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“Share your story” – but who will listen?

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DH ListeningEditor’s Note: Welcome to the second installment in the “DH and Listening” blog series for World Listening Month, our annual forum that prompts readers to reflect on what it means to listen. This year’s forum considers the role of “listening” in the digital humanities (DH, for short). We at Sounding Out! are stoked to hear about (and listen to) all the new projects out there that archive sound, but we wonder whether the digital humanities engage enough with the the notion of listening. After all, what’s a sound without someone to listen to it?

On our opening week, Jacqueline Wernimont from the Vibrant Lives team shared with us about the ethics of listening to 20th century sterilization victims’ records. Then, Emmanuelle Sonntag introduces us to a figure from a long time ago, “la soeur écoute,” a nun whose was responsible for sitting in and listening when another nun had a visitor. This week, Fabiola Hanna reflects upon what DH means when it talks about participatory practices. –Liana Silva, Managing Editor

Germanic and Holocaust historian and Digital Humanist Todd Presner has worked through more than 52,000 testimonies of the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, perhaps the largest archive of testimony, to investigate “the ethics of the algorithm.” The scale of this participatory archive has prompted Presner to ask: is it possible for a computer to listen to testimony?

Digital Humanities (DH) projects are, in varying degrees, led by the desire to engage with a wider public. Some often include actions such as inviting participants to share their stories, images, audio clips, drawings, and videos. In order to avoid lumping all DH works under a broad category that includes, among others, text analysis, mapping, visualization, 3D, and archiving. Below I examine DH projects that collect oral histories: memories, stories, and testimonies.

I argue that it is not enough to share stories; it is also important to recognize how these stories are shared. A majority of these living histories end up in an audio or video database displayed in full on a webpage, not unlike oral history transcripts ending up in a dusty closet. Listening as an active mode of participation can provide us with a framework that reveals the relationships, aesthetics and politics engendered by participation. Although seemingly about access (and some have started questioning whether users of such an archive should have access by default, or whether you need to be part of a community in order to access certain stories, see Mukurtu CMS), my focus is rather on the medium that these stories are circulated in, how they are displayed to the user and what the user’s participation does to these stories.

I take the space here, on the one hand, to think through participation from two fields, archives and interactive documentary (i-docs), and on the other hand to write about how sound studies, particularly an attention to listening and its aesthetics, its affordances, and its politics, can offer another approach to participation.

SO! Screen Capture from "The WorryBox Project"

SO! Screen Capture from Irene Lustzig’s “The WorryBox Project”

DH + participation: steps towards making place for popular

The work of requesting participation is in itself an accomplishment. It’s only been since the 1950s/60s, and perhaps more broadly since the 1990s, that ordinary peoples’ stories have been valued in the tradition that oral historians have established. It is possible to trace the field’s origins to Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed (itself rooted in Paolo Friere’s work), to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, or to postmodernism, the death of the author, and the end of grand narratives. With the arrival of Web 2.0, oral history seemed like the perfect medium for the ideals of participation on the Internet, precisely because it was about the everyday and involved “anyone” (with an internet connection). Video, audio and live streaming technologies made it possible for oral history to be recorded and displayed, and social media enabled unprecedented circulation through sharing. So the recent push to preserve everyday histories online, in DH projects, follows these ideals of stories from below.

Listening to stories as a mode of engagement is fitting with regards to oral history and testimony. Making space with openness and silence for someone’s testimony, especially when difficult, is a mode of participation that we aspire to. Media scholar Wendy Chun has argued that “a politics and practice of listening [is] a necessary complement to a politics of testifying.” In the case of Holocaust testimony, for instance, many scholars have argued that there is a responsibility to listen (Laub & Felman and Henry Greenspan).

I differentiate between two types of listening:

  1. Listening on the part of the users of these DH projects. Is it realistic to expect that users will listen to large archives of testimony? In Listening Publics, Kate Lacey writes that listening has been absent from theories of the public sphere, even where “the objective of political agency is often characterized as being to find a voice – which surely implies finding a public that will listen, and that has a will to listen” (viii). Because of their scale, these large archives of testimony pose a significant design challenge to the user, which could be resolved through curation. To build on one of the most successful digital storytelling projects, the Storycorps team knows very well that if they didn’t curate and edit together shorter versions, then no one would listen to the longer interviews in full.

storycorps

  1. Listening on the part of the interface and its design. This involves questioning the medium and its effects on what it houses. Here I find Susan Bickford’s work very useful in her definition of listening and what it accomplishes: ‘the riskiness of listening comes partly from the possibility that what we hear will require change from us’ (1996, 149). If interfaces for stories pre-close any openness to what contributed stories could change, then listening is not being considered. This is more directly seen in the tagging of videos and their categorization without additional interpretational work. This will to not “add” to these stories seems to come from the premise that these testimonies should “speak for themselves” (I get to this point in a little bit); that no added interpretation is needed, even that any added interpretation distracts from the directness of the stories. But this often also means the medium and its effects on these stories are not carefully examined.

Contrary to Western cultural beliefs, listening can be seen as an active mode of participation in conversation. As Jodi Dean rightly argues, it is not enough to express one’s opinion, or for a message to be circulated: it is crucial to get a response to the message. Lisbeth Lipari writes that even in Dean’s formulation, however, the response as speech is still emphasized, thereby ignoring the work that happens beforehand: the listening. Apart from the major contribution of Susan Bickford, mentioned above, with the concept of political listening, little attention has been paid to listening in the field of political theory.

DissonanceAndDemocracyBySusanBickford and TheOtherSideOfLanguageByGemmaCorradiFiumara

As arguably the most important philosopher on listening, Gemma Corradi Fiumara, writes: “listening involves the renunciation of a predominantly moulding and ordering activity; a giving up sustained by the expectation of a new and different quality of relationship” (as quoted by Lipari, 8). For Fiumara, listening is a mode of participation that is open and that does not pre-close potential possible contributions. Listening, therefore, as a mode of engagement can provide a useful method for thinking about participation in various contexts.

DH + Archives + i-docs

If a mission of a certain DH project is to engage with a wider public, then preservation of stories is not enough. More often than not, DH projects are already under difficult strain of resources, due to costs for developing technological projects and time for interviewing, collecting, indexing, tagging, uploading and making sense of these larger collections. DH have taken on a lot: preserving and archiving everyday stories with the mission to share with a wider public. It is useful to draw from experts who have been working through ideas of preservation and access: archivists. Archives generally have a mission of preservation, but when demands of sharing with a public arise, there are not many models from which to draw. Rick Prelinger writes that although the archive as a theoretical concept is overly theorized, its practice (in the plural form of the word) is under theorized.

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Image of StoryCorps collection area by Aaron “tango” Tang (CC BY 2.0).

Francis X Blouin and William G. Rosenberg trace the intersection of history and archives and found that Ranke, during the enlightenment, conceptualized history as a scientific endeavor in that truth could be extracted from archives through rigorous methodologies. This led to the idea that documents could “speak for themselves” (Blouin, 24). As if simply making documents available, without providing context of any sort, would reveal their inner truth. This is one of many cases where the reading of documents is taken for granted. It also ignores the effect that archivists have on the collecting, saving, and indexing of documents. Influential archivists such as Terry Cooke, Richard Brown and Brian Brothman have brought about new attitudes to repositories with an acknowledgment of the effect that archivists have on documents (as quoted by Richard J Cox, 33). This relatively recent push in archival theory, therefore, points to the flaws in the claim that documents on their own can represent themselves: that would be ignoring all the various power relationships at play, as well as the medium itself in which the stories are communicated.

In thinking about collaboration, with the unstated but implied goal of providing knowledge of a given subject, non-fiction film has experimented by inviting self-interested participants online and offline to contribute to projects. Sandra Gaudenzi makes clear that interactive documentaries, also called i-docs (documentaries designed for online or mobile viewing), are very distinct and that it is important to recognize the varying strategies employed by these digital projects: “uploading content is the most common way to collaborate in the case of online documentary, but it is definitely not the only one. […] contributions of content lead to co-creation but not to co-authorship, since the latter require a degree of intervention in the overall concept (i.e., form) of the product.” In her differentiation of co-creation and co-authorship, Gaudenzi points to the medium-limiting effect that users have in their participation. The “degree of intervention,” as a coming in between that leads to change, which Gaudenzi requires for co-authored documentaries, might be attained through listening, a listening through the work itself, such as The WorryBox Project.

Listening in The WorryBox Project

Irene Lusztig’s The WorryBox Project (2011) web-based documentary invites mothers to write their worries in an online form, which Lusztig then individually writes down on a piece of paper, rolls-up and stores in a physical box. The act of writing down in analog form what was input into a digital box goes an extra step beyond collection. It is emblematic of an extended care for these worries. The additional layer of documenting these actions, as part of the artwork itself, not only points to the embodiment of these worries but also to their representation.

worryBoxDigitalAnalog

Because listening has often been thought of as passive and feminine, it is also associated with a specific kind of caring, also in its passive and feminine forms. But I don’t equate that definition of care with listening, which surely the readers of this blog will question. In this case, care extends as a mode of listening because it pushes against the active/passive binary for speaking/listening. I use care in the sense it gave to curating (care is its early root), where curating points to the work of engagement and conversation.  Curating as a form of listening.

ListeningPublicsByKateLacey and ListeningThinkingBeingByLisbethLipari

This extended care would be an example of the listening I am thinking of. The work of translating the form’s digital input into the handwritten words and the documentation of that act stretch the layering of interpretation and with it the care given to these submissions. The change that occurs in this writing is definitely not an agreement or an endorsement of what is submitted but an open attitude of listening, of reception. This reinforces the notion that listening is not passive, but an active mode of participation. 

This mode of listening does not imply an understanding, as the receipt of information in cybernetics theory suggested by Shannon and Weaver. Rather this mode of communication embraces the notion that listening does not necessarily mean an understanding. The audio action collaborative Ultra-Red conveys this idea perfectly: “Sound possesses a palpable promiscuity in relation to the body. One may say what one means, but somewhere between the mouth that speaks and the ear that hears, sound always exceeds its master. Politically, it may be useful to say that we hear the truth in the voice or that we listen with obedience, but sound always transgresses such duties.” So for DH storytelling projects to be participatory, it is beneficial to allow stories the space for listening, in a similar sense to Hannah Arendt’s “distancing” in order to understand. This brings me to media and communication’s scholar Lisbeth Lipari’s term for this: “listening otherwise.”

SO! Screen Capture of Irene Lustzig's "The Worry  Project"

SO! Screen Capture of Irene Lustzig’s “The Worry Project”

For Lipari, in engaging with difficult stories or perhaps stories that offer different perspectives: “It is […] a listening otherwise that suspends the willfulness of self- and foreknowledge in order to receive the singularities of the alterity of the other” (185, emphasis in original). For this “listening otherwise” to work online, I argue that it is important for the employed structures, systems and processes to reflect this specific kind of participation. In other words, in addition to placing “different voices” side-by-side, it is equally critical for these different perspectives to exist in a space where the medium, whether the recording, the software, the interface and its design, listens to what these differences are. An interface designed in order not to predetermine, not to predict or preclose what others might contribute would then be an example of this listening. Anthropomorphizing aside, for a computer to listen to testimony, as Presner asks, it must be designed to be open to changing itself.

Fabiola Hanna is a new media artist & software designer currently working towards a PhD in Film and Digital Media at UC Santa Cruz where she also holds an MFA in Digital Arts & New Media. Her doctoral work is on building an automatic editing machine that weaves together competing narratives about the history of Lebanon, which has led her to engage with software studies & digital humanities, archives & memory and new media art activism.  

Her work has been exhibited widely in California at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, the New Children’s Museum in San Diego, the SubZero Festival in San Jose, the Digital Arts Research Center in Santa Cruz, and the Maker Faire in San Mateo. She is also a 2015 fellow of the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry at the New School, New York and has previously taught at University of California, San Diego and at various maker spaces including FabLab San Diego and MakerPlace.

Her website is fabiolahanna.com and she can be reached by email fhanna {@} ucsc {dot} edu.

Featured Image: “Story Corps” by Steve Rhodes, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Me & My Rhythm Box

paula shepp

I’m fortunate to have quite a few friends with eclectic musical tastes, who continually expose me some of the best, albeit often obscure, sources for inspiration. They arrive as random selections sent with a simple “you’d appreciate this” note attached. Good friends that they are, they rarely miss the mark. Most intriguing is when a cluster of things from different people carry a similar theme, converging to a need on my part for some sort of musical action.

The Inspiration

A few years back I received a huge dump of gigabytes of audio and video. Within it were some concert footage and performances this friend and I had been discussing; I consumed those quickly in an effort to keep that conversation going. Tucked amidst that dump however, was a copy of the movie Liquid Sky. I asked the friend about it because the description of the plot–“heroin-pushing aliens invade 80’s New York”–led me to believe it wasn’t really my thing (not a big fan of needles). Although my friend insisted I’d enjoy it, it took me several months if not a whole year before I finally pressed play.

Even though Liquid Sky was not my favorite movie by any measure, it was immediately apparent to my ears why my friend insisted I check it out. The film’s score was performed completely on a Fairlight CMI, capturing the synthesized undercurrent of the early 80’s New York music scene, more popularly seen in the cult classic Downtown 81, starring Jean Michel Basquiat. While the performances in that movie are perhaps closer to my tastes, none of them compare to one scene from Liquid Sky that I  fell in love with, instantly:

The song grabbed me so much, I quickly churned out a cover version.

Primus Luta “Me & My Rhythm Box (V1)”

 

While felt good to make, there remained something less than satisfying about it. The cover had captured my sound, but at a moment of transition. More specifically, the means by which I was trying to achieve my sound at the time had shifted from a DAW-in-the-box aesthetic to a live performance feel, one that I had already begun writing about here on Sounding Out! in 2013.  Interestingly, the inspiration to cover the song pushed me back to my in-the-box comfort zone.

It was good, but I knew I could do more.

As I said, these inspirations tend to group around a theme. Prior to receiving the Liquid Sky dump, I had received an email out of the blue from Hank Shocklee, producer and member of the Bomb Squad. I’ve been a longtime fan, and we had the opportunity to meet a few years prior. Since then he’s played a bit of a mentoring role for me. In the email he asked if I wanted to join an experimental electronic jazz project he was pulling together as the drummer.

I was taken aback. Hank Shocklee asking me to be his drummer. Honestly, I was shook.

Not that I didn’t know why he might think to ask me, but immediately I started to question whether I was good enough. Rather than dwell on those feelings, though, I started stepping up my game. While the project itself never came to fruition, Shocklee’s email led me to building my drmcrshr set of digital instruments.

kb-bring-the-noise-5A year or so later, I ran into Shocklee again when he was in Philadelphia for King Britt’s Afrofuturism event with mutual friend artist HPrizm. By this time I had already recorded the “Me and My Rhythm Box” cover. Serendipitously, HPrizm ended up dropping a sample from it in the midst of his set that night. A month or so later, HPrizm and I met up in the studio with longtime collaborator Takuma Kanaiwa to record a live set on which I played my drmcrshr instruments.

Primus Luta x HPrizm x Takuma Kanaiwa – “Excerpt”

 

Not too long after, I received an email from NYC-based electronic musician Elucid, saying he was digging for samples on this awesome soundtrack. . .Liquid Sky.

The final convergence point had been hanging over my head for a while. Having finished the first part of my “Toward a Practical Language series on Live Performance” series, I knew I wanted the next part to focus on electronic instruments, but wasn’t yet sure how to approach it. I had an inkling about a practicum on the actual design and development of an electronic instrument, but I didn’t yet have a project in mind.

As all of these things, people, and sounds came together–Liquid Sky, Shocklee, HPrizm, Elucid–it became clear that I needed to build a rhythm box.

The History

What stands out in Paula Sheppard’s performance from Liquid Sky is the visual itself. She stands in the warehouse performance space surrounded by 80’s scenesters posing with one hand in the air, mic in the other while strapped to her side is her rhythm box, the Roland CR-78, wires dangling from it to connect to the venue’s sound system. She hits play to start the beat launching into the ode for the rhythm machine.

Paula Shephard Performing "Me & My Rhythm Box" in Liquid Sky

Contextually, it’s far more performance art than music performance. There isn’t much evidence from the clip that the CR-78 is any more than a prop, as the synthesizer lines indicate the use of a backing track. The commentary in the lyrics however, hone in on an intent to present the rhythm box as the perfect musical companion, reminiscent of comments Raymond Scott often made about his desire to make a machine to replace musicians.

My rhythm box is sweet

Never forgets a beat

It does its rule

Do you want to know why?

It is pre-programmed

Rhythm machines such as the CR-78 were originally designed as accompaniment machines, specifically for organ players. They came pre-programmed with a number of traditional rhythm patterns–the standards being rock, swing, waltz and samba–though the CR-78 had many more variations. Such machines were not designed to be instruments themselves, rather musicians would play other instruments to them.

rolcr7801ad

In 1978 when the CR-78 was introduced, rhythm machines were becoming quite sophisticated. The CR-78 included automatic fills that could be set to play at set intervals, providing natural breaks for songs. As with a few other machines, selecting multiple rhythms could combine patterns into new rhythms. The CR-78 also had mute buttons and a small mixer, which allowed slight customization of patterns, but what truly set the CR-78 apart was the fact that users could program their own patterns and even save them.

drumtrio

TR-808 (top) and TR-909

By the time it appeared in Liquid Sky, the CR-78 had already been succeeded by other CR lines culminating in the CR-8000. Roland also had the TR series including the TR-808 and the TR-909, which was released in 1982, the same year Liquid Sky premiered.

In 1980 however, Roger Linn’s LM-1 premiered. What distinguished the LM-1 from other drum machines was that it used drum samples–rather than analog sounds–giving it more “real” sounding drum rhythms (for the time). The LM-1 and its predecessor, the Linn Drum both had individual drum triggers for its sounds that could be programmed into user sequences or played live. These features in particular marked the shift from rhythm machines to drum machines.

In the post-MIDI decades since,  we’ve come to think less and less about rhythm machines. With the rise of in-the-box virtual instruments, the idea of drum programming limitations (such as those found on most rhythm machines) seems absurd or arcane to modern tastes. People love the sounds of these older machines, evidenced by the tons of analog drum samples and virtual and hardware clones/remakes on the market, but they want the level of control modern technologies have grown them accustomed to.

Controlling the Roland CR-5000 from an Akai MPC-1000 using a custom built converter

 

The general assumption is that rhythm machines aren’t traditionally playable, and considering how outdated their rhythms tend to seem, lacking in the modern sensibility. My challenge thus, became clearer: I sought out to build a rhythm machine that would challenge this notion, while retaining the spirit of the traditional rhythm box.

Challenges and Limitations

At the outset, I wanted to base my rhythm machine on analog circuitry. I had previously built a number of digital drum machines–both sample and synthesis-based–for my Heads collection. Working in the analog arena allowed me to approach the design of my instrument in a way that respected the limitations my rhythm machine predecessors worked with and around.

By this time I had spent a couple of years mentoring with Jeff Blenkinsopp at The Analog Lab in New York, a place devoted to helping people from all over the world gain “further understanding the inner workings of their musical equipment.” I had already designed a rather complex analog signal processor, so I felt comfortable in the format. However, I hadn’t truly honed my skills around instrument design. In many ways, I wanted this project to be the testing ground for my own ability to create instruments, but prior experience taught me that going into such a complex project without the proper skills would be self defeating. Even more, my true goal was centered more around functionality rather than details like circuit board designs for individual sounds.

To avoid those rabbit holes–at least temporarily, I’ve since gone full circuit design on my analog sound projects–I chose to use DIY designs from the modular synth community as the basis for my rhythm box. That said, I limited myself to designs that featured analog sound sources, and only allowed myself to use designs that were available as PCB only. I would source all my own parts, solder all of my boards and configure them into the rhythm machine of my dreams.

Features

The wonderful thing about the modular synth community is that there is a lot of stuff out there. The difficult thing about the modular synth community is that there’s a lot of stuff out there. If you’ve got enough rack space, you can pretty much put together a modular that will perform whatever functionality you want. How modules patch together fundamentally defines your instrument, making module selection the most essential process.  I was aiming to build a more semi-modular configuration, forgoing the patch cables, but that didn’t make my selection any easier.  I wanted to have three sound sources (nominally: kick, snare and hi-hat), a sequencer and some sort of filter, which would all flow into a simple monophonic mixer design of my own.

For the sounds I chose a simple kick module from Barton, and the Jupiter Storm unit from Hex Inverter. The sound of the kick module was rooted enough in the classic analog sound while offering enough modulation points to make it mutable. The triple square wave design of the Jupiter Storm really excited me as It had the range to pull off hi-hat and snare sounds in addition to other percussive and drone sounds, plus it featured two outputs giving me all three of my voices on in two pcb sets.

Filters are often considered the heart of a modular set up, as they way they shape the sound tends to define its character. In choosing one for my rhythm machine the main thing I wanted was control over multiple frequency bands. Because there would be three different sound sources I needed to be able to tailor the filter for a wide spectrum of sounds. As such I chose the AM2140 Resonant Filter.

am2140pcb-800x800

The AMS2140 PCB layout, based on the classic eMu filter

 

I had no plans to include triggers for the sounds on my rhythm machine so the sequencer was going to be the heart of the performance as it would be responsible for any and all triggering of sounds.  Needing to control three sounds simultaneously without any stored memory was quite a tall order, but fortunately I found the perfect solution in the amazing Turing Machine modules. With its expansion board the Turing machine can put out four different patterns based on it’s  main pattern creator which can create fully random patterns or patterns that mutate as they progress.

The Results

I spent a couple of weeks after getting all the pcb’s parts and hardware together, wiring and rewiring connections until I got comfortable with how all of these parts were interacting with each other. I was fortunate to happen upon a vintage White Instruments box, which formally housed an attenuation meter, that was perfect for my machine. After testing with cardboard I laid out my own faceplates, which and put everything in the box. As soon as I plugged it in and started playing, I knew I had succeeded.

Early test of RIDM before it went in the Box

 

I call it the RIDM Box (Rhythmically Intelligent Drum Machine Box). I’ve been playing it now for over two years, to the point where today I would say it is my primary instrument. Almost immediately afterward I built a companion piece called the Snare Bender which works both as a standalone and as a controller for the RIDM Box. That one I did from scratch hand wired with no layouts.

stillconcrete2016 (1)

My current live rig with the RIDM Box and the Snare Bender (on the right)

 

While this is by no means a standard approach to modern electronic instrument design (if a standard approach even exists), what I learned through the process is really the value of looking back. With so much of modern technology being future forward in its approach, the assumption is that we’re at better starting positions for innovation than our predecessors. While we have so many more resources at our disposal, I think the limitations of the past were often more conductive to truly innovative approaches. By exploring those limitations with modern eyes a doorway opened up for me, the result of which is an instrument like no other, past or present.

I will probably continue playing the two of these instruments together for a while, but ultimately I’m leaning toward a new original design which takes the learnings from these projects and fully flushes out the performing instrument aspect of analog design.  In the meantime, my process would not be complete if I did not return to the original inspiration. So I’ll leave you with the RIDM Box version of “Me & My Rhythm Box”—available on my library sessions release for the instrument.

Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications.  

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Curatorial Dispatches from the Nendu Archives: The Journals of Rui Chaves and Tiago Costa

mud

Rui Chaves will be documenting his creation of Nendu—an archive of Brazilian sound artists—in real time on Sounding Out! throughout  2016-early 2017. A Portuguese version of Chaves’s journals was published in Linda, an online platform created by a composers’ collective called NME.  Rui Chaves’s postdoctoral research is funded by FAPESP (São Paulo Research Foundation) Project 2014/15978-9.

Nendu—the title of my archive—envisages the creation of an online platform dedicated to presenting and mapping the work of contemporary Brazilian sound artists. I have based my based upon the following four objectives:

1) Creating a ‘map’ that enables the dissemination and discovery of local praxis;

2) Prompting conversations or different types of documentation that better illustrate individual creative processes (‘journal’);

3) Re-affirming the idea of the ‘archive’  as a research tool;

4) Writing a historical and critical report on Brazilian sound art;

Nendu’s online ‘map’ will enable users to discover different practitioners based on location, but more importantly on what categories the artists themselves have asked to be associated with.

These categories consist of designations of practices that cross the current imaginary of sound art historiography and reflection. A porous and rizomatic territory, to be sure, the categories will echo the obvious specificity of the experience and presentation of sounding artworks — temporally, spatially and formally — without excluding practical, historical and conceptual connections with music, architecture, performance or visual arts.

My selection framework interweaves individual research with contacts with curators, friends, and other researchers. It is important to mention that this process remains open to any individual that wants to be part of the platform until the end of the project in June 2017.  This openness facilitates a dialogue between the archivist and interested parties, while at the same time enables reflection regarding the relationship with the idea of “sound art” and the role of sound within different artistic practices.

The second element (called a ‘journal’) consists of field work (to be done until the end of 2016) where I–together with a smaller selections of artists–attempt to present different in-depth reports of  “ways of doing”  sound art. The journal will consist of interviews, photos, videos, audio recordings and other relevant items. I will publish this material in tandem with the map in the form of a blog and I will share dispatches from the journal with SO!’s readership regularly throughout 2016.

The articulation of the map and journal foregrounds a critical reasoning regarding the idea of the archive as a research tool.  My archive will not only be a repository of artists and work done, but also a way of doing an ‘archeology’ of discourses, made objects, and creative processes of sound practitioners. Methodologically, I support my archive via an ethnographic approach,  tracing common ideas or patterns between conversations, materials, and/or other artifacts (texts, videos, audio recordings or photographs) gathered during the project. This not only allows an understanding of a possible formal aesthetic discourse (collective or individual), but also offers insights and possible contextualizations of various thematics within a broader cultural arena. Through mapping particular ways of doing, I argue, my archive will allow participants/artists—and also future users—a better comprehension of the prevalent cultural terms.

In the end, this methodology is geared toward the creation of a historical and critical report regarding the current panorama of Brazilian ‘sound art’. Because Nendu is also Tupi for “listening to one-self,” it functions as a metaphor for the creation of an archive that envisages alternative reflections and historiographies from European/American narratives.

For my introductory presentation for Sounding Out!, I want to take the opportunity to present a a ‘journal’ that I made with the artist Tiago Costa in the town of Tiete (state of São Paulo). We perform this activity with “two-voices,” each one of us writing about their experience — starting with me.

//

RUI CHAVES: 

Day 1

My rendez-vous point with Tiago was at the Barra Funda metro station and bus station. Our meeting results from a series of conversations and our eagerness to record the sound of the cicadas in his home town (Tietê). He was also interested in using binaural microphones, which end up being the main recording setup for what we did in the weekend between the 29th to the 31st of January 2016. Over the course of this weekend, I ended up in a series of conversations where I try to explain how these microphones work—in a very imprecise manner.

Our trip begins early in the morning, so I wake up early and still in night time to travel to the metro station, carrying all the recording equipment. When I arrive, there is already a lively buzz in the place. I have breakfast and, still feeling hungry, I have a second. As always, I arrive way too early and I look for the travel information center in order to try to find the right bus ticket sales booth. Fortunately, Tiago also arrives really early and I get an SMS from him telling me that he had already bought the tickets. We meet up and immediately get along. The conversation between us will constantly flow during our time together. He is an artist with a vast experience in audio post-production and he’s also pretty active and interested in São Paulo’s experimental music scene. This type of in-depth knowledge will also be a good source of jokes and gossip regarding particular musicians in the scene.

The conversation continues inside the bus, during which I compliment the vehicle’s air conditioning set temperature, quite mild at that time. Everyone that has travelled by bus in Brasil is acquainted with the cold that one has during long distance travels. While we continue to chat and get farther away from the city, we start to gaze a landscape that cuts through our daily experience of living in São Paulo—it is so hard to see the horizon in that city!

We came across and stop briefly in a town with a weird and funny name to me: Boituva!

Boituva is really well known for its paragliding activities. Sometime during our weekend together, I discover that Tiago is afraid of heights and that he is not planning to paraglide any time soon—I agree. It also during this stop over that Tiago describes to me a regional musical traditional called “Cururu”: a form of song-off duel between two “violeiros”; based on that description, I commented to him that it sounded a lot like a rap battle. A smile comes up on Tiago’s face, a smile that grew larger and larger due to my inability to say “Cururu” the right way: Pururu, Cururuca, Pururuca.

We arrive to Tietê early and sleepy. At first sight, the city has a contrasting scale and size in regards to São Paulo. The height of the buildings is relatively small, punctuated by a few condos slightly off the main urbanscape. The bus station has a small boteco, and not much else.  Botecos are common in Brazil; to me, they seem like a cross-over between a pub, restaurant and coffeehouse. There are a few clouds in the horizon, but Tiago tells me that the city is much warmer and drier than São Paulo. He also tells me that signs of Italian immigration are quite present in the city, as well as assorted religious events. Not long after, Tiago’s mom arrives and she is extremely kind.

At Tiago’s place I have my third breakfast (called café da manhã here). With some effort and excitement, we go out to check a few places near Tiago’s home for recording and I’m impressed by the relatively diversity of the nearby soundscape. Besides the sounds of birds, insects and some motorbikes—there is a pungent smell of sewer in the air that envelops us.

moradores

Bairro Seis Irmãos – Tietê (São Paulo). 29/01/2016. Picture by Rui Chaves

We also see a series of houses with an architecture that reminds me of other parts of the world. We make the most of this small trip and Tiago records a small route in that area using the binaural microphones.

Tiago Costa field recording // Best heard with headphones

We go back home and Tiago listens to the recording we just made. We have a small talk about this process. We sit at the table to have lunch and I try to explain to Tiago’s mom my research and what the process of binaural recording entails:

The head is a filter that enables to create a 3D image during the recording process.

I think I have a limited understanding of the process.

We end up having a quiet afternoon. I’m still a bit excited, so I decide to go out to run a few tests with the camera I bought to document my research work. Tiago and his mom suggest that I go and visit the river.

river

Rua Júlio dos Reis – Tietê (São Paulo). 29/01/2016. Picture by Rui Chaves

I do a small video recording through the city using a gadget that enables me to strap the camera to my head. Following their indications, I find the river Tietê. The color of the water is really brown and there is a smell that I can’t explain. It seems that in bygone times one could have a swim there, and that there was also a swimming club. With time that changed, but there is a small religious celebration where two boats meet in the same place.

I find a small wooden stage near a construction site and inadvertently, I hear a conversation about which national team has the biggest number of fans in the country. I start to get really tired and decide to go back home. I try to transfer the files to watch the videos. The computer has problems playing them, so I give up and fall asleep.

We wake up for dinner and after, we go on a stroll through the city,  literally going in circles around the main plaza. The conversation is good and we continue talking over a few beers on the porch of Tiago’s house. I don’t know if it was on that day or the next, but we comment on the lack of representation of certain groups in the São Paulo experimental music scene.

Tiago also describes to me a map of the local labels. We decide that it might be interesting to have a dedicated field recording label, because there are none in Brasil. We laugh at the possibility of the project being profitable or manageable. It would be one of those things that you would do out of passion, as were most things that we talked about during that evening.

We decide to wake up early in order to do our first recording of the day and try to capture the local dawn chorus. It was a really warm night, so I fall asleep to the sound of the ceiling fan refreshing me.

Day 2

I had an idea for a possible project between us, having sent Tiago a plan beforehand. The project consisted of using the binaural recording process as a metaphor for a collaborative recording process.  I soon realize that that could be too complex for the time we had, and that I didn’t want to condition our weekend meeting and recording process. From now on, the focus would be on documenting Tiago’s work.

The alarm rings and I prepare the audio and video recording equipment. We both look tired, but are in good moods. The idea is to document the recording/path that Tiago is going to make—so I strap the camera to my head and Tiago sets up the binaural microphones; for some reason there is a glitch with the audio recorder SD card, but I manage to solve the problem.

Tiago – Field Recording // Better heard with headphones

We go back in order to get bit a more rest; we must, as later on we are going to do a few more recordings. I try, but I end up staying awake. It starts to get hot, so I get out of bed and have have breakfast. Tiago’s mom is already doing some house chores. It is a beautiful day and I am quite excited about what we are going to do in the afternoon. The area surrounding Tietê is quite beautiful with sugar cane plantations all over the place, supposedly for the production of bio-diesel.

We were meant to go out early, but we are going to meet a friend’s of Tiago and he suggested that we went after lunch. So we did that, just before leaving an intense rainfall strikes Tietê. We head out anyway, toward a place whose name I forgot. After we arrive, and while we wait for the weather to improve, we decide to recording the momentary ambience.

When the rain stops, we meet up with Marcos—a really gentle and nice person. On our way, I explain my research project to him and lend him my recorder to listen to how binaural recordings sound. He tells me that it feels like the sounds are happening around him. Discreetly, I record their conversation and I am briefly taken away by stories about friends and TV shows that discuss the evolutionary nature of pain.

We arrive at the dirt track where we are going to do a few recordings. We have to jump a fence and my shoes get all dirty with mud. In the end, all of our clothing ends up wet and dirty and Tiago’s mom’s car will suffer the consequence of our little adventure. At the same time, I can’t understand if we are actually allowed to enter this property.

The surrounding landscape is amazing and we walk, hopping a few more fences until we reach the river. We stop there in order to do another recording. The river water has an intense brown color and the sky is still cloudy. We mainly record the sound of the water coursing. After we finish, Marcos goes out to do a recording and disappears for a few minutes.

Marcos André Lorenzetti recording // Best heard with headphones

After a while, we get a bit worried about him, but he soon arrives saying that we have to change to another, more interesting place. We start walking, avoiding our initial choice of a route due to the possibility of existing spiders or snakes, crossing a small ranch where we encounter a family getting ready for a barbecue. Marcos, a former vegetarian who now eats chicken, asks Tiago if he misses eating barbecue. He says he doesn’t.

At another part of the river bed, for some odd reason we decide to go through a complicated route (especially for people carrying equipment!). I worry I’m going to get wet. So it was, but Tiago and his friend helped me with my bag. We arrive to a small island of rocks and we do another recording. The weather is nicer now and it feels really wonderful. Tiago and Marcos go for a swim in the water and I get in a little bit to make a video recording. After a while, I felt obliged to go for a swim too, although I was a bit phobic regarding germs, bacteria or other nasties that could be in that water. I join them and suddenly we spot a sewer drainage pipe. I ask Marcos if the water is clean and he replies that:

Clean, clean, it never is!

Returning to  the ‘mainland.’, I accidentally misplaced one of my feet, and slip on my back on one of the rocks. Fortunately, none of the equipment gets wet and I leave with only a few bruise marks.

TIAGO COSTA

In mid-November 2015, there was a strong heat wave in the interior of São Paulo. I was in the city of Tietê, my home town, two hours west. I remember being home, the seasonal dry air and the surrounding sounds picked up my attention, in particular the strong sound of the cicadas. I became interested in capturing them, and imagined myself in a recording situation in the middle of the woods, just a few meters from my house. At that time, I had been listening to a few interesting works that utilized binaural microphones and start querying colleagues that used that type of setup in their work. That’s when I contacted Rui.

Rui is developing research about Brazilian sound art, and for that he interviews and documents a series of artists that work with sound. Part of his process consists in spending some time with them, documenting what they usually do and proposing interventions. I explain what I wanted to do; Rui got interested and he invited me to do something in Tietê.

Due to our agendas, our meeting had to be postponed a few months after this conversation, unfortunately when he finally had time, the cicada weren’t ‘sounding’ as as much as before. We decide to maintain our intent to meet, and during the month of January, we left for a weekend to do some field recordings together.

We went to Tietê on the 29th of January and the soundwalk happened briefly after we arrive. With the recorder and binaural microphones in hand, we visit the outskirts of the woods in proximity to a neighborhood called Seis Irmãos (literally translating to “six brothers”).

In the past, that part of town had only a few small farms (called chácaras in Brasil), and although today it has been replaced by urban development, it still maintains a considerable native green area. Well, partially native. as we encountered a mix and pipes that send untreated sewage to a water stream called Ribeirão da Serra.

ribeirão-da-serra

Bairro Seis Irmãos water stream/sewage – Tietê (São Paulo). no date available. Picture by Tiago Costa

During that walk, we had a go with binaural recording, and we discussed a possible ‘narrative’ that could be done the next day, This ‘narrative’ would consist of emphasizing the first morning sounds, starting in the middle of the neighborhood houses, until a particular moment when we would enter the woods for a more contemplative appreciation.  We also recorded a few ‘urban sounds’ during the walk, inside a car on the way to the next recording spot: a brief rain storm, the car’s mechanical sounds and our casual conversations.

Rui Chaves field recording // Better heard with headphones

The second stage happened in a nearby town, Cerquilho. This was a plan parallel to the cicadas that we made at the banks of the Sorocaba River, a place with less human intervention and strong currents, so it demanded the help of someone that knew it well. I invited my friend Marcos to accompany us. He had practiced canoeing and regularly frequents that spot, building a very close relationship with this river. During the trip he told us about an experience he had spending the night close to the river with only a hammock. He described how the sound part of this experience transformed his perception:

One time I went to sleep close to the river [. . .] in the hammock, and during the day the sound of water is harmonic, but during the night it transforms into something really intense. And since it was night time and our perception gets a lot sharper, more alert, because there could be an animal close, so with any noise made we become more alert. There were times where the experience of the water  ‘noise’ became so intense that it somehow even changed my consciousness [. . .] it was incredible [. . .] because it is a constant sound, right, [. . .] the current is constant [. . .] and if you don’t feel trapped by it, you set yourself free.

Tiago Costa Field Recording // Usar fone de ouvido

The sound recordings made in that afternoon captured a river with a strong presence in constituting that acoustic space, taking upstage presence in regard to all other sounds. After the recordings, we had a swim and talked until the end of the afternoon.

***

This multi-vocal diary manifests the methodological frame for the ‘type’ of archive that I am building — a performative endeavor that envisages presenting process and work through a multi-layered weave of text, audio-visual documentation, and online material. Ultimately, its format signals a dialogical movement between archivist and artist, the underlying force in building a critical and historical report on Brazilian sound art. This publication is part of a series of installments that will run until mid-2017. The next post will focus on the work of Lilian Nakao Nakahodo, a composer/performer and researcher that created the Curitiba Sound Map.

Featured Image: In a ranch between Tietê and Cerquilho. 30/01/2016. Picture by Rui Chaves

Rui Chaves is a Portuguese sound artist, performer and researcher. His research and work foregrounds a discussion of presence — both physical and authorial — in the process of making sound art. This endeavor is informed by a contemporary critical inquiry and exploration of the thematics of body, place, text and technology. He has presented his work in several institutions and events throughout the United Kingdom, Brazil, France, Canada, Portugal and Germany. He holds a PhD in music from Queen’s University Belfast and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at NuSom (University of São Paulo).

Written in collaboration with Tiago Costa.

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–Daniel Walzer

 

 

“All their ioynts & properties”: Orthography and Sound in Early English Poetry

Mixed Media Painting (Detail) by Choichun Leung / Dumbo Arts Cen

Medieval SoundEach of the essays in this month’s “Medieval Sound” forum focuses on sound as it, according to Steve Goodman’s essay “The Ontology of Vibrational Force,” in The Sound Studies Reader“comes to the rescue of thought rather than the inverse, forcing it to vibrate, loosening up its organized or petrified body (70).  These investigations into medieval sound lend themselves to a variety of presentation methods loosening up the “petrified body” of academic presentation. Each essay challenges concepts of how to hear the Middle Ages and how the sounds of the Middle Ages continue to echo in our own soundscapes.

The posts in this series begins an ongoing conversation about medieval sound in Sounding Out!. Our opening gambit in April 2016, “Multimodality and Lyric Sound,” reframes how we consider the lyric from England to Spain, from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, pushing ideas of openness, flexibility, and productive creativity. We will post several follow-ups throughout the rest of 2016 focusing on “Remediating Medieval Sound.”  And, HEAR YE!, in April 2017, look for a second series on Aural Ecologies of noise! –Guest Editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

During the “grammar wars” of the sixteenth century, when some scholars sought to restrict English letters to an “isomorphic” (or phonemic) relationship between sound and spelling, Richard Mulcaster emerged as a champion of a more broad and complex vernacular orthography in his 1582 Elementarie, with profound implications for the growing English language. In particular, Mulcaster’s insight that language is shaped by “custom” bolsters the argument for variety over phonemic standardization; as he writes (in the 1925 Oxford University Press reprint):

letters ca[n] expresse sou[n]ds withall their ioynts & properties, no fuller than the pencill can the form and lineaments of the face, whose praise is not life but likeness: as the letters yeld not alwaie the same, which sound exactlie requireth, but allwaie the nearest, wherwith custom is content (99).

Mulcaster seems to strongly indicate here that we should not expect vernacular orthography to capture sound in any reliable way. Custom – meaning actual usage, etymological roots, and so on, muddies the waters of spelling-based sound. Anyone familiar with Modern English, given its complex conventions and silent, or variably pronounced letters, might agree. Yet as John Wesley notes in “Mulcaster’s Tyrant Sound,” “Mulcaster’s orthography continually oscillates … between a conception of letters as completely divorced from sound, and one that finds sound and sight interacting (not always in conflict)” (349).

Indeed, looking more closely at Mulcaster’s statement, it is possible to discern the specter of a scribe, pencil in hand, attempting to capture the “joints and properties” of a poet’s sound in letters – using different letters depending on the dialectal orthography of the compositional time and space: a listening body making a visual representation of sound.

Image of a scribe by Nathan Adams @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND

Image of a scribe by Nathan Adams @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND

Certainly, we encounter instances of orthographical representations of distinctive sounds in more recent and deliberate dialect poetry. John Hyland, writing on sound and African diasporic poetry in his unpublished dissertation Atlantic Reverberations, notes of late nineteenth- / early twentieth-century black dialect poems that “in a certain way, they are meant to be read and heard as talking machines. The sound technology, in this case, is the poem; it is a construction and a recording of a ‘black’ voice that socially and culturally functions in a manner analogous to the gramophone” (31). [Ed. Note: you can also read his work on Sounding Out! here]. Following this, it is interesting to try to figure out how the text of a poem can gesture toward and suggest a “sound” that belongs to a localized (even stereotyped) body, despite the text’s being mute on the page. New computational linguistic programs can help play back these ancient sound files, but based on my experience in using them with Middle English texts, there is a ways to go in matching their analytic capabilities with idiosyncratic early English spelling to produce satisfying results.

While late medieval English poems cannot be thought of as deliberate “constructions” of a voice in quite the same way as some contemporary forms of black poetry—although portions of Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale, in which “northern speech” is represented through alternate spellings and diction, might be an exception—I propose that we imagine orthography (and by extension, the scribes who implemented it) as a kind of “sound technology” analogous to early sound reproduction devices such as the phonograph. The analogy will break down at certain points, but in suggesting it I hope to answer two related questions: First, to what extent can orthography reliably encode sound (or, to put it another way, offer a score for “decoding” sound)? Second, can we extend back in time the critique of sound technology made by recent “sound theorists,” who tend to focus on texts and technologies from the modern period – and, if so, what can be gained thereby?

A medieval alphabet. Image by Cesar Ojeda @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND

A medieval alphabet. Image by Cesar Ojeda @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND

The answer to the first question is, I believe, a very qualified “yes.” Yes, English orthography can and does encode sound, but like so many things about the English language and its highly idiosyncratic spelling conventions, it’s complicated. The second question leads to an elusive, but promising, framework in which to consider the role of orthography in shaping English poetic sound. In short, I will argue that orthographic profiles act as a sort of “performance” in which spelling collaborates with the sound of language to offer a socio-linguistic context within which to experience a given poem.s

I used SPARSAR, “an expressive poetry reader” developed by computational linguists Rodolfo Delmonte and Anton Maria Prati, to produce audio recordings of three poetic specimens from Middle English: The specimens are: Osbern Bokenham’s “Life of St. Anne,” (ll. 41-64); Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Prologue, (V.709-28); and John Audelay’s “Conclusion,” (ll.1-13). The specimens were chosen with the idea of dialectal variety in mind: Bokenham is associated with Suffolk, Chaucer with London, and Audelay with the West Midlands. According to its creators, SPARSAR uses “prosodic durational parameters” for English syllables developed by the authors with the aim of “evaluat[ing] objective presumed syllable and feet prosodic distribution at line level,” producing a version of a poem that can be read by Text to Speech (TTS) software with “an appropriate expressivity” (73).

The problem with TTS software is that it produces monotone outputs that fail to account for prosody, let alone expressivity. SPARSAR, I hoped, would “level the playing field” between differing orthographies in the poems, from an analytic standpoint: “the poem is translated into a phonetic form preserving its visual structure and its subdivision into lines and stanzas. Phonetically translated words are associated to mean duration values taking into account position in the word and stress” (Delmonte and Prati 74). Yet textual analysis of poems in Middle English is challenging precisely because of orthographical variation, and this holds true for SPARSAR as well. Before SPARSAR could recognize the speech of the poems, I had to run them through a “normalizing” program—VARD, although Morphadorner offers a similar service—thus in some ways defeating the purpose of testing orthography’s ability to encode sound, as well as muddling SPARSAR’s fine-grained prosodic analysis.

Audelay first with and then without SPARSER.

audelayV

Audelay for VARD. Image used with permission by the author.

Thus, for example, in the second line of my selection from John Audelay, “Here may ye cnow hwat ys this worlde,” I replaced “cnow” with the modern “know” (thus losing the /k/ sound), “hwat” with “what,” “ys” with “is,” and “worlde” with “world.” One easily discerns the loss of information with respect to not only sound, but also scansion (the inflectional “e” ending). SPARSAR also does not account for the Great Vowel Shift in reproducing Middle English pronunciations. For how this would change the pronunciation of some words, see Simon Horobin, Does Spelling Matter? (2013).

The recordings produced by the resulting SPARSAR files are, then, a record of failure with respect to my project. But they are instructive failures, nonetheless, and I include them here alongside the “raw” TTS recordings of the poems to illustrate my point: orthography is a key way of encoding sound, yielding both geographic and temporal sonic data. Moreover, such failures – and they are inevitable to a certain extent in any digital analysis of pre-modern English – point out the urgent need to work ever backwards and include ever more variant spellings in software databases. I am reminded of the comical difficulties that iPhone’s Siri software has in deciphering Scots English, though in that scenario the trouble is not necessarily with orthography, but accent.

Imagine, however, Siri attempting to decipher an accurately voiced reading of a Robert Burns poem based on its textual appearance.

Echoing Mulcaster’s statement on orthography, Ralph H. Emerson writes in “English Spelling and Its Relation to Sound” that “alphabetic spelling … [can] be a kind of backbone that supports the flesh and muscle of all the phonetic and phonemic variants in different dialects and idiolects” (260). The problem, as Mulcaster would point out, is the matter of those phonemic variants, a point Emerson concedes: “Western orthography … is largely a tale of how people have squeezed as many values as possible out of the very short Roman alphabet” (262). As Simon Horobin writes, the phoneme /r/ is pronounced differently in England even among different speakers of Northern dialect; the various realizations of /r/ that do not alter meaning require the designation of an “allophone”: [r] (21). In order to encode all the various pronunciations, we would need further phonemic symbols. At the risk of oversimplifying several hundred years of the development of spelling conventions in English, the desire for a less arbitrary connection between letter and sound is at the heart of the debates and attempted reforms in which grammarians like Mulcaster were involved.

Bokenham first with and then without SPARSER.

Bokenham text for SPARSER. Image used with permission by the author.

Bokenham for VARD. Image used with permission by the author.

Yet as much as Mulcaster argues for an orthography freed from “tyrant sound,” as Wesley notes, his arguments keep circling back to sound’s importance. Wesley writes, “Despite his claims regarding the ‘heard’ Z and its subjugation to the ‘sene’ S, the sound of Z creates a variety of problems for Mulcaster; in fact, its sound means Mulcaster must adjust the appearance and frequency of various other letters” (348). The reason for this is the complex set of rules in English regarding how letters interact with and influence each other in shaping the sound of a word. A more systematic analysis of these rules is precisely what allows Emerson to argue that orthography can, in fact, encode sound in English. He writes, “almost any dialect can be described as a plausible and usually predictable realization of the spelling, one word at a time” (265). Emerson describes a “four-step process” for this spelling-based description, which begins with “segment[ing] the spelling into elemental graphemes”; then “assign[ing] the segments their proper graphophonemes, that is, their abstract but systematically universal protovalues.” The next step “shows how the graphophonemes are phonemically realized in particular circumstances within individual dialects.” The example Emerson gives is “hair,” which segments into “H + AI + R, or //her//” (265). From this, he argues, we can reliably derive all the variant pronunciations of “hair.” To complete the process, a litereme is needed; e.g., the litereme <<s>> matches the phoneme //s// but also provides the “natural characteristic spelling” that expresses the “s” and “soft c” in English (266). Emerson concludes,

To describe how spelling encodes sound in a particular language is simply to chart the relationships between segments on these different levels … the litereme is the key: THAT is what everything else is really standing for, spellings and sounds and graphophonemes alike. (The letters themselves can be thought of as archiliteremes, with <<C>>having the reflexes <<k>> and <<s>>, <<A>> having <<ā>> and <<ă>>, etc.) … The simple universal phonology of written English gives birth to the infinite particularities of spoken English. (267)

Fortunately – for the purposes of looking at orthographically expressed Middle English variants, “present orthography still represents the pronunciation of Middle English” (Emerson 267). Unfortunately, though the letter-to-sound relationship in Middle English is much closer, we cannot be sure what those pronunciations were. But we can guess, and orthography is our best (perhaps only) clue.

From letters to sounds. Image by Michael Summers @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

From letters to sounds. Image by Michael Summers @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

The notion of “suggested” pronunciation is indeed where sound studies offers a compelling model for considering the relationship between poem and scribe, and how the former is recorded orthographically by the latter. Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past proposes to construct a “history of sound” that troubles the notion of “face to face” communication as being more “authentic” than sound reproduction technologies, adding, “This history of sound begins by positing sound, hearing, and listening as historical problems rather than as constants on which to build a history” (22). As medievalists know all too well, scribes and scribal variation in the copying of texts constitute a rich field of study when it comes to the question of textual “authenticity.”

Intriguing in light of such variation is Sterne’s idea of “transducers, which turn sound into something else and that something else back into sound” (22) – for which we might read orthography as a kind of technology with “moving parts” that work in concert to reproduce sound, as outlined above. More intriguing, perhaps, is Sterne’s description of the development of “audile technique,” a “practice of listening” that he bases on a study of “virtuosic and highly technical listening skills” during the nineteenth century and the advent of the telegraph, phonograph, and telephone. Sterne writes that with audile technique:

listening became more directional and directed, more oriented toward constructs of private space and private property. The construct of acoustic space as private space in turn made it possible for sound to become a commodity. Audile technique did not occur in the collective, communal space of oral discourse and tradition (if such a space ever existed); it happened in a highly segmented, isolated, individuated acoustic space (24).

In this context, Chaucer’s famous admonition to his scribe “Adam” becomes all the more charged and suggestive (650 in The Riverside Chaucer). We must certainly think of medieval scribes as early practitioners of “audile technique,” taking advantage of orthography as a tool by which to turn sound into a commodity in the form of manuscripts for various occasions and audiences.

Chaucer first with and then without SPARSER.

Chaucer for SPARSER. Image used with permission by the author.

Chaucer for VARD. Image used with permission by the author.

Rethinking medieval texts in this way leaves us with a collaborative sonic performance in which the particular orthographies of the scribes help to pull an author’s text into a certain sound-space, even if it is inexact and in some sense inauthentic. Our ability to “hear” that space, to share it, is limited by our limited mapping of the incredibly multiform ways that English was uttered, and how those utterances were scored on the page by poets and scribes. Wesley notes the importance of discipline to Mulcaster’s educational-grammatical program as set forth in the Elementarie; discipline also hovers over the listening bodies performing audile technique for the sake of increasingly commodified sound spaces described by Sterne. English letters resist such discipline, sliding around various orthographies depending on time, place, poet, and scribe. In order to begin to use programs like SPARSAR to recreate, however tentatively, the sound they encode, we must loosen the standardizing discipline of our technology in parsing letters of the past.

Featured image “Mixed Media Painting” by See-ming Lee @Flickr CC BY-SA

David Hadbawnik is a poet, translator, and medieval scholar. His Aeneid Books 1-6 were published by Shearsman Books in 2015. He is the editor and publisher of Habenicht Press and the journal kadar koli, a co-editor of eth press, which focuses on creative interactions with medieval texts, and associate director of punctum books. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor of English at the American University of Kuwait.

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