Creating History Through Sound

By Jeff Yakimchuk

After working on the Pointe St-Charles audio walk, La Pointe: The Other Side of the Tracks, I’ve come to the realization that producing an audio walk is very similar to writing an academic paper.

Although it is within a completely different medium intended for a different audience, the elements of both works are fundamentally the same. First off, the audio production team began by wading through a (virtual) stack of primary sources, the Pointe St-Charles interviews. COHDS had conducted the interviews over the past few years, just as researchers may originally uncover old written documents. In October, my classmates and I had organized these sources in the Story Matter database, similar to how a librarian or historian would index and catalogue written sources. This process proved to be one answer to Michael Frisch’s question of what is to be done with oral histories.

Next, the audio team further “catalogued” the interviews by searching for references of specific sites. After this had been completed, the walk was divided up into five sections containing five sites each. The importance of teamwork began to become clear at this point in the process. Because of the division of labour, we ended up cataloguing a number of sites we would eventually not end up working with in our own audio production. However, we were all forced to trust the work of our own peers, with the hope that they had properly searched for the sites we would individually be using in our parts.

Once the sites were divided up amongst the producers, we began piecing together our own sections of the audio walk. Much of this process had to do with a concept (or skill) history students are well aware of: synthesization. With this list of site references coming from a number of different interviewees, we were tasked with producing a coherent narrative out of these various parts. This is where the connection between audio production and academic writing became especially evident. With all this information about the Point marinating in our minds over the last couple months, we were finally meant to make sense of it all. What is the story of the Point? What are the main themes of this story? How do these specific locations relate to the larger picture of the neighbourhood? Answering these questions required the same creative agency it takes to weave a narrative that supports a historical argument in an academic paper.

It would seem that creativity is a part of history that is often overlooked by those outside of the discipline. The misconception would be that producing history simply requires presenting “the facts” in a logical manner. This could not be further from the truth. Our group had a specific interpretation of the Point’s past and it was reflected in what we decided to include and exclude in our audio walk. Managing these creative choices became as important to of our work as was working with the production software. To give an example, integrating Harold’s Simpkins discussion on taverns involved a series of narrative choices. The topic of the drinking habits of working class men was a meaningful subject in our audio walk. But I had to make this bit of conversation concise while still keeping it informative. This meant taking out parts of anecdotes, and keeping the dialogue within the topical parameters of tavern locations and after work drinking culture. It also meant taking out some of the more extreme examples of worker inebriation. Although these anecdotes made sense within the context of a 2 hour long interview, including these stories within a very brief discussion on the topic may have overloaded the listeners. Another example of creative choices included diversifying the interviewee voices. For the Tracks section of the walk, a couple of interviewees in particular provided fascinating discussions on the effects of the railway in their community. Yet, rather than limiting the testimonies of this site to two people, I thought it would be more effective to include a handful of voices speaking about this subject. Just as it is often more compelling to include multiple sources discussing an issue in a paper, using a slew of different voices during this part made for a more convincing narrative.

On a more superficial note, simply “cleaning up” the audio in Reaper reminded me of revising a written essay. Whereas you may check for grammatical errors in a paper, I had to do things like remove “umms” and unnecessary pauses. While you may also revise the tone of your essay, I worked on adjusting the volume for each section of the audio walk (tone, volume, get it?) While the comparison may seem a little silly, the fact remains: if your reader/listener is distracted by little mistakes like this, they are at risk of missing out on the more important parts of your work. In conclusion, crafting a historical narrative is paramount in all forms of history, whether it be in the form of an academic essay for fellow historians, or an audio walk for the public.