Suddenly we heard a Tereng! tereng! teng! teng! We looked round, and now found the reason why the postilion had not been able to sound his horn: his tunes were frozen up in the horn, and came out now by thawing, plain enough, and much to the credit of the driver. —The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 1865
At the BBC Archive Centre in Perivale, London, the proverbial “weight of the past” becomes literal for researchers of sound history. Housed in a massive, unattractive hangar-like building in an industrial park to the northwest of London, the archives suit their environment, one which speaks of practical and solid shapes far more than the lyrical, dainty ivory tower. And by weight, I mean by serious, and sometimes dangerous, poundage: the very first machine created to record off of radio, invented around 1930, was a steel pedestal with bus wheel-sized reels on either side. Audio Coordinator of the BBC Archives, John Dell, explained that not only was this machine laborious to load, but it used magnetic steel tape as its recording surface, which could come free from the reels and lacerate incautious operators as it unspooled and bunched.
The weight of these objects, however, is also metaphoric. The earliest recording in my personal audio drama library, sourced off the invaluable Archive.org, is a 1933 episode of Front Page Drama, a dramatized version of an American Weekly Hearst publication. The past stands monumentally huge if this type of machine, the Marconi-Stille Wire Recorder, was the apparatus that allowed those 15 minutes of 1933 to be captured and, eventually, fed into my 2015 headphones as an MP3.
I listen to much of my audio drama, whether old and crackling like Front Page Drama, or new and podcast-y, while commuting, usually on the London Underground. The episode of Front Page Drama in question I heard during a marathon session when I knew very little could or would interrupt me: on an twelve-hour transatlantic plane ride. I quite like the audio-visual play between listening to audio drama that is new to me versus the familiar but never identical sights of the commute; as Primus Luta remarked in 2012, it’s rare for us to engage our full attention on the aural medium.
While listening to Front Page Drama and episodes of Lum and Abner on that flight, I had to wonder how I was prioritizing my listening time. Who had recorded these episodes from the 1930s? Who had later taken the trouble to digitize them and upload them to Archive.org? Why, for example, were these particular recordings freely available yet I couldn’t find an MP3 anywhere of texts I wanted to share more widely, such as Don Haworth’s On a Summer’s Day in a Garden (1975) or Angela Carter’s Come Unto These Yellow Sands (1978)? Both of these recordings are in the BBC back catalogue; I know, because the BBC supplied them to me—but only the basis of a visit to the archive.
Archive.org is bountiful and accessible, the Perivale archives much more exclusive, but both seem to lack curation. The only hope for accessing things like Haworth or Carter outside the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image Archives is that someday a rogue MP3 or BitTorrent will show up online. The archive does seem, in Neil Verma’s words, then, “transformed before dispersing in space, plucked from the air and mineralized like fossils” (Theater of the Mind, 227); like Primus Luta’s weighty but playful experiment, Schrödinger’s Cassette, which suspended music in concrete to be risked, or remain aurally untouched forever. This seems too often to be the impossible choice.
The BBC archive storage is eclectic and generally arranged for access by BBC staff rather than for researchers. The BBC Written Archives at Caversham are restricted to academics, and likewise, the speed of gaining access to sound files from Perivale is predicated on the amount of time BBC staff have to devote to it—naturally, the BBC’s own departments have priority, such as BBC Radio 4 Extra, the archival digital radio station, whose backlog of requests for digitised material from the Perivale archive apparently covers 20 pages. The sound collections consist of commercial recordings on shellac (90 RPM records) and vinyl (78 RPMs) as well as impressively dinner-plate sized compilation transcriptions which require a special turn-table on which to play and digitize them. The BBC Sheet Music archive is in Perivale, as well, with original handwritten scores filling shelves.
The second half of the British and Irish Sound Archives conference 2015 afforded a privileged glimpse of the archive storage and technical facilities housed on site. Most of my fellow attendees were archivists of one sort or another, asking detailed questions about transcription devices, fidelity, and storage. Having recently completed my PhD from Swansea University in English in radio drama, I had made countless requests to this very facility through the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image request service; now I, at long last, hoped to see where my digitised sound files were coming from. However, we weren’t shown any recordings made on tape cassette or CD but instead Betamax audio-only. Unseen, too, were the data banks holding all the digitised content, but what myself and my fellow archivists had mainly come to see were the tangible objects making this content possible.
In the physical copies of the Radio Times of the 1940s and ‘50s, also housed at the British Library at St Pancras (and now available, like all of the Radio Times up to 2009, on BBC Genome), there can be found a little asterisk in the listings for drama, which signifies that the drama was broadcast from a recording, rather than live. The later recording machines of the ‘30s through ‘50s, upon which these recordings would have been made, did not decrease appreciably in size, though perhaps in weight. “If I were to drop this,” Dell told us as he carefully handled a dark blue celluloid tube, about the size and circumference of a toilet paper roll, “it would bounce. I’m not going to drop it,” he added. Then the magic began: via a custom-made device, we heard a few bars of a music hall song from circa 1900. The recording was surprisingly clear. It was agonizing when Dell turned it off after only a few seconds.
There is something incredibly seductive about old recordings. In “The Recording that Never Wanted to Be Heard and Other Stories of Sonification,” from The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, Jonathan Sterne and Mitchell Akiyama question the desire for “sonification” of ever-older recordings, especially when such desires manifest in the creation of a digital sound file in 2008 for “the world’s oldest recording,” a phonoautogram from 1860, which was nevertheless never intended to be played back—the phonoautograph was intended as a device to make the aural visual (555). Radio drama writer Mike Walker really summed up the seduction of old recordings for me in his 2013 BBC Radio 4 ghost story The Edison Cylinders, with a character who is seduced as a scholar and as a participant in a time-traveling mystery by old recordings: a sound engineer in need of money, she agrees to digitize what seem like boring diary entries from a British imperialist, only to be intrigued by his Victorian domain beyond her rather empty modern existence. Unfortunately for her, these particular recordings are reaching beyond the grave to try to kill her.
Although they do reach out from the grave, most early sound recordings aren’t out to kill you. They do however, present common and vexing issues of authenticity. By this, I mean specifically the provenance of the recording—is the recording of who or what it says it is? On the first day of the conference, Dell regaled us with tales of two cylinder recordings surfacing in the mid-twentieth century, of William Gladstone giving a speech. The words of the speech were identical, but the voices were completely different. Who was the real Gladstone? How could you authenticate the voice of a dead person? Dell further deepened the mystery by telling us the tale of two boxes of wax cylinder recordings in the Perivale archive, whose provenance is torturously (and tantalizingly) unclear. We glimpsed these mysterious, yellow-cream-colored cylinders, somewhat wider and fatter than the celluloid tubes, in situ, but were they original Edison cylinders from the 1880s? The piercing desire to believe these cylinders might contain the voices of Gladstone, the future Edward VIII, or even Henry Irving, are potentially “perils of over-optimism,” as Dell puts it.
All the archivists at this event referred to the serendipity of discovering surprises on recordings. Simon Elmes, whose official title reads “Radio Documentarist, Creative Consultant, and Former Creative Director, BBC Radio Documentaries,” made this manifest as he discussed a subject treated in his documentary from 2005, Ambridge in the Decade of Love. The Archers—an exceptionally long-running BBC radio soap which conjures up visions of rural Englishness and persists among a very dedicated, though mostly older, fan base—like much radio drama and emblematic of gendered attitude toward radio soaps, was not recorded in its first few decades.
Likewise, anyone researching radio drama before the 1930s is playing a game of roulette; whether any scripts survive will depend entirely on the literary reputation of the author who may have had enough clout to publish them in book form. Even in the case of Lance Sieveking, the acknowledged creative aesthete behind early BBC radio drama, we lack concrete evidence of his most important work, The End of Savoy Hill (1932). And The Truth About Father Christmas (1923), the first original drama written specifically for British radio? Forget about it—it was made for children’s radio.
To return to The Archers, though daily 15-minute scripts were being churned out by Ted Kavanagh from the first years of the 1950s, the broadcasts themselves went missing into the ether (after all, no one suspected the show would still be going after sixty years). Transcription discs, meant for an overseas market, were found in a box in the BBC Archives, giving a reasonably complete overview of The Archers during the 1950s and ‘60s. Elmes was ebullient about this discovery.
While I got the general sense that the other archivists at the conference were amused but indifferent toward this particular trove, to me it was inspiring. I believe the future of audio drama will rely more and more on serials, so the rediscovery of these Archers episodes epitomizes to me the past, present, and future of audio drama in that it speaks of audience involvement and even audience interaction or co-production, which seems key for audio drama going forward, and the aspect of serialization which has vastly overtaken the single drama on television if not on radio.
Nevertheless, even if pursuit of these aural rainbows is a foolish one, such desire also enables scholarship. The hope of finding “originals” inspired me personally to discover the birth of what can conceivably called audio drama. Having researched audio drama from the first known broadcast dramas in English (the adaptations: 2LO London’s Five Birds in a Cage in 1922, WGY Schenectady’s The Wolf in 1922, British Broadcasting Company’s Twelfth Night in 1923; original drama: WLW Cincinnati’s When Love Awakens in 1923, British Broadcasting Company’s Danger in 1924), I was astounded to learn that listeners from World War I might have enjoyed short, dramatized stories on the celluloid tubes (according to Tim Crook, the first audio drama of this nature is a war drama from 1917). While archives such as the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project of the University of California at Santa Barbara care for these recordings in the same way they do for musical and speech recordings, there is a significant lack of scholarship on them.
If commentary on specific pre-radio audio drama is scarce, it is heartening to read dissections of the performative aspects of “actuality,” such as Brian Hanrahan’s anatomy of Gas Shell Bombardment, 1918. Wonderfully, in discussing the “staging” of this war-time recording, Hanrahan brings in traditions from theatre and silent film in addition to the phonograph. Professor David Hendy has persuasively argued that some of the organizing tenets behind the British Broadcasting Corporation, whose management was by and large made up of ex-soldiers, was predicated on a desire for silence and calm, ordered, managed sound after the cacophony of war. Perhaps “cylinder” drama, then, is not really of its time and properly belongs to earlier, or later, cultural milieux.
The ephemera of the medium presents a recurring problem in radio drama studies, a weighty feeling of doom. With the future of the BBC’s existence currently perilous, one wonders what the consequences will be for archives like those housed at Perivale. If the internal function of the archives (for the BBC to make use during Radio 4 Extra broadcasts, for example) disappears, will the archives be opened to wider use? Or will material without commercial potential simply be discarded? Who would make the decision as to what was commercially viable and how would they make such decisions?
And the problem with the medium seemingly begins with wax cylinders. A beautiful, lyrical story from Baron Munchausen—alias Rudolph Erich Raspe, a German author who created a fictional travel writer and chronic teller of tall tales based on a real nobleman infamous for his boasting—cited by many of those fascinated with sound recordings is worth repeating here: the Baron is traveling in Russia in a snowy landscape and desires the postilion to blow his horn to alert other travellers that their sleigh will be coming around the bend. Unfortunately, the cold makes the horn incapable of any audible sound. Disappointed, they make their way to an inn. Diedre Loughridge and Thomas Patteson cite the “Frozen Horn” from their online Museum of Imaginary Instruments: “After we arrived at the end inn, my postilion and I refreshed ourselves: he hung his horn on a peg near the kitchen fire; I sat on the other side.” Warmed by the fire, the horn now begins to play its reserved tunes.
With a little leap of the imagination, it’s not difficult to see the parallels with the reality of sound recording limitation. The wax cylinders could only be played a few times before the sound degrades completely. Tin cylinders are not much better. This is the reason why the two Gladstone voices could be both “real” and “fake.” Celluloid is more durable, yet witness the reluctance of Dell to play one for longer than a few seconds, for preservation reasons.
Sound recordings are only as good as the medium on which they are recorded, a fact that surprisingly holds true even today. We were told by our BBC hosts that discs of shellac, vinyl, and acetate whose contents have already been digitised will not be discarded—digital recordings are ultimately taken from these physical originals.
In the future, we might invent means of reproduction and playback which could provide more fidelity to the original event lifted from the physical recording, in which case it will be the MP3s that will be redundant. There’s something both very modern and very old-fashioned about this. Once at a dinner party, I launched full-force into my postdoctoral rant about the eventual possible degradation of the MP3 as a recording format, that it was not infallible as we had been led to believe. I was surprised that I was wholly believed; furthermore, the older people participating in the conversation rued the disappearance of their CDs, tape cassettes and, vitally, their LPs, for the oft-cited reasons (which Primus Luta distills as the pricelessness of old recordings to one’s personal history, and the “fuller” sound ans weighty materiality, one resonating with one’s emotional past).
I admit, before I came to the UK and experienced the never-perfect but always interesting presence of BBC Radio, I treated radio as a background medium. I suppose recorded sound had always interested me, and I had had a strong relationship with local, classical music radio (Classical KHFM Albuquerque). However, I could not have predicted ten years ago that I would become a passionate proponent of audio drama and sound studies more generally. I’m almost embarrassed now at my excessive love of audio drama; I make almost no distinctions between “high” art like Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard and fan fiction radio serials like Snape’s Diaries as produced by Misfits Audio: I listen to almost anything.
And, truly, the future of audio drama is only assured if people keep listening. The digitisation and availability of cylinder recordings makes study of them more accessible, so the way is paved for further studies of the earliest audio drama. It is imperative that researchers continue to request sound recordings from the BBC, even if they have to use the relatively inconvenient system currently available.
There are signs that things are improving and that more people than ever before want to access such materials. As Josh Shepperd puts it brilliantly, “Sound trails continue where paper trails end.” As Director of the Radio Preservation Task Force at the Library of Congress, his efforts have underlined the fact that often it is the local and the rural whose radio or audio history vanishes more quickly than the national or the metropolitan. This would historically be the case with the BBC as well, which for a long time privileged London sound above regionalism (and, some would argue, still does). Since 2015, the British Library (and the Heritage Lottery Fund) have invested significantly in the Save Our Sounds campaign, positing that within 15 years, worldwide sound recordings must be digitized before recordings degrade or we no longer have the means to play the material.
Out of curiosity, I downloaded the more than 600-page listing, the Directory of UK Sound Collections, assembled rather hastily through the Save Our Sounds project in 20 weeks, and comprising more than 3,000 collections and more than 1.9 million objects. This document makes for fascinating and eclectic reading, ranging as it does between a Sound Map of the English town of Harrogate to the archives of the Dog Rose Trust, which mainly provides recorded tours of English cathedrals for those who are blind. Undoubtedly, there are wodges of local or forgotten drama in these archives, too. The linking up of these archives and making them more widely accessible suggests how important sustained, collective effort is to unfreezing radio’s archival post-horn, delivering more of its unique tunes.
Featured Image: “The Route to Open Data” at BBC Perivale, Image by Flickr User Hatter! (CC BY-NC 2.0)
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.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“Share your story” – but who will listen?–Fabiola Hanna
Rui Chaves will be documenting his creation of Nendu—an archive of Brazilian sound artists—in real time on Sounding Out! throughout 2016-early 2017. A Portuguese version of Chaves’s journals was published in Linda, an online platform created by a composers’ collective called NME. Rui Chaves’s postdoctoral research is funded by FAPESP (São Paulo Research Foundation) Project 2014/15978-9.
Nendu—the title of my archive—envisages the creation of an online platform dedicated to presenting and mapping the work of contemporary Brazilian sound artists. I have based my based upon the following four objectives:
1) Creating a ‘map’ that enables the dissemination and discovery of local praxis;
2) Prompting conversations or different types of documentation that better illustrate individual creative processes (‘journal’);
3) Re-affirming the idea of the ‘archive’ as a research tool;
4) Writing a historical and critical report on Brazilian sound art;
Nendu’s online ‘map’ will enable users to discover different practitioners based on location, but more importantly on what categories the artists themselves have asked to be associated with.
These categories consist of designations of practices that cross the current imaginary of sound art historiography and reflection. A porous and rizomatic territory, to be sure, the categories will echo the obvious specificity of the experience and presentation of sounding artworks — temporally, spatially and formally — without excluding practical, historical and conceptual connections with music, architecture, performance or visual arts.
My selection framework interweaves individual research with contacts with curators, friends, and other researchers. It is important to mention that this process remains open to any individual that wants to be part of the platform until the end of the project in June 2017. This openness facilitates a dialogue between the archivist and interested parties, while at the same time enables reflection regarding the relationship with the idea of “sound art” and the role of sound within different artistic practices.
The second element (called a ‘journal’) consists of field work (to be done until the end of 2016) where I–together with a smaller selections of artists–attempt to present different in-depth reports of “ways of doing” sound art. The journal will consist of interviews, photos, videos, audio recordings and other relevant items. I will publish this material in tandem with the map in the form of a blog and I will share dispatches from the journal with SO!’s readership regularly throughout 2016.
The articulation of the map and journal foregrounds a critical reasoning regarding the idea of the archive as a research tool. My archive will not only be a repository of artists and work done, but also a way of doing an ‘archeology’ of discourses, made objects, and creative processes of sound practitioners. Methodologically, I support my archive via an ethnographic approach, tracing common ideas or patterns between conversations, materials, and/or other artifacts (texts, videos, audio recordings or photographs) gathered during the project. This not only allows an understanding of a possible formal aesthetic discourse (collective or individual), but also offers insights and possible contextualizations of various thematics within a broader cultural arena. Through mapping particular ways of doing, I argue, my archive will allow participants/artists—and also future users—a better comprehension of the prevalent cultural terms.
In the end, this methodology is geared toward the creation of a historical and critical report regarding the current panorama of Brazilian ‘sound art’. Because Nendu is also Tupi for “listening to one-self,” it functions as a metaphor for the creation of an archive that envisages alternative reflections and historiographies from European/American narratives.
For my introductory presentation for Sounding Out!, I want to take the opportunity to present a a ‘journal’ that I made with the artist Tiago Costa in the town of Tiete (state of São Paulo). We perform this activity with “two-voices,” each one of us writing about their experience — starting with me.
My rendez-vous point with Tiago was at the Barra Funda metro station and bus station. Our meeting results from a series of conversations and our eagerness to record the sound of the cicadas in his home town (Tietê). He was also interested in using binaural microphones, which end up being the main recording setup for what we did in the weekend between the 29th to the 31st of January 2016. Over the course of this weekend, I ended up in a series of conversations where I try to explain how these microphones work—in a very imprecise manner.
Our trip begins early in the morning, so I wake up early and still in night time to travel to the metro station, carrying all the recording equipment. When I arrive, there is already a lively buzz in the place. I have breakfast and, still feeling hungry, I have a second. As always, I arrive way too early and I look for the travel information center in order to try to find the right bus ticket sales booth. Fortunately, Tiago also arrives really early and I get an SMS from him telling me that he had already bought the tickets. We meet up and immediately get along. The conversation between us will constantly flow during our time together. He is an artist with a vast experience in audio post-production and he’s also pretty active and interested in São Paulo’s experimental music scene. This type of in-depth knowledge will also be a good source of jokes and gossip regarding particular musicians in the scene.
The conversation continues inside the bus, during which I compliment the vehicle’s air conditioning set temperature, quite mild at that time. Everyone that has travelled by bus in Brasil is acquainted with the cold that one has during long distance travels. While we continue to chat and get farther away from the city, we start to gaze a landscape that cuts through our daily experience of living in São Paulo—it is so hard to see the horizon in that city!
We came across and stop briefly in a town with a weird and funny name to me: Boituva!
Boituva is really well known for its paragliding activities. Sometime during our weekend together, I discover that Tiago is afraid of heights and that he is not planning to paraglide any time soon—I agree. It also during this stop over that Tiago describes to me a regional musical traditional called “Cururu”: a form of song-off duel between two “violeiros”; based on that description, I commented to him that it sounded a lot like a rap battle. A smile comes up on Tiago’s face, a smile that grew larger and larger due to my inability to say “Cururu” the right way: Pururu, Cururuca, Pururuca.
We arrive to Tietê early and sleepy. At first sight, the city has a contrasting scale and size in regards to São Paulo. The height of the buildings is relatively small, punctuated by a few condos slightly off the main urbanscape. The bus station has a small boteco, and not much else. Botecos are common in Brazil; to me, they seem like a cross-over between a pub, restaurant and coffeehouse. There are a few clouds in the horizon, but Tiago tells me that the city is much warmer and drier than São Paulo. He also tells me that signs of Italian immigration are quite present in the city, as well as assorted religious events. Not long after, Tiago’s mom arrives and she is extremely kind.
At Tiago’s place I have my third breakfast (called café da manhã here). With some effort and excitement, we go out to check a few places near Tiago’s home for recording and I’m impressed by the relatively diversity of the nearby soundscape. Besides the sounds of birds, insects and some motorbikes—there is a pungent smell of sewer in the air that envelops us.
We also see a series of houses with an architecture that reminds me of other parts of the world. We make the most of this small trip and Tiago records a small route in that area using the binaural microphones.
Tiago Costa field recording // Best heard with headphones
We go back home and Tiago listens to the recording we just made. We have a small talk about this process. We sit at the table to have lunch and I try to explain to Tiago’s mom my research and what the process of binaural recording entails:
The head is a filter that enables to create a 3D image during the recording process.
I think I have a limited understanding of the process.
We end up having a quiet afternoon. I’m still a bit excited, so I decide to go out to run a few tests with the camera I bought to document my research work. Tiago and his mom suggest that I go and visit the river.
I do a small video recording through the city using a gadget that enables me to strap the camera to my head. Following their indications, I find the river Tietê. The color of the water is really brown and there is a smell that I can’t explain. It seems that in bygone times one could have a swim there, and that there was also a swimming club. With time that changed, but there is a small religious celebration where two boats meet in the same place.
I find a small wooden stage near a construction site and inadvertently, I hear a conversation about which national team has the biggest number of fans in the country. I start to get really tired and decide to go back home. I try to transfer the files to watch the videos. The computer has problems playing them, so I give up and fall asleep.
We wake up for dinner and after, we go on a stroll through the city, literally going in circles around the main plaza. The conversation is good and we continue talking over a few beers on the porch of Tiago’s house. I don’t know if it was on that day or the next, but we comment on the lack of representation of certain groups in the São Paulo experimental music scene.
Tiago also describes to me a map of the local labels. We decide that it might be interesting to have a dedicated field recording label, because there are none in Brasil. We laugh at the possibility of the project being profitable or manageable. It would be one of those things that you would do out of passion, as were most things that we talked about during that evening.
We decide to wake up early in order to do our first recording of the day and try to capture the local dawn chorus. It was a really warm night, so I fall asleep to the sound of the ceiling fan refreshing me.
I had an idea for a possible project between us, having sent Tiago a plan beforehand. The project consisted of using the binaural recording process as a metaphor for a collaborative recording process. I soon realize that that could be too complex for the time we had, and that I didn’t want to condition our weekend meeting and recording process. From now on, the focus would be on documenting Tiago’s work.
The alarm rings and I prepare the audio and video recording equipment. We both look tired, but are in good moods. The idea is to document the recording/path that Tiago is going to make—so I strap the camera to my head and Tiago sets up the binaural microphones; for some reason there is a glitch with the audio recorder SD card, but I manage to solve the problem.
Tiago – Field Recording // Better heard with headphones
We go back in order to get bit a more rest; we must, as later on we are going to do a few more recordings. I try, but I end up staying awake. It starts to get hot, so I get out of bed and have have breakfast. Tiago’s mom is already doing some house chores. It is a beautiful day and I am quite excited about what we are going to do in the afternoon. The area surrounding Tietê is quite beautiful with sugar cane plantations all over the place, supposedly for the production of bio-diesel.
We were meant to go out early, but we are going to meet a friend’s of Tiago and he suggested that we went after lunch. So we did that, just before leaving an intense rainfall strikes Tietê. We head out anyway, toward a place whose name I forgot. After we arrive, and while we wait for the weather to improve, we decide to recording the momentary ambience.
When the rain stops, we meet up with Marcos—a really gentle and nice person. On our way, I explain my research project to him and lend him my recorder to listen to how binaural recordings sound. He tells me that it feels like the sounds are happening around him. Discreetly, I record their conversation and I am briefly taken away by stories about friends and TV shows that discuss the evolutionary nature of pain.
We arrive at the dirt track where we are going to do a few recordings. We have to jump a fence and my shoes get all dirty with mud. In the end, all of our clothing ends up wet and dirty and Tiago’s mom’s car will suffer the consequence of our little adventure. At the same time, I can’t understand if we are actually allowed to enter this property.
The surrounding landscape is amazing and we walk, hopping a few more fences until we reach the river. We stop there in order to do another recording. The river water has an intense brown color and the sky is still cloudy. We mainly record the sound of the water coursing. After we finish, Marcos goes out to do a recording and disappears for a few minutes.
Marcos André Lorenzetti recording // Best heard with headphones
After a while, we get a bit worried about him, but he soon arrives saying that we have to change to another, more interesting place. We start walking, avoiding our initial choice of a route due to the possibility of existing spiders or snakes, crossing a small ranch where we encounter a family getting ready for a barbecue. Marcos, a former vegetarian who now eats chicken, asks Tiago if he misses eating barbecue. He says he doesn’t.
At another part of the river bed, for some odd reason we decide to go through a complicated route (especially for people carrying equipment!). I worry I’m going to get wet. So it was, but Tiago and his friend helped me with my bag. We arrive to a small island of rocks and we do another recording. The weather is nicer now and it feels really wonderful. Tiago and Marcos go for a swim in the water and I get in a little bit to make a video recording. After a while, I felt obliged to go for a swim too, although I was a bit phobic regarding germs, bacteria or other nasties that could be in that water. I join them and suddenly we spot a sewer drainage pipe. I ask Marcos if the water is clean and he replies that:
Clean, clean, it never is!
Returning to the ‘mainland.’, I accidentally misplaced one of my feet, and slip on my back on one of the rocks. Fortunately, none of the equipment gets wet and I leave with only a few bruise marks.
In mid-November 2015, there was a strong heat wave in the interior of São Paulo. I was in the city of Tietê, my home town, two hours west. I remember being home, the seasonal dry air and the surrounding sounds picked up my attention, in particular the strong sound of the cicadas. I became interested in capturing them, and imagined myself in a recording situation in the middle of the woods, just a few meters from my house. At that time, I had been listening to a few interesting works that utilized binaural microphones and start querying colleagues that used that type of setup in their work. That’s when I contacted Rui.
Rui is developing research about Brazilian sound art, and for that he interviews and documents a series of artists that work with sound. Part of his process consists in spending some time with them, documenting what they usually do and proposing interventions. I explain what I wanted to do; Rui got interested and he invited me to do something in Tietê.
Due to our agendas, our meeting had to be postponed a few months after this conversation, unfortunately when he finally had time, the cicada weren’t ‘sounding’ as as much as before. We decide to maintain our intent to meet, and during the month of January, we left for a weekend to do some field recordings together.
We went to Tietê on the 29th of January and the soundwalk happened briefly after we arrive. With the recorder and binaural microphones in hand, we visit the outskirts of the woods in proximity to a neighborhood called Seis Irmãos (literally translating to “six brothers”).
In the past, that part of town had only a few small farms (called chácaras in Brasil), and although today it has been replaced by urban development, it still maintains a considerable native green area. Well, partially native. as we encountered a mix and pipes that send untreated sewage to a water stream called Ribeirão da Serra.
During that walk, we had a go with binaural recording, and we discussed a possible ‘narrative’ that could be done the next day, This ‘narrative’ would consist of emphasizing the first morning sounds, starting in the middle of the neighborhood houses, until a particular moment when we would enter the woods for a more contemplative appreciation. We also recorded a few ‘urban sounds’ during the walk, inside a car on the way to the next recording spot: a brief rain storm, the car’s mechanical sounds and our casual conversations.
Rui Chaves field recording // Better heard with headphones
The second stage happened in a nearby town, Cerquilho. This was a plan parallel to the cicadas that we made at the banks of the Sorocaba River, a place with less human intervention and strong currents, so it demanded the help of someone that knew it well. I invited my friend Marcos to accompany us. He had practiced canoeing and regularly frequents that spot, building a very close relationship with this river. During the trip he told us about an experience he had spending the night close to the river with only a hammock. He described how the sound part of this experience transformed his perception:
One time I went to sleep close to the river [. . .] in the hammock, and during the day the sound of water is harmonic, but during the night it transforms into something really intense. And since it was night time and our perception gets a lot sharper, more alert, because there could be an animal close, so with any noise made we become more alert. There were times where the experience of the water ‘noise’ became so intense that it somehow even changed my consciousness [. . .] it was incredible [. . .] because it is a constant sound, right, [. . .] the current is constant [. . .] and if you don’t feel trapped by it, you set yourself free.
Tiago Costa Field Recording // Usar fone de ouvido
The sound recordings made in that afternoon captured a river with a strong presence in constituting that acoustic space, taking upstage presence in regard to all other sounds. After the recordings, we had a swim and talked until the end of the afternoon.
This multi-vocal diary manifests the methodological frame for the ‘type’ of archive that I am building — a performative endeavor that envisages presenting process and work through a multi-layered weave of text, audio-visual documentation, and online material. Ultimately, its format signals a dialogical movement between archivist and artist, the underlying force in building a critical and historical report on Brazilian sound art. This publication is part of a series of installments that will run until mid-2017. The next post will focus on the work of Lilian Nakao Nakahodo, a composer/performer and researcher that created the Curitiba Sound Map.
Featured Image: In a ranch between Tietê and Cerquilho. 30/01/2016. Picture by Rui Chaves
Rui Chaves is a Portuguese sound artist, performer and researcher. His research and work foregrounds a discussion of presence — both physical and authorial — in the process of making sound art. This endeavor is informed by a contemporary critical inquiry and exploration of the thematics of body, place, text and technology. He has presented his work in several institutions and events throughout the United Kingdom, Brazil, France, Canada, Portugal and Germany. He holds a PhD in music from Queen’s University Belfast and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at NuSom (University of São Paulo).
Written in collaboration with Tiago Costa.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Six Years in Nodar: Sound Art in a Rural Context–Rui Gomes Costa
Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil–Leonardo Cardoso
SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig. You’re welcome!
What is it about the environmental soundscape which makes us ‘tune-in’ or ‘tune-out’ to particular sounds? Do we as humans tend to seek out quiet zones for our acoustic pleasure or are there those among us who find urban soundscapes a more comforting prospect? Researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University in the UK have developed a mobile phone application to allow the personalized assessment of such questions regarding environmental soundscapes. I developed the free Think About Sound interactive map–downloadable as a mobile app and viewable online–to allow users to experience various locations in Glasgow by using 3D audio recordings and panoramic visuals.
By using a self-reporting methodology, Think About Sound removes the listener from traditional laboratory-based soundscape evaluation and locates them in real world experiences as they go about their day-to-day activities. The application aims to find out the various types of sound encountered as users understand them, asking how users feel before and after a recorded sound event and enabling them to describe the circumstances in which they heard the sound event. Think About Sound also asks listeners to provide semantic descriptors for the sound, toward the ultimate aim of creating more sophisticated environmental sound maps which communicate both location-specific sound information and the subjective effect of sound upon the listener.
To further enrich the experience, data sent from the application can be viewed online at http://www.thinkaboutsound.co.uk/ with an accompanying map where the public can view and audition submissions using the familiar Google map format. You will also find links to download the app in multiple formats.
I hoped that by collecting data in this way and to this scale, that I can obtain and share a greater understanding of how we perceive soundscapes. The next steps for the project includes the development of audio technology to analyze sound recordings, automatically predicting annoyance, valence (the emotional value associated with a stimulus), and the arousal features of environmental sounds for particular users.
While locale remains important, this research has far more reaching implications beyond my local region. Submissions on an international level can help us to understand how we perceive our environmental soundscapes, help shape local noise policy, and provide others with an understanding of sounds in their local area. What I want from you, the reader, is your help via contributions to this worldwide soundscape project. Stop for a minute and take in your sonic surroundings. What can you hear? How does it make you feel? Comfort? Anxiety?. . .Stop for a minute, listen and think about sound.
Adam Craig is a Ph.D researcher studying at Glasgow Caledonian University in the UK within the School of Engineering and Built Environment. After obtaining a first class honours in his undergraduate Audio Technology degree in 2011, Adam went on to embark on a Ph.D concentrating his research on using advanced audio technology for the creation of environmental sound maps. He Is currently a member of the AudioLab Research team at GCU and is a member of the Institute of Acoustics and the Audio Engineering Society. Out with his academic research, Adam teaches sound engineering to high-school students at a community based service within his local education authority, and at West College Scotland.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
SO! Amplifies: Cities and Memory–Stuart Fowkes
SO! Amplifies: #hearmyhome and the Soundscapes of the Everyday–Cassie J. Brownell and Jon M. Wargo
Each of the essays in this month’s “Medieval Sound” forum focuses on sound as it, according to Steve Goodman’s essay “The Ontology of Vibrational Force,” in The Sound Studies Reader, “comes to the rescue of thought rather than the inverse, forcing it to vibrate, loosening up its organized or petrified body (70). These investigations into medieval sound lend themselves to a variety of presentation methods loosening up the “petrified body” of academic presentation. Each essay challenges concepts of how to hear the Middle Ages and how the sounds of the Middle Ages continue to echo in our own soundscapes.
The posts in this series begins an ongoing conversation about medieval sound in Sounding Out!. Our opening gambit in April 2016, “Multimodality and Lyric Sound,” reframes how we consider the lyric from England to Spain, from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, pushing ideas of openness, flexibility, and productive creativity. We will post several follow-ups throughout the rest of 2016 focusing on “Remediating Medieval Sound.” And, HEAR YE!, in April 2017, look for a second series on Aural Ecologies of noise! –Guest Editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman
During the “grammar wars” of the sixteenth century, when some scholars sought to restrict English letters to an “isomorphic” (or phonemic) relationship between sound and spelling, Richard Mulcaster emerged as a champion of a more broad and complex vernacular orthography in his 1582 Elementarie, with profound implications for the growing English language. In particular, Mulcaster’s insight that language is shaped by “custom” bolsters the argument for variety over phonemic standardization; as he writes (in the 1925 Oxford University Press reprint):
letters ca[n] expresse sou[n]ds withall their ioynts & properties, no fuller than the pencill can the form and lineaments of the face, whose praise is not life but likeness: as the letters yeld not alwaie the same, which sound exactlie requireth, but allwaie the nearest, wherwith custom is content (99).
Mulcaster seems to strongly indicate here that we should not expect vernacular orthography to capture sound in any reliable way. Custom – meaning actual usage, etymological roots, and so on, muddies the waters of spelling-based sound. Anyone familiar with Modern English, given its complex conventions and silent, or variably pronounced letters, might agree. Yet as John Wesley notes in “Mulcaster’s Tyrant Sound,” “Mulcaster’s orthography continually oscillates … between a conception of letters as completely divorced from sound, and one that finds sound and sight interacting (not always in conflict)” (349).
Indeed, looking more closely at Mulcaster’s statement, it is possible to discern the specter of a scribe, pencil in hand, attempting to capture the “joints and properties” of a poet’s sound in letters – using different letters depending on the dialectal orthography of the compositional time and space: a listening body making a visual representation of sound.
Certainly, we encounter instances of orthographical representations of distinctive sounds in more recent and deliberate dialect poetry. John Hyland, writing on sound and African diasporic poetry in his unpublished dissertation Atlantic Reverberations, notes of late nineteenth- / early twentieth-century black dialect poems that “in a certain way, they are meant to be read and heard as talking machines. The sound technology, in this case, is the poem; it is a construction and a recording of a ‘black’ voice that socially and culturally functions in a manner analogous to the gramophone” (31). [Ed. Note: you can also read his work on Sounding Out! here]. Following this, it is interesting to try to figure out how the text of a poem can gesture toward and suggest a “sound” that belongs to a localized (even stereotyped) body, despite the text’s being mute on the page. New computational linguistic programs can help play back these ancient sound files, but based on my experience in using them with Middle English texts, there is a ways to go in matching their analytic capabilities with idiosyncratic early English spelling to produce satisfying results.
While late medieval English poems cannot be thought of as deliberate “constructions” of a voice in quite the same way as some contemporary forms of black poetry—although portions of Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale, in which “northern speech” is represented through alternate spellings and diction, might be an exception—I propose that we imagine orthography (and by extension, the scribes who implemented it) as a kind of “sound technology” analogous to early sound reproduction devices such as the phonograph. The analogy will break down at certain points, but in suggesting it I hope to answer two related questions: First, to what extent can orthography reliably encode sound (or, to put it another way, offer a score for “decoding” sound)? Second, can we extend back in time the critique of sound technology made by recent “sound theorists,” who tend to focus on texts and technologies from the modern period – and, if so, what can be gained thereby?
The answer to the first question is, I believe, a very qualified “yes.” Yes, English orthography can and does encode sound, but like so many things about the English language and its highly idiosyncratic spelling conventions, it’s complicated. The second question leads to an elusive, but promising, framework in which to consider the role of orthography in shaping English poetic sound. In short, I will argue that orthographic profiles act as a sort of “performance” in which spelling collaborates with the sound of language to offer a socio-linguistic context within which to experience a given poem.s
I used SPARSAR, “an expressive poetry reader” developed by computational linguists Rodolfo Delmonte and Anton Maria Prati, to produce audio recordings of three poetic specimens from Middle English: The specimens are: Osbern Bokenham’s “Life of St. Anne,” (ll. 41-64); Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Prologue, (V.709-28); and John Audelay’s “Conclusion,” (ll.1-13). The specimens were chosen with the idea of dialectal variety in mind: Bokenham is associated with Suffolk, Chaucer with London, and Audelay with the West Midlands. According to its creators, SPARSAR uses “prosodic durational parameters” for English syllables developed by the authors with the aim of “evaluat[ing] objective presumed syllable and feet prosodic distribution at line level,” producing a version of a poem that can be read by Text to Speech (TTS) software with “an appropriate expressivity” (73).
The problem with TTS software is that it produces monotone outputs that fail to account for prosody, let alone expressivity. SPARSAR, I hoped, would “level the playing field” between differing orthographies in the poems, from an analytic standpoint: “the poem is translated into a phonetic form preserving its visual structure and its subdivision into lines and stanzas. Phonetically translated words are associated to mean duration values taking into account position in the word and stress” (Delmonte and Prati 74). Yet textual analysis of poems in Middle English is challenging precisely because of orthographical variation, and this holds true for SPARSAR as well. Before SPARSAR could recognize the speech of the poems, I had to run them through a “normalizing” program—VARD, although Morphadorner offers a similar service—thus in some ways defeating the purpose of testing orthography’s ability to encode sound, as well as muddling SPARSAR’s fine-grained prosodic analysis.
Audelay first with and then without SPARSER.
Thus, for example, in the second line of my selection from John Audelay, “Here may ye cnow hwat ys this worlde,” I replaced “cnow” with the modern “know” (thus losing the /k/ sound), “hwat” with “what,” “ys” with “is,” and “worlde” with “world.” One easily discerns the loss of information with respect to not only sound, but also scansion (the inflectional “e” ending). SPARSAR also does not account for the Great Vowel Shift in reproducing Middle English pronunciations. For how this would change the pronunciation of some words, see Simon Horobin, Does Spelling Matter? (2013).
The recordings produced by the resulting SPARSAR files are, then, a record of failure with respect to my project. But they are instructive failures, nonetheless, and I include them here alongside the “raw” TTS recordings of the poems to illustrate my point: orthography is a key way of encoding sound, yielding both geographic and temporal sonic data. Moreover, such failures – and they are inevitable to a certain extent in any digital analysis of pre-modern English – point out the urgent need to work ever backwards and include ever more variant spellings in software databases. I am reminded of the comical difficulties that iPhone’s Siri software has in deciphering Scots English, though in that scenario the trouble is not necessarily with orthography, but accent.
Imagine, however, Siri attempting to decipher an accurately voiced reading of a Robert Burns poem based on its textual appearance.
Echoing Mulcaster’s statement on orthography, Ralph H. Emerson writes in “English Spelling and Its Relation to Sound” that “alphabetic spelling … [can] be a kind of backbone that supports the flesh and muscle of all the phonetic and phonemic variants in different dialects and idiolects” (260). The problem, as Mulcaster would point out, is the matter of those phonemic variants, a point Emerson concedes: “Western orthography … is largely a tale of how people have squeezed as many values as possible out of the very short Roman alphabet” (262). As Simon Horobin writes, the phoneme /r/ is pronounced differently in England even among different speakers of Northern dialect; the various realizations of /r/ that do not alter meaning require the designation of an “allophone”: [r] (21). In order to encode all the various pronunciations, we would need further phonemic symbols. At the risk of oversimplifying several hundred years of the development of spelling conventions in English, the desire for a less arbitrary connection between letter and sound is at the heart of the debates and attempted reforms in which grammarians like Mulcaster were involved.
Bokenham first with and then without SPARSER.
Yet as much as Mulcaster argues for an orthography freed from “tyrant sound,” as Wesley notes, his arguments keep circling back to sound’s importance. Wesley writes, “Despite his claims regarding the ‘heard’ Z and its subjugation to the ‘sene’ S, the sound of Z creates a variety of problems for Mulcaster; in fact, its sound means Mulcaster must adjust the appearance and frequency of various other letters” (348). The reason for this is the complex set of rules in English regarding how letters interact with and influence each other in shaping the sound of a word. A more systematic analysis of these rules is precisely what allows Emerson to argue that orthography can, in fact, encode sound in English. He writes, “almost any dialect can be described as a plausible and usually predictable realization of the spelling, one word at a time” (265). Emerson describes a “four-step process” for this spelling-based description, which begins with “segment[ing] the spelling into elemental graphemes”; then “assign[ing] the segments their proper graphophonemes, that is, their abstract but systematically universal protovalues.” The next step “shows how the graphophonemes are phonemically realized in particular circumstances within individual dialects.” The example Emerson gives is “hair,” which segments into “H + AI + R, or //her//” (265). From this, he argues, we can reliably derive all the variant pronunciations of “hair.” To complete the process, a litereme is needed; e.g., the litereme <<s>> matches the phoneme //s// but also provides the “natural characteristic spelling” that expresses the “s” and “soft c” in English (266). Emerson concludes,
To describe how spelling encodes sound in a particular language is simply to chart the relationships between segments on these different levels … the litereme is the key: THAT is what everything else is really standing for, spellings and sounds and graphophonemes alike. (The letters themselves can be thought of as archiliteremes, with <<C>>having the reflexes <<k>> and <<s>>, <<A>> having <<ā>> and <<ă>>, etc.) … The simple universal phonology of written English gives birth to the infinite particularities of spoken English. (267)
Fortunately – for the purposes of looking at orthographically expressed Middle English variants, “present orthography still represents the pronunciation of Middle English” (Emerson 267). Unfortunately, though the letter-to-sound relationship in Middle English is much closer, we cannot be sure what those pronunciations were. But we can guess, and orthography is our best (perhaps only) clue.
The notion of “suggested” pronunciation is indeed where sound studies offers a compelling model for considering the relationship between poem and scribe, and how the former is recorded orthographically by the latter. Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past proposes to construct a “history of sound” that troubles the notion of “face to face” communication as being more “authentic” than sound reproduction technologies, adding, “This history of sound begins by positing sound, hearing, and listening as historical problems rather than as constants on which to build a history” (22). As medievalists know all too well, scribes and scribal variation in the copying of texts constitute a rich field of study when it comes to the question of textual “authenticity.”
Intriguing in light of such variation is Sterne’s idea of “transducers, which turn sound into something else and that something else back into sound” (22) – for which we might read orthography as a kind of technology with “moving parts” that work in concert to reproduce sound, as outlined above. More intriguing, perhaps, is Sterne’s description of the development of “audile technique,” a “practice of listening” that he bases on a study of “virtuosic and highly technical listening skills” during the nineteenth century and the advent of the telegraph, phonograph, and telephone. Sterne writes that with audile technique:
listening became more directional and directed, more oriented toward constructs of private space and private property. The construct of acoustic space as private space in turn made it possible for sound to become a commodity. Audile technique did not occur in the collective, communal space of oral discourse and tradition (if such a space ever existed); it happened in a highly segmented, isolated, individuated acoustic space (24).
In this context, Chaucer’s famous admonition to his scribe “Adam” becomes all the more charged and suggestive (650 in The Riverside Chaucer). We must certainly think of medieval scribes as early practitioners of “audile technique,” taking advantage of orthography as a tool by which to turn sound into a commodity in the form of manuscripts for various occasions and audiences.
Chaucer first with and then without SPARSER.
Rethinking medieval texts in this way leaves us with a collaborative sonic performance in which the particular orthographies of the scribes help to pull an author’s text into a certain sound-space, even if it is inexact and in some sense inauthentic. Our ability to “hear” that space, to share it, is limited by our limited mapping of the incredibly multiform ways that English was uttered, and how those utterances were scored on the page by poets and scribes. Wesley notes the importance of discipline to Mulcaster’s educational-grammatical program as set forth in the Elementarie; discipline also hovers over the listening bodies performing audile technique for the sake of increasingly commodified sound spaces described by Sterne. English letters resist such discipline, sliding around various orthographies depending on time, place, poet, and scribe. In order to begin to use programs like SPARSAR to recreate, however tentatively, the sound they encode, we must loosen the standardizing discipline of our technology in parsing letters of the past.
Featured image “Mixed Media Painting” by See-ming Lee @Flickr CC BY-SA
David Hadbawnik is a poet, translator, and medieval scholar. His Aeneid Books 1-6 were published by Shearsman Books in 2015. He is the editor and publisher of Habenicht Press and the journal kadar koli, a co-editor of eth press, which focuses on creative interactions with medieval texts, and associate director of punctum books. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor of English at the American University of Kuwait.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
The Hysterical Alphabet–John Corbett, Terri Kapsalis, and Danny Thompson
The Eldrich Voice: H.P. Lovecraft’s Weird Phonography–James A. Steintrager
Mouthing the Passion: Richard Rolle’s Soundscapes–Christopher Roman