About …

Sound behaves on its own terms.

Art is whatever we say it is.

Abstraction is the act of making something simultaneously more simple and more complex.

Sound and Art are both types of abstraction.

Sound Art is …

In 1952, John Cage’s composition 4’33” instructed performers to not play their instruments for the duration of the piece. (The score also divided the piece into three movements.) Ostensibly, 4’33” is an anti-composition consisting of silence, but Cage is said to have been motivated by a realization that true silence is impossible. In practice, the sounds of the environment become the focus of the audience’s perception. At a more conceptual level, the piece removes the composer and instrumentalist from the “performance” and calls into question the very notions of artistic creativity and control. In 2013, we take it as a given that Pop music makes prominent use of technologies that radically transform “original” or “real” acoustic sounds, including the human voice: a radio hit song is presumed to employ Auto-Tune (think T-Pain or Akon) to corrective and aesthetic ends.

In this section of Writing 101, we will explore the interstices of sound, art, and abstraction through a variety of complementary projects: a) writing based on perception, design, and analysis of sound (live, recorded, written, artistic, and otherwise); b) exercises in abstraction of text and sound (edits, collages, cut-ups, mash-ups, etcetera); c) annotations and critical reviews of scholarly, popular, and artistic works; and d) meditations and reflections. Our primary platform for exchanging materials will be a multi-media blog equipped for text (including annotations and comments), audio, image, and video. We will explore interviews—direct dialog—as a vital form of academic inquiry and employ some versatile, accessible tools to work with audio recordings: recording gear, amplification systems, computer software, and mobile apps.

We will survey a variety of texts on sound, art, and abstraction from different genres of writing: music scholarship from academic journals and books within art history, popular music studies, ethnomusicology, and musicology; music and art journalism and criticism from radio, magazines, and newspapers; liner notes and promotional materials from record labels, publicity agents, and artists; blogs from fans, critics, scholars, and artists; and documentary films. What are the conventions of each genre of writing? What kinds of thinking and inquiry characterize them? Through various exercises, we will experiment with conventions from different genres. Within each genre, special attention will be given to strategies for representing artists “in their own words” through interview transcriptions and quotations, as well as different techniques for evoking sound through text. We will also work to develop writing as a musical process that is rich with nuances of pitch, rhythm, texture, and dynamics.

The broader objectives of the class are the development of descriptive and analytical tools through listening, reading, critical thinking, dialog, writing, and revision. Most writing assignments will consist of relatively brief pieces (1-3 pages) which will function as components of a final research project. Final projects will be developed gradually throughout the semester to take the form of one of the following: a) scripts for documentary radio features; b) critical, research-driven essays; or c) Internet-based multi-media presentations. Final projects may also take the form of broadcasts on Duke’s radio station (WXDU 88.7FM). Please Note: Our class materials will consist of a variety of texts and other media (audio, still image, video, etc.), as well as recording and amplification equipment to compliment (or circumvent) your personal computer’s considerable resources. However, no prior musical or technical expertise is required.

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