Monthly Archives: October 2011

Layered Audio, or When Browsers Don’t Behave

I just made a fun discovery: an online article with embedded sound plays perfectly in one browser, but in another it plays all of the sound clips at the same time. To which I say: awesome.

(Brief statement of intent: I in no way want this to be read as an insult to the web programming of an important online journal. Browser weirdness is incredibly difficult to predict, especially in this age of rapid updates from the biggest names. I’m merely exploring a fun point of departure, an intriguing glitch.)

The story: I happily browsed to Thomas Rickert’s “Music@Microsoft.Windows: Composing Ambience” in the most recent issue of The Writing Instructor (a journal subtitled “A networked journal and digital community for writers and teachers of writing”)–and it’s an awesome article. But when I arrived (in Chrome 14.0.835.187 m, Windows version), I heard this:


Which is, my friends, the sound of Rickert’s four audio samples playing at the same time.

It also looks funny: notice the (wrong) placement of the (not functional) media player in the upper left of the screen, and the black box where the media player ought to be:

Screenshot from article being discussed

And it’s just a Chrome issue; in Firefox 6, the clips play perfectly, and the page loads just fine:

Screenshot from article being discussed

I’m not sure why it happens, since I have only the most rudimentary knowledge of web design–and the why isn’t really my point anyway. I can see in the page source that the article uses the HTML 5 tag, but beyond that I’m not sure. (I’ve been having trouble with Chrome’s auto-update feature, so it’s possible that this is a bug that’s fixed in the most recent version.)

Here’s what I keep thinking about: my glee at discovering what was happening. I kept reloading and reloading the page just to hear that crazy sound again, the odd echo of two of the nearly identical clips playing just barely out of sync, Steve Reich-style. My emotional response is part of what I’m trying to figure out here. Why is this glitch so exciting to me?

There’s the nostalgic element, which I’m always a sucker for–the memories this glitch brings up. I remember the sounds that my friend Matt and I made with a two-cassette karaoke machine, a bizarre TV/shortwave radio combo set, and my brother’s Talkboy, which would slow down the speed of tapes.

Here’s one bizarre example, which layers the bonus track from a Better Than Ezra album, some random talking we found on the shortwave radio, a clip of a preacher on one of my parents’ tapes of sermons (which we were recording over), and Matt saying “I don’t want you to blow on my candle,” slowed down over and over again with the Talkboy by playing the slowed-down version into a microphone, then playing that slowed-down version at a slower speed, and then playing that slowed-down version at a slower speed. . . .


There’s also the “stick it to the man” aspect of my glee. For these aren’t just random sounds layered on top of each other, but sounds that were carefully crafted (as Rickert so eloquently explains) by Microsoft to convey a specific mood surrounding the release of subsequent Windows releases. It’s fun to hear those careful desires so thoroughly thwarted, and all through an accidental glitch. Perhaps the more you dislike Microsoft, the more poetic justice you hear in these layered sounds.

And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit some degree of “I found it!” emotions, too. I mean, here I am writing a blog post about a glitch that I doubt anyone else has written about (though maybe they have!). It’s something like people must have felt when they found that they could walk through that wall in Super Mario Bros. World 1-2: “Hey, look what I found! Something that doesn’t work the way you’d expect it to!” Of course, things work inexactly for us all the time; we’re excited only when something doesn’t work how we expected but then is still found to have new value. That value might be a simple as an aesthetic slickness, like seeing Mario slide through that wall, or hearing these sounds make some sort of coherent sense even when layered on each other, but it still makes it feel more value.

But I’m also intrigued by the Rickert article’s misfire from a scholarly perspective. I’m reminded of a paper from Martin Schlesinger I was paired with at the Remake | Remodel conference: Martin shared all kinds of glitchy screens from videogames, theorizing about the effect of these misfires as accidental art that defies the designs of creators. And in Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction, Caleb Kelly describes a number of musicians who take a similar approach, exploiting glitches and clicks and misfires. He writes, “Experimentation with readily available tools and resources is central to contemporary artistic practice and is at the heart of the crack” (6)–and I’m especially interested these days in questions of what concerns those involved in “contemporary artistic practice.”

From a rhetorical perspective, the glitch takes the focus away from the composer, who has little or no control over the effect the audience hears. How does that change how the audience hears the sounds? Would the same meaning be read into sounds that were purposefully composed as glitches–if, say, Rickert had purposefully layered all these sounds onto each other and explained why he did so?

I guess that’s the closest I have to a “point”: I’d like to think more about accidental composition and its place in rhetorical communication.


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