The Firesign Theatre are the only group that can claim among its devoted fans both Thom Yorke and John Ashbery; who have an album in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress and also coined a phrase now used as a slogan by freeform giant WFMU; and whose albums were widely distributed by tape among U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, and then sampled by the most selective classic hip hop DJs, from Steinski and DJ Premier to J Dilla and Madlib.
Formed in 1966, they began their career improvising on Los Angeles’s Pacifica station KPFK, and went on to work in numerous media formats over their four-decade career. They are best known for a series of nine albums made for Columbia Records, records that remain unparalleled for their density, complexity, and sonic range. Realizing in an astonishing way the implications of the long playing record and the multi-track recording studio, the Firesign Theatre’s Columbia albums offer unusually fertile ground for bringing techniques of literary analysis to bear upon the fields of sound and media studies (and vice versa). This is a strategy that aims to reveal the forms of political consciousness that crafted the records, as well as the politics of the once-common listening practices binding together the disparate audiences I have just named. It is no accident that the associative and referential politics of the sample in “golden age” hip hop would have recognized a similar politics of reference and association in Firesign Theatre’s sound work, in particular in the group’s pioneering use of language, time, and space.
The Firesign Theatre is typically understood as a comedy act from the era of “head music” — elaborate album-oriented sounds that solicited concerted, often collective and repeated, listening typically under the influence of drugs. But it may be better to understand their work as attempting to devise a future for literary writing that would be unbound from the printed page and engaged with the emergent recording technologies of the day. In this way, they may have crafted a practice more radical, but less recognizable, than that of poets —such as Allen Ginsberg or David Antin, both of whose work Firesign read on the air — who were also experimenting with writing on tape during these years (see Michael Davidson’s Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word, in particular 196-224). Because their work circulated almost exclusively on vinyl (secondarily on tape), it encouraged a kind of reading (in the strictest sense) with the ears; the fact that their work was distributed through the networks of popular music may also have implications for the way we understand past communities of music listeners as well.
The period of Firesign’s contract (1967-1975) with the world’s largest record company parallels exactly the recording industry’s relocation from New York to Los Angeles, the development of multitrack studios which made the overdub the dominant technique for recording pop music, and the rise of the LP as a medium in its own right, a format that rewarded, and in Firesign’s case required, repeated listening. These were all factors the Firesign Theatre uniquely exploited. Giving attention to the musicality of the group’s work, Jacob Smith has shown (in an excellent short discussion in Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures that is to date the only academic study of Firesign) how the group’s attention to the expansion of television, and in particular the new practice of channel-surfing, provided both a thematic and a formal focus for the group’s work: “Firesign […] uses channel surfing as the sonic equivalent of parallel editing, a kind of horizontal or melodic layering in which different themes are woven in and out of prominence until they finally merge. Firesign also adds vertical layers to the narrative in a manner analogous to musical harmony or multiple planes of cinematic superimposition” (181). But more remains to be said not only about the effect of the Firesign Theatre’s work, but about its carefully wrought semantics, in particular the way the “horizontal” and “vertical” layers that Smith identifies were used as ways of revealing the mutually implicated regimes of politics, culture, and media in the Vietnam era — at the very moment when the explosion of those media was otherwise working to disassociate those fields.
The group’s third album, Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers is typically understood as their first extended meditation on the cultural phenomenology of television. Throughout the record, though there is much else going on, two pastiches of 1950s genre movies (High School Madness and a war film called Parallel Hell!) stream intermittently, as if through a single channel-surfing television set. The films coincide in two superimposed courtroom scenes that include all the principal characters from both films. By interpenetrating the school and the war, the record names without naming the killing of four students at Kent State and two students at Jackson State University, two events that occurred eleven days apart in May 1970 while the group was writing and recording in Los Angeles. Until this point rationalized by the framing fiction of a principal character watching both films on television, the interpenetration of the narratives is resolvable within the album’s diegesis—the master plot that accounts for and rationalizes every discrete gesture and event—only as a representation of that character’s having fallen asleep and dreaming the films together, a narrative sleight of hand that would testify to the group’s comprehension of literary modernism and the avant-garde.
The question of what may “cause” the interpenetration of the films is of interest, but the Firesign Theatre did not always require justification to elicit the most outrageous representational shifts of space (as well as of medium and persona). What is of more interest is the way rationalized space — the space implied by the “audioposition” of classic radio drama, as theorized by Neil Verma in Theater of the Mind— could be de-emphasized or even abandoned in favor of what might instead be called analytic space, an aural fiction in which the institutions of war and school can be understood as simultaneous and coterminous, and which more broadly represents the political corruptions of the Nixon administration by means of formal and generic corruption that is the hallmark of the Firesign Theatre’s approach to media (35-38).
While the techniques that produce this analytic soundscape bear some resemblance to what Verma terms the “kaleidosonic style” pioneered by radio producer Norman Corwin in the 1940s — in which the listener is moved “from place to place, experiencing shallow scenes as if from a series of fixed apertures” — even this very brief sketch indicates how radically the Firesign Theatre explored, deepened, and multiplied Corwin’s techniques in order to stage a more politically diagnostic and implicative mode of cultural interpretation. Firesign’s spaces, which are often of great depth, are rarely traversed arbitrarily; they are more typically experienced either in a relatively seamless flow (perspective and location shifting by means of an associative, critical or analytical, logic that the listener may discover), or are instead subsumed within regimes of media (a radio broadcast within a feature film which is broadcast on a television that is being watched by the primary character on the record album to which you are listening). According to either strategy the medium may be understood to be the message, but that message is one whose horizon is as critical as it is aesthetic.
The creation of what I am terming an analytic space was directly abetted by the technological advancement of recording studios, which underwent a period of profound transformation during the years of their Columbia contract, which spanned the year of The Beatles’s Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (arguably the world’s first concept album, recorded on four tracks) to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (arguably that band’s fourth concept album, recorded on 24 tracks). Pop music had for years availed itself of the possibilities of recording vocals and solos separately, or doubly, but the dominant convention was for such recordings to support the imagined conceit of a song being performed live. As studios’ technological advances increased the possibilities for multitracking, overdubbing, and mixing, pop recordings such as Sgt. Pepper and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) became more self-evidently untethered from the event of a live performance, actual or simulated. In the place of the long-dominant conceit of a recording’s indexical relation to a particular moment in time, pop music after the late 60s came increasingly to define and inhabit new conceptions of space, and especially time. Thus, when in 1970 Robert Christgau asserted that the Firesign Theatre “uses the recording studio at least as brilliantly as any rock group” (and awarding a very rare A+), he was remarking the degree to which distortions and experiments with time and space were if anything more radically available to narrative forms than they were to music.
The overdub made possible much more than the simple multiplication and manipulation of aural elements, it also added depth and richness to the soundfield. New possibilities of mixing, layering, and editing also revealed that the narrative representation of time, as well as spatial element I’ve just described, could be substantially reworked and given thematic meaning. In one knowing example, on 1969’s How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All, an accident with a time machine results in the duplication of each of the narrative’s major characters, who then fight or drink with each other.
This crisis of the unities is only averted when a pastiche of Franklin Delano Roosevelt interrupts the record’s fictional broadcast, announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and his decision to surrender to Japan. On a record released the year the United States began secret bombing in Cambodia, it is not only the phenomenological, but also the social and political, implications of this kind of technologically mediated writing that are striking: the overdub enables the formal representation of “duplicity” itself, with the gesture of surrender ironically but pointedly offered as the resolution to the present crisis in Southeast Asia.
To take seriously the Firesign Theatre’s experiments with medium, sound, and language may be a way of reviving techniques of writing — as well as recording, and of listening — that have surprisingly eroded, even as technological advances (cheaper microphones, modeling software, and programs from Audacity and Garage Band to Pro Tools and Ableton Live) have taken the conditions of production out of the exclusive purview of the major recording studios. In two recent essays in RadioDoc Review called “The Arts of Amnesia: The Case for Audio Drama Part One” and “Part Two,” Verma has surveyed the recent proliferation of audio drama in the field of podcasting, and urged artists to explore more deeply the practices and traditions of the past, fearing that contemporary aversion to “radio drama” risks “fall[ing] into a determinism that misses cross-fertilization and common experiment” (Part Two, 4). Meanwhile, Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett’s live performances from their excellent World According to Sound podcast are newly instantiating a form of collective and immersive listening that bears a resemblance to the practices that were dominant among Firesign Theatre listeners in the 1960s and 70s; this fall they are hosting listening events for Firesign records in San Francisco.
It is tempting to hope for a wider range of experimentation in the field of audio in the decade to come, one that either critically exploits or supersedes the hegemony of individualized listening emblematized by podcast apps and noise-cancelling headphones. But if the audio field instead remains governed by information-oriented podcasts, leavened by a subfield of relatively classical dramas like the very good first season of Homecoming, a return to the Firesign Theatre’s work can have methodological, historical, and theoretical value because it could help reveal how the experience of recorded sound had an altogether different political inflection in an earlier era. Thinking back to the remarkably heterogeneous set of Firesign Theatre fans with which I began, it is hard not to observe that the dominant era of the sample in hip hop is one where it was not the Walkman but the jambox — with its politics of contesting a shared social space through collective listening — was the primary apparatus of playback. However unwished- for, this determinist line of technological thinking would clarify the way media audiences are successively composed and decomposed, and show more clearly how, to use Nick Couldry’s words in “Liveness, ‘Reality,’ and the Mediated Habitus from Television to the Mobile Phone,” “the ‘habitus’ of contemporary societies is being transformed by mediation itself” (358).
Featured Image: The Firesign Theatre (ice cream baggage claim): John Rose, courtesy of author.
Jeremy Braddock is Associate Professor of English at Cornell University, where he specializes on the production and reception of modernist literature, media, and culture from the 1910s throughout the long twentieth century. His scholarship has examined the collective and institutional forms of twentieth-century authorship that are obscured by the romanticized figure of the individual artist. His book Collecting as Modernist Practic— a study of anthologies, archives, and private art collections — won the 2013 Modernist Studies Association book prize. Recent publications include a short essay considering the literary education of Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus and an essay on the Harlem reception of James Joyce’s Ulysses. He is currently working on a book on the Firesign Theatre.
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The New Wave: On Radio Arts in the UK–Magz Hall
This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground–Jacob Smith
The offer was, I confess, music to my ears. It was the around this time last year that Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever and the SO! collective generously offered me the chance to come on board to help them draw in sound-minded editors and authors from the American Studies Association and Society for Cinema & Media Studies, and other academic associations, opening up a new space two or three Thursdays each month. The truth is I never even considered turning them down. Working together, we recruited talented folks to work as Guest Editors, crafting a number of special series posts that dig deep into mediated sonic worlds of music, radio, film, art and science.
The result has been a group of articles that I couldn’t be prouder of for their richness. Among the most widely-read articles I’ve worked on this year you’ll find Mike D’Errico’s controversial piece on gender and brostep, but also Margaret Schedel’s groundbreaking article on sonifying nanoparticles. Go ahead, try to find another sound studies venue – online or anyplace – with range like that. No luck? As I suspected. Welcome back.
Not only has working on SO! been an honor, it has also opened up new horizons for me, forged odd alliances and prompted strange harmonies – hallmarks of what exciting sound studies ought to be about. I learned something and relearned more every week. In that spirit, this “Year Re-hear” post celebrates the Thursday stream by listening back –not once, but three times — to where we’ve been.
First, the straight story.
Our year started with The Wobble Continuum, a series on race, gender and dubstep, edited by Justin D. Burton (Rider University) with posts by Mike D’Errico (UCLA), Christina Giacona (U of Oklahoma), and Burton. These articles brought new perspective on the “maximalist aesthetic” of electronic dance music and explored resistance to sonic racism, while examining sonic experience everywhere from a baseball stadium to a bus stop.
Then, beginning in February, we heard from Latin America through Radio de Acción a series on radio and the idea of region. Edited by Tom McEnaney (Cornell), with posts by Alejandra Bronfman (UBC), Karl Swinehart (Uchicago) and Carolina Guerrero (Radio Ambulante), RdA brought us fascinating stories of student activists taking over radio stations to oppose Fulgencio Batista in the 1950’s and of the founding of Radio Ambulante, at the forefront of Spanish-language creative narrative radio today.
When Spring came (remember Spring? sigh.) I edited Start a Band, reflecting on the legacy and music of the late Lou Reed, with posts by Jacob Smith (Northwestern) and Tim Anderson (Old Dominion). Tim and Jake offered penetrating accounts of how reissues of Velvet Underground records helped a generation learn to listen, and how their music quite literally gets under your skin, and sometimes even deeper.
Sculpting the Film Soundtrack, was our next series, an ambitious take on new directions in film sound design edited by Katherine Spring (Wilfrid Laurier), with posts by Randolph Jordan (Simon Fraser), Danijela Kulezic-Wilson (University College, Cork) and Benjamin Wright (University of Southern California). This series had extraordinary range, examining works by such figures as Hans Zimmer and Shane Carruth that break down old assumptions about soundtracks, while unsettling the act of listening itself.
From radio and film, we turned to art and science. First with Hearing the Unheard,
a series edited by Seth Horowitz (NeuroPop) with posts by the sound artist China Blue (The Engine Institute), Milton A. Garcés (University of Hawaii at Manoa) and Margaret A. Schedel (Stonybrook). This series took us inside the ears of dogs, out into the vacuum of space billions of years ago, and deep inside the sound of underground lava. Then came our current series, Radio Art Reflections, edited by Magz Hall, which promises to undertake a trans-national history of radio art — check out the first post by artist Anna Friz (Canada) on radio art and acoustic ecology.
Where will this stream go next? In part, that’s up to you. If you have a concept for a special series, and a sense of some exciting authors for it, have a look at our Call for Guest Editors, we’ll extend the deadline a few days.
In reviewing these posts, I was struck by how they form their own connections in ways we didn’t plan and probably couldn’t foresee a year ago. The Thursday stream echoes back on itself. Here, for your consideration, are three alternative hypothetical groupings of the exact same posts you see above:
Sound and Indigenous Peoples Today: a series featuring an examination of the circulation of A Tribe Called Red’s song “Braves“, a study of indigenous peoples of Vancouver’s Eastside on film, and an introduction to Aymara-language radio in Bolivia, with Christina Giacona, Randolph Jordan and Karl Swinehart.
The Microsonic: a series on itty bitty sounds, and how to get at them. Posts explore the sonic fragments in Upstream Color, the sonification of data from x-ray scatter, and the tactile sounds of Lou Reed with Danijela Kulezic-Wilson, Margaret A. Schedel, and Jacob Smith.
Sonic Breakdown: a series on the sound of breaking down and how sounds break things down, from the big budget film soundtrack to volcanic rock formations, and national boundaries in Caribbean radio history, with posts by Benjamin Wright, Milton Garces and Alejandra Bronfman.
Finally, why not let the sounds from these posts tell the story for a change?
Tickle your ears with some of the sounds we’ve featured in this stream over the last year, a little sound sandbox:
- Guest editor Seth Horowitz’s office, as an elephant might hear it
- Tape of a student takeover of Radio Reloj in Cuba in 1957
- “Lady Godiva’s Operation” by The Velvet Underground
- A tremor at Arenal, a volcano in Costa Rica
- electrosmog, a work of radio art by Kristen Roos for Radius in Chicago
- The sound of cartoons playing on a TV in a methadone clinic in Vancouver
- A sonifications of a variety of mappings of x-ray scattered particles by Meg Schedel
Thanks to Jennifer, Aaron, Liana, Will and everyone here at SO! for putting your faith in me this year. And thanks especially to all our writers and editors for being so enthusiastic, brilliant and patient.
The SO! family salutes you!
Featured Photo by Flickr user Jenene Chesbrough, Creative Commons License.
“Everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” Brian Eno’s remark about the Velvet Underground’s brilliant but commercially lackluster 1967 debut album was re-circulated widely last October, when fans and critics mourned the passing of Lou Reed, lead songwriter for the band, and a key cultural figure of the last fifty years, by any metric.
The remark has become trite through overuse, but not the sentiment it captures. A band that has, since even before before Andy Warhol’s Factory, been linked to an aesthetic of menace, hysteria and psychosis didn’t just “inspire” or “provoke” much of the music, art and sensibilities of the post-1960’s. It extruded that era.
At Sounding Out!, we decided that in order to come to grips with Reed’s work in general (and the Velvet Underground in particular) from a Sound Studies perspective we’d have to adopt that spirit of provocation. I asked two prominent writers in the field for articles about how this band changed — and continues to change — the experience and history of sound, in a short series Start A Band: Lou Reed and Sound Studies. I’m thrilled to present the first of our articles from returning author Jacob Smith from Northwestern University, a musician and accomplished author of several distinguished books on sound and media history. Stay tuned next week for a second installment from Tim Anderson from Old Dominion University, an award winning writer and co-chair of the Sound Studies SIG at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.
Lou Reed’s recent death has inspired many critics to return to his groundbreaking work with the Velvet Underground (VU). Albums such as “The Velvet Underground and Nico” (1967), “White Light/White Heat” (1968) and “The Velvet Underground” (1969) have the reputation of influencing everyone from David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Roxy Music to the Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, REM and Nirvana. Many recent obituaries describe VU in literary terms, citing Reed’s “lyrical honesty,” “rock and roll poetry,” and touting his songs as “serious writing” and even a kind of “Great American Novel.” There is much to be missed by taking such a decidedly literary approach to sound recordings, and there is an alternative approach, thanks to the emergence of Sound Studies as a vibrant academic field. Can what Jonathan Sterne has called the “interdisciplinary ferment” of Sound Studies help us to re-think the work of this seminal rock band (The Sound Studies Reader, 2)? I think it can.
For a start, Sound Studies emboldens us to base our analysis on VU’s records, which have often been oddly upstaged by other aspects of their career: Reed’s street-level lyrics to be sure; but also the group’s role as background music to Andy Warhol’s Factory; or their use of drones and feedback, which makes them a footnote in the history of avant-garde music; or their influence on the glam and punk explosions of the 1970s. Sound Studies encourages us to start with VU’s records, but the next step is not necessarily a formal musicological analysis.
For some of its proponents, including Steven Connor, Sound Studies is best understood as part of a broader investigation of the “fertility of the relations” between the senses, and VU’s albums turn out to be an excellent place to begin an exploration of the multisensory experience of recorded sound (“Edison’s Teeth: Touching Hearing,” in Hearing Cultures, ed. Viet Erlmann, 54). This essay explores the tactile experience of VU’s records, inspired by work on the tactile dimension of the cinema. I borrow the organizational structure of Jennifer M. Barker’s book The Tactile Eye, which moves from a discussion of sensations at the surface of the body, to muscular responses, and lastly, to the “the murky recesses of the body, where heart, lungs, pulsing fluids, and firing synapses receive, respond to, and reenact the rhythms of cinema” (2-3). Think of this essay as a body-scan of the VU listening experience (“this is your body on VU”) that follows a similar path from the skin, to the musculature, and finally, to the viscera.
Writing about the tactile experience of movies is concerned with modes of looking that resemble touching, a “haptic visuality” that attends to textures and surfaces, and moves over the image like a caress (See Laura U. Marks The Skin of the Film, 183 and Touch, 117). A form of “haptic listening” has also been commonplace in the culture of popular sound recordings. Much of the recorded popular music of the past century has invested meaning in what Theodore Gracyk calls “very specific sound qualities and their textural combination” (Rhythm and Noise, 61). From Bo Diddley to Aphex Twin, pop recordings have tended to stress evocative timbres, idiosyncratic voices, and signature sounds over structural or lyrical complexity.
VU’s records exemplify that tendency because their complexity can be found more on the level of timbre than in musical structure or instrumentation. Moreover, Reed’s lyrics often encourage a blurring of listening and touching. On “Venus in Furs,” listeners are prompted to hear John Cale’s viola stabs as the licks and bites of a mistress’s whip. “Sister Ray” cues haptic listening by chugging resolutely on a single chord for seventeen minutes, while a plasmatic organ performance mutates from elegant bass arpeggios to shimmering waves of icy noise. As with “Venus in Furs,” Reed’s lyrics tie the textural complexity of “Sister Ray” to the surface of the body, through his descriptions of searching the skin of his arm for a “mainline” vein, and a first-person account of receiving oral sex. These examples demonstrate that the poetry of Reed’s lyrics is intimately bound up with the sonic texture of VU’s recordings, and moreover, that he was adept at liberating the erotic potential of haptic listening.
Run Run Run
Films can produce an empathetic muscular response in the viewer’s body, as when we flinch in response to a horror film, or clench our fists while watching a thrilling action movie (Barker, The Tactile Eye 94, 83, 72). Listeners can have similarly empathetic relationships with recorded sound when they move along with the rhythms of a dance record, synchronize their workout or commute to a carefully designed playlist, or embody a recorded performance by miming an air guitar or air drums.
The members of VU had distinctive styles of instrumental performance that made their records evoke powerful muscular responses in listeners. Consider the piano track on “Waiting For the Man,” which loses any semblance of melodic content to become the sheer act of pounding on the keyboard by the end of the song. Reed is usually regarded as a lyricist, but he is just as influential as a muscular rhythm guitar player. “What Goes On” has a minimalist arrangement that eschews structural development to become a showcase for Reed’s vigorous strumming. The second half of the track lacks vocals or a conventional solo instrument, and so feels like a diagram of the human body that reveals the pulsating musculature beneath the skin.
Reed’s jangly rhythm guitar could dominate the mix of VU tracks like “What Goes On” because it occupies a sonic niche that, in a more typical rock arrangement, would be filled by the hi-hat or ride cymbal. In fact, it is Maureen Tucker’s distinctive drumming that is the main source of muscle power on VU’s records. Standing behind a spare kit consisting of little more than a snare and a bass drum turned on its side, Tucker attacked her instrument with relentless intensity, raising her mallet over her head with each bone-cracking snare hit. A review of a live appearance in 1968 observed that Tucker “beats the shit” out of her drums so that the sound “slams into your bowels and crawls out your asshole” (See Clinton Heylin, All Yesterdays’ Parties, 64). Hear (and feel) for yourself, on the VU track “Foggy Notion,” a seven-minute drum and guitar workout.
Tucker was a pioneer female instrumentalist in the male-dominated world of rock. “I didn’t want to be the one to blow it,” she said in an interview. “I wasn’t gonna say, ‘Well, they’ll say she’s a girl, she can’t do it.’ So I was determined, I wasn’t gonna stop” (Albin Zak III, The Velvet Underground Companion, 1965). Ironically, her uncompromising and supremely physical performances were so minimal and precise that she was sometimes compared to a machine. A Verve Records press release from 1968 referred to the fact that Tucker had briefly held a job at IBM, and wrote that “her symphonic simplicity is like that of a human computer.” One trajectory of VU’s influence leads to the electronic austerity of bands like Kraftwerk, but an attention to the tactile dimension of the band’s records prevents Tucker, one of rock’s most muscular drummers, from disappearing into the circuitry.
The Body Lies Bare
A tactile analysis of VU records can go deeper still, to document their relation to the body’s viscera. The experience of the inner body is usually hidden from us, and gains our attention only when organ systems produce an overall effect like nausea (Barker, The Tactile Eye, 125). We lack direct conscious control over most of our visceral responses, but we can stimulate them through the ingestion of drugs, which of course, is the topic of many of VU’s most famous tracks. But where other rock bands of the 1960s associated the drug experience with whimsical flights of the imagination, VU’s drug references are bluntly visceral.
“Heroin” is a sonic re-enactment of the physical effects of the eponymous drug, conveyed not only via Reed’s lyrics, but in the backing track’s fluctuations between dreamy bliss and frantic rush. “White Light/White Heat” fuses two sensory metaphors, one visual and one tactile, in order to point to an embodied experience beyond them both. Listen to how the track ends, with surging cymbals and a distorted bass figure whose spasmodic rhythm suggests the dilation of blood vessels, the firing of synapses, and the tightening and release of internal organs that have been kicked into amphetamine overdrive.
The mysterious visceral body can also emerge into our consciousness in moments when the internal rhythms of the heart or lungs are destabilized, as in a sudden heart palpitation or violent case of the hiccups (Barker, The Tactile Eye, 128-29). “Lady Godiva’s Operation” provides a vivid demonstration. The first half of the track is run-of-the-mill hippy exotica, with John Cale’s lead vocal given the conventional placement in the center of the stereo picture. This calm sonic surface is unsettled when Cale’s voice is decentered, shifting first to the left and then the right speaker. The lead vocal fractures even further when Reed begins to finish each of Cale’s lines:
Cale: ‘Doctor is coming,’ the nurse thinks…
Reed: … sweetly.
Cale: Turning on the machines that…
Reed: … neatly pump air.
Cale: The body lies bare.
By integrating these fragmented lines, we learn that a body is lying on an operating table. Listeners are encouraged to inhabit this body through the placement of voices around and above us, as well as the sounds of heartbeats and breathing that enter the mix but are jarringly out of rhythm with the existing backing track. Reed sings that the doctor is making his first incision into the body, and the backing track vanishes, leaving only the heartbeat, breathing, and an eerie whirring vocalization that sonifies some nameless physical process. The scene ends with a dark twist, suitable as a shock tactic from an exploitation film: the anesthetic has malfunctioned, and the patient has regained consciousness in the midst of the procedure.
The track’s arrhythmic sound effects overwhelm the coherent flow of the standard musical mix, working in tandem with the lyric’s account of the body made manifest in a moment of dysfunction. The fact that VU’s “White Light/White Heat” LP contains “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” as well as the title track and “Sister Ray,” makes it a tour de force of tactile phonography. Reed may have been a rock poet, but he and his collaborators were also acoustic engineers who were adept at sonifying tactile experience, producing music worth feeling with our whole bodies.
Featured Image- “A Drop of Warhol” by Flicker User Celeste RC
Jacob Smith is Associate Professor in the Radio-Television-Film Department at Northwestern University. He has written several books on sound (Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media , and Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures , both from the University of California Press), and published articles on media history, sound, and performance.
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“Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic“-Imani Kai Johnson
During our modest publicity blitz leading up to our #WOTW75 project last month, I argued once or twice that we shouldn’t obsess so much over the aftermath of the 1938 invasion radio play — how intense and widespread the panic truly was, how much Welles intended it this way, what it all says about “human nature” and “the power of the media,” etc. — and ought to spend more time unpacking the piece itself. In an incautious moment, I even proposed we ought to think about the play as one of the great works of the 20th century, on par with key films, novels and paintings that get at the structure of modern feeling through aesthetics.
The claim boxed me in. Why? Because, from an aesthetic point of view, “War of the Worlds” may not even belong in the top tier of Welles’s prodigious radio corpus. His role in Archibald MacLeish’s “Fall of the City” is probably more significant in the history of radio aesthetics, and his appearances on Suspense are likely his best work as an actor. Among his principle directed works, I’d argue that plays like “A Passenger to Bali,” “The Pickwick Papers” and “Dracula” are the most exciting. Even more compelling than any of those, meanwhile, is an unusual radio play based on a now-forgotten historical adventure novel about an ill-fated polar voyage — “Hell on Ice,” which radio enthusiasts routinely name as Welles’s best. If it’s true that the essence of Welles’s radio art was his capacity to first create scenes of striking awe and then modulate dramatic pacing, then HOI is surely a minor masterpiece.
Or did I just trap myself again? Judge for yourself, if you like:
Yes, I fear I’m stuck.
While I try to work my way out somehow, read on. In his first post for Sounding Out, and the tenth installment of our Mercury to Mars series (in conjunction with Antenna), Northwestern University Professor Jacob Smith makes the case that, today, HOI is becoming even more resonant, more relevant …
The Mercury Theater’s broadcast of “War of the Worlds” on Oct. 30, 1938 may forever be remembered as “the Panic Broadcast,” but listening to the Mercury’s first season seventy-five years later, it is another broadcast that seems most in tune with current anxieties about planetary crisis.
On October 9th, the Mercury Theater performed an adaptation of Edward Ellsberg’s Hell On Ice (1938), which depicted a failed attempt by an American expedition to reach the North Pole in 1879. “Hell on Ice” is notable among the Mercury’s radio broadcasts in a number of ways: it marks the debut of the writer Howard Koch, who became a regular on the series, scripting “War of the Worlds” to air three weeks later; and it is the only show to be based on a “stirring adventure of recent history” as opposed to classic literature and drama. “Hell on Ice” also stands out among the Mercury oeuvre as a proto-environmental critique. That is, like “War of the Worlds,” “Hell on Ice” contemplates the catastrophic collapse of human society, but where the October 30th invasion broadcast was a science fiction thriller that tapped into anxiety about the looming war in Europe, the October 9th show used historical fiction to dramatize the error of human attempts to master the globe. That makes it perhaps the best companion to “War of the Worlds,” a play in which the thwarted invader is no alien – it’s us. Listening to the play today, “Hell on Ice” is not only a masterpiece of audio theater (among fans, the most beloved of all Welles’s radio works) but a powerful “eco-sonic” critique as well.
In 1879, James Gordon Bennett, the owner of the New York Herald, sponsored an expedition to the North Pole by way of the Bering Strait. Bennett’s ship, christened the Jeannette, was to ride a warm, northerly ocean current to the shores of the mysterious Wrangel Island, which some believed to be the tip of a vast continent that stretched to Greenland. Captain George Washington DeLong and a crew of thirty-one men left San Francisco to great celebration on July 8, 1879, but the voyage did not go as planned: the Jeannette became trapped in the ice on September 6, 1879, and remained stuck there for two years before being crushed by ice floes in June, 1881.
The crew packed into three lifeboats and set a course for Siberia, but one boat was lost at sea with all its passengers and, of the other two, the party led by Captain DeLong froze to death in the Lena Delta.
The tragic story of the Jeannette was an inspired choice for the Mercury Theater. The 1930s were a time of intense interest in polar exploration, when Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s two Antarctic expeditions became multimedia events. Ellsberg’s Hell on Ice rode the crest of that wave and, moreover, was well suited to Welles’s “first person” approach to radio narrative, since it drew upon the journals of the Jeannette’s officers. Ellsberg’s book is also surprisingly radiogenic in it’s vivid descriptions of sound. We read that the “unearthly screeching and horrible groanings” of the ice pack are “like the shrieking of a thousand steamer whistles, the thunder of heavy artillery, the roaring of a hurricane, and the crash of collapsing houses all blended together,” and that the “deep bass” of the ice floes and the “high scream” of the grating icebergs are “a veritable devil’s symphony of hideous sounds” (Hell on Ice, 110, 161). The Mercury Theatre’s adaptation grants considerable airtime to recreating that “devil’s symphony,” with stunning sequences depicting the piercing arctic wind, ice floes that shriek and drum against the ship’s hull, and the ship’s engines straining against the ice:
The frozen world of “Hell on Ice” had many expressive possibilities for the Mercury’s sound effects crew, and was also a wonderful showcase for composer Bernard Herrmann. John Houseman claimed that Herrmann had a repertoire of music for the Mercury broadcasts, one of which was “frozen music,” to be used for “gruesome effects.” Herrmann’s frozen music is first heard when the ship becomes locked in the ice and signals a shift in the show’s narrative emphasis to themes of frozen time, stasis, immobility, and deadening routine. The slow, queasy, pendulum-like movements of Herrmann’s score make the perfect accompaniment to Captain DeLong’s June 21st journal entry describing the absolute monotony of “the same faces, the same dogs, the same ice,” read on the broadcast by the actor Ray Collins (The Voyage of the Jeanette, 382-3). Here and elsewhere in the broadcast, Herrmann’s frozen music is a sonic set design that portrays the bleak scene of the frozen north, and provides commentary on the emotional life of the crew, who struggle with the soul-crushing monotony of life on the ice pack.
We should appreciate “Hell on Ice” not just for its aesthetic achievement, however, but also for its social critique. As with other Welles projects, “Hell on Ice” questions America’s passage to an industrial and imperial society (consider for example, James Naremore’s argument that The Magnificent Ambersons charts a transition from “midland streets” to “grimy highways” [The Magic World of Orson Welles 89-91]). “Hell on Ice” brings out the ecological dimension of that critique, and in that regard, resembles another nineteenth century first-person tale in which little or nothing happens: Thoreau’s Walden (1854), which initially suggests a narrative of adventure (the individual in the wilderness), but then quickly abandons it for descriptions of everyday life on Walden Pond. Robert B. Ray claims that Thoreau had little gift for narrative, and that “going to Walden appealed to him because there nothing would happen” (Walden X 40, 11). As the narrative interest fades, it is replaced by Thoreau’s poetic descriptive passages and biting social commentary. In a similar re-routing of narrative expectations Captain DeLong wrote in his journals that, given the “popular idea” that “daily life in the Arctic regions should be vivid, exciting, and full of hair-breadth escapes,” the account of his voyage was sure to be found “dull and weary and unprofitable” (The Voyage of the Jeanette, 409-10). Immobility, routine, and unprofitability were a blessing to Thoreau, who even contrasted his “experiment” on Walden Pond to Arctic explorers like John Franklin and Martin Frobisher: where they had explored the Earth’s higher latitudes, Thoreau implored readers to “explore your own higher latitudes… Explore thyself” (Walden, 213).
Indeed, “Hell on Ice” and Walden share a certain narrative problem – or, more precisely, a “lack-of-narrative” problem. When Welles adapted DeLong’s journals (via Ellsberg), he responded to that problem in part by recourse to character study. On the Mercury broadcast, the Jeannette’s thwarted mission opens up the possibility for brilliant dramatic scenes: the interaction among engineer George Melville (Welles), DeLong (Collins), John Danenhower (Joseph Cotton), and reporter Jerome Collins (Howard Smith) during the crew’s first Christmas on the ice; Melville’s encounter with the seaman Erikson (Karl Swenson); the escalating tensions between DeLong and Collins; and Melville and DeLong’s final conversation about their chances on the ice.
It may seem pointless to speculate about what Thoreau might have written had he been keeping a journal on board the Jeannette, but by a remarkable coincidence, another icon of American environmentalism nearly did just that. Nature writer and Sierra Club founder John Muir was a passenger on board a government ship sent to look for the missing Jeannette in 1881. Radio fans will take pleasure in the fact that the name of the ship was the “Corwin.” Muir was eager for the chance to study how glaciers had shaped the landscape of the polar region during the last Ice Age. For Muir, the frozen North was vivid and exciting as a natural laboratory and a window into deep time, just as it is for ecological activists today.
If we listen closely, can we hear Muir’s sentiments in Welles’ “Hell on Ice”?
Listening to the show as an ecological critique prompts us to hear the sound effects not only as a showcase of modernist radio technique, but as a means to give voice to nonhuman nature and create dissonant harmonies with human endeavors. This is not to argue that the Mercury group foresaw current concerns, but to testify to the enduring suppleness of their work and inspire eco-sonic productions in the future. Notice how the Bennett expedition is made to seem insignificant by the thunderous sounds of the “endless miles of surging ice” that snap the Jeannette to splinters. Or consider how, during DeLong’s last divine service on the edge of the ice pack, the sound of the men singing a hymn is gradually drowned out by a crescendo of roaring arctic wind.
In these sequences, the broadcast uses sound to play with spatial scale, performing a kind of auditory zoom that forces us to hear the human in relation to a sense of planet. The conclusion of the show does something similar, but in a temporal register: Melville describes burying DeLong and his men at a desolate spot overlooking the Arctic Ocean, where the winds wail an “eternal dirge.”
There is a certain sad irony to this conclusion, which asserts that the wind and ice of the Arctic are timeless, for we have come to understand that the polar climate does indeed have a history, and that humans now shape it in profound ways. “Hell on Ice” thus takes on new meaning in our own era, as temperatures rise in the Arctic, and we are forced to contemplate another kind of polar “hell,” one represented not by an impenetrable wall of ice, but by the thinning and disappearance of the ice pack, with all its intimations of environmental catastrophe. Indeed, it is now Muir’s voice that we should hear, with its deep historical and planetary perspective, when Collins, as DeLong, speaks the line that the Jeannette’s Captain wrote on the first day that the ship became frozen in the ice: “This is a glorious country to learn patience in” (The Voyage of the Jeanette, 116).
Jacob Smith is Associate Professor in the Radio-Television-Film Department at Northwestern University. He has written several books on sound (Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media , and Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures , both from the University of California Press), and published articles on media history, sound, and performance.
In order of their appearance, here are the other nine entries in our series From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles and Radio after 75 Years, which is a joint project with Antenna: Responses to Media and Culture.
- Here is “Hello Americans,” Tom McEnaney‘s post on Welles and Latin America
- Here is Eleanor Patterson’s post on editions of WOTW as “Residual Radio”
- Here is “Sound Bites,” Debra Rae Cohen‘s post on Welles’s “Dracula”
- Here is Cynthia B. Meyers on the pleasures and challenges of teaching WOTW in the classroom
- Here is “‘Welles,’ Bells and Fred Allen’s Sonic Pranks,” Kathleen Battles on parodies of Welles.
- Here is Shawn VanCour on the second act of War of the Worlds
- Here is the navigator page for our #WOTW75 collective listening project
- Here is our podcast of Monteith McCollum‘s amazing WOTW remix
- Here is Josh Shepperd on WOTW and media studies.