Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Vibration as Being

Over the years, I have heard many musicians and avid listeners describe music as a religious experience; “Reggae night is like church for me,” people have often told me at Steppin Razor's weekly residencies. While I certainly relate to these sentiments, I might prefer to express my own experience conversely: religion is a very musical experience for me. In fact, most of the things I do, as well as my various identities, possess musical qualities. In my writing and tutoring young writers, I think of cadence and percussion; in my gardening and walking in nature, I sense rhythm and harmony; in my being American and human, I struggle with dissonance, crescendos, and decrescendos; and in my impressions of friends and celebrities, I experiment with tone and timbre. 

If I had never received any formal musical training, I believe that I would still be inclined to think of experience in these sound-centric ways. Whether it is my nature or an acquired disposition, this mode of thinking and listening recently has led me into a study of sound/vibration-as-being. Steven Feld's ideas of acoustemology and anthropology of sound have informed my recent inquiries about the power of music and speech to effect and alter realities, and I look forward to engaging in further dialogue with scholars who are also thinking about sound and performance in new ways inspired by the "ontological turn" and recent discussions of vital materialism -- see Bruno Latour, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Marisol de la Cadena, Jane Bennett, Philippe Descola....

It was Jeff Todd Titon, however, who introduced me to the emerging field of ecomusicology, encouraging me to discuss some of my thesis research in the form of a conference paper at the Ecomusicologies conference in Asheville, NC, this past October. When I began trying to organize a panel session with the suggested title, "Vibration as Being in the Environment," I received enthusiastic responses from Andrew Mark (York University), Sonia Gaind-Krishnan (New York University), and Jeannette Jones (Boston University), and our panel emerged as a wonderful discussion about the significance of vibrations in relationships, identity, groupness, healing, spirituality, and deaf experiences of music. I hope to write more about this panel in a forthcoming post. 

One of the most important ideas in the development of our panel was a suggestion from Andrew: changing the name of the panel to "Dialogic Vibration as Being (in) the Environment." Prior to the conference, I had already considered the dialogic nature of sound (see "Vibration as Dialogue"), but this notion of "being the environment" challenged my imaginings of "the I" as an entity-in-place, and I have begun to consider the experience and creation of sound as phenomena within an actor-network, rather than I-and-[other object or collectivity within an arbitrarily delineated "space"]. As a musician, I find it rather easy to think of the deep connectedness within a music scene, a performance venue, or a performance event. One could even argue that the liminal awareness of this interconnectedness is an essential characteristic of a serious performer. As an ethnographer, I suspect it will require a great deal more effort to develop such an awareness; however, my experience during the soundwalk at the conference in Asheville taught me about the power and the benefits of intentional listening.

UNC Asheville's campus is beautiful. I wish they had a PhD program I could apply to.

As we quietly sauntered around the UNCA campus, I realized first how my perception of sonic relationships was impacted by my movements and positions. Harmonies waxed and waned as various tones came in and out of range. The feeling of my feet touching the ground, as well as the sound, altered the way I experienced the rhythms of the machinery, the busy noises of birds and squirrels, and the reverberations of the walls.

About halfway through the soundwalk, I heard the sounds of a car's motor purring and its tires rolling along the wet road. Suddenly, the question of who or what was making these sounds became an adventure: the driver's foot on the gas pedal, the rubber on the asphalt, the moisture on the ground and in the air and trees that absorb and reflect these vibrations; the car manufacturer, the committee who determined the speed limit, the planners who determined which trees would stay and which would be replaced by the buildings, the stairs, and the road; the driver's reason for being on campus, the groceries to pick up on the way home, the speed bump or stop sign up ahead; us, our bodies, walking, wet.

The massive air conditioning units between us and the building, growling and whizzing: no one was standing there turning the motors and switches inside; someone designed these machines, someone else set the thermostat, and many others have determined how warm or cool it should be inside the building. The weather played its part, as well, through its noisy and silent powers, influenced in part by our own impacts on the air and water.

Not only were all of these noises and movements appearing more and more connected; they also revealed a complex sort of agency, distributed broadly and perhaps infinitely. In this moment -- one which was, of course, connected to all other moments -- I began to realize the implications of my new, if only temporary, awareness: my world of cause-and-effect was breaking down; I was no longer I-in-the-world; everything was vibrantly everything, and "I" was just a momentary intersection of movements and intentions. The "space" between my body and other bodies, human and non-human, living and non-living, was not really space at all; it was vibration, a realm in which all were co-present, participating in the life of the world together.