When the different choices of audio genres were presented to us for this assignment, I immediately gravitated toward the oral history. I felt a sense of urgency about telling the life story of my brother Chris because he has had some unique struggles and triumphs. Written text is a very familiar mode for me; even when I’m writing somebody else’s story, I still have a sense of ownership over my work. Using a digital recording of my brother’s voice offered some new and unexpected challenges, particularly because of the ruthless decisions I had to make in the editing process. Furthermore, the original recording was so significantly transformed by my own manipulations of voice, music, and silence that I had to ask some interesting questions about ownership: Is this still my brother’s story even though it has been repurposed? Do the rhetorical decisions I’ve made alter the story too far from its original essence?
My brother’s voice is the most important part of this project, which I’ve entitled “Hit and Run: An Oral History.” He is such a skilled storyteller that he unintentionally made some of my most important rhetorical decisions for me. I think Chris honed his gift for storytelling through the retelling of his stories in front of support group audiences. By repeatedly telling the same stories, he has been able to adjust the way he relates them to be more effective. He has recounted the events of “Hit and Run: An Oral History” so many times now that he has inadvertently been studying rhetoric with regard to it, and his telling is very compelling. Theo van Leeuwen (1999) has offered some specific insights on how and why Chris’ storytelling was so effective, particularly if we focus on his vocal qualities of pitch, softness, and tension.
Chris has a naturally low-pitched voice, but his pitch changes during different sections of the piece to produce a rhetorical effect. When he is relaying general information in the beginning of the story, his pitch tends to remain steady. Yet during moments of anger and sorrow, his pitch changes. van Leeuwen (1999) commented that men use low pitches to make themselves “submissive” and high pitches to exert “dominance” (p. 134). A good example of Chris’ change in pitch can be found in the section where he voices outrage over his assailant’s decision to flee the scene of the crime. He says, “For all she knew, I could have been dead! And she drove off!” There is a clear distinction between the pitch in this section and the pitch in the closing section, when Chris says, “I’ll never really know for her….” The high pitch of the first quote is a clear demonstration of indignation, whereas the lower pitch in the second quote is indicative of the speaker’s submissiveness, his inability to confront Sofia for what she has done. These changes in pitch, in combination with the language, convey a strong message. If Chris had said, “For all she knew, I could have been dead” in a low or middling pitch, the angered effect would have been lost. In fact, the statement would have been almost comedic.
Although his voice never becomes especially loud, even during moments of exclamation, there are two sections of the recording where the softness of Chris’ voice has a strong rhetorical effect. The first moment is when he is quoting what the detective on his case told him over the phone: “I’ve got good news. I think we found the person who hit you with their car.” van Leeuwen (1999) stated that softness of voice communicates “intimacy or confidentiality,” and confidentiality is strikingly present in this scene (p. 133). From a rhetorical standpoint, this moment of confidentiality also serves as a moment of tension for the audience, because the confidential information about to be exposed is the identity of Chris’ would-be assassin. This softness, combined with my use of silence, leads up to the cathartic moment for the listener when the truth is finally revealed. I paid particular attention to this part of the story so that the moment would be poignant. By lowering the sound of the music to match the softness of my brother’s voice and utilizing silence, I emphasized the importance of the moment to my audience.
Another meaningful moment in this piece is when Chris exclaims, “This is the age of Facebook,” and his voice gets particularly tense. That tension signifies the presence of “aggression, excitement, and anguish” (van Leeuwen, 1999, p. 131). Once again, if this exclamation and the following dialogue had been delivered in his regular deep monotone voice, his anger would be much less palpable. Because of the tension in his voice, the audience can empathize with the anguish that Chris is experiencing upon seeing his would-be murderer’s happy wedding photos while he himself is recovering from the hit and run.
While my brother’s storytelling was naturally rhetorically effective, I made conscious decisions about how I wanted music to play a role in “Hit and Run: An Oral History.” My goal was to achieve what van Leeuwen (1999) referred to as “duologue,” or a “simultaneous interaction” between the narrator’s voice and the music—two streams of sound that have “equality, collaboration, and a joint production of meaning” (p. 71). My music choices were directly related to Chris’ story and the manner in which he told it. In an effort to find the right balance between voice and music, I tested several different audio tracks as backgrounds with Chris’ narration of being run over and waking up in the hospital, arguably the most important section. I spent hours experimenting and in most cases, the music and voice sounded contrary to one another. The effect was unsettling and confusing. I eventually came upon a piece of music called “Rain Down and Fall Away” by adcBicycle (2015) and found it complimentary to the tone of Chris’ voice and that particular part of the story. The song, with its long synthetic drone and subtly plucking high-pitched guitar, is indicative of a moment that is traumatic, staggering, and serious in scope: it serves as an ideal backdrop to the description of a harrowing, life-changing event.
The four other musical pieces I used are by a group called Blue Dot Sessions (2015). The beginning of the oral history called for music that was ambulatory and conducive to the telling of a story, so I opened with “Insatiable Toad” (2015) and continued with “Then a Gambling Problem” (2015). They function well as introductory pieces because they create a steady tempo, are suited to the relaying of general background information, and do not evoke much emotion. “Lull” (2015) served as the background to the part where the driver’s identity is revealed, which was an unexpected choice. I initially planned to make this moment more dramatic, utilizing more silence and perhaps a significant change in musical tone. Because of the way Chris told the story, however, I realized that the identity of the driver would likely be apparent to the audience before this segment began. I thought twice about using grandiose techniques and chose solemn music instead. The effect positioned the storyteller as overcome by the remembrance and realization that his assailant was somebody who knew him and once cared for him. I ended the project with “Faster Faster Brighter” (2015) because the slightly more upbeat tone contrasted with the previous musical pieces. This song offered a sense of resolution and was complementary to the speaker’s testimony on his current happiness.
van Leeuwen (1999) would identify Chris’ voice as the “figure,” which is “the most relevant (sound) to the listener, the sound with which the listener must identify ” (p. 205). He would describe the music as the “ground,” which “we take for granted and only notice when it is no longer there” (p. 206). The removal of music in this oral history wouldn’t detract from the intriguing nature of the story, yet it would neglect to account for the unique affordances music offers. Kyle D. Stedman (2013) explained that various arrangements of music tracks “invite listeners to find new meaning in the juxtapositions.” The music is integral to the piece not just because it elevates the speaker’s voice to the “figure” position and contextualizes the story, but also because it evokes particular emotions such as curiosity, despair, and perseverance. Furthermore, because of the diverse nature of the subjective interpretation of music, the inclusion of music in the piece permits the audience to extract deeper meaning than they may have otherwise.
Although the presence of music is constant in this piece, I used periodic silencing of my brother’s voice for two purposes: to increase dramatic tension through solemn silence and to signify the end of one part of the story and the beginning of another through “musical silence” (Goodman, 1972). The solemn silence in this piece is most evident when Chris speaks of waking up in the hospital. Each segment of speech is separated by a brief but apparent moment of silence. In reality, when I recorded this section, Chris spoke at a regular speed. I chose to create silences so that the dramatic music would momentarily shine past the sound of Chris’ voice. The effect is a sense of drama, fear, and loss. Because of the way the music, silence, and voice interact, there is also a subtle implication that Chris has come to terms with his trauma despite having to relive it through storytelling. Musical silence occurs during the transition of Chris’ waking up in the hospital to describing the call he received from the detective at his sister’s house. I use the term “musical silence” to describe this sequence because the background music ceases completely. Within that musical silence, Chris makes a rapid proclamation: “So I was at my sister’s house, nobody knew who hit me with their car….” I initially had great difficulty with this sequence because the previous tone of the story was difficult to reconcile with that rapid proclamation, so I found silence useful in this regard.
To conclude, I wanted to address some of the interesting challenges I faced with composing this text, particularly the challenge of actually editing my brother’s voice. Erin Anderson (2014) claimed that we often see our voices as “property…either as the rightful possession of a unique human body or as the authentic expression of a unique human subject.” After I collected the raw material necessary to do my project by recording my brother’s voice, I was left with over 30 minutes of audio material. I started cutting the material with the obvious omissions: the “ums,” the “likes,” and the long pauses of consideration. I was still left with a heaping 20 minutes of audio material, which meant that I had some difficult choices to make. I saw “Hit and Run: An Oral History” as his story, and it was my brother’s actual voice that I was editing, so I was concerned that I would cut out the heart of the story. I was, in effect, borrowing his voice, and I didn’t want to abuse it.
I had to take a step back and realize that my brother chose to give me his voice for this project, along with a certain amount of trust to do what was best to help me achieve my goal. He knew I would have to make edits and changes, that the end product wouldn’t sound exactly as the interview did in his memory. My primary purpose was to create a good oral history, not preserve my brother’s voice as a historical artifact. Anderson (2014) informed us that when our goal is to preserve the speaker’s original intentions, “recordings of other people’s voices remain inert and sacred objects of preservation, closed off to the imaginative manipulation, recombination, and reuse that digital audio affords.” Essentially, I was using my brother’s voice as part of a “performance,” which gave me certain liberties to manipulate it. There are also pertinent elements of this story that I purposely left out of this project for reasons of time and privacy, but the essence of the story is present. Viewing Chris’ voice as a performance allowed me some space for digital play because “toward questions of performance, we…find in digital voice a certain promise and potential. Rather than focusing on what voice means, we can consider instead what voice does” (Anderson, 2014). I didn’t steal my brother’s voice for my own nefarious needs; we actually collaborated in the creation of a piece of art. I determined what my brother’s voice is capable of with its pitch, tension, and silence, and then I used other materials to create something new from what was originally a conversation between my brother and me in my living room at 7 a.m. on a Sunday.
Within the scope of “performance,” the use and manipulation of digital voice recordings offers a myriad of opportunities for creators. When creating an audio text, all different types of sound have to be taken into consideration. The background noise in a street interview will create an image and a sense of space in the audience’s mind. Music creates a landscape of sound, referred to as a “soundscape” (Tonkiss, 2003). Elements of an oral history will sound like scenes from a movie or a play. Voice, when treated as an event or a performance, can be used to accomplish rhetorical goals that vary widely from the original voice recording: “Perhaps what emerges, then, is an opportunity to reorient our approach to voice in digital rhetoric…toward alternative possibilities of invention, through experimental compositional practices that begin from and return to the material itself” (Anderson, 2014).
AdcBicycle. (2015). Rain down and fall away. On Malignant Cove. Southern City’s Lab.
Blue Dot Sessions. (2015). Faster faster brighter. On Raygun. Oregon, USA: Blue Dot Studios.
Blue Dot Sessions. (2015). Insatiable toad. On Origami. Oregon, USA: Blue Dot Studios.
Blue Dot Sessions. (2015). Lull. On Raygun. Oregon, USA: Blue Dot Studios
Blue Dot Sessions. (2015). Then a gambling problem. On Raygun. Oregon, USA: Blue Dot Studios