Intro: “Listen to the world around you!” What do you hear? What sounds do you notice? Dr. Nishani Frazier’s presentation reminds us the importance of sounds in oral history. Music theory and philosophy teach us to value sounds that are linked with places, people, cultures, and languages.
On February 28, 2019, Nishani Frazier, a historian and an activist, spoke at Columbia University. "The Sounds of Blackness: Space and Sound Preservation as Oral History Advocacy" was part of the oral history workshop series. Throughout the event, Dr. Frazier radiated her passion and thought-provoking ideas through a presentation that integrated audio pieces and music. She spoke about gentrification, the Black Power Movement, and the importance of “aurality” – specifically, highlighting and recognizing sounds of places. As I listened to her talk, as a musician, I began to wonder how literal language cannot fully represent the human emotions, expressions, thoughts, and behaviors, which occur during interview processes. Then I’d thought that meanings are often lost in the process of translation – particularly during documentation and transcription in oral history.
Frazier’s message was revealing the richness in discovering, extracting, and exploring sounds that help compose and identify places. More specifically, her project examines how gentrification erases spaces that hold sounds and cultures that are linked with people’s history and memory. Dr. Frazier said that sound itself has legible meaning, which oral history should recognize and use as a tool for social justice advocacy. At the end of the presentation, she turned on an audio clip of people drumming from her hometown, and said, “That’s it! Let the drum speak!” The sounds of the drum spoke itself as a language.
When transcribing to document interviews, words are the most used and preferred form. Although it makes sense of why oral historians depend on literal languages, there are other forms of languages that cannot be translated or represented in the text, such as sounds. Musical notes, vocal tones, gestures, rate of speech, and pauses are all part of a language, which each holds a particular meaning of its own and has unique functions. While some people may be more sensitive to sounds than others, biologically, people are more emotionally receptive to sounds than verbal communications, and more oral historians need to acknowledge and take advantage of this natural tendency in transcripts.
Sound speaks itself, and that form of language should be preserved on its own. Could you imagine listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major, Op.55 with words in it? That defeats the purpose of music that lives through history precisely because it speaks for itself – even without words. Although music like operas need literal words to make a story, the composition of sounds is a foundation for libretto. In fact, composers work with “librettists” to add texts to their musical work.
Musical composition: notes, melodies, key signatures, dynamics, and tempos create the blueprint of meaning. Words such as lyrics in music ornament the meaning but they do not solely create meaning. Sounds function as words in music composition. Dimitri Shostakovich was a world-class composer who worked with the Soviets to create orchestral pieces that resembled and carried the meaning of Stalin’s leadership. If you listen to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47, the four movements carry sounds that represent and express the meaning of Russian history from the twentieth century. There are no words – only sounds – but a complex story is communicated.
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47, composed by Dimitri Shostakovich, four movements tell a story from the 20th-century Russia, during the Soviet occupation. The work is composed of complex dotted rhythms, friction in the strings, symmetrical melodies shared by various instrumental parts, and lyrically harsh styles. These are meant to represent a story of industrialization, famine, population decline, and agricultural scarcity. Notice the importance of sounds – how they create various styles, execution, and musicality – without words.
So how should oral historians approach the transcription process to preserve the value of sounds and various forms of expression? We must value originality and authenticity by preserving and acknowledging aurality. Perhaps oral history and music theory can intersect to further develop this area.
Symbols of rests, dynamics, tempos, and major/minor keys can help accentuate aural languages that cannot be translated or noted in transcripts and literal documentations. Various forms of pauses – symbolized by rests – represent types of silences that narrators may express during an interview. A “quarter rest,” measured relative to the words and cadences around it, recreates and holds a a pause where the word [pause] skips over one. Dynamic changes also represent the changes in mood and tone of a narrator. These symbolic musical diction uplifts the aural qualities of human communication and expression. Basic music theory skills and knowledge can help oral historians to recognize aurality and execute this value in their processes.
Eunice Kim was raised and has lived in Atlanta, Georgia before coming to New York to study Oral History at Columbia. She’s currently working on a project that examines the voices of trauma survivors. After experiencing her own personal trauma, she aspires to make a difference through storytelling. She approaches oral history as a creative platform in which interviews offer time and space for interviewer and narrator to come together to share their forms of artistry.