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Sound researcher talks about compressed media in the internet age

The 31st annual Van Zelst Lecture in Communication featured Jonathan Sterne, a professor of art history and communication studies at McGill University, whose engaging lecture “Compression: A Loose History” informed and entertained a large audience inside the Allen Center on November 6.

Sterne, who might well go by the title The Sound Guy, for all he knows on the subject, is the author of MP3: The Meaning of a Format, which was praised by The New Yorker and Slate, as well as the musician Laurie Anderson, who called it “brilliant.” He also wrote The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction and was the editor of The Sound Studies Reader, which came out last year.

Dean Barbara O’Keefe, David Van Zelst, Louann Van Zelst, Jonathan Sterne, and Jean Bierner (From left) Dean Barbara O’Keefe, David Van Zelst, Louann Van Zelst, Jonathan Sterne, and Jean Bierner.

Sterne presented his audience with a full, up-through-the-ages look at compression. He compared the phenomenon with packing a suitcase. “You have too many clothes to fit in it,” he said, “so you roll them up, you squish them until you run out of space.” He gave examples of sound compression, data compression, and introduced his audience to multiple viewpoints from theorists and academics.

While many of us may be oblivious of its power, Sterne was quick to point it out. “Almost every popular music genre in the twentieth century depends upon compression for its basic signage images,” he said. “How is it that the Internet becomes something you can transmit music or video over? You can’t do that without compression.”

Dean Barbara O’Keefe and Jonathan Sterne shaking hands

Throughout the lecture he shared insights from his own research. “Compression,” he said, “is the process that renders the mode of representation adequate to its infrastructure, but it also changes the infrastructure. It renders it adequate to modes of representation.”

Sterne’s lecture, as well as a research leave given to a professor within the School of Communication each year, is made possible by the generosity of Louann Van Zelst (C49, GC51) and the late Theodore Van Zelst (McC45, GMcC48), whose “commitment to the life of the mind,” said Dean Barbara O’Keefe in her introduction, “is absolute and compelling.” Louann Van Zelst was in attendance on Wednesday, along with her children Jean Bierner and David Van Zelst.