Monday, December 31, 2012

Reading Music Writing in the Digital Age

Maura Johnston, at the NPR Music Blog, recently wondered about the future of music writing in the digital age, where traditional combinations of generalist coverage and more in-depth "think pieces" are being jettisoned for "legions of sites that dive down cultist rabbit-holes and other sites that attempt to predict what the masses will want to read and share on social media like Twitter and Facebook." Most interesting to me were her insights about the ways that digital audiences engage with writing itself:
The most crucial difference between print and online media consumption boils down to the click. When reading a print publication with multiple stories, your eye could flick over a headline or catchy paragraph and be drawn in; the process of choosing to read something is fluid. Compare leafing through a paper to scanning a stack of headlines, deciding which ones compel you from their brief description, clicking, reading, then clicking back and going through the whole rigmarole again. (There's also a question of scale; the cascade of headlines coming from, say, Twitter or Facebook is magnitudes bigger than that in a typical daily.) "Most Popular" lists on some publications' sidebars allow for a quick way to dive into content, but they often become self-reinforcing, or reward topics that have a predictable payoff.
I'm not convinced that this distinction, between an older "fluid" reading and newer fragmented "back-and-forth" reading, is as stark as Johnston portrays; readers have engaged with the written word in diverse ways, much of which ignored the intentions of authors, long before the advent of social media--just look at 19th century scrapbooking, for example. Her overall point is not really about whether readers are engaging differently with music writing, however; it is that professional journalists are no longer the arbiters of culture that they once were and might need to rethink their role:
...From streaming albums to artist tweets to comments in the iTunes Store and beyond — and music writers become just another voice, shouting above the fray to be heard. Turning that chaos into a conversation that spans fans of all genres and artists, and that connects people in surprising ways, should be a goal among writers and editors in 2013.
Again, I see the point but am not entirely sure I'm convinced. It is true that social media has expanded readers' access to writing, commentary, and publications in ways that were not possible in the print age, unless you were willing to hang out at a university library for days and weeks, scouring the periodical stacks. (And some of us did). But I wonder whether music writing has ever had the power for listeners that Johnston ascribes to it. Music fans, for instance, were writing to and for each other, outside of conventional media coverage, long before social media; professional music writers have always been "just another voice" for them. Perhaps the issue is not simply one of institutionalized music writing yielding to the clamor of the crowd but rather of the changing quality, size, and scope of clamor from one decade to the next.

All this reminds of a book I should read by Jennifer Lena, called Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music. Sudhir Venkatesh offers an interview with Lena at the Freakonomics blog, where Lena argues that categories of taste and genre are not merely aesthetic but deeply social and contextual and that we need to pay more attention not just to artists and their works but also to the social, political, and economic players--including audiences and music journalists!--that have always defined music. It sounds pretty ethnomusicological to me (I should write about the frustratingly parallel universes of ethnomusicology and cultural sociology another time), but I will withhold comment until I've actually read it.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Reading and Not Reading

I love John Sayles' A Moment in the
 for many reasons.

Nice piece by Jennifer Howard in the Chronicle Review last week about the "growing body of investigations into the history of reading." For reception scholars, such growth may seem old news, but the piece, prompted by Leah Price's How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain, separates historical research on reading from more established research on the history of the book and reception theory, linking it to current debates on reading and technology and transnationalism. Howard offers a too-brief history of the field (though it name-drops my own favorites--Janice Radway, Robert Darnton, and Jonathan Rose), but her discussion of research methods and problems is quite good, ranging from the rare joys of marginalia to new efforts to aggregate historical evidence, such as the Reading Experience Database (RED).

Price offers the best line, actually: "'The history of reading,' Price says, 'really has to encompass the history of not reading.'" Absolutely true, that. (I am reminded of my own students' love for "art books," as well as this amusing review of Ronald Reagan's memoir). But we still haven't figured out how to talk about "reading" in its broadest sense without some awkwardness. In my own work on music, I have used the term "audiencing," which encompasses moments of encounter, as well as everything else that goes into one's attention to music: various kinds of meaning-making around performances and works, social practices of fans, and the diverse uses of music in daily life. Michael Broyles and other recent reviewers of Listening and Longing have rightly called me out on the clunkiness of the term, but I'm not sure how else to capture all that we do with music. Until our shared understanding of "reading" (or "listening" or "viewing") moves away from the narrow act of sensorily encountering a text, we are stuck with this sort of awkward explanation.

With a little pedantry, I'm sure that we can shift the tide! Try this line at your next party: "I just read the best book! Which, of course, included my enjoying the story, posting about it on Facebook, inadvertently repeating its phrasing in conversation, doodling an illustration of one of the characters while talking on phone, trying to re-flatten the cover after I dropped it, using it to hide a gift certificate I bought for my sister's birthday, and proudly displaying it on the shelf where I keep Absalom, Absalom! and Finnegan's Wake."

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Ardent Audience 2.0

There's nothing like a good revival.

Time to revive the blog. Sorry to have been absent for so long; blogging had become a bit of an albatross, especially when other professional writing and editing projects required my attention. I started the Ardent Audience blog two years ago, in January 2011, so please consider this its second phase. To mark that transition, I've given the page a new, clean look. I'm still going to focus on the world of historical audiences, but in the interest of time and sanity, I'm going to re-balance the mix of commentary and aggregated information. I hope that this move will enable me to continue to offer a place where one might learn more about the latest research, ideas, and debates in audience studies. 

Back soon with some new posts.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Patience of Fans

News reports indicate that the general manager of the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence will honor, for an upcoming February show by The Who, tickets from a previously cancelled show. The twist: the cancelled show was 33 years ago

I suppose that's one way to distinguish "true fans" from "casual fans."

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Graphic Texts, Then and Now

Over the past two years, I've been working as the editor for Music:Interview, a new series from Wesleyan University Press featuring books that creatively anthologize "the most provocative and resonant interviews by a significant figure in music." A project in the series I'm particularly excited about is Stephen Farina's Reel History: The Lost Archive of Juma Sultan and the Aboriginal Music Society. While the book introduces musician Juma Sultan and his performances with the Aboriginal Music Society from the 1960s and ‘70s, it is also an exciting experiment in form. It dynamically combines oral history, the graphic novel, audio recording, and film to narrate the story of Farina's own encounters with Juma Sultan and to make sense of Sultan's decaying but extraordinary archive of historical reel-to-reel tapes, 16 mm films, and posters from the heyday of black nationalist politics and avant garde jazz. Reel History is Wesleyan's first "digital-born" book--that is, it is available an e-book only--reading it was a new experience for me, since it invites a range of readerly engagement. One moment you are following Farina's story-telling in words, the next you encounter a visual montage (sequential panels evoking Sultan's body movements as he reminisces and laughs). Along the way, you can click on links that play clips of the music being discussed, or you can watch a silent movie of the AMS rehearsing. It is truly a book illustrated for readers in a digital age, used to moving between text, video, and audio with ease.

Coincidentally, I've been reading another older work, for a class I'm about to teach on social justice and the New Deal, that also experimented with illustration and narrative, albeit in a very different way: Lynd Ward's Vertigo. Ward was a printmaker who combined wood engraving and a strong commitment to social justice to create a series of "novels without words" in the 1930s. I had never heard of Lynd Ward until he was recommended to me by a friend, but his work is extraordinary, representing a kind of moving picture, with the "movement" created not by visual illusion or mechanical device--or even a layout of frames, typical of comics and graphic novels--but rather by a reader's own engagement with narrative flow. Each page holds one illustration, exquisitely-rendered: establishing scenes of city streets, characters in various settings, conversations, dreams, close-ups of faces and expressions. When taken together in sequence, they tell a complex story. In an earlier work, Wild Pilgrimage, Ward interestingly used different colors--red to indicate interior thought and black to indicate exterior action; in Vertigo, he dispensed with such cues, putting everything into the composition and sequence of the images. Sometimes, you don't know what's going on for several pages, but then with one expression or twist, it all becomes clear.

Finally, thanks to Andrew Sullivan's blog at the Daily Beast, I was made aware that the Folio Society is re-publishing William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929) in the way that Faulkner originally intended, with different colored text indicating different time periods. The Sound and the Fury is a complex, layered book, with the same story told from multiple points of view and with abrupt shifts in narrative style and time period. Faulkner had originally hoped to use colored ink to help readers negotiate these shifts, but the publisher refused, so he had to rely on roman and italic type instead. Now, we can experience the book graphically in ways we could not in the original Random House editions.

I've been reading a lot about reading lately, but I have not come across scholarship that addresses the processes of reading a graphic text in the way that, say, Wolfgang Iser or Stanley Fish have addressed the more conventional word text, or art historians have made sense of looking at a painting. I'm fairly certain that this is due only to my ignorance, so I'd appreciate any recommendations for such criticism and theory in the comments. In the meantime, happy "reading," whatever that entails.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tag-Team Audiencing

We tend to think of audiencing as a rather prescribed set of activities: purchasing a ticket, entering a theater of some kind, and watching/hearing a performance. But there are all kinds of alternative audience practices that challenge this model, either out of necessity or defiance. In Listening and Longing, for instance, I wrote about the practice of lingering outside concert halls to catch the muted strains of performed music inside, or drawing out the experience of a performance through various kinds of reproduction: writing and re-reading detailed descriptions in diaries, or purchasing sheet music or scripts of works and trying to re-create them.

I just realized the significance of another alternative practice. Harry Belafonte, in his new autobiography, My Song, writes about how he and Sidney Poitier, as young struggling actors in post-War 1940s Harlem, would go to the theater: "We started going to the theater once or twice a week, splitting the cost of a single ticket. One of us would go in for the first half, come out at intermission and pass the stub, along with a plot summary to the other. We saw some theater that way, and agreed that seeing half of each play taught us more than not seeing a play at all." (60)

Remarkably, I had just read Patti Smith's account of the same practice when she was living with Robert Mapplethorpe in New York City in the 1970s. This is a fascinating way to encounter a performance. All audiences set up a performance and then collectively interpret it afterward through conversation and criticism--but in this scenario, the performance itself is a dialogic construction, made from individually-experienced fragments, imagined together. If you believe that audiences are secondary, only receiving the primary event of performance, then this sort of tag-teaming is simply a clever way to report "what happened" among those who can't afford more than a ticket. However, if you believe that audiences in some way constitute the performances they encounter, then tag-teaming presents some very interesting questions about how texts might be understood, crafted, and made meaningful in their re-telling. 

Of course, we do this all the time. When a group of people is watching television and one person leaves for a moment to get a snack or use the bathroom and then asks, upon returning, "What did I miss?," he will piece together the narrative from experience, memory, and whatever irritated descriptions he receives. What I like about tag-team audiencing is the positive investment in the process; both Belafonte and Poitier planned to relate half the play to the other and knew that their collective understanding depended on it.

Jonathan Sterne has described the phonograph as "a machine to hear for us." In many ways, tag-team audiencing functions similarly; both Belafonte and Poitier provided playback for each other. Belafonte doesn't talk about how he, or Poitier, grew to enjoy the descriptions they gave each other as much as seeing plays, but that wouldn't be impossible to imagine. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Summer is the Time for Reading

I'm never going to make it onto the Hot Guys Reading Books blog (fascinating concept in the history of reading, no?), but I am a guy who is presently engaged in reading books. Lots of them. During the academic year, while I deal with the non-stop demands of teaching, committee-work, and administration, I rarely have time to read. Still, every year, there are about a dozen or so new books on fans and audiences that I really must read, a situation that puts the pressure on me during my breaks from teaching to take them all out of the library. I rarely get through the whole pile, but with due diligence I do begin to acquaint myself with some of the latest interesting work in the field. Maybe there needs to be a Harried Professors Reading Books blog.

This summer, I've been trying to catch up with recently-published books on popular music by Will Hermes, Patti SmithKevin Fellezs, Claudio Benzecry, William Roy, John Street, Steven Feld, Kiri Miller, and Harry Belafonte. I've already reviewed Hermes' Love Goes to Buildings on Fire and will talk about some of the others, soon, on this blog.

Of course, while I've been focusing on music, I've been noticing a host of books on audience that have been cropping up in other fields. Just quickly, for example, here are a few books about ardent reading that I ardently wish to read:

Michael Millner, Fever Reading (University of New Hampshire Press, 2012)

"Drawing on a rich archive of scandal chronicles, pornography, medical journals, religious novels, and popular newspapers, as well as more canonical sources, Michael Millner examines the panics and paranoia associated with “bad reading” in the United States from the late eighteenth century to the Civil War. Weaving into his analysis a model of emotion recently developed in cognitive psychology, he provides the back-history to our present-day debates about “bad” reading and shows how these debates—both in the past and in the present—are in part about the shape of the public sphere itself."

Birgit Brander Rasmussen, Queequeg's Coffin (Duke University Press, 2012)

"The encounter between European and native peoples in the Americas is often portrayed as a conflict between literate civilization and illiterate savagery. That perception ignores the many indigenous forms of writing that were not alphabet-based, such as Mayan pictoglyphs, Iroquois wampum, Ojibwe birch-bark scrolls, and Incan quipus. Queequeg's Coffin offers a new definition of writing that comprehends the dazzling diversity of literature in the Americas before and after European arrivals. This groundbreaking study recovers previously overlooked moments of textual reciprocity in the colonial sphere, from a 1645 French-Haudenosaunee Peace Council to Herman Melville's youthful encounters with Polynesian hieroglyphics.

By recovering the literatures and textual practices that were indigenous to the Americas, Birgit Brander Rasmussen reimagines the colonial conflict as one organized by alternative but equally rich forms of literacy. From central Mexico to the northeastern shores of North America, in the Andes and across the American continents, indigenous peoples and European newcomers engaged each other in dialogues about ways of writing and recording knowledge. In Queequeg's Coffin, such exchanges become the foundation for a new kind of early American literary studies."

Barbara Hochman, Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Reading Revolution (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011; recently won the 2012 DeLong Book History Prize from SHARP: The Society for Authorship, Reading, and Publishing)

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the Reading Revolution explores a transformation in the cultural meaning of Stowe’s influential book by addressing changes in reading practices and a shift in widely shared cultural assumptions. These changes reshaped interpretive conventions and generated new meanings for Stowe’s text in the wake of the Civil War.

During the 1850s, men, women, and children avidly devoured Stowe’s novel. White adults wept and could not put the book down, neglecting work and other obligations to complete it. African Americans both celebrated and denounced the book. By the 1890s, readers understood Uncle Tom’s Cabin in new ways. Prefaces and retrospectives celebrated Stowe’s novel as a historical event that led directly to emancipation and national unity. Commentaries played down the evangelical and polemical messages of the book.

Illustrations and children’s editions projected images of entertaining and devoted servants into an open-ended future. In the course of the 1890s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin became both a more viciously racialized book than it had been and a less compelling one. White readers no longer consumed the book at one sitting; Uncle Tom’s Cabin was now more widely known than read. However, in the growing silence surrounding slavery at the turn of the century, Stowe’s book became an increasingly important source of ideas, facts, and images that the children of ex-slaves and other free-black readers could use to make sense of their position in U.S. culture."

Monday, July 2, 2012

Cultural Concepts of Fair Play

In the recent Anthropology NewsYağmur Nuhrat of Brown University wrestles with the concept of "fair play," drawing on her ethnographic research among Turkish soccer fans. In "Making Fairness in Turkish Football," she argues that we tend to think of fair play as defined by game rules and promoted as a celebrated ideal of "olympism" and known more colloquially, at least in the U.S., as "good sportsmanship." There is even an International Fair Play Committee that recognizes acts of fair play in "elite sports and sports for all." But Nuhrat explains how this framework is a lot more complicated than it seems. In particular, she uses the example of Alpay Özalan, a player on the Turkish national team in the 1996 Euro tournament who refused to foul a Croatian player in a crucial moment, thus winning a Fair Play award but also losing the game for his team. Fans explained bitterly to Nuhrat that "fair play" could have included a "tactical foul." Since Özalan ignored the good of the team and the nation and appeared to gain personally from it, he had not played "fairly" at all. Nuhrat concludes that "Identifying a universal right or good is but one way to approach ethics...The principles of Fair Play and Olympism ethics exist in a tenuous relationship with alternative conceptualizations of fairness. It is futile and impossible to evaluate in isolation the components of the web in which fairness is couched because it is this socially shifting web which makes fairness on the ground in concrete social sites; through the mouths and practices of football actors, be them footballers or cabbies."

While Nuhrat's piece does not address fandom specifically as a cultural construction, her analysis does present a new perspective on how fans construct the meaning of the events in which they participate, and how that may or may not coincide with the meanings that players enact or that leagues and officials attempt to institutionalize. This isn't "resistance" in the cultural studies sense of the term, but it is an example of the complex ecology of participation (to use Nuhrat's phrasing, the "socially shifting web") in any sporting event.

This is promising anthropological research for those of us who are thinking about the behaviors and values of sports audiences.

In my ignorance of Turkish names, I erroneously assumed that Yağmur was a "he." Since initially posting, I have gone back and corrected the pronouns. My apologies, Yağmur!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

I Love (Listening to Music In) New York

People can usually recount the music that they first loved. There is usually a song or a work or a genre that unexpectedly stopped them in their tracks, became the object of fascination, and transformed their thinking or behavior, staking out new directions for listening, selfhood, and social interaction. (In fact, it's the subject of a new call for papers over at the IASPM-US blog). Of course, as we tried to show in the My Music Project, first-loved music music doesn't always have to be in the form of a single work or follow the prescriptions of genre. Often, the musical experiences that end up changing our lives when we are young are the result of both random discoveries and careful choices, a complex accumulation of encounters that reflects our developing needs and personalities. Each of us is constantly building "idioculture" of sound that declares who we are and who we want to be.

For those lucky enough to have grown up in a rich musical context--shaped by access to a supportive teacher, a decent radio market, a wide-ranging parental record collection, or a city supporting diverse music scenes--one's musicality can develop in especially interesting ways. Such is the case with Will Hermes, a senior critic for Rolling Stone editor and NPR contributor, who, in Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, describes an amazing time of transition in New York City's musical history between 1973 and 1977, a time when he was lucky enough to participate, however tangentially. While the book's organization--episodic paragraphs covering diverse music scenes of New York, year by year in five chapters--might seem only slightly more engaging than researching the Village Voice concert calendar, Hermes transforms that mundane chronological framework with commentary that is detailed, self-deprecating, and touchingly enthusiastic. He's admirably both a critic and a fan in this history, and without getting into the whole "aca-fan" ("crit-fan"?) thing, it works.

Avant garde jazz, latin jazz, fusion, salsa, minimalism, electronic music, disco, rock, proto-punk, hip hop--it all gets equal attention in each year, allowing us to see the same musicians as they develop their different art forms over time and also enabling us to map their chance encounters and deeper interactions. Hermes' carefully constructs our awareness of historical simultaneity by juxtaposing on the page performances, recording sessions, block parties, underground dances, acid trips, bar fights, and burgeoning partnerships happening the same night in separate neighborhoods and boroughs, or even down the street from one another. Hermes did not experience himself everything he writes about (he was 14 years of age in 1975 and not exactly of clubbing age), but even an adult with all the money and time in the world could not have done so. Instead, he presents New York's changing musical life with an wide-enough scope (what he calls "panoramic, telescopic, superhero vision") to best account for the historical transformations underway in the city. We learn of Hermes buying records at The Music Box on Union Turnpike in Queens, seeing the Ramones at Hammerheads bar on Long Island, failing to get into Studio 54, and adopting Peter Frampton-style hair to get girls. But we also learn about the "First Latin Soulrock Fiesta" at Yankee Stadium in 1973; the legendary fight between The Dictators' Dick Manitoba and transvestite singer Wayne County at CBGBs in 1975; the financial struggles of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson as they prepared a production of Einstein on the Beach. We see a young The result feels personal but shared; it's a kind of collective becoming-a-fan story, noting a moment when many different people, unknown to each other in a huge, damaged, and unpredictable metropolis, used music as a means for cultivating new meaning and negotiating their survival. For more on the book, go to the book's multimedia blog.

That brings me to a quick mention of another book I just finished, appropriately, right after Loves Goes to Buildings: Patti Smith's Just Kids. It is a surprisingly touching and poetic memoir, describing her early years in New York City with then-struggling artist Robert Mapplethorpe. As with Keith Richards' Life, I was struck by how much the act of listening to records meant to Smith. She and Mapplethorpe barely had enough money for food most of the time, but throughout the book, their few cherished records seem to provide them the inspiration to go on:
We didn't have the money to go to concerts or movies or to buy new records, but we played the ones we had over and over. We listened to my Madame Butterfly as sung by Eleanor Steber. A Love Supreme. Between the Buttons. Joan Baez and Blonde on Blonde. Robert introduced me to his favorites--Vanilla Fudge, Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin--and his History of Motown provided the backdrop for our nights of communal joy (45).
That's a collection Hermes--and perhaps many other New Yorkers--would understand.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Singing in the Stands

A while ago on Twitter I had mentioned the need for an encyclopedia of fan rituals, across history and across cultural forms. Fellow Americanist Adam Golub suggested that a wiki-based source would be a means to start, a place where observers could note rituals they've discovered or witnessed and where a team of volunteer editors could sort the information. The social scientist in me would love the opportunities provided by simply gathering all that information in one place.

I'm thinking about this idea again in response to a piece by soccer writer Grant Wahl in the June 25th issue of Sports Illustrated. In "That's So Euro," Wahl recounts the various rites of European soccer fans, from the noble (Irish fans singing a haunting folk ballad in response to a loss; Lech Poznań fans "doing the Poznań, or groundhopping) to the ignoble (brawls, racist chants).

Wahl wonders whether the ways in which exposure to such rites among the growing numbers of English-language viewers for Euro 2012 might alter American sports spectatorship. As he notes, "NFL commissioner Roger Goodell marveled at European soccer, telling SI's Peter King that he would love to replicate the spontaneous songs and chants that are much a hallmark of the stadium experience as blaring music, Kiss Cams and T-shirt cannons are part of the NFL and other artificially enhanced U.S. sports." Wahl quotes a Polish-American Poznań fan, too, who questions whether refined middle-class NFL audiences would take to the expressive rituals of their European counterparts and whether hardcore fans might need some kind of special section in the stadium, where they might be led by a chant organizer.

It's kind of amusing that Goodell makes it sound like it was the fault of increasingly lethargic American audiences that they had to start showing candid audience shots on the jumbotron and playing AC/DC between plays. I'm not even a big sports person, yet even I have noticed how professional events have become more and more packaged for response, with choreographed fan "rituals" presented for consumption, like the brand name fast food that has taken over stadiums. The whole thing feels packaged like a commercial because, well--could it be possible that increased corporate sponsorship has anything to do with it?

Anyway, if you were to take away the packaging, and leave space for fans to organically respond to what's happening before them, I'm certain that Americans, middle-class or not, would be capable of developing and engaging in exuberant and supportive rituals. After all, they did so for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, before professional leagues took over. And elite social status certainly does not preclude chants and singing and other forms of exuberance. Has anyone been to an Ivy League hockey game lately?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Audiencing, Spontaneous and Chosen

Last night, while my son and his friends attended a concert by Passion Pit at the Bank of America Pavilion in Boston, I went to the Institute of Contemporary Art and, finding it closed due to an electrical outage, decided to sit outside and read a book. The ICA has a spectacular set of illuminated wood bleachers built into the rear of the building, overlooking Boston Harbor, and it was a great relief to just relax with Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists, watch the boats pass by, and chill.

To my surprise, though, the evening quickly changed, when about fifty or so people, men and women, in various forms of performance wear (black leotards, loose-fitting tops, ballet flats, hair in buns, etc.) gathered below me on the steps. Apparently, there was a performance planned at the ICA that evening, and it was delayed due to the electrical problems. I watched as they chatted and waited; some did vocal exercises, while others practiced steps. I watched, too, when someone--apparently the director--came out, gathered them into a circle on the pier at the base of the bleachers and offered what sounded like instructions and encouragement.

The performers finally left to go inside the building, and then an audience started to arrive: young hipsters, people on dates, finely-dressed groups of friends out for a night. There's such an interesting energy among an audience before a performance: excitement, expectation, new moments of interaction between strangers and friends. Whatever the performance, there is always a negotiation in these moments--a slightly nervous sharing of purpose and a making sense of the event. This one seemed to present some difficulties for those attending--I heard snippets of conversations about the "avant garde," about the performers as "ninjas"(?), and about "the media."

Then new things started to happen. One young man emerged from the building with a music stand, a chair, and a large plastic bag filled with shoes, which he casually distributed around an area on the walkway just to the side of the bleachers. A young woman in sun dress, moving dramatically like a dancer, carefully placed tea cups at different points on the pier: on a railing, on a trash can, on a step. Then someone started playing the piano in the plaza on the other side of the bleachers. A representative from the Institute came out, apologized to the audience for the late start, and indicated that a queue had already begun on the other side of the building, so we were all to move there.

I wasn't a ticket-holder, so I didn't queue up. Instead I lingered on the bleachers as crew members continued to run back and forth, setting up some lights and more cables.  After a few minutes, the crew suspended a rope (it looked like a noose) from a balcony above the walkway with the shoes. A classical guitarist sat at the chair and music stand and started playing. A man in vaguely Japanese-style clothing started hanging from the rope and swinging himself this way and that, crying out in some sort of anguish. A group of about 20 dancers, each with a tiny spotlight held to the face, ran up through the bleachers to a side balcony, where, in a line, they danced against the railing, emerging and then receding. A large group of dancers came down to the walkway and applauded another dancer above. This went on for about 15 minutes; it was apparently some kind of preview for the people in line. I stood nearby, not sure whether I was supposed to be there or not; the dancers ran right by me several times and I wasn't removed by security, so I just watched. When the dancing and dangling ended, a man wearing a suitcase on his back (which seemed to be equipped with a speaker that fuzzily amplified dance music playing from another source) ran by. The queuing audience for the performance started to filter into the Institute, and I finally decided it was time for me to go sit in the car.

How splendid it was to spontaneously witness this bit of performance! It made me wonder about my experience, as an innocent bystander, and the experience of the paying ticket-holders. Obviously, the latter had a more immersive engagement, based on their investment of money and time, but that doesn't mean that my experience simply ought to be dismissed or forgotten. The entertainment industry has encouraged us to think of "audience" as a formal and defined role, a designation afforded by the purchase of a ticket or being located in auditorium seats. But, of course, audiences can form outside of that framework. Avant garde theater is one place where the audience role is explored and played with; many directors deliberately work against the formality of the proscenium and the imaginary fourth wall separating audiences and performers. Working against normal frameworks of audiencing is also the idea behind, say, the modern flash mob, in which a performance spectacle erupts in an everyday space, and everyone and anyone can suddenly find themselves "at the theater."

What's so interesting for me, after having done the research for Listening and Longing, is that for many people living in early 19th-century America cities, the situation was opposite. Inadvertently finding oneself audiencing music, for example, was a common occurrence. It was easy to stumble on a political rally or parade with band music, or passed by a church while its choir was making "a joyful noise unto the Lord,"or suddenly heard a neighbor in the next apartment practicing piano. Otherwise, street musicians and criers created an almost continuous sonic landscape of speech and chant. For most people, this kind of "surprise audiencing" was the primary way they heard music; more formal performances in halls were few and far between and beyond the financial reach of many. In that context, increasing opportunities to engage in formal audiencing--through the purchase of a ticket for a theater production, a minstrel show, or an opera virtuoso on tour--was marked with special meaning. It was a means to control and refine what one would hear and witness. For those among the middle- and aspiring-middle class who could afford such concerts, the excitement and anticipation about one's choice of musical experience created new kinds of enthusiasm and social power.

“Man With the Musical Ear.” Arthur’s Home Magazine (September 1853): 167.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Ardent Audience Is Back

Well, that break was a little longer than I expected. Sorry. To get things going again, I thought I would just sort through a few odds and ends: news and pages in the world of audience that I've briefly noticed over the past couple of months while I've been busy wrapping up the academic year.

First--and I'm not sure why I didn't see this before--the Victoria and Albert Museum has put up a wonderful web page titled "A History of a Night at the Theatre." It summarizes the culture of theatre-going from 1500 to the present, including a focus on artifacts from the Museum's collections, from depictions of audiences in paintings and photographs to objects like a "box-renters fan." It's definitely something to which I will return in the future. Please check it out.

Back in February, Henrik Bo Nielsen, CEO of the Danish Film Institute, in a blog post titled "Is The Audience Always Right?," proposed a "reverse audience award" in film. He explained that "the award would go to the movie audience that has the curiosity, courage and energy to seek out challenging movie experiences." He made the proposal while lamenting the apparent boorishness of film audiences, as they follow the latest trend, demand action over substance, and generally think about movies as a quick and pleasurable escape from everyday life. While I think that problem may be due to broader socio-economic pressures more than lack of imagination, his idea of an audience award is something I'd definitely support. Recognizing great audiences (Most Engaged, Longest Applause, Deepest Post-Screening Discussion, Best Heckle, etc.) would be a good way to recognize the crucial participatory role of readers, listeners, and viewers in the arts.

At the beginning of June, the NPR jazz blog, A Blog Supreme, had a guest post, titled "'It Can't Be Done': The Difficulty of Growing a Jazz Audience, from Kurt Ellenberger. There has been considerable hand-wringing about jazz lately (which makes me wonder: is jazz dying any more now than it was after Coltrane died? Or in the 1980s?); it got a lot of attention. Personally, I thought that Ellenberger glaringly ignored the very group he was discussing--there was no engagement with actual audience members, just speculation about how to reach "them." At any rate, a summary of the comments and discussion is here

Have you been following the brouhaha around intern Emily White's post about her music collection at the All Songs Considered blog and the withering response from David Lowery? A summary of the firestorm is here. Maybe it's because I work with students everyday, but the "debate" all seems a little rehashed to me. Is it really news that people are putting together digital music collections from a variety of sources, including file-sharing and legal and illegal downloading? Didn't we have this debate twelve years ago with Napster? At least Robin Hilton wrote, "Let's be clear: The debate over compensation doesn't break down along generational lines, and didn't begin with Emily's essay. We know people have been downloading and sharing music — legally and illegally — for years. The 21st century models for recording music, getting it to fans and compensating everyone involved remain works in progress." Exactly.

Related to the subject of changing models of delivery, there was an interesting post yesterday at NPR on the literal legacy of the e-book, titled "Will Your Children Inherit Your E-Books?" Good article--and I'm not one to disparage the beauty, practicality, and endurance of the physical book--but I think one commenter on Facebook summed up the main criticism: "My child has already inherited my love of reading, which is worth far much more than the actual books." That's a point of view that I can embrace, and it's one, actually, that continues to give me hope. 

Friday, March 30, 2012


I haven't posted in several weeks, so I might as well make it official: I have to take a short break for the next month or so, to take care of many pending writing deadlines and speaking commitments. I will continue to post about fans and music on my Twitter account, if anyone is interested--the 140 character limit is about all I can afford right now. Please be sure to read Listening and Longing and listen to your Springsteen while I am gone; I will talk to you again in May.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Reading about Reading

Several books have been lurking in the background of my far-too-busy days lately, including Martyn Lyons's Books: A Living History and Nathaniel Philbrick's Why Read Moby-Dick. Lyons offers students of the history of the book a lavishly illustrated tour of the books and reading across cultures and history, from the differences between writing surfaces like papyrus, parchment, and bamboo, to book collecting and the birth of libraries, to the modern digitization of reading. While the book does not offer anything particularly new for students of book history, there are lots of great tidbits (I especially enjoyed his interpretations of the transition of scrolls to codexes and the evolution of copyright). And it is, overall, an engaging argument for the extraordinary and enduring influence of books as a technology of knowledge. While reading it, I kept remembering the times when, as a boy, visiting my grandparents, I would sit for hours while the adults talked, reading their 1970 set of the World Book Encyclopedia. Like the magazine-like glossy pages and color layout of the World Book (different than, say, the rather austere black and white text of Collier's Encyclopedia), Books: A Living History has an excitingly wide historical scope, invites you to linger over exquisite visual photography, and offers writing that is brief but fascinatingly suggestive in its potential linkages. You get the sense that Lyons could tell you much more, if he and you were to, say, meet over a pint. Most of all, it makes you yearn for an uninterrupted afternoon in the library.

Nathaniel Philbrick's Why Read Moby-Dick is a slim but delightful celebration of Melville's classic. Having read Moby-Dick too many times to count (it seemed to be on every American Studies syllabus when I was in college), I wasn't sure what Philbrick could possibly tell me, but I was pleasantly surprised. This is not so much a book about Philbrick's love for Moby-Dick, as for his love of reading the book, something he views not as a one-time affair but a regular ritual. Moby-Dick is not an easy book to move through, on the whole, something Philbrick himself admits, and educators have (much as they have done with Shakespeare) gone on a little too long about how Melville is good for you. Especially galling to Philbrick is the tendency to find symbolism in the book: "The White Whale is not a symbol. He is as real as you or I...He is a thing of blubber, blood, muscle, and bone--a creation of the natural world that transcends any fiction....So don't fall into the Ahab trap of seeing Moby Dick as a stand-in for some paltry human complaint. In the end he is just a huge, battle-scarred albino sperm whale, and that is more than enough." (This reminded me, in particular, of a professor I had at Cornell, Walter Slatoff, who, in the heyday of postmodernism, daringly argued that he would treat characters, in the novels we read, as people). At any rate, Philbrick argues that, if you spend time with the book, and you open yourself up to its meandering philosophizing, poetry, humor, and "genial stoicism in the fact of a short, ridiculous, and irrational life," it may just reach deeply into you and fundamentally change how you see the world: “Coming to a great book on your own after having accumulated essential life experience can make all the difference.” This is precisely what fans say in their becoming-a-fan stories: they don't understand or relate to an artist, and, at the behest of friends, half-heartedly try to engage but fail. Then, one day, they read or listen or look one more time, and what they encounter strikes them unexpectedly in a new and profound way. From then on, the artist and his/her work become not a piece of entertainment but a source of affirmation, meaning, and efficacy. Philbrick likewise urges us to visit Moby-Dick again and again, even when it seems daunting: "Moby-Dick is a long book, and time is short. Even a sentence, a mere phrase, will do. The important thing is to spend some time with the novel, to listen as you read, to feel the prose adapt to the various voices that flowed through Melville during the book's composition, like intermittent ghosts with something urgent and essential to say." Even if you aren't ready for such a relationship with Melville, you have to envy Philbrick's genuine and abiding enthusiasm.

Finally, as a quick and related addendum, I just want to mention Maria Popova's recent discussion, on Brainpickings, of a very cool 1933 Booklover's Map of Literary Geography. I don't have more to add, except that I want a map like this in my office.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The 12th Man

Great piece in the New York Times today about fan chants and their role in the outcome of soccer games: "...For their passion, a team’s most ardent fans are often called its 12th man — as important to the outcome of a match as the 11 players. They wave banners, paint their bodies and scream until the last whistle sounds. Their chants can create and sustain momentum, help build a rally for a goal, overwhelm an opponent or distract a referee."

In particular, the article features the work of Michael Dennis, one of the founders of the website Fan Chants, a repository of football chants and soccer songs from around the world. It's a pretty extraordinary fieldwork and archival project; if Alan Lomax had turned to sports rather than music, this might have been the result. In fact, Fan Chants might turn out to be a parallel Global Jukebox for future students of sports, audiences, and fandom.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Jimmy Fallon, Fan

Bruce Springsteen, The Roots, Tom Morello, and Jimmy Fallon ended Springsteen Week on Fallon's show by performing "The E Street Shuffle." The look on Jimmy's face as he plays cowbell is a testament to the joys of Springsteen fandom; he's not a famous talk show host and comedian anymore but an ordinary listener, living a dream.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Jeremy Lin, Race, and Sports Fandom

Kathleen Yep, author of Outside the Paint: When Basketball Ruled at the Chinese Playground, has an insightful post at North Philly Notes about Jeremy Lin mania. I have to admit that I'm not a basketball follower, so the constant headlines about Lin at first confused me ("Jenny Lind mania is back?! Fantastic!"), but the more I've learned, the more interesting the whole phenomenon has become for me in understanding the nature and history of sports audiencing. Fan studies has done a pretty good job of exploring the complexities of gender in the history of popular culture participation, from feminist theories of spectatorship and reading to male-bonding over Elvis, but race and ethnicity in fan history remain only superficially understood (see the recent special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, Vol. 8, for analysis on the issue). Yep, drawing on her research of a fan community that has a long history but is still little known, points out that,
...Similar to today’s frenzy over Jeremy Lin, there were multiple currents of consumption in the late 1930s from not only the mostly non-Asian American spectators but also the Chinese American communities on the basketball tour. The invisible and marginalized Chinese Americans in the 1930s marveled at the visibility of players who looked like them. In 2012, Lin’s transcendence into a popular culture hero validates the vast network of Asian American players and basketball leagues that have thrived for over one hundred years.
In her post, Yep goes on to ask some questions that might make some fans uncomfortable but are nevertheless crucial in understanding not only the fandom for Lin but also fan participation in American sports in general: "How does the sports-industrial complex simultaneously circulate colorblind and hyperracialized rhetoric about African American, Chinese American, and white players? How are these circulations similar and different for the various racial groups yet part of a similar mechanism?"

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Pleasure Garden, Ctd.

David Coke graciously responded to my previous post about pleasure gardens, offering a small but important correction about Vauxhall: even though gambling took place at other pleasure gardens, like Marylebone, it was outlawed at Vauxhall. He explained,
Prostitution and gambling often did go together, especially in the Georgian period, but Jonathan Tyers [Vauxhall's owner] was very adept at gauging his audience’s tolerance of certain things. Prostitutes, if they at least looked respectable, and restricted themselves to sunset and later, were part of the attraction of Vauxhall. And Tyers was happy to admit this.  On the other hand, he knew that gambling, especially card-sharps and cheats, would have put off many of his regular audience, and would have wrecked his hugely valuable word-of-mouth publicity."
These nuances of morality, class, and business are fascinating and not unlike some of the distinctions that emerged in American theatre in the 19th century. More on this, I'm sure, in the future--I'm learning before your eyes, here!

In the meantime, I encourage everyone, again, to check out the book:

From A Companion to All the Principal Places of Curiosity
 and Entertainment In and About London and Westminster
, 1801

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Record Listening in the 20th Century

Students listening to records in their dorm, 1930s. U-M Bentley Historical Library, U. of Michigan.

David Gilmour, in an interview in Rolling Stone, Sept. 28, 2011, observed that the social rituals of record listening have pretty much disappeared:
Attention spans have changed. The idea of going around to somebody else's flat or house and sitting around in a comfy room and having a really good hi-fi system and listening to a whole album all the way through, then chatting for a few minutes, then maybe putting another album on...does that happen today? (46).
Shortly thereafter, reading Keith Richards' Life, I took particular note of his account of listening to records with Mick Jagger:
It was, always, all about records. From when I was eleven or twelve years old, it was who had the records who you hung out with. They were precious things. ...Mick and I must have spent a year, while the Stones were coming together and before, record hunting. There were others like us, trawling far and wide, and meeting one another in record shops. If you didn't have money you would just hang and talk. But Mick has these blues contacts...Blues aficionados in the '60s were a sight to behold. They met in little gatherings like early Christians, but in the front rooms in southeast London. There was nothing else necessarily in common amongst them at all; they were all different ages and occupations. It was funny to walk into a room where nothing else mattered except he's playing the new Slim Harpo and that was enough to bond you all together. (80-81)
This all reminded me of William Kenney's account, in his book Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945, of jazz fans and collectors in the 1930s, including Marshall Stearns, Milt Gabler, John Hammond, Nat Hentoff, and Dan Morgenstern:
Many swing fans found meaning in the records themselves. The very act of gaining ownership of a valued jazz record became an integral part of the meaning that a fan attributed to the music. Collecting records became an enduring passion, an intellectual preoccupation, and a way of life...When at age 16 Morgenstern began collecting seriously--reading the pioneering books on jazz, comparing notes with other collectors, and finding his way to sources of records--he became adept at what he later believed to have been 78 rpm record culture. In a time before widespread record reissues, one was forced to hunt down copies on one's own. This necessity led to a a detailed knowledge of the secondhand bookstores, junk shops, flea markets, and sidewalk browser bins where the occasional jewel awaited...
This, in turn, reminded me of the phonograph society movement in the 1920s, which sought to establish clubs of listeners that would gather in private homes or public meeting halls for "phonograph recitals" and "phonograph concerts." As discussed by Tim Gracyk, phonograph societies were actively promoted by The Phonograph Monthly Review, a publication showcasing the vernacular knowledge of record collectors on, for example, how to best file a collection of 700 or more records, the pitfalls of steel needles, or the best way to listen to Beethoven (with lantern slides!).

Of course, phonograph societies were not that far from the original 1899 Edison tone tests, which themselves set up the whole practice of listening to the phonograph in one's home as one would listen to an orchestra in a concert hall:

In all, an extraordinary 20th century of people developing behaviors, values, and communities centered on listening to records.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Beatlemania Emerges in U.S.

It was 48 years ago today...

The O Say Can You See blog, run by the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, has an interesting post about the Beatles' first concert in America, which took place on February 11, 1964, featuring some the artifacts from the concert in the NMAH collections.

Beatlemania used to be the subject of much head-scratching, and even derision, both in the press and in academia, so I'm glad to see it recognized, here, as a significant moment in history. "Maniacal" audiences existed long before 1964, of course, but the behavior of American Beatles fans was significant as clear evidence for the vast commercial potential of teen culture (see, for example, this great collection of 1964 magazines capitalizing on the Beatles phenomenon) and also, somewhat contrarily, of the grassroots political potential of rock'n'roll, including an empowerment of young women's public expression (see Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, Gloria Jacobs, "Beatlemania: Girls Just Want to Have Fun").

In the end, it remains an iconic moment of rock'n'roll audiencing.