On Phantom Power, Mack Hagood explores the world of sound in the arts, music, and culture. Deep but accessible, each episode features the sounds and ideas of a contemporary artist, musician, or sound scholar. Detailed production makes these more than just interviews--they're movies for your mind.
Ep. 28: “On Listening In” ft. Lawrence English (Re-cast)
Today, in honor of World Listening Day, we rebroadcast our story on renowned Australian sound composer, media artist and curator Lawrence English.
This episode of gets deep into English’s own listening practices as an artist, specifically a technique he calls Relational Listening. In fact, as you’ll hear, he describes himself not as a sound maker but as a professional listener—that’s how central the act of listening is to his artistic practice.
In particular he talks about his reworking of an important work in the fields of musique concrète and field recording, Presque Rien by Luc Ferrari, and the recent premiere of Wave Fields, his own 12-hour durational sound installation for sleepers at Burleigh Heads in Queensland as part of the Bleach* Festival.
Lawrence is interested in the nature of listening and the capability of sound to occupy a body. Working across an eclectic array of aesthetic investigations, English’s work prompts questions of field, perception and memory. He investigates the politics of relation listening and perception, through live performance, field recordings and installation.
The show includes extracts from the following tracks:
Album: Cruel Optimism: "Hammering a Screw."
Album: Wilderness of Mirrors: "Wilderness of Mirrors," "Wrapped in Skin."
Album: Songs of the Living: "Trigona Carbonaria Hive Invasion, Brisbane Australia," "Cormorants Flocking At Dusk Amazon Brazil," "Various Chiroptera Samford Australia."
Album: Ghost Towns: "Ghost Towns."
Album: Kiri No Oto: "Soft Fuse."
Luc Ferrari: Presque Rien.
[♪ ethereal music playing ♪]
This… is… Phantom Power.
On Listening In.
[buzzing sounds fade in, and fade out as Cris begins to speak]
The hive of the sugarbag bee, endemic to northeastern Australia.
[loud music starts abruptly]
The first notes of a piece called…
[more loud notes]
Hammering the Screw.
[scratching noises and metallic noises begin]
Found objects – a 44 gallon drum, a ghost town in far northern Australia.
Just some small extracts from recordings made by today’s guest.
It’s Phantom Power, sounds about sound. That’s Cris Cheek, and I’m Mack Hagood.
[LAWRENCE ENGLISH, pre-recorded]
I’m Lawrence English, and I have been described as a professional listener.
[bullfrog sounds fade in]
Which does make me sound like a very second-rate therapist.
But, it is the kind of thing that I spend a lot of time do...
Ep. 27: Emotional Rescue (Mack Hagood)
What can sound technologies tell us about our relationship to media as a whole? This is one of the central questions in the research of Phantom Power's host, Mack Hagood. To find its answer, he studies devices that get little attention from media scholars: noise-cancelling headphones, white noise machines, apps that make nature sounds, tinnitus maskers--even musical pillows. The story these media tell is rather different from the standard narrative, in which media are conveyors of information and entertainment. In his book Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control, Mack argues that media are the way we control how--and how much--we let the world affect us.
On Phantom Power, Mack has always focused on presenting the ideas of other scholars and sound artists. However, during our summer break we thought we'd share a piece by Mack that appeared in another podcast, the audio edition of Real Life, a razor-sharp magazine on digital culture. "Emotional Rescue" begins with the odd example of pillow-based audio technology to make the point that media are really about something more intimate than information:
The cozy conflation of content and comfort... is not a recent digital development. Nor is it, I would argue, a quirky edge case of media use. In fact, this is what media are: tools for altering how the body feels and what it perceives, controlling our relationship to others and the world, enveloping ourselves, and even disappearing ourselves.
Misunderstanding the true nature of our media use isn't merely of academic concern--it has had disastrous effects on our politics and social cohesion.
The article was written for the Real Life website, then subsequently dropped in podcast form. Writing for the eye is quite different from writing for the ear, but podcast producer and narrator Britney Gil is amazing at elucidating written prose for the listener. If you listen to nonfiction audiobooks and/or want to hear a great narrator reading insightful takes on digital life, be sure to subscribe to Real Life: Audio Edition.
"Emotional Rescue" by Mack Hagood:
Ep. 26: Lightning Birds (Jacob Smith)
Today we present the first episode of Jacob Smith’s new eco-critical audiobook, Lightning Birds: An Aeroecology of the Airwaves. In this audio-only book, Smith uses expert production to craft a wildly original argument about the relations between radio and bird migration. The rest of the book is available, free of charge, from The University of Michigan Press, but this introduction is a great standalone experience that we think Phantom Power listeners will delight in. It tells a truly unique cultural history of radio, describes important scientific discoveries about bird migration through interviews with key researchers, and continues exploring Smith's singular mode of ecocriticism, combining text-based scholarship with sound art, music, and audio storytelling.
Professor Jacob Smith is Director of the Masters in Sound Arts and Industries Program at Northwestern University and author of numerous books. He is a cultural historian focused on media and sound who never fails to come at his subject matter from an oblique and completely original angle. His first three books focused on the relationship between the media technologies that developed over the course of the twentieth century—the phonograph, radio, film, and TV—and the kinds of performance styles we have come to expect from performers. For example, his 2008 book Vocal Tracks tackles questions such as how radio changed acting and why fake laugh tracks developed on television—and why we feel so weird about canned laughter.
In recent years, Jacob Smith’s work has changed in a couple of ways. Thematically, he took a hard turn towards environmental criticism. His 2015 book Eco-Sonic Media lays out an agenda for studying the negative environmental effects of media culture while also telling a strange alternate history of “green” sound technologies: hand-cranked gramophones with eco-friendly shellac records and needles sourced from cacti instead of diamonds. His next book maintained this eco-critical perspective while revolutionizing the format of the scholarly book. 2019’s ESC: Sonic Adventure in the Anthropocene was a 10-part audiobook that mined golden age radio shows and sound art to explore the dawn of the Anthropocene era, in which humans emerged as the primary force affecting earth systems. In episode 12 of this podcast, we played an excerpt of that book and interviewed Jake about the process of crafting a book-length scholarly argument in sound by sampling sounds from other eras. Lightning Birds continues this Smith's work in this innovative vein.
Ep. 25: For Some Odd Reason (Kate Carr)
Today’s guest, Kate Carr, is an accomplished sound artist and field recordist whose recent work grapples with issues of communication and longing—themes we can all relate to in the Covid era.
In part one of the show, we mark Phantom Power’s three-year anniversary and 25th episode. Mack does a little thinking out loud about the different kinds of audio work that we've featured over the past three years. The terminology and practices for audio work always seem to be in flux—and people can have completely different terms for similar kinds of work. Mack imagines a spectrum of sound work, from more materialist genres like musique concrete to more conceptual or idealist genres like the audiobook, which emphasize meaning over form. In the end, the spectrum eats its own tail—the material is always conceptual and the conceptual is always material. Sound is always both resonance and meaning and the two can never be completely teased apart. Signal and noise are one.
Ep. 20: What is Radio Art (Colin Black)
Ep. 12: A Book Unbound (Jacob Smith)
Ep. 15: Goth Diss (Anna M. Williams)
In part two, we meet Kate Carr, an artist the critic Matthew Blackwell describes as a “sound essayist.” Since she began it in 2010, Kate Carr’s work as a musician and field recordist has taken her around the world, from her native Australia to a doctoral program at University of the Arts London. She’s been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wire, and Pitchfork. She also runs the field recording label Flaming Pines.
Since slightly before the pandemic, the theme of communication at a distance—always implicit in field recording—has taken center stage in her work. We examine three such pieces by Kate Carr. Each one explores how sound helps us communicate at a distance and how it comforts us in moments of loneliness:
“Contact”—a meditation on sonic connection through radio, morse code, and digital technology.
“Where to Begin”—a study of love letter writing, which Carr says has profound similarities with field recording.
“For Some Odd Reason”—an exploration of the kinds of noise we came to miss during social distancing and the mediated ways we've tried to add it back.
Together, these three pieces—one from before the pandemic, one from its beginning, and one from its interminable middle—explore how earnestly we try to connect across distance—and how heightened these attempts have become over the past year.
Huge thanks to our co-producer on this episode, Matthew Blackwell. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Iowa and a freelance music writer. He writes and edits Tusk Is Better Than Rumours, a newsletter that covers the discographies of experimental musicians. He is also a contributor to Tone Glow, a newsletter featuring interviews with experimental musici...
Ep. 24: Voice of Yoko (Amy Skjerseth on Yoko Ono)
Phantom Power's Amy Skjerseth brings us the story of perhaps the most famous vocal performance artist and avant-garde musician whose actual work doesn’t get the attention it deserves: Yoko Ono. Collaborator with the Fluxus group in the early 60s, creator of performances such as Cut Piece and her Bed In with John Lennon in the late 1960s, director of experimental films such as 1970’s Fly, and recording artist of experimental pop albums such as that Fly’s soundtrack... Despite this large body of work, her most famous role was that of wife to that guy in that band—a performance that made her the target of misogynous and racist criticism that persists to this day.
As Amy points out, much of this criticism centered on the sound of Yoko Ono’s voice. Of course, as we’ve explored on this show before, listening to the other with a racist or sexist ear is nothing new. But in Ono’s case, this prejudicial listening is compounded by the fact that, years before the emergence of punk rock, she was pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable vocal expression for anyone, let alone a woman—moaning, wailing, chortling, and screaming.
The vast majority of listeners immediately dismissed these sounds as a punchline. On today’s show, we’re going to actually listen. What is the purpose and meaning and effect of Ono’s vocal artistry? We’re exploring it in her recorded work, in her feminist and pacifist political agenda, and most of all, in her film Fly, in which she uses her voice to destroy boundaries between sound and touch, human and animal, self and other.
This episode includes elements from an audio essay Amy published at [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies.
Music by Yoko Ono, John Lennon, John Cage, Tanya Tagaq, and Graeme Gibson, as well as “Crickets, Birds, Summer Ambient” by Nikodemus Christian.
You can hear most of the music again on this Phantom Power Spotify Playlist.
Yoko Ono's film Fly is available on MUBI. The soundtrack has been reissued by Secretly Canadian.
You can hear Yoko Ono's Twitter response to Trump (November 11, 2016) here.
Ep. 23: Forest Listening Rooms (Brian Harnetty)
What would happen if you took red state rural voters on a walk into the woods with left-wing environmental activists and experimental music fans? Our guest this episode knows the answer.
BRIAN HARNETTY is a composer and an interdisciplinary artist using sound and listening to foster social change.
While Brian studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music, London, one of his teachers, Michael Finnissy, suggested he look for musical inspiration in his home state of Ohio. Brian took that advice and the result has been eight internationally acclaimed albums. Brian's music combines archival recordings of interviews and singing—often from the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives—with his original compositions.
For the past decade, Brian has focused on the myth, history, ecology, and economy of Shawnee, a small Appalachian town in Ohio. His 2019 album Shawnee, Ohio was praised by the BBC, the Wire, and named 2019 Underground Album of the Year by MOJO. The album engages with the social and environmental impacts felt by the town and nearby Wayne National Forest in their long history with extractive industries from timber to coal mining to fracking.
But Brian doesn’t just document Shawnee’s narrative—he intervenes in it. He’s an environmental activist of a gentle kind, one who gets area residents of different political stripes to walk in the woods together to listen—to one another and to the forest. All in service of protecting and healing the land. In this episode, we are thrilled to present an audio documentary that Brian Harnetty has produced for Phantom Power about this quietly radical experiment, called Forest Listening Rooms. And afterwards I’ll speak to Brian about his project.
Visit Brian Harnetty's studio in Ohio.
Check out his Bandcamp page.
Visit his website.
Blending some of the more creative aspects of radio with scholarship, this podcast always has a unique voice and each episode is its own world. Love it.
Exploring the world of sound
This is a very professionally produced podcast with great editing, research and interviews. Most importantly, the interviewer has an open and inquisitive mind. Recommended listening for anyone interested in exploring the world of sound.
Wow! Fantastic! Makes the weird scholarly world of sound totally accessible!