C&W Session H8: Ums, Oohs, and Ohms: Crafting Voices and Spaces through Rhetoric and Resistance


Brooke Chambers, Michigan State University
Courtney Danforth, College of Southern Nevada
Harley Ferris, University of Findlay

Brooke Chambers has just made a bold move in her presentation at C&W. During her presentation on “embodied listening” she shares a reviewer’s assessment of her panel’s presentation, noting how the reviewer called into question the point behind her presentation. The reviewer states, “Studies have shown that culturally, leaving these pauses in, especially frequent vocal pauses, can make audiences feel that the speaker might be less intelligent than they really are…” Chambers points out the sentence and says, “This is exactly the point I’m trying to make,” that the very idea someone’s normal speech patterns might be qualified as “less intelligent” is an ethical problem falling along lines multiple intersections in identity. Chambers presentation wants a new ethics for composing sound.

She is concerned with the audio that goes on after the mics have been put up and an editor is working strictly with the tapes of the person they just interviewed. If you’ve ever listened to a recording before editing, speech will be littered with “ums” and pauses, searching breaths, or a cough. It is up to a sound editor to create a “composed” subject. Chambers is considering the consequences when we uncritically move to make a “composed” subject, one removed from their embodied selves.

Chambers asked us instead to consider “embodied listening” as an addition to our composing practices. Embodied listening meant observing closely how the body existed in sound, how those “ums” and “uhs” produced their own series of meaning that we often muted to create a “composed” subject, one distanced from the very bodies that gave them meaning in the first place. Chambers used an example of an interview with her mother to talk about this practice, bolstering it with scholarship like that of Krista Ratcliffe’s “rhetorical listening” and feminist filmmaking practices of Alexandra Hidalgo. Chambers laid a ground work for all of us to see not just the voices, but the bodies giving voice in a sound composition, and the importance of a feminist ethics when considering audio recordings.

Rather than sound recordings, Courtney Danforth asked us to consider a new view to old singing practices. Danforth reintroduced the room to the United States tradition of singing schools and the shape note. Danforth described singing school’s as democratic space where members of the community could come and spend the day learning to sing and sing freely. Singing schools had no organized leaders teaching lessons, nor any hierarchy dividing experienced and new singers. Instead, those who attended (and everyone who attended sang) were given a songbook filled basic instruction on singing and shape notes for those who needed to do line readings of the songs they sung. These songs were not given to an audience like a traditional choir; instead, singing schools arranged themselves in a square with each side facing inward so noise was projected equally to each other. They sung for the sake of song.

Danforth proposed this egalitarian approach to learning to sing had much to teach us about the pedagogy we brought to our own writing classrooms. Danforth saw that what singing schools had to offer us was the chance for students to be agents in their own work and classrooms. By reconsidering a hierarchy in the classroom and making the space a participatory one for all members, Danforth’s vision of the writing classroom was a welcoming, communal one that invited mutual investment of students and teachers in what happens in the classroom. While Danforth did not propose a particular lesson plan, the ideas she pushed forth using singing schools were impactful, especially when she ended her presentation by asking the audience to join her and her co-presenters in an impromptu song in traditional singing school fashion. The results of our singing were a confused din of faltering voices, but we found it lighthearted in a way that joined the room together in a common bond the way singing schools would.

After having a laugh at ourselves for our clumsy singing, Harley Ferris closed the session by bringing to attention the ways soundscapes can in fact be tools to ideological ends. Ferris described how differing soundscapes can, in fact be markers for privilege and challenged notions of a soundscape being apolitical. Consider, for instance, what a peaceful suburb sounds like. That idyllic “American Dream” and how it is manifested in the sounds of sprinklers, the soft glide of the occasional car, or squeals of children playing. Ferris had the room compare it with the harsh sirens often found in the city, the sound of a jackhammer’s clipping bursts, or the passage of a train. Ferris revealed how the ability to determine one’s soundscape could not only be a privilege, but how civic planning resulted in ideological manifestations of those soundscapes.

In order to elaborate this further, Ferris had the audience use their own electronic devices to play sounds Ferris had recorded and given the audience access to. We projected the recordings to produce some of the soundscapes and then discussed the associations we had with the various soundscapes we found. In these cases, the act of collaboratively building the soundscape helped to uncover how our assumptions and biases of a place are in part determined by the sounds that surround that place.

Ferris ended the session by having us play an at first unfamiliar soundscape: an electrical buzz, breathing, heartbeats, and the passage of radio waves. All to point to how the most intimate of soundscapes might be the ones contained within our own bodies, bringing the session back around the Chambers’ discussion of embodied listening practices. Ferris closed the session by asking us to reconsider how we might be more mindful, embodied listeners who could see sound as rhetorically used to shape the ways in which we move within the world.

About Author

Johnathan McClintick

Johnathan McClintick is a masters student in WRAC program at Michigan State University; he also co-runs Birds Piled Loosely Press. His research interest include cultural rhetorics, pedagogy as activism, and online communities.

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