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Chapter 13. Audio Documentary: Hearing Places and the Representation of Sonic Culturer

Mark Neumann

Mark Neumann is a Professor in the School of Communication at Northern Arizona University. He is the author of On the Rim: Looking for the Grand Canyon (University of Minnesota Press, 1999) and co-author (with Daniel Makagon) of Recording Culture: Audio Documentary and the Ethnographic Experience (Sage, 2008), as well as numerous book chapters and articles published in journals such as Symbolic Interaction, The Moving Image, Journal of Communication Inquiry, Communication Yearbook, Visual Sociology, and Cultural Studies.

One time when I was recording sounds on the streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter, a tourist stopped to ask what I was doing. I always packed my recorder, headphones, and stereo microphone when traveling. Compared to other tourists with cameras and video recorders, I stood out. I was a little self-conscious about wearing the gear and receiving curious glances, but I liked to walk city streets wearing headphones—using the microphone as a kind of divining rod, amplifying certain sounds and filtering out others, depending on where it pointed. I followed specific sounds coming through the microphone. The microphone oriented me to the city’s soundscape, gave me direction, and ultimately revealed a map of the streets’ sonic culture. I tried to explain this to the tourist in the French Quarter that afternoon and he seemed to understand.

“We visited South Africa and we’ve got hundreds of pictures,” he said, “but I wish I had a recording of the sound of the rain in the forest. That’s something that the photographs don’t give you.”

Anyone making or listening to such recordings knows this is true. Sound recordings evoke visual images that can recall and represent a sense of places and people that are conveyed differently than in written form. Even now, when I listen to the tapes of my “soundwalks”1 from years ago, I remain intrigued by how they call forth images of specific cities as a series of scenes brought to life as sound. Listening to my tapes from the French Quarter, I hear street musicians playing Sticks McGhee’s “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” and Louis Jordan’s “Caldonia,” but I also hear tap shoes clicking a rhythm on pavement as two teenage boys dance for tips on Bourbon Street; clinking plates, cups, spoons, and the random conversations of a busy Café Du Monde; and New Orleans resident Tyrone Bowie standing on the banks of the Mississippi River playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on his sax, harmonizing his instrument with the horn of a passing barge. These tapes were made in 1994, more than a decade before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, and they are full of details, voices, sounds of a city—like any recording—that are specific to the time of their making. While my own recordings initially started as a personal passion, I easily connected the virtues of sound recording with its possibilities for doing ethnographic work. This chapter and its accompany audio documentary detail a project I conducted to document interaction at Jim Morrison’s grave at Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Jim’s Grave

Further Resources:

Neumann/Golding Sound Portrait
Fans and Bands
The Sonic Rub
Documentary Works

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