The Sounds I Miss

So far, I do not like UVM very much. This is partially due to external circumstances, such as the cultural differences between Vermont and New York City, and partially due to internal circumstances, such as my stubbornly nostalgic mindset that refuses to embrace change and constantly misses my old life. I face these issues on an everyday basis, and they are reflected in the sounds of my daily life.

If there is one thing I can say is better about college than high school, it is that my classes are not as early. Despite this, I still need two alarms to have any chance of waking up, and procrastination in the form of repeatedly hitting the snooze button is my first act of every weekday.

Since I am still tired, I prefer to make myself breakfast as opposed to going outside to a dining hall. This semester I usually wake up before my roommate and try to be quiet, but when I recorded the sounds of pouring and eating cereal, I realized it was not quite as quiet as I thought. I also like cereal because it represents the usual, seeing as I ate cereal almost every morning for both elementary and high school.

When I finally have to walk outside, to go to my classes for example, it is usually colder than I’d like it to be. I can only speculate that this is the reason for this next sound becoming a much more prominent part of my life, but it could also be the change in my natural environment or something else all together. Whatever the reason, I feel like I’ve had the longest cold of my life.

When I get back to my dorm, I am usually tired. One of my main sources of happiness here is listening to lively, danceable music that makes me feel good. Aside from the fact that I love this song, another likely reason it uplifts my mood is because I saw the group at a very fun on-the-beach concert with my cousins and sister in France this summer, so it brings me to a happier, more comfortable, and better time.

If I am honest with myself, I realize that listening to music is one of my main forms of avoiding overwhelming feelings brought on by the thought of homework and other daily responsibilities. In an effort to deal with this better, I have started to make To-Do lists more and more regularly to organize my thoughts work more efficiently.

Unfortunately, writing the list is often the most successful part of my day in regards to getting my work done.  Part of the reason for this is the clutter in my room. A few times per week, I make some half-hearted attempts to organize my desk before starting my work.

When I inevitably give up on this idea and once again come to the realization that my room is not conducive to working well, I often go to the library. By the time I get there it is already pretty late into the evening (9:20pm in this recording), which I don’t mind, because it is less crowded, which means less people for me to listen to and get distracted by (I don’t like the silent floors because I feel like every sound I make is way too loud).

When I don’t have homework to do, I go to the UVM Men’s Basketball games. I am a big basketball fan, and it is fun. With the lone exception of the raucous crowd showing for their nationally televised game, the games would benefit from a larger (and much younger) crowd.

As a funny symbol of my inability to embrace this university as my new home, many nights when the UVM team plays have coincided with when my beloved New York Knicks NBA team plays, and I often rush back to my dorm after the UVM game to catch the end of the Knicks game on my computer.

Due to the fact that I often work late into the night in the library or watch basketball games, and I always ate dinner late back home, I take full advantage of the late night dining services provided at Harris-Millis. I usually go alone, but the fact that its so late and pretty empty makes me mind less.

When describing the three listening modes, composer Michel Chion writes about causal, semantic, and reduced listening. I did not focus on semantic listening—interpreting messages through communication—for this paper because I have conversations far less often than I used to (Chion 50). While recording these sounds, and while listening back to the recordings, I was forced to focus much more on the “traits of the sound” themselves, which is reduced listening (50). However, it is causal listening, or “listening to a sound in order to gather information,” that Chion says is the most common, and this holds true for me in not so obvious ways (48). While sounds like the alarms tell me it is time to savor my last few moments of sleep, and sounds from the UVM crowd signify how lively (or not) the atmosphere is, (and are obviously examples of causal listening) much of my causal listening comes from the lack of sounds I pay attention to, which signify to me that I spend too much time alone.  When it comes down to it, I think of my time here at UVM as being characterized mostly by silence: the unhealthy amount of time spent doing nothing in my dorm room, the meals eaten alone, the work I do at the library. Seth Horowitz would argue that the reason I feel this way is because I don’t pay attention, therefore I hear without listening. After recording the sounds of these seemingly silent activities, I would have to agree with him. As I write this in my otherwise silent room, it occurs to me that I could have recorded the sound of my typing, because it is in fact quite loud. Despite the fact that I don’t live in silence, what I really miss from my past is what R. Murray Schafer would call keynote sounds and soundmarks, the sounds that made up my environment. As Schafer writes, “Noises are the sounds we have learned to ignore,” and coming to college has resulted in noise having a much larger and unwanted role in the sound of my life.

Works Cited

Chion, Michel. The Three Listening Modes.

Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape.

Horowitz, Seth S. The Science and Art of Listening.



Silence in Douglass’ Audible Narrative

Both the South and the North can be defined as noisy atmospheres in Antebellum America.  Frederick Douglass details, in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, how the sharp cracks of the whip, shrieks of pain by the slaves to demonstrate their humanity, and strings of profane words of slave-owners define the racket of the South in the mid-1800s.  Douglass indentifies the North as carrying on “noiselessly so” compared with the types of sounds he hears in the South, but to many Southerners “Northern cities were distinctly noisy places filled with the cacophony of the mob and the unpalatable cadence of industrialism” (Smith 152).  The South described by Douglass has its own unique soundscape characterized by the “keynote” sounds that make up the everyday activities of slaves and their masters.  However, it is the silences in the soundscape that transform noises into a narrative soundtrack of the life of a slave.  To demonstrate the importance of silence in defining the narrative of a place, I will explain the use of silence in three potential songs on my imagined soundtrack of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

The opening expression on my Frederick Douglass soundtrack features the repetitive, everyday sounds of slavery as Douglass learns how to behave as a slave.  This track contains the constant, sharp slash of a whip cutting against human flesh overlaid by the allegro, profane shouts of the slave master recurring as eighth notes.  The song is conspicuously missing the lazy drone of maternal love, and instead full of a cacophony of the swish of harvesting tobacco or wheat, the blaring of the driver’s horn, and the occasional gunshot blending into the other sounds.  However, the profane shouts build in intensity and become fortissimo, but are offset by rests.  The masters shout and then there is a sudden absence of sound, as if a response is expected.  The slave-owners, though, do not expect a response because the slaves must “know nothing” and “the means of knowing [must be] withheld”(Douglass 1).  This first stage of silence is characterized by submission because when a slave-owner speaks, a slave “must stand, tremble, and listen” without questioning (Douglass 10).  Silence could not prevent the undeserved punishments that the slaves received, but slave-owners expected submission, and this type of silence characterized Douglass as he learned the dehumanizing meaning of slavery.

Track two is characterized by the deceptive silence of a lie.  It is composed of the “wild songs” of the slaves that revealed “at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness” (Douglass 8).  Because the “penalty of telling the truth, of telling the simple truth, in answer to a series of plain questions” was possibly death, silencing the truth became a wise, conscious decision to ensure survival (Douglass 11).  The lyrical messages of the slaves often contrasted the tonal meaning of the songs because the slaves were forced to express their laments in a pursuit of self-preservation.  In this second title, silence becomes important because the lyrical truth of the slaves’ songs is silenced by fear and the need for self-protection.

The final movement of my soundtrack with the motif of silence becomes less chaotic and more measured.  The sounds become more poignant and intentional as Douglass grows more educated and begins to defend himself.  Amidst the ordered sounds of mallets and irons and the pianissimo tinkling sounds of colliding coins, the sounds occasionally fade out before quietly coming back into earshot.  These intentional, calm, and purposeful silences indicate Douglass’ defiance as he “did not allow [himself] a single word; but was resolved, if [Master Hugh] laid his hand upon me, it should be blow for blow”(Douglass 62).   Intentional silence gives Douglass an aura of calculated intelligence and determination that characterized is path to freedom.

Although our lives, and the lives of people of Antebellum America, are defined by the sounds we hear, silence plays a roll in creating history because it allows narratives to be told.  Silence was key to the survival of the slave and Douglass’ evolving use of silence ultimately led to his freedom.  However, silence also played a key roll in the physical narration of Douglass’ own life because his decision to omit the details surrounding his escape to freedom left a large hole in his narrative.  This hole was left for the reader to fill with his or her imagination, but ultimately remained a silent absence of knowledge.  The affect of this is similar to the fractured style of Emily Bernard in her essay “Teaching the N-Word,” and gives the reader the power to fill the gaps of information with her own knowledge to better connect with the work.  In the end, silence can contain as much meaning as sound and may serve to connect the reader to the text to better drive the narrative.

Works Cited 

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995. Print.

Smith, Mark. “Listening to the Heard Worlds of Antebellum America.” The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg, 2003. Print.