Audio Journal

Danah Hashem, “A Week In March”

Link to Transcript

The printed version of my daily journal sitting open to a handwritten entry.

An open journal sitting on a chair with a pen between the pages. One page is filled, top to bottom, with the scrawling handwriting of a journal entry. The pages both near the front and the back cover of the journal are filled with photographs, notes, and postcards peeking out.

I began this project with the idea of using the visual artifact of my daily journal. For most of my life I have kept a daily journal with varying purposes, but generally with the intent of briefly summarizing my day and chronicling any extraordinary events that happened. My mom always stressed the importance of writing things down to preserve fleeting memories, moments in life that may be important or valuable to you or someone else in the future. She shared some of her journals with me and I cherish these precious glimpses into a past version of herself that I will never know. Her funny adolescent thoughts and antiquated routines fascinate me; this fascination makes me believe that she’s right about journaling. So I journal to preserve and chronicle memories for myself and possible others who might find my daily life intriguing.

My goal in this project was to translate journal entries from my written journal into an audio file, capturing my journaling for a week. The idea stems from Heidi McKee’s (2006) statement that “barring hearing loss, we live immersed in sounds” (p. 335). Sound is integral to the way we experience life, playing a massive role in our daily activities and most poignant memories. In translating written journal entries into audio journal entries, I am attempting to maintain the journaling task of preserving the details of my daily life, but doing so in a mode that, despite permeating my daily existence, is often overlooked when writing discursively. While my visuals or even tactile memories accompany my textual entries, I have never included sound. This does not, however, stop sound from being a critical component of my daily life. With this project, I hope to explore and capitalize on the unique affordances of the sonic mode in an effort to preserve and chronicle my daily memories in the style of a journal.

In the process of creating the audio journal, I realized, with the help of some constructive feedback, that my personal journal was less about my individual days and more about my life with my husband, Eoghan. While I didn’t expect that feedback, I also wasn’t wholly surprised to receive it. It makes sense; Eoghan and I have essentially merged lives over the past few years, so of course an honest recounting of my day would feature him fairly heavily. This realization prompted me to include some of Eoghan’s journal entries along with my own.  Eoghan used to write in his journal daily, but hasn’t done so for about a year. In order to revive his journaling style, he reread some of his old journals and then resumed his daily journaling for the week we were working to capture. I then asked him to read his written entries and record sound clips from his day so that I could include his entries along with mine.

The audio journal I created from our entries does not fall into a well-established genre category. It straddles the space between several existing audio genres including oral histories, recorded interviews, and radio documentaries. With a goal of preservation and chronicling of memories, the audio journal aligns itself with genre characteristics of oral histories. However, unlike an oral history, it does not reflect on an event in the distant past. The audio journal reflects on that past day’s events. Much like the recorded interview genre, the narration in the audio journal responds to an assumed prompt and gives personal impressions and reflections. Unlike the interview genre, however, the audio journal does not give any indication of an interviewer and is not constrained by questions. The audio journal can consist of whatever reflections the journaler wants. Further, the spontaneous recordings from Eoghan’s and my days are reminiscent of many genre norms that accompany a radio documentary with goals to capture a social situation in its unfiltered form; however, unlike a documentary, it is not observing a subject from a third party perspective. The audio journal consists of observations made in the first person. Overall, the most significant genre characteristics that sets the audio journal apart from other genres is the fact that the subject of the audio journal (in this case, myself and Eoghan) is also the creator of it. I worked to curate, modify, and splice together various sound clips in order to recreate my own authentic reflections of my day. For Eoghan’s entries, I worked to curate, modify, and splice together various sound clips that he recorded in order to recreate what appeared to be his authentic reflections on his day. This level of involvement by the subject of an audio composition is not typical in most audio genres. Despite its idiosyncrasies, I found from my experience with the audio journal genre that it is successful in accomplishing its goal of memory preservation for an audience of future listeners. The translation of the visual, written journal genre into the aural, audio journal genre also provided ample opportunity for reflection on sound, its affordances as a rhetorical device, and its role in our daily lives.

In compiling our audio journal, I became acutely aware of the concept of “source” that always accompanies recorded sounds, particularly voices. Erin Anderson (2014) has expressed this concept by saying that “one of the key features that sets voice apart in the sonic landscape is its source” (p. 3). In our understanding, voices originate with bodies; there is a certain identity that accompanies a voice. While there are all sorts of moral, social, and technical complications that accompany this understanding of voice, the reality remains that the listener’s tendency is to attempt to know and understand the speaker, the source of that voice. In an audio genre that is attempting to preserve memories, particularly with regard to people, the idea of voice as a means of portraying an identity or a body is extremely useful. The voice in the audio journal entry can be compared to handwriting in a print journal: it is unique to that of the journaler. If I could hear my mother’s voice in her journal entries, I would feel more connected to her and the identities she inhabited at the time she was writing. The aural element would make a meaningful contribution to the journal, hence the reason why I find audio journals a unique and poignant memory preservation genre.

Sound also functions to preserve memory of place in specialized ways. Fran Tonkiss (2003) explored this concept by saying that “sound threads itself through the memory of a place” (p. 306). According to Tonkiss, a certain sound can immediately transport a listener to a specific place and time. Sounds are, in his opinion, essential, material memories giving life to a place. The spatial relationship that sound has to memory contributes powerfully to an audio genre that attempts to recreate the memory of a day, including the people and places that comprised that day. For example, the sounds of Lawrence High School’s busy hallways are powerfully connected to my memory of Lawrence High as a place in which I spent this year of my life. Capturing the sounds of those hallways uniquely captures the memory of that place, which is exactly the role of journals.

In an effort to capitalize on sound affordances, I included what I have been referring to as “audio snapshots” throughout the entries. Just like in my print journal, where I sometimes sketch a picture or slide a printed photo in between the pages, I “illustrated” our audio journal narrations with live-recorded snippets from our days. Our journal entries are punctuated with clips of dialogue or sounds that accompanied the events being recounted. Just like a photo helps make a written memory tangible, situated, and clear, the audio snapshots provide supporting information and detail to the narration. Tonkiss (2003) has claimed snippets of sound that are grounded in a time and place can be “kept as souvenirs” (p. 306). Our audio journal entries are filled with sound souvenirs to preserve more complete memories.

When incorporating the sound souvenirs and audio snapshots Eoghan and I collected into our audio journal, I drew heavily from McKee’s (2006) work in searching for direction on how to accomplish my journaling goals in the sonic mode. McKee’s study of sound in audio compositions focuses on four audio components: vocal delivery, music, special effects, and silence. In creating my composition, I focused on each of these elements separately.

When considering vocal delivery, I thought most about the narration of the journal entries. I turned to Theo van Leewuen’s (1999) discussion of vocal qualities to determine how Eoghan and I could create entries that sounded conversational, intimate, and somewhat internal. Following van Leewuen, we both kept our voices lax, with very little tension or rigidity in order to create a sense of relaxation and lack of anxiety. We attempted to speak somewhat softly, encouraging the impression of intimacy and confidentiality. Both our voices are steady, low, and lacking vibrato, indicating that we are not necessarily emoting strongly; we are merely recounting events. We tried to carry meaning “not solely by the verbal content but, as oral performers and oral readers..., also by the vocal qualities” (McKee, 2006, p. 340).

As with voice, I made careful decisions about the role of music in the audio journal. I decided to omit music from my composition in all but two entries to ensure it would not, as McKee (2006) has claimed, function “to establish tone and atmosphere” or to “shape...our moods” (p. 343). The goal of this journal is not to create a mood or a feeling in the listener; it is to authentically recreate and preserve the events of days. So unless music occurred unprompted in the day’s events, I did not want to introduce it into the composition. The two entries with music were organically captured in my live recordings of the day’s events. One entry includes a student spontaneously rapping in class, which is played softly underneath my narration, while the other is in the final entry, in which Eoghan and I are singing along with our favorite song, “Home” by Edward Sharpe (2009). The inclusion of these two musical pieces demonstrates how, although music does indeed establish tone and atmosphere, it also plays a tremendous role in capturing personal memories. Featuring the music that was involved in the creation of these retold memories solidifies them and then assists in their recreation and preservation.

Like music, the sound effects in my audio journal all naturally occurred in the soundscape of our recorded days. Yet they do function in ways that McKee (2006) suggested; they “provide information about a scene,” as with the recordings of ambient hallway chatter of Lawrence High students, and they “serve as a cue reference,” as when the school bell cues the end of my workday. The sound effects also “help in mood creation”; the good morning kiss with Eoghan creates a mood of love and comfort (p. 346). I tried to include enough sound effects to create a sense of reality and tangibility in the narration without distracting from the overall account of the day. Many of these sound effects also function symbolically in that they trigger preexisting social and cultural meanings, adding depth and complexity to the piece. The alarm clock at the beginning of each entry symbolizes the beginning of something; the good-morning kiss symbolizes love. James A. Herrick (2005) has defined a symbol as “any mark, sign, sound, or gesture that communicates meaning based on social agreement” (p. 5).  The sound effects in our audio journal often denote an idea or emotion through a socially constructed connection between the effect and the idea.

While I heavily employed voice, music and sound effects as rhetorical strategies in this project, I only minimally used silence. On the whole, I actually attempted to minimize silence in the daily accounts, recreating the lack of silence in our normal, daily lives. Where this audio journal, to some extent, represents an internal monologue or reflection, I attempted to mimic the fact that there is almost always a stream of thoughts and memories playing in the background of our minds. Because of this constant noise, I avoided silence to simulate the feeling of a busy mind and day. The only time I used silence is in my recording of Tuesday, March 24th, in which I reflect on my occasional desire for a moment of silence at work. I followed that reflection with a brief moment of silence to accentuate my desire for peace and a pause in the mental churnings as well as to add emphasis to my words. I believe that silence in this role functions as “no longer a default but a choice” (McKee, 2006, p. 349).  Because the piece features so much sound, the listener should be able to hear the silence I have consciously positioned; I attempted to create “a presence that is now an absence” with regard to sound (p. 349).

The various sounds in my audio journal comprise what Rick Altman has described as a sound envelope which “includes not only the moments when a sound is present but also the moments before and after as well...situating sound as an event in time” (as cited in McKee, 2006, p. 352). This understanding of sound as a temporal and situated event lends itself particularly well to an audio genre that is attempting to capture and preserve temporal and situated scenarios. The sound being recorded on that day, in that place, and by those people lends a certain authenticity to the re-creation of the memories I am trying to preserve. The sonic mode’s capacity to tangibly recreate the people, places, and emotions that comprise the details of memories make it remarkably well suited to the journaler’s task of preserving memories.

Audio Assets

Sharp, Edward and the Magnetic Zeroes. (2009). Home. On Up from Below. CA: Vagrant Records.