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Reproducing Traces of War: Listening to Gas Shell Bombardment, 1918

 

World Listening Month3

Welcome to World Listening Month 2014, our annual forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2014. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us [for the full deets, peep our recent SO! Amplifies post by Eric Leonardson, Executive Director of the World Listening Project].  We kick off our month of thinking critically about listening with a post by media historian Brian Hanrahan, who listens deeply to sonic traces of the past to prompt us to question our desires for contemporary media representations of “reality.”  It also marks the global 100 year anniversary of World War I this August 2014: a moment of silence. —J. Stoever, Editor-in-Chief

For some reason that I don’t fully understand, I am very emotionally moved by the space around a sound. I almost think that sometimes I am recording space with a sound in it, rather than sound in a space. –Walter Murch 

If you want to listen to the past, there’s never been a time like the present. Every year, it seems, new old recordings are identified, new techniques developed to recover sounds thought irrecoverable. Here is Bismarck’s voice, preserved on a cylinder in 1889.  Here, older still, is Edison’s. There is the astonishing recuperation of phonautograms – reverberation traced onto soot-blackened paper in the mid-nineteenth century, digitally processed and played back in our own. But as that processing underlines, no sound recording straightforwardly reproduces the real. An acoustic artifact is a compound of materiality, form and meaning, but also a place where technology meets desire. Old recordings meet the listener’s longing halfway; they invoke a reality always out of reach. And not simply a longing to hear, but also to touch, and be moved by, the fact of an absent existence.

Take, for instance, HMV 09308. In October 1918, just before the end of the Great War, William Gaisberg, a sound recordist of the pre-electric era, took recording equipment to the Western Front in order to capture the sound of British artillery shelling German lines with poison gas. Gaisberg died not long after, probably from Spanish flu, although some say he was weakened by gas exposure during the recording. Nonetheless the “Gas Shell Bombardment” record – a 12-inch HMV shellac disc, just over 2 minutes at 78 rpm – was released a few weeks later, just as the war came to an end. Initially intended to promote War Bonds, ultimately the record was used to raise money for disabled veterans.

war bonds

For decades, the HMV recording had a reputation as one of the very earliest “actuality” recordings – one documenting a real location and event beyond the performative space of the studio, imprinted with the audible material trace of an actual moment in space and time. Documents like this – no matter what the technology – usually come with additional symbolic authentication. Here, the record’s label does some of that work. This “historic recording,” says the subtitle, is an “actual record taken on the front line.” Publicity pieces drove home the message. In the popular HMV magazine The Voice, Gaisberg – or probably his posthumous ghost-writer – described the expedition in detail, claiming the track to be a “true representation of the bombardment.”

record

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In the same issue, a Major C.J.C. Street compared the recording to his own experience on the Front. “Its realism,” he wrote, ”took my breath away… I played the record many times… finding at each attempt some well-remembered detail.” He didn’t say so in his article, but Street – an artillery officer, a novelist and a propaganda man for the intelligence agency MI7 – was in fact the impresario of the record. This was not the first time he had found astute uses for sound media. The previous year he had put together a record that set artillery drill commands to popular tunes – the recording was both a propaganda release and an army training tool for new recruits. With the Gas Shell record, Street knew he wasn’t just selling recorded sound, but also an auratic sense of closeness to an overwhelming reality, the palpable proximity of war and death. Authenticating detail helped to underpin this sense of an absent real made present. Street cued the listener for those “well-remembered details.” In particular, he singled out one indistinct rattly flap-whizz noise, hearing in it, he claimed, the sound of a round with a “loose driving-band.”

The record stayed in the HMV catalog until 1945, but only in the early 1990s were its production history and authenticity claims seriously examined. In specialist journals, archivists, collectors and amateur historians undertook a collective forensic and critical analysis. A promising auditory witness was located: 95-year-old Lt.-Col. Montagu Cleeve another former artillery officer, in his time a developer of “Boche Buster” railway gun, later a music professor – was invited to critically assess the recording. Cleeve vouched unreservedly for its authenticity. He heard in it, he said, an unmistakable succession of sounds – the clang of the breech, the gigantic report of the firing explosion, the distinctive whiny whistle of a gas shell on its way across no-man’s-land. Others looked to data rather than the memories of old soldiers. One expert on pre-electric recording noted the angles commanded in firing instructions, correlated them with known muzzle velocities for 4.5 and 6-inch howitzers, then used this and other information to “definitively” explain the counter-intuitive anti-Doppler sound of the shells’ whistling. He also identified the audible echo effect – the curious “double report” of the guns heard here – as the sound of a brass recording horn violently resonating at a distance of exactly 26.5 meters from the guns.

 

Peter Adamson, “The Gas Shell Bombardment record,” The Historic Record Quarterly, April 1991.

Peter Adamson, “The Gas Shell Bombardment record,” The Historic Record Quarterly, April 1991.

 

Eventually, skepticism won out. Close listening at slow speeds – just careful attention and notation, nothing more elaborate – revealed inconsistencies and oddities in the firing noises. The bongs, plops and whistles seemed internally inconsistent. Some of the artillery sounds – ostensibly a battery of four, firing in quick succession – varied implausibly with each successive firing. Physical evidence from the record’s groove, as well as extraneous noises – surface crackle and fizz, and, audible within the recording, the swish of a turntable – seemed to indicate at least two rudimentary overdubs, in which the output of one acoustic horn was relayed into a second, possibly using an auxetophone, an early compressed-air amplifier. All this resulted in a double- or triple-layered sonic artifact. Finally – the crucial evidence, although oddly it was hardly noticed at the time – an alternative take was located. In this take, according to its discoverer, the entire theatrics of gunnery command is simply absent, and there is no sound at all of whistling shells in motion. What was left was a skeleton sequence of clicks, thuds and cracks, supplemented with only a single closing insert, the portentous injunction “Feed the Guns with War Bonds!”

In short, it seems highly likely that any original field recording was, at the very least, post-dramatized with performed voices and percussive and whistling sound effects. So, it is tempting to say, that clears that up. The recording’s inauthenticity is proven. File under Fake. But in fact, if we don’t stop there, if we set aside narrow and absolutist ideas of authenticity, and instead explore the recording’s ambiguity and hybridity, then Gas Shell Bombardment becomes all the more interesting as an historical artifact.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that some form of basic recording was done in France, very possibly a staged barrage specifically performed for Gaisberg’s visit, and that this recording then had effects added back at HMV in London. The record might then be seen less as a straightforward documentary, and instead as an unusual version of the “descriptive speciality,” a genre of miniature phonographic vignette dating back to the 1890s, far predating longer-form radio drama. Very little is known about these early media artworks, but it is a fair generalization to say that in America the genre was more slanted towards vaudeville comedy, whereas in Europe, imperial and military scenes predominated. As early as 1890, for example, there had been German phonographic representations of battles from the Franco-Prussian war. The Great War saw a flourishing of the genre. Scholars are just beginning to take an interest these old phonographs; here’s one recent essay on the “Angel of Mons,” for example, a British acoustic vignette of a famous incident on the Western Front.

Listen to a 1915 German descriptive speciality, depicting the attack on the fortress of Liège the previous year:

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As a descriptive speciality, Gas Shell Bombardment is unusual because it incorporates an actual indexical trace. But such traces – as emphasized by Charles Sanders Pierce and many later media-theoreticians– do not resemble their referent, they are caused by it. The bullet hole does not look much like a bullet; thunder is lightning’s trace, not its likeness. But for Street and Gaisberg, the trace’s lack of resemblance caused problems: the original recording’s lack of detail, cues and clues, but above all its lack of internal dimensionality, created a perceptual shortfall and a lack of credibility. Maybe they hoped that the guns, by sheer force of amplitude, would overcome the spatially impoverished, reverbless reproduction of pre-electric recording. If so, it didn’t work. Without added effects, the guns’ trace was as flat and “body-less” as a sequence of Morse. It was a sound without a scene. The producers’ interventions aimed to thicken the primary artifact with referential-sounding detail, but also to heighten the sense of materiality and spatiality, and to strengthen the sense of diegetic presence, of worlded thereness. The soldiers’ voices – louder and quieter, close-up and farther-out – and the fake-Doppler of the “shell whistling” lent the recording narrative direction (literally, some trajectory) and “authenticating” points of detail. But above all they gave a sense of internal space to the recording, a space into which the listener could direct her attention.

In this context, we can only admire the creativity and performative élan of the unknown production crew. We know little about effects production in early phonography. It is a safe bet that some techniques were adopted from theatre, and that there was overlap with silent film accompaniment. But whatever the method used, it would have called for the awkward orchestration of a limited number of iconic sounds to create an impression of a spatially coherent and materially detailed sonic environment. The recordist and his team would first have had to imagine how relative loudness – of voices, of material objects struck and sounded – might create a sense of spatial depth when transduced through the horn’s crude interface. Then they would have had to perform this as a live overdub, keeping time with the base track of the gun recording played through another horn. And all this done with participants and equipment crowded tightly around the mouth of the huge horn, crammed into the tiny pick-up arc, a scene looking something like this image of Leopold Stokowski’s pre-electric recording sessions or this photograph of the recording of a cello concerto.

Acoustic recording session with Elgar and Beatrice Harrison, 1920

Acoustic recording session with Elgar and Beatrice Harrison, 1920

As well as this hybrid of trace and live performance, there is another performance here – Gaisberg’s journey itself. With twenty years of recording experience, Gaisberg was probably very well aware that the expedition would not yield a “realistic” recording of the guns. But the expedition had to be made, so that it could be said to have taken place. Expectations had to be primed and colored, so that, to use André Bazin’s famous phrase about photographs, the recording could partake in an “irrational power to… bear the belief” of the listener. The journey, and the accounts of Gaisberg and Street are not a supplement to the “true representation” of the gas bombardment. They are part of that representation. Moreover, in subsequent writing it is noticeable that the manner of Gaisberg’s death becomes a rhetorical amplification for the authenticity of the recording’s trace, as if his fatal inhalation (of gas molecules or flu bacilli) were itself a deadly indexation, paralleling the recording’s claim to capture the breath of the War, and even of History itself.

In media-historical terms, the Gas Shell Bombardment recording can be understood as a late, transitional artifact from phonography’s pre-microphonic era. The desire for the sonic trace, for an ever more immersive proximity to events was there, but electro-acoustic technology was not yet in place. Two years later, in 1920, Horace Merriman and Lionel Guest made the first experimental electrical recording, arguably also the first true field recording. The event, appropriately enough, was an official war memorial service in London, where Merriman and Guest – working for Columbia Records – put microphones in Westminster Abbey, running cables to a remote recording van parked in the street outside, where they sat amidst heating ovens and cutting lathes. By the end of the 1920s, remote recording and broadcasting, while never straightforward, were well on the way to ubiquity.

Illustrated London News, 1920.

Illustrated London News, 1920.

Claims made on behalf of technologies of reproduction may seem simplistic, but there’s a grain of truth to their simplicity. If there were nothing special – even magical – in the referentiality of the camera that captures the moment, the recording that’s like being there, the liveness of the live broadcast, these things would not play the role they do in everyday life and in the ideological fabric of society. But there is falsehood too, in over-simplifying the nature and affective charge of old photographs, old footage, old recordings. These are made things, composed of different materials, media, signs and conventions; they are inseparable from the desires and expectations they induce and direct. They function in part by mimesis and verisimilitude, but also through the gaps, blank spots and false illusions of their trace. They can – rightly – intensify our feeling towards the past, but should also prompt us to think about our own desires and investments.

Image by Flickr User DrakeGoodman, “Horchposten im Spengtrichter vor Neuve-Chapelle 6km nördlich von La Bassée Nordfrankreich 1916,” A trio of lightly equipped soldiers from an unidentified formation oblige the photographer by looking serious and pretending they’re just metres from the enemy, listening for activity in his lines. The improvised “listening device” is actually a large funnel, probably liberated from a nearby farm.

Brían Hanrahan is a film, media and cultural historian, whose work focuses on the history of acoustic media, German and European cinema and the culture of the Weimar Republic.

Edited post-publication at 8:00 pm EST on July 7, 2014


tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:

SO! Reads: Susan Schmidt Horning’s Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP–Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo

A Brief History of Auto-Tune–Owen Marshall

DIY Histories: Podcasting the Past–Andrew Salvati

  

The Sounds of Selling Out?: Tom Zé, Coca-Cola, and the Soundtrack to FIFA Brazil 2014

Sound and Sport2Welcome back to our summer series on “Sound and Sport.”  In today’s post, Kariann Goldschmitt discusses the gamechanging controversy over Brazilian musician Tom Ze’s commercial for Coca-Cola’s FIFA 2014. For an instant replay of July’s post click Josh Ottum‘s “Sounding Boards and Sonic Styles: The Music of the Skatepark” or of June’s post, click Tara Betts‘s “Pretty, Fast, and Loud: The Audible Ali.” For May’s post, click Melissa Helquist‘s “Goalball: Sport, Silence, and Spectatorship.”  This Thursday’s grand finale will continue our discussion of Brazil, with a podcast by Andrea Medrado entitled “The Sounds of Rio’s Favelas: Echoes of Social Inequality in an Olympic City” AND keep you on the edge of your seat with a bonus Olympic doubleheader post excerpted from David Hendy‘s recent Noise broadcasts for BBC Radio 4 on the sounds of Olympic crowds. And now. . .the sounds of FIFA’s sponsors. —J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief

Tensions in Brazil have been running high as the the country ramps up preparations for next year’s FIFA World Cup. Brazil’s economy is one of the world’s strongest, but its middle class has suffered as economic growth has stagnated amid rapidly rising costs of living. Yet, FIFA demands that Brazil’s government spend large amounts of money to renovate stadiums and further bolster tourism-based services at the expense of everything else. This last June, news of another hike in transit fees was the final straw for many citizens and they took to the streets to protest corruption and the routing of public funds to tournament preparations while basic services suffered. Protesters argue that the country is burnishing its international brand on the backs of its citizens. It is thus no surprise that much of the Brazilian public is fed up with FIFA and its multinational partners. As a consequence, musicians who participate in World Cup-related ad campaigns risk damaging their relationship with the public.

In Spring 2013, the Facebook page of one of Brazil’s most eccentric musical iconoclasts, Tom Zé, was bombarded by negative comments. Unforgivably to some of his most ardent fans, Zé had lent his vocal talents to a Coca-Cola commercial that sought to connect Brazil’s oft-mythologized cultural diversity to the universals of the World Cup and Coca-Cola’s alleged populism. Zé inflected his delivery of the ad copy with an especially musical speaking cadence and rhythm. It was a peculiar take that drew on his signature vocal eclecticism.

The ad opens with Zé stating,

Muita gente se pergunta como vai ser a copa

A coca-cola vai falar como ela não vai ser

[Many people are asking themselves what this cup will be like

Coca-Cola is going to tell you what it won’t be like]

as the shot features a group of people smoothing out a giant kite with the Brazilian flag. There is a strong syncopated rhythm to Zé’s voice that matches the carnival samba drums (especially the caixa) that accompany the ad throughout. As it continues, the imagery matches what Zé describes, in either stills or brief shots, often recalling the frenzy surrounding world cups of the past. In a rapid cadence, he says:

não vai ser só a copa de vuvuzela, do vidente, da celebridade

da menina bonita, do jogadores com cabelo da moda…”

[it won’t be the Cup of the vuvuzela, the psychic, nor of celebrity

of beautiful women, nor of players with fashionable hair]

The synchronization of Zé’s rapidly rhythmic delivery over archetypal images of Brazil’s tournament excitement is crucial to the ad’s message. This passage mentions two icons of the 2010 tournament, the vuvuzela and the psychic (vidente) octopus, with accompanying images. In under four seconds, the camera jumps from a man holding a celebrity magazine (celebridade), a woman cheering (menina bonita), some player figurines (jogadores) and a boy with an elaborate buzz cut.  By aligning himself with an official sponsor of the upcoming tournament through ad copy that valorizes Brazil’s present, Zé also lent the sound of his voice to the sports-industrial complex, thereby opening himself up to accusations that he was a  “sell-out” (vendido).

Tom Zé - Todos os Olhos (1973)

Tom Zé – Todos os Olhos (1973)

Zé is famous for taking part in the tropicália of the late 1960s – a cultural movement that was most effective through popular music. Tropicália musicians bucked Brazilian musical conventions by blending imported rock ‘n’ roll with national music protest songs during a period when musical taste often indicated one’s support or disapproval of the military dictatorship. While most involved in tropicália eventually became Brazilian musical mega-stars (Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Os Mutantes, and Mara Bethânia), Zé drifted to obscurity by rejecting many of the machinations of the record industry. He only found an international audience when David Byrne’s Luaka Bop Records released some of his music in the 1990s, the most successful of which was Fabrication Defect [Com Defeito de Fabricação] (1998). Due to his peculiar status, Zé disrupted fan expectations and threatened his brand when he embraced a corporate power so intricately connected to an increasingly unpopular athletic tournament.

The controversy surrounding the Coca-Cola ad took a turn towards farce when, on April 22nd, 2013, Zé released a free 5-song EP on his website titled Tribunal do Feicebuque – a clear play on the way that Brazilians tend to pronounce “Facebook.” Accompanying the songs was a parody of tribunal orders listing the performing and collaboration credits along with lyrics to the songs. Zé’s actions exposed how the incident was a different kind of sonically-driven sports spectacle – this time it was played out over social media, in Brazil’s most influential newspaper, in Tribunal references and fights with fans during his shows at Rio’s famed Circo Voador, and in the ensuing blog reviews of his shows.

The chaotic structure of the EP’s title track, while typical of Zé catalog, disrupts his fans’ claims of “selling out.” He employs a variety of sonically disjunct approaches, opening with the startup sound for Microsoft’s Vista OS before jumping into a psychedelic samba-rock tune with a staccato guitar and a brass section. Zé recorded his vocals over multiple tracks, at times simultaneously sung/spoken at a low pitch and sung at a high pitch. The first half is familiar – the voices trade between Zé and a female companion in something sounding like a duet over a samba-rock beat. The lyrics directly reference infamous moments when Brazilian audiences have turned on their musical icons thought to be too involved in international business influences.

Vendido, vendido, vendido!

A preço de banana

Já não olha mais pro samba

Tá estudando propaganda

[Sell-out, sell-out, sell-out!

The price of a banana

He no longer looks to samba

He’s studying advertising]

At the mid-point, rock gives way to a serious march and more voices enter (including famed São Paulo hip-hop artist Emicida) making the song’s structure more like a trial, complete with competing arguments, before returning to samba-rock under Emicida’s rapping. The song is creative and fun, but it is far from Brazil’s top-40 fare which often favors smoother genre blends and urban pop hits.

Given all of the attention paid to musicians’ efforts to supplement their meager income from digital sales and streaming royalties by forging partnerships with a variety of multinational corporations, it is a little surprising that Tom Zé’s participation in a Coca-Cola commercial would be this controversial. It is difficult to find a musician in Brazil that hasn’t benefitted from some kind of corporate sponsorship. Most artists accept funding from a granting arm of a national corporation (oil company Petrobras, major bank Itaú), license music to national ad campaigns, or embark on a more direct co-branding effort from the likes of mobile phone providers and skin care companies.

Tom Zé in 2008 performing in front of a Petrobras sign, photo used by CC license, Neto Silveira

Tom Zé in 2008 performing in front of a Petrobras sign, photo used by CC license, Neto Silveira

One of the hallmarks of the recent changes that have affected the music industry is that musicians rarely refuse opportunities for their music to be used as the soundtrack for mainstream audio/visual entertainment and advertisements. The practice is so common that one of the best-regarded music industry survival books explains possible changes to a musician’s brand when they participate in the advertising of other products. Instead of  “don’t license your music,” musicians should license their music in a way that will benefit their brand. It is rare for a song’s success among World Cup spectators to harm musicians; anthems that reflect well on the host nation(s) and express the energy of cheering crowds are a central feature of the tournament. Shakira’s “Waka Waka” actually bolstered her credibility among music fans across the African continent because it sampled Golden Sounds’ hit “Zamina Mina,” a popular song among hip-hop artists in Camaroon and Senegal.  In Zé’s case, he misjudged how the tournament and its corporate sponsors were being read by the Brazilian public just weeks before tensions exploded in protest. Indeed, as compared to other Brazilian artists who have recorded potential 2014 World Cup anthems, the reaction to Zé is unique.

As others have noted, television advertising played an important role in the June protest soundtrack. Protesters appropriated the song from a Fiat commercial (released just weeks after Zé’s Facebook episode) that explicitly connects cheering soccer crowds in the street to a new car.

The meaning of “torcer,” a common expression for “cheer” in both advertisements’ copy, is transformed back to its original meaning to wrench or twist thereby exposing the conflicts that have been exacerbated by Brazil’s preparations for the tournament and the sports industrial complex.

These crowds twisted an ad’s soundtrack to challenge the role of multinational agencies and corporations in Brazil’s skewed socio-economic priorities. Indeed, as Leo Cardoso wrote in Sounding Out! a year ago, some of these priorities include regulating sound in Brazil’s largest cities.

For both of these cases involving sonic responses to advertisements that explicitly seek to capitalize on excitement for the soccer tournament, their original intended meaning was twisted and wrenched, forcing musicians to re-evaluate their publics. In the current political climate, Zé found that musical sounds can be aligned with the FIFA World Cup, so long as they are about celebrating sport rather than its multinational sponsors.

Promotional FIFA 2014 Can, Image by José Roitberg

Promotional FIFA 2014 Can, Photo used by CC license, José Roitberg

Featured Image: Tom Zé in 2008 performing in front of a Petrobras sign, photo used by CC license, Neto Silveira

Kariann Goldschmitt is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at New College of Florida and Ringling College of Art and Design. She holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from UCLA (2009) and was the 2009-2011 Mellon Fellow of Non-Western Music at Colby College in Maine. Her scholarly work focuses on Brazilian music, modes of listening, and sonic branding in the global cultural industries. She has published in The Journal of Popular Music Studies, American Music, Yearbook for Traditional Music, and Luso-Brazilian Review and contributes to the South American cultural magazine, Sounds and Colours.


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REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

“Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil”–Leonardo Cardoso

Quebec’s #casseroles: on participation, percussion and protest–Jonathan Sterne

Hello, Americans: Orson Welles, Latin America, and the Sounds of the “Good Neighbor”–Tom McEnaney

Listening to #Occupy in the Classroom

Yes, it’s that time again, readers. You are going to have to stop pretending the “Back to School” aisles haven’t been appearing in stores for the past few weeks.  We at SO! are here to ease your transition from summer work schedules to the business of teaching and student-ing with our fall forum on “Sound and Pedagogy.”  Developed to explore the relationship between sound and learning, this forum blends the thinking of our editors (Liana Silva), recruited guests (D. Travers Scott), and one of the winners of our recent Call For Posts (Jentery Sayers) to explore how listening impacts the writing process, the teachable moment, and the syllabus (and vice versa).  We hope to inspire your fall planning–whether or not you teach a course on “sound studies”–and encourage teachers and students of any subjects to reconsider the classroom as a sensory space. We also encourage you to share your feedback, tips, and experiences in comments to these posts and on our Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit sites.  As I said in the Call for Posts for this Forum: “because teaching is so crucial—yet so frequently ignored at conferences and on campus—Sounding Out! wants to wants to provide a virtual space for this vital discussion.”  This conversation will be ongoing: we will also bring you a “Spring Break Brush-Up” edition in 2013 featuring several more excellent posts by writers selected from our open call. Right now, the bell’s about to ring–so take a seat, open those ears, and enjoy this shiny auditory apple of an offering from D. Travers Scott in which he discusses how the sounds of #Occupy invigorated his classroom.  And, yes, it will be on the test. —JSA, Editor-in-Chief

In the late fall of 2011, I was teaching a class on cultural studies of advertising. I presented the Occupy Student Debt campaign, a subcategory or spinoff of the larger Occupy movement, while we were examining ways people challenged consumer culture. We discussed education as a commodity and students as consumers. Unsurprisingly, my seniors were dissatisfied consumers. They expressed that what had been advertised to them was a product that guaranteed or at least would strongly increase their chances for quality employment (of course, it was also a product they had worked for years in creating, and one they couldn’t return.) If higher education really did land you the lucrative job it had been advertised as guaranteeing, in theory, then, you would be able to more easily pay off student loan debt. To address this dissatisfaction, I showed them two artifacts: a video from the launch in New York City on November 12, 2011,  and the OSD debtors’ pledge*.

In the video, OSD founder Pamela Brown reads the pledge one line at a time, with each line chanted back by others.  I played the video in a dark classroom. I also projected it on the room’s main screen, but I didn’t use the room’s amplification system because it sounds too much like an authoritarian public address and disperses the audio in a dominating way. External speakers connected to my laptop made the sound feel, to me, more localized and objectified, something we could focus on rather than an institutional part of the room. The students’ first reaction was, not to the words, but the sound: the verbal relay used at the public demonstration. Brows furrowed and heads cocked quizzically, they asked, “Why are they all repeating the speaker like that?” I explained how this provides additional amplification, but the students’ listening experience was instructive to me. Their unfamiliarity with a sonic practice of vocalization indicated their unfamiliarity with larger practices of collective, public social action.

Listening to OSD, and paying attention to how my students listened to it, informed me of larger contexts they needed to understand and discuss it, in ways that the object of the text did not suggest to me. It made me think about the experience and process of my students’ encountering OSD. I immediately noticed its ambient sounds of city life, which I no longer hear. These sounds of traffic, the acoustics of being surrounded by buildings, etc. gave several urban dimensions to the movement the pledge text did not. From the perspective of Upstate South Carolina, “urban” is not a simple thing, an identity or geography category, but intersectional:  our largest city, Greenville, has a population under 60,000. City noises feel not merely urban, but un-Southern, and thereby alien. (I say un-Southern rather than Northern or Yankee because another thing I’ve learned here is the inadequacy of that binary: Los Angeles, for example, is not a Northern city but most certainly is as un-Southern as New York. Cities also carry a class dimension.) Even though my school is one of the elite institutions in this area, this region is still worse off economically than the rest of the country and has a generally lower cost of living. Cities require money to live in. In spatial, class, and urban dimensions, OSD felt alien.

Opening of the Occupy Student Debt Campaign, Image by Flickr User JohannaClear

The experience of listening to the ODS rally illustrates how a sound studies perspective foregrounds experiential processes over exclusive categories of things and ideas. For example, when I read the OSD Debtors’ Pledge aloud to my students—vocalizing the text and sounds and listening to them— it brought the text into my body, making it an action. It also made students uncomfortable. Even just a round-robin reading of theory seems to make then anxious and fidgety. While I try to understand and accommodate anxieties around public speaking, I think the way sound makes a text enter the body can be a powerful affective experience. And no one ever said the classroom always had to be comfortable.  For me, reading the text aloud personalized the OSD pledge. It evoked sensory memories:  “Pledge of” evoked saying the pledge of allegiance in public school; saying “We believe” took me to attending Lutheran church services with my husband at the time where they collectively recite the Apostles’ Creed.  These associations evoked emotional disidentifications from organized religion and mandatory collective professions of patriotism. It also temporalized and spatialized OSD for me, positioning it in relations to Dallas, Texas in the 1970s and Greenville, SC today.

Overall, the reading aloud of the pledge staged a tension or dialectic of identification and disidentifications. Although I agreed and identified with the sentiments of the movement, several alienating and unsettling aspects of the pledge came through as I read aloud: the blithe collapsings of “we” and “as members of the most indebted generations” made me wary (collectives always do, but so do easy historical assertions. Really? Are we more indebted than indentured servants who came to America, or people born into slavery?), and the sudden shift to first person singular at the very end seemed jarring: (After saying “we” six times, suddenly it’s ‘I’ now – what happened?). Lastly, the numerous alliterations also had an alienating effect, making the text seem sophistic and manipulative, artificial, composed.

The auditory experience of OSD can also provide insight into how we create texts. A video of Andrew Ross shows him presenting the first, “very rough draft” weeks earlier at an OWS event. Listening to him read this different, earlier version underscores the text as process. The pledge is something that developed. While his flat tone and straight male voice do not appeal to me, they do complexify and dimensionalize Brown’s reading, giving it depth. They also show that some things that bothered me in the final version – the collectivity and alliterations – were not there. This intertextual, diachronic listening does not erase troublesome aspects of the ‘final’ text, but it mediates them. I am moved closer to it by listening to its different origin.

Arguably, any of these points could have been arrived at by good ole’ textual analysis. My point is not that listening always should supplant visual modes; sound studies tries to break that false dichotomy by not denigrating or replacing the visual but by elevating the sonic to complementary – not superseding – status. I argue that reading aloud should be a fundamental, basic component of sound studies methodology, as it allows anyone to hear, voice, embody, and experience a text. I not only noticed these aspects sooner through listening – my first time speaking it aloud, despite having read it at least a dozen times before. Moreover, I didn’t just notice them: I felt them on a personal, emotional, level, which spurs thinking and analysis that is, if not completely new and unique, definitely qualitatively different in its potency and urgency.

Listening to OWS, and the OSD in particular, brings insights affective and personal. Yes, I can read a statistic from a survey stating that a certain percentage of participants in OWS feel angry or betrayed. That doesn’t mean anything to me in a specific, personal, and empathetic way – and empathy is crucial for a social movement to garner support. Listening to both Ross and Brown, I am reflective and conflicted over my professional role – no longer a grad student, but certainly not an established scholar like Ross. I feel connected to OSD in ways beyond the literal facts of my debt. Listening draws me into a contemplative, reflexive space beyond a sticky note on my office desk saying “OWS: teachable moment.” I can see a map with big, red OWS circles over Washington D.C. and New York, but I don’t feel the distance from myself and my students in the same way—and this is crucial for my teaching and engaging them in dialogue about what could be the most significant social movements of their lifetimes.

*Even though OSD punctuates it “debtors’ pledge,” I believe it should be debtor’s pledge  because it is a pledge an individual, not group, makes. However, here I defer to the original.
Featured image by Flickr User  Sasha Y. Kimel
D. Travers Scott is Director of Graduate Studies and Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Clemson University in South Carolina. He researches cultural and historic studies of new media, communication technologies, gender, and sexuality, often drawing on feminist and sound studies perspectives. Recent publications include a chapter in The First Time I Heard Joy Division/New Order and “Intimacy Threats and Intersubjective Users: Telephone Training Films, 1927–1962,” in the sound studies issue of American Quarterly(book version forthcoming). Current projects include co-editing with Devon Powers a special issue of the International Journal of Communication on critical historiography and revising his book manuscript, Sick: Constructing Users in Pathological Technoculture, under review with NYU Press. His former lives include advertising executive, novelist, and performance artist. You can find him at http://oneofthesethings.blogspot.com/

Norman Corwin: Radio at the Intersection of Art and Commerce

Editor’s Note: Today, Shawn VanCour continues our summer series “Tune In to the Past,” which explores the life and legacy of radio broadcaster Norman Lewis Corwin, the “poet laureate of radio” who died last summer at the age of 101.   Sounding Out!‘s three-part exploration of his legacy by radio scholars Neil Verma (June), VanCour (July), and Alex Russo (August) not only gives Corwin’s work new life (and critique), but also speaks to the growing vitality of radio studies itself. And now, a word from our sponsor, Shawn VanCour.–JSA

An experiment in radio is something nobody ever tries except strange people with a funny look. Good businessmen know better than to try experiments . . . . on account of you can’t play too safe when it comes to trying out new things.

–Unaired passage from script for “Radio Primer,” Twenty-Six by Corwin, May 4, 1941

The story of Norman Corwin is by now a familiar one: joining such illustrious figures as Irving Reis, William Robson, and Orson Welles, Corwin led a new generation of sound artists in developing pioneering techniques of radio drama that exploited the medium’s potential as a “theater of the mind” and inaugurated the celebrated “Golden Age” of network broadcasting. In death as in life, Corwin has been much praised for these contributions, and for his signature style so eloquently analyzed by Neil Verma in the opening volley of this SO! series.

Advertising dollars spent on network radio programming from 1935-1948, based on data compiled in the 2002 edition of Christopher Sterling and John Kittross’s Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting. Advertiser investment climbed sharply, spurred by a corresponding growth in network affiliates.

However, as Erik Barnouw notes in his preface to LeRoy Bannerman’s biography of this broadcasting legend, Corwin’s story is also bound up with a larger economic history of radio, unfolding during a period of intensified growth in and controversy surrounding commercial broadcasting. From Corwin’s first show for CBS in 1938 to his last network broadcast in 1947, the percentage of affiliated stations in the country grew from 52 to 97, while investment by commercial advertisers more than doubled. To answer critics of commercialism and give its network signs of distinction, CBS dramatically increased its public service commitments (what David Goodman refers to as “radio’s civic ambition”), investing heavily in “sustaining” (unsponsored) shows that gave producers like Corwin room for unprecedented aesthetic experimentation.

This second, institutional dimension of Corwin’s story warrants further consideration. Observing the Marxist adage that history is made by individuals not in conditions of their own making, I propose that assessing Corwin’s legacy for radio and sound studies demands we attend not only to the what of that legacy–the techniques Corwin pioneered and programs he produced–but also to its how and why: the institutional context that spawned and encouraged these aesthetic innovations. How, in other words, did commercial concerns at the structural level shape and enable the rise of the “Corwinesque” as a viable mode of sonic expression? What peculiar set of economic relations undergirded these grand experiments in twentieth century sound art, and what lessons might this period offer for understanding creativity and aesthetic innovation in subsequent eras such as our own?

Sounds of Commerce

Corwin’s 1941 play, “A Soliloquy to Balance the Budget,” opened with the sounds of an adding machine and voice of a “soliloquist” tabulating the cost of each musical note and on-air gag. Such is the secret soundtrack of every broadcast since commercial radio’s inception, as one of the past century’s largest and most successful industries dedicated to the business of packaging and selling sounds for corporate profit.

Excerpt from script for “A Soliloquy to Balance the Budget,” broadcast on CBS’s Twenty-Six by Corwin series, June 15, 1941.

Rather than seeing the flowering of the Corwinesque as a brief but “golden” reprieve from an otherwise dark history of commercial mediocrity, I propose we use the case of Corwin to critically interrogate presumed antipathies between opposing forces of art and commerce in U.S. broadcasting, and seemingly intractable tensions between competing goals of public service and corporate profit. Might we see in Corwin, instead, an instance where concerns with profit margins in fact facilitated aesthetic innovation, and where goals of public service and commercial success entered into strategic (if temporary) alignment?

This perspective is by no means intended as a neoliberal apologia for the commercial system. Yet, at the same time, the modes of aesthetic experimentation in which Corwin engaged were never so antithetical to run-of-the-mill commercial forms as traditional histories have implied. Corwin contributed to both sustaining and commercial programs, and the techniques he developed were eagerly copied by radio ad-writers. Moreover, public service programming for CBS was no mere loss leader, but rather offered opportunities for financial profit both in its own right and as part of a larger system of coordinated transmedia flows. Listening for the sounds of commerce in these programs demands  a more sophisticated grasp of industry economics than the reductive binaries of traditional histories allow, beginning with an interrogation of the Romantic ideology of art on which those binaries rest.

Merita was a longtime sponsor of The Lone Ranger on radio and television beginning in 1938. Image by Flickr user Jeffrey.

De-Romanticizing Radio Art

Unlike other radio greats such as Robson and Welles who worked extensively on commercial series, what distinguishes Corwin in traditional accounts is his alignment with a protected sphere of noncommercial programming. Hired by CBS to work on sustaining series such as the Columbia Workshop, Corwin was celebrated by contemporaries like Richard Goggin as “pleasantly isolated from ‘commercial’ broadcasting,” with its “struggle for sales and maximum audiences” (63-4). His official biographer similarly praised him as an artist who “flourish[ed] in a freedom of ‘sustaining’ programming [that was] the hallmark of the Golden Age” and “refused to forsake this liberty for commercial earnings, although corporations clamored for his talent” (5).

Corwin himself directly contributed to this anti-corporate mythos. In a 1944 book on radio writing, he advised those aspiring to work in radio to “Do the opposite of what a sponsor or an agency executive tells you, if you want to write originally and creatively” (53), while including regular jabs at network and advertising executives in scripts for sustaining shows such as his “Radio Primer” or “Soliloquy to Balance the Budget.”  But by 1947, Bannerman explains, “the contest for higher ratings” had won out, and Corwin exited the network arena for greener pastures and a new job with the United Nations (10). In a 1951 article for The Writer, Corwin now recommended that “the writer who wants to do the best work in his power, in defiance of formula,” simply “forget radio,” and “until such time as [it] returns to a constructive attitude toward public service and the esthetic values in writing, look upon [it] as a trade outlet, not an art” (1, 3).

Opening lines of February 1951 essay by Corwin for The Writer, in which aspiring writers who wish to exercise their creative freedom are advised to “forget radio” and look elsewhere.

Setting aside the dubious merit of a narrative that denies any real aesthetic achievements for the 15 years preceding and 65 years following Corwin’s ten-year run in network radio–the apogee of a tragically brief “Golden Age”–we may recognize the conception of creativity espoused here as a distinctly Romantic one.  Within this view, so-called “true art” flouts the rules and formulas on which commercially driven mass art depends, and is pursued for purposes other than financial gain. This Romantic ideology of art has been repeatedly challenged, from earlier work by M. H. Abrams, to more recent critiques by Noel Carroll and R. Keith Sawyer. My own concern is not with its veracity per se, but rather with the historical exclusions needed to sustain its underlying binaries of art/commerce and public service/commercialism vis-à-vis the work of Norman Corwin. These exclusions (acts of forgetting on which remembrances of Corwin’s legacy are grounded) may be grouped into three basic categories: the selective operations of canon-formation, cross-fertilization of techniques in commercial and sustaining programming, and profitability of public service within the CBS business model.

Canon-Formation

The received view immediately works to remove Corwin from the sphere of commercial programming, marginalizing his contributions to sponsored series such as the Cresta Blanca Carnival—whose ad agency Corwin himself commended for checking the customary “fear of anything suggesting artistic endeavor” (402)—or Dupont’s Cavalcade of America, for which he wrote his “Ann Rutledge” play, better known from its later revival on the Columbia Workshop. So, too, does it single out among his many production credits a comparatively small list of broadcasts for which he wrote his own scripts, while limiting its purview to his radio works at the expense of his contributions to other media. (For a comprehensive list of Corwin’s creative works, including his many commercial film and television productions, see the appendix in this volume.) As with all processes of canon-formation–a crucial component of what Michel Foucault calls the “author-function”–bids for Corwin’s artistry thus entail a series of selective filtering operations. The totality of the individual’s creative labor is negated within a synecdochical logic of “best” works that renders the exceptional as typical and relegates the typical to the realm of historical oblivion. What other “Corwins” might further scrutiny reveal?

Cross-Fertilization

Efforts to preserve the purity of Corwin’s art by maintaining its opposition to and inherent tension with commercial broadcasting also ignore the extent to which the advertising industry itself embraced Corwin’s techniques. In 1942, trade magazine Broadcasting reported with much clamor Corwin’s acceptance of a bronze medal at New York’s Annual Advertising Awards Dinner, given to honor an “individual, who by contemporary service has added to the knowledge or technique of radio advertising” (22). Authors of popular radio writing manuals noted, in particular, the impact of Corwin’s technique of “choral speech,” which Barnouw in his 1945 Radio Drama in Action claimed was “so successful with listeners that . . . producers of dramatized commercials . . . [now] use [it] for spot announcements to sell soap flakes” (204-5).

Example of choral speech from script for episode of Corwin’s 1938-39 Words Without Music, reproduced in Barnouw’s 1939 Handbook of Radio Writing

Choral Speech in ad for Ajax household cleanser, late 1940s

https://soundstudies.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/ajax1.mp3

Omitted from later accounts, such lost tales of cross-fertilization suggest not simply blind spots in the received view, but a fundamental abnegation: the separation of art and commerce as much an achievement of historical memory as historical fact.

Profitability of Public Service

Positioning the art of Corwin in contradistinction to growing tendencies toward commercialism also ignores the tremendous profitability of public service programming within CBS’s business model, both in its own right and as part of a system of carefully coordinated, cross-platform media flows. As Barnouw notes in Vol. 2 his 1968 History of Broadcasting series, CBS ramped up its investment in sustaining programming during the 1930s as part of a race with NBC to attract affiliates and expand its national network. Whereas NBC charged affiliates for sustaining shows to defray production costs, CBS provided stations with sustaining programs at no charge in exchange for guaranteed carriage of its sponsored series. (NBC stations, by contrast, were given right of refusal for any sponsored shows they wished to opt out of.) For CBS, sustaining shows presented not a financial burden but a path to commercial profitability. Attracting stations eager for free “quality” programming, the network drew fresh revenue in membership fees for each new affiliate it added. Eager to capitalize on these expanded economies of scale and willing to pay the corresponding ad rates, sponsors in turn flocked to the network, giving CBS valuable new accounts and further revenue boosts.

Recognizing their economic value, CBS heavily promoted sustaining stars like Corwin as talented auteurs who represented the network at its best, while working to parlay their products across multiple media platforms. In a 1942 Broadcasting ad promoting Corwin’s newly published script collection, Thirteen by Corwin, the network highlighted his artistry while tracing its corporate signature into his own, reminding readers that these plays were “written and produced under the sponsorship of the Columbia Broadcasting System,” as a new “literature of the air . . . . [whose] first editions . . . [are] printed in decibels instead of type” (62-3).

Images of a well-oiled network publicity machine at work. Newspapers such as the New York Times frequently printed network-supplied publicity stills and promotional copy in their radio sections. Here’s a publicity still of Corwin with actor House Jameson preparing for the the “Soliloquy” episode of Twenty-Six by Corwin (6-15-41).

Publicity still of actors rehearsing for an encore presentation of Corwin’s critically acclaimed radio play, “Odyssey of Runyon Jones” (11-26-41).

Corwin’s 1945 VE-Day celebration, “On a Note of Triumph,” was released not only in print, but also on disc by Columbia Records, converting an otherwise ephemeral sustaining feature into a source of direct profit while advancing the larger Columbia brand.

Cover art for 1945 Columbia Records release of Corwin’s “On a Note of Triumph” – leveraging content across media platforms for increased profit potential.

Whether attracting new affiliates and sponsors, or offering opportunities to improve brand recognition and exploit ancillary markets, CBS’s public service programming thus operated not in opposition to commercial forces but rather in the service of the network’s larger bid for economic competitiveness.

Lessons for Radio and Sound Studies

My remarks here are not intended to impugn Corwin’s artistic integrity, nor to imply a lack of commitment to loftier civic goals by CBS executives. The question, again, is a structural one: within what institutional context do the forms of aesthetic expression associated with “the Corwinesque” become possible and desirable? Put simply, how and why, from a structural perspective, do innovations in radio and sound art occur, and what forms can they take under given conditions?

Such inquiries are ill-served by presuming ipso facto oppositions between art and commerce or public service and commercial profit. Indeed, while often resting uneasily together, in the American system they have been bedfellows from the very beginning. To presume, moreover, that aesthetic innovation demands a protected space of noncommercial programming, or that such a space inherently fosters meaningful alternatives to commercial fare, would be a mistake. Within the received view, the legacy of Norman Corwin can be read only as a tale of lament: the death of public service and triumph of commercialism over art. Instead, I suggest we critically interrogate both present and past alike: the “Golden Age” is gone and likely never was, while closer scrutiny of earlier or subsequent eras may reveal aesthetic and institutional complexities hitherto unsuspected.

In a historical moment characterized by an unprecedented proliferation of new media outlets and alternative distribution platforms, but also an extreme concentration of media ownership, can we chart a critical trajectory that avoids both the Scylla of knee-jerk anti-capitalism and Charybdis of hyberbolic neoliberal and techno-utopian praise?

Conflicting attitudes toward contemporary sound industries. User-generated images responding to the SodaHead.com post, “Is Hannah Montana a Tool of the Devil?”, offer excoriating views on the cultural effects of commercialization and conglomeration.

Meanwhile, popular books such as Start and Run Your Own Record Label celebrate opportunities for creative autonomy and aesthetic innovation afforded by niche marketing and digital distribution technologies.

The proper course, whether studying conditions and possibilities for sound art in Corwin’s era or our own, lies somewhere in between.

Featured Image Credit: Julia Eckel, Radio Broadcast, 1934, Courtesy of the American Art Museum. An idealized representation, it contains no scripts in hand, no call numbers on the microphone and, importantly, no sponsors’ symbols on the wall.

Shawn VanCour is a media historian and lecturer in Film and Media Studies at the University of South Carolina. He has published articles on radio music and sound style in early television, as well as essays on Rudolf Arnheim’s radio theory and the origins of American broadcasting archives. He is currently completing a book on production practices and aesthetic norms for early radio programming and pursuing work for a second project on the radio-television transition of the 1940s-1950s.

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