Above: Sound artist and High Tech High teacher Margaret Noble.
Some sounds have great storytelling potential. For example, the sound of a crowing rooster takes you immediately to a farm setting. The sound of an alarm clock puts you in an early-morning bedroom. Working in radio, I'm always amazed at how much one can convey with just a sound.
Last month, a group of students at High Tech Highbegan exploring the narrative possibility of sound while learning the art of storytelling.
The seniors at the Point Loma-based charter school were tasked with telling stories through sound for their digital arts class, taught by sound artist Margaret Noble. "I asked my students to learn how to use a portable audio recorder to get really great sounds. But it’s not enough to just get the sounds. Let’s make meaning out of those sounds."
Siariah Loyd partnered up with another student to tell the story of a clumsy teenage girl who strives to be perfect. They decided to use the teenager's morning routine as a backdrop. To that end, Loyd and her partner recorded all their own morning activities, from showering, to brushing teeth, to frying eggs. Interspersed with these sounds are random crashes to portray clumsiness.
Above: High Tech High senior Siariah Loyd, who made a sound story for her digital arts class.
Loyd can't articulate in words how clumsy her protagonist is because the students weren't allowed to use any words or dialogue in their short stories. They could only use original, recorded sounds.
Noble says she’s teaching the basic elements of storytelling by appealing to her students’ interest in technology. "You know some people are frustrated with kids texting and playing video games. But the reality is you have to join with them on that and that’s how you engage them."
Above: Pascal Reyes is a senior at High Tech High. His sound story "Tag," is about a graffiti artist who roams the city at night.
Senior Pascal Reyes' sound story is called "Tag" and it’s about a graffiti artist making his way at night through the soundscape of a concrete jungle. Reyes lays out his tale: "It starts with him walking up, shaking a spray can and as he gets closer, he does his quick little tag and then a dog just starts chasing him."
Reyes says he didn’t want to use just any dog sound. In fact, the first dog he and his partner recorded wasn’t right for the job. "He sounded more lazy. Just like an everyday house dog. And so we had to borrow some sounds from the other students who had more aggressive barks."
Reyes' character goes on to escape several scenarios, from a drive-by shooting to more and more viscous dogs. Reyes says "the way he escapes is that he jumps over a chain-link fence and chuckles as he walks away."
It’s that chuckle that tells you so much about Reyes’ main character. "He’s a mischievous kind of a guy - that’s what the chuckle gave off," says Reyes.
When Reyes put that chuckle at the end of his story, he made the kind of storytelling choice Noble hoped he would. He fleshed out a character trait only in sound.
Noble says she’s also interested in shifting her students’ awareness. "I think the number one goal I had was just getting them to be more aware of their world. I think we forget how much sound impacts our life. We’re so focused on the visuals that come to us."
By flipping the switch and turning off the visuals and dialogue, Noble wants her students to rely on creativity and problem-solving skills.
Student Siariah Loyd says this project did require more resourcefulness. "We had to figure out what sounds good, what sounds go with one another." She says the culture at High Tech High has always cultivated creativity. Laughing, she adds, "creativity at this school is basically what we do. We don’t have any way around this creative stuff."
Noble and her students have posted all the sound stories online, without any explanation of what each story is about. They’re inviting people to guess each of the plotlines after giving the stories a good listen.