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A Return to Sound and Storytelling

As a musician in the late ‘90s, Professor Jacob Smith, cofounder and director of Northwestern’s MA in Sound Arts and Industries program, spent his 20s playing in bands, making records, and touring. It was a transformative time to be a recording artist. When he started, recordings were done on magnetic tape. As time went on, the industry transitioned to digital recordings and Auto-Tune technology.

Knowing that music performance was a hard lifestyle to sustain, Smith started writing about sound, music, and the recording industry in his free time. “Ever since I was a teen, I’ve been impressed by music and writing, and fascinated with recording.”

Through his band’s connections, he met a songwriter and performer who was also a University of Florida film professor. “I thought, ‘Wait, you can do both of those things? I want to do that!’ ”

So he went back to school, earned his PhD in media history, and began writing books about the cultural history of media, with a focus on sound and performance. Soon after, he found himself in the classroom, living a life similar to the film professor he met during his music days. After the MA in Sound Arts and Industries program was created, he worked with exciting sound artists and students combining sound with history and cultural criticism—which inspired him to find a way to marry his own passion for sound with his academic work.

Creating a Sonic Adventure

Inspired by colleague Neil Verma—the associate director of the Sound Arts and Industries program—he rediscovered his interest in radio history. “I started listening again to these wonderful radio dramas from the golden age of American radio,” he explains. “At the same time, I was listening to amazing contemporary wildlife field recordings and atmospheric soundscapes. I kept wanting to find a way to combine them.”

ESC: Sonic Adventure in the Anthropocene is the result: a 10-part audio book with the sound of a current podcast. “This project felt like a return to working in audio, which I love and missed a lot,” he says. “It’s been fun to work with audio and think with audio.”

ESC combines the rapid-paced storytelling style of ’40s and ’50s radio with field recordings by prominent sound artists and narration by Smith himself. (Editor’s note: Episode Seven, The Vanishing Lady, is one of our favorite episodes!) The entire audio book is available for free download or streaming through the University of Michigan Press; it is also available on Apple Podcasts.

Media and the Environment

ESC addresses another one of Smith’s main interests: how sound media relates to environmental issues. At Northwestern, Smith teaches an undergraduate class called Media and the Environment, which encourages students to think about sound media from an environmental or ecological perspective.

For example, media technologies can become an environmental problem when they’re thrown away; the discarded item may be full of toxic chemicals. Through things like wildlife documentaries, media are also one way to learn about animals and natural spaces. (The field recordings in ESC are a good example of environmental sound media.)

Emerging Fields in Sound

Smith is excited about the MA in Sound Arts and Industries program as it celebrates its fourth year. “We have core tracks our students can choose from, like podcasting, film sound design, and sound art,” he says, “but we’re always developing new classes and new curriculum to engage with emerging forms of audio.”

For example, the program will offer a new course this year on sonic branding, which is an emerging field that requires skilled sound designers. What sound does your device make when you tap on “buy now”? What sound occurs when you swipe right vs. left in an app? These are sonic experiences we don’t often think about, but they need to be carefully designed.

“Our students sense that the landscape for work in sound is always changing,” says Smith, “and they’re very interested in using their skills in audio to discover new arts and industries on the horizon. It’s exciting to see our students be creative and innovative with sound. That inspired me to do something new myself with ESC. I can’t wait to see what the students will do next!”

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