Barry Shank, professor of American studies, cultural theory and popular music at the Department of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University, discussed culture in music at a seminar Monday hosted by the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
His presentation “From Sentimental to Interrogative Listening: Clining in the Aural Imaginary” focused on what is called the “aural imaginary” by ethnic studies expert Roshanak Kheshti: “where experiences of musical pleasure are inescapably structured by relations of dominance.”
Shank received a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and currently studies the “political agency of music, commercial popular culture and cultural history,” according to his biography on the Ohio State website.
Shank is currently working on a project called “Silence, Noise, Beauty: The Political Agency of Music,” which was presented at the lecture.
Shank explained the idea that it is impossible for human beings to listen to sounds from various cultures and experience meaning in the same way.
“If we only listen to music we already know, that music does nothing but reaffirm our already existing sense of the world and our already existing sense of what we believe,” Shank said.
One band of a specific culture that Shank referred to is Tinariwen, whose members originate from the Sahara Desert area of northern Mali. The members of the band met in refugee camps in Libya and many participated as rebel fighters in Mali. Their music sends a strong message about the suffrage of the Tuareg people and other suppressed groups using an instrument familiar to Western listeners: a guitar.
Shank said that the melodies of Tinariwen “stage an exchange of articulate voices,” and that the presence of the band’s music all over the world shows the use of a familiar medium to convey a message foreign to many.
“What’s sought isn’t your affection, but your respect,” Shank said of the music of other communities around the world. He noted that listeners are often unable to empathize with the messages of people of vastly different cultures, but can still feel the music and note the sense of beauty in the work.
Many students who attended the seminar were not familiar with the subject at hand, but were enticed by the implications of Shank’s work.
Robert Sarkesium, a first-year Ph.D. student in Annenberg, said he enjoyed Shank’s presentation even though he did not have much experience with the topic.
“I am very happy that this work is being done [with] the focus on different cultures and music and different kinds of media,” Sarkesium said.