The Sound Collaboratory: Building Relational Infrastructure for Radical Sound Practice
by Nanya Jhingran
Note: this article is written in conjunction with visiting scholar Daphne Brooks’ Katz Distinguished Lecture on May, 9, 2023. To attend the lecture, please register at bit.ly/katz-brooks-reg.
In Spring 2023, Sound Practices, a multidisciplinary research collaboration funded by the Simpson Center, hosts Black feminist pop culture and music scholar Daphne Brooks (African American Studies, American Studies, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Music, Yale University) as a Katz Distinguished Lecturer in the Humanities. Brooks is the acclaimed author of Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound (2021) in which she explores more than a century of music archives to examine how critics, collectors, and listeners determined the representation of Black women on stage and in the recording studio, moving from Blues music to contemporary pop culture and offering insights into the overlooked contributions of Black feminist critics such as Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, and Pauline Hopkins. Sound Practices hosts on and off campus activities in conjunction with her Katz Lecture on May 9, including a Simpson Center one-credit microseminar for graduate students titled Re-mix the Archive: Critical Race and Feminist Methods in Sound Studies, and curated conversations with other visiting scholars and artists.
Brook’s Katz Lecture and the numerous activities planned to complement her visit form part of a concerted, long-term effort by the Sound Practices organizers to build critical conversation and campus infrastructure for the formation of the Sound Studies Collaboratory, imagined as a physical on-campus location where students, staff, and faculty from across disciplinary boundaries can gather to collaborate, record, and share innovative methods for incorporating sound as an object and method of scholarly inquiry and production. Here, I share my conversations with the three Sound Practices organizers to trace the journey and emerging contours of their newest project.
When did the first seeds, materializing now as the Sound Studies Collaboratory, begin germinating? Timestamps on this origin story may be placed variously: project organizers Michelle Habell-Pallán (Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies), Sonnet Retman (American Ethnic Studies), and John Vallier (Ethnomusicology), can trace their collaborations and projects with each other and partners beyond the UW as far back as their graduate student days in 90s Los Angeles.
An unexhaustive timeline of landmarks in their collective and individual projects that have all led in some way to their current multidisciplinary project, moving backwards, might go as follows:
The Simpson Center funded Sound Practices, a research symposium which convenes established scholars, UW graduate students, and faculty to share insights into innovative methods and practices for incorporating sound into their scholarship. Sound Practices is conceived as building key relational infrastructure, on and off campus, for the development of the Sound Studies Collaboratory–a cross-campus venture that seeks to create capacity and conversation around the importance of engaging sound in scholarship.
Habell-Pallán and Retman have collaborated with UW faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, UW libraries staff, scholars of gender, race, and sexuality in music, and off-campus community partners, to organize Womxn Who Rock, a multipronged project comprising an annual participant-led unconference and film festival, project-based coursework at the graduate and undergraduate levels, and an oral history archive that ties these various components together.
Habell-Pallán, along with Marisol Berríos-Miranda (Ethnomusicology) and Shannon Dudley (Ethnomusicology) produced American Sabor: US Latinos in Popular Music, an award-winning bilingual travel exhibit, developed in collaboration with the Experience Music Project (now MoPoP), and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Services (SITES). American Sabor was subsequently published in book form by the UW Press with accompanying archival recordings housed at the UW Ethnomusicology Archives.
Vallier has been archivist at the UW Ethnomusicology Archives. In this role he focuses on issues of access, preservation, and repatriation. Vallier is also UW Project Lead for Native Northwest Online, a digital repatriation project directed by Professor Kim Christen (WSU). As lecturer for UW Honors and Cinema & Media Studies, he has offered courses on sound repatriation, remix studies, and related topics.
Retman co-chaired with Brooks, both graduate students at the time, the “disChord Popular Music Conference” (April 1997) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), a gathering of journalists, performers, scholars, musicians, and DJs of local and national renown which made palpable interventions in the field of Pop Music Studies.
This impressive list of local, regional, and national collaborations offers only a selective glimpse into the collective and dynamic sound practices undertaken by the organizers of the burgeoning Sound Studies Collaboratory. Indeed, when they joined me for a conversation earlier this quarter, this emphasis on dynamic collaboration repeatedly surfaced as a key value and invaluable resource. In introducing their previous work as context for this new project, the organizers illustrated their understanding of infrastructure as not only a network of buildings, equipment, and funding, but more importantly as enduring relational networks of collaboration where people with various institutional affiliations and positionings can come together in shared inquiry and practice. They crucially noted how, in the absence of institutional funding for technological infrastructure or physical campus space, this robust and deeply rooted social infrastructure continually facilitates radical archival interventions that surface historical and contemporary sound traditions, especially those that have existed and thrived on the margins of dominant pop culture.
Their emphasis on building enduring social infrastructure for sound studies shapes their vision for the Sound Studies Collaboratory. They describe their drive for a resourced Collaboratory, with emphasis on the experimental space of the “laboratory,” as rooted in a twofold effort. The first, overarching, goal is to to give a social life to sound archives by bringing them out from behind the walls of special collections and into vibrant public circulation such that their meaning and value can be negotiated and surfaced by publics who have ancestral and community ties to the materials housed therein. The second, related, purpose is to produce rigorous archives of contemporary musicians working on the margins to highlight and make record of their contributions to and innovations in sound. Habell-Pallán shares her experiences participating in academic music and pop culture conferences with Retman and recalls,
All along, our scholarship has been driven by our love for music, and our love for music by women of color. We’d been to many academic conferences [focused on music and pop culture studies] where we were making the case that oh, well, you’re missing out on these artists and then the response there always being, well, where is the evidence? And finally we got frustrated enough to say okay, fine. If we must create an archive of evidence, we’ll do it. That was where we started collaborating with the [UW] libraries just at the right moment, when the UW libraries were looking for digital initiatives.
To this, Retman adds:
This work is part of what could be described as “the archival turn,” and particularly a feminist and Black feminist archival turn, in pop music studies and elsewhere that rethinks what an archive is, and where we might find artifacts to tell different kinds of stories. Importantly, it’s not an additive model–as in these are women we’ve missed–but, instead, involves thinking about the ways that official narratives produce the same story again and again. So, our work is thinking about the question of archives in relation to history, memory, the stories we tell about the past, and the politics embedded in them.
This latter objective–creating archival records of musicians whose work is not typically acknowledged in dominant institutions’ often-exclusionary understandings of whose practice counts as worthy of archiving–gives even greater emphasis to the organizers’ goal of finding a permanent, physical space on-campus outfitted with meeting spaces, recording studios and equipment, and archival facilities. Such a space, one that works as studio, archive, and meeting place, would allow for practicing musicians and scholars of sound to exercise creative control over how and on what terms their work enters the historical record.
Sound Practices is a multidisciplinary collective committed to radically reimagining the creative process of transforming practices of sound and music into archival objects. Citing Diana Taylor’s The Archive and the Repertoire, they note that their work extends the inquiries inaugurated by the “archival turn” in performance studies: what forms of historical transfer does a performance facilitate? As embodied forms of expression, how might music and sound transcend the limits of the written archive or challenge the ways we understand archival claims to historical knowledge?
Retman points to her ongoing project on the long history of the appropriation and archival recoding of Black work songs and Blues music by white institutions, musicians, and collectors who refused to engage the terms by which Black musicians understood their music, choosing instead to warp the recordings to meet the reified standards set by dominant institutions such as the Library of Congress, among others. Habell-Pallán reemphasizes how they are expanding the repertoire of American Sound Studies beyond the US by working, for example, in relationship with Black and Indigenous hip-hop artists in Ecuador. This opens complex conversations on the meaning of Blackness in diaspora, Black Latinx music practices, and relays between Black feminisms and Indigenous feminisms in the larger context of the Americas.
Both Retman and Habell-Pallán have been collaborating with UW Special Collections, bringing their undergraduate and graduate courses to conduct research and interpretation projects on archival objects in Special Collections and to produce new archival objects from contemporary sound practices as class projects. Vallier, in his capacity as an ethnomusicology archivist, shares how these collaborations with students and faculty have sparked crucial and invigorating conversations engaging the materiality of sound archives, the complicated politics of archiving sound practices and placing them within the walls of special collections, and how archival objects can be brought out into the publics whose lives they are connected to, whether through public programming or deaccessioning and repatriation.
The impact of these ongoing conversations and projects facilitated by the Sound Practices collective are already palpable in the proliferation of projects, books, and collaborations undertaken by their former students and collaborators. Monica de la Torre (School of Transborder Studies, Arizona State University), in her book Feminista Frequencies: Community Building through Radio in the Yakima Valley published by the UW Press in 2022, has brought attention to the remarkable impact of Yakima’s first full-time Spanish-language community radio station, Radio KDNA, and the Chicanx producers, on-air announcers, station managers, technical directors and listeners who produced its success. Martha Gonzalez, who along with her band Quetzal won a Grammy for Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album while still a graduate student in the UW Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies doctoral program, co-founded the Seattle Fandango Project and was recently named a MacArthur Genius Fellow for her work facilitating cross-border participatory convenings (conviviencia) that feature art, music, and dialogue around shared social values. These projects, along with ongoing convenings of Womxn Who Rock, graduate and undergraduate classes that take on a studio format to tackle archival oral history and participatory research projects, and the upcoming activities and conversations surrounding Brooks’ Katz lecture and campus visit, evidence a radically energetic and creative community of sound practitioners who are strongly positioned to launch the Sound Studies Collaboratory as a dedicated recording and collaboration hub for Sound Studies practice at the UW.