A Review of Sounding Composition: Multimodal Pedagogies for Embodied Listening by Steph Ceraso

Shannon Kelly

My Listening Body Video Script

It's the end of my third day solo hiking Section J of the Pacific Crest Trail.

I started today 4,000 feet lower, and in 15 miles, climbed what felt like two mountains. I'm tired.

I'm on Escondido Ridge, where the trail finally flattened and curved along a ridgeline. I'm nervous about continuing; there are no more campsites marked for the next 7 miles on my map.

So I find water to filter from a stream, sit, and think. Should I keep going? Should I camp here? I don't see anyone else around. Is that a good sign or a bad sign?

I'm so tired, though. Just camp here. Who knows how much farther another flat spot is. Okay, I'll stay here.

Or should I keep going?

I made a terrible mistake.

I set up camp at 6pm. I tiredly twiddled my thumbs for the final daylight hours. Then, I tried to sleep.

*Sounds fade in—wind, a high-pitched humming sound, rain, and a persistent scratching sound all layered together*

Now, it's the middle of the night and I feel like I'm going to get blown off this mountain.

*Different title cards flash across the scene describing the sounds*

I don't sleep. At all. All night, it felt like my tent and I and my few belongings are going to tumble off this ridge.

*final title cards flash, fade to black as the sounds fade*

Artist Statement: Practicing My Listening Body

In order to experience Steph Ceraso's (2018) ideas more fully, I attempted her sounding assignment, My Listening Body (pp. 51–54).

My own interests in sound studies and soundwriting revolve around listening practices, and I appreciate that Ceraso offerd her assignments while also encouraging readers to "tailor, adapt, and transform" the materials she offers for the reader's own context (p. 51). My Listening Body is an assignment that explores how sound affects one's embodied experiences. The assignment also connects sound and memory, and how sound materializes memory and memory materializes certain sounds.

I chose to depict a sonic experience from a long-distance hike I did in the summer of 2016. Being alone in the mountains made me particularly aware of my vulnerability, and I've never forgotten that experience of excitement and terror, then coupled with the sound of a terrible windstorm my third night on the trail.

The sound of the wind against my tent that night was so intense and horrible. The wind's sound came from it beating against my tent. I could also feel the sound in my body lying on the ground as the wind shook my tent and everything around me. My sonic memory of that night is the most powerful memory from that hike because the wind's sound made me differently aware of being alone and vulnerable to the elements.

After I decided to re-create this memory in autobiographical media, I then started thinking about how to compose my experience for a diverse embodied audience. Since I knew the project would ultimately be digital, I couldn't as easily create a performance (e.g., use fans for wind, tent material, sounds coming from various sides of a room, etc.). I ultimately decided to make a video to compose for sound and sight.

Most of that night on the mountain happened in the dark, so I chose not to include color images, even from earlier in the day while hiking. I wanted the experience to have an echo-y and repetitive feel to it, similar to how my thoughts were that day while I was trying to determine a camping site. I wrote from the perspective of that night on the mountain, recalling where I started that morning, and in the present trying to determine a campsite.

It was difficult to try to re-create the wind's sound and the feeling in my body that wind and sound created on a mountain. The sound that night was haunting, whipping, and sharp sounding. I downloaded a bunch of different tracks from freesound.org in order to layer together something akin to what I remember. The tracks included the sound of a waterfall, wind against a tent in the Alps, rain on a large tent, wind singing in a tube recorded on the top of a mountain in Bolivia, and the sound of a parachute releasing to get the sound of polyester moving. While I was editing the sounds together, I added fade-ins and fade-outs within the wind track in order to attempt at capturing the way wind sounds oscillate; sometimes it quiets down and then builds again.

I wanted the experience of the memory to be accessible beyond listening and reading a script, so I made a video in iMovie using black backgrounds and titles. Since my experience that night happened in the dark, I wanted to keep the screen dark, but I also wanted to show movement since my tent was shaking with the wind and sound. I used different Titles in order for the text descriptions of the sound to move and show up at difference places on the screen. I timed the text to be on the screen for 4.0 seconds, and I interspersed scenes of black for 2.5 seconds in order to move between sound descriptions and darkness—similar to the experience. An alternative way to experience the memory from watching the video would be to lie down, close one's eyes, and hear the sounds in headphones without my descriptions moving on the screen.

Throughout the video, I have three text cards describing the narrative experience, and the last one reads: "I don't sleep. At all. All night, it felt like my tent and I and my few belongings are going to tumble off this ridge." I had this audio recorded, but I chose not to include my voice over the wind sound. The earlier narrative sections could seem like they were from me talking aloud to myself on the trail and deliberating about where to camp, but this final narration was internal.

As the title cards are moving across the screen, each soundtrack begins to fade out. So, first, the wind fades, and then the humming sound and scratching rain sounds remain, then the rain fades, and finally the humming sound fades and the video ends. I chose to individually fade out the tracks within the larger wind track in order to capture the experience of isolating sounds. I wanted the sounds to seem connected and also separate—like when some sounds appear brighter or sharper and then fade.

The assignment's requirements were challenging—to compose from one's embodied relationship with sound while also considering what sonic experiences the composition allows. But this requirement also made the project more interesting. In my past audio projects, I always included accompanying scripts with detailed descriptions and a running time stamp for sections.

In this project, though, I wanted to try something other than including a script. With the constraint of digital composing, I included visuals along with sounds. Composing visually along with sound, though, very quickly reminded me that I currently lack much know-how about video composing and editing. But imagining different bodily experiences for my memory allowed me to think more expansively about my memory itself—what did the sound feel like, sound like, taste like, and what was important to represent from these senses? In other words, My Listening Body reminded me of the various ways my body interacts with sound, and how sound materializes my memories.

Practicing this assignment made elements of Ceraso's argument more vivid to me. For example, digital recording meant that I couldn't use a material space like a classroom work in My Listening Body, nor could I incorporate elements beyond the visual and aural (e.g., something tactile, like the feeling of wind). My hope for including this project with the review is that it helps illustrate the way sound and audio work are deeply linked with other senses. Here, I needed to know something about video and visual editing in order to make the audio work toward my intended effect. Like Ceraso says throughout her book, and as this assignment illustrated for me, we're never listening with only a single sense.


felix.blume. (2018, November 8). Wind singing in an old tube on the top of the mountain [Audio file]. Freesound. Retrieved June 10, 2019, from https://freesound.org/people/felix.blume/sounds/447375/

geodylabs. (2011, June 27). Mountain_river_waterfall_3 [Audio file]. Freesound. Retrieved June 10, 2019, from https://freesound.org/people/geodylabs/sounds/122806/

klankbeeld. (2013, January 13). Umbrella wind rain 121225_00.wav [Audio file]. Freesound. Retrieved June 10, 2019, from https://freesound.org/people/klankbeeld/sounds/173998/

PMBROWNE. (2016, December 29). LARGE TENT [Audio file]. Freesound. Retrieved June 10, 2019, from https://freesound.org/people/PMBROWNE/sounds/371901/

Zepeda, Allan K. [ALLANZ10D]. (2015, September 30). Mountain climber or skydiver opening parachute [Audio file]. Freesound. Retrieved June 10, 2019, from https://freesound.org/people/ALLANZ10D/sounds/323466/