Tuning in to Soundwriting

Soundscapes: Rhetorical Entwinements for Composing Sound in Four Dimensions

by Kati Fargo Ahern

1. Introduction

The history of rhetoric has always been entwined with the history of education.… The classroom is, thus, a kind of case study for the historian who seeks to determine what rhetoric was or is, or for the student who wonders what it yet can be.

— Thomas Sloane (1991, p. 113), "Schoolbooks and Rhetoric: Erasmus's Copia"

Within every space there exists a complex ecology of sound—sonic events vibrating, comingling, moving, unfolding, receding, and persisting. In an office space, this may be the wind rattling windowpanes and the modulating drone from an electric space heater. Chatter in an adjacent room. A microwave beeping in a lounge. People visibly and physically reacting to those events. Measuring time against annoyance.

Office Soundscape: Transcript

[In the foreground there is an electric space heater emitting a modulating drone. In the background, there is wind, chatter from a distant classroom, a bell chiming the hour, and the lonely, disconnected beep of a microwave increasing in volume for 5 beeps.] [time: 20 seconds]

We experience soundscapes in a variety of contexts, such as museums, video games, corporate centers, and complex webtexts, among others. Additionally, the study of soundscapes crosses disciplines from acoustic ecology to music, art, archaeology, history, media studies, and more recently rhetoric and composition. Finally, the purposes of soundscape design, composition, and/or intervention are diverse. Soundscapes are recorded, composed/constructed, and designed for the purposes of archival research, preservation, memory studies, critique, aesthetic experience, and social interventions within a space.

Despite the richness and varied nature of soundscapes, their study, and their purposes, a soundscape remains a recognizable genre (or macrogenre). Although soundscapes may have different specific purposes, the overarching purpose of a designed soundscape is to engage the listener in a particular sense of space, as well as the experience of inhabiting and navigating that space, regardless of whether that space is virtual or physical, regardless of the experience of the soundscape—visually, sonically, kinesthetically. Soundscapes involve the placement of sounds (whose sources may include all sonic possibilities, from voice to music and nonverbal sound), sounding together, and unfolding in time within a specific space. While some may argue that the emplacement of sound and dynamic spatialization is what most distinguishes soundscapes from other sonic texts, I argue that each of the italicized dimensions involves complex design decisions.

This complexity is important to rhetoric and composition as a whole because it may be used to invest students more fully in substantive revision, attend to process, and even appreciate the relationship between authorial choice and audience experience in a novel way. Additionally, I will argue that each one of these dimensions provides a rhetorical "entwinement" with a classical concept from rhetoric reconsidered through the act of soundscape design. While rhetoric and composition sometimes gets separated into production-focused composition or a historical tradition of the study of rhetoric, I argue that soundscape design offers additional opportunities for students to consider production and historical tradition as integrated elements involved in what Thomas Sloane (1991) referred to in the epigraph above as what rhetoric "yet can be" (p. 113).