Blog Post

Sound, Nature, HASTAC, and Me

First of all, I’m really excited to be a part of the 2013 HASTAC Scholars class—something which wouldn’t have been possible without Fiona’s willingness to help and be flexible as deadlines came and passed while I worked on securing funding. Kudos to her for excellent “nerd herding,” as she appropriately puts it.

Now that I’m here, about me: I’m a graduate student in American Studies at the University of Iowa, currently living in Washington, DC while on a Predoctoral Fellowship at the Smithsonian. I’m based at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, doing research on their “science” records for my dissertation, which is tentatively titled Making Silence Audible: Sound, Nature, Technology 1890–1970.

This project developed as I found myself bringing ideas from sound studies classes at Iowa to bear on my personal and academic interests—namely, American environmental history and record collecting. By looking and listening closer to albums such as Sounds of a Tropical Rain Forest in America, I began thinking about the ways that environmental sounds have functioned in both the history of media (as “sound effects,” as “ambient sounds,” as “New Age”) and in cultural and political approaches to the natural world (as used in ornithological research, anti-noise advocacy, National Parks policies). Then I started looking for connections between those two histories.

With Making Silence Audible, I’m attempting to tell a cultural history of “nature records” that reflects the technological, political, and environmental issues that can be read within and against their grooves. As sonic objects, the complex compositional and editing techniques they employed were influential on cinematic sound practices as well as popular and avant-garde music. As educational materials played in museums, schools, and homes, they soundtracked national debates about sonic environmental issues, from songbird preservation to the anti-sonic boom movement. At times, these records attempted to portray large-scale environmental issues, shared experiences, and actual physical spaces. At other times, they attempted to present listeners with a personal and psychological relationship to a generalized idea of “the natural world.” Essentially, this project is about the human processes that resulted in how and why we’ve recorded and listened to “nature,” and how those processes have shaped the very definitions of “sound” and “nature.”

Or something like that.

Here in the collaboratory, I hope to discuss issues of sound, nature, and technology that go well beyond these specific research interests and into the realm of writing, teaching, and publishing scholarly work. Many scholars, including those here at HASTAC, are asking fantastic questions about how sound can be better integrated into teaching and publishing practices—and those questions still need more discussion (if not “answers”). Obviously, my work is deeply sound-related, and I’m invested in such issues as I think about publication avenues going forward. I’m also interested in digital writing and academic work on a day-to-day level: text editors, Markdown language, mobile devices, citation managers, etc. Some of these ideas I’ve sporadically addressed on my blog, Fieldnoise. Between that site, and this lengthly blog post, I’ve hopefully already presented enough material to get discussions started. I’ll be looking forward to much more of it.

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