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Book report: Exploring the sound all around

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Intriguing new book alert: Weeks back, when I wrote my obligatory introductory column, I mentioned how saturated the average American is these days with music, sound and noise. It makes it challenging to focus on the good stuff and really savor a song when we're being force-fed tunes all day long, from the CTA platform to the frozen foods aisle. Brandon LaBelle is "an artist and writer working with sound and the specifics of location," and his new book, Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life, explores this noise "pollution" beyond music, including the sounds of the street, the home, even the sky.

In "The Street" chapter, LaBelle discusses the culture of low-rider cars -- the noise of their engines, their wheels, and especially the booming of their stereo speakers. After an anecdote describing Public Enemy being "pumped through double 15-inch sub-woofers and driven by four amplifiers locked inside the trunk" on a street in Los Angeles, which "turns the car into a message machine," LaBelle expands:

The pump of the rap, pumped through with mega-bass all sculpted and amplified through cars and culture, is not only a vibratory self-massage, but importantly a calling out. 'Lemme hear you say' turns the street into a political space, replacing the movements of demonstration with a cruisin' narrative. 'Rap music centers on the quality and nature of rhythm and sound, the lowest, "fattest beats" being the most significant and emotionally charged.' As Tricia Rose further describes, the rhythmic intensities of rap music find particular force in drumming traditions within African music, which through its complicated importation into African-American cultures is given power by its ability to symbolically break the law. 'The thing that frightened people about hip-hop was that they heard rhythm -- rhythm for rhythm's sake -- and that's why it's so revolutionary.'

Well, the words aren't to be discounted, ahem. But LaBelle's study is pretty interesting, dissecting the purely sonic value and meanings of street noise and music and charting the "acoustic politics of space."

N.B.: Years ago, I read a thrilling interview with Bjork in which she claimed that rock 'n' roll hasn't sounded the same since cars became more fuel efficient. It was a fascinating idea, worthy of an academic paper or three. Listen to the roar of a '57 Chevy followed by, say, Gene Vincent's "B-I-Bickey-Bi, Bo-Bo-Go," and it makes a little sense. Then listen to modern electronic music and the piffing whirr of a new Honda engine and, yes, music and car culture must have some connections, at least in America. (I can't seem to track down that interview or even remember where I saw it. If anyone knows of it, please share the link.)

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on June 9, 2010 8:00 AM.

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