Month: February 2014

Blog 8: Tones and Layering

                The most obvious and apparent component to be heard in the Joe Hall piece is the voice that represents Joe.  This pre-pubescent person has a lot of very traumatic experiences to share with the listener, yet he manages to remain incredibly calm while doing so.  This affects the way the listener perceives Joe.  It gives off the impression that none of this phases him, which to any “normal” person sounds crazy.  It makes us think Joe is crazy.

                There is also the very first sound the listener hears in this piece.  It is a high pitched sharp sound that is not pleasant to the ear. Its effect is indicating that something strange or disturbing is to follow, which it does.  We hear this sort of sound multiple times throughout the story. 

                The author does an excellent job of using sound other than speech to describe the boy’s father.  While “Joe” is introducing him, we hear electric guitar playing a heavy metal riff.  This certainly gives off an appropriate vibe for the sort of person his father is.  This sound choice becomes even more appropriate when we later find out that his father would play white supremacist rock music in the house in an effort to “condition” his family. 

                Throughout the piece, the author does an excellent job of layering appropriate sounds behind narration.  Much like depth in a photo giving the viewer a lot to look at, great layering gives the listener a lot more to listen to.  When Joe’s father is first described as a white supremacist, a clip of someone yelling racist statements into a megaphone occurs.  When Joe goes into more detail about his father’s new “hobby”, the volume of the megaphone is decreased but can still be heard faintly.  Joe pauses, and the megaphone volume is turned back up to be the focus. 

                Another great use of layering occurs when he describes the night his father took him out to the border to try to shot illegals.  There are several sounds used to create the setting: a wolf howling, dogs barking, sirens, and a deep lower brass sound; all of which are meant to indicate night time and create a “horror movie” effect.  The author allows these collection of sounds to play before any speaking occurs in this portion in order to allow the scene to be set.  Then he lowers the volume of these sounds as they fade into the background of the boy speaking.  

Audio Analysis of Lament for Joe Hall

In Lament for Joe Hall, Matt Gray presents his interpretation of the Jeff Hall murder from the point of view of the son Joe Hall.  The soundtrack begins with a twitchy, high pitch feedback that made me cringe with its headache inducing frequency.  This sound is coupled with the boy’s somber monotone voice introducing his life as a failure and what sounds like parents arguing.  This introduction not only begs me to turn down the buzzing high pitch but really gives me insight into how irritated, confused, frustrated the muddled thoughts in young Joe Hall’s head must have been during this time in his life.  As I listened on it seemed to me that he wanted this sound that was troubling his head to end as well and knew of only one solution.

            Once this loud screech ended a child’s voice bluntly introduces the troubled life Joe Hall faced.  Whether it was intentional for this purpose or not I believe the use of a child to do the voice was genius since many people naturally have a greater inclination to listen and have more compassion for a child.  The rhetoric bluntness of his initial statement draws in my attention in a way that makes me want to hear more and see how he dealt with such troubles.

            The brief moments between talking were coupled with more unsettling frequencies.  These frequencies deliver an uncomfortable affect analogous to the agitating occurrences that young boy was facing.  Matt used rhetoric to show the controlling detrimental behavior of Jeff Hall by using phrases and words like, “he read me,” “he made me,” and “he said I needed to.” By using these phrases he shows how Joe lacked free will and how his father influenced him in ways he had no say in. 

            Around half way in when Joe is explaining a time when his dad took him out to the border to look for “illegals” Matt couples the speech with outside type creepy music with dogs barking to create an affect that made the listener sound like they were out there with them.  The eeriness of the background music mimics the nervousness and anxiety that Joe was experiencing at the time.

            Overall, Matt does an excellent job utilizing rhetoric, sound, and other audio sources to create effective affect that keeps the listener engaged throughout the entire story and binds us with similar feelings that Joe may have been facing even though much of the talking is monotone without emotion in itself.


Question: What types of assisting audio can we fuse into our projects to create the desired appeal to emotion?  What types of sounds evoke which emotions?

The Most Effective Audio

This American Life – Superpowers! Is an interesting audio documentary about the super powered desires of real, normal people. It begins by suggesting a question, such as would you rather be able to fly or to be invisible? Then the essay offers the perspectives of different people whom the creators interviewed. The stories and ideas told by the subjects propose interesting ideas and scenarios that one might not initially think about, such as asking about the exact speed or your flying abilities, and if it would be “comfortable” to fly at that speed. The documentary flows like a video news testimonial story would; it goes from person to person and offers what they think about the posed question. It’s very similar to a man on street (MOS) segment.

The MOS-style structure creates a very personal rhetorical feeling by engaging and connecting the listeners with the average subjects. They are posed as average people, just like you and me, which creates an association with the listeners and the program itself. For example, the beginning of the program introduces a guy who describes himself as “the pasty kid in high school with no athletic ability.” This type of persona is prevalent throughout high school, and many of the targeted listening demographic can connect to this persona. ESPN might not use this persona, because all the sports-ball players who watch/read ESPN would not find a connection to the white pasty guy. By connecting with the audience like that, it has an affective power of exploration. It engages the audience, and they should feel an upbeat sense of interest. These stories are mostly positive, interesting, and fun anecdotes, and if the audience can connect to the subjects, a positive interest is developed.

One thing that this audio documentary showed me is the power of sound, especially for an audio-only project. I am accustomed to working with video, which is both visual and auditory. But because there is no video, the importance of perfect sound is vital. The music levels must be perfect, and the pace and tones of the interviews should be consistent throughout. For example, if you interview someone who offers a great anecdote about your posed question, but said person stutters and a few words they say are inaudible, that section becomes unusable. It might be extremely interesting, but because the flow of the speech is disrupted, the flow of your audio documentary will be disrupted as well. The narration must also be perfect; every little syllable and inflection should be emphasized or pronounced to create an effective baseline. Audio is something where adding flair and alterations can ruin something good. The best audio makes the listeners forget they are listening audio. So would you add your most interesting anecdote for a project like this if it messes up the rhythm of your piece as a whole?

This American Life Powers: Activate!

The entire structure, content and execution of the “Superpowers” episode of This American Life, seems to deal with one overall prevailing theme of fear and insecurity. Each section of this four-part program looks to address this theme in a slightly different way that builds off of the previous act.

This American Life begins to explore this theme right away in the prologue, which features the host, Ira Glass, and a comic book artist, Chris Ware. The prologue isn’t in an interview format, like the following three segments, but is almost a call and response type discussion. Glass will make a statement, which complements (not compliments) the story being told, to which Ware’s voice comes in to continue the train of though from the host. It’s not question/answer, more like two similar narratives are being told, playing off of one another.

The prologue addresses the theme of fear and insecurity in the opening lines by Glass “when we were weak, we told ourselves to be strong…” Ware continues this sentiment not only in his story of being “the most loathed kid in his class,” but also in his tone of voice. When he talks about his childhood experiences, he stutters, speaks softly, and doesn’t particularly speak with conviction. His voice doesn’t conjure up an image of a grown man, rather we can still hear and envision that child who thought wearing superhero costumers under his clothing would give him power.

After the prologue the next three segments follow a similar format, but tells the narrative theme in a different fashion. The first real portion of the program uses more of an interview technique than the prologue.  In the intro John Hodgman discusses a question he posed to people and what that question meant. The progression of the section goes from whimsical and humorous (who doesn’t want to be “Going to Paris Man) to dark and reflective in fairly short order. From the simple original question posed in the segment, respondents feel like they are revealing deep dark secrets about themselves. The theme of insecurity and is overt in this section, with responses like: “It all has to do it guile. Wanting to be invisible means that you’re a more guileful person. If you want to fly, it means you’re guileless. And I think the reason that I’m so conflicted about flying versus invisibility is that I have guile. But I really wish that I didn’t.” But more than just the words, the way they are spoken have significant meaning.

Just like the introduction, the way this section utilizes voice is as important as the narrative. The people who respond to the questions have audible hesitation in their voice, it cracks and some can’t even respond to Hodgman’s questions. Even the host of the segment doesn’t seem to use his normal voice, instead of a higher pitched tone that can be heard in his standup, he speaks very low and deliberate tone. This could be because he felt that it gave more gravitas to the story, or even maybe that a deep, soft spoken voice would elicit the image of a psychiatrist, posing this superhero question on patients.

The reason I focused on these two particular segments is because they seem to represent the program as a whole. Each part of “Superpowers” is slightly different from the part preceding it, but contains enough of the same format to tie everything together. All four of the sections of this piece utilize sound of voice (both narrator and subject), and musical cues to break up the discussion. Even the last segment, which is a radical departure from the previous segments in terms of structure, contains these elements.

Instead of having an interviewer ask questions and subjects respond, only to have their voice crack, or pause to indicate hesitation, the character in the story ranges from cool and collected (talking about his new rocketship), to wild and out of control (describing how Superman does literally nothing). His tone goes from deep and smooth to shrill in the same sentence. Whenever this change happens it’s at a point in the story at which sees the character facing a crisis, a fear of something he doesn’t understand. Why doesn’t Superman do anything? Why doesn’t Superman look at him? Why does everybody love Superman? These phrases are said in an exacerbated manner, out of breath and fearful. Once he rationalizes these thoughts, it goes back to smooth and controlled, (Superman doesn’t do anything because he’s always superman, Superman doesn’t look at him because he thinks “I’m not worth his time,” people love Superman because they don’t realize how much of a fake he is). Even if the listener is not paying attention to what is being said, they can still hear the fear, frustration and doubt in the subjects voice.

It’s the tone of voice, the shift in the spoken sound that drives the narrative of Superpowers home. The content of each section brings up the fear and insecurities of everyday life, but it’s the way the content is read that brings it alive. If the entire program were read in John Hodgeman’s low assured voice, the listener would never get the full picture. This is what I hope to take away from this exercise, and incorporate into my project: the power of voice as a narrative tool.



a mixture of silence and sound

The Lament for Joe Hall was a very strong audio journal.  The way it began was very powerful and emotion provoking—the constant flow of beeping, the arguing, and the other faint sounds.  Just these first 10 or so seconds produced a strong feeling inside of me.  It felt somewhat depressing, almost preparing the audience for what was about to come.

The different noises in the background fading in and out were my favorite part about this audio journal. The layering of these noises added to the emotions produced.  The author used both noises as well as muffled talking in the back.  The muffled talking in the back made it more realistic to me.  It almost gave off the impression that this story was unfolding in front of you, not being recounted from the past.

In addition to the sounds, the silence was powerful as well.  In a majority of the parts where the boy was speaking (pretending to be Joe Hall) there was no background noise.  This was important because it forced the audience to focus on the words and the story being told.  If there were different sounds or background noises the whole time it would have been very distracting to the audience trying to understand and process what was being said.

This example of an audio journal really helped me think of ideas and ways to improve my own.  I learned that sounds in the background can both add and hurt your piece.  When first figuring out what I wanted to do for this project I kept trying to think of a lot of different background noises.  However, I learned from this project that focusing on the main story as opposed to using many background noises can be equally as powerful.  In addition, I learned that this project does not have to be connecting to you in anyway. This story was a strong emotional story that was told through the eyes of Joe Hall, not through the eyes of the student.

Gray Provokes Emotion

After listening to the Lament for Joe Hall, I was interested enough that I researched the story behind it.  The fact that I wanted to look into the story more says a lot about the piece.  It was not just an ordinary podcast or news report.  Matt Gray used a variety of sounds, sound clips, music, and a “narrative” to illustrate Joe Hall’s story.  It starts with a noise getting louder and louder. Then, the voice of Joe Hall comes in explaining how he was doomed from the beginning.  Then came the sound of people fighting like what happens at a domestic incident.  Matt Gray used these to open because they helped to set the mood for the rest of the project.  He wanted to give the listener an inside look into the mind of a troubled child.  Gray deliberately chose to have a child speak the words.  He could have used another adult to tell Joe Hall’s story, but he did not.  A child is naturally innocent and, because of that, the viewer empathizes with the story being told.  Gray also portrays Hall as a child who did what he had to do to overcome his horrible father.  For me personally, it evoked feelings of sadness and sympathy for the child although he committed murder.  Gray uses explicit emotional contagion through the child speaking.  Gray also used sounds interjected into the story of Joe.  He used the sound of fire when Joe was describing his father threatening to put his house on fire.  This also helped the listener really immerse him/herself in the story.  The use of sounds can really contribute to the story if positioned correctly.  Gray did not have a real script that he had Vijay Perry read. He filled in some of the details of Joe Hall’s life and made the script himself.  This is very interesting and is very similar to what we have to do for the audio project. At the end of the piece, Matt Gray summarizes what he was doing during it and why he did this project.  It helps the listener further understand it.

What else do you think Gray could use in his project to help the listener visualize and sympathize with Joe Hall?

Shifting Tones in This American Life

This episode of NPR’s This American Life contains a prologue and four acts focused on superpowers and the interactions between real life people and the superheroes of their fantasies. 

Listening to This American Life, I noticed a pattern in the tone of the show. Almost all of the segments started with very lighthearted touches before gradually shifting to the more serious unifying element of the piece. Act One, for example, had comedian John Hodgman pose a seemingly whimsical question to friends: Would you rather have the power to turn invisible or to fly? Interviews with unnamed friends talking about sneaking into places, stealing, going to bars, or not having to ride the bus are interspersed and there is a fun, easygoing attitude to it. The unifying narration of John Hodgman, though, drives the piece forward and soon the characters start to examine the underlying human desires that drive their wishes for invisibility and flight. At which point the interviews revealing the darker explorations people had of the powers: voyeurism, spying, arrogance, etc. This shift in tone over time through carefully planned voice over narration and the arrangements of conversations seems to be an excellent way of getting an audience’s attention before leading them to a serious exploration of who we are as people.
These tonal shifts appear in the other acts and act four especially uses a number of sonic techniques to shift from the comedic to the serious. Glynn Washington’s highly conversational tone and use of slang devolve serious comic tropes into the absurd. One example that had me laughing was when he said, “So I trailed Superman in my special seein’ everything machine.” In a comic book I’m sure that would have a long imposing name, but his more practical, true to life title provides an ironic contrast to super-villain severity. Moreover, he also employs sound effects to parallel his narration. Crowd noises will appear when he talks about crowds, a shriek plays in the background when Superman shrieks, and other parallels appear in his broadcast. So along with music and the various feelings that music can excite in an audience, Washington’s diction, voice, and paralleling background sounds converge to create shifting moods in the audience as his piece moves from lighthearted comic book jokes to an analysis of the darker aspects of the Superman character.
I want to keep these uses of sound in mind when I make my sound project, because they can make my project engaging for audiences by creating subtle changes in mood and emotion that ultimately lead to my point.
Question: I wrote at length about sound paralleling narrative, but what effects do you think sound contrasting the narrative could have? For instance, what if someone took serious love poetry and interspersed it with crowds laughing? Does something like this fit with your project?