Measuring Race: Listening to Vocal Timbre and Vocality in African-American Music
Nina Sun Eidsheim
UC Los Angeles
This project is an interdisciplinary study of how attributes which might seem natural, such as the “voice” and its qualities, are actually socially produced. Drawing from African American studies, musicology, ethnomusicology, sound and voice studies, it critically examines how race is “measured” through sound, and how the authenticity of race and racial subjectivities is often located in vocal timbre. Moreover, it examines vocal icons from Marian Anderson, Billie Holiday, and Jimmy Scott to the vocal synthesis technology Vocaloid. Asking how vocal timbre is entrained and perceived through racialized listening processes, it adds dimensions to the field of identity politics, and addresses an understudied and undertheorized space of racial and ethnic performance and performativity. In doing so, it advances our knowledge of the cultural-historical formation of the timbral micropolitics of difference. More broadly, it contributes to a knowledge of the ways in which comprehending voice remains central to understanding human experience.