Curating Sounds

By Jennifer Wicks

In spite of the fact that I had never been a part of an oral history project prior to this one, I have had the chance to develop a few sound based collages and although working with audio files, editing and mixing were not new to me, working with some of the tools we used, was. Although it’s a bit of a side note, I was completely blown away by the fact that the oral history department had developed a software (Stories Matter) where we could upload sound or video recordings of interviews, and code them, the way that I am accustomed to color coding a transcript or text based data set. By tagging interviews with time codes and themes, we were able to really sort through the data as a team, and develop a way to analyze and represent the data in a system that made sense to us, collectively.

This system allowed us each to, firstly, develop a deeper connection to one of the interviewees, all of them community members from Pointe St Charles, which had been interviewed by Steven and his team in the past two years. As I listened to the first interview assigned to me over and over in order to extract themes, and then tag them, I began to feel almost like I knew my interviewee. She had told me about her life, where she was from, how she grew up, what her house was like, what her family was like, her marriage, her children, her experiences in school, at work, in her community.

When we separated our workgroups, and I began to work with the audio group, we started to sort through the interviews again – breaking them down to associate stories to sites… once again I listened not only to my interviewee, but others as well… over and over, extracting themes, stories and time codes. Again, strengthening my knowing in these stories, so when the audio team separated the sites on the walk, and I started to curate which clips I would put into each space, I was immediately drawn to those stories I had heard repeatedly, and had grown fond of.

Once we had done and initial sound based draft of the walk, we got together as a team, to walk and listen to what we had created. After much discussion and more drafts, we were able to come to what felt like a relatively cohesive beta version of our walk. What emerged as most interesting for me, though, was in those discussions of our segments – when I couldn’t find a story that fit in a specific site – I could see (and hear) that the other students had had a comparable experience to mine, and had also developed a deeper understanding of those interviews they had spent so much time with. When I had arrived at those spaces where I had no story – someone always piped up “So and so talks about that place all the time, she used to go there as a teenager,” “So and so talked about going to school there, dances there, protests in that space…”. It was fascinating to know that a group of people, most of us far removed from that community, could develop a collective knowledge of its history, even a preliminary one, in such a short period of time.

I felt a strong sense of responsibility in this process, as I was acutely aware that I was not only using someone else’s words to tell a story, I was choosing which parts of that story got told. Not being accustomed to historical, or oral history research, this took some getting used to. Respect for the interviewees, and the community as a whole, was of utmost importance to me, and I was really nervous about getting it wrong. This is where the collective nature of the project really contributed a system of checks and balances through discussion and review of our work throughout the process.