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Standing in front of our rented apartment in Túngata, a residential street just a few blocks from central Reykjavík, I am struck by the stillness of the city that surrounds me. Having lived most of my life in the densely-populated suburbs of northern New Jersey, my experience of urban soundscapes has typically been frenetic and noisy. Here, even the busiest parts of town seem subdued. It’s a pleasant contrast. At 8AM on a weekday, the quietness is eerily enveloping, broken only occasionally by a gust of arctic wind, a passing car, or a neighbor closing her door and setting off for work.
Quiet tranquility and natural beauty have attracted a growing number of tourists to Iceland in recent years, my wife and I included. With only 330,000 people inhabiting an area roughly the size of Kentucky (and two-thirds of those settled in and around Reykjavík), one needn’t venture far out into Iceland’s otherworldly landscape to feel far removed from civilization – like exploring a distant planet. While the island may be still now, the belated realization that Iceland’s bizarre terrain, its vast lava fields, meandering fissures, and Dr. Seuss rock formations are the result of earth-shattering eruptions – like Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, Bárðarbunga in 2014-15, or the more recent rumblings around Katla – can be a little unnerving. Travelling through the Icelandic countryside, one imagines the thundering cracks, seething magma, and the infernal growl of the awesome geophysical forces that churned up these vast panoramas.
To a certain extent, the absence of sound here heightens a sense of the sublimity of the world around us; that from certain perspectives, nature is fundamentally ineffable – incapable of being fully represented by language, data, or art. Sound, I think, can complicate this experience. On the one hand, the extraordinary sounds of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, of great storms, or the roiling of heavy seas, contribute to the overwhelming experience of the grand and fantastic. On the other, these sounds, like perhaps the everyday noise of a busy street corner, may also break the spell by yielding up the audibly familiar. Wandering around Reykjavík at this early hour, a settlement that has clung defiantly to a desolate rock in the North Atlantic for over 1000 years, I become acutely aware of each new sound to disrupt the ethereal silence. Each of these, even the most mundane and urban, seems to take on larger significance and intention as audible signs of the ways in which human beings have forged order and meaning from a wild and indifferent world.
But for now, all remains quiet, and the island’s primordial silence seems to reach even into the capital itself. Of course, Reykjavík is a vibrant international city resonating with the familiar sounds of urban life. But at certain times the quietness that seems to subsume everything else – a subtle reminder of the relatively small scale and frailty of the human compared to the geological.
Soon enough however, as I walk up Túngata there’s a siren in the distance, and the neighborhood begins to echo with the sounds of children playing in the yard at Landakotsskóli, one of Iceland’s oldest schools. I follow the street as it arcs towards the city center, passing several foreign embassies and the imposing gothic edifice of Dómkirkja Krists Konungs. A few other cars motor past and there’s a brief gust of cold wind, but these are momentary disruptions. Soon enough the world returns to the now-familiar stillness.
But the sounds of morning traffic pick up a bit as I walk further down the hill – the rush of passing cars, the groan of a utility truck turning off a side street, and the muffled sounds of a radio floating from a car window. At its end, Túngata bends to the left at the bottom of the hill, where I see a large excursion bus stopped in front of a hotel, and a knot of tourists quietly talking nearby. It’s time for morning pickups, and the idling of these busses, and the hushed, expectant voices of day-trippers outside hotels and guesthouses around the city turn out to be common vignettes along my morning walk. They’re a reminder of the vast growth in tourism this year, which is expected to increase 29% over 2015 to 1.6 million foreign visitors.
Continuing straight onto Kirkjustrӕti, I pass the Alþingishúsið (Parliament House) on my right, and Austurvӧllur, a large public square on my left. The place is relatively quiet now. The cafes lining Vallarstrӕti and Pósthússtrӕti are closed, and there are only a handful of people walking through the square. Later on, the cafes will be buzzing with patrons enjoying the balmy (for Iceland) weather and the long hours of sunlight.
But aside from the nightlife, Austurvӧllur’s proximity to Parliament means that historically it’s been a focal point of political protest in Reykjavík. Two months before our visit, some 24,000 people crowded into this space to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, who was revealed by the Panama Papers to have undisclosed connections with an offshore shell company with interest in failed Iceland banks. Walking past the square today, I can only imagine the chants, claps, whistles, shouts, barricade-banging, and yogurt-throwing of Icelanders expressing their collective frustration with corrupt officials.
This morning however, apart from the early morning sound of chirping birds and pedestrian commuters, there’s a bit of construction going on here – I can hear a few landscapers and a pair of contractors clanking and clunking as they lay out equipment for work on a building next to the Alþingishúsið. From these men and others I pass along this stretch of road, I hear the hushed and slightly groggy speech of early morning. The talk is all in Icelandic of course, a language whose place and street names I valiantly try to pronounce when I visit. Icelandic is a notoriously difficult language for foreigners in general, and its tongue-twisting staccato and subtle consonants, not to mention its intimidating alphabet, usually leave my mouth sounding a bit too awkwardly Jersey (as you can hear for yourself in this podcast!).
Continuing on my walk, I follow Pósthússtrӕti as it threads around Dómkirkjan and out to Lӕkjargata, the main avenue in this section of town. Here, the soundscape is more typically urban. The sound of trucks and cars passing, a bus groaning into gear as it pulls out into traffic, the multi-lingual chatter of pedestrians at a crosswalk, a group of teenage volunteers chatting in Icelandic as they do groundskeeping work near the Stjórnarráðið government offices, all speak the language of a city’s morning routine.
Bankastrӕti, the main commercial district, is also coming to life. It’s still early, and most shops are closed, but heading east up the street, I hear a few snatches of conversations in Icelandic and American English – and there seems to be more of the latter than I remember from the last time we visited, testament to Iceland’s growing attraction for U.S. tourists. All along Bankastrӕti, the sounds of lively conversation, music, and the clinking of tableware floats out of open doors as people pop in and out of cafes and restaurants for breakfast and morning coffee. As I bear right on Skólavӧrðustigur and up the hill towards Hallgrímskirkja – the Lutheran church that dominates the city skyline like an art deco rocket ship – these sounds start to thin out again. Apart from a passing car or pedestrian, and the occasional rumbling of a tour bus or ATV, I am left in the comforting hush of a Reykjavík morning.
At the top of the hill, the large stone plaza before Hallgrímskirkja echoes with the clattering sounds of workers hammering at the roof of a nearby building, as the great green statue of Leifur Erikíksson silently watches on. I turn left on Frakkastígur and head downhill towards Faxa Bay, which looms in the middle distance. Frakkastígur turns out to be the noisiest stretch of my walk: there’s the roofers; the slapping of lanyards on the flagpoles that surround Hallgrímskirkja; the busy bakery where I buy morning croissants surrounded by Beatles music, the English and Icelandic chatter of customers, and the pounding, rolling, and cutting of dough; and finally the two large construction sites that I pass between Laugavegur and Hverfisgata streets. Here, the motoring of earthmovers, the shrieking of a circular saw, and the pounding of a massive pile driver jar the neighborhood with an intense mechanized racket.
I’ve noticed a fair amount of construction around Reykjavík this trip. The skyline bristles with cranes. It’s another marker of the booming tourism industry, and its complicated place in the Icelandic economy. Since the financial collapse of 2008, there’s been pent-up demand for residential housing. But with the local construction industry strained from the current spate of hotel building, it’s been difficult to find builders to work on residential projects. What I hear around me is a sign that Iceland’s economy has improved, but it’s also a reminder that improvement sometimes makes life more difficult for local residents.
The sounds of heavy construction fade as I wind my way down to the bay and cross over Sӕbraut to the promenade that lines the shore. Like any highway, at this point in the morning Sӕbraut fairly hums with commuter traffic; here, the ambient sound of suburbanites making the morning drive to work, complete with attendant sound of brakes, horns, and Icelandic drive-time radio mix with the rushing sound of wind rolling off the waterfront. Walking along the promenade now, I pass a few joggers and bicyclists as a walk over to Harpa, the newly-built glass and steel concert hall that is home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and which, every autumn, becomes a focal point of the week-long Iceland Airwaves music festival. It’s this annual event, I muse, that should be the subject of a future sound walk (for me or someone else) – five days in which Reykjavík pulsates with the sound and music of dozens of bands playing formal and informal shows at venues, cafes, bookstores, and basements around the city.
From a large dig site next to Harpa (the possible site of yet another hotel), I cross back over Sӕbraut to the clicking sounds of a crossing signal for blind pedestrians. I pass Bӕjarins Beztu Pylsur (The Best Hot Dog in Town), which is closed for the morning, and walk back into the city center, which is by now clearly awake and buzzing with locals and tourists. After stopping in a 24-hour supermarket for some morning milk, I walk east on Austurstrӕti past the Laundromat Café and other restaurants that are now busy serving the breakfast crowd.
Up through Ingólfstorg square (which appears to double as a skate park, but is right now a stopping point for a walking tour group), south on Aðalstrӕti, and around the turn by the Reykjavík Settlement Museum, I’m soon walking back up through the quiet neighborhood lining Túngata.
Featured Image by SambaClub | Camisetas com conteúdo (a t-shirt site) @Flickr CC BY.
Andrew J. Salvati is a Media Studies Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University. His interests include the history of television and media technologies, theory and philosophy of history, and representations of history in media contexts. Additional interests include play, authenticity, the sublime, and the absurd. Andrew has co-authored a book chapter with colleague Jonathan Bullinger titled “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past” in the recent edited volume Playing With the Past (2013), and has written a recent blog post for Play the Past titled “The Play of History.”
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
SO! Podcast #37: The Edison Soundwalk–Frank Bridges
Soundwalking New Brunswick, NJ and Davis, CA–Aaron Trammell
This week, Sounding Out! dropped its 51st podcast episode. As the curator and producer, I thought it necessary to commemorate the occasion with some fanfare. I want to shout from the hilltops about how proud I am that our little podcast has turned 51!
Erm…at least I’m posting about it.
Also, I want to clear the air a little about what it is that we do. I’ve received feedback here and there over the years about how the sound of our podcasts, that we sound “different” and/or “inconsistent,” that we need to normalize the sound a bit: hello out there, audiophiles! Today, I want to say, once and for all, that our sound is intentional and that we are proud of it, hiss, distortion, and all! We think what some hear as “imperfections” are all part of what sets us apart from the ever-growing pack of podcasters. SO!’s podcast has sounded different since we MacGyvered our first episode from an epic talk, a few great ideas, and a rogue tape recorder at River Read Books in Binghamton, NY in April, 2011.
The Sounding Out! Podcast began as a series of conversations within the editorial team back in 2011. We knew that the blog was “talking the talk” in new, excellent, and often provocative ways, but that something was missing to keep pushing the form into the red, not just the content. We knew we needed something more—a little snap, crackle, and pop, if you will—a way to show how Sounding Out! was always listening, and a way for thinkers, artists, provocateurs, and more to engage with sound more directly. In 2011, podcasts were accumulating in the shadows waiting to lunge forth to center stage. They seemed really cool, but there were relatively few, and fewer still (if any at all) on the topic of sound studies. Even though we knew that podcasts were going to be a big thing eventually, we had no idea that they would blow up so quickly.
While we flipped around many ideas, we decided to put our energies behind what was then an occasional series of podcasts that allowed us to capture important yet fleeting moments—too quick and dirty to really transcribe. While our our initial vision for the podcast was to capture these rare and powerful moments, over the past 5 years we have kept this mission consistent while evolving to better accommodate artists and theorists alike. During that time we have hosted mystics and librarians, shared fieldwork from São Paolo, Brazil to Lodi, Ohio, interviewed theremin players and visionaries. See the full list of episodes here. Even though our content has been wide ranging and eclectic, we’ve made it a point to privilege access and immediacy in all of our episodes.
As I listen back to the past five years, I realize that our contribution to the fields of sound studies and podcasting has not just been in terms of who we broadcast and what we amplify, but through the sound of our podcasts themselves. Our podcasts don’t sound perfect. They’re spiritually aligned by the raw production ethic of bands like The Minutemen, who always privileged the emotive qualities of immediacy, access, and intimacy over the brooding qualities of studio production. Particularly because we founded the podcast upon these same principles, I have strived to prioritize radical visions and ideas and to amplify new voices above all else. I want each podcast to arrive in your queue like a wrapped gift—topic, content, production, and sound all equally mysterious. Some of our podcasts were recorded on cellphones and others were recorded in high-end studios and recording booths. Our 51st anniversary isn’t the perfect occasion, either. But, hey, we’re proud of these audible distortions.
“The Minutemen: #1 Hit Song”
So what do I mean that our podcast sounds different? Well, I mean two things: First, we sound different than what episodic radio sounds like. Our DIY—or, more accurately, we will help you “Do It Yourself”—ethics deliberately dial back radio’s genre conventions: smooth identifiable hosts, heavy compression, sound-proof rooms with the latest in equipment. We encourage and construct out podcast with a deliberate sonic diversity, providing little sonic conistency from episode to episode in order to challenge regimes of production that threaten to make all recordings sound the same. We have many many different announcers and hosts, for this podcast to be the space of radical discourse that we intend, it’s important to cast our net wide. This isn’t to say that we don’t care about “quality,” but rather that we define quality differently. Rather than an audiophilic emphasis on the sorts of tone found most frequently in microphone technique, sound booths, and—when all else fails—postproduction, we believe that a “quality” podcast—particularly one about sound—should explore sounds that we rarely here and allow its artists freedom over how they present their work.
I curate our podcast as a sonic refuge from the invisible regime of auditory production that has slowly constricted and strangled radio this past century. And I’m proud to share podcasts that have been recorded on in impromptu circumstances, Episode XXXIX: Soundwalking Davis, CA and New Brunswick, NJ, for example. We want artists to show more than they tell, Episode XII: Animal Transcriptions, Listening to the Lab of Ornathology is a perfect example of this. Here Skinners brilliant exploration of animal sounds perfectly balances sound and interview invites listeners to compare sounds to speech, and vice versa. Another example of this ethic is film professor Monteith McCollum’s remix of the original War of the Worlds broadcast. Although McCollum offers some commentary at the start of the recording, what follows is a unique and dazzling sonic experience. Giving radical ideas both the space and platform to be heard is this podcast’s mission. So far, so good!
The second way our podcast sounds different has to do with our deliberate curatorial resistance to consistency between our episodes. When programs bend to the whims of genre conventions, creativity is all but snuffed out. For our podcast to excel as a form for sharing visions, ideas, and experiments, we must allow our composers, authors, and auditors the freedom to explore sonic space. We celebrate Sounding Out!’s anniversary annually with a series of mixes hand-picked by our stable of authors (Listen to years 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 here!), we’ve entertained interviews, panels, and sound art alike. You may have missed it, but we even have an episode diving into the work of ambient sound in a Dungeons and Dragons game.
While I do think about the sound of our podcast aesthetically—I used to run a music production studio out from the trunk of my car—we do not cultivate a DIY anything-goes ethic strictly for a “cool factor” or just for its own sake. Rather, we have calibrated our different sonic approach in deliberate defiance of styles of production which are all too frequently celebrated within the cultures of straight white men. (Check out SO! Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Lynn Stoever’s epic three-part treatise on the tape recorder in popular film to glean some sense of the tape-recorder’s role as an instrument of masculine control. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). The standards of taste which have long governed the domain of radio production (and audio production, as a whole) are historically connected to the communities of practice which have occupied invisible yet powerful roles as audio producers, engineers, critics, and marketers.
As Jonathan Sterne explains in MP3, the science of audio fidelity has historical roots within a corporate logic that privileges sounds that are easily shared through telephone cables. “AT&T encountered hearing as an economic problem once its options for extracting additional profit through price were limited,” Sterne says, “Among other strategies, it sought to learn which frequencies could be excluded from the market for telephone signals” (14). In other words, the entire craft of audio engineering has historical roots in privileging sounds that make money above all else. Not only this, but the standards of fidelity cultivated by engineers allow them to gatekeep and demand money at the outset, blocking access to the means of production. These standards are more often than not embedded within the cultures of listening and sales fostered by the radio industry. Fortunately, podcasts have been able to challenge many of these genre tropes, We’re proud to contribute to this momentum and to propel it forward as we continue our series. And we’re not stopping! Up on deck in 2016 we have some amazing compositional sound art, more from Marcella Ernest’s trek to uncover lost sounds, and some notes on a forthcoming project in archiving one city’s local music scene.
So, in the spirit of Sounding Out!’s annual blog-o-versary we’re popping the cork for our podcast’s 50th episode with a few of the milestones we hit this past five years.
We found a theme song. This was a small but important step in our development. What would a podcast about sound be without some kind of awesome anthem representing it? (Nothing, that’s what!) We need to officially thank the members of Hunchback (Miranda, Mike, Jay, and Craig) for donating their song “Feeling Blind” to our podcast. Hunchback was a legendary horror-surf band from the NJ basement scene who endeavored to produce highly visceral sonic experiences of the highest caliber in their songwriting. You can still find a ton of their recordings on the internet. Thanks, crew!
We got listed on iTunes and Stitcher. It bears mentioning that quite a bit of technical muscle is involved in establishing a podcast. We would have gotten nowhere without Andreas Duus Pape’s help and guidance during our earliest moments. Andreas was instrumental in opening up the hood of the podcast and making it purr. Not only did he donate his time to plug us into iTunes’ network of podcasts, but he also shared some excellent philosophical thoughts on the topic. You can listen here and read them here.
We went monthly. Originally we had conceived the podcast as more a haphazard, occasional treat for our readers. Slowly but surely as demand and interest grew, we began to carve out a more regular calendar space for our podcast. First we switched to a bi-monthly format, and then we started with monthly broadcasts. Can’t slow this beat down.
We are the sonic archive of a sound art conference. That’s right, we featured sonic mixdowns of the entire Tuned City of Brussels sound art festival. Over the course of the festivals three days, we featured daily mixdowns of the prior day’s key sounds and moments. Each mixdown is brilliant and a testiment to the raw passion of our podcast contributors. They worked round the clock to produce such an amazing series. Check out the night before, and days 1, 2, and 3.
We produced a LOT of soundwalks. If you’re a listener you know that we love our soundwalks. We’re proud to be host to play host to a variety of soundwalks from cities around the world. Last month’s Yoshiwara soundwalk by Gretchen Ju challenged listeners to critically engage with the city’s fraught history of sex work. Other contributors in our soundwalk series like James Hodges have considered how the ambient music of big box stores and shopping malls are part of the architecture of commerce. Finally others like Frank Bridges have taken us to the edge of history and soundwalked the grounds of Thomas Edison’s workshop in Edison, NJ. No matter what the locale, our soundwalks are part of our podcast’s signature.
We found a regular contributor. Regular contributors are the heart and soul of Sounding Out! They lead the conversation on sound and work to bring you the best, most interesting content. For these reasons we’re proud to announce that Marcella Ernest will be joining our podcast as a regular contributor with her series “Searching for Lost Sounds.” Marcella will be interviewing a variety of sonic practitioners in an effort to give voice to the voiceless. Her most recent entry in the series was posted last Thursday. You can listen here.
We’re going to keep it coming. That’s our promise to you! We’ll be producing great content as long as you’re listening. Take a moment to subscribe to our iTunes or Stitcher accounts and also explore our Episode Guide to see if you missed anything this past 5 years. It’s been a rewarding adventure so far and we guarantee that we’ve already got some great content lined up in the coming months.
Aaron Trammell is a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar for Faculty Diversity in Informatics and Digital Knowledge at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He earned his doctorate from the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information in 2015. Aaron’s research is focused on revealing historical connections between games, play, and the United States military-industrial complex. He is interested in how military ideologies become integrated into game design and how these perspectives are negotiated within the imaginations of players. He is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of the journal Analog Game Studies and the Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out!
Featured image is “Roscoe Considers Recording a Podcast” by zoomar @Flickr CC BY-NC.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Sounding Out! Podcast #1: Peter DiCola at River Read Books – Peter DiCola
It’s Our Blog-O-Versary — Jennifer Lynn Stoever
Sounding Out! Podcast #51: Creating New Words from Old Sounds – Marcella Ernest
Sounding Out! Podcast Mini-Series (#18): Listening to The Tuned City of Brussels, Day 3: “Ephemeral Atmospheres”
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Listening to The Tuned City of Brussels, Day 2: “Ephemeral Atmospheres”
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We conclude our podcast series which explores the Tuned City Brussels festival on World Listening Day. As World Listening Day seeks to draw attention to environmental awareness and acoustic ecology, today’s podcast focuses on these issues as it deals with the precarity of of Haren’s somewhat pastoral space, as it is threatened by a variety of institutional interests. So please grab your headphones and celebrate World Listening day this year with Sounding Out! as we turn our attention back to the Tuned City Brussels festival.
In this series of podcasts, Felicity Ford (Great Britain) and Valeria Merlini (Italy) explore the sonorities of the city during the Tuned City Brussels festival. Please click here for our podcast detailing the first night, here for our podcast exploring Day 1, “Noise,” or here for our podcast which focuses on Day 2, “Situational Listening.”
On the final day, Sunday, June 29th, the festival focused on the ephemeral resonances and atmospheres that either catch our attention or pass unnoticed within the city. An attention to diverse notions of ambiance is the starting point for the festival’s concluding day in Haren, which is situated at the north-eastern edge of the Brussels Capital Region. Despite the presence of a nearby airport and high-speed train link, Haren still maintains a tranquil atmosphere, reminiscent of the chicory farming village it once was. Today, however, this calm is nestled between abandoned industrial buildings and large scale construction sites for an expansive prison and the new NATO headquarters.
The first Tuned City project was realised in Berlin in 2008, with subsequent editions in Tallinn and Nürnberg. For the current edition Q-O2 workspace for experimental music and sound art has invited Tuned City to collaboratively research the sounds of Brussels. Brussels is a dense multi-layered city characterised by abrupt shifts in urban structure, architecture and the social environment. This patchwork provides an urban modality that resists a general grasp of the city while still providing room for individual expression. The abundance these juxtapositions during the festival creates a productive resonance where the city is manifest to the passerby in its vibrant, open-ended, multiplicity. How does one grasp the nature of these oscillations and what modes of resonance give shape to the particular Brussels vibe? Over the course of the four day festival, Tuned City Brussels probes these urban frequencies through concerts, walks, installations and interventions, while at the same time focusing the theoretical framework around three core notions: ‘Relational Noise’ (Day 1), ‘Situational Listening’ (Day 2), and ‘Ephemeral Ambience’ (Day 3). A different theme will be explored each day in a corresponding ‘zone’ in the city, in which the festival relocates. Several lectures, artistic presentations, residencies and workshops have led up to this four day festival. Particularly important was a collaboration with the art schools Sint Lucas Architectuur, Erasmus Hogeschool RITS/Radio, Sint Lukas Transmedia, a.pass and La Cambre (ENSAV) option Espace Urbain.
Felicity Ford (Great Britain) works across a wide variety of platforms in order to engage the public with new modes of listening. She celebrates everyday life by linking the sounds of material culture, documentary sound-recording processes and listening to their larger social contexts. Since completing her PhD in 2011 she has completed commissions on Sonic Wallpapers for the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, a film soundtrack for the Welcome Library and the British Film Institute for a 1930s antenatal care film entitled “Bathing & Dressing,” Parts 1 & 2, and a knitted sound system with accompanying composition. She co-runs the website Sound Diaries with Valeria Merlini.
Valeria Merlini (Italy) is a Berlin based sound artist, turntablist, DJ and curator. After studying architecture in Florence, Italy, she obtained a Master’s degree in Sound Studies at The Berlin University of the Arts. Her work explores everyday sounds within an urban context through an interdisciplinary and critical approach. She is a co-founder of Studio Urban Resonance, a member of the Italian record label Burp Enterprise and co-runs Staalplaat Radio. As a DJ she focuses on experimental electronic music, constantly extending the conventions of turntablism, musique concrète, free improvisation and composed music. She was the director of the 2012 Museruole Festival and has participated in numerous international events and exhibitions.
“Listening is little short of a synonym for learning.”
–Julian Henriques, Sonic Bodies
This is the third post in Sounding Out!’s July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2013. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us. To read last week’s post by Maile Colbert click here and Regina Bradley’s discussion of listening, race, and Rachel Jeantel (and to read more about World Listening Day) click here.
How can listening, which I’ve come to understand as an essential way of knowing, enhance the learning experience? My pedagogical challenge over the past few years has been to develop a heightened awareness of the ways our ears are not necessarily, as Robert Frost asserts, “the only true reader and the only true writer,” but certainly an essential mode of reading and writing that is too often underdeveloped. As my high school students read works by Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Michael Ondaatje, Jonathan Safran Foer, James Baldwin, and Lucille Clifton, I want their ears to become increasingly attuned to the sounds, silences, vibrations, and other sonic significance embedded within printed words. I want them to experience how listening enhances their understanding of literature, that listening is learning.
I’ve taught A Listening Mind, a trimester course for high school juniors at Princeton Day School in New Jersey, for two years. Inspired by Toni Morrison’s 1996 National Book Award acceptance speech, “The Dancing Mind,” the course title signals my interest in challenging students to practice writing and reading in ways that are collaborative and cognitively (and otherwise) dissonant with their usual English classroom habits of mind. For my students, at least initially, writing is ruled solely by the mantra “Show. Don’t Tell.” This course, then, creates preconditions for a new kind of learning. It aims to heighten students’ aural attentiveness in general, and particularly in relation to the sonic life that inhabits the lower frequencies of the printed word. In many ways, the class resonates with Liana Silva’s discussion of sound as significant to writing and learning. In this course, we grapple with essential questions such as: How might we read and write with our ears? What happens when we take the risk to do so? As I design assessments and moderate the course, I keep in mind my own essential question as an educator: How can my scholarly interest in listening as a significant mode of cultural and social engagement translate into sound study learning opportunities for my students? The assignments students complete in A Listening Mind, a few of which I share next, are my response to these questions–a response that is in constant development.
CULTIVATING A LISTENING MIND
On the first day of class, I play Jason Moran’s “Cradle Song” from his most recent album, Artist in Residence. Moran plays the Carl Maria von Weber-composed lullaby on unaccompanied piano; the urgent scratching of a closely miked pencil on paper writes slightly ahead of the calming melody.
The song, a tribute to Moran’s mother who would stand over his shoulder taking notes as Moran practiced piano as a child, amplifies a sonic life that more often lingers within the printed word. Thus, it allows us to begin exploring the possibilities of listening as an approach to reading and writing.
In the first month of the course, students practice low stakes listening and writing: they go on short listening walks and record by hand what they hear in their sound journals. Rutger Zuydervelt’s Take a Closer Listen, an excerpt from the opening pages of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and the New York Times Magazine prose and audio essay, “Whisper in the Wind” are our inspirations for this assignment. They visit a space in which they feel most like themselves and tune into the space’s acoustics. They do the same in a space where they are less comfortable. Students also tune their attention to eco-listening – listening with intention to the natural or man-made environments in which we find ourselves. The idea is to notice the sounds our ears have become deaf to as we’ve become accustomed to a space. Their eco-listening results in their creating individual listening booklets that record the sounds we hear and our occasional reflections on them. By listening to various sounds and in various ways during the early weeks of the course, students exercise their ears and, along the way, some even realize that you need more than just ears to listen.
SONIC MATERIAL CULTURE
One of the assignments of the course involves work in what I call “sonic material culture.” According to the University of Delaware’s Center for Material Culture Studies, the study of material cultural objects “promotes the learning from and the teaching about all things people make and the ways people have acted upon the physical and visible world.” But, what about the ways in which material culture impacts the audible world? Sonic material culture looks at how material cultural objects help create cultural meaning through the sounds they make and the ways in which people use those sounds. Students explored an array of “sonic objects” that included, among others, a Tibetan singing bowl, steel drum, Shofar, typewriter, stethoscope, and a boom box. They then chose one of the items – an item that either makes sound (like a steel drum) or allows for access to sound (like a stethoscope), and began their research with a specific focus on how this item holds sonic cultural significance.
To research the stethoscope, for example, one student interviewed a cardiologist and a medical historian. She learned that sounds doctors hear through the stethoscope “comprise a language, spelling out diagnoses and prognoses” and provide “gateways to our understanding of the heart.” Another student chose the Steel Drum, an instrument developed in the 20th century in Trinidad and Tobago, and ended up discussing the innovation involved in reusing oil containers to produce a new cultural sound. Another student’s research on the Tibetan Singing Bowl led him back to a moment in Jonathan Stroud’s The Bartimaeus Trilogy: Book Three, Ptolemy’s Gate when the character Kitty Jones describes the ringing of a Singing Bowl that signals her transport into the world of magical spirits. Listening to the Singing Bowl made this student more attentive to this moment that he initially skimmed. And, one student’s love of all things vintage led her to her father’s manual typewriter and an essay combining family history and larger insights about education, workplaces, and mechanical writing. In each of these cases, the students realized that the sounds cannot be extricated from the material, social, and historical conditions that produce them.
The last time I taught the course, I designed a sound history mini-project. Students read excerpts from the work of Mark A. Smith and my work on historical listening in David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident, and considered these question: How might sound function as a way to narrate a specific historical moment? Students needed to choose a historical moment, locate a sound, and then create a museum card that, among others, answered the following key questions: What does this sound bring to our attention that we might not otherwise consider? What questions does this sound raise? What does it leave mute? Since students had watched Django Unchained recently, we discussed sounds of slavery in that film. If you write slavery through the crack of the whip, then your focus might be on violence and torture used during that peculiar past. If you tell slavery, though, from the code-laden singing enslaved persons used to send messages to flee, then you have a different frame, a different sonic way into the historical moment.
One student used the opening sounds from The Wizard of Oz to narrate the Dust Bowl. Another examined news reports and hip hop music to listen back to the Los Angeles Uprisings. One young woman interviewed her mother about her immigration experience from Guatemala; in her project, the sound of a train whistle signaled arrival to the United States and a new life. One of the most striking projects consisted in an inventive student engineering her own sound using a teakettle in order to recreate what she imagined as the sound inside a gas chamber in a concentration camp during World War II. As she explained during her presentation, the screeching teakettle captures for her both the sound of gas and the screaming of those persons trapped within a chamber. What an empathetic choice to make as a listening scholar: to imagine the voice of one in the midst of death.
Students worked on this assignment as part of their culminating assessment for the course. I assigned this work at the end of the course because it gave students an opportunity to delve into the work of a Sound Studies scholar: students drew on their skills as listeners developed over the term; returned to questions we asked regarding listening and interpretation of written and recorded texts; framed their own questions for inquiry; and used sound technologies such as Audacity and GarageBand to amplify their historical sound.
As I tune my ears excitedly towards another World Listening Day (this year on July 18, 2013), I find myself remembering my students’ portfolio reflections of their learning in this course. Students mentioned that their time in the course helped them pay more attention to sounds around them: “my ears have been retrofitted by my experience in this class.” Some students became more in tune with their own sound: “The world is too noisy. I need to focus in, to tune in to myself.” Yet others found themselves “slowly opening [them]selves up to others” and becoming “more engaged with others’ opinions even if they were different from” their own. Even though some students entered the class resistant to, uncertain about, or “unnerved” by the thought of a listening English course, they felt by the end that, in the words of one student, “Now I leave this class with a purpose and clearer understanding of the importance of listening to my own echo.” In short, the two groups of students who have taken this class grow more “in tune” to multiple frequencies of reading, writing, and learning.
Lastly, while I hoped students would grow as listeners, I did not anticipate that their perceptions of themselves as readers and writers would also shift. Students who previously described themselves as “just not an English student” or who began writing and reading assignments with self-defeating “I’m just not good at this” comments, delved more deeply into the writing process and produced strikingly confident, nuanced pieces by term end. They have grown in their sonic literacy. In this, my students remind me of the most essential of questions: How, to borrow Carol Dweck’s language, do we help students develop a growth, rather than a fixed, mindset where learning is concerned? In my view, listening—practiced as a dynamic, tinkering, beta-type approach to the study of literature and writing—provides interesting answers.
Featured image photo credit: “Listen, Understand, Act” by Flickr user Steven Shorrock, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0
Nicole Brittingham Furlonge earned her PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation, “On the Lower Frequencies: Listening and African American Expressive Culture,” marks the beginnings of her investment in sound studies as the field resonates with issues of race, class, gender and education. Her work has been published in the academic journals Callaloo and Interference, and in the publication St. Andrew’s Today. She also has published a cookbook for young children, Kitchen Passports: Trinidad and Tobago. She has taught in independent high schools and colleges for 16 years, including University of Michigan, UPenn, The Lawrenceville School, Holderness School and St. Andrew’s School in Delaware. She has extensive experience in the classroom and in administrative roles dealing with curriculum development, diversity issues, faculty development and issues regarding education, equity and access.Currently, Nicole chairs the English Department at the Princeton Day School in New Jersey and blogs at the Huffington Post. She lives in the green part of New Jersey with her spouse and their three young children.
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