The funny thing about chronic illness is that it doesn't arrive at opportune moments, nor does it take time off when one really just needs some time to work on other things. In his second book, Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good, William Cheng, an Associate Professor of Music at Dartmouth College, reveals the power of listening, writing, creating, and weaponizing sound, especially during difficult times. Through excellent theory, superb narrative, and admirable scholarship, Cheng crafts an engaging and persuasive text that still managed to bring this reviewer to tears a time or two.
The book begins with a foreword by Susan McClary in which she expounds on the merits of the humanities in the twenty-first century, framing her argument with historical and cultural evidence as to the changing tide in the humanities. This sadly comes across more like a sad plea from aging humanities scholars than the forward-thinking scholarship embodied by the rest of the text, so the quick transition to Cheng's own argument in which he simply states as, "what if the primary purpose of sounding good isn't to do well, but to do good?" couldn't come quickly enough (Cheng, 2016, p. 8). He further delineates his argument into three interwoven truths
- First, that each of us has the potential to resonate molecularly, socially, and ethically with others.
- Second, that by attending to how our convictions, relations, and actions ripple through public spaces, we can achieve a sense of how we matter and what matters most.
- And third, that sounds—things we say, music we make, noises we hear, pressure we feel—are too often and too facilely conceived as just (mere) vibrations, at times to the detriment of agendas that are just (fair, good, conscionable) (Cheng, 2016, p. 14-15).
which provide a frame for the rest of the text. Always the musician, Cheng's chapter titles read like song titles: "Aching for Repair," "Sing the Ivory Tower Blues," "How Hopeful the Queer," and "Earsplitting." This (former?) vocalist couldn't help but notice and immediately attempt to discover the inspiration, but Google sadly yielded no information.
The first chapter recounts Cheng's battle with seeking a diagnosis for his abdominal cutaneous nerve entrapment syndrome (ACNES) that took over a year. He describes the difficulties he faced with completing his first monograph, Sound Play: Video Games and the Musical Imagination (2014) and the fears he harbored about sharing his pain with his peers, even as he was forced to withdraw from professional commitments due to his (then) mysterious illness. Cheng also divulges more personal anecdotes, such as "[he] also stopped playing piano, and as of 2016, [he had] yet to resume" and "it became painful to sit on a hard bench and difficult to concentrate" (29). As someone who had similar experiences due to illness, though it was of the cancerous illness kind, not so much the chronic, the personal narrative that Cheng uses to frame his thorough research is both heart-wrenching and scholar inspiring
The second and third chapters delves into crip and queer theory to frame the narrative of the first chapter. Pop-culture references are a delightful addition that bring the theory down to a more accessible level for undergraduates and laymen who might encounter this work. The crux of the second chapter, however, is Cheng's inclusion of research which calls "to crip (or to queer) normative attitudes toward time and teleology" as a means to just get by in these trying times. This chapter leaves a bitter taste in the end with no resolution for the inclusive attitudes evokes in the face of academic and societal pressures. Chapter three further blends queer theory and musicology with more personal anecdotes and inclusion of vignettes from the It Gets Better Project and reflections on presentations from the conference for the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory as well as a parable from the television show Louie (2010-2015).
The fourth chapter returns to academic musings in the field of musicology and the weaponization of sound via examples from the CIA, Charmed, Guantánamo Bay, and Homeland. Cheng notes that "In every instance, sound-based tactics receive mention in conjunction with additional torture methods: restraints, hoods, interrupted sleep, sensory deprivation, and sexual humiliation, to name only a few." (Cheng, 2016, p. 73). These examples of music used as torture are compared to torture sequences from the video game Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V) (Rockstar Games, 2013) in which torture is a "playable, interactive assignment" (Cheng, 2016, p. 79). Though defended by fans and creators as fictitious in nature, Cheng argues the eerie similarities between the aforementioned examples and those from GTA V.
The final chapter, the "Coda," as Cheng so aptly named it, begins a reminder that our country is in pain and desperately needs an awakening. His description of the tactics used by various cities in this nation to weaponize sound make this deaf academic's ears bleed because, at 146 dB (see Figure 5.1, Cheng, 2016, p. 95), even I would be able to hear them unaided, so I can only remember what they sound like to all of you who still have "normal" hearing. Cheng ends with few questions that we should all remember: "In the event we sound bad, who will care? As we slow down, who will keep pace? If we break, who will come put us back together again? Should our lives shatter, whose reflections show up in the shards?" (Cheng, 2016, p 102). In this time of unrest, Cheng reminds use to take a breath, listen to a song, and then make some noise for a better tomorrow.
Just Vibrations is published by The University of Michigan Press in both paperback and open access ePub which includes alt-text for all illustrations included in the text. The ePub version also facilitated the writing of the review since it allowed me to search the text of the book and cut and paste quotes directly into my document for ease of drafting.