Sonic Rhetoric: Public Resonance

Jacqueline Waldock’s critique of the rise of sound mapping sites was interesting to me as a longtime listener to public radio stations, which have been a principal driver of the trend. This also revisits a blog post from October 2012, written only two months after I had moved from Michigan and was in the grips of homesickness. I had returned to Michigan Radio’s Sounds of the State page, selecting

a lone blue dot in East Lansing titled “MSU Medley.” My ears drank in ducks on the babbling Red Cedar River, Beaumont Tower’s distant carillon bells, and the route announcement of a CATA bus. I was immediately resituated from my desk here in Smyrna to the riverside between the Hannah Administration building and Wells Hall, my feet dangling over the water and ducks pulling at my shoelaces because I was too slow in crumbling up the stale bread I’d taken from Brody Hall’s cafeteria earlier that morning.

That soundscape has become part of my experience, and will always be one of the places I can situate myself. I was there. That has meaning to me.

Waldock takes some issue with the predisposition of these sound map projects to focus on “public” sounds rather than private:

A large majority of the recordings are of something else or at least are tagged as something other and are always tagged in the impersonal: ‘Church bells’, ‘Frankie and Bennies’, and not: ‘my dog’, ‘my front room’, ‘my church bells’. The sounds are tagged as observations of something else. This creates a tension between the personal and the other, as the act of recording and the choice to record are inextricable from the personal.

I would argue quite the opposite. Sound maps, to varying degrees of success, are meant to reproduce sounds of public significance and provide routes to experiential resonance. Mission drift invariably strikes these sound collections, but these sounds are intended to draw power from common experience. I know that the person who recorded that MSU soundscape heard something within it that powerfully conjured the aural umwelt of that location, and they knew that it would do the same for others. It says a lot about the private meaning of this public sound space that I decided to include it in my own sonic memoir earlier this month, completely forgetting until now its significance when I had visited the Sounds of the State page.

Waldock suggests the trend toward exclusion of private sound experiences is missing the greater experiential significance of personal moments that, if I can extrapolate for the author, are potentially just as powerful in their revelation of similarity in our intimate lives.  I don’t think Waldock is wrong, exactly, but I do believe the nobility of best intentions are quickly sabotaged by human tendency toward narcissism. That the prevailing expectation of sound maps is to upload publically significant sounds keeps people honest; otherwise, we’d be quickly overwhelmed by sounds that may be accessible only to a relative few. Waldock intends to show the value of a personally-aware, private recording by providing a sample taken from two speakers who are directly aware of and address the recorder in the room as they attempt to have a conversation. The effect is they end up doing neither very well; their conversation is stilted and overly expositional like poorly-written movie dialogue, and the listener thus gets no sense of what their home life is really like. Recordings like these lack both the opportunity for experiential resonance and the insight of truly candid expression.

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