Tag Archive | Jonathan Sterne

The Magical Post-Horn: A Trip to the BBC Archive Centre in Perivale


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.


BBC Perivale Field Trip, Image by Flickr User Hatters! (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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.


78s at BBC Perivale, Image by Flicker User Hatters! CC BY-NC 2.0

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 Cylinderswith 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.


Edison Cylinder Exposed, by Flickr User fouro boros, CC BY-NC 2.0

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 LoveThe Archersan exceptionally long-running BBC radio soap which conjures up visions of rural Englishness and persists among a very dedicated, though mostly older, fan baselike much radio drama and emblematic of gendered attitude toward radio soaps, was not recorded in its first few decades.

Empty Shelves at BBC Perivale, Image by Flickr User Bill Thompson, Image cropped by SO!, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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.

Harry Oakes as Dan Archer and Gwen Berryman as Doris Archer, 1955

Harry Oakes as Dan Archer and Gwen Berryman as Doris Archer, 1955.

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.


Wax cylinder playback at BBC Perivale, Image by Flickr User Hatter! CC BY-NC 2.0

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.


Illustration by Gustave Doré, 1865. Listen to ABC radio feature on the “Frozen Post Horn” and the Museum of Imaginary Instruments here

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).

Vinyl at BBC Perivale, including a lot of John Peel's old records. Image by Flickr User Hatter! (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Vinyl at BBC Perivale, including a lot of John Peel’s old records. Image by Flickr User Hatter! (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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.

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Only the Sound Itself?: Early Radio, Education, and Archives of “No-Sound”–Amanda Keeler

“Share your story” – but who will listen?–Fabiola Hanna

SO! Amplifies: Indie Preserves

The Sound of Radiolab: Exploring the “Corwinesque” in 21st Century–Alexander Russo

“All their ioynts & properties”: Orthography and Sound in Early English Poetry

Mixed Media Painting (Detail) by Choichun Leung / Dumbo Arts Cen

Medieval SoundEach of the essays in this month’s “Medieval Sound” forum focuses on sound as it, according to Steve Goodman’s essay “The Ontology of Vibrational Force,” in The Sound Studies Reader“comes to the rescue of thought rather than the inverse, forcing it to vibrate, loosening up its organized or petrified body (70).  These investigations into medieval sound lend themselves to a variety of presentation methods loosening up the “petrified body” of academic presentation. Each essay challenges concepts of how to hear the Middle Ages and how the sounds of the Middle Ages continue to echo in our own soundscapes.

The posts in this series begins an ongoing conversation about medieval sound in Sounding Out!. Our opening gambit in April 2016, “Multimodality and Lyric Sound,” reframes how we consider the lyric from England to Spain, from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, pushing ideas of openness, flexibility, and productive creativity. We will post several follow-ups throughout the rest of 2016 focusing on “Remediating Medieval Sound.”  And, HEAR YE!, in April 2017, look for a second series on Aural Ecologies of noise! –Guest Editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

During the “grammar wars” of the sixteenth century, when some scholars sought to restrict English letters to an “isomorphic” (or phonemic) relationship between sound and spelling, Richard Mulcaster emerged as a champion of a more broad and complex vernacular orthography in his 1582 Elementarie, with profound implications for the growing English language. In particular, Mulcaster’s insight that language is shaped by “custom” bolsters the argument for variety over phonemic standardization; as he writes (in the 1925 Oxford University Press reprint):

letters ca[n] expresse sou[n]ds withall their ioynts & properties, no fuller than the pencill can the form and lineaments of the face, whose praise is not life but likeness: as the letters yeld not alwaie the same, which sound exactlie requireth, but allwaie the nearest, wherwith custom is content (99).

Mulcaster seems to strongly indicate here that we should not expect vernacular orthography to capture sound in any reliable way. Custom – meaning actual usage, etymological roots, and so on, muddies the waters of spelling-based sound. Anyone familiar with Modern English, given its complex conventions and silent, or variably pronounced letters, might agree. Yet as John Wesley notes in “Mulcaster’s Tyrant Sound,” “Mulcaster’s orthography continually oscillates … between a conception of letters as completely divorced from sound, and one that finds sound and sight interacting (not always in conflict)” (349).

Indeed, looking more closely at Mulcaster’s statement, it is possible to discern the specter of a scribe, pencil in hand, attempting to capture the “joints and properties” of a poet’s sound in letters – using different letters depending on the dialectal orthography of the compositional time and space: a listening body making a visual representation of sound.

Image of a scribe by Nathan Adams @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND

Image of a scribe by Nathan Adams @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND

Certainly, we encounter instances of orthographical representations of distinctive sounds in more recent and deliberate dialect poetry. John Hyland, writing on sound and African diasporic poetry in his unpublished dissertation Atlantic Reverberations, notes of late nineteenth- / early twentieth-century black dialect poems that “in a certain way, they are meant to be read and heard as talking machines. The sound technology, in this case, is the poem; it is a construction and a recording of a ‘black’ voice that socially and culturally functions in a manner analogous to the gramophone” (31). [Ed. Note: you can also read his work on Sounding Out! here]. Following this, it is interesting to try to figure out how the text of a poem can gesture toward and suggest a “sound” that belongs to a localized (even stereotyped) body, despite the text’s being mute on the page. New computational linguistic programs can help play back these ancient sound files, but based on my experience in using them with Middle English texts, there is a ways to go in matching their analytic capabilities with idiosyncratic early English spelling to produce satisfying results.

While late medieval English poems cannot be thought of as deliberate “constructions” of a voice in quite the same way as some contemporary forms of black poetry—although portions of Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale, in which “northern speech” is represented through alternate spellings and diction, might be an exception—I propose that we imagine orthography (and by extension, the scribes who implemented it) as a kind of “sound technology” analogous to early sound reproduction devices such as the phonograph. The analogy will break down at certain points, but in suggesting it I hope to answer two related questions: First, to what extent can orthography reliably encode sound (or, to put it another way, offer a score for “decoding” sound)? Second, can we extend back in time the critique of sound technology made by recent “sound theorists,” who tend to focus on texts and technologies from the modern period – and, if so, what can be gained thereby?

A medieval alphabet. Image by Cesar Ojeda @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND

A medieval alphabet. Image by Cesar Ojeda @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND

The answer to the first question is, I believe, a very qualified “yes.” Yes, English orthography can and does encode sound, but like so many things about the English language and its highly idiosyncratic spelling conventions, it’s complicated. The second question leads to an elusive, but promising, framework in which to consider the role of orthography in shaping English poetic sound. In short, I will argue that orthographic profiles act as a sort of “performance” in which spelling collaborates with the sound of language to offer a socio-linguistic context within which to experience a given poem.s

I used SPARSAR, “an expressive poetry reader” developed by computational linguists Rodolfo Delmonte and Anton Maria Prati, to produce audio recordings of three poetic specimens from Middle English: The specimens are: Osbern Bokenham’s “Life of St. Anne,” (ll. 41-64); Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Prologue, (V.709-28); and John Audelay’s “Conclusion,” (ll.1-13). The specimens were chosen with the idea of dialectal variety in mind: Bokenham is associated with Suffolk, Chaucer with London, and Audelay with the West Midlands. According to its creators, SPARSAR uses “prosodic durational parameters” for English syllables developed by the authors with the aim of “evaluat[ing] objective presumed syllable and feet prosodic distribution at line level,” producing a version of a poem that can be read by Text to Speech (TTS) software with “an appropriate expressivity” (73).

The problem with TTS software is that it produces monotone outputs that fail to account for prosody, let alone expressivity. SPARSAR, I hoped, would “level the playing field” between differing orthographies in the poems, from an analytic standpoint: “the poem is translated into a phonetic form preserving its visual structure and its subdivision into lines and stanzas. Phonetically translated words are associated to mean duration values taking into account position in the word and stress” (Delmonte and Prati 74). Yet textual analysis of poems in Middle English is challenging precisely because of orthographical variation, and this holds true for SPARSAR as well. Before SPARSAR could recognize the speech of the poems, I had to run them through a “normalizing” program—VARD, although Morphadorner offers a similar service—thus in some ways defeating the purpose of testing orthography’s ability to encode sound, as well as muddling SPARSAR’s fine-grained prosodic analysis.

Audelay first with and then without SPARSER.


Audelay for VARD. Image used with permission by the author.

Thus, for example, in the second line of my selection from John Audelay, “Here may ye cnow hwat ys this worlde,” I replaced “cnow” with the modern “know” (thus losing the /k/ sound), “hwat” with “what,” “ys” with “is,” and “worlde” with “world.” One easily discerns the loss of information with respect to not only sound, but also scansion (the inflectional “e” ending). SPARSAR also does not account for the Great Vowel Shift in reproducing Middle English pronunciations. For how this would change the pronunciation of some words, see Simon Horobin, Does Spelling Matter? (2013).

The recordings produced by the resulting SPARSAR files are, then, a record of failure with respect to my project. But they are instructive failures, nonetheless, and I include them here alongside the “raw” TTS recordings of the poems to illustrate my point: orthography is a key way of encoding sound, yielding both geographic and temporal sonic data. Moreover, such failures – and they are inevitable to a certain extent in any digital analysis of pre-modern English – point out the urgent need to work ever backwards and include ever more variant spellings in software databases. I am reminded of the comical difficulties that iPhone’s Siri software has in deciphering Scots English, though in that scenario the trouble is not necessarily with orthography, but accent.

Imagine, however, Siri attempting to decipher an accurately voiced reading of a Robert Burns poem based on its textual appearance.

Echoing Mulcaster’s statement on orthography, Ralph H. Emerson writes in “English Spelling and Its Relation to Sound” that “alphabetic spelling … [can] be a kind of backbone that supports the flesh and muscle of all the phonetic and phonemic variants in different dialects and idiolects” (260). The problem, as Mulcaster would point out, is the matter of those phonemic variants, a point Emerson concedes: “Western orthography … is largely a tale of how people have squeezed as many values as possible out of the very short Roman alphabet” (262). As Simon Horobin writes, the phoneme /r/ is pronounced differently in England even among different speakers of Northern dialect; the various realizations of /r/ that do not alter meaning require the designation of an “allophone”: [r] (21). In order to encode all the various pronunciations, we would need further phonemic symbols. At the risk of oversimplifying several hundred years of the development of spelling conventions in English, the desire for a less arbitrary connection between letter and sound is at the heart of the debates and attempted reforms in which grammarians like Mulcaster were involved.

Bokenham first with and then without SPARSER.

Bokenham text for SPARSER. Image used with permission by the author.

Bokenham for VARD. Image used with permission by the author.

Yet as much as Mulcaster argues for an orthography freed from “tyrant sound,” as Wesley notes, his arguments keep circling back to sound’s importance. Wesley writes, “Despite his claims regarding the ‘heard’ Z and its subjugation to the ‘sene’ S, the sound of Z creates a variety of problems for Mulcaster; in fact, its sound means Mulcaster must adjust the appearance and frequency of various other letters” (348). The reason for this is the complex set of rules in English regarding how letters interact with and influence each other in shaping the sound of a word. A more systematic analysis of these rules is precisely what allows Emerson to argue that orthography can, in fact, encode sound in English. He writes, “almost any dialect can be described as a plausible and usually predictable realization of the spelling, one word at a time” (265). Emerson describes a “four-step process” for this spelling-based description, which begins with “segment[ing] the spelling into elemental graphemes”; then “assign[ing] the segments their proper graphophonemes, that is, their abstract but systematically universal protovalues.” The next step “shows how the graphophonemes are phonemically realized in particular circumstances within individual dialects.” The example Emerson gives is “hair,” which segments into “H + AI + R, or //her//” (265). From this, he argues, we can reliably derive all the variant pronunciations of “hair.” To complete the process, a litereme is needed; e.g., the litereme <<s>> matches the phoneme //s// but also provides the “natural characteristic spelling” that expresses the “s” and “soft c” in English (266). Emerson concludes,

To describe how spelling encodes sound in a particular language is simply to chart the relationships between segments on these different levels … the litereme is the key: THAT is what everything else is really standing for, spellings and sounds and graphophonemes alike. (The letters themselves can be thought of as archiliteremes, with <<C>>having the reflexes <<k>> and <<s>>, <<A>> having <<ā>> and <<ă>>, etc.) … The simple universal phonology of written English gives birth to the infinite particularities of spoken English. (267)

Fortunately – for the purposes of looking at orthographically expressed Middle English variants, “present orthography still represents the pronunciation of Middle English” (Emerson 267). Unfortunately, though the letter-to-sound relationship in Middle English is much closer, we cannot be sure what those pronunciations were. But we can guess, and orthography is our best (perhaps only) clue.

From letters to sounds. Image by Michael Summers @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

From letters to sounds. Image by Michael Summers @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

The notion of “suggested” pronunciation is indeed where sound studies offers a compelling model for considering the relationship between poem and scribe, and how the former is recorded orthographically by the latter. Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past proposes to construct a “history of sound” that troubles the notion of “face to face” communication as being more “authentic” than sound reproduction technologies, adding, “This history of sound begins by positing sound, hearing, and listening as historical problems rather than as constants on which to build a history” (22). As medievalists know all too well, scribes and scribal variation in the copying of texts constitute a rich field of study when it comes to the question of textual “authenticity.”

Intriguing in light of such variation is Sterne’s idea of “transducers, which turn sound into something else and that something else back into sound” (22) – for which we might read orthography as a kind of technology with “moving parts” that work in concert to reproduce sound, as outlined above. More intriguing, perhaps, is Sterne’s description of the development of “audile technique,” a “practice of listening” that he bases on a study of “virtuosic and highly technical listening skills” during the nineteenth century and the advent of the telegraph, phonograph, and telephone. Sterne writes that with audile technique:

listening became more directional and directed, more oriented toward constructs of private space and private property. The construct of acoustic space as private space in turn made it possible for sound to become a commodity. Audile technique did not occur in the collective, communal space of oral discourse and tradition (if such a space ever existed); it happened in a highly segmented, isolated, individuated acoustic space (24).

In this context, Chaucer’s famous admonition to his scribe “Adam” becomes all the more charged and suggestive (650 in The Riverside Chaucer). We must certainly think of medieval scribes as early practitioners of “audile technique,” taking advantage of orthography as a tool by which to turn sound into a commodity in the form of manuscripts for various occasions and audiences.

Chaucer first with and then without SPARSER.

Chaucer for SPARSER. Image used with permission by the author.

Chaucer for VARD. Image used with permission by the author.

Rethinking medieval texts in this way leaves us with a collaborative sonic performance in which the particular orthographies of the scribes help to pull an author’s text into a certain sound-space, even if it is inexact and in some sense inauthentic. Our ability to “hear” that space, to share it, is limited by our limited mapping of the incredibly multiform ways that English was uttered, and how those utterances were scored on the page by poets and scribes. Wesley notes the importance of discipline to Mulcaster’s educational-grammatical program as set forth in the Elementarie; discipline also hovers over the listening bodies performing audile technique for the sake of increasingly commodified sound spaces described by Sterne. English letters resist such discipline, sliding around various orthographies depending on time, place, poet, and scribe. In order to begin to use programs like SPARSAR to recreate, however tentatively, the sound they encode, we must loosen the standardizing discipline of our technology in parsing letters of the past.

Featured image “Mixed Media Painting” by See-ming Lee @Flickr CC BY-SA

David Hadbawnik is a poet, translator, and medieval scholar. His Aeneid Books 1-6 were published by Shearsman Books in 2015. He is the editor and publisher of Habenicht Press and the journal kadar koli, a co-editor of eth press, which focuses on creative interactions with medieval texts, and associate director of punctum books. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor of English at the American University of Kuwait.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
The Hysterical Alphabet–John Corbett, Terri Kapsalis, and Danny Thompson

The Eldrich Voice: H.P. Lovecraft’s Weird Phonography–James A. Steintrager

Mouthing the Passion: Richard Rolle’s Soundscapes–Christopher Roman

On Whiteness and Sound Studies

white noise

World Listening Month3This is the first post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015.  World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us.  For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening as a political act, beginning this year with Gustavus Stadler’s timely provocation.  –Editor-in-Chief JS

Many amusing incidents attend the exhibition of the Edison phonograph and graphophone, especially in the South, where a negro can be frightened to death almost by a ‘talking machine.’ Western Electrician May 11, 1889, (255).

What does an ever-nearer, ever-louder police siren sound like in an urban neighborhood, depending on the listener’s racial identity? Rescue or invasion? Impending succor or potential violence? These dichotomies are perhaps overly neat, divorced as they are from context. Nonetheless, contemplating them offers one charged example of how race shapes listening—and hence, some would say, sound itself—in American cities and all over the world. Indeed, in the past year, what Jennifer Stoever calls the “sonic color line” has become newly audible to many white Americans with the attention the #blacklivesmatter movement has drawn to police violence perpetrated routinely against people of color.

"Sheet music 'Coon Coon Coon' from 1901" via Wikimedia, public domain

“Sheet music ‘Coon Coon Coon’ from 1901” via Wikimedia, public domain

Racialized differences in listening have a history, of course. Consider the early decades of the phonograph, which coincided with the collapse of Reconstruction and the consolidation of Jim Crow laws (with the Supreme Court’s stamp of approval). At first, these historical phenomena might seem wholly discrete. But in fact, white supremacy provided the fuel for many early commercial phonographic recordings, including not only ethnic humor and “coon songs” but a form of “descriptive specialty”—the period name for spoken-word recordings about news events and slices of life—that reenacted the lynchings of black men. These lynching recordings, as I argued in “Never Heard Such a Thing,” an essay published in Social Text five years ago, appear to have been part of the same overall entertainment market as the ones lampooning foreign accents and “negro dialect”; that is, they were all meant to exhibit the wonders of the new sound reproduction to Americans on street corners, at country fairs, and in other public venues.

Thus, experiencing modernity as wondrous, by means of such world-rattling phenomena as the disembodiment of the voice, was an implicitly white experience. In early encounters with the phonograph, black listeners were frequently reminded that the marvels of modernity were not designed for them, and in certain cases were expressly designed to announce this exclusion, as the epigraph to this post makes brutally evident. For those who heard the lynching recordings, this new technology became another site at which they were reminded of the potential price of challenging the racist presumptions that underwrote this modernity. Of course, not all black (or white) listeners heard the same sounds or heard them the same way. But the overarching context coloring these early encounters with the mechanical reproduction of sound was that of deeply entrenched, aggressive, white supremacist racism.

"66 West 12th Street, New School entrance" by Wikimedia user Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0

“66 West 12th Street, New School entrance” by Wikimedia user Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0

The recent Sonic Shadows symposium at The New School offered me an opportunity to come back to “Never Heard Such a Thing” at a time when the field of sound studies has grown more prominent and coherent—arguably, more of an institutionally recognizable “field” than ever before. In the past three years, at least three major reference/textbook-style publications have appeared containing both “classic” essays and newer writing from the recent flowering of work on sound, all of them formidable and erudite, all of great benefit for those of us who teach classes about sound: The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (2012), edited by Karen Bijsterveld and Trevor Pinch; The Sound Studies Reader (2013), edited by Jonathan Sterne; and Keywords in Sound (2015), edited by David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny. From a variety of disciplinary perspectives, these collections bring new heft to the analysis of sound and sound culture.

I’m struck, however, by the relative absence of a certain strain of work in these volumes—an approach that is difficult to characterize but that is probably best approximated by the term “American Studies.” Over the past two decades, this field has emerged as an especially vibrant site for the sustained, nuanced exploration of forms of social difference, race in particular. Some of the most exciting sound-focused work that I know of arising from this general direction includes: Stoever’s trailblazing account of sound’s role in racial formation in the U.S.; Fred Moten’s enormously influential remix of radical black aesthetics, largely focused on music but including broader sonic phenomena like the scream of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester; Bryan Wagner’s work on the role of racial violence in the “coon songs” written and recorded by George W. Johnson, widely considered the first black phonographic artist; Dolores Inés Casillas’s explication of Spanish-language radio’s tactical sonic coding at the Mexican border; Derek Vaillant’s work on racial formation and Chicago radio in the 1920s and 30s. I was surprised to see none of these authors included in any of the new reference works; indeed, with the exception of one reference in The Sound Studies Reader to Moten’s work (in an essay not concerned with race), none is cited. The new(ish) American Studies provided the bedrock of two sound-focused special issues of journals: American Quarterly’s “Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies,” edited by Kara Keeling and Josh Kun, and Social Text’s “The Politics of Recorded Sound,” edited by me. Many of the authors of the essays in these special issues hold expertise in the history and politics of difference, and scholarship on those issues drives their work on sound. None of them, other than Mara Mills, is among the contributors to the new reference works. Aside from Mills’s contributions and a couple of bibliographic nods in the introduction, these journal issues play no role in the analytical work collected in the volumes.

"Blank pages intentionally, end of book" by Wikimedia user Brian 0918, CC BY-SA 3.0

“Blank pages intentionally, end of book” by Wikimedia user Brian 0918, CC BY-SA 3.0

The three new collections address the relationship between sound, listening, and specific forms of social difference to varying degrees. All three of the books contain excerpts from Mara Mills’ excellent work on the centrality of deafness to the development of sound technology. The Sound Studies Reader, in particular, contains a small array of pieces that focus on disability, gender and race; in attending to race, specifically, Sterne shrewdly includes an excerpt from Franz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, as well as essays on black music by authors likely unfamiliar to many American readers. The Oxford Handbook’s sole piece addressing race is a contribution on racial authenticity in hip-hop. It’s a strong essay in itself. But appearing in this time and space of field-articulation, its strength is undermined by its isolation, and its distance from any deeper analysis of race’s role in sound than what seems to be, across all three volumes, at best, a liberal politics of representation or “inclusion.” Encountering the three books at once, I found it hard not to hear the implicit message that no sound-related topics other than black music have anything to do with race. At the same time, the mere inclusion of work on black music in these books, without any larger theory of race and sound or wider critical framing, risks reproducing the dubious politics of white Euro-Americans’ long historical fascination with black voices.

What I would like to hear more audibly in our field—what I want all of us to work to make more prominent and more possible—is scholarship that explicitly confronts, and broadcasts, the underlying whiteness of the field, and of the generic terms that provide so much currency in it: terms like “the listener,” “the body,” “the ear,” and so on. This work does exist. I believe it should be aggressively encouraged and pursued by the most influential figures in sound studies, regardless of their disciplinary background. Yes, work in these volumes is useful for this project; Novak and Sakakeeny seem to be making this point in their Keywords introduction when they write:

While many keyword entries productively reference sonic identities linked to socially constructed categories of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, citizenship, and personhood, our project does not explicitly foreground those modalities of social difference. Rather, in curating a conceptual lexicon for a particular field, we have kept sound at the center of analysis, arriving at other points from the terminologies of sound, and not the reverse. (8)

I would agree there are important ways of exploring sound and listening that need to be sharpened in ways that extended discussion of race, gender, class, or sexuality will not help with. But this doesn’t mean that work that doesn’t consider such categories is somehow really about sound in a way that the work does take them up isn’t, any more than a white middle-class person who hears a police siren can really hear what it sounds like while a black person’s perception of the sound is inaccurate because burdened (read: biased) by the weight of history and politics.

"Pointy Rays of Justice" by Flickr user Christopher Sebela, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Pointy Rays of Justice” by Flickr user Christopher Sebela, CC BY-NC 2.0

In a recent Twitter conversation with me, the philosopher Robin James made the canny point that whiteness, masquerading as lack of bias, can operate to guarantee the coherence and legibility of a field in formation. James’s trenchant insight reminds me of cultural theorist Kandice Chuh’s recent work on “aboutness” in “It’s Not About Anything,” from Social Text (Winter 2014) and knowledge formation in the contemporary academy. Focus on what the object of analysis in a field is, on what work in a field is about, Chuh argues, is “often conducted as a way of avoiding engagement with ‘difference,’ and especially with racialized difference.”

I would like us to explore alternatives to the assumption that we have to figure out how to talk about sound before we can talk about how race is indelibly shaping how we think about sound; I want more avenues opened, by the most powerful voices in the field, for work acknowledging that our understanding of sound is always conducted, and has always been conducted, from within history, as lived through categories like race.

The cultivation of such openings also requires that we acknowledge the overwhelming whiteness of scholars in the field, especially outside of work on music. If you’re concerned by this situation, and have the opportunity to do editorial work, one way to work to change it is by making a broader range of work in the field more inviting to people who make the stakes of racial politics critical to their scholarship and careers. As I’ve noted, there are people out there doing such work; indeed, Sounding Out! has continually cultivated and hosted it, with far more editorial care and advisement than one generally encounters in blogs (at least in my experience), over the course of its five years. But if the field remains fixated on sound as a category that exists in itself, outside of its perception by specifically marked subjects and bodies within history, no such change is likely to occur. Perhaps we will simply resign ourselves to having two (or more) isolated tracks of sound studies, or perhaps some of us will have to reevaluate whether we’re able to teach what we think is important to teach while working under its rubric.

Thanks to Robin James, Julie Beth Napolin, Jennifer Stoever, and David Suisman for their ideas and feedback.

Gustavus Stadler teaches English and American Studies at Haverford College. He is the author of Troubling Minds: The Cultural Politics of Genius in the U. S.1840-1890 (U of Minn Press, 2006).  His 2010 edited special issue of Social Text on “The Politics of Recorded Sound” was named a finalist for a prize in the category of “General History” by the Association of Recorded Sound Collections. He is the recipient of the 10th Annual Woody Guthrie fellowship! This fellowship will support research for his book-in-progress, Woody Guthrie and the Intimate Life of the Left.


tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Reading the Politics of Recorded Sound — Jennifer Stoever

Hearing the Tenor of the Vendler/Dove Conversation: Race, Listening, and the “Noise” of Texts — Christina Sharpe

Listening to the Border: “‘2487’: Giving Voice in Diaspora” and the Sound Art of Luz María Sánchez — Dolores Inés Casillas

Sounding Out! Podcast #43: Retail Soundscapes and the Ambience of Commerce

Ambient interiors in a typical mall. Nicholas Eckhart CC BY.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOADRetail Soundscapes and the Ambience of Commerce



What is the ambient sound of commerce? Equally reviled and revered, the programmed soundscapes of retail space combine wonderful serendipity with quotidian blandness. This podcast examines field recordings from luxury megastores, suburban fast food joints, and everything in between. As it turns out, the corporate ambience of chain-store retail isn’t so far away from the high-brow ambitions of ambient music. Ambience is whatever surrounds us, and it’s embroiled within the same kinds of aesthetic, political, and economic struggles that have been recognized in architecture for centuries.

While a long line of thinkers have identified the links between retail and modernity, surprisingly few have addressed the phenomena in auditory terms. Following up on Jonathan Sterne’s 1997 inquiry regarding environmental music in the Mall of America, this podcast examines new developments in ambient sound that have accompanied the rise of e-commerce and the decline of brick-and-mortar stores. Segmentation of markets, nostalgia for the past, and the early history of recording are all addressed, as we take a listening trip through consumer culture.

The podcast presents highlights from field recordings from retail stores, accompanied by voice-over narration. Field recordings were captured with a Zoom H4n handy recorder, at Menlo Park Mall in Edison, NJ, Dover Street Market New York, Parsonage Road Target in Edison, NJ, Wal-Mart Route 27 in Edison, NJ, and Dunkin Donuts Route 27 in Edison, NJ. Also includes excerpts from Brian Eno’s “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” (1978) and Disconscious’ “Hologram Plaza” (2013).

James Hodges is a PhD student in media studies at Rutgers University. His research focuses on the relationship between promotional culture and media preservation. James is the cofounder of a media archaeology working group at Rutgers, and he runs a small cassette label for fun.

Featured image by Nicholas Eckhart @Flickr CC BY.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Sounding Out! Podcast #6: Spaces of Listening / The Record Shop – Aaron Trammell

Sounding Out! Podcast #18: Listening to the Tuned City Brussels , Day 3: “Ephemeral Atmospheres”– Felicity Ford and Valeria Merlini

Sounding Out! Podcast #28: Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles – Jennifer Stoever

%d bloggers like this: