Nina Sun Eidsheim – The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music


Duke University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0822368687, English, 288 pages, 2019, USA

Eidsheim starts this book by introducing ‘the acousmatic question’ (“who’s this, who’s speaking?”) to discuss the dichotomy between a sound and its source before and after media. This book builds on her previous publication Sensing Sound, whose emphasis on vibrations as the core quality of sound and voice constitutes the other founding elements of her discourse about voice as a founding element of race identification. First interviewing voice teachers, and then presenting vocal case studies (the perception of black star singers like Marian Anderson, Billie Holiday, and Jimmy Scott) together with the way Vocaloid vocal synthesis software works, Eidsheim demonstrates how, in listening, we are culturally dependent. This is what she calls the “cult of fidelity”, or a primary notion of racial identity, which should be abandoned in favour of a re-learning of listening. In a present aural ecosystem which is populated with the synthetic voices of vocal assistants, and a growing number of plausible audio deep fakes, she calls for a transformation of listening practices, introducing a ‘pause’, which would allow us the time and space to fully appreciate these vocal articulations. This self-aware listening could not only tackle fundamental racial and gender preconceptions, but also produce a better understanding of our relation with machine-generated voices.