[On March 31, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Soundscapes, Sound Archives, and the ‘Sounded City.’” The speaker was Alejandro Madrid, Associate Professor of Musicology at Cornell University. Below is a response to the lecture from Marc Adam Hertzman, Assistant Professor of History.]
Soundscapes Past, Present, and Future
Written by Marc Adam Hertzman (History)
I am extremely grateful for being invited to participate in this event, and for the chance to engage with this fascinating paper. Madrid’s critical appraisal of the Fonoteca Nacional brings to the fore questions about a number of perennially interesting, vexing topics—nationalism (and the “post-national”); the relationship between nation and city, rural and urban, and lettered and oral; new and old forms of cultural ownership and authorship; the “democratization” (or not) of cultural and political institutions and spaces; and the always complex personal and intellectual relationships that develop in “the field,” to name just a few. In ten to fifteen minutes it would be impossible to adequately address one, let alone all, of these topics. Aware of the limitations here I would like to elaborate three sets of questions that Madrid puts on the table for us.
In assessing the Fonoteca’s self-consciously “bottom-up” project, Madrid is skeptical. Drawing on Angel Rama’s foundational text The Lettered City, Madrid suggests that, whatever its intentions, the Fonoteca project reproduces power relations and hierarchies that its architects had hoped to challenge. This, Madrid points out, raises troubling questions for those who see in today’s wired world a newly democratic, egalitarian public sphere. Rather than pointing us toward a world of more access and opportunity for a greater number of people – not to mention the valorization of previously marginalized groups and traditions – the Fonoteca becomes instead emblematic of how even the most well-intentioned national projects so often turn into “top-down, civilizing” projects. As a result, and whatever its intentions (stated or real), the Fonoteca doesn’t lead to a “democratization of sound” and instead functions more as a wall between the “late capitalist” present and the utopian “post-national” future that Madrid refers to at key moments throughout the text.
Beyond the Lettered City
One wonders, then, what makes today’s “sounded city” different than earlier ones. What exactly is unique about the moment in which we live? Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier suggests that the aural has intensified in the last two decades. Building off this idea, Madrid sees an “increasing relevance of sound culture within a sector of the educated middle and upper classes” and “a new epistemological model, one in which sound becomes as important as the written word in trying to make sense of the natural, social, and cultural world we live in.” “In a way,” he continues, “knowledge about sound and participation in alternative sound scenes have become markers of cosmopolitan intellectual distinction” that define Mexico’s “apparent postnational ‘sounded city.’”
These are provocative ideas, worth interrogating a bit further. How does the “intensification” that Ochoa Gautier refers to compare with the remarkable transformations in technology and modes of distribution that came with the rise of the phonograph and subsequent innovations in recorded sound at the turn of the twentieth century? Returning to the Andes and again going back in time, we find a truly vibrant, connected set of sonic universes in colonial Cuzco, what Geoffrey Baker calls an “urban soundscape” or a “sonorous city.” How, then, does Mexico’s contemporary “sounded city” compare to those from hundreds of years ago? I ask not to suggest a trans- or a-historical reading, but rather in the hope of honing in more closely on what is and is not unique about the moment in which we currently live and in which Madrid’s paper is set.
Along with Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba, Mexico was at the forefront of sound recording technology during the first half of the twentieth century. But the power of sound far exceeded the nascent technology. Corridos, the “soundtrack” of the Mexican Revolution, functioned as what anthropologist Robert Redfield called the “newspaper of the folk.” In what ways, then, does today’s “sounded city” differ from earlier ones?
Madrid emphasizes change especially among the educated and affluent in Mexico City. Here again, it would be interesting to also think about what came before, not only in 1970s and ‘80s, but the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, when Mexican elites, much like their counterparts across the Americas, took special interest in folklore and used new technology to capture and reproduce sound, often with ideas and goals that, at least on the surface, don’t seem that different than those of the individuals under consideration in this paper.
Moving on now to a second, related set of questions about the national and postnational…
The National… Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
In the paper’s opening pages, Madrid frames the history of national music archives with the example of Austria’s Phonogrammarchiv, “the first sound archive in the world.” As he points out, the intention there was to collect music from all over, a project he writes, that was “encyclopedic, civilizing, and largely imperialistic-nationalistic.” That last term, “imperialistic-nationalistic,” is very interesting, especially given the paper’s juxtaposition of the national and the postnational. On one level, it seems that the Austrian example leads us towards thinking about the ways that external imperial projects become reinscribed or reinvented within national borders. Does Mexico City, in this case, represent a kind of metropole to the rural interior? On another level, the Austrian project to collect music from around the globe makes us think twice about the meanings of the postnational. In my own work, I’ve explored the way that Brazilian nationalism, and the fight against musical poachers from Europe and North America, helped galvanize the domestic defense of musical and intellectual property right. As imperfect and even oppressive as it is, the national has represented a refuge and source of support for musicians in a way that the postnational may not. If there is a single question here it is what, exactly, does this postnational looks like, and what specific impact it has on age-old global imbalances and inequalities in the music market. And here I’m thinking especially of Professor Madrid’s edited collection Postnational Musical Identities, which delineates a number of possible postnational pasts, presents, and futures. Which kind are we dealing with here?
First, Sandroni’s project represents an interesting counterpoint to the Fonoteca, and not just because it focused on returning rather than recording. As Madrid shows, the Fonoteca originally hoped that individuals and communities from around Mexico would upload recordings, thus creating a map of the national soundscape. But the lion’s share of contributions came from urban areas. And so, like Redfield and Andrade before them, the scholars who Madrid discusses set out to record the hinterland. For me, the issue of whether those recordings are “bottom-up” or “top-down” is only part of a larger story. Indeed, and as Sandroni and so many other ethnographers readily admit, this kind of encounter is inevitably rife with hierarchy and imbalance. I wonder, then, whether we might focus not only on those things but also now in terms of the possible futures that the recordings, however problematic, may have.
Some of the best possible futures might be post-national, but if the experience of Sandroni is any indication, that might be missing the point a bit, too. Many of the men and women who reencountered their music were proud to have been included in a project now being studied and celebrated as a rich chapter in national history. Less important than the impositions, blindnesses, and insensitivities of Andrade’s team was the ability to reconnect, now years later, with something that was theirs.
I’m grateful to Professor Madrid for writing such a stimulating paper and bringing all these fascinating issues to the table.