The best books on sound and why you should care about it

Alejandra Bronfman Author Of Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean
By Alejandra Bronfman

Who am I?

I have been doing research in the Caribbean for twenty-five years. The region is diverse and magnificent. Caribbean people have sought creative solutions for racial inequality, climate and sustainability, media literacy and information, women’s and family issues. The transnational connections with the US are complex and wide-ranging, and knowing more about this region is an urgent matter. I work to understand how sound and media work because they structure our reality in important ways. Listening as a way of approaching relationships in work and play is key to our survival. So is understanding how media works, where we get our information from, and how to tell what’s relevant, significant, and true, and what is not. 

I wrote...

Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean

By Alejandra Bronfman,

Book cover of Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean

What is my book about?

The Caribbean has always been a site of explorations of modernity and technology, and this book makes that case through a history of broadcasting and media. With a peripatetic approach, the book scans the emergence of broadcasting as the central medium in the region with attention to Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica. While in Haiti the US military occupation brought radio as a disciplining and governing tool, in Cuba it was US commercial interests that supported the radio boom. In Jamaica, by contrast, local radio was limited by the colonial government until an explosive anti-colonial rebellion changed everything. The book tracks radio’s significance in politics, racial dynamics, and cultures of belonging. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics

Why did I love this book?

Cassette tapes of Muslim sermons played by taxi drivers in Cairo set the stage for this profound investigation of the intersection of sound, spiritualism, and technology. The tapes, Hirschkind argues, are not mechanisms for social control as much as jumping-off points for Muslims to find their way towards ethical self-improvement. 

By Charles Hirschkind,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Ethical Soundscape as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Charles Hirschkind's unique study explores how a popular Islamic media form--the cassette sermon--has profoundly transformed the political geography of the Middle East over the last three decades. An essential aspect of what is now called the Islamic Revival, the cassette sermon has become omnipresent in most Middle Eastern cities, punctuating the daily routines of many men and women. Hirschkind shows how sermon tapes have provided one of the means by which Islamic ethical traditions have been recalibrated to a modern political and technological order--to its noise and forms of pleasure and boredom, but also to its political incitements and call…

Book cover of The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction

Why did I love this book?

Sterne explores the cultural history of how and why Americans developed technologies that reproduced and transmitted sound. It is a surprising story that takes us through the Civil War and ideas about death, deaf children and their teachers, the discipline of medicine, and the practice of folklore. It turns out that cultural shifts encouraged the preservation of sound, and those machines we developed in turn changed the ways we listen.

By Jonathan Sterne,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Audible Past as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Audible Past explores the cultural origins of sound reproduction. It describes a distinctive sound culture that gave birth to the sound recording and the transmission devices so ubiquitous in modern life. With an ear for the unexpected, scholar and musician Jonathan Sterne uses the technological and cultural precursors of telephony, phonography, and radio as an entry point into a history of sound in its own right. Sterne studies the constantly shifting boundary between phenomena organized as "sound" and "not sound." In The Audible Past, this history crisscrosses the liminal regions between bodies and machines, originals and copies, nature and…

Book cover of Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia

Why did I love this book?

This book understands ideas about citizenship as entangled with language, sound, and voice. It traces the ways that exclusion and a politics of second-class citizenship arose in Colombia, as a result of specific ideas about how people should speak and sound. It is at once an intellectual history and historical anthropology of the ways the aural has been foundational to ideas of citizenship and belonging. 

By Ana María Ochoa Gautier,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Aurality as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this audacious book, Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier explores how listening has been central to the production of notions of language, music, voice, and sound that determine the politics of life. Drawing primarily from nineteenth-century Colombian sources, Ochoa Gautier locates sounds produced by different living entities at the juncture of the human and nonhuman. Her "acoustically tuned" analysis of a wide array of texts reveals multiple debates on the nature of the aural. These discussions were central to a politics of the voice harnessed in the service of the production of different notions of personhood and belonging. In Ochoa Gautier's…

Book cover of Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music

Why did I love this book?

Just as important as thinking about how music sounds and what it means is thinking about where technology comes from and crucially, where it goes after we’re done with it. This book lets no one off the hook and insists that anyone who cares about music should be cognizant of its economies of waste and decomposition. 

By Kyle Devine,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Decomposed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The hidden material histories of music.

Music is seen as the most immaterial of the arts, and recorded music as a progress of dematerialization—an evolution from physical discs to invisible digits. In Decomposed, Kyle Devine offers another perspective. He shows that recorded music has always been a significant exploiter of both natural and human resources, and that its reliance on these resources is more problematic today than ever before. Devine uncovers the hidden history of recorded music—what recordings are made of and what happens to them when they are disposed of.

Devine's story focuses on three forms of materiality. Before…

Book cover of The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening

Why did I love this book?

The author points to the ways American media designated sound as “black” or “white” even as “colorblindness” became the dominant paradigm for liberal attitudes towards race. While Americans claimed that they didn’t “see race”, they were exposed to an increasingly segregated soundscape and media environment. Stoever opens up new ways for us to listen to familiar voices, such as those of WEB du Bois, Lena Horne, Lead Belly, Richard Wright, and many more.

By Jennifer Lynn Stoever,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Sonic Color Line as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The unheard history of how race and racism are constructed from sound and maintained through the listening ear.
Race is a visual phenomenon, the ability to see "difference." At least that is what conventional wisdom has lead us to believe. Yet, The Sonic Color Line argues that American ideologies of white supremacy are just as dependent on what we hear-voices, musical taste, volume-as they are on skin color or hair texture. Reinforcing compelling new ideas about the relationship between race and sound with meticulous historical research, Jennifer Lynn Stoever helps us to better understand how sound and listening not only…

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