The Personalization of Sound

At the beginning of my study of sound, I was what I would call a binary thinker. Now, I do not mean to say that I was resistant to new and contrasting ideas. In fact, that was and remains quite the opposite of my way of thinking. Rather, I tended to consume one perspective or theory of sound before proceeding to compare it to an array of others. And the best idea, or the idea I found the most rational, became my predominant stance of choice. However, later in my study, I was introduced to composer Paul Miller aka DJ Spooky’s concept of a “multiplex consciousness”. Miller suggests that we consider one’s identity to be something like that of a playlist, comprised of a multitude of personal sounds, cultures, and ideas. The very concept of the multiplex consciousness and its directly challenged my way of thinking as I reapplied Miller’s theory of identity to my way of thinking about ideas of sound. And in turn, I learned to accept that there is really no correct or rational theory of sound and voice. Instead, the various perspectives of Aristotle and Roland Barthes, of Alexander Weheliye and Neil Mckenzie, and of Michael Bull and my own exist as part of a mosaic of sorts. The observations drawn from this assortment of ideas differs from individual to individual as a result of their “multiplex consciousness” and in turn, indicates that no sound theory can be objectively more important or correct than another.

Miller establishes the term of “multiplex consciousness” in his work Rhythm Science. The multimedia artist contends that the multiplex consciousness is brought about by the digital nature of today’s world. “This is a world where all meaning has been untethered from the ground of its origins”, Miller writes, “and all signposts point to a road that you make up as you travel through the text. (Miller, 5)” In other words, Miller suggests that the advent of the internet and the enhanced access to an abundance of diverse ideas and cultures now alters the way in which one’s identity is formed. It is no longer adequate, for instance, for an African American’s identity to simply be characterized by the dichotomy between an American and African culture. Miller believes that individuals of the twenty-first-century are “so fully immersed in and defined by the data that surrounds” them that “we are entering an era of multiplex consciousness”. In turn, Miller considers a multiplex consciousness to consist of an amalgamation of “data flows” or information originating from a multitude of sources and thinkers. These experiences that make up the multiplex then inform our identity and the way in which we engage with sound. And it is the concept of the “multiplex” that fundamentally altered my perspective on sound theory.

I began the semester considering the various theories of voice. I sought to determine whether one’s voice was limited to its physical form or whether a voice could exist in less obvious planes. It became apparent to me that there were two prominent and vastly polarizing vocal theories. On one hand, philosopher Aristotle proposed that there is a certain exclusivity to voice. “Not every sound” can be considered part one of voice, Aristotle contended. The Greek thinker ascribes “soul” or purpose to the voice: “…for voice is sound without meaning…” (Aristotle, 670). French literary theorist Roland Barthes adopts a strikingly different perspective in his work The Grain of the Voice. Barthes elects to cite the limitations of traditional language in conveying the voice. In turn, he is instead more interested in what he calls “the grain of the voice”. Rather than viewing the voice as a proficient literary work with definitive meaning, Barthes chooses to examine the voice much like a song with its own unique phonetic elements.

Now, after studying both vocal perspectives, I predictably found myself slipping into my aforementioned binary way of thinking. I strove to determine which theory was more accommodative of diverse expressions of the voice. In my mind, the more “valid” theory would be one that addressed multiple perspectives of the voice. In turn, I earmarked Barthes’ theory of the voice as the more rational option, citing Aristotle’s failure to consider an alternative perspective. “Aristotle’s viewpoint of voice seems to overlook Scott’s unorthodox voice in Blert. Aristotle rejects the notion that certain, “meaningless” sounds can be defined as voice. And it is precisely the exclusivity Aristotle places on voice and its expression that Scott’s work questions” (Khaderi, 3). Here, I highlighted how Jordan Scott’s Blert, a collection of poems that relies on the phonetic elements of bare syllables as opposed to the conventional flowery diction, exposes the shortcomings of Aristotle’s theory of voice. Aristotle’s theory’s inability to address a more unconventional form of expression diminished its significance in my mind.

Later in the semester, my attention turned to voice modulation technology such as autotune. More specifically, I became concerned with both the ability of the technology to improve a musical piece as well as the supposed dishonesty of its use. Similarly, I analyzed the opposing perspectives of African American studies professor Alexander Weheliye, music critic Neil McKenzie, and digital audio technology expert Steve Savage. Weheliye argues that the “vocoder”, a technology very much in the vein of autotune, is inherently honest given the extensive role of technology in the lives of many (Weheliye, 511). Weheliye also details the vocoder’s ability to enhance R&B music by evoking a sense of “nostalgia” and warmth. On the opposite end of the spectrum, McKenzie prioritizes the natural voice, criticizing autotune for its elimination of the “soul and heart” in music. Interestingly, Savage presented a third perspective, detailing his own experiences with autotune. Savage recounts utilizing autotune in order to pitch correct a single missed note, which, in turn, allowed for the singer in question to preserve an otherwise powerful performance. In turn, Savage concludes that a musician’s use of autotune as opposed to the technology itself determines whether an overall work will lose its “soul” as a result.

Of course, I was drawn to both Weheliye and Savage’s writing regarding autotune. Weheliye details an instance in which sonic technology could be utilized in a fashion that directly contradicted the perception of the technology in the mainstream media. Moreover, Savage provides a perspective that conceded the flaws of autotune that McKenzie mentions, while also bringing one’s attention to an alternative method of autotune. Similar to my reasoning regarding voice, I elected to label the perspective I found to present a more nuanced observation of multiple other perspectives to be the most defensible theory. And given Savage’s addressal of McKenzie’s counterargument, I found his claim regarding autotune to be the most compelling: “…Savage successfully broadens the scope of applications of autotune by highlighting the similarities in the enhancements of obvious uses of autotune and the use of pitch correction. Unlike the public perception of autotune suggests, the technology is not responsible for the honesty or level of ingenuity of a musical work” (Khaderi, 5).

As is likely evident by now, I tend to utilize a familiar process when analyzing works of conflicting perspectives. This is a process that I have found to be incredibly useful when gauging the policy positions of politicians or even something as mundane comparing the value for money of competing products. However, upon reading Miller’s Rhythm Science, I realized that voice and sound, two of the core elements of my study this semester, cannot be treated like a policy position or the relative cost-effectiveness of a product. Rather, our relationship with sound and voice is a distinctly personal one. And in turn, evaluating the logic of sound theories like a history student would analyze the perspectives of historians is foolhardy. Miller’s “multiplex consciousness” is indicative of the importance he places on the personalization of the human experience with regards to sound. Miller emphasizes the importance, not just of one’s place of birth, but of the experiences, cultures, and information that influence an individual’s identity or multiplex consciousness.

Miller echoes this theme of personalization when discussing the art of sampling: “Sampling plays with different perceptions of time. Sampling allows people to replay their own memories of the sounds and situations of their lives” (Miller, 28). Here, Miller astutely details just how significantly personal memories can influence our respective interpretations of sound. An individual with a certain background is likely to react very differently to a sampling of a musical work than an individual with another background. In fact, I now realize that Miller’s observation is particularly relevant to my study of sound. Take, for instance, the discussion surrounding autotune. I failed to note that, much like the subjectivity involved with an individual’s reaction to sampling, theoretical perspectives regarding the effect of autotune and sonic technology can also differ simply based on that same subjectivity. Weheliye posits that the “vocoder” enhanced R&B music yet another listener could be less appreciative of the vocoder’s effect. Similarly, McKenzie may criticize autotune for robbing music of its “soul”, while other listeners may favor the artificial sound provided by the technology. This theme of personal subjectivity is also present in the discussion surrounding theories of voice. Sure, Barthes may elect to emphasize the “grain” of the voice, but his vocal theory does not warrant greater credibility than that of Aristotle’s. In truth, the philosophers simply disagree on their personal definitions of the voice. Jordan Scott, who has lived with a stutter, is likely to have a very different idea of what constitutes voice as a result of his personal experiences.

Over the course of the semester, I have engaged with a number of sound studies thinkers works. I found it particularly interesting that every theoretical writing regarding sound was different from the other, even if only in the slightest nuance. However, I previously believed the study of sound to be like any other perspective-based study: familiarize myself with the various theoretical viewpoints and determine which perspective is the most well-rounded. Miller’s writing regarding the personal nature of one’s identity and their relationship with sound allowed me to recognize the way sound differs from most other subjects. Sound is personal, sacred even. It is then logical that our relationship and theoretical perspectives concerning sound are heavily influenced by our own experiences. And in turn, I learned that my more systematic or binary way of thinking is not suited to all academic subjects. Some subjects, like the study of sound, require a little partiality.

Works Cited

Miller, Paul D., aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid. Rhythm Science. Mediawork Pamphlet Series. Cambridge, Mass: Mediawork/MIT Press, 2004.

Scott, Jordan. Blert. Coach House Books, 2008.

Aristoteles, and Jonathan Barnes. The Complete Works of Aristotle: the Revised Oxford Translation. Princeton Univ. Press, 1984.

Barthes, Roland. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980. New York: Hill and Wang, 1985. Print.

“Why Auto-Tune Is Not Ruining Music.” OUPblog, Oxford University Press, 14 June 2012, blog.oup.com/2012/06/why-auto-tune-is-not-ruining-music/.

Core, Nick Holmes & Kevin. “Pitch Perfection? The ‘Flawless’ Vocal and the Rise of Auto-Tune.” BBC News, BBC, 17 May 2013, www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-22514705.

Sterne, Jonathan. The Sound Studies Reader. Routledge, 2012.



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