"Humanity is what is left behind when all media have been stripped out of our bodies and souls."
Margaret Fuller’s Sublime Sounds
Yesterday the Pulitzer committee announced their annual prizes, and while literary Twitter was freaking out over Kushner vs. Tartt, I noticed that the biography winner is a book about Margaret Fuller.
I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve been a huge fan of Fuller for several years, especially for her accounts of listening in landscapes that have historically been considered sublime. Upon her arrival at Niagara Falls in 1843, she finds the visual experience satisfying, if underwhelming, from the way Niagara imagery has already circulated so promiscuously in popular culture. She writes, “When I first came I felt nothing but a quiet satisfaction. I found that drawings, the panorama &c. had given me a clear notion of the position of all objects here; I knew where to look for everything, and everything looked as I thought it would.”
It was through sound that the experience became sublime—in the old sense of being terrifying: “The perpetual trampling of the waters seized my senses. I felt that no other sound, however near, could be heard, and would start and look behind me for a foe.” Eventually, though, Fuller came to appreciate the sound of the falls, and of sound itself, in a classically transcendentalist way: “The cataract seems to seize it’s own rhythm and sing it over again, so that the ear and the soul are roused by a double vibration. It is very sublime, giving the effect of a spiritual repetition through all of the spheres.”
I’m hoping to start working through some of these ideas while reading this new Fuller biography as well as the new(ish) books by David Grubbs and Douglas Kahn.
"You literally cannot learn when you are scared," Dr. Kurt Fristrup told my students on Tuesday. He was talking about evolutionary biology, but also about being a student—both in college and beyond. Kurt visited my class to give a talk about the effects of noise on animals, but in his introductory remarks, he spoke about how he got to this point in his life as the senior scientist in the Natural Sounds and Night Skies division of the National Park Service. As his bio makes clear, he has worked several different jobs in several distinct scientific fields.
I’m paraphrasing here, but in essence, he told the class that the best way to go through life is not to plan for a specific career, but to plan for the futures you cannot yet imagine. He said the best things you can learn are how to be a quick learner and how to communicate clearly. From there almost anything is possible, he argued, no matter if your major is chemistry or comparative lit. It was as direct and moving and meaningful an argument for the humanities as I’ve heard recently—and I couldn’t agree more.
Running Multiple Instances of nvALT
Over the last two years I’ve experimented with what seems like every plain text/Markdown editor on the planet. But my first love, and the one that I keep coming back to for long-form writing, is nvALT (though a really close second is Ulysses). The best thing about nvALT is that it can read from an entire folder, allowing you to tag files as well as search their full contents. This has essentially eliminated any folder hierarchies from my writing workflow, since I can just find anything with a search. I would say 99% of my work, from these blog posts to academic presentations to teaching notes, resides in a single folder.
But occasionally I do want to create a separate folder—like for my current book project or my Listacular to-dos.1 In these cases, I still wanted to use nvALT, even though it only likes to look at one folder at a time. However, with a few small tweaks you can run multiple instances of it, and even change their menu bar names and icons. Here is quick assemblage of tips and tricks that I found scattered throughout the web:
- Copy the nvALT application in your Applications folder.
- Control-click the new copied version and select “Show Package Contents,” then open the Contents folder.
- Open “Info.plist” in a text editor, find the
CFBundleIdentifierline, and change the line under it to something new.
- Rename the app in the Finder.
- Open it and set all of your preferences.
For bonus style points, you can also rename the application in the menu bar and change the icon:
- Go to “Show Package Contents” again, and drill down into Contents → Resources → English.lproj, then open “InfoPlist.strings” in a text editor.
- Change the
CFBundleNameto whatever you would like.
- Open up CandyBar or your icon app of choice and change your icon.
Pro tip: I think a separate nvALT instance is a great, free way to replace TaskPaper on your Mac. It adds a strikethrough using the
@donetag and works seamlessly with Listacular. ↩
Disrupting the Scholarly Voice: New Modes for Conference Presentation
Two weekends ago at the IASPM annual conference I saw a performance by The Killer Apps, who bill themselves as “Iowa City’s best all-mobile-phone cover band.” Although they started as an actual cover band, the collaborative project between Kembrew McLeod and Loren Glass has now morphed into a multimedia scholarly performance duo. At IASPM, The Killer Apps “performed” a paper about the relationship between telephony and music, using their pre-recorded voices, the voices of other scholars, instructional telephone videos, music samples, and live synthesizers played exclusively on iPhones. The result was a uniquely thoughtful and engaging examination of a very “sound studies” topic told in and through sound. Which is to say, it wasn’t “gimmicky”: I think having scholars like Lisa Gitelman and Jonathan Sterne “phone-in” their actual voices via actual telephones in a paper about telephones is a particular stroke of genius, and the music also synced up well.
A few days after I saw that performance, Wendy Hsu and Jonathan Zorn released Paperphone, a “scholarly voice playground.” The application is essentially a really well-designed, easy-to-use, and completely free effects rack, complete with distortion, echo, reverb, chorus, pitch shift, vocoder, and a filter. It also has the ability to playback files at various speeds in forward and reverse—a simple but powerful tool for scholars who want to “close read” audio pieces in real time. And though the effects are aimed at voices, you could easily apply them to other audio sources with a little know-how.
Though I have yet to see Paperphone in action, my hope is that can be used to thoughtfully and playfully benefit the genre of academic presentations, which still, more often than not, consist of paper reading. I remember taking my first real art history class, and being blown away as the professor seamlessly and beautifully manipulated two (!) analog slide projectors as she gave her lecture. As more people start to work and in and around sound, I would love to hear such technical dexterity for manipulating audio in classrooms and conference proceedings becoming commonplace. With Paperphone, you no longer need a host of hardware and cables to make that happen. The app seems especially well suited to scholars of the voice—it’s most readily apparent feature is its ability for real-time vocal gender bending—but I’m excited to hear where else it might go. I can think of some ways it might be useful in some of my presentations on nature sounds.
Of course, there are still some very real technical hurdles to overcome, especially since most conferences don’t come with easily accessible audio routing and Mac laptops no longer have a dedicated audio out port. I think it might be time for me to dust off the old but still eminently useful Griffin iMic…
"The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction. It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science…If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry."