— Guest Editor Randolph Jordan
In October of 1973, two young sound recordists embarked on an ambitious field trip across Canada, traversing over 7000 kilometers to commit the national soundscape to tape. From St. John’s, Newfoundland to the harbor of Vancouver, British Columbia, Bruce Davis and Peter Huse pointed their microphones at the things they felt best exemplified their vast country.
These recordings would become the backbone for Soundscapes of Canada, a series of ten hour-long radio programs carried across the country by the national broadcaster, the CBC. Conceived and produced by the World Soundscape Project (WSP)—a research group formed at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University in the late 1960s and helmed by the composer and sound theorist, R. Murray Schafer—in its entirety Soundscapes of Canada was an impressively sprawling, eclectic document. Comprised of guided listening exercises and avant-garde sound collages, the program’s stated goal was to open the ears of Canadian listeners to the importance of sonic experience, and to alert them to what they warned was the degradation of the soundscape thanks to the mounting din of industrial modernity.
But there was much more happening out of earshot. Created at a time when Canada’s cultural identity was rapidly changing thanks to an unprecedented swell in immigration from non-European countries, the WSP’s portrait of the nation all but ignored its First Nations and its “visible minorities,” as they would come to be known. While the series was an important statement in the WSP’s larger efforts to bring sound to the forefront of cultural conversation, it is arguably more important to listen to Soundscapes of Canada for what it leaves out, for voices silent and silenced.
For Schafer, the industrialized world had grown measurably louder and qualitatively noisier, which troubled him for both environmental and social reasons. In his 1977 book, The Tuning of the World, Schafer would write, “For some time, I have…believed that the general acoustic environment of a society can be read as an indicator of social conditions which produce it and may tell us much about the trending and evolution of that society” (7). Given the worryingly poor state of the soundscape, for Schafer it followed that society was in bad shape. He was wistful for quieter times, for the days of Goethe, when the cry of the half-blind night watchman of Weimer was within earshot of every one of the town’s inhabitants. Unstated, but implied, here, was the notion that as communities expanded beyond every member’s ability to hear a familiar sound, their common identity would necessarily be eroded. And for Schafer, this was precisely what was happening to Canada.
The WSP’s discussion of “soundmarks” in parts three and four of the series was perhaps their most powerful statement about the stakes for preserving and promoting the nation’s sonic heritage. A “soundmark” is, in the WSP’s lexicon of neologisms, roughly analogous to a landmark: it’s a sound that is supposedly instantly recognizable to members of a community, an irreplaceable acoustic feature of a particular place. In the conclusion to program three, “Signals, Soundmarks and Keynotes,” Schafer intoned, “It takes time for a sound to take on rich, symbolic character—a lifetime perhaps, or even centuries. This is why soundmarks should not be tampered with carelessly. Change the soundmarks of a culture and you erase its history and mythology. Myths take many forms. Sounds have a mythology too. Without a mythology, a culture dies.”
So it seems fair to ask: exactly whose mythology stood to be snuffed out? For Schafer, Canadian culture was (or ought to be) synechdochal with the land, with the nation’s vast, largely uninhabited expanses that stretched all the way to the North Pole. Canadians were (or ought to be) a rugged, self-reliant people—stoic pioneers who shunned cosmopolitan (read ethnic) urban centers, opting for a quiet life in harmony with the country’s settler heritage. This was certainly reflected in program four, “Soundmarks of Canada.” Over the course of an hour CBC listeners would have heard an austere montage almost entirely comprised of mechanical alarms (foghorns and air sirens) and church bells. Each sound presented, carefully, discreetly as though displayed in a museum, free from any traffic noise or sidewalk bustle that might distract the listener. Anyone unfamiliar with the Canadian soundscape would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the world’s second largest nation was a bastion of early industrial machinery, a sanctuary for quiet, self-reliant, God-fearing folk.
“Soundmarks of Canada” not only omitted the soundmarks of Canadian cities, it also excluded any sonic trace of the country’s vibrant ethnic and First Nations communities. Produced in the years following the passage of the 1971 Multiculturalism Policy of Canada—which had been adopted in response to a boom of immigration from non-European nations—their portrait of a pastoral, post-colonial British outpost shunted the country’s sizeable non-Christian, ethnic population squarely out of earshot. It should also go without saying that the soundmarks they so prized were deeply entangled with a silencing of Canada’s indigenous population; of a protracted, often violent and brutal, campaign of assimilation that replaced one set of sonic practices with another. For generations of Indigenous Canadians, the sounds of church bells would likely not have connoted community or belonging, but would have rather reverberated with echoes of the “reeducation” in settler religion and language that many were forced to endure in Canada’s residential schools—church-run institutions to which countless children were spirited away against their parents and communities’ wishes.
This is not to say that any of this was intentional, that the WSP deliberately plugged their ears to Canada’s marginal communities, or that they intended to slight these groups in any way. It may be more accurate to ascribe ignorance and omission to the project, structural forms of inequality that dog even the most well meaning white settlers. Regardless of intent, however, the result is the same.
Soundscapes of Canada shows a troubling politics of self-recognition in action that is far too common throughout the nation’s history. By disproportionately representing the voices and sounds of European Canadians the series necessarily supported the idea that they were, if not the only ones, then at least “ordinary” and incumbent. Projects like these promote and condition a sense of unity and similarity that constitute the nation’s imagination of itself. Benedict Anderson famously observed that nations come into being and are maintained through the cultural work that leads its citizens to identify with the state. Institutions and practices from censuses, maps, nationally available print journalism, etc. all allow people in far-off locales to imagine themselves constituting a limited and sovereign community. In his classic book, Imagined Communities, Anderson proposes that nations have also historically been conceived, created, and ratified through sound. Writing specifically of national anthems, Anderson coins the term “unisonance” to describe the power that sound can have to seemingly erode the boundaries between self and other: “How selfless this unisonance feels! If we are aware that others are singing these songs precisely when and as we are, we have no idea who they may be, or even where, out of earshot, they are singing. Nothing connects us all but imagined sound” (149).
It is significant that the WSP chose the radio—the CBC in particular—as the vehicle for their ambitious project. In the mid-1970s, not only did radio offer the widest reach of any sonic medium, but it also had a particular cultural resonance for Canadians. A nation as vast and varied as Canada could have only come about thanks to mediation; its vastness has always required means of traversing or shrinking space to secure its borders, both psychic and geographical. The westward expansion of the post-indigenous nation was accomplished first by canoe, then by rail, and, beginning in the 1920s, by radio. Appropriately, it was the Canadian National Railway (CNR) that produced the first transnational radio broadcast in 1927—the national anthem performed by bells on the carillon of the Peace Tower—broadcasting the event to railway passengers and home listeners alike. Since the middle part of the 20th century, the national broadcaster has been understood as something of a bulwark against encroaching American culture.
The history of the Canadian airwaves is profoundly mired in struggles to promote, produce, and foster content that might keep the national identity from being completely subsumed under the sprawl and heft of the American culture industry. Schafer had mixed feelings about the medium. On the one hand, he was skeptical of his one-time teacher and mentor, Marshall McLuhan’s, analysis that radio, by its very nature, enfolded listeners in a shared acoustic space, effectively “retribalizing” society. Schafer felt that the airwaves had been packed to such a dense and frenetic level that they actually created “sound walls” that effectively isolated listeners in their own solipsistic, acoustic bubbles. But there was hope for the radio in that it could also facilitate a return to a more wholesome and connected state of being and of listening. Schafer noted this duality in his essay “Radical Radio,” writing, “If modern radio overstimulates, natural rhythms could help put mental and physical well-being back in our blood. Radio may, in fact, be the best medium for accomplishing this” (209). Sonic technology was a source of ambivalence for Schafer; he coined the term “schizophonia” to describe the separation of sound from source that recording effected. He believed that it was problematic to populate the world with copies he deemed inherently inferior to the “original” sonic event. Given the opportunity to reach such a wide swath of the Canadian public, Schafer swallowed his distaste for the schizophonic medium and offered a sonic missive on how to compose a healthy and prosperous nation.
Forty years on, Soundscapes of Canada still stands as a unique experiment in imagining how to build and maintain a nation through sound. But in the same regard it also serves as a troubling reminder of how sonic media can work to occlude the voices of marginal citizens, thereby preventing them from fully finding the place in the national soundscape, simply by ignoring their soundmarks and aural practices. If a nation needs a myth, it can do better than telling stories about the necessity of shoring up a colonial legacy whose time has come.
Readers interested in listening to the full series can stream all ten episodes through the website of the Canadian Music Centre.
Mitchell Akiyama is a Toronto-based scholar, composer, and artist. His eclectic body of work includes writings about plants, animals, cities, and sound art; scores for film and dance; and objects and installations that trouble received ideas about perception and sensory experience. Akiyama recently completed his Ph.D. in communications at McGill University. His doctoral work offers a critical history of sound recording in the field and examines an eclectic range of subjects, from ethnographers recording folksongs in southern American penal work camps to biologists trying determine whether or not animals have language to the political valences of sound art practices.
Featured image: “Toronto” by Flickr user Kristel Jax. All other images via the author.
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Over the next few weeks, Sounding Out! is proud to offer a new Thursday series spotlighting endangered radio archives across the United States, the kind of resources whose recognition and preservation could not only change media history, but also how we conceive of media history – and the voices that belong in it.
Our writers are part of an effort that is historic in its own right, the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF), part of the National Recording Reservation Plan at the Library of Congress. Over the past six months, under the guidance of Christopher Sterling (George Washington University) and Josh Shepperd (Catholic University), the RPTF has drawn together more than 120 faculty researchers and advisors from across the country who in turn have spread the word to create a network of more than 270 archives that hold recordings of broadcast radio, with the goal of creating a national inventory of finding aids and encouraging preservation and modernization through digital access.
If you’ve got archival broadcast radio that can’t be got online and maybe nobody even knows about — in any format or genre, national or local, high-powered or low, commercial or college, in a display or a shoebox – then we want you.
The coming months will see a second campaign of archive recruitment – I’ve taken on a role as Network Director to help coordinate that – as the RPTF rolls out a new working association with the American Archives of Public Broadcasting and gears up for a conference at the Library of Congress in early 2016, for which radio historian Michele Hilmes will be the Program Director.
Drawing on this vast effort, SO! will be bringing you stories of gaps in the record, voices we’ve long missed and need to recover, and some we are in danger of losing for good. We begin with a post by Josh Garrett-Davis, a PhD Candidate at Princeton University pursuing unique research into the long-unrecognized and uncatalogued history of Native American broadcasting.
Pursuing that history requires hard work and persistence; it also requires reimagining what counts as an archive in the first place.
— Special Editor Neil Verma
Despite dire poverty across most of the archipelago of semi-sovereign Native American land often called “Indian Country,” radio receivers had become a normal part of life there by the Great Depression. For example, as contemporary publications and later memoirs and oral histories reveal, after work hours in the camps of the Indian Emergency Conservation Work program (the Indian CCC) from northern Minnesota to the Southwest and the West Coast, many men and women listened to the wider world—even following Admiral Richard Byrd’s broadcasts from as far away as Little America, Antarctica.
Listeners, yes. But when did Native people take up the means of production, so to speak, and generate broadcasts themselves? In his history of Native radio, Signals in the Air, Michael C. Keith quotes several sources suggesting little sustaining programming existed until the first Native-owned and -oriented station appeared in New Mexico in 1972. As a sort of internal colony of the United States, Indian Country heard only imperial broadcasts for half a century. The “right to establish their own media in their own languages” in addition to “access to all forms of non-indigenous media without discrimination”—as described in the U.N.’s 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—arrived remarkably late, and are still not fully granted to Native people. Quite recent are the 53 stations catering to Indian communities, and vital national programs like Native America Calling.
But Native people did speak and sing over the airwaves in earlier decades. In some cases a direct or indirect archive even exists, and undoubtedly more will emerge as radio archives more generally are preserved and cataloged through efforts such as the Radio Preservation Task Force of the National Recording Preservation Plan. The trouble is that the cumulative archive of early Indian radio has not been identified as a valuable record or really as a coherent archive at all, perhaps due to compounded misconceptions of radio as an inconsequential documentary record, and of American Indians as technological naïfs. In this post I call attention to the scattered fragments of this archive, which should be recognized as an important heritage for the recent progress in Indigenous media, echoing the various ways Native people seized limited opportunities once broadcast technology appeared.
Here is an initial attempt to quilt a few of those pieces into a pattern:
Widespread broadcasting started at about the same moment—the 1920s—as the first agitation toward tribal political sovereignty in the (constrained) twentieth-century sense. In March 1925, the Cayuga statesman Levi General, who held the ceremonial title Deskaheh, delivered an address from a Rochester, New York, studio. As transcribed in the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy)–produced book A Basic Call to Consciousness, he began, “Nearly everyone who is listening to me is a pale face, I suppose,” and went on to appeal to those palefaces for Iroquois sovereignty on land that, like his radio signal, straddled the Canada–U.S. border (18). He urged his listeners to write to representatives in both governments and “ask them to tell you when and how they got the right to govern people who have no part in your government and do not live in your country but live in their own” (22). General certainly grasped the democratic and transnational possibilities of the new medium as he spoke directly to the citizens of two newcomer nations and plainly described to them a Haudenosaunee sovereignty that must have seemed radical.
Around the same time, the Yakama/Cherokee singer Kiutus Tecumseh (aka Herman Roberts) used his celebrity to perform on radio stations across the country, adding political commentary on Indian policy between songs. Often the songs he performed were Indianist compositions by non-Indian composers; Tecumseh was, in historian John Troutman’s words, “‘playing Indian’ with a pointed, political message” (250). Ojibwe bass singer Chief Roaring Thunder (aka George LaMotte), meanwhile, performed on KVOO from Tulsa in the 1920s, as mentioned in the contemporary press.
So far no audio transcriptions of any of these pioneering broadcasts have turned up, though in the 1970s the publication Akwesasne Notes produced a reenactment of General’s address and sold it on reel-to-reel, cassette, and cartridge.
One Native radio voice of whom an audio archive remains is the humorist Will Rogers (Cherokee). Historians Lary May and Amy M. Ware have convincingly argued that Rogers espoused Cherokee values—which informed his communitarian politics—and sometimes advocated directly on Native issues. Part of the task of creating and preserving an Indigenous media archive is to recognize Rogers’s place in a genealogy: He united oratory like Levi General’s with the vaudeville sensibility of Kiutus Tecumseh and Chief Roaring Thunder. (Rogers could also stand in for a number of mainstream performers whose Indian heritage was not widely recognized, from Lee Wiley to Hank Williams to Jimi Hendrix.)
World War II brought about vast changes in Indian Country, including increased exposure on the air. Great numbers of Native people served in the war effort—notably, in terms of radio, the Navajo and Comanche “code talkers.” But back home, the first sustained radio program, aptly named the Indians for Indians hour, began in 1941 on WNAD in Norman, Oklahoma. Don Whistler (aka Kesh-Ke-Kosh), the first Sac and Fox chief elected under the reforms of the “Indian New Deal,” created the show as a model of participatory programming and (fortunately for later generations) recorded more than a hundred programs on acetate discs before he died in 1951. Indians for Indians, which served and drew performers from perhaps twenty tribal communities and several Indian boarding schools in Oklahoma, persisted in various forms until the 1980s. The only show available online is one from 1976.
I have listened to most of the extant shows from the first decade—which are not endangered except insofar as they have been ignored—and it is a remarkable institution that adopted Will Rogers’s humor and brio while also foreshadowing the vibrant Native radio networks of today.
Archives are more scarce from elsewhere in Indian Country, but traces endure in archives and history books: The renowned Chiricahua Apache artist Allan Houser performed on the air in New Mexico as “the Apache Kid.” In the 1930s and ’40s, students from Santa Fe Indian School and Flandreau Indian School performed on radio shows in Santa Fe and Omaha, respectively. I have not found any recordings of any of these instances, but a few audio archives suggest transcriptions yet to surface: A Tuscarora farm family can be heard singing “By the Waters of the Minnetonka” on Major Bowes and His Amateur Hour on NBC in 1935. NBC also covered an American Indian Exposition and the Flagstaff All-Indian Powwow in the ’30s, which gave Native singers and speakers a national hearing. A non-Indian couple recorded Hopi and Zuni singers on an unidentified station in 1955 and 1956 from Parks, Arizona, a tape which was dubbed by an anthropologist and deposited in the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University.
There must be many other fragments, and we can hope that broad efforts like the Radio Preservation Task Force—as well as archival efforts originating among Indigenous organizations like Native Public Media, Koahnic Broadcast Corporation, Native Media Resource Center, and Vision Maker Media—could turn up records of them.
Marshall McLuhan once wrote ominously of the “tribal drum of radio” leading the masses to totalitarianism. But that message, like the medium itself, could be interpreted in a much more constructive sense. When we gather together the early history of Native radio and assemble the intertribal quilt proposed above, the product seems to squarely refute the racial logic McLuhan implied. We may find instead that Indian people themselves recognized right away the importance this “drum” could and would have for maintaining vibrant language, musical, and oral traditions in the face of colonialism.
The Red Power movement is generally thought to begin with the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969–71. Part of that action was the Santee Dakota poet and activist John Trudell’s creation, “Radio Free Alcatraz” on KPFA in Berkeley, California. We might hear these programs (preserved in the Pacifica Network’s archives) as heralding a new era of reservation stations and media advocacy by Native people. We could also hear them as descending from efforts—still unrecognized and uncatalogued—by Native innovators over the previous half century.
Josh Garrett-Davis is a PhD candidate in history at Princeton University. His dissertation, “Resounding Voices: American Indians and Audio Technology, 1890–1969,” examines Native American use of phonograph and radio technology from the earliest ethnographic and commercial phonograph records to the founding of Indian-run labels and radio shows in the mid-twentieth century. He is the author of Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains (Little, Brown, 2012), and a member of the collective M12, which promotes and creates art in rural places.
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Special thanks to Daniel Murphy for the RPTF Logo.
In 1912, British physicist Edmund Fournier d’Albe built a device that he called the optophone, which converted light into tones. The first model—“the exploring optophone”—was meant to be a travel aid; it converted light into a sound of analogous intensity. A subsequent model, “the reading optophone,” scanned print using lamp-light separated into beams by a perforated disk. The pattern of light reflected back from a given character triggered a corresponding set of tones in a telephone receiver. d’Albe initially worked with 8 beams, producing 8 tones based on a diatonic scale. He settled on 5 notes: lower G, and then middle C, D, E and G. (Sol, do, re, mi, sol.) The optophone became known as a “musical print” machine. It was popularized by Mary Jameson, a blind student who achieved reading speeds of 60 words per minute.
In the field of media studies, the optophone has become renowned through its imaginary repurposings by a number of modernist artists. For one thing, the optophone finds brief mention in Finnegan’s Wake. In turn, Marshall McLuhan credited James Joyce’s novel for being a new medium, turning text into sound. In “New Media as Political Forms,” McLuhan says that Joyce’s own “optophone principle” releases us from “the metallic and rectilinear embrace of the printed page.” More familiar within media studies today, Dada artist Raoul Hausmann patented (London 1935), but did not successfully build, an optophone presumably inspired by d’Albe’s model, which he hoped would be employed in audiovisual performances. This optophone was meant to convert sound into light as well as the reverse. It was part of a broader contemporary impulse to produce color music and synaesthetic art. Hausmann also wrote optophonetic poetry, based on the sounds and rhythms of “pure phonemes” and non-linguistic noises. In response, Francis Picabia painted two optophone portraits in 1921 and 22. Optophone I, below, is composed of lines that might be sound waves, with a pattern that disorders vision.
Theorists have repeatedly located Hausmann’s device at the origin of new media. Authors in the Audiovisuology, Media Archaeology, and Beyond Art: A Third Culture anthologies credit Hausmann’s optophone with bringing-into-being cybernetics, digitization, the CD-ROM, audiovisual experiments in video art, and “primitive computers.” It seems to have escaped notice that d’Albe also used the optophone to create electrical music. In his book, The Moon Element, he writes:
d’Albe’s device is typically portrayed as a historical cul-de-sac, with few users and no real technical influence. Yet optophones continued to be designed for blind people throughout the twentieth century; at least one model has users even today. Musical print machines, or “direct translators,” co-existed with more complex OCR-devices—optical character recognizers that converted printed words into synthetic speech. Both types of reading machine contributed to today’s procedures for scanning and document digitization. Arguably, reading optophones intervened more profoundly into the order of print than did Hausmann’s synaesthetic machine: they not only translated between the senses, they introduced a new symbolic system by which to read. Like braille, later vibrating models proposed that the skin could also read.
In December 1922, the Optophone was brought to the United States from the United Kingdom for a demonstration before a number of educators who worked with blind children; only two schools ordered the device. Reading machine development accelerated in the U.S. around World War II. In his position as chair of the National Defense Research Committee, Vannevar Bush established a Committee on Sensory Devices in 1944, largely for the purpose of rehabilitating blind soldiers. The other options for reading—braille and Talking Books—were relatively scarce and had a high cost of production. Reading machines promised to give blind readers access to magazines and ephemeral print (recipes, signs, mail), which was arguably more important than access to books.
At RCA (Radio Corporation of America), the television innovator Vladimir Zworykin became involved with this project. Zworykin had visited Fournier d’Albe in London in the 19-teens and seen a demonstration of the optophone. Working with Les Flory and Winthrop Pike, Zworykin built an initial machine known as the A-2 that operated on the same principles, but used a different mechanism for scanning—an electric stylus, which was publicized as “the first pen that reads.” Following the trail of citations for RCA’s “Reading Aid for the Blind” patent (US 2420716A, filed 1944), it is clear that the “pen” became an aid in domains far afield from blindness. It was repurposed as an optical probe for measuring the oxygen content of blood (1958); an “optical system for facsimile scanners” (1972); and, in a patent awarded to Burroughs Corporation in 1964, a light gun. This gun, in turn, found its way into the handheld controls for the first home video game system, produced by Sanders Associates.
The A-2 optophone was tested on three blind research subjects, including ham radio enthusiast Joe Piechowski, who was more of a technical collaborator. According to the reports RCA submitted to the CSD, these readers were able to correlate the “chirping” or “tweeting” sounds of the machine with letters “at random with about eighty percent accuracy” after 60 hours of practice. Close spacing on a printed page made it difficult to differentiate between letters; readers also had difficulty moving the stylus at a steady pace and in a straight line. Piechowski achieved reading speeds of 20 words per minute, which RCA deemed too slow.
Attempts were made to incorporate “human factors” and create a more efficient tonal code, to reduce reading time as well as learning time and confusion between letters. One alternate auditory display was known as the compressed optophone. Rather than generate multiple tones or chords for a single printed letter, which was highly redundant and confusing to the ear, the compressed version identified only certain features of a printed letter: such as the presence of an ascender or descender. Below is a comparison between the tones of the original optophone and the compressed version, recorded by physicist Patrick Nye in 1965. The following eight lower case letters make up the source material: f, i, k, j, p, q, r, z.
Original record in the author’s possession. With thanks to Elaine Nye, who generously tracked down two of her personal copies at the author’s request. The second copy is now held at Haskins Laboratories.
Because of the seeming limitations of tonal reading, RCA engineers re-directed their research to add character recognition to the scanning process. This was controversial, direct translators like the optophone being perceived as too difficult because they required blind people to do something akin to learning to read print—learning a symbolic tonal or tactile code. At an earlier moment, braille had been critiqued on similar grounds; many in the blind community have argued that mainstream anxieties about braille sprang from its symbolic difference. Speed, moreover, is relative. Reading machine users protested that direct translators like the optophone were inexpensive to build and already available—why wait for the refinement of OCR and synthetic speech? Nevertheless, between November 1946 and May 1947, Zworykin, Flory, and Pike worked on a prototype “letter reading machine,” today widely considered to be the first successful example of optical character recognition (OCR). Before reliable synthetic speech, this device spelled out words letter by letter using tape recordings. The Letter-Reader was too massive and expensive for personal use, however. It also had an operating speed of 20 words per minute—thus it was hardly an improvement over the A-2 translator.
Haskins Laboratories, another affiliate of the Committee on Sensory Devices, began working on the reading machine problem around the same time, ultimately completing an enormous amount of research into synthetic speech and—as argued by Donald Shankweiler and Carol Fowler—the “speech code” itself. In the 1940s, before workable text-to-speech, researchers at Haskins wanted to determine whether tones or artificial phonemes (“speech-like speech”) were easier to read by ear. They developed a “machine dialect of English,” named wuhzi: “a transliteration of written English which preserved the phonetic patterns of the words.” An example can be played below. The eight source words are: With, Will, Were, From, Been, Have, This, That.
Original record in the author’s possession. From Patrick Nye, “An Investigation of Audio Outputs for a Reading Machine” (1965). With thanks to Elaine Nye.
Based on the results of tests with several human subjects, the Haskins researchers concluded that aural reading via speech-like sounds was necessarily faster than reading musical tones. Like the RCA engineers, they felt that a requirement of these machines should be a fast rate of reading. Minimally, they felt that reading speed should keep pace with rapid speech, at about 200 words per minute.
Funded by the Veterans Administration, members of Mauch Laboratories in Ohio worked on both musical optophones and spelled-speech recognition machines from the 1950s into the 1970s. One of their many devices, the Visotactor, was a direct-translator with vibro-tactile output for four fingers. Another, the Visotoner, was a portable nine-channel optophone. All of the Mauch machines were tested by Harvey Lauer, a technology transfer specialist for the Veterans Administration for over thirty years, himself blind. Below is an excerpt from a Visotoner demonstration, recorded by Lauer in 1971.
Visotoner demonstration. Original 7” open reel tape in author’s possession. With thanks to Harvey Lauer for sharing items from his impressive collection and for collaborating with the author over many years.
Later on the same tape, Lauer discusses using the Visotoner to read mail, identify currency, check over his own typing, and read printed charts or graphics. He achieved reading speeds of 40 words per minute with the device. Lauer has also told me that he prefers the sound of the Visotoner to that of other optophone models—he compares its sound to Debussy, or the music for dream sequences in films.
Mauch also developed a spelled speech OCR machine called the Cognodictor, which was similar to the RCA model but made use of synthetic speech. In the recording below, Lauer demonstrates this device by reading a print-out about IBM fonts. He simultaneously reads the document with the Visotoner, which reveals glitches in the Cognodictor’s spelling.
Original 7” open reel tape in the author’s possession. With thanks to Harvey Lauer.
In 1972, at the request of Lauer and other blind reading machine users, Mauch assembled a stereo-optophone with ten channels, called the Stereotoner. This device was distributed through the VA but never marketed, and most of the documentation exists in audio format, specifically in sets of training tapes that were made for blinded veterans who were the test subjects. Some promotional materials, such as the short video below, were recorded for sighted audiences—presumably teachers, rehabilitation specialists, or funding agencies.
Video courtesy of Harvey Lauer.
Mary Jameson corresponded with Lauer about the stereotoner, via tape and braille, in the 1970s. In the braille letter pictured below she comments, “I think that stereotoner signals are the clearest I have heard.”
In 1973, with the marketing of the Kurzweil Reader, funding for direct translation optophones ceased. The Kurzweil Reader was advertised as the first machine capable of multi-font OCR; it was made up of a digital computer and flatbed scanner and it could recognize a relatively large number of typefaces. Kurzweil recalls in his book The Age of Spiritual Machines that this technology quickly transferred to Lexis-Nexis as a way to retrieve information from scanned documents. As Lauer explained to me, the abandonment of optophones was a serious problem for people with print disabilities: the Kurzweil Readers were expensive ($10,000-$50,000 each); early models were not portable and were mostly purchased by libraries. Despite being advertised as omnifont readers, they could not in fact recognize most printed material. The very fact of captchas speaks to the continued failures of perfect character recognition by machines. And, as the “familiarization tapes” distributed to blind readers indicate, the early synthetic speech interface was not transparent—training was required to use the Kurzweil machines.
Original cassette in the author’s possession.
Lauer always felt that the ideal reading machine should have both talking OCR and direct-translation capabilities, the latter being used to get a sense of the non-text items on a printed page, or to “preview material and read unusual and degraded print.” Yet the long history of the optophone demonstrates that certain styles of decoding have been more easily naturalized than others—and symbols have increasingly been favored if they bear a close relation to conventional print or speech. Finally, as computers became widely available, the focus for blind readers shifted, as Lauer puts it, “from reading print to gaining access to computers.” Today, many electronic documents continue to be produced without OCR, and thus cannot be translated by screen readers; graphical displays and videos are largely inaccessible; and portable scanners are far from universal, leaving most “ephemeral” print still unreadable.
Mara Mills is an Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, working at the intersection of disability studies and media studies. She is currently completing a book titled On the Phone: Deafness and Communication Engineering. Articles from this project can be found in Social Text, differences, the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, and The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies. Her second book project, Print Disability and New Reading Formats, examines the reformatting of print over the course of the past century by blind and other print disabled readers, with a focus on Talking Books and electronic reading machines. This research is supported by NSF Award #1354297.
When I performed at the 2012 Computers and Writing Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, I looked around during my fairly abstract 10-minute long improvisation featuring feedback loops, glitches, silences, and circuit-bent instruments, and I noticed the audience’s sometimes visible restlessness, discomfort, and even anxiety. This is a fairly common occurrence when I perform experimental sound art, particularly in contexts in which audiences expect “music” (you can hear my work at 38:30 in the video below). However, for an experimental sound artist to take offense to such reactions is, in my estimation, missing the point of the exercise. That sound art disrupts, agitates, and even offends is a powerfully reaffirming reminder that sound art transcends music and sound; it is a method of revelation, an act that surpasses logical communication, instead challenging the very nature of sound and perception.
As an artist, scholar, and fan, I am drawn toward sound and music that lures me into a new world, an unfamiliar way of being and knowing. Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, I learn that the rules of my world no longer apply. This happened when I heard J Dilla’s Donuts album, and when I heard Madlib’s Medicine Show #3: Beat Konducta in Africa, when I heard Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. An artist that continually draws me down the rabbit hole is Walter Gross, an experimental sound/beat artist out of Los Angeles. His work changes the way I usually interact with sonic art, both in terms of his sound and in his approach to physical collage and handcrafted cassette packaging, Gross departs from the comfortable and familiar listening imparted by polished hi-fi 3-minute tracks with definitive beginnings and ends and discernible melodies. Gross instead propels listeners into very unusual (and pleasantly discomforting) soundscapes that demand attention. Almost counter-intuitively, Gross’s visual representations of his work intensify that experience. Consider his 2010 work, Dopamine:
Dopamine is likely a challenging piece for audiences, at least in terms of violating the dominant structures of music. The piece opens with disorienting use of panning, deliberately obscuring degraded audio, largely indiscernible movements and patterns, and so on. His video work likewise presents a fitting yet relatively unusual juxtaposition of youth and destruction, celebration and danger. In terms of both sound and sight, Gross’ work disrupts dominant musical sensibilities, challenging the very patterns and structures within which we can express ideas. He violates tradition, shakes off the canonical baggage carried by prevailing paradigms of Art and Music, and plunges audiences into unfamiliar sensory experiences that require metacognition, reflection, and examination of what sonic art is, and more importantly, what sonic art can be. Gross, in other words, seems to transcend the musician moniker and reach something else entirely. In what follows, I’d like to explore a (very brief) history of such artists, and begin to think about how to frame sonic art as immersion in what Marshall McLuhan called anti-environments: the unconscious environment as raised to conscious attention.
Sound as Art
There exists a strong tradition of experimental noise and sound art, particularly in 20th-century Western avant-garde movements. Futurists were arguably the first to consider noise as music in the European tradition, and were certainly influential in asking artists and audiences to become more aware of the changing social and sonic surroundings . In his 1913 manifesto-of-sorts titled “The Art of Noises,” Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo proposed an orchestral configuration that more aptly represented the range of sounds available to contemporary listeners, namely those sounds that accompanied industrialization and urbanization. The sounds of the Futurist orchestra would include “rumbles, roars, explosions, and crashes.” Russolo built devices called intonarumori to mechanically achieve and manipulate these sounds. His brother, Antonio Russolo, also enacted this new philosophy of modern found sound and composed Corale and Serenata.
Any inquiry of art as anti-environment would be incomplete without a discussion of the great anti-art movement, Dada. Like the Futurists before them, Dadaists used found sound and technology-as-art to violently disrupt conventions of art, beauty, and authorship within the white avant-garde community. Marcel Duchamp’s famous work, “Fountain,” is likely the most familiar Dadaist artifact to contemporary readers, yet the sound poetry of Kurt Schwitters and other Dadaist and Dada-inspired sound pieces such as Erwin Schulhoff’s 1922 work In Futurum (the middle movement of which contains only a rest and the notation “with feeling,” an undoubtable precursor to John Cage’s 4’33”, written 30 years later) created sonic spaces of innovation and strangeness that changed the way audiences listened to both voices and silences. The Russian Cubo-Futurists, especially zaumniks such as Alexei Kruchenykh, made similar ventures into anti-environments. Kruchenykh developed the sound art zaum, which he understood as a transrational language that undercut existing language systems in which the “word [had] been shackled…by its subordination to rational thought” (70). Zaum was a sort of linguistic anti-environment, one rooted in the notion that meaning resided first and foremost in the sound of a word rather than the denotative symbol system that emerged alongside the proliferation of print/visual culture. One could also not underemphasize the work of John Cage, from his prepared piano to his work with organic instruments.
The list of artists, genres, and movements engaged to some extent in the enterprise of anti-environment architecture could go on and be debated indefinitely: Free Jazz, Turntablism/Nu Jazz, Experimental Hip-Hop,Fluxus, Circuit Bending, Prepared Guitar, ProtoPunk, Punk, Post-Punk, New Wave, No Wave. . . in all of these diverse movements, the sonic artists share the tendency to create strange new worlds via sound; worlds that reveal social and technological environments that most people seem unaware of in the moment. This is why media theorist Marshall McLuhan called the artist “indispensible,” because the artist can tell us something about ourselves that we cannot know via ordinary means of perception. Sonic artists expose audiences to auditory phenomena, structures, juxtapositions, etc. that are to various extents hidden, obscured, or ignored as “noise.” The sonic artist is more than just a clever selector and (re)arranger of sound; s/he is a revelatory agent, exposing what is inaudible.
Art as Anti-environment
Anti-environments, however we might define and classify them, are vital not only to artistic communities themselves, but they are also vital to a society of fish in water. In his 1968 text, War and Peace in the Global Village, McLuhan asserts (among other things) that humans remain largely unaware of their new environments, likening them to fish in water: “one thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in” (175). In other words, humans seldom possess or practice a sense of awareness regarding their surroundings because there’s nothing against which surroundings may be contrasted. The “water” to McLuhan represented the various environments (physical, psychological, cultural) shaped by technological innovation, but we can—and should—extend the water metaphor to a range of hegemonic frameworks: constructions of gender, race, ability, and so on.
This essay is certainly not an attempt to generate some sort of evaluative rubric by which to judge artistic or sonic expression objectively. Rather, we might use the concept of anti-environments as a way to frame our subjective experiences and encounters with all sound, and begin listening to unfamiliar sounds as psychedelic (from Greek psyche- “mind” + deloun “reveal”) keys to illuminate the patterns and structures in which listeners exist. We must work to understand our environments and our place in them; if we are to engage critically with our culture, we must first understand existing (yet invisible) patterns and structures that surround us. And we are aided in this effort, in great part, by humanity’s great seekers of pattern recognition, the sonic-psychonautical messengers: the sonic artists.
To return to the sound that inspired this meditation, Walter Gross (among others) is in many ways participating in and propelling the discourse of Leary and McLuhan, Schwitters and Schulhoff, Kruchenykh and Cage,Davis and Sun Ra, Madlib and J Dilla. Gross performs the sonic anti-environment, enacts the revelation of obscured sonic paradigms. For me, Gross can act as a sort of lens through which ordinary sonic patterns and structures become visible. I hear Flying Lotus, Bob Dylan, and The Minutemen differently after Gross. I hear my office, my home, my family’s voices differently after Gross. I hear patterns that weren’t audible before. After Gross, I become aware of how I am continuously trained to expect certain things from the sonic world: compartmentalized units of meaning, clearly stated origins of utterances, linear narratives, repeated/repeatable melodies, and so on.
Likewise, my own sonic art/scholarship approaches the use of sound to reveal the inaudible assumptions present in Western frameworks surrounding sonic production. I will conclude with an illustration of my own work and why sonic anti-environments are so central to my philosophy and method. One of my sonic works, “Toward an Object-Oriented Sonic Phenomenology,” was recently part of an exhibition titled Not For Human Consumption, curated by Julian Weaver of CRISAP in London. I recorded the sounds of a high mast lighting pole using contact microphones. Contact microphones do not “hear” like humans typically hear. Typical (dominant) notions of human hearing (and therefore of sound itself) involve the reception and interpretation of vibrations present in air. Contact microphones instead only interpret the vibrations in solid objects.
By listening through an object–through alien “ears,” so to speak– we can begin to critique the ways that we privilege listening via air, a listening that places humans at the center of the universe. We can consider the ways that sound has very real effects on humans with atypical hearing abilities and nonhuman objects. It is difficult to have such conversations if we never explore sonic anti-environments, if we never break through dominant epistemological models, if we never expose the limits of our own environments.
Featured Image: Beatrix*JAR in Dayton, Ohio, September 9, 2009, by Flickr User Vista Vision
Steven Hammer is a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture at North Dakota State University in Fargo, ND, USA. His research deals with various aspects of sonic art, from exploring glitch and proto-glitch practices and theories (e.g., circuit bending), to understanding and producing sound from an object-oriented ontology (e.g., contact microphones). He also researches and facilitates trans-Atlantic translation collaborations between American, European, and African universities. He has multimedia publications with Enculturation, Sensory Studies, as well as forthcoming book chapters with Wiley/IEEE press, and IGI Global Publishing, and has performed creative and academic work at several conferences across North America, including the national Computers and Writing Conference and the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication. He performs experimental circuit-bent and sampler-based music under the moniker “patchbaydoor,” and has constructed and documented a number of hardware modification projects for his own artistic projects and for other artists in the upper Midwest United States. You can read/hear more atstevenrhammer.com