I’ve contributed a chapter to the newly published Routledge Companion to Popular Music History and Heritage, edited by Sarah Baker, Catherine Strong, Lauren Istvandity and Zelmarie Cantillon. My chapter is entitled ‘Sounding Out Popular Music HIstory: A Musicological Approach’.
SUMMARY: While the relationship between musicology and history has shifted considerably over time, the importance of each discipline to the other remains vital. This chapter argues for a way of doing popular music history that proceeds from and reflects on musical objects, specifically sound recordings. Recordings, it is argued, afford unique insights into the popular past while constantly posing questions relevant to the present. As objects with particular roots and multiple routes, recordings encourage critical reflection on time and distance in the mediation and remediation of musics from other places and eras. In order to illustrate this, the chapter presents three strands of historical practice related to popular music and sound recording. One strand examines recordings of the past as ways of illustrating broader scholarly concerns such as nation, empire and postcolonial struggle. A second engages with phonography, posing questions about fidelity, authenticity and representation. The creative practice of those involved with phonographic archaeology – crate diggers, collectors, DJs, producers, compilers and reissue labels – constitutes a third strand, which may welcome or reject historical musicology yet which still offers a way of doing history sonically. After discussing these strands, I reflect on the role of storytelling in musicological work.
I’ll be presenting my current research at the Rethinking Sound conference in Seoul later this week. My current project explores the materiality of song and the relationship between songs and objects. As this is a sound studies conference, I’m using this paper to think about how my project intersects wtih the theories of Pierre Schaeffer and those influenced by his work on acousmatic listening, sound objects and the ‘thingness of sound‘.
The second half of the paper is taken up by a discussion of Björk and the ways her music gets connected to objects of various kinds: natural, technologcal, human, nonhuman, viral, meteorological. I’d already been planning to include references to the work of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Jlin, so I was delighted to learn last week about the new remix that Jlin has made of Björk’s ‘Arisen My Senses’. I love the way she makes it almost unrecognisable (as a Björk song, that is: it’s very recognisable as a Jlin song) while still retaining important aspects of the original vocal timbre. Jlin’s remix is the second on the Spotify playlist below; the original can be heard on last year’s Utopia.
My absract for the conference:
Recent years have witnessed an intense interest in the roles played by objects in the world, with many approaches recognising the vital interdependence of human and non-human actors. My current research aims to establish the importance of music (and sound more broadly) in this new terrain of scholarship by analysing how songs represent objects, how songs themselves become meaningful objects and how songs rely on a wide range of ever-changing objects to assure their survival. Using the connecting thread of materiality, I propose an approach to musical analysis that both connects with recent object-centred scholarship and overcomes existing musicological distinctions between music as thing and music as process.
This paper presents an analysis of the ‘song object’, a concept crucial to my research and which has connections to earlier theories of lyric substance as well as to Pierre Schaeffer’s objet sonore (sound object). What constitutes the song object? What kind of object is it? How do songs themselves comment on their construction, their parts, their physicality? I argue that songs are a particular kind of technology for ordering information and that they deploy particular technologies of object orientation in ways distinct from, but comparable to, those of paintings, sculptures, poems and books. Part of my analysis therefore consists of exploring material descriptors and metaphors connected to song, incorporating the artificial (hooks, bridges, etc.) and the natural (cells, viruses, weather systems). I’m interested in what these terms – and their application to song objects – can tell us about the materiality of sound.
I will be presenting a paper at the 18th biennial IASPM conference in Campinas, Brazil, on 30 June. My paper is entitled ‘Excavating “Coimbra”: Genealogy, Nostalgia, and the Material Life of a Portuguese popular song’ and the abstract is below.
This paper uses the story of a particular song, the Portuguese fado ‘Coimbra’, as a way of exploring the relationship between representational distance, ‘prescribed’ or ‘instant’ nostalgia and history. ‘Coimbra’ began its life as a musical representation of a city but later became, as ‘April in Portugal’, an international representation of a country and of a more general sense of nostalgic longing. Telling this story chronologically will encourage a focus on the twists, turns and mutations that occur during the life of a much-performed song, tracing in particular the way in which this song’s inherent representational distance grows into ever more distanced , displaced and distorted configurations. This journey will travel from Portugal to Brazil, from France to the USA, as well as many points in between. The second part of the paper reverses this historical chronology by focusing on the chronology of the research process, on the unearthing, excavation and genealogic processes involved in historical song studies. What can be understood from having all of these ‘Coimbras’ available to us, not least on digital platforms such as Spotify, YouTube and iTunes? Here, notions of the archive, of media archaeology and of the material life of music become paramount and impact on the questions of nostalgia and temporal displacement with which this panel is engaged.
My article ‘Time and Distance Are No Object: Holiday Records, Representation and the Nostalgia Gap’ has been published in the French popular music journal Volume! in an issue devoted to popular music and nostalgia.
ABSTRACT: Whether temporally or spatially focussed, nostalgia results from a division between what is longed for and the moment of longing. This article examines this ‘nostalgia gap’ alongside the analogous gap found in representation. The relationship is highlighted via an analysis of ‘holiday records’, a genre of recordings that became prevalent in the 1960s. The genre intersects with the more familiar genres of exotica, mood music, easy listening and ambient, but is distinguished by its emphasis on a particular form of spatial reminiscence and imagination. Using the example of ‘April in Portugal’, a song that started life as a Portuguese fado and subsequently became an international hit and mood music staple, I address a set of questions that illustrate the nostalgia gap. What is being remembered or imagined in the song? Can we distinguish between described and prescribed nostalgia? How is saudade, the specifically Portuguese ‘grammar of nostalgia’, related to nostalgic languages found on other holiday records?
More information here and here.
I will be presenting a paper at the upcoming conference One Century of Record Labels (Newcastle University, 6-7 November 2014). My paper is entitled ‘The Lure of Ephemera: ‘Record Labels as Visual and Textual Icons’ and the abstract is below.
While there is a growing body of work focussed on record labels, much of it tends to equate ‘label’ with ‘company’ and to focus on the history of particular companies, the musicians, producers and ‘house styles’ associated with them, or the relationship between different companies. Other work has highlighted the design aesthetics associated with particular companies by presenting often lavish illustrated books that dwell on design classics (Blue Note album covers, for example). Work aimed at the record collecting market has, meanwhile, provided detailed accounts of changes in sleeve and label design to aid identification of original pressings, regional versions, reissues, and so on. My interest in this paper is to tap into all of these areas of work but in particular to explore the role of the record label as visual icon in a way that goes beyond specific label history, house style or collector authentication by emphasising the aura of labels and logos as a more general aspect of the representation of past musics.
My focus is on the visual iconicity of record labels and the lure of label ephemera. I equate the fascination with the sight of late musicians to an equal fascination with the haunting of musical objects such as the label. My case studies include reissue companies such as Yazoo, Dust-to-Digital and Mississippi, as well as histories of vernacular music such as the Blues Paperbacks series of the 1970s. I highlight the explicit use of actual labels as ways of presenting the past, using label iconography as a way of narrating the story of ‘old’ musics, where the portraiture of the record (the label shot) becomes as ubiquitous as that of the musician (the portrait). Like the photographic portrait, the label shot gives us more than facts; it has aura and hints at untold or half-known stories. Recordings themselves are sonic snapshots of a time, but the objects that accompany them become visual snapshots, invitations to a mysterious past. They also invite simulation, another aspect that I will reflect on in my paper.
Here is a link to a piece I wrote for The Conversation on Jack White, Neil Young and musical materiality. The piece relates to the kind of issues to be discussed at the conference I’m organising with Elodie Roy, ‘Musical Materialities in the Digital Age’ (University of Sussex, 27-28 June 2014).
A piece I wrote for The Conversation on Record Store Day and vinyl exhaustion.