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Nina Eidsheim: The Race of Sound

The Race of Sound: The Acousmatic Question as Voice-Making

Presented by the Music Department, in collaboration with the Department of Theatre, Department of Communication Studies, and Center for the Arts

The foundational question raised in listening to a human voice is: Who is this? Who is speaking? This is an acousmatic question that asks what type of essence is sounding. This keynote asserts that we ask the acousmatic question because it is not actually possible to know voice, vocal identity, and meaning as such; we can only know them in their multidimensional processes, practices, and multiplicities. Eidsheim’s goal with this talk is to provide tools that help denaturalize the acousmatic listening process and the voices it names. For example, how timbre performed by one person is understood as essence (e.g., a so-called white timbre performed by someone understood as white) while the same timbre performed by another person is understood as an imitation (e.g., a so-called white timbre performed by someone understood as African American). This framework helps explain how singing, while generally mistaken for essence, is always made up of entrainment, style, and technique—concepts she will discuss in detail. Thus, drawing from musicology, ethnomusicology, African American-, race-, sound- and voice studies, Eidsheim provides a framework that can help us critically examine how race is “measured” through sound, and how the authenticity of race and racial subjectivities is often located in vocal timbre. More broadly, she hopes this work can contribute to a knowledge of the ways in which comprehending voice remains central to understanding human experience.

Nina Eidsheim (Professor of Musicology, UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music), Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice (Duke UP, 2015) and The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music (Duke UP, December 2019); co-editing Oxford Handbook of Voice Studies (2019); co-editor (with Josh Kun and Ronald Radano) of the Refiguring American Music book series for Duke University Press; co-Chair for the AMS Committee on Race and Ethnicity; recipient of the Mellon Foundation Fellowship, Cornell University Society of the Humanities Fellowship, the UC President’s Faculty Research Fellowship and the ACLS Charles A. Ryskamp Fellowship. She’s currently collaborating on a book and performance project with composer and trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith.