To conclude our Hysterical Sound series, we are pleased to present an excerpt from John Corbett, Terri Kapsalis and Danny Thompson’s performance of The Hysterical Alphabet.
Through this series we have explored a history of fetishizing women’s hysterical vocalizations with Gordon Sullivan’s post on Clayton Cubitt’s video work, and my post on Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film Hysteria and it’s relation to the “silence” of hysteria in medical history.
Today, Kapsalis gives us a piece in which “the ABCs are seized in a convulsive fit,” each letter of the alphabet serving to introduce some episode of the history of hysteria. Accompanied by the sound design of Corbett and Thompson’s visual collage, this performance of The Hysterical Alphabet offers a multi-sensory engagement with the past to “disprove the theory that time heals all wombs.”
SO! is grateful to the artists for sharing their work with us.
— Guest Editor Karly-Lynne Scott
Inspired by primary medical writings and actual case histories, “The Hysterical Alphabet” tracks the 4,000 year history of hysteria starting with A in ancient Egypt. First published as a book with text by Terri Kapsalis and drawings by Gina Litherland, it subsequently assumed a different form as a performance featuring video and live soundtrack. Terri Kapsalis (voice), John Corbett (sound), and Danny Thompson (video) performed the feature length piece from 2007-2012 in many different venues, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Emory University, RISD, Bates College, Clark University, and the University of Chicago. The video documentation included here excerpts the letters S, T, U, and V, which focus on the 19th century, moving into the 20th century, and were drawn from the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, S. Weir Mitchell, Jean-Martin Charcot, and Sigmund Freud, among others.
John Corbett (sound) is a writer, sound-artist, and curator. He is the co-director of the art gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey. In 2002, Corbett served as Artistic Director of JazzFest Berlin, and he co-curated the Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz & Improvised Music for nine years. He is the producer of the Unheard Music Series, an archival program dedicated to creative music issues and re- issues, and he is the author of Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein and Microgroove: Forays into Other Music. Corbett can be heard on a number of CDs including I’m Sick About My Hat and has brought his sound skills to two previous Theater Oobleck productions.
Terri Kapsalis’ (text/sound) writings have appeared in such publications as Short Fiction, The Baffler, Denver Quarterly, new formations, Public, and Lusitania. She is the author of Jane Addams’ Travel Medicine Kit, Hysterical Alphabet, and Public Privates: Performing Gynecology from Both Ends of the Speculum. Kapsalis is a founding member of Theater Oobleck, works as a health educator at Chicago Women’s Health Center, and teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Danny Thompson (video) is a founding member of Theater Oobleck, for which he has written (and performed in) 20 plays and solo performances, including Necessity, Big Tooth High-Tech Megatron vs. the Sockpuppet of Procrastination, and The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (Partially Burned) in a Dustbin in Paris Labeled “Never to be Performed. Never. Ever. Ever. Or I’ll Sue! I’ll Sue from the Grave!!! The latter was given the “Comedy Excellence Award” at the 2000 New York Fringe Festival, “Top Ten of the Fest” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, and extensively toured the U.K. and Ireland.
This is the fourth and final post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us. For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening, and, as Trevor Boffone prescribes, a much wider and more corporeal understanding of the practice that goes beyond an emphasis on the ear and even on sound itself. –Editor-in-Chief JS
As Kent, a Deaf man, stands on stage in Tamales de Puerco, signing his story of struggling and growing up in a hearing family, the only aural sounds in the theater come from the audience: the sounds of crying. Performed in English, Spanish, and American Sign Language (ASL), Tamales offers a glimpse into the seldom seen realities of life as a single mother to a Deaf child as it intersects with Latinidad. The play presents the story of Norma, a young mother who confronts her abusive husband and challenges a country that rejects and oppresses her as an undocumented immigrant. She overcomes the hardships of being Latina, undocumented, and having a Deaf child (Mauricio) without any support from her husband, her mother, and local and state institutions. Ultimately, Norma must negotiate cultural citizenship and notions of belonging to the Deaf Latin@ community so that her son can have more opportunities. The play uses—and calls attention to—silence as an essential building block in the process of constructing, remixing, and performing the complexities of Latin@ identity.
Listening to the silences in Latin@ theatre performance offers crucial insight into how the Latin@ population and Latinidad fit into the fabric of the United States in the 21st Century, as Marci R. McMahon notes in “Soundscapes of Narco Silence.” In Tamales, the staging of Deafness creates a particular kind of silence that promotes new listening strategies. What I find most compelling is how Deafness on stage–and the particular silences Deafness can create–opens up a space for what Steph Ceraso calls “multimodal listening,” listening as a full-bodied event not solely linked to the ears, but rather connected to “bodies, affects, behaviors, design, space, and aesthetics.” Calling attention to the body as it does, the silences in the play give weight to Kent’s story and affects the viewer beyond the limits of voiced acting by encouraging spectators to concentrate on the actors’ physical emotions and how actors’ bodies work to transmit messages without verbal cues. I argue Tamales promotes multimodal listening by forcing spectators to use their “Third Ear”—a mode of listening across domains of silence, sound, and the moving body—as a device to understand a seemingly silent world.
To do this, I engage with the playscript and recordings of the 2013 production of Mercedes Floresislas’s Tamales de Puerco at CASA 0101 Theater under Edward Padilla’s direction. While Floresislas’s script raised many complex issues surrounding the Deaf Latin@ community, Padilla’s staging focused on the intersections of Deafness and Latinidad by foregrounding the use of silence in the production. [Note: I use the capitalized versions of Deaf and Deafness. A standard dictionary definition of “deaf” represents one who is partially or unable to hear (deaf and hearing impaired are essentially interchangeable). Deaf with a capital D, however, refers to the community that self-identifies as belonging to the Deaf culture. Deafness, therefore, is a sign of health and prognosis of well-being among sign language dependent hearing-impaired people. Likewise, hearing versus Hearing represents a similar biological/cultural binary.]
In Hearing Difference: The Third Ear in Experimental, Deaf, and Multicultural Theater, one of the few studies to devote critical attention to Deaf theater as it relates to multicultural experience and identity, Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren introduces the “Third Ear,” a useful term that facilitates focusing one’s attention on the performative forms of expression. Blending sensory, spatial, and visual elements generates a Third Ear that acts as a “Deaf-gain,” a hybrid mode of hearing and coming to know the world. When specific senses are lost, the mind becomes dynamic in such a way that continues to allow affected individuals to actively engage with their surroundings, with their community. Deaf people, therefore, do not lack a vital sense, but rather they gain a new sense—one typically inaccessible to hearing individuals– that enables them to successfully navigate their surroundings. Kochhar-Lindgren’s work focuses attention on the “sense” of performance and the different movements that work together to form speech sensed by the “Third Ear.” For audience members, learning to perceive the mixing of forms together as communication is fundamental to understanding the messages presented on stage; inevitably, the Third Ear promotes auditory silence yet it establishes that a lack of sound does not necessarily correspond with a lack of understanding. By removing all sound, silence gains power.
The evocation of the Third Ear separates Tamales from the majority of Latin@ theater productions grounded in aural languages such as English, Spanish, and Spanglish. Deafness is seldom represented onstage in any type of theater, aside from revivals of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker and Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, more contemporary works such as Suzan Zeder’s Ware Trilogy and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, and the work of Deaf West Theatre in Hollywood, whose most recent production, Spring Awakening received rave reviews and will move Broadway in September 2015. The work of Deaf West has been of particular interest to Sound Studies scholars for its unique contributions to the American Theatre. In Cara Cardinale’s 2012 SO! post, she discusses Deaf West’s production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in which the roles were reversed. The production’s interpreters were for the hearing audience and, thus, sign language took center stage. Yet, all of these more well-known works focus on Anglo experiences, neglecting the specific intersectional challenges that Deaf people of color face such as limited access to state-funded resources such as counseling services, educational inequality and the achievement gap, not to mention that the majority of Deaf Latin@s do not have parents who can sign with them (re: effectively communicate).
The Third Ear, as evoked in Tamales, seems especially suited for representing Latin@ Deafness onstage and evoking a concomitant visceral understanding in audiences. Floresislas’s writing and Padilla’s direction work together to strategically allow audience members to develop a Third Ear at key moments in the play, enabling them to fill silences they might have otherwise perceived as gaps. Entering Tamales’ silent world not only compels hearing audiences to recognize their supposed privilege, but pushes toward a deeper understanding of the relativity of hearing-as-privilege. In a Deaf world, hearing is not a privilege, but rather one of many ways to come to know the world. In this regard, Tamales reiterates Liana Silva’s argument that “deafness complicates what it means to listen” by calling attention to the many non-auditory signals that are vital to the act.
In addition, Tamales deliberately fosters moments of uncomfortable silences that are one of the production’s strengths. For example, silence plays a key role in an early scene in which Norma decides to leave her abusive husband, Reynaldo. In this violent episode–either by a deafening blow or disassociation–everything in her world goes silent. While Reynaldo yells at her and throws things around the house, his voice fades out. However, as Norma sits in silence, she becomes better able to navigate her abusive marriage. Norma hears the silence. Her hypervigilance increases her ability to identify potential threat(s) and, ultimately, she takes her son and flees from the situation. While Norma taps into her Third Ear on stage, the audience also enters a silent world in which they must seek alternative methods to actively engage with the production. By “losing” their hearing along with Norma, the audience must pay a different kind of attention to her to gain an understanding of the scene.
Along with recognizing certain hearing privileges, listening with the Third Ear both connects and separates the audience. For instance, in the scene in which Norma attends an AA meeting for Deaf people, Padilla’s direction activates the Third Ear by removing sound from the stage. In the original playscript, Floresislas wanted Kent’s monologue to include a voice-over, but during rehearsals, Padilla saw the potential to foreground the silence in this scene (and throughout the piece, as well); his direction transformed the staging from an aural scene to a silent one. Listening with the Third Ear enables the audience to blend sensory and visual hearing in order to understand the emotional depth of the action transpiring on stage. As Kent stands in silence, signing his story about the difficulties of connecting with his hearing father, many in the audience were audibly moved. During Kent’s monologue, the actor remained silent while supertitles revealed his speech:
Yesterday, my father had a heart attack and I got called to his bedside at the hospital. I had not seen him for almost 15 years! I had never had a conversation with my father; yes, he was hearing and I was his only deaf child. (…) I always believed by dad hated me; nothing I did was ever good enough. He was always watching me and looking angry for everything I ever did or asked. I actually wished he’d ignore me like the rest of the family! (15)
Particularly gripping, this scene acts as a crucial building block in the necessity of creating opportunities for her son that drives Norma’s story forward, not to mention that it calls attention to the fact that reading isn’t necessarily a silent act. Kent’s story reveals much to a hearing audience who may be unfamiliar with the Deaf Latin@ community. Kent’s experience is typical of Deaf Latin@s, only 20% of whom have parents that can sign. It compels an understanding of the reasons why Norma learns ASL and pushes for a better life for her son. She does not want him to be in the same position that Kent finds himself in. And, she does not want to have the regret of having never learned to communicate with him. Kent continues:
Yesterday, he looked frail; he was paralyzed on one side. When he saw me, he moved his hand like this (brushes his left hand up the center of his chest then points at). At first, I didn’t understand what he was doing. But when he did it again, I understood. He said, “I’m proud of you.” Then he signed “I love you.” (…) My niece told me he had been learning ASL for the last 3 months because he wanted to tell me how sorry he was for not being able to talk to me. My dad didn’t hate me; he hated himself for not being able to talk to me! (…) But yesterday, I also had my first and last conversation with my dad he signed for me! That…makes me feel very proud! (15-16)
As Kent stands in silence, his emotional journey is given life through his hands and body. Interestingly, the silences enacted onstage by Tamales actually create sound, amplifying the sobbing that emanates from the audience in both its auditory and visual manifestations. The way in which silence allows the audiences’ sonic reactions to become part of the play itself suggests that how—and why–the audience responds may actually be more important than the performance itself. How much are the sobs about the heartbreaking nature of Kent’s story and how much of it is recognizing one’s own privileges? How much of it is the audience connecting with the story? How much of it is about seeing themselves represented? And how does silence amplify “listening” to Kent’s story?
While not exhaustive, my reading of Tamales widens the conversation about the intricacies of Deaf Latin@ performance. The 2013 production of Tamales best hints at the possibilities of Latin@ performance in Boyle Heights and how community-based theater companies such as CASA 0101 can work to provide more access to Deaf people, thus forging both an inclusive community and theater company. More plays featuring Deaf characters, incorporating Deaf actors, and Deaf dramatists are needed, something Floresislas is already exploring. Still, much research remains as to how Deaf Latinidad is heard and how this identity fits into a performance framework. Through multimodal listening, Tamales urges spectators to leave the theater considering how they may or may not alter their actions to better benefit underprivileged and underrepresented communities such as the Latin@ Deaf community. Quite frankly, Tamales opens the “eyes and ears” of audiences. Now is the time to listen to Deaf Latinidad. What will we choose to hear in the silence?
Still Images from Tamales de Puerco, permission courtesy of CASA 0101 Theatre. Featured Image: Olin Tonatiuh and Cristal Gonzalez in “Tamales De Puerco.” Photo by Ed Krieger.
Trevor Boffone is a Houston-based scholar, educator, dramaturge, and producer. He is a co-founder of Amaranto Productions and a member of the Latina/o Theatre Commons Steering Committee. Trevor is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston where he holds a Graduate Certificate in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. His dissertation, Performing Eastside Latinidad: Josefina López and Theater for Social Change in Boyle Heights, is a study of theater and performance in East Los Angeles, focusing primarily on Josefina López’s role as a playwright, mentor, and community leader. He has published and presented original research on Chicana Feminist Teatro, the body in performance, Deaf Latinidad, Queer Latinidad, as well as the theater of Adelina Anthony, Nilo Cruz, Virginia Grise, Josefina López, Cherríe Moraga, Monica Palacios, and Carmen Peláez. Trevor recently served as a Research Fellow at LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at the University of Texas at Austin for his project Bridging Women in Mexican-American Theater from Villalongín to Tafolla (1848-2014).
This is the second post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us. For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening, and, as Carlo Patrão shares today, an examination of sounds that disturb, annoy, and threaten our mental health and well being. –Editor-in-Chief JS
An important factor in coming to dislike certain sounds is the extent to which they are considered meaningful. The noise of the roaring sea, for example, is not far from white radio noise (…) We still seek meaning in nature and therefore the roaring of the sea is a blissful sound. Torben Sangild, The Aesthetics of Noise
When hearing bodily sounds, we often react with discomfort, irritation, or even shame. The sounds of the body remind us of its fallible and vulnerable nature, calling to mind French surgeon René Leriche’s statement that “health is life lived in the silence of the organs” (1936). The mind rests when the inner works of the body are forgotten. Socially, sounds coming from the organic functions of the body such as chewing, lip smacking, breathing, sniffling, coughing, sneezing or slurping are considered annoying and perceived as intrusions. A recent study by Trevor Cox suggests that our reactions of disgust towards sounds of bodily excretions and secretions may be socially-learned and vary according to whether it is considered acceptable or unacceptable to make such sounds in public.
However, for people suffering from a condition called Misophonia, these bodily sounds aren’t simply annoying, rather they become sudden triggers of aggressive impulses and involuntary fight or flight responses. Misophonia, meaning hatred of sound, is a chronic condition characterized by highly negative emotional responses to auditory triggers, which include repetitive and social sounds produced by another person, like hearing someone eating an apple, crunching chips, slurping on a soup spoon or even breathing.
The consequences of Misophonia can be very troublesome, leading to social isolation or the continuous avoidance of certain places and situations such as family dinners, the workplace and recreational activities like going to the cinema. While rate of occurrence of new cases of Misophonia in the population is still under investigation, the fast growing number of online communities gathered around the dislike of certain sounds may indicate that this condition is more common than previously thought.
But why do people with Misophonia feel such strong reactions to trigger sounds? This fundamental question remains up for debate. Some audiologists suggest these heightened emotional responses can be explained by hyperconnectivity between the auditory, limbic and autonomic nervous systems. However, we continue to lack a comprehensive theoretical model to understand Misophonia, as well as an effective treatment to help sufferers of Misophonia cope with intrusive sound triggers.
The Art of Annoyance: is it possible to reframe misophonic trigger sounds as misophonic music?
Between 1966 and 1967, John Cage and Morton Feldman recorded four open-ended radio conversations, called Radio Happenings (WBAI, NYC). Among many topics, Feldman and Cage address the problem of being constantly intruded upon by unpleasant sounds. Feldman narrates his annoyance with the sounds blasted from several radios on a trip to the beach. Cage’s commentary on the growing annoyance of his friend reveals a shift of perception in dealing with unwanted sounds:
Well, you know how I adjusted to that problem of the radio in the environment (…) I simply made a piece using radios. Now, whenever I hear radios – even a single one, not just twelve at a time, as you must have heard on the beach, at least – I think, “Well, they’re just playing my piece.-– John Cage, Radio Happenings.
Cage proposes a remedy via appropriation of environmental intrusions. The negative emotional charge associated with them is neutralized. Sound intrusions no longer exist as absolute external entities trying to intrude their way in. They become part of the self. Ultimately, there are no sonic intrusions, as the entire field of sound is desirable for composition.
Cage’s immersive compositional anticipated an important strategy to build resilience towards aversive sound: exposure-based cognitive-behavioral therapy, which proposes a gradual immersion in trigger sounds. And I suggest we can mine the history of avant-garde practice to productively further the idea of immersion; in the realms of sound poetry, utterance based music, Fluxus events and many other sound art practices, bodily sounds have consistently been exalted as source of composition and performance. Much like Cage did with what he perceived as intrusive radio sounds, by performing chewing, coughs, slurps and hiccups, assembling snores and nose whistles, and singing the poetics of throat clearing, we may be able to elevate our body awareness and challenge the way we perceive unwanted sounds. In what follows, I sample these works with an ear toward misophonia, discussing their interventions in the often jarring world of everyday irritation.
As pointed out by Nancy Perloff, while the avant-garde progressively expanded to incorporate the entire scope of sound into composition, sound poetry followed a similar course by playing with the non-semantic proprieties of language and exploring new vocal techniques. The Russian avant-garde (zaum), the Italian futurists (parole in libertà) and the German Dada (Hugo Ball’s verse ohne Worte) built the foundations of a new oral hyper-expression of the body through moans, clicks, hisses, hums, whooshes, whizzes, spits, and breaths.
Henri Chopin, Les Pirouettes Vocales Pour Les Pirouettements Vocaux
Sound poets like Henri Chopin created uncanny sonic textures by only using ‘vocal micro-particles’, revealing a sounding body that can be violent and intrusive. François Dufrêne and Gil J Wolman brought forward more raw and glottal performances.
Bridging the gap between the Schwitter’s Dada-constructivism and a contemporary approach to sound poetry, Jaap Blonk’s inventive vocal performances cover a wide range of mouth sounds. In the same vein, Paul Dutton explores the limits of his voice, glottis, tongue, lips and nose as the medium for compositions — as can be heard on the record Mouth Pieces: Solo Soundsinging.
Paul Dutton, Lips Is, Mouth Pieces: Solo Soundsinging
Fluxus: Eat, Chew, Burp, Cough, Perform!
The Event is a metarealistic trigger: it makes the viewer’s or user’s experience special. (…) Rather than convey their own emotional world abstractly, Fluxus artists directed their audiences’ attention to concrete everyday stuff addressing aesthetic metareality in the broadest sense. Hannah Higgins, Fluxus Experience
The emergence of Fluxus is strongly linked to Cage’s 1957-59 class at New School for Social Research in NYC. George Bretch’s Event Score was one of the best known innovations to emerge from these classes. The Event Score was a performance technique drawn from short instructions that framed everyday life actions as minimal performances. Daily acts like chewing, coughing, licking, eating or preparing food were considered by themselves ready-made works of art. Many Fluxus artists such as Shigeko Kubota, Yoko Ono, Mieko Shiomi, and Alison Knowles saw these activities as forms of social music.
Also, Mieko Shiomi‘s Shadow Piece No. 3 calls attention to the sound of amplified mastication, while Philip Corner’s piece Carrot Chew Performance is solely centered in the activity of chewing a carrot.
Philip Corner, Carrot Chew Performance, Tellus #24
In Nivea Cream Piece (1962), Alison Knowles invites the performers to rub their hands with cream in front of a microphone, producing a deluge of squeezing sounds:
Alison Knowles – Nivea Cream Piece (1962) – for Oscar (Emmett) Williams
Coughing is a form of love.
In 1961, the Fluxus artist Yoko Ono composed a 32 minute, 31 second audio recording called Cough Piece, a precursor to her instruction Keep coughing a year (Grapefruit). In this recording, the sound of Ono’s cough emerges periodically from the indistinct background noise. The Cough Piece plays with the concept of time, prolonging the duration of an activity beyond what is considered socially acceptable. While listening to this piece, Yoko Ono brings us close to her body’s automatic reflexes, pulling back the veil of an indistinct inner turmoil. Coughing can be a bodily response to an irritating tickling feeling, troubled breathing, a sore throat or a reaction to foreign particles or microbes. In response, coughing is a way of clearing, a freeing re-flux of air, a way out. Coughing is a form of love.
Yoko Ono – Cough Piece
In the work The Ego and the Id (1923), Sigmund Freud stated that the ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations. The psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu expanded this idea by suggesting that early experiences of sound are crucial to consolidate the infant’s ego. The bath of sounds surrounding the child created by the parent’s voices and their soothing sounds provides a sonorous envelope or an audio-phonic skin that protects the child against ego-assailing noises and helps the creation of the first boundaries between the inside and the external world. The lack of a satisfactory sound envelope may compromise the development of a proper sense of self, leaving it vulnerable to invasions from outside.
It’s no surprise that conditions like Misophonia exist and are very common among us, considering how important our early exposure to sound is in building our sense of self and our sensory limits. For Misophonics, the everyday sounds we make without even thinking about them can be the source of a fractured and disruptive experience that we should not dismiss as the overreactions of a sensitive person. During the month we observe World Listening Day, our discourse usually praises the pleasures of listening and tends to focus on the sounds that soothe rather than annoy. However, conditions like Misophonia show us that there is much more that needs to be said on the subject of unpleasant sound experience. I can’t help but notice a disconnect between the vast exploration of annoying and irritating sounds in the avant-garde and the critical discourse in our sound communities that is dominated by the pleasures of listening. Cage’s call to embrace intrusive sounds urges us to consider all sounds regardless of where they fall on the spectrum of our emotions. For all of us who would consider ourselves philophonics, let’s create a critical discourse that addresses the struggles of listening as much as its pleasures.
Thanks to Jennifer Stoever for the thoughtful suggestions.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
In 1912, British physicist Edmund Fournier d’Albe built a device that he called the optophone, which converted light into tones. The first model—“the exploring optophone”—was meant to be a travel aid; it converted light into a sound of analogous intensity. A subsequent model, “the reading optophone,” scanned print using lamp-light separated into beams by a perforated disk. The pattern of light reflected back from a given character triggered a corresponding set of tones in a telephone receiver. d’Albe initially worked with 8 beams, producing 8 tones based on a diatonic scale. He settled on 5 notes: lower G, and then middle C, D, E and G. (Sol, do, re, mi, sol.) The optophone became known as a “musical print” machine. It was popularized by Mary Jameson, a blind student who achieved reading speeds of 60 words per minute.
In the field of media studies, the optophone has become renowned through its imaginary repurposings by a number of modernist artists. For one thing, the optophone finds brief mention in Finnegan’s Wake. In turn, Marshall McLuhan credited James Joyce’s novel for being a new medium, turning text into sound. In “New Media as Political Forms,” McLuhan says that Joyce’s own “optophone principle” releases us from “the metallic and rectilinear embrace of the printed page.” More familiar within media studies today, Dada artist Raoul Hausmann patented (London 1935), but did not successfully build, an optophone presumably inspired by d’Albe’s model, which he hoped would be employed in audiovisual performances. This optophone was meant to convert sound into light as well as the reverse. It was part of a broader contemporary impulse to produce color music and synaesthetic art. Hausmann also wrote optophonetic poetry, based on the sounds and rhythms of “pure phonemes” and non-linguistic noises. In response, Francis Picabia painted two optophone portraits in 1921 and 22. Optophone I, below, is composed of lines that might be sound waves, with a pattern that disorders vision.
Theorists have repeatedly located Hausmann’s device at the origin of new media. Authors in the Audiovisuology, Media Archaeology, and Beyond Art: A Third Culture anthologies credit Hausmann’s optophone with bringing-into-being cybernetics, digitization, the CD-ROM, audiovisual experiments in video art, and “primitive computers.” It seems to have escaped notice that d’Albe also used the optophone to create electrical music. In his book, The Moon Element, he writes:
d’Albe’s device is typically portrayed as a historical cul-de-sac, with few users and no real technical influence. Yet optophones continued to be designed for blind people throughout the twentieth century; at least one model has users even today. Musical print machines, or “direct translators,” co-existed with more complex OCR-devices—optical character recognizers that converted printed words into synthetic speech. Both types of reading machine contributed to today’s procedures for scanning and document digitization. Arguably, reading optophones intervened more profoundly into the order of print than did Hausmann’s synaesthetic machine: they not only translated between the senses, they introduced a new symbolic system by which to read. Like braille, later vibrating models proposed that the skin could also read.
In December 1922, the Optophone was brought to the United States from the United Kingdom for a demonstration before a number of educators who worked with blind children; only two schools ordered the device. Reading machine development accelerated in the U.S. around World War II. In his position as chair of the National Defense Research Committee, Vannevar Bush established a Committee on Sensory Devices in 1944, largely for the purpose of rehabilitating blind soldiers. The other options for reading—braille and Talking Books—were relatively scarce and had a high cost of production. Reading machines promised to give blind readers access to magazines and ephemeral print (recipes, signs, mail), which was arguably more important than access to books.
At RCA (Radio Corporation of America), the television innovator Vladimir Zworykin became involved with this project. Zworykin had visited Fournier d’Albe in London in the 19-teens and seen a demonstration of the optophone. Working with Les Flory and Winthrop Pike, Zworykin built an initial machine known as the A-2 that operated on the same principles, but used a different mechanism for scanning—an electric stylus, which was publicized as “the first pen that reads.” Following the trail of citations for RCA’s “Reading Aid for the Blind” patent (US 2420716A, filed 1944), it is clear that the “pen” became an aid in domains far afield from blindness. It was repurposed as an optical probe for measuring the oxygen content of blood (1958); an “optical system for facsimile scanners” (1972); and, in a patent awarded to Burroughs Corporation in 1964, a light gun. This gun, in turn, found its way into the handheld controls for the first home video game system, produced by Sanders Associates.
The A-2 optophone was tested on three blind research subjects, including ham radio enthusiast Joe Piechowski, who was more of a technical collaborator. According to the reports RCA submitted to the CSD, these readers were able to correlate the “chirping” or “tweeting” sounds of the machine with letters “at random with about eighty percent accuracy” after 60 hours of practice. Close spacing on a printed page made it difficult to differentiate between letters; readers also had difficulty moving the stylus at a steady pace and in a straight line. Piechowski achieved reading speeds of 20 words per minute, which RCA deemed too slow.
Attempts were made to incorporate “human factors” and create a more efficient tonal code, to reduce reading time as well as learning time and confusion between letters. One alternate auditory display was known as the compressed optophone. Rather than generate multiple tones or chords for a single printed letter, which was highly redundant and confusing to the ear, the compressed version identified only certain features of a printed letter: such as the presence of an ascender or descender. Below is a comparison between the tones of the original optophone and the compressed version, recorded by physicist Patrick Nye in 1965. The following eight lower case letters make up the source material: f, i, k, j, p, q, r, z.
Original record in the author’s possession. With thanks to Elaine Nye, who generously tracked down two of her personal copies at the author’s request. The second copy is now held at Haskins Laboratories.
Because of the seeming limitations of tonal reading, RCA engineers re-directed their research to add character recognition to the scanning process. This was controversial, direct translators like the optophone being perceived as too difficult because they required blind people to do something akin to learning to read print—learning a symbolic tonal or tactile code. At an earlier moment, braille had been critiqued on similar grounds; many in the blind community have argued that mainstream anxieties about braille sprang from its symbolic difference. Speed, moreover, is relative. Reading machine users protested that direct translators like the optophone were inexpensive to build and already available—why wait for the refinement of OCR and synthetic speech? Nevertheless, between November 1946 and May 1947, Zworykin, Flory, and Pike worked on a prototype “letter reading machine,” today widely considered to be the first successful example of optical character recognition (OCR). Before reliable synthetic speech, this device spelled out words letter by letter using tape recordings. The Letter-Reader was too massive and expensive for personal use, however. It also had an operating speed of 20 words per minute—thus it was hardly an improvement over the A-2 translator.
Haskins Laboratories, another affiliate of the Committee on Sensory Devices, began working on the reading machine problem around the same time, ultimately completing an enormous amount of research into synthetic speech and—as argued by Donald Shankweiler and Carol Fowler—the “speech code” itself. In the 1940s, before workable text-to-speech, researchers at Haskins wanted to determine whether tones or artificial phonemes (“speech-like speech”) were easier to read by ear. They developed a “machine dialect of English,” named wuhzi: “a transliteration of written English which preserved the phonetic patterns of the words.” An example can be played below. The eight source words are: With, Will, Were, From, Been, Have, This, That.
Original record in the author’s possession. From Patrick Nye, “An Investigation of Audio Outputs for a Reading Machine” (1965). With thanks to Elaine Nye.
Based on the results of tests with several human subjects, the Haskins researchers concluded that aural reading via speech-like sounds was necessarily faster than reading musical tones. Like the RCA engineers, they felt that a requirement of these machines should be a fast rate of reading. Minimally, they felt that reading speed should keep pace with rapid speech, at about 200 words per minute.
Funded by the Veterans Administration, members of Mauch Laboratories in Ohio worked on both musical optophones and spelled-speech recognition machines from the 1950s into the 1970s. One of their many devices, the Visotactor, was a direct-translator with vibro-tactile output for four fingers. Another, the Visotoner, was a portable nine-channel optophone. All of the Mauch machines were tested by Harvey Lauer, a technology transfer specialist for the Veterans Administration for over thirty years, himself blind. Below is an excerpt from a Visotoner demonstration, recorded by Lauer in 1971.
Visotoner demonstration. Original 7” open reel tape in author’s possession. With thanks to Harvey Lauer for sharing items from his impressive collection and for collaborating with the author over many years.
Later on the same tape, Lauer discusses using the Visotoner to read mail, identify currency, check over his own typing, and read printed charts or graphics. He achieved reading speeds of 40 words per minute with the device. Lauer has also told me that he prefers the sound of the Visotoner to that of other optophone models—he compares its sound to Debussy, or the music for dream sequences in films.
Mauch also developed a spelled speech OCR machine called the Cognodictor, which was similar to the RCA model but made use of synthetic speech. In the recording below, Lauer demonstrates this device by reading a print-out about IBM fonts. He simultaneously reads the document with the Visotoner, which reveals glitches in the Cognodictor’s spelling.
Original 7” open reel tape in the author’s possession. With thanks to Harvey Lauer.
In 1972, at the request of Lauer and other blind reading machine users, Mauch assembled a stereo-optophone with ten channels, called the Stereotoner. This device was distributed through the VA but never marketed, and most of the documentation exists in audio format, specifically in sets of training tapes that were made for blinded veterans who were the test subjects. Some promotional materials, such as the short video below, were recorded for sighted audiences—presumably teachers, rehabilitation specialists, or funding agencies.
Video courtesy of Harvey Lauer.
Mary Jameson corresponded with Lauer about the stereotoner, via tape and braille, in the 1970s. In the braille letter pictured below she comments, “I think that stereotoner signals are the clearest I have heard.”
In 1973, with the marketing of the Kurzweil Reader, funding for direct translation optophones ceased. The Kurzweil Reader was advertised as the first machine capable of multi-font OCR; it was made up of a digital computer and flatbed scanner and it could recognize a relatively large number of typefaces. Kurzweil recalls in his book The Age of Spiritual Machines that this technology quickly transferred to Lexis-Nexis as a way to retrieve information from scanned documents. As Lauer explained to me, the abandonment of optophones was a serious problem for people with print disabilities: the Kurzweil Readers were expensive ($10,000-$50,000 each); early models were not portable and were mostly purchased by libraries. Despite being advertised as omnifont readers, they could not in fact recognize most printed material. The very fact of captchas speaks to the continued failures of perfect character recognition by machines. And, as the “familiarization tapes” distributed to blind readers indicate, the early synthetic speech interface was not transparent—training was required to use the Kurzweil machines.
Original cassette in the author’s possession.
Lauer always felt that the ideal reading machine should have both talking OCR and direct-translation capabilities, the latter being used to get a sense of the non-text items on a printed page, or to “preview material and read unusual and degraded print.” Yet the long history of the optophone demonstrates that certain styles of decoding have been more easily naturalized than others—and symbols have increasingly been favored if they bear a close relation to conventional print or speech. Finally, as computers became widely available, the focus for blind readers shifted, as Lauer puts it, “from reading print to gaining access to computers.” Today, many electronic documents continue to be produced without OCR, and thus cannot be translated by screen readers; graphical displays and videos are largely inaccessible; and portable scanners are far from universal, leaving most “ephemeral” print still unreadable.
Mara Mills is an Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, working at the intersection of disability studies and media studies. She is currently completing a book titled On the Phone: Deafness and Communication Engineering. Articles from this project can be found in Social Text, differences, the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, and The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies. Her second book project, Print Disability and New Reading Formats, examines the reformatting of print over the course of the past century by blind and other print disabled readers, with a focus on Talking Books and electronic reading machines. This research is supported by NSF Award #1354297.