A Conclusion to Hearing Corwin Hall

This week, I started pulling together a short article for Shawn Graham’s journal Epoiesen. I’ve been posting them in somewhat random order here on my blog. Because I wanted to foreground Mike Witrgraf’s video work “Hearing Corwin Hall,” I decided to introduce the article with only a very short lede and then embed the video work on the page. You can read that here and watch the video here.

Then, treating “Hearing Corwin Hall” as a kind of archaeological data or object, I proceeded with a longer discussion that offers context for the piece and some basic analysis. You can read more of that here.

Finally, I’ve put together a not entirely satisfying conclusion here which draws on the work of Sara Perry, Ruth Tringham, and Cornelius Holtorf. This will obviously require some revision for clarity and it’ll also need to be expanded, but I’m tired today and have grading to do and some other projects that are demanding my attention. So for today, this feels like a wrap. I’ll put the entire piece together sometime in the next week or two, circulate to my co-authors, and then send it off to Shawn and Company early next year.  


The piece seeks to communicate in non verbal ways the history and archaeology of Corwin Hall. This approach to archaeology with parallels with recent calls for an affective archaeology. Sara Perry’s work, for example, explored the role of enchantment and affect in producing knowledge of the past (Perry 2015, 2019). For Perry, enchantment lies at the core of archaeology’s ability to produce action. Hearing Corwin Hall communicates the anxiety of change in campus through a range of non-verbal techniques anchored in the reproduction of the acoustic character of the recital room and the various events associated with the Wesley College Documentation Project. The techniques used in Hearing Corwin Hall paralleled those discussed by Ruth Tringham’s in her recent article on creating ways to explore the deep past that do not rely on the use of contemporary language. Tringham’s willingness to create engagements with the past that allow for significant ambiguity where the audience has opportunities for an emotional response, imagination, and reflection often lost in traditional archaeological texts, descriptions, and reconstructions (2019). We hoped that Hearing Corwin Hall allows listeners to not only experience some of our own encounters with these buildings, but also formulate their own views. Despite the ambiguity of many of the electronic sounds and the garbled looped voice, and the abrasiveness, abruptness, and density of the piece invites strong opinions and responses.

In many ways, the appeal of Hearing Corwin Hall to the enchanting and affecting potential of heritage, does not entirely avoid appealing to“crisis based” or “heritage at risk” narratives. As Cornelius Holtorf has argued crisis based narratives which seek to communicate a sense of urgency by viewing of cultural heritage as a limited and ever shrinking resource has only a limited potential to motivate more expansive, inclusive, or resilient views of the community (Holtorf 2015, 2018). At the same time, by seeking to commemorate and recognize the destruction of the Wesley College buildings on UND’s campus through conventional documentation practices as well as performances and the Hearing Corwin Hall recording we situated the demolition of these buildings within a larger conversation of change on campus and the anxieties that liminal states induce. Our efforts to document the changes to these buildings prior to their destruction by using the compromised acoustics of the recital hall as filter for Hearing Corwin Hall serves as both a reminder that campuses have always been the locations of change and art, music, history, and archaeology offer ways to bring attention to both the emotional impact of the contemporary situation, but also the resilience of the campus community. Hearing Corwin Hall makes clear that the loss of the Wesley College buildings contributed to a sense of local trauma. Performances offer one way to recognize, communicate, and ultimately mitigate the impact of continuous trauma of liminal anxiety on our campus.

More Fragments from Hearing Corwin Hall

This week, I’ve been working on a piece for Epoiesen based on Mike Wittgraf’s “Hearing Corwin Hall.”

You can watch the video here: 

My article introduces the video with a brief lede. The rest of the article follows the video and includes a short introduction to the Wesley College Documentation Project called “Studying Corwin Hall” and then a section on the history of Corwin Hall (“Building Corwin Hall”). The final two sections, which I’ve included in the blog post, deal at least superficially with performance, ruins, and affective and emotive archaeology.

Performing Corwin Hall

By the time that the Wesley College Documentation Project began the buildings were already abandoned. The last psychology faculty had reluctantly pulled up stakes from Corwin-Larimore Halls only after he had sent off the last grant application of the season. The honors program and campus technology services had departed Robertson-Sayre Hall at around the same time. Thus the buildings themselves entered a period of liminality. The traces of their prior use continuing to linger in the rooms, offices, and hallways, but at the same time, their fate was sealed and asbestos mitigation and demolition scheduled. The objects left behind and the histories of these buildings seemed to have reached a clear end point. Offices with mid-century desks, 21st century chairs, particleboard books shelves, bulletin boards, window air-conditioner units, and locked filing cabinets still preserved the imprints of their former occupants. Classrooms remain filled with rows of abandoned chairs too outdated for even state-university surplus and tables and lecterns long ago supplanted by high-tech ”teaching stations” with integrated computers. The labs of the third floor were filled with aging computers, dense tangles of obsolete connectors, and abandoned equipment of uncertain age and function. The content of these spaces reflected not only their present abandoned state, but revealed the abandonment as a process that began long before the university scheduled these buildings for destruction.

Our encounter with Corwin and Larimore Halls was not only infused that its failure to survive as an independent institution and its impending erasure from campus, but also by the objects that were left behind which served as a diachronic reminder that campuses exist in a state of constant flux. As a result, our work in the liminal space of the Wesley College buildings amplified the pervasive sense of anxiety across campus. In an effort to recognize the liminal state in which these buildings existed, we decided to combine our work with two events designed to mark out both contemporary and past changes on campus. The first event centered on recognizing that Sayre Hall was renamed in the 1920s for Harold H. Sayre who was killed in World War I. To commemorate the demolition of this building almost exactly a century after the Armistice that ended the Great War, we invited campus dignitaries, officials from the Grand Force Air Force Base and the city, as well as faculty, staff, and students to a short ceremony designed to recognize the end of this memorial building. The event involved brief reflections on the building, the sacrifices of veterans, and a bagpiper on a beautiful spring day. The program included a poem composed by Sayre’s pilot who credited Sayre’s bravery with saving his life when they were shot down in France.

Simon Murray’s recent book, Performing Ruins, considers the feelings that ruins evoke when they serve as the setting for performances. Murray acknowledged that the definition of ruins was ambiguous, but that the term typically described buildings that were in movement or between the states of use to terminal collapse. In this context, the Wesley College buildings, while still standing and intact, were ruins as their abandonment, neglect, and fate combine to create a sense of inevitable decline. As Wyatt Atcheley’s photographs, which accompany this article demonstrate, the status of the Wesley College buildings as ruins produced an experience of the uncanny which is common in liminal spaces and confused encounters with the familiar and unfamiliar. In Murray’s work, he notes that the occupation of ruins through their performance seeks in some cases to suspend these spaces and to arrest, for a moment, their movement into oblivion (288-289). The ceremonies associated with Sayre Hall implicitly invited the community to consider the parallel between Sayre’s death and the destruction of his memorial. By accentuating Sayre’s memory, the ceremony briefly reversed the inevitable flow of time toward the building’s destruction and the memorial’s erasure from campus. This also presented an opportunity to critique the changes taking place on campus by drawing attention to buildings prior to their destruction. The tendency for contractors to demolish in between terms and in the summer months when students and faculty are not on campus is often a concession to safety, but it also has the effect of making buildings seem simply to disappear.

The second performance associated with the Wesley College buildings was a final concert in the Corwin Hall recital room. William Caraher introduced the room and the selection of songs with brief remarks at the beginning of the event. Then, Michael Wittgraf performed several songs from the Methodist hymnal on an electronic keyboard to a small audience who sat amid stacks of abandoned classroom chairs, tables, and scraps of paper. At the end of the performance, he recorded a series of sounds designed to capture more clearly the acoustic signature of the space. To record the room’s signature and the concert we arranged seven microphones both within the recital hall, but also throughout Larimore Hall and on the landing outside the southern entrance to the room. Our goal was to produce an acoustic archaeology of the room by capturing not only whatever character of the original recital hall remained, but also the sound of the transformed space. In this way, we use acoustic recording methods in a similar way to the visual recording techniques typically used by archaeologists to record buildings and landscapes.

The inspiration for this project came from several recent efforts to capture the acoustic character of Byzantine churches in Greece and Turkey (Papalexandrou 2017; Gerstel et al. 2018). These projects typically involved sophisticated recording strategies and technology as well as choirs performing period appropriate music. This work, however, sought to reconstructing ancient, Medieval, or Early Modern “soundscapes” (Smith 1999). It was appealing to imagine that we could reconstruct the original acoustics of the now-compromised Corwin recital room, but we neither had the technology nor the time to attempt such an ambitious sonic simulation. Instead, by performing in the Corwin Hall room, we aimed to document the room’s abandoned and transformed state. Like the project’s broader effort to recognize the traces of use throughout these buildings, the acoustic signature of the room would capture, even if in subtle and indistinct ways, the sounds of its transformation, neglect, and abandonment. By performing this event with an audience we once again sought to pause the inevitable progress of the building toward demolition and abandonment. We also sought to locate bodies in the acoustic space of the building invoking its history as a recital hall, a classroom, and part of a bustling department and campus. In short, our recording both recognized the terminal status of the building and the room, while also capturing its transformations. The songs were superficially familiar, but the transformed space rendered them uncanny.

Hearing Corwin Hall

The event in the Corwin Hall recital room was not the final performance associated with the project. The recordings of the music and the sounds of the rooms became the basis for a multimedia performance work called Hearing Corwin Hall which captured the liminal state of Corwin Hall but also embodied the anxiety present on our university campus. These performances, in turn, became the basis for the video associated with this article. By using the acoustics of Corwin Hall as a filter for the audio component of performance, Wittgraf located the anxiety present in the recital hall’s liminal and compromised space. It also embodied the anxiety endemic on university campuses and in the particular situation on UND’s campus created a heightened sense of anxiety.

Hearing Corwin Hall told the story of the buildings and the Wesley College campus. From the construction of the buildings, triggered by the placement of a brick on the stage at the 1:30 mark which interrupted the peaceful chorus of crickets that comprised the first 100 seconds of the piece. The introduction of the sounds of motors and passing traffic along side the crickets and soon a looped track of Caraher’s voice indicates the purchase of campus by UND in the 1960s. The initial placement of a sledge hammer on bricks, then brings in the organ and Sheila Liming’s bagpipe from the Sayre Hall memorial ceremony as the din of traffic and Caraher’s looped voice continues. The powerful blows with the sledgehammer at the 6:40 mark the start of the building’s destruction which then slowly descends into the reverberation acoustics of the Corwin Hall. The last four minutes of the piece lingers offering a false sense of resolution. The buildings are gone, but their echoes persist.

Hearing Corwin Hall

One of my favorite things is Shawn Graham’s Epoiesen journal. As its tag line suggests, Epoiesen is a journal for “creative engagement in history and archaeology,” and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to contribute something more substantial than a response to its digital pages.

A couple of years ago, I worked with an amazing team of students and friends on the Wesley College Documentation Project. As part of that project, my colleague Mike Wittgraf produced a mixed media piece called “Hearing Corwin Hall.” He has both performed this piece nationally and recorded a video version. Our plan is to submit the video version with an accompanying essay to Epoiesen sometime “soon.” The video is done and my essay is… well, it’s coming together. The hardest part so far is balance my need to explain everything with the desire to allow the work to stand on its own. My current solution is a short “lede” followed by the video. I think will develop more of the academic component of our piece in a “discussion” after the video. None of this is cast in stone, obviously, but I present it here as a start.

Hearing Corwin Hall


Hearing Corwin Hall is a multimedia work composed and performed by Michael Wittgraf. The piece is based on two month archaeological, architectural, and archival documentation project of two, adjoining, double buildings on the University of North Dakota’s Grand Forks campus: Robertson-Sayre Halls, built in 1929 and 1908 and Corwin-Larimore Halls, built in 1909/1910. The buildings were originally part of Wesley College, an independent, Methodist Institution established in Grand Forks in 1905 and closely affiliated with UND. Sayre and Larimore were men’s and women’s dorms respectively and Robertson and Corwin hall were offices and classroom space. Corwin Hall also housed music rehearsal rooms and the college’s recital hall, a fine room with a capacity of 100.

In 1965, UND acquired the buildings and until 2016, they housed various departments, programs, labs, classrooms, and offices. In 2018, UND demolished the buildings as part of an effort to reduce the campus footprint by eliminating buildings encumbered with significant deferred maintenance costs from the university budget and campus. A team of students in collaboration with William and Susan Caraher formed the Wesley College Documentation Project to study the buildings and the objects left behind. They had virtually unfettered access to the buildings in the time between their abandonment and their demolition. This project produced not only a small archive of descriptive data, photographs, and analysis, but also coordinated two public events and published a photo essay that commemorated and critiqued the buildings, Wesley College as an institution, and the contemporary financial and cultural situation on UND’s campus.

Hearing Corwin Hall draws upon the work of the Wesley College Documentation Project. It integrates images from the building’s final months, audio drawn from the project’s public events, and the acoustic signature of the Corwin Hall’s recital room which although compromised over the 100 year history of structure preserved traces of its past function. Michael Wittgraf’s Hearing Corwin Hall is also set against the backdrop of significant institutional, administrative, and cultural changes at UND and in higher education more generally. A more thorough consideration of the work and the Wesley College Documentation Project appears in the discussion below.


College campuses are anxious places.

The looming demographic downturn, changing funding priorities among donors and legislators, and a whelming tide of anti-intellectualism in American life have contributed to a growing sense of uncertainty surrounding the future of higher education. Many college campuses, at least in the United States, have initiated strategic planning, prioritization, and reimagining programs designed to help institutions navigate an uncertain future. Each year, another crop of books appear promising to diagnose, mitigate, or manage current or anticipated crises in funding, enrollment, teaching, research, and student expectations. There is an expectation that higher education is an industry in transition and that the college campus of the future will look very different from the campus of today.

The contemporary situation in higher education in many ways follows a familiar path. State universities, in particular, have long situated themselves at the intersection of progress and tradition. They celebrated both cutting edge research and conservative practices both in the rituals of college life, the architecture of campus, and the academic and research programs undertaken by students and faculty. College Gothic buildings rub shoulders with the latest in post-modern architecture, the century-old rituals of commencement and graduation accommodate spectacles of more radical inclusivity and reconciliation, online teaching introduces students to Classics and calculus, and researchers on Shakespeare share library budgets with new programs in nanotechnology and unmanned, autonomous vehicles.

Many contemporary college students remain liminal creatures as well. They live communally in dormitories or rental housing, and their lives pivot as much around the rhythm of the semester as off-campus employment, family life, and socializing. As a result, many college students neither bear the full economic and social responsibilities of adulthood nor the living arrangements and dependence of childhood. As any number of commentators have observed, college is a time of social transition for students. In college students learn to navigate the responsibilities of adult life without fully giving up the structures of student life or parental protections which are often transferred to institutions who provide food, housing, and social opportunities. The distinctive space of the college campus, for example, often locates the liminal experience of college students in areas not entirely public and integrated into the fabric of their community or entirely private and set apart.

Thus, college campuses embody a kind of liminality that not only emphasizes the current sense of institutions in transition but also longstanding tensions between progressive values and traditional practices and between adulthood and student life. As mid-century anthropologists have taught us these liminal situations often contribute to a sense of anxiety which underscores the vulnerability and strangeness of institutions and individuals that resist clear definition and stand “betwixt and between” various social statuses. Societies often seeks to resolve and contain liminal individuals and groups through formally structured ritual practices, confinement, and other forms of social limiting designed as much to protect society from the destabilizing entities as to confer a temporary status on those outside of traditional categories. Rites of passage, for example, frequently mark the successful navigation from one status to another and resolve the tension of liminal transitions with celebration. At the same time, we continue to treat individuals and groups who are unable to escape from the liminal status with deep suspicion.

The Wesley College Documentation Project involved a group of students interested in studying the Wesley College buildings on the University of North Dakota campus. The class began as a 1-credit Honors “pop up course” that ran in the spring of 2018 and paralleled an honors class dedicated to studying the UND budget which had undergone significant changes over the preceding years. The goal of the project was to document in as many ways as possible, the architecture and material culture of the Wesley College buildings, their history, and the process of abandonment. We worked in collaboration with UND Facilities, who provided access to the buildings and offered their considerable expertise concerning the physical fabric of the buildings.

Sun Ra, Papyrus, and Ancient Aliens

A recent New York Times article on the latest album from the Sun Ra Arkestra included an interesting lede: “In the early 2000s, the pianist Farid Barron read that his idol John Coltrane had once received a papyrus from Sun Ra that was said to stop time.”

I immediately skimmed the article for a reference to Dirk Obbink or Karen King assuming that any reference to papyrus in the national media was likely tied to the recent controversies in papyrology. Since Coltrane died in 1967, I quickly came to realize that this story did not involve academia, but, instead, was simply a very brief, and potentially innocent (if not apocryphal) reference the exchange of papyrus between two members of the jazz aristocracy. Of course, the exact character of the papyrus in question remains unclear and the papyrus is now lost. It might not be ancient. It might not be papyrus, and if the papyrus could stop time, it is possible that Obbink was somehow involved after all. 

Sun Ra’s legacy is getting a good bit of attention lately. His eponymous band, the Sun Ra Arkestra, under his long time tenor player Marshall Allen, released its first live album in 20 years, Swirling, and it’s good. Sun Ra’s estate continues a regularly flow of re-releases and many fans eagerly await the re-release of the recordings from his tour of Egypt in 1971 on Friday

There has also been a growing interest in Afrofuturism. The popularity of the 2018 film, Black Panther, has almost certain contributed to the interest in recent work by Marlon James (Black Leopard, Red Wolf) and newly-named MacArthur Fellow N.K. Jemisin and brought renewed attention to the work of Octavia Butler. As Blacks and People of Color struggle for freedom and equality in the present, they continue to imagine emancipatory futures, often anchored in significant and expanded perspectives on the past, that complicate and subvert the persistent paternalism rooted in myths of progress and development. Modern scholarship, such as Paul Youngquist’s A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth  of Afrofuturism (2016), recognizes Sun Ra’s work in the origins of both Afrofuturism and distinctive forms of Black mystical history that links the Space Age with a Black African past. Considering the growing interest in this work, it is hardly surprising that Duke University Press has republished John Szwed’s expansive biography of Sun Ra, Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra, this year with a new preface. 

As Ra’s name suggests, he was particularly interested in the history of Egypt and the role of Egypt in Black culture, religious power, and identity. In this way, he was similar to any number of jazz artists in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s from Nina Simone (High Priestess of Soul (1967)) to Miles Davis (Nefertiti (1968)), Pharoah Sanders, and John and Alice Coltrane. Despite his over the top theatrics, Ra’s interest in Egypt was not casual. As his biographer John Szwed makes clear, Ra read extensively not only 1950s pop-Egyptology, various mystical writers seeking to explore and unlock the power of Egyptian religion and culture, and scholars seeking to find the origins of Black people in ancient Egyptian, Nubia and Ethiopia, but also the work of academic Egyptologists James Henry Breasted and Sir. E.A. Wallis Budge. During Ra’s time in Chicago (from the end of World War II until around 1960), Ra had access to the Oriental Institute and the Field Museum with their collections of Egyptian Antiquities. From the late 1960s until later in his life, after he relocated to Philadelphia, he not only gave interviews at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, but also performed concerts there (some of which appear in the brilliant 1980 documentary, A Joyful Noise.)

Ra also encountered George G.M. James‘s work, Stolen Legacy: The Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, But the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians (1954), although it is possible that Ra had overlapped with James when he was a student at Alabama A&M and James a professor there. James’s book sought to locate the origins of Greek thought in Egypt. While many scholars have read it with a jaundiced eye, it not only anticipated academic works like Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1984), but  its wide circulation among African Americans contributed to a growing interest in Egypt as a source of contemporary Black identity in the 1950s and 1960s. Paul Youngquist argues that Sun Ra’s interest in Egypt formed the roots of an identity that sought autonomy from the oppressive anti-Black character of White society in 1950s Chicago.

Considering the depth and sincerity of Ra’s interest in Egypt, it is entirely possible that sometime in his life he acquired a papyrus fragment which he, in turn, gifted to John Coltrane. I’m not familiar with work on African American collectors of antiquities, but I suspect that folks like Coltrane and Ra would have seen collecting as part of a larger effort to consolidate their cultural and intellectual roots. 


Part of my wanted to name this post: Not All Believers in Ancient Aliens are Racist. I obviously though better of it.

Sun Ra’s interest in the space age complemented his interest in Egypt as even a quick viewing of his 1974 film Space is the Place reveals. Starting in the 1960s, space related imagery and sounds (e.g. the theremin and various electric organs) played a more and more significant role in Ra’s music. This coincided with the launch of Sputnik, the US-Soviet space race, and the growing interest in American culture. Unlike the lily-white Jetsons, Ra anchored his view of the space age in a continuum that begins with the celestial beings of ancient Egypt and especially, Ra, the sun god. To the best of my knowledge, Sun Ra never directly credits celestial beings with, say, building the pyramids or creating Egyptian culture. It is nevertheless clear that for Sun Ra, there is a direct line from the celestial deities and especially Ra (the god) to Egyptian culture to Black culture to outer space. This trajectory is not meant to somehow alienate (heh heh) the achievements of the Egyptians from their humanity, but to elevate the status of Black culture by connecting them to the origins in the first, mystical, celestial, space age.

This connection was emancipatory as it broke Black culture free from narratives of development and progress and disrupted time — as his putative papyrus suggested — by saying that Blacks have always been celestial beings and living in the space age.

To make all this more clear, Ra famously claimed to have been abducted by aliens sometime in the 1930s (although his earliest account of the abduction appears to have been in the 1950s). As Szwed cleverly notes, Ra’s account of his abduction echoes “Velikovsky revised by von DanikenWorlds in Collision reimagined through Chariots of the Gods?” It’s anachronistic, of course, as Chariots was not published until 1968, but it would seem that Szwed recognized the allusion to “ancient aliens” or at very least extraterrestrial influence on the past.


To be clear, I’m far from an expert on the thought of Sun Ra, Afrofuturism, and Egyptology. The lede from the New York Times, a recent article on the Society for Classical Studies blog on “Casting Cleopatra” (part 1, part 2), and a piece at Hyperallergic on Egyptology cosplay, however, got me thinking about the relationship between Sun Ra and contemporary concern for “Everyday Orientalism.” The sophisticated work at the intersection of the popular and the academic by these scholars has inspired my own, far more modest, musings especially as my press has a book that will deal with Sun Ra’s music (and bewildering discography) in the works. 

On the one hand, it is clear that Sun Ra’s view of Egypt is the stuff of Orientalist (especially Modernist) fantasy and his interest in the esoteric and mystical character of “the East” confirms this. At the same time, Ra’s goals are less invested in a desire to perpetuate colonial relations of power by “othering” the Orient. Instead, it would seem, that Ra sought to negotiate his own sense of alienation from White society in the US by locating the spiritual, racial, historical, and, indeed, cosmic roots of Black people in ancient Egypt. The celestial origins of Ra, his own abduction, and the space age character of his music and thought do not seek to somehow deprive ancient or contemporary Egyptians of their historical legacy as pyramid builders, but to elevate Black culture and society to the space age by arguing that they have always been celestial. Thus, Sun Ra’s emancipatory music and thought short-circuited any pride in the technological progress of the Cold War “space race” and sought to reinforce the primacy of Egyptian culture as a way to elevate the status of Black people in America. 

In this context, a papyrus that stops time makes perfect sense.

The Political Ecology of Recorded Music

I listen to a ton of music, mostly in various digital format — CDs, downloads, and streams — but I do so through a occasionally painfully anachronistic system that involves vacuum tube amplification and single-driver, paper-cone speakers and enough cables to stress my wife (and my  dad, a former old-school IT guy) out. And, yes, I’m one of those guys who believes valves sound better and the best speakers are dynamic and biased toward the middle frequencies where the human voice and most instruments happen (at least at the price point where I operate). I also continue to buy and play CDs but I’ve never allowed myself to get into the so-called vinyl revival.

My stereo, then, is a very material presence in our home even when it’s playing music downloaded or stream through the internet. Kyle Devine’s book, Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music (MIT 2019) examines the political ecology of recorded music starting with shellac disks and vinyl LPs and continuing through to modern CDs and digital music streams and downloads. 

As with so many works informed by “neomaterialist” approaches to objects, Devine shows a particular interest in the processes and materials involved in the manufacturing of recorded music. From the harvesting of lac beetle secretions and quarrying for limestone required for shellac records to the petroleum based plastics that make up vinyl LPs and CDs and their jewel cases, Devine shows how that Father John Misty is right when he sings: 

Try not to think so much about
The truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to make a record
All the shipping, the vinyl, the cellophane lining
The high gloss
The tape and the gear

Devine goes into some detail about the environmental damage and dangers faced by works in the record manufacturing industry which both left behind toxic waste and workers scarred by the process. He spends less time linking the processes involved in making an LP with the experience of playing or handling (or even destroying) a record which is a departure from a certain among of popular writing that celebrates how consumers engage with the distinctive materiality of the vinyl disk.  

The contrast between the consumer experience of materiality and the perceived immateriality of music in the 21st century (as downloads and the like) parallels a broader trends in how we understand consumer culture. On the one hand, people are becoming increasingly aware that we pay for intellectual property as much as the materials themselves. In fact, the intellectual property associated with goods and objects often shapes how we can engage with the objects themselves. Proprietary software updates, for example, can change the sonic signature of playback devices and, in some celebrated examples, prevent informal maintenance and repair on farm equipment. 

On the other hand, there’s been growing attention to the physical infrastructure that supports our download and software driven consumer culture. The human cost of the material in our portable devices which often comes from countries with poor worker safety, child labor problems, and little organized labor. Server farms generate tremendous amounts of heat and require immense quantities of power to serve music. They also reflect increasingly deterritorialized nature of consumer culture where regional and global servers work together to distribute copies of songs to devices in ways that offer only the faintest resemblance to the supply chains that produced and distributed vinyl records or plastic CDs.

Among the most interesting observations in the book is that prior to the advent of the CD (or the distribution of music digitally), record companies were organized and thought of themselves much more as manufacturing companies with significant investments in not only the production of vinyl disks, but their chemical make up and the technologies involved in their playback. A few companies, such as Sony, continue this tradition with investment in both playback technology, devices, and record labels (Columbia, RCA, as well as their own record labels). 

Today, there’s a much greater awareness of the intellectual property associated with music. The fluidity and relative ease of digital recording and distribution streamlines the relationship between a singer, a song, and its possible monetary value. In the past, however, the record companies role in manufacturing the medium through which the song circulated made the link between the song as an idea that could be monetized and the song as a commodity less direct. The medium of the recording and distribution of the music made the record company’s role in the literal manufacturing of a hit song or album much more significant and the role of the artist less distinct and clear. Today, in contrast, the success of musician-owned labels and private, independent releases on the internet shifts the emphasis from song as commodity made possible through the collaboration of the artist, recording industry, and manufacturing, to the artist as primary, if not sole, generator of value. When individuals project this contemporary view of how music generates value onto the past, it is easier to see artists as being exploited in the past, and recordings as more intellectual than material property.

To be clear, this isn’t to suggest that exploitation didn’t occur. The story is well known: white musicians exploited African American artists and used their social and racial access to the manufacturing and distribution capacities of the record industry to make money for white record labels and performers. The role of ASCAP in protecting the intellectual rights of artists took on greater significance well before the internet, of course, with the radio and within the recording industry, but as the route from recording to revenue undergoes material changes in the 21st century so will the very idea of how art is valued.

Three Thing Thursday: Multitasking, Jazz, and NDQ

Whether Three Thing Thursday is becoming a tradition or a routine depends, I guess, on your point of view. But once again, my week has become hectic and strangely the end of the week is more busy than the start. As a result, my world is pretty fragmentary and all that I have left are snippets of ideas, thoughts, and projects that swirl about my feet as I race from meeting to meeting.

Thing the First

One of the things that I love most about academia is the opportunity to multitask. By this I don’t mean having to flip back and forth between a bunch of open tabs in a browser and a stack of grading while preparing a class and writing an article (although that can also be fun!). What I mean is the inevitable overlap between projects that is so productive for new ideas. For example, I have learned a good bit about how archaeology works in practice through my work as a publisher. Thinking about the technical aspects of making a book has helped me to think more clearly about archaeology as a process of knowledge making that extends not just from the “survey unit” through the database to analysis and interpretation, but continues through the presentation, distribution, and reception of our arguments and data. Without working simultaneously on data collection in the field, computer aided analysis, writing, and publishing, I wouldn’t have entirely grasped this. Working both in the Bakken oil patch and in Greece and Cyprus has likewise informed my thinking on both projects, pushed me to read more widely, and muddied many ideas that I would have confidently said that I understood had I not tried to transfer them from one context to another.   

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to have to deal with just this kind of overlap as I continue to plod ahead with my book on the archaeology of the contemporary world and write a paper for a conference on “Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity: History and Archaeology between the 6th and the 8th centuries.” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found it harder to switch gears between project without a good bit grinding and clunking, but maybe that makes the need to switch gears all the more important.

Thing the Second

Recently, I’ve been very quietly working on new project for The Digital Press. What I write here doesn’t really constitute an announcement as much as an acknowledgement that this is something that might very well happen.

Over the past two years, I’ve discovered that I really like jazz. As with so many things in my life, this has slowly grown beyond a kind of casual interest or the vague appreciation of the odd John Coltrane or Charles Mingus album. My interest in jazz is on the very of becoming a full fledged obsession. To be clear, when I get obsessed with with something, it rarely follows a orderly trajectory. I’m not someone who tends toward the exhaustive. Anyone who knows me will admit that I’m a flâneur even when I should adopt a more rigorous approach. Fortunately my flânerie often leads me down some pretty interesting corridors and my interest in jazz led me to try to understand Sun Ra. 

Sun Ra’s discography is particularly baffling. It’s not only immense, but also complicated as his career spanned a range of labels including his own “El Saturn Records” label, Impulse!, and about 40 others. When I first started listening to San Ra’s music, I quickly became baffled especially when I encountered the myriad of re-releases and dodgy bootlegs of his live shows. One of my regular stops as a Sun Ra fan, however, became a series of blog posts called “Sun Ra Sundays”.  

This week, I’ve started a project to publish formally the Sun Ra Sunday blog in collaboration with its author Rodger Coleman (and thanks to some help from Irwin Chusid and Sam Byrd!) I’m pretty excited about being able to bring this to a wider audience, to give it a bit of a formatting, to get it circulating in paper, and to give it a good copy and content edit. Stay tuned.  

Thing the Third

It’s almost time to submit NDQ issue 87.1/2 to the University of Nebraska Press for typesetting and layout. That means this weekend, I get to spend time reviewing and re-reading the amazing contributions to the next issue. It’s one of the absolute best parts of my job at the University of North Dakota, and while I love to work on my own stuff, it’s never as rewarding as promoting the work of others. We posted the first peek at some of the 87.1/2 contents today over at the NDQ blog. Go check it out and stay tuned for more!

Against the Epic?

I had a lovely breakfast with a (at the time) PhD candidate on the day of her successful dissertation defense. Describing her life in Montana, she told me that so many people in the college town where she lived were “epic.” That seemed like a particularly apt word for folks who lived in state known for its mountains and big sky. 

Later that morning, I put in Earl Sweatshirt’s new EP, Feet of Clay. The entire EP runs to just over 15 minutes. It mostly consists of Sweatshirt’s characteristic stream of rhymes lyrics over a looped sample and beat. There are few breaks and no choruses. The entire EP is mercifully devoid of pretense and, despite it’s Biblical title, grandeur. It’s the opposite of the epic. 

Mami Wata, shawty blew the fish out
Piscean just like my father, still got bones to pick out
For now let’s salt the rims and pour a drink out

Taking nothing from the sincerity of the EP’s lyrics. Like his previous album Some Rap Songs, which stretches over the luxurious 24 minute mark, Sweatshirt reflects on the loss of his father, his own coming of age, and the challenges of success.

I put my fears in a box like a prayer that you won’t read
Spirited Away the whole thing
Peerin’ away, I won’t leave
See you starin’ into old beefs

This circumscribed scope sets it apart from so much of the recent output in the hip hop scene. Sweatshirt’s biblical allusion does not appear to symbolize some kind of monumental conversion that might warrant an entire album as in Kanye West’s contemporary Jesus is KingFeet of Clay’s lyrics are compelling:

Depending how I play my cards
The wind whispered to me, “Ain’t it hard?”
I wait to be the light shimmering from a star
Cognitive dissonance shattered and the necessary venom restored
As if it matters if you think it matters anymore

But they are not going to be taught in private college art history classes. They don’t explicitly challenge patrimony, racism, or capitalism. At 15 minutes, Sweatshirt’s EP doesn’t push you to consider existential themes along the lines of Kamasi Washington’s 3-hours masterpiece Heaven and Earth. It’s not a concept album, a statement, or a gimmick. To circle back: it’s not epic.

This semester, in a small graduate seminar, we concluded the semester by reading John Brooke’s Climate Change and the Course of Global History: a rough journey (2014), Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto (2014), and numerous texts that refer to Daniel Lord Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain (2009), Manuel De Landa’s A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History (2011), or various other works that seek to narrative history on a monumental scale. These works are exciting, to be sure, and their scope and scale are intoxicating particularly to those of us who often spend our lives worrying about the distribution of broken ceramic sherds or history at the level of the decade or century. Moreover, their willingness to engage in big issues from climate change, to race, capitalism, colonialism, and violence, presses us to understand the immense scale of various oppressive regimes and systems. 

At the same time, these works are strangle distant from our daily experiences. It is possible, of course, to understand how choices we make contribute to deep history and patterns of injustice, inequality, and pain, but epic scale of these processes often can lead to a compromised sense of agency. On the one hand, maybe this is the goal. By revealing the vastness of our problems, we distribute the responsibility from our own shoulders as denizens of the 21st century and, instead, share the burden with our past. Our inability to escape our present allows us to live in a tragic moment. 

On the other hand, revealing how past decisions have shaped the present tempts us to be more deliberate while still reminding us that whatever our choices will inevitably have negative consequences for those who will invariably see the world in ways much different from our own.

Earl Sweatshirt’s EP, on the other hand, offers us 15 minutes of the explicitly non-epic. Seemingly scaled to the human attention span, it offers relief in the realm of the momentary and the personal. This doesn’t mean that it’s not deep, that it’s not meaningful, and that it’s not significant. In fact, Sweatshirt’s lyrics are on point, the production is tight, and the EP is rich with wordplay, sincerity, and history. By casting aside epic pretensions for even just for 15 minutes, it reminds us that the contemporary world, circumscribed by our own horizons, does exist even if it’s not all there is to the world.


Afterword: The entire concept of the EP in the digital age is great. There’s no reason for the EP to exist today, of course. It originally referred to a kind of vinyl pressing that was shorter than the LP and usually spun at 45 rpm and were 7-inches rather than 33-1/3 for 10-inch LPs. This conscious reference to an analogue past complements the every-day scope of Feet of Clay and strips from it some of the monumental hype that an LP requires. 

Refined and Revised: A Response to Andrew Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory for Epoiesen (part 2)

This weekend, I worked on refining and revising my response to Andrew Reinhard’s piece, Assemblage Theory, on Epoiesen. The response is a bit long so I’m breaking it into two pieces. Below is part 2. Check out part 1 here.

My response is also a bit complex (and a bit like a cat attacking a sofa), but by playing with these ideas, I’m hoping it’ll help me refine my thinking for an article that is due at the end of the month. Last Spring, I gave a paper at the annual IEMA Conference at the University of Buffalo. The paper was titled “Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology: Data, Workflows, and Books in the Age of Logistics” (plus this coda) and it marks my first effort to create an academic argument what I’m trying to do with The Digital Press


You can read It’s a bit rough around the edges, but as always, I’m more than open to any criticism or feedback! 


Reinhard is aware that his assemblage is hyperreal and makes the samples of a track available for us to play along with him and to create our own music from a common pool of sonic artifacts. It is worth noting that in archaeology, this kind of generosity remains relatively rare. Historically, archaeologists were loath to release key elements of archaeological assemblages often preserved in excavation notebooks which often remain the personal property of the scholar. More recently, archaeologists have acknowledged that their deep experience in the landscape, with particular methods, and across the social relationships that shape fieldwork formed as vital a part of the archaeological assemblage as the carefully documented ceramic sherds and stratigraphic relationships. These limits, of course, shape Reinhard’s willingness to share as well. He is not only adept at manipulating the tracks in Audacity, but also has a workflow, a distinct set of gear, and experience as a musician to guide his encounter with these songs. Recognizing this, I was at first, inclined to critique that Reinhard for only releasing the artifacts from one song and to note that it neatly paralleled the tendency among archaeologists to feint toward transparency and openness in analysis while holding back certain key elements of the interpretative process. This was uncharitable, though, because by offering one song from Assemblage Theory, he pushes us from thinking about the artifacts present in the songs and toward thinking about the broader assemblage of artifacts that served to mediate our encounter with his music. Our own efforts to manipulate the provided tracks primarily demonstrate the impossibility of recreating Reinhard’s songs.

Even the more passive encounter of just listening to Reinhard’s album is fraught with a certain element of uncertainty. When I first read Reinhard’s piece, I clicked through to Spotify and dutifully clicked on the first track. The website played the first 30 seconds of the song and then went to the next song on the album. I didn’t think much of it because I wasn’t really that concerned with the length of the songs. After two or three tracks, however, I discovered that because I don’t have a Spotify account, I could only hear the first 30 second of each song. That was a bummer, and apparently this also influenced the first responder to this article’s listening to the tracks.

I then emailed Reinhard and he let me know that the album was also available on on Tidal. I then played it on my MacBook Pro and though it sounded interesting enough to cue it up on the stereo that lives in my main room. Through my much larger and more sophisticated stereo the sound seemed a bit muddled: the big bass in a few songs (like “Trappist”) seemed smear across the other sounds on the track, and the lack of dynamic range made the entire entire album just feel too loud and heavy. To be clear, the system that I was using to play the album was not optimized for loud music. I was streaming the album over an Auralic Mini music streamer that outputs to a Schiit Bifrost DAC from which it then runs through a pair of Audioquest RCA cables into a 60 watt vacuum-tube Audio Research Corporation amplifier that drives a pair of Zu Omen Defs speakers. The Omen Defs are paper-cone, full-range-driver speakers that I’ve paired with a two super quick, 400 watt Zu Undertone subwoofers. This system loves dynamic music: small ensemble jazz, carefully recorded rock music, and acoustic stuff. When I play loud, boomy music especially through the streamer, the bass makes the entire scene a bit sloppy for some reason.

The next day, I also played it over my little office system which consists of two powered Yamaha studio monitors and a thumpy little subwoofer that sits under my desk. It sounded tighter and every bit as loud as on my home system, but not as big and more precisely rendered. This little system encouraged me to look deeply into the mix as one might expect from studio monitors.

Finally, I returned home and played the version of the album that Reinhard sent to me as .wav files through my Sony music player (a HAP-Z1ES) and from there into my ARC amplifier and into my big speakers. For some reason this cleared up most of the boomy-ness. It was still loud, but it felt a bit more carefully wrought and exact. This version of the album preserved more of the digital character of the music despite it running through vacuum-tube amplifier and paper cone speakers. At the same time, it communicated a sense of scale. 800 watts of subwoofer and four paper-cone woofers ensured that I felt the music.

All of this is to point out that this sculpted assemblage of samples also consists of a complex series of technologies, services, and environments that mediate our encounter with all parts of the assemblage from their transmission to the relationship between the various component parts. The more that I listened to his album (and right now, I’m listening to it on my MacBook Pro, through an Audioquest Dragonfly Red DAC, a ALO Rx MC3-B+ headphone amplifier and a pair of Audeze LCD-2C headphones), the more I wondered how close what I was hearing was to what Reinhard created. My various listening environments created plenty of room to quibble about how the assemblage actually works.


What remains clear in all of my encounters with Reinhard’s assemblage, however, is how companies have succeeded at monetizing various elements in this assemblage. Sometimes this is overt, such as when we have to sign up to listen to a particular music service which then records our listening habits, compensates (barely) musicians, serves up advertising. At present, we only have access to this music through a series of music services that monetize Reinhard’s efforts and whose future is far from certain. The formats through which this music is distributed—whether in the uncompressed format of a .wav file or through such compressed formats as FLAC, ALAC, or MP3—may prove as ephemeral as 8-track tapes, DATs, or mini discs, or as persistent as LPs. Archiving these tracks so that both Reinhard’s and this article makes sense in the future is not as simple as saving the music files to a repository, but must also extend to preserving the various subsidiary formats and even devices through which these songs could be heard. As Raiford Guin’s has shown with video games, digital artifacts are more than just the source code, but involves the experience of the arcade or the home gaming system, the haptics of the controllers, the look of the CRT monitor or television, and even the art on the game cartridge or cabinet.

Reinhard is away of the commercial concerns associated with the dissemination, use, and reuse of audio and their place within the longer history of music making. The samples that Reinhard used in his songs were all free and open access, apparently, and this, presumably, was an economic and political decision, but also an artistic one. Thirty years ago, however, the landscape of sampling and the assemblages available to recombine look much different. Hanif Abdurraqib, in his recent meditation on the oeuvre of Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, reflected on the change in hiphop in the mid-1990s when record labels discovered they could require permission and payment for samples used in songs. By 2001, the use of expensive samples becomes a point of pride for some rappers and embarrassment for others. Jay-Z, famously attacked Nas by claiming that he did not even own the right to his own songs so when Jay-Z sampled them, Nas did not make any money (this point was later disputed by Nas and his representatives):

So yeah, I sampled your voice, you was usin’ it wrong
You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song
And you ain’t get a coin, nigga, you was gettin’ fucked then
I know who I paid, God “Serchlite publishin’”

In this context, Reinhard’s use of free samples explicitly detached himself from one of the commercial aspects of the music making process. At the same time, he did not release his entire assemblage of samples explicitly and, curiously, there is no equivalent of the ceramic catalogue, or concordance where he credited the original sources of his samples. Moreover, he distributed his music via commercial services that even at the free tier require registration as a way to monetize plays and listeners, and his tracks are not available for free download. We can imagine, then, that maybe Reinhard is getting “coin,” but his sources are, in Jay-Z’s words, “gettin’ fucked.” In the 21st-century, moreover, it is clear that as listeners, we are, like his samples, also a resource to be monetized.

This is not meant to be a criticism of Reinhard’s place in the media ecosystem or his right as an artist to benefit however modestly from his work, but to demonstrate how the flow of objects through various media create relationships and value. Recent attention to media in the production of archaeological knowledge (Gartski 2018; Morgan and Wright 2018) and in its presentation and reception (Perry 2018; 2019) has revealed the complexity of the relational systems that shape how sites, artifacts, and encounters create opportunities for ethical actions and shared knowledge. The easy fluidity of digital space perhaps emphasizes or even exaggerates the instability of the kinds of 21st-century assemblages accessed through Assemblage Theory. The interplay of the physical and virtual continuously destabilize how our experiences of digital worlds produce meaning. In this way, Assemblage Theory is a valuable companion to Reinhard’s longterm project of archaeogaming (Reinhard 2017). It also reminds us that the relationships that constitute knowledge—even in the dusty corridors of Ivory Tower archaeology—are always being monetized through access, citation, reading, and remembering.


Reinhard starts his discussion of assemblages with Manuel Delanda’s Assemblage Theory. By the time I had finished listening to Assemblage Theory for the third or fourth time, I was more drawn to considering his work in light of Delanda’s earlier text, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. In this book, Delanda expanded and developed the notion of machinic phyla from Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus. Deleuze and Guattari emphasizes that assemblages form not merely through conscious decisions or even discursive rules (like narratives or the pop song), but also through affordances of the objects themselves. These scholars were particular intrigued by the notion of flow and the ways in which the movement of material, manufactured objects, and individuals mediated by their materiality produced value within the capitalist system in ways that appeared to be nearly autonomous. Michael Roller has adapted this notion archaeological assemblage as evidence for the emergence of mechinic consumerism in the 20th century (Roller 2019). This is a kind of consumerism that is as much a product of producers and production as the manufactured objects. Roller reminds us that the assemblages that reproduce the experiences of 20th- and 21st-century consumer culture are fraught with contradictions and map onto our experiences as both producers and consumers. The tolerance for these contradictions both within assemblage and within our lived experience reflects the growing willingness to accept “the intervention of corporations in their lives” (18) and an opportunity (if not obligation) for archaeologists to untangle the complexities of 21st-century assemblages and unpacks “the plurality of forces that produce the present world” (19). It is worth noting that despite Roller’s radical and activist rhetoric, his article appears in the journal Historical Archaeology which is published by the commercial publishing conglomerate Springer Nature who monetized access to his radical arguments.

An archaeological investigation of Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory goes beyond the playful parataxis of distinct samples and sounds and reveals traces left behind by the technological, political, economic, intellectual, and social flows that establish value and define culture in our contemporary world. Haggis has argued that the assemblages of ceramic objects and sculpture excavated from a Hellenistic pit at Vergina or a Late Archaic well in Athens (Haggis 2018) constitute a context for considering archaeological questions that arise at the intersection of methods and the functional, chronological, and typological relationship between objects, space, and place. Isolating these objects from their archaeological context through their display in a museum or appearance in a catalogue, for example, transforms (and some would argue even impoverishes) the potential value of these objects to speak to the widest range of questions about past practices that from the basis for larger statements on past culture. By locating Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory in a series of different context, we open it up to speak most broadly to questions at of pressing concern in contemporary society.

I hope my response has shown, how our encounter with this album traces a number of elements of 21st century economic and social life. First and foremost, the album celebrates the potential of art gleaned from the surplus sounds scattered about the internet. The growing fascination with modern spolia (Meier 2012), the surplus of material and meaning that surrounds contemporary life (Akasegawa 2009), and the economic and creative activity of scavengers (Ferrell 2006) speaks to a society increasingly defined by the reciprocal acts of production and consumption.

Reinhard’s trap-inspired EDM relentlessly encourages us to connect our movements to his music through a tempo encoded in an invisible “click track” and to embody the precise pulses of our digitally mediated world. In some, indistinct ways, this prepares us for the hyperreal loudness of Assemblage Theory. The vividness and immediacy of the album seems to anticipate its seamless distribution through commodified, ubiquitous, and increasingly invasive services. The same connections that both allowed Reinhard to harvest found sounds and us to enjoy his creative work creates value for capitalistic concerns who profit from the flow of data throughout our connected world. At my house, Assemblage Theory was further mediated through an arcane and expensive set of stereo equipment. In my most optimistic moments, I pretend that the carefully arrangement of components in my stereo system creates a unique sound through which I can assert some individuality. In reality, I am probably the same as a club kid whose body sways to a hidden click track while pretending that the latest styles make me distinct enough to stand out and recognizable enough to be part of a crowd.

Refined and Revised: A Response to Andrew Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory for Epoiesen (part 1)

This weekend, I worked on refining and revising my response to Andrew Reinhard’s piece, Assemblage Theory, on Epoiesen. The response is a bit long so I’m breaking it into two pieces.

It’s also a bit complex, but by playing with these ideas, I’m hoping it’ll help me refine my thinking for an article that is due at the end of the month. Last Spring, I gave a paper at the annual IEMA Conference at the University of Buffalo. The paper was titled “Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology: Data, Workflows, and Books in the Age of Logistics” (plus this coda) and it marks my first effort to create an academic argument what I’m trying to do with The Digital Press

It’s a bit rough around the edges, but as always, I’m more than open to any criticism or feedback!



Responding to Andrew Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory is difficult on a number of levels. The greatest challenge, for me, is recognizing in Reinhard’s work a response to the recent attention to the assemblage in archaeological thinking (see the various contributors to 2017 special issue of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Harrison 2011; Martin 2013; Fowler 2013; Haggis 2018). This work is remarkably diverse and theoretically informed. Much of taps into the vital current of thought concerning the limits of material agency both in the past and in our own work as researchers. At its most exciting, critical engagements with the concept of assemblages, relational ontologies, and scientific practices (especially in the hands of thinkers like Karen Barad (2007)) offer new ways for understanding the “social life of things” (Appadurai 1988), “stuff” (Miller 2009), and “vibrant matter” (Bennett 2010). Bruno Latour has explored how in its broadest definition, the concept of the assemblage can inform how we think about our world in the fits of the Anthropocene (Latour 2017). This is heady and important stuff.

At the same time, I was drawn to Reinhard’s album and article because of my interest in music. In the past, I’ve thought about how music can inform archaeological thinking (Caraher 2019; Caraher, Kourelis, and Reinhard 2014). I also just really like music. In fact, as I write these words I’m listening to Ornette Coleman’s “Monk and the Nun” which was originally recorded in 1959 during the same session as his iconic The Shape of Jazz to Come. “Monk and the Nun” did not appear on that album, and resurfaced only on some compilations released in the 1970s. This afternoon, however, I was listening to it on Ornette Coleman’s box set of recordings from his year on the Atlantic label (1959-1961) called Beauty is a Rare Thing and released in 1993. The tracks on this box set are arranged in the order that they were recorded rather than in the order that the tracks would appear on any of Coleman’s Atlantic albums. This means that they only they loosely follow the organization of the albums and do not follow the order of the tracks as they were originally released. Coleman’s well-known track “Lonely Woman” is track 5 on the first disc of Beauty is a Rare Thing and comes immediately before “Monk and the Nun.” It originally appeared as the string first track on his The Shape of Jazz to Come. To my mind, this is important: the bass line, then drums, and finally, those magically awkward, melancholic, and deeply engaging lines from Coleman and his long-time collaborator Don Cherry introduce their new approach to jazz featured on this album and definitive for Coleman’s long career.

While the box set offers an exhaustive survey of Coleman’s work during his most exciting and productive period. It is markedly different from the assemblage offered by the six albums released over this same period (The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959), Change of the Century (1960), This Is Our Music (1961), Free Jazz (1961), Ornette! (1962), and Ornette on Tenor (1962)). The different order of the tracks alone give the 1993 box set a different vibe and the faithfulness to the order of recording provides new opportunities for insights into the development of the songs and albums that world make Coleman famous. Reading Reinhard’s reminded me to think about albums as assemblages, and to think (and eventually write) about music.

Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory is a remarkable experiment in thinking and performing an assemblage. Sculpted from found sounds on the internet, Reinhard’s album—and the article that introduced it on Epoiesen—makes visible the work of a musician, archaeologist, and individual in bringing order to the fragmented realities that surround us. The seamlessness of Reinhard’s beats does not intend to represent or reproduce the cacophonic and discordant character of the original group of samples. Instead, he seeks to resolve their differences through the cutting away and carefully arranging the sounds into recognizable songs. Reinhard makes one group of his found sounds available for us to understand his process, and this is a generous way to make clear the methods that Reinhard used, in general, to produce order from the chaos of even his opportunistic assemblages. Reinhard’s work reinforces a point made by Rodney Harrison (2011): assemblages are “assembled” rather than discovered and while the act of finding sounds on the internet playfully mimics the modern serendipity of excavation, it does nothing to detract from the obvious work of assembly that is crucial to Reinhard’s piece. We can safely assume that he discarded and rejected sounds that were not suitable for his project making the act of finding even less about revealing something that existed and more about creating something that was necessary.

The goal of my response is explore the nuances of Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory as he created it and as I have encountered it and to trace the limits of his assemblage beyond the bounds of the album into the sinews of our culture. In this way, I want to emphasize an Assemblage Theory as a point of entry into a wider meditation on the ways in which assemblages provide a medium for the critical engagement of our contemporary world. In this way, Reinhard’s project reflects his (and my own) longstanding interest in the use of archaeological methods and metaphors as a way of excavating and constructing critical perspectives on the contemporary world.

(I’m now listening to The Comet is Coming’s Complete Studio Recordins 2015CE-2017CE. The tracks on this album, through some accident of markup lost their metadata and even their original order, when I uploaded this album to my Roon music software library.)


Reinhard is an archaeologist and like so much archaeology, the smoothness of his final production serves as much to obfuscate the original character of his assemblage of samples as the methods and practices that brought them into seemingly meaningful relationships. His description of this process evoked for me Elizabeth Freeman’s interpretation of Frankenstein in her book Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010). In a short digression, Freeman considers Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a model for understanding the role that time played in the processes used to create verisimilitude in media. She argues that in creating his creature, Victor Frankenstein’s aspired to assemble a being whose seamlessness manifests the experience of reality in the present. His creature, however, was characterized by its seams and sutures that combined the assemblage of scavenged parts necessary to bring it to life. The visible seams demonstrated that it was impossible to eliminate the abrupt and affective character of its pastness that is intrinsic to awkward and profoundly human assemblages. In effect, the seams made Frankenstein’s creature authentic and, ironically, alive. Our modern efforts to create a smooth and seamlessness experience from found things, at best, mimics our experiences of the present, but more likely anticipates a perfectible utopian future that disregards our own encounter with the past. The discipline of archaeology with its debt to modernity (Thomas 2006) consistently attempts to create seamlessness from the disparate fragments assembled from past experiences. This echos the modern promise of seamless integration in the internet of things, of augmented and virtual reality, and in various transhuman fantasies of technologically enhanced humans.

Reinhard’s selective remixing of his samples to produce a smoothly contoured present ensured created a juxtaposition that both located the samples in the past but also created their pastness. The dissonant, discontinuous, and found character of the samples defined them as something other than the contemporary experience. This distancing made the act of re-assembly possible and, indeed, necessary even through we realize that the digital samples at the core of Reinhard’s songs are from an archaeological strata that could also be contemporary with the songs themselves. As Smith has noted in her response to this album (2018), Reinhard’s effort to assert and demonstrate the disparate parts of these songs while simultaneously obscuring how these parts fit together to create a sonically consistent whole is a key role in locating Reinhard’s creative power in the present. The tension between an asserted pastness and recognizable present is a common feature of our diverse, digital, post-industrial and modern world in that we often seek to eliminate the jarring disjunctions between parts of the assemblage that remind us of the past’s messy abruptness. The tragic and all-too-human character of Victor Frankenstein’s monster made it the deeply sympathetic victim of the modernity’s distain for the incongruity and flawed character of the past and the false hope for a seamless and perfected future.


To his credit, Reinhard, like Victor Frankenstein, is honest about how he created his assemblage. He arranged his found sounds according to the structure of traditional pop songs and accentuated the sounds that evoked contemporary guitar rock, beats drawn from trap, house, and EDM, as well as other sonic conventions. These various structures are part of this assemblage as well, and it is probably safe to assume that these structures allowed Reinhard prefigure his album in the sounds on the internet. Hayden White, for example, famously argued that a series of tropes and forms of employment shaped the way that historians produced narratives, explained causality, and produced assemblages of evidence. Neville Morley’s response to Reinhard’s piece reminded us that pop sensibilities are only one potential way to emplot this assemblage. As long as pop music has existed, there have been those who have sought to challenge the self-evident character of its structure.

(I just put on the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime which was famously recorded and mixed for $1100 (Azzerad 2001, 82). Despite the effort to make this into a concept album, it still retains the band’s anti-commercial, rambling style of the band which was the very antithesis of pop music.)

Despite Morley’s critique, which Reinhard invited by making his original assemblage available for examination, Reinhard’s arrangement still models our own approach to archaeological knowledge making. Narratives of all sorts prefigure the assemblages that we encounter in archaeology. These narratives and processes constitute parts of these assemblages the same way that a traditional pop melody or familiar sound on the web prefigured the songs possible at Reinhard’s deft hands. Different hands introduce different elements to the assemblage and Reinhard’s generosity with his samples has resulted in at least one new encounter with some of the same basic elements.

There are other elements present in Reinhard’s assemblage that offer more insights into the process that produced the final album. Two struck me as immediately visible.

First, the album has the unmistakable character of contemporary music making in its unfailing and precise rhythmic structure. Generally, a “click track” imparts this structure on a song. The click track is a tool that allows a musician to precisely synchronize sounds in various recordings. The click track is eliminated during the production process, but the regularity of the beat that it imparts persists. Damon Krukowski, the former Galaxie 500 drummer, has recently observed that the “click track” regularizes the interplay between musicians in recordings. Prior to the use of click tracks and in live performances, musicians would listen to one another and adjust their tempos in minute ways that allow a song to hold together. Musicians also would be influenced by live audiences to accelerate or slow their tempo in response to the crowd, the moment, and the shared experience of the performance. Thus the audience and performers responded to one another and the listener’s response to a performer would follow the performers responses to one another in the process of music making.

I’m now listening to Cannonball Adderley’s album Something Else (1958) and as I bob my head in time to their version of the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves“ waiting for the entry of Miles Davis’s muted trumpet, I’m literally moving in sync with the musicians as they listened to each other. I’m locked into the interplay between Art Blakey’s drums, Sam Jones’s bass line, and Hank Jones’s sparse piano. These are real musicians whose subtle cues and gestures I attempt to imagine as I listen deeply into this classic album. Reinhard’s album is a different affair, but it would be an odd effort to seek human interaction in the mechanical regularity of the click. Krukowski has suggested that lack of intimacy in contemporary recorded pop music comes from the standard use of the click track which has eliminated the subtle variations that may be undetectable on a conscious level, but nevertheless draw us into the experience of music as a human art. Whether one agrees with the argument of a former dummer is less significant than the more obvious observation that when we move our body in time with Reinhard’s thumping beats, we are not sharing in the generative interplay of the musicians who recorded the song, but falling in sync with precise beats of a machine.

The other artifact of Reinhard’s assemblage that captured my attention was the driving beat of trap music. Over the last decade, the rhythms of trap have become essentially synonymous with hiphop. Trap is usually associated with the beats that emerged in the South, and particularly Atlanta, in the 1990s and by the early 21st century these beats became increasingly common in the EDM. Essential to the style of trap is the sound of the Roland TR-808 drum machine which became so closely associated with this style of music that hiphop duo Outkast recognized it by name in their 2003 hit “The Way You Move” which connects the 808s distinctive cymbal and bass that is characteristic of trap.

So click-it or ticket, let’s see your seat belt fastened
Trunk rattlin’, like two midgets in the back seat wrestlin’
Speaker box vibrate the tag
Make it sound like aluminum cans in a bag
But I know y’all wanted that 808
Can you feel that be-A-S-S, bass

Outkast here is making fun of the 808-produced trap so typical in early-21st-century Atlanta hiphop by describing how it sounds played through a car stereo with its powerful subwoofer rattling the license plate and the poorly attached plastic trim. The reference to it sounding like “aluminum cans in a bag” is not simply an innocent simile but a playful suggestion that the sound of thumping base evokes the image of the urban scavenger with his assemblage of recyclable cans in plastic trash bag. In the hands of Outkast, the ubiquitous sound of trap and the Roland TR-808 slyly evokes the lower class near-suburbs of Atlanta and the “dirty” neighborhoods which made this sound famous. This superficial reading of trap does not do the complexities of this genre justice (see for example, McCarthy 2018; Kaluža and Študent 2018), but since Reinhard’s album is not so much trap as trap-inspired EDM, the relationship between his beats and the assemblage of trap driven hiphop is probably distant enough for us to abandon it at this point in my review.

The more proximate context for trap inspired EDM is, of course, is the club. As I have already noted in my discussion of the “click track” in contemporary electronic music, the use of trap beats in the club creates a bodily response not just to the beats, but to the automated processes which order the beats into a systematic tempo. The club is also a place of consumption and display where music is not only consumed, but individuals produce distinctive assemblages to manufacture both group and individual identities. EDM is social music designed to be played in public places and a constituent part of the assemblages that define club culture identity (Classically explored by D. Hebdige 1979; more recently Jackson 2004; Wilson 2006).

The intersection of style, music, and the movements of bodies in the club locates Reinhard’s album amid a larger assemblage of manufactured experiences that define identities within consumer culture. A particularly intriguing aspect of our experience with Assemblage Theory is the loudness of the album. Loudness in this context does not refer to the volume of the tracks which the user can control, but the relationship between the quietest and loudest passages on any track. The compressed dynamic range of the tracks on Assemblage Theory is a sonic artifact of the late-20th and early-21st century. Reinhard’s album has a dynamic range of around 6 db, which is consistent with the 5 db present on Migos platinum-certified album CULTURE and slightly less dynamic than Daft Punk’s 8 db range on Random Access Memories. To put this in perspective Orbital’s highly regarded second album (often called “The Brown Album”) released in 1993 had a dynamic range of 13 db. Tribe Called Quest’s iconic Low End Theory from 1991 had a range of 12 db. The recent increase in loudness has its roots both in the desire or record labels to have songs that stand out on the radio, but it also ensures that tracks sound hyperreal when played through highly amplified sound systems at dance clubs. The flattening of dynamic range ensures that all frequencies and passages are equally audible above the throbbing bodies of a dance club. On home systems, particularly low efficiency speakers and headphones, this loudness creates an impression of fidelity that has little in common with the sound of live instruments. In many ways, the loudness of EDM contributes to hyperreality of the genre (and increasingly of all pop music) that has no or few referents in performed music. Our encounter, then, with loudness, the regimented experience of the click track, and the seamless integration of the found sounds in the assemblage offers an experience of the real with only the barest of relationships with our lived experiences. To use Baudrillard’s language, the structuring of this assemblage offers a simulacrum that lacks a clear point of reference (Baudrillard 1994).

(Part 2 tomorrow!)

Music Monday

If you spend any time on the archaeology Twitter (or the field with archaeologists), you soon come to realize that music is key part of what archaeologists do. Some of this is because so much of archaeology is routine and anything we can do to distract ourself from the tedium is welcome. Sometimes, it is because archaeologists spend way too much time in close company of other adults and a little music through headphones gives us a bit of private space. Sometimes, it’s the opposite of that: we often find ourselves talking about music because it gives us a social break from bickering about this or that issue with a database or some kind of intractable archaeological problem.

Usually on this blog, I comment on the music that I’m enjoying on my Friday Quick Hits and Varia. Since I spend far less time surfing the web during the summer and don’t run my quick hits and varia, I thought I might post some of my new summertime music for folks looking to enjoy some music as the new academic year looms!

 I’ve been particularly enjoying Shabaka Hutchings various projects that have come to define – in some ways – the resurgent London jazz scene. The Comet is Coming is some pretty entertaining space jazz. His Sons of Kemet has produced brilliant Afro-Caribbean inflected music for almost a decade.  Shabaka and the Ancestors is another of his projects and Wisdom of the Elders is really enjoyable.

Along similar lines, I find Yazz Ahmed (who for reasons I simply cannot fathom lacks a Wikipedia page, but this article might offer a hint!) Her album La Saboteuse has been a revelation. 

The recent revival in various kinds of spiritual and space jazz (if you haven’t checked out the newly reissued version of Don Cherry’s Don Cherry (also known as Brown Rice), and this kind of music is your jam, you should definitely give it a listen) has inspired me to think a bit more about big bands. This winter, I really enjoyed the 1960s big band sounds of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. I listened to Charles Mingus’s Let My Children Hear Music this summer for the first time in years, and I loved it far more than I remembered. There’s been some buzz surrounding the re-release of some of the side cut by Horace Tapscott’s Pan-Afrikan People’s Orchestra in the 1970s and The Call and Live at U.I.C.C. are definitely worth a listen. 

For my pop music fix, I’ve liked Vampire Weekend’s newest album, Father of the Bride. It shares a kind of refined mediocrity with recent released from U2, the National, LCD Soundsystem, and a number of other bands who are still trying to do what they do, but also making tiny moves that show they still have something new to say (but not really inclined to say it very loudly). I’ve also liked Kishi Bashi’s Omoiyari.

I’ve also enjoyed John the Martyr’s self-titled first album and the bittersweet covers of tracks from Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight titled Tiny Changes: A Celebration of Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight. Daughter’s cover of “Poke” and Josh Ritter’s cover of “Old Old Fashioned” are particular favorites.  Finally, check out David Berman’s newest project, Purple Mountains. I really like the lyrics which remind me of the best songs from Silver Jews, but with better arrangements.