Vibration holds a complex position in the study of music and sound. Simultaneously figurative and material, vibration is both sound’s waves and stands in for the desired effects—and affects—that sound might have on individual and social bodies. Over the past decade, an increasing number of scholars have theorized music and sound through vibration, foregrounding it as an important object of study in itself. Marcus Boon’s The Politics of Vibration: Music as Cosmopolitical Practice is the latest book in this movement of theorizing vibration and raises important questions about the future directions for sound studies as a field.
Beginning in the introduction, Boon uses his notions of vibration, music, and cosmopolitics to interrogate the methods of sound studies. In the process, he reinvigorates the familiar debates between so-called cultural studies approaches (where music is read as a text that can (re)inscribe bodies) and anthropological/ethnomusicological approaches (where music is understood as a material piece in a system of relations). Boon charts the many possibilities for vibration, describing it as “a mathematical and a physical concept, as a religious or ontological force, and as a psychological/psychoanalytical determinant of subjectivity” (3). For Boon and the music under his purview, vibration is a “mathematical” system, a physically felt “force,” and a driver of individual “subjectivity.” In this vein, vibration works as an energy transfer that originates at the level of gesture (8–9). This leads Boon to theorize that music is not performed but rather emerges, a conceptualization that draws from the Deleuzian theories of which Boon is also critical. His critiques here are twofold: 1. “There is no real account given of why any particular vibrational assemblage matters to any particular community” and 2. “The absence of theorization of the subject’s imbrication in the world of vibration” (19–20). Too steeped in the materiality of vibration, Boon surmises that Deleuzian theory misses the “community” and “world” aspects of how sound and music are shared. This is where Boon’s third major term in the introduction, cosmopolitics, makes an important intervention. Building on the work of Isabelle Stengers, Boon defines cosmopolitics as “a politics that engages both human and nonhuman actors” (4), which accounts for the vibrations of both people and objects. Put all together, the vibrations of music are both of and form the world, enacting a cosmopolitics.
In his three following case study chapters, Boon draws on anthropology, ethnomusicology, psychoanalytic theory, and Black studies to propose a method of doing sound studies that lands somewhere between cultural studies and more musicological approaches. As an alternative to Deleuze, Boon instead turns to Julian Henriques’s notion of sonic bodies, or bodies ready to attune to—and to be reattuned by—the sounds and vibrations of the waves that comprise music. While each chapter has its strengths, each case study also demonstrates the challenges of holding so many methodological approaches together. This is most apparent in Chapter 1 on Indian classical singer Pandit Pran Nath, who moved to America in 1969 and split his time between New York and California until his death in 1996. The cosmopolitical practice Pran Nath helps to spread is one of “just intonation,” of “the feeling of harmony” when “something sounds ‘in tune’” (46). The idea of just intonation was at the time being promoted by La Monte Young, an American minimalist composer with an interest in Indian music. As Boon notes, this call for just intonation was a call away from classical music (which is tuned according to Equal Temperament—and is therefore slightly out of tune) and instead towards musics that always stayed in tune, such as the blues (47). While the chapter is a fascinating exploration of this collaborative partnership and the new vibratory worlds that become possible as a result of it, it largely steers away from exploring the racial and gendered aspects of these exchanges. In this way, it reproduces a different critique of Deleuzian theory: that an astute focus on vibration and materiality ultimately subsumes any meaningful exploration of the identities of those involved. As Kara Keeling’s work demonstrates, even Deleuzian concepts such as becoming-woman are strangely detached from lived experiences of identity, instead signifying some post-identity world that music and its refrains might get us to.1 In thisfirst chapter, the racialization of not only the blues but also Indian classical music and the (white) avant-garde go unexplored.
In Chapter 2 on Swedish musician and mathematician Catherine Christer Hennix, Boon turns to psychoanalytic theory to bridge the material with the identitarian. Known as a “composer of drones” (but preferring the term “modular music”) since the late 1960s, Hennix’s compositions repeat sound waves to the point of creating a “vibratory field” (77–78). Riffing on the cultural studies and affect theory conceptualization first made popular by Raymond Williams, Boon claims that Hennix’s compositions accentuate a “mathematical structure to feeling” (82). In Hennix’s compositions, waves have a mathematical repetition, creating literal new materialities of space and the identities that fill them. While the mathematical theory in this chapter is, at times, difficult to follow, Boon’s use of psychoanalysis to conceptualize a “trans-feminist vibrational practice of the unconscious” grounds these theories in something more familiar (116). Boon sets the stage for this moment a few pages earlier, where he describes how Hennix’s transition informed the “questions of sexual difference and the basis of gender and sexual norms” in her work in the mid-1990s (111). It is notably the first point in the text when Boon pauses to make a sustained gender and sexuality analysis—and it is so effective that one can only wish that there were more of these moments earlier. From a moment of personal experience, Hennix uses a mathematical structure of feeling to explore new possibilities for gender and sexuality. This combination of the human (her input into the compositions) and the non-human (the materiality—and mathematics—of the sounds she creates) together enact a cosmopolitics.
This interplay among cosmopolitics, vibration, and identity is most apparent in Chapter 4 on Houston hip hop artist DJ Screw and the chopped-and-screwed genre. After a technical chapter titled “Music and the Continuum,” the DJ Screw chapter is refreshingly grounded in stories of the artist’s and friends’ lived experiences, along with familiar Black sound studies theories from Fred Moten and Ashon Crawley.2 When Boon writes that “[c]osmopolitical events are everywhere in the history of Black music—and invariably involve a struggle over the right to occupy and manifest musical space,” it is a mic drop moment that reveals the stakes of his project as a whole—and particularly for minoritarian musical creators, especially Black artists (180). Through a deep dive into the chopped (cut up and looped) and screwed (slowed down) genre first made popular by the DJ in the early 1980s, Boon theorizes that Screw “made discoveries about time itself” (180). Screw’s innovation created a powerful new example to the explorations of Afrodiasporic time within Black studies and elsewhere. In DJ Screw’s music, one can hear and feel the experiences of Black people, ones that struggle to get any airtime within the context of white heteronormative and patriarchal time. This analysis creates an opening for Boon’s autoethnographic moment near the end of the chapter, where he proposes that vibration offers an alternative to the limits of allyship, creating space to identify with music without appropriating from it. With this final piece, it is the chapter that most completely demonstrates the potential of cosmopolitics. In a historical moment in time when the attention to critical race theory is high, this last full chapter in The Politics of Vibration builds an interdisciplinary bridge between Black studies, sound studies, and anthropology by demonstrating the full potential of music’s cosmopolitics.
For those of us writing about vibration within sound studies, The Politics of Vibration offers exciting new entry points for considering sound’s materiality. In the wave of books addressing vibration in the past decade, it is the most thorough and meticulous. At the same time, Boon’s book also underscores how difficult it is to write about the materiality of sound and the identities of those who move in relation to it together, as evidenced by the groove that he finds only after writing about vibration and identity more separately. In this way, The Politics of Vibration is also an invitation for those of us working in shared fields of study to continue to take up the challenge of writing about race, gender, and sexuality in conversation with vibration’s materialities and the cosmopolitics that they create. In opening these questions of interdisciplinarity within sound studies, The Politics of Vibration offers us a portal into future configurations in the field.
Kara Keeling, The Witch’s Flight (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2007).
Fred Moten, In The Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis, MN, and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003); Ashon T. Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2017).