Resonances: Music, Affect, and the City

The header from the poster for the "Resonances" conference.

Header taken from the “Resonances” poster

Last week, I organized a two-day conference here in Berlin, which took the affective dimensions of urban soundscapes as its central theme. Running November 7th–8th at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, the conference featured a mix of scholarly presentations and discussion panels that included professionals out of Berlin’s local music scene, as well as  music/sound-related evening events  (see the conference program at the end of this post).  I’m still recovering from the whole thing (as well as from an opportunistic flu that jumped into my body as soon as the conference came to a close), but I wanted to post some of my impressions of the conference, while they are still vivid in my memory. Considering the vanishingly small operating budget and a similarly tight planning period, I’m somewhat amazed I was able to pull it off at all.

Plans for this conference first arose last July, just as my fellowship at the Max Planck Institute was being renewed for another six months. Organizing a conference was a condition for my renewal, and so I had about 4-5 months to put everything together. Over July and August, I bounced some ideas back and forth with Harvard ethnomusicologist Peter McMurray, who eventually proposed the idea of partnering with Harvard’s Sawyer Seminar, “Hearing Modernity.” The very short notice for the conference made it impracticable to circulate a Call for Abstracts in a timely fashion, so I spent much of August and September (in addition to my own research projects) calling on my scholarly networks and searching for Berlin-based scholars with compatible research interests. At around this time, one of the student research assistants at the Max Planck Institute, Oliver Zauritz, graciously offered to help with conference-planning. By mid-September, we had a keynote speaker and a preliminary program. By the end of September, we had a full conference funding proposal ready to submit to the board of directors. By mid-October, we had a lovely poster drafted by the Desktop Publishing department at the Institute (see below) as well as a press release circulated by the PR department in German and English. By late October, we were printing the program, planning the evening programming, printing the name-tags, ordering the catering, organizing the meeting room…and dozens of other small details that escape my memory.

Certainly one of the highlights of the conference was the Keynote Address, given by Harvard jazz scholar Ingrid Monson. Her lecture, “Improvisation and the Sensory Turn in Music Studies,” provided conference-goers with a common theoretical framework for discussing sonic perception that helped bring a diverse set of scholarly perspectives into dialogue. Using recorded examples from jazz and African xylophone repertoires, she showed how the experience of sound combines both active and passive modes of perception, thus providing the listener with a degree of agency while also limiting and shaping her perceptual options through particular effects. The notion of “perceptual agency” would come up repeatedly over the course of the conference.

Although scholarly presentations served as the core of the conference’s programming, I was pleasantly surprised at how much interest the roundtable discussions garnered. The academic participants all seemed to be enthusiastic about having the opportunity to be exposed to actors from an actually-existing, local musical community. The roundtables brought in music journalists, musical artists, record label managers, record shop managers, tech-sector entrepreneurs, tourism-industry professionals, nightclub-sector lobbyists, arts-funding brokers, and music-festival organizers. In fact, our highest turnout for the entire conference was probably during the first roundtable session on Thursday afternoon, when representatives from Berghain, Resident Advisor, Red Bull Music Academy, Hardwax, and many more were all sitting together on the same panel. I think that part of what made these panels exciting for music scholars was the opportunity to see present-day tensions regarding cultural production playing out “in the flesh”: the first roundtable ended with a lively debate about the usefulness of music-recognition software for performance-rights collecting agencies (see my GEMA article for Resident Advisor), and the second roundtable provided stark (and sometimes tense) contrasts between the business philosophies of underground festival organizers, nightlife-sector lobbyists, and hospitality-industry management.

Another highlight on both days was the evening events. Although not everyone from the conference was able to follow us to these events, those who did really appreciated having the opportunity to experience Berlin’s local music and art scenes. Our Thursday evening event took place at Shift, which is located in a disused Vattenfall electrical plant, right next door to the present-day Tresor club. The first two hours of the event were programmed with “phonographies” by various artists—that is, soundscapes and other forms of sound-art that also capture something about a particular place and time, such as the sound of praise singing in Senegal or urban life in Cairo. From 23:00 onwards, we featured a range of music performances, starting with a more atmospheric and experimental live-set by Blue Reed, followed by a deep techno set by Myako, and concluded with a darker techno set by Irakli (of I/Y).

Friday evening’s event was hosted by artist and professor Brandon LaBelle at his Errant Bodies art-space. As part of the closing reception, LaBelle constructed his interactive multimedia installation, “Temporary Outpost for an Auditory Figure,” which resonated with several of the conference’s themes while also raising new questions. In a room lit by pale blue lightbulbs, several tables had been set up and labeled with a sound-related keyword such as vibration, echo, and feedback. At each “station” there was a computer playing an loop of video that explores each “auditory figure,” using images, sound, video, and spoken word. Next to each computer was a binder filled with documentation related to each keyword: newspaper clippings, advertisements, excerpts of scholarly texts, printouts from internet sites. Nearby, there was a bookcase filled with more binders, each carrying pages and pages of further documentation. The experience was immersive, and it was almost impossible to take it all in.

And Friday evening was also immeasurably enriched by the culinary performance of Tommy Tannock, of Bite Club fame. Tommy prepared finger-foods for us in three courses: savory Basque pintxos, spicy Sichuan and Japanese dishes (including quick-marinated radishes, hundred-year egg with chili oil-black vinegar dip, and kakuni), and French macarons. It was a refreshing change to two days of German institutional food.

Aside from the highlights, however, what will remain with me the most is probably how immensely helpful and capable some of the Max Planck support staff were. The Desktop Printing department took a simple Adobe Illustrator drawing I had cobbled together and made a lovely poster in the space of an afternoon (see link below). Once I had finalized our program, they were also quick to prepare printed programs with the same graphic styling; and, closer to the conference date, they prepared name tags, conference packets, and table place cards on very short notice. The people at the Reception were also quick to handle the front-of-house concerns, such as ordering specially-sized versions of the poster for the board near the entrance, adding the poster to the electronic info-column, posting the conference schedule outside the meeting room, and managing the coat check. Both the IT person and the Hausmeister were attentive and quick when it came to planning the actual layout and set-up of the meeting rooms. And, finally, the Cafeteria staff were able to put provide meals and coffee breaks to our conference-goers while still serving lunch to the rest of the MPI’s staff. While this conference was still a difficult, stressful thing to pull off, I can only imagine how much harder it would’ve been without their help!

Conference Program (PDF): Programm_Resonances_Konferenz_131030_02

Conference Poster (PDF):  Poster_Resonances_Konferenz_131021_02

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