Tuning in to Soundwriting

Resounding History: A Rhetoric of Sonic Historiography (in Two Parts)

by Jonathan W. Stone

Part 1: Sonic Rhetorical Methods: Writing About Writing About Sonic History (cont.)

Working in the Sonic Archive

1. Before any real listening can begin, work in the sonic archive involves collection, selection, and paring down—all while keeping the audience in mind.

For this project, I knew I wanted to find archival material in the larger Alan Lomax archive that featured women, and—if possible—women of color. So when I initially went looking at the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE), I found that it only featured archives of two women's work that fit the purview of the project: Vera Hall and Bessie Jones. Both women had recorded songs and oral histories in long sessions with Lomax on several occasions in the mid-twentieth century. I found two large collections of Hall's work with about four hours of audio. On Jones's site, I found twenty-one larger collections of material, roughly eighty hours of audio! I decided then to limit this chapter-length project to the Hall collection. My experience in working with archival sound has shown that it is generally better to do a careful analysis of less audio than it is to include too much than is reasonable to listen to in a single setting. Ten to fifteen total minutes of sonic material has worked for me for article- or chapter-length scholarly essays that include both sound clips and textual material. This is not a hard and fast rule, however (see point 2 below). For sound essays rendered completely as audio—in a podcast format, for example—this advice doesn't apply, of course. But even then, I think that keeping the reader-listener's attention span in mind always helps. I've modeled the second, longer-format approach in Part 2 of this chapter.

At 60 minutes, the audio essay in Part 2 is on the longer side, but I would invite listeners to treat it like they might a podcast or audiobook. It need not be consumed all at once. Like with a printed essay, listeners can—and possibly should—take a few breaks. Unlike a printed essay, listeners can do other things while the audio essay plays in the background on external speakers or headphones: take a walk, do the dishes, commute to work, prepare a meal. Listening to scholarly work is still academic labor, but it is labor that might be divided or shared between other tasks listeners need to do.

2. Listen.

And, yes, if possible, I'd like you to actually listen to this section.

Listen: Transcript

[Phil Cook & His Feet's (2011a) "Ballad of a Hungry Mother" from Hungry Mother Blues plays in the background.]

Stone: It should come as no surprise that work in a sonic archive requires a lot of listening.8 8 Can deaf or hard-of-hearing researchers study sonic archives? That question has not been the focus of my study, but my experience working in archives leads me to believe that they could. There is more to sonic archives than sound. Continued structural changes are needed to make this work more accessible and conspicuous. Large archives such as the Library of Congress include robust transcripts alongside their audio holdings. There remains important work to do to ensure that sonic archives offer the same (or adjacent) research potentials for both abled and disabled bodies. Be prepared to spend many, many hours listening to archival material. This is not to say that other kinds of research isn't time-consuming, but listening-as-research presents a different experience when compared with traditional methods and has its own unique challenges. With the Vera Hall recordings, once I had downloaded and transferred them to my iPhone, I began several weeks of both active and passive listening. In the first few auditions, I listened to the four hours of material with the goal of getting to know it generally. I would listen during my commute to work, during walks around my campus, or while I was preparing meals and other mundane tasks. This more casual listening was helpful in getting a larger, general sense of what the archive had to offer. With occasional prompts from Alan Lomax, Hall tells a number of stories and anecdotes from her life interspersed with songs. Nearly all are interesting in some way, so I knew choices about how to shorten and edit would be difficult.

After completing the initial, more passive listen-throughs, I needed to begin thinking about the framing of my historical project. This led to more active, purposeful listening where I made notes and began drafting a plan about what stories and songs I thought were most important for listeners to hear, and especially which parts of the archive both resound with and re-sound the received history of Hall.9 9 I also read Stephen Wade's (2012) chapter on Hall in his award-winning book The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience, as well as Lomax's biography of Hall, told in the first half of his 1959 book The Rainbow Sign. Much like Mister Jelly Roll, Lomax's better-known biography of jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton, The Rainbow Sign is a literary rendering of Lomax's recorded conversations with Hall—the very ones now available digitally at the ACE archive. The Rainbow Sign is an imperfect but important resource on Hall and her history. Vera is "Nora" in the book, and there are parts of her story not included in the available recordings drawn from tapes now lost, or from Hall's interviews with Ruby Pickens Tartt, with whom Lomax said Hall was more comfortable sharing more private parts of her story. Here is where the larger methodological ideals from feminist historiography came into use: I wanted to be sure that Vera Hall's agency, creativity, and humanity were represented by the choices I made. Much of her recorded material is rich and compelling with any number of usable pieces, so crafting a more concise narrative from the available tape is the primary challenge of the writer/audio editor. There was no way that I was going to be able to use all four hours in my chapter, so I needed to find elements from the collection that would give reader-listeners a sense of Hall as a person and how her life experiences shaped her values and, therefore, her rhetoric. In the end, I tried to create a sonic history that was both compelling and accessible. At 60 minutes, the piece is actually a little longer than I planned initially, but—taking a cue from all of the wonderful radio programs resounding through Jessica Abel's (2015) recent graphic narrative book Out on a Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio—I decided to shoot for an hour-length production. Basically, one episode of a typical NPR-style radio program.

Abel's book deftly relates the difficult work of a professional audio editor working to create a short, listenable narrative from a much larger store of available tape. In the book, producers of popular radio programs like This American Life, Radiolab, and Snap Judgment advise novice soundwriters in the various tasks of sequencing, scene-making, signposting and editing, fine-tuning and otherwise producing sound stories. Joe Richman of Radio Diaries describes the process of story editing thusly. He says,

You get all this tape, you get 40 hours of tape or whatever, and you break it apart into little…into atoms [ellipsis original]. And then you try to find a way to fit it all back together.… [W]e organize the tape, start to cut it down. We put like things together, and then start to build different scenes. (Abel, 2015, p. 116)

Initially, for the Hall story that follows, I wanted to have three distinct but related audio scenes: one on play, another on family, and a final one on church. The challenge is that she talks and sings about all of these things in several different places throughout the four hours of tape, and often all at the same time. But with those scenic bones of the narrative in place, I could start listening for the parts of her story that I might use that would best support the narrative arc that I constructed but still highlight those three main subjects. Once selected, those clips could then be lined up, edited, and fine-tuned using an audio editor so that they sound more or less cohesive in the mix. Novice soundwriters should be aware that for even the most talented and professional sound editors, this work takes hours (and hours!), so take heart, and start editing!

2. Editing = Composing + Experimentation

Working with sound requires at least a cursory knowledge of sound-editing technologies such as Audacity, Apple's GarageBand, or Adobe Audition, to name a few of the most popular. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to detail specifics on how to edit, mix, or perform the other technical skills required to work with one of these platforms, but there are plenty of places online (YouTube foremost among them) that have excellent tutorials to help the beginner. And, don't worry! When I introduce an audio project to undergraduates, many of them have not had any previous experience with digital audio editors. They learn quickly, mostly on their own, and almost always produce good work.

For some initial practice, reader-listeners might introduce themselves to this process by working in the Hall archive themselves. I've linked to the larger archive (The Association for Cultural Equity), which contains Hall's unedited audio clips. I would encourage those working through this chapter to experiment with cutting up, reordering, or combining my essay with files that I excluded or from a different archive. Putting Hall into conversation or concert with other archival voices can lead to insights and rhetorics that I don't emphasize. Novice audio archivists could also experiment by pairing Hall's oral history with music or sound effects, thinking on how the listening experience (and Hall's story itself) changes in and through the historian's editing choices.10 10 Thinking ethically about the role and duty of the archivist in relation to those being represented in their work is important, though opinions vary about the best approach. I address this question briefly in my essay "Listening to the Sonic Archive" (J. W. Stone, 2015) and there bring up the different approaches of several of my colleagues—Erin R. Anderson's (2014) "Toward a Resonant Material Vocality for Digital Composition" and Jody Shipka's (2012) "To Preserve, Digitize and Project: On the Process of Composing Other People's Lives" in particular. As a historian interested in preservation and precision, my approach to representation is more conservative, but no less correct than Anderson or Shipka, who took more artistic and poetic license than I do. Since the publication of "Listening to the Sonic Archive," other work has been published that explores the ways that rhetoricians might approach ethical historical representation. See, for example, Provocations: Reconstructing the Archive (Berry et al., 2016), which features the work of Shipka, Alexandra Hidalgo, Anderson, and Trisha N. Campbell.

3. A good hook makes the song better.

The same is true with scholarship. The accompanying essay begins with a hook: Moby's (1999) hit song "Natural Blues." The song is an effective opener for the essay because it is relatively well-known and also features the voice of Vera Hall. This provides the double advantage of offering a familiar example and a starting point for the rhetorical analysis and critique in the piece. Regardless of the audience's feelings about the song, that familiarity can do wonders for the larger argument. My hook appears right at the top the essay that makes up Part 2 of this chapter so that reader-listeners can hear Vera Hall's voice, be moved by it, and have a reason to keep reading and listening.

With that little teaser, let's get to it.