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This podcast culls material from seven hours of interviews about sound and animal life with scientists, engineers, programmers, archivists and other staff working in the Bioacoustics Research Program (BRP) and in the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds (LNS) at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The interviews were conducted as part of a research project situated at the intersection between sound in poetry (prosody) and environmental sound (soundscape), specifically focused on animal vocalizations.
Poetry might help us to use, study, and deploy animal morphologies in ways that hope to better, rather than merely exploit, the human relation with such life forms, if not to improve the welfare of the species themselves. As Katy Payne, Mike Webster and others suggest, when we speak of animal “song,” we bring metaphors from the arts of poetry and music to complement our limited scientific understanding of the intricacies of animal communication.
At the same time, the process of capture, practiced by poets and recordists alike, heightens ethical choice in a time of accelerated species extinction: many of the techniques and resources developed at LNS and BRP are currently used for basic monitoring of conflict between animal life and human industry. This podcast explores both why and how the Macaulay LNS collects animal sounds (which some of the archivists refer to as “specimens”), and how such a collection is conceptualized, deployed and situated within a matrix of concerns (philosophical, aesthetic, ethical, and political) about human relations to other-than-human life forms.
This article continues the work on “rendering” I began here at Sounding Out! last spring. My interest in the Macaulay LNS, directed by Mike Webster and Greg Budney, introduced me to the vital, cutting-edge, and often mind-blowing work being done in BRP, under the leadership of Chris Clark as well as of a pioneer in animal communication and conservation such as Katy Payne, who founded the Elephant Listening Project and has also contributed to the podcast. Although I did not get Chris’s voice on record, his groundbreaking research, activism and leadership on behalf of a “singing planet” nevertheless loom large behind much of the work featured here. I was fortunate to be able to speak with Tim Gallagher, of Ivory-billed Woodpecker fame, in the Lab of Ornithology. The podcast also explores the crucial work of audio engineers Bill McQuay and Karl Fitzke, and of software analysts and research specialists LIz Rowland, Ann Warde, Laura Strickland, and Ashakur Rahaman, amongst others.
The staff at the Lab of Ornithology generously granted me a tour of their archive, showed me their gear, explained their sound visualization software, and sat me down in the surround sound listening room, where I heard some unforgettable recordings, which opened up my investigation to acoustic dimensions I had never before suspected. We sounded these dimensions in wide-ranging conversations about archiving, acoustics, field work, gear, communication, looking at sound, music, evolution, and conservation. This podcast offers, in a condensed form, some of the highlights of those conversations and experiences.
Thanks are due to the staff whose voices the podcast features: Mike Webster, Greg Budney, Bill McQuay, Liz Rowland, Alexa Hilmer, Ann Warde, Mary Winston, Tim Gallagher, Ashakur Rahaman, Katy Payne, Laura Strickland, and Karl Fitzke. Thanks are equally due staff who consented to be interviewed or otherwise helped out but whose voices didn’t make it onto the podcast: Chris Clarke, Christianne McMillan White, George Dillmann, Connie Bruce, Tammy Bishop. Thanks to Aaron Trammell for crucial editorial and technical help. Thanks finally to the Cornell Society for Humanities for the 2011-2012 research fellowship and the scholarly community that made this research possible.
Animal Transcriptions: Listening to the Lab of Ornithology – Contents and Credits
Winter Wren, at normal and at one-half speed (Greg Budney, from The Diversity of Animal Sounds, Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds sampler CD)
Sound: Greg Budney and Musician Wren (Cyphorhinus arada, LNS 8897, Peter Paul Kellogg)
Sound: Ashakur Rahaman and Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus, played back at eight times normal speed, LNS 128263, Paul Thompson)
Bill McQuay, Greg Budney: Africa Sequence (The Bai)
Sound: Greg Budney and Townsend’s Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi, LNS 50192, Geoffrey Keller) and Brown-backed Solitaire (Myadestis occidentals, LNS 136544, Michael Andersen)
Sound: Ann Warde and Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas, LNS 126105, Donald Ljungblad)
Greg Budney: Beluga multi-array recording
Sound: Katy Payne (Humpback Whale)
Greg Budney: Madagascar lemur family group
Bill McQuay: Treehopper sequence (NPR Radio Expedition)
Sound: Mike Webster and Crested Oropendola (Psarocolius decumanus, LNS 12830, Ted Parker), Common Potoo (Nyctibius griseus, LNS 59964, Paul Schwartz)
Looking at Sound 27:25
Sound: Alexa Hilmer and Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae, LNS 110847, Paul Perkins)
Sound: Laura Strickland and Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina, LNS 11316, Arthur Allen; LNS 125223, Michael Andersen)
Greg Budney (Spot-breasted Oriole duet, LNS 164045, David Ross)
Mike Webster (Black-throated Blue Warbler, LNS 27208, Randolph Little)
Katy Payne (Humpback whale group singing, LNS 118147, William Steiner)
Sound: Alexa Hilmer, Katy Payne with Common Loon (Gavia mimer, LNS 107964, Steven Pantle)
Greg Budney: Attwater’s Prairie Chicken lek
Sound: Karl Fitzke and European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris, recording by Greg McGrath)
Recordings used with permission of Macaulay Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Starling recording used with permission of Greg McGrath.
Jonathan Skinner founded and edits the journal ecopoetics, which features creative-critical intersections between writing and ecology. Skinner also writes ecocriticism on contemporary poetry and poetics: he has published essays on Charles Olson, Ronald Johnson, Lorine Niedecker, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Bernadette Mayer, Cecilia Vicuña, translations of French poetry and garden theory, essays on bird song from the perspective of ethnopoetics, and essays on horizontal concepts such as the Third Landscape and on Documentary Poetry. Currently, he is writing a book of investigative poems on the urban landscapes of Frederick Law Olmsted, and a book on Animal Transcriptions in contemporary poetry. He teaches poetry and poetics in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Listening to Disaster: Our Relationship to Sound and Danger– Maile Colbert
Animal Renderings: The Library of Natural Sounds– Jonathan Skinner
My family comes from a tiny village called Nodar in northern Portugal, part of the European Union-funded project “Tramontana” which focuses on preserving the immaterial heritage of mountain regions of southern Europe. In Nodar, centuries of isolation and self-sufficiency have created a unique blend of cultural expressions, ways of living, and inhabited landscapes. Like much of the Portuguese countryside, Nodar is undergoing a process of abandonment, which leaves rural communities with a weakened sense of identity. The agrarian paradigm, which has been central to the history and social fabric of rural communities, is arriving to an almost hopeless vanishing point, and the guardians of that memory are also disappearing. With this as formative part of my background, and considering my artistic interest in community-oriented projects, I felt almost a duty to direct much of my work to Nodar, a place that means so much to me and where I thought I could make a difference. In 2004 my brother Luis and I founded Binaural/Nodar, an arts collective based in the village and operating in the surrounding region of the Gralheira mountain range.
Since March 2006, the Nodar Rural Art Lab has invited both local and international artists who work in the areas of sound, video, and intermedia arts to address issues such as collective memory, identity, gender, age, life, death, geography, topography, music, sound heritage, landscape, vegetation, consumption and leisure dynamics, myths, traditions, crafts, agriculture, and shepherding. During their stay, the resident artists give public presentations in the region and are encouraged to establish interactions with the place and its inhabitants, geographic spaces, and social memory. Many of the artworks held in Nodar cross different artistic practices, often blending borders.
The decision to initiate an artist residency center in Nodar was motivated by my desire to deepen the investigation of exploratory artistic practices in close interaction with a specific rural context and its social and cultural possibilities. Throughout the year, the Nodar Rural Art Lab programs various residency modules in order to stimulate a collaborative environment between artists from different artistic fields and geographic origins. During the course of the residencies, several parallel activities are organized, such as conferences, lectures and educational activities, namely youth-oriented. At the end of each residency module, there is a public presentation organized in the village in which the art projects are presented and discussed by the artists and the organization.
The sonic dimension has a critical role in the model we have developed in Nodar, especially because it operates as a powerful metaphor for the intimate and personal discovery of a place. Artists have documented the area’s soundscapes and oral heritage in Nodar since 2006. There are three central lines of artistic interaction that converge here: Sound, Space and People:
SOUND (Interaction with the acoustic environment): Some sound artists, who work with the acoustic dimension in an experimental way, are part of the team that runs the Nodar Rural Art Lab. The Lab has always been active in the international theoretical and artistic domains of the so-called soundscapes, and it has hosted some of the most respected sound artists of today, who–using idiosyncratic techniques for sound capturing, editing and manipulation–have created works based on particular aspects of the local acoustic context.
One of our approaches is what we call “sound interventions,” where we use field recordings and performance in order to “activate the space” and establish a dialogical approach between what is activated and what just “is,” which can incorporate body, gesture, sound, object, space and voice in this process. An example of this approach was the “Revenant : Paiva” project, conceived in 2009 by Patrick McGinley, Marjia-Liisa Plats, Luís Costa and Tiago Carvalho, in which a series of performative actions were staged in a section of the river Paiva that crosses Nodar. Using materials found in-situ as instruments, in addition to the artists’ own voices, to generate sounds that interacted with the acoustic environment itself, all activity was purely acoustic, with no amplification. The resulting work was presented live with the artists and audience spread out across the space with no preferential “point of listening”, which created subtle overlaps between the artists’ work and the space.
SPACE: Interaction with the geographic space. The landscape surrounding Nodar is beautiful and diverse; there are mountains, rivers, caves, slate stone architecture, terraced fields, and so much more. Moreover, we are witnessing an irreversible process of transformation of rural space. These two elements form fertile ground for the creation of works within nature, which either capture the dreamlike and timeless aspects of the landscape or question possible future uses for the same landscape.
Of particular interest to us is the use of geography as a means for projecting sound in which specific variables of the territory, such as topography and meteorology, intersect with instrumental or subjective aspects of artistic creation, namely the position occupied in the space and the choice of sound recording and reproduction tools and techniques. A good example of this approach was Lisa Premke’s project “Aural Lookout,” developed in 2012, in which she built a canvas lookout on the top of a hill that allowed the visitors to be sheltered from the environment while listening to the nature sounds acoustically amplified, as if being inside a large drum.
PEOPLE: Interaction with local inhabitants. Since the beginning of our activities, we have been encouraging artists to interact, question and to some extent “provoke” local populations. As a result of these communication processes, various art projects have been developed reflecting and expressing aspects of the region’s collective memory and new habits and experiences.
Working on the subject of the anthropological voice may involve direct conversation with the local communities based on topics proposed by the artists and related to everyday life and local memory, as well as it may focus on linguistic aspects such as accents, musicality of the voice, etc. Maile Colbert’s “Over the Eyes,” created in 2007, was a very successful example of this sort of “conversational” project, where she organized a knitting circle with the village women, recorded the conversations with them, their songs and stories and incorporated them into the sound design of a multimedia installation, along with field recordings of the area, and text on physiological, biological, and psychological aspects to memory creation and destruction in humans. The projection screen was composed of raw wool and the knitted cloths made during the circle, which created an interesting dialogue with the immaterial nature of the audiovisual element of the piece.
We have always emphasized a type of sound art that enhances the context within which a specific sound work is produced, escaping a purely acoustic, or “sound-in-itself” approach. We believe that this emphasis on subjectivity and context is necessary, because sound–and the practice of field recording in particular—sometimes carries a burden of “objectivity” because it stems from the documentation of reality. The subjectivity inherent to the sound recollection –for instance, the choice of the point of listening and of the technological means of sound capturing–is often not sufficient to alleviate this burden.
When we host sound artists in Nodar, we always try to convey the idea that the region’s landscape is fundamentally an “inhabited landscape.” Trying to avoid the human presence in order to get “wilder and more natural” recordings is purely illusory. The landscape is inhabited in several simultaneous ways: by the marks of historical occupation of the territory, by the existence of vital spaces for each inhabitant–often lying far beyond the boundaries of the villages–by the very presence of the artists and by the audiences of the art works’ final presentations.
In summary, there are several methodological, instrumental and aesthetic approaches that Binaural/Nodar is working to further in the area of sound art. These approaches are anything but sealed; intersections, complementarities, unions and differences exist, which make each work of art unique.
Featured Image: ”Oor van Noach” by Flickr user ines saraiva under Creative Commons 2.0 License.
Rui Costa is a sound artist from Lisbon, Portugal. He is a founding member and artistic director of Binaural/Nodar, an arts organization founded in 2004 and dedicated to the promotion of context-specific and participatory art projects in rural communities of the Gralheira mountain range, northern Portugal. Rui has been performing and exhibiting his work since 1998 in festivals, galleries and museums across Portugal, Spain, Italy and the United States and has been collaborating regularly with the Italian vocal performer Manuela Barile and the American intermedia artist Maile Colbert. Rui Costa is also a regular speaker in conferences and gives workshops dedicated to sound art. For more from Binaural/Nodar, please check out the organization’s soundcloud, vimeo, and flickr.
Fall refuses to stay put in Kansas City. The past month Kansas City temperatures have skyrocketed to 70 comfortable degrees fahrenheit and plummeted to 20 chilly degrees. I decided to partake of a wonderfully mild Sunday afternoon last Thanksgiving weekend to do another one of my Kansas City soundwalks, this time the fall edition. Fortunately the weather was cooperating, and I didn’t have to worry about how long I could resist standing in the cold.
Even though the weather was wonderful for a soundwalk, I couldn’t choose where to go. I have blogged about three soundwalks so far, and for each of them the choice seemed more organic: for my first soundwalk, in 2010, I wanted to walk around my new neighborhood and begin to understand it from an aural point of view. For my second soundwalk (in 2011) I went to one of my favorite places in Kansas City, the Country Club Plaza, and provided a snapshot of the sounds of spring in this busy area of Midtown. On my personal blog, in time for World Listening Day 2011, I talked about sounds from my own porch for a summer edition of my KC Soundwalks series, in order to think about the soundscape where I live. However, for this fourth soundwalk my only requirement was that it be a place I had not been to before. I wanted to venture out to somewhere new and encounter it not just with my eyes but also with my ears. Technically, I could go anywhere in Kansas City and do a soundwalk, but that was the one thing keeping me from doing a soundwalk: I couldn’t choose.
Last Sunday I decided I had to just get in the car and go. I had planned (and postponed) several soundwalks up until that day (I had even tweeted that I was leaving the house, in hopes of that forcing me to commit), so that day I planned to finally take some time to do my soundwalk before I went back to work. I got in the car with my daughter, destined for the West Bottoms neighborhood. I figured I’d take the long route instead of the quick and easy highways. As we drove along the side streets, I saw a park—a park neither of us had been to before, Jarboe Park—and I figured we could stop there, play for a while, and then drive off for my soundwalk. In any case, she might be good and tired by the time we arrived at our final destination, and I could put her in the stroller while I recorded and took notes.
That’s not what happened.
Once we arrived at the park, a moment of inspiration hit when I saw some musical instruments of sorts as part of the jungle gym, something I hadn’t seen before.
When we arrived, Jarboe Park was deserted. The bare trees didn’t make it any more inviting, but the park is in newly minted condition and full of bright colors. It showed no signs of life, or wear and tear; in fact, the jungle gym and the swings seemed new. (According to The City of Kansas City, MO’s website, this park was remodeled in 2011.) Jarboe Park is located in a residential neighborhood, across from Primitivo García Elementary School. During the semester it surely gets more use. Perhaps it was too early on a Sunday for families to be out and about at the park. Coincidentally, a family appeared about an hour after we arrived, but they went to the basketball court across the street.
The first thing that caught my attention at the park was the presence of musical instruments set up at the entrance. I do not remember seeing anything similar before at a children’s jungle gym. There was a set of bells, a xylophone, some rainmakers, a whistle, and a drum set. Their presence seemed to indicate that making sounds/music/noise was also part of the experience of being in the park as well as part of the experience of growing up. Sound, specifically making sounds, became part of play, in this context.
In the quietude of the noon time the sounds these instruments made felt a little sad instead of happy; the fact that there was only one child (ok, two, including myself!) playing with these instruments made their sounds stand out more, in relation to, say, the sounds of the trains and the highways (which I will discuss below). At the same time they drew attention to the fact that they were the only sounds that the park was making. If the park were busy, the sounds of the instruments would probably fade into the soundscape instead of being the loudest sound. However, the fact that we were playing with these instruments–versus playing instruments–made the park seem less lonely. We were part of the sounds, we were making sounds, and that seemed to distract me from the fact that we were the only people there making sounds. Although the plastic and metal instruments were not like traditional instruments, I wondered what their purpose in the jungle gym were. If the spider web and the swings are meant to exercise certain parts of the body and practice certain ways of socializing, what did the instruments teach? Perhaps the instruments are meant to teach children that instruments produce sounds, and they produce them in different ways. Lastly, the instruments and the act of creating sounds must use a different part of the brain–and my daughter was quite excited to play with the drum set!
Other than the sounds of the instruments, I also noticed the sounds of the highway and the train. I found a corner of the park where I could stand and record the sounds of the city:
Kansas City is intersected by train tracks, and it almost feels like if you pay close attention, you can hear a train in the distance at any corner of the city. In fact, in the dead of a lazy afternoon or the quiet of the wee hours of the night I can hear the trains’ whistles, announcing their passing through the city, from my neighborhood of Rosedale in Kansas City, Kansas. If soundwalks can be a sonic ethnography of a city, my soundwalks have so far revealed that the sound of trains are an essential part of the KC soundscape as well as a reminder of the city’s history: the Kansas City Stockyards. I could also hear the low buzzing of the cars on the highway, another sound I’ve come to recognize as uniquely Kansas Citian, or at least part of my soundsscape. The murmur of the traffic ways is like the sound of Kansas City’s blood coursing through its veins.
This spur-of-the-moment soundwalk made me think of how listening and sound can prompt reflection about the identity of a neighborhood and of a city. As I wrote down notes, I wondered: how do parks add to a community’s soundscape? The sounds add to the community’s identity as a residential area as an area that is amenable to the presence (physically and in aural terms) of other people. Soundscapes are connected to our ideas of what constitutes a neighborhood, and specifically how important common spaces like parks are, with all the sounds that may ensue. On a broader level, my Kansas City soundwalks are helping me piece together a soundscape of Kansas City, and to think through sound as a way to understanding the urban culture of this city, with its music, its fountains, its sports, and its trains, among other things. I feel like my listening practices are directly tied to my developing connection to this Midwestern city.
Postscript: I never did make it to the West Bottoms that Sunday. But it’s still on my list of KC spots to visit.
Featured Image: “Downtown from Top of Liberty2″ by Wikimedia user Hngrange, under Creative Commons 3.0 license.
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!
Developed to explore the relationship between sound and learning, our fall forum on “Sound and Pedagogy” blends the thinking of our editors (Liana Silva), recruited guests (D. Travers Scott), and one of the winners of our recent Call For Posts (Jentery Sayers) to explore how listening impacts the writing process, the teachable moment, and the syllabus (and vice versa). If you need a make-up assignment for the first post by D. Travers Scott, click here, or for last week’s post by Liana Silva, click here. Otherwise, get ready to take some furious notes, because today’s post from Jentery Sayers offers a generously revealing—and unprecedented—glimpse inside the development of his audio culture course over several years. Chock full of suggestions, prompts, unique assignments, and troubleshooting tips, Sayers’s offering is refreshingly frank about the unique challenges facing sound studies scholars in the classroom. As in most classes, information this deep may need some time to settle in and effect some change, so we’ll check back with you in spring with a Sound and Pedagogy “refresher course.” It’s already on our syllabus.–JSA, Editor in Chief
This semester, I am teaching my fourth course in audio culture studies. Since students and faculty in the humanities rarely have the opportunity to intensively examine sound in the context of higher education, thus far I have learned that—even for teachers who are well-versed in sound studies—planning and structuring work in an audio culture course is more difficult than it may at first appear. For instance, to what degree should an audio culture course intersect with visual culture studies? What cultural assumptions about sound inform how students learn about it, not to mention how instructors teach it? When engaging histories of sound reproduction, how might students combine knowing and doing, or composing about and with sound? And how should work in an audio culture course be assessed? Through what sorts of learning outcomes? With what forms of student preparation and self-reflexivity in mind?
In the following paragraphs, I engage these questions by unpacking a portfolio-based assignment sequence from an undergraduate course I taught at the University of Washington-Bothell in 2010: “Technologies of Expression: Sound Reproduction Studies.”
As I prepare for my “Audio Culture Studies” undergraduate course at the University of Victoria this semester, the above questions are guiding my lesson plans as well as my revisions of previous teaching materials. Yet more importantly, I imagine they—or variants of them—resonate with other instructors invested in sound studies, and I hope this post will spark a conversation about how to continue developing sound studies curricula in higher education. In one sense, such curricula should be and are distinct from work anchored in visual culture, print, film, and e-text studies. Nevertheless, there are a variety of suggestive intersections across these fields, and my approach to audio culture courses often builds upon them, especially since my training is in literary and cultural studies.
To begin “Sound Reproduction Studies” (heretoafter “205″) at the University of Washington-Bothell, I told students to let me know (in writing) how they were going to record sound during the course. After all, I did not know what technologies they could access, and I wanted to make sure that—with help from the University’s library and digital media services—recording equipment was available to them. I also informed them that, throughout the course, we would be focusing on basic recording and editing but not high fidelity techniques or post-production. In other words, I was not expecting them to gain competencies common in sound art and audio engineering, and my humanities-oriented assessment of their audio work would privilege content and composition over the aesthetics of recording and playback. For a course anchored primarily in cultural studies, they were welcome to use everyday audio equipment intended for consumers and amateurs, and fortunately that equipment was available on loan through the University.
After that request, I asked them to “crowdsource” a brief history of sound reproduction using SIMILE’s Exhibit 2 framework. While I have my reservations about crowdsourcing, for the purposes of the class—especially at the beginning of the quarter—it was appropriate. As the prompt suggests, I wanted to survey what students already knew about audio, together with where their interests in sound tended to constellate.
From the start of the course, I also wanted to situate visual and audio cultures in the same space, encouraging students to think about the tensions and intersections between them as well as the epistemologies and affects they enable. Here’s a screen grab of what students produced in a week (between two class meetings):
I used this crowdsourced exhibit as the basis for an introductory lecture on the vexed legacies of sound reproduction. It helped me identify gaps in student knowledge while also underscoring what was familiar to them (e.g., Edison’s phonograph, the turntable, and auto-tune). The exhibit became a handy vehicle for posing questions to explore for the balance of the course: How is noise defined differently over time, by whom, and for whom? How is sound naturalized, and to what effects on critical inquiry? How is sound embodied, and why is it so often associated with emotion, affect, and immersion? When studying the history of sound reproduction, what roles do old technologies and media play in our research? How has the composition and playback of audio changed from decade to decade?
In other words, the exhibit was a low-stakes launching pad into the course material. I found it instilled a bit of confidence in students by giving them some sense of authority over the material. And it gave them a concrete sense of what I meant by “audio culture” (as opposed to, say, “music history”). Early in the course, I also appreciated the opportunity to highlight the deep and rich history of sound reproduction, a history which no doubt informs contemporary obsessions with all things digital. Where I failed as an instructor was by not returning to the exhibit later in the quarter. In future courses, I’ll give them an opportunity to add, revise, and even remove content where appropriate. Such a gesture would add a layer of self-reflexivity and iterative knowledge-making to the learning process, premised on questions like: “Now that you’ve studied audio for seven weeks, how would you revise your contributions to the crowdsourced exhibit you helped compose earlier in the course? How has your perception of audio’s history changed and why?”
After the crowdsourced exhibit of sound reproduction, the students in 205 shifted toward composing with audio, exploring ways to combine knowing and doing sound studies. For this shift, I relied on another low-stakes assignment: the “audiography.”
Here, students had the opportunity to share “playlists” of sounds typical to their everyday lives. However, the ultimate motivation of the exercise was twofold: (1) for them to closely attend to those common soundscapes, organize them (around a theme of some sort), and record them; and (2) for them to develop some basic competencies in the free audio editor and recorder, Audacity (based on a workshop conducted during class). Although the very notion of a “soundscape” was likely new to them, and even though most of them had never recorded audio, the concept of a playlist was personal and familiar enough to make the assignment approachable. It also stressed the fact that, like images and texts, people design and structure arguments through sound. A playlist of everyday sounds involves rhetorical strategies not entirely distinct from, say, an academic essay or television broadcast.
For the audiography (as well as every other audio composition in 205), the students were given constraints (e.g., “no narration,” “no effects,” and “eight to fifteen recordings only”) similar to guidelines for academic essays. And once the audio files were composed, the students uploaded them to our class audio blog (using a WordPress theme that unfortunately is no longer supported or maintained). The benefit of the blog was that everyone in the course could hear everyone else’s audio work. Additionally, I could play student audio during class meetings, treating it as an object of inquiry for discussion. In so doing, I made sure that—during the quarter—we discussed every student’s audio work at least once.
Audiographies are great for getting at cultural assumptions about sound, especially when students are able to respond to them through repurposing, voice-over, or a similar strategy. For the “re: audiography” prompt, I asked students to do just this.
They downloaded a peer’s audiography (from the class audio blog), edited it, produced a story through it (including voice-over tracks), and circulated the final product. While, quite obviously, this exercise became a gateway into studying montage, cut-up, turntable, DJ, and laptop practices, it also gave students an opportunity to assess how an audience member might interpret their audio work, the soundscapes with which they are familiar, and the rhetorical strategies motivating their compositions. “Re: audiography” relies on re-situating audio in a new context, as it demands thinking about how setting, history, and ideologies all affect interpretation. In so doing, it also requires significant consideration of the risks, play, warrants, and claims involved in an audio composition relying heavily on existing work. As an instructor, I was sure to remind students that such play is not innocent; it is quite serious, and—in the context of 205—it was not intended to offend or mock another student’s work, interests, or background. Consequently, adding this line to the prompt was key: “Don’t be rude to them and recognize that they worked hard to make their audiographies. What’s more, the sounds involved mean something to them.”
As I plan for my audio culture studies course at the University of Victoria, I am revising the “re: audiography” prompt to make it more concrete, with clear parameters. In particular, Step 5 in the instructions is too vague; it lacks sufficient focus, without being anchored in a particular genre or example to which students can refer. As such, during 205 I ultimately worried that the flexibility in the prompt induced student anxiety. Without a genre in mind, they had too many avenues to explore, even if all of those avenues afforded ways of engaging cultural assumptions about sound.
After the audiography prompts in 205, I assigned students two “found sound” exercises, which furthered the combination of knowing and doing through a line of research. Both exercises were scaffolded toward the production of an audio documentary that was academic in character.
The first “found sound” prompt asked them to gather a series of historical audio clips related to a particular medium and begin formulating a research question about them.
The audio piece that resulted included not only the audio clips but also the student’s initial thoughts, questions, and concerns about the research. One significant benefit of this exercise was that it acted in conversation with other strategies for academic argumentation, namely how arguments involving actual audio differ from and intersect with arguments devoid of audio. In other words, it introduced students to the very notion of multimodal argumentation, including the ways in which audio functions in scholarly communications. Students also had to consider what it means for an argument to be heard, not read.
As an instructor, I find that I still tend to map norms for text- and image-based argumentation onto audio work. For instance, the language of the “found sound” prompt resonates with a prompt I would write for a text-based “thought piece.” It is a translation of modes, without much consideration for how audio-based arguments might actually serve distinct and perhaps divergent aims—aims premised on, say, affect or non-sequential arrangement. For future iterations of this prompt, I plan to highlight such possibilities, brushing against my own proclivities for validating audio-based arguments through text- and image-based conventions.
Comparable to the “re: audiography” prompt, the students in 205 responded to each other’s “found sound” exercises, this time through “re: found sound.”
Rather than repurposing or sampling a student’s work, in this case students recorded verbal feedback, which essentially acted as a form of peer review. Perhaps above all else, this exercise allowed students to articulate an understanding of how to structure and evaluate audio compositions, preparing them for the audio documentary. Yet one of the most effective components of the prompt is this request: “Identify at least one thing (but preferably more) that you think your peer is overlooking or not considering. This thing can be a concept (e.g., ‘speaking with’), an example work (e.g., film, audio recording, or text), or a perspective (e.g., conflicting opinions on the topic). When you make this gesture, explain why it’s relevant to not only his or her audio documentary, but also the history of sound reproduction.” From my perspective as an instructor, this intervention in a peer’s work is difficult yet rewarding. It is a response that demands its own research, as it asks the reviewer to more or less deconstruct what is being heard.
“Re: found sound” also requires students to meticulously consider how they are saying what they are saying when critiquing someone else’s work. For instance, tone, inflection, and dialogic gestures are foregrounded. To be sure, students make similar decisions when responding through text. Nonetheless, the shift in modality affords a learning experience arguably rare in higher education humanities.
For future iterations of “re: found sound,” I will ask students to submit written feedback in tandem with the audio, not only for accessibility purposes but also to stress correspondences between the media. Again, one of my ongoing concerns in audio culture courses is that I will—in a reactionary fashion—privilege speaking and listening over seeing, reading, and watching. Such reactionary approaches risk dividing critical approaches when they can instead be suggestively blended through interdisciplinary research.
The two “found sound” prompts guided students in 205 toward an audio documentary, which was steeped in a specific historical issue and informed largely by cultural studies approaches to audio technologies and media.
To prepare students for this genre, I provided example documentaries, and we also conducted several workshops on how to make and critique those documentaries. In the end, these documentaries were a real pleasure to hear, and one of the biggest difficulties is listening and re-listening to them closely. After all, the evaluation of audio operates through a different temporality than text, and often times it lends itself to focusing too much on production and post-production (rather than, in this case, the actual content of the audio documentary). Requesting transcripts, and even the original AUP files (or a similar format), can facilitate fair and thorough evaluation. I also try to listen to each documentary at least twice, with and without headphones. Finally, as an instructor I have learned that audio documentaries will always take students twice as long as I assume they will. Despite popular assumptions about the speediness and ease of digital production, the genre is labor-intensive and layered with samples, effects, voice-over, and transitions. It is also often new to students in higher education.
Even though the documentary was the most involved piece of the students’ audio portfolios in 205, it was not the final submission. In a self-reflexive fashion, the students were asked to submit a final remix of their work (PDF).
At its core, the final remix intersected audio theory, practice, and history. Intended for educated, non-expert audiences beyond the course, it asked students to provide specific examples of how they fulfilled particular outcomes in the course. Among other things, the samples in the remix were intended to demonstrate an awareness of: (1) audience, (2) the technocultural history of sound, (3) a theory of listening, (4) audio composition and post-production, (5) constructive, audio-based peer review, and (6) persuasive media strategies for audio-based argumentation.
Perhaps quite obviously, this reflective remix borrows from a long history in writing studies. And I have found it quite effective for identifying what and how students learned from the course. That said, what I enjoy most about it is how it requires thinking about sound as matter: its arrangement and manipulation, its existence in various iterations and formats, its function as tangible, audible evidence. For, when returning briefly to those questions in the first paragraph of this piece, I tend to think the greatest challenge facing sound studies curricula and pedagogy is the challenge of sound’s materiality. As sound studies scholars, how do we foster spaces and opportunities where people can learn about the history of sound as an object with its own fluctuations, politics, aesthetics, and material particulars? How do we teach audio culture as that which can be simultaneously inhabited and examined from a distance? As a thing, a mode of composition, and a way of thinking, feeling, and acting?
Featured Image “Burn Station @ inSIRACJE festival” by Flickr User Paula Rey
Jentery Sayers is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Victoria, where he teaches cultural studies, digital humanities, and 20th-century U.S. fiction. His writing has appeared in Kairos: Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy; The New Work of Composing; Computational Culture; The New Everyday; Writing and the Digital Generation; Off Paper; Collaborative Approaches to the Digital in English Studies; and ProfHacker. Among his other work involving audio, his current book project is a cultural history of magnetic recording. He’s grateful to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman at Sounding Out! for feedback on drafts of this piece.