Tag Archive | MP3: The Meaning of a Format

Stir It Up: From Polyphony to Multivocality in A Brief History of Seven Killings

For many, the audiobook is a source of pleasure and distraction, a way to get through the To Read Pile while washing dishes or commuting. Audiobooks have a stealthy way of rendering invisible the labor of creating this aural experience: the writer, the narrator, the producer, the technology…here at Sounding Out! we want to render that labor visible and, moreover, think of the sound as a focus of analysis in itself.

Over the next few weeks, we will host several authors who will make all of us think differently about the audiobook selections on our phone, in our car, and in our radios. Last week we listened to a book that listens to Dublin, in a post by Shantam Goyal. Today we have seven narrators telling us the story of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley. What will the audiobook whisper to us that the book cannot speak?

—Managing Editor Liana Silva


Reviews of A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James’ 686-page rendering of the echoes of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley, almost invariably invoke the concept of polyphony to name its adroit use of multiple narrators. In The New York Times, Zachary Lazar maintained that the “polyphony and scope” of the 2014 novel made it much more than a saga of drug and gang violence stretching from 1970s Kingston to 1990s New York. And the Booker Prize, which James was the first Jamaican to win, similarly praised it as a “rich, polyphonic study,” with chief judge Michael Wood calling attention to the impressive “range of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to The Book of Revelation.” It was thus not only the sheer number of voices in a preliminary three-page “Cast of Characters” that critics so unanimously admired but also the variety and nuance evident within them. Norwegian publisher Mime Books even took these polyphonic features a step further by hiring not one but twelve translators in a casting process that auditioned prominent novelists, playwrights, and performers.

Cover of the book, under fair use

James recalls realizing early on that this novel would be one “driven only by voice” (687), which might make such enthusiastic responses to its plurality of perspectives seem unsurprising. But what happens when such polyphony leaves the page behind and actual material voices drive its delivery? If the audiobook is a format of the novel (and here I follow Jonathan Sterne’s definition of format in MP3: The Meaning of a Format as “a whole range of decisions that affect the look, feel, experience, and workings of a medium” [7]), what lessons can listeners learn that print cannot provide? As I argue, the 26-hour-long audiobook version of A Brief History, which Highbridge Audio produced with seven actors (Robertson Dean, Cherise Boothe, Dwight Bacquie, Ryan Anderson, Johnathan McClain, Robert Younis, Thom Rivera), allows us to engage with multivocality rather than polyphony, which is to say the multiple vocal performances of a single individual rather than the presence of many narrators within a print work. And just as this novel’s polyphonic structure destabilizes any attempt at a definitive account of the events it portrays, the multifaceted performances of its audio format work to untrain ears that have been conditioned to hear necessary ties between voices and bodies. 

Of course, this effect is not one that most listeners consciously seek, as reviews of the audiobook articulating various reasons for turning to this format as well as diverging responses to it readily attest. Gayle, on Audible, began with the print version: “but as soon as I got to the first chapter that was written in Jamaican patois I knew that I was not able to do that in my head and I was going to miss a lot.” Sound here conveys sense more swiftly than the page, the ear apparently better suited than the eye to encounter difference. (Woodsy, another reviewer, even felt emboldened to ventriloquize in text that sonically distinctive speech: “I found that listening to the Audible version was helpful. Now all me need do is stop thinking in Jamaican.”) Yet it was Andre who offered by far the most memorable characterization of the audiobook and its affordances. As he explained, in James’ novel “the language is a thick, tropical forest of words. Audiobook is the machete that slices through this forest of words so I can enjoy the treasures inside.” The violence of this metaphor matches that of the novel’s most disturbing scenes, yet what is most striking is the way it reiterates once more how reviewers found it easier to access the work aurally rather than visually.

“Studio Microphone” by Richard Feliciano, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

These reviews, and other similarly favorable appraisals, rarely consider the audiobook on its own terms, insisting instead on comparisons with the text. Negative ones, however, often note distinctively sonic features, with some reviewers echoing one of the Booker judges—who reportedly consulted a Jamaican poet about the accuracy of James’ ear for dialogue—by questioning the veracity of the Jamaican accents in a novel that also features American, Colombian, and Cuban ones. Tending to readily identify themselves as Jamaican, these writers and listeners rarely acknowledge that at least some of the actors were born on the island when asserting that the accents are off. In any case, such efforts to link sound and authenticity, as Liana Silva has argued with respect to the audiobook, wrongly suggest that those who belong to a group must conform to a single sound. James, too, distrusts discourses of the authentic, as characters repeatedly cast suspicion and scorn on anyone uttering the phrase “real Jamaica.”

If the polyphony in James’ novel prevents any one perspective from becoming either representative or definitive, the audiobook pushes this process even further by demonstrating how a single performer’s voice can possess such range that it seems to contain multiple ones. Each performer is responsible for all the voices within the sections narrated by their primary characters, which means that the same character can occasionally be voiced by different actors. In one section, a performer does the voices of a tough-talking Chicago-born hitman and the jittery Colombians he speaks with in Miami; in others, that same performer is both a white Rolling Stone journalist from Minnesota who’s attuned to racial difference and the black Jamaicans he converses with in Kingston. Continuity or strict one-to-one correspondences between performer and character ultimately matter less than the displays of vocal difference that allow the audiobook to contest essentialized notions of voice.

As a result, the audiobook articulates just how constructed vocal divisions based on race, gender, and class are by having its performers constantly cross them. It amplifies the very arbitrariness of such divisions and thereby reveals how, if the page is the space of polyphony, then what the audiobook stages is multivocality. Although they might seem like synonyms, these two terms can actually help us appreciate crucial differences and, in doing so, highlight the specificity of the audio format. On the one hand, –phony or phōnē, as Shane Butler reminds us in The Ancient Phonograph, ambiguously refers to both voice and the human capacity for speech (36), whereas –vocality centers the voice. On the other, the shift from the Greek poly- to the Latin multi- signals a contrast in what gets counted: while polyphony names the quantity of perspectives contributing to a narrative (when introducing it in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Mikhail Bakhtin emphasized that polyphony consisted of “a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses” [6]), multivocality instead specifies how the number of voices can exceed the number of performers. In this way, the concept of multivocality outlined here with respect to the audiobook resonates with its use in another context by Katherine Meizel, who mobilizes it with reference to singing and the borders of identity. In both cases, voice names a multiplicity of practices rather than an immutable or inevitable expression, which in turn aligns with Nina Sun Eidsheim’s argument in The Race of Sound about the voice being not singular but collective and not innate but cultural (9).

“Last Exit (Recording Studio)” by Flickr user Drew Ressler, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

We can therefore say that where print-based polyphony works on the eye by placing various perspectives on a page without necessarily challenging visual perceptions of difference, multivocality in the audiobook can retrain an ear’s culturally ingrained ideas about voice. James himself has experience with these seemingly inescapable meanings assigned to vocal sounds. In a moving essay for The New York Times Magazine, he recounts how, even at the age of 28, “I was so convinced that my voice outed me as a fag that I had stopped speaking to people I didn’t know.” That was already long after high school, when, as he remembered in a New Yorker profile, he had begun “tape-recording his efforts to sound masculine, repeating words like ‘bredren’ and ‘boss.’” He was well aware of the links that listeners created between voice and identity and that could, as he suggests, prove risky in a place with overt homophobia like Jamaica. Writing, however, offered him a space to take on any voice and, at the same time, not be concerned with the sound of his own.

Yet if the page allowed James to effortlessly shift among narrative voices, the audiobook format exhibits voices that ostensibly shift without any effort. Perhaps the most compelling example emerges in the work of Cherise Boothe, whose performance of the novel’s sole female primary character presents the voices of other figures as well. Toward the end of the novel, this character, Dorcas Palmer, is a caretaker for a much older and wealthier white man with amnesia in New York. Boothe not only captures the changes as Palmer often eliminates her Jamaican accent and occasionally lets it loose but also registers the man’s moments of lucidity and confusion. Even if, as listeners, we understand that Boothe is the voice behind both of these characters, the two vocal performances are so distinct that they effectively erode the basis for any beliefs about how a certain body should sound.

Adopting different voices is certainly not unique to the audiobook, but it does provide one of the few forms of extended exposure to this practice. Yet it is worth noting that A Brief History markedly differs from the model of a more extensive cast like the one comprised of 166 voices that recorded George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. By assigning a performer to every character, such productions ultimately emphasize vocal uniqueness in roughly the same way that Adriana Cavarero conceives it, namely as an index of individuality. But there the voice remains something singular or somehow essential, for there is no opportunity to perform the plurality that appears across A Brief History. At the same time, the use of seven actors also offers a contrast with the opposite extreme: a single performer responsible for all the roles, which demonstrates multivocality but does so on such a small scale that it feels exceptional instead of ordinary. The middle ground, which is to say the model found in A Brief History, allows us to hear multiple instances of how the voice is entrained rather than essential, possibility rather than inevitability.

Screenshot from Youtube video “Marlon James: A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Chicago Humanities Festival

When briefly addressing audiobooks in an interview, James remarked that this format possesses a distinct advantage: “even something that is not necessarily plain can be translated because of tone and symbol and voice.” In other words, a voice can register its changing surroundings; conveying these subtle transformations on the page, however, is often far more difficult. This shortcoming is one that Edward Kamau Brathwaithe once memorably described when explaining why he insisted on using a tape recorder in a lecture on language in the Caribbean: “I want you to get the sound of it, rather than the sight of it.” The idiomatic familiarity of the first half, which clashes so sharply with the awkwardness of the second, suggests that the multivocality of an audiobook can open ears by accentuating how the voice is not fixed but in constant formation.

Featured Image: “Audiobook” by Flickr user ActuaLitte, CC-BY-SA-2.0

Sam Carter is a PhD Candidate in Romance Studies at Cornell University. His work on literature and sound in the Southern Cone has appeared in Latin American Textualities: History, Materiality, and Digital Media and is forthcoming in the Revista Hispánica Moderna.

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SO! Reads: Damon Krukowski’s The New Analog

Analog revival has gained traction across many media in recent years, but perhaps nowhere so strikingly as in sound. The shifting formats and fortunes of a digitally reshaped music industry invite, for many, the counterposition of a bright nostalgic picture. Yet artists and engineers whose work has spanned the transition from analog to digital sound find that the romanticization of the former can have a weird overreach. For example, when Dave Grohl produced a digital-decrying documentary on the LA studio Sound City, engineer Larry Crane was bemused that “Grohl seems to be attributing the arc of his career to the magic in a Neve console.” Recordists like Crane find themselves in between the Scylla and Charybdis of digital-era music: on one side, the embrace of new tools that are as entangled with corporate control structures as they are convenient; on the other, a skepticism that overshoots its mark, fetishizing old technologies and cementing a previous generation’s in-crowd as gatekeepers. Decades after digital media triggered one of the most momentous transitions in sound recording, the debate around their use is anything but settled. Tied up in this contest are questions of how and what pre-digital media will be preserved, but also problems like whose use of technology in music-making constitutes authentic talent and who has authority in the determination.

When Damon Krukowski steers into these waters with The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World  (The New Press: 2017), he is quick to qualify that his memorializing of pre-digital practices “is hardly a Luddite’s call” (12). Noting the “all-or nothing response” that “dominates popular discussion of the many anxieties provoked by the digital revolution” (9), Krukowski contrasts the disruption-embracing “clean break” with life on the “technological island” (8) of confining one’s practice to outmoded materials. Addressing a reader who lives more or less contentedly in a contemporary media world, he speaks as a kind of expatriate of the analog island. He, too, lives in the digital present, but he sees it through the lens of decades spent working with and listening through analog machines. His project of defending analog listening practices takes inspiration from the efforts of urbanist Jane Jacobs, who labored to turn back the tide of redevelopment and suburbanization by celebrating the organic functionality of city life. His central argument for preservation is that “what we are losing in the demolition of analog media is noise” (197, emphasis original). Noise becomes a character in The New Analog akin to the city block in Jacobs’s work: a wrongly maligned figure that has quietly formed the basis of experience and utility in the old mode.

Though Krukowski’s definition of noise is flexible in some ways, he casts the digital as its uncompromising antithesis. This position precludes what could make the book more forward-looking in its aim: a consideration that noise might become a new kind of character in the digital realm rather than disappearing at its edge. Noise shows up in analog media as buzzing undercurrents and as modes of distortion when electrical signals exceed their ranges; digital media, while lacking these, are replete with moments of failure when a system is fed the wrong kind of information or pushed beyond its intended bounds. In their repetition, these moments of error become a new kind of noise that, just like analog noise, forms an unremovable layer of our experience in mediated environments. By declining to look for digital noise and instead focusing so squarely on noise as something lost to the digital transition, Krukowski misses a chance to center a more significant linkage with Jacobs: many of the problems he sees in digital-era sound are not due to the inherent nature of digital media but rather to the same motives of control and segregation underpinning the drive toward suburbanization.

Yet his original and thoughtfully cast historical route points us toward these culprits, even when the language drifts toward a more technologically deterministic stance. It is thus that his book still provides a vibrant body of historical consideration we can leverage in using noise to reshape our digital ways of listening. The moments when Krukowski lets technology stand in for the human motives that construct it give unfortunate cover to what should be the targets of such a critique. But his real concern toward the digital era arises from specific changes in the landscape of aural awareness, and he ultimately succeeds in the task of elevating his argument above the cliché of deterministic digital-bashing by setting its true focus not on the digital but on the era.

headphones by Flickr user Chris, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Readers might be surprised, for instance, to discover that The New Analog’s first chapter covers a development in sound — the transition from mono to stereo — that has nothing to do with digitization at its outset. The chapter narrates the release of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon as a critical moment in consumer audio’s treatment of headphones as the ideal listening space. This movement toward individualized experience becomes a crucial part of setting the stage for the actual entrance of the digital. The design of digital media, Krukowski demonstrates, has not just carried forward this trend but absorbed it as a guiding principle, and has effected the same transformation not just in listening to music but across all kinds of daily situations. “The stream of digital information can put each of us in a different space than the others, even as we hurtle together through a tunnel on fixed tracks,” (49) Krukowski observes of the changed social experience of riding a subway. The comment makes an easy metaphoric return to music: digital design is now funneling sonic experience into a small number of streaming platforms, each promoted on the appeal of moving out of a collective listening space into one of personal curation. Claiming that a dangerous disorientation can arise in the separation of such neatly personalized spaces from their messier surroundings, the chapter closes with a cautionary tone: bad things can happen when we follow along with the digital logic of turning a once noisy situation into “a stream that is signal only” and when we stop “paying attention to noise.” (51, emphasis original).

Noise closes out each chapter, constituting the shared floor on which the book’s arguments stand. This construction calls for scrutiny, because noise is a notoriously slippery figure. As Marie Thompson notes in her recent interview with SO!, subjective and objective definitions both lay claim to noise, bringing along problems of politicized value judgment and erased context. At the same time, the term’s many meanings (electrical, legal, musical, etc.) serve as useful bridges. In Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience, Aden Evens uses noise as a primary example when he suggests a “productive ambiguity” can prompt connections that help different disciplines approach meeting points. Krukowski would, it seems, endorse this idea. He couples his formulation of noise to that of analog — an analog medium is identifiable by its noisiness, and noise is the substrate by which meaning takes hold in an analog medium.

Is it fair, though, to chain the figure of noise so tightly to analog recording that we must say it is wholly lost in the move to digital? In arguing that digitally mediated communication lacks the analog mode’s quality of perceivable distance, Krukowski lists perceptual coding — the application of “psychoacoustic research to digital sound processing” (75) — as one culprit. Jonathan Sterne, in MP3: The Meaning of a Format, points to perceptual coding’s advent as a moment when noise was domesticated. Where engineers had long sought to minimize noise, perceptual coding meant that “communication engineering exhibited a new attitude toward noise. Once you can use signal to hide noise, the game is up. Noise ceases to matter as a perceptual category.” This change in noise’s status does not eradicate it or lessen its importance, though. According to Sterne, this domestication made noise more available as a site for artistic exploration and subversion. But if noise is a key foundation on which we find meaning through listening, as Krukowski compellingly argues, and noise has been subjected to a great domestication, what does that say about the forces at work upon our listening?

A fascinating answer emerges in a thread that pops up multiple times across Krukowski’s anecdotes: the relationship between patriarchal domesticity and the shaping of digital sound. In the chapter on stereo, he includes an ad from a 1962 Playboy issue where a man carries a woman as if across a threshold; she, in turn, holds a stereo set in its portable case. The ad pairs the stereo and the wife as two laudable choices in the man’s domestic assemblage. Both are manageable enough for him to carry home, yet both promise to extend his control — Krukowski notes that such marketing material touted stereo products as letting their owners occupy “the producer’s chair” (28) by granting listeners new agency over the mix. That focus on idealized male consumers echoes still through gendered suppression in musical exchange: as Elizabeth Newton writes, “Though women have collected vinyl since the inception of the medium, female collectors, like the women musicians being collected, often lack representation in public space that is commensurate with their actual involvement.”

True to the analogy with Jane Jacobs’s struggle against the developer Robert Moses, the patriarchal force that has ingrained itself so thoroughly in digital audio is also a suburbanizing one, keyed to a politics of racial segregation that frequently cites noise as a justification. In “‘Just Be Quiet Pu-leeze’: The New York Amsterdam News Fights the Postwar ‘Campaign against Noise,’” Jennifer Stoever documents how “white press discourse on Puerto Rican migration firmly attached ‘noise’ to the voices, bodies, and neighborhoods of Puerto Rican migrants — portraying white flight to the suburbs as a justifiable escape to suburban refuges of peace and quiet and targeting urban areas such as Harlem in ‘antinoise’ campaigns” (PAGE). Regina Bradley traces this “connection between whiteness and quiet” through to a contemporary moment in her SO! post “Fear of a Black (in the) Suburb.” The history of racially targeted noise ordinances intersects Krukowski’s narration of the proto-digital movement toward private listening. He quotes LL Cool J’s “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” as a noise-ordinance-defying affirmation of boombox listening, the antithesis of headphones and their sonic compartmentalization. Dwelling on the song’s line “Terrorizing my neighbors with the heavy bass,” he points to the artist’s intentional use of noise as a political implement, bound up jointly in his listening and his music making.

For Krukowski, the song is noteworthy in demonstrating a practice lost to the wave of noise-eradicating digital development in sound. If we approach it with the consideration that noise might not have been lost but rather domesticated, however, it serves more as a guidepost. Were he looking to LL Cool J’s example as one in need of a digital-era parallel, Krukowski might arrive at a different treatment of Kanye West’s post-release revisions of his album The Life of Pablo than he gives later in the book. Rather than describing West’s changes as “art severed from its own history” (169), he could instead credit the album’s uniquely digital instability as a moment of usurping the corporate platform as the arbiter of a record’s final version — an instance of harnessing digital noise within a digital environment to reorient its assumed parameters of authority and a prompt for listeners to consider their own role in deciding what version of the text should prevail.

Though Krukowski declines to bring it to the forefront, the involvement of a domesticating and segregating force lends further weight and precision to The New Analog’s historical argument. Returning to his invocation of Jane Jacobs, Krukowski analogizes the dichotomy of street and home with that of analog and digital. “Noise has a value of its own—the value of shared space and time,” he writes. “The urban spaces we occupy are built on that commonality. The street is a noisy place. And the street has value, as Jane Jacobs pointed out” (207, emphasis original). The contrast between analog street and digital home reaches back to rescue the book from the flawed pronouncement that digital tools themselves are the problem. We are left to consider a much richer historical argument about the alarming success that efforts of domestication and power-consolidation have found in intertwining themselves with digital media.

In that light, readers looking for an actionable takeaway from The New Analog shouldn’t just unsubscribe from streaming services and start (or resume) buying vinyl records. They should redirect their attention toward the very thing of whose existence Krukowski seems skeptical: digital noise. Even though the digital home is built to confine, there are new noisy streets outside it to be explored. Krukowski recounts how the band Can endeavored to let their recording studio “compose on its own” and to become an activating, curating conduit for the sounds of tape machines. “In Can’s studio technique,” he writes, “noise and signal are equally significant materials…. the noises in it are no less human than the signals” (138). If we look for digital noise, we will see that it bears no less potential for meaning and beauty than Can’s analog noise, as artists are already proving with techniques like glitch and sampling. We as listeners can do more to help realize that aim by celebrating digital noise, by recognizing what it reveals and critiques. For a project that with less care could have steered off into the welcoming terrain of nostalgic grievance, The New Analog offers a surprising amount to point our way forward.

Holly Herndon’s “Home” uses sonic and visual sampling to turn the surveillant gaze of an intimate digital space back on itself.

Featured image: “Scenes From The Recording Studio” by Flickr user G. Dawson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Andy Kelleher Stuhl is a writer, sound artist, and software developer focused on creative infrastructures and the politics of mediated sonic exchange. His work looks to musicians for inspiration and aims to apply musical creativity as a model for new paths in such domains as digital humanities and the critique of technology. His research has investigated the phenomenon of analog fetishism from the perspective of sound engineer communities and, more recently, the process and aspirations behind interactive musical works. He holds a master’s degree in Comparative Media Studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a BA in Science, Technology, and Society from Stanford University.

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