HiPSTAS, Day 1

The presentations at today’s HiPSTAS sessions laid a groundwork for understanding the scholarly context of current work in digital sound studies. The LBJ Library’s Sarah Cunningham emphasized the urgency of analog-to-digital conversion because of the impending deterioration of many analog formats, and she also stressed the difficulty of prioritizing such digitization efforts. Loriene Roy and, later in the day, Tim Powell emphasized tensions between scholars’ desires for freely accessible, constantly archived information and the need to respect sacred traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions in indigenous communities. Quinn Stewart showed the way that GLIFOS software has increased access to the collections he works with, and John Wheat, of the Briscoe Center for American history, emphasized the undiscovered treasures that currently remain hidden in many audio archives. Al Filreis, who reminded everyone that the first goals of Pennsound are to provide access to sound files and to reach out to potential communities of poetry readers, wondered whether the curated character of Pennsound was fully compatible with the ARLO tools.

Two of today’s presentations, though, were particularly interesting to the way I think about the potential of digital tools to promote our understanding of poetic sound.

First, J. Stephen Downie, of the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, blowed me away with his demonstrations of the digital tools he and other musicologists have been using to explore music. I suppose I knew this sort of search and comparison was going on because I use Shazam regularly, but seeing the tools and interfaces Downie has been developing and using made me think that literary scholars are far behind in using such tools to consider sound. I, and everyone else, was particularly impressed by a demonstration of a tool that compares each second of a song to every other second of the same song to digitally determine song structures (A parts, B parts, refrains, bridges, etc.). When Downie showed that he could click on one of his visualization’s diagonal lines (which imply a song match between two parts of a song and thereby define a section) and have the two parts being compared play at once, many of us gasped. While the spoken-word and recorded-poetry most of us at HiPSTAS are working with aren’t quite as meticulously timed as most music, the demo of Downie’s music tools made clear that literary and historical scholars could be making significantly better use of the sound files now at our fingertips.

The other presentation that will stick with me most was Steve Evans’s talk on “The Phonotextual Braid” of timbre, text, and technology. While Evans’s emphasis on a poet’s performance as the most important scene of poetic sound is one I have some disagreement with, he showed that questions of sound need not be divorced from questions of context, politics, and society. In the talk, Evans worried that the current vogue for the digital humanities might displace scholarly attention to equally important theoretical concerns, but I think it’s worth pointing out that engaging with ARLO has already advanced my theoretical thinking about of poetic sound. I’ve never been one to make the claim that building is the same as theory in DH, but I do think the tension between questions of theory and questions of the digital humanities is not so irresolvable as some seem to think.

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