22 June 2022

MDOH: The Forward-View with Tanya Clement

The second in the Multimodal Digital Oral History seminar series welcomed Tanya Clement from the University of Texas at Austin.

The recording of the seminar can be accessed here: Multimodal Digital Oral History: The Forward-View Seminar 2

Tanya’s paper, titled Dissonant records: close listening to cultural resistance in audio archives, was based on her current book project of the same name and took as a starting point the amplification of dissonant voices in historical audio archives through the methodology of ‘close listening’. She described how ‘Close Listening to archival recordings allows for the recall or the calling forth of new resonant opportunities for understanding the process of history as one that is deeply entangled in politics and media.’ The paper drew primarily on a chapter of the book that focuses on various extant audio-recordings of the celebrated African American folklorist, ethnographer, novelist, and dramatist Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960). These recordings arose from a project that Hurston undertook for the Library of Congress in 1935 along with Alan Lomax and others, and a day of recording at the Jacksonville Florida Office of the Work Progress Administration in 1939 with Stetson Kennedy and others. The recordings include traditional music, folk songs, tales, and church services and songs performed by African Americans (see: The American Folklife Centre, Library of Congress).

Tanya argued that Hurston’s voice is identifiable in far more of these recordings than she is credited for, and played a number of short clips from these recordings to demonstrate distortions, both social and technical, and how it has rendered these particular recordings of Hurston non-authoritative and understudied by scholars (Hurston’s better-known recordings from the 1939 expedition have been made available by the Florida Memory Project). She asked us to try to hear Hurston’s voice and to realise her influential role, not simply as a recorder but as a participant active in information gathering and engaging the performers being recorded, which is otherwise not accounted for within the constraints of the descriptive metadata and the constructed nature of authority in the process of recording.

Tanya concluded by discussing the technical aspects of audio distortion (jitter, wander, flutter), as well as the material quality of the recordings and their ‘digital evolutions’ from acetate disc, to reel, to digitisation. This included the errors in the recording process and subsequent editing choices for creating a clean preservation copy that are revealed through metadata and digitisation notes at the Library of Congress, and which have indelibly shaped the version of history knowable to us through these recordings.

Questions that followed Tanya’s paper concerned how we might push back against the re-amplification of socio-technical distortions in oral histories; why there has been a lack of interest in or a blockage to listening to these recordings; in what ways is ‘close listening’ enabled by the digital and digitisation; and what is gained and lost or purposefully jettisoned in the digitisation process, and how might we access that type of context.

- Hannah K. Smyth, 1 July 2022

22 June 2022