It’s official — my bags are packed, my unnecessarily large bag of books is stuffed to the brim, and my parents are running around in a frenzy. Where am I headed? To New York City, so that I can commence the rest of my life! I have an editorial internship at Symphony magazine this summer, where I’ll be writing feature stories and news articles for their print and online editions. I’m excited to be a real person in the the real world, but I’m also (expectedly) a little nervous. Steve Jobs’ wise words assuage me — that we can only connect the dots looking backwards and not forwards. I don’t know what lies ahead, but I do know that I have persevered for 22 years now to make my life my own, and to speak what I think is beautiful, subtle, individual, and pivotal. I can’t wait to do that — to think, to write, to live, to meet people, and to find opportunity — in one of the greatest cities on earth! And what better way to start than to write about classical music for a major magazine? I can’t wait.
This weekend also marks the 200th anniversary of my alma mater (I just graduated about a week ago), Hamilton College — hooray!
Reflecting on my last post, I wondered whether or not there were other, similar ways in which sound wrestles with meaning. No doubt there are many!! But until I came upon “The Voice,” published May 18 in the New York Times and written by national legal correspondent John Schwartz, I hadn’t even thought about how sound might affect written forms and not just visual ones. Schwartz’s essay discusses the experience of listening to an audiobook and how, despite the many obstacles that exist (in both time and space) between the author and the reader, a talented actor’s inflection in an audiobook can bring them closer together.
Is that really true? I’d like to dissect this phenomenon just a bit — and although this issue is not directly related to music, it certainly has implications for performance of all kinds. How can sound bring the reader of a novel closer to the author’s intention? Schwartz writes: “The best readers [the people speaking in audiotapes] don’t put so much acting into the recording that it interferes with the connection between the author and the listener.” I think it’s problematic to assume that the vocalist doesn’t bring his or her own idiosyncrasies to the table — no matter how much “acting” is going on. Under what circumstances is a vocalist crossing the line? I’m imagining what would happen if I were to listen to an audiobook whose vocalist was so bombastic or colorful that I could not take him seriously; I think in that case, my audiobook would be of poor quality. But the minute a third person with a third background, a third set of beliefs, a third sensibility enters the picture, the narrative import dramatically changes. And this is not a measure of how much “acting” is going on.
Aren’t we all acting when we speak, especially when we read aloud? I don’t mean to sound all gloomsday and depressing when I say this, but each of us is putting on a facade most of the time; we are not entirely “real” — whatever that may mean. We’re trying to tell a story through our voices, and we’re trying to elicit a response out of people through our intonation. So the aural force of our utterances make a substantial difference in how we live our lives — and we carry those tendencies over when we read, especially when we read aloud to ourselves or to others. In narrative theory, there is what’s called an “implied author” — the subjective entity responsible for the choices that create the text itself. In other words, the implied author is the author of the world of the novel. Introducing a vocalist who reads the text complicates the reader’s sense of the implied author. While this is not bad, per se, it is not as straightforward as Schwartz makes it out to be. He claims to have found the “perfect marriage between author and reader” in the audiobook for Ernest Cline’s dystopian comic adventure novel, “Ready Player One.” But the use of a middleman is more of a divorce than a marriage, even though we might think that the vocalist could help bring the characters to life. Instead, at least formally, audiobooks tend to have the opposite effect — they meddle with authorship. They create, contort, and convolute audiences.
Again, I promise that I’m not condemning audiobooks — I do think they enrich the literary experience, and there’s no “danger” in misunderstanding the role they play. But I also believe that sound can play tricks on us, and if we are properly attuned to sound’s escapades, we can begin to communicate more effectively. Schwartz’s essay was very enjoyable to read — who wouldn’t appreciate it? But it also makes me cautious. How do we establish authorship in this digital age? Is creation getting mangled and re-categorized based on new forms of media? And why are we desperately trying to get “closer” to the author? These are important questions to ask.