Mr. and Mrs. Talking Machine: The Euphonia, the Phonograph, and the Gendering of Nineteenth Century Mechanical Speech
In the early 1870s a talking machine, contrived by the aptly-named Joseph Faber appeared before audiences in the United States. Dubbed the “talking head” by its inventor, it did not merely record the spoken word and then reproduce it, but actually synthesized speech mechanically. It featured a fantastically complex pneumatic system in which air was pushed by a bellows through a replica of the human speech apparatus, which included a mouth cavity, tongue, palate, jaw and cheeks. To control the machine’s articulation, all of these components were hooked up to a keyboard with seventeen keys— sixteen for various phonemes and one to control the Euphonia’s artificial glottis. Interestingly, the machine’s handler had taken one more step in readying it for the stage, affixing to its front a mannequin. Its audiences in the 1870s found themselves in front of a machine disguised to look like a white European woman.
By the end of the decade, however, audiences in the United States and beyond crowded into auditoriums, churches and clubhouses to hear another kind of “talking machine” altogether. In late 1877 Thomas Edison announced his invention of the phonograph, a device capable of capturing the spoken words of subjects and then reproducing them at a later time. The next year the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company sent dozens of exhibitors out from their headquarters in New York to edify and amuse audiences with the new invention. Like Faber before them, the company and its exhibitors anthropomorphized their talking machines, and, while never giving their phonographs hair, clothing or faces, they did forge a remarkably concrete and unanimous understanding of “who” the phonograph was. It was “Mr. Phonograph.”
Why had the Euphonia become female and the phonograph male? In this post, I peel apart some of the entanglements of gender and speech that operated in the Faber Euphonia and the phonograph, paying particular attention to the technological and material circumstances of those entanglements. What I argue is that the materiality of these technologies must itself be taken into account in deciphering the gendered logics brought to bear on the problem of mechanical speech. Put another way, when Faber and Edison mechanically configured their talking machines, they also engineered their uses and their apparent relationships with users. By prescribing the types of relationships the machine would enact with users, they constructed its “ideal” gender in ways that also drew on and reinforced existing assumptions about race and class.
Of course, users could and did adapt talking machines to their own ends. They tinkered with its construction or simply disregarded manufacturers’ prescriptions. The physical design of talking machines as well as the weight of social-sanction threw up non-negligible obstacles to subversive tinkerers and imaginers.
Born in Freiburg, Germany around 1800, Joseph Faber worked as an astronomer at the Vienna Observatory until an infection damaged his eyesight. Forced to find other work, he settled on the unlikely occupation of “tinkerer” and sometime in the 1820s began his quest for perfected mechanical speech. The work was long and arduous, but by no later than 1843 Faber was exhibiting his talking machine on the continent. In 1844 he left Europe to exhibit it in the United States, but in 1846 headed back across the Atlantic for a run at London’s Egyptian Hall.
That Faber conceived of his invention in gendered terms from the outset is reflected in his name for it—“Euphonia”—a designation meaning “pleasant sounding” and whose Latin suffix conspicuously signals a female identity. Interestingly, however, the inventor had not originally designed the machine to look like a woman but, rather, as an exoticized male “Turk.”
A writer for Chambers Edinburgh Journal characterized the mannequin’s original appearance in September of 1846:
The half figure of a man, the size known to artists as kit kat, dressed in Turkish costume, is seen resting, upon the side of a table, surrounded by crimson drapery, with its arms crossed upon its bosom. The body of the figure is dressed in blue merino, its head is surmounted by a Turkish cap, and the lower part of the face is covered with a dense flowing beard, which hangs down so as to conceal some portion of the mechanism contained in the throat.
What to make of Faber’s decision to present his machine as a “Turk?” One answer, though an unsatisfying one is “convention.” One of the most famous automata in history had been the chess-playing Turk constructed by Wolfgang von Kempelen in the eighteenth century. A close student of von Kempelen’s work on talking machines, Faber would almost certainly have been aware of the precedent. In presenting their machines as “Turks,” however, both Faber and Von Kempelen likely sought to harness particular racialized tropes to generate public interest in their machines. Mystery. Magic. Exoticism. Europeans had long attributed these qualities to the lands and peoples of the Near East and it so happened that these racist representations were also highly appealing qualities in a staged spectacle—particularly ones that purported to push the boundaries of science and engineering.
Mysteriousness, however, constituted only one part of a much larger complex of racialized ideas. As Edward Said famously argued in Orientalism Westerners have generally mobilized representations of “the East” in the service of a very specific political-cultural project of self- and other-definition—one in which the exoticized orient invariably absorbs the undesirable second half of a litany of binaries: civilization/barbarism, modernity/backwardness, humanitarianism/cruelty, rationality/irrationality. Salient for present purposes, however is the west’s self-understanding as masculine, in contradistinction to—in Said’s words—the East’s “feminine penetrability, its supine malleability.”
One possible reading of the Faber machine and its mannequin “Turk,” then, would position it as an ersatz woman. A depiction of the Euphonia and its creator, which appeared in the August 8, 1846 Illustrated London News would appear to lend credence to this reading. In it, the Turk, though bearded, features stereotypically “feminine” traits, including soft facial features, smooth complexion and full lips. Similarly, his billowing blouse and turban lend to the Turk a decidedly “un-masculine” air from the standpoint of Victorian sartorial norms. The effect is heightened by the stereotypically “male” depiction of Faber himself in the same illustration. He sits at the Euphonia’s controls, eyes cast down in rapt attention to his task. His brow is wrinkled and his cheeks appear to be covered in stubble. He appears in shirt and jacket—the uniform of the respectable middle-class white European man.
Importantly, the Euphonia’s speech acts did not take place as part of a conversation, but might have been compared to another kind of vocalization altogether. Faber’s manipulation of the Euphonia entailed a strenuous set of activities behind the automaton (though, in truth, off to one side.) Its keyboard kept both of the inventor’s hands occupied at the machine’s “back,” while its foot-operated bellows had to steadily be pumped to produce airflow. Though requiring some imagination, one could imagine Faber and his creation having sex. At least one observer, it seems, did. In an article originally printed in the New York Paper, the author recounted how he “suggested to Mr. F[aber] that the costume and figure had better have been female.” This course of action offered practical mechanical-semiotic advantages “as the bustle would have given a well-placed and ample concealment for all the machinery now disenchantingly placed outside.” To the foregoing the writer added a clause: “—the performer sitting down naturally behind and playing her like a piano.”
Around 1870 the Euphonia was recast as a woman. By this time Herr Faber had been dead several years and his talking machine had passed on to a relative, also called Joseph, who outsourced the staged operation of the machine to his wife—Maria Faber. The transition from a male mannequin to a female mannequin (as well as the transition from a male operator to a female operator) throws into relief certain wrinkles in the gendered story of the Euphonia. Given that the Euphonia’s vocalizations could be read through the lens of sexualized domination, why had Faber himself not designed the mannequin as a woman in the first place? There are no pat answers. Perhaps the older, bookish, inventor believed the Turk could serve as an object of Western scientific domination without eliciting embarrassing and prurient commentary. Clearly, he underestimated the degree to which the idea of technological mastery already contained sexual overtones.
Little can be said about Joseph Faber’s life and work beyond 1846 though an entry for the inventor in the Biographisches Lexikon des Kaiserthums Österreich claimed that he took his life about 1850. Whatever the truth of Herr Faber’s fate, the Euphonia itself disappeared from public life around this same time and did not resurface for nearly two-and-a-half decades.
On the other hand, the idea of a female-presenting Euphonia, suggested by the New York Paper contributor in 1845, came to fruition as the machine was handed over to a female operator. If audiences imagined the spectacle of Euphonia-operation as a kind of erotic coupling, this new pairing would have been as troubling in its own way as Faber’s relationship to his Turk. What explains, then, the impulse to transition the Euphonia from androgyne to woman? Again, there are no pat answers. One solution to the enigma lies in the counter-factual: Whatever discomfiting sexual possibilities were broached in the Victorian mind by a woman’s mastery over a female automaton would have been greatly amplified by a woman’s mastery over a male one.
In these early exhibitions, the phonograph became “Mr. Phonograph.” In Chicago, for example, an exhibitor exclaimed “Halloa! Halloa!” into the apparatus before asking “Mr. Phonograph are you there?” “This salutation,” perspicaciously noted an attending Daily Tribune reporter “might have been addressed with great propriety to the ghosts at a spiritual seance…” In San Francisco, an exhibitor opened his demonstration by recording the message “Good morning, Mr. Phonograph.” Taking the bait, a Chronicle reporter described the subsequent playback: “‘Good morning, Mr. Phonograph,’ yelled Mr. Phonograph.”
In Atlanta, the phonograph was summoned “Mr. Phonograph, will you talk?” Mr. Phonograph obliged [“Wonder Agape!,” The Phonograph Puzzling Atlanta’s Citizens.” The Daily Constitution. June 22, 1878, 4]. At some point in 1878 the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company commissioned the printing of a piece of promotional sheet music “The Song of Mr. Phonograph.” The cover art for the song sheet featured a bizarrely anthropomorphized phonograph. The machine’s iron cylinder has been transformed into a head with eyes, while the mouthpiece and recording stylus have migrated outward and are grasped by two human hands. Mr. Phonograph’s attire, however, leaves no doubt as to his gender: He wears a collared shirt, vest, and jacket with long tails above; and stirrupped pants and dress boots below.
[Animal noises–cat, chicken, rooster, cow bird, followed by announcement by unidentified male voice, From UCSB Cylinder Archive]. Mr. Phonograph appealed not only to the professional exhibitors of the 1870s but to other members of the American public as well. One unnamed phonograph enthusiast recorded himself sometime before 1928 imitating the sounds of cats, hens, roosters and crows. Before signing off, he had his own conversation with “Mr. Phonograph.”
To understand the impulse to masculinize the phonograph, one must keep in mind the technology’s concrete mechanical capabilities. Unlike the Euphonia, the phonograph did not have a voice of its own, but could only repeat what was said to it. The men who exhibited the phonograph to a curious public were not able (like the Fabers before them) to sit in detached silence and manually prod their talking machines into talking. They were forced to speak to and with the phonograph. The machine faithfully addressed its handler with just as much (or as little) manly respect as that shown it, and the entire operation suggested to contemporaries the give-and-take of a conversation between equals. Not surprisingly, the phonograph became a man and a properly respectable one at that. Finally, the all-male contingent of exhibitors sent across the United States by the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company in 1878 invariably imparted to their phonographs their own male voices as they put the machine through its paces on stage. This, in itself, encouraged attribution of masculinity to the device.
The Euphonia and the phonograph both “talked.” The phonograph did so in a way mechanically-approximating the idealized bourgeois exchange of ideas and therefore “had” to be male. The Euphonia, on the other hand, spoke only as a function of its physical domination by its handler who wrung words from the instrument as if by torture. The Euphonia, then, “had” to be female.
The talking machines of the late nineteenth century as well as the media technologies that succeeded them emerged from a particular white, male, western and middle class culture.While changing in profound ways since the Victorian period, this culture has remained committed to the values of scientific mastery of nature; racial and gender hierarchies; and, especially, economic accumulation. But because the physical apparatus of talking machines has evolved so dramatically during this same period, it has been necessary to periodically renovate the ontology of mechanical speech in order to make it “safe” for the core values of the culture.
A fuller accounting of the politics of sound reproduction is possible but it depends on a more dynamic rendering of the interplay between practices, technologies and sonic understandings. It requires not only identifying speakers and listeners, but also placing them within the broader networks of people, things and ideas that impart to them moral content. It means attending—no less so than to texts and other representations—to the stories machines themselves tell when they enact the labor of speaking. We should listen to talking machines talking. But we should watch them as well.
Featured Image: from William C. Crum, ”Illustrated History of Wild Animals and Other Curiosities Contained in P.T. Barnum’s Great Travelling World’s Fair….” (New York: Wynkoop & Hallenbeck, 1874) 73. This image suggests that the later exhibitors of the Euphonia may have occasionally deviated from the gendered norms established by Joseph Faber, Sr. In image 4, a man—perhaps Joseph, Jr.— operates the Euphonia in its female form.
J. Martin Vest holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in History from Virginia Commonwealth University and a PhD in American History from the University of Michigan. His research interests range across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and are heavily influenced by the eclecticism and curiosity of working class storytelling. Past projects have explored Southside Virginia’s plank roads; the trope of insanity in American popular music; slavs in the American South; radical individualist “egoism;” twentieth century anarchists and modern “enchantment.” My dissertation, “Vox Machinae: Phonographs and the Birth of Sonic Modernity, 1870-1930,” charts the peculiar evolution of modern ideas about recorded sound, paying particular attention to the role of capitalism and mechanical technology in shaping the things said and believed about the stuff “in the grooves.”
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How Svengali Lost His Jewish Accent–Gayle Wald
“World Music,” both as a concept and as a convenient marketing label for the global music industry, has received a fair deal of deserved criticism over the last two decades, from scholars and musicians alike. In his famous 1999 op-ed, David Byrne wrote that the term is “a none too subtle way of reasserting the hegemony of Western pop culture. It ghettoizes most of the world’s music.” Ethnomusicologists have aldo challenged the othering power of this term, inviting us to listen to “worlds of music” and “soundscapes” as the culture of particular places and times, suggesting that these sonic encounters with difference might teach “us” (in “the West”) to consider how our own musical worlds are situated in social and historical processes.
While this has been an important move toward recognizing the multiplicity of musicking practices (rather than reinforcing a monolithic “Other” genre), the study of “musical cultures” runs the risk of territorializing musical “traditions.” Linking them to geographically delineated points of origin, nations or homelands that are made to seem natural, fixed, or timeless often overlooks the heterogeneity of places, essentializing the people who make and listen to music within, across, and in relation to their ever-changing borders. The challenge for music critics and scholars has been–and still is–to delegitimize the alienating broad brush of the “world music” label without resorting to a classification system that reifies music production and circulation into exotic genres or fetishized “local” traditions.
In her 2018 book, On Site, In Sound: Performance Geographies in América Latina(Duke University Press), Kirstie A. Dorr demonstrates a method for conceptualizing relations between music and space while avoiding the pitfalls of colonial and capitalist definitions of “culture” and “identity.” She takes the term “performance geography” from Sonjah Stanley Niaah, whose discussion of Jamaican dancehall employs this analytic as “a mapping of the material and spatial conditions of performance: entertainment and ritual in specific sites/venues, types and systems of use, politics of their location in relations to other sites and other practices, the character of events/rituals in particular locations, and the manner in which different performances/performers relate to each other within and across different cultures” (Stanley Niaah 2008: 344). Dorr looks at “musical transits” rather than musical cultures, focusing on the politics and relations within sound and performance across South America and its diasporas; one particular relation serves as the central argument of the book: “that sonic production and spatial formation are mutually animating processes” (3).
Three conceptual frames help Dorr follow the musical flows that push against national and regional boundaries sounded by the global music industry: listening, a form of attention toward the interplay of sensory content, form, and context; musicking, or conceptualizations of music-making in terms of relationships and creative practices, rather than the musical “works” they produce and commodify; and performance as “a technique of action/embodiment that. . .potentially reshapes social texts, relationships, and environments” (14-16). Through close listenings to performances in Peru, San Francisco, and less emplaced sites such as YouTube and the “Andean Music Industry,” Dorr makes a strong case for performance geographies as creative decolonial strategies, both for participants in musical transits and for scholars who imagine and invent the boundaries and trajectories of musicking practices.
Nearly a century after Peru won its independence from Spain, limeño playwright Julio Baudouin debuted El Cóndor Pasa, a two-act play promoting national unity through a tale of indigenous miners in a struggle against their foreign bosses. The play’s score, composed by musician and folklorist Daniel Alomía Robles, weaves Peruvian highland music into Western-style arrangements and instrumentation, and was widely received by its 1913 audience as the sound of what Peru was to become: a modern nation firmly rooted in the cultures of its indigenous peoples.
In the century that followed, the score’s homonymous ballad has been interpreted and recorded by countless artists around the world. Easily the most well-known rendition of this famous melody is Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could),” (1970) which Dorr credits with catalyzing a Latin American music revival as well as spurring on a wave of Euro-American musicians and producers who collaborated with and brought into the international spotlight a number of groups who otherwise would have remained in relative obscurity. The tendency to see these projects as the work of (typically white) Westerners “discovering” and “saving” or paternalistically “curating” the dying musical cultures of the world, Dorr suggests, is part and parcel of a World Music concept that frames “primitive” traditions as fair game for extraction and appropriation into innovative sonic hybrids.
The “exotica” category follows the same logic, as the case of Yma Sumac illustrates. From the beginning of her career in the early 1940s with el Conjunto Folklórico Peruano to her 1971 psychedelic version of “El Cóndor Pasa,” Sumac’s vocal versatility and stylistic experimentations map out an experience of Andean indigeneity that Dorr hears in stark contrast to the narratives of the global music industry. While Capitol Records performed their own geography via their marketing of this sexualized “Incan princess,” the singer strategically composed her own sonic-spatial imaginary, not rejecting the difference suggested by “exotica,” but by synthesizing a “space-age” modern aesthetic with traditional songs. Dorr challenges us to listen to Sumac’s “El Cóndor Pasa” against Simon’s arrangement, thinking of her performative dissonances as disruptions of “the static geotemporal imaginaries of ‘authentic indigeneity’ that have most often informed the ballad’s deployment” (59).
If Chapter One makes a case for performance’s potential to shape notions of place and time, Chapter Two explores “spatial(ized) relations of musicking” (68) through a broader consideration of market strategies and the politics of sound in public space. Putumayo serves as another classic example of the global music industry’s pandering to multicultural idealism, promoting itself as “lifestyle company” that brings conscious capitalism into the curation of musical worlds. Dorr keeps her critique of Putumayo rather brief, but uses it as a convincing contrast for the focus of this chapter: the informal streams of economic activity and performance that she calls the “Andean music industry” (AMI). Among other examples from transnational and virtual “sites,” the Andean bands that performed in San Francisco’s Union Square throughout the 1990s demonstrate how performance geographies can challenge state and capitalist power while simultaneously running parallel to the marketing and distribution practices of the world music industry.
The AMI story is one of migration and the formation of a pan-Andean diaspora, of busking and bootlegging tactics that tested the boundaries of zoning and noise regulations as well as California’s immigration and labor policies, and of transposing music networks onto the internet when public performance became too precarious. It is also another case of dissonance, in which musicians willfully use their own cultural difference to their advantage, but not without consequences for poor musicians in South America; a telling example is the “Music of the Andes” CD, a mass-produced compilation used by various groups who, instead of having to record and press their own albums, could simply print their own covers for the Putumayoesque compilation and sell them to their none-the-wiser U.S. audiences (84).
But if the diasporic politics of the AMI came up short in challenging a monolithic representation of “Andean culture” or in highlighting the dynamic transits of Andean fusions such as chicha and Nueva Canción, the daily performances of street musicians in the race- and class-ordered Union Square support Dorr’s argument about the co-constitutive relationship between sound and space: “This unmediated display of embodied and sonic ‘otherness’ threatened the coherence of the square’s representational function by converting it into a spectacle of work and play for a population upon whose concealed labor the economic foundations of California’s wealth largely depend: undocumented migrant workers from the global South” (81).
Elsewhere in 1990s San Francisco, musicians, artists, and activists formed a collective that, like the busking Andean groups, challenged dominant notions of public and private space while performing its own transnational and migratory experiences of Latinidad. In Chapter 4, Dorr relates the story of La Peña del Sur, a grassroots organization in the Mission District and, like the many anti-imperialist peñas popular throughout Latin America since the 1960s, a space for artists to perform or display their work for local audiences. While this peña provided a community for undocumented immigrants and local residents threatened by gentrification, it also served as an unsettling force against the sort of geographies that separate “queer space” from “heterosexual space” without regard for how these neighborhoods are also classed and racialized.
The founder and director of La Peña del Sur, Chilean exile Alejandro Stuart, was among several queer community members whose efforts constituted their shared space as a challenge to normative boundaries, a site for musicking that engendered dialogue among a wide range of people with divergent visions and motivations. Community organizers and students of cultural sustainability would do well to read Dorr’s account of this decade-long experiment that “enabled the exploration of sound-based solidarities rooted in the identification of common historical and political ground through improvisation and participatory performance” (168).
Between these two compelling tales of the dynamic relationship of sound and space in San Francisco, Chapter 3 explores the significance of race, nation, gender, and sexuality within the performance geographies of several Afro-Peruvian artists. Dorr traces the movements of performers and activists who challenged the colonial boundaries that framed blackness as “antithetical to the emergent nation” (111); unlike the indigenous traditions that could be appropriated for an imagining of Peru as modern yet firmly rooted in history, Afro-Peruvian bodies and sounds were treated as contaminants within the postcolonial order.
Listening to Black feminist performance geographies, from Peru’s Black Arts Revival in the ’60s and ’70s to the recent hemispheric collaborations of “global diva” Susana Baca, one can hear the formation of not only such racially imagined communities as “the coastal” and the “Afro-Latinx diaspora,” but also of “the body.” A powerful case of this latter sort of performance is heard in the lyrics and experiences of Victoria Santa Cruz, who, in her choreographed, cajón- and chorus-accompanied poem, “Me Gritaron Negra,” contests the ways in which “[t]he physical contours of her body – her lips and skin and hair – become a geography inscribed with social meaning, an ideological imposition intended to enact and legitimate her ongoing displacement” (121).
Santa Cruz’s pedagogical and performative practices, in particular, reveal why Dorr has chosen sound – and not only broader analytics of performance and musicking – as a central theme to explore in terms of its relation to places and bodies. While this book might leave a few sound studies scholars wanting more elaborate description of particular sonic phenomena or ethnographic consideration of how sound is imagined among Dorr’s interlocutors, a few examples in particular are keys to thinking about how sound signifies, and is signified by, racially mapped bodies and places.
Most intriguing here is a discussion of Santa Cruz’s 1971 book, Discovery and Development of a Sense of Rhythm, which outlines the artist’s approach to “listen[ing] with the body” and tuning in to “rhythm’s Afro-diasporic logics” (116). A pedagogy and practice developed well in advance of Henri Lefebvre’s theory of rhythmanalysis, Santa Cruz’s concept of ritmo–internal rhythm— deserves consideration alongside the work of Amiri Baraka, Jon Michael Spencer, Fred Moten, and Daphne Brooks as crucial for thinking about how Black aesthetics and diasporic sensibilities are cultivated through sound and capable of mobilizing new mappings of bodies and their worlds.
On Site, In Sound also calls for renewed thinking on sonic-spatial relations and the meanings that emerge from within them – how the sounds of particular Latin American voices and instruments come to be understood as masculine or feminine, indigenous or modern, exotic or local. Although “sound” as a specific performative or sensory medium might seem, at times, only one among many phenomena examined within the book’s threefold conceptual framing – listening, musicking, and performance – Dorr weaves it throughout her own performance geography where it takes on multiple forms and scales, challenging even the very boundaries defining what sound “is.” More importantly, this is a geography that scholars of “the sonic” or “music worlds” should read (and hear) as a reminder of sound’s unique ability to create and transcend boundaries – but rarely without a great deal of dissonance.
Featured Image: “Gabriel Angelo, Union Square,” by Flickr User Brandon Doran
Benjamin Bean is a PhD student in sociocultural anthropology at The University of California, Davis. His research interests include Afro-Caribbean music and sound, food and the senses, Puerto Rico, religion and secularism, and the Rastafari movement. During his undergraduate studies at Penn State Brandywine and graduate studies in cultural sustainability at Goucher College, Ben’s fieldwork focused on reggae music, the performativity of Blackness, and the Rastafari concepts of Word, Sound, and Power and I-an-I. His current fieldwork in Puerto Rico examines flavor, taste, and marketing in the island’s growing craft beer movement. Ben was formerly a vocalist and bass guitarist with the Philadelphia-based roots reggae band, Steppin’ Razor.
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Ed. Note: We wanted to run this piece in advance of the Basilica Hudson’s SoundScape event taking place this Friday, September 14 – Sunday, September 16, 2018. Our Amplifying Du Bois at 150 forum will return next week.
Three weeks into a new semester and I am packing for another weekend of irresponsible travel. Irresponsible financially (because air travel on a graduate stipend is a decadence rarely rewarded) and irresponsibly professionally (because missing an annual department event, grading in a car, and sleeping on the ground for two days is a string of realities that stand sternly opposed to anything like good sense). I am doing all this in order to attend Basilica Hudson’s Soundscape: a wide and ranging line up of musicians and artists whose aesthetic commitments fall, shall we say, considerably aslant from the pop-cultural median. I am doing all this because of something that happened last year at this place, something I am still trying to work out. And this means, amongst concerned colleagues and family and friends, I’m again hearing that familiar, stuttering articulation of disbelief. Phrased, with equal parts confusion and concern, they rejoin:
This question first started popping up late last March. It came repeatedly, unblinkingly, and, I should add, not-unreasonably. What’s more, this was, in a very real way, my fault. For I had failed to develop a pithy ready-to-hand account of precisely why I was to travel from Chicago to New York City and New York City to Hudson, only to sleep on a thin mat on the concrete floor of a converted foundry while listening to loud, sustained bursts of noise (with varying degrees of harmonic familiarity) for an unbroken period of 24 hours.
Instead, I had only an intuition that failed to pass even the slightest of critical muster: Basillica Hudson’s 24-HOUR DRONE festival seemed weird and extreme and like something might happen there. On this basis, it seemed like a good thing to do.
I can now state with some clarity (though still lacking anything like critical poise) that something did in fact happen there, and it was indeed a good thing to do. Though what that “something” was remains frustratingly elusive.
This piece thus began as a review, but ended necessarily quite differently. The conventions of a review call for evaluation and normative judgement; they require statements regarding the quality of an event or object. I can offer very little in this vein. I’m still trying to wrest from memory something stubbornly mute and fleeting — still trying to figure out what it was, precisely, that happened there.
The drive up remains clear enough in memory. The usual crackle of reunited conversation between dear friends long-separated by geography; a decision not to listen to the then-new Grouper album (we would have enough heart-dragging ambient texture in the coming hours, we concluded); the sounds of Brooklyn passing into that hushed early-Spring upstate on Route 84. We at one point, for reasons that need not become articulate, listened to the Gin Blossoms. But as we pulled into the graveled parking lot a sense of anticipation and confusion returned. What was this thing?
To begin, we might reasonably call it an event.
Basilica Hudson — an upstate New York-based non-profit for the arts that puts on the event annually — admirably describes it thus:
An immersive event and all-encompassing experience, 24-HOUR DRONE is a roving, international series presented by Basilica Hudson and Le Guess Who?, featuring musicians and sound artists experimenting within the spectrum of drone to create 24 hours of unbroken, uninterrupted sound.
Through this expanded programming, 24-HOUR DRONE strives to break down barriers across borders, offering an opportunity to connect diverse musical communities and traditions, offering a localized snapshot of DRONE within the larger context of an imagined universal sound.
The language here should scan as familiar to anyone accustomed to reading music and arts press. Roving, experimental, barrier-breaking, border-crossing: these terms all call up a restless energy, the excitement of the wholly new, the different, the thoroughly non-normative. As it turns out, all these attributes turn out to be more-or-less (if uninterestingly) true.
Over the course of the day and night, I heard the ethereal saxophone of PAUL, the whipping clangor of Pharmakon, and — I want to emphasize this — the absolutely breathless New Castrati, January Hunt’s exceptional and mournful work living up to her billing elsewhere as “synth, drones, and the annihilation of man.” A sentence above, though, still merits pause: “a localized snapshot of DRONE within the larger context of universal sound.” Roving energy and shattering experiment here take shape as a snapshot, the whirring and calamitous universal stalling for a moment in a discrete particular. 24-HOUR DRONE attempts to lends form to what was too diffuse to be seen.
So, modestly, in lieu of aesthetic judgement, a proposition: the value of Basilica Hudson’s 24-HOUR DRONE is to offer space to sound.
Indeed, for an event so centrally concerned with sound, 24-HOUR DRONE is as much about the Basilica — a converted nineteenth-century cathedral-esque foundry — as it is about sound. And for good reason: the Basilica has been beautifully repurposed — gutted of its original use and re-asserted as an malleable and improbably elegant arts space. Hundred-plus foot ceilings dwarf individual bodies, it’s begrimed upper windows modulate the midday sun into a speckled and hazy sepia, and the elaborate truss-work grids the scene in an industrial domework. The Basilica is a work of architecture meant to imagine and hold, however briefly, those fleeting shards and fragments of something yearning toward a “universal sound.”
Though even as stunning a work of architecture as the Basilica can only ever confer a loose limit. These fragments are always clamoring for a more robust scene, always threatening to join the broader universal that awaits. Sound passes through walls, vibrates along concrete, penetrates skin and mingles among bodies. Spaces focalize sound’s capacities for the social and ethereal, by preserving and witnessing its constitutive ephemerality. Different spaces draw our attention to sound’s actually-existing materiality: a materiality that doesn’t quit, one that loosens our grip on our more ready-to-hand material worlds.
Grasping this materiality is not easy; it is maybe impossible. What possible cognitive torque will allows us to grasp at this overtopping universal? One option, it seems, is sheer brute force.
The term “endurance” rightly comes up repeatedly in press-documents and FAQs. For the event is knot of time and space (24 hours at the Basilica) which commands an attention to sound as a given, but sounding too as demanding an economy of attention wholly strange–a fidelity to sound that is without end. Limning out these ambitious parameters, to reign sound in, if for only a moment, requires something added.
Sonic spaces have a familiar, if knotty, history. Cathedrals invoke a beatific space, trussed by elaborate ornament and a spiritualized verticality. Music festivals inscribe traditions of sound and histories of capital — crowds and power, in Gina Arnold’s felicitous adaptation of Elias Canetti. Dwellings and offices, cafes and bars. Spaces arrange us in sound, and sound among us.
DRONE, then, is a provocation to think about sound — to think it over time, and to do so in a necessarily rarified space. This provocation worked; but I felt it only at an extreme limit.
At the twentieth hour (8 AM) I needed coffee. I had slept (kind of) through the night, rose to a bell ceremony, and walked immediately, groggily outside. As I passed through the door frame into the dewy and drizzly upstate morning, the sound — as if from a vacuum — muted and was voided of weight. I walked through the mostly empty streets.
These empty streets were, as it turned out, raucously loud. Distant cars motoring across country byways, the buzzing of a streetlight long past its prime; my tinnitus — a steadily pitched pulse acquired in those irresponsible salad days standing too-close to a crash cymbal — reminding me of all I may one day not hear. These sounds were, quite suddenly, clamoring for my attention, demanding my thought, straining for distinction. The espresso machine, the door hinges, the bathroom sink. Floorboards and rain and leaves and the Hudson and, and, and.
I walked back, not a little unsettled.
I had breakfast outside the venue among gravel-scraping shoes and overheard conversation.
Finally, I went back inside for what turned out to be the final act: Dronechoir Syllaba. The scene remains hauntingly clear.
A grouping of women entered, dressed entirely in white, each with one earbud in-ear, the other hanging loose. Some, if not all, had a length of yarn tied around their waist and dragging along the ground behind them a screw, nail, metal implement, which, as they walked produced a fragile, slender tone. They congregated in the center of the room and produced a careful and lush chord, its density piling up toward the far reaches of the ceiling. Slowly, the chord broke apart.
But, then, that’s not true.
I should say: slowly, the women moved apart, the chord remained, stretched and pitched against new and different coordinates, inhabiting the Basilica’s elastic space in a new configuration. Notes moved, their bearers slowly pacing around the exhausted and supine bodies of Droners along the floor.
A choir member approached me, holding out her free earbud. I shook my head, wearing a nervous grin. She insisted; I put it in. Playing quietly in that tinny bud was a reference tone for me to share. I looked at her as though I didn’t understand, and she smiled as if she did. Insisting. I managed a small hum, off-kilter and out of tune, before handing it back to her. Looking around, I saw the relationship I had repeated among others across the room. The chord kept mutating — dilating and contracting, swelling and receding, different tones calibrated along moving spatial coordinates. The choir returned to formation in center.
At noon, silence.
Everyone was smiling, dazed, like milkdrunk babies or punchdrunk lovers. We had slept amongst each other, passing a night in a shared space, while sound had enwrapped and enraptured us. We had borne witness to valences of sound hitherto under-noticed. We had joined a choir, if only for an offkilter moment in a space out-of-joint.
We thought, my traveling companion and I, we thought the car ride back to the city would be for silence. For what else could you thirst after 24 such hours in the heart of sound? But this turned out to be deafening uncomfortable, weird. We were, in our own private ways, estranged from sound. Which is really another way of saying we were in different relation to sound and to the spaces it fills. There, a foundry. Here, a car. We put on, in lieu of silence, a little slice of magic, the condensation of all groove and beat, the most organized flash of pop brilliance this side of 1980. We of course put on Thriller.
As we roiled down the road to this joyous whispered desire — wanna be startin’ somethin’, got to be startin’ somethin’ — in a vehicle not made for dancing, the force of the Drone event began to take shape.
So, again: why?
To give attention to what we all already share — space and sound, history and music. To be adrift but not asleep in it all.
As for what happened?
I’ll try to grasp that next year.
Featured Image by Alt
Robert Cashin Ryan is a PhD candidate in the department of English at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He has written in various places about literary form and formalism, the relationship between Herman Melville and Charles Dickens, and Christmas as an intellectual problem. He curated and introduced a gathering of essays on music, sound, and noise for Post-digital forthcoming from Bloomsbury 2019.
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