Review of Digital Sound Studies

Digital Sound Studies
Mary Caton Lingold, Darren Mueller, and Whitney Trettien, Editors

Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2018
312 pp., illus. 24 b/w. Trade, $26.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7060-4

Reviewed by
John F. Barber
January 2019

Digital Sound Studies considers opportunities afforded to scholars across disciplines to use sound in their research, teaching, and scholarship. Edited by Mary Caton Lingold, Darren Mueller, and Whitney Trettien, each essay in this collection shows how including sound in humanities studies could transform them from silent, text-centric pursuits into rich, multisensory experiences that are more inclusive of diverse knowledges and abilities. Drawing from rhetoric and composition, performance studies, anthropology, history, information science, and other disciplines, contributors prompt productive conversations even while probing assumptions behind the use of digital tools and technologies in academia.

Digital Sound Studies is conveniently organized in sections. The first, "Theories and Genealogies," links digital sound studies to twentieth century shifts in academic thought. Richard Cullen Rath, for example, describes his decades-long encounters with digital methods while focusing his research on Africian-diasporic music and meditates on how digitally informed ethnohistory helps illuminate the cultural contributions of enslaved African and other marginalized histories. Myron Beasley connects sound studies to black nationalism and embodied performance through his examination of Zora Neale Hurston's work as a field recordist/researcher and performer. Jonathan Stone explores Walter Ong's theories of orality and rhetoric as foundations for digitally mediated performance and what he calls "digital humanity"—the connective potential of digital technologies and cultures (66).

In part two, "Digital Communities," the editorial team of Sounding Out!, the blog that transformed contemporary sound studies, provide a biography of their project. Regina Bradley, through a series of YouTube interviews about the significance of the music group, OutKast, prompts closer consideration of multimedia archives of cultural criticism. She documents her own endeavors and provides a template for others considering digital sound research and publication. W.F. Umi Hsu asks university students to engage in collaborative audio-ethnography with middle school students. Results demonstrate that turning to sound studies reinforces the already transformational aspects of digital pedagogy, and suggest that students learn that sonic methods can challenge hierarchies across cultures and generations.

In part three, "Disciplinary Translations," Tanya Clement discusses the potential for digital sound studies to enhance research of large audio collections through innovative computational analysis and discovery, as well as close listening to the nuances of sonic meaning in cultural life. Michael Kramer suggests a turn from digital humanities' reliance on visual materials to consider visual media as sonic data. His methods of "sonification" demonstrate that sound-based research can be useful to scholars working with visual culture. Joanna Swafford, faced with the challenge of writing about musical notation, designed an open source digital tool that makes it possible for those who do not read music to learn about the relationship between musical scores and performances.

Part four, "Points Forward," identifies challenges that need to be addressed by digital sound studies. Rebecca Geoffrey-Schwinden identifies what makes digital scholarship about historical sounds effective while reviewing her own efforts to make accessible the music of the French Revolution using the Scalar multimedia publishing platform. She stresses the importance of providing context and listening perspectives for historical subjects. Without understanding what makes the original sound(s) meaningful to those who produced and heard it, even digital work fails to keep its promise of increased accessibility and heightened learning opportunities. Steph Ceraso considers three sound practices for effectively embedding sound into born-digital scholarship. In doing so, she makes an important point: the work of digital sound studies requires creative thinking pushing against conventional wisdom, as well as consideration of the end users.

Collected in Digital Sound Studies, these essays explore the urgency and necessity of incorporating sonic experience into scholarly networks, writing processes, research methodologies, pedagogies, and knowledges of the archive. The results will be transformative, say the editors, and will create, by giving voice to thought, "the possibility for new kinds of understanding that can do justice to forms of sonic knowledge: the ancient, the fledgling, the yet-to-be-imagined" (ix). Digital sound studies is a new, interdisciplinary field, driven by experimental modes, prompting action/creative research at the intersection of print and sound and digital humanities. The book provides reports, analysis, meditations, and encouragements for teachers, scholars, theorists, artists, anyone interested to listen, explore, and engage.