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Sound as Social Practice

UC San Diego Department of Music explores art, identity and activism in first-of-its-kind graduate conference


  • Anthony King

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  • Anthony King

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The University of California San Diego Department of Music is well known for its emphasis on experimental music and sound in composition, performance and scholarship, and brings this to the forefront at a special two-day conference March 2-3.

“Sonic Fluidities: An Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference” is the first of its kind at UC San Diego, organized by a committee of current Integrative Studies program students. Through presentations, performances and installations, the inaugural conference uses the metaphor of fluidity to explore the social position of sound and music through time and genre.

“One of the themes that is important to musicians and students today is the notion that sound as a material, and sound art as a practice, is activist in nature and fundamentally oriented to social justice,” said Sarah Hankins, an assistant professor of sound studies in the Department of Music. “There’s an increasing consensus that these creative forms need to open up spaces for activism and political engagement.”

Hankins serves as faculty advisor to the conference and said “Sonic Fluidities” explores, among other topics, queerness and blackness in a range of historical and contemporary contexts. The conference brings together scholars, composers, performers and artists from as many different conceptual and creative approaches as possible

“There are lots of ways that personhood, body and identity can be manifested in music and sound, whether we’re talking about genres like jazz, hip-hop or EDM, or more experimental sound arts that resist categorization,” she said.

The conference culminates March 3 with a keynote address by composer and scholar George E. Lewis, who is the Edwin H. Case Professor of American music at Columbia University, a current American Academy of Arts and Sciences fellow, and a MacArthur Fellowship and Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, among other honors.

His talk “Black Liveness Matters” will provide a critical look at the famous slave composer and pianist Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, juxtaposed with a 1920s play about a new workforce called “robota,” translated from the Czech as both “robot” and “forced labor.” Comprising technology, blackness and the sounding, or listening, subject, Lewis’ talk will in part draw parallels to the condition of United States slaves with various points in the writing.

In addition to the guest lectures and research talks, the conference will include performances and installations to facilitate immersive experiences and deeper understanding of sound as a means to social justice.

Clara Hunter Latham of Massachusetts Institute of Technology serves as the keynote performer, bringing her interdisciplinary approach to composition, performance and scholarship to present an experimental chamber opera.  The performance, which will also feature UC San Diego graduate students, delves into the gendered history of psychoanalysis and sound as a treatment of hysteria.

Five additional performances are scheduled, featuring sound artists from Brown University, University of Oregon, University of North Texas and UC San Diego. In one performance, Department of Music graduate student Daniel Fishkin and ensemble will use text-to-speech iterations of online dating profiles as a means to explore themes of social alienation, identity and modernity.

Interest in the conference was strong and the graduate student committee had a wealth of topics to choose from in organizing and presenting this work. This enthusiasm, Hankins said, really speaks to the fact that more students in sound practice and music history are craving interdisciplinary, forward-thinking interactions with the greater community.

“They want to be in spaces where the standard disciplinary barriers are set aside. They want to interface and engage with all models of social understanding,” she said.

The Integrative Studies program at the UC San Diego Department of Music is comprised of faculty and students whose work moves between research, performance, improvisation, installation, composition, instrument building and more, with the common goal of theorizing through sound.

“There are many university music programs that offer some engagement with experimental music, but our program, from the beginning, has been deeply committed to creating boundary-stretching music and music scholarship,” said David Borgo, Department of Music chair. “We are incredibly proud of our students and faculty for organizing such a rich and diverse conference, one that showcases both our willingness to work across disciplines and practices, and to interrogate the role that sound and music play in contemporary society.”

“Sonic Fluidities” is open to the public and takes place at the UC San Diego Conrad Prebys Music Center. On Friday, March 2, discussion sessions are scheduled between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. with installations from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The day’s closing performance by Latham begins at 7 p.m.

Conference sessions begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 3, with installations from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The keynote address by George Lewis is 2-4 p.m., followed by a roundtable discussion led by Borgo, featuring Lewis, Latham and UC San Diego professors Roshanak Kheshti and David Kirsh. Closing-conference performances are from 7 to 9 p.m. on March 3.

The full schedule and participant listings can be found at the “Sonic Fluidities” conference website.

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