Tag Archives: epistemology of music

Transcribing Sound

I’ve gone back and forth a few times about how to present transcribed interviews in my work on music composition practices, essentially going one way in one chapter and another way elsewhere. I want to use this post to present some options and get some opinions.

I’ve written before about Laurel Richardson’s decision to present interviews as poetry, including some of her reasoning. Since then, I’ve browsed through some of the (surprisingly common) scholarship on the method, and I’ve found some intriguingly resonant connections to my work on music. For instance, here are some great lines from Garance Maréchal and Stephen Linstead’s “Metropoems: Poetic Method and Ethnographic Experience” (Qualitative Inquiry 16.1 (2010): 66-77; abstract):

[I]t seems important that research poems develop the ability to take a position that neither turns exclusively inward toward the ethnographer’s self nor exclusively outward toward an empathic relation with the ethnographic other, but is focused in the moment, in place, and in motion. . . . [S]uch a poetry in the moment could perhaps deploy a discipline that is very much derived from a specific activity and seeks to embody the rhythms, time, and space of that activity, which would contrast with poetry that recollects or represents. (70)

What musical purposes! We can use poetic transcriptions to draw attention to present moments, places, motions, rhythms–all issues I write about when discussing the epistemologies and ontologies of music. So by transcribing words about music in poetry, those words would become like music, in that they echo its ways of being.

So after all that reading, I’ve come to two simultaneous conclusions: 1) Wow, that’s something I must must do. 2) Um, do my readers really want to have their reading jolted by all this verse?

Here’s an example of what the differences might look like. The first quote is a prose transcription that removes uh and um and imposes a fairly standard set of punctuation (a typical practice in many fields, though of course the degree of “fixing up” that is acceptable varies considerably; I’ve taken the liberty to use quite a strong clean-up brush here, for emphasis):

I’m definitely freer with my music. With my music, I always consider my audience to be somebody who has empathy, who can relate to the music in a sense. It’s like I write unto myself.

Especially for this album that I’m recording now, it’s like I want this album to be for people who can relate to a lot of situations, topics that are like self doubt, and a lot of insecurities, and stuff like that, so people could relate to it in that level. And I would hope that it would be a way that they could listen to my music and be like, “Oh, I’m not alone in this.” So usually I write in that emotional level for an audience that is like me.

So now contrast that with the following verse transcript, which attempts to include each word and sound exactly as my participant said them (presented as a screenshot of Word, to preserve line-breaks as I crafted them):

An image of a transcript presented in verse

With this example especially, there’s a pretty clear (yet subtle) statement being made by the transcriber (me). Just as this participant is describing the uncertainties of others, whom she wants to comfort with her music, her own language seems to betray an uncertainty of her own, and the verse draws attention to some of that–the repeated words, noticeable um‘s, etc. It’s a move that I think some would think unfair to the participant while others would appreciate it. (This moves us to the really important move: what the participant herself thinks. I plan to show her a draft of the chapter quite soon to find out, which might change this entire discussion.)

So, I’m finally left with the question of what it would mean to present two imbalanced sets of participants in a larger work.

  • On one hand are my two chapters full of quotations from professional and amateur composers I interviewed who (naturally) want their names to be shared publicly, and whose words are thus presented on equal footing with those of published interviews with professional composers. In other words, I quote from published work and my own participants equally, presenting them as on the same plane. These transcriptions are all clearly in the same genre: they tend to be clean and readable, without verbal bumps like uh and like included unless it changes the meaning of the sentence. And everything they say is in prose.
  • But then in another chapter are the results from five student composers, all of whom are protected with complete anonymity, including pseudonyms. (Not all of them requested this, but some did, so it seemed that the best way to protect the identity of some was to hide the identity of all.) These participants are then quoted in verse, as shown above.

Does this award a discursive power to the non-students? Or does it honor the students that their words are presented as having the social umph/capital of poetic verse? What about the fact that the verse draws attention to my transcribing activity–does this lessen the relative power of the students when I represent their words in a way that blends them with my imposed form? Of course, my non-students’ words are blended with my own imposed form just as well, but in a prose form that hides my involvement. Thoughts?

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Solidifying Sound

I like when conversations and reading material coincidentally collide–and when I get to share those coincidences in hyperlinky ways. To wit:

Early this morning, my buddy Steven tweeted this:

Steven's tweet

A couple others jumped in. Harley Ferris pointed out:

Harley's tweet

And the inestimable DocMara directed us to this video, by my kind-of-hero Vi Hart:

I responded with a vague recommendation that everyone read David Burrows’s Sound, Speech, and Music. I had this kind of thing in mind:

Seeing is like touching, hearing like being touched; except that the touch of sound does not stop at the skin. It seems to reach inside and to attenuate, along with the distinction in Field 1 between here and there, the biologically still more basic one between within and without. In this way sound can ease some of the tension that goes with the duality of the organic condition. (21)

So there’s all that: essentially, some sound-loving rhetoricians trying to figure out what the heck sound does, and how that relates to the solid world our bodies inhabit. Weird, when you start thinking about it, right? In some ways, this is heart of the CCCC panel that I’ll present on this March along with Kati Fargo and Steph Ceraso: the physical nature of sound as something our bodies experience, not just as an idea we theorize about.

Even weirder: two (perhaps competing) things I read later in the day that hint at the topic of sound solidified–if perhaps only tangentially. Both are from interviews in Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve’s Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington, part of the Oral History of American Music endeavor.

First, composer Leo Ornstein made an intriguing claim that I’m still trying to wrap my head around:

And besides–now I’m saying something very, very important–one has to be particularly careful of one’s own style because it’s so easy to simply operate almost unconsciously within the style, forgetting altogether about the substance, substituting style for substance. . . . The trouble is it takes the most astute kind of person to be able to distinguish when the artist is operating on his style or when he is operating within substance. And an audience can easily flounder. (91)

Within the context, he’s criticizing composers who are “much more interested in experiment than they are in music,” saying that those are the ones interested in “style,” in composing as a solely intellectual activity as opposed to something that’s supposed to move an audience. Instead, he’d rather hear composers who are interested in “substance,” in having some sort of musical meaning that can be communicated to an audience. (At least that’s what I think he means; that last line about audiences who “flounder” makes me second-guess myself.)

Interesting metaphor though, right? Substance. I picture “style” music as like lasers and lights flashing through the air, unable to be grasped and moving so fast that you can’t make out what they’re doing there, how it all coheres. But I picture “substance” music as food-like, able to be chewed and swallowed and cooked again later to better understand the ingredients.

Second, I read these lines from experimental composer Edgard Varèse:

My aim has always been the liberation of sound; to throw open the whole world of sound to music. . . . When I was twenty I came across a definition of music that seemed suddenly to throw light on my groping toward the music I sensed could exist: “the corporealization of the intelligence that is in sounds.” [Quote from Josef Hoene Wronski] It was new and exciting and to me, the first perfectly intelligible conception of music. It was probably what first started me thinking of music as spatial–as moving bodies of sound in space, a conception I gradually developed and made my own. (102-03)

Here again was the idea of sound as having substance, though in a very different way than Ornstein meant. Instead, Varèse is frustrated with the rules of music that Western concert music has followed for so long, and he sees an answer to that in reconceiving the basic metaphors we use to discuss musical form at all. Instead of music being recursive, or structured like an oration (in the Baroque period), or grown organically (in the Romantic period), music to Varèse is a physical thing hurtling through the air at you, like a pillar of cloud, or of fire.

Not that I have to, but I reconcile these kind of views (really, a very old debate) the way Andy Hamilton, a philosopher, does in Aesthetics and Music: he’s comfortable saying, essentially, there’s sound-based art over here, and there’s music over there, and they’re both awesome, but it’s okay for them to be different. Music, to Hamilton, has to deal with “tonal organization” created with some degree of will: “…with limited exceptions, tones not produced by human intentional action do not count as music” (49). Our pal Varèse would see that as limiting.

Side note: after reading about Varèse, I decided to listen to whatever came up of his on Spotify (a program I’ve written about before, and which I can give you an invitation to if you need it) while writing this post, beginning with “Arcana.” I expected heavy-handed, grating, noise-music–but at least in that track, what I got was something that sounded an awful lot like the score to the original Star Trek (this kind of stuff). Bizarre. Much nicer is the piano music of Ornstein I’ve got going now instead.


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