Few books shine quite so spectacularly as Anahid Kassabian’s ground-breaking Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity. Kassabian has held important positions in academia, including the James and Constance Alsop Chair of Music at the University of Liverpool and previously chaired the Literary Studies Program at Fordham University in New York City. Published in 2013 by The University of California Press, this slim but powerful volume introduces readers to innovative new ideas while repositioning the field of music study itself in light of post-Kantian philosophy. Taking a cue from distributive computing, Kassabian takes music analysis from a purportedly objective position to a more pluralistic, distributive “we/they.” It’s an important distinction which posits that we listen or hear in a distributive way, partially at times and more attentively at others. Yet we always remain apart from the music itself and an “other place(s)” that it takes us to — sometimes simultaneously. By theorizing Muzak and the music — or noise — that one hears every day in places like Starbucks and department stores, Kassabian manages to introduce an entire new field of study — her second or third such prestidigitation — while calling attention to the background music that we usually dismiss. Along the way she also beautifully analyses the work of three Armenian video artists — Diana Hakobyan, Sonia Balassanian, and Tina Bastajian, placing an emphasis on the aural/sound track as much as the visual elements in each video. She then turns her attention to three Armenian jazz bands — The Armenian Navy Band, Night Ark, and Taksim — and explains how her relationship to these three internationally renowned music groups helped her to re-insert herself into an Armenian culture that she had turned away from because of its conservative and patriarchal nature.
Kassabian’s ability to weave Armenian culture in and out of otherwise mainstream observations and analyses is the least of her talents. After finishing her book, I found myself paying special attention to the music that surrounds me — at Starbucks, in my local pizzeria, and overheard on speakers on the A Train — paying special attention to sound, now ubiquitous, now everywhere. The point, of course, is that the music has always been there, we just usually integrate it into our everyday experience to the point that we don’t notice it anymore. And hidden away in our everyday experience of ambient or ubiquitous hearing is a fascinating double history — one “hi” and one “lo” — in mainstream terms. The “hi” version takes us back to the turn of the 20th century and French composer Erik Satie’s “Musique d’ameublement” and on up through John Cage who with his partner, the choreographer Merce Cunningham, emphasized environmental sound.
The other parallel, “lo” history belongs to General George Owen Squier who created Wired Radio — or Muzak as we now know it — and its many “stimulus progression patents.”
Though Kassabian does not quite position him thus, I kind of see Brian Eno as navigating a fascinating world between the Saties and Cages on the one hand, and Muzak on the other.
Along the way, Kassabian also considers films such as the Wachowskis’ “The Matrix” series and “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” where often computer-simulated image and sound, rather than traditional plot and acting, propel the action forward. While these are not always the most felicitous adventures in the cinematic arts, they are definitely a new trope or type of filmmaking, perhaps in parallel with more traditional modes of cinema on the one hand, and completely experimental ones on the other.
In a related instance, Kassabian looks at the veritable onslaught of campy musical episodes in TV series such as “Family Guy” and “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,” which helped in the mid-1990s to mid-2000’s in recapturing viewer attention after a period of what I call “TV fatigue.”
Since Kassabian’s book was published, the “Original Series” concept on channels such as Amazon and Netflix have in a sense morphed film and TV by providing high-level filmed entertainment, told over 4-to-6 episodes, where attention to history, plot development and such hold greater sway.
The sixth and last chapter of Kassabian’s book, “Would you like some World Music in Your Latte?,” is to my mind perhaps the most interesting because it examines the notion of entanglement, i.e., how our identities are in fact fluid and change from even hour-to-hour. I’m drawn to this chapter not least because Kassabian uses The Olive Garden as an example — a restaurant chain that I have always had a secret craving to eat at but never in fact walked inside.
My craving continues to this day in spite of the fact that by all accounts the food served is mediocre and overpriced and in spite of the fact that I have eaten in five-star Italian restaurants in New York and elsewhere — including Italy! — and that my mother was Italian and cooked up a pretty mean dish of pasta. Interestingly enough, if I recall correctly, the Olive Garden did in fact get into trouble at one point for claiming in a commercial that their chefs were sent to Tuscany for “authentic” training in all things Italian — a plain untruth, but one which should perhaps shock no one at this point in the ad game. Yet knowing all this, I am still tempted by the atmosphere created in their ads, and the supposedly “authentic” Italian music that is able to ubiquitously induce a craving that is really a 360-degree entertainment experience (of which music is one key element) in even the sharpest of cultural critics. (And images and music of what, exactly? Supposedly Italian guests having an Italian blast of it God knows where listening to purportedly Italian tunes?)
Finally let’s backtrack a bit to Chapter 5 and a surprising anecdote where Kassabian relates attending a “Kef for Kerry” fundraising event in 2004 in support of the then Democratic presidential contender John Kerry. The concert included Gor Mkhitaryan, John Bilezikjian, and Cascade Folk trio — all excellent acts. It was surprising first to find an overwhelmingly progressive and Democratic Armenian crowd and surprising as well for the success that these three disparate acts had in bringing together perhaps equally disparate elements of the Armenian diaspora.
I would like to merge the image of this concert with another point that Kassabian makes elsewhere — namely that one’s identity as an Armenian — or any other such notion of self — is never really fixed. The author understands herself as being somehow differently Armenian in different contexts: more progressive in some, more feminist in others; more assertive in some and more defensive in others. “We” are in a sense all ubiquitously Armenian while experiencing what that means in multitudinous ways — just as our identity changes depending on who we are with in general and what music may or may not be surrounding us. If I am not misreading just as the three jazz bands (The Armenian Navy Band, Night Ark and Taksim) that she examines elsewhere served as “points of Armenian re-entry” for Kassabian, this concert helped to focalize the idea that she, having been away from the Armenian community at one point, had in fact still remained Armenian, if differently so.
Anahid Kassabian (Photo courtesy of www.soundmediaculture.net/)
Along the way in these engaging essays Kassabian also considers the ever-changing technological landscape-at-large, which includes an almost limitless number of apps (iPhone, Android) that recognize, identify, teach and generate music. Kassabian divides these music-related apps into nine categories, but I am sure that today, even more exist! These can of course be subsumed under the increasing trillions of gigabytes of entertainment/content/other information produced daily by companies or by individual users sitting at home or in cafés at laptops like the one that I am currently using in order to write this review. And finally, as with reader reception theory in literature, the fascinating question of “do we hear” or “do we listen” (and how do we interpret either/both) unearths another can of theoretical worms that I think must bring neuro- and cognitive sciences in to get at a better idea of why and when we actually process heard information—and how.
All these things and more are unravelled, presented, analysed and debated in just a 120 -page book. How does Kassabian achieve all these things? I think in the end by doing what all truly good scholars and writers should always do: by asking the right questions and by judging without being judgmental. It’s an admittedly difficult task, but one that “Ubiquitous Listening” achieves with brio. Anyone who loves music or who simply has an inquisitive mind will take joy in reading this truly original and whimsical work.
Purchase “Ubiquitous Listening”: https://www.abebooks.com/9780520275164/Ubiquitous-Listening-Affect-Attention-Distributed-0520275160/plp
Learn more at Anahid Kassabian’s Web Page: http://anahidkassabian.org