Audionarratology: Interfaces of Sound and Narrative

University of Paderborn, 11 and 12 September 2014
International and Interdisciplinary Conference

Audionarratology is an umbrella term for narrative approaches that studies forms and functions of sound in their relation to narrative structure. Audionarratology analyses how sound contributes to the creation of real and imagined spaces and worlds both in audio genres but also in everyday storytelling. Sound in this context incorporates the whole spectrum from structured sound, as in music or in spoken language, to prosodic features of voices and sound emanating from recognizable things and sources, but also more or less indeterminate noise as well as electro-acoustic manipulation. Audionarratology attends to sound narratives as a network of oral and/or aural semiotic systems (e.g., language, voice, sound, music, original sounds and silence) but also features specific to radio plays and other audio genres such as fade-in, cut, mixing or stereophony. These sign systems combine in specific ways to create a narrative, and it is these combinations that the conference on audionarratology, which was funded generously by the DFG, the Universitätsgesellschaft Paderborn e.V., the Kommission für Forschung und wissenschaftlichen Nachwuchs and the Department of English and American Studies (both at the University of Paderborn), sought to address more systematically.

The programme to this conference already illustrates that audionarratology, rather than limiting itself to a clear-cut set of media and genres, operates along at least three axes or trajectories: 1) from audio-visual to purely auditory media; 2) from literary (artistic) to more pragmatic, everyday genres; 3) from verbal to non-verbal forms of expression. 23 presenters from 11 European countries representing disciplines as varied as literary and cultural studies, linguistics, psychology and musicology presented papers which investigated narrative features of audio genres and media such as radio plays and audiobooks; papers that looked at narrative in musical genres such as opera, pop albums or country music; papers devoted to the study of sound in audiovisual media such as video games, the internet or mobile phones. There were discussions about the significance of sounds and voices in everyday life and in non-literary genres such as interviews, and about the emotional impact sounds and qualities of voice can have on listeners both in artistic and everyday contexts. A number of papers explored the verbal presentation of sounds, voices, music and silence in literary texts ranging from fiction to poetry. Some of the questions asked were: How can non-auditory genres create a “sound experience” for readers? To what extent do sounds and voices not just enrich the storyworld but support narrative structure? By following up these different research questions, the conference participants collaboratively began to delineate some key concepts and central aspects of audionarratology, laying the foundation for an open and flexible research paradigm that allows scholars interested in sound and narrative to engage in fruitful dialogue and to forge links and networks.

Towards an Audionarratology

In their introductory talk, Jarmila Mildorf and Till Kinzel presented an initial outline of audionarratology, offering theoretical considerations and also pointing to methodological challenges for a productive and theoretically informed narratological exploration of the above-mentioned interfaces of sound and narrative. Some of the central questions addressed in this talk revolved around the relationship between sound and narrativity; the limits and possibilities of narratological concepts such “experientiality” and “focalization” in audio media and genres; text and/or image relations to sound; as well as the roles and functions of sound across different media, especially with regard to medial transposition, refiguration and adaptation. A key argument was that sound not only supports narrative structure but has the potential to become (a) narrative in its own right.

Audiodramas and Audiobooks

The first section of the conference was devoted to the narratological analysis of radio plays and audiobooks. In her keynote lecture, Elke Huwiler (Amsterdam), drawing on a wide range of fascinating radio play examples, presented a succinct historical as well as theoretical introduction to the semiotic and narratological study of what she prefers to call “audiodramas,” thus acknowledging the fact that radio plays are no longer only recorded for and broadcast by radio stations alone but are also disseminated on a wide range of digital and non-digital media. Huwiler emphasised the specificity of radio plays as a non-literary art form, establishing an analytical framework which goes beyond the analysis of the verbal texture of radio plays. Moreover, she stressed that sound in audio art can take on narrative functions such as commenting, evaluating or characterising, and she provided examples from contemporary radio plays, live sound performances and interactive audiodramas to illustrate the ways in which acoustic features tell a story in addition or as a counterpoint to the respective verbal narratives. Huwiler’s discussion underlines the necessity of an audionarratology which places sound and narrative centre-stage.

Bartosz Lutostanski (Gdansk) took as his starting-point the observation that audio-narratives are still underrated as objects of scholarly study. He provided a case study of Dan Rebellato’s Cavalry, a radio play in which the microphone, as he showed, actively establishes a narrative by orchestrating the positions and qualities of sounds and voices, thus mapping out the play’s narrative pattern. In fact, Lutostanski argued that the microphone is far more important in radio plays than the camera in film. This raised interesting points of comparison between issues dealt with in film narratology and similar issues arising for audio art forms; for example, the question of whether one wants to posit a narrator or no narrator.

Lars Bernaerts (Brussels/Ghent) considered the interface of sound and narrative by presenting a discussion of the Dutch radio play Orchis militaris, which is based on the experimental novel by Ivo Michiels. Bernaerts suggested that it makes sense to attempt to outline a prototypical form of the audiodrama by juxtaposing it with contiguous forms such as radio commercials, audiobooks, radio documentaries, sound art, sound poetry and recorded drama. By tracing the notion of “voice” from Genette’s grammatical category to the “strange voices” of “unnatural narratology,” Bernaerts pointed out new paths for transmedial and unnatural narratology if one considers the plurality of voices as well as the relationship between a theoretically conceived “narrative voice,” on the one han and the audible voices in radio plays, on the other. In the case of Orchis militaris, these voices are simultaneous and create the impression of a liturgy without a religious content, thus defamiliarizing the sound experience. Bernaerts also raised issues surrounding listeners’ expectations when arguing that the term “anti-narrative” does not apply to sound poetry, for example, because no one really expects narrativity in the first place. His talk also led to a more general discussion of the notion of “implied voices.”

Inge Arteel (Brussels) added to these analyses by taking a closer look at the soundscapes and vocal spaces created by the Austrian writer Friedrike Mayröcker in her radio plays. Whereas visual elements have been foregrounded in research on Mayröcker’s writing, the vocal aspect and the presence of various voices in her radio plays deserve further scrutiny. Arteel drew on the notion of polyphony and illustrated how sound technology is deployed in Mayröcker’s radio dramas to play with the positioning of voices and, because of the materiality of these voices, to ultimately create a haptic experience for listeners.
Julien Magnier equally focused on the embodiedness of narrative by considering voice experience from a recipient’s perspective. Magnier presented empirical psychological research of listening experiences and emotional responses which involved the reading out loud of short children’s stories. The study correlated narrative tension with physical tension and looked at the prosodic effects of narrative features in spoken stories.

Anezka Kucmicova (Stockholm), drawing on textual examples from the novels of Ernest Hemingway, presented a narratologically oriented analysis of the differences, but also, and more significantly, of the similarities between audio book listening (ABL) and silent reading (SR). Kuzmicova showed which questions audiobook experiences raise for our understanding of silent reading, and she delineated some of the common misconceptions concerning silent reading as regards for example mental imagery, attention, phenomenal consciousness and transportation theory.

Digital Stories and the Sound-Narrative Interface in Social Interaction

In the second section the main focus was on the analysis of new narrative genres such as the mobile phone theatre project Call Cutta by a team of artists going by the name of “Rimini Protokoll,” which was the topic of Thijs Festjens’ (Ghent) contribution. Festjens showed how the way in which call centre employees in India guided participants through Berlin via their mobile phones set free “theatrical energies” (Freddie Rokem) and underlined the notion of a theatricalization of society as both participants and call centre employees were turned into actors. The fusion of exteroceptive, interoceptive and proprioceptive senses in such a set-up creates a shared acoustic space which allows for both closeness and distance at the same time.

Sounds and spaces and their relation to narrativity were also at the centre of the contribution by poet and sound artist Zoë Skoulding (Bangor), who presented examples of her artwork and reflected on the relationship between noise and poetry. Noise can be regarded as a disturbance in a communicated message but is employed by Skoulding together with music to underline the intersection of different spaces and their stories in her poetry. The looping and repetitive, rather than linear, structure in Skoulding’s work supports the idea of an erasure of everyday life.

Sebastian Domsch (Greifswald) provided a narratological analysis of the role of sounds in video games, introducing the categories of “ludic” and “ludic-diegetic” sounds which provide feedback to players as regards the fact that they are playing and the fact that they have caused something to happen in the storyworld respectively. Domsch also pointed to the ways in which a storyworld can actually be heard within a game, even in the absence of visual stimuli as is, for example, the case with the game Papa Sangre, which is entirely set in the dark.

Tarja Aaltonen and Eila Lonka (Tampere and Helsinki) considered dimensions of narrative in connection with therapeutic approaches to hearing-impaired individuals. Starting out with the contention that silence is the horizon of the experience of the auditory world, Aaltonen and Lonka applied content and conversation analysis to medical interviews with patients having a hearing impairment, and they showed how these patients used small stories to make sense of their perceptions and of their bodily and psychological experiences of sounds and silence.

Real-life stories were also discussed by Stefanie Quakernack (Bielefeld), who presented the initial results of her research on a more recent genre of autobiographical audio narratives, so-called digital testimonies of undocumented, young adult immigrants in the United States. Drawing on concepts of orality, Quakernack explored, among other things, the roles of prosody and rhythm in those narratives and how voice and politics intersect in this particular kind of digital storytelling.

The linguist Dolores Porto Requejo (Alcalá) analysed similar multimodal stories of personal experience of about 3 to 5 minutes in her contribution. These stories, like Quakernack’s, were also published on the internet. Building on the diamond diagram for telling a personal story, Porto Requejo argued that there are also acoustic representations of what Labov and Waletzky termed “abstract,” “orientation,” “complication,” “resolution” and “coda.” Porto Requejo specifically looked at the use of music in these stories from storytelling databases all over the world and ascribed to it four general functions: music as a structural element, music as an attentional marker, music’s evaluative function and its persuasive function. The subsequent plenary discussion centred on questions of inter- or transculturality in the telling and presentation of digital stories and the tension between individual creativity and predetermined scriptedness – points which also have relevance for audionarratology in general.

Music and Narrative in Film and Other Media

Music was further explored in another group of papers headed by Alan Palmer (County Durham), who presented the second keynote lecture. He ventured into hitherto uncharted territory by examining the narrative structure of two pieces of country music and the blues by Hank Thompson and Johnny Lee Hooker, respectively. Palmer argued that it is only possible to understand the narrative in songs when we attend to the mental functioning of the singers and the characters. This suggestion served as the basis for a discussion of the “fictional minds” of the narrators within the songs’ storyworlds and the songs’ different degrees of narrativity, which Palmer partially explained in historical terms. Palmer set out to provide a model analysis of what audionarratology as a new subdiscipline of narratology should strive to achieve.

A number of papers contributed to a discussion of the questions where music and sounds are to be located in a narrative, whether they can count as diegetic or non-diegetic, and whether they are part of the presented storyworld or merely decorative and supportive. M. Angeles Martínez (Madrid), for example, applied a linguistic analysis to the description of the fictional storyworlds in two versions of the song Big Joe and Phantom 309. Drawing on van Leeuwen’s semiotic approach to voice qualities, Martínez showed how the different sonic renditions of the song also create a different narrative, at least in the perception of listeners.
The musicologist Sanna Qvick (Turku) demonstrated in her analysis of two Finnish children’s movies based on the fairytale Pessi and Illusia how completely different musical scores change the narrative construction of these films and how they allocate different roles to sound and music. Qvick pointed to music’s function as a medium for immersion and also as a means of explaining narrative action.

The relationship among voice, music and narrative was explored by Bernhard Doppler (Paderborn), who analysed Adam Gorb’s political opera Anya 17 and Elfriede Jelinek’s Über Tiere, both of which present the theme of prostitution. Gorb’s opera was shown to be both in the tradition of famous and popular operas such as La Traviata, but also exceeding them by juxtaposing pleasant, musical-like sounds and voices with a shocking subject matter and its attendant visual-theatrical presentation. Jelinek’s piece demonstrates how spoken voices can assume musical qualities, turning the written text into a quasi-operatic composition.
Markus Wierschem (Paderborn) presented an analysis of the interfaces of sound and narrative in the concept album BE by the rock band Pain of Salvation. Wierschem pointed out that musicologists by and large see lyrics and stories as merely providing form, while literary scholars have hitherto completely ignored concept albums as a resource for narratological analysis. He demonstrated how the highly sophisticated interplay of music, visual art and lyrical aspects in his example contributes to a narrative polyvocality which defies easy categorization and requires a holistic methodological approach to both the music and the words. In that sense, concept albums provide yet another particularly interesting test case for the feasibility of audionarratology.

The Sounds and Music of Fiction

The themes of music, sounds and voices were further explored in primarily verbal texts. A final group of contributions investigated the (implied) sound qualities of narrative fiction, especially of fictional voices, but also the significance of silences and the role music plays on a thematic as well as structural narrative level. A good example of this is Ivan Delazari’s (St. Petersburg) reading of Toni Morrison’s short story “Recitatif,” a reading that attended minutely to the (non-)representation of the fictional characters’ voice qualities. Delazari showed how the indeterminacy of the characters’ dialogical voices is employed to blur their identities and thus to undermine the process of racial stereotyping that is often connected to voices.

A. Elisabeth Reichel (Basel) considered the complex presentation of music in Richard Powers’ novel The Time of Our Singing, highlighting particularly its social functions in the novel. While the novel undermines the idea that music can unite people from different social backgrounds, Reichel argued, the novel itself can have an integrative effect by uniting readers in their pleasurable perception of the novel’s music and by drawing them into the storyworld’s political debates.

Emily Petermann (Constance) discussed Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and Arthur Phillips’ The Song is You as examples for the mediality of musical novels and for the ways in which they integrate modes of listening into their respective narrative structures. Like other contributors, Petermann also drew on the idea of music being related to an embodied context of perception, and she showed how in both novels music functions as a repository of feelings, whether they are “stored” in I-pods or record collections.

Nathalie Aghoro (Eichstätt-Ingolstadt), by contrast, focused on another aspect of the interface of sound and narrative which is also of interest to audionarratology, namely the narrative significance of silence as a form of sound. Aghoro analysed forms and functions of silence in Jennifer Egan’s polyphonic novel A Visit from the Goon Squad and showed that silence, while being a central recurring theme in the novel, also becomes a structural element, for example, in the overall composition of the main character’s story, which pauses when other people’s stories are told, or in the somewhat more experimental chapters, which seemingly suspend the narrative voice altogether. Anticipation as an integral part of silence was a key point in this regard.
Silence was also the focal point in Agatha Frischmuth’s (Berlin) discussion of Goncharov’s Oblomov and Ha Jin’s Waiting. Both novels stage what Frischmuth calls “doing nothing,” i.e., a state of inactivity which becomes a central prerequisite for the characters’ peace of mind. Drawing on a wide range of studies on silence from linguistics and cultural studies, Frischmuth showed how silence becomes not only indicative of, but also paramount for the characters’ “doing nothing” and how it also correlates with dreams.

Finally, Anahita Rouyan (Bologna) explored interfaces of song, narrative and sonic performances in the complex narrative of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Focusing especially on the representation of real and invented songs, Rouyan described the novel’s design as a musical collage which attempts to transcribe human voices and songs in the text of its narrative. Rouyan showed how music, while often being regarded as a device implementing order and structure, in this case offered spaces of freedom.

The cutting-edge contributions and discussions at this conference demonstrated the overall productivity of audionarratology as a desirable new subdiscipline of narratology. The conference’s cross-disciplinary nature, which did not hamper but genuinely fostered lively exchanges of ideas, furthermore showed that it is both possible and necessary to approach audionarratology from different areas of research and to put it on a sound interdisciplinary footing. It soon became clear that audionarratology opens new avenues for future research at the interfaces of sound and narrative and also has the potential to contribute in a significant way to the further refinement of existing narrative-theoretical debates and of narratological tools for analysis.


Jarmila Mildorf and Till Kinzel
University of Paderborn

About us

ENN is the European Narratology Network, an association of individual narratologists and narratological institutions. ENN aims to foster the study of narrative representation in literature, film, digital media, etc. across all European languages and cultures.