Alejandro Madrid: "Soundscapes, Sound Archives, and the 'Sounded City'" - Response by Jessica C. Hajek

Monday, April 4, 2016

posted under by Ted Faust
[On March 31, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture "Soundscapes, Sound Archives, and the ‘Sounded City.’" The speaker was Alejandro Madrid, Associate Professor of Musicology at Cornell University. Below is a response to the lecture from Jessica C. Hajek (Musicology).]

Whose City? Whose Sound?: Mexico’s Sonic Geography
Written by Jessica C. Hajek (Musicology)

This presentation focused on the case study of the National Sound Archives of Mexico (known as Fonoteca) and the experience of, knowledge about, and intervention in the sounded city. This work is a recent research endeavor for Dr. Madrid, but is clearly situated within his other works dealing with music and cultural studies, modernity, globalization, and music and dance in Mexico. This particular topic is also positioned within the discourses of performance studies, sound studies, and space/place.

Dr. Madrid began his presentation with a personal recounting of his introduction to Fonoteca in Mexico City. While teaching a sound studies seminar at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in 2013, Madrid planned a field trip for his students to the archive. To his surprise, what he experienced was a disconnect between the congratulatory tone of the archive’s guides and the skepticism of his students regarding the purported “democratic access” to its celebrated collections and sponsored projects. In focusing on sound-based collectives like the Fonoteca, the objective of Madrid’s presentation was to construct a new epistemological model that would consider sound as an equally important object of study as the written word in understanding culture.

In the first part of his lecture, Madrid examined how the collection methods of sound archives over the past century have shaped a sonic sense of our world. Madrid began by discussing the early endeavors to document sound in 19th-century Europe, which focused primarily on the encyclopedic capturing and documentation of the sound of traditional or exotic places. Madrid then showed that this was the model that Mexico attempted to recreate when opening its first audiovisual/sound archives in 1964—a model that represented a validation of the nation-state in a local, but patronizing and colonialist way. However, in an attempt to create something new with the opening of Fonoteca in 2008, the goals of this archive were to be more democratic, not only preserving the sound of Mexico, but also promoting educational programs to create a culture of listening and fostering participation among audience and artists alike. In order to discuss its varying degrees of success, Madrid introduced two of Fonoteca’s most prolific projects—the Sound Map of Mexico and the Soundscapes CD series. He posed the question: how did these projects identify and respond to the desires of its audience?
Sound Map of Mexico showing origins and quantities of sound recordings uploaded to the app
The Sound Map of Mexico project is an interesting case in point. Here, Madrid looked at an attempt to create a “community of listeners” and a “sonic geography” of Mexico. Beginning in 2010, everyday Mexicans were encouraged to record sounds of their own environments and upload it to the app. The catch? Fonoteca requested that the sound be in the style of “field recordings”—capturing the sound of a specific place in time including ambient noises—and not professional studio recordings. Not surprisingly, the community created by the Sound Map ended up skewed toward urban sounds, with currently 224 of 380 recordings coming from Mexico City itself. Even more interestingly, a majority of recordings from outside of the capital were captured and uploaded by Fonoteca staff.
The Soundscapes CD project elucidated even more how the actors involved in these archival endeavors helped to shape the documentation of sound through a process that Madrid referred to as “performing in the field.” To make his point, the contrasting approaches to the CD project under its two directors Jorge Reyes and Francisco “Tito” Rivas were examined. Under Reyes, Madrid discussed how the goal of the project focused primarily on an artistic perspective rather than an archival one in order to create an art music CD based on sounds captured in the field. Subsequently under Rivas, the project shifted its focus onto the process of collecting the sounds themselves. According to Madrid, these examples demonstrated two ways in which the field can be performed based on the role of the recorder in his or her environment. On the one hand, Reyes was more active in selecting locations and personally interacting with the sound environment. On the other hand, Rivas was more passive, focusing more energy on the pre-production process to target the desired sounds and then setting out to find them.

Fonoteca recording crew member for Soundscapes of Mexico CD project

However, even with his more democratic approach to the Soundscapes project, Rivas was still instrumental in determining what sounds were collected and heard. For example, a narco-military conflict in the State of Guerrero made it too dangerous for Rivas’ team to make recordings in certain locations. Could this be considered a refusal to listen to the sound of everyday violence in the lives of these people, or even a state-sponsored project ignoring state-sponsored violence?

In the final part of his presentation, Madrid used Angel Rama’s concept of “the Lettered City” to suggest a discourse of “the Sounded City.” Madrid claimed that the power of recorded sound stems from its sensorial and transmittable nature, suggesting that the “Sounded City” can be considered as a cosmopolitan epistemic model of post-national circulation of knowledge and cultural belonging beyond national borders. In returning to the case study of Mexico City, he asked two questions: What kind of Sounded City is at stake with Fonoteca? Is the archive recreating older models of behaviors or offering new alternatives? In conclusion, Madrid proposed that while although the experience of sound may be more democratic in 21st-century Mexico, the institutions and artists responsible for maintaining that sound are still the heirs of the 19th-century colonial model.


Translation: “Fonoteca National Sound Archive – 
We preserve sound memory for the future” 

In the case of Fonoteca, who then has decided what Mexico sounds like? According to Madrid, urban centers dominated the contributions to the Sound Map of Mexico. These sounds were supplemented by Fonoteca staff who strategically sought out the idealized fantasy of authentic sounds from the countryside. In instances when the reality of the countryside was in contrast to their desired image—as with the Soundscapes of Guerrero project—these sounds were avoided. Therefore, the epistemological implication of Madrid’s soundscapes project is to better understand the processes that result in the fragmentation and compartmentalization of local sounds as a consequence of focusing only on the aural within an otherwise multisensorial experience. Although this presentation represented only the beginnings of a larger project, Madrid intends to continue unpacking the implications of both the essentialist search for sounds and the naturalization of identity as a strategy to attract listening audiences.

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