Editor’s Note: This month Sounding Out! is thrilled to bring you a collection of posts that will change the way you hear cities. The Sounds of the City series will prompt readers to think through ideas about urban space and sound. Are cities as noisy as we think they are? Why are cities described as “loud”? Who makes these decisions about nomenclature and why?
We kicked things off three weeks ago with my critical reading of sound in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a play about African Americans in Chicago that still rings/stings true today. Two weeks ago, guest writer Linda O’ Keeffe took readers on a soundwalk of Smithfield Square in Dublin, Ireland and specifically of the Smithfield Horse Fair, in order to illustrate how urban renewal disrupts city soundscapes and how sound reclaims those spaces. Last week, regular SO! writer Regina Bradley discussed the dichotomy of urban and suburban in the context of sound (noisy versus quiet) and hip hop.
Today’s post comes from CFP winner Lilian Radovac, who shares with us a critical photoessay on the sound installation Megaphóne in Montreal.–Managing Editor Liana M. Silva-Ford
Updated with edits as of 12:28 pm EST
October, 2013. I’m waiting for the 80. It’s already dark and bitterly cold for fall, and the bus is predictably late. As the line of people waiting lengthens, traffic rushes past on President-Kennedy and north along Jeanne-Mance, punctuating the larger roar of rush hour in Montreal.
Suddenly, a woman’s voice lifts up out of the din. It’s hard to make out what she’s saying at first, but then a single phrase escapes from the thrum of traffic: “…freedom and democracy…” I look around, trying to place the sound. It’s gone. Several minutes later, the voice rises again: “Tell us again about freedom and democracy!” This time, my ears get a lock on the words and I leave my place in the line to follow them to their source.
My feet bring me to the Promenade des artistes, a slim triangle of concrete that separates President Kennedy Avenue from De Maisonneuve Boulevard, and the sounds of Mégaphone. The promenade is the temporary home of the audiovisual installation produced by the multimedia studio Moment Factory, co-sponsored by the National Film Board of Canada and the Quartier des spectacles partnership. The installation is composed of three zones: to the west, a small outdoor amphitheater arranged around a large red megaphone; across the street, the University of Quebec at Montreal’s science pavilion, which doubles as a projection screen; and to the east, housed in a series of “event vitrines,” an audio exhibition of recordings by notable Quebec speakers who have “shaped public space in Montreal with their words.”
According to the accompanying press kit, Mégaphone is inspired by London’s Speaker’s Corner and Montreal’s interwar tradition of popular assemblies. Its stated goal is to “bring the art of public speaking back into the city.” It’s designed as an interactive experience, which encourages visitors to take to the stage during designated open mic periods and, by speaking into the megaphone, to “light up the city” with their ideas. Their speeches are first acoustically amplified, then processed by voice recognition software and projected onto the façade of the science building, which becomes a canvas for randomly generated keywords. Mégaphone is also timed to coincide with the run-up to Montreal’s November 4th municipal election, and features a program of scheduled speakers that includes an appearance by the city’s mayoral candidates.
As I wander through the empty amphitheater, I find myself thinking that it’s a strange place for a sound installation. The Promenade des artistes is sandwiched between UQAM’s science campus and the northern border of Place des Arts, a Lincoln Center-style performing arts complex that occupies several city blocks. Jane Jacobs would have called this a “dead place,” lost as it is between a set of bicycle lanes and the science building’s indoor food court, which draws pedestrian traffic away from the open space of the street. On the day of my visit, I’m the only person there. Beyond the Promenade des artistes lies the larger Quartier des spectacles, an ongoing culture-led regeneration project which, in an effort to cement the city’s “brand” as a creative city, has concentrated Montreal’s outdoor cultural activities into a single, sprawling site. Traces of the working-class neighborhood it displaced peek out from behind construction fences, quietly attesting to the area’s industrial past.
Still following the voice, I walk towards the line of event vitrines, where seven audio exhibits map the aural contours of an imagined community made real. The speeches on display tell a story of Quebec’s emergence from its colonial past, when the province’s French-speaking majority was dominated by the Catholic church and a minority Anglophone elite. Each voice, in its way, speaks to a period of enormous social transformation fuelled by the dream of Quebec’s independence: Irving Layton delivers a lecture from an amplified podium; Gilles Vigneault sings “Gen du pays” from a stage at Parc Mont-Royal; Pierre Bourgault gives a firebrand speech at the Third Congress of the Parti Québécois. Only the seventeenth century Wendat Chief Kondiaronk remains eerily mute, his voice buried in the memoirs of his colonial French counterparts.
Poet Michèle Lalonde’s voice, however, dominates the space of the exhibit. It’s noticeably higher in pitch than the drone of traffic, and when it rises to meet the words “freedom and democracy” it pierces the low rumble of passing buses and trucks, filling the husk of the surrounding streets. The poem she reads is well known in Quebec, and the version on display here is central to the province’s history and identity as a nation. Recorded at La nuit de la poésie in 1970, the poem was first read at a 1968 benefit performance to support imprisoned members of the Front de libération du Québec, one of whom was Pierre Vallières, the author of Nègres blancs d’Amérique.
Inspired by Vallières’ memoir, “Speak White” is a double appropriation: of the English admonition to Francophones to abandon their mother tongue and, simultaneously, of the revolutionary potential of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, with which the most militant factions of the Quebec independence movement aligned themselves. It is, as Sean Mills has observed, an uncomfortable alliance in a province that struggles to recognize its own racism and status as a settler colony, but in the poetic space of Lalonde’s recitation the words still shudder with subaltern rage.
[Read English translation]
The term “megaphone” is something of a misnomer. The voices of participating speakers are amplified using a hand-held microphone that is connected to a stationary loudspeaker, which actually makes the megaphone more of a rudimentary public address system. It’s an important distinction, since the aural uses of the megaphone are shaped above all by its portability. Megaphones are a mobile audio technology and therefore a nomadic one; like boomboxes and iPods, they’re designed to be easy to carry and to be used while moving from place to place. The public address system, by contrast, is rooted in space: the speaking subject is anchored to the microphone and to the apparatus of amplification, which is composed not only of cables and loudspeakers but also the architectural elements (podium, stage, seating) of the auditorium.
More importantly, the portable megaphone is intended to be used outdoors and in crowds. Thomas Edison’s acoustic megaphone, which he patented in 1878, was soon used at sporting events and to magnify the voices of political leaders at outdoor public events. By 1900, street hawkers began selling makeshift megaphones to the politicians’ audiences, and their wares contributed to a new and noisy public sphere. When the megaphone was married to the transistor and to battery power in the 1950s, the technology was seized by social movements around the world, which used it to appropriate and disperse the power of the individual public speaker. Among them were the student and labor unions that flourished in the wake of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, which had opened up a space for the province’s democratization.
The year before Mégaphone opened, the promenades of the Quartiers des spectacles were crossed by hundreds and sometimes thousands of bodies that spilled out of Parc Émilie-Gamelin, where students and their supporters gathered for the nighttime demonstrations that became a hallmark of the Quebec student strike, or printemps érable. Each night at about 8:30 pm, we set off on marches that had no planned route and no final destination, walking for hours along streets that we claimed with nothing but our voices and the feet that carried them along. If you arrived late you could find the #manifencours on Twitter, or you could listen for the sounds of the crowd’s chants and the police helicopters that hovered constantly overhead, keeping large swaths of the downtown core awake until the early morning hours.
When the Liberal government attempted to break the strike with the reviled Bill 78, which required protest organizers to submit itineraries to the authorities in advance, the night marches dovetailed with a sudden explosion of casserole protests, which coalesced around autonomous popular assemblies organized at the neighborhood level. Within days, demonstrators fanned out across the city as roving bands of casserolières set off from Villeray, Mile End, Hochelaga, St-Henri and even staid, sleepy Outremont, erupting into cacophonous clangs and cheers as we found each other at the borders of our quartiers and merged into ever larger assemblages. If a city can light up with sound, then that is what happened here in Montreal.
These echoes of the printemp érable form the acoustic backdrop of Mégaphone, and the sounds of the installation are designed to bleed into listeners’ memories of the strike. But Mégaphone is as much about the management of acoustic space as a celebration of its potential. Walking through the Promenade des artistes, I’m struck by a palpable but unintended theme: containment. The voices on display, already tethered to their microphones, are further limited by a series of overlapping spatial and temporal boundaries. The stage is accessible only on certain days and during designated hours, and then only when not reserved for previously scheduled speakers. Like the Quartier des spectacles that surrounds it, the installation is segregated from the lived spaces of the city, out of earshot of most residents and removed from the rhythms of their everyday. As if to belabor the point, speakers are bound by the Mégaphone “code of ethics,” which permits “no tolerance for aggressive, obscene or hateful speech, or for any behavior that is not consistent with respect for public order [emphasis mine].” Presumably, the code does not apply to the Quebeckers whose commitment to radical politics earned them a place in Mégaphone’s pantheon of speakers.
With its endlessly wandering marches and casseroles, the printemps érables was willfully inconsistent with respect for public order and its tactics reflected the anti-authoritarian impulses of the Quebec student movement. Simply by walking together, noisily and spontaneously, we recreated our city as a utopian space in which citizens, not governments, would chart their own course. By contrast, Mégaphone constrains the mobility of political speech, fencing it off in time and space and stripping it of its collective character. In doing so, it subjects the auditory space of the public sphere to what Don Mitchell terms a process of liberalization, drawing it away from the field of autonomous action and back under the stewardship of the state.
Philosophy professor Julien Villeneuve (better known as Anarchopanda) made this connection explicit when he and a group of fellow activists took to the Mégaphone stage to denounce municipal bylaw P-6, which, like Bill 78, requires protesters to inform the police of their activities under threat of arrest and massive fines. While Bill 78 (later Law 12) was repealed after a national outcry, P-6 remains in effect and its enforcement is in large part responsible for ending the strike and for the continuing suppression of public protest in Montreal.
As I walk back towards the bus stop, my fingers numb inside my mittens, I consider how much Mégaphone feels like a memorial to the city’s noisy public sphere, which, for the moment at least, is safely confined to the past.
Sincere thanks to Jonathan Sterne, Erika Biddle, Magdalena Olszanowski, Ted Rutland, Liz Miller and the Tapas Gals for the conversations that contributed to this post.
Featured image: by Lilian Radovac
Lilian Radovac is a writer, organizer and doctoral candidate in communication studies at McGill University. She is currently finishing her dissertation on the cultural history of noise control in New York City, a chapter of which, “The ‘War on Noise’: Sound and Space in La Guardia’s New York,” was published in Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies (John Hopkins, 2012). Her work has also appeared in Times Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, and Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“Quebec’s #casseroles: on participation, percussion and protest”-Jonathan Sterne
“Deejaying her Listening: Learning through Life Stories of Human Rights Violations”-Emmanuelle Sonntag and Bronwen Low
This post is dedicated to the memory of Amiri Baraka, who passed away on January 9, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey.
I began writing this post while my wife, Sarah, was at a conference on writing curriculum for high school literature. Over the phone one night she asked how to help students better understand the language of Shakespeare, and at a loss for suggestions (not only because I don’t study early modern drama), I recalled my own adolescent struggles with Macbeth, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. I recalled well-intentioned teachers who gave me recordings, telling me that they would help me get an “ear” for Shakespeare’s language—yet all I remember, maybe all I learned, while listening to the Caedmon recording of Macbeth on vinyl, was that, to my mid-1990s ear, Shakespeare (anachronistically) sounded like Star Wars (which appeared 15 years after the 1960 Caedmon album).
My high school confusion has not completely faded when it comes to the sound of recorded poetic language, even more so when the notion of the poet’s voice is thrown into the mix. As opposed to verse recited by actors (the Caedmon Macbeth featured Anthony Quayle), or the sound of the syllables when we read a poem silently to ourselves, I find it tough to parse the idea of the sound of the poem in terms of the poet’s voice because “voice” is a slippery category—a constructed one, contingent upon the given historical moment of inscription and reception. It is tough because this idea of the sound of the poem, located in the voice of the poet, gets complicated with sonic technologies where voice is subject to the shifting conditions of fidelity.
The act of listening to recorded poetry thus poses particular analytic challenges, which become more complex when the politics of identity are brought to bear on these questions of voice and poetry. As a site for identity production, the recorded poetry performance projects a mediated voice that is a potential self. The “sound” of this poetic subjectivity is different from recording to recording, even of the same poem. In an effort to work through these complexities, this post takes up three different recordings of Amiri Baraka’s poem “Black Dada Nihilismus,” which offer variations in delivery and performance that each depend upon the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of the soundscape that each recording is embedded within.
“Black Dada Nihilismus” is an excellent opportunity to consider the overlapping challenges of voice, performance and the politics of identity in recorded poetry. Published in the early 1960s, this poem was written before Baraka’s shift in politics, which was precipitated by the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, yet the poem anticipates the intersection of aesthetics and politics during the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s into the 70s. This shift can be tracked in the sonic details of the first two recordings, made in 1964 and 1965. In the third version, a 1993 remix by DJ Spooky, we can hear how this shift reverberates beyond its historical moment.
In a statement of poetics included in Donald Allen’s classic 1959 anthology The New American Poetry, Baraka (then Leroi Jones) asked: “HOW YOU SOUND??” How a poet’s poem sounded mattered most for him: “you have to start and finish there … your own voice … how you sound” (425). Primarily referencing the poem on the page, he wasn’t whistling in the dark: often thought of as a vocal performance of language, poetry has a long history with sound. One thread of this history is the Homeric tradition of an “oral poetics,” a tradition where, as Albert Lord notes in The Singer of Tales, socialized performances of poetry were simultaneously modes of composition. The feel of language in the body remained inseparable from the poetry that relayed the heroic tales of the ancient world. In The Sounds of Poetry, Robert Pinsky offers a similar account of sound and voice, suggesting that the “sound” of language, the sensuous play of speech, is the material for poetic composition. Or as Charles Bernstein has it in Close Listening, “poetry needs to be sounded” because it is a way to understand it better (7).
Poetry is often said to be difficult—but how would a poet’s “sounding” of a poem help a listener better understand it, as Bernstein suggests? How is the recorded voice resonating in air different from inert marks on a page? What is the status of that difference? Why or how would the sound recording signify differently than the poem on the silent page? In short, is listening easier than reading? My answer to the final question is a resounding “no.” For me, the challenge is how to consider the recorded poetry performance in both formal and aural terms so as to remain tuned in to the aesthetic and the poetic as well as the social and historical dimensions of a particular poet’s work. This is not easily done.
“Black Dada Nihilismus” was first published in The Dead Lecturer (1964) and later included in Transbluesency (1995). Written in two parts, it asserts a black aesthetic by critiquing the dominance of (white) light in Western art and suggesting a connection between this light, ethnic violence, and religious ideology. This is how the poem opens:
.Against what light
is false what breath
sucked, for deadness.
Murder, the cleansed
purpose, frail, against
God, if they bring him
Bleeding, I would not
forgive, or even call him
black dada nihilismus.
The protestant love, wide windows,
color blocked to Modrian, and the
ugly silent deaths of jews […]
Through critique the poem develops the connections between aesthetics and racial dominance and violence. These connections take on different inflections in each recorded version of the poem, and with each inflection another aspect of them is amplified.
The first version is a bootleg of a reading at the Asilomar Negro Writers Conference that was held in Pacific Grove, California, in early August, 1964.
In addition to the preamble, where Baraka explains some of the poem’s key terms such as Dada, which he describes as a movement in France (rather than Germany or Switzerland), another sonic detail that marks this as “live” is at the 2:59 minute mark when we hear the flap of a turning page, reminding us that Baraka is treating the poem as a script in these recordings. In this version, the opening lines are sharply delivered, the voice fully pausing at the linebreaks and acutely pronouncing the hard vowels (e.g. “sucked”). Against the continuous background hush of the original reel-to-reel recording, Baraka punches his words into the air, as if trying to find a rhythm between these harder vowels and the softer ones that often denote the poem’s object of critique (e.g. “light”).
The next version is off the A side of New York Art Quartet and Imamu Amiri Baraka (ESP Disk 1965), where the poem’s rhythm is immediately established by the musical accompaniment.
Between the first recording and this one a shift began in Baraka’s development as a poet. The assassination of Malcolm X pushed him to think even more about race, politics, and art. In this version the opening lines, delivered with punch and pause in the bootleg, take on a different register when juxtaposed with the smooth coolness of the quartet. Overall, though, the poem is delivered more militantly here. In the first version the opening lines are delivered forcefully, but ultimately this forcefulness subsides over the course of the reading. The opposite is the case in this studio version that slowly builds to the apex of the poem, the point of most force, this stanza:
and chant, scream,
and dull, un
In the bootleg, the turn of the page—between “earthly” and “hollering”—interrupts this stanza, and Baraka hesitates and slowly finds his way toward the poem’s close, while in the studio version, the musical accompaniment reaches a fevered pitch here, making it feel as if it is at the edge of the scream that it names. This prepares us for the closing litany of names of black figures of “black dada nihilismus,” which goes like this:
For tambo, willie best, dubois, patrice, mantan, the
For Jack Johnson, asbestos, tonto, buckwheat,
In the final version, which is DJ Spooky’s remix of the second one, included on the CD Offbeat: A Red Hot Soundtrip (TVT Records 1996), this litany feels more like the outro (that is meant as) against Spooky’s beats and moody reverb.
An aspect of the poem amplified in the remix is the stanzas leading up to the apex stanza of the “black scream.” In a series of tercets that open the second section, the speaker addresses the experience of racial oppression and a growing need to strike back:
The razor. Our flail against them, why
you carry knives? Or brutaled lumps of
heart? Why you stay, where they can
reach? Why you sit, or stand, or walk
in this place, a window on a dark
The “why” is significantly amplified in the remix, forcing us to hear the ironic indictment of the oppressive “light,” not as audible in the other two tracks, explicit in Baraka’s tercets.
The original recordings of these versions of “Black Dada Nihilismus” are each in a different format: vinyl LP, tape-to-tape reel, and CD. I have been working with digitized versions, so the way I am hearing these recordings—through a smooth digitized MP3 file or Youtube clip—is not the same as the crackle of a needle running an LP’s groove or a nearly noiseless laser tracing a CD. These variations in format mean that the different ways these versions individual signify—their respective “sounds”—are flattened out by compression. Despite this loss of material context, Baraka still sounds different in each of these tracks. Each version of Baraka’s poem offers us another iteration of his “voice,” and the poem, but listening to each of them does not necessarily provide a better understanding of it. We are, though, given different sonic experiences that depend upon the purpose of Baraka’s performance, the listener imagined during the reading, and the voice enunciated through the mediated environment.
Some of the voice details do remain consistent across these recordings. For example, the delivery of one of the poem’s most memorable phrase—“Hermes, the/the blacker art”—that occurs toward the close of the poem’s first section is steadily delivered in a lower register, in the hush of an aside, and might be taken as the motif of each of these variations.
A vast archive of recorded poetry exists. Mid-century recording projects by Caedmon and Folkways made “voices” of well-known poets, such as Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas, available for mainstream consumption. More recent anthologies and series like Poetry Speaks and The Voice of the Poet suggest that the “voice of the poet” still holds appeal. The proliferation of online sound archives such as Penn Sound and From the Fishouse further attest to an ongoing investment in recording, storing, and making available sound files of poets reading their work. And this fascination with the “sound” of poetry is not limited to mainstream cultural spheres or web-based archives. Several scholarly collections on this convergence of sound, voice, and poetry such as Bernstein’s already-mentioned Close Listening, Adelaide Morris’s Sound States, and Marjorie Perloff’s and Craig Dworkin’s The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound have appeared over the last decade.
The idea of the sound of the poem, located in the mediated voice of the poet, therefore remains relevant today. In many of these instances, however, the poet’s voice falsely takes on an authoritative “aura,” as Walter Benjamin used that word in his (recently re-translated) “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Benjamin uses “aura” to talk about authenticity in art and how that is lost when images (or sounds) can be reproduced and widely distributed, and this is not a bad thing: “technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual. To an ever-increasing degree, the work produced becomes the reproduction of work designed to be reproduced” (24). When Benjamin’s concept is applied to recorded poetry, two key points emerge. First, the “sound” of a poet’s voice is the product of technological conditions. Second, just as a book editor makes aesthetic judgments based on a perceived audience, a listener is imagined when a poetry performance is recorded. Too bad I didn’t know this in high school.
Featured image: “Paula Varjack” by Flickr user Very Quiet, CC-BY-SA-2.0
John Hyland recently completed his dissertation on sound, poetics, and the black diaspora, titled “Atlantic Reverberations: The Sonic Performances of Black Diasporic Poetries,” at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared (or are forthcoming) in a range of journals, such as The Journal of Postcolonial Writing, College Literature, and Borderlands. Recently, he has enjoyed performing with the Buffalo Poets Theater and co-edited a special issue of the poetry journal kadar koli on the relationship between violence and the expressive arts.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Pretty, Fast, and Loud: The Audible Ali–Tara Betts
The problem of the voice has been at the center of sound studies for generations, but seldom has the knot of aesthetic and philosophical concerns — of vocal mechanics, of ontology, of desire — that “the voice” raises been brought to bear on a particular voice. As a result, ironically, a terrain deeply fascinated by materiality is often approached through abstraction. To amend this problem, what better case study could there be than Orson Welles, whose voice was without question one of the signature dramatic instruments of the twentieth century, and today retains a compelling power to instruct, to hypnotize and beguile.
As SO!’s last full installment in From Mercury to Mars, a six-month series commemorating the radio work of Orson Welles we’re doing with Antenna, we are honored to present one of the most insightful writers on cinema, Murray Pomerance of Ryerson University, who has prepared a special essay focusing on the question of Welles’ voice. Writer and editor of more than a dozen books, Pomerance’s own voice has been crucial in how contemporary scholars, critics and fans have thought about the cinema for decades, and we’re elated to have him help us to wrap up the series.
What you’re about to read, ladies and gentlemen (a little razzle-dazzle, why not?), is something never attempted before, to my knowledge: a study of Orson Welles’s voice itself — not what it does, how it was used, or what it “represents,” exactly — but a study that tries to get at what Pomerance calls “that instrumentation [Welles] cannot prevent himself from employing except by silence.”
It’s the voice that sticks to every thought about Welles, the voice through which everything else in his radio work passes, and ultimately the voice that continues to outlast him.
“I know that the thing I do best in the world is talk to audiences.”
Orson Welles to Bill Krohn (“My Favorite Mask is Myself: An Interview with Orson Welles,” The Unknown Orson Welles 70).
Most radio listeners across America knew the voice of George Orson Welles, a voice particularly adept for broadcasting, before they saw what he looked like. Even when he appeared, staring wrinkle-browed and wide-eyed from page 20 of the Los Angeles Times the day after “War of the Worlds” or hiding under the thick eyebrows and beard of Capt. Shotover from George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, as framed by Paul Dorsey for the cover of Time May 9, 1938, they had to “fit” the picture to the sound (that is, one or more of his many sounds). The tall, doughy body generally produced a soft baritone—“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper”; “tomorrow is . . . forever”—worn at the edges like an heirloom tablecloth, thick as bisque, or evanescent as an Irish field seen distantly in foggy light.
His sound was just slightly adenoidal, but burnished, like eighteenth-century mahogany furniture. Listening to Welles, indeed, one felt raised to a cultural height, where the light could gleam more purely and satisfyingly than elsewhere. His enunciation was crisp and precise, never failing. David Thomson types his voice as “word-carving” (Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles 239). He breathed through, rather than around, his speech so that phrases would rise and fall with the body’s natural, “automatic” move to futurity; breathed with an overt will to reach the end of the phrase, of the sentence, of the story. In this he made talk the stuff of life. He was fond of long breaths and wordy deliveries, letting his stresses fall on vowels more often than not, as in singing Schubert. While as a performer he could produce any vocal gesture—hilarity, mockery, snideness, bitterness, pomposity—these clothed rather than inhabiting the voice, which was always, inevitably, excruciatingly, heart-rendingly clear and blunt. He had the ability to persuade us that what he said came from his heart, rather than a performer’s toolkit.
Even the great John Barrymore, whose voice was an orchestra—the Barrymore whom Welles called “a golden boy, a tragic clown grimacing in the darkness, gritting his teeth against the horror” and who at the opening of Citizen Kane told a radio announcer that Orson was the bastard son of Ethel [Barrymore] and the Pope (Welles and Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles 24)– did not unfailingly invoke such sincerity. So it came to be, later in Welles’s life, that when on a talk show he told his host a story or gave her a lecture—cigar in hand he informed Dinah Shore in 1979 that her audience was not an audience, for example, because they had not paid to be there–one came to believe every syllable; and when he made F for Fake he counted on this vocal credibility, this urgently private and confessional key, to convey convincingly what had only been fabricated to convince. The convincing could be potent, and at the supremest level: Richard Wilson reports that it was after hearing “records of the Mercury’s radio production of The Magnificent Ambersons” (not, note, after reading a scenario) that George Schaefer, President of RKO, “gave Orson the okay for that film” (“It’s Not Quite All True,” Sight & Sound, Spring 1970, 191).
If it is one thing to discourse upon how the voice is structured into a performance, a broadcast, a staging, invoking, to take a case, shunting, audiopositioning, overdubbing, personalizing (see Verma, Theater of the Mind 140; 35-45; 185), it is quite another to stand before, to confront, the voice. In one case we wonder what can happen to the voice, in the other we ask of the voice what it is. Orson Welles’s voice, not what he says, not what he means, not who he is pretending to be, but that instrumentation he cannot prevent himself from employing except by silence . . .? What is the voice which one takes for granted in quoting his dialogue, as though what he says were equivalent to his saying it? And given that Welles is now silent, can the reader who never heard him be brought to a sympathetic understanding through any form of argument or description? Youtubing him for the first time, what does one hear, that Welles repeatedly brought forward through the frame of his instrumentality and the agony of his breath? An urgent desire to be heard, certainly. Listen to this, listen to me, listen harder. Spitting words, or giggling like a little child.
Language as we speak it need pay no fealty to the speaker’s attitude toward—feeling about—what he says; the words have the power to contain both meaning and feeling, but it is not a requirement that they be enunciated, emphatically shifted, or turned to self-consciousness in the event that the speaker finds them, apt, silly, or simple. The voice is beyond the words. It is something for which we can have a taste. Taste “cannot be rendered by anything other than itself,” suggests Leroi-Gourhan, it is a “[part] of our sensory apparatus [that] must always remain infra-symbolic” (Gesture and Speech 281). Thus, the trick about voicing text for microphone is to pronounce, not utter. One must put some faith that English will hold meaning without the addition of the voice; so that—as regards meaning–in voicing one expresses a humble self-deprecation in the face of something greater than oneself.
Welles’s voice is filled to the brim with this humility, this self-deprecation, this ease, this insouciant presence. The words sound out, no matter their shape. And so: “The cuckoo clock!” as a punch line in that lengthy, magnificent speech of Harry Lime’s in the Viennese Ferris wheel in The Third Man. “KOO-koo.” With Welles’s great dignity (massive girth) and profound experience, this kindergarten word gives him over to self-mockery, disidentification; but Harry Lime just says it, with a little elevation of tone for comic punch, and a lifted eyebrow, since the cuckoo clock is a most unexpected answer to the question of what the Swiss can claim to have produced after five hundred years of peace.
Is it necessary if one is hearing the actor’s voice to consider his every line of dialogue? What he says is so unimportant next to the fact that he is saying it. In F for Fake (1973) he gives us Elmyr de Hory’s recipe for an omelette: “Steal two eggs”: but that first word is pronounced at length, shall we say “Hungarian style”? “Steeeeeal two eggs,” and with a growl, a feline growl. The speaker approves, thinks it hilarious, this recipe, but is also dutiful in trying to capture the way Elmyr, the Hungarian art forger, speaks, and thus thinks. Speaking is thinking. That’s “El-meeeer.” In voweling as he does, that is to say, reveling in the vowels, stressing them, privileging them as golden roots of speech, Welles makes a voice that is theatrically expansive, the raconteur’s exaggerations of effect and fact embedded in exaggerations of fundamental sounds. Peter Von Bagh: “Welles is the last important raconteur of tales” (“Some Minor Keys to Orson Welles,” The Unknown Orson Welles 5). The vowels open us, open our receptivity and tap our wellspring of sensibility. They are not technical, not bitten or chewed, not tongued against the palate, in brief, not tooled and machined through the body’s hard flesh but instead summoned in and thrown from the body as organ. “El-meeer”: all a kind of pretense, this apparently being Hungarian, this embedding Elmyr inside the voice, as any good raconteur will do with his prize character.
Joseph McBride becomes rapturous about a scene in the film outside the Chartres cathedral, in which, as he puts it, Welles speaks in his own voice, “dropping all pretense and facetiousness to deliver a magnificent soliloquy on the transcendent reality of art” (Orson Welles 189). Careful, I think: the form of the soliloquy instantly downgrades all enunciation into sincerity. We may think of Welles’s tendency to deliver every speech as though it were a soliloquy — to tell us, as Simon Callow notes the announcer taught on The Campbell Playhouse, “a great human story, welling up from the heart, brimming with deep and sincere emotion” (Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu 419)—and the “magnificence” of the dialogue, carefully written to seem “magnificent,” augments our tendency to adore the voice that speaks it. Yet we do adore that voice, and adoration is part of the cinematic effect. As to whether this is Welles’s own voice: I never met him.
Or can we think for just a moment of the singsong most frequently attributed to Welles, vitiated, almost dead: the word “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane. Ohhh-uh. Not “Rrrose-bbuddd” but “Rohhhhhz-buhd.” Billy Budd. Billy Rose. We can hear Joe Cotten (Jedediah Leland) say it, harsh, grating, perfunctory, pushing the “b”; and Everett Sloane (Mr. Bernstein), with emphasis on the “s”: “rose-bud.” A day hasn’t gone by he doesn’t remember that girl, but what’s Rosebud? Paul Stewart (Raymond)? Everything a question out of his mouth, even the time of day. Life a question, relations a question, existence a question. “Rosebud?” he hardly gives a breath to say it.
But Welles breathes it, with an expulsion of air that seems thick with embodiment: gigantic air, fulsome air, the air of the past lasting on through a winter memory preserved under glass. Again: not the meaning of the word, its tinny echo, what it connotes, how it is grammatically constructed, but what people feel when they say. It is certainly not—anticlimax of anticlimaxes—the thing itself, whose name Rosebud is. Inside Welles, in his organ of speech, in the interior of interiors, Rosebud is a future waiting to emerge. “With youthful exuberance, Welles was after a special space concept of his own,” writes Von Bagh, “a very personal dramaturgical form, a kind of relief of sound space which then, in the miraculous turn of Citizen Kane, was elevated into a kind of relief or multi-dimension of visual space” (5).
A certain delicious theatricality flavors much of what we hear from Welles, the sort of tone that caused Ernest Hemingway, as legend has it, to berate him for the “too flowery” delivery of narration in Joris Iven’s The Spanish Earth (1937) and inspire the slur that he was nothing but a “‘faggot’ from the New York theater” (McBride 204). Welles, of course, put up his dukes. But while I don’t think Orson Welles’s voice is ever flowery, it often floats up onto an imaginary British promontory, especially, in certain precise dramatic circumstances, with the effete (but feigned) pronunciation of the “high R.” (“High” as in Upper.) September 9, 1936 for the Columbia Broadcasting System, playing Hamlet: “‘Tis an unweeded garden/ That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature/ Possess it merely (I.ii.339-41): on the East Coast we would say GARR-dn, with the “r” emerging from a mouth where the tongue is lifted back (and possibly also the lower lip), but Welles gives us “GAH-dn” with the lazy tongue staying put:
Lazy: there is very frequently a sense of his lazy mouth, as though everything he says is obvious, yet he takes pleasure in the words dribbling in their channel through his mouth. His is not the striven-for, aggressive, punchy, muscular articulation of Jimmy Stewart. “An unweeded gahh-dn,” and it is possessed “meehh-ly.” To actually say the r is to try too hard, so there is something aristocratic, perhaps condescending about the style. Was it this provoked Hemingway so much? Welles’s Jean Valjean in his 1937 “Les Miserables” doesn’t talk this way at all, shows it as affectation. His is a deeper vocality— André Bazin suggests that Orson was encouraged, young, to make his voice “prematurely deep” (Orson Welles 5)—and is charged with his own masculine version of Californian vocal fry, thus seeming not only distinctively eroded, ruined, portentous, and artfully combative (in a way that we can hear as well in his insert into Manowar’s “Dark Avenger” track), but elevated in social status as well (see Ikuko Yuasa “Creaky Voice: A New Feminine Voice Quality for Young Urban-Oriented Upwardly Mobile American Women?,” American Speech 85: 3, 317). The voice of a prophet who has talked too much (perhaps to no avail).
By the middle of 1938 on “The Shadow,” Welles’s Lamont is climbing again, intoning like a bassoon but persisting in naming a ship the “Stahhh of Zealand” in an episode entitled “The Power of the Mind.” When you wish upon a “stahhhh,” you are high enough to be above wishing. Anglicism here, too, in the soft “u” sound of “news”: “The Shipping Nyews.” And hints of a “freighter” carrying “general cahhh-go.”
Dropping down to the common level again December 9, 1938 for “Rebecca” with Margaret Sullavan, but only for a fragmentary moment—“Yer not afraid of the fyew-chuh?”—before another ascension, “You’re cheap at ninety pounds a yee-ahhhh,” or “An empty house can be as lonely as a full hotel, the trouble is that it’s less impehhh—sonal.” Then when the play is done he tells his eager, and by now intimately proximate, listeners that the “STAR of ‘Rebecca’ is standing “beside me at the microphone”: “staRR,” and “mike-Ro-phone.”
In “The Hitchhiker,” September 2, 1942, he mentions a “licence number”: “num-beRR.” But for “The 39 Steps” on The Mercury Theater, August 1, 1938, he had gone for a breathy and plummy emphasis on vowels: “In the blue evening sky, I saw something . . .” spoken as “In the BLOO eeevning SKAH-eee.”
If it was true, as Charlton Heston reported, that “Orson has a marvelous ear for the way people talk” (James Delson “Heston on Welles: An Interview,” Focus on Orson Welles 62), he both relied and did not rely upon that ear, bringing out of himself a sound that was now from a street corner, now from a temple, now from an impossibly high aerie where experience is pure. That voice carried more in the imagination than in the atmosphere, and perhaps this is why it echoes so unendingly inside his listener’s desire.
* with thanks to Tom Dorey, Jeffrey Dvorkin, Bill Krohn, Sarah Milroy, Neil Verma
From Mercury to Mars is a joint six-month venture between Sounding Out! and Antenna at the University of Wisconsin. The fifteenth and final post, by radio historian Jennifer Hyland Wang, is coming on Antenna in a few weeks.
To catch up on the series, check out our preceding posts.
- Here is “Hello Americans,” Tom McEnaney‘s post on Welles and Latin America
- Here is Eleanor Patterson‘s post on editions of WOTW as “Residual Radio”
- Here is “Sound Bites,” Debra Rae Cohen‘s post on Welles’s “Dracula”
- Here is Cynthia B. Meyers on the pleasures and challenges of teaching WOTW in the classroom
- Here is Kathleen Battles on parodies of Welles by Fred Allen
- Here is Shawn VanCour on the second act of War of the Worlds
- Here is the navigator page for our #WOTW75 collective listening project
- Here is Josh Shepperd’s post, “War of the Worlds and the Invasion of Media Studies”
- Here is Aaron Trammell‘s remarkable mix of the thoughts of more than a dozen radio scholars on “War of the Worlds.”
- Here is our podcast of Monteith McCollum‘s amazing WOTW remix
- Here is “Devil’s Symphony,” Jacob Smith‘s study of the “eco-sonic” Welles.
- Here is Michele Hilmes‘s post on the persistence and evolution of radio drama overseas after Welles.
- Here is A Brad Schwartz on Welles’s adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.