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.
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Keep On Pushing!
The Style Council, “Walls Come Tumbling Down”—Aaron Trammell
Tricky, “Black Steel”—Brían Hanrahan
Alabama Shakes, “Dunes”—Liana Silva
INSTRUMENTAL #1: Physics, “Delayed Drone”—Stuart Fowkes
Boris Dlugosch, “Keep Pushin” (Original Club Mix)—Luis-Manuel Garcia
Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators, “Keep Reaching’ Up”—Will Stabile
The Slits, “Typical Girls”—Art Blake
INSTRUMENTAL #2: AGF, “Bgcolour”—Salomé Voegelin
Nina Simone, “Work Song”—Neil Verma
Frank Wilson, “Do I love you/indeed I do”—Josh Shepperd
INSTRUMENTAL #3: Odon, “Never”—Primus Luta
tUnE-yArDs, “Look Around”—Alyxandra Vesey
Sammus, “Power Ups”—Jennifer Stoever
INSTRUMENTAL #4: Sabrepulse, “Cityscape Dreams.”—Kyle Stedman
The Impressions, “People Get Ready” —Regina Bradley
Arrested Development, “Everyday People”—Kristin Leigh Moriah
Welcome to World Listening Month 2014, our annual forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2014. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us [for the full deets, peep our recent SO! Amplifies post by Eric Leonardson, Executive Director of the World Listening Project]. We kick off our month of thinking critically about listening with a post by media historian Brian Hanrahan, who listens deeply to sonic traces of the past to prompt us to question our desires for contemporary media representations of “reality.” It also marks the global 100 year anniversary of World War I this August 2014: a moment of silence. —J. Stoever, Editor-in-Chief
For some reason that I don’t fully understand, I am very emotionally moved by the space around a sound. I almost think that sometimes I am recording space with a sound in it, rather than sound in a space. –Walter Murch
If you want to listen to the past, there’s never been a time like the present. Every year, it seems, new old recordings are identified, new techniques developed to recover sounds thought irrecoverable. Here is Bismarck’s voice, preserved on a cylinder in 1889. Here, older still, is Edison’s. There is the astonishing recuperation of phonautograms – reverberation traced onto soot-blackened paper in the mid-nineteenth century, digitally processed and played back in our own. But as that processing underlines, no sound recording straightforwardly reproduces the real. An acoustic artifact is a compound of materiality, form and meaning, but also a place where technology meets desire. Old recordings meet the listener’s longing halfway; they invoke a reality always out of reach. And not simply a longing to hear, but also to touch, and be moved by, the fact of an absent existence.
Take, for instance, HMV 09308. In October 1918, just before the end of the Great War, William Gaisberg, a sound recordist of the pre-electric era, took recording equipment to the Western Front in order to capture the sound of British artillery shelling German lines with poison gas. Gaisberg died not long after, probably from Spanish flu, although some say he was weakened by gas exposure during the recording. Nonetheless the “Gas Shell Bombardment” record – a 12-inch HMV shellac disc, just over 2 minutes at 78 rpm – was released a few weeks later, just as the war came to an end. Initially intended to promote War Bonds, ultimately the record was used to raise money for disabled veterans.
For decades, the HMV recording had a reputation as one of the very earliest “actuality” recordings – one documenting a real location and event beyond the performative space of the studio, imprinted with the audible material trace of an actual moment in space and time. Documents like this – no matter what the technology – usually come with additional symbolic authentication. Here, the record’s label does some of that work. This “historic recording,” says the subtitle, is an “actual record taken on the front line.” Publicity pieces drove home the message. In the popular HMV magazine The Voice, Gaisberg – or probably his posthumous ghost-writer – described the expedition in detail, claiming the track to be a “true representation of the bombardment.”
In the same issue, a Major C.J.C. Street compared the recording to his own experience on the Front. “Its realism,” he wrote, ”took my breath away… I played the record many times… finding at each attempt some well-remembered detail.” He didn’t say so in his article, but Street – an artillery officer, a novelist and a propaganda man for the intelligence agency MI7 – was in fact the impresario of the record. This was not the first time he had found astute uses for sound media. The previous year he had put together a record that set artillery drill commands to popular tunes – the recording was both a propaganda release and an army training tool for new recruits. With the Gas Shell record, Street knew he wasn’t just selling recorded sound, but also an auratic sense of closeness to an overwhelming reality, the palpable proximity of war and death. Authenticating detail helped to underpin this sense of an absent real made present. Street cued the listener for those “well-remembered details.” In particular, he singled out one indistinct rattly flap-whizz noise, hearing in it, he claimed, the sound of a round with a “loose driving-band.”
The record stayed in the HMV catalog until 1945, but only in the early 1990s were its production history and authenticity claims seriously examined. In specialist journals, archivists, collectors and amateur historians undertook a collective forensic and critical analysis. A promising auditory witness was located: 95-year-old Lt.-Col. Montagu Cleeve another former artillery officer, in his time a developer of “Boche Buster” railway gun, later a music professor – was invited to critically assess the recording. Cleeve vouched unreservedly for its authenticity. He heard in it, he said, an unmistakable succession of sounds – the clang of the breech, the gigantic report of the firing explosion, the distinctive whiny whistle of a gas shell on its way across no-man’s-land. Others looked to data rather than the memories of old soldiers. One expert on pre-electric recording noted the angles commanded in firing instructions, correlated them with known muzzle velocities for 4.5 and 6-inch howitzers, then used this and other information to “definitively” explain the counter-intuitive anti-Doppler sound of the shells’ whistling. He also identified the audible echo effect – the curious “double report” of the guns heard here – as the sound of a brass recording horn violently resonating at a distance of exactly 26.5 meters from the guns.
Eventually, skepticism won out. Close listening at slow speeds – just careful attention and notation, nothing more elaborate – revealed inconsistencies and oddities in the firing noises. The bongs, plops and whistles seemed internally inconsistent. Some of the artillery sounds – ostensibly a battery of four, firing in quick succession – varied implausibly with each successive firing. Physical evidence from the record’s groove, as well as extraneous noises – surface crackle and fizz, and, audible within the recording, the swish of a turntable – seemed to indicate at least two rudimentary overdubs, in which the output of one acoustic horn was relayed into a second, possibly using an auxetophone, an early compressed-air amplifier. All this resulted in a double- or triple-layered sonic artifact. Finally – the crucial evidence, although oddly it was hardly noticed at the time – an alternative take was located. In this take, according to its discoverer, the entire theatrics of gunnery command is simply absent, and there is no sound at all of whistling shells in motion. What was left was a skeleton sequence of clicks, thuds and cracks, supplemented with only a single closing insert, the portentous injunction “Feed the Guns with War Bonds!”
In short, it seems highly likely that any original field recording was, at the very least, post-dramatized with performed voices and percussive and whistling sound effects. So, it is tempting to say, that clears that up. The recording’s inauthenticity is proven. File under Fake. But in fact, if we don’t stop there, if we set aside narrow and absolutist ideas of authenticity, and instead explore the recording’s ambiguity and hybridity, then Gas Shell Bombardment becomes all the more interesting as an historical artifact.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that some form of basic recording was done in France, very possibly a staged barrage specifically performed for Gaisberg’s visit, and that this recording then had effects added back at HMV in London. The record might then be seen less as a straightforward documentary, and instead as an unusual version of the “descriptive speciality,” a genre of miniature phonographic vignette dating back to the 1890s, far predating longer-form radio drama. Very little is known about these early media artworks, but it is a fair generalization to say that in America the genre was more slanted towards vaudeville comedy, whereas in Europe, imperial and military scenes predominated. As early as 1890, for example, there had been German phonographic representations of battles from the Franco-Prussian war. The Great War saw a flourishing of the genre. Scholars are just beginning to take an interest these old phonographs; here’s one recent essay on the “Angel of Mons,” for example, a British acoustic vignette of a famous incident on the Western Front.
Listen to a 1915 German descriptive speciality, depicting the attack on the fortress of Liège the previous year:
As a descriptive speciality, Gas Shell Bombardment is unusual because it incorporates an actual indexical trace. But such traces – as emphasized by Charles Sanders Pierce and many later media-theoreticians– do not resemble their referent, they are caused by it. The bullet hole does not look much like a bullet; thunder is lightning’s trace, not its likeness. But for Street and Gaisberg, the trace’s lack of resemblance caused problems: the original recording’s lack of detail, cues and clues, but above all its lack of internal dimensionality, created a perceptual shortfall and a lack of credibility. Maybe they hoped that the guns, by sheer force of amplitude, would overcome the spatially impoverished, reverbless reproduction of pre-electric recording. If so, it didn’t work. Without added effects, the guns’ trace was as flat and “body-less” as a sequence of Morse. It was a sound without a scene. The producers’ interventions aimed to thicken the primary artifact with referential-sounding detail, but also to heighten the sense of materiality and spatiality, and to strengthen the sense of diegetic presence, of worlded thereness. The soldiers’ voices – louder and quieter, close-up and farther-out – and the fake-Doppler of the “shell whistling” lent the recording narrative direction (literally, some trajectory) and “authenticating” points of detail. But above all they gave a sense of internal space to the recording, a space into which the listener could direct her attention.
In this context, we can only admire the creativity and performative élan of the unknown production crew. We know little about effects production in early phonography. It is a safe bet that some techniques were adopted from theatre, and that there was overlap with silent film accompaniment. But whatever the method used, it would have called for the awkward orchestration of a limited number of iconic sounds to create an impression of a spatially coherent and materially detailed sonic environment. The recordist and his team would first have had to imagine how relative loudness – of voices, of material objects struck and sounded – might create a sense of spatial depth when transduced through the horn’s crude interface. Then they would have had to perform this as a live overdub, keeping time with the base track of the gun recording played through another horn. And all this done with participants and equipment crowded tightly around the mouth of the huge horn, crammed into the tiny pick-up arc, a scene looking something like this image of Leopold Stokowski’s pre-electric recording sessions or this photograph of the recording of a cello concerto.
As well as this hybrid of trace and live performance, there is another performance here – Gaisberg’s journey itself. With twenty years of recording experience, Gaisberg was probably very well aware that the expedition would not yield a “realistic” recording of the guns. But the expedition had to be made, so that it could be said to have taken place. Expectations had to be primed and colored, so that, to use André Bazin’s famous phrase about photographs, the recording could partake in an “irrational power to… bear the belief” of the listener. The journey, and the accounts of Gaisberg and Street are not a supplement to the “true representation” of the gas bombardment. They are part of that representation. Moreover, in subsequent writing it is noticeable that the manner of Gaisberg’s death becomes a rhetorical amplification for the authenticity of the recording’s trace, as if his fatal inhalation (of gas molecules or flu bacilli) were itself a deadly indexation, paralleling the recording’s claim to capture the breath of the War, and even of History itself.
In media-historical terms, the Gas Shell Bombardment recording can be understood as a late, transitional artifact from phonography’s pre-microphonic era. The desire for the sonic trace, for an ever more immersive proximity to events was there, but electro-acoustic technology was not yet in place. Two years later, in 1920, Horace Merriman and Lionel Guest made the first experimental electrical recording, arguably also the first true field recording. The event, appropriately enough, was an official war memorial service in London, where Merriman and Guest – working for Columbia Records – put microphones in Westminster Abbey, running cables to a remote recording van parked in the street outside, where they sat amidst heating ovens and cutting lathes. By the end of the 1920s, remote recording and broadcasting, while never straightforward, were well on the way to ubiquity.
Claims made on behalf of technologies of reproduction may seem simplistic, but there’s a grain of truth to their simplicity. If there were nothing special – even magical – in the referentiality of the camera that captures the moment, the recording that’s like being there, the liveness of the live broadcast, these things would not play the role they do in everyday life and in the ideological fabric of society. But there is falsehood too, in over-simplifying the nature and affective charge of old photographs, old footage, old recordings. These are made things, composed of different materials, media, signs and conventions; they are inseparable from the desires and expectations they induce and direct. They function in part by mimesis and verisimilitude, but also through the gaps, blank spots and false illusions of their trace. They can – rightly – intensify our feeling towards the past, but should also prompt us to think about our own desires and investments.
Image by Flickr User DrakeGoodman, “Horchposten im Spengtrichter vor Neuve-Chapelle 6km nördlich von La Bassée Nordfrankreich 1916,” A trio of lightly equipped soldiers from an unidentified formation oblige the photographer by looking serious and pretending they’re just metres from the enemy, listening for activity in his lines. The improvised “listening device” is actually a large funnel, probably liberated from a nearby farm.
Brían Hanrahan is a film, media and cultural historian, whose work focuses on the history of acoustic media, German and European cinema and the culture of the Weimar Republic.
Edited post-publication at 8:00 pm EST on July 7, 2014
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In case you missed our special “War of the Worlds” listening event, you can listen in again to the first part of our broadcast, featuring more than a dozen prominent radio historians, hosted by Brian Hanrahan (Cornell University), with critical reflections from Shawn VanCour (New York University), Kathleen Battles (Oakland University), and Alex Russo (Catholic University) [Part 1]; Brian Wall (SUNY Binghamton), Paul Heyer (Wilfrid Laurier University), and Tom McEnaney (Cornell University) [Part 2]; Kate Lacey (University at Sussex), Jason Loviglio (The University of Maryland, Baltimore County), Paul Heyer (Wilfrid Laurier University), Damien Keane (SUNY Buffallo), Josh Sheppard (The University of Wisconsin-Madison), and John Cheng (SUNY Binghamton) [Part 3]. Part one focuses on radio in the year 1938, part two focuses on Orson Welles, and part three focuses on the War of the Worlds broadcast itself, the media panics which ensued, and aftermath.
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