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Speaking American

This is something you just don’t hear about in the history books.

–Alex Hutchinson, Creative Director, Assassin’s Creed III

What does it mean to speak American?  According to Laura Amico, a teacher in the Cliffside Park school district in New Jersey, to speak American is the opposite of speaking Spanish.  As suggested by this video, captured by students via Snapchat before they walked out in protest, to be American is the same as to speak American. Evidently, to speak American is to speak English, a historical curiosity, given that English was not spoken on the North American continent until the 17th century, preceded by many Native American languages and, ironically, Spanish. In simplest terms, “American English” is not a homogenous dialect either.  What kind of “American English” does Laura Amico exalt as acceptable for patriotic conduct?  How does an American patriot speak?

Colonel Tarleton, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782, British National Gallery, CC license

In The Patriot (2000), Mel Gibson plays Benjamin Martin, a hero of the French and Indian War, who is forced out of his South Carolina plantation-managing life to avenge the deaths of his sons at the hands of the British during the American Revolution.  The main British villain of that film, the fictional Colonel Tavington,–played in sneering style by Jason Isaacs—is notable for his barbaric conduct (among other things, he traps civilians in a barn and burns them alive).  British audiences were noticeably aghast at this characterization, which implicitly compared British command of the time period to Nazi atrocities in World War II.  Tavington may in part have been based on Banastre Tarleton, a notorious and brutal, misogynist dragoon whose victory at Monck’s Corner was among the bloodiest battles in the dirty war fought in the south at the end of the Revolution, or Lord Rawdon, a serial rapist and generally unpleasant English officer.

Nevertheless, Tavington’s barn-burning exploits are more likely based on American General John Sullivan’s slash-and-burn campaign against British-allied Mohawks, Senecas, Onondagas, and Cayugas, a subject little discussed in American history.  This culminated in a 1782 massacre at Gnadenhutten in Ohio, where white Americans murdered 96 Delawares who had converted to the Moravian faith (pacifists).   Evidently, in The Patriot, the conflict was not a civil war, and character was constructed in part through dialect (as detailed below, dialect here refers to all the clues in the way a person speaks, not just his or her accent).

Although Tavington’s conduct in The Patriot manifested visibly onscreen, his dialect said much about him.  As noted in a recent Atlantic Monthly article, entertainment—such as Disney cartoons—can “take [bias] and pour concrete over it.”  Rosina Lippi-Green, a linguist, notes that such biases are then difficult to remove: “They etch it in.” Another linguist, Chi Luu, suggests that with English RP (see below), the effect is more subtle; such accents go beyond “pure evil” by shading villains as more educated and intelligent—but still bad.  Relating these findings to The Patriot, viewers understand Tavington as educated, intelligent, and evil through his English RP dialect; moreover, in black-and-white terms, his dialect makes tangible that he is completely different from the rough-and-ready, courageous Benjamin Martin.  An aural line is drawn between American “good guys” and British “bad guys.”  The British are fighting just to be sadistic or greedy; the Americans are fighting to defend their way of life.

Compared to media about other American conflicts, there has been little recent dramatic depiction of the American Revolution.  Historically, one reason dramatizations of the American Revolution have historically remained rare is the tradition of American reverence for the “Founding Fathers,” causing their depiction as human beings to be circumscribed.  Just as visual conventions have been built up regarding the antagonists of the conflict, so, too, have aural conventions in audio-visual representations such as a general use of a Standard North American accent for American (patriot) characters (whether they hail from northern or southern colonies) and English RP for all (villainous) British characters.  The effect of this is epitomized by the example from The Patriot above:  “good guys” versus “bad guys.”

While the way characters sound is important in most creative works—from the written dialect of Dickens’s characters to the chilling, mask-assisted tones of Darth Vader—it is no more so than in audio drama.  Richard J. Hand and Mary Traynor have argued in the The Radio Drama Handbook (2011) that the elements of audio drama are words, music, sound, and silence.  Arguably the most important of these to the audio drama are words.  Alan Beck’s work on radio acting further argues that to create character through words and sound, refinement of dialect is needed. In this context, dialect refers to more than just a regional pronunciation:  it includes details on a character’s geographical region, social class, gender, age, style, and subgroup.

In terms of The Patriot, probably the highest profile pop cultural depiction of the American Revolution until Hamilton, accents mattered.  “A well-educated British accent,” in American films at least, “had come to serve as a sufficient shorthand for villainy” as Glancy pointed out, or  “British, upper class, and a psychopath, happily burning people alive,” as a 2010 Daily Mail article put it.  Whatever his villainy, would a historical Colonel Tavington, have sounded the way he did as depicted in The Patriot?  How did those on the North American continent in the 18th century sound?

Richard Cullen Rath has convincingly argued that sound was incredibly important in colonial America, but what role did speech in English have?  David Crystal, in discussing the Globe Theatre’s 2004 production of Romeo and Juliet in original pronunciation (OP)/Early Modern English (EME), was most frequently asked one question:  how do we know?  How do we know what Shakespeare’s English sounded like?  For EME, spelling, contemporary accounts of the language, and the use of rhythms, rhymes, and puns illuminate this area.  Crystal noted that EME would not sound like any modern accent but would have the pronunciation of “rs” in common with “rural” accents, as in Ireland and the West Country (Somerset).

This is important because the association of Shakespeare with a certain kind of English accent—the RP referred to below—has long had the effect of making his works less accessible than they might have been.  If Shakespeare’s actual working dialect had more in common with “rural” accents like Irish and West Country, the latter of which is often still designated as a shorthand for stupidity in common with American southern dialect, this has a liberating effect on Shakespeare in performance.  It may sound “strange” at first, but it suggests that Shakespeare can/should be performed in a vernacular, at the very least to make it more accessible to a wide variety of audiences.

Crystal has suggested that, “It is unfortunately all too common to hear accents on stage or film in which—notwithstanding the best efforts of dialect coaches—accuracy and consistency throughout the performance leaves, shall we say, a little to be desired.” Sky 1’s recent big-budget effort in historical drama, Jamestown, set in 1619, is diverse and rich in dialect, with characters speaking with Irish, northern English, southern English, and Scottish accents—nor are they uniform in suggesting that one accent will signify the character’s goodness or badness (though it has to be said most of the southern English-speaking characters are, at the very least, antagonistic).   Most of the Native American characters have so far not spoken English rather than racist “Tonto talk,” and white English-speaking characters must speak Powhatan (or use sign language) in order to communicate.  As actor Jay Tavare points out, early Hollywood was not concerned with the accurate portrayal of indigenous languages, given that Navajo extras were most often used in Westerns (meaning the Diné language of the southwest was heard regardless of where the film was set). More recently, even such films as Dances with Wolves (1991), which has generally received praise for its accurate portrayal of Sioux/Lakota culture, included Lakota dialogue which was linguistically imprecise. Clearly, there is still a long way to go.

Suppose we decide we cannot ever know how such historical actors sounded, so we decide to depict 18th century English speakers based on other criteria.  How do directors, actors, and voice coaches bring the viewer/listener as close to the author’s intent as possible in fictional depictions of the years surrounding the American Revolution?  How is the 18th century made accessible through dialect?  As Glancy suggests above, British officers in film, television, and radio depictions of the American Revolution are most commonly associated with Received Pronunciation (RP), though the term was not coined until 1869, and, as Crystal points out, the “best speech” heard in the English court of the 16th century was “nothing like” RP.  In fact, it was probably influenced by the Devonshire accents of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh (an English so far in Jamestown associated with servants . . .).  As Edda Sharp and Jan Haydn Rowles point out in How to Do Standard English Accents, RP has almost disappeared in England, “now confined to a very small section of society, the older upper and upper middle classes, older actors and broadcasters.”

The officer class of the British Army in the 18th century was in fact largely composed of Scots (as per Stuart Reid and Paul Chappell)—though how much they retained their Scottish identity (including accent) is of course impossible to know.  As Kevin Phillips in 1775:  A Good Year for a Revolution points out, within England, support for the colonies during the American Revolution was generally strongest in the major cities and in the eastern and southern counties—the same places where during the Civil War, support had been strongest for Parliament and Cromwell.  Support in Scotland was limited to a small fringe.  By contrast, statistics from Revolutionary America 1763 to 1800: Almanacs of American Life on the ancestral origins of the white population of Virginia in 1790 make Scotch-Irish (11.7%) and Scottish (5.9%), the second-largest groups after English.  References to the Scottish officer class are made in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, where Colonel Munro is referred to as “the Scotsman” (played memorably in the Michael Mann film by Maurice Roëves).  Beal suggests that guides to “correct” pronunciation in the 18th century were often written by and for Scots—to pass as “British.”  The Scottish people have had a long history of wishing to disassociate themselves from rule by the English (as evident in the 2014 Scottish Referendum).  The Wars of Scottish Independence in the 13th and 14th centuries were fought between English and Scottish forces, at the conclusion of which Scotland retained its status as an independent state. However, in 1707, the Act of Union unified England and Scotland under one government.

With these many regional British accents potentially to be heard in the British Army in America in the 18th century, and with approximately 92.2% of white colonists in Virginia hailing from the British Isles in 1790 (including England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales), it is perhaps curious that there has been so little variation in dialect in media depictions such as films, TV, and radio.  Traditionally, for example, George Washington has been depicted with a Standard North American accent and not a modern southern American accent.   This is also true in the case of Colonial Williamsburg re-enactors.

Besides being generally a very sound depiction of the Revolutionary period, HBO’s John Adams (2008), based on David McCullough’s book, is also unusual as far as accents go.  John Adams gives the British King George III, played by Tom Hollander, Standard Neutral English, but it does something very unusual with its American characters.  Virginian characters (including Washington and Jefferson) have suspiciously Somerset-sounding accents.  John Adams introduces a clear regionalism in Anglo-American accents that goes beyond the singling out of the Boston accent (which is generally personified in John Adams himself).  It isn’t clear why this decision is made; the accent does not belong exclusively to Virginian characters, as it is also the accent of Benjamin Franklin, proudly Pennsylvanian, and Alexander Hamilton himself.  Is the shorthand present to aurally distinguish between Loyalists, and American rebels?  What affinity, one might ask, does the Somerset accent have with a depiction of the American character?

Standard North American speech is rhotic (people who say an ‘R’ whenever it is written), as is the Somerset accent (and, as Ben Zimmer explains, was associated with country speech in England from the 17th century).  This contrasts with Neutral Standard English Accent, which is non-rhotic (people who only say an ‘R’ if there is a vowel sound spoken after it).  Perhaps the filmmakers had in mind the best guesses about how “proper” Anglophones spoke in the 18th century, as in John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791), where he normatively condemns rhotic English.  Then again, perhaps it is merely a storytelling expedient; look at the actors assembled to play Founding Fathers:

  • Washington – David Morse, American, born in Massachusetts
  • Jefferson – Richard Dillane, born in London
  • Hamilton – Rufus Sewell, born in southern England of Welsh and Australian parents
  • Franklin – Tom Wilkinson, born in Leeds, grew up in Canada
  • Sam Adams – Danny Huston, American, born in Rome

Standardization may have made practical sense, but the use of the rhotic sends a subtly different message than North American Standard English, and perhaps hints at the influence of David Crystal’s work on OP/EME.

First page of Noah Webster’s Compendious Dictionary (1806)

Even among linguists, North American 18th century English has not been examined to the extent that EME has, with Beal going no further than to suggest “the contact between the various regional dialects of the English-speaking colonists and the languages of the Native Americans and of other European colonists” would have influenced pronunciation, but she is not conclusive as to what extent.  Noah Webster in 1789 envisioned “a language in North America, as different from the future language of England, as the modern Dutch, Danish and Swedish are from the German or from one another” (cited in Mühleisen).  From the beginning, too, American fiction was concerned with pronunciations, with Cooper sensitive to those which “disclosed class or origins,” as Schachterle noted.  The word “Americanism,” in fact, was coined by John Witherspoon in 1781.  Its entry in Webster’s Compendious Dictionary (1806) is “a love of America and preference of her interest.”  As David Crystal points out, this was the first dictionary written in English to include words like butternut, caucus, checkers, chowder, constitutionality, hickory, opossum, skunk and succotash.  It was also the first dictionary to give now-familiar American spellings to words like color and defense.

It is probably not a surprise that many of the words above have their origins in Native American languages.  Black and Native voices (and use of dialect) are somewhat rare in media depictions of the Revolutionary period, notable exceptions being The Last of the Mohicans, with its heroes (“Hawkeye,” Uncas, and Chingachgook, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Eric Schweig, and Russell Means, respectively), as part of an extended, multi-racial family unit, speaking with a uniform Standard North American accent:

and Ubisoft’s smash video game, Assassin’s Creed III  (2012).

The hero of this Xbox/Playstation game is Connor/Ratohnhaké:ton (Noah Watts), half-British, half-Mohawk, who speaks Mohawk as well as English (again, no Tonto talk here), as taught by the project’s language consultant, Akwiratekha’ Martin.  However, again ignoring historical realities like the Sullivan campaign, the villains are British redcoats, echoing the storyline set up by The Patriot (Connor’s village is burned and his parents are killed by a British officer who sneers, “You are a nothing, living in the dirt like animals.”)  In a making-of featurette, the creators of Assassin’s Creed III note that it has more than two hours of “cinematics,” a concept that suggests that the game will be a more potent window into history for its users than film, television, radio, or books.  While it is positive that the game inaugurates a Native American action hero role model, it is disappointing that it recycles “the British are baddies” dialect trope.

In media like cartoons, video games, and audio drama, dialect supplies us with many clues about characters and what we should think and feel about them.  Class is still very much implicit in accents in Britain, and every time we open our mouths we display characteristics about ourselves, whether feigned or not.  When mass media-makers produce historical drama, they make choices.  Despite the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s “special relationship,” the “British are baddies” trope remains.  Its continued use and the future choices made by media-makers have much to say about Anglo-American relations and conventions in fiction today.

If, as suggested by several linguists identified in this article, children very quickly pick up conventions of who is “bad” via what they sound like, it behooves us to pay careful attention to the way mass media uses voices and what norms these establish, for listeners young and old.  Also, what accents filmmakers use for past accents may profoundly influence who can hear themselves as “American” in the present moment–one important reason why Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton resonated with contemporary audiences.  If teacher Laura Amico in the Cliffside Park school district in New Jersey has established that her pupils should “speak American,” what does this mean (besides the fact she expects them to speak English not Spanish)?  Should they, for example, speak like President Trump, who uses a New York Queens accent which, according to Jeff Guo, connotes “competence, aggressiveness and directness” despite the fact its speaker comes from a privileged background? As Guo suggests, the way we speak is at least as important as what we say. In response to reports that Trump mocked the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, by imitating his accent, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi published a statement saying, “Americans are not defined by their accents, but by their commitment to this nation’s values and ideals.” That, perhaps, is speaking American?

Featured Image: Arno Victor Dorian, Assassin’s Creed Unity: Leon Chiro Cosplay Art

With thanks to Kenneth Longden and Matthew Kilburn

Leslie McMurtry has a PhD in English (radio drama) and an MA in Creative and Media Writing from Swansea University.  Her work on audio drama has been published in The Journal of Popular Culture, The Journal of American Studies in Turkey, and Rádio-Leituras.  Her radio drama The Mesmerist was produced by Camino Real Productions in 2010, and she writes about audio drama at It’s Great to Be a Radio Maniac.

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The Idea (of an Idea) of North (Of the North): Glenn Gould’s Piece at 50


On December 28, 1967, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation debuted a radio piece by famed pianist Glenn Gould, titled The Idea of North. Opaque yet spacious, this experiment would become the first in a trio of ambient documentaries to be produced over the next decade. Each episode explores the theme of solitude from a different geographical vantage, co-implicating form and content; for, as Gould demonstrates, telegraphy had long since complicated isolation as a lifestyle. But Gould’s obsessive pursuit of this ideal produces a multiperspectival portrait of settler consciousness, at the same time as it thematizes and intervenes in its medium as a technical means of colonial expansion.

With an ear to Europe, these radio pieces were assembled after the fashion of major postwar developments in tape music and collage. Stylistically, The Idea of North seems conspicuously stricken with an anxiety of influence befitting of an incipient nationalism; for it was clearly Gould’s intent to furnish his avant-garde composition a local character. As to whether Gould meant to modernize Canadian content, or to Canadianize modern form, his approach presumes ambiguity, to make strange a standard broadcast format. In Gould’s hourlong intervention, the soothing probity of the professional narrator’s voice is edged out by so much overlapping and uncertain talk. While certain formal precedents for this collaged approach de-emphasize semantics in favour of timbral and or ‘purely musical’ characteristics of source sounds, Gould’s regionalist reply preserves the referentiality of each sound as recorded; if only to sublate them altogether in a narrative tapestry.

Would it have been uncomfortable for general interest listeners—a postulate from which proceeds the mandate of national radio, but who actually identifies with this mean temperament?—to encounter The Idea of North in 1967? At the time of the original broadcast, it had been more than three years since Gould’s last public performance, during which hiatus he had come to champion recording as a frontier, commending radio to his purposes. But where these compositions are concerned, Gould’s method of assembly sought to bewilder certain basic expectations of the medium, and moreover, the idiom, of public radio. In North of Empire (2009), Jody Berland extols the eclectic texture of a favourite radio drama; yet even as she praises its narrator for imbuing each of his characters with individual depth, her attention, she tells us, remains fixed on a voice “replete with storytelling pleasures and the sonic signature of the CBC.” The voice of radio itself is most salient; a guarantor of sense and place.


Gould’s Solitude Trilogy evokes three differently isolated places; the Northern territories, a Newfoundland fishing village, and a Mennonite community on the prairies. The first-person accounts of each terrain that Gould collects are often contradictory, and left alone; for any commentary would thwart the sought-after intimacy of the vignette. Each is a sampleyet none an apt synecdoche—of a nebulous “Canadian” identity. For this reason, Mark Kingwell suggests in his biography of Gould (2009) that Gould’s evocation of the fugue is a red herring, for his radio works defy the expectation of resolution that defines the form. As Kingwell notes, Gould himself uses a critical alter-ego to offer that “the real counterpoint is ideological, between the exercise of individual freedom and the ‘tremendously tyrannical force’” of the social, which one must overcome in order to gain from solitude. (131)

The Idea of North enacts a tussle with a landscape too variously vast to be interiorized as home. This fact appears an obstacle to any attempt to forge or describe a monolithic Canadian identity; so it is encouraging that Kingwell finds in Gould’s radio work a not-so-covert theme of hospitality, an openness to the “novelty of the unknown person” thrust upon one in an unknown clime. Even so, the North, cast as a contiguous and unfathomable neighbour-threshold, exists for the southerner Gould “to dream about, to spin tall tales about, and in the end, avoid.” In this regard, a reactive refusal of hospitality is geographized so as to obscure the political stakes.

Screen Capture from the CBC television adaptation of The Idea of North

To rethink Canadian identity on the model of hospitality is to name an obvious standard by which to flunk the extant state. Following the work of Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos in Indigenous Sovereignty and the Being of the Occupier (2014), one might suggest that hospitality requires a frank response to the question “where do you come from?” Any such self-accounting is specifically repressed in the conscience of the settler, and the romantic conception of North America as a vast wilderness, untrammelled and unpeopled prior to European influence, is an outcome and requirement of this repression. It is possible, and moreover desirable, to think the contrapuntal weft of voices comprising Gould’s radio play as a practice of hospitality; but first one must acknowledge the degree to which, after the means of its realization, this open narrative remains a one-sided overture.

According to Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book (1989), what operates behind the radio in its appeal to “a tremendous national ear” is an obscure sense of the absolute priority of the other to oneself. (21) As seen above, a latent dialogue haunts every monovocal broadcast. However, one should complicate the too-readily metaphysicalized trope of the other with reference to the specific preoccupancy of a specific space by specific people, rather than fetishize otherness as a philosophico-poetic model for the production of pleasurable moral quandaries. Gould’s radio play would suggest as much, if negatively.


The fascinating effect of radio, R. Murray Schafer observes in The Soundscape (1994), has to do with the manner in which “broadcasting is separated into independent information channels so that the confusion of simultaneity, so often present in the soundscape at large, is absent.” (234) This facilitates the “deliberate attempt to regulate the flow of information according to human responses and information-processing capabilities.” (ibid) In short, radio functions as a half-conversation, an analysis turned in on itself, facilitating fanaticism and transference. Its domineering guise is the voice on which Berland fixates above, a sonic signature eliding content.

Glenn Gould publicity photo for The Idea of North, courtesy of Canada’s BiblioArchives/ LibraryArchives

Gould bewilders this unitary vision, insisting upon crowded conditions, interruption and subjective chafe. In this regard, his programme is not only contrapuntal, as argued by Kingwell, but enacts a spatial intervention directly analogous to those undertaken in modern music. Schafer explains that the radio technician must account for perspective. The technician, he writes, conceives of the sound-scene in three main parts—the Immediate, the Support, and the Background—the interaction of which permits the listener to hierarchicalize and excerpt information. “The three-stage plan of the radio technician corresponds precisely to the classical layout of the orchestral score with soloist, concertino group and tutti accompaniment.” (234) Gould, after the fashion of his maverick performances, which involved a kind of escalating competition between the orchestra and the soloist, revels in conditions of uncertainty as to which features of the soundscape are ground and which are figure. At crowded moments, the determination of semantic signal and ambient support, is at the listener’s discretion.

“I was fascinated by the country as such,” The Idea of North begins; and this abstraction collapses back into the desire that it originates, for the speaker’s geographical cathexis manifests a country from above, a mottled sublime: “I felt that I was almost part of that country, part of that peaceful surrounding, and I wished that it would never end.” The “almost” of this encounter is Gould’s theme. One speaker contradicts himself in tracing the evasiveness of an imaginary terrain: “I can’t conceive of anyone being in close touch with the North, whether he lived there all the time or simply traveled it month after month, year after year. I can’t conceive of such a person being really untouched by the North for the rest of his life.” By this conflicted account, one can neither touch, nor remain untouched by, this terrain. That the idea of the North will never coincide with any terrain seems logically apparent; for the object under discussion is designated by a cardinal direction, an expression of spatial relation. One must be south of North to perceive it as such: the idea would be necessarily southern.

Gould frequently qualified his vantage over the course of his life: his composition was ineluctably nostalgic, shaped by southern biases, and so on. This modesty is itself a token of mandatory modernity, mediated by professional politesse. But the work largely concerns the composer’s own difficulty before intransigent material. “It’s not da gold, it’s de finding da gold,” one speaker quotes in order to affirm his own designs upon the landscape, and the phatic article before the questing verb suggests a more salient problem of definition: “I think the North is process,” the ruminant continues, without specifying the (innocent or sordid) processes in which one’s fantasy may be enrolled. “North is multiple, shifting, elastic,” Sherrill Grace writes in her book, Canada and the Idea of North (2007), suggesting that Canadians can change their ideas of this destination, in spite, or because, of their unseemly and persistent attachment to myriad partial representations. (17)

Screen Capture from the CBC television adaptation of The Idea of North

In 1967, however, Gould’s panel reproduces a paternalistic depiction of the territories and their denizens. “Considering a place romantic means that one doesn’t know too much about it,” our first speaker opines, professing helplessness before communities she had intended to rescue. At this telling point in the collaged “discussion,” which evades a certain burden of representation by evacuating the narrative center, a pointed racism crests, albeit in a version intended to ambiguate pernicious stereotypes by distributing them across so many unreliable voices. But the denominator of this chorus is all too Canadian. However multiple, the voices that were selected to depict a democratic and multi-perspectival clamor did not have the least moral difficulty ruling upon the communities that they encountered in pursuit of their own obscure desires.


Grace titles the penultimate section of her book “The North Writes Back,” attempting a theory of Northern discourse to broadly refute colonial description. The voices presented here run counter to the documentary attempts of Glenn Gould, Pierre Berton, and so many others outlined in the first chapter, “Representing North.” Inuit artist Alootook Ipellie furnishes an epigram: “Let us put, without hesitation, a voice in the mouth of our silent mind.” (227) This rebukes the repeat characterization of (the idea of) North as a state of silence, vacancy, or isolation; and the secondhand zen of the willfully itinerant settler, determined to meditate unto epiphany upon any unassimilable strangeness. The silencing conditions to which Ipellie addresses himself may well be the din of interlopers and their presumptions, rather than the manifold soundscape of their common destination. To place voice in the mouth of mind is to reply to silencing conditions: the operative distinction between voice and mouth evokes a talk-back capacity implicit in receipt, if unrealized.

Artist and DJ Geronimo Inutiq’s 2015 work, ARCTICNOISE, commissioned by curators Britt Gallpen and Yasmin Nurming-Por, responds directly to Gould’s radio play. A multilingual, multimedia portrait of the sovereign voices of an irreducible North, Inutiq’s installation extends the discursive counterpoint of Gould’s composition, spanning platforms as well as perspectives. As Sydney Hart remarks in his essay, Reading Contrapuntally (2016), Inutiq’s formal extrapolation of Gould’s structure resonates with Edward Said’s musical thoughts on postcolonial literature and its plurality of voices. Contrapuntal reading entails a “simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts.” (62)

“ARCTICNOISE” Still from 2015 Installation, image by Trinity Square Video and imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival

In Inutiq’s installation, multiple video projections appear at cross-rhythms to each other, abstract digital art contrasting documentary interviews and archival footage. This juxtaposition aptly demonstrates the uneven contours of international development, mapped over the immersive course of Inutiq’s multipanoramic presentation. The context is combined and contradictory: resource extractive projects impelling settlers North, technological and military expansion into contested space during the Cold War, and a gallery-backed effort to create and claim Inuit artistic production, ready to market, as a national treasure, all play a part. These angles on the North are strategic abstractions, too; but to map them in simultaneity allows for a concerted, and concrete, critique.

Grace’s attempt to consolidate a “Northern” reply to a southern settler’s imaginary stalls upon qualification, as her ungrounded anthropology finds an innocuous “topographical and meteorological diversity” recapitulated at the highly localized level of attendant practice. By comparison, Inutiq’s ARCTICNOISE foregrounds interference in its very name. To call the multidiscursive clamour of the landscape ‘noise,’ an antecedent backing of any strong signal, is a totalizing gesture in the negative; at least where the transmissibility of identity to the state is concerned. In As We Have Always Done (2017), Nishinaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson cites nêhiyaw (Plains Cree) and Dene Suline scholar and artist Jarrett Martineau, describing Indigenous artistic practice as “noise to colonialism’s signal.” (198) This work, Simpson says, operates at an “elegant level of protection and disruption,” declining any susceptibility to a settler’s interception or interpretation, such as I cannot render here.

“ARCTICNOISE” Still from 2015 Installation, image by Trinity Square Video and imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival

This complicates the philosophical trope of counterpoint, which requires the horizontal elaboration of two or more mutually dependent themes, as well as their vertical separation in space for clarity. Settler colonialism and capitalism alike oversee any number of encroachments, such that this meaningful categorical distinction lapses into convolution. If Gould’s ideal is a melodically assured phraseology, each soloist empowered to give a self-account, Inutiq’s challenge restores a prerequisite space to the arrangement of voices. The additive model of liberal civics—the progressivist notion that we only need for more diversity of talk-for-trade—swaps the necessity of a collaborative space for more and greater time, in which span all will be forgiven. To visually recompose Gould’s ad hoc townhall, with greater geographical and cultural specificity, is a powerful reminder that the purposes of any settler-artist’s pilgrimage may coincide with a place of their choosing, but never essentially.


What does the radio voice shore in a Canadian context? Gould’s selective chorus is a demonstration of certain normative commitments, formally reiterative of an impasse of representation. The difficulties implicit in broadcast cannot simply be addressed at the level of more and authoritative voices, for it is not the radio voice that is the problem here so much as the body from which it is presumed to emanate.

Screen Capture from the CBC television adaptation of The Idea of North

“I am indeed a Northern listener then,” the Virgilian surveyor McLean proclaims late in the broadcast, “and the pity of it all is that I’m not always able to select what I want to hear. I hear what other people inflict upon me. You know, the noise, the noise of civilization and its discontents.” In this vulgarized Freudian remark, the speaker identifies ‘noise’ as a claustrophobic condition, from which one might escape. While Freud’s text details the aversive attempt by an individual ego to differentiate itself over-against bracing reality, Gould’s soloist attempts identification with a synthetic perspective straddling this opposition: “I do believe able to reflect on that selection makes you more than the mere analyst that most of us claim we are [. . .] in detaching and in reflecting and in listening I suppose I’m able to synthesize, to have these different rails meet in the infinity that is our conscious hope.” However multiply determined, this identification—of transportation infrastructure with a vastly collective desire—remains laudably materialist, emphasizing the production of heretofore unheardof proximities in space.

In heavy handed analogy to symphonic form, The Idea of North ends more or less where it began, generically elsewhere. The metaphorical journey by train concludes with the armchair philosophical pontifications of panelist W. V. MacLean, backed with a defamiliarized recording of Sibelius’ fifth symphony, which threatens at moments to swallow MacLean’s climactic speech. Paraphrasing William James, MacLean posits struggle against provisional alterity as a psychological necessity and subjective virtue. Today, he posits brazenly, “the moral equivalent of war is going North.” Gould concludes the piece with this bon mot, a surprise analogy that relies for its effect on the presumption that Canadian designs in this direction are more often peaceable than not. This is far from certain, and Gould’s finale reminds the listener that the vehicle of this idea is itself susceptible to weaponization, as radio develops in periods of conflict and conquest. Then the least technologically contingent aspect of Gould’s epochal docudrama would appear the most bizarre today—the desire to test one’s conflictual mettle in flight.

Screen Capture from the CBC television adaptation of The Idea of North


How these examples speak to today’s post-broadcast episteme would require another survey altogether. Surely today’s ideological counterpoint would sound far more dissonant, a disputatious and often collaborative din. But this idealized polyvocality may itself manifest a one-sided desire, a dialogic fantasy of which agenda national radio is but one diagram. Practical matters, of land and its capture, are obscured by this restaging of the stakes of colonialism as a conversation rather than an occupation.

A key theme of The Idea of North would be the practice and depiction of utopia for loners, but a counter-message sounds as clearly: that wherever one travels to find oneself, one is forever destined to find other people in their place. There are no definitive arrivals, and everything depends upon what happens next—on hospitality contra the arrogance of occupation. One historical staging of this quandary has been named “Canada,” and Gould’s mythopoetic play for voices is a crucial document of its becoming, flaws and all. As with any broadcast, it is up to each listener to imagine a possible reply.

Featured Image:Screen Capture from the CBC television adaptation of The Idea of North

CAM SCOTT is a poet, critic, and improvising non-musician from Winnipeg, Canada, Treaty One territory. He performs under the name Cold-catcher and writes in and out of Brooklyn. His visual suite, WRESTLERS, was released by Greying Ghost in 2017. 

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Unsettled Listening: Integrating Film and Place — Randolph Jordan

Unsettling the World Soundscape Project: Soundscapes of Canada and the Politics of Self-Recognition–Mitchell Akiyama

Becoming Sound: Tubitsinakukuru from Mt. Scott to Standing Rock–Dustin Tahmahkera

EPISODE 60: Standing Rock, Protest, Sound and Power–Marcella Earnest

The Firesign Theatre’s Wax Poetics: Overdub, Dissonance, and Narrative in the Age of Nixon

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The Firesign Theatre are the only group that can claim among its devoted fans both Thom Yorke and John Ashbery; who have an album in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress and also coined a phrase now used as a slogan by freeform giant WFMU; and whose albums were widely distributed by tape among U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, and then sampled by the most selective classic hip hop DJs, from Steinski and DJ Premier to J Dilla and Madlib.

Formed in 1966, they began their career improvising on Los Angeles’s Pacifica station KPFK, and went on to work in numerous media formats over their four-decade career. They are best known for a series of nine albums made for Columbia Records, records that remain unparalleled for their density, complexity, and sonic range. Realizing in an astonishing way the implications of the long playing record and the multi-track recording studio, the Firesign Theatre’s Columbia albums offer unusually fertile ground for bringing techniques of literary analysis to bear upon the fields of sound and media studies (and vice versa). This is a strategy that aims to reveal the forms of political consciousness that crafted the records, as well as the politics of the once-common listening practices binding together the disparate audiences I have just named. It is no accident that the associative and referential politics of the sample in “golden age” hip hop would have recognized a similar politics of reference and association in Firesign Theatre’s sound work, in particular in the group’s pioneering use of language, time, and space.

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The Firesign Theatre (wall of cables): John Rose, Image courtesy of author

The Firesign Theatre is typically understood as a comedy act from the era of “head music” — elaborate album-oriented sounds that solicited concerted, often collective and repeated, listening typically under the influence of drugs. But it may be better to understand their work as attempting to devise a future for literary writing that would be unbound from the printed page and engaged with the emergent recording technologies of the day. In this way, they may have crafted a practice more radical, but less recognizable, than that of poets —such as Allen Ginsberg or David Antin, both of whose work Firesign read on the air — who were also experimenting with writing on tape during these years (see Michael Davidson’s Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word, in particular 196-224). Because their work circulated almost exclusively on vinyl (secondarily on tape), it encouraged a kind of reading (in the strictest sense) with the ears; the fact that their work was distributed through the networks of popular music may also have implications for the way we understand past communities of music listeners as well.

The period of Firesign’s contract (1967-1975) with the world’s largest record company parallels exactly the recording industry’s relocation from New York to Los Angeles, the development of multitrack studios which made the overdub the dominant technique for recording pop music, and the rise of the LP as a medium in its own right, a format that rewarded, and in Firesign’s case required, repeated listening. These were all factors the Firesign Theatre uniquely exploited. Giving attention to the musicality of the group’s work, Jacob Smith has shown (in an excellent short discussion in Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures that is to date the only academic study of Firesign) how the group’s attention to the expansion of television, and in particular the new practice of channel-surfing, provided both a thematic and a formal focus for the group’s work: “Firesign […] uses channel surfing as the sonic equivalent of parallel editing, a kind of horizontal or melodic layering in which different themes are woven in and out of prominence until they finally merge. Firesign also adds vertical layers to the narrative in a manner analogous to musical harmony or multiple planes of cinematic superimposition” (181). But more remains to be said not only about the effect of the Firesign Theatre’s work, but about its carefully wrought semantics, in particular the way the “horizontal” and “vertical” layers that Smith identifies were used as ways of revealing the mutually implicated regimes of politics, culture, and media in the Vietnam era — at the very moment when the explosion of those media was otherwise working to disassociate those fields.

The group’s third album, Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers is typically understood as their first extended meditation on the cultural phenomenology of television. Throughout the record, though there is much else going on, two pastiches of 1950s genre movies (High School Madness and a war film called Parallel Hell!) stream intermittently, as if through a single channel-surfing television set. The films coincide in two superimposed courtroom scenes that include all the principal characters from both films. By interpenetrating the school and the war, the record names without naming the killing of four students at Kent State and two students at Jackson State University, two events that occurred eleven days apart in May 1970 while the group was writing and recording in Los Angeles. Until this point rationalized by the framing fiction of a principal character watching both films on television, the interpenetration of the narratives is resolvable within the album’s diegesis—the master plot that accounts for and rationalizes every discrete gesture and event—only as a representation of that character’s having fallen asleep and dreaming the films together, a narrative sleight of hand that would testify to the group’s comprehension of literary modernism and the avant-garde.

The question of what may “cause” the interpenetration of the films is of interest, but the Firesign Theatre did not always require justification to elicit the most outrageous representational shifts of space (as well as of medium and persona). What is of more interest is the way rationalized space — the space implied by the “audioposition” of classic radio drama, as theorized by Neil Verma in Theater of the Mind— could be de-emphasized or even abandoned in favor of what might instead be called analytic space, an aural fiction in which the institutions of war and school can be understood as simultaneous and coterminous, and which more broadly represents the political corruptions of the Nixon administration by means of formal and generic corruption that is the hallmark of the Firesign Theatre’s approach to media (35-38).

While the techniques that produce this analytic soundscape bear some resemblance to what Verma terms the “kaleidosonic style” pioneered by radio producer Norman Corwin in the 1940s — in which the listener is moved “from place to place, experiencing shallow scenes as if from a series of fixed apertures” — even this very brief sketch indicates how radically the Firesign Theatre explored, deepened, and multiplied Corwin’s techniques in order to stage a more politically diagnostic and implicative mode of cultural interpretation. Firesign’s spaces, which are often of great depth, are rarely traversed arbitrarily; they are more typically experienced either in a relatively seamless flow (perspective and location shifting by means of an associative, critical or analytical, logic that the listener may discover), or are instead subsumed within regimes of media (a radio broadcast within a feature film which is broadcast on a television that is being watched by the primary character on the record album to which you are listening). According to either strategy the medium may be understood to be the message, but that message is one whose horizon is as critical as it is aesthetic.

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Firesign Theatre (pickup truck): John Rose, Image courtesy of author

The creation of what I am terming an analytic space was directly abetted by the technological advancement of recording studios, which underwent a period of profound transformation during the years of their Columbia contract, which spanned the year of The Beatles’s Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (arguably the world’s first concept album, recorded on four tracks) to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (arguably that band’s fourth concept album, recorded on 24 tracks). Pop music had for years availed itself of the possibilities of recording vocals and solos separately, or doubly, but the dominant convention was for such recordings to support the imagined conceit of a song being performed live. As studios’ technological advances increased the possibilities for multitracking, overdubbing, and mixing, pop recordings such as Sgt. Pepper and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) became more self-evidently untethered from the event of a live performance, actual or simulated. In the place of the long-dominant conceit of a recording’s indexical relation to a particular moment in time, pop music after the late 60s came increasingly to define and inhabit new conceptions of space, and especially time. Thus, when in 1970 Robert Christgau asserted that the Firesign Theatre “uses the recording studio at least as brilliantly as any rock group” (and awarding a very rare A+), he was remarking the degree to which distortions and experiments with time and space were if anything more radically available to narrative forms than they were to music.

The overdub made possible much more than the simple multiplication and manipulation of aural elements, it also added depth and richness to the soundfield. New possibilities of mixing, layering, and editing also revealed that the narrative representation of time, as well as spatial element I’ve just described, could be substantially reworked and given thematic meaning. In one knowing example, on 1969’s How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All, an accident with a time machine results in the duplication of each of the narrative’s major characters, who then fight or drink with each other.

This crisis of the unities is only averted when a pastiche of Franklin Delano Roosevelt interrupts the record’s fictional broadcast, announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and his decision to surrender to Japan. On a record released the year the United States began secret bombing in Cambodia, it is not only the phenomenological, but also the social and political, implications of this kind of technologically mediated writing that are striking: the overdub enables the formal representation of “duplicity” itself, with the gesture of surrender ironically but pointedly offered as the resolution to the present crisis in Southeast Asia.

To take seriously the Firesign Theatre’s experiments with medium, sound, and language may be a way of reviving techniques of writing — as well as recording, and of listening — that have surprisingly eroded, even as technological advances (cheaper microphones, modeling software, and programs from Audacity and Garage Band to Pro Tools and Ableton Live) have taken the conditions of production out of the exclusive purview of the major recording studios. In two recent essays in RadioDoc Review called “The Arts of Amnesia: The Case for Audio Drama Part One” and “Part Two,” Verma has surveyed the recent proliferation of audio drama in the field of podcasting, and urged artists to explore more deeply the practices and traditions of the past, fearing that contemporary aversion to “radio drama” risks “fall[ing] into a determinism that misses cross-fertilization and common experiment” (Part Two, 4). Meanwhile, Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett’s live performances from their excellent World According to Sound podcast are newly instantiating a form of collective and immersive listening that bears a resemblance to the practices that were dominant among Firesign Theatre listeners in the 1960s and 70s; this fall they are hosting listening events for Firesign records in San Francisco.

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The Firesign Theatre (mixing board): Bob & Robin Preston,  Image courtesy of  author

It is tempting to hope for a wider range of experimentation in the field of audio in the decade to come, one that either critically exploits or supersedes the hegemony of individualized listening emblematized by podcast apps and noise-cancelling headphones. But if the audio field instead remains governed by information-oriented podcasts, leavened by a subfield of relatively classical dramas like the very good first season of Homecoming, a return to the Firesign Theatre’s work can have methodological, historical, and theoretical value because it could help reveal how the experience of recorded sound had an altogether different political inflection in an earlier era. Thinking back to the remarkably heterogeneous set of Firesign Theatre fans with which I began, it is hard not to observe that the dominant era of the sample in hip hop is one where it was not the Walkman but the jambox — with its politics of contesting a shared social space through collective listening — was the primary apparatus of playback. However unwished- for, this determinist line of technological thinking would clarify the way media audiences are successively composed and decomposed, and show more clearly how, to use Nick Couldry’s words in “Liveness, ‘Reality,’ and the Mediated Habitus from Television to the Mobile Phone,” “the ‘habitus’ of contemporary societies is being transformed by mediation itself” (358).

Featured Image: The Firesign Theatre (ice cream baggage claim): John Rose, courtesy of author.

Jeremy Braddock is Associate Professor of English at Cornell University, where he specializes on the production and reception of modernist literature, media, and culture from the 1910s throughout the long twentieth century. His scholarship has examined the collective and institutional forms of twentieth-century authorship that are obscured by the romanticized figure of the individual artist. His book Collecting as Modernist Practic— a study of anthologies, archives, and private art collections — won the 2013 Modernist Studies Association book prize. Recent publications include a short essay considering the literary education of Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus and an essay on the Harlem reception of James Joyce’s Ulysses. He is currently working on a book on the Firesign Theatre.

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“Radio’s “Oblong Blur”: Notes on the Corwinesque”–Neil Verma

The New Wave: On Radio Arts in the UK–Magz Hall

This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground–Jacob Smith

“Happy Homes Have Gramophones” –Gender, Technology, and the Sonic Restaging of Community Before and After the Partition of Bengal

co-edited by Praseeda Gopinath and Monika Mehta

Our listening practices are discursively constructed. In the sonic landscape of India, in particular, the way in which we listen and what we hear are often normative, produced within hegemonic discourses of gender, class, caste, region, and sexuality. . . This forum, Gendered Soundscapes of India, offers snapshots of sound at sites of trans/national production, marketing, filmic and musical texts. Complementing these posts, the accompanying photographs offer glimpses of gendered community formation, homosociality, the pervasiveness of sound technology in India, and the discordant stratified soundscapes of the city. This series opens up for us the question of other contexts in India where sound, gender, and technology might intersect, but, more broadly, it demands that we consider how sound exists differently in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Afghanistan. How might we imagine a sonic framework and South Asia from these locations? —Guest Editors Praseeda Gopinath and Monika Mehta

For the full introduction to the forum, click here.

To read all of the posts in the forum, click here.

“She compelled respect at once by refusing on any account to be phonographed: perhaps she thought, amongst other things, that if she committed her soul to a broken piece of wax it might get broken…my subsequent experiences showed that it was only too likely,” wrote the British musicologist A.H. Fox-Strangways in 1910 about Indian female singer Chandra Prabha, while remarking on the harsh reactions to the gramophone in India (90).  Such deep-rooted discomfort with the gramophone speaks to the cognitive, perceptual and experiential challenges faced by a listener/performer when a new auditory technology substitutes familiar terrains of musical production.

In this post, I revisit the decades prior to and following the 1947 Partition of Bengal, a phase singularly volatile not only in India’s political but also its musical and technological histories.  I examine how the introduction of European harmony/polyphony in the aural imaginary of Bengal negotiates ideologies espoused by the nationalists in the (re)constitution of gendered space post-Partition by transforming relations of consumption. The production of gendered domesticity was vitally related to rigid conceptions of physical space and its allocation in colonial Bengal which, further, influenced music reception in ways worth probing.

The auditory regimes prior to the emergence of recording/radio-broadcast typified public modes of listening based on live performances engendering affective flows and presupposed human proximity. This culture of aurality is inextricably tied to communal modes of consumption and performance, be it the high-end salon-tradition of the Bengali modern song, the hard-hitting agitprop strains of the Bengal wing of the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) or even the stylized elite classical genres. The collective nature of musical practice conjures up traditional connotations of masculine spaces, especially in the case of the elite Bengali household where the gendered ideology of spatial orientation relegated the respectable Bengali woman (bhadramahila) to the interiors of the house (antahpur/andarmahal). The delights of salon-music were to be relished by the man of the house (babu).

‘Gramophone – a home entertainer’

Thus, the communitarian character of musical practice often made it elusive to respectable women. However, the emergence and subsequent sophistication of auditory technologies ushered a radical transformation to such a dynamic by dissociating music from the human performer. Besides leading to the obvious technological alienation in the listener, the privatization of the listening experience was accompanied by a condition of a penetrating solitude and interiority, a state speaking to the voices and /sounds emanating from the phonograph. At the sociological level, the entry of recording technology redefined long-held divisions of domestic space and the gendered dynamics thereof by not only democratizing musical consumption but also forging provisional collectivities of listeners often cutting across gender, class and caste. Besides, traditional associations of musical genres with specific loci- classical music with the salon/concert space for instance- gave way to a more fluid conception of domestic space assuming multiple sonic/musical identities depending on what the gramophone played. The phonographic interface, thus, radically reconfigures listening practices and produces a different paradigm of self, sound, community, and gender.

What is at stake here is not some covert form of linear technological determinism, but a more nuanced detour around auditory-technologies, spaces of consumption, and the affordances thereof that calibrate auditory experience along new registers. What merits contemplation is how (if at all) these technological innovations in the commercial arena complement and usher formal nuances and sonic innovations in the musical works they mediate. The gramophone renders problematic the uncritical conflation of the sonic and visual registers typical of live musical performance and, in the process, sets in motion a unique dynamic of interacting with musical sound. Severed from its visual footholds in live performance, phonographic sounds often provoke the listener to imagine the singing/performing body which, in turn, informs the way the sounds are processed mentally.

Vintage Gramophone spotted in Little India, Serangoon, Singapore, Image by Flickr User Linkway88, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Indian music has traditionally been based on a single melody which, in its skeletal grammar, is an individual mode of expression, even when performed by a group. The intrinsic form of Indian and traditional East Asian music in general exhibits a non-harmonic character. The concept of musical harmony proper is considered a European import. European harmony, polyphony, and counterpoint are in their very essences a set of disparate tonal registers forging a gestalt which impresses on the mind of the listener an overarching unity. At an experiential level, the polyphonic form embodies a distinct sonic ontology and a novel dimension, as it were, and thus cannot be reduced to merely a stylistic import. It induces a new auditory condition, a new register of being-in-listening (the lecture snippet from 57:08-.1:02:07 effectively demonstrates the morphing of the basic melody of a song into its polyphonic equivalent). The new auditory condition conjoins the familiarity of the melody with the markedly different yet complementing registers of the polyphony, creating a novel sensation for the uninitiated Bengali listener.

Among the very early records to employ musical polyphony in India were two iconic musical works of the mid-20th century, one devotional in intent– Aham Rudre from Mahishasurmardini (1931) composed by the legendary music director Pankaj Mullick–and the other, a professed experiment in introducing polyphony in Bengali music, Shurer Ei Jharna (1958), by the noted composer Salil Chowdhury.

In the current context, it is important to note how the sonic dimension of musical polyphony in Aham Rudre  and Shurer Ei Jharna embodies and substitutes notions of aural communities and restages a communitarian character. Notably, the creation and circulation of these works paralleled the establishment of commercial state-radio in India (1930) and the first microgroove record in Kolkata in 1958 by the Gramophone Company.

The Gramophone Company in Calcutta marketed its records with the Bengali tagline “Shukhi Grihokon Shobhe Gramophone/Happy Homes Have Gramophones,” projecting the phonograph as the symbolic ideal of the domestic idyll and in the process confronting gendered spatial demarcations head-on by invading the auditory horizons of the secluded Bengali women. The striking presence of the gramophone in the iconic Gramophone Scene (1:35:17-1:35:28) in Satyajit Ray’s movie Ghare Baire–set in the backdrop of the 1905 Partition of Bengal–beautifully illustrates the sorority forged by the gramophone which, notably, draws even the marginalized widow Bouthan within its field of influence.

However, the gramophone superseded its commodity-character to serve not only in crass exhibitionism but also as an index of a masculine, elite consumerist culture where “serious music” and musical connoisseurship often became synonymous with the gramophone and recorded sound. A new breed of “record-collectors” came into existence, mainly belonging to the upwardly-mobile/elite classes whose passion for records was their most prominent identity-marker in the domestic realm, occasionally outweighing even their professional concerns.

But even as the radio and phonograph transcended the hitherto gendered character of musical reception by entering the women’s quarters and dissolving time-honored segregations of auditory spaces within the household, it had to contend with a deep-seated psychological discomfort in the listener, a fundamental unease with befriending technology that substituted the human. I argue that the newly insulated character of the radiophonic auditory experience was counteracted by significant efforts, conscious or otherwise, at sonically restaging and reclaiming the community lost in technological mediation.

Indian farmers gathered to listen the Farm Forum programme broadcast by All India Radio in the 1950s, Image Courtesy of Flickr User Public Resources.Org, (CC BY 2.0)

Given pet notions of musical anthropology and the chronological coincidence between the early uses of harmony and the entry and sophistication of technologically mediated music in Bengal one could, at the risk of slight oversimplification, posit that the import of the harmonic form at this significant juncture sonically compensates the auditory solitude induced by radio/phonograph by recreating a modified and idealized Platonic (Platonic here is used as an allusion to ‘music of the spheres’ to point towards how musical harmony since medieval times has been associated with ideal public) community and restaging it within the confines of the constitutive plurality of the polyphonic mode. As an aside, the initial introduction of polyphony in Shurer Ei Jharna (1958) garnered flak from a large section of the audience who cognized it as a group of amateur performers ‘singing out of key’ (Salil Chowdhury’s lecture from 30:31-31:15). Over the next few decades, however, this form was  trans-culturated and seamlessly assimilated within the sonic vocabulary of the Bengali/Indian masses, so much so that without the regular vocal/instrumental counterpoint, commercial songs nowadays are often felt to be lacking hue.

The sonic changes that I have been investigating preceded or followed the Partition of Bengal, which informed the gendered patterns of popular musical consumption. It is well-known that the exigencies of the Partition proved emancipatory for women in that they were exposed to the vagaries of the workplace, leaving the confines of their quarters. It is with an often uncritical celebratory fervor that the Partition is credited with fashioning the independent, self-reliant and educated middle-class Bengali working woman, on occasion emerging as the sole bread-earner of the family. Jasodhara Bagchi says that the “partition accelerated the earlier trends of the twentieth century of abolishing the ‘purdah that had confined the Bengali bhadramahila to her antahpur (private quarters)…The same stroke that brought this flood of uprooted marginalised women to Calcutta also opened the door to many new opportunities for Bengali middle-class Hindu women. They came out of the private domain of domesticity and child rearing to take up public duties.’”(8) Uditi Sen, however, in her revisionist reading of the celebratory impulse argues that “situational aberrations” notwithstanding, the Partition did not lead to “a transformation of social norms or any substantive change of women’s ideal role within the bounds of the family.”(16)

In the aftermath of the Second World War, which had also witnessed the entry of women into the professional/public sphere, the USA launched a propaganda war to restore women to their hearth, revivifying the “cult of the housewife,” deploying films and popular music to promote the trope of the ideal housewife. Redefining domestic spaces as woman’s space had also been in the cards for the Indian state post-Partition, which had to a large extent been governed by patterns of popular media consumption. Arguably, the coincidental emergence of musical harmony and sophistication of private auditory technologies in the years following the Partition contributed to efforts to restore women to their private quarters, by compensating the lost professional community of the self-reliant working woman with the poetic/sonic community embodied by the polyphonic form, in the process enlivening her insipid lived quarters. Popular media technologies often employ innovation in content to revivify clichéd formats; musical harmony coupled with sophisticated audio-reproduction provides a classic instance of inaugurating a new sonic dimension in popular music which provides a powerful and enthralling form of domestic leisure.

Thus, in the context of early 20th century Bengal, the gramophone was a significant import which not only reconfigured perceptual registers and musical cultures but also listening practices by entering the interiors of elite Bengali households. Besides democratizing the listening experience, which till then had largely been restricted to male constituencies, the gramophone privatized musical consumption. It was through the introduction of musical polyphony, which is intrinsically ‘public/ communal’ as regards its sonic character, that this impulse was counteracted. As mentioned earlier, these technical/musical innovations widened the scope and impact of musical performance and arguably contributed to the reconstitution of gendered domestic space post-Partition which points to subtle and complex relations among technology, (musical) genre and gender.

Featured Image: Screen Capture from by SO! Ed. Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire

Ronit Ghosh is a postgraduate student at the Department of Art and Technology, Aalborg University, Denmark. His research interests include aesthetic philosophy, critical sound studies and the sociology of Indian popular music. He has published articles on sound studies in the International Journal on Stereo and Immersive Media and The Rupkatha Journal and has an article forthcoming in the Journal of Sonic Studies. He is a classical violinist and an aspiring music composer.

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Tape Hiss, Compression, and the Stubborn Materiality of Sonic Diaspora–Chris Chien

Pushing Play: What Makes the Portable Cassette Recorder Interesting?—Gustavus Stadler

Hearing “Media-Capitalism” in Egypt–Ziad Fahmy

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