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Cutting Tracks

Eliot Bates, Graduate Center, CUNYWhat makes a microphone that Kurt Cobain used briefly to record Nirvana’s In Utero album sell for $11,750 when the same piece of equipment, untouched by him, retails for about $100? Why is Cobain’s former mic worth so much more than the mic preamp he used?

Eliot Bates, an ethnomusicologist and an assistant professor of music at the Graduate Center, is exploring these questions and related ones in his latest research on digital audio recording cultures.

Istanbul and the Oud

It’s an area he came to circuitously, via Istanbul, Turkey, and the oud — a centuries-old lute-like instrument used extensively in Arab and Anatolian music. Bates took up playing the oud as an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara after running afoul of the piano faculty for playing music, from the 1950s, that was deemed too contemporary. A faculty member in ethnomusicology introduced him to the field and to the oud.

After hearing the renowned Turkish oud player Necati Çelik perform at UCSB, Bates took his first trip to Istanbul to study with him. There, Bates could not only study the oud properly — all of the performance methods books are in Turkish — but also understand the power of its music. “Why is it that you can get a whole set of people with Turkish ancestry crying to a particular song that doesn’t really have obviously sad lyrics?” he said.

Acoustic music was hardly Bates’ only musical exploration. In high school, he experimented with a Radio Shack mixer, synthesizer, and tape decks. While at Wesleyan for his master’s degree, he composed electroacoustic ambient music, which piqued his interest in exploring the recording studio as an instrument — a path he would ultimately follow.

Graduate Center, CUNY, Professor Eliot Bates plays the oud.
Bates traveled back to Turkey for his doctoral dissertation fieldwork. It was just when Turkey was loosening its minority-language bans, which prohibited singing, even lullabies and love songs, in any indigenous language other than Turkish. The rush to record popular music in minority languages drew his attention for a number of reasons.

“The music had a disproportionate amount of importance for youth who were discovering that they were members of these ethnicities and who wanted to figure out techniques for self-identification,” Bates said.

At the same time, the computer emerged as the dominant technology for making the new recordings. Bates was struck by the innovative ways that Turkish sound engineers used the computer. “That led me to me to conclude that we can’t really think of a computer as a sort of neutral or objective entity,” Bates said. 

Defying Conventions

Intrigued, Bates decided to document what was going on inside Istanbul’s recording studios. For a year-and-a-half, he worked as a recording engineer at several studios. “There’s so much that is hard to tell unless you do observation of how people engage with the computer, how they relate to it, how it becomes part of the social life of the studio,” he said.

The study turned out to be the first ethnography of digital-era recording studios. His 10-year project yielded two books and a number of articles and inspired him to take a deeper dive into the digital.

“I realized that we have a very incomplete account of these recording technologies in general,” he said, explaining that little is known about their invention and what they mean to people. “People in many studios behave really interestingly around these recording studio technologies,” he said. “They aestheticize them. They gender them.

“For example, there’s an audio engineering forum called Gearslutz; that tells you something. … The same technologies can be hyper-masculine. There’s a company called Burl and another one named Manley; the “Bomber” is a compressor. We can brush that off as, ‘That’s just a bunch of boys playing with their technology,’ but technology has a lot of consequences, and I’m interested in how these meanings developed.”

Bates decided it would be more productive and fun to take on the study with a partner. His collaborator is Samantha Bennett, an associate professor at Australian National University and one of the few women to run a prominent recording studio. “In our field, there’s almost no collaborative research,” Bates said. “There’s a playfulness to how we’re approaching this research.”

And to get back to Cobain’s microphone, one of the threads of their research is looking at how recording technologies are fetishized.

Certain vintage microphones, Bates points out, tend to be fetish objects, commanding up to $30,000 at auction, while other mics and types of technology lack such cachet. Bates and Bennett want to find out, “What specifically is being fetishized? What powers are that object considered to have? What is the economic act?”

Making the Most of NYC

Bates came to the Graduate Center this fall by way of the University of Birmingham, in the U.K., where he was a lecturer.

“I love the job, and I love the community here,” he said of his Graduate Center experience. “My students are incredibly diverse. … So I see the potential for my work in the field going in a lot of interesting directions.”

Through his teaching, he is capitalizing on students’ different interests and the eclectic nature of sound in New York City. This fall, for his Sound and Society class, offered to both doctoral and master’s students, he encouraged students to study and create soundscapes of the noise that surrounds us — sound in engineering, in finance, in environmentalism. In his words, “noise both as a cultural problem and an aesthetic genre.”

In his spare time, he still plays the oud. An experimental and collaborative artist, he has introduced the oud into space-age electroacoustic soundscapes and flamenco-Hindustani-dub reggae fusion. In his new duo with a Brooklyn-based musician, he is pairing the oud with all kinds of Renaissance and Baroque wind instruments. “I relish bringing the oud into unfamiliar circumstances,” he said.

Submitted on: DEC 12, 2017

Category: Faculty | Faculty News | General GC News | Music Ph.D. - D.M.A