures of Western publishing, without having to be so grandiose, without having to make a huge anthology that includes everything that has ever meant anything in a particular tradition. We don’t have to choose between that kind of visibility and invisibility. I think the archive helps us to think of alternatives to silence.
AudienceI really appreciate your thoughts on silence, and I’m thinking of the loudness of, for instance, the noise scene, which is mostly composed of straight white men screaming, imposing silence on others.
HolidayI’ve never really thought about those guys, so I don’t feel like they’re silencing me. [Laughter]
DeniseThat’s my answer, too. [Laughter]
HolidayI mean, I’m glad you’re bringing this up, but … ain’t nobody got time for that. [Laughter]
DeniseThat’s the answer!
HolidayI don’t mean to be dismissive. Screaming is important! I guess I’m grateful I haven’t been obstructed, I’m not like, “These white guys are screaming, so there’s no room for me to speak; I can’t even talk about screaming.”
DeniseI’ve experienced something like this in terms of Africa, technology, and music. I felt like I was blocked because I had a conventional way of thinking about electronic music, which was really limiting.
But then I traveled to South Africa in 2001, and I went to a party where I heard what sounded like house music, but much slower. I found out that I was hearing Kwaito music, which piqued my curiosity. I started to research electronic music in post-apartheid South Africa. I thought about certain themes in the same way that I’d think about mixtapes: I made a mixtape called Funk, Faith and Praise, which is composed of songs that have to do with the Black church, addiction, and the “ghetto.” I began to relate everything to questions around Black music, about the social and cultural context.
I started to go into classrooms and try to inspire young people to ask questions about the music that they listen to, and I came up with the notion of DJ scholarship, which considers four cultural practices. The first cultural practice is chasing samples, and thinking about that as a form of research, thinking about hip-hop as a repository. Hip-hop is an archive that, through sampling, introduced me to Kate Bush, Led Zeppelin, and Bach, thanks to the producers and DJs digging through crates. That’s the second cultural practice: digging through the crates, finding sound objects, extracting musical moments that inspire questions about the time in which the record was made. I was like, “Wait, who are the Beatles? What was happening in Liverpool at the time? What was the relationship between the Black soldiers that were sent to Liverpool and the city’s port, a hub of the triangle trade? What’s the relationship between bluesmen in the United States and the ports of Liverpool, Bristol, and London?” Digging through the crates is a metaphor for investigation.
The third and fourth practices have to do with albums: liner notes and album art. I think of liner notes as a subversive space where Black people can assert ourselves and meaningfully frame our music. I think of album art as alternative visual history that’s been provided to Black people like me. At the same time, the cover of an album can be highly political, right? For years, Black musicians weren’t allowed to appear on the covers of their albums. Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin were encouraged to hide their pregnancies in photos for album covers. And then there’s sexuality: when I was twelve, I asked my mom, “Why is Prince naked on a horse? And can I be with him?” Or, “Why are Wendy & Lisa in the bathtub? Can I join them?” [Laughter]
Obviously, I’m also thinking about how these cultural practices created a space for me to be queer. Black music is queer. Black people are queer in this peculiar, alien world. I’ve used DJ scholarship as a tool to think about electronic music in the African diaspora, about house music as the soundtrack for the Black bodies that were disappeared in the 1980s because of AIDS, crack, and the war on drugs. We’re used to thinking about Black music as a form of escape: there’s the image of Black folks throwing their hands into the air on the dance floor, closing their eyes, collectively surrendering. But that’s not because the music is entertainment; there’s a thesis, a theoretical framework. My thinking has been shaped by the work of people like Clyde Woods, who wrote about the “blues epistemology” of poor Black people in the Mississippi Delta, and Sarah Haley, who writes about the history of resistance and sabotage by Black prisoners. I’m interested in sonic sabotage, in resistance through DJing.
I no longer DJ, actually. I got too depressed about the culture, the addiction to familiarity. I stopped after one too many Bruno Mars requests. I was like, “That’s the last time. I’m done. I can’t. I’m not a jukebox.” [Laughter] I needed something deeper and more meaningful, something that would allow me to talk about Black death and Black brilliance with care. So that’s what I’m doing.
What are the settings in which speech and sound can be heard and have a meaningful effect? How has our ability to listen changed with the development of new technologies for synthesizing, transmitting, capturing, and quantifying expressions? Instead of valorizing the assertion of individuality through speech (which now is so likely to be mediated, mined, and commodified), how can we listen in ways that make us more receptive to one another and ensure that a plurality of voices can be heard? When and why might we reject this ideal and refuse to make ourselves available or open to others (or to the systems that feed on our expressions)?
Triple Canopy addresses these questions in Omniaudience, which emerges from the magazine’s 2018–19 Public Engagement residency at the Hammer Museum and is organized with the Los Angeles–based artist Nikita Gale. Omniaudience refers to the faculty of hearing and comprehending everything, but might also name a congregation of listeners who possess, or strive to attain, this faculty. The first installment of Omniaudience occurred in December 2018; the second installment is a progression of listening sessions, presentations, performances, and discussions at the Hammer Museum and Coaxial Arts, with contributions by Lynnée Denise, Nikita Gale, Harmony Holiday, Nour Mobarak, Alexander Provan, and C. Spencer Yeh. (Subsequent installments in Los Angeles will occur in June and in the fall, along with related events in New York City and elsewhere.)
Omniaudience at the Hammer Museum
With Nikita Gale, Alexander Provan, C Spencer Yeh & Nour Mobarak
Saturday, May 4, 1:30–5 p.m.
Nikita Gale will facilitate a listening session devoted to the creation, distribution, and reception of “River Deep, Mountain High,” which was produced by Phil Spector and performed by Tina Turner. More generally, Gale will ask how audio engineers manipulate performances and recordings in order to mold the identities of artists and cultivate (or target) audiences. Alexander Provan will deliver a lecture, illustrated with chart-toppers, on the use of consumer-behavior data and neurobiology research in the production of pop songs that are guaranteed to be pleasing to as many listeners as possible (and to avoid confronting listeners with songs that they haven’t already been conditioned to like). C. Spencer Yeh will present a live quadraphonic performance of material from The RCA Mark II (Primary Information, 2017), which is composed of recordings of non-musical sounds created with the eponymous, sixty-year-old synthesizer—an avant-garde icon, now in disrepair. Yeh eschews the signature tones of the synth in favor of live recordings of mechanical parts clicking and whirring; he demystifies the technology and confronts the legacy of rarefied electronic music. Nour Mobarak will speak about the vocalization of sound and phonetics in relation to her recent work, which employs recordings of utterances from dozens of languages made by the UCLA Phonetics Lab Archive. Then she’ll be joined in conversation by Gale, Provan, and Yeh, who’ll ask how recordings of human voices quantify and categorize speakers—and how the components of language might, alternatively, be experienced as indeterminate sonic materials.
Omniaudience at Coaxial Arts
With Lynnée Denise & Harmony Holiday
Sunday, May 5, 6–8 p.m.
1815 S. Main St.
Lynnée Denise will present a multimedia essay that employs recordings of interviews and performances to portray the experiences of black artists in the music industry, which she identifies as an economic institution that emerges from chattel slavery. Denise will ask how the pervasive narratives of fame, addiction, and financial exploitation minimize the ability of black artists to benefit from their labor and intellectual property. Harmony Holiday will listen with the audience to neglected musical recordings that manifest traditions of collective improvisation and diasporic gathering.
Triple Canopy’s focus on listening—or hearing with intent—is tied to a long-standing concern with the modes of distracted viewing and reading that proliferate online, and that characterize the attention economy. The magazine’s residency at the Hammer Museum is a cornerstone of Two Ears and One Mouth, a forthcoming issue that addresses how we speak and listen and who has the right and capacity to be heard. (The other is “Parts of Speech,” an exhibition on public speech, organized with Public Fiction and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, that hinges on a series of experimental lectures.)
Triple Canopy’s Public Engagement residency at the Hammer Museum is organized by Anne Ellegood, senior curator, with Nika Chilewich, curatorial assistant. Triple Canopy’s public programs receive support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, the Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Opaline Fund of the Jewish Community Endowment Federation and Endowment Fund.
- Lynnée Denise is an artist, scholar, and producer whose work reflects on underground cultural movements, the 1980s, migration studies, theories of escape, and electronic music of the African diaspora. Denise understands DJing as a research method and strategy for employing music to foster public dialogue; she coined the phrase “DJ scholarship” to shift the role of the DJ from a party purveyor to an archivist and cultural custodian of music with critical value. Her writing has been published by the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Black Scholar Journal, the Journal of Popular Music Studies, and in anthologies including Women Who Rock and Outside the XY: Queer, Black, and Brown Masculinity. She has produced conferences on Michael Jackson with the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, on Prince with the Los Angeles Public Library, and on Aretha Franklin with UCLA’s Department of African-American Studies.
- Nikita Gale is an artist who lives in Los Angeles. Gale received an MFA in new genres at University of California, Los Angeles, in 2016. By engaging with materials that have properties that are simultaneously acoustic and protective, Gale examines the ways in which silence and noise function as political positions and conditions. Gale's work has recently been presented at the California African American Museum (Los Angeles) MoMA PS1 (New York), LACE (Los Angeles), the Visual Arts Center at the University of Texas at Austin, 56 Henry (New York), the Bemis Center (Omaha), Commonwealth and Council (Los Angeles), the Studio Museum in Harlem (New York), Rodeo Gallery (London), Martos Gallery (New York), and in “Made in L.A.” at the Hammer Museum (Los Angeles). Gale’s work has been published or featured in the New York Times, Texte zur Kunst, Artforum, Art in America, Frieze, Vogue, and Flash Art, among other publications. Gale currently serves on the Board of Directors for GREX, the West Coast affiliate of the A. K. Rice Institute for the Study of Social Systems.
- Harmony Holiday is a writer, dancer, and archivist. She’s the author of A Jazz Funeral for Uncle Tom (2019); Hollywood Forever (Fence Books, 2016); Go Find Your Father/A Famous Blues (Ricochet Editions, 2014); Negro League Baseball (Fence Books, 2011); and The Black Saint and the Sinnerman, an LP composed of sound and speech that assimilates Charles Mingus’s classic 1963 album. She runs Afrosonics, an archive of jazz and everyday diaspora poetics, and Mythscience, an imprint that reissues work from the archive. She is currently working on a book of poems called M a a f a and an accompanying collection of essays and memoirs, Reparations: Thieves Who Stole My Blue Days, as well as a biography of the jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. She has received the Motherwell Prize from Fence Books and the Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a fellowship from New York Foundation for the Arts, and a fellowship from the Schomburg Center Scholars-in-Residence Program.
- Nour Mobarak is an artist who excavates violence and desire—the compulsions and glitches that exist in both people and nation-states. She works with voice, sculpture, sound, performance, writing, and video. She has performed at the Hammer Museum (Los Angeles); LAXART (Los Angeles); Miguel Abreu Gallery (New York); Stadslimeit (Antwerp); Cambridge University (Cambridge); and the Getty Museum (Los Angeles), among other venues. Mobarak has published poems in journals such as F. R. David, the Claudius App, and the Salzburg Review. She has participated in exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art (San Diego); Miguel Abreu Gallery; LAXART; Cubitt Gallery (London); and Rodeo Gallery (London). In 2019, she released the album Father Fugue (Recital Program).
- Alexander Provan is the editor of Triple Canopy and a contributing editor of Bidoun. He is the recipient of a 2015 Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and was a 2013–15 fellow at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics. His writing has appeared in the Nation, n+1, Art in America, Artforum, Frieze, and in several exhibition catalogues. His work has been presented at the 14th Istanbul Biennial, Museum Tinguely (Basel), 12th Bienal de Cuenca (Ecuador), New Museum (New York), Kunsthall Oslo, and Hessel Museum of Art (Annandale-on-Hudson, New York), among other venues. Measuring Device with Organs was recently published by Triple Canopy as an LP.
- C. Spencer Yeh is an artist, improviser, composer. He is widely recognized for his interdisciplinary activities and collaborations as well his musical project Burning Star Core. His video works are distributed by Electronic Arts Intermix. Yeh is a Triple Canopy senior editor and media producer editor, a contributing editor of BOMB, and a programmer and trailer editor at Spectacle Theater, a microcinema in Brooklyn. Yeh's work has recently been exhibited and presented at Empty Gallery (Hong Kong), the Whitney Museum (New York City), the Museum of Modern Art (New York City), MoMA PS1 (New York City), the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis), the Rubin Museum (New York City), MOCA Cleveland, the 2014 Liverpool Biennial, the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival, Atelier Nord/Ultima Festival (Oslo), D-CAF (Cairo), the Renaissance Society (Chicago), and the Museum of Chinese in America (New York City), as part of "The Moon Represents My Heart: Music, Memory, and Belonging." Yeh was a recipient of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists award in 2019 and an artist-in-residence at ISSUE Project Room (New York City) in 2015. Recent recordings include Solo Voice I–X and The RCA Mark II, both published by Primary Information.