Sonic Rhetoric: Public Resonance

Jacqueline Waldock’s critique of the rise of sound mapping sites was interesting to me as a longtime listener to public radio stations, which have been a principal driver of the trend. This also revisits a blog post from October 2012, written only two months after I had moved from Michigan and was in the grips of homesickness. I had returned to Michigan Radio’s Sounds of the State page, selecting

a lone blue dot in East Lansing titled “MSU Medley.” My ears drank in ducks on the babbling Red Cedar River, Beaumont Tower’s distant carillon bells, and the route announcement of a CATA bus. I was immediately resituated from my desk here in Smyrna to the riverside between the Hannah Administration building and Wells Hall, my feet dangling over the water and ducks pulling at my shoelaces because I was too slow in crumbling up the stale bread I’d taken from Brody Hall’s cafeteria earlier that morning.

That soundscape has become part of my experience, and will always be one of the places I can situate myself. I was there. That has meaning to me.

Waldock takes some issue with the predisposition of these sound map projects to focus on “public” sounds rather than private:

A large majority of the recordings are of something else or at least are tagged as something other and are always tagged in the impersonal: ‘Church bells’, ‘Frankie and Bennies’, and not: ‘my dog’, ‘my front room’, ‘my church bells’. The sounds are tagged as observations of something else. This creates a tension between the personal and the other, as the act of recording and the choice to record are inextricable from the personal.

I would argue quite the opposite. Sound maps, to varying degrees of success, are meant to reproduce sounds of public significance and provide routes to experiential resonance. Mission drift invariably strikes these sound collections, but these sounds are intended to draw power from common experience. I know that the person who recorded that MSU soundscape heard something within it that powerfully conjured the aural umwelt of that location, and they knew that it would do the same for others. It says a lot about the private meaning of this public sound space that I decided to include it in my own sonic memoir earlier this month, completely forgetting until now its significance when I had visited the Sounds of the State page.

Waldock suggests the trend toward exclusion of private sound experiences is missing the greater experiential significance of personal moments that, if I can extrapolate for the author, are potentially just as powerful in their revelation of similarity in our intimate lives.  I don’t think Waldock is wrong, exactly, but I do believe the nobility of best intentions are quickly sabotaged by human tendency toward narcissism. That the prevailing expectation of sound maps is to upload publically significant sounds keeps people honest; otherwise, we’d be quickly overwhelmed by sounds that may be accessible only to a relative few. Waldock intends to show the value of a personally-aware, private recording by providing a sample taken from two speakers who are directly aware of and address the recorder in the room as they attempt to have a conversation. The effect is they end up doing neither very well; their conversation is stilted and overly expositional like poorly-written movie dialogue, and the listener thus gets no sense of what their home life is really like. Recordings like these lack both the opportunity for experiential resonance and the insight of truly candid expression.

Sonic Rhetoric: Aural Terraforming and Sonder

I wanted to resist Michael Bull’s overly simplistic suggestion that we use iPods to recontextualize our worlds into something more experientially desirable than what’s really taking place around us. Annoyed at first by the implication that iPods (and now, I suppose, smartphones at large) are somehow accomplishing a sonic isolationism that Discmans, Walkmans, or personal radios did not, I wanted to dismiss Bull altogether, But I really can’t.

Early on, Bull very nearly attributes a willful choice where there likely isn’t, or at least not one made consciously: “iPod users aim to create a privatised sound world, which is in harmony with their mood, orientation and surroundings, enabling them to respatialise urban experiences through a process of solipsistic aestheticisation. iPod users aim to habitually create an aesthetically pleasing urban world for themselves as a constituent part of their everyday life” (199). While I still resist Bull’s implication of grand intent, I acknowledge this passive act of privatized soundscapes evident in the personal narratives of iPod users. I realize that I too have experienced moments where privately-consumed music has converged with the world I view around me to give each a significance unattainable without the influence of the other. A moment I recall particularly well was almost too perfect: while listening to R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People while working in a café, I just happened to observe a perfect stranger look up from their phone in frustration, presumably having read something greatly distressing, and close their eyes in an entirely relatable effort to collect their temper. As if Michael Stipe was speaking directly to that moment, the lyrics of “Everybody Hurts” rang through my earbuds, inducing an almost tangible sense of sonder: the occasional moments of clarity we experience in which we are acutely aware that the background characters in our lives have lives every bit as complex, interwoven, and important as our own. While I don’t think that we are often deliberate in Bull’s posited act of aural terraforming – and I certainly have no idea why this would be any more pronounced in urban life than elsewhere – our music does inform the soundscapes we inhabit.

Sonic Memoir: To Michigan and Back

1          0:00    ATL to FNT

2          0:10    Popping into…

3          0:31    …the Meridian Farmer’s Market

4          0:40    “Mr. Austin!”

5          0:53    Feeding Red Cedar Friends

6          1:08    The Reason We’re Here

7          1:24    Batting for the Lugnuts…

8          1:35    …but Losing to Loons

9          1:47    Stretch

10       1:58    Tilting at (Mid-Michigan’s) Windmills

11       2:09    Michigan’s West Coast

12       2:22    Pier-ing into Lake Michigan

13       2:31    Spouting Flumes

14       2:40    Welcome (Back) to ATL


Sonic Rhetoric: Between a meteor and a sound place

Seth Horowitz’s first chapter of The Universal Sense is practically tailor-written to my interests. I’ve always been fascinated by the collision of space bodies, and the high-velocity impact experiments designed to simulate the conditions of these impacts (at a very small scale) was a great segue to the pivotal role sound has played in our evolution. It’s easy to think of sound as an invisible force with an almost physically solid presence. When we hear sounds, it’s so often a result of an observably physical interaction. A hammer strikes a nail and an appropriately sharp and loud sound accompanies. Tires squeal, horns blare, and steel crumples to announce an automobile accident. Soft clicking and clacking, sporadically rapid, telegraphs the process of composing this blog post.

Perhaps it is because our most intellectually and emotionally meaningful auditory experiences – chiefly music and speech –run contrary to this falsely-percussive trend, we yet maintain a peripheral awareness of sound as something more intangible. As Horowitz explains beautifully, we are evolutionarily hardwired to pay immediate and fearful attention to loud, sudden, booming sounds. We’re unnerved by thunder, low-flying jets, or any other eruptive or explosive sound because our primitive, skittish, self-preserving brain kicks in with the message “I have no idea what that was; time to go!”

This is beautifully demonstrated in the well-documented reactions to February 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor event. Scores hundreds of videos on YouTube depict the moment the sonic boom strikes thousands of Russians, minutes after the meteor rips through the upper atmosphere. As the boom hits, people run away from breaking glass, scream in shock, or swerve erratically when driving. As is the case with the man recording the video below (about 30 seconds in), the primate brain kicks in each time, always with the impetus to duck or flee. It may be physically intangible, but sound’s presence in the human mind is solid as a rock … ripping its way through Earth’s atmosphere at supersonic speeds.

Sonic Rhetoric: Just a little bit(rate) more

It was interesting to learn of the mp3’s functional history and to explore its status as a cultural artifact. A lot of attention is paid to the effect of the mp3 on the music industry, but I wonder if this article is situated at a turning point, published as it is only a year before the smartphone explosion kicked off with the introduction of the iPhone. Before that point, mp3s were a convenient format for those who wanted to carry a large music library with them wherever they went, but they were far from a necessity, so the industry saw no need to unify under a single format. Even if they were a ubiquitous luxury, dedicated mp3 players were a luxury nonetheless, so producers were content to pressure users to stay within their proprietary systems.  Smartphones expanded the userbase for digital music significantly and rapidly, and it may have been at this point that the battle of the dominant format was decided. With digital music players landing in so many pockets, major distributors of music saw further compartmentalization of the market into proprietary file formats as unprofitable. By 2010, the largest providers of digital media, Amazon, iTunes, and Google, had all switched to MP3 as their music sales service’s file format, albeit at the data compression rate at 320 kbps. Apparently the music industry has accepted that the digital music genie won’t go back in the bottle, and has given up using file formats that limit the free exchange of files, opting instead for the expansive compatibility of mp3.

That these services chose 320kbps signifies a lot. If, as we learned from Jonathan Sterne, the brain/ear does a lot of the work to fill in the possible gaps created by the mostly lossless 128kbps, the distribution of so high an encoding rate could be as much a choice of vanity as it is functionality. Knowing that the digital music buying public was fractured over which format was the best compromise of quality and file size, encoding at 320kbps was a boost to consumers’ perception of the audio file’s use-value. At the same time, music sales services have enjoyed expanded sales by lowering the price points of complete albums, and media storage devices have continued the general trend of greater capacity at lower cost, boosting the exchange-value. Sterne suggests on page 831 that no one is buying mp3s. I’m not so sure that’s the case now. I know I certainly see the value of a sure bet 320kbps album for only $5 over attempting to piece together the same thing via piracy.

As for my own conceits concerning audio quality, I believe I can tell the difference between 128 and 320kbps encoding fairly easily. When a song comes up in my library that sounds kinda off to me, more often than not, it’s an older encoding at 128kbps, a leftover from when I cared more about conserving disk space than audiophonic purity. Each time I discover one of these albums/tracks in my collection, I silently vow to re-encode them as soon as I can get my hands on a CD.

For some fun, try this quiz that tests your ability to distinguish between low and high encoding. Good headphones or speakers are a must.

Visual Rhetoric Rewind: “In the shadow of grief”

It’s a shame that the week I just didn’t get around to my blog post had one of the most personally fascinating articles of the semester.

One of the cruelties of memory is that you can’t always be sure that what you think you recall is what actually happened to you. This is especially true of well-known and retold tragedies, so I can be forgiven for my uncertainty in the case of the Challenger disaster. At six and a half, my first-grader recall is suspect, but I seem to remember watching the launch being shown live in class because of Christa McAuliffe’s participation in the mission, and being unsure what happened when the shuttle disappeared in a white and orange puff on the staticy CRT television that had been wheeled into the classroom. I think I also remember the second grade teacher, Ms. Barnes, jumping up to switch the TV off a moment later. Of course, these could be acquired memories, a side effect of countless testimonials and replays I’ve seen in the many years since Challenger’s explosion. Such is always a possibility of any publically observed tragedy. Like with the Kennedy assassination, the September 11th attacks, or the loss of Columbia almost two decades later, public consciousness blends and borrows until the lines between individual memories blur.

I’ve been fascinated with space for as long as I can remember, and no surprise, the Challenger disaster has always been a particular curiosity. The Edward Tufte article so effectively documented the exact causes and missed opportunities of the shuttle’s explosion, it had the unusual effect of reminding me of another moment when the visual presentation of crucial information lifted the veil of understanding – and that moment was also in relation to Challenger. It wasn’t until sometime a few years before reading Tufte that I really understood what happened to Challenger. That an O-ring had been too cold and allowed fuel to breach the hull of a solid rocket booster was always an abstract concept to me, if not particularly difficult to grasp. It wasn’t until I saw a cross section similar to that of Tufte’s that I saw how critical the O-ring was in tightly sealing the booster, and how even a microscopic gap caused by the flexing of the joint due to stress of launch was enough for a thin stream of propellant to leak past the still cold and rigid O-rings, ignite in the engine outside, and trace back into the tank of the rocket.

Where Tufte’s piece excels is in the marriage of the visual and the verbal. Within three paragraphs, the sequence of mismanagement that lead directly to the explosion is laid out clear and uncomplicated, explaining that NASA had every opportunity to delay the launch for exactly the concern that ended up destroying the shuttle: “Thus the exact cause of the accident was intensely debated during the evening before the launch. That is, for hours, the rocket engineers and managers consider the question: Will the rubber O-rings fail catastrophically tomorrow because of the cold weather? … That morning, the Challenger blew up 73 seconds after its rockets were ignited” (39). Set across the fold from the starkly effective graphic breakdown of the SRB’s failure, this history seems so dead simple in hindsight. The explicit breakdown of the written account, when combined with the perfect imagery in supplement, is so supremely effective at communicating the nature of the disaster, it makes the bureaucratic failure of not scrubbing the launch dumbfounding.

All that we can do – we who look backward with this perfect explanation of what did happen in the past instead of the abstract what could happen in the future ­– is to shake our heads and admit that we weren’t there. Perhaps Challenger was unavoidable because no one can have this perfect dissection of their choices as they make them. At least those in similar positions in the future have the benefit of such clearly defined history to draw from. The shuttles have all been retired, but the costly lesson of Challenger lives on thanks to the precise, documented, visual history by the likes of Edward Tufte, giving me much a far better account than I could ever hope to dredge from my six-year-old self’s imperfect memory.

Note: this reading reminds me of a recent arstechnica article on a the Columbia disaster. Worth a (long) read, and also rich in effective visuals to enhance understanding.

Visual Rhetoric: Revisualizing ENGL 1101

“Tell them that there are not (yet?) fixed definitions of what constitutes a ‘visual argument,’ so they will have to work with what they understand ‘argument’ and ‘the visual’ to be.”

– Anne Wysocki

In my continuing quest to bring my composition class out of a dominantly written/verbal mode that’s nearly as teachable in 1914 as it is in 2014, I’ve come up with a mockup of the class I want to teach.

Foremost, my overall goal of this transformation is to maintain a strong foundation of writing instruction. As I’ve said before, I can’t lose sight of written composition skills as a primary outcome for anyone enrolled in my course because that is what the academy will expect of them repeatedly in their next few years. Keeping that in mind, I can better envision how I want to make my class more visually situated.

I decided to focus on ENGL 1101. As of this point, I think I have a workable course plan and philosophy for 1102, but I’ve had half as many chances at bat in its prerequisite, and it’s that course plan that feels the most in need of change.

To frame my revisualization of 1101, I’ve created a rough comparison of 1101 as it unfolded in the single section I taught this semester, juxtaposed to the nascent plan for the next time I teach 1101 (which I hope is this coming Fall).

ENGL 1101, Spring 2014

Theme: digital identity

4 major writing assignments

  • Low engagement, progression too abrupt, no tangible interconnectedness between assignment

Various short writings/quizzes

  • Low stakes, little development beyond credit/no credit
  • Ultimately punitive

Partnered readings presentations

  • Most engaging and creative assignment – required a visual component

Ultimately indistinguishable from any other generic writing course

Having a primarily written/verbal course meant there was limited opportunity for the inward transfer of alternative composition skills my students may have had at their disposal. Functionally, I do think the written assignments served their purpose well for the most part, and students have confirmed that impression in informal course feedback received thus far. The single visually-accessible assignment of the course was popular, but from there it felt like a compulsory, low interest grind to the end. I don’t question that there has been growth in my students’ writing skill, but I think that same growth may have been achievable with less redundancy in fewer assignments.

Thus, it looks like there is room to spare for a second composition focus in my composition class. To figure out how to frame this second focus – and more importantly, have its inclusion make sense to the students – I wanted a better theme than the somewhat stilted non-starter theme of “digital identity.” (Interesting side note: After having used the theme a few times in the past year across 1102 and 1101, it seems that traditional college students – meaning those enter college directly out of secondary education – are simply not as interested in examining their digital identity as educators would hope. I hate to generalize, but it’s possible that 18-19-year-olds now are too “born digital” to see their digital identity as that separate, whereas those even just a few years older are just enough on the cusp of internet expansion to see it as a more distinct phenomenon.) My tentative plan is moving forward with a vague “social justice” theme. It’s a bit tried-and-true as far as novelty in composition course themes go, but it does offer a lot of room for engagement with a composition topic.

To better define what it is I want the students to take from the course, I also will draw from a success I’ve had in recent 1102, which is to firmly and outwardly define the composition skills I want to cultivate. I’ve also decided to arrange the assignments to be as closely 50/50 written/visual as possible. Thus, every written assignment will either have a visually analytical or visually productive pairing situated very closely – a co-equal ancillary that provides a visual answer to the written call.

ENGL 1101, Future

Theme: social justice (tentative)
Learning objective: Summary • Weeks 2-4

  • Assignment: Facilitated reading annotation. Similar to the readings presentations in the earlier version, students will read, digest, and summarize an assigned portion of a larger course text (perhaps the university-assigned composition reader or similar), the format of which could be a single annotation; all such annotations are compiled and dispensed as a collection
  • Paired Assignment: Facilitated reading presentation. Using the same source material, students will create a class presentation to remediate their summarized material as visually as possible; I may prohibit PowerPoint to encourage broader experimentation in format

Learning objective: Argument Analysis • Weeks 5-8

  • Assignment: Argument Deconstruction. 2-3 page written analysis of a documentary’s argument, focusing on evidence presented, ethos/logos, and audience awareness
  • Paired Assignment: Visual Deconstruction. Entirely separate 2-3 page written analysis of the same documentary’s visual argument, focused on pathos and rhetorical choice

Learning objective: Argument Building • Weeks 9-16

  • Assignment: Researched Argument. Major course paper, 5-7 pages, on social issue of student’s choice, drafted, refined with peer & instructor feedback, conference
  • Paired Assignment: Argument Visualized. Visual remediation of paper as entirely visual argument, requiring minimal or zero use of words, formatted as a displayable piece or video
  • Possible addition: Exhibition. Class open house/exhibition of argument visualizations (no additional grade)

It is my hope that the paired call and answer of the verbal and the visual modes will guide lay the groundwork for several positive outcomes in addition to offering a more whole composition course:

  • Better transfer, both inward and internally; visually-oriented students will have more to draw from to aid them in the course than just written arguments, and hopefully visually- and verbally-oriented will both improve on a weaker skillset when they have their preferred mode as a mediator
  • Increased student interest, perception of course material as boring or a grind when they have more creative input in fully half of the course’s major assignments
  • Having a broadly-encompassing but clearly defined course theme might offer better engagement, especially if students fully embrace the activism-minded options the theme offers
  • The “worst” assignment – the large researched argument paper – is finished well before finals, with the (hopefully) more enjoyable, creative assignment bringing the course to a close

The next step is to draft the specific assignment details, which I think I may share here when complete.

Instructor at University of Northern Colorado. Compositionist, rhetorician, husband, gamer, cat guy.