Voice in the Cultural Soundscape: Sonic Literacy in Composition Studies

by Michelle Comstock and Mary E. Hocks



Sonic Literacy as Embodied Knowledge

Technological Literacies of Sound

Classroom Opportunities in Sonic Literacy

Voices in Soundscapes

Voice and Gender

Voice and Culture

Voices of Social Conscience



Works Cited

Video Clips




7. Voice and Culture - "Why I Don't Like My Accent"

The articulation of accented voices and dialects can become even more radical in a culture that privileges Standard American English. One of Michelle’s advanced composition students, Miku Rager, used her documentary assignment to explore the cultural assumptions and dissonance around the “accented voice”—in her case, a woman’s voice speaking English with a Japanese accent.

"Why I Don't Like My Accent" Video Clip

In "Why I Don't Like My Accent," Miku powerfully contextualized her own voice over and her "paranoid" (her words) self-consciousness of it within the larger cultural production of the Asian female voice. Using clips from Kill Bill and Full Metal Jacket, Miku demonstrated the synthesization and fetishization of the Asian female voice in the U.S. popular cultural soundscape, a voice attached to an eroticized, infantilized, and in the case of Kill Bill's O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), lethal body. Throughout the composition, Miku takes issue with Professor Higgins of My Fair Lady, claiming that certain individuals cannot "conquer" or tame their own voices:

I came to the U.S. when I was eighteen, so no matter how hard I try, how motivated I am, how great my teachers and their methods are, I cannot speak English without an accent so far. In fact, I've been trying for eight years, and I don't see significant improvement in my accent.

Miku's piece points to the material effects of voice in our culture, where particular accents continue to possess more earning power than others: "How much accent is too heavy?" she asks, "How much accent am I allowed to have?" In the end, Miku decides to take on the cultural stereotypes and not her own voice. She chooses to resonate (and work) with her own voice as it is and teach others to do so, too. She concludes her documentary with brief portraits of Japanese women in the fields of astronomy and art. This is just the beginning, she suggests, of a "lifelong re-education project." These counter-images become part of Miku's own voice in the piece. They give her voice and voice-over narration a social and cultural capital and credibility that is missing in the stereotypes.

Regarding her own production process, Miku wrote about the difficulty of achieving resonance with her "accented" voice (the very theme of her documentary). She claimed the project taught her a great deal about focus and "flow" in her writing:

I was originally satisfied with my first script. The script seemed to represent what I wanted to say in the manner I intended to. However, once I started to do the voice over my script became unbearable. There was no flow between the sentences. Awkward word choices and sentence structures suddenly screamed out from the text. When people would say words are alive, I would always think it was such a cliché. With this voice over, I experienced the life of words for the first time. And as a neglecting mother of an awful script, the fact scared me.

When we teach voice-over narrations, we focus less on technical details and more on the intimacy and immediacy created by the words, cadence, and tone of the voice(s). All of these qualities create what sound theorists call "resonance"--the impact of one vibration on another. Resonance is also a metaphor in communication practices and connotes a listener-centric approach to production, one that takes into account whether the listener's auditory system, as well as experiences, will allow him or her to vibrate at the same frequency as one's words and tones. A voice-over narration, for example, asks students to engage in a particular form of sonic literacy, to consciously choose words and tones that resonate (or create dissonance) with an audience, as well as with themselves.

What the resonance metaphor emphasizes is the sharing of experience and emotion, not just ideas or knowledge. It is a metaphor that relies on modes of communication beyond print, such as music and images. Of course, just as no instrument can be completely in tune, no voice can completely resonate. There are levels of resonation, which are dependent upon cultural context and space. As Miku discovered firsthand, in order to achieve resonance, one must write descriptively and concretely, with special attention to emphasis. Various inflections and their effects become more obvious in voice-over narrations, their malleability a source of inspiration or just confusion. Both her documentary and reflective writing highlight her struggle to create a powerful, persuasive voice, a struggle many first-time multimedia producers share. The highly-edited, homogenous professional voices of mainstream media often have a silencing effect on our own, making it so we can't hear ourselves or other individual voices. Of course, as Miku also points out, whatever counts as the "natural voice" is complicated by the cultural soundscape, and as Truax argues, "Even our own voice comes back to us with the properties of the immediate environment embedded within it" (32). When students begin to recognize and produce resonance, and also recognize and use dissonance strategically, they become much more sophisticated communicators and critics of popular cultural soundscapes. These culturally-inscribed resonances and dissonances teach students to question the notion of the "natural voice" and thus develop their critical sonic literacy.


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