[SLIDE: THE TITLE OF THE PRESENTATION, IN WHITE ON A BLACK BACKGROUND WITH CONTACT INFORMATION. ALL SLIDES WILL HAVE THE SAME DESIGN.]
My name is Eric Manuel Rodriguez, and I am a Ph.D. Candidate at Michigan State University with the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures, and this is "Terrible Melodies Telling Me Beautiful Things." [Music plays.]
This presentation began as something very different. I thought I'd talk about sound writing as a multimodal, embodied practice. I'd get a group of people together to record something loud, something brash, something raw to exemplify aesthetic choices as rhetorical. Inspired by nearby Detroit's hardcore scene, I was craving a return to how I first started making music as a pre-teen—one microphone, three instruments, unintelligible vocals and a lot of piss and vinegar. I'd show how to use a single condenser mic, four-track tape recorder, and a shoebox to record demos. It was going to be a celebration of the ethos that defined my personhood and the trajectory of my scholarship, but we know what happened. Getting together in a room with other musicians wasn't possible, and it became clear that the original plan was out. I could not record a live demo by myself. However, I could progress in a different way.
This presentation is inspired by the impact Detroit has had on popular music—from J Dilla's slightly off-kilter drum loops, to the factory-like production of hits from Berry Gordy's Motown, to blast beats and working-class solidarity of early Detroit hardcore—by its unrelenting "make do" "do-it-yourself" ethos. Detroit's sounds provide a valuable lesson that we can take away as sound writers: the ability to make do.
In this presentation, I want to give you, dear listener, two takeaways—
1) What does it mean to capture sound in this moment, and
[SLIDE: Text of both questions appear on the screen.]
2) How can we "make do" in composing sound writing?
To answer this, I'll discuss the ways people make sounds, our relationship to sound, and encourage us to think of sound writing not as representational, but relational. In short, I intend to show how "making do" is really a means of exploring other ways to sound write when normative representational systems aren't working anymore. [SLIDE: Text of the last sentence appears on screen.]
I first heard Negative Approach in 2004. Having only really "listened local," my repertoire of knowledge about hardcore didn't extend past California. [SLIDE: Two photographs, black and white, appear side by side. The image on the left shows seven scruffy looking men, holding various instruments while mid song, in circle surrounded by instrument. On the right, an image from the crowd's perspective of band of four on stage, the singer with a shaved head yelling into a microphone.] An older friend handed me a cassette tape, and the track "Can't Tell No One" (1992) began with singer John Brennon's hoarse quick count into what sounded harsh, noisy, muddy, and without distinction between instruments. It was awful and I loved it. A common trope about punk rock is that anyone can play it. While I find that assertion debatable, I tend to think that what the old maxim really means is that anything can be punk. If we understand a punk ethos to be about upsetting the status quo, then this definition fits a variety of genres and techniques. Take, for example, this demo, recorded in Lansing in 1981. Details about the actual recording process for this specific track, for this specific take, are scant. But to my ear, it's clear that this is a single microphone operation. The lack of clarity and definition caused by overloading and distorting a single microphone is familiar to me. The song, the group, and how it was recorded are unequivocally punk. Given that recording sound has historically been limited to those with the means to afford the prohibitive cost of studio time and an engineer's labor. This alone makes the recording of music inequitable. So, bands like Negative Approach made do, just as so many of us do now.
While recording with single field recorder or a single condenser microphone in the middle of a room is somewhat common, here's an experiment to try out one day when you need to get a demo out quickly. Those white earbuds that always rip? The speakers themselves can be microphones. (Of course, they now often have microphones on them as well, though it's not as fun.) You'll need a microphone in, a 1/8 inch to 1/4-inch adapter (literally less than a dollar at any Radio... um, Amazon, I guess?), and something to make noise with. Voila! A cheap, awful-sounding recording set up. To make the sound more defined, place the earbuds in a shoe box, about 3 feet away from the recording source. As the sound waves make their way over the makeshift microphones, some are trapped in the shoebox while some of the sound is baffled. These small reverberations are picked up by the small microphones, but much more of the sound isn't. You'll notice the signal will be extremely weak. This technique requires an excess of volume to even get a strong enough line volume for playback. But, in a pinch, the resulting sound is interesting to say the least, if it's usable at all.
As a teenager, friends and I recorded countless demos, covers, and straight up garbage using this method. As I got older, I could afford to buy used microphones, a laptop, decent instruments, interfaces, monitors—but you don't need this to record sound.
Using a free DAW and free plugins, I could take some simple midi mapping from a friend across the country and turn it into passable drum sounds. Adding compression and some equalization, I can get a usable drum sound that's articulate and is well-represented across the frequency spectrum. I could recreate large guitar sounds by using completely free virtual amplifiers and impulse responses (eq curves used by home producers to mimic the depth and feel of a speaker cabinet and microphone). In my little office, by myself, in almost no time, I could make music and distribute it to thousands of people. All while using free software that came preinstalled on a machine I use primarily for work. I can double my voice. I can add echo. I can autotune it. I can, at least at first glance, aesthetically remove the sound from the context in which it was captured. It is still true that access to these tools is still pretty important. However, it's clear that it is more possible now than ever to capture and distribute sound.
This "make do," do-it-yourself ethos isn't unique to Detroit; Detroit is just better at it. [SLIDE: Two images, side-by-side. On the left, a black and white photo of J Dilla, with cap pulled over his eyes, making a beat on his Akai MPC3000, a giant box with buttons on top. The image on the right shows four horizontal red squares lined up on vertical blue lines to represent a rhythmic beat.] Virtuoso producer innovated hip hop production by using the quantization function on his Akai MPC3000 to move the tracks just slightly offbeat, given the drum loops a more human feel. It was the perfect choice for his compositions. Dilla's prolific discography features this trick heavily and is still one of the most influential production techniques used by producers today. (Chill, lo-fi beats to study, anyone?) Berry Gordy, operating out of the aptly named hitsville USA, converted a residential home to a literal hit factory. [SLIDE: Two images, side-by-side. The image on the left shows a small room with microphones and cables wrapped in various places around the room and a baby grand piano in the center taking up most of the space. On the right a small metal box with a large brown knob on its face with writing that says ‘ACME' Multilevel audio interface.] Boasting only 416 square feet of studio space, he and a team of engineers constructed a recording studio optimized for quick completion of tracks in minimal space. Motown recordings, in fact, are some of the earliest and most popular examples of direct input recording for electric bass and guitar. Given the small space, loud electric amplifiers would no doubt bleed in to one of the dozens of microphones in the small space. In search of a solution, they turned to Dr. Edward Wolfrum, Motown's in-house engineer to construct "Wolf boxes," passive, direct input boxes that would carry the load of the electric signal to the recording desk without the need for amplifiers and microphones. Today, you will not find a recording studio or venue without a direct box. This innovation that changed the way we record electric instruments grew out of the need to make do.
These techniques came out of the necessity to make do, because these songs, these stories, were too important to not be told.
What does it mean to capture sound?
This brings me to my first point: What does it mean to capture sound in this moment? The question, at first, was what does it mean to capture sound, [SLIDE: An image appears to the right of text. The image shows a blue audio file represented by a wavelength above an image of faded black and white vertical lines. It appears to match the peaks and valleys of the blue waves.] to which I would answer and partly echo Jason Palmeri (2012) from his chapter "Composing Voices: Writing Pedagogy as Auditory Art" from his book Remixing Composition: A History of Multimodal Writing Pedagogy: to archive the voices we hear, to freeze them in time, for perpetuity. In this sense, sound is objectified. From there, sound writers can assemble, dissemble, modulate, compress, and sample. However, objectifying sound limits the potential of sound writing. As such, my standing as a cultural rhetorics scholar necessitates an understanding of the dynamicism of objects and an understanding that I, as a human, operate in relation to nonhuman actors in the network of creation.
Reducing sound to tracks or files deemphasizes the dynamic nature of sound. Yanira Rodríguez (2012), in her reflection "Resounding Bodies," from the chapter "Soundwriting and Resistance: Toward a Pedagogy for Liberation" in the collection Soundwriting Pedagogies, told us that sound moves. It is a temporal force. What are reverberations if not sound etched in air, telling a short history about the space, the sender, the receiver? They exist in one place, a one way, before traveling elsewhere, sometimes sounding completely different.
What does it mean to capture sound in this moment?
The question then becomes, what does it mean to capture sound in this moment specifically? My thinking became less about how one captures sound, [SLIDE Image on the left shows the sound waves for a rooster, dog, clock tic, crackling fire, rain, and sea waves, each with a red line super imposed over the wave to highlight the waves movement.] but what sound itself communicates. If I am in relation to sound, the recorded tracks do not solely exist to be manipulated and consumed, just as words and ideas aren't open to manipulation through rhetoric. Sound affects me, not the other way around. We have all experienced this in some ways. Frisson, or aesthetic chills, psychophysiological response to auditory stimuli that often induces a pleasurable affective state. [SLIDE: Image on the let shows a closeup of goosebumps and raised hair with a definition of the word frisson.] Think of how one can get goosebumps listening to Beethoven's (1824) "Ode to Joy" or Brian May's guitar solo in "Bohemian Rhapsody" (Queen, 1975) or J Dilla's (2006) "Last Donut of the Night"). To capture sound in this moment is to capture what Bill Hart-Davidson (2001) argued is an affordance of writing, "a sign unbound by the context in which it was originally produced" (p. 149). Therefore, sound and by extension, sound writing, operates within a system of signs that continue to exist in perpetuity. It would be inaccurate to think of sound as purely representational, as I've demonstrated. What would it mean to move beyond the idea the capturing sound, as a "notation system of experience" (Sánchez, 2005, p. 4) toward understanding the rhetoricity of sound itself?
Sound writing, then, is characterized by our relationship with sound as "reiterable and interpretively inexhaustible, which exists both temporally and has [SLIDE: Text on the screen emphasizing words I am reading.] the potential to outlive the material and social conditions it was created" (Hart-Davidson, 2001, p. 149). This move away from Western, Cartesian understandings of sound studies toward holistic and relational knowledge of the rhetoricity of sound expands our "writer's toolboxes." As Andrea Lunsford (2007) argued, "where writing once meant print text...today 'writing' is in full Technicolor; it is nonlinear and alive with sounds, voices, and images of all kinds" (Lunsford xiii). Writing, then, can be a celebration of our place in creation while simultaneously helping to trace the relationships within our own networks of human and nonhuman relationships. Both emphasize how we exist in tandem with these writing technologies.
This changes the way we capture and interpret initial rhetorical moments in that we are more attuned to the stories sound has etched for us, on wax, in the air, in walls, in our ears, and in our hearts. Detroit's expansive musical history changed the way people make music to capture specific rhetorical moments by emphasizing the fact that stories matter. Understanding our relationship with sounds helps us provide the means to tell those stories. Thank you.
Beethoven, Ludwig van. (1824). Ode to joy: Symphony no. 9 in D minor, op. 125 [Song].
Dilla, J. (2006). Last donut of the night [Song]. On Donuts. Stones Throw.
Hart-Davidson, William. (2001). On writing, technical communication, and information technology: The core competencies of technical communication. Technical Communication, 48(2), 145–155.
Lunsford, Andrea A. (2007). Writing matters: Rhetoric in public and private Lives. University of Georgia Press.
Queen. (1975). Bohemian rhapsody [Song]. On A night at the opera. London: Trident.
Negative Approach. (1992). Can't tell no one [Song]. On Ready to fight (Demos, live and unreleased 1981–'83). Reptilian Records.
Palmeri, Jason. (2012). Remixing composition: A history of multimodal writing pedagogy. Southern Illinois University Press.
Rodríguez, Yanira. (2018). Resounding bodies. In Courtney S. Danforth, Kyle D. Stedman, and Michael J. Faris (Eds.), Soundwriting pedagogies.. Computers and Composition Digital P; Utah State University Press. https://ccdigitalpress.org/book/soundwriting/burns-et-al/rodriguez.html
Sánchez, Raúl. (2005). The function of theory in composition studies. State University of New York Press.
Music Credit: Dj Quads Track Name: "www is a thing"
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