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tag: sounds-of-brands

Teaching “Sounds of Brands” (2020), Week 1 of 15

This past Wednesday, February 5, 2020, was the first class meeting of Sounds of Brands / Brands of Sounds: The Role of Sound in the Media Landscape, a course I’ve been teaching since 2012 in San Francisco at the Academy of Art. The course is about the ways things express themselves through sound, and by “things” I mean companies, products, services, and so forth. It can be everything from the sound design of an electric vehicle to the jingle of a fast-food restaurant to the music played in a retail establishment. How sound is employed as a form of expression in the marketplace, especially beyond the realm of pop-music storytelling, is what we explore each week.

I’m hopeful to find the time this semester to detail the class sessions here on Disquiet.com, but I also know I’ve tried and failed every semester so far. I’ve occasionally started off strong, and then the realities of teaching, and work beyond school, and life beyond all of that become reality, and the posts pretty soon fade out. I’ve documented the first week of class several times in the past, so the point of today’s post — as I get tomorrow’s class materials together — is primarily to link to those posts (2012, 2015, 2016).

To recap in brief, the course is divided into three sections, as depicted in the above chart. We spend the first three weeks on Learning to Listen (aka Listening to Media); the following six weeks on the core of the course, Sounds of Brands; and then the final six weeks on the opposite proposition, Brands of Sounds, or how things related to sound (headphones, music equipment, streaming services, record labels, etc.) express themselves in non-sonic ways.

Up top is what the blackboard looked like at the end of the first day of class. The writing seen here is a repository of notes, not a structured document. I’ll unpack some of that here:

“Sound Journal” refers to the centerpiece of the homework: writing four times a week in a diary about one’s experience of and thoughts about sound.

Below that are things like “laugh -> ha” and “keyboard -> click,” a list of a half dozen or so correlations between “things” and “the sounds things make.” That’s the result of the opening exercise in the course, when students sit for 10 minutes and write down every sound they hear. There are various things that come out of the exercise, among them an opportunity to discuss the difference between object and emission. To understand that saying “car” isn’t sufficient to describe the sound a car makes is an important lessons for a student just beginning to explore sound.

The note about onomatopoeia is pointing out that several of the things people heard (the list originated as bits of the students’ work in the exercise) that much of the description is quite literally a verbal expression of the sound. But some achieve a greater, more verbal level of detail, such as the “deep, guttural” sound of a motorcycle, and the “high-pitched, repetitive beeping” of a truck backing up.

The list in the upper left-hand corner contains elements the students noted in a series of TV commercials that, creatively, employ everyday noise sources (keyboards, pencils, coffee, books) to recreate the melody of a classic jingle.

Other terms, such as “soundscape” and “anechoic,” will be discussed more in week two, which happens tomorrow. I’ll try to get the time to report back on that class meeting, and the others as the semester proceeds. There are 15 weeks in all, 16 if you include spring break. There is one class meeting each week, and it lasts roughly three hours, a mix of lecture, discussion, and in-class exercises. Students than have nine hours of homework outside of class. If you’d like a copy of the syllabus outline, shoot me an email at [email protected]

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What Sounds Looks Like: Brands of Sounds

Blackboard edition

Remains of the day. This is the blackboard at the end of the class this past Wednesday, week 11 of 15 in the undergraduate course I teach on sound in the media landscape. Week 11 marks the start of the third and final arc of the course. Arc one is “Listening to Media,” three weeks on learning to pay attention with and to one’s ears. Arc two is “Sounds of Brands,” from which the course takes its name; in it we discuss how things (companies, products, services, etc.) express themselves in sound (jingles, product design, retail design, etc.). Arc three of the course is “Brands of Sounds,” which flips the second arc on its head. We look at how things related to sound (musical instruments, headphones, streaming services, record labels, bands) express themselves in non-sonic ways. This begins with a discussion of what sound looks like. The lengthy class discussion yielded this mid-period Basquiat.

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Sounds of Brands: Initial Concepts

The blackboard after reviewing the first three weeks of the semester

The course I teach each spring, “Sound of Brands,” passed an early milestone this past Wednesday, February 27. Our fourth weekly class meeting, it marked the end of the first major arc of the syllabus and the start of the second arc.

The first arc is “Listening to Media,” three weeks during which students work on their listening skills. They accomplish this by starting their sound journals, which they are to write in four times per week, and by exploring two primary topics: first, a time line of sound and its relation to the nature of being human; second, a more compact time line of sound and its relation to film (and other media).

This Wednesday began the second arc, which is the core of the curriculum, the six-week stint (out of fifteen three-hour sessions total) from which the course takes its name: “Sounds of Brands.” In this arc we explore how things use sound to express themselves in the media landscape. We’ve already looked, to date, at film and television, and a bit at video games, but now we’re looking at products and services and corporations and so forth. (I use the word “brands” because it provides a broad stroke. That said, I do suggest that if the word “company” works fine in a given situation, then please say “company” instead of “brand.” There’s something uncomfortably anthropomorphic about the term “brand,” and something narcissistic to that particular anthropomorphism. When it’s useful and necessary, use it, certainly. When it’s not, don’t feed the beast.)

To make that shift from the first arc of the course to the second, we paused at the start of class Wednesday to reflect back on concepts we worked through during the first three weeks. This blackboard displays what accumulated during about 45 minutes of discussion that I led. Looking at it now, I realize it’s essentially three things: a lot of neat ideas, and a bunch of super-accomplished thinkers, and Dragnet. The board was getting packed and we needed to shift to the new material, so I should mention one additional concept that should have been on there: “sound design as score,” the TV series Southland, associated with it, much as Dragnet is here associated with “voice over,” which in turn is associated with “non-diegetic.”

And while on the subject of diegetic sound, I should mention something else. Now, “diegetic” and “non-diegetic” are useful, hallowed terms in film studies. In case they are not familiar, “diegetic” refers to sounds that correlate with action happening on screen, in the story as it is unfolding (dialog, sound effects, etc.), while “non-diegetic” refers to sounds that are separate from whatever realism you want to attribute to the filmed image. Classic examples of “non-diegetic” sound include the score and, yes, voice-over narration.

I just want to note some issues with characterizing “voice over” as expressly non-diegetic. I think the diegetic/non-diegetic pairing, while useful, suggests a binary when there’s really more of a continuum. There’s an argument to be made that voice overs are sometimes expressions of thought of a character who is part of the story, not an omniscient narrator, and that thought is sometimes concurrent with what is on screen, and that what is on screen is sometimes out of sync with everyday conceptions of time.

In any case, with that over, we moved on to the origins of the jingle. I’m not doing a week-by-week online summary of the course here this semester, but I am mentioning material on Twitter, and will likely do a few more focused write-ups in the coming months.

Oh, and yes, the classroom I’m teaching in this semester does have an actual blackboard, and I am filthy with white dust at the end of each session. There’s a pencil sharpener hanging on the wall, too.

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Talking About Talking About and Working with Sound

Title slides from a presentation I gave last week

Last week I had a great opportunity to give a talk about various projects I’ve done in sound, from working on the score of Brett Marty’s science fiction film Youth with Marcus Fischer, Ted Laderas, and Paula Daunt; to teaching a course I designed for the Academy of Art here in San Francisco about the role of the sound in the media landscape; to helping a coffee shop make decisions about what music to play; to moderating the weekly compositional-prompt music community the Disquiet Junto; to editing comics for Tower Records’ Pulse! magazine, Red Bull Music Academy, and other publications. Those are some of the projects I walked through, and these are the title slides from my talk:

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Sound Class: Extra Credit

Create a sound walk

I just gave an extra-credit assignment to the students in my sound class.

Maybe you wanna do it, too:

For my students the assignment is due by 10am on Wednesday, May 24, 2017, the last day of class.

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