Theorizing sound writing

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

Theorizing Sound Writing

Deborah Kapchan, editor (2017) Theorizing Sound Writing. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

My doctoral advisor Alex Ruthmann, when evaluating some piece of technology used for music education or creation, asks: what does the technology conceal or reveal? Writing is what Foucault called a “technology of the self,” and as such, conceals and reveals as well. Sound writing is a way to transduce the ephemeral bodily experience of listening to the timelessness of the page. What does this transduction conceal? What does it reveal?

Cusick observes that writing can never move us in a “drastic” way, because “the particular resonances of the event itself resist the desire, shared by writing, musicology, and theorizing, simultaneously to fix events in time and to render them timeless” (Cusick, Kindle Locations 940-949). Since we cannot be present for every event of interest, though, we must rely on sound writing of one form or another.

Kapchan describes “sound knowledge” as a non-discursive form of affective transmission resulting from acts of listening. Sound writing, then, is a “performance in word-sound of such knowledge,” not just a representation or intersemiotic translation. When we write about nonintellective modes of sensory knowledge, we necessarily use an intuitive and speculative mode, one that is incompatible with the third-person detachment usually expected in scholarship. Jackson describes a traditional view that a logical, analytically coherent, and thoughtful disquisition on any subject requires the suppression of “the sensory face of language.” The academy is opening up to “a new realism, where in-depth, detailed, direct recountings of experience are considered to be as illuminating, edifying, and thoughtful as the experience-distant jargon extolled by the rationalists of the Enlightenment… we are learning to distrust forms of discourse in which the assertion of authority requires an autocratic manner” (Kindle Locations 6255-6266).

It is enlightening to compare sound writing with recording—the word phonography literally means “sound writing.” The blogger and journalist Marc Weidenbaum writes extensively online about sounds both musical and non, and is asked often why he does not provide audio. His response is that the recording never sounds like what he heard—listening is a process of focusing and filtering, of selective attention and interpretation, not direct transcription. Kapchan wants her sound writing to have the full sensual richness of sound itself. Weidenbaum prefers writing exactly because it does not have the rich texture of recorded sound; recording playback is a whole new sensory experience unto itself, one that might be far removed from the one the recordist meant to capture or convey.

The acousmatic nature of recording is a limitation, but can also be a space of new possibility. Recordings can create encounters across cultural boundaries, sometimes of shocking intimacy: “The sounds of pain are often indistinguishable from those of ecstasy. Hearing either one makes us uncomfortable, as if we were listening to something not meant for our ears, but that, upon the hearing, draws us into and implicates us in the experience, often as interlopers” (Kapchan, Kindle Locations 5915-5935). Listening to such sounds is a full-body experience, and our reactions can be very much neck-down. When I listen to Duke Ellington, the rhythms and melodies might be safely dated and distant, but the animal sounds of his horn players continue to be as arresting as an unexpected physical touch. Kapchan argues that this kind of listening makes the boundaries between bodies ambiguous, “demand[ing] an openness to experience that is deeply ethnographic. They invite us to let go of our habits, our preconceptions of subjectivity, and our prejudices against belief systems that may be associated with these experiences” (Kapchan, Kindle Locations 5915-5935)?

Music notation is another form of sound writing, one that is even more reductive than prose. Alvin Lucier explains why his work “is what happens after print”—notation operates at a particular level of granularity, and is ineffective both at conveying the macro scale, the “landscape,” and the micro scale of sonic detail. Lucier compares sound recording to television or word processing, with their ability to zoom in and out, to experience instantaneous shifts in scale, and to “edit together a total sensorial experience for the reader/viewer” (quoted in Waterman, Kindle Locations 2659-2680). Beyond the immediate experience, recordings can point to other times and places, real or imagined. For the jazz vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, recording is a way create “a feeling of home in the music itself” (quoted in Muller, Kindle Locations 3567-3568). Her music is a kind of “autobiographical sound writing” that “recuperate[s] a fleeting community” (Muller, Kindle Locations 3931-3937). Each performance of a song evokes other performances, other hearings, and all the associations that come with them. We might compare these layered memories to the palimpsests described by Daughtry, the vellums scraped clean and written over by medieval scribes, or Soviet bootleg records printed on x-rays.

Which form of sound writing is the most “accurate”? Police carry belt recorders and video cameras for their supposed documentary fidelity, a record of what “really happened.” While police audio recordings become evidence, the resulting sound writing, the transcription, takes on a life of its own, particularly since transcriptions are likely to be read more than the recordings are listened to (Wong, Kindle Locations 5349-5354). Transcription always entail interpretation and editorial discretion, especially when the audio quality is poor and choppy. Belt recorder audio transcriptions therefore promise more fidelity to the truth than they can deliver. Even the most rigorous scientific data comes to us in a frame of theory and interpretation, and is filtered through our social selves.

Leave a Reply