Syllabus Against Story
by Adriene Lilly
Stories are fine, but do we need them? (imo no)
I work as a sound designer. Most of my professional time is spent on documentary and narrative audio. That’s why the majority of pieces on this list are audio pieces. My initial thoughts on this question come out of conversations about storytelling as the primary form in podcasting and radio documentaries. While there are some critiques about how the tyranny of the definitive story structure impacts the medium, storytelling is overwhelmingly the dominant mode. While I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with stories (I like them!), I think the emphasis on stories in those spaces eclipses any effort to dig into what sound has to offer as a medium. Producers can get stuck in a script, hearing the text instead of the tape, imagining “water” as a word rather than the susurrations of the waves. I’m not convinced that everything needs to be a story, or that storytelling is the form to end all other forms.
Here are three guided exercises to help you experience the joys that could be when you break a reliance on narrative story. Start at the top and listen through each piece. As you move down the list, the narrative elements will start to transform and nearly dissolve. Try not to worry about paying attention to every second of every piece. This isn’t a class, so I’m not providing context for these pieces1, but as you listen, here are some questions to keep in mind:
In the absence of narrative: When you are paying attention, what’s holding it there? What is letting it go?
If you were to take any of these pieces and construct more of a traditional narrative around them, what would we lose? What would we gain?
When the narrative starts to fade away, what about the medium itself is allowing this structure to work? (The qualities of the sounds themselves? The timbre of a voice or performance? The rhythms or tones?)
Exercise 1 : experiencing a place
Stories from the Green River, Scott Carrier (25:07)
The Missing Voice: Case Study B (part 1) (1999), Janet Cardiff (excerpt 14:11)
Solitude Trilogy (pt 1) (1967-1977), Glenn Gould (58:57)
Inside Outside (excerpt or full) (2016), Camilla Hannan (32:00)
A Sound Map of the Hudson River (1989), Annea Lockwood
Cima Verde (2008), Chris Watson (51:30 full album)
Exercise 2 : hospitals
No Event, Miyuki Jokiranta (7:42)
If, Sherre DeLys & John Jacobs (7:38)
Brilliance CT 64, James T. Green (ft. alice wilder) (5:32)
Sounds of the Modern Hospital, Mark Vernon
A Chance To Cut Is A Chance to Cure, Matmos
Exercise 3 : sports pictures (for the movie fan)
In The Realm of Perfection (2018), Julien Faraut
Tokyo Olympiad (1965), Kon Ichikawa
Spacy (1981), Takashi Ito
1 Some of these pieces were created to be soundwalks listened to in specific locations, or gallery installations that were turned into albums later or aired on the radio. For the purpose of this exercise, we’ll ignore all that.