Disrupting the Scholarly Voice: New Modes for Conference Presentation

Two weekends ago at the IASPM annual conference I saw a performance by The Killer Apps, who bill themselves as “Iowa City’s best all-mobile-phone cover band.” Although they started as an actual cover band, the collaborative project between Kembrew McLeod and Loren Glass has now morphed into a multimedia scholarly performance duo. At IASPM, The Killer Apps “performed” a paper about the relationship between telephony and music, using their pre-recorded voices, the voices of other scholars, instructional telephone videos, music samples, and live synthesizers played exclusively on iPhones. The result was a uniquely thoughtful and engaging examination of a very “sound studies” topic told in and through sound. Which is to say, it wasn’t “gimmicky”: I think having scholars like Lisa Gitelman and Jonathan Sterne “phone-in” their actual voices via actual telephones in a paper about telephones is a particular stroke of genius, and the music also synced up well.

A few days after I saw that performance, Wendy Hsu and Jonathan Zorn released Paperphone, a “scholarly voice playground.” The application is essentially a really well-designed, easy-to-use, and completely free effects rack, complete with distortion, echo, reverb, chorus, pitch shift, vocoder, and a filter. It also has the ability to playback files at various speeds in forward and reverse—a simple but powerful tool for scholars who want to “close read” audio pieces in real time. And though the effects are aimed at voices, you could easily apply them to other audio sources with a little know-how.

Though I have yet to see Paperphone in action, my hope is that can be used to thoughtfully and playfully benefit the genre of academic presentations, which still, more often than not, consist of paper reading. I remember taking my first real art history class, and being blown away as the professor seamlessly and beautifully manipulated two (!) analog slide projectors as she gave her lecture. As more people start to work and in and around sound, I would love to hear such technical dexterity for manipulating audio in classrooms and conference proceedings becoming commonplace. With Paperphone, you no longer need a host of hardware and cables to make that happen. The app seems especially well suited to scholars of the voice—it’s most readily apparent feature is its ability for real-time vocal gender bending—but I’m excited to hear where else it might go. I can think of some ways it might be useful in some of my presentations on nature sounds.

Of course, there are still some very real technical hurdles to overcome, especially since most conferences don’t come with easily accessible audio routing and Mac laptops no longer have a dedicated audio out port. I think it might be time for me to dust off the old but still eminently useful Griffin iMic

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