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Professor Steve Wurtzler on Sound and Technology

Professor Wurtzler works with outmoded forms of film and sound technology, such as 16mm film. (Photo: Roland Dimaya)

By Gabrielle Matthews
Now a Georgetown professor of English, Steve Wurtzler started his undergraduate career as an engineer. On the advice of his sister, Professor Wurtzler took a film studies class, and has since not looked back. “It was a transformative moment,” he said of his realization that his passion was for film and the liberal arts, including literature and art history, which he included in his self-determined study of culture and media.

“I went to a large state school,” Wurtzler noted. “Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was building for myself a liberal arts curriculum as I studied film.”

In that spirit of independent thought which has served him well, Professor Wurtzler is working on two projects simultaneously, both of which relate to his research interests in sound and cinema. His latest book, published in 2007, is “Electric Sounds: Technological Change and the Rise of Corporate Mass Media.” The historic study is about transitions in sound media during the 1920s and 1930s. This was a time of great change in media practices, and Professor Wurtzler focused his research for the book on the revolutionary aspects of creating mass audio media, including the rise of radio and radio networks, film's conversion to sound, as well as social aspects like the establishment of a regulatory system for communications in the U.S. (now the Federal Communications Commission [FCC]).

Not content to leave his research as a study of the impact of past changes in sound media, Professor Wurtzler is looking to the future. One of his projects scrutinizes contemporary audio practices, including audio branding, or the way in which companies can call up certain feelings or images in a consumer’s mind using only sound.

“There is all this talk in the branding world about constructing sonic logos that communicate values that are not directly related to the product. They’re used to help people recall a kind of affective relationship to a product,” Wurtzler explained.

One example Wurtzler gives is the NBC chime, which originated in the 1920s. For a large percentage of the American public, hearing those three notes evokes the brand for the television network. Another example is the five note sound signature for “Intel Inside.” This kind of conscious effort to link sounds and brands in the minds of consumers can be a powerful tool for marketing.

“I think what we’re experiencing is a more conscious way of imposing sound design on all aspects of our existence,” Wurtzler noted as he explained the concept of “product sonification.”

“It’s a strange term, but engineers are consciously tuning products and constructing them with an acoustic signature,” he said. He gives examples of engineers at the auto company Mercedes tuning the slam of a door to create a specific sound, as well as the trademark rumble of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Wurtzler’s experience studying the shifting film and sound culture of the past gives him insight into and a background with which to appreciate and examine current issues with sound. “My research,” he said, “is about taking the tools and techniques of studying media in the past and applying them to our contemporary moment.”

Sound is all around us, as anyone on a bus or the Metro could tell you. The rise of cell phones created an environment where ringing can be heard everywhere, at anytime. Wurtzler is interested in how ringtones, or songs or sound bites downloaded to a cell phone to ring instead of the usual telephone sounds, have changed the soundscape. They are such a part of popular culture, in fact, that Billboard, the company which tracks the top 100 purchased albums and songs each week, also charts the sales of ringtones along with music singles.  It was not just any ringtone, however, that initially caught Wurtzler’s interest. When he learned that in the run up to the last presidential election there were twelve officially designed Barak Obama ringtones, he noted a significant social influence.

“We often take them for granted, but ringtones are a million dollar industry,” he explained. “Even if we’re not paying attention to them, the entertainment industry is.”

Wurtzler has another well-advanced project that he describes as exploring “the way in which outmoded media formats linger even when declared no longer economically viable.” Outmoded media formats still have a place in contemporary culture, and Wurtzler keys in on how important those formats can be. There are three ways, he explains, for out-of-date media systems to remain in contemporary culture. The first way is for those forms to be perpetuated by artists.

“Some photographers only use daguerreotypes or Polaroid film,” he noted, just as some cinematic filmmakers choose to use types of cameras that are so outdated, film for them is no longer produced in the U.S. Another group who perpetuate outmoded media formats are amateur collectors: music enthusiasts, for example, who collect 8-track tapes long after new, and arguably better, technology has become mainstream. These collectors imbue a new value to antiquated technology, however, as it becomes scarce.

“Collectors take something that’s outmoded, and make it something valuable,” Wurtzler said. “In part for its scarcity, and also for a certain nostalgia for sound and acoustic devices.”

The third group who create a role for outdated technology is archivists. With the necessity for archiving information and history, knowledge of outmoded media formats is valuable. Some of the films Wurtzler uses to teach, on 16mm film, are only available in that format.  Further, moving images are best preserved on actual film rather than copied onto a DVD. “They last longer this way,” he noted, so new technology is not necessarily better for the preservation of information. He is currently working with the Gelardin New Media Center in the Lauinger Library at Georgetown on film archival issues. This research will soon be published, but as things change so quickly in the archiving world, Wurtzler is still working. “That chapter will take a little more tinkering,” he said with a smile.
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Insight: Professor Steve Wurtzler
Q. What is your favorite movie theater in DC? A. The theater in the East Wing of the National Gallery. I also like the Uptown. But I even enjoy the 16mm films I project onto the wall of my dining room.
Student Profile: Lauren Cioffi
Georgetown junior Lauren Cioffi has taken two classes, so far, with Professor Wurtzler, and notes his passion for his subject is one of the reasons she is pleased to be studying with him. She is currently taking his "Avant-Garde Film" class this spring semester of 2009.
Alumna Q&A;: Jennifer Manno
Jennifer Manno graduated from Georgetown in 2003. She designed her major in Film Studies through Georgetown's interdisciplinary program. Professor Wurtzler was the adviser for her course of study.
Student Profile: Alex Platis
First year student Alex Platis took Professor Wurtzler's “Gateway: Introduction to Critical Methods” class this year as a way to transition into Georgetown academic life while studying something in which he was already interested: film.
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