Do You Hear What I Hear?

The power which electronic literature holds over the mind’s attention can be amazing. Through the use of images and textual manipulation, the e-lit author can create a captivating level of interaction with the readers/viewers, similar to what a pop up book may offer to a toddler. With the addition of an audio element to these works, the author is effectively taking the reader’s interaction from reactionary into a more engrossing plane of literary experience. Audio helps electronic literature transcend the limitations of the visual, taking the audience from being simply readers into being witnesses of a moment in time. Sounds can be used as subtly as Strasser and Sondheim’s reflective piece “Dawn”, or forcefully drag us along the journey like in Pullinger and babel’s “Inanimate Alice, Episode 1: China”. Both of these can be found within the compilation of works in Katherine Hayles’ “Electronic Literature” collection.

In Strasser and Sondheim’s work, the audience is presented with a visual loop of chilly natural settings, reminiscent of a coastal autumn. The accompanying text provides contemplation on life and death. The sound loop sets a tone in the background, inviting the reader to absorb the previously mentioned elements, close their eyes, and then take in the cutting noises of the wind. In addition, the unrelenting crackle of what seems to be recording feedback dances along. Through these sharp yet hollow sounds, “Dawn” invites us to make a strong emotional connection to the thoughts associated with life and death. This link is akin to standing in an open field alone, contemplating the beauty and temporality of nature’s embrace. It is a masterful way of bringing such overwhelming emotions into the core of the audience’s stomach; perhaps allowing a confrontation of the truths and fears surrounding their own mortality.

“Inanimate Alice, Episode 1: China” takes the aspects of both electronically related noises and rambling musical scores to advance its narrator’s account. While the focus of the story is on Alice and her mother searching for their lost father/husband, the theme of technology is always orbiting around the plot’s center. For example, the potential direness of the missing father situation is diverted from Alice’s attention as she plays with her portable electronic Ba-xi device. The potential problems that technology can cause are certainly issues raised by this work’s creators. Their implementation of sound is meant to supplement these reflections. Frequently throughout the story, the audience is subjected to electromagnetic feedback noises, jarring the reader’s full attention to the plot in a rather irritating fashion. It is fitting that these audio annoyances exist to throw us off, as most of our own modern technologies are not always silky smooth in their functions. The musical score is also fitting to the frantic and anxious mood of the story’s driving scenes. As mother and daughter make their way across the barren landscape in search of their missing family member, we are brought along for the ride through the speedy, tumbling guitar strings playing in unison. While the electromagnetic feedback takes us away, the music always returns to the forefront, bringing us back into the desperation of the situation.

With both works mentioned, the audio is an essential piece of bringing the entire experience and message together. Without it, there would seem like a piece of the tapestry had been ripped away, leaving the audience left only to guess at the full picture. While the audio selection must be chosen wisely as to not ruin the experience; if done right, a pure compilation of sensory brilliance can certainly be achieved.

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