Sit still and open your ears.
Keep on sitting and listening. We’ll call this a “sound-sit.” …with apologies to Hildegard Westerkamp and others who originated the idea of the “soundwalk“)
What do you hear, what do you NOT hear, and what did it take for you to identify and prioritize the sound reaching your ears, identify their sources, and decide what you thought about them? How do these sounds contribute to your sense of situatededness, of the interactions and understandings that undergird the spaces and places in which you hear them?
While vibrations of the sounding world constantly are ever-present and active in physical space, we sometimes tune parts of our sonic environment out – on purpose or through the less intentional practices of habit. Whether they are sounds that we attend to actively, or sounds that play in a background, these sounds are a central part of ways of knowing, shaping, and experiencing our environment and other beings around us. This online exhibit is a project started in 2017 by East Tennessee State University professor Lee Bidgood, with content developed by graduate students in his Ethnomusicology and Appalachia course (APST 5670).
Exhibits on this site interpret soundscapes in and around Johnson City, TN, the municipality where ETSU is located, a small Appalachian city that sits at the edge of the industrialized nexus at the bottom end of the great valley of Virginia (and the current I-81 corridor) and the federally-controlled lands of the central and southern Appalachian mountains. Here, we can listen to the intersection of urban and rural, lowland and highland, sacred and secular–due to particular local industrial and educational history, there are also a variety of global sounds in the mix.
We have based our project in Douglas Reichert-Powell’s examination (2007) of the construction of “region” through discourse, and his discussion of “region” as a dialectic. One of the central questions we have asked is: “What role do sounds (and the soundscapes in which they take place) play in shaping the dialogue of region?” How do sounds create or transcend boundaries, and provide an analogy or a real mechanism to allow people to do the same? In light of Klett’s observation that “No space is silent, and no sound is perceived without a cultural frame,” we could add that no region is silent, and no region is unaffected by its sounds–least of all, the habit-fogged spaces, places, and sounds of everyday life right where we are living it (Klett 2014, 147).
Each of our soundscapes have led us to particular issues, practical, ethical, and aesthetic. First, we grappled with how to deal with soundscapes, which are more slippery, in some ways, than musical sounds–especially if one wants to record them, make transcriptions, and arrive at an analysis as ethnographic ethnomusicologists often do with musical performances and interviews. How do we consider sounds that aren’t made by people? Again, lingering music-centric conception of sound and analysis was an issues.
Practical concerns (lack of a budget for recording equipment, etc.) were familiar friends in this endeavor, but low-cost and free resources such as phone-based applications for recording, measurement, and analysis of sound–as well as this convenient blog-based platform–have allowed us to do much with little.
As we moved through our process of interpretation individually, we also clashed on our ideas about the main idea, and what the best form of interpretation would be. Should we present large-scale soundscape recordings (~30 minutes) or edit the files down to highlight the most salient events? Is a poem a valid format for analyzing a tortilladora? How do we handle concerns about music publishing royalties for musical intellectual property that is included in the soundscape recordings we want to present here? The variety of approaches in the interpretive posts on this site show that there are many answers to these questions.
Ethnomusicologist and folklorist Jeff Titon presented his long-simmering thoughts on sound, environment, and ecology to our Appalachian Studies community in Johnson City during a residency in the Spring of 2016, challenging us to consider how a sound ecology, a sound economy, and the discipline and methods of sound studies could inform our regional work. We are following Helen M. Lewis’ advice as she articulates in her memoir of social justice work in Appalachia (2012), starting local, listening hard, and listening so that we know who and what is all around us.
Considering sound as part of the critical regionalism that Powell calls for, in these sound posts we are “talking not about a stable, boundaries, autonomous place but about a cultural history, the cumulative, generative effect of the interplay among the various, competing definitions of that region,” and we are taking part in the construction of that region, acknowledging that with each act of definition, each new map of the region, the question of what Appalachia is, exactly, is not resolved but further complicated” (Powell 2007, 5).
For more information about this project, or about Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University, contact Dr. Lee Bidgood — you can find contact information via this link to the ETSU APST graduate programs webpage.
Klett, Joseph. 2014. “Sound on Sound: Situating Interaction in Sonic Object Settings,” Sociological Theory 32(2) 147–161.
Lewis, Helen Matthews. 2012. Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia, edited by Patricia Beaver and Judith Jennings. Louisville: University of Kentucky Press.
Powell, Douglas Reichert. 2007. Critical Regionalism. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.