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Session Details

Rhetorics of Risk, Loss, Nostalgia, and Connection in Sonic Composing Practices

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Session Code: F.19
Area Cluster: 8-Innovation and Taking Risks
Type of Session: Concurrent
Level: All
Abstract: Sonic art. Negotiating the resonances of recording. Atonal music. Sound and video in the classroom. Will you listen with us?
Description: This panel demonstrates how critical sonic composing practices--strategies for listening to and composing with music and other sound objects--document the current intensities and volatilities of cultural, social, and environmental change. In an age of large-scale loss and change, when more and more human and nonhuman populations are experiencing long-term “at risk” conditions, traditional literacy practices, particularly those that support individual control and mastery over environments and tools, are no longer adequate. Philosophers and artists (Nietzsche, Attali, Goodman) have long heralded music as the mode that will endure when narrative and exposition (and their supporting institutions) have exhausted themselves. We see music, and sound art in general, not only as enduring (indeed, it endures only in relation to other modes) but as a critical space where we and our students can meet to discuss the very constraints of language, memory, scale (literal music scales, as well as micro and macro levels of affectability), technology, and culture.

Because of the dynamic nature of sound as a modality, we want to structure our panel presentation into four movements (with pauses in between).

First Movement: Panelists will facilitate a "listening lab" using sound and music clips, which will later appear in our individual presentations. Panelists will guide attendees through a set of “close listening” practices, and everyone will record their experiences, associations, thoughts, and/or descriptors of what they hear. (10 minutes)

Second Movement: Each panelist will offer a short talk on critical sonic composing practices across a variety of contexts: music, avant garde composing, sound art, and composition classrooms. (40 minutes)

Third Movement: Panelists will facilitate brief small-group discussions on attendees’ reactions to the opening sounds and the presentations. They will guide everyone toward creating a critical language (with an emphasis on metaphors) for listening to and composing with sound in relation to a variety of environments. (10 minutes)

Fourth Movement: Panelists will allot time for a traditional full-group Q & A. (15 minutes)

Second Movement Talk Descriptions:

Speaker #1: “Rhetorics of Extinction in the Anthropocene Soundscape”

Speaker #1 will highlight the rhetorics of extinction at play in the sound artwork of Susan Philipsz, Hong-Kai Wang, and Bernie Krause. Each artist, in her/his own way (Philipsz with historical coastal landmarks, Wang with abandoned factory buildings and their former workers, and Krause with deforested biophonic soundscapes) provides skillful means for becoming more sensitive to and inhabiting what has been called the anthropocene age--a postindustrial age of irreversible human impact on the planet. Attending to sound with the ears of a critical sound artist shifts our very understanding of rhetorical context from a disembodied marketplace of ideas to an immersive, interdependent complex soundscape, a soundscape with multilayers of time-bound objects that arise and decay rapidly and slowly. Speaker #1 will argue for the importance in this anthropocene age of acknowledging our experiences of surface time (particular sounds arising and decaying) and what Claire Colebrook calls “deep time” (species coming and going), along with the affective dimensions--nostalgia, grief, terror, compassion--that saturate these experiences with individual and cultural meaning.

Speaker #2: "'More Cowbell': Musical Composing and Recording Processes as Sonic Rhetoric"

Speaker # 2 will discuss a musical collaboration between a Singer/Songwriter and a Producer / Engineer / Songwriter to demonstrate how musicians work to define key ways of listening which embody composition and recording processes. In a recorded conversation punctuated with original musical recordings by both, they reflect on how creating the “mix” for musical recordings relies heavily on nostalgic memory and sonic literacy experiences. This negotiating requires a critical vocabulary based on what has come before, and a means for eliciting desired feelings and musical soundscapes that will somehow “stand the test of time.” The listening posture produced by resonance--that is, recognizing and literally feeling the way each element’s vitality and vibration works with and on another element’s vibration—is a crucial part of the process. Attuning to resonance can highlight how words approach, but cannot capture, the embodied moments of shared musical experiences and recognition during songwriting, playing instruments and creating musical layers into a fixed recording.

Speaker #3: "Composing Audiences, Influences, and Classical Music"

Speaker #3 argues that musical texts are particularly useful for understanding the relationships between composers, their influences, and their audiences, especially in how music highlights the emotional and associative nature of composition. These relationships extend beyond music: composers in any medium manage and compose the relationship between their own work and their predecessors’--a relationship that is often tinged with nostalgia, direct and indirect influence, allusion, or a desire to be as distant as possible (or all at the same time). The constraints of genres sharpen this tension with earlier work, as working within conventions leads naturally to similarities between texts and the subsequent difficulty of standing out when composing new work within that genre--but standing out can be risky. Speaker #3 explores the broad issue of multimodal composers’ influences through the specific lens of classical/concert music composers in the 20th and 21st centuries, who often had to choose between following the influences of 19th-century composers, including their assumptions about basic musical fundamentals such as tonality and rhythm, or breaking free from these influences in radical ways and thus risking the dissatisfaction of audiences.

Speaker #4: "The Layered Functions of Music and Sound in FYW Video Assignments"

Using interview data drawn from a qualitative study that took place in several sections of first-year writing, Speaker #4 will illustrate the complexity of students’ sonic composition practices in video environments. Students in the study used sound and music in various layered ways as part of multimodal video compositions - as organizing device, as relaxation technique, as thesis, as associational link, as memory cue, as highlighter, and as emotional trigger. The speaker will also explore how these practices might be extended and linked to other modes through supporting students in developing a critical sonic vocabulary and designing more specific sonic and multimodal pedagogical strategies such as peer-to-peer discussions on the rhetoric of music, guided sonic reflection journals, and mini listening labs.


  • Chair: Mary Hocks Georgia State University, Atlanta -
  • Speaker: Michelle Comstock University of Colorado Denver - Rhetorics of Extinction in the Anthropocene Soundscape
  • Speaker: Mary Hocks Georgia State University, Atlanta - “More Cowbell”: Musical Composing and Recording Processes as Sonic Rhetoric
  • Speaker: Kyle D. Stedman Rockford University - Composing Audiences, Influences, and Classical Music
  • Speaker: Crystal VanKooten Oakland University - The Layered Functions of Music and Sound in FYW Video Assignments


  • Friday 3/20 8:00 AM - 9:15 AM in Marriott, Marriott, Meeting Room 9, Level Three

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