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NYU Press

Chapter Title: PREFACE: PLAYING BY EAR


Book Title: Modernity's Ear
Book Subtitle: Listening to Race and Gender in World Music
Book Author(s): Roshanak Kheshti
Published by: NYU Press. (2015)
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt15zc66p.4
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Preface: Playing by Ear

By the late 1990s, when I officially began research for this project, I was
accustomed to a soundscape out of sync. Having been steeped in the syrupy sweet tea of the American southeasta sweetness that covered over
the bitterness of the civil rights dream deferredgrowing up I learned
that the public sphere was no melting pot and music was most certainly
not a utopian domain of color-blind integration. This was no audiotopia.1 Instead, there was a perpetual dissonance at every threshold, like
the one on the dance floor when the DJ crossfades either too soon or too
late, causing the beat to go out of sync and leaving everyone with no idea
where the song will go. This out-of-sync soundscape AKA Music City
USA consisted for me of classical Azerbaijani music played on cassettes
in the family room, out of sync with the Persian pop played at social
functions, out of sync with the New Wave playing on my Walkman, out
of sync with the 1990s country music pouring out of trucks, pumped
through speakers at fast-food chains, heard on every single station on
both AM and FM bands in Nashville. It was a soundscape consisting of
multiple rhythms, melodies, and scalesout of sync, with different time
signaturescacophonous.
Make no mistake about it: the Nashville of today, boasting residents
like Jack White (of White Stripes fame) and Nicole Kidman, bears no resemblance to the city of my youth. As Barbara Mandrells 1981 Billboard
chart topper (written by Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan) declares, I
took a lot of kiddin, cause I never did fit in, now look at everybody tryin
to be what I was then. Mandrells song implies that then, as now, the insiders rejected the fad that is Nashville for a realness to which perhaps
the seasonal or ironic recent transplant was not privy. In Mandrells time
this fad could have been indexed by Robert Altmans 1975 cult classic
Nashville, whereas today it could be the ABC television serial by the
same name. These televisual and filmic representations actively disavow
the Nashville of my youth as well as that of today: a city segregated bexv
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xvi|Preface

tween red, black, white, yellow, and brown, including multitudes of immigrants and their generation 1.5 children.
Research for this book unofficially began back in the day, perhaps in
the summer of 1985 as Ricky Scaggss Swinging was rocking away in
my head. Though not the biggest fan of country music, I could not seem
to escape the genre or that tune. It was actually Parvaneh, my cousin
and idol, whose own fondness for the hooky melody blasting from her
white Pontiac Grand Am on our way to the mall, made it seem OK to
the eleven-year-old me, who needed constant approval from her on all
things cool. Or maybe it was in 1990, when I spent the summer working
as a sweeper at Opryland USA, the now defunct country music theme
park that boasted the superlative Home of American Music (see Figure
P.1). Patrolling the theme park, where I had previously spent my adolescent summers in a kind of poor mans summer day camp, now brushing
half-smoked cigarettes into my long-handled dustpan while wearing the
parks official sweeper uniform with pride, I studied the parkgoers and
revue performers with the maturity of an alienated sixteen-year-old. Just
another opportunity to revel in the mind-blowingly ironic American
microcosm that was the Home of American Music. Although fascinating in all its hyperbole, the deracinated definition of American music as
1980s and 1990s country struck me as disingenuous and wishful. This
was a wish that explicitly excluded me, a new immigrant, by virtue of its
structural exclusion of African and Native American music. This willful disavowal of the centrality of race to American music inspired my
interest in studying the centrality of race and gender in popular music.
But the needle abruptly scratched across the LP of the commonsenseness and commonplaceness of a soundscape out of sync when I
discovered Asian underground music in the late 1990s. It was not so
much my identity that pulled me toward this emergent genre but my
fascination with the seemingly disparate sounds, which should have
been out of sync but were mixed together beautifully. This coming-into-
consciousness took place at the moment of my first encounter with Paul
Gilroy and his theses on music, race, diaspora, colonialism, and belonging. Armed with these utopian ideals, I headed into the field, which was
for me a record company I will call Kinship Records, a company whose
ethos seemed to embody the very idealism I had just discovered in the
form of sonic hybridity.2 The needle once again scratched, however, this

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Preface|xvii

Figure P.1. Opryland USA, the now defunct country


music theme park that boasted the superlative,
Home of American Music.

time across the LP of my navet and idealism, when I very quickly collided with a racial and gendered division of labor not only inside the
organization, not simply on the production and distribution end of this
industry, but also in the consumption of the music, in the way it was
listened to and heard.
In the following work I present a form of theorizing on multiple registers. On the one hand, I employ a way of knowing that has grown organically from my historico-political-cultural circumstances. It is a way
of theorizing that Barbara Christian has named through her notion of
a race for theory:
[P]eople of color have always theorizedbut in forms quite different
from the Western form of abstract logic. And I am inclined to say that
our theorizing (and I intentionally use the verb rather than the noun) is
often in narrative forms, in the stories we create, in riddles and proverbs,
in the play with language, since dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem
more to our liking.... My folk, in other words, have always been a race
for theorythough more in the form of the hieroglyph, a written figure
which is both sensual and abstract, both beautiful and communicative.3

As Christian deciphers above, there are forms for and ways of theorizing that result from a lifetime of learning, not necessarily from the
published text but from the marginalia scribbled along its borders, a

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xviii|Preface

learning that happens out of necessity based on exclusion from formal


systems of knowledge production, a learning that results from being
on the receiving end of various systematic phobias and isms, a learning
that is facilitated through community, alienation, and environment. The
theorizing capability of the marginalized, legible in forms like literature,
music, art practice, dance, movement, affect, and sexuality, are forms
that are decidedly more accessible and vernacular than scholarly.
In the spirit of Barbara Christians naming of our theorizing as a theorizing that takes shape and form in ways that have historically been illegible to the Western form of abstract logic, yet audible and legible to
our folk, I theorize through the medium that I have always understood
bestsound. Playing by ear throughout this book, I objectify the problems of the contemporary world music culture industry, the racialized
and gendered fantasies through which the industry has formed, the development of systems of knowledge around these fantasies, and the capacity to both produce knowledge against the grain of these formations
and to submit to their pleasures in a queer utopian practice of listening,
all through an engagement with sound.
I theorize in this book through sound not in an effort to exemplify
a subaltern reading practice, and not to legitimate it by translating into
discourse an undervalued way of knowing with the body, at least not
first and foremost.4 Instead, I employ the survival strategy playing by
ear in order to read the world music culture industry as the institution
that has attempted to harness that very reading practice and rebrand it
as a commodity. In the same way that I played by ear when I would sit
for hours in my bedroom working out top-40 radio hits on the dime-
store Bontempi air organ I had somehow acquired, I now deploy playing by ear as a performative, rather than mimetic, method/ologyas
a performative listening praxis where one listens with the body. This
performance praxis produces forms that fall under the general rubric
of what musicologist Lars Lilliestam calls un-notated music, or music
that is conveyed by using means other than notation, which is essentially all musical traditions except Western music, in other words, world
music.5 Playing by ear is one of the tropes through which I elaborate
my methodology of listening, which I also refer to as auralitya sense
perception-cum-survival strategyin a reading of the commoditization of this very sense perception/survival strategy. I do this while at

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Preface|xix

the same time tracing a genealogical lineage through that very thing
that Christian calls the Western form of abstract logic, with which
she is at odds. I do so in order to argue that any compound capable
of corroding Western philosophys ossifications lies within its own history, within its own marginalized discourse; it requires a radical form
of interdisciplinarity that takes liberally from these seemingly opposed
historical formations. While some of the Western philosophical theories
that I deploy in this book may be the theory against which Christian
writes (what she calls New Philosophy), these forms enable for me
modes of engagingauralities, or ways of listeningcomparable to the
way Christian describes literature: In literature I sensed the possibility
of the integration of feeling/knowledge, rather than the split between
the abstract and the emotional in which Western philosophy inevitably
indulged.6 Thus, I present to you listening as a reading practice of listening, rooted in listening as a mode of survival and resistance, routed
through listening as methodology, to listening as object. While I make
the case that sensibilities like listening, which have been imagined by
some as the means to cultivating intersubjective identifications with the
subaltern, have been absorbed into the culture industry, folded into its
business model, and instrumentalized for modern self-making, I chart
this emergent mode-of-perception-cum-business model with the utopian aim of tracing the simultaneous formation of a queer utopian practice of listening. I trace a parallel formation of an ethical listening praxis
that opens up a set of possibilities that continue to be emergent, a practice of listening through which the listener relates differently to pleasure.
This emergent queerness is in the same vein as that which the late Jose
Esteban Munoz read: QUEERNESS IS NOT YET HERE. Queerness is
an ideality. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as a warm
illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been
queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that has been distilled
from a past and used to imagine a future.7 Just as queerly, this book
reads a past to imagine a future mode of relating differently, wishing for
what Native Hawaiian scholar Manu Meyer calls a radical remembering
of the future.8
This is a book about sound, that theorizes through sound, that occupies sound, that builds upon what I have been learning from sound
my entire life. I have cultivated this practice in the context of ethno-

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xx|Preface

graphic fieldwork at a world music record company, in my own performance practice, and through the analysis of recording techniques used
throughout the twentieth century. In this book and in the social worlds
I study, sound is a social formation that is constituted by struggle and
struggled over; one that is both overdetermined semantically and yet
manifold in its semiotic possibilities. Its sublimity penetrates epidermal,
discursive, and geographic barrierschanging and being changed by
these movements and reverberations. It is this movement and the transformations that sound, its producers, and its listeners undergo in collisions with productions of and absorptions of sound that I exposit below.

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