Monthly Archives: November 2010

Computers and Writing 2011 Proposal

I’m excited to present my first video proposal to speak at a conference. I put this together for Computers and Writing 2011 at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. If accepted, my presentation will be called “Sound Composing: Musical Rhetoric in the Ears of Composers.”


For my visually minded friends (me included, ironically enough), here’s the video’s script. The italicized parts are contiguous quotes from Steven B. Katz’s The Epistemic Music of Rhetoric: Toward the Temporal Dimension of Affect in Reader Response and Writing.

Perhaps time, and all it stands for, is the basis of the experience of language as sound, emotion a lump of time caught in the throat.

It’s hard to talk about sound–what exactly it does for audiences, how composers manipulate it. Rhetoricians are well versed in discussing images, fixed in time and graspable. But the question of how composers of sound apply rhetorical principles is less well explored–the temporal, unfixed nature of sound complicates things.

Perhaps it is through time that we can know the affective experience of language as an indeterminate flux and flow.

Rhetorical principles have been applied to music for hundreds of years, especially in Western Baroque and early classical texts on music composition. These composers were taught to use their instrumental music to communicate emotional states that audiences would clearly comprehend, relying on a series of rhetorical musical figures and gestures. More recently, Steven Katz has written on how knowledge is fundamentally emotional, temporal, and musical. Along similar lines, Joddy Murray has drawn attention to the importance of non-discursive rhetoric. And in 2006, Byron Hawk and Cheryl Ball co-edited a  special issue of Computers and Composition, “Sound in/as Composition Space.” [And I forgot to mention the parallel issue of Computers and Composition Online.]

Perhaps it is in time that the essential unity, the oneness that oral cultures experienced in sound, exists.

I want to add to this work by developing a composer-centric rhetoric of sound. I conducted a qualitative study of music composers (students and professionals, practitioners and scholars), using their explanations of their compositional aims as the bedrock of a new understanding of sound’s rhetorical possibilities and functions.

Perhaps we have not lost it. Perhaps it is still in the music of language.

My interviews focused on questions of how music communicates–what kinds of things it can say, how composers plan for their audiences, how they think rhetorically. More specifically, I asked them about influence, emotion, their use of preexisting musical forms, and digital composition, both in terms of composing with electronic sounds and using computer notation software.

Could it be that voice and felt sense, that dissonance and disequilibrium, that harmony and resolution in reading and writing are musical in nature, are the epistemic basis of affective knowledge, are a temporal form of knowledge?

I’ll report on what my participants said about their own work and about music in general, playing clips of their interviews and compositions when appropriate. I’ll also engage the audience by briefly playing selections of music that showcase the problems my participants brought up, inviting the group to consider the different ways that music can mean.

Music Credits (in order)

Image Credits (in order; all with various Creative Commons licenses)


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Writing Habits

Many, many times, I’ve heard people (especially students, oddly) say some variant on the following: “If we write in text-speak all the time, we won’t be able to turn it off when we need to write for some kind of professional audience.”

My response, usually: bah. With practice, we can turn our writing habits on and off for different communities, genres, audiences, settings, and so on.

But: lately, as I’ve been drafting like mad my article on remix literacies, I find two habits keep sneaking into my academic writing unexpectedly:

  1. Professional writing habits: I write so many emails with lots of headings, short paragraphs, and bulleted lists that it’s hard to put those aside occasionally in favor of more fully developed paragraphs.
  2. Creative nonfiction writing habits: I’m having trouble gauging how much my target journal (shooting for the top: Computers and Composition) wants artful analogies, prodigious first person, narrative asides, and so on.

Now, both of these things, contrary as they may seem, are things I’d like to see more of in published scholarship, and I have no problem being a voice in favor of their slow leakage into academic journals. But it’s interesting to see how much these feel like habits that are hard to break, that I’m sort of defaulting into, and which in heavy-revision mode I’ll have to decide which to keep. Perhaps this is what it feels like 2 writers who R used 2 abbrvtd stylz. (Or not?)

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Rhetoric, Music, Exactitude

Giuseppe Carpani, writing about Haydn’s symphonies in 1812:

You find in it, as in orations by Cicero, almost all rhetorical figures applied; among them are gradatio, antitheton, dubitatio, isocolon, repetitio, congeries, epilogus, synonymia, suspensio; but very special is his usage of reticentia and aposiopesis, which, when used in one of his incomparable fast movements, create a marvelous effect.

The point? That you could listen to Haydn’s music and apply rhetorical figures/topics to it. For example, in a speech, to practice aposiopesis is when “a speaker comes to an abrupt halt, seemingly overcome by passion (fear, excitement, etc.) or modesty” (via). It’s not hard to imagine hearing something similar in music, which makes sense, since they’re both fundamentally aural arts.

Ok, fine. This kind of analysis could go on forever, applied to pretty much whatever music you wanted to. And when these figures were being actively taught to pretty much everyone educated in Europe in the 16th-18th centuries, it makes sense to assume that composers were purposefully using them (as, for example Ursula Kirkendale demonstrates in really, really deep detail in her reading of Bach’s Musical Offering).

But still: so what? I’m deeply interested in overlaps between music and rhetoric, as I’ve been telling people over and over since I decided on a dissertation topic. But I’m not really interested in this kind of thing, beyond a casual, “Oh! Interesting point!” It’s so detail-driven, so focused on a clever critic finding example after example of an obscure rhetorical figure with a Latin name in a measure of music.

That’s why I’m drawn to my project of speaking with composers instead of texts. I want to know in looser, more expressive terms how they want their work to be experienced by audiences, and what choices they made that make those purposes possible. That puts the composer in the driver’s seat, seconded closely by the reaction of the audience–and with me, the critic, sitting back in the distance to try to understand that interaction. It feels more honoring, more listening instead of speaking. I like that.

Still, that doesn’t mean I think the figures/topics are worthless. I mean, I did at first, when I first encountered them in a graduate class. But I changed my mind when I heard how that professor teaches them to students: as possible ways to frame a text when nothing is coming to mind, when you need a jumpstart to suggest ways of approaching a problem in a way that will work best for an audience. In other words, as inventional tools. But what inventional tools do today’s composers use? Surely not ones with rhetorical bases and Latin names, right?

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