Notes on ‘Ordinary Schizophonia: Field Recordings as Multimodal Experiment’

From the Series: In Whose Name?

Ordinary Schizophonia at Dynamo Arts Association, Vancouver 2019

[1] Link to ‘Ordinary Schizophonia: Field Recordings as Multimodal Experiment’

[2] We took the 2019 American Anthropological Association (AAA) meetings as an opportunity to experiment with multimodal sounded anthropology methodologies. At least three vectors converged to inspire this project: the location (Vancouver, B.C., where R. Murray Schafer established the World Soundscape Project in the late 1960s), the theme, (“Changing Climates: Struggle, Collaboration, and Justice”), and the timing (building on recent AAA multimodal panels and interventions such as Ethnographic Terminalia). Our interest was to expand ordinary, everyday attunements to ecological fragilities by foregrounding moments of breakdown, interference, and environmental noise.

[3] Our process started with an interest to think collectively about the relationship between field audio recordings, anthropological praxis, and the possibilities of a collaborative multimodal process. This interest led to and guided our multiple video chats across Durham, North Carolina; Austin, Texas; and Vancouver, B.C., yielding a shared folder of hours of field recordings from each of our field sites. These field sites include Kampala and Gulu, Uganda; New York City, New York; New Orleans, Louisiana; Chinchero, Peru; Tokyo, Japan; Austin, Texas; Durham, North Carolina; KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa; and Vancouver, B.C. Along the way, other questions arose: How do we meaningfully listen and engage with someone else’s field audio recordings? What does it mean to bring our personal histories of listening to our listening of others’ field recordings? What does it matter to hear field recordings as ethnographic data? As ethnographic media? As sonic material? As an invitation to create new meanings?

[4] In the production phase, [Michelle:] the group’s members were divided into duos that shared writing, readings, and sound over the coming months. In my case, ... I found myself drawn to the sounds of electrical and mechanical wheezings, the way they called out all over the city in delicate but biting cries, like paper cut song birds. They had been nearly inaudible in everyday life, but once I became attuned to the otherworldly calls, I heard them everywhere, chirping in their gestural, randomized time signatures. In a city characterized by ongoing renovations and vastly polarized economic disparity, I found myself at a series of events at DIY spaces facing eviction, where, amidst the outdoor chatter, I would hear the cries—from a gas meter, an electrical transformer, or a coolant system, so lively and melancholic that I became concerned that there might be birds trapped within them. Had the engines become attuned to their avian counterparts, or had the city birds begun mimicking the sounds of engines, oracling the ghostly soundscape of the Anthropocene? What to make of the sense of ambiguous reference the sounds produced, this sense of entangled wonder?

[5] [Michelle:] Vladimir Jankélévitch writes of music’s meaningless meaning, its “broad shoulders” of which “infinite and interminable things can be said” (2003, 71-72). Perhaps music and sound open into other languages, more subtle ones, languages which evade, or at least destabilize knowing, categorizing, seizing. The ambivalence of both sound and memory lead me to consider textures that exceed linguistic expression. What opens up when we move away from the declarative and its respondents? What thinking and feeling spaces are conjured (and remain mnemonically vibrant) when listening for timbral, spectral, or rhythmic correspondences?

[6] [Harrison:] On a fall afternoon in Austin, Megan and I wandered through a little park in the Mueller development, a prosperous, “sustainable community” in the midst of a former airport on the city’s east side. Mueller, unused for nearly a decade before its redevelopment, has recently completed its arc from the indefinitely urban (Peterson 2017) to fashionable instability, the effervescent becoming topological of culture, wherein the capacity for change itself serves as the basis of organization (Lury, Parisi, and Terranova 2012). I had recently been listening to recordings Megan had made in Peru, running contact microphones through the plants of a field which would soon be decimated by a new airport. The sound of the Peruvian herbs and wind ruptured some of the recordings in jagged waves of distortion, inscribing the microphone’s physicality, its presence in hand. This is what Jennifer Gabrys calls the open air, the relationship exposed when sensors are overwhelmed and used in ways that highlight their partial grip on the worlds they are in the midst of fabricating (2019). As we recorded, chatted, and read together, the planes continued to soar over our heads, and I thought about the endless drone of this airport’s memory, and the harsh report of the airport yet to be.

[7] Over coffee, Cade and I [Joella] riffed on the multiple registers of breakdown and their rhizomatic lines of connection: mechanical malfunctions, technological failures; the break beat, bodies on the dance floor; natural, chemical processes of decomposition and decay; environmental degradation; breakdowns in communication; breakdowns in health; the “schizophonic” break between sound and its source (Schafer 1993); breaks that are ruptures, irreparable; breaks that are ruptures but also generative, enabling; breaks that compel us to listen materially for the inarticulable as for the possible (Fanon 1959; Moten 2003). Later, we exchanged short concept poems, sounding out breakdown in words before meditating in sound. “Breathing/ The breath catches/ Bit crushing meltdown/ Bad acid trip/ Cyborg Nightmare/…” and “How does one convey the fragility one feels in the body? Does the earth feel tired after all these years?”

[8] While our virtual collaborations guided the project conceptually, these in-person collaborations gave room for different creative processes to unfold with different listening and sounding technologies. Shared virtually, these productions were compiled and mixed by Jay into a 30-minute composition. Later, once we were together in Vancouver, we collectively decided where to splice in Megan’s poetic voice. We re-listened to the piece in the exhibit space, discussed further mixing edits, and then Jay mastered the final version. In this way, the space became the final contributor to the piece. Each acoustic environment makes different demands of engineers in terms of speaker placement, the balance of frequencies within and between sonic gestures, the depth and volume of specific audio effects, and the timing of automation that creates temporally and geographically discrete immersive ecologies.

[9] [Jay:] “Ordinary Schizophonia” was first exhibited on Thursday, November 21, 2019, at Dynamo Arts Association in Vancouver. After many months of sharing our field recordings, experimenting with new workflows, and ending with a four-channel audio installation, it was time to put the piece on loop and watch it come to life in the space. We had a great time. I was in the gallery for sixteen hours straight without going outside. Worlds converged, very little theoretical talk. Attendees ranged from AAA conference-goers to members of various Vancouver art communities to curious passers-by. A few hours of deep listening in the beginning - attendees sitting or sprawling attentively, sometimes with notebooks in hand, sometimes lying on the floor, or with faces close to the speakers - gave way to many hours of generative comradery. The piece looped in the background of the joyous and messy integrations of communities, our genealogies of listening converging, our bodies floating.

[10] The following day, Friday, November 22, 2019, we held a roundtable, “Ordinary Schizophonia: Field Recordings as Multimodal Experiment,” to discuss the installation. David Novak (Associate Professor of Music, University of California, Santa Barbara), in his role as discussant, called the piece “a confusing object” in which we raise questions about source and author and authority. In his remarks, he noted that it is a confusing object “because it’s hard to imagine the professional credits and sites of distribution which are so inherent in the ways we credit ourselves in anthropology.” Novak asks of our project, “Do these sounds, people, places, have a reality that is being denied? Do distortions prevent or enable fidelity to their experiences?”

[11] [Joella:] Yes, there are encounters, “events” (Weheliye 2005), sources that in the “Ordinary Schizophonia” mix are not represented in their reality. Could these be conceived as realities denied? Yes, in distorting their knowability, their containability—in disrupting our certainty as knowledge producers, and yours as listeners—there expands room for the unknowable, the uncertain, the felt-but-not-articulated elements of experience. Mightn’t these be conceived as fidelities? What about a practice of both-and? What about an ethics of proliferating differences which is also always proliferating connections and their meanings? Rather than resolve these disjunctures, how might we reimagine anthropology’s modes of crediting to address them?

[12] [Jay:] What would it mean to create a citational practice of the field recordings used in our piece? I ask this question because, it was not until Joella suggested, and then created such a practice with her contribution to the piece, did I recognize my friend Ken Moshesh’s voice speaking at about 00:00:40. What does my own initial misrecognition say about our process? As a white man with a Ph.D in anthropology, recording interviews with my ageing black friend whose life was turned upside down by racist sociologists 50 years ago, sociologists who cooperated with CONITELPRO investigations about the Black Panthers, was I hoping that our process would render Ken’s voice unintelligible? Was my hope that, under any circumstance, that no one would recognize him? How about this newfound recognition of mine? It was Joella’s work, and her creation of a citational practice, that lead me to reconsider this part of the piece, like reading new liner notes, or a fan message board about an album I’ve heard hundreds of times, and yet have just been instructed how to hear anew. I strain my ears, point them toward the speakers. Ken’s voice gasps through, disjointed; dodging this way and that; like a wiretap subverted through technologically mediated agility. The martial artist cum strike organizer, once again, auralized anew.

[13] [Cade:] Indeed, one of the virtues of this kind of experimental practice is the flexibility to access one’s creativity and imagine generative representational modalities. That said, with greater flexibility comes greater concerns as we traverse theoretical terrain that Novak identified in his roundtable remarks as “both exciting and dangerous.” Much of the discussion in the 2019 AAA panel Q&A, at the installation with members of the Vancouver art community, and amongst the members of the collective have returned to the idea of “how much is too much?” In these instances, the line is drawn at genre (is it art? is it ethnography?), at legibility (is it too abstract?), at representation (do distortions enable or prevent fidelity to the experience of those recorded?). “Ordinary Schizophonia” was not an attempt to suture the discursive fissures between art, ethnography, representation, abstraction, theory, and praxis. Rather, we thoughtfully, collaboratively, and playfully wedged ourselves into the cracks so that we might further dialogue as to their depth and contour.

[14] [Harrison:] Inevitably, such arts-based models of scholarship (whether they are called research-creation, sensory ethnography, or more-than-representational methods) brings to the fore the notion of abstraction: what is the communicative potential of these, as Natalie Loveless terms them, boundary-objects which cannot be contained either by the forces of a discipline’s mediating gaze, a particular aesthetic norm, or a pedagogical mode of presentation (Loveless 2019, 46)? In other words, how can the sensuous pull of making and consuming art bring us into a nuanced relationship with our ethical and theoretical matters of concern (Latour 2004)?

[Jay:] Or conversely, how can bringing these theoretical matters into the process of creating a piece of art yield unique challenges to aesthetic norms? In creating a boundary-object through a generative and creative process, we have elicited the curiosity-driven anxieties over boundary crossing that Loveless so deftly describes, both in ourselves and in those that have engaged our work to date. As a collective, we direct our actions toward such disquieting transgressions.

[15] [Megan:] Attunement is a capacious form of listening, an energetic porousness that extends through the skin as an otherwise “leaky container” (Manning 2009, 34). Open not just to phenomena that can be sonifed and perceived by the ear, but felt or sensed or shared in myriad other ways. Art and ethnography are intertwined in this expressivity: the sensorial condition of being open to the world. A sense of being jerked into the ordinary, where a gas meter, an electrical transformer, or a coolant system become “ lively and melancholic... there might be birds trapped within them” (Michelle, above). To reassert bodiliness is to extinguish the “abstract.” Trin T. Minh-Ha wrote of the need “to sustain a body-writing...not only to express the inexpressible, but to write (in) the space where the question of saying, of being able to say, and of wanting to say/to mean is asked” (1991, 136). Or, as Fred Moten writes: “What’s at stake is not what the commodity says, but that the commodity says, or, more properly, that the commodity, in its inability to say, must be made to say” (2003, 6). Thinking with this, abstraction can be about opacity, the right to remain silent, the blur of a face or distortion of the voice —to distract, disrupt, confuse.

[16] [Megan:] A sonic composition expresses something different from recordings themselves. A composition is a mode of navigating incoherence, incredulity, chance, and the novelty of social form in temporal settings, where, as Andre Breton wrote, beauty might be “convulsive, or it will not be.” A spasm—the pressing upon the body of the elements that includes the materiality of its social forms. Its “weather” (Sharpe 2016) gives rise to an ethnography that does not make containers for objects or ideas so much as it explodes their lessons. To break down the division of life and theory, art and life, “so peculiar to the West,” to make them a means to endlessness: “a substance whose sonority would be that of the Pure Cry” (Minh-Ha 1991, 131-132). (Joella, above:) “Yes, in distorting their knowability, their containability—in disrupting our certainty…” of how the so-called world comes to be. Decomposes what we think it is. And how it might like to sound. And why it’s being made to say. If an electrical transformer holds a bird inside it or vice versa.


We are indebted to Ernst Karel (2016) for inspiring this “Notes” format.

We decided to indicate polyvocality in this essay by indicating author names in the text, according to paragraph.

See Field Recording Citations below, an effort to experiment in practice with these questions.


Citation data formatted as follows: field recordist, recording title, year, recording location; [time-stamp location in piece]. They are listed here according to where they are audible in the composition linked above.

Field Recording Citations

[1] Jay Hammond, “Sahaja Space,” 2019, Durham, N.C.; [00:00:00.0 – 00:02:22:00.0]

[2] Jay Hammond, “Sahaja Space,” 2019, Durham, N.C.; [00:01:46:16.53 – 00:02:44:16.53]

[3] Harrison Montgomery, “Train,” 2019, Seaholm EcoDistrict, Austin, TX; [00:00:10:16.53 – 00:01:44:00.00] (3 loops)

[4] Jay Hammond, “Ken on the White Crane,” 2019, Durham, N.C.; [00:00:41:08.26 – 00:01:56:00.00] (4 loops)

[5] Jay Hammond, “Ken on the White Crane,” 2019, Durham, N.C.; [00:00:44:00.00 – 00:01:58:16.53] (4 loops)

[6] Michelle Mackenzie, “Engine Chirps,” Year Unknown, Vancouver, B.C.; [00:00:00.0 – 00:03:12:00.00] (3 loops)

[7] Michelle Mackenzie, “Engine Chirps,” Year Unknown, Vancouver, B.C.; [00:00:21:08.26 – 00:01:04:00.00], [00:01:25:08.26 – 00:02:08:00.00], [00:02:29:08.26 – 00:03:12:00.00]

[8] Louise Meintjes, “dusk hadida,” Year Unknown, Keates Drift, Msinga, KwaZulu-Natal South Africa; [00:00:00.0 – 00:03:12:00.00]

[9] Megan Gette, “wind in the grass,” 2019, Chinchero, Peru; [00:02:28:00.00 – 00:03:12:00.00]

[10] Megan Gette, “wind in the grass,” 2019, Chinchero, Peru; [00:02:22:16.53 – 00:03:06:16.53]

[11] Megan Gette, “wind in the grass,” 2019, Chinchero, Peru; [00:02:14:20.66 – 00:02:58:16.53]

[12] Harrison Montgomery, “Train,” 2019, Seaholm EcoDistrict, Austin, TX; [00:03:06:16.53 – 00:03:12:00.00]

[13] Jay Hammond, “Interview with Shannon Powell,”2015, New Orleans, LA; [00:03:15 - 00:03:41]

[14] Jay Hammond, “Ken Moshesh demonstrates ‘Cosmic American’ Drumming Style,” 2019, Durham, NC [00:03:42 - 00:04:00]

[15] Louise Meintjes, “Rooster Crowing”, Year Unknown, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa; [00:04:55 - 00:06:58]

[16] Jay Hammond, “Mona’s”, 2015, New York, NY, [00:07:41 - 00:10:14]

[17] Cade Bourne, “Nasher - Surround Sounds” 2019, Durham, NC; [00:24:48.23 - 00:26:54.12]

[18] Cade Bourne & Naohiro “DJ Doc” Takase, “Shinjuku Loop” 2019, Tokyo Japan [00:24:48.23 - 00:26:53.30]

[19] Megan Gette “grassy plant” 2019, Chinchero, Peru [00:24:48.23 - 00:26:53.30]

[20] Jay Hammond and Michelle Mackenzie, “franchise called local1” 2019, Vancouver, B.C. [00:24:48.23 - 00:26:53.30]

[21] Joella Bitter, “bird calls in Kampala” 2015, Kampala, Uganda [00:24:48.23 - 00:26:53.30]

[22] Megan Gette “maría aeropuerto 1.3” 2019, Chinchero, Peru [00:25:09.03 - 00:25:30.10]

[23] Cade Bourne “surf club” 2019 Durham, NC [00:26:44.28 - 00:28:20.00]

[24] Saynt “Lo fi Beat” 2019 Durham, NC [00:27:02:21 - 00:27:32.11]

[25] Jay Hammond, “Ken on the White Crane,” 2019, Durham, N.C. [00:26:57.22 - 00:27:43.13] (3 Looped Samples)

[26] Jay Hammond, “David Pleasant Time” Year Unknown, Location Unknown [00:27:12.11 & 00:27:23.02] (1 Looped Sample)

[27] Harrison Montgomery, “Mueller, Austin” 2019, Mueller Austin, TX [00:10:20.01 - 00:17:36.00]

References Cited

Fanon, Frantz. 2007 [1959]. A Dying Colonialism. Translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove Press.

Gabrys, Jennifer. 2019. How To Do Things With Sensors. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Jankélévitch, Vladimir. 2003. Music and the Ineffable. Translated by Carolyn Abbate. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Karel, Ernst. 2016. “Notes on ‘Space of Consciousness (Chidambaram, Early Morning).’” Anthrovision. Vaneasa Online Journal 4, no. 2.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2: 225–48.

Loveless, Natalie. 2019. How to Make Art at the End of the World. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lury, Celia, Luciana Parisi, and Tiziana Terranova. 2012. “Introduction: The Becoming Topological of Culture.” Theory, Culture & Society 29, no. 4–5: 3–35.

Manning, Erin. 2009. “What If It Didn’t All Begin and End with Containment? Toward a Leaky Sense of Self.Body & Society 15, no. 3: 33–45.

T. Minh-Ha, Trinh. 1991. When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge.

Moten, Fred. 2003. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Peterson, Marina. 2017. “Atmospheric Sensibilities: Noise, Annoyance, and Indefinite Urbanism.Social Text 131, no. 2: 69–90.

Schafer, R. Murray. 1993. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books.

Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Weheliye, Alexander G. 2005. Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.