Sunday, December 16, 2007

Winter Recess

Musicology matters, but so does one's sanity. Thus, Phil and I are taking a well-needed break. I am wrapping up phase II of my fieldwork while Phil's wedding planning has taken over his life. Forgive our silence, but we will start again with the new year.

In the meantime, if you really wish some ethno/musicology forum out in the interwebs would start a discussion about a particular topic, drop us a line! We have a few themes in the works for the new year, but we are always open to good conversations.

And with that, I hope all enjoy the rest of your holidays! Boas festas!

Friday, December 7, 2007


I remember back in my first term ever as a grad student at a different university, our prof made us spend an entire week thinking about--not doing--transcription and translation. For that quarter of "World Music Perspectives," transcription and translation had to go together because a culturally sensitive scholar of whatever breed would fret about the power dynamics that encapsulate translating music, sounds and language into text. That whole term I was terrified to write as I tried to forget I thought I knew about music. It was quite the hurdle to overcome.

Yet, here I am, doing interview transcriptions and translations and musical transcriptions, all in the service of my dissertation. And again, I feel my own terror rising. I know we in musicology and ethnomusicology are a little tired of that music/language discussion. (How many times have you read "Music is the universal language" at the start of a sad undergraduate paper?) But I do think one area where the two converge in really interesting ways is transcription/translation. When I transcribe interviews I make a number of choices. Do I represent the "pausing" words like "um" (or in Portuguese, "ou")? Do I include moments when people stutter? How about sentence breaks? These are all really important questions that fundamentally underscore the limits of translating spoken language to written communication. I know that when I transcribe popular music, the hardest things I have representing are things that fall between the cracks of standard notation: especially timbre, but also micro-tones, extended techniques, and the use of stereophonics. And I feel similarly frustrated with the tools we have at our disposal, but they are all that we have.

I know that this process of transcription/translation is really important. When I transcribe, I listen to the same information repeatedly and I can really get inside my subject's speech patters. I learn so much about a person by the filler they choose in their sentences. I can tell when they are thinking or when they are uncomfortable. It is a kind of intimacy that one cannot capture in conversation; most people don't hear speech in phonemes but rather in chunks of words. In general, we have been trained to grasp larger ideas and rhetoric, not the minutiae of sentence-level decisions. For me, speech transcription is similar to closely studying recorded or live music because in that moment of the first encounter, one's attention isn't paying attention to every single detail. And doing analysis on a first listen is nearly impossible. Elisabeth LeGuin's essay "One Bar in Eight: Debussey and the Death of Description" immediately comes to mind here.* We capture moments of interest. We stay attentive, but we certainly don't analyze at the level we would were we to make a thorough, workable transcription. The same is true with transcribing speech.

I'm still terrified. After a few futile attempts at transciption/translation, my current strategy is to let the interview MP3s sit on my hard-drive until I'm far away from Brazil. I'll rely on those vague ideas captured in the discussion instead. Music I can deal with, but this transcription/translation is just a little too much for now.

* Elisabeth LeGuin, "One Bar in Eight: Debussey and the Death of Description," in Beyond Structural Listening: Post-Modern Modes of Hearing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 233-251.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Ghosting Notes

I have spent much of the last two days transcribing and analyzing a song I’ve known for about half my life. (No, you don’t get to know what it is!) It is so satisfying to do this work. In contrast to the process of writing, and my self-imposed daily word counts, you’d think this kind of woodshedding would be frustrating. It really isn’t. The knowledge that transcription brings excites me, especially in this case where everything is finally coming together in front of my eyes.

My learning style has always combined visual, aural, and tactile knowledge, maybe that’s why this step is so rewarding. I was one of those students that needed to do the reading before lecture, listened closely in class, and take copious notes. For me, knowledge absorbed three times isn’t just knowledge that sticks, it is knowledge that comes alive. Of course, as soon as I condense these two days of work into the four sentences I wanted to add to my paper, I’ll forget about the excitement of this experience.

To transcribe a lot of the music I write about is often both a translation exercise and a political act. This is one reason why I don’t use a lot of transcription examples in my publications. Yet, I have yet to find reasons to directly engage with the politics of transcription, maybe because it is so useful to me in the writing process. In other words, maybe its a blind spot. This past summer I got to discuss my work in an interdisciplinary, multi-media workshop. Yes, putting musicological writing online, for example, can be exciting. Your readers can hear what you’re talking about, and you don’t have to impose your notation and your assumptions onto that music. But, even more intellectually exciting might be to engage with the difficulties of representing popular music in the multi-media formats that, on the surface, allow you “do it all.” I’m working on a project that I hope will let me do just that, and I hope that some other contributors have something to say about this.

Finally, I recommend reading Peter Winkler’s article “Writing Ghost Notes: The Poetics and Politics of Transcription,” found in the 1997 collection Keeping Score: Music, Disciplinarity, Culture. He talks about the process of transcription, and its value, and contrasts it to the product of transcription. Transcription, he argues, is a particularly intimate way to get to know a song, as a musician. The article also includes a transcription of Aretha Franklin’s version of “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You).”

Monday, December 3, 2007

Wrap-Up, and on to the Next

Well, that was a good start!

We're not exactly sure how to organize this whole "themes" idea for this blog, but it seems like a good moment to move along to something else. We've had contributions from Kariann about the idea of "bad music" and guilty pleasures, Phil on on the link between theory and our own lives, Rebecca on her love for Church music, MMR on her experience as a rock star and the role of the canon, Phil again on Britney Spears, Kariann again on sound system bikes, and even a take on the situation by Sammee over at her own blog. I'm not sure how to quite sum up the points. One thing I think I can safely say is that there is a fair amount of anxiety out there about revealing too much of yourself in academia. Given the tight job market, the difficulty of getting into grad school, and of course the small size and presumed collegiality of our field, it's entirely reasonable to worry that one's personal taste or beliefs might harm one's career--the whole thing is such a crap shot, who knows what might sink you. Blogging, as we all know, strikes at the heart of the relationship between an academic's private and public image.

So let's leave our anxious selves behind, and move onto something less personal, and a bit more work-oriented: transcription!

We'll lead off with a guest post that raises some juicy questions, and I believe Kariann has a post on the subject brewing as well. Do you have a story about transcription? Want to pontificate? Get in touch, or blog about it yourself. Make sure to link back here so that we know you have, and we'll link you up.

We're also open to suggestions on how to make this somewhat experimental format more interesting and useful, so feel free to leave a comment to this post if you have an idea. One thing I'd like to see is more short posts that don't feel obligated to make a big point. Lord knows that can be stressful to write. I'd rather see quantity over quality, myself.