Panel on portable music and technology

Happy news — a panel on mobile music and technology that I organized with Heather Horst, Ben Tausig, and Bill Bahng Boyer has been accepted for SEM 2009 in Mexico City. Here’s an outline (abstracts for the panel and my paper after the jump):

“Contested Musical Mobilities: Ethnomusicologies of Portable Listening and Technology”

  • Tyler Bickford, “Tinkering and Tethering: Children’s MP3 Players as Material Culture”

  • Bill Bahng Boyer, “Blasting the Ghetto: Boomboxes and the Spilling Over of Portable Audio”

  • Heather A. Horst, “Noise, Sound, and Other Callings: Mobile Communication in Everyday Life”

  • Benjamin Tausig, “The Co-Motion of Bangkok”

“Contested Musical Mobilities: Ethnomusicologies of Portable Listening and Technology”

Portable technologies and mobile communication practices are the subjects of increasing anthropological interest in a rapidly changing global media environment. However most scholarship to date largely ignores the sonic aspects of portable media, even though cell phones, mobile Internet devices, and MP3 players involve a complex variety of music and sound practices, from ringtones, sound effects, and soundtracks to music listening and verbal communication. Particular sonic repertoires and practices of listening are sites of negotiation and contest in the domestication of new technologies and the social transformations associated with them. Mobile listening practices break down strict divisions between public and private even as they erect new structures, and globally circulating portable music technologies mediate the fine-grained specificities of local soundscapes. Ethnomusicology and organology are uniquely suited to examining musical objects and sound technologies within their social, cultural, economic, and expressive fields. These papers explore the sonic junctures between portability and technology in diverse social contexts, from the intimate connections that MP3 players outline among Vermont schoolchildren, to the racial politics of the boombox and loud music in 1980s Brooklyn, changing conceptions of noise in Jamaican public mobile phone practices, and the implications of transit and urban geography to the sound worlds of concert-goers in Bangkok. The papers in this panel situate new media technologies within histories of mobile listening that extend beyond recent digital innovations, shifting the focus on portability from the small size of devices to the social and geographic mobility of their users.

Tyler Bickford, “Tinkering and Tethering: Children’s MP3 Players as Material Culture”

This paper considers how schoolchildren use MP3 players as tools for interaction, engagement, and innovation. Dominant narratives about portable music devices see private listening practices intruding upon and fragmenting public spaces, increasingly partitioning individuals within personalized musical soundscapes that detach listeners from their surroundings. Through fieldwork with working-class children at a Vermont primary school, I find the opposite: children cracked open the hermetically sealed soundscapes of MP3 players to creatively reimagine their devices as tangible anchors to the school’s social surroundings. MP3 players were domesticated within the intimate materiality of a childhood peer culture already characterized by playful physical interaction and portable objects such as toys, trading cards, and dolls that can be shared, manipulated, and held close. Music devices were ever-present objects, slipped into pockets, threaded under clothing, and handled until worn. Kids tinkered constantly with their MP3 players, decorating and repairing them, and trading unsalvageable ones to save for spare parts. They swapped songs with each other using the earbuds of one person’s device to record through the microphone of another’s. When friends shared earbuds to listen together, the cables tethered them ear to ear, and they delighted in the bodily challenge of moving in tandem with earbuds balanced delicately between. Music devices were tucked and tangled in the nooks and crannies of contemporary childhoods, at the intersections of school, family, and consumer culture. Upsetting the boundaries between public and private that rationalize adult listening, children used MP3 players to build grounded, material links among friends.