Published on September 9th, 2013 | by Kevin


Episode #28: How to do the Sound of Scholarship

Season Three Kicks Off!

We are thrilled to be back on schedule, bringing you new episodes every Monday. We had over 25,000 listens to our first 27 episodes and we have a sneaking suspicion the best is still yet to come in the new season.

This week, we kick things off with a short and provocative piece that details 6 principles that might be helpful in creating sonic scholarship.

The script for this episode is below.


Intro: “Beating Hearts” by MNDR

Motif: “Aetheric Vehicle” by Matmos

End: “Whisper in my Ear” by Sam Pace



A woman says, “Everything we do is music.” A dish breaks, a synthetic chord shrieks, Morse code is tapping out 3620 repeatedly. Marshall McLuhan says, “Acoustic space: boundless, directionless, horizonless…” Over McLuhan, different voices say each number in 3620, and then they say “36,” “20.” A man says, “Terrific!” A thick chord glisses up to erupt into a new song (“Beating Hearts” by MNDR). The song has a strong beat as the voice over begins.


KEVIN: Welcome to 3620. Podcasting from the basement of 3620 Walnut St. by the doctoral students of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Kevin Gotkin. Today on the podcast, a piece written by yours truly called “How to do the Sound of Scholarship.” Hope you enjoy it.


The music fades out slowly.



Last week I had a hankering to play tennis. The US Open was gearing up and I felt that small frisson in my stomach. I had to play tennis.


TENNIS SOUNDS from the US Open.


As soon as I was on the court, I realized: tennis is actually pretty hard. It’s not easy to play tennis well. I had a few good shots, a few good serves. But not a soul could be fooled by my bid for a Grand Slam entry.


I’ve heard stories about similar compulsions to play soccer during the World Cup, or ping-pong during the Olympics, or diving when it happens to be on TV during a lazy Sunday afternoon. And in all of these cases, there’s a little flurry of excitement – maybe a bit of jealousy, too? – that takes flight as you watch the pros make it look easy. You think, “Yes, I would like to try that.”


MUSIC: “Aetheric Vehicle” by Matmos [short synthetic notes, quiet and subtle with a chime gliss quickly]


This flurry of excitement also explains the origins of this podcast. You probably aren’t surprised to know that a number of us doctoral students are NPR-geeks who gush over an episode of RadioLab that totally captures this or that odd thing. And so about a year and a half ago, we huddled around a conference table and started planning. The twenty-seven episodes that precede this one constitute our humbling first attempt at sound production.


But our charge for the podcast was a bit different than most other first-timers. We were not just interested in making quality sound pieces. But also in thinking seriously about what scholarship sounds like. This is a hefty project about reimagining the boundaries of academic print cultures, about media production research, about making scholarship more accessible.


Here, then, are a few things we’ve learned in our humbling first go at sound scholarship.




ONE. Writerly listening. [in a voice that sounds like it’s on the radio.]


A few weeks ago I visited a class being taught by another Annenberg doctoral student, Sandra Ristovska. We listened to Jonathan Mitchell’s award-winning sound piece called “She Sees Your Every Move” about an artist who surreptitiously photographs people in their homes.


CLIP [a woman’s voice narrates with subtle sound effects in the background]: “I watched for a long time, and I was fixing my camera and checking everything. And all of a sudden [taps] there was a tap on my window. I jumped. There was a gentlemen and he said…”


Here is what we did in class. We listened to the piece twice. On the first round, we were whetting our sonic tastebuds, getting a feel for the piece, just seeing what it’s about. On the next listen, we tried to jot down as many elements of the piece that we could. The first music motif, the crickets, the tap on the car door, the second motif, then the first again. We tried to hear these elements as discrete formal features of the piece.


Then we free-wrote for a bit, picking one of these features and trying to speculate about why it was there and what it accomplished. Then together we combined our reflection and arrived at a more and more complex account of how the piece works and what tensions it’s invested in.


We were doing some writerly listening. Writerly listening is a way to transgress the passivity of being an audience. You try to think like a producer, imagine how a piece might actually be layered. It’s a way of thinking about sound as if you are yourself going to make sound.


Now, writerly listening might serve you well as a student, doing a formal read of a sound piece. But writerly listening can happen at any moment.


If sound is to be a meeting point between author and audience, we have to activate the feelers that will help us not only translate an argument, but perhaps a way of listening to the world. We know how to do this on the page, but can we do it in the editing dock?




TWO. No loose threads. [sounding like it’s on the radio]


Producing sonic scholarship is quite similar to producing written scholarship in that we must make every detail count. Loose threads in sound, like loose threads on paper, mean shaky ground on which we’re building the investigation of an idea.


This is really about good writing, for of course writing is done even when it ultimately ends up as audio. Good writing demands that you point to a paragraph, a sentence, even a word, and be able to defend its position on the page. It means finding and articulating a coordinating principle that orders the structure and content of the sound piece.


This reminds me of some of the best advice about writing I learned as an undergraduate. The professor was talking about essay-writing, but I’m substituting the essay for the sound piece. No idea, no sound piece. If you don’t have an idea you’re trying to render, you cannot have a coherent piece of scholarly sound. And yet, you can have the best idea in the world and still not have a sound piece. In other words, what you’re after and how you get there are deeply tangled endeavors. We romp around in search of both at once.




THREE. Paragraphs are not paragraphs. [sounding like it’s on the radio]


There is a visual language to written scholarly texts. Section headings, epigraphs, and paragraph breaks are things that have meaning in their spatial arrangements on the page. There are similar devices in sound, but there are no paragraphs.


In the script I wrote for this episode, I just skipped a line. But you would not know that. And so it’s my job to sign post my transition, to make clear the direction I want to go in, to create and then harness a momentum through the piece. There are a number of important ways to do this through music, through strategic silences, or – even better – through intention that you signal in juxtaposition between words or clips or noises.


Or, you could always just make your sound piece into a list.




FOUR. Commit to accessibility. [sounding like it’s on the radio]


Creating sound as scholarship is not just a cheeky way to have fun in media. It’s a serious project of translation that throws into sharp relief the legacies of our print-entrenched academic knowledge. Making sonic scholarship, then, is a project of accessibility. Accessibility can be taken generally here, or it can be taken specifically.


When we use new senses to communicate information, we change our orientation to the differently-abled publics we speak to. I’m imagining the person who normally accesses scholarship through a screen reader. This person, blind or visually impaired, has a different relationship to this episode right now. There is no screen reader because there is no screen harboring the text. There is sound and there is listening.


Our job is to take this task of accessibility seriously. This means, of course, that we can’t pat ourselves on the back for having engaged a new sense-medium. There are foreclosures, too. Which is why the script for this podcast is attached to the page on our website for this episode.




FIVE. Use fairly. [sounding like it’s on the radio]


Just as there are no more paragraphs, there are no more field recordings, no more music signatures, no more bites. All of this is now evidence. Good sonic scholarship, as is true of all scholarship, is about being acutely aware of the relationship between your own thinking and others’. So much of scholarship is collaborative, even when a piece is written alone. It’s about being in conversation with someone else’s ideas.


It is tempting to lay words over sound when creating sonic scholarship. But what does this sound do for you? Is it employed to add meaning and complexity to your idea? Or is it used to recreate the conditions of the original being copied?


Fair use is an essential doctrine that guides the selection and handling of evidence in sonic scholarship. In general, it takes into account the purpose of the work you’re trying to make, the nature of the original being copied, the amount of sound being used, and the effect this will have on the piece being copied. This is not just about respecting copyright because fair use scaffolds for us a way of stitching together evidence. This is also not an imploration to create brilliantly manipulated mash-ups of every sound file ever sampled.


It’s really a citation system for sound scholarship. Use fairly and signal your borrowings.




SIX. Shoot and score. [sounding like it’s on the radio]


There is only one shot in creating sound scholarship. An audience might go back and listen to various sections again, but the ability to sense the general structure of a piece does not exist in sound the way it does for someone flipping through the pages of a journal article, seeing the marginalia and being reminded of the text’s branches.


You only have one shot. Make it clear, make it compelling, and make it count. Being lucid does not mean you can’t be ludic. You can of course tinker and play with your form or content, but we shouldn’t forget that the same practices of reading we’ve developed and honed might not yet exist for sonic knowledge. So while we get used to this new way of thinking, let clarity reign.




Maybe it makes perfect sense that this podcast was born out of an attempt to make like NPR. So much of sound scholarship production, it turns out, is really about cribbing from others. Style is not so much constructed but pieced together in sound. In some ways, this is just like written work and in other ways it is very different.


Sonic scholarship is a process of osmosis. You need a creative verve that seeps into a way of hearing a piece before it’s made. You need your rockstar idols and also your peers to prod you along. You need a palette and the openness to imagine the ways that palette gets colored over.


Sonic scholarship is not words on tape. It’s not just spoken paragraphs. It’s a whole system of organizing information through a different corporeal and intellectual milieu. This is what makes it hard. But of course this is what makes it exciting.


We might have jumped the shark just a little bit by suggesting that this podcast could tell you how to do the sound of scholarship. It’s a joke, really. Because if sonic scholarship is a new synthesis of knowledge, there could hardly be a set of principles that singly detail how it’s done. Doing the sound of scholarship is far larger than these six principles. It’s about learning to listen, learning to edit, and learning to articulate to the ears.


You do the sound of scholarship by trying and trying and trying again.


MUSIC: “Whisper in My Ear” by Sam Pace

“Oh baby please,


Next week on the podcast: [a woman’s voice says] “I know, I’ll burn an American flag in front of them, but I won’t say anything so that it won’t be connected to speech and they can’t judge it on the speech and it’ll be on the gesture itself.” That’s next Monday on 3620.


Music fades


A new man’s voice: “The views expressed on this podcast are those of its producers and do not reflect the Annenberg School for Communication, its faculty, staff, or student body. The 3620 podcast is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share-Alike International 3.0 license. That means you can remix, repost, or recycle any of the content as long as you aren’t making money, you don’t change the credits, and you share it under the same license.”

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