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Sounding History

Nov 2 2021 • 24 mins

Every collaboration has a backstory. Ours goes back nearly 30 years, when Chris (the older one, jazz musician, former line-cook and nightclub bouncer, some tattoos) and Tom (the slightly younger one, classical musician, serial migrant, no tattoos) worked together at WFIU, Indiana University Public Radio. Both of us were in grad school at Indiana at the time, Chris in jazz and musicology and Tom in music performance.

In radio those were the old days. We worked with reel-to-reel tape and rudimentary hard-wired networks on the studio computers, pulling shifts late nights and early mornings for a listening audience scattered through the southern Indiana hills. And then we went our separate ways: Chris to start his academic career in Texas, Tom to Germany to work as a musician before returning to the US for a PhD in musicology at Cornell.

Fast forward fifteen years: we are both in academia, two American scholars on divergent paths. Chris is at Texas Tech building a Vernacular Music Center and much else besides. Tom has landed in Southampton in the UK, beginning to move from pretty old-fashioned art music (ask him about Mozart and he’ll tell you a lot of things you didn’t know people even knew) to global music history.

Fast forward another ten years to the summer of 2018. Chris has just finished the second of two books about American vernaculars, and Tom is wrapping up a book about European experiences of Chinese music around 1800 and starting a new project about jazz and AI. Over the years we’d seen each other at conferences in strange airless hotels. You could count on us (the big guy with the tattoos and the bookish Mozart scholar living as a migrant in Britain) to regale anyone who would listen with stories about small-town radio in the good old days, where you knew your audience because some of them would call you on the control room phone just to talk, and the reel-to-reel machines sometimes did terrible things to you on air.

And, curiously enough, we realize that our paths are beginning to align: Chris is working on “history from below,” in music and dance soundscapes across the Americas, and Tom is working in material and social history using soundscapes of global imperial encounter and modern technology.

Chris has an idea. Why don’t we two surprise people (because despite our shared history, from the outside we seem an unlikely duo in academia, where everyone is trapped in narrow specialties) and do a thing. We’re both all-in on global history and empire, on music and what it means in the world. We feel like we need to say something in times of environmental and political crisis. So...an essay collection? Maybe a symposium? You could feel our enthusiasm waning even as one of us suggested these. As energizing as it can be to spend time in a room full of really cool colleagues, neither of us wanted the thing to be that.

Instead, after decades in academia, both of us were looking for something more immediate, the kind of experience we know from the classroom and yes, from the old days on the radio. We talk it over some, and agree to meet in England next time Chris is traveling in Europe. You’ll have to listen to the episode to get the rest of the story.

It didn’t take long for us to settle on an ambitious project: a music history book for non-academic readers. And a podcast, a medium Tom and Chris, Old Radio Guys, were just beginning to discover. A few emails later we had found our producer, Tom’s sister Tatiana Irvine, and her production company, Seedpod Sound. And here we are.

Key Points

  • How we came to be writing a book together nearly 30 years after first working at the same public radio station in small-town Indiana (or “How a global history of imperial encounter, across five centuries, was born in the studios of a small public radio station in southern Indiana, 30 years ago”)
  • What it’s like to come up with an ambitious joint project in a business that favors lone working (or “Getting our brains, and those of our colleagues and managers, around the idea of an international collaboration across time zones and disciplines--in the midst of a global pandemic.”)
  • What excites us about podcasting as a medium: its immediacy and the possibility of two-way communication with the audience (or “How podcasting engages and unites us through shared personal and scholarly goals: radio skills, expertise in sound as both meaning and technology, a sense of history, and an urgent desire to contribute to global efforts to fight environmental destruction”)
  • How we want to structure the podcast around three themes: labor, energy and data (or “Why ‘labor’; why ‘energy’; why ‘data’? What are the human, ecological, cultural, and historical stories that brought us to this moment?”)
  • Why we want to tell bold new stories about voices most music historians miss (or “The untold stories, the silenced voices, the unseen or unrecognized encounters between people, places, eras, and experience--between labor, energy, and data--for which we seek to create new spaces for encounter and understanding.”)


All of the books mentioned in the episode can be found in our Sounding History Goodreads discussion group. Join the conversation!