Sleight of Ear: Voice, Voices, and Ethics of Voicing

Bump Halbritter & Julie Lindquist


Although the systems of voice production are indeed highly integrated and appear to have singularity in the ways that we come to sound, voicing actually sets in motion multiple systems, prominent among them are systems for speaking but present also are the systems for hearing.

Jacqueline Jones Royster (1996, p. 38)

[W]e often bend the truth as best we can to tell our story. Which is what Hollywood is all about. It's smoke and mirrors. And, you know, I don't know if you can have smoke and mirrors with sound, but you do, believe me.… If we've done our job well, no one knows we did anything. It all seems like it happened.

Lon Bender (2007), Academy Award-winning sound editor

Soundwriting lives at the very heart of the audiovisual writing courses that Bump, one of the authors of this chapter, teaches. Of course it does: Audio, after all, is right there in plain view in the title of the class. It's no wonder that this author has found his way into this collection of born-digital essays about pedagogies of soundwriting. It's what he does. Audiovisual writing has always been central to Bump's life as researcher, teacher, and writer. And as the list of his fellow contributors attests, he is not alone. Many people are now teaching students to write with sound in their own multimedia/multimodal/audiovisual writing courses. It's all the rage. For some, at least.

What's that? You're not one of those teachers? Well then, maybe you're getting ready to close this chapter's browser window before reading any more of it. Why not? After all, you don't teach multimedia/multimodal/audiovisual writing. You're not a techie. What do you care about soundwriting? You don't write with sound, nor do your students. What does all of this soundwriting pedagogy claptrap matter to you?

We hear you.

And yet.

Consider that Julie, the other author of this chapter, doesn't teach audiovisual writing. Also consider, for a moment, the case of one course in rhetoric and writing she routinely does teach—a graduate course in qualitative research methodology. Consider that soundwriting lives nowhere near the heart of that course. Nowhere in her curriculum is a requirement to use audiovisual technologies to develop methodologies, to collect data, or to deliver research products. There are, however, several books and articles on the syllabus: examples of published research, guides and handbooks for those learning how to do it, and published scholarship on disciplinary applications of qualitative research. There are also field experiences and data-gathering activities. Julie doesn't, like Bump, teach audiovisual writing, per se—which is not to say that she doesn't think about voice.

So if you don't do exactly what Bump does, then perhaps Julie's story will sound more familiar. Or if you don't do what Julie does, then possibly Bump's story will help you hear some possibilities for your research. Or maybe the primary site of your practice in teaching writing and research is first-year writing (a site of ours, as well). What follows is not a set of instructions for grafting audiovisual writing techniques onto established teaching and research practices. Instead, what follows is a discussion of audiovisual teaching and research practices that followed the hunches of a couple of qualitative researchers (who, as it happens, double as authors of this very piece)—researchers who began asking questions about the operations of the interview-based research they were doing. In particular, they began to ask questions about qualities of voice and how best to capture, cite, and mediate the voices of those who would participate in their studies. And by best, please hear us to be describing components of qualitative research that are both technically proficient and, especially, ethically sound.

But wait, we're talking about movies that are ethically sound—not about sound, per se. This is an essay (of sorts) in a collection about soundwriting. We are talking about moviemaking. Shouldn't we be talking about soundwriting? We are. In fact, we are talking about soundwriting the way sound editor Lon Bender (2007) talked about it in the epigraph above: "If we've done our job well, no one knows we did anything. It all seems like it happened." Please note that Bender's professional title is sound editor. What could be more soundy than that? Bender is a soundwriter—an Academy Award-winning one at that. Consequently, Bender speaks to the sleight of ear that occludes the expertise of his craft—it is tied irrevocably to the audiovisual presentation as a whole. Film-sound theorist Michel Chion (1994) has gone so far as to say that "there is no soundtrack" (p. 39). Chion went on to defend in theory what sound editors seem to know quite well:

By stating that there is no soundtrack I mean first of all that the sounds of a film, taken separately from the image, do not form an internally coherent entity on equal footing with the image track. Second, I mean that each audio element enters into simultaneous vertical relationship with narrative elements contained in the image (character, actions) and visual elements of texture and setting. These relationships are much more direct and salient than any relations the audio element could have with other sounds. It's like a recipe: even if you mix the audio ingredients separately before pouring them into the image, a chemical reaction will occur to separate out the sounds and make each react on its own with the field of vision.…

A film deprived of its image and transformed into an audio track proves altogether strange—provided you listen and refrain from imposing the images from your memory onto the sounds you hear. Only at this point can we talk about a soundtrack.

Therefore, there is no image track and no soundtrack in the cinema, but a place of images, plus sounds. (p. 40)

So, while our discussion of audiovisual writing may seem to be a sleight of hand in a collection of discussions about soundwriting, we stand with our expert counterparts to defend the primacy of the soundtrack as integral, if invisibly so, to the audiovisual rhetoric of film. However, we will stress that in documentary works that rely heavily on the spoken testimony of individuals, the audio track is the movie. Or, as Bump has said elsewhere, "you can make a good movie with bad video; however, bad audio is a project killer" (Halbritter, 2013, p. 117). In this chapter, we will meet Liberty Bell, her sister Jovanna Stacker, and Yixin Mei. Their stories—and specifically the tellings of their stories—will exemplify the primacy of sound in the audiovisual works that we will share with you.

In what follows, we will describe what led us to discover our paths of inquiry (inspirations and investigations) as well as a few unusual experiences (to composition studies, at least) that informed how we conducted our inquiry. We will also show you some of the products of our research order to facilitate a discussion of what has emerged as a topic of ongoing fascination and endless inspiration: voice, voices, and the ethics of voicing. We will detail what we have come to regard as a sleight of ear in dealing with the products of audible human voices: what mediating them invokes and what writing with them occludes.

Ultimately, we offer all of this in the service of returning to the pedagogic values of soundwriting as both a medium of expression and as a heuristic for methodological invention in the teaching and conduct of qualitative inquiry. This is the way it has come to matter to Julie, who did not come into this work with an identity as a practitioner (or teacher) of "soundwriting."

Sound good?

All of this may get us a little bit closer to an answer to the question of why, if you don't do soundwriting, you might consider how thinking about the affordances of audio composing may give you a new framework for seeing value in teaching it, or at least, teaching with it. We suggest that soundwriting that explores the rhetorical and ethical affordances of audible human voices may (for example) foreground the ethical decisions implicit in writing (including, but not exclusive to, ethnographic writing) pertaining to representations of those implicated in the storytelling relationship. We imagine that, for this reason, an approach to "voice" is relevant to many forms and scenes of rhetorical education, from introductory writing to graduate studies. Our goal is not to speak only to the sound geeks and techies among us, but also to folks (like Julie) who don't typically participate in these conversations, or use these tools—but who, as writing teachers, want their students of rhetoric and writing to learn to make ethical decisions around the stories they tell—their own, or those of others. What we offer is not a to-do list of activities to accomplish soundwriting as an end in itself—but rather, a heuristic for thinking pedagogically about soundwriting as a means to these ends.

In what follows, we make our case for the pedagogical value of soundwriting to explore concepts of voice through the example of rhetorical and ethical decisions we have made in creating video products from LiteracyCorps Michigan (LCM), our long-term qualitative research project designed to learn more about the literacy sponsorship experiences of our students. We show how this video project puts pressure on ethical issues always already present in making ethnographic texts and exposes the stakes and dilemmas entailed in creating these texts. The products we offer (videos created by participants in LCM) also function as examples of work created with and by students, even if they are not example of products created and circulated within the bounded space of a writing class. We believe that the forms of invention and collaboration entailed in producing this work are also generative in thinking about the possibilities of soundwriting as an education in rhetoric.

To set out the terms of our discussion of voice via the example of these video products, we consider the idea of voice (as related to, but distinct from, voicing), and take a look how other writers who typically make it their business to represent the voices of others (qualitative researchers who treat other people's stories as data) have made decisions about how to "voice" these stories.