Seed Grant Summer 2021 Report

Submitted by Stephanie Vasko

Introduction

From the initial seed proposal: “Synthesizing the Sound of Space” was proposed as pilot digital humanities project which aimed to create a website, two podcast episodes (with an eventual goal of ten episodes), and an open-access sound production lesson plan. The proposed website and podcasts would explore how the development of the silicon transistor has shaped the ways in which the sounds of space are recorded and created. The proposed open-access lesson plan will walk users through creating their own sounds of space. Eventually, this project will combine archival work, interviews, and sound production to appeal to those interested in the history of space, technology, and music/sound production.

Current Progress

The desired progress on “Synthesizing the Sound of Space” as outlined in the seed grant proposal was unfortunately hampered by several convergent factors and has not proceeded in a linear fashion. At the outset of the project, financial and bureaucratic challenges hampered the project start, proposed work, and potential hiring. Additionally, due to external pressures from different grant-funded projects, time allocated for this project unfortunately wound up limited.


During my initial explorations in June, and based on the above constraints, it became obvious that this project will be a year-long project, rather than as summer stand-alone project. We entered into a summer still marked by COVID-19, but with new concerns around the Delta variant, vaccines, and travel. As such, I chose to delay the travel portion of the project until a time with some additional clarity around safety. Combining all of the above, I have looked at the seed funding period as the initial exploratory kickoff to probe what would work in the summer and what could unfold under the school year.

The main bulk of the summer period was spent on a) creating a brand identity for this project, b) performing initial research on this history of transistors, space sounds, and synthesizers, c) identifying and creating resources for the open-access lesson plan, and d) exploring the creation of space sounds. Working on C and D have been extremely intellectually and creatively nourishing activities over the last few months. For these areas, I took the opportunity to explore the idea of “slow research” (Adams, Burke, Whitmarsh, 2014), which I was introduced to by Jessica Stokes (a fellow Summer 2021 Seed Grant cohort member) when I served as their team mentor in the 2020 Transdisciplinary Graduate Fellows Program (offered by the Center for Interdisciplinarity). These explorations led to a thoughtful, more intentional approach to play and experimentation with sound. What will emerge in late 2021 from these experiments will be creative commons-licensed documents and files to be hosted on the STSS website. As an example, one set of files will be a collection of sounds I’ve recorded that individuals can use as seeds for the genesis of their projects. These sounds include lithophonic rocks as played with a variety of striking implements and waves.

During this summer, I investigated the limitations and affordances of modern digital audio workspaces (DAWs) for use in open-access activity. During this time period, I explored Ableton, Reaper, Soundtrap, and VCVRack. A matrix of factors to consider for each DAW will be presented on the website by the end of 2021. This matrix will consider factors including cost, learning curve, and platform.

My desire to incorporate synthesizers in this project led me to spending more time exploring VCVRack, a free program that allows the user to engage in modular synthesis through digital means. The open-source sound activity documentation will include VCVRack tutorials and information, however, VCVRack2 will be coming online in November 2021, and this version will come at a cost. VCVRack V1 will be the foundation of the lesson plan I present on the website, which will focus on uploading sounds from NASA’s Soundcloud account into VCVRack and creating an atmosphere around the sound or using other modules to change the sound. Tips for imaging your own space sounds, as well as recording and including your own samples, will be included. Throughout the summer, I began learning VCVRack and creating sounds using the program and sound samples. This led to a thirty-minute public talk and live performance over Zoom for this year’s Arts Launch.

In my initial proposal, I mentioned decolonizing music production with regards to DAWs, which I would like to keep exploring. Additionally, my own participation in these spaces over served as an illustration that power and gatekeeping also play roles in sound creation and synthesis. Therefore, I am developing a list of articles, blog posts, companies, and resources around decolonizing sound production and addressing power relations in sound (among other topics) that I will be posting on the forthcoming website.

Future Work

My work on “Synthesizing the Sound of Space” will continue throughout 2021-2022. The slow research process has allowed me to take the time and think about creativity, inclusion, and why we choose certain formats for presenting research over others. The first goal will be to convert the low-fidelity prototype of the website into an online, high-fidelity version. Next steps for the podcast and oral history portions include addressing IRB questions for the interview protocols with potential podcast subjects and resubmitting my HRP-503 form. Additionally, moving the time of the project into the academic year will allow me to hire an undergraduate student during Winter 2022 when the audio engineering portion of the podcast will become the greatest need. In terms of increasing historical content for the website, I will continue working through research papers and ephemera I have collected over the summer. With the arrival of booster vaccines, travel to NASA archives may now be possible to increase content on potential NASA partnerships around synthesizing space sounds. Finally, I will be continuing work on the creation of sounds inspired by or sampling from space and space sounds with the goals of a) including open-access educational materials on the website and b) hosting a live space sounds performance in Spring 2022.

Finally, I am deeply grateful to DH@MSU for their support of this work. Through my explorations this summer, I have not only crystallized on a decision to pivot my career path to user experience research (a topic which came up in aspects of this project from podcast creation to DAW interfaces to sound sharing platforms), but also built on my appreciation and love for creative exploration with sound which began last summer during COVID-19 while working on my “Immersive Forest” piece for Science Gallery Detroit’s FUTURE PRESENT.

References

Vincanne Adams, Nancy J. Burke & Ian Whitmarsh (2014) Slow Research: Thoughts for a Movement in Global Health, Medical Anthropology, 33:3, 179-197, DOI: 10.1080/01459740.2013.858335