Greatest Hits Volume I

Greatest Hits Volume I

This Greatest Hits volume features three recent writings about sound that have caught my ear. Taken together, the works by Wendy Hsu, Jentery Sayers, and Steph Ceraso model an approach to audio-digital scholarship that the Soundbox team hopes to emulate in the next two years of our collaboration. In brief, Wendy Hsu puts forth a call for the potential of sound-based digital projects to enhance the study of a variety of fields. Jentery Sayers describes some of the challenges scholars face deploying audio in web-based writing while offering meta-critical stakes that are optimistic about the future, and Steph Ceraso models the portent and nuance of writing in sound in a creative, auto-biographical piece.

On the 2012 Mellon Digital Scholarship Institute at Occidental College website, Wendy Hsu references both existing projects and critical trends to provoke and entice digital humanists to consider cranking up the volume on their projects. In the piece, Towards a Sound-based Scholarship,  she also shares a “musical autobiography” that was composed by one of her students. The assignment asks students to reflect on the role music has played in their life in pieces edited using the free, open-source software, Audacity, and published on I look forward to assigning a modified version of this audio-essay in a course I am teaching in the Spring.

Back in April, Media Commons’ The New Everyday published “Writing With Sound” in which Jentery Sayers shares his experience using sound recordings in Scalar projects. His analysis is a real gift to the Soundbox team as we start to think about specific challenges scholars face when web-writing with audio. For example, Sayers points out that if you insert a soundclip into a written piece, redundancy can be a problem because of the fact that we are trained give detailed descriptions in essays. When you have an actual clip for reference, the textual signals need to adapt so that they don’t state the obvious. I’m also interested in the disruption that occurs for readers/listeners/viewers when they press play and observe video or listen to a sound clip. The disjuncture can be frustrating for authors who want to maintain “control” of their argument and audience’s attention. On the other hand, these moments offer an opportunity for reflection and engagement. How can web-writers begin to exploit this “problem” creatively? Additionally, what kind of technological tool could minimize the stop and start feel video and audio players create when dropped in or next to text? Having experimented with and taught Scalar myself, I agree wholeheartedly that the platform creates in users an intellectually productive metacritical awareness:

For now, what I am learning from writing with sound is that, when composing with platforms like Scalar, scholars are practically provoked into speculation—into conjecturing with the multimodal forms of the data-driven web. A somewhat unfamiliar territory for the humanities, we might call this moment an ambivalent blend of knowing and doing, inscription and expression, thinking and feeling (including feelings of bewilderment, frustration, surprise, serendipity, confusion, and curiosity). Right now, that’s certainly not a bad middle-state to be in.

In June, Steph Ceraso published a beautiful audio essay on titled Bridge: a duet. The form in which Ceraso presents this work, I think, offers an interesting counter to the kind of challenges Sayers faced while inserting sound clips into a text dominated form. Although Ceraso’s is a personal/reflective piece that feels really comfortable in a radio essay, podcast kind of format, it makes me wonder if rendering essays about sound entirely in sound might be worth a try for scholars who are frustrated with the text/audio disjuncture in web-writing. I really admire the compositional style of Ceraso’s piece and particularly how gently she weaves music clips in and out of her descriptions and conversations with her grandmother. For anyone who loves music, a grandparent, or who has ever experienced grief, this essay is sure to touch a nerve and soothe it with song.

Thinking with and through these three works has inspired me to produce Greatest Hits Volume II entirely in sound. Stay tuned! Some folks have committed to a year of code and it looks like the next year will be a year of sound-editing for me, culminating in a writing course I am teaching on music and genre in the Spring, which will have an emphasis on digital audio production. Having spent a few years wringing my hands over my place in the digital humanities and whether or not I should learn what kind of skills and how, I finally feel that I’ve discovered an opportunity for technical skill development that fits my interests. Oddly enough, it reminds me of the fact that it took me years and years of taking up and putting down instruments to finally meet my musical soul-mate, the fiddle. So in my case, it has been the intellectual content and interests that have driven me to the need to develop a technical skill, rather than the other way around. I suspect many folks experience the same trajectory.

Till next time!