The electronic evolution

November 14, 2021

Turn on any music streaming platform—or even a traditional radio—and click through the channels. You’ll undoubtably hear songs saturated with synthesized sounds, ranging from ambient to disco to hip hop and more. Electronic sounds have become ubiquitous in our culture, and they extend well beyond music. Think about the audio notification your mobile phone plays upon receiving a text message, or the iconic swooshing sound produced by lightsabers in any Star Wars film. How many ways has electronic sound impacted our society during the second half of the 20th century? That’s what Jennifer Iverson, Associate Professor of Music, currently seeks to explore in her upcoming book, Porous Instruments: Synthesized Sound at the Intersection of Race, Class, and Gender.

“All music is really produced in a social sphere, not by any one individual,” Iverson said. “Right now, I’m looking broadly at different types of electronic sound technologies to see how they were designed and by whom, and how they were used and misused.” 

Iverson argues that cultural mobility is accomplished through synthesizers and related technologies. For example, the Yamaha DX-7 was one of the world’s first successful digital synthesizers and one of the best-selling mass-market synthesizers in history. It was ubiquitous in pop music—Tina Turner, Gloria Estefan, A-ha, and many more—during the 1980s. But inside the black box, the DX7’s core algorithms were adapted from high-end computer music. Iverson explores such transfers of technological knowledge, as well as the class hierarchies that are dismantled and rebuilt in the process.

Trained as a music theorist, Iverson is always interested in finding out the mechanisms behind how things work. Her research often examines the intersections between music, technology, people, and history. The vocoder, for instance, was created using elements of military engineering, corporate research and development, and scientific experimentation, and deployed for a range of uses in pop culture. Iverson explores the Afrofuturist afterlives of vocoder’s robot voices in (mis)uses from the Jonzun Crew to T-Pain to Kanye West to Janelle Monae. In sum, Porous Instruments suggests that cultural value systems are not given in advance, but are co-created by developers, users, and listeners within a space. Synths enable this process of value construction, especially via the circulation of raced, gendered, and classed sounds.

In the classroom, Iverson stresses how technology is intrinsically connected to the development of music over time. She also challenges her students to spend time studying sounds that are new to them.

“I teach in the Core, and we look at a lot of genres,” Iverson said. “What’s challenging for one student isn’t necessarily difficult for another student. Some students only listen to classical music, so examining Beyonce’s Lemonade can be quite new for them. And vice versa.”

Iverson is also interested in how music interfaces with embodiments, social values, and disabilities. She co-teaches a Disability and Design undergraduate course with Michele Friedner, an anthropologist and an Assistant Professor in Comparative Human Development, which explores principles of universal design and considers how it could be applied to different aspects of everyday life, including architecture, education, public policy, aesthetics, and more. 

For the past two years, Iverson has also facilitated a social music program for middle school students at City Elementary in Hyde Park. With the help of a team of undergraduate student-teachers, Iverson engages with autistic children to help them build familiarity around music and cultural knowledge. The children develop the ability to talk to each other about music, which serves as a conduit for helping build social connections. 

“Seeing how our undergraduates can connect with these City Elementary students who are a little bit younger and look up to them so much is very inspiring,” Iverson said. “The goal is not to produce neurotypical children, but rather, to open up more spaces where neuro-divergent kids can find connection, resonance, and strength. Music can be a space of shared sociality and inclusion, rather than a space of normalcy and exclusion.”

An excerpt from Iverson’s book-in-progress is available online.