The medium of sound, long placed in a secondary position to the visual within cinema and media studies, has experienced a considerable increase in scholarly attention over the past two decades. When the journal last dedicated an issue to the theme of sound media (“Sounding Off,” Velvet Light Trap 51 [Spring 2003]), its focus was exclusively on film sound and film music, with particular attention to synchronization, points of audition, and audiovisual counterpoint. While such issues remain pertinent to contemporary scholarship, “Sounding Off” was also a reflection of the state of sound media studies at the time of its publication—a state defined by the scholarship of Michel Chion, Rick Altman, and Claudia Gorbman and even by the continued prominence of Hans Eisler and Theodor Adorno’s 1947 monograph, Composing for the Pictures.
In the past decade, however, not only have investigations into the study of film sound greatly expanded, but studies of radio, popular music, and other audio media have also become more firmly established within the media studies discipline. While scholars like Chion, Altman, and Gorbman continue to serve as driving forces for the field, there has been an audible groundswell of historical and theoretical work that considers sound to be more than just one of many stylistic attributes of film and media productions and that treats the history of sound’s recording, storage, and playback practices as their own industry and social phenomena. Works that illustrate these newer directions include Steve Wurtzler’s Electronic Sounds (2007), which traces the industrial formation of audio engineering corporations, and Karin Bijsterveld’s Mechanical Sound (2008), which studies the social problems with noise between 1875 and 1975. Other important works include—but are by no means limited to—Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity (2004), Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past (2003) and MP3: The Meaning of a Format (2012), and Susan Schmidt Horning’s Chasing Sound (2013). Further, while sound studies often cohere around the fields of film and media studies, it now spans the humanities and social sciences. Indeed, numerous scholars have observed that a “sonic turn” is under way in disciplines as wide-ranging as cultural studies, American studies, history, philosophy, art history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, cultural geography, architecture, and science and technology studies. By its very nature, sound studies is inherently interdisciplinary: like sound waves themselves, the study of sound crosses boundaries and transgresses academic divisions and theoretical paradigms. An increase in this diverse field of sound studies can be seen in the recent and highly interdisciplinary anthologies The Sound Studies Reader (Jonathan Sterne, 2012), The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld, 2011), and the nearly 1,600-page Sound Studies (Michael Bull, 2013), all of which document the intellectual history of the field’s many theoretical concepts. This wide range of work encourages us to revise our assumptions about sound as an [End Page 1] aesthetic medium; its social, cultural, and political nature; and its past, present, and future position within the fields of film and media studies.
This issue of the Velvet Light Trap aims to join this ongoing conversation and build upon the new lines of inquiry that have emerged out of the intersection of sound, media studies, and other disciplines during the last decade. The articles collected here cover topics as diverse as vocal and whistling performances, aesthetics and rhetoric of “bad” sound mixing, the fascination with antiquated sound media, and the cultural evaluations of radio dramas.
Craig Eley begins the issue by tracing the historical developments in the cultural attitudes surrounding turn-of-the-century performances and recordings of whistling. He first considers its musical and nonmusical associations with a variety of “others,” including African Americans, homosexuals, and the working poor. He also traces the gendered implications of white professional performers who drew on American environmental attitudes and the rhetoric of “nature” and “the natural” as a way to distance themselves from these stereotypes and establish themselves as legitimate artists and educators.
In her essay on office wives in postwar radio detective dramas, Catherine Martin argues that certain ideals of femininity and temporary professionalism circulated through the cultural functions of women’s...