African American writer Ralph Ellison’s classic 1955 essay, “Living with Music” matters much to me not just because of its famous insights about Black music and American culture in the year after racial desegregation was legally achieved by the historic Brown vs the Board of Education case. But because it historicizes Black listening practices in ways that profoundly shape my own scholarship and writing as well as my work as a field recordist and sound maker who works primarily with spaces marked by race and historical trauma. The essay begins by establishing the stakes of race, sound, and listening in a quite personal way: “In those days it was either live with music or die with noise, and we chose rather desperately to live” (Ellison, 1972, p.187). Due to this intimacy that blends the scholarly and critical register with the personal and autobiographical, the essay serves as a necessary introduction to my work since at the core of that work is the practice—well, habit—of soundwalking.
Soundwalking began informally for me, as a result of and response to my own peregrinations from country to country years before encountering the work of Ellison or composer, writer, and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer, to whom we owe the field of Acoustic Ecology and, along with composer and artist, Hildegard Westerkamp, the very notion of a soundwalk. As a habit, it also preceded my research into race, sound, and technology, the three elements which fatefully came together in the history of field recording. Field recording was important because I routed its history through the colonial practices of ethnography. Due to its occasional dependence on sound recording, ethnography was an early example of the technologization of cross-cultural encounters. It was also arguably the origins of our racialized modes of listening.
Ellison’s essay is not about soundwalking or field recording, nor does it make overt reference to Brown Vs the Board of Education. But it signals that latter event by expressing what would matter for my work most: his insights about sound and listening in a racially stratified and segregated nation. His was a nation where Black music, Black sound would have to bear the responsibility of crossing the cultural and social borders that Black people themselves would be forbidden to cross even after Brown Vs the Board of Education. That is why the politics of assimilation—and creolization—can be heard no clearer than in his aesthetically true yet perhaps politically optimistic statement that “in the United States when traditions are juxtaposed they tend, regardless of what we do to prevent it, irresistibly to merge” (Ellison, 1972, p.197).
That masterful essay, first published in the magazine High Fidelity, should by now be a foundational work of what we call Sound Studies; if not, then certainly, Black Sound Studies. It marks a crucial shift from a by then established history of Black sound-making and the nascent canonization of jazz to a focus on communal audition in contested social spaces. But even more centrally the essay explicitly marks its territory as that which exists beyond or outside of music—sound.
For those unfamiliar with the piece, it features a relentless back and forth between Ellison the former musician and aspirant writer, his neighbours, and indeed his entire Black urban community:
To our right, separated by a thin wall, was a small restaurant with a juke box the size of the Roxy. To our left, a night-employed swing enthusiast who took his lullaby music so loud that every morning promptly at nine Basie’s brasses started blasting my typewriter off its stand.(Ellison, 1972, p.187)
But it is his upstairs neighbour who catalyzes his complaints, transforming them into the foundational statement of competitive, auditory sociality that his essay is—a female vocalist whose material ranged from a “mastery of the bel canto style, German lieder, modern French art so, and a few American slave songs” (Ellison, 1972, p.190). It’s worth fully describing what Ellison hears because that’s where audition is emphasized and where sound and listening become increasingly centered in shared public space:
From morning to night she vocalized, regardless of the condition of her voice, the weather or my screaming nerves. There were times when her notes, sifting through her floor and my ceiling, bouncing down the walls and ricocheting off the building in the rear, whistling like tenpenny nails, buzzed like a saw, wheezed like the asthma of a Hercules, trumpeted like an enraged African elephant—and the squeaky pedal of her piano rested plumb center above my typing chair.(Ellison, 1972, p.190)
Music is secondary here, its resonances transformed into sound and materialized. Overwhelmed, Ellison decides to fight “noise with noise” despite the “ethical problem” of being an artist complaining about the work of another (Ellison, 1972, p.193). He doesn’t depend on his skills as a trumpet player to fight back, especially since yelling and banging on the wall proved unhelpful. What works comes from his discovery of what Jamaican reggae and dub producers would call “the implements of sound” (Chude-Sokei, 2018).
The reference here to Jamaican sound culture is neither random nor accidental, given that it is that culture that would introduce me to soundwalking in advance of reading Ellison’s Shadow and Act (1964) where I encountered ‘Living with Sound’. In Ellison’s case, those “implements” included the “booby trappings of audio equipment, wires, discs and tapes” and they allowed him to blast his upstairs neighbor with vinyl records (Ellison, 1972, p.187). Perhaps this is where we can see traces of a masculinism that would equate Black maleness with a mastery of the technologies of sonic reproduction and Black femaleness as a primarily acoustic, as in supposedly organic or unmediated, phenomenon.
Perhaps. It is certainly where we hear Ellison charting that early/mid-twentieth century shift in Black listening practices and their attendant imaginings of racial community from the acoustic to the electric, the rural to the urban. This shift was a product of changing Black and American soundscapes, particularly as migrants left the agrarian, Jim Crow South and migrated into a world defined by less physical space and more electricity. The latter would reshape their music and the cultures around it. As he exclaims, “Between the hi-fi record and the ear, I learned, there was a new electronic world” (Ellison, 1972, p.194).
Most important for field recording and soundwalking, which are for me twinned practices, is precisely Ellison’s emphasis on technology as well as his deployment of sound and sound recording gear in outdoor/communal/public space. Though soundwalking need not depend on microphones or recording equipment, for me both practices emerged from a relationship between listening and technology, as I will later describe. They shaped a relationship between my ears and what Lawrence English called the prosthetic ear of the microphone, aided, and abetted by increasingly accessible recording equipment (English, 2015, p.1). Black music is an index of this accessibility.
The sonic back and forth, played out in the cramped spaces of the apartment complex in which he and his sonic nemesis lived, describes a vision of competitive sociality that mirrors the “cutting contests” and sonic competitions among jazz musicians he documents in this and so many other famed essays on Black music. When I first read “Living with Sound” it was clear this wasn’t just the work of one of America’s greatest writers. Ellison was one of our great listeners. That his listening wandered and migrated, room to room, inside and outside, apartment to street, was familiar to me. The ambience, or more appropriately the “soundscape”, of Ellison’s community would return to me upon reading the work of R. Murray Schafer. After all, it was Schafer who proclaimed, “The blurring of the edges between music and environmental sounds may eventually prove to be the most striking feature of all twentieth-century music” (Schafer, 1994, p.111).
The loudest Island In the world
The language of Ellison’s listening should be quoted at length to make clear how this essay could resonate across the Atlantic, beyond the world of Jazz or even Black America to reach an exiled listener in Jamaica. This listener—me—knew even at an early age that the Black Diaspora was as shaped by sound as it was by race.
If, let us say, she were singing “Depuis le Jour” from Louise, I’d put on a tape of Bidu Sayao performing the same aria, and let the rafters ring. If it was some song by Mahler, I’d match her spitefully with Marian Anderson or Kathleen Ferrer; if she offended with something from Der Rosenkavalier, I’d attack her flank with Lotte Lehmann. If she brought me up from my desk with art songs by Ravel or Rachmaninoff, I’d defend myself with Maggie Teyte or Jennie Tourel. If she polished a spiritual to a meaningless artiness I’d play Bessie Smith to remind her of the earth out of which we came. Once in a while I’d forget completely that I was supposed to be a gentleman and blast her with Strauss’ Zarathustra, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, Ellington’s “Flaming Sword”, the famous crescendo from The Pines of Rome, or Satchmo scatting, “I’ll be Glad When You’re Dead” (you rascal you!). Oh, I was living with music with a sweet vengeance.
(Ellison, 1972, pp.195-196)
That the turntable would be used as a primary instrument, competitive with, if not on par with an organic performance, would be meaningful for me, as would the suggestion that listening was neither passive nor innocent. As Ellison is honest enough to admit,
For instead of soothing, music seemed to release the beast in me. Now when jarred from my writer’s reveries by some especially enthusiastic flourish of our singer, I’d rush to my music system with blood in my eyes and burst a few decibels in her direction. If she defied me with a few more pounds of pressure against her diaphragm, then a war of decibels was declared.(Ellison, 1972, p.195)
Though the essay specifies the songs and musical forms involved in this back and forth, what is most important in this exchange is neither genre nor the quality of recorded performance. The ability to select between and among songs and genres and performances is clearly important to this sonic combat; but most important is volume, and the ability to modulate sound in public space and deploy volume and pressure as power and discourse. All these elements became racialized in that they were tinged with the desire to blend—or merge, as Ellison would have it—as well as the enduring habit of fighting back.
Growing up in Jamaica, I came of age in a culture obsessed with sound, specifically bass, and volume. Ellison’s “pounds of pressure” and “war of decibels” resonated powerfully. On this racially stratified Caribbean Island, music and sound blended openly with issues of violence, and masculinity, and public space was always contested, often violently. One could not help but walk with sound because silence was so rare as to seem impossible. Hearing the island referred to by its residents as the loudest island in the world, and its capital Kingston as the loudest city in the world, was a common statement of cultural pride and complaint whether it was true or not.
In my reading, then, “Living with Sound” merely described what was called a “sound clash” on the island I grew up in after arriving there from West Africa in the very early 1970s. That this culture would send migrants to the United States in that same period, who would inspire the culture of Hip Hop and its Dj/turntable battles would be no accident. Some would call this period the golden age of the island’s most cherished cultural institutions, the Sound System. More specifically, the essay describes a dub fi dub session where selectors (those who selected and spun the vinyl records for a sound system) battled with each other in the island heat. Some of these battles could get violent as embarrassed rivals sabotaged equipment or enthusiastic gunmen fired shots of appreciation in the air. So, before being exposed to critics and theorists of sound and warfare, it was clear that sound was or could be violence and/or a form of resistance simply by walking through the streets of the island’s major cities and on many beaches as well.
These mobile discotheques emerged on the eve of decolonization and were products of a predominantly Black working class who had little access to technology or control over colonial media. Sound systems may have begun as little more than glorified jukeboxes but, by the moment of independence from Britain, had evolved into massive and elaborate institutions with towering speakers, built and engineered mostly by the natives themselves. And in playing music chosen and then produced by the Black masses, these cherished cultural institutions could claim some degree of responsibility for the process of cultural decolonization that began before formal independence.
Sound system events were largely outdoors in Jamaica, and so they were inescapable. Tune for tune, back and forth at volumes so high the space between music and environment was blurred, especially given that audience responses were expected and incorporated into the soundscape along with a native obsession with echo and reverb. These effects would begin to define the music, particularly that subgenre of reggae that would become central to my listening, my writing, my research, and my recording—dub.
This obsession with echo and reverb was more than simply a fetishizing of sonic gimmickry or else it would not have become definitive of the music of that era. It clearly spoke to some cultural need. There was something there about the joys of exploring technology via sound but also about redefining and claiming space, and about self-expansion and duplication. Echo, for example, suggested so much about space and the manipulation of time and memory and sound. As a child on the island, I remember my friends attempting to speak in echo like the great performers of that era who replicated analog echo effects in their vocal style, singers like Michael Rose, Echo Minott, the great Jacob Miller, and Eek-A-mouse. And in response, producers like Scientist, Peter Chemist, King Jammy, and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry would suffuse the music in thickets of echo, dense like mangrove swamps. It is because of this shared obsession that I eventually named my overall field recording and sonic archiving project Echolocution, the dialect of echoes, the language of space.
At times it seemed as if the very environment was replaced by this extreme sonic activity, much to the consternation of those living on the peripheries of bass and those others who could afford to shield themselves with silence. It’s worth pointing out the obvious fact that these institutions were not called music systems despite being ostensibly a delivery system for music, initially to people with less access to radios and stereos and who rightly acknowledged that island media was racist and colonial. It was the Black refusal to engage colonial radio—most notably the BBC and its island variants—that fed sound systems and the culture that quickly formed around them, which became sites of alternative social organization as well as supporting and fomenting resistant cultural movements, from the criminal rude boy sub-culture to the Rastafarians for whom the power of sound was a religious tenet.
They were also not called reggae systems. Sound systems were explicitly focused on sound, as was Ellison’s great essay. They were where the “booby trappings of audio equipment” were fetishized, as signs of a modernity that could be claimed, rewired by native abilities, and shaped by what they assumed was ancestral wisdom. Technologies like microphones and speakers, and eventually mixers and effects. Sound men kept the gear pristine, at least until the dust of the dance covered the subs and tweeters where apprentice “sound boys” would fight each other for the right to keep those clean.
Outside of churches or perhaps on television or on record album covers, it was in sound systems where one first encountered these machines. They became signs of power, particularly for young men, and mastery of them a sign of masculinity. As a young listener in Jamaica and in Caribbean immigrant communities in America and England after leaving the island, the obsession with wires, knobs, levers, and machinery characteristic of sound system operators would follow me. As would their practices of listening.
This obsession shaped my work because, as with Ellison, listening without the ability to respond and record seemed incomplete. A sound required a counter-sound, just as in the Black Diaspora a call required a response. That response was in this case a technological one and could be amplified and manipulated. Therefore, on the island and throughout its Black immigrant communities who spread the culture of sound systems globally, the obsession with technology was and is indistinguishable from the love of music.
Race and the soundscape
Years now after my encounter with Jamaica, R. Murray Schafer and dub-masters/sound system operators like the iconic King Tubby, Scientist, or Lee Scratch Perry, I can reduce the insights of Ellison’s essay into something epigrammatic or aphoristic.
Music teaches us to listen, but it merely prepares us for sound.
And sound prepares us for something else, which continues to guide my use of the prosthetic ear as I listen to and for relationships between space, sound, and race. R. Murray Schafer names this ineffable something else in the introduction to his famed treatise from 1977, The Soundscape: The Tuning of the World when he declares, “All research into sound must conclude with silence.” (Schafer, 1994, p.12).
Of course, silence is impossible. As any field recordist, experimental composer, or many soundwalkers would agree, it is merely a word used to describe the inaudible. It describes the myriad of sounds we shut out.
Possibly the first thing one learns when one begins field recording is that most listening is silencing, a filtering out of information unconducive to our preferred or expected auditory foci.
In Lawrence English’s words, the prosthetic ear “fails to extract signal from empirical noise” and so on playback, upon engaging the machine’s listening, one is immersed in a soundscape shaped largely by our prejudices (English, 2015, p.1). We are familiar with this process of bias when it comes to the visual register. We in fact have much language for the interplay of the visual and many types of bias or discrimination. However, the sonic equivalent of these forms of filtering can be trickier to acknowledge, hence the value and potential of field recording and soundwalking. They bring attention to what we do not, or at times refuse to, hear and they can make that refusal the object of consideration.
On the edges of a sound system—provided you didn’t become interpellated by the aural regime of another—your hearing was exhausted by the high wattage and wide frequency range. Bass pressure deafened the ears, which worked to amplify physical responses to the sound. Only echo and random filter sweeps cut through the rumble and thud. Upon returning to volitional hearing, details became clearer. Exhausted and deafened, one’s ears worked harder to make sense of the soundscape and to become more receptive to what had previously been filtered out of it. The moment the ability to note fine details returned, the pleasure was palpable, like sudden subjectivity.
Due to this cultural training one couldn’t help but become more sensitive to quotidian sounds and all the details that had been silenced due to bias or familiarity. In my case, I worked harder to listen to the marketplace and seashore, “rat-bats” hurling past our ears in the night dark, crickets, peanut sellers, and, in Nigeria, endless village songs, and bottles clinking together gently but loud enough to signal the roadside presence of illegal brew. Or when I arrived in America, boomboxes from the windows of city busses or the deep bass rattle of souped-up lowriders in South Central LA. It was likely these dynamic contrasts that inspired me to spend hours on the edges of sound systems or African markets or public music events, or street corners, walking through these and other environments with half-closed eyes. These were my first soundwalks.
Again, soundwalking and field recording are twinned practices. Not just for me, but for many, especially with the advent of affordable, high-quality microphones and digital recorders. Not to mention smartphones and the range of sophisticated recording/editing applications that have enabled these practices to leave the rarefied provinces of anthropology, ethnography, sound art, and experimental music. As they should, especially since those practices have generated cultural spaces that can alienate listeners of color even though unofficial forms of soundwalking and rituals of non-musical listening are common to many cultures. There is much to be gained by these practices becoming mundane in the way applications like Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and others have given rise to a global culture of visual flânerie. Admittedly, this culture is highly mediated and shot through with voyeurism and forms of spectatorship reminiscent of colonial encounters. But it is also true that these visual and technological cultures have been embraced and innovated by people of color across the planet, just as sound recording has.
The popularity and ubiquity of these new and highly accessible visual applications should remind us that the focus on listening that defines field recording and soundwalking can allow listeners to explore realms of affective and political power that the image has either lost or seen wither due to that ubiquity. That is why it’s important to keep in mind that a politics of sound was already built into field recording due to its nineteenth-century origins in colonial, cross-cultural encounters. It is where machines—beginning with wax cylinders — attempted to collapse the geographic sprawl of empire and make it sensible, immediate, intimate, and affective for the white listener in ways the visual register could not. The prosthetic ear, or mechanized, non-cognitive listening attempted to render legible peoples and cultures organized by colonial power. It aurally reduced the sprawl of empire and its echoes into an apprehensible and containable whole with an intimacy that visual images could not replicate.
This political history was even more clear to me after research into the history of field recording, particularly as it would help construct a notion of “world music” in the wake of the Berlin School of Comparative Musicology in the nineteenth century. Ironically, much of the music played on sound systems was still called “world music” by Western consumers. But in Jamaica this music seemed eager to reject or critique colonial worlding by being explicitly about colonialism, migration, and racism. And those who made and consumed it developed and articulated associations between sounds and culture—for example, the bass as cultural and racial movement; drum rhythms as collective heartbeats; minor keys as “Ethiopian”; certain tones as “African”; and as always, echo as distance, memory, the loss of origins. Though steeped in racial essentialism and an often lethal masculinism, this was an alternative lexicon of listening generated by differential and politicized modes of listening.
Despite his own questionable racial attitudes, Schafer validated some of the above political concerns in The Soundscape when he establishes his goal of determining “in what significant ways individuals and societies of various historical eras listen differently” (Schafer, 1994, p.151). As a product of social worlds that largely engaged in racial discourse through music, it was no great stretch to then reframe Schafer’s goal with my own: to explore how different cultures and social groups listened, especially since differences in sound-making or listening were almost always attributed to race.
And if sound could be coded in historical terms of colonialism, slavery, pride, resistance, and desire, could it also code or narrate distinct notions of the future?
Remember, Schafer begins his influential work with a statement that Ellison would no doubt have found sympathetic to his own thinking “the general acoustic environment of a society can be read as an indicator of social conditions which produce it and may tell us much about the trending and evolution of that society” (Schaffer, 1994, p.7).
With Ellison, Schafer, and my history with sound systems, the twinned practices of field recording and soundwalking became semi-formalized. This was after painfully acknowledging that music making had only prepared me for a more focused kind of cultural listening via recording technology. The goal became how to capture sound, but also silence because it too carried semantic, historical, and cultural freight, particularly the traces of all that had been silenced or filtered out. I wanted to know how best to record and read those worlds opened by hyper-sensitive microphones. Those worlds revealed themselves through what listening to silence reveals, which is primarily space.
We acknowledge that different cultures have distinct notions or systems of value that distinguish between noise and music. I was curious to learn if they had different conceptions of silence or absence. What did silence mean or trigger? How do different cultures, social groups, and communities conceive of their “general acoustic environment,” or space itself? And how to record space in ways that capture the distinctiveness of an environment without the exoticism that still clings to field recording?
Space, after all, is what registers when principal sounds disappear from the field of perception or when the ambience around those sounds exerts enough pressure to impress themselves on the recording.
As a field recordist and one who walks with sound, space is never empty, and emptiness is never immaterial—and I mean this more than just in terms of metaphor or associative cultural meanings. Sound, for example, travels differently in different temperatures due to humidity and the vagaries of atmosphere, and so silence—the inaudible—varies as much as does noise. Sound enters the body differently depending on location, reverberates differently (comparing subwoofers from sound systems in Jamaica with those in Brixton would teach me that). Microphones are sensitive to all of this, and operate differently from space to space, and so echo and reverb, or even equalization, are affected by location. I wanted to register and understand the cultural effects of these differences, not only in terms of how people in those places produce sound (music, language, echo) but how they relate to memory and space.
My research into ethnographic listening would only affirm my political goals and cultural interests because though we associate field recording with ethnic, indigenous, folk, and immigrant music, one of its most enduring products is in fact space. Not just the replication of the environs of the native via microphone placement or other on-site decisions in which one emphasized the foreign, the primitive. But as microphones became increasingly sensitive over the course of the twentieth century, and their directional capacities increased, the prosthetic ear couldn’t help but capture the texture of life as represented by the space surrounding the primary sound object or subject. The room, the valley, the prickly heat, the storm became audible. These previous silences became even more noticeable in the epochal move from analog, tape-based recording to digital.
But it was no great leap from the recording of “ethnic” or “native” music and peoples from the late nineteenth century to the explosion of “exotica” in the wake of domestic hi-fi stereo technology in the 1950s, and to the popularization of field recordings in the commercial boom of “nature” sounds in the 1970s featuring oceans, environments, birds, and especially whales. Both represent forms of colonial or Eurocentric listening and/or auditory spectatorship. However, that latter work was also driven by ecological concerns, and it attempted to force consumers to revise a relationship to the environment that was rooted in the extractive dynamics of colonial power. One could at least find or hear in it some traces of a desire to revise or reject colonial dynamics.
In my thinking, such a rejection or revision is arguably built into field recording and soundwalking. Where the former is inextricable from its colonial history, the latter is well poised to critique and reshape the former by establishing different relationships to sound, space, race, and memory. The tension between the two practices partly explains my focus on spaces that have been impacted if not defined by historical trauma. Such spaces tend to be overdetermined by their histories—as field recordist Chris Watson has said, “events haunt spaces” Another way of saying this is history contaminates place, and there may be no greater or more powerful way of experiencing hauntings, place, and history than by receptive postures of listening.
Watson’s insight also reminds us that listeners are already contaminated by the histories, associations, and meanings of a particular location, and so the spaces I choose are not assumed to be neutral. In encouraging history to bleed into present listening—allowing space to speak, as it were—soundwalking enables a critique of the colonial postures of field recording where an environment and those who occupied it were often mere agents of the listener’s personal and cultural fantasies.
It is well known that such postures were present in Schafer’s practice and theory, which was riddled with a bucolic romanticism and an anthropocentrism that centered the perspective of the kind of listener and cultural subject he was. Though I do not believe that listening can ever truly be non-anthropocentric, and a black male listener can also be riddled with perspectival and social privileges, the kind of listening my work prizes is decidedly non-deterministic, migrant. Perhaps because my work as a writer and scholar depends so much on interpretive and ideological frameworks, I fetishize a listening that challenges even my strongest political inclinations. Such inclinations, after all, often emerge from modes of self-justification that we mask with ideology. Hence also my resistance to manifesto or formalized methodology. My practice uses field recording and soundwalking with and against each other to explore what Ralph Ellison discovers in the contested public space of involuntary listening described in “Living with Music”: “I was forced to listen, and in listening I soon became involved to the point of identification” (Ellison, 1972, p.193).
In other words, sound does not separate. It does not absolve. Sound stains. It forces an identification with the other and other histories despite the differential social, economic, racial, or cultural locations of the listener. Sound blurs self and other, the past and the present, and can be used to make history more palpable and affective. This is because listening implicates, which is the primary thing I seek to make audible. It renders us complicit in the joys and crimes of history via listening to spaces scarred by those joys and crimes and the memories of life in between. As such, history becomes inescapably intimate and shared. Indeed, simply inescapable. This is likely why Ellison is able to declare in “Living with Sound” that “Identification, after all, involves feelings of guilt or responsibility” (Ellison, 1972, p.189).
From: SOUNDWALKING Through Time, Space and Technologies, Edited by Jacek Smolicki, Copyright © 2023 by ROUTLEDGE. Reproduced by permission of Taylor & Francis Group. Special thanks to the author for obtaining permission to re-publish this article.
Chude-Sokei, L. (2018) ‘Dr. Satan’s Echo Chamber: Reggae, Technology and the Diaspora Process’, Popular Inquiry: Journal of Kitsch, Camp and Mass Culture. Available at:(accessed: April 16,2022).
Ellison, R. (1964/1972) Shadow and Act. New York: Vintage Books.
English, L. (2015) ‘Relational Listening: The Politics of Perception’, Contemporary Music Review, 36(3). Available at: (accessed: April 16, 2022)
Schafer, R.M. (1994) Our Sonic Environment and The Soundscape: The Tuning of the World. Vermont: Destiny Books.
Watson, C. (2017) ‘Chris Watson on the Spirit of Places’, Sonic Field. Available at: (accessed:April 16,2022).