Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Phantom fundamentals: What is the sound of one dissertation topic clapping?

“The echo of the completely empty valley bears tidings heard from the soundless sound” – Yamaba

I’ve been thinking for the past few days about an acoustical-cognitive phenomenon called the phantom fundamental. Basically, there is a mathematical relationship between the pitch we hear (the fundamental) and the higher overtone frequencies that are “packaged” with that pitch to give it a distinct tone color. Overtones are the reasons that a trumpet sounds like a trumpet and a fake trumpet sounds like a fake trumpet. They’re also probably responsible for making the heavily auto-tuned actors on Glee sounds like radioactive aardvarks.

Our brain expects that if the overtones are arranged in a certain way, that the fundamental pitch will fall in line. Our brain expects it so much that it will fill in the fundamental pitch if it is missing. So we, theoretically, could hear a tuba playing a low C even if the recording had been digitally altered so that the lowest pitch actually present acoustically was an octave above the note that we perceive.

So why am I thinking about this tonight? Partly because I count audiophile Nina Fales as a friend and colleague. And partly because my fieldwork project has become like a missing fundamental. There seems to be a dearth of music about HIV/AIDS at the moment, but it’s still hanging around the edges of everyone’s brains.

I’ve only been at this two and a half weeks and I’ve already heard from a number of people that “there were a few songs like that some years ago” and “there were some commercials, but no one is recording songs like that anymore.” Selwyn Lewis of The Barcam, a community organization originally based in Point Fortin, insinuated that HIV/AIDS funding was at a high point when I visited Trinidad and Tobago to plan my project in 2007, but is now drying up.

There are, of course, still organizations like The Barcam and Arts-in-Action, based at the University of the West Indies, which continue to use music in HIV/AIDS prevention. But the popular music world seems much quieter than it was just two years ago.

So does my project become more archaeological from here? Is it about re-thinking earlier times when AIDS and music came together, like calypsonian Merchant’s illness and death, Peter Minshall’s 2006 mas band, Godfrey Sealy’s musical, and the songs penned by Shadow, Ras Shorty, and Sparrow? Can I re-think those things from the time-space of the contemporary TT music scene(s)?

I still think there’s a dissertation here…I just need to figure out where it is.

And for those of you who like pictures, here's a picture to prove it really is rainy season here in Trinidad.


  1. Looks like we should send you some kind of flotation device! Your apt looks good and dry though :)

    Research question: You hinted that one contact sounded like AIDS/HIV music and funding is drying up - do people think the problem has gone away as well? Has it, or does the lack of publicity make people think that it has?

  2. Good question Deb...And I think the answer is a qualified neither.

    People definitely don't think the problem has gone away - it is getting much more under control, especially now that people can access free anti-retrovirals. And as far as the lack of publicity...I think that is leading to some complacency, but not as much as in the US. I'm in a bad spot to judge, though, as I'm immersing myself in people who are tied to AIDS organizations...