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In Which I Write One Sentence about Each Song on R.E.M.’s Up Album

The other day, I had a delightfully lengthy conversation on Twitter about R.E.M. It all started with this:

I’ve written about R.E.M. on here before, but in that post, there was a bit of an edge of “here I am, blending my musical and scholarly interests, because I’m a scholar who writes about music.” This time, inspired by that tweetversation, I’d rather just drop any scholarly pretense. (What is this blog, anyway, these days? I have no idea.)

So: one sentence about every song on Up (1998), released in the fall of my senior year of high school. Just because.

  1. Airportman: It’s like listening to Brian Eno in a construction zone, with that mechanical, robotic bass crunch cutting through the rest of the beautiful production–which I suppose Eno would probably find interesting.
  2. Lotus: I promise I would like this song without the faux-scream vocal doubling.
  3. Suspicion: A good example of why this album is better with headphones and the spaces they create, as you hear these little door slams from the building next door, the quiet strings in the basement, and the band crooning in a posh hotel ballroom.
  4. Hope: If these lyrics were published in a book of poetry I’d take a picture and post them on Facebook.
  5. At My Most Beautiful: I totally forgot about those “Eleanor Rigby”-style cellos crunching into the silence toward the end, and while I like the piano alright, I’d like to hear an all-cello version.
  6. The Apologist: I counted Michael singing “I’m sorry” or “so sorry” at least 23 times, and that doesn’t count the quiet echoed versions that just about double it; I think that’s a bit much.
  7. Sad Professor: Prettier and sadder than I remember it; in high school I always tried to decide if the really good part of this album started at this song or the next one, but I usually decided it was after this.
  8. You’re in the Air: I put this on far too many mixtapes in 12th grade, mostly because most of my R.E.M. was on tape and I wanted CD quality on my mixes because a mix is serious business and this is the most obvious contender on the album for a mix oh I like it so much I mean listen to all that moody ambience (does this still count as one sentence?).
  9. Walk Unafraid: This is a song I’d like to hear on Song Exploder: what elements, exactly, add up to that that enveloping, escalating clump of sounds in the chorus?
  10. Why Not Smile: I don’t think it’s a real harpsichord, but is it a keyboard synthesizing a harpsichord sound or a guitar effect–and by asking this technical question am I ignoring the beauty of this song?
  11. Daysleeper: How did I never hear this as a carousing drinking song until today, or realize how much it sounds like it could have been on Automatic?
  12. Diminished: For an album called Up, there’s a lot of uncertainty and hopeless hope in the lyrics throughout–one example from this song: “I’ll consult the i-ching / I’ll consult the TV / Ouija, oblique strategies / I’ll consult the law books for precedents / Can I charm the jury?”
    1. I’m Not Over You: I have no memory of this little acoustic ditty living at the end of the “Diminished” track, which is weird given the number of times I listened to this CD in 1998.
  13. Parakeet: I always knew that the R.E.M.’s lyrics were a step above the rest, but this listen is reminding me how lovely and fresh they are on this album, and this track is a delightful example (if we ignore that “so sorry” business above).
  14. Falls to Climb: In a weird backward twist of history, this song would sound nice as an 80s synthpop remix–maybe Chvrches can cover it?

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Second Guessing

The drums on R.E.M.’s first album Murmur and its follow-up Reckoning sound completely different. I’ve listened to these albums on and off for twenty years, and I hadn’t paid attention to the drums until recently.

Here’s how it happened: I read J. Niimi’s book about Murmur, a delightful exploration of its recording, lyrics, and meanings. Then I sat and listened to the whole album through headphones. Just sat and listened. Then I read Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever, a book that, among other things, has reminded me how much I haven’t been hearing in the recordings I have. Then I decided to read a bit about how Reckoning was recorded. Then I sat and listened to the whole album through headphones. Just sat and listened.

And there’s a real difference: Murmur’s drums, recorded in a booth dedicated just to drums, are clean, distinct, a bit tinny–“disco,” according to one source I can’t find any more–and, to my ears, not really worth saying much about. But Reckoning‘s drums are rock-and-roll, strong, and intense. It sounds obvious to me now. I can’t unhear.

But here’s the thing: for years, I’ve always thought of those two records as having the same sound, more than any other R.E.M. records. They were twinsies, with what I’ve always thought of as similar, simple liner notes; similar, simple songs; similar, simple meanings.

How much of that judgment, though, came from my personal history with those two records–my first R.E.M. albums bought on CD, bought at the same time, shelved next to each other, and paired by me (not by them or by the sounds of their drums) as a sort of disc one and two of a double album?

Really, though, it’s more like this: there is indeed a double album effect going on here, but each album is a disc one and me, my body, and my memories are an always-present disc two.


Here’s Thomas Rickert: “ambience puts place, language, and body into coadaptive, vital, and buoyant interaction” (via).

Buoyant: it floats. I float. And I float because I’m enmeshed in something else that is denser than I am.

The spine of Reckoning: “File under water.”


I didn’t like R.E.M.’s first two albums all that much, at first. I wasn’t really their intended audience, either: I first heard them ten years after they were released, in 1992, when “Drive” from Automatic for the People (album #8) was on the radio stations I was starting to listen to. This was sixth grade, which I musically associate with Automatic, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, and Arrested Development’s Three Years. . . . 

Autumn Lockwood told me that R.E.M.’s old stuff was better; she made me a tape of Document (album #5, still something that sounds little like Murmur and Reckoning) plus her favorite two songs from Lifes Rich Pageant (“Superman” and “Swan Swan H”).

I liked it. I slowly decided I should methodically own the whole back-catalog, so I joined and re-joined and re-joined Columbia House and BMG until I had most of their albums on tape and CD.

I remember so much about the look and feel of how that music was packaged: Autumn’s yellow tape sleeve with hand-written song titles; my white Automatic tape; Michael Stipe’s changing face: airbrushed inside Eponymous, wrinkled and wise inside Automatic; my tape of Green so faded from leaving it in cars.

In the context of my rediscovery of this band that everyone else had known for a decade, I always lumped Murmur and Reckoning together as kind of weird sounding, with something distasteful that I couldn’t place. Lifes Rich Pageant somehow sounded right to me, like the R.E.M. I knew singing songs I hadn’t had the privilege to know yet. The first two albums sounded like a different band; they were part of a context I didn’t know anything about (early 80s college rock); they were a swimming pool I had been too young to play in.

But here’s what I wonder: Murmur and Reckoning were my first R.E.M. albums on CD. Was this a band that, for me, was fundamentally tied to the medium of the cassette? Was it wrong, or impossible, for me to enjoy them any other way? And what does it mean that I chose to get their oldest records on the newest recording technologies, like watching a John Wayne movie on Blu-Ray, or watching recordings of old musicals on YouTube, or listening to digital versions of old cylinder recordings?

No, those parallels aren’t right. It was more like taking a river–the entire experience of standing with your feet in a rushing, cold, fresh-smelling river–and shoving the whole thing into a 1-liter Nalgene bottle, and then sipping from the bottle, and then saying that the river isn’t your favorite river of all the rivers.


Milner’s book describes a visit he had with Dr. John Diamond, a man convinced that listening to digital audio is physiologically hurting us:

He encouraged all of his patients, no matter what issues they were working through, to make music a regular part of their lives–listening to it, and, if possible, playing it themselves. But recently he had noticed that music did not seem to be doing some of them any good. In fact, it appeared to make their ailments worse. . . .

It didn’t take him long to figure out that many of his patients were listening to records manufactured from digital masters. Could that be the problem? When he could find them, Diamond substituted analog versions of the same songs or pieces–sometimes even by the same performer–and the music once again proved therapeutic.



I know I want to write about R.E.M. and how my memories affect how I’ve heard their music throughout the years.

So naturally, I go to the section on the canon of memory in my dissertation. The first sentence of that section makes me physically jump back a second, because I think it coincidentally mentions R.E.M., but it turns out I’m just seeing it wrong. The sentence actually reads, “When I hear the word memory, I think of computer memory, in terms of hard drive space and RAM.”

This makes me pause. I wasn’t thinking about a computer’s “memory” when I started this post. But as I write, I’m streaming a 1985 R.E.M. concert from Germany in another browser window, a concert I learned about when I tweeted a quote from an online article about the band:

These days, R.E.M. is wrapped into my digital memory just as much as they were ever wrapped into my body’s memory.


20th-century composer John Adams once told an interviewer this:

There is a ten-year-old boy (not a student) who comes over to my house every week or so and plays his music for me. He has a MIDI sequencer at home, and his pieces are all polished and notated with his print software. I don’t discourage him for doing that, but I also point out that there’s no substitute for having plain, awesome musical chops: having a great ear, being able to perform well on an instrument, and having a huge, encyclopedic knowledge of music. Composers should know everything.



For a couple weeks now, I’ve been listening to the early R.E.M. albums over and over, checking out the special editions from the library, streaming various shows, reading the lyrics on various websites.

And in a digital, analog, distant, embodied sort of way, I’ve taught myself to love these records. Really, really love them. Eventually, I know I’ll move on to the next records, paying attention to them all in this new way, with headphones and lyric sheets in front of me. But I’m not ready yet. I want more early R.E.M.

(And in the back of my mind: can you manufacture love? Can you manufacture a river?)

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The Affective Slam of Sound

“What you’re looking for,” he said, “are words to theorize that moment when sound slams into you.”

We were at my dissertation defense, the committee and I sitting around a table situated to ignore the rows of onlookers. One of my committee members was rephrasing what he saw as the core of my theoretical project.

I thought of the sounds in the room at that moment: the shifting in seats, the typing on all the laptops, the echoes of the “Fratelli Chase” theme from The Goonies that had recently played as people entered the room. And I thought of the silences: my wife’s silent, smiling face in the crowd, the committee member’s silent waiting for a confirmation of his summary, and my silent pause before answering.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s exactly it. The subjective, emotion-tinged, situated experience of hearing sound. And on the other end, the craft that goes into designing sound that will be subjectively experienced in such an uncontrolled way.”

(Of course, I don’t really remember what I said, or what was said next, or when in the defense this conversation happened. But in my memory-as-constructed-the-way-it-ought-to-be, my committee member waves away my big words and says:)

“Right, but it’s all about the slam. That slam of sound.”


We know sound affects our emotions in an uncontrollable, knee-jerk way. It’s almost not worth mentioning, it’s so obvious.

In Blade Runner, Deckard finds out who is a replicant and who isn’t by reading aloud scenarios that would lead humans to have an involuntary reaction in their eyes. The sounds of the spoken words lead to immediate emotion. Deckard doesn’t give the suspects a print-out of the questions; he says them out loud. That matters.

Here’s 19th-century music theorist Eduard Hanslick on the effect:

Even if we have to grant to all the arts, without exception, the power to produce effects upon the feelings, yet we do not deny that there is something specific, peculiar only to it, in the way music exercises that power. Music works more rapidly and intensely upon the mind than any other art.
Two things: I would extend his point about music’s “specific, peculiar” power to sound in general. Also, I can’t help but notice how he descends so swiftly, so gently from “the feelings” in the first sentence to “the mind” in the second.
It’s almost as if the slam of sound into our bodies (slam!) works on us in more ways than simply the emotional. It’s as if the very way we make meaning from sounds in our minds is tied to the way we feel about them.

Henry Jenkins (following Bourdieu): “Academics come to distrust their own affective responses, to speak of them apologetically or to deny them outright” (170).

I am thoroughly not disinterested in the music and sounds of Tecmo Super Bowl, an NES game from 1991. Let some of its music play while I tell you why I care.

Tecmo Super Bowl has a cheat built into it (though cheat is clearly the wrong word for such an aesthetically interesting, non-gameplay-related trick): on the intro screen, if you hold B and press left, you’re brought to an interface allowing you to cycle through all the sounds in the game.

I used to play around with this all the time, cycling methodically (frighteningly methodically?) through the sound and music samples, playing some of them over and over. There’s something satisfyingly physical about hearing, say, 5 different electronic sounds meant to reproduce players’ armored bodies slamming into each other. (Slam!) The sounds would grow more meaningful to me recursively, as I would recognize a sound I knew from the game, and then when playing identify a sound I had heard from the sound screen, and then return to the sound screen to listen again with fresh ears, and then later hear something new in the game. . . . (I’m embarrassed to say that I never noticed that Sound 32 isn’t in the game, though.)

I built emotion and meaning into those sounds, and echoes of those meanings are still with me, as corny as it sounds to write. They live in a part of me that I can’t access unless a similar sound draws it out of me, and when it’s drawn out it journeys through my whole gut and throat and head so it’s all my body hears.


Virginia Kuhn: “[A]nyone who has ever edited video clips would likely attest to the fact that one must have passion for the footage; editing demands extensive playing and replaying of clips. Whether this passion issues from a fannish impulse or is born of righteous indignation (or both) matters little. To argue, one must take a stand, not be disinterested” (3.11).


I can’t help but wonder what would evoke emotion and meaning from you. Yes, you: whoever is reading this. If I pulled some of the most commonly heard sounds from sources like Audioboo, SoundCloud, or Freesound.org, sounds like cars crashing or popular song clips or mothers’ heartbeats or ominous footsteps, would you feel something new when the sound slams (slam!) into you?

Or would I have to choose unusual sounds, hoping to catch you off guard and draw up a new emotion you hadn’t expected or remembered, perhaps since you last heard that sound years, or even decades ago? What would my success rate have to be to make that worth it? What does “success” even mean here?

And finally, where does, to use Kuhn’s phrase, “fannish impulse” fit in? Would sounds from Star Trek or Lost or Tecmo Super Bowl “work” on you in ways that the everyday wouldn’t? How would those sounds work on different fans in different and similar ways?

Obviously, the answer to all of those is a simple “I don’t know.” But let me add a: yet. I think I want to make you hear some sounds, and I want you to feel and think because of them.


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Music and Rhetoric: Making it Matter

I’m listening to Philip Glass’s score to the classic 1930s Dracula, and this track seems to represent the thoughts bouncing around in my head right now. Hit play and listen as you read along.

I opened up my Google Doc “Dissertation Research Journal” and started to write this out there as a freewrite to figure out some thoughts, but then I decided this was as good a place as that to think “out loud.” (Auditory metaphors are unavoidable, no?) I feel that sense of scholarly unease that often leads to good things; someone (who?) once wrote, “I always wake up in the middle of the night and realize that my current project is completely uninteresting, but by figuring out my way around that terror I get to the really good stuff.” I feel like I’m getting there now.

Here’s the thing: musicologists write about rhetoric all the time, but it’s generally boring. Here’s what I don’t mean by that:

  • I don’t mean that musicology is boring.
  • I don’t mean that exploring the intersection of music and rhetoric is boring.

Still, this stuff (which I’ll politely not cite in this informal space, I think) is often boring:

  • It’s boring because rhetoric is interpreted as a series of techniques. (“Here is how you arrange a speech. Here are figures to make your style effective.”)
  • Building from that, it’s boring because musical rhetoric is described as a series of techniques. (“Here is how you arrange a sonata. Here are musical figures to make your style effective.”)
  • Building from both of those, it’s boring to read a technique-driven analysis of any text. (“Then, Cicero/Bach moves into the confirmatio section of the speech/piece, which has x effect. Then, Cicero/Bach uses anaphora, which has y effect. Then . . . .”)
  • It’s also surprisingly boring to read the original manuscripts of 17th- and 18th-century musical theorists (mostly German) who loved listing every single way that rhetoric and music seem to be similar.

So. As I’ve been weighed down by this boring-ness more and more in the last few weeks, I’m increasingly led to a deeper question: how do I view rhetoric? Is it just a compilation of techniques that can be roughly categorized to help people invent, arrange, embellish, memorize, and deliver arguments? Or is it something more? I felt this desire for the ineffable recently when I was writing a fun, student-friendly piece called “Why Study Rhetoric? or, What Freestyle Rap Teaches us About Writing” (which I’ll post here one of these days). I kept talking about why rhetoric mattered, but suddenly I realized I hadn’t actually gotten specific about what rhetorical techniques actually look like, and in the end that section is what I’m least happy with.

Maybe this is the heart: one of my dissertation readers emphatically said to me once, “How can anyone in other fields know what rhetoric is? We don’t even know what it is!”

But that’s not how it sounds when you read musicologists, past or present, write about rhetoric. They seem to know. Rhetoric is always a set of techniques. It’s depicted an art, a techne, a set of technical knowledge about what’s most likely to move a crowd. Certainty all around! And in some ways, they’re right. Rhetoric is indeed an art and a series of techniques. It really is. But it’s more, too. Right?

When I was writing that piece about freestyle rap, I asked a question on my Facebook wall that now feels particularly apt:

A screenshot from Facebook

Did I ask these people for permission to post this? Nope.

Marc mentions Corder’s article, and here’s how it ends:

Rhetoric is love, and it must speak a commodious language, creating a world full of space and time that will hold our diversities. Most failures of communication result from some willful or inadvertent but unloving violation of the space and time we and others live in, and most of our speaking is tribal talk. But there is more to us than that. We can learn to speak a commodious language, and we can learn to hear a commodious language.

Musical rhetoric can work the same way, and it’s even better suited to this kind of “commodious language” than words are: music can be carefully crafted to “hold our diversities,” to be loving, to honor the inherent “violation of the space and time” that music brings as it insistently attacks our ears and minds.

And did you see Corder’s sudden move to the auditory in his 4th-from-last word–his request that we “learn to hear” this new, connection-bridging model of rhetorical communication? Maybe he hears it too. . . .

So what does this have to do with my dissertation? It means that I’m not just “interpreting musicology’s work on rhetoric in terms that the rhetoric field will appreciate,” which I always say is one of my many goals. Instead, it means that I’m coming at that work–again, both historical and contemporary–with the new lens of pointing out how our view of rhetorical music can be so much broader, so much lovelier, so much more engaging, than a simple study of arrangement and figures. And there’s nothing boring (to me) about that.

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Spotify: Joy, Wariness

As their unbelievably happy video attests, Spotify is here:

I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, reading about how this legal stream-all-the-music-you-want service is changing the face of music all over the world. So when I saw it was here I signed up for an invitation right away and got my “Step right up!” email in the next day or two.

I’m not going to go into all the features, because you can read about that elsewhere. Suffice it to say that it really is as easy as it sounds. I downloaded the program, logged in, searched “harry potter and the deathly hallows part 1” and instantly began streaming the soundtrack. (Part 2 isn’t up yet, as far as I can tell–but it’s on Grooveshark!) This morning I thought, “Oh! I haven’t bought the newest R.E.M. album yet! I’ll stream it now!” It’s going now, and I really love it.

Quick interlude: before I got married, I listened to music while falling asleep every once in a while–say, 2 nights a month. I would put on a CD, and I’d almost always be asleep before it ended. When I got my first mp3 player, I made awesome “fall asleep” playlists, because I love playlists. But I found that when I listened to the playlists, I would never actually fall asleep with them on. It wasn’t the headphones–when in college, I fell asleep plenty of times to Björk’s Vespertine through headphones.

I finally decided that I couldn’t sleep to the mp3s because there were too many of them. I always wondered, “What’s coming up next?” or I thought, “Oh, I don’t want to hear this one, so I’ll just skip it–there are dozens more!” That little bit of mental engagement kept me from sleep. I’ve nostalgically felt somewhat similar feelings about cassettes sometimes: when your friend makes you a mix tape, you get to know every song on that tape, because you don’t want to bother fast-forwarding to the songs you know you like. And in the meantime, you often begin to like the songs that you initially didn’t appreciate as much. With a mix CD, there’s nothing stopping you from plowing ahead. In both cases, there’s something about the bounty and ease of the new technology that had an unexpected, negative side-effect on the human element. (Call it the epistemology of the cassette, if you like words like that.)

Back to Spotify. Now that I have it, I hear this little, eager voice in my gut that moves from one possible future listen to the next, with somewhat alarming speed: “Oh! And I could listen to Paula Abdul later! And then Cyndi Lauper! And Depeche Mode! And The Cure! And Phish! Do they have live Phish? Live Pearl Jam? Live Death Cab? Rare Death Cab? Rare Smashing Pumpkins? Rare Björk? Club-remix Björk? Club-remix Delerium? Old-school Delerium?”

And on, and on, and on.

So while I’m excited at what Spotify can offer me, I’m wary about anything that makes me think so much about me and my wants, and allows me to fill those wants so easily, with no hesitation at all. I’m afraid that too much bounty puts me into a me-focused, jittery mindset that doesn’t include room for living within boundaries, or sleep. No, I’m not anti-Spotify. I’m pretty sure I’m going to keep using it for a long, long time. But I’m also trying to pay attention to subtle changes that new technologies want to make in me, and I want to be the one who decides which changes are allowed to happen.

Am I over-thinking this?


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Changing the Words, Changing the Context

JSmith Photo, "Jetpack On! CD Release Show 7"

Not my friend's band. JSmith Photo, "Jetpack On! CD Release Show 7," CC-BY-ND licensed, via http://www.flickr.com/photos/jmsmith000/4547469320/

A brief thought that I’ve spent a number of showers thinking about lately:

A friend of mine occasionally plays cover music in a band. (They’re good.) We talked once about adjusting the lyrics of a song that you didn’t write. He was firmly against this.

(Side note: has my dissertating led me to write all these short sentences? Can a person balance the rhythm of his writing so that his long-form, multi-claused sentences are all written in one context, like the drive where you like to listen to 9-minute songs, and then his short-form, staccato, rhythmically powerful sentences are all written in another context, like the drives where you listen to a 2-minute punk song?)

(If that last sentence is any kind of proof, apparently not. Moving on.)

When I went to hear the friend play music in a bar, the show was fantastic. He also didn’t change any of the words (as far as I noticed). But what keeps gnawing at my mind is the number of things that he did change, the things that are fundamentally changed any time a cover song is played. These include:

  • Instrumentation: When you’re performing with acoustic guitar, keyboard, bass, and drums, you’re fundamentally changing the effect of a song that wasn’t originally recorded with those instruments. (That is, originally distributed in recordings with other instruments; we have no idea how the songwriter originally wrote the piece–in front of a piano, or with an accordion, squatting in front of a cheap built-in laptop mic for the first demo recording.)
  • Vocal Inflection: A cover band can’t exactly replicate the ups and downs or the timbre of the voice they’re covering–and I’d say that they generally shouldn’t try to.
  • Musical Context: The songs surrounding any song affect how we hear it, right? This hearkens back to all the conversations I’ve been hearing about mixtapes (as assignments, as metaphors) at CCCC and C&W lately. In their simplest sense, the mixtape says, “This rearrangement of songs from their published order reflects a creative control that I’m exerting.” That is, if I put the tones of Björk’s “Frosti” just before the similarly sounding tones of Sufjan Stevens’ “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas? (Well, You Deserved It),” I want you to hear both the sonic similarity and contemplate what it means for those song’s meanings to be butted up next to each other. In a live band context, the cover song is surrounded (almost always) with new songs, giving it new contexts and new meanings.
  • Performance Context: Doesn’t a song mean something different when we hear it pumped through bar speakers, surrounded by bar people, as opposed to hearing it come up in Winamp at my computer, or in my car, or in headphones while weeding the garden?

Change the lyrics? Why not? It’s not like anything else in the original is being delivered in the same way.

I tried to scare up a quote about music and lyrics from David Burrows’ beautifully excellent little book, Sound, Speech, and Music, but apparently I didn’t copy the quote into my Evernotes, and Google Books isn’t helping. If I remember right (and I very well might not be), he has a sentence about lyrics being fundamentally secondary to music in the ears of listeners–something that I tried to tell my parents all through middle school, but they didn’t seem to buy it.

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Grading and Voting

This morning, I’m listening to OverClocked ReMix radio over at Rainwave. I enjoy the complex interactivity of the voting system, which allows me both to rate songs I’ve heard and vote on which of 3 upcoming songs I want to hear.

A few minutes ago, though, I had a new thought: as someone who regularly grades student work, including short, informal, online work, do I vote differently than someone else who doesn’t have those judging/scoring/grading habits as deeply ingrained? Or, more perversely, is my grading behavior affected by my habits voting on music on this site?

Here’s an annotated screenshot of what the voting area of the screen looks like:

Annotated screenshot of ocr.rainwave.cc

With videogame remix music (or ReMix music, they would say), there’s a fun interplay of influences guiding my voting. I might choose a given song because:

  • I know the game and love its music
  • I know the original game’s composer and love his/her music
  • I know the ReMixer and love his/her ReMixes
  • I’ve previously rated how much I like the other 2 tunes on the docket, so I want to hear one I’ve never rated before
  • The average rating for a tune is higher than the others
  • The average rating for tunes from a given game is higher than the others

There’s something satisfying about quickly (almost instantly, sometimes) skimming the list of upcoming tracks, voting on which should come next, and then rating the currently playing track. It’s intuitive, sometimes hard to describe, and felt, as opposed to a solidly logical choice based on definable traits of the upcoming tracks. I could have a rubric to try to make my choices make more sense to outsiders, but that rubric would only go so far.

I hope my grading is more consistent and outcomes-driven than that, but especially on small assignments that earn a check, check plus, or check minus, there’s still an intuitive, emotion-tinged, bodily aspect to the decision that can never be wholly explained to another person. And right now, I’m not sure what I think about that. Thoughts? Resources I should read?

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ICFA 2011: Fans and Friendliness

So in my mind, I thought I would write multiple thoughtful posts about my 3 and a half days at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts–but instead, I’m going to settle for a brief snapshot of the awesomeness. (For someone who blogged much more successfully, see Heather Osborne’s site; Karen Hellekson also has a post up on the conference–anyone else?)

Favorite Papers and/or Panels

  • 14. Harry Potter Panel: a lovely conversation with other Harry Potter fans, hosted creatively by 4 USF graduate students (none from the English dept!) who each represented a different Hogwarts house and proposed new Hogwarts “classes” for the audience, including a class on queer theory, on mothering/female identity/hospitality, non-human magic users, and feminist role models/fan creations. (I butchered those descriptions, by the way; their course descriptions were far cleverer.) A bonus: dressing up in their house colors!
  • 17. Remixes, Roleplaying, and Real-World Skills: Audience Interaction with and Response to Digital Media: I successfully gave my paper on videogame remixes and humor in instrumental music as seen at OverClocked ReMix, while Heather Osborne presented some results from an intriguing survey of gamers about how they perform gender in-game. Most intriguing to me was her finding that players whose avatars performed gender differently than the player would sometimes be challenged in positive ways when they found themselves doing something in-game that made them feel uncomfortable, since they were trying to make their character as internally consistent as possible.
  • 32. Indigenous Futures on Film: I was honored to see the short film Pumzi, which I guess I could describe as an SF eco-feminist vision of a post-apocalyptic African dystopia–but that doesn’t do justice to the beauty, quiet, tension, and tone of the film. Seriously, it’s about time I learned more about non-Western SF.
  • 43. Mix it up: Literary, Historical, and Fannish Remixes and Mash-Ups: Perhaps my favorite panel. An informal conversation between fan fiction author and scholar Barbara Lucas, lawyer Lisa Macklem, folklorist Sarah Carpenter, and fiction author Candas Jane Dorsey. Very quickly it became evident that Dorsey, as an author, wasn’t a fan of people remixing plot and characters from other works, while practically everyone else thought this was a valid and important way for fans to respond to the stuff they love. Sure, it was occasionally tense, but we all did a good job of being civil and hashing out some tough ideas at the most practical level.
  • 57. Words and Music: Okay, this one was actually my favorite panel. Four folks who were specialists in both writing and music, all giving us a mix of their informal thoughts and mini-performances. Little do they know that they’re on my dissertation radar and will be getting emails from me before long….
  • 65. Mirth, Mischief, and Mystical Melodies: Music Fans and Communities:  See Heather’s post about this fun (if under-attended), informal conversation I was honored to moderate.

Best Experiences

  • Two fun chats with USF colleague Jessica Eberhard–once with Karen Hellekson (about online publishing, among other things) and once with Mads Haahr (about gaming environments and multidisciplinarity, among other things).
  • Finding out that Isabella Van Elferen has written about both 1) music in Lost and 2) musical rhetoric, making her my new favorite person ever (but in a non-creepy way).
  • I’m shy. I hide it pretty well, but it’s tiring for me to meet new people. But despite that hold-up, I had so many friendly conversations with folks that I can’t even start to list them all. That’s the main thing I’ll remember about ICFA this year: that I’ll look forward to returning not just for the scholarly conversations (and the free books!) but also for the friendly-talk and smiles.
  • Discovering that despite a generally low-tech atmosphere (I was usually the only one tapping notes into a computer; 90% of papers were just papers without PowerPoint or supplement of any kind), there was a friendly, helpful series of tweets using the #icfa hashtag.
  • Speaking of tech: finding that my netbook’s battery is indeed sufficient for notetaking, with some proper battery-saving measures taken. Evernote, I love you. (My low-paper conference experience was inspired by this post over at ProfHacker.)

Books that it Turns Out I Absolutely Need to Read

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Background Music

I finished Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother last night (my second book read completely on the Kindle–and it’s free here, so why aren’t you reading it too?). It’s a fun YA read (interesting note on YA fiction: it doesn’t shy away from the sexy time but avoids the big MF bomb with underscores) that has me thinking about all kinds of privacy, terrorism, technology, hacking issues in fresh ways. Good stuff. It also ends with a few afterwords, including this quote from Bruce Schneier, security expert/hacker:

But really, security is a mindset. It’s a way of thinking. Marcus [the main character in Little Brother] is a great example of that way of thinking. He’s always looking for ways a security system fails. I’ll bet he couldn’t walk into a store without figuring out a way to shoplift. Not that he’d do it — there’s a difference between knowing how to defeat a security system and actually defeating it — but he’d know he could.

It’s how security people think. We’re constantly looking at security systems and how to get around them; we can’t help it.

All this is basically a rambling introduction to my thought for the day: background music. I’ve been working on and off on an audio submission for a special issue on “Writing with Sound” for the online journal Currents in Electronic Literacy, and part of what I’m thinking about is background music–in videogames, in silent films, in non-silent films.

And I find that the more I think theoretically about background music, the more I think about the background music that’s constantly around me. It’s like the Schneier quote: “It’s how [music] people think. We’re constantly looking at [or listening to] [music] and how to [make it, understand it, judge how it’s affecting us]; we can’t help it.”

I don’t really have much more to say than that. But really, here in Panera, what would my work be like with instrumental music playing from India or China or Ghana or New Zealand, as opposed to the Bach/Vivaldi/Scarlatti rotation they stick to? (That’s not critical, by the way; I love the music in Panera.) And in my car driving here, when I switched from NPR to Rubber Soul, my mood lightened, I started happily humming harmonies to songs I don’t really know; I was more adventurous, more casual. Walking from my car to my campus office with Portishead playing in my headphones gives the walk a different tint than it would with Pearl Jam.

I know, I know. This is all old news. There’s tons of work on movie sound design, real world sound design, videogame music, etc. etc. etc. But there’s something different between knowing something and starting to experience it, habitually drawing it to the forefront of consciousness. And that’s fun, and worth mentioning.

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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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