I just picked up a copy of Jacob Smith’s new book, Eco-Sonic Media, and was excited to find an entire chapter devoted to bird imitation whistling. I think bird imitation whistling is critical to understanding how environmental recording practices developed in the 20th century, and I’m excited to read Jake’s take on it.
Meanwhile, here’s my take. I hear bird imitation whistling as a subset of other whistling and musical practices popular around the turn of the century, all of which were marked by issues of race, class, and gender. The emergence and popularity of white, highbrow bird imitation whistling is actually a kind of domestication of the “wildness” of whistling, which had historically been associated with a variety of “others,” including African-Americans, homosexuals, the working poor, and, of course, actual animals. But don’t let me spoil it for you—here’s the whole thing:
I’ve been obsessed with this sound for a long time: a 1935 recording of an ivory-billed woodpecker. I’ve written about it, given presentations on it, and listened to it more times than I can count. So it feels right that it became the subject of my first broadcast radio essay. Since I started at To the Best of Our Knowledge, I’ve been wanting to do some segments that discuss historical sound recordings, so when Steve Paulson told me he was doing a show on extinction, this seemed like a perfect fit. Hopefully it will be the first of many. For more information on the expedition and this story, I did a brief write-up here. And because I’m a recovering academic it even includes a bibliography.
Some nerdy notes on the recording process: Joe Hardke, a great sound designer at WPR, does the voice of Jim Tanner. It was his idea to run the vocals through a tape machine, but I brazenly thought I could EQ them myself and make them sound “old.” Unsurprisingly, I was wrong and Joe was right. Caryl Owen ran Joe’s vocal tracks out to a reel-to-reel at pretty low volume, then boosted them on the way back in to the computer to get that nice, warm tape hiss. She also did a killer job lightly treating the historical audio material, which was generously provided by the Macaulay Library at Cornell. The music is from Widowspeak’s The Swamp EP, except for that last track…
Last week I wrote a post on Alice Waters and the politics of food that went live over on TTBOOK on Thanksgiving. It’s something that’s been stewing since I read this New Yorker article on “foodie culture,” and is essentially a response to it. The post got branded an “essay” somewhere in the chain before it went live, but I think it’s a little short and informal for that; it’s really more akin to something I would post here than a fully fleshed out “essay,” but you get the picture.
I’m hoping to do more pieces like this—both written, and, eventually, audio—and the TTBOOK website gives me a nice platform for doing so. I’m probably not going to post here every time I produce something, but I’ll tag my posts so you can follow along via RSS if you’re so inclined.
Apologies for the “radio silence” (couldn’t resist) on this blog as of late, but as you likely know, I have been busy working on actual radio. My first two months here at TTBOOK have been an exciting and exhausting crash course in the ins and outs of public media. I’ve been working on digital initiatives large and small, including a ton of content for an upcoming mini-series on death and dying, as well as some more blog-like posts which I’ll hopefully be able to show off sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, the staff has also been very patiently working to get me up to speed on audio and broadcast production, and the first piece that I (mostly) edited went live yesterday. It’s an interview with none other than movie-star-turned-revolutionary Russell Brand. After making headlines for expressing his politics of non-voting on British television, he decided to devote a full book to explaining the rationale behind his position on voting—as well as income inequality, meditation, etc. I don’t want to editorialize here (something about the ethics of my job?), but in my edits I did my best to accurately depict the tenor and content of the conversation he had with our producer Charles Monroe-Kane. I’ve embedded the piece below, but you can also have a listen on the site or in the podcast stream.