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Psychedelic Headphones.

2011: Writing With Sound

 Diane Davis

In Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture, Simon Reynolds explores a crucial distinction between rock and roll and the various genres of rave music: whereas rock typically foregrounds lyrics, a narrative that must be interpreted, rave doesn't narrate a story; its lyrics, when it has them, are often indecipherable and mostly beside the point.[1] For the music critic, Reynolds notes, this necessitates a kind of Deleuzo-Guattarian shift in emphasis from interpretation to performativity: “you no longer ask what the music ‘means’ but how it works. What is the affective charge of a certain kind of bass sound, of a particular rhythm?” (9). Dance/trance music isn’t out to induce reflection (and so rarely prompts the dreaded drink-n-dials that, for example, rock ballads can); instead, it’s out to entrain, to engender a kind of rhythmic sync-up, hic et nunc, between music and body. Rave music, with or without its chemical partner (XTC), is out to move the body of the listener, to turn the listener into a dancer, situating the DJ as a kind of techno-shaman whose spinning magic moves the crowd to action and attitude through underground channels, beneath the reach of cognitive scanners. A kind of persuasion devoid of argument, rave’s particular style of pathetic appeal exposes something that Nietzsche already understood about music more generally: that (any) music's suasive impact takes place despite (or because) of its stubborn refusal to mean. Whether Nietzsche would have appreciated acid house music is unclear, but the latter does expose the fact that body's sensual response to the beat and rhythm of music is mostly independent of intellection, revealing an affective rapport that operates in excess, at the very least, of interpretive meaning. Rave music exposes this affective rapport more explicitly than rock and roll—or, say, jazz—because there is no narrative to interpret. It exposes it more explicitly than ambient music, as well, because it so obviously aims to entrain, forcing an attunement to the performative power of the music itself.

To write with sound, to make music in the strictest sense, traditionally involves the production of a score; reading this score in order to play the music locates you, as Avital Ronell puts it, “somewhere between the graphic inscription and sound, sensation and perception, performance and meaning” (8).[2] Reading, in this and every case, is a depropriating experience; in reading, you are scored. "To read music,” Ronell writes, is to read “the desemanticized field of notation always aspiring toward a language of which it must fall short. But precisely this interval between music and what it will not do and cannot say produces the allegory of the impossible place in which reading begins to take place” (13). "As it turns out,” she continues, “there exists no purity of reading, but rather pressures are exerted that produce the ineluctably multimediatic scene of reading: the sirens, the radio, the random noise, the traffic that jams what was never in the first place silent. There is no thought of creation that is not accompanied by music or its corruption—a prior sounding that makes absolute silence resound” (14). Whereas Nietzsche seemed to situate music and language in separate spheres, proposing that language’s “imperious claims” contaminate musical purity, Ronell notes that “it is never the case that music and language would be separated definitively, each repairing to a domain of seclusion; they are made to meet repeatedly in the hybrid space of the musical score, where it is not clear which moment of phrasing dominates and structures the other. The impossible couple,” she surmises, “desires its fusion as much as it must evade and renounce such a hope (a fusion that would, at the very least, semanticize music, giving it a meaning, and soften language, letting it dream)” (8).

Spinning is a style of writing-as-remixing that does not produce or rely on a score. The DJ performs without reading a score and writes without engaging the zones of meaning-making that the score both conjures and evades. But the DJ is a reader more generally, a reader of the “multimediatic scene” or “rhetorical ambiance” into which the spinning will flow (8). S/he aims not to discover or make meaning but to produce an effect through affect, to produce an affective effect, that will move an audience to a particular behavior and mood. The DJ is a rhetor who reads, who writes, who performs, and who persuades without recourse to constative or referential modes of communication. And in a certain sense, any writer is at the very least part DJ, sampling, remixing, and repurposing visual, verbal, and/or aural “marks” that depend for their meaning precisely on the power of repetition, on what Derrida calls “iterability.” Similarly, every text is at the very least part musical score—even in a printed text, the synesthetic event of persuasion depends to a large degree (larger than is usually acknowledged) on tone, style, beat, rhythm—and static. To write with sound, to make “music,” with traditional musical instruments, with a turntable (or a turntable app), with found sounds, with the voice, with a piece of chalk on a chalkboard—is to engage in a performance of the inscription that relies very explicitly on noncognitive affective appeals.

The writers in this issue responded to our call to bring audio technologies into the field’s descriptions of “the writing process(es)” and so to help change not only the ways we think about and teach writing, but our processes, and so our “products,” as well. We are obviously not the first to put out such a call, and we are especially grateful to two journals in the field that paved the way. Computers and Composition’s 2006 special issue on “Sound in/as a Compositional Space” was one inspiration for this current (Currents) volume; Enculturation’s 1999 special issue on Writing/Music/Culture, guest edited by Thomas Rickert, was another. Enculturation published some of the most innovative thinking on this issue at the time, and Rickert and Byron Hawk’s introduction to the issue, “’Avowing the Unavowable’: On the Music of Composition,” was a pathbreaker. Here, the Currents editorial staff is pleased to publish both performative and critical pieces, each of which attends in some way to sound writing, to writing with sound.

Avital Ronell inaugurates this 2011 issue with a performance piece (a creative remix of the opening paragraphs of “Finitude’s Score”) that was originally developed for a radio show on French culture.[3] Here we have simply entitled this unnamed work: “Nietzsche was a DJ.” Accompanied by, and in conversation with, the voice of an animated flute, she explores Nietzsche’s complex views on music, providing listeners with an exemplary demonstration of writing with sound and remixing as a sophisticated scholarly technique. She thereby “sets the tone” for the sound-work to follow, encouraging others to follow in suit(e).

After an introduction on the question of “amateurism” and building “street cred,” the DWRL’s own Will Burdette sits down with Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky) to discuss questions relating to the ubiquity of noise, the editing processes involved in perception, logics of association and mixing, dreaming, sampling, and more. All the while, their exchange is punctured and punctuated by the clamor of the Austin cityscape. The interview sets the stage for the broader conversation of the issue as a whole, and provides listeners with a rough guide to larger disciplinary conversations surrounding sound. In the interactive artwork "Common Sounds" and the accompanying prose reflection, Jessica Barness explores Paul D. Miller's notion of listener as performer. She invites the audience to compose a remix using a collection of images and a wide range of recorded sounds, such as a shaken jar of popcorn kernels, a strummed guitar, a purring cat, and the symphony of a traffic intersection. Here, the audience member becomes the composer.

Using the medium of a Prezi, Geoffrey Carter conjoins and remixes three interviews with significant figures in rhetorical theory and history, namely, Byron Hawk, Alex Reid, and Victor Vitanza. Titled, “inter.Virtual.Vitalism.views: Aural Encounters,” Carter’s piece not only provides a significant demonstration of writing with sound, but also takes up the ancient question of where one might situate (or refuse to situate) rhetoric disciplinarily, as well as complex theoretical issues related to re-thinking vitalism and the Deleuzian virtual. The piece questions scholarly authenticity through blending voices, unrepentant repetition, and listening to the “humming on” of various ghosts. Kyle Stedman explores human interaction with soundscapes, technology and the metropolis in his audio essay “How Music Speaks:  In the Background, In the Remix, In the City.”  Stedman performs his argument about the rhetorical effects of background music by incorporating an underlying “audio smorgasbord” of samples into his discussion of Metropolis and Things to Come.  The resulting essay, while playfully rendered, raises serious questions about the “messy” illocutionary power of music. In "Writing Without Sound: Language Politics in Closed Captioning", Amy Lueck explores how decisions about this form of writing interact with language policies such as Standard English and English Only. By encouraging "critical negotiation of language use," Lueck provides recommendations on how to make the evolving soundscape widely accessible. 

Byron Hawk and Christian Smith "take it to eleven" in their raucous contribution called “‘Digimortal’: Sound in a World of Posthumanity.” In a series of commentaries layered over music tracks from Fear Factory’s album “Digimortal,” Hawk and Smith work to produce a hybrid text, one that overcomes the boundaries between “personal” narrative, musical criticism, interview response, and theoretical analysis. While explosive heavy-metal tracks threaten to efface the human voices of the recording, they take up questions of genre authenticity, the evolving relation between humans and machines, the question of academics and dying, and more. It is therefore an example of sound and technology writing “us,” just as much as an example of writing with sound. Cynthia Haynes sings the blues in her affectively- and theoretically- charged piece “Thinking Across the Neck: Playing Slide with Fret/work Blues,” calling her listeners to respond to the problems of voice, dying, and “fretwork.” Drawing from interviews and her many personal experiences with the Texas blues scene, she reveals parallels and disjunctions between writing with words and writing with sounds. Along the way, she also shows that the blues isn’t dead after all, even if it is ceaselessly dying. In “An Autoethnography of Sound: Local Music Culture in Northern Colorado,” Joe Schicke puts theory into practice by using James Berlin’s categories (or continuum) of expressivism and social constructionism to analyze interviews he conducted with Colorado musicians, musician employers, and music advocates. Schicke listens carefully to see how these different members of Colorado music culture relate their experiences and values concerning authenticity, economy, and personal expression. He concludes his grounded study with a look at the broader theoretical implications of such an inquiry, particularly in relation to the concepts of singularity and affect. In her own example of writing with sound called “Inquiry as Telos,” Jenny Edbauer Rice provides listeners with an intriguing pedagogical provocation. Averring that sound-writing can serve as its own end, and even as its own theorization, she records and remixes sounds and voices from Austin, Texas, providing a vernacular depiction of the city and its unique resonance. Juxtaposed with subtle music, this “remedy against boredom” reveals to teachers a novel form of composition, as well as a novel of form of life, one that calls for deployment in the classroom.

 “Is the English classroom ready to go multimodal?” ask Mark Blaauw-Hara and Kevin Putman in their pedagogy-in-practice ensemble piece featuring a sample essay prompt, music template and lesson plan guide.  In "Remixing the Personal Narrative Essay: 'The Hardest and Best Thing I Have Ever Done'" the authors include an original rap song inspired by Putman’s experiences with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as an example of the personal narrative work possible in song lyric formats.  The accompanying lesson guide includes suggestions for user-friendly software and hardware to make the multimodal essay concept into a classroom reality. As Crystal VanKooten observes in the article "A New Composition, a 21st Century Pedagogy, and the Rhetoric of Music", using music for rhetorical effect in multimedia composition lies within the creative powers of the college student. Kaitlyn Patterson, one of VanKooten's students, turned a course assignment into a powerful multimedia commentary on gender inequality in sports. VanKooten's companion video, "Writing with Sound: The Rhetoric of Music," illustrates how Kaitlyn used music in rhetorically sophisticated ways. Lydia French and Emily Bloom call our attention to the literacy of listening in "Auralacy: From Plato to Podcasting and Back Again." In a series of short pieces, carefully knit together through dialogue and reflection, the authors bridge pedagogy and rhetorical theory to supplement writing and speech with a rhetoric of listening, a current which has governed classroom communication - even when we've failed to hear it - from Plato through the present day. Geoffrey Sirc and Steph Ceraso ask what formal changes in the history of song composition can tell us about the future of written composition in their essay "Digital Lyrical." Pulling from an eclectic range of sources including Tin Pan Alley lyrics, classical rhetorics, and tweets from and on popular culture, Sirc and Ceraso make a compelling argument that we need to challenge the prevailing assumption that the quality of exposition depends on its length. By suggesting that new media such as Twitter demand the "principles of short verbal craft," Sirc and Ceraso challenge their readers to embrace the old truth that each form of composition develops its own expressive abilities.

[1] Reynolds, Simon. Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture. New York: Rutledge, 1999. Print.

[2] Ronell, Avital. Finitude’s Score: Essays for the End of the Millennium. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. Print.

[3] ---. “Finitude’s Score.” In Ronell, Finitude’s Score: Essays for the End of the Millennium. 19-40. Print.

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