Tag Archive | recording

Play it Again (and Again), Sam: The Tape Recorder in Film (Part One on Noir)

Being a teacher, I can’t resist giving out a summer reading list. Being a researcher, I can’t help but want to share the projects that I am working on–which right now includes excavating the cultural history of the magnetic tape recorder in the United States. So, in honor of the Summer Solstice tomorrow (marking the official start of the season) I compiled a three-part summer series for Sounding Out! that does both: “Play it Again (and Again) Sam: The Tape Recorder in Film.”

My summer sound studies A-V list encourages you to fill your idle hours watching the “top 6″ featured appearances of the magnetic tape recorder in film, in chronological order (2 each month, with a bonus “supporting role” nod rounding out each post). Not only will “Play it Again (And Again) Sam” help you beef up your cinema buff credentials, but it will trace a little-known history, asking you to consider how the recorder tangled its thin brown plastic tape so effectively into the warp and weft of our twentieth-century lives. You’ll find that my “top 6″ list reveals much more human desire than technological determinism; the representations I examine express a complex mixture of fear and fascination, optimism and regret, change and stasis. Often a tool of the powerful, sometimes a weapon of the weak, the tape recorder was a cold war domestic product that could never truly be domesticated. As you will see in this spoiler-free three part series, interactions with the tape recorder remixed America’s workplaces, schools, homes, public spaces and private moments, ultimately shifting how the world was heard (and heard again and again).

Memento (Soul II Soul) 2008 by Christian Marclay, Photo by Nathan Bowers

So, load up your Netflix queue, shake up your Jiffy Pop, and take a much-needed couch-break from the heat and humidity with these oh-so-cool black-and-whites from the 1940s and 1950s. Of course, we can’t start our films without some “Coming Attractions”: look for part two on July 18th (spotlight on Walter Murch) and part three (the 1980s) on August 15th.

1. Double Indemnity (Paramount, 1944, Directed by Billy Wilder)

Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) speaks his sordid tale into the dictaphone

Okay, so it is actually a dictaphone that appears in this film and the tormented insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurry) is “putting it on wax” rather than magnetic tape, but this once ubiquitous, now long forgotten recording device has such a haunting presence and a structuring role in this grim noir confessional that, like Neff himself, I am suddenly willing to break my own rules. Outside of femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson’s (Barbara Stanwyck) elaborately sculptured coiffure, the key image of Double Indemnity is Neff’s lips murmuring his murderous late night confessions into the dictaphone’s horn, a physical and metaphorical stand in for the ear of his hardnosed boss (and the true object of his desire) claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson).

The dictaphone was Billy Wilder (director/screenwriter) and Raymond Chandler’s (screenwriter) deliberate addition to the filmscript; James M. Cain’s 1943 novella was essentially Neff’s scrawled confession to the reader of his almost-perfect plot to kill Phyllis’s husband and reap double insurance rewards. The introduction of the dictaphone transformed the standard noir flashback voiceover into an even-more intimate exchange of anxious aspiration, guilty pleasure, and homosocial desire channeled through Neff’s tense vocal grain and fierce grip on the machine’s cord. A familiar office machine made strange by Neff’s late-night admissions, the dictaphone mediates the entire film, transforming the audience into eavesdroppers, listening in to an act of recording made for Keyes’s ears only. After stumbling into his office and jamming a cylinder into the machine, Neff begins, sternly: “Office memorandum. ‘Walter Neff to Barton Keyes, Claims Manager, Los Angeles, July 16, 1938. Dear Keyes: I suppose you’ll call this a confession when you hear it. Well, I don’t like the word ‘confession.’ I just want to set you right about something you couldn’t see because it was smack up against your nose.” Sound, in the form of Neff’s heated breath pressed through the dictaphone’s curves and into our waiting ears, is the perfect device to exorcise the unseen desire in a film that tests the boundaries of darkness.

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2. Blackboard Jungle (MGM, 1955, Directed by Richard Brooks)

Screen Capture by JSA

Most people remember Blackboard Jungle for its seductive visual representations of juvenile delinquency, stoked by the sound of Bill Haley and the Comet’s “Rock Around the Clock,” the 1952 song that opened and closed the film (and became a smash hit as a result, as I discussed in a previous archival blog post here). I’d like to add an often-overlooked image to the film’s legacy, that of teacher Mr. Dadier (Glenn Ford) plunking a bulky case down on his desk and triumphantly announcing “This is a tape recorder!” A cutting edge device at the time—magnetic tape was only introduced in the states after World War II, largely through the efforts of Bing Crosby and Les Paul—Dadier’s recorder is part and parcel of the technological milieu of the 1950s, which evoked positivistic fascination with “progress” even as it was shaped by existent fears and inequalities.

At the point of almost giving up on his surly working class, ethnic, inner-city students to seek a cushy job in the segregated suburbs, Dadier brings in the reel-to-reel as a Hail Mary attempt to quell his students’ noise and remake them into good Cold War citizens once and for all. As he tells them, “We all talk, but nobody listens.” From the moment he enters the classroom, the students continue to defy the white male authority embodied in Dadier and housed in his machine—“Did you bring your cosmetics to school, Chief?” taunts one student (Gregory Miller, played by Sydney Poitier)—and they undermine his assignment by selecting the “noisiest” student in the class to make a recording: Puerto Rican Student Pete Morales. As I have discussed on this blog and in print, the concept of “noise” has a racialized edge, particularly in the 1950s, when Cold War cosmologies of colorblindness and “enemies within” ruled the day. Sound was an efficient way to separate “Us” from “them”—the noisy dissident from the quiet citizen—without making explicit reference to visual markers of race. And, let me tell you, Morales’s obscene, heavily-accented speech—peppered with “stinkin’”s, 14 of them in total—really makes Dadier’s spools spin. To hear more on the tape recorder in 1950’s American life and this film, see my essay “Reproducing U.S. Citizenship in a Blackboard Jungle: Race, Cold War Liberalism and the Tape Recorder” forthcoming in the American Quarterly special issue on sound (September 2011).

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tr7n9Wxmcf4]..

And. . .in a supporting role:

Kiss Me Deadly (Parklane Pictures, 1955, Directed by Robert Aldrich)

Hammer Screens His Calls: Screen Capture by Michael Leddy

The byzantine stairwalks and gingerbread Victorians of Los Angeles’s defunct Bunker Hill neighborhood are not the only ghosts you will encounter in the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly. Our first glimpse of Mike Hammer’s (Ralph Meeker) space-age Wilshire Boulevard bachelor pad includes a shot of his wall mounted, reel-to-reel answering machine, quite a technological marvel in 1955; it would be over 15 years before Phone Mate introduced the first commercially viable home model in 1971. His recorder manages to look both ridiculously large yet streamlined–and to twenty-first century audiences, old yet futuristic. However, it also allows the hunted, haunted private detective to take just a little more control of his tailspin of a life. After the jarring ring of a telephone call, the spools spin, and a sultry female voice intones: “This is Crestview 5-4124. Mister Hammer, whom you are calling, is not available at present. If you wish to leave a record of your call, please state your message at the sound of the tone.” His back inevitably against the wall, Hammer brings a suave tension to an act that has now become mundane: call screening. Removing the small surprise of who’s on the line, Hammer uses his recorder to listen just a step ahead, pacing an increasingly mysterious world given over to the dangerous riddle of the “whatsit” that leaves so many in the morgue by the film’s end. For a more general take on sound in this film (with a brief mention of Mike Hammer’s tape recorder), see Noira-Blanchè-Rougi’s November 2009 blog post, “The Use of Sound in Kiss Me Deadly.”

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I Hear You, I See You

(The title of this post comes from an episode from Season Two of NBC’s Parenthood; Zeke, the patriarch, learns in marriage counseling that he must listen to his wife and let her know he is listening.)

I’ve been toying with several ideas for blog posts all this month–and considering that this is my last post for a while, I wanted to go out with a bang. (I’ll still be posting, just not every month, so stay tuned for our regular contributors who will be filling in for me.) In the wake of Mother’s Day, and since this was my first Mother’s Day, I decided to write about something a little more personal: my daughter and sound, and my decision to record her during this first year of life.

Since she was in the womb I’ve recorded Miss E’s sounds. I’ve posted before about my experience listening to her heartbeat at every obstetrician appointment. Late in my pregnancy I managed to record her heartbeat. I still play it and replay it in amazement; those beats were a sign of the life growing inside of me. I felt like I was eavesdropping on her every time we tuned in. It was sonic peeking. After she was born, I wanted to continue recording the sounds she made because I wanted to have recordings as well as pictures for her when she grew up.

For the past eleven months I’ve recorded my daughter’s sounds at different stages with my iPhone (as I’ve mentioned in my latest KC post, my iPhone is my preferred recording device if only because it is always within reach). I record when I remember, or when she adds a new sound to her repertoire. However, I try to record her once a month. The same way that she has gone from not moving at all to crawling all over our apartment, she has gone from not making any sounds to babbling, squeeling, and laughing. The sounds she makes are an indication of development, but they are also a sign of her awareness of the world around her.

As a first-time mom, I expected a lot of things early on. I didn’t understand why she held her fists closed for the first few weeks or why she didn’t follow me around the room. It almost felt like she was ignoring me. The same thing happened with her sounds. The fact that she didn’t respond to my words with sounds worried me. I always wondered if she was sad! And it’s no wonder: all she would do was cry. Of course, I realized soon after that her crying was her only way of communicating with the world. One of my first recordings of Miss E is of her shrill crying, and it still makes my chest tighten up when I hear it.

My second recording is of her at three months. By this point the cries have morphed into more of a grunt. As I typed this post I listened to my recordings, and it’s remarkable how inarticulate she sounds compared to what she sounds like now. But back then, I was excited that she was making more sounds other than crying. Indeed, the fact that she wasn’t always crying was a relief. These new sounds, to me, were her attempt at trying to communicate, or rather discovering ways to communicate. It’s almost as if she had discovered that she had a voice. The silences talked as much as the sounds, for at this stage she spends more time awake (and more time awake without crying).

As Miss E has grown throughout this first year, her sounds have started to vary. Very much like a language, she has different registers, different sounds depending on what she wants to say. Whereas before she would only give me a smile when she woke up, now she provides me with a running commentary on her dreams and her giraffe while I change her diaper. Even her giggles developed different registers. She had different kinds of giggles! Now she makes sounds on her own, not as a response to something I had done but because there is something she wants to respond to. I read in her babbles the beginning of her path to independence. it’s a long way until she moves out of our household, but the fact that she wants to talk to other people or talk about what she wants, and not in response to what I am saying or doing is amazing. It’s also a little sad, for it’s also an indication of her willingness to move on to other things.

We tend to forget that during that first year babies have little interest in interacting with people outside of their nuclear family. They stare at strangers or shy away. But the moment they start talking to themselves or their toys, you are no longer the center of their world. And it’s a bone-chilling thought.

Recording her sounds is important to me just as much as taking pictures. (I don’t take video of her mostly because we didn’t have any way to do that until recently when I updated my phone to an iPhone 4). I wanted her to have visuals as well as audio, and even though video recordings could do just as well, the effect of just listening to sounds and being able to focus on that is an interesting (if jarring) experience. Those sound recordings trigger memories just as vividly as pictures do, or even more so than pictures. I hope to keep these recordings until she is older so that she can see herself as well as hear herself when she was just a little girl. I want to know that “I hear you, I see you,” that hearing is just as relevant as seeing.

Bonus tracks: Here’s Miss E at several stages in the last year.

Miss E at 3 months (trying to get Mommy’s attention)

Miss E at 10 months (banging and making music)

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What We Talk About When We Talk Girl Talk

Girl Talk by Justin Davis, 12 September 2008

Gregg Gillis, the mash-up artist who records and performs as Girl Talk, is always being talked about by someone. My co-author, Kembrew McLeod, and I risked adding to the overexposure by featuring Girl Talk as the star in the introductory section of our new book, Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling (Duke: 2011). And yet, I still have more to say about Girl Talk. His latest release, All Day (2010), came out too late for us to cover in our manuscript, but it reflects some aesthetic and legal developments that are worth understanding. But first, I should explain sampling, mash-ups, and what makes Girl Talk so musically and legally interesting to talk about.

Sampling means using existing sound recordings as part of new sound recordings. I leave musical quotation, allusion, and other forms of musical borrowing (or appropriation, if you prefer) out of this definition. In other words, sampling means using sound waves recorded at an earlier time—perhaps (1) editing or manipulating them, (2) combining snippets of multiple existing recordings, and/or (3) adding sounds generated by the sampling artist herself—but using the literal sound waves as basic material nonetheless.

Mash-ups, in my parlance anyway, are a sub-category of sample-based music. A mash-up artist usually does not distort the samples too much; mash-up artists tend to combine just two or three samples at any one point in time—the samples remain recognizable to the listener. And mash-up artists tend to add very few (if any) sounds generated originally by themselves.

Many mash-ups juxtapose only two or three existing recordings for the duration of a typical pop song. Some versions of this approach involve a comical or unexpected juxtaposition, like Britney Spears versus Metallica. Other versions of this approach sound like the sort of thing you’d hear at a club; in other words, it describes something live DJs have done for a long time. Mash-up artists The Hood Internet, for instance, recently released a mash-up of rap artist Nicki Minaj and indie-dance group Hercules and Love Affair by DJ STV SLV (pronounced “deejay steve sleeve,” which I’m pointing out because I think it’s fun to say).

What is unique about Girl Talk is that each of his tracks involves a string of overlapping samples. In an average song like “Like This” from Feed the Animals (2008), he moves from group to group of sampled sources, from Beyonce versus LL Cool J versus Soul II Soul, to the Jackson 5 versus the Beastie Boys, to Pras (featuring Mya and Ol’ Dirty Bastard) versus Yo La Tengo, and so on. Girl Talk’s live performances feature Gillis with his laptop in the middle of an insanely sweaty dance floor. A friend who recently caught a Girl Talk set noted that sweat was condensing on the ceiling of the venue and then dripping back onto the crowd. In short, Girl Talk is high-energy club music.

After the release of Feed the Animals, Village Voice reviewer Tom Breihan famously labeled Girl Talk as “music for people with such severe ADD that they get bored listening to thirty-second song-samples on iTunes.” Breihan also denied that Girl Talk’s music had any “internal dynamics,” which I take to mean that Breihan thinks the music has no narrative arc of, say, loud versus soft or intense versus calm. In both these statements, Breihan’s position is that the samples that make up Girl Talk’s music are disconnected from each other. The samples provide amphetamine doses of nostalgia or energy, but they have no intertextuality or deeper meaning. Girl Talk’s samples are just rapid-fire collections of pop-culture references. Call this line of argument as the name-that-tune critique.

My view, however, is that there are patterns and meaning in Girl Talk’s selection and arrangement of samples. He consistently pairs rap vocals with retro music of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, along with the occasional indie-rock and/or iTunes-commercial hit. Why are his groupings of samples interesting?

One answer is that the backing tracks in hip-hop songs have become stale. In the commercial music industry, sample licensing is required but prohibitively expensive. So Girl Talk is creating a collage in the background with the samples that rappers’ labels wouldn’t pay for or, even more likely, couldn’t have licensed from the copyright owner. This effect of copyright law on creativity is something that Kembrew and I detail in our book, especially Chapters 5 and 6.

Another answer is that Girl Talk finds the lyrical content of hip-hop far more interesting (or at least more provocative) than what’s being said in the classic-rock song. A similar point would apply to The Hood Internet, too, whose twist is that their pairing is almost always very contemporary hip-hop vocals mashed up with very contemporary indie rock. I can’t help thinking that one thing The Hood Internet is suggesting with their compilations is that some hip-hop backing tracks are too boring and some indie-rock vocalists have poor voices or nothing to say—so let’s mash-up the best parts of both.

So what to make of Girl Talk’s hallmark freneticism, the jumping from one group of samples to another group roughly every 20 or 30 seconds? No matter what, the point is that meaning—an argument over interpretation—emerges from the groupings of juxtaposed samples. First of all, meaning emerges when the transitions happen more slowly. The new album, All Day, begins with a two-minute-long pairing of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” against Ludacris’s “Move Bitch” (featuring Mystikal and I-20) and a few short snippets of various Jay-Z raps. The extra time to digest what’s happening tells the listener that the new album is more relaxed, at least at the start. Rather than a sprint, the new album has a longer narrative arc. Gillis may be responding to the name-that-tune critique, adding another dimension to the mathematical complexity of his recordings by varying the speed of his transitions.

More than a response to critics like Breihan, my observations about selection and arrangement as the source of Girl Talk’s musicality relate to his legal stance with respect to using unlicensed samples. Girl Talk and his label, Illegal Art, assert that using samples, transforming them, and placing them in a new context is “fair use.” Briefly, fair use is a doctrine in copyright law that allows certain uses without permission. For instance, a book reviewer can quote from a book without infringing copyright, at least up to a certain amount. Educators can use at least some portion of copyrighted works in the classroom. Transformative use is yet another category of fair uses. We know this category includes parody, thanks to a 1994 Supreme Court decision involving 2 Live Crew’s parody of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.” But the courts haven’t told us what else the “transformative” category includes. This is why Girl Talk and Illegal Art garner so much attention from the copyright law community.

The website for the new album has the following legal language at the bottom of the page:

All Day by Girl Talk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license. The CC license does not interfere with the rights you have under the fair use doctrine, which gives you permission to make certain uses of the work even for commercial purposes. Also, the CC license does not grant rights to non-transformative use of the source material Girl Talk used to make the album.

Creative Commons licenses are ready-made online licensing contracts. A Creative Commons license is a deal creators choose to make with the public, in which the creator gives the public certain freedoms but also requires certain responsibilities. It represents a less generous choice than simply leaving something in the public domain, no strings attached. But it is much more generous choice than asserting one’s copyrights in full.

So what can other people do with Girl Talk’s music under the particular flavor of a Creative Commons license? The short answer is that they can share and remix whatever he owns without getting advance permission. But wait a second. If Gillis’s music is comprised almost entirely of samples of other people’s music (which themselves can be sample-based)—in copyright-speak, if it is a “derivative work”—what exactly is he licensing to the public?

Derivative works created without permission, without being fair use, or without avoiding infringement through some other copyright exception, give their creator no copyright in the parts of the derivative work that include illegally used material. Section 103 of U.S. copyright law punishes people who make unlawful derivative works by denying them any rights. By asserting a compilation copyright, Girl Talk and his label are expressing confidence in their fair use argument. They are at least acting as though they would not be subject to the punishment of Section 103 because they claim copyright for All Day via compilation: Girl Talk’s particular selection and arrangement of samples. Compilations are a special type of derivative work. In other words, compilation copyrights inhere in the “thin slice” layer of creativity that represents the ordering, grouping, and timing of the music.

Meanwhile, Girl Talk is sampling hugely high-profile artists, and listing them on the website: the Beatles, Prince, U2, all of whom are known for asserting their copyrights. Take this together with Girl Talk’s confidence that he won’t lose his “thin slice” copyright under Section 103. We can see that Girl Talk is aggressively claiming fair use. He’s daring people to sue him. And this strategy seems to have made copyright owners less likely to sue.

Interestingly, the “thin slice” the law is concerned with is the same thin slice music critics worry over. My closing point is that the copyright analysis of Girl Talk’s work depends heavily on interpretation of his selection and arrangement of samples. Humanists, including those in sound studies, have a great deal to offer to this discussion. Does Girl Talk’s selection and arrangement rise to the level of “transformative” work? Do we need to settle the debate of the aesthetic value of Girl Talk’s “thin slice” before we can answer the legal question of fair use?

Consider the meta-observation that there are plenty of arguments to be made back and forth about whether Girl Talk’s selection and arrangements are good or bad, original or unoriginal, and so on. Does that observation in and of itself mean that something transformative has occurred? Or is that too cute—setting up a test that no mash-up could ever fail, since it takes only two listeners to have an argument over the quality of a piece of music?

It is a truism that copyright law fails to mesh well with creative practices. But copyright isn’t going away anytime soon. I hope this brief discussion has illustrated how crucial it is to have a continuing conversation among legal scholars and humanists.

Peter DiCola will be reading at RiverRead Books in Binghamton, NY (5 Court Street in Downtown) on Thursday, 4/21 at 6:30 p.m. in support of Creative License. Following DiCola’s reading there will be a roundtable conversation featuring several Sounding Out! writers: Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman (Editor in Chief), Andreas Pape and Osvaldo Oyola along with Daniel Henderson.

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