SA15: The Propaganda Issue

Keywords: Constancy, Accretion, Motor


This is our fifteenth issue; a handful of years spent engaged in alternately exhilarating and mundane dissemination. In our first issue, I put forth a manifesto of sorts: Sound American would endeavor to demystify contemporary music, creating a populist publication capable of separating concept and abstraction from the pure appreciation of music and vice versa; we would do whatever it took to unlock the door to expose the beauty and wonder of music outside of the mainstream while celebrating the people that have made its creation their life practice.


We have been unsuccessful for the most part, failing based on the standards set in SA1, which were, admittedly, utopian and idealist. The journal has done one thing remarkably well, however. It has grown. After fourteen publications, our content has developed to the point that the rubber band and chewing gum server can no longer support all of it. Sound American’s readership, remarkably loyal, continues to grow with each issue as well. And, in the simple creation of exponentially amassing piles of content read by steadily amassing piles of people, we find enough success to continue and to, perhaps, become even more idealistic.


That success is measured by a handful, possibly a shopping cart’s worth, of metaphorical motors, each carefully turned on and left to run, hopefully feral, within our modern cultural context. It is enough if one phrase of one article of one issue causes the person reading it to desire a new sonic experience or even to rethink their relationship to set patterns of thought. SA is truly successful when it is being the most radical on an individual level.



Keywords: Propaganda, Idea, Tool


From the beginning, Sound American has been a propaganda organ. Each issue simultaneously shouts and whispers how rewarding it can be to engage in modern music and attempts to assure its readers that there are human beings in the world, like them, that are willing to think about things—musical or otherwise—open discussions, change opinions, change the world. Hyperbole? Maybe, but we still view every issue as an electronic pamphlet thrown from an imaginary plane to convince you that the world of music and thought is ecstatically boundless.


The historical response to that word, propaganda, is pejorative. We perceive propaganda as the praxis of media’s dark spirits aimed at bringing us closer to a candidate, a vice, or a god. It is subtle manipulation to make us profess brand loyalty, identify with a pre-packaged lifestyle, or take part in a movement—for better or worse. And, of course, there is a great deal of power to be had in the ability to affect people’s opinions. The question is intent.


In this issue, that intention is explored in one very specific way: propaganda as the tool of an idea. This can be as simple as writing a political song or commercial jingle in which the music is used to facilitate the acceptance of an idea or ensure the sale of a product. However, there may be finer shades within the idea/tool dialectic. For example, the work of a musician like Trevor Dunn, whose presence and creativity is in demand by everyone from The Melvins to John Zorn. His playing and musicianship is the tool being used to disseminate another artist’s idea. He is, in an admittedly abstract way, a living example of musical propaganda.



Keywords: Pure Music, Crowd Sourcing, Inspiration, Transmission


Of course, the creation and the dissemination of art and music are not always married in such a simple and tangible way. In a dual interview, Lebanese artists and musicians Raed Yassin and Mazen Kerbaj talk about their desire to “say something” with the musical and visual work they make. Their responses illustrate the different attitudes individuals can take on the question of whether their music is the tool of an idea or something pure in and of itself.


Pure music, or music with no imposed narrative or desire to convince, is the flipside of the idea/tool relationship and is, therefore, another central topic of this issue. Is there such a thing as art that isn’t trying to reach out and tell someone something, even in its most abstract form? We posed this question to a wide array of musicians practicing in different areas of the field and compiled an enlightening series of answers, in the roundtable and questionnaire formats, about the role of the idea in their music and whether they could identify any music as particularly devoid of a propagandistic quality. These conversations spawned multiple definitions of our theme, as well as meditations on musical language as diverse as early church music and Slayer.


And finally, there are those for which the question is not if music is a tool for an idea, but how the tool is used. Marshall Trammell from the Bay Area power duo Black Spirituals weaves his own powerful narrative about receiving and transmitting ideas based around the Underground Railroad, Thelonious Monk, and slave-era code quilts to students, the music being part of the machinery of dissemination but also a source of inspiration. James Hoff of the essential art publishing house Primary Information sees propaganda as a positive and necessary part of the work he does presenting experimental and conceptual art and music to interested people in a loving way. Propaganda as action of art a posteriori.



Keywords: More Words And No More Words. Where Do We Go From Here?


To end a project like Sound American on an issue about propaganda would be absolutely poetic, and when I, as editor, do end it perhaps this theme will be revisited. At this point, however, this issue reaffirms SA’s commitment to the original mission and announces qualitative and quantitative change. To begin, as you will notice, the journal has undergone certain aesthetic changes. This is the first small step (with more to come) in being able to take the visual component of the journal as seriously as we’ve taken the text and music up to this point. Those who have used Sound American as a source for their own learning, to teach parts of their courses, and for attribution in academic papers will also be pleased to find that the full archive of past issues is finally available online again. And, for those who have been clamoring for the concrete, a full “yearbook” of the first fifteen issues is in the works for print publication at the end of 2016. Sadly, this will put an end to our back issue ‘zines but will present the issues in one handy volume for book bag, bathroom, or coffee table.


The structure and timing of our publishing will change as well. One thing that is not always clear is that there is exactly one employee of Sound American, and while I have always strived to produce four large issues a year, my performance obligations and other duties at DRAM have caused me to feel that the rigor of the presentation has suffered in bowing to a quarterly deadline and a desire to throw masses of ideas at the public, regardless of quality and relevance. To that end, the journal will now publish three large issues a year with articles from the archive and new content relating to past issues providing a forward flow throughout.


This does not mean less Sound American, however. I am proud to announce that the organization will reenter the recording sphere with two very exciting releases under our label banner: a full-length introduction to the iconoclastic timbral compositions of Alex Mincek (his first) and the first in an ongoing series to redefine a modern American Songbook, recorded exclusively for SA by the superstar trio of cornetist Ron Miles, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and multi-instrumentalist Sam Amidon. Each release will be announced by a very special online mini-issue with multiple interviews and special guest contributions, which will then be printed and packaged with the limited edition recordings.



Afterword: Appreciation


As previously stated, Sound American is a one-person job. It is a joyful mission, but one that easily leads to burn out. I have, over the past fourteen issues, thought about stopping fourteen times. But, there has always been a reason to continue, even if it is one solid word from a reader or a feeling that there was an enlightening piece of information from a contributor. These small tokens, along with enormous amounts of support from my wife, some very good friends, and my boss, have continued to make this something that feels worthwhile. If it feels important to you, please help feed the tiger and drop a line on the contact page, buy a record or book, or make a donation to help Sound American continue to spew its dirty propaganda.