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date: 21 April 2018

The Mobilization of Performance: An Introduction to the Aesthetics of Mobile Music

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides an introduction to the aesthetics of mobile music performance and argues for thinking together the categories of art and the everyday. The authors suggest that the aesthetics of mobile music is not equivalent to an aesthetics of mere motion or movement; instead it involves an investigation of the networked relations of human and device and a foregrounding of mobility as both capacity and sign. The chapter contains three extended case studies, one each on Hifana’s Shoe-J commercial for Nike, the interactive walk-piece Sonic City, and the Liverpool Street Station Silent Dance. Each of these case studies emphasizes a different analytical register: the material, the phenomenological, and the relational. The chapter ends with a consideration of the relationship between aesthetics and etiquette.

Keywords: mobile music, aesthetics, human–device relationship, aesthetics of mobility, silent dance, silent rave, Nike, Hifana, Sonic City, Lalya Gaye, etiquette, relational aesthetics, materialism, phenomenology

The Mobilization of Performance

The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an “immense collection of commodities”; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form. Our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity.1

—Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1

And ours begins with a piece of rubber-sheathed plastic shoved deep in an ear canal, an immense speaker system bolted to a flatbed truck, a boombox swinging in a hand, or a transistor radio nestled close to a body under the covers in a darkened, late-night bedroom. Or perhaps it begins with some smartphone playlists accessed via satellite, DJ set lists on a laptop computer, broadcasts funded by and acting as advertisements—each entailing complex social and economic relationships between user, device, and built environments. In these examples, the commodity, however, does not appear as an “elementary form,” but rather—to quote a Marx slightly younger than the one just summoned—as “sensuous human activity” (1970:121). To oversimplify: if the first volume of The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies, which focuses primarily on mobile music devices and markets and overarching theories about mobile music, might be said to deal with the commodity’s exchange value and its myriad ramifications, our (p. 2) task in Volume 2 is to attend to use value, the particularities of how and why devices are used, and how they shape and participate in sensory experience. Ultimately, the commodity form does not provide us with the analytic we seek, and in this volume we instead start from the premise that the commodity’s “elementary form” always emerges in performance, in its consumption, in its being used (and used up), in the work that it does and the work done to it and through it.2 The commodity here is, therefore, not only social and economic, but also bound up with the senses and with the creative sensibility, whose harnessing by human agent, device, corporation, and infrastructure helps constitute an aesthetic of mobility. For our purposes, the sensory domain of greatest interest is that of hearing; that is, the commodity forms that principally concern us are heard (even if also seen and felt). At the core of the essays on mobile music that follow is an attentiveness to what the plastic-penetrated ear hears, to the listening public that is generated when a boombox is brought to circulate through the streets, or to what happens as the sound truck vibrates and resonates, buzzing with bootylicious bass lines.

Arranging their daily activities in coordination with a variety of mobile systems, large and small, mobile music users engage in individual performances and dedicated practices that emerge with, through, and because of sound and sound’s articulations with other forms of sense data. A crucial link in the chain of relations between sound source and user is bodily comportment: indeed, comportment, whose root “port” is one of the most pervasive signifiers of mobility (as in “portability”), entails a repertoire of performance practices, behaviors, and etiquettes that produce and activate sound. This repertoire includes the percussive, rhythmic indexicality—or better, polexicality—of text-messaging and cell phone keypad use; the ubiquitous, close-to-the-ear auralities of headphone listening; newer practices of dragging and tactile manipulation of touch screens (and the audible traces that such practices produce); the transformations of vocality in response to voice recognition systems; forms of managed bodily entrainment, exercise, and less conscious gestural choreographies that are reliant upon, and coax into being, varied sonic worlds. Such recent practices, primarily involving mobile handheld devices, have emerged over the last two decades, but they do, of course, have important ancestors, some of which endure: the various forms of dialing associated with rotary, touch-tone telephones; the manipulation of knobs and antennae in the process of tuning portable radios and televisions; the transformation of automotive experiences through the presence of car radios, stereos, cassette tape players, and compact disc players; the practice of setting up relocatable sound and media systems, such as opening the lids of suitcase gramophones. (Mobility studies is primarily preoccupied with the feet and the seat, but the experience of mobile music often is decidedly hand-oriented.)

The sheer range of what we are calling “mobile performances” is obviously very wide, but are there common features that warrant uniting them together under a single rubric? Certainly, electrical and digital devices are extremely important, with many if not all tending to be relatively small, handheld or otherwise easily ported (the sound truck being a notable exception in device size). We might even go so far as to say that the inclusion of self-evidently mobile-musical devices (p. 3) such as iPhones, iPods, or laptop computers within this rubric is definitional. On account of their connection to the marketing term “mobile music,” these small devices might seem to figure a kind of “ideal type” of mobile music performance—an idealization that would need to be deconstructed. Perhaps equally important is the role of headphones in these performances—used conspicuously by commuters, silent ravers, mobile video game players, participants in “walk” pieces—and the kinds of listening that they encourage or permit. But not all mobile performance is headphoned performance; there are all kinds of sonic mobilities—ones associated with sound vehicles or devices such as the boom box—whose principal use value resides in a relatively wide propagation of sound into the surrounding (but still limited) ambient space. Mobile music performances are often designated as such, not just through the presence of portable or movable devices, but also through the movement of human bodies, most often horizontally, through space. And yet, it becomes quite apparent from even a cursory examination of mobile performance practices, that many are not necessarily very mobile in a strict sense. Indeed, quite a few involve the equivalent of fourth-wall-based performances of fixed duration and, often, fixed seating, reproducing the conventional audience-performer relationships found in end-stage theatrical spaces. Even though many of the examples discussed in this volume highlight the use of electrical and digital devices, additional cases could be adduced that are mechanical or even corporeal in nature: an unmediated sound walk, a parade of singers or drummers, an ambulatory use of a music box. We might better understand the relation between these examples through flexible forms of categorization, such as family resemblances or through particular archetypes. Nonetheless, while none of the features just discussed seem to be necessary for classifying mobile performance, a few that follow may be sufficient.

The presence of mobile devices in performance is one obvious, but perhaps counterintuitive, example of these sufficient features. Indeed, there exists an entire class of mobile performance that does not involve any degree of movement, at least not any more than is typically found in the standard proscenium concert performance. One prime example would be the mobile phone orchestra, itself prefigured by John Cage’s pieces with radios (for example, Imaginary Landscape No. 4 from 1951). Usually these are tied to a single space, with relatively traditional performance boundaries kept intact. Regardless of whether performers move to any great degree, the expectation of or potential for bodily movement is present. The devices themselves serve as a kind of horizon orienting or framing performance. A foundational example illustrating this effect is Dialtones (A Telesymphony), created in 2001 by Golan Levin, Gregory Shakar, and Scott Gibbons, among others. Seated in a square-shaped arrangement of chairs, audience members are entirely stationary. An LED held by an audience member lights up whenever his or her phone rings, and the entire audience is reflected in a massive mirror suspended above. Functioning as a sonic source indicated as a pixel on a grid, each audience member’s immobility is highlighted in extremis.3 As seems to be the case with many works like Dialtones, the mobile device is not only a means of performance; it also serves as a signifier of mobility, a part of the performance’s communicative effect.

(p. 4) While mobile performance can be rather constrained spatially, there is another class in which bounded performances are respatialized. Such performances occupy unfamiliar spaces, thereby denying generic expectations and reproducing localized dynamics within a greater extensity. One conspicuous post-millennial example is the flash mob, whose networked organization situates performance in public or already otherwise occupied spatialities, its unapproved nature directly impinging on bystanders. We treat one class of flash mob performance—the silent rave—later in this chapter, but numerous examples abound, such as the seemingly impromptu flash mob dances and performances that take place in the celebrated non-places of airport and train terminals (Augé 2000). These heavily rehearsed performances feature unison choreographies, familiar cultural forms (such as musical theater), mobile sound systems, a large number of participants, and an exaggeratedly affected and mannered performing style—all necessary to stand out from the noisy bustle of a congregated public. Crucial to the effect, especially when documented on video, are the facial expressions of bewildered and amused onlookers.4

If respatialization is effectively a kind of defamiliarizing of a particular performance practice by placing it within a novel space and social context, new practices of performance also appear when performance behaviors are literally set in motion, or mobilized. Certainly, on the one hand, the mobilization of a performance can share features with performative respatialization—an impromptu, unexpected musical performance in a subway station is not, in this sense, very different from a similar performance that might take place within a moving subway train. But on the other hand, the conjunction of musical performance and experience with transit has created new kinds of performative behaviors such as commuting with a Walkman or iPod or driving while listening to the radio. These two examples are not unrelated: they bespeak a series of experiences that connect mobilized spaces—which can be as “small” as one’s own headspace—to domestic spaces. The smooth, nearly seamless continuity between the home and the vehicle (or between the home and the mediatized ambulation away from home) is perhaps one of the momentous changes wrought by mobilization.

The consequences of these changes for the relationship between labor and leisure were treated in our introduction to Volume 1 as part of the discussion of the “anytime, anywhere” trope. This trope is more than just good advertising copy (although it was, and remains, that too); the trope forms an essential ideological foundation upon which the burgeoning entertainment market of the early twentieth century was built. The expectations of both capital and consumers began to be spatially and temporally stretched, and from this stretching a pliable aesthetic began to emerge, one that entailed a rather extensive colonization of time and space by a new ordering of the senses. Concomitantly, as the twentieth century progressed, novel forms of social behavior and experience emerged and were predicated on changes in, for example, bodily comportment and entrainment, gestural choreography, mapping between sound and data, and semiotics and symbolism of mobility. By the early twenty-first century, these novel forms of social behavior and experience coalesced into a rather replete set of aesthetic resources that have manifested in a wide variety of situations.

(p. 5) Aesthetic Mundanities

Many of the examples of “mobile performance” described above fall into the domain of seemingly everyday, mundane behaviors. But mobile performance isn’t only mundane; there is a whole series of designated artistic events that coagulate around mobilizations of the mobile. These encompass not only concerts, theatrical productions, dance recitals, and other familiar genres of artistic performance, but also include soundwalks, sound installations, and musical and sonic smartphone apps, as well as entire genres of musical and sonic production that defamiliarize the content of art while maintaining some elements of its means of presentation (chiptune music and mobile deejaying might be two examples).

Given the rather tenuous dichotomy of the mundane and the artistic (which also intriguingly recalls other dichotomies such as consumer/producer and amateur/professional), can we say that there is such a thing as a “mobile music performance?”5 If we take an expansive view of the “performative”—and we do—we can answer this question with an unequivocal yes, but with a caveat that the range of performance types is heterogeneous and extensive. And therein lies a second caveat: the ubiquitous presence of mobile devices often leads to quotidian performances going unnoticed, obscured under the gauzy scrim of routine and habit.

Theorizing the everyday and the artistic under the rubric of performance creates a different conceptual partition than is typically found in discourses on mobile media. In mainstream journalism and mass-market publications, for example, the mobile device is featured as central, with mass usages of many stripes (everyday/mundane, humanitarian, profitable, entertainment-oriented) seen as a product of the devices (an obvious technological determinism) and simultaneously as a legitimization of those very devices. But if we instead think together mass usages with more rarified or specialized—and self-consciously aestheticized—ones under the domain of “performance,” we effectively shift the weighting toward a heterogeneous range of practices rather than toward their most frequent instances. Correspondingly, we also focus the analytic lens away from the determinist imperatives of technological capital, at least for the moment. (These, like all repressions of course, return.6)

What does it mean, then, to think about a boom car in tandem with a mobile phone orchestra? Or an ice cream truck with a Game Boy? Or a siren with a laptop DJ performance? We should note that one result of bringing such a range of performances together might be to raise the possibility of canonical performances in the everyday, as well as to problematize self-evident canonicity in sanctioned performance. Art and the everyday intersect and, in the last instance, are inseparable from one another. Two quick examples: The character Radio Raheem’s performance in Do the Right Thing (1989) is a canonical instance of using a boombox, one that confirmed and reproduced an everyday experience. Or, Ge Wang’s promotional video for the Ocarina app,7 in which Led Zeppelin, Asian-guru/master fantasies, and the history (p. 6) of the long 1960s counterculture flow into the world of computer music, the app economy, and again into the further reaches of popular culture. Comparing these two examples, one might be tempted to align more mundane performances with the unscripted, and self-consciously artistic performances with the scripted. But, in fact, this not necessarily the case: for instance, iPod users unthinkingly draw on the social script of listening to music while commuting, whereas many apparently prescribed artworks incorporate a wide range of freely determined behaviors and contributions by participants.

The spectrum of the scripted and the unscripted may be a red herring when attempting to understand mobile music performances. Instead, by incorporating theorizations of genres and subgenres of human behavior into observations of the consistency of form, we might bypass problematic assumptions about the nature of art, about who creates and who does not. Indeed, the performances described in this volume of essays easily traverse such assumed reified divisions. What would an analysis of mobile performance that dispenses with these divisions look like? To offer a provisional answer to this question, we present three case studies that compare performances of a wide range: (1) a DJ duo takes the sneaker as an iconic apparel item—one that is almost the quintessence of mobility—and wields it as a musical instrument (2) a digital media artist creates a walking piece, incorporating a backpack-housed musical interface that senses a city’s environmental features (3) flash mobbers assemble at a train station and dance to the music of their own, individualized iPods—participating in what has become known as a “silent rave.” Our gambit in these case studies is to foreground three distinct approaches to the analysis of mobile music performance, each of which respectively emphasizes a different analytical register: the material, the phenomenological, and the relational. These registers are not discrete categories: each of the performances we discuss abounds with material resources, affords a variety of phenomenal experiences, and involves relational networks of actors. As such, these registers are layered into and through every mobile music performance, to varying degrees. With this in mind, the three case studies should not only be read sequentially; they should be allowed to resonate with each other and be understood as representing three dimensions of a single analytic and interpretive project.

“When a Shoe Becomes a Music Instrument” (Or, “It’s a Really Strange Instrument…or a Shoe”)

Shoes are the new turntables.8

One would think that mobile music has something to do with mobility. And what more powerful symbol do we have of the “mobile” than the sneaker, the meeting point of (p. 7) uncountable histories: the asymmetric motilities of Euro-American colonialism (think rubber); the kinetics of athletic capitalism; the cosmo-portabilities of early twenty-first century urbanity? And the Nike Corporation, the world’s top seller of athletic footwear, with its swoosh emblem bespeaking never-ending movement and flow, might be a candidate—along with Apple and Sony—for the lifestyle corporation of the mobile age. This is the company whose advertising campaigns brought us neutered revolutions and doing, not thinking;9 whose malfeasance shone a light on the all too immobile class politics that inhere in global capitalism’s extensive reliance on sweatshop labor; whose engineers developed technologies of support and form-fitting bounce; whose products can be found pretty much wherever people can be found, each moving on Nike’s sole.

KEIZOmachine! and Juicy—aka Hifana—have their Nikes, and not just on their feet, but in their hands too.10 The DJ duo is behind a table whose surface is cluttered with two mixing boards and six pairs of sneakers—fluorescent blue, pink, gray, green—the back sole of each fitted with an 1/8th-inch output that transmits MIDI and OSC data to computers. We see the musicians plugging in the sneakers, cables now connecting the footwear to the mixing boards (see Figure 1.1). Behind them are two large speaker cabinets made out of what appear to be Nike sneaker boxes, each with its own swoosh logo, all in the unmistakable orange of the Nike brand. Sneaker cabinets. There’s a sound check, each sneaker from the table is flexed and bent, producing the noise of different instruments: a drum machine, a synthesizer (and we see that the cable connected to one sneaker is labeled “bass”). Monitoring the technical setup from the side are young men sitting observantly behind MacBook Pros—the presence of the Apple Corporation being crucial to the enhancement of Nike in its “Nike+” project (Gopinath and Stanyek 2013).11 Finally, the performance begins. We recognize it immediately: it’s Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, no longer just an emblem of nineteenth-century grandiosity, or even of the slow-motion, orbital futurity of the mid-twentieth-century counterculture. Here it’s bedecked in the sonic rubber of hip-hop breakbeats, variably filtered bass synth lines, neo-African congas, a cowbell timeline/clave pattern, and a hi-hat layer, with each performed and looped live using a foot-controlled Boss RC-50 Loop Station. The feet that stomp on the pedals of the Boss are also wired in, creating multiple signal paths. But both musicians have other sets of feet, and these they manipulate with their hands. The six pairs of sneakers on the table are variably picked up, and twisted, flexed, bent: ghost feet that exist in the viewer’s imagination, manipulated deftly by two hip-hop puppeteers. A few moves are particularly arresting, both visually and temporally. The sneakers go up en pointe and do pirouettes, mimicking ballet positions and thereby simultaneously evoking a kind of classicism, which is also signaled early on by the Strauss and KEIZOmachine! and Juicy’s bodily reactions to the famous rush of orchestral sound answering Also Sprach Zarathustra’s iconic opening trumpet fanfare.12

The Mobilization of PerformanceAn Introduction to the Aesthetics of Mobile MusicClick to view larger

Figure 1.1 Hifana performs mobility.

Screenshot by the authors.

The video of Hifana’s performance serves as an advertisement for Nike, and in it the two DJs clearly insert themselves into a broader discourse that Nike has consistently capitalized on, one that has drawn attention to the balletic dimensions of professional athleticism.13 In fact, Nike advertisements have often acted as staging grounds for meetings between representatives of “classical” and “popular” culture (as in the 1990 ad with (p. 8) basketball player David Robinson and Czech pianist Rudolf Firkušný, or a Russian Nike ad from 2007 featuring a ballerina and a hip-hop dancer).14 Many of these advertisements also feature vast, neutral, and even anonymous spaces—abstracted basketball courts, cavernous gyms, dark warehouses, lofts—and in this respect the Hifana ad is no different. But the space here is particularly antiseptic and clinical, akin to a brand-new art studio or, more likely, some kind of light industrial environment used for manufacturing precision equipment. In this sense, the space is fitting, as it is the site of sophisticated musical experimentation, undertaken by Hifana’s collaborators Seiichi Saito and Daito Manabe (of the digital design/architecture firm Rhizomatiks) and Tomoaki Yanagisawa (of the design research lab 4nchor5 la6). For the Nike ad, Saito served as the software engineer and Yanagisawa was responsible for the hardware design. Each sneaker was fitted with three flex sensors and an accelerometer, which were designed to use the open-source Arduino electronic prototyping platform to transform the twisting and flexing of the sneakers into MIDI and OSC data that could then be transmitted to a MacBook Pro. Once the data entered the computer, it could be sonified using Max/MSP and Ableton Live. At that point the audio signal could be sent back to the DJs (or, as Peter Kirn called them, the “Shoe-Js”15), who could then use the crossfaders on their mixing boards and their Boss loop machine to do one last set of manipulations of the sounds before outputting them to the speakers. A learning process was required for Hifana to become comfortable manipulating the shoes as instruments, which altered sound according to position in space, as well as to degrees of lateral bending and rotor twisting. As Daito Manabe commented on the performers’ use of the shoes, “As expected, their bend rate while performing is different from mine. At times the difference was, like, that much?!”16

(p. 9) A key part of this story is that the musical experimentation undertaken by Rhizomatiks and Hifana on the “Nike Music Shoe” was commissioned by the Tokyo branch of the global advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy, the very agency that has been instrumental in creating Nike’s (in)famous ads. (The Tokyo branch’s purported goal is “…to create strong, provocative relationships between good companies and their customers.”17) But, there’s one more twist, or flex, here. Wieden+Kennedy has their own music label, W+K Tokyo Lab, and Hifana is one of their recording artists. The history of advertising and corporate-sponsored cultural production has for decades revealed a close relationship between experimental artists and large, often multinational firms—the days of oppositional, avant-gardist relationships between cutting-edge culture and capital being long gone, if they ever existed.18 Hifana and Wieden+Kennedy represent an advance in the realm of incorporated possibility, not only in demonstrating such close proximity between advertiser and constituent cultural producer, but also to the point of developing an entire incorporated aesthetic, one here imagined as profoundly multimediatic but with sound artists playing a—arguably the—central role.19

The advertising relationship between Hifana and Wieden+Kennedy might partially account for the materialistic aesthetic of the performance under consideration, but what are the material aesthetics of a performance that has a common, not to say iconic, material object at its very core? A basic accounting of material objects would traverse one step toward such an understanding. This accounting might include protocols (MIDI [Musical Instrument Digital Interface], OSC [Open Sound Control]), software platforms (Ableton Live, Max/MSP), myriad devices in various states of alteration and assembly (sneakers, Boss RC-50 Loop Machine, Apple PowerBook, cross-fading DJ mixers, amplifier, large mixing board, PA system, sneaker cabinets), and controllers (flex sensors, accelerometers, touchpads/mouse interfaces). There are, of course, material objects that are more easily taken for granted, such as what we might call tethers, or linking elements within the chains of computation and sound production (cables, RFID chips, wireless links, solid-state circuit boards, etched wires on integrated circuits), not to mention the built environment making the entire performance possible (the warehouse-like building’s drywall, concrete, beams, corrugated metal ceiling, piping, fluorescent lighting, electrical wiring, plumbing, telephone-internet infrastructure, as well as the A/C power grid, roads, ambient sound, and communications networks). One might even theorize a flattened material substrate of the performance, encompassing all of the performance’s materials already mentioned (rubber, copper, plastic molding, silicon; the cotton, nylon, rubber, synthetic fibers, etc. of the apparel worn by the performers; electricity; the carbon-basis of organic life). Finally, there are the (perhaps) not-so-evident material domains (or reserves) of the sonic and the gestural: the sound files used to create the performance, including recorded samples of Strauss, percussion, Chinza Dopeness’s voice, as well as synthesized sound; or the movement forms, vocabularies, and clichés drawn from popular imagery of classical ballet (pirouettes, going on point, arm positions/carriage [Port de bras]) and hip-hop dance/movement, among others.

(p. 10) Of course, at the center of this vast material network is the sneaker, which acts as a kind of nodal point for the performance in numerous ways. For example, the fact that it is connected via 1/8-inch jack and cable not only turns the sneaker into an instrument but also gives it instrument-like features, invoking a semiotics of plugging in that is crucial to the experience of setting up music gear. Additionally, this is no ordinary sneaker but a Nike sneaker and therefore a prized fetish object within many consumer markets—including those associated with hip-hop; it thereby gives the performance a symbolism of materialism, acting in tandem with the materiality of its numerous components. Furthermore, the sneaker motivates and organizes performance tropes, as well as the occasion of the performance more broadly. Hand-manipulated dance moves demonstrated through the sneakers and the balletic dance behavior of the two performers must be read through a kind of shoe- and foot-centric lens, wherein all such dance practices are understood through the fact of their podiality and the fact that many dance forms are associated with (if not having specifically developed) distinct types of shoes, including the sneaker in breakdance.

One modality of mobile performance places the device front and center and, in so doing, highlights its capacity to signify mobility, rather than merely demonstrate it. (The performance does seem to involve relatively relocatable and compact equipment, suggesting a mobility of repositioning.) Such a performance could have employed far more typical exemplars of sonic mobility, such as an iPhone, iPod, portable radio/boombox, etc., but the fact that a sneaker is used arguably drives the point home more directly: having a narrow range of prescribed uses, sneakers are indelibly linked to the movement of feet, to walking, or to running. The fact that the sneakers are allowed to retain their sneakerness is key here: although transposed into an apparently alien context, the sneaker is never disguised (at least visually) as anything other than what it is, and its movements, even when motivated by hand, remain familiar and recognizable to wearers (or viewers) of sneakers.

The matter-of-factness of Hifana’s use of the sneaker extends to the whole of the performance, which relies upon an elegant simplicity, rather than an extremely complicated technical apparatus. For example, the programmers suggest that their Max patches (software programs made on Max/MSP) are extremely basic; the other pieces of equipment—computers, mixing boards, pedal controllers—likewise were not altered at all, with two major exceptions: the sneaker cabinets and the shoe-controllers. The latter involved a seemingly lengthy process of embedding flex controllers inside them, making the shoes’ bends and twists legible as data for Max (transmitted via OSC). Thus, one way to evaluate the performance may be through what might be termed a dialectic of implementation and modification—the latter seemingly characteristic of much experimental cultural production—its “off-the-shelf” (not to say, consumerist) character would become readily apparent. On the other hand, experimental culture also involves forms of recontextualization and combination, which this performance exhibits in numerous ways. Hence, to reduce the performance to one or the other side of an implementation/modification binary would not do it justice.20

(p. 11) Playing the City

Encounters, events, architecture, (mis)behaviours—all become means of interacting with or “playing the city.”21

For some modalities of mobile music performance, mobility as explicit human movement is central. The surest confirmation of this form of mobility is the subjective perception of movement through space: the ambulatory motion of the self-propelled, featherless biped. Here, the sneaker is not the central component, but the foot, which is the irreducible ground for such movement. If mobile music performance has a core repertoire, the “walking” piece would be one essential genre—one that ironically marries the fundamental motility of the human species with the latest trends in mobile, digital technologies. The theoretical underpinnings of that repertoire’s aesthetic discourse is variegated but largely stems from the literatures on “everyday life” emerging during and in the wake of the long 1960s and its antecedents: Benjamin’s flâneur is a crucial reference, de Certeau’s “walking rhetoric” is another, and the Situationist dérive yet one more. Other theoretical, artistic, and ethnographic treatments of walking have been influential as well, perhaps the most notable being Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines (1987), a hybrid book that uses the indigenous Australian practice of the walkabout—a musicalized walking map—as one of its primary source materials.22 While audio technology is not a prerequisite for the “walking piece,” a number of composers and performance artists have employed various kinds of playback devices in the service of creating surrogate sonic worlds for walkers as they move through composer-determined environments.

By the turn of the millennium, portable devices could do much more than either record or emit prerecorded sounds—through new capabilities for digitized data conversion, devices could handle and produce complex inputs and outputs within a localized algorithmic computation system. One crucial precedent for this kind of practice is “wearable computing,” catalyzed in varying degrees and at various technological levels through the widespread availability of microelectronics. A significant advocate for this practice was Steve Mann, whose work sutured apparel and computer, capitalizing on the development of backpack-mounted computers in the 1980s (Rheingold 2002:106–12; Mann and Niedzviecki 2001). The cyborgian implications of that work are self-evident and can be seen as part of a broader cultural formation that included key representations of the cyborg, such as in cyberpunk fictions like the iconic Ridley Scott film Blade Runner (1982) or William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984).

The cyborg imaginary might additionally be seen as an aesthetic tied to emergent practices of “interactivity,” specifically, digital multimedia art forms in which—unlike earlier forms of computer-generated art, video, or music—both output and input data were collected, used, and processed during the performance itself, for the purpose of (p. 12) transforming the artwork itself in self-evident, tangible ways. Interactive art was also intertwined with pre-existing and contemporaneous efforts to produce new kinds of connections between artistic participants separated geographically, between different media (“multimedia art”), and between artists and audiences (“participatory art”). Interactive art’s long history, also extending back at least to the 1970s, 1970 became married productively to the massification of digital technologies quite early on, but “[d]igital art made its official entry into the art world only in the late 1990s,” and gained aesthetic legitimacy only relatively recently (Paul 2003:23). Nonetheless, the presence of self-proclaimed interactive art was widespread by the early 2000s, 2000 and by that time it had certainly made its way into experimental musical composition in Europe and North America. One means of varying the content of the work in real time is to transform non-sonic data into audio, in a process termed “sonification.” Alvin Lucier’s Music for Solo Performer (1965), which famously transformed the composer’s own brainwaves into sound, might serve as a pre-digital effort at what would become much more common in the digital era (Charles Dodge’s Earth’s Magnetic Field from 1970 is a conspicuous early example).

The reference points mentioned above provide a context for what should be understood as one of the founding works of an experimental type of “mobile music.”23 In Göteborg, Sweden between 2002 and 2004, a multi-disciplinary team of researchers led by Lalya Gaye and Ramia Mazé at the Future Applications Lab (Viktoria Institute) and the PLAY Studio at the Interactive Institute developed an interface they called “Sonic City.”24 In the work, a headphoned user wears a host of sensors—a light-to-frequency converter, a microphone, a metal detector, an accelerometer, a temperature sensor, and a pollution sensor—that “map” a broad range of parameters: temperature, ambient sound, pollution level, lighting conditions, presence of metal, bodily choreographies (stopping, bending, running, jumping). The sensors are wired to a backpack loaded with a sound-processing laptop computer, helping to “create” Sonic City when the backpack, carried through the streets of Göteborg, produces subtle variations of looped beeps and bleeps (see Figure 1.2).

The Mobilization of PerformanceAn Introduction to the Aesthetics of Mobile MusicClick to view larger

Figure 1.2 Cyborgized Sonic City participant, walking through Göteborg.

Photograph by Lalya Gaye. Used with permission of Lalya Gaye.

The creators of the project also documented their work in a video that serves as a useful entry point in understanding the technical underpinnings of Sonic City (although it is obviously by no means a comprehensive representation). The video opens with an excerpt from “Tamghra Nouchen” (Wolf Marriage), a drum and bass track with a world-music tinge recorded in 2002 by Naab (Nabil Hassoute), a French musician of Berber Moroccan descent.25 Soon after the video begins, the song’s propulsive groove—it has a bpm (beats per minute) of around 172—gives way to the more austere sonic world produced by the Sonic City interface. Laced with sounds iconic of academic computer music—pulses of synthesized tones, sharp interjections of white noise, and so forth—the pace and layering of bleeps and beeps varies according to time of day, ambient noise (especially passing automobiles), proximity to metal objects like gates, and data from other sensor inputs. In their trebly bleepiness, these sounds are also somewhat reminiscent of early 8-bit video-game music. But while the sounds of Sonic City—and, hence, the video’s diegetic soundtrack—changes in accordance with each (p. 13) individual user’s activities shown in the videorecorded sequences, “Tamghra Nouchen” recurs unchanged and serves as a kind of leitmotif during the video, helping to structure its form by appearing during intervening still-shot segments.

The contrast between the two sound worlds featured in the film is striking and implicitly indicative of Sonic City’s aesthetic aims. It’s clear that “Tamghra Nouchen” is layered onto the built environment of the city, perhaps providing what Michael Bull calls a “filmic experience” (2000:86) and that aural figurations of Sonic City are perceived as emerging out of the interactions between body, interface, and city. The differing aesthetics between the non-diegetic film soundtrack and the sounds generated by Sonic City itself— between a resolutely urban and world-music inflected electronica track and a more variable computer-music/game-music sound world—reinforces the gap between pre-composed music and user-controlled, interactive music. If filmic experience is produced when ambulatory headphone listeners traverse space and create tightly looped, often synchronized correlations between sight and sound, these frequently depend on an intimate— indeed, predictive—knowledge of the track being listened to. In contrast, users have some control over the music in Sonic City but, as in a video game, this control is not absolute. Thus, when the creators of Sonic City speak of “playing the city,” we’re faced with a central conceit of this particular brand of mobile music performance, one that involves, simultaneously, the city functioning as locus of three forms of play: the playing of a newly (p. 14) designed musical instrument called “the city”; the playing of a video game whose name is “the city”; and playing with a competitor known as “the city.”

These themes are borne out in the comments by D. R. and M. K., two Sonic City participants who were recorded as they traversed Göteborg:

D. R. [with traffic sounds in background]: Here we’re in the middle of the tune with a part with drums and a bass there…almost. Then you come back to the same part again, almost. Time to hit the dance floor here! [walks] There was a sound here that I …[moves close to the brick face, and then blind-covered windows of an apartment building] There is really a massive amount of sound here. This is fun! I try to affect it though, like here when I’m testing…I’m doing all I can to control the music. It’s going quite well I think.

M. K.: Now one notices that the music gets shakier when you get into the light and the cars also have a very [sic] impact. So it’s more fun to walk here where things are happening with the music.

The foregoing quotes raise a broader problem central to Sonic City—that of place—which may initially seem antithetical to a work of mobile music. In the commentaries, D. R. and M. K. evoke place through manifold uses of the word “here.” Specifically, whereas M. K. mentions that it’s fun to “walk here” (here being the city, or the part of it encountered on her route), D. R. mentions specific locations in the musical flow as it transmogrifies before his ears, at one point invoking the “dance floor here,” simultaneously speaking of the music and the potential transformation of the out-of-doors cityscape into an indoor club. The variability of the word “here” points to two different issues relevant for the study of Sonic City and, perhaps, mobile musical performance in general. On the one hand, mobile music that involves transit of some kind might be understood as musical performance occurring in successions of diverse emplacements, continuously transitioning between “places.” The ecological concept of the “ecotone,” which refers to boundaries of environment (defined by changes in species habitat) and which are often signaled by sonic shifts and overlaps, might be adapted to refer to (subtle) architectural and structural shifts in cities themselves, the crossings between places and the highlighting of transitions.26 Indeed, Sonic City’s sensor system encourages attention to this sort of boundary point, as users often attempted to provoke changes in order to alleviate the boredom induced by unaltered musical looping—such as approaching and bending one’s head closer to a metal gate, attracting both the proximity sensor and metal detector.27

On the other hand, most (if not all) such transit-oriented mobile musical performances seem to take place within what one might think of as a single “place,” whether understood as a larger geographical or architectural entity (a city, a park, a street, a building, a room) or as the positional equivalent of a phenomenological “now.” The notion of “moorings” (Urry 2007:54; Adey 2010:21–22)—spatially fixed supports or entities—that help to produce mobility (one might think of highways or railways for automobiles and trains, respectively) implies a more generally applicable dialectic in which mobility requires movement through a relatively static space (or between relatively static spaces). (p. 15) Such static entities help determine both motion and position and, taken together, mobile and static elements comprise entire “mobility systems” (Urry 2007:12–16). Although one could identify practical limitations as the justification for “single-space” mobile performance—relatively localized performances are easier to stage—mobility in musical performance is often invoked to encourage exploration of a bounded space. Indeed, the very title Sonic City emphasizes the fact of geographical singularity: it is emphatically not called Sonic Cities.

At one level, the relationship between user and place invoked in Sonic City highlights the contrast between the user-as-mobile agent and the city-as-(mostly) static space or environment. In fact, one of the recurring terms in the literature on the piece is “duet” (as in the promotional video’s description of the work as a “duet with the city”).28 This description, however, elides the fact that a third agent is present: the wearable computing apparatus donned by the user. That agent is, in fact, even more constant than the city itself, not primarily because of the city’s own variable objects like traffic, pedestrians, etc., but mainly because users take different routes through it. Indeed, the “hereness” of the technical apparatus may be manifested not only in its physicality (its weight, tactile and haptic effects, etc., making it always “here” with the user) but also in the fact that it produces a (stereo) sonic space overlaid on top of the shifting auditory scene of the urban environment. This apparatus is undoubtedly a central partner in Sonic City, and is arguably more important than the city itself. As a thought experiment, we could imagine taking the same equipment and applying it to different cities, conurbations, or even less developed environments, and producing similar effects, whereas the same would not be true if one took an equally variable approach to the work’s gear.29 Thus, although the work would have to be understood as a “trio” in Sonic City, the primary players are the user and the interface, with the city acting as raw material for both.

If the performing trio in Sonic City is fundamentally constituted through human-nonhuman (and nonhuman-nonhuman) interactions—between user and city, user and backpack, and backpack and city—one way of analyzing the piece would be to prioritize the ways in which these interactions transform both the human sensorium and the transductive and co-constitutive capacities of machines during the course of a performance. Such a performance might be best understood through a kind of phenomenological aesthetics, subject to the caveat that phenomenology, as we understand it, does not solipsistically prioritize the human but rather is sensitive to interanimations of machine, human, and environment—one that encompasses a “phenomenology of the cyborg,” in George Lewis’s terms (Lewis 2009:462).30 An aesthetics of this sort is one that might consider emplacement of the user-backpack dyad within the city, triadically understanding distances between humans and devices and structures in terms of proxemics.31 Shifts in body position and location, particularly in relation to established and emergent moorings, would need to be considered, even across micro-ecological shifts in urban space or ecotones. Devices and humans are also understood proxemically, with problems of portage, support, and load-bearance inflecting performance. Performances themselves could be interpreted not only through mappings of urban space but a closer-grained reading of movement patterns—involving continuous (p. 16) movement, steady-state or constant movement, arrested movement, pausing, linearity and nonlinearity, circumambulation, and more. These movements are of course one result of a complex algorithmic system of processing and transduction, wherein human and device (backpack) together transform inputs and produce outputs, largely through a process of sonification. The multiple loops that feed forward and back help to shape a user’s sense awareness and might be in part captured by degrees of absorption and qualities of immersion, as experienced within an auditory headspace. Mappings between these different dimensions—say, quadrangulating location, body position, headspace, and movement pattern—might then produce a sense of the flow of a single performance of Sonic City. Similar mappings of inputs and outputs onto city locations would likewise give a different sense of the piece’s conditions of possibility.

The phenomenology of experiencing Sonic City might lead one to hastily slot the work into the familiar aesthetic category of interactivity, yet interpreting the work through an aesthetics of sonification might be more apropos. For if interactivity calls attention to the various forms of real-time relationships between the different entities making up the piece (urban environment, computer software and hardware, the “user”), sonification points up the particular translations that occur between sonic and non-sonic realms, with various forms of statistical data being made audible or transformed into sound as communicative information. While we might tend to associate the term sonification with the transformation of data-rich information into equally data-rich sound, it, in fact, exists on a continuum from the simplest mappings of data into sound, on one end, to highly complex sound-production translations, on the other.32 In particular, Sonic City makes use of the irreducible gap between data input (sensor inputs) and data output (sonic emanations converted from the sensed data). The utopian zone of Sonic City could be characterized as a “flow experience” produced by the interaction of music and sonified biofeedback data; without this zone, this gap, performing Sonic City would be a mere process of data conversion.33

If data is being sonified in Sonic City, the questions still remain as to how that sonification takes place and what aesthetic effects result from that process. The coding system in the piece seems to privilege certain physical specifics and downplay others, including various cultural signifiers not detectable in the interface. One cannot, for example, produce prominent effects through raced aspects of bodies or historically contingent qualities of building facades. The attention toward certain physical qualities, proximities, and conditions have something to do with how the city is conceptualized: it is a purified city, stripped clean of its historically weighted, sedimented features. Instead of producing a semiotically replete city, and fostering a kind of historical consciousness during performance, we could say that the work encodes a kind of phenomenological ideology of urban experience, one that employs purification devices to sequester the user from the environment (almost as if the environment were something separate from the user, not something the user is a part of).

If the preceding discussion reads like a critique of Sonic City, this would only be the case if the experience of the city that it helps create were fundamentally distinct from all other urban experience. Of course, it is not, and in fact it shares a close kinship with (p. 17) a rather mundane form of “processing” the urban: “hearing” it through headphones via a portable music player or listening device. For is it not the case that headphoned music listeners also experience (and even “play”) the city, undertake mood regulation, and reconstruct it quasi-cinematically, occupying the rather permeable bubbles that seem intended, in part, to inoculate them from potentially damaging or harmful urban soundscapes, indeed from urban spaces more generally? The feedback and feedforward loops between listeners, headphoned music, and urban spaces do not sequester the first two in a “warm” cocoon from the “chill” of the third; rather, the phenomenology of this experience, like that of Sonic City, is co-constitutive.34 In both cases, sense and sensibility are inseparable, constructing and transforming subjectivity so that it is not the sole province of the human. As the blurb accompanying the Sonic City video on YouTube makes clear, the backpack system “creates electronic music based on sensing bodily and environmental factors” (emphasis ours). Clearly, the sensors of the Sonic City system sense both the bodies and environments networked with it. What the sensors lack is a sensibility that cognizes the urban environment as an alien entity to be managed and controlled. The aesthetic—the relationality of which multiplies exponentially with the linear increase of bodies and machines—is what makes that management possible.

“Have Fun and No Riots”

This is going to be huge.35

Mobility, of course, is something experienced not only by individuals or through its signifying technologies, but also in collectivities, even those of substantial magnitude. Indeed, mobility studies often has as its locus of attention large-scale mobility systems, principally those facilitating the transit of sizeable numbers of people. In collective mobile performances, groups of mobilized individuals congregate in pre-arranged spaces—mobile nodes—with mobile devices providing information on place and time, and on the general anatomy of an event. The dynamics of mobility become much more complex, ranging from mobile equivalents of the two- and three-body problems to those understood as statistical aggregations. Such performances also contain the possibility of multiple angles of documentation—each participant carrying a multifunctional device that can both facilitate participation in an event and capture it in a multimedia format. The potential for a proliferation of traces of an event perhaps grows proportionally with the number of individual agents creating them. Moreover, the networking of these devices, a given in the case of mobile phones, wireless internet devices, and smartphones, means that they can be transmitted to other individuals in real-time or uploaded almost immediately to general-access sites like YouTube for wider sharing. Like begets like: viral generation and dispersion of information creates an often fleeting archive that needs to be sifted through, in order to stitch together some tangible sense of the past.

(p. 18) The political force of such viral transmissions is already well known. One could construct a canon of political rallies and gatherings made possible by mobile communications and social networking sites: consider the early People Power II text-message rallies in Manila (2001) or the protests in the wake of the 3/11 Madrid train bombings; the 2006 immigrants’ rights protests in the US likewise were made possible in part by SMS and MySpace messages; the Arab Spring’s efflorescence and intensification in Sidi Bouzid and Cairo were also initiated, at least in part, through Facebook.36 Although such events are never the product of networking technologies alone—despite the “telecommunicative fantasies” that mystify them (Rafael 2003:399)—the political rally has quite clearly gained new contours in the age of mobile communication and computing. In part, it has been influenced by the emergence of networked congregations more generally (“smart mobs”) and even especially absurdist, apolitical ones known as flash mobs.37 Of course, the longer history of collective experiences of amplified sound and music—including political gatherings, concerts, and free-form dance events of the rock era and after—inform these new developments as well, although their apparently unplanned or spontaneous nature is certainly aided by the speed of access to and propagation of invitations (“invites”).

One such invitation to a dance was sent out in January of 2009 by the “Liverpool Street Station Silent Dance” Facebook group administered by Crazzy Eve, a twenty-two-year-old Londoner. The group, which boasted over 14,000 members, updated its website before the event with the invitation shown in Figure 1.3. In response, thousands of people made their way into the station on Friday evening, February 6, 2009. In Crazzy Eve’s words, “At a quarter to seven people just flocked into the station like someone opened a plughole and the water went out.” He continued, “They just kept coming in like sheep. As it grew and grew, I just thought, ‘This is going to be huge’” (CNN 2009). The City of London Police estimated the size of the crowd to be over 12,000 people. Just before 7:00 p.m., a collectively chanted 10-second countdown, facilitated by the clock on the station’s departures board, formally inaugurated the event. At the turn of the hour attendees began to dance for about 25 minutes to their own headphoned music selections, to sing out loud and dance without headphones, and to stand by, watching and documenting the event as it unfolded. Among the highlights included crowdsurfing, mass dancing on the station’s main floor, upper floors, and ersatz platforms, and, in one case, a man stripping naked to great applause.

The Mobilization of PerformanceAn Introduction to the Aesthetics of Mobile MusicClick to view larger

Figure 1.3 Screen shot of the Facebook invitation to the Liverpool Street Station Silent Dance.

After the event, Crazzy Eve explained to CNN how he thought up the idea: “I was watching TV and the T-Mobile advertisement came up and I thought, hm, let’s get my friends down to Liverpool Street and do a little dance.” The ad to which he refers had been filmed a few weeks before (January 15) in the same train station, featuring about 400 dancers performing a choreographed routine to a medley of various popular songs and pieces, encompassing a variety of styles.38 The commercial—part of T-Mobile’s “Life’s for Sharing” campaign—begins with a wide-angle shot of the station’s rather large waiting area, the general din of the commuters providing the only soundtrack. We hear an innocuous, generic voice on the station’s loudspeaker system making an announcement—“the next train to depart from platform 17”—that is quickly cut off by Lulu’s cover (p. 19) (with backing group the Luvvers) of the Isley Brothers’ 1959 epochal anthem “Shout,” Lulu’s voice mimicking Ronald Isley’s original melismatic opening. At first, only a few dancers begin their movements, slight perturbations in the general fabric of commuter choreographies that define the station’s social imaginary. By the time the third song of the medley—the Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha”—is heard, it’s quite clear that these are professional dancers, their tight synchronized movements betraying a significant amount of rehearsal. The commercial’s mode of performance is accretive, with ever more dancers joining together in synchronous movements, an invocation of a flash mob spontaneously agglutinating. As Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz” ends—the dancers twirling to the climactic cadence, pausing to let Kool and the Gang’s “Get Down on It” begin (to rapturous applause)—the dancers have quite clearly taken over the entirety of the space, filling not only the center of the station’s main floor area but also the staircases around the outer edges of the inside of the terminal. When Millie’s “My Boy Lollipop” begins, we are given (p. 20) a static shot of a rather bemused, unmoving young commuter who, quite clearly taken up in the wave of feel-good T-Mobilism, begins to throw his hands in the air, like he just doesn’t care. We see quite clearly that part of the ad-hoc, documentary flavor of the spot is generated from shots of onlookers recording the event with their mobile phones (the style of the ad seems to suggest that we might even be watching one of these impromptu captures of quotidian life). But long before the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” comes on to close the medley and hundreds of people clap together in unison, there’s no mistaking that this is a polished, highly scripted—lavish, prepaid, and fully licensed—event.

On his “History Is Made at Night” blog, Neil Transpontine offered a nuanced historical reading of the original T-Mobile ad, alleging that “a choreographed telephone advert is a fake copy of something that has already been diluted” (2009a). Indeed, the flash-mob simulacrum on display here appropriated a longer history of impromptu performances and gatherings at the Liverpool Street Station itself: “mobile clubbing” events involving hundreds of people had hit the station in 2006 and 2008 and the station itself has been featured in films and music videos of some note. And there is even a round that ingeniously incorporates its name into a jaggedly hocketed texture (“The Liverpool Street Song”). Choosing its location wisely, T-Mobile’s intervention was debated and praised in many circles; one UK advertising industry figure felt that “it was a blatant You Tube ‘Improv Everywhere’ rip-off with less charm than the original. It felt forced and a little fake. Everyone who I spoke to who worked in Advertising or Digital seemed to feel the same way.” But, she also noted that the advertisement was quite successful with ordinary viewers:

I stopped asking people’s opinion who worked in the industry and started to listening to people outside of the industry. Every time that we went to the cinema and the T-Mobile ad came on the entire audience always seemed to be captivated, they laughed, in fact often there were little spatterings of applause. My mum loved it. My brother’s girlfriend emailed it to me. My husband would stop what he was doing to watch when it came on TV.

(Torode 2009)

One potential (and, perhaps, slightly dismal) reading of Crazzy Eve’s gambit, then, is that it simply prompted a massive amount of people to provide unpaid labor for T-Mobile’s marketing department. Facebook commenter Stuart Downs says as much (you can hear the sarcasm dripping from the screen): “YEAH LETS PLAY INTO THE HANDS OF A T MOBILE PR STUNT! YEAH LETS DO IT! WOOOOOOOO! OH YEAH I LOVE T MOBILES MARKETING DEPARTMENT! ITS SO COOL!!!!” (February 6, 2009 at 12:18 a.m.). Transpontine, in contrast, viewed the Silent Dance as a partial reclamation of the station after T-Mobile’s advertising incursion, approvingly noting that “the advert may have had the effect of amplifying the real silent rave phenomenon” and proclaiming, “What we really need is somebody to turn up with a sound system on a truck to really take this to another level” (2009b).

But one of the defining differences between T-Mobile’s ad and the Crazzy Eve event is precisely that the latter did not rely on a large, publicly audible sound system (or the kinds of public synchronizations that music played over such a sound system can (p. 21) engender). In this way, the Silent Dance—while clearly influenced by T-Mobile’s commercial—departs radically from it. In place of meticulously rehearsed, unison movements and collective listening to what really amounts to a mix that could be heard at any wedding in the United States or United Kingdom, the Silent Dance harnessed—perhaps aestheticized is a better word—the quotidian practice of individualized mobile listening. Conversely, the event mundanized the usually heightened experience of free-form dancing by placing it in a public space (as can happen with parades and outdoor music festivals). On any given evening in Liverpool Station, thousands of commuters make their ways home with earbuds in their ears, their gaits entrained (in some way or another) to the sounds coming out of their portable music players.

Of course, the aestheticization on offer here was by no means uniform. Indeed, one of the strikingly undisciplined aspects of Crazzy Eve’s event and silent raves more generally is that they are not necessarily all that silent. Indeed, the Liverpool Street Station crowd ranged from chattily buzzy to downright noisy, particularly when cheers were elicited by an occurrence visible to a large swath of the crowd. In general, the event was quite loud, especially when experienced from the ground floor—so much so that recordings of the event are typically distorted, with cell phone microphones overdriven by the high-amplitude signals. Additionally, the recordings are cluttered with transients caused by proximate motion (breathing, rubbing against clothing, quick movements). Leakage from headphones filled out the ambience as well, and frequent loud whistles and moments of individual singing punctuated the station’s soundscape from time to time.39 The reverberant acoustic of the cathedral-like station itself further raised the ambient decibel level and blended the whole into a swirling mix of incidental, accidental, and intentional sound, particularly for those on the upper level of the station. Collectively synchronized sounds were heard on occasion: the stripping dancer’s efforts elicited a mass chant of “Off! Off! Off!” from a large number of dancers, and toward the end of the event, as the police began to break up the crowd, groups of people began to sing “We Shall Not Be Moved” in response.

In contrast to the aggregate sonic effect of the event, each individual’s sonic experience remains by and large inaccessible to those seeking to study it. The Facebook comments say relatively little about the listening choices (or predilections) of the participants. What is said does, however, reveal something about how some participants were conceptualizing the sonic curation of the event (which, at its heart, was supposed to be about individual control over the sonic headspace). For example, entire musical genres are promoted by individual enthusiasts. Alessio Babolin’s RSVP to the event states, “im so there skanking to some minimal tech” (February 5, 2009, 12:26 p.m.). Poppy Rose Császi likewise says, “HAPPPY HARDCOREE!! hahaha cant waitt” (February 3, 2009, 12:54 p.m.), and Teddy Hall notes, “I GOT MY FUNKY HOUSE TUNES PEOPLE WATCH OUT FOR THE DANCE MASTER DOING HIS TING LOL” (February 5, 2009 at 3:03 p.m.). In these cases, prospective participants mention musical subgenres of electronic dance music (minimal techno, happy hardcore, house), in keeping with expectations that the silent rave would approximate the contours of club/rave dance event. Moreover, some respondents mention individual songs that they intended to dance to (p. 22) during the proceedings. For example, two minutes after Leon Aj Arnelle Jenkins leaves this comment (at 12:24 a.m. on 6 February, the day of the event) “Head Shoulderz Knees n toez!!!!!!!! man dem lemmie see u keep it sho.…!!! tuuuuuune!” (quoting the lyrics to K.I.G.’s 2008 track “Head, Shoulders, Kneez & Toez”), Richard The-Tank Campbell responds: “u done know that tune it gonna be on my play list” (Facebook, February 6, 2009 at 12:26 a.m.). And John Andrew Trimble uses Chris Brown’s “Take You Down” as an enticement for potential participants to create a synchronized subgroup of dancers: “EVERYONE ADD MY GROUP 100 PEOPLE TO DO CHRIS BROWNS TAKE YOU DOWN TOMORROW ALL YOU NEED IPOD HIS SONG GET ON YOU HANDS AND KNEES AND TAKEEEE YOUR SELFF DOWN BABYY (February 5, 2009 at 10:58 p.m.).

These comments reveal an aesthetic—perhaps drawn from the standard practices of dance clubs—that privileges synchronized, collective movement or “keeping together in time,” to use William McNeill’s poignant phrase (1995). But, judging from the video documentation of the event, it seems unlikely that such desires came to fruition. Like the aspirational character of the flash mob more generally—which seeks, in the first instance, to take place, and then to be meaningful and have a lasting effect, despite its limited duration—members of the crowd of 12,000 sought to overcome the event’s anarchical character and, with a few exceptions, failed. Perhaps inspired by the initiating T-Mobile event or the New York-based Improv Everywhere group’s MP3 events (wherein thousands of people listen/dance to the same MP3 in public), such aspirations were not limited to producing what Benedict Anderson calls “unisonance”; also evident was the unrealized desire, of at least one participant, for a kind of unisilence. Ann Hoang articulated her dissatisfaction with the event when she mentioned,

I imagined everything to be quiet and the only sound would be the “tch tch tch” from our mp3s and our feet though. :( (February 6, 2009, at 10:00 p.m.)

What’s the point of a SILENT dance with all the screaming and shouting. Now more and more are getting held but I bet every one of them will be full of screaming. Come on guys, it would be more funny dancing crazily without all the shouting! (February 7, 2009, at 10:42 p.m.)

One of the most striking forms of loud, collective vocal performance during the dance—and also one of the primary exceptions to the asynchronous nature of the event—was the group countdown from 10 seconds before 7:00 p.m., when the dance officially began. Indeed, countdowns seem to be characteristic of silent raves: In Lara Pellegrinelli’s “Silent Ravers Dance ‘Together, But Individually,’” a report for National Public Radio on a silent rave that took place in the summer of 2008 in New York’s Union Square Park, the countdown can clearly be heard (though perhaps not as bombastically as the countdown that can be heard on the numerous videos circulating of the Liverpool Station event): “Ladies and Gentleman, Silent Rave New York will start in 15 seconds…Five, Four, Three, Two, One.” As Pellegrinelli succinctly put it: “the music isn’t synchronized, just the starting time,” and the lack of a common pulse caused the “booty-wiggling, fist-pumping mob” to look “kind of rhythmically challenged in its attempts to dance (p. 23) together. More than a few toes got mashed by the spastic conga-line which wove recklessly in and out of the crowd.”

What can we make of this aspiration—common to most “silent” performances—to synchronize in time? The countdown is, of course, a ritual of asserting a temporal collectivity familiar to many mass events—the New Year’s Eve party, the ending of a sporting event, the pre-launch lift-off. The countdown is also one of the most public demonstrations of the temporal synchronization that has reshaped the world to the benefit of a relatively recent form of instrumental reason made possible through the standardization and increasingly precise quantification of global time. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Liverpool Station countdown, however, was that it was defined by a clock typically used to coordinate the movement of trains and travelers within the station, many of whom are commuters going to and from workplaces; indeed, as we have seen, commuters were prevented from traveling by the disruption of the event itself. Arresting commuter mobility and transforming a conduit into a club, the event involved a radical transformation of human mobility; in preventing or hampering mobility to or away from the station itself, it amplified it to a much greater extent within the station, the crowds notwithstanding.

The subversion of the commuting space, however, is not indelibly accompanied by the subversion of capitalist time. One possible reading of the event would emphasize its utility for the T-Mobile company itself. Although the creators of the original commercial did not necessarily predict that such events would take place, the company certainly understood that the experience economy is broad and malleable enough to incorporate large, relatively spontaneous performances of this sort. In fact, by making a highly popular commercial based on an already existing social phenomenon—the train-station flash mob—T-Mobile effectively claimed that phenomenon for itself; future events of this sort would have to contend with the company’s intervention, if not acquiescing to it altogether.40 One of these would include the mass appearance of imitation “T-Mobile dance” performances on YouTube, which thereby perpetuate the effect of the advertisement itself, even as it went out of currency. But to reduce 12,000 people to corporate lackeys might be missing the point. Given that capital can, at present, account for labor-power employment systems both highly synchronized (i.e., 9 to 5, workplace-based) and asynchronous (i.e., telecommuting, flexible work schedules, project-based employment), one could still assert that it is an achievement to bring together a sizable mass of individuals to a non-place like a mass transit station for the purpose of collective (if mostly sonically individualized) revelry.

The paradoxes of communality and solipsism that mark this type of event prompt an analysis that attends to the particularity of its relational qualities. What are the relational aesthetics of such a collective performance?41 One possible way to summarize the Silent Dance narrated here would be to provide an accounting of the relational elements at play during that brief moment at Liverpool Station. Such an account may include considerations of sonic leakage, with surfeits of sound repeatedly perforating the boundaries of particular enclosures, especially those constructed through headphone space, and the social effects resulting from those breaches. Individual spaces are transformed through (p. 24) collectivities, which produce various kinds of social warmth—as might music itself, in a different way. Collectivities have different densities—witness the striking difference in human density in the T-Mobile ad (with its orderly columns of dancers and their partners) and the Silent Dance (two orders of magnitude greater in size)—which profoundly affect the possibilities for movement and action within spaces, and which condition the specific topologies that indicate the social morphologies of the event. Bodies keep together in time to varying degrees, of course, and a striking feature of the Silent Dance (in contrast to the T-Mobile ad) was the unruly lack of mass synchronization (smaller-scale synchrony may have appeared with greater frequency, however). Despite this asynchrony, the extremely dense congregation exhibited a significant degree of control over the contours of the performance; that said, various forms of control were also exerted by the police who oversaw and eventually shut down the event. With the ricocheting of sound off the station walls, generating a highly complex ambience, sounds also potentially produced masking effects, obscuring or confusing perception and/or communication. In a performance such as this, which privileges certain forms of human interaction at the expense of others, certain social mores are reinforced (such as the sanctity of individual space) and others transgressed (limits on the amplitude of collective vocalizations, or the unsanctioned collective occupation of a public space). The merging together and intersection of numerous formations (including material assemblages and constructions; social groups—revelers, police, commuters, station workers; and historical developments—including the recent one of the flash mob) helped to shape the events into a specific form, interpretable through competing narratives.

The most obvious of these narratives are polarized: those that make ambitious claims for the utopian power of the silent rave/flash mob/spontaneous performance, and those that critique such performances as reified, precorporated, and appropriable “free” labor that serves corporations like T-Mobile (Fisher 2009:9; Terranova 2000). Of course, neither pole is entirely correct, and both contain their truths: there is no way for a relational aesthetics to stand outside capitalist social relations, but a relational aesthetics can also not be reduced to those social relations, either. Perhaps the most useful interpretation of ephemeral events (and their residues) such as the silent raves would embark upon a comparison between these and another very celebrated series of gatherings: the Occupy movement (especially as manifested in the Occupy Wall Street encampments that initiated a widespread, international phenomenon, with a local variant in London itself). At first blush, the two appear rather different: the silent rave is an extremely ephemeral event with modest ambitions, a performance from which one may “go home,” whereas the Occupy movement proposed to claim public space as a new, communal home, demanding radical (if often unspecified) social change all the while. Although it would be a simple matter to pit the Occupy movement as the authentic, political counterpart to the artificial, apolitical, and incorporated silent rave, the similarities between them are striking, even beyond their participants’ common social locations and relatively disciplined comportments. One such similarity concerns a sonic technique specific to each. Both, of course, employed various kinds of collective chants, including the silent rave’s countdown, as we have seen, and thereby amplified the power of the crowd (p. 25) into a voluble force, one that “tightens the space of relations,” in Bourriaud’s parlance (2002:15–16).42 But the Occupy movement also made use of an unusual technique of sonic redistribution called “the human microphone,” wherein strategically positioned individuals would physically rebroadcast speeches to listeners out of earshot, with the effect of unifying a spatially distributed crowd and orienting it toward someone at its “head.” Although coalescences around central points of spectacle (such as the naked man) also were found in the silent rave, its basic sonic technique—individualized headphone music listening (with now and again, eruptions of synchronized vocality)—was fundamentally one of disunity, even if the listening and dancing practice itself was replicated by each participant. In its dialectical capturing of group and individual, does the silent rave pose a more powerful political model, at least in one small sense? Raising the question may be sufficient to spur a subtler appreciation of the varieties of utopian imaginings found in the forms of public and mobile performance that characterize much of the contemporary urban world.

Mobile Aesthetics, Mobile Etiquettes

We can ask the question: Do the three case studies we just presented (Hifana, Sonic City, London Silent Dance) and the attendant aesthetics that we highlighted for each (material, phenomenological, and relational) coalesce into a broader aesthetics of mobile performance? Yes and no. The problem to address, in our view, is that each of the performances we discussed—and indeed all of the performances treated in both volumes of the Handbook—concern, in varying degrees, two registers that are fundamental to the experience and performance of mobile music, as well as mobile performance more broadly. These are the device (or technology more broadly) and the human (or performer, user, participant, experiencer).43 It is our contention that a mobile aesthetics of the kind we propose here must engage, at least as an initial step, with this fundamental dyad—as well as its complications and myriad multiplications that arise in actual performances. The relationship between human and nonhuman, or user and device, is crucial, in that it allows for a clarification of the aesthetics that arise in one of two respective domains: specifically, the aesthetics of design in the device or technology (including the affordances of that technology and its raw sensory features) and the aesthetics of form in specific performances (including the temporal and sequential ordering of events, the range of gestures and acts defining those events, the constraints that bind and guide action arising from the circumstances of the performance). The relationship between design and form can be understood in terms of loops and their degree of tightness or looseness. Loops, or relations involving attentiveness, feedback, kinetic-tactile contact, sensory detection and material production, are not bubbles (to cite a well-trodden term in some writing on mobile music). Instead, they always involve an exceeding of their immediate geographic and/or networked confines. As such these loops provide the possibility of external audiences—though they may not be essential to the performance (p. 26) or even present at all. A performance may involve a single loop or multiple loops of varying tightness/looseness, with inputs, outputs, and various forms of propagation feeding into a sequential chain of events (no matter how short in duration) and/or occurring simultaneously and even synchronously. Hence, in this scheme, a performance involving the playing of a mobile game (with audio) may involve a relatively tight loop of user and device, with possible bystanders impinging upon the user’s attention, whereas a staged performance of group device usage necessarily requires the divided attention of users—between device (or devices), other users/performers, and, if they are present, audience members or bystanders.44

The benefit of conceptualizing performance in such a way is that it allows us to imagine—as we started to do in the first section of this essay—what might be described as “everyday” performances and “art” (or “concert” or “theater”) performances as being similar to one another, rather than giving in to the reification of the art/everyday binary. Moreover, this commonality mirrors an actual facet of mobile device usage; as Wolf-Dieter Ernst puts it, the aesthetics of mobile performances “blurs the boundary between use value and aesthetic value.”

If we imagine a smart phone in the place of the Game Boy, or an mp3-player, a camera, etc., we realise that all these objects make it difficult to decide whether to estimate their function in terms of usefulness or playfulness. Mobile aesthetics thus disrupts the conventional opposition between the realm of the quotidian and that of the aesthetic; it shifts aesthetic judgment into an area of micro-level everyday decision making.

(Ernst 2011:66)45

Or, at least, it can do so. For mobile performance not only encompasses the tight “single loop” that is typical of how quotidian performances are understood (as in the ostensible “bubble” of mobile headphone listening); it also facilitates the possibility of “scaling up” into more complex, multi-user, or multi-device performances precisely because of their ease of use. Thus, the MP3-player transforms into the silent rave, the Game Boy into a multi-user gaming experience, the iPhone into a mobile phone orchestra, and so on.

We can cite a multitude of human/device relationships that might fall under the rubric of a mobile music aesthetics: four people listening to a car radio while driving in a convertible; a child playing a handheld video game; an adult listening to an iPod playlist via headphones while running; a group of youths—one holding a boombox—meandering noisily through a neighborhood; each member of a string quartet performing while flying in his/her own individual helicopter (with the audio of each performance sent to a speaker system in a stadium containing an audience).46 The basics of the human/device relationship are relatively easy to describe. But what precisely is a loop? In asking this question, what we mean is that we have yet to define the stuff constituting the material routed through the loop—which is necessarily some sensory (or to-be-sensed) form. In the most basic system, involving a single user and device, the primary form of interaction is necessarily sensorial (or, to borrow Steven Connor’s apt word, intersensorial [2004]): the pressure waves of sound, the visually processed photons emitting as electromagnetic radiation from a source, the force of two objects coming into contact, (p. 27) such as a human digit touching a plastic button. When the system becomes more complicated, a greater number of materialities (but not necessarily immediately perceptible forms) enter into the picture. Analog and digital electrical signals and electromagnetic radiation (in the form of radio or television broadcasts, Bluetooth bands, or satellite transmissions) now become part of the loop, rather than merely a part of any signal or information loops internal to the device or human. Of course, in all cases, the human/device dyad is never really autonomous or isolated—living and dead labor help to constitute the very being of both, and a great many devices are connected to broader communication systems of one sort or another (as we make clear in our three case studies).

The loops we study in this volume of essays are sonically saturated, with sound forming the primary condition for sensory attentiveness.47 The tighter loops—a headphoned individual, a phone caller hearing a ringback tone—maintain a very close relationship (and, usually, proximity) between sound source and ear, or with listening devices (such as those involving voice recognition) including microphones and other inputs likewise usually physically close to their sources. Whereas tight loops will produce forms of leakage, given their non-hermetic structure, looser ones are more expressly designed to emanate and radiate sound outward and/or to likewise absorb and detect sound from a wider field of sources. When sound is projected outward, it gains a new capacity to transform and control space, territorializing it, if you will; the boombox and boom car are particularly celebrated examples of this effect, whereas more expressly violent forms of sonic control can be found in military contexts (such as loudspeakers on battlefields playing music or simulating entire fronts).48 When loops include larger numbers of humans and devices, forming more complicated networks, sound can emerge and submerge with the greatest of ease, capable of being processed and reprocessed, converted, amplified, filtered, digitized, and more, pinged between different nodes so as to produce a more complicated effect—as might be the case, for example, in the activation of sound installations involving numerous mobile phones calling one another, instigated by a human prompt.49 In such instances, audiences (which may or may not include humans participating within the loops) perceive sound not only as a single device’s output, but also, even primarily, as an aggregate of sounds producing a cumulative effect, a cloud of standing and bouncing waves heard within a single, well-defined space…perhaps.

What distinguishes the preceding description of a musical or sonic performance from a mobile music performance, of course, is the presence of mobility, understood here in terms of the capacity for or incorporation of movement. Given that nearly all performance involves some kind of movement, the forms of movement we are imagining here are, as is common within the field of mobility studies, ideal-typically oriented around various enacted or potential forms of transit: walking, biking, driving, flying, and so forth. Sound has its own continuities and temporalities, and thus has the capacity not only to transform one’s experience of traversing geographic expanses but also to remap these expanses durationally (for example in accord with the temporal frame of a single song). Moreover, the mechanisms of transit can come to be heard in polyphony with the device’s emitted sound, thus producing a new sonic constellation specific to a particular (p. 28) auditory source and travel context (as in the conjunctions captured and mystified by Volkswagen’s famous “Synchronicity” advertisement). Such conjunctions allow for a sonic reshaping (retuning, even) of the world. And yet, as we pointed out in the introduction to the first volume of the Handbook, the experience of mobile music is often, paradoxically, a static one within the velocity reference frame of motion, and as such it is often the small motions not constitutive of transit per se—the tapping of fingers and toes, breathing elevated to consciousness, fidgets and twitches—that engage in bodily choreographies and entrainments activated by listening.

From all this one might assume that there is a kind of archetype of a mobile music performance we have in mind. But this is not the case—such performances are extremely variegated, functioning for a range of ends. While it’s clearly impossible to describe the full array of potential sonic mobilities, we can locate a spectrum of performance types that might provide conceptual ballast for a number of the chapters in this volume. In one instance we might call attention to the creation of a continuous sonic environment that persists through/within disparate locations or frames. Or we might cite how smooth mobile continuities fragment into punctuated usages, with the on of persistent sound rendered into an interposed on/off. The performance of mobile music has also revealed itself—especially since the emergence of the smartphone (but also for as long as radio waves have been capturable by portable devices)—through forms that are connective, with sonic access occurring across a range of locations, often synchronously. Another crucial mobile-music performative inheres in the simultaneity of sound and motion, with mobility being completely inseparable from its own sonic residues (that is, in these instances, sound proclaims and maps directly onto mobility). And sonic mobilities also have their ghosts— pre-echoes and echoes—announcing a motion that will, or has already, occurred.50

It should be clear from the foregoing discussion that the aesthetics of mobile music is not equivalent to an aesthetics of mere motion or movement. Instead, it involves a compounding of the looped, networked relations of human and device, a privileging of sound within the circuits of those loops and networks, and a foregrounding of mobility, rather than movement or motion per se. More directly: as we intimated earlier, mobility does not require actual motion or movement. If it did, even the mere positing of a “mobile aesthetics” would, by necessity, conjure a “static aesthetics,” which it clearly does not. (Indeed, the notion of a static aesthetics seems patently absurd.) Instead, an aesthetics of stasis is not only produced by a mobile aesthetics but, paradoxically, encompassed by it; the opposite, on the other hand, cannot be said. Clearly, conjoining “mobile” and “aesthetics” together charges the aesthetic with a qualifier and a specific kind of valence—suddenly, the question of mobility becomes a problem for a musical and sonic aesthetics.

Why exactly is the question of mobility a problem for the aesthetics of sound and music? First, we must have an adequate sense of the relevance of aesthetics for our purposes, in the context of a discourse that largely avoids consideration of it. For if an aesthetic of music and sound, to oversimplify, concerns the forms of labor and attentiveness directed toward the ordering and reordering of the sensorium, with a (p. 29) particular emphasis on hearing and listening, then a mobile sonico-musical aesthetic must account for the effects that potential and actual spatial repositionings might have on sensory labor and attentiveness. We can imagine at least two such effects. First, the very focus of inquiry seems to transform as a result of any significant degree of movement: the space in which that movement takes place becomes all the more crucial to the performance that occurs within it. Second, the idea of mobility, signified for example by devices or networked communication systems, is sufficient to give rise to imaginaries of transportability, of routing and rerouting, and hence may become central to the basis for understanding, evaluating, and creating a performance.

As the regime of the mobile extends performance in space and time, we might further ascertain that the aesthetic transformations occurring during the long century of mobile music were not simply technological or even sonic (in terms of the sound worlds available to listeners, performers and creative musicians); rather, these changes were profoundly social and involved shifts in entire aesthetic imaginaries. These imaginaries are, of course, built out of myriad practices, some generative, others consumptive. But that dichotomy, while perhaps remaining partly relevant, falls apart when set in motion. This unraveling produces, perhaps, another dichotomy, one not between production and consumption, or even art and the everyday, but between aesthetics and etiquette. Whereas the tradition of aesthetics that was generated in conjunction with heroic romanticism, philosophical categories of contemplation, reason, and judgment might have had a vital (and necessary) pairing between aesthetics and ethics, our present concern with mobility peels away the outer crust of the ethical and leaves the softer core of civility, manners, and protocols.

So much of the discourse on capitalism, especially since the 1960s, 1960 has theorized the reproduction of production. Capital is reproduced not only through acts of exchange, but also through the reproduction of labor power. Yet the reproduction of labor power was historically a domain distant from the marketplace. (Re)introducing the marketplace and forms of exchange to the spaces, places, and temporalities of labor-power reproduction has been one of the major sources of new capital accumulation in the last half-century. Mobile music’s ubiquity is entirely inseparable from this process. “Anytime, Anywhere”—a trope at the center of any etiquette of mobile music—thus becomes a kind of war of position between producer/marketer and consumer/laborer, with the former seeking to make incursions on the latter’s “free” time. That such strategies were welcomed by consumers says much about the dialectical relationship between capital’s methods of accumulation and its desire to produce consumers. The etiquette of mobile music that emerges out of the experience of “Anytime, Anywhere” is conditioned through a curious play between capital’s accumulative/consumptive desires and the sensual attentiveness to the looped aesthetics we describe earlier.

Etiquette transforms radically as a result of ubiquity—social mores must accommodate themselves to the imperatives of exchange. As Shannon Winnubst puts it: “If etiquette is the proper comportment of the body, these social mappings of power should be readily legible in the codes of its practices” (2007:153). Consider this now ubiquitous example of mobile phone use: increasingly, it is acceptable to excuse oneself and/ (p. 30) or speak on the phone while in the presence of company. Often this has to do with workplace demands, as well as personal ones, which are designed to radically increase labor productivity. (This dynamic can be subsumed into the present-day regime of perpetual availability characterized by Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello as “the projective city” [2005:103–163].) Mobile music experience (say, the canonical example of the listening commuter) has much to do with the recuperation of unpaid labor time (transit labor), as well as the emotional/affective labor of mood management that makes labor (and labor-power’s reproduction) possible. Increasingly, this particular form of mobile music experience is dependent on rentier capitalism’s ubiquity through services such as Spotify and iTunes, in which forms of intellectual property are made always already available for any mobile user.

To conclude a treatment of aesthetics by raising the specter of etiquette may seem somewhat surprising, but it goes to the heart of our inquiry. The ubiquitization of musical performance may entail an inflation of the importance of etiquette, corresponding to the increasing role of utility in the aesthetics of mobility. Indeed, one might argue that a central effect of the mundanization of aesthetics is the emergence of a new sphere of etiquette, recalling art prior to its reification as an autonomous form, when it historically played a principally social role. If the incursions of the mobile can be registered anywhere with particular accuracy, it is the way in which social interactions, guided by etiquette, have undergone profound, if easily ignored transformations. Gluing together the cracks of social life, etiquette is ultimately indispensible not only for aesthetics but also ethics. As Karmen MacKendrik posits, “Ethics by itself is no way to live. Without etiquette, which is not ethics, no system of ethical rules can hold: ethics is about human behavior, and we cannot continue to interact without grace notes” (2007:205). Our only emendation to this claim might be that grace notes, not always especially graceful, occupy a particularly important place in the cacophony of melodies coursing through the worlds of mobile music.


Does mobile music have a paradigmatic exemplar, one that could be taken as a kind of origination point for the studies in these volumes? Certainly, the ambulatory human body, shorn of instruments or devices, is already a complex, rhythmic system of sonic production, the periodicities of which have long encouraged sympathetic entrainments of various sorts produced by the walker herself. All things that move through the medium of air produce sound, and the human body is no different. But humans accompany the residual sounds of their movements with hums and whistles and pats and taps, with all manner of vocalizations and percussions. In more recent times, the image of the walking whistler, typically gendered male, stands as a synecdoche for one kind of modernity—flaneur, commuter, lurker—with all of its mobilities, possibilities, and even perversities. Like Deleuze and Guattari’s humming child in their discussion of the (p. 31) “refrain,” the whistler (and consciously ambulatory noisemaker more generally) asserts some control over space, re-territorializing it and, to a degree, making it over in their image (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:311). The walking whistler is potentially a dangerous figure (think of Peter Lorre’s Hans Becket in the film M [1931]) or potentially an utterly wholesome one, creating the sense of safety and even “home” that Deleuze and Guattari mention (think of the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show; somewhere in between is the whistling soldiers’ rendition of Kenneth Alford’s “Colonel Bogey March” in Bridge on the River Kwai, in which sonic control over space is produced collectively [1957]).51 The ramifications of such behavior are complex and certainly relevant to the contemporary world: witness the racial and class dynamics of the titular example Claude Steele gives in his book Whistling Vivaldi, of an African-American male (psychology researcher Brent Staples) whistling a classical music chestnut while walking in public to dispel white bypassers’ stereotypes (and fears) of the dangerous black man (Steele 2010:6–7).

In the twentieth century, however, this paradigm must be articulated with and is even possibly supplanted by another: one involving a device and listener and not necessarily a demonstration of motion in a literal sense. The sine qua non of this conception of mobile music—as it is defined in the Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies—might be, in the end, a highly static form of performance that became utterly ubiquitous in the more privileged enclaves of the First World almost as soon as the transistor was mass produced: teenagers listening to portable transistor radios in their rooms, under the covers, sequestered away from their parents and indeed the rest of the domestic sphere, but connected to the mobilities of the wider world through radio signals.

So the TI [Texas Instrument] unit was way too expensive for your average, or even above average, sixteen-year-old. The Japanese units sold for a lot less. Now, the music could go with you anywhere. You could even get an earphone, so that no one else had to hear it—useful in class or in the bedroom after lights out. Many listeners heard Alan Freed’s late-night shows while lying under the covers with an earphone in their ear.

(Bordowitz 2004:82)52

We can mark the prior movements of the radio listener—how they came to be there in the dark, enveloped in a cave of sonic fabric—but these prior movements are insufficient and unnecessary to signal the mobility of this event. What is key, in this instance, is the condensed and congealed capacity for movement that the portable radio brings, and with it, an articulation to a vast system of capital that has found ever new ways to harness the value of mobility and perpetual availability—hence, the fecund use of “anywhere” in the quotation.

And yet, the relationship between that radio listener and media infrastructure—earpiece, transistor radio, radio program and genre, and broadcast personality—cannot simply be reduced to a system of capital accumulation alone, an exchange relation. Just as vital to the story is the use value of that relationship, one that vitally produces a number of different intimacies: the intimacy of insertion (earpiece in the ear); the intimacy of enclosure (the sonic bubble of the earphoned headspace and the womblike envelopment of the covers); the intimacy of the human other (the radio deejay, the voices of the (p. 32) singers); the intimacy of the distributed collective (listeners drawn together through the synchronic time engendered by radio technology). There is also, crucially, the intimacy of the body with device, that other entity beside and besides the listener. A multiplication of intimacies therefore produces a network of interrelated bonds that form communal relationships not only, or even primarily, structured by conscious or unconscious rational-choice evaluations.53

These experiences, as with communal relationships generally, cannot be produced by one-time interactions in the way that exchange relationships can. As a result, they transform into habits and rituals that therefore play a powerful role in the structuring of one’s schedule and in temporal experience itself. Mobile music’s constant availability—the “anytime”—involves a multiplication of moments available for listening, producing reiterations of the sensory and sensual experiences associated with music and sound. But mobile music is also in theory available “anywhere,” thus entailing a multiplication of places and spaces as well. The calculus of the relationship between anytime and anywhere is what produces mobility, at least in the context of mobile music performance, and to reiterate an important theme articulated above and in our introduction to Volume 1, one effect of this calculus is that one doesn’t need to be in motion to be “mobile.”

The tendency for mobile music to encroach on all places at all times is unsurprisingly linked to everyday experience, and yet something crucially remains special about mobile music listening—a specialness that binds the spectrum of performances under consideration here. The everydayness of mobile music, even when habitual or ritualistic, is never merely routine: perpetual and omnipresent access to music and sound seemingly paradoxically creates unique, meaningful experiences and creative opportunities accessible in an ever-increasing array of places and spaces at increasingly differentiated points in time. If one result of mobile music’s anytime, anywhere status is the production of new genres of art, the other is a suffusing of everyday life with a different and new kind of aestheticization: life is absorbed into art but art is also absorbed—as capacity—into life.

The art/everyday divide and its dissolution is a primary thematic for our study of mobile music, principally because one of our goals is to tease out the lineaments of the transformation of social life in the long twentieth century, an epoch whose outer edges may be marked by the development of new mobile products, many of which transform sensory experience and, in so doing, catalyze the emergence of new aesthetic forms. Our major claim is that there is a value to analyzing these new aesthetic forms, putting pressure on their varied provenances and the varied ambient spheres of their use values. To the extent that their effect radiates outward into other, established genres of artmaking—examples of which appear in some of the chapters that follow—our skepticism toward a putatively comprehensive taxonomy of such practices led us to focus on the primal scene of mobile music performance, as it were, and to allow case studies and descriptions of performance genres, including our own, to sit within a rich, if necessarily partial, constellation of phenomena and practices. We can characterize that scene in terms of the notion of exceptionality, in which the mobile performance announces itself as (p. 33) such, over and against the quiescence of non-exceptional existence. (Indeed, that the normative experience can never entirely lose its exceptionality is in part what makes the experience of mobile music so potentially powerful.) The long arc of mobile music’s history has amounted to a shift on the sliding scale of what counted as sonically exceptional; in the present moment, the once-exceptional may increasingly be merely normative.

What we have presented here and in our introduction to Volume 1 is not a theory of mobile musical performance for all time but one that captures a state of mobile performance at a particular historical moment, albeit a long one. Although the reflexive understanding of mobile culture might locate its emergence coterminously with the rise of the digital, our goal in these two volumes has been to illumine a larger historical parcel and to suggest that capital’s harnessing of mobility has, perhaps, distinguished a new mode of production and a correspondingly new sensory habitus. This new mode articulates with and, indeed, activates a series of comportments and etiquettes, which, when taken together, congeal into what we—and others—have called a mobile aesthetic. The studies in the pages that follow articulate, in very different ways, aspects of that aesthetic.


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(1) . Marx (1977:125).

(2) . This expansive view of performance aligns with the work of a number of scholars in the field of performance studies, many of whom draw upon a distinct lineage stretching back to Erving Goffman, Victor Turner, and Richard Schechner. For one version of this history, see Schechner (2002).

(3) . For an extensive treatment of Dialtones, see chapter 4 of Gopinath (2013).

(4) . See, for example, the musical theater performance at Stansted Airport in London in 2008 at (accessed January 31, 2013).

(5) . Literature that explicitly theorizes mobile music performance includes Essl and Rohs (2009), Behrendt (2005), and Essl, Wang, and Rohs (2008).

(6) . Combining art and the everyday is in some ways rather similar to cultural studies’ longstanding efforts to think through mass culture and the avant-garde together rather than separately.

(7) . The Ocarina video is available at (accessed January 31, 2013).

(9) . One might imagine the conjunction of Nike and Apple (the latter signified by the “+,” enhancing the former) as a combination of their most famous advertising slogans, respectively: “Just Do It” + “Think Different.”

(10) . The following discussion references a performance occurring in a Nike advertisement available at (accessed February 1, 2013). See also Ramirez (2010).

(11) . For a critical treatment of Nike+, see Gopinath and Stanyek (2013).

(12) . In an email to us on October 19, 2011, Yuya Ozawa—one of the producers working with the creative collective Groundriddim, which includes Hifana—further explained the samples used in the performance: “The vocal samples in this film were recorded by CHINZA DOPENESS, another of our clients. The lyrics embedded in the sample are: ‘One, Two, Gunyo Gunyo, Magaru’ and ‘One, Two, Gune Gune, Hashiru.’ ‘GUNYO GUNYO’ & ‘GUNE GUNE’ is the same. They are imitation sounds of BENDING. ‘MAGARU’ is to BEND. ‘HASHIRU’ is to RUN.”

(13) . Note, too, the way that at 0:42–0:43, one of the performers adopts a runner’s or athlete’s starting-line stance, possibly a reaction to the fact that he’s wearing athletic shoes.

(14) . See the fall 2007 ad featuring Russian dancers Maria Vinogradova and Anastsiya Soboleva, available online at (accessed February 1, 2013). The Robinson/Firkušný ad can be found at (accessed February 1, 2013).

(15) . For a detailed treatment of the video/performance’s technical details, see Kirn (2010).

(16) . As cited in the W+K Tokyo Lab “making of” video, “Nike Free Run+: When a Shoe Becomes a Music Instrument,” posted April 27, 2010 at (accessed February 1, 2013).

(17) . Cited from the W+K Tokyo Lab website at (accessed February 1, 2013).

(18) . On this point, see Wu (2002).

(19) . Regarding the nature of Hifana’s collaboration with Wieden+Kennedy, see the response on the comments section of Kirn (2010). “As someone who does a lot of composing for advertising, I’m struck by this on a completely different level. Knowing how much time and energy are often spent in the process of original music creation with the agency hiring several different music companies to throw different ideas at the same piece, I think this is a great example of marketer and composer making a true commitment to partner up and build something seamlessly tailored to communicate a specific message. That’s innovative in and of itself, and subverts a method that in my opinion, quite often devalues original music while confusing the process.” Post by waveplant, on April 16, 2010, at (accessed February 1, 2013). Also, see the programmatic statement about the W+K Tokyo Lab music label. “Wieden+Kennedy Tokyo Lab is a new music label concept launched by Wieden+Kennedy Tokyo in 2003. Embracing the concept of hybrid, our mission is to bring new experiences that can only be created in Tokyo [t]hrough a unique global mix of music, visuals, and other forms of creative expression through a DVD and CD. W+K Tokyo Lab is all about being in Tokyo now, using the power of the city to attract the most innovative creative collaborators from around the world. We are passionate about the development of new ideas with our creators and connecting them to a new audience. Simply put, it is about good music, fresh visuals, and new concepts of creative expression.” Available at (accessed February 1, 2013).

(20) . The dialectic of implementation versus modification should be understood as producing a continuum, with the outer conceptual edge of the former residing in tools fully formed, prescribed usages, protocols, and licensed adoptions and the latter ranging from modest forms of customization to an outer edge of radical retrofittings and experimental jimmyings. The implications of this continuum, from consumption to production, might help to link prescribed consumer uses of devices and objects to the most recondite forms of new object creation in artistic production. For one treatment of such issues as pertain to consumer audio systems and the customization end of this continuum, see Perlman (2003).

(23) . Mobile music meant in this sense refers in part to the work of the composers and sound artists associated with the Mobile Music Workshops. See Kirisits, Behrendt, Gaye, and Tanaka (2008) and Goggin (2011:76–79).

(24) . A lengthy description of the piece is found at Gaye’s personal website, (accessed February 1, 2013).

(25) . “Tamghra Nouchen” appears on the album Salam Haleikoum (2002).

(26) . Our use of “ecotone” here bears some resemblance to Houben’s notion of the “verge” (Houben 2005:111).

(27) . See discussions of this very problem in Gaye and Holmquist (2004).

(28) . Cf. the title of Gaye and Holmquist (2004) as well.

(29) . In the literature on Sonic City we’ve seen, no mention is made of the ways in which the technical system was attuned to the specific materialities or properties of urban Göteborg, and therefore we assume that “the city” is a more general figure, identified in form by object proximities, especially proximities to metallic materials.

(30) . Numerous other terms for the kind of aesthetics we’re imagining have been offered up by a wide range of scholars in a diversity of disciplines: interactive aesthetics, distributed aesthetics, network aesthetics, prosthetic aesthetics, cyborg aesthetics, etc. These capture aspects of our aims that the traditional notion of the phenomenological does not. Many of these have certainly been discussed in print, including in Barker (2012), Munster (2006), and Galloway (2004).

(31) . Our invocation of this term derives from critical, non-essentialist applications of the work of Edward T. Hall (1963) to human-computer interaction (Olson and Olson 2000) and sound recording technology (Moore 2012:100).

(32) . On the complexities of data sonification, see Barrass, Whitelaw, and Bailes (2006).

(33) . For an exactly parallel analysis of the Nike+ Sport Kit, see Gopinath and Stanyek (2013:147).

(34) . See Bull (2000) and Bull (2007).

(35) . Crazzy Eve, cited in CNN (2009).

(37) . See Rheingold (2002) and Todd and Scordelis (2009), for example.

(38) . The song sequence in the medley is “Shout” by Lulu & the Luvvers, “Don’t Cha” by Pussycat Dolls, Johann Strauss, Jr.’s the “Blue Danube Waltz,” “Get Down On It” by Kool & The Gang, “Since You’ve Been Gone” by Rainbow, “My Boy Lollipop” by Millie, and “Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance)” by The Contours.

(39) . A theory of “leakage” is presented more fully in Stanyek and Piekut (2010).

(40) . Indeed, the fact that the Liverpool Station Silent Dance seems not to have been repeated in that location may have something to do with T-Mobile’s effective appropriation of it.

(41) . Relational aesthetics is, of course, most associated with the writings of Nicolas Bourriaud, who applies the term to performance and installation art involving various forms of social management and gathering that became especially common in the 1990s and after. See Bourriaud (2002).

(42) . See the discussion of “tight places” in Goldman (2010).

(43) . The relationship between device and user is, of course, not unique to the mobile devices featured in these volumes and discussed in our case studies. Indeed, one could describe the performance of traditional instruments in much the same way, although it would break down distinctions between concert performances, practicing, noodling, etc., in ways that seem especially apropos for the range and character of usage practices found with mobile music devices.

(44) . On feedback and the tightness of loops (and Gordian knots thereof), also see Gopinath and Stanyek (2013).

(45) . This quotation from Ernst signals a crucial distinction between our development of a mobile music aesthetics—one built around mobile music performance—and a more established (if still relatively recent) discourse on a broader “mobile aesthetics.” Among the most insightful contributions in this discourse include the work of two Europe-based architects, Anthony Hoete (2003) and Francine Houben (2005), concerning the aesthetic relationships between architecture and mobility.

(46) . The last example is Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helikopter-Streichquartett (1995), from his opera Mittwoch aus Licht (1995–1997).

(47) . Sound’s physical mobility (through air, esp.) per se is not, however, sufficient to undergird a mobile musical/sonic aesthetics. If it were, then all musical and sonic aesthetics would be a mobile music/sound aesthetics, which would be deeply and unnecessarily reductive—a kind of “vulgar mobilism,” if you will.

(48) . The military examples are found in Chanan (2000:97); also see Goodman (2010).

(49) . Craighead and Thomson’s Telephony is one such example; see chapter 4 in Gopinath (2013).

(50) . Apropos of this point, one might also consider the relationship between mobility and “mode” (and modes’ multiplicity as characterizing the present). See Hoete (2003:11–13).

(51) . The apparently wholesome homosociality of these whistling soldiers, especially when imitated by children (even in juvenile parodies like “Comet-Vomit”), is belied by the unstated lyrics in River Kwai being those of a vulgar British anti-German parody of the march, “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball.” See Schwabach (2001:75–78).

(52) . There are numerous accounts that depict under-the-bedcover transistor radio listening. One is narrated by the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, who listened to R&B stations late at night in this way (Gaines 1995:253).

(53) . On exchange versus communal relationships, see Clark and Mills (1979).