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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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Cracking Open Traditional Academic Prose

I’ve been drooling over Laurel Richardson’s Fields of Play (Constructing an Academic Life) this afternoon. In the section I read most carefully, she describes the process and reaction to her composition of a 5-page poem using the words from a 36-page interview transcript from a woman named “Louisa May.” It’s a beautiful piece, resonant in all the ways a poem should be. Here’s the beginning:

The most important thing
to say                           is that
I grew up in the South.
Being southern shapes
aspirations                shapes
what you think you are
and what you think you’re going to be.

(When I hear myself, my Ladybird
kind of accent on tape. I think, O Lord,
You’re from Tennessee.)

And so on. Louisa May tells the story of her divorce, pregnancy, and decision to raise a child on her own.

Richardson describes many reasons for the decision to use verse–including the admission that there are probably several reasons that she doesn’t quite know yet (147-48). In part, though, the form is apt because:

In the routine work of the sociological interview, the interview is tape-recorded, transcribed as prose, and then cut, pasted, edited, trimmed, smoothed, and snipped, just as if it were a literary text, which it is, albeit usually without explicit acknowledgment or recognition of such by its sociological constructor. (140)

She’s got me thinking about times I’ve broken the boundaries of the academic prose I was expected to write, and how those are some of my most pleasant memories as a writer. And that’s interesting–that it’s specifically boundary-crossing that I remember most, not the times when I wrote a poem in a place where a poem was expected, or a traditionally memoir-ish piece when that was expected. There’s something to the act of cracking open a seemingly closed door that appeals to me (though I think I should/could find a less violent metaphor for such a playful activity). So as an act of trying to create the memory of those activities, I’ll list them here. For example:

  • In 12th grade, I turned in some crazily obtuse poetry when asked to reflect on some of my academic writing.
  • Similarly, in a magical realism class in my 2nd year of college, I couldn’t find it in me to reflect on my semester’s writing–it was a portfolio class–in an unmagical, too-realistic way. So because I was 19, I typed up a poem in courier font with vague references to the impossibility of describing the magical in prose, which I remember included the (uncited) line from the liner notes of The Smashing Pumpkins’ The Aeroplane Flies High box set, “And don’t you forget it for one second,” to which the teacher wrote in, “I won’t.”
  • In my final semester in college, I prepared a portfolio of my best papers written throughout my four years and wrote a retrospective on what I had learned. Instead of an essay (which I think everyone else did), I pieced together a hodgepodge that is still one of my favorite pieces of writing ever, including a frame story of a witch threatening to suck my brain out with a spoon, a dramatic scene where an old Kyle talks to a young Kyle about the books he’ll like, a story about my granddaughter putting on headphones that allow her to hear the thoughts I was thinking as I drafted college essays, and a poem in iambic pentameter.
  • For my undergraduate honors thesis on Atlantis in literature, I included an introductory story about me drowning and two short stage interludes between chapters, where I tried to express different sides of my ideas about Atlantis, the uncertain complexity of my feelings and all that. Stuff like this:

Dorothy: I really like that I got to go here.

Silence. Phyllis gives no indication of hearing anything and stares directly into the audience.

I mean, it’s all kinds of stuff. But especially the name. I like that we go to Atlantis High School.


Phyllis: It’s the same as every other high school.

Dorothy: No it’s not, it’s . . . different because of something about. . . . It’s different because it’s Atlantis. That’s cool, I don’t know.


Phyllis: It’s not really very cool.

  • In my first course in grad school, I managed to offend James Slevin by writing another short drama between balding, full-of-themselves academics in a panel discussion and Walter Ong, back from the grave, who had some questions for them from the audience. Professor Slevin thought I meant the balding jerks to be him. Oops.
  • In a recent creative nonfiction graduate workshop I took with some brilliant MFA students and the brilliant-er Ira Sukrungruang, it was stinking hard for me to write standard memoir-fare. I kept feeling the need to play around, tell things out of order, overload the page with footnotes, make stuff up, and generally be an ass to my patient readers. Now, there was a lot of support for this buffoonery, even though I didn’t always pull it off, but it was clear that some of the better writers in the class thought my stuff was unnecessarily quirky, flashy, whatever. They were probably right.

So what am I saying? I’m not sure yet–like Richardson, I’m comfortable figuring out what I think about my writing practices after the fact. But I do know that some (all?) of my dissertation interviews are going to appear as poems. Updates shall appear as I proceed.

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