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International Collaborative Research with Associate Professor Andrea Bohlman

January 24, 2024 | Kristen Chavez

Andrea Bohlman outside of Hill Hall.Andrea Bohlman is an associate professor of music who received a 2023 Summer International Collaborative Research Grant from the Institute for the Arts and Humanities. Part of Bohlman’s research examined the consent and politics of sound and sound-recordings, and she collaborated with colleagues at Polish universities. In the podcast, she talks about her research and the impact of the $20,000 grant.




Kristen Chavez: Welcome to the Institute, a podcast on the lives and works of Fellows and friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I am your host, Kristen Chavez. On today’s podcast, I talk with Andrea Bohlman, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the music department. She studies the political stakes of music-making and sound in the 20th and 21st centuries. Her current research explores ethnographic and feminist and queer approaches to sound recordings, politics and the everyday life, particularly in East and Central Europe.

In 2023, she was one of the recipients of the inaugural Summer International Collaborative Research Grant. The Institute launched the grant for faculty members at the associate professor rank in the arts, humanities and qualitative social sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences. The grant provides $20,000 of funding for up to five years to conduct research abroad and develop international partnerships. In summer 2023. Bowman collaborated with universities in Poland for her project titled “Listening for Consent: The Politics of Quiet Social Power.”

Andrea, welcome to the podcast.

Andrea Bohlman: Thanks, Kristen. Nice to be here.

KC: Before we get into the work you did with the grant, can you tell me how you got involved into this line of research and what drew you into it?

AB: I really see this project, “Listening for Consent,” as growing out of the set of research that I did for my first book, which was on social movements in East Central Europe, specifically in Poland, looking how artists and activists treated sound, what they imagined for sound when they were working towards specific political goals. Specifically, I was interested in how sound enabled conversation and collaboration. And as a musicologist, I am really interested in music as one mode of sonic communication and, and one means of creating sonic intimacy. The archetypal version of that is singing together at a protest, or feeling like a particular artist represents your way of engaging in society, or your moral and ethical orientation to living, to life.

So, I see this project really as growing out of that, but also inspiring me as I write a new book; as I prepare to think about what it means with tenure to be able to develop longer term and relationships with colleagues and artists in the region where I work. And I look to deepen those ties that I developed, and needed for the research for my first book.

On the one hand, it’s very much coming out of ideas, materials that interested me. My work was on the 1980s.So I’m a historian, but not a lot of historians tend to work on that recent of past, but what I found really interesting is the bounty of cassette tapes that people had, that were provided, sort of archives of their lives, their artistic interests, but also recordings of radio broadcasts, or political speeches, or even just recordings of events that they held in their homes. So I got into these cassettes, I thought, oh, this is like a little bit different than what we think of as like the mixtape, which is, you know, sort of sonic gifts that we accept, cherish, love, that becomes the format for playlists today, where you sort of say, like, ‘hey, the songs made me think of you,’ ‘when you listen to them, think of me’ These were uses of cassette tapes that were related to that sense of like, we can build social relationships to that, but were a little bit more than that. And started to realize, like all this sound recording history, it is not just a way to think about politics’ moving or music’s moving, but it is something much more fundamental, which is just human relationships.

AB: So, it is a kind of archive of history that we tend to go to for content as historians. We listen to oral histories to be like, what is the biography of this person? And when I go to these materials, I’m interested in figuring out like, ‘what is happening in a scene that I sort of have access to and why do I have access to this scene?’ Whether it’s a concert, news recording, or something very, very intimate, like a baby’s first words, which is one of the things people record a lot.

So, that’s all part of the book that I am imagining will be at the end of this project. I see this this collaborative grant as both facilitating network-making for me, conversation that I want to facilitate across the Atlantic through scholarly networks that are very hard, especially, of course during COVID, to cultivate and reciprocate, but also just in general. As an associate professor, you have more admin time, so summers are really the time when you can travel and deepen those relationships. And so this is something that holds a lot of promise for me in terms of just keeping myself responsible and relatable, and also committed to social and intellectual networks in east central Europe and specifically Poland. I was drawn to this book because it gives me I think, a lot of possibilities for interdisciplinary research. So some of the people I’m collaborating with are cultural historians, are in cultural studies, but also media and visual arts, as well as in musicology, my home discipline.

KC: Can you tell me a little bit about musicology, and what first drew you into that, and that interest in history and getting into Central and Eastern Europe?

AB: Yes. I will, like a lot of musicologist, but definitely not all musicologist, I started off playing a lot of music. I actually was confident I did not want to pursue music full time, as violinist and very active in high school and college, but it was important for me that that was separate from my academic work. But I found myself returning again and again and enjoying doing music research on my own, once I was sort of in classes in college.

Musicology is an inherently interdisciplinary space in any university. On the one hand, one thing we do is something specific to music: we try to understand how musical forms are put together, study particular genres and scenes. We think about what is special and specific about music. And to do that, we use methodologies or research techniques from a range of disciplines. Some musicologists are really interested in social and cultural questions, like myself. Others are more invested in probing sort of philosophical questions or even history of philosophical questions, thinking about aesthetics, poetics. What does it mean that music is something that happens in time? It’s fleeting, yet we hold on to it so much. It is very different to analyze music and to pull apart what music means is a very different challenge than literature and art history. And, of course, other kinds of sources. Not better or worse, just different.

Musicology, my work is – I really like the conflict between the feelings we have about music, as individuals and as collectives, and especially in memory, and how that’s in tension, sometimes with what music does when we look at the historical record. I got interested in music and politics, because coming from the United States, there are sort of these iconic moments where we think about music as embodying political hope, or even having a liberatory potential. Thinking, of course, to Black Power movements, rights movement, union movements, union musics, and of course, the function and power of music among enslaved people in the 19th century, 18th century. So those models are really, or those historical examples are central. But what I found through some opportunities I had, I was working in Berlin, during college and then after college and kept finding these examples where music and politics were doing something different. Where composers or jazz musicians imagined within music, “oh, we could create an ideal society or kind of utopian understanding of human relationships within music. What would it be to build a politics where we set the music up first, and then create the social world instead of having a social world?” And drawing music or performing, mapping music onto it? Of course, then when I came back to the US, I realized, oh, that is also going on here. I just did not know about it, because there were these other things.

So I kind of got interested in this kind of tensions between sort of specific historical examples and how people with, sometimes more progressive, sometimes more conservative political ideologies, why they turned to music and when, over other kinds of artistic and portrait performance projects. One of the things I want to do with this grant is bring artists or use some of the funds or connections to apply for grants to commission some artwork and some of that, I think is going to be using material objects. So built, I don’t know… there one person I am hoping to work with is an oil painter, works with oil paint, right? So it is not music right, but is certainly thinking about how material culture relates to ongoing political debate.

KC: Yeah, that is cool. Thanks for sharing that. So, your research also explores the idea and the practice of consent, when it comes to sound recordings. How does the technology play into all of that? And of course, while thinking about things like social movements and the politics behind it.

AB: Yes. I think one of the materials, archival moments out of which… There are two that really generated this kind of angle. And I’m still thinking through it, of course, living in 21st century America were on and working on a college campus where discussions and discourses on consent have been so important for, of course, undergraduate students, now increasingly in the state of North Carolina, thinking about reproductive rights, also adolescents and people into, through their 20s, and 30s. And so, when we think about discourses of access to medical care, and bodily autonomy is, of course, sort of one of the references there.

But I started thinking about it, just in sort of the I don’t know, listening. Listening, actually. Because I was listening to a cassette tape that was released through sort of… it’s easy to call it an underground network, but it’s not quite what it was, it was sort of a hand-to-hand alternative economy. So, something between a bootleg and an indie newspaper but on tape, to put it that way. So free. It had a certain political vibe to it, was meant to be shared among people within sort of like-minded political circles.

KC: Not within the traditional system we might think of.

AB: Yeah, you couldn’t buy it at a shop, for example, right? You could go to a kiosk where you knew someone was working there but might have access to it and give them a tape and they could make a copy for you. But listening to it on just came across someone singing, singing a political text, like a news item, instead of speaking it. So, imagine you turn on NPR one morning, and everything is sung instead of spoken, or whatever radio station of your choice. And like, this is really bizarre. And it turned out in 1981, there was not yet technology to confirm that someone’s sung voice was their own. So singing a text became a way of obscuring authorship and saying like, well, if you were called into court saying like, “oh, you said something against the government,” it would be like, you have no evidence that that was me. So, it became a way of distancing yourself from what you had said, right? But also, of course, it plays with this notion that people who are listening to it immediately recognize that the person’s voice, and that these circles were small in that way.

Another example that really sort of brought this idea of consent into the center of this project is an example of some music recordists who were on site with a bunch of folk musicians. And they asked the folk musicians to begin and stop the recordings that they were making. So, a little bit as though I could stop the podcast recording right now, if I ever became uncomfortable with, with, I do not know, the atmosphere between us, or with what I had said, or I wanted to start over or something like that. And this kind of notion that like, technology is democratizing often is about like access, like everyone can listen to music at home right now, because you have well, you know, in the 1950s, because you have a HiFi setup or radio. And nowadays, it’s because you have a phone in your pocket that gives you access to all this music. So, this is not democratizing in that sense. This is more in the sense of like, some technology becomes so much a part of everyday life that actually sharing the technology or administering it together is a different site of relationship than between, say, a researcher or a music producer, or even something like a group of activists who are recording something together, if anyone can turn it off at any given time. I think of something banal and uninteresting to the world is like a faculty meeting, right? If someone could hijack the agenda essentially at any point. That is what technology was doing.

So, these are some of the things. One of the things that kind of motivated this project and one of the things have been talking about with colleagues is just sort of, well, what is special about like the listening aspect of this? So what happens when you’re sitting there and you’re listening to historical documents, and you can maybe start to feel someone’s getting uncomfortable or that someone’s putting pressure on someone else. That’s a different location of consent between something like…. Another example, comes up a lot in music history or legal history is sampling music from one recording, copyright law and sound recordings. And this is locating consent and a little bit of a different site than that. Yeah.

KC: Like a different sort of removal.

AB: Yeah. I mean, it is part of that general conversation, which is like, wow, sound, on the one hand seems like something that we all when you speak, it becomes, you know, part of public, becomes public expression in some ways. I mean, this is a part of what’s behind discourses on free speech, right? There is an individual there, from whom the expression begins, and then it becomes a part of the public domain, so to speak. But technology is implicated in some of the more nefarious parts of that, right? Including things like surveillance, so something that was not meant to be shared — can become shared through recordings as well.

KC: Yes. And as you mentioned, with that idea and access of technology, you do not know when you might be recorded you do not know when you are walking down, and you might appear in someone’s Instagram or Tiktok or whatever else. And then that intersection of what I am speaking is speech, you know, speech and it is public. But then who is listening? And who is recording? And yes, we have control over this space. But,  what goes beyond? And, you know, what, if there is another recording out there, you know. That changes, I imagine how people are responding in the moment and how they might be controlling their own speech and their own sound. And even as I am thinking o as technology advances, and can pick up further or pick up more, like how does that all play in?


AB: Yeah, and sometimes it, it has come to a kind of embrace of not unruliness of circulation. So, think of when people assemble for a protest, a presumption that you might get recorded there. And that you might appear in a photograph in a newspaper or on the Internet, or even just the fact like, it does not need to be so highly politicized. It might be ‘Oh, I am at a Beyonce concert. And I know that there are going to be people taking cell phone footage, and I might end up on a complete stranger’s Tik Tok.’ There are a lot of people who operate under the assumption that they might be recorded. And that is something very different than imagining that there is a way to control it. These are sort of just different.

And that is one of the things we’re interested in exploring is sort of what happens when you sort of sonic publics right, or what people who are in in public, shared public spaces start to assume that there is something interesting going on with recording. So, facilitating things like moments of silence, because those are so unusual in public spaces, especially at things like protests or concerts or things like that. So that has been a powerful technique in a lot of the feminist movements in East Central Europe is to use silence and recusal to kind of make it eerie that there is not this kind of saturation of noise, sound, and music that you usually associate with a protest.

KC: Yeah, drawing that importance to that lack of sound.

AB: Yeah, exactly.

KC: Yeah, that is interesting. So, as I mentioned, you receive the Summer International Collaborative Research Grant. What were you able to do with your funding? We’re less than a year out from when you first received and you have about, four and some odd years left. How did you spend this first summer?

AB: Yes, so I had two main goals. One was to really take advantage of being in a community in Berlin, where a lot of the artists I am inspired by currently live and work. And also, in community in two groups of scholars, one at the University of Warsaw, and the other the University of Wrocław, which is another important Polish university with a strong cultural studies and musicology program, and a soundscapes lab.

KC: Oh wow.

AB: A whole team of researchers who are thinking about sound and public space. I wanted to be in community there and just talk to as many people as I could, share with them some of these ideas, but also actually just learn from them. You know, some of my project is really about questions that I have, and one of the things I have been working on – and then I could really take advantage of sitting in seminars, going to dinner, chatting in larger groups, meeting PhD students, things like that – is also hearing what other people are working on, maybe related to some of the same political questions, because we live in this moment of just incredibly fast paced political change, both in the United States and in East Central Europe.

I was able to listen to like, oh, how does work with Ukrainian refugees in Poland inflect what people are doing in terms of international collaboration, for sure, but also just their own research questions. So, talking with friends who are learning Ukrainian ever since March 2022.

And so that was one part. And then the other is, this is, like I said, this is the incubator for a book project. So, I was able to go to archives that have been closed since 2020, for the first time. And so I’m able to, first of all, connect with archivists there and talk through this project with him and talk to them about materials on location, which is just invaluable. And at the same time, also just do a deep dive, listen to a bunch of stuff, look at a bunch of materials and just come away with a lot of new ideas. And so one of the things I’ve been doing since then is of course, trying to organize that, distill some central questions; what are a lot of a lot of scholars I talked to were thinking about decolonizing both methodologies, but also what they work on. So the topics they work on, so thinking about race differently in East Central Europe than it has been, and that’s in part because of Russia’s war on Ukraine, but also a renewed emphasis, actually a large result of Black Lives Matter movement having global traction and calling out a lot of presumptions of a white Poland or white Germany. And there have been people working on this for a long time and organizing around this, but I found that this felt like an urgent conversation for people there, which I hadn’t expected necessarily. Well, I didn’t know because I hadn’t been there in a while. Those were the first, the two main things.

I also just tried to meet a lot of people and learn new projects. And so one of the things I have been doing since I got back is just trying to build those new relationships. What we’re hoping to do, and I’m sure this is a little bit where we’re going with the next question, is to really create an online conversation at some point where we’re all sitting with shared texts, not that we’ve written – though maybe, you know, one or two pages, sort of topic statements – but actually just shared texts that we feel are really inspiring and important for doing research in the 21st century. And they might be historical documents, they might be—one of the things that I am noticing is the pandemic created this disconnect between national cultures of scholarship where we weren’t able to come together at conferences, we weren’t able to travel for research. We developed – people wrote texts that shaped, you know, whole departments, whole disciplines. And in the national context – it doesn’t even need to be national, it can be regional – that we are still just reading for the first time. So, cultivating, getting a sense of who is interested, what artists would be interested in being part of that conversation versus which artists we might want to just study or engage with for their practice.

KC: Great. You mentioned you were meeting many new people as well. So, did you kind of knew going in like some of your colleagues in those universities or were you also developing some other partnerships that you had established years ago prior to going?

AB: Kind of both. So, I knew some of the people some of the people had actually been in some of my collaborators were in the Triangle in 2019-2020, and abruptly had to leave during the pandemic. It was literally kind of an intellectual friendship that was broken or put on pause or whatever, thrown into disarray – whatever, however you want to think about March 2020. It was a matter of just continuing those conversations and deepening those conversations. Some of them were people I knew from years of shared investments but hadn’t been able to just have a longer sustained conversation.

I think that’s what I would underline is that, in the humanities, we often just say we need time. And this grant is really a good example of like, yeah, I got, I was able to spend four days with people rather than a 30-minute Zoom call or a harried email, like tag-team over the course of six months, which is where we are now. So yeah, some new. And then, of course, they have once I am on location, there is a pretty good train system in Poland. So, I was really delighted with those people, I could travel around pretty easily, and people would kind of take the train in for an afternoon, a one- or two-hour train ride in and sit and talk through.

Honestly, it was a lot of informal, generative brainstorming, some enthusiasm, some kind of like, ‘whoa, like, this is really we do not share a perspective.’ But these are all I think, central to how academic work is done.

So yes, yes.

KC: All valuable and different forms.

AB: And I was able to go in June, which was right before the end of the season for music performances and festivals, like before summer festivals, but there were still some exhibitions and stuff like that. So, I could just go and see a lot of art, which was really important for me.

KC: That’s like perfect timing.

AB: Yeah.

KC: Yeah. That’s great. So, what’s next for you in the research project? How do you plan to continue and expand these international collaborations and travels?

AB: Yeah, a couple of things. One is, we are going to have another meeting with some but not all of the collaborators at the annual Slavic Conference, which is in Philadelphia, just Slavic studies. So, it is an interdisciplinary group. So not as many musicologists, though some will be there. We will just get together and kind of touch base having sort of taken some time, plan for this sort of online iteration of this, what would be doable, not burdensome, in terms of adding it to our normal teaching schedules. We’re all at public universities, so we’ve all got a lot of work to do. So, that is the pragmatic answer to your question. We just want to make sure that we have group meetings with whoever is available at a particular time. And that’s where having these funds is helpful, because I can, you know, say, “Okay, we are going to go, I am here, I am coming to the conference, or I am coming, I can make another trip back to Poland,” even if it is not quite as extensive.

It’s a matter of checking in every six months, and long term we’re looking for a kind of dispersed inclusive online webinar kind of thing or seminar, I guess, where we, we have pre-circulated texts. And ultimately, we want to bring, even if it’s modest, kind of a three-part art installation, both to UNC, and to probably some gallery in in Warsaw. I will say this is, even since I put together this grant, the funding structures for all kinds of things have changed – just in terms of commissioning art and stuff like that, in both Poland and the US. I’m kind of excited to see like, how agile we need to be and what we would be able to do, and maybe something online is going to be much easier than on location. But I think, for me, it is maintaining that collaborative spirit that we are talking about it together. And that is something we both have access to, on both sides of the ocean.

KC: So, you have touched on this already in a few different ways. But what did this experience and receiving this grant mean for you and your research more broadly? I am thinking you mentioned time and how you might have you might have to be agile. And I guess, is that a good thing in being able to respond?

AB: Yeah, I think the five year window and that you don’t like — I of course, wrote a proposal well I tried to write a proposal that was very structured: Phase One was the summer; Phase Two is in the next two years; and Phase Three is pending some of the agility you know, sort of in years four and five. But I think what that does is allow stepwise motion through the project, and it allows certain parts to be maybe a little bit different than we imagine them to be based on also like other people’s time.

A collaborative project needs to be sensitive to I mean, most basic thing is people’s care responsibilities, and teaching and work responsibilities, but also things like… And this has been exemplified in my colleagues’ work, the full scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia just reoriented daily life in the region in terms of aid work, in terms of universities being asked to do international hosting of refugee scholars. And of course, that extends far beyond Ukraine. But in the case of Poland, that was very acute because of the shared border and shared history, and cultural closeness.

These kinds of things can be really hard to build into a short-term grant. And so the fact that it’s a little bit longer, I think it indicates, to me an investment on the part of the university in what I think is the strength of intellectual work in the arts and humanities, which is just not pushing projects to through on a strict timeline, allowing space for ideas. Complicated ideas take time to develop. They take hard conversations. They take careful and fastidious work through materials, texts, and the writing process itself is slow. That for me is one of the great gifts of this is I can sort of take my time, or rather know that for the next couple of summers, I don’t need to be scrambling for support to do the kind of work that I want to do.

AB: And of course, it’s also a signal that collaboration is key, instead of a sort of individualized model of research, which kind of tenure and promotion model, which is like, ‘what are your publications?’ And, ‘did you get XYZ specific tasks done?’ And this, this provides a kind of different frame and a different world of accountability. Being able to be in conversation with artists who don’t care about tenure don’t often find books necessarily like academic books to resonate. The ideas that are valuable to them about their artistic practice allows for us to kind of, again, like live with that difference and benefit from it rather than avoid it or be in our own separate tracks.

KC: Yeah, absolutely. So as we begin to wrap up, is there a book that has changed your life? Or, of course, going by your work, if you want to think broadly, I’m also interested in hearing about any other written creative pieces, recordings that might have made an impact on you.

AB: I’ll take the bait on not talking about a book. I appreciate the question. Lots of books have changed my life. But since I have the opportunity, I would mention a sound recording project by a composer who I’m really thrilled to say was able to bring to UNC. Her name is Annea Lockwood. She’s active in New York right now, she made a three-hour installation piece that’s a sound-map of the Danube River.

The reason this piece has changed my life is manifold. First, she recorded it over a four-year period. Every time she had a break, she would go and travel and sit day by day and just making different recordings, following her ears. One of the things, she’s a composer by training, but she’s done a lot of work with sound recordings to interrogate her own listening and develop her own listening processes. She’s interested in finding moments in daily life in the world around us, that we don’t pay attention to that have a lot of beauty, a lot of rhythmicity, a lot of life in them. And the piece is, like I said, it’s three hours, it’s an installation, probably for a room that’s I don’t know, the size of a double-wide garage, something like that. But it’s from the source to the delta of this really important river and it includes conversations with people. And one of the things that I like about it is that first maybe you think it’s this I don’t know, some kind of background soothing, sort of plainly healing soundscape. You know, sort of like rainforest sounds or something like that in a massage parlor.

But once you start listening to a little bit you realize it’s telling a story and it’s telling her story, a very specific story. First of all, what she was listening to, so everything from pebbles grinding along the bottom of the river, which she recorded with a hydrophone, which is a microphone you can drop into the water and record underwater sounds, and to frogs on the banks of the river, to fishermen, to kayakers, bicyclists. And one of the things I think I just value about that is we’re constantly being pushed to kind of be more in touch with nature. That’s the kind of… that’s one of this long environmentalist, Western philosophy. And what she models here is that being in touch or making, you know, paying attention, to use a more kind of listening oriented term, is really about relationships and moving through relationships and caring for one’s relationships.

And because I was able to bring her here for the installation of this work, I’ve been able to learn a lot more about how she cultivated this sort of approach to recording as a practice. Also how she doesn’t include everything that she records, or she purposefully doesn’t record some time. So this connects with some of the questions in this project. But at the same time, we just became developed a kind of epistolary relationship. I mean, we see each other when we can, but it’s been really motivating to have a personal connection, of course, to this artist whose work inspires me so much.

And then just like on a very fun, very fun sort of final thought about its influence on me is also I was inspired – generally not by this work to do a big bike ride along Danube River. It’s a very common thing, tourist thing for people to do. And I did it sort of at a at a seam in my previous research projects while I was living in Berlin, and packed up my bike and went on it. And because of this piece, I would make these little recordings the whole time along the trip, and that that experience actually just kind of helps me understand this piece better but also, it made me think about sort of travel and the relationships we form on travel in a really profound way. So kind of important to me on that, in that way, too, is that it provides a sort of release from this sort of like, ‘Oh, I’m going to keep a journal at the end of the day,’ but it actually shapes how you relate to the world, sort of open and attentive, rather than trying to capture things the whole day through.

It’s been really important to me for that, and makes me think the complexity. The Danube goes through Central Europe and then southeastern Europe. And it makes me think about the complexity of those histories and how they sound, but that’s more to do with my own work. It’s a really interesting project. And her whole work is sort of generative and about human relationships, both with each other, but also with cats and trees and wind and particular places as well.

KC: Or even the river itself.

AB: Yeah, exactly.

KC: That is great. Thank you so much for sharing that. That will wrap up this episode. Thank you so much for joining the podcast. Andrea.

AB: Thank you so much, Kristen.

KC: This has been The Institute podcast. Listen to other and upcoming episodes by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, and wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. Visit our website to find past episodes and transcripts. You can also learn more about our upcoming events, programs, grants and leadership opportunities for UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, and read stories that feature our arts and humanities fellows. Thank you for joining us.


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