A Pedagogy of Listening

Composing with/in Media Texts

Milena Droumeva & David Murphy

4. Composing with/in Media Texts

A core part of our pedagogical vision at the Sonic Research Studio and the Media Analysis Lab at Simon Fraser University (SFU) has to do with fostering opportunities for applied experience in media production as a complimentary and experiential way of teaching audio–media literacy. With the rapid growth of the cultural studies of sound in the past decade, there has been increased access to and conversations about pedagogy in the wider academic community. In 2012 the blog Sounding Out! ran a whole series on sound and pedagogy featuring specific approaches to using applied audio media, complete with descriptions and process narratives by educators engaged in teaching cultural sound studies (Silva, 2012). In 2016 the journal Interference ran a "sound methods" issue in which a number of academics and practitioners discussed building sonic awareness as pedagogical process (Gerloff & Schwesinger, 2016; O Keeffe, 2016). We join this conversation with our three-decade-long legacy of media production assignments that engage students in recording, editing, and composing with/in media texts. Possibly unique among other courses that focus on sound and audio, our pedagogical tradition is deeply rooted in SFU's tradition of acoustic ecology in that we don't make a sharp distinction between the physical experience of listening in the world and the range of mediated experiences with sound design in media and digital technology. The metaphor of "tuning" takes on yet another meaning here as we stretch and adjust the concept of aural literacy (as sonic awareness of the material world) to underpin a critical sensibility towards the analysis of audio media. This now mediated aural sensibility encompasses media creation as part of the spectrum of engagements with listening and the surrounding (physical and virtual) environments.

In order to both critique and mobilize dominant cultural paradigms, we use the concept of becoming an "audio producer" as a framework to provide motivation and focus for students to learn about the varied and complex field of audio–media analysis and design. The media literacy fostered in our sound courses involves both instruction in the technical aspects of analogue and digital audio, as well as historical accounts of the adoption, development and cultural reception of a series of cornerstone electroacoustic technologies and media: the phonograph, radio, television, telephony, film sound, game sound, and mobile listening. We learn to decode and encode the sonic dimensions of media messages through analysis drawing on political economy, race and gender studies, and ecological awareness. This type of discursive analysis is at the same time augmented by production assignments. Providing a lab-based production component not only complements the theoretical material presented in lectures and seminars, it also creates a rich learning environment that has demonstrated very positive pedagogical potential. We have spent decades honing sets of audio–media creation assignments that we are excited to share in this collection.

We are observing a growing sense of ambivalence from students faced with numerous courses based on more traditional models of teaching. The idea of educators, especially university educators, as being the source of information (and by extension knowledge) has eroded since the development of the internet and particularly in the age of Wikipedia. Current student practices involve almost ubiquitous access to online information for practically every waking moment of their lives. Although we are not suggesting that expertise, experience, and wisdom are any less important for a university instructor, the reality is that contemporary media practices make the presentation of information in traditional ways of little interest and somewhat arbitrary for students. So how can we develop a curriculum that is relevant and engaging to our students and bridges the gap between motivation and learning? The experience of becoming an audio producer provides an individual narrative that brings in accumulated knowledge with a situated future idea of what an audio producer's place and role are in society.

For experience to be meaningful it has to be situated within a social context, and, in contemporary terms, within a wider media culture of participation, exploration, and play (Burn, 2009; Jenkins, 2006). We have found that developing a common goal of becoming proficient with recognizable expertise provides a cultural context that is motivational and focuses the academic experience. (This recognizable expertise can be any profession, occupation, vocation, or calling that has a cultural recognition, e.g., audio producer, filmmaker, teacher, doctor, artist, etc.) The subject matter of study is based on individual as well as collectively informed understanding, through experience, of what is needed to become someone with culturally recognized expertise, in our case an audio producer. In our university classes, we allow students to create their definition of an audio producer (the goal of becoming) and design assignments and studio projects that generally provide opportunities to develop knowledge that contribute to this goal. As such, the applied portion of our coursework revolves around the cultivation of three core skills that directly build on the concept of aural literacy and critical sonic awareness:

  1. listening: the craft of field recording, including the differences between recording voice and ambience
  2. tuning: the reflexive editing of sound, that is, developing a fine-tuned "studio ear" towards working with and manipulating sounds
  3. making: the mobilization of sound design conventions towards critical and alternative audio–media creation

A Word on Technology

Technology has necessarily played a central role in shaping our audio–media production curriculum over the years. This work started with primarily analogue equipment and students working in a modular studio setting featuring a control soundboard and a patch bay, which they had to learn to operate and troubleshoot. Using reel-to-reel equipment not only fostered a tactile relationship to editing, it also made multi-track mixing rather cumbersome, prioritizing the craft of recording itself. Transferring sound in real time, and working with real-time processes also affected how we approached teaching students to record and work with sound mixing.

Fast forward to today: Audio software products like Pro Tools, Adobe Audition, and Logic Pro have become industry standards as they also increasingly automate previously lengthy manipulation and compositional processes. It is important to note that with the growing accessibility of software and computer technology, students are less and less inclined to work in a studio setting that externalizes (and complicates) these processes, and more likely to work on personal machines at home in ways that they are used to. Thus, our task becomes less to offer technical instruction in a sort of "canonical" way of doing audio production, and more to provide mentoring and guidance to help students deconstruct and question the "black box" model of technological advancement. Today our job is to push them to imagine different approaches to composition and production, to be thoughtful and reflective about the way they use sound as media composers, and to nurture their creativity in ways that have direct relevance to pressing cultural and social concerns.

4 people sitting in chars in front of a panel of audio equipment, in a sound studio: Barry Truax, David Murphy, Paul Bennett, and Milena Droumeva
Photo by David Murphy: Barry Truax, David Murphy, Paul Bennett, and Milena Droumeva at the Sonic Research Studio, SFU, 2015

In terms of scaffolding, students are introduced to cultural and sound studies theory as a lens through which to rebuild their sensibilities to the electroacoustic and acoustic soundscape and form a personal relationship with it. And we begin with the voice as one of the most embodied and subjective forms of sound that makes transparent the meditational process of technology. Using the standard format of an interview, we ask students to record and then manipulate and represent the voice of another classmate with the objective of bringing about internal qualities of the voice that can serve to characterize an individual. Working with voice, students can rewind, listen to, copy, and distort a certain sound bite endlessly. A different sensitivity to vocal quality and paralanguage can then develop through active engagement and design. In the following example "Oh my mother," Helena Krobath takes us on an imaginary vocal journey in a soundwriting composition where the poetics of sound illuminate and give form to the often confusing dynamics of shared family histories and childhood memories.

Oh My Mother
Helena Krobath

[processed and overlapping speech–sound composition based on poem]

[speech overlaps and repeats throughout; abstract process soundscape in background throughout] Oh my mother / In the shower / my feet flat / too terrible / the same water / the same do you see / like that time in the cave / the waterfall / the warm water, cool springs / in the teeth of the wolf / oh my mother / wolf / She didn't know her name, nor where she had come from, nor where she was going. / She crept like a ghost. / She wore walking shoes and a brown canvas pack whose contents… / She couldn't remember where she had come from. / She will know her name / when I can move again, I run to you / I melt at your side, but it wasn't you / it was the shell of skin and bones, teeth and hair, not you / I pressed my palms to the earth / to your hot blood. / I breathe the air in great gasps, trying to find you / trying to gather that dispersive energy and hold it forever in my heart / Oh my mother / the light in the upstairs hall / is red and the carpet is also red / below the chair rail the walls are paneled in mahogany and above they're papered with gold leaf and silk / she feels electricity in his blood, lightness of his head, the red lights burn. Some gather around a loose electrical wire whose little sparks hypnotize them. / Others hide up high / looking out the attic window / some gather around a loose electrical wire as if its little spark could warm their hands. / remembering / and among the leaves / little brown birds were hopping / the air was green and hazy / old beach glass / like layers of time / she was afraid it would snap / she cast her thoughts gently / they floated down into dark brown depths but never dragged the bottom / she sat at the water's edge where the bank was low and dropped her feet into the water / something slithered past her ankle / she closed her eyes / she tried, the line falling / nothing but dark drifting water / she tried to trick her memory / conjuring her house / mother / sister / which shifted over all the varieties in the catalogue of house / tried again with house, but saw them all in turn / tall, short, lean, fat, old, young, kind, angry / none was mother / there was something on her line, she thought / faint and murky / shrouded by moving water / there was only a glimpse / she tried to trick her memory into conjuring images / she forgot to snag it good and keep it taut / already that precious thought / swimming away like a fish / the last tooth / as her mind began to float she felt something from before / the sweetness of sleep / when someone moves softly in the next room / someone you know / someone you will see when you awake / home / oh my mother / try it again with home

(Thumbnail Source: Warby, 2014)

Field recording is another foundational aspect of mediated aural literacy and soundscape awareness: Its relationship to ecology has to do with exploring place and community through sound. Sound production affords a markedly different relationship to listening than unmediated listening. It opens a space to talk about the "ear" of the microphone as a tool for listening and the fidelity of recording in relation to authentic experience. Recording is itself a different type of listening that students develop in the process of audio media production. They are then asked to re-compose their field recording into an "audio portrait" that aesthetically features and tells a story about a particular soundscape. With sound design and composition in mind, students are asked to reflect on how to convey their aural experience to a potential listener. This kind of inverting of perspectives—a re-directing of the aural gaze—continues to challenge students' reflections on their experience with sound and thus contributes to the formation of an ecological relationship to their sonic environments. This soundscape composition, "L'eau Pass," created by a group of three students, Jakob Liljenwall, Nicole Gilley, and Jeremy Mamisao, is a result of a semester-long engagement with the urban spaces of Vancouver, British Columbia, through soundwalking and active listening. With the emergent theme of water (it rains a lot in Vancouver!) the group recomposed a conceptual soundscape that features the ebb and flow of the city's water sources and spaces.

L'eau Pass
Jakob Liljenwall, Nicole Gilley, & Jeremy Mamisao

[Whispers] Drips, Ocean, Rain, Drizzle, Inlet, River [repeating and overlapping, followed by processed various sounds of water, rain, creaks, drizzle]

[whispers sequence begins again at conclusion as sounds fade out in favor of whispered words]

(Thumbnail Source: Knowles, 2013)

Through these foundational assignments, students start to approach "becoming an audio producer." Our courses typically culminate in formats that directly reference established media genres: public service announcement (PSA), podcast, video log (or vlog), or short informational/promo video. Here students are expected to adhere to established industry standards yet are encouraged to be creative in terms of storytelling, impact, and metatextuality. What is important here is that students connect to their own subjectivity and find their own "voice" with which to tell a media story. These media projects can range from artistic and experimental works to sophisticated soundwriting audiovisual essays. The following two examples represent two of the vast variety of formats realized as part of our courses. In the first example, Marcelo Ponce poetically combines field recording with original music to express the sudden news of his sister being diagnosed with cancer. As an amateur indie producer, he already experiments engaging with sound in more ecological ways, while the personal connection attunes the processes of listening and soundmaking as vital and interdependent.

Marcelo Ponce

[interrupted water sounds, throat-clearing] / I really don't know what to think / [water sounds] / I mean my grandma went through the same thing / but I mean it happens, cancer happens to the majority of older people, but I never once thought it would hit her / not at all. [water] she doesn't like that term either, she doesn't like to think that she "has cancer" she feels like she has no control over it. she'd rather people talk about her condition as "she's been diagnosed with" / [water sounds] she is so strong, I just don't get it, don't understand how it happened; I don't understand why / just got to remain positive through this whole time / and that's what she wants, she wants us to be positive / [silence] / she's always been there for me and we always have each other's back, we're so close / there's no way I'm going to let her feel alone ever / I just hope God's listening really

[organ music begins] / [child shouts/preaches] "Jesus Christ the Lord" / [adult confirms child] "yes" / [child] "Hallelujah!" / [adult] "yes now" / [child] "we don't want no devils in the house" / [adult] "yes" / [child] "we want the Lord" / [adult] "yes" / [child speaks in tongues]

[rapping] The sound on my palms / she's dripping through my fingers / trying to talk to God / hope you listen to a sinner / but words are lost in the silence / all I can mutter is my sister / and all I can think of is my sister / all this frustration at the fact that I can't fix her / God, she doesn't deserve this / why give this hurt of the curse, so worthless / memories of the both of us from the past and the present / there's no greater present than the existence of a presence / my mind is reminded that this is just a lesson / just another example of all your child's excesses / but can't you just lessen / the cancer's infection / stop this progression / stop this reception / God, it's you that I seek / I need your answers to questions / for you to make the connection / because it's you that I need / you see me spilling my heart through these words that I speak / you see me spilling my heart through the words that I speak / [singing] this little light of mine / without her my light don't shine / [rapping] and nothing makes sense / it just gets intense / the stress gets the best of me / look what you said to me / I can't pretend to be / but you intend for me / happiness is when she is helping right next to me / I wish you could have stopped it / decided to you it infect / can't believe that it actually / infer a tragedy / gripped to your breast / you got a bullet-proof vest / the bullet will penetrate through to your chest / all we can do is pray / give it to God and that's the reason I need some [choir sings from Kanye West's "Ultralight Beam"] faith, more, safe, war

(Thumbnail Source: Shokolo, 2011)

The second example is a video essay that historicizes nuances of sound design in film production. In this piece William Ross picks up on sonic details that trace the different sociocultural effects of U.S.-led military intervention on the creative industries in America.

Listening for John Ford, or The Sound of Horses

[classic Western opening music with horns; music fades out; then similar music fades in]

William Ross: John Ford made Westerns. Those are not all he made, of course. But the director practically invented the Western on screen. After a long absence from the genre in the 1930s, his first sound Westerns were Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine. There's obvious genre similarities between the two. Each featured a quintessential Western star at its center. Horses. [Horses galloping] And of course, gun slinging. [single shot] But these two films were separated by seven years and one war.

When America joined the Allied Forces in World War II, John Ford, who had just won three Academy Awards for Best Director, joined the Navy and became their head documentarian. Ford didn't work from behind a desk. He personally filmed combat during the first raid on Omaha Beach on D-Day and took shrapnel in his arm while he filmed the Battle of Midway. We might be able to imagine what Ford saw as a filmmaker at the front lines. But what did he hear?

There's a funny thing about the waveforms for Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine. The two films are almost exactly the same length and their loudest moments come at almost exactly the same point. And, as it turns out, both these moments are the same kind of scene: a carriage chase. [chase music and gunshots] In Stagecoach's iteration of this, it doesn't play it subtle. Especially in the musical score. [classic Western chase scene music and gunshots; occasional shouts] Stagecoach takes real joy in making a lot of noise here, and here it's even calling attention to its bombastic soundscape with this reaction shot [woman's face]. This scene's willingness to play its violent clashing sounds for comedy indicates a very different ideological perspective on the subject matter than that of My Darling Clementine 7 years later.

[sound of film soundtrack: carriage chase, man yelling] In My Darling Clementine, there is no musical score. No yips or hollers. The sound is saturated by horse hooves and punctuated only by the repetitious shouts of the driver. Oftentimes, the cuts are marked by jarring shifts in sound perspective.

It's not terribly hard to guess which of these films was made before the war and which was made after. The endings to these films also feature similar standoffs typical for the Western genre. Again, their approaches to music, perspective, and saturation set them apart from each other. [suspenseful music, gun shots, screams] At the onset of violence, Ford cuts away form the fighting and puts the climactic gun shots in the distance. Instead, we hear his love interest up close, and the scene becomes a sequence that builds suspense over Ringo's death, instead of detailing the gun fight itself. Of course, Ringo prevails.

Offscreen: "I'm giving you a chance to submit to proper authority."
"Well you come on right…" [fades out]

My Darling Clementine plays things very different.

"Which one of you killed James?"
"I did."

It's not always clear which side is shooting at whom, and it's impossible to tell who speaks the last words before the first gunshot. Whoever does, instigates the killing.

"I'm gonna kill you." [horses galloping by, then three gunshots, followed by many more gunshots, occasional horse neighing]

John Ford isn't directing a suspense scene here. And he's not even directing a proper action scene where we can follow who's winning or losing and root for our side. He's directing a scene of chaos. Thunder, confusion. Judgment falls aside. Every gunshot is as meaningless and random as the others. And every fallen body is filmed with the same sense of sadness.

Both of these films are Hollywood Westerns, produced as escapist entertainment without expectations of the critical glory they would end up attaining. Studying these two similar films made on both sides of a wartime combat experience isn't just a way to show how movies are influenced by their context to make political points. Their differences demonstrate that sound design is not simply the process of wielding an abstract set of functional tools.

Our personal experiences shape our understanding of how something is represented through sound. And that can have a profound impact on both how we both receive and communicate the world around us. ["My Darling Clementine" music fades in] To hear why, all you have to do is listen. [singing of "My Darling Clementine" joins the music and then fades out]

In more advanced courses, we continue engaging with media and popular culture through a set of subversive exercises that require students to "defy" the ideological imperatives of popular sound design. For instance, as part of a course on the cultural production of music, students are asked to engage with the logic of rhythm and melody by creating an "illogical" composition. Similarly, in another assignment, students are given a short movie clip with original soundtrack and—by decoding the elements that comprise its sound design—they are asked to replace the soundtrack in a way that challenges and critiques a dominant reading. These types of assignments form a unique and fresh perspective from which to critique, appreciate, and remix the audiovisual components of popular cultural texts.

Sonique Concrète: Soundscape Composition

Soundscape composition has a special place in our curriculum as it emerged directly out of a pedagogy of listening and an audio recording practice. It originated around the work of the World Soundscape Project as a deep artistic engagement with the sound environment of a place, a form of creative inquiry approached through an environmental aesthetic. Hildegard Westerkamp (2002), who has written and spoken widely about soundscape composition, suggested it as a form of creative expression that speaks through an "ecologically meaningful language" about the environment that we inhabit (p. 53). In Westerkamp's practice, field recording is positioned not as a "taking" of material from the environment, but as a listening, through the ear of the microphone, a collaborative discovery of hidden sonic patterns that are then explored, through process, composition, and musicality in the studio. The listener—the receptive audience—is necessarily a part of this process as soundscape composition deliberately seeks to foster interest in our everyday and natural environments:

On a more activist/political level, one could perhaps say that soundscape composition can and should create a strong oppositional place of conscious listening—that is, in the face of widespread commercial media and leased music corporations, who strategically try to use the schizophonic medium to transport potential customers into a state of aural unawareness and unconscious behaviour and ultimately into the act of spending money.… [Soundscape composition] is a forum for us as composers to "speak back" to problematic "voices" in the soundscape, to deepen our relationship to positive forces in our surroundings or to comment on many other aspects of a society. Rather than disorienting us, such work potentially creates a clearer sense of place and belonging for both composer and listener. (Westerkamp, 2002, p. 52)

Defining composition from the Latin componere, meaning "to put together," soundscape composition is an assemblage of sound objects, contextual ambiences, sonic gestures, and soundmarks that refer to specific places and times. The goal of this exercise is to use sound as a point of entry for the inquiry of space, time, and our subjective relationships with our environment. This exercise provides the opportunity to study the origins and history of the sounds used so we can develop a deeper understanding of our connections ecologically—to tune in to our environment with a creative ear. The origin and context of all sounds used in a soundscape composition must be understood and justified in relation to the work as a whole.

This brings us back to the idea of composing with/in media texts as an overarching theme for our pedagogical practice of audio–media production. Breaking away from a narrow musically biased view of composition, we conceptualize it instead as a process of deconstructing and reconstructing any sonic elements (recorded or digitally generated) with a keen reflexivity to the medium in which they are produced and experienced, and the symbolic relationships that are generated through their production: through an attunement between listener, materials, and environment.