Sonic Borders Virtual Panel: Theo Cateforis, “No Control, or: How I Learned to Start Worrying about Sound”

by justindburton on February 13, 2013


IASPM-US and Sounding Out! are proud to bring you a collaboration that represents the first official panel of the the 2013 IASPM-US conference. While the rest of the conference will be held in Austin, TX (2/28-3/3), this first panel will feature six essays from Sounding Out! and four from IASPM-US during the months of January and February – a discourse in cyberspace that addresses and enacts the theme of the conference, “Liminality & Borderlands.” “Sonic Borders” features scholars from sound studies and popular music studies (many of whom work in both disciplines) discussing the two disciplines’ shared principles, disparate ideologies, and un/common purposes. The results should be exciting, as we invite not only the panelists to contribute their essays but also conference participants and readers of both sites to join in the conversation as we prod the connective tissue of popular music studies and sound studies.

Many thanks to the three co-founders of Sounding Out!Liana Silva, Managing Editor, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief, and Aaron Trammell, Multimedia Editor, as well as Kwame Harrison, chair of the IASPM-US conference program committee, and all of our panelists. A full schedule will be included at the bottom of each essay we publish to this site. Today’s post comes from Theo Cateforis.

In high school I was that guy. The one who spent every spare penny at the local record stores. The one who would make you a mixtape or tape a whole album to cassette for you. The one who would host listening parties around the stereo in his parents’ living room. Listening to music was a social activity, but it was also, I now recognize, a form of control. It was important, for instance, that I held those listening parties at my house because I was familiar with my records and stereo system, and I knew exactly how the music would sound. There would be no surprises. Likewise, to make a mixtape meant not only arranging a selection of songs, but ensuring that the recording levels and overall sound flowed from one song to the next. A good mixtape revealed not only an intimate knowledge of one’s record collection, but also the mastery of one’s tape deck.

My days of making mixtapes are long behind me, but I do construct course syllabi with a generous heap of listening assignments that function more or less the same way. And while I no longer host listening parties at my house, I do get to gather with my students every week in the classroom to listen closely to recordings. I guess the main difference is that I never gave my high school friends an exam testing them on what they had heard.

I am unsure if I gravitated toward musicology, and eventually popular music studies, as a way of validating or justifying my record collecting, but whatever the case may be recordings are central to the work that I do in my profession. I would like to think that the control that I wield over my collection is not as extreme as this memorable figure from Alan Zweig’s seminal documentary Vinyl, but if it is, I hope someone will tell me before I end up in an episode of Academic Hoarders (no, there is no such show, which is a true missed opportunity).


There are many ways that we exhibit our command of recordings in popular music studies. When we do musical analysis, for example, we control the recording through our use of descriptive language (as Barry Shank does with his wonderful break down of PSY’s “Gangnam Style” in the previous entry on this panel), we make transcriptions to cement soundwaves into notation, and we explain the significance of harmonic progressions and kick drum beats. Such analyses can seem especially authoritative when they focus on the music’s quantitative properties: its pitch and rhythmic structures. When we invoke sound, however, we generally do so in a more qualitative sense. It is the domain of timbre, texture, or in Barthes’s famous formulation “the grain of the voice,” for which there exists no sufficiently systematic explanation.

To be sure, pitches and rhythms are sounds, but in the vernacular or common parlance of popular music (the context I will take from this point on), sound generally refers to something else. Sound is the instrumental tone, performance style, or as Albin Zak deftly illustrates in I Don’t Sound like Nobody, the arrangements and production techniques that distinguish artists and their recordings from one another. Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound is, of course, a classic example. Sound in Spector’s recordings emerges from a blurry thickness of instrumental and vocal layerings, the ambient room space of Gold Star Studios and the reverberations of its echo chamber. Spector obsessively fought to control that sound, and that obsession is inseparable from his recordings’ sonic identity.

Producers are far from the only ones who anxiously fret over sound. As the past two decades have witnessed a deluge of CD reissues and remasters and a tendency toward increasingly louder recordings, music fans and recording engineers alike have increasingly voiced their concerns about the compromised quality of sound recordings. The “Loudness War,” as it has come to be called, is an impassioned rebuttal against the music industry’s attempts to define and control popular music’s sound. There are hundreds of clips on YouTube, such as this one, that use audio samples to illustrate the terms of this contested terrain. And anytime a classic album reappears in a new deluxe form, fans are sure to weigh in on the sound quality (see, for example, the angry customer reviews accompanying Geffen’s “screwed up” 20th Anniversary release of Nirvana’s Nevermind.

I keep a keen eye on these debates, and not just as a music fan but as an educator who wants to select the most appropriate and representative recordings to load onto my Blackboard course page. The sound of these recordings is crucial, certainly for aesthetic reasons, but also because it is interwoven with the larger points, stories, and themes that I wish to communicate in the classroom. There have been times, however, when the sound and my stories refuse to synchronize, when I find myself in the middle of a lecture with a recording that throws a wrench into my carefully constructed lesson plan. Such moments can reveal just how relative sound is to what we expect or want to hear in the recording.

Consider Elvis Presley’s 1955 recording of “Mystery Train” for Sun Records, a song that I periodically teach in my History of Rock survey. The sound of “Mystery Train” is essential to the song’s significance. Producer Sam Phillips’ legendary “slapback echo” (aided by guitarist Scotty Moore’s newly acquired Echosonic amplifier) adds a spacious textural delay that converts the trio of musicians into a ghostly chugging train.  Phillips’ innovative recording technique not only lends a poetic resonance to Presley’s vocals, it also serves a specific purpose within the narrative that I weave in my rock history class. It represents a moment of DIY recording studio ingenuity—a hallmark of small labels like Sun—and thus serves to distinguish the indies from the major labels whose domination they were beginning to threaten. It matters greatly that RCA tried to replicate that sound with Presley’s debut single “Heartbreak Hotel,” and failed.

When I taught “Mystery Train” in class a couple weeks back, I began by giving the students the background of Presley’s indie years and explaining the importance of the slapback echo. They were primed to listen for it. I decided to play them the version on the course website (the one they could access when listening on their own). But something did not sound right. One of the recording’s most alluring sonic properties is the patterns of propulsive rhythmic clicks that mysteriously emerge from the echoic aftershocks of the strumming string trio. On this particular day, those clicks did not sound at all mysterious. Rather they sounded like someone banging together two drumsticks. I always come to class equipped with a CD copy in case of some computer malfunction, and so I quickly apologized to the students and promised them a better realization of the slapback echo as I cued up the Sunrise Presley anthology. But the CD was just as bad, even worse actually. The clicks—now suffocatingly dry and wooden—sounded completely separated from the rest of the instrumental texture; I was struggling to explain how one could locate those clicks as part of the song’s recording process I had prompted the students to listen for just moments ago. I had a sinking feeling, like a used car salesman after a poor pitch, realizing a potential customer is about to leave the lot.

So, where did I go wrong? How did I manage to lose control? The answer occurred to me later that day. I recalled that when I was prepping for my class, I had been on the computer browsing YouTube and had decided to pull up a recording clip of “Mystery Train” from there just to get the song in my ear. The video that I chose was one where some fan had made a digital transfer from a “near mint” copy of the 1955 Sun 78 release Listening to the clip a second time, I now heard how the rhythmic clicks were enmeshed in the texture, part of an all-consuming glorious wash of sound. When I had casually listened to the clip the first time around, I had unknowingly created a specific context for how I imagined and wanted slapback echo to sound, one that I could not reproduce in the classroom.


My point in sharing this anecdote is not to suggest that I have finally located the authentic “Mystery Train” sound. Rather, it is to acknowledge that in popular music studies, the main objects of our study, recorded songs, exist in liminal spaces, floating between different media, re-imaginations, and varying channels of communication. In my class I attempted to deploy the sound of “Mystery Train” as part of a strategic argument within the history of rock; I needed it to sound a certain way, but the song eluded my control. For those of us who interpret, analyze, and seek meaning in popular music, we constantly seek to control its sound. We often assume that our experience of popular music’s sound is a shared one, but sound can be more slippery than that. We can suggest and argue for ways of hearing, but those propositions come with no guarantees.

Sonic Borders Schedule

1/21 – Liana Silva, Sounding Out! – “I’m on My New York Sh*t”: Jean Grae’s Sonic Claims on the City

1/28 – Regina Bradley, Sounding Out! – I Like the Way You Rhyme, Boy: Hip Hop Sensibility and Racial Trauma in Django Unchained

2/4 – Marcus Boon, Sounding Out! – One Nation Under a Groove?: Music, Sonic Borders, and the Politics of Vibration

2/6 – Barry Shank, IASPM-US – On Popular Music Studies

2/11 – Tavia Nyong’o, Sounding Out! – Freedom Back: Sounding Black Feminist History, Courtesy the Artist

2/13 – Theo Cateforis, IASPM-US

2/18 – Tara Betts, Sounding Out!

2/20 – Shana L. Redmond, IASPM-US

2/25 – Airek Beauchamp, Sounding Out!

2/27 – Devon Powers, IASPM-US

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