Tag Archive | Neil Verma

The Firesign Theatre’s Wax Poetics: Overdub, Dissonance, and Narrative in the Age of Nixon

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The Firesign Theatre are the only group that can claim among its devoted fans both Thom Yorke and John Ashbery; who have an album in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress and also coined a phrase now used as a slogan by freeform giant WFMU; and whose albums were widely distributed by tape among U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, and then sampled by the most selective classic hip hop DJs, from Steinski and DJ Premier to J Dilla and Madlib.

Formed in 1966, they began their career improvising on Los Angeles’s Pacifica station KPFK, and went on to work in numerous media formats over their four-decade career. They are best known for a series of nine albums made for Columbia Records, records that remain unparalleled for their density, complexity, and sonic range. Realizing in an astonishing way the implications of the long playing record and the multi-track recording studio, the Firesign Theatre’s Columbia albums offer unusually fertile ground for bringing techniques of literary analysis to bear upon the fields of sound and media studies (and vice versa). This is a strategy that aims to reveal the forms of political consciousness that crafted the records, as well as the politics of the once-common listening practices binding together the disparate audiences I have just named. It is no accident that the associative and referential politics of the sample in “golden age” hip hop would have recognized a similar politics of reference and association in Firesign Theatre’s sound work, in particular in the group’s pioneering use of language, time, and space.

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The Firesign Theatre (wall of cables): John Rose, Image courtesy of author

The Firesign Theatre is typically understood as a comedy act from the era of “head music” — elaborate album-oriented sounds that solicited concerted, often collective and repeated, listening typically under the influence of drugs. But it may be better to understand their work as attempting to devise a future for literary writing that would be unbound from the printed page and engaged with the emergent recording technologies of the day. In this way, they may have crafted a practice more radical, but less recognizable, than that of poets —such as Allen Ginsberg or David Antin, both of whose work Firesign read on the air — who were also experimenting with writing on tape during these years (see Michael Davidson’s Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word, in particular 196-224). Because their work circulated almost exclusively on vinyl (secondarily on tape), it encouraged a kind of reading (in the strictest sense) with the ears; the fact that their work was distributed through the networks of popular music may also have implications for the way we understand past communities of music listeners as well.

The period of Firesign’s contract (1967-1975) with the world’s largest record company parallels exactly the recording industry’s relocation from New York to Los Angeles, the development of multitrack studios which made the overdub the dominant technique for recording pop music, and the rise of the LP as a medium in its own right, a format that rewarded, and in Firesign’s case required, repeated listening. These were all factors the Firesign Theatre uniquely exploited. Giving attention to the musicality of the group’s work, Jacob Smith has shown (in an excellent short discussion in Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures that is to date the only academic study of Firesign) how the group’s attention to the expansion of television, and in particular the new practice of channel-surfing, provided both a thematic and a formal focus for the group’s work: “Firesign […] uses channel surfing as the sonic equivalent of parallel editing, a kind of horizontal or melodic layering in which different themes are woven in and out of prominence until they finally merge. Firesign also adds vertical layers to the narrative in a manner analogous to musical harmony or multiple planes of cinematic superimposition” (181). But more remains to be said not only about the effect of the Firesign Theatre’s work, but about its carefully wrought semantics, in particular the way the “horizontal” and “vertical” layers that Smith identifies were used as ways of revealing the mutually implicated regimes of politics, culture, and media in the Vietnam era — at the very moment when the explosion of those media was otherwise working to disassociate those fields.

The group’s third album, Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers is typically understood as their first extended meditation on the cultural phenomenology of television. Throughout the record, though there is much else going on, two pastiches of 1950s genre movies (High School Madness and a war film called Parallel Hell!) stream intermittently, as if through a single channel-surfing television set. The films coincide in two superimposed courtroom scenes that include all the principal characters from both films. By interpenetrating the school and the war, the record names without naming the killing of four students at Kent State and two students at Jackson State University, two events that occurred eleven days apart in May 1970 while the group was writing and recording in Los Angeles. Until this point rationalized by the framing fiction of a principal character watching both films on television, the interpenetration of the narratives is resolvable within the album’s diegesis—the master plot that accounts for and rationalizes every discrete gesture and event—only as a representation of that character’s having fallen asleep and dreaming the films together, a narrative sleight of hand that would testify to the group’s comprehension of literary modernism and the avant-garde.

The question of what may “cause” the interpenetration of the films is of interest, but the Firesign Theatre did not always require justification to elicit the most outrageous representational shifts of space (as well as of medium and persona). What is of more interest is the way rationalized space — the space implied by the “audioposition” of classic radio drama, as theorized by Neil Verma in Theater of the Mind— could be de-emphasized or even abandoned in favor of what might instead be called analytic space, an aural fiction in which the institutions of war and school can be understood as simultaneous and coterminous, and which more broadly represents the political corruptions of the Nixon administration by means of formal and generic corruption that is the hallmark of the Firesign Theatre’s approach to media (35-38).

While the techniques that produce this analytic soundscape bear some resemblance to what Verma terms the “kaleidosonic style” pioneered by radio producer Norman Corwin in the 1940s — in which the listener is moved “from place to place, experiencing shallow scenes as if from a series of fixed apertures” — even this very brief sketch indicates how radically the Firesign Theatre explored, deepened, and multiplied Corwin’s techniques in order to stage a more politically diagnostic and implicative mode of cultural interpretation. Firesign’s spaces, which are often of great depth, are rarely traversed arbitrarily; they are more typically experienced either in a relatively seamless flow (perspective and location shifting by means of an associative, critical or analytical, logic that the listener may discover), or are instead subsumed within regimes of media (a radio broadcast within a feature film which is broadcast on a television that is being watched by the primary character on the record album to which you are listening). According to either strategy the medium may be understood to be the message, but that message is one whose horizon is as critical as it is aesthetic.

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Firesign Theatre (pickup truck): John Rose, Image courtesy of author

The creation of what I am terming an analytic space was directly abetted by the technological advancement of recording studios, which underwent a period of profound transformation during the years of their Columbia contract, which spanned the year of The Beatles’s Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (arguably the world’s first concept album, recorded on four tracks) to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (arguably that band’s fourth concept album, recorded on 24 tracks). Pop music had for years availed itself of the possibilities of recording vocals and solos separately, or doubly, but the dominant convention was for such recordings to support the imagined conceit of a song being performed live. As studios’ technological advances increased the possibilities for multitracking, overdubbing, and mixing, pop recordings such as Sgt. Pepper and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) became more self-evidently untethered from the event of a live performance, actual or simulated. In the place of the long-dominant conceit of a recording’s indexical relation to a particular moment in time, pop music after the late 60s came increasingly to define and inhabit new conceptions of space, and especially time. Thus, when in 1970 Robert Christgau asserted that the Firesign Theatre “uses the recording studio at least as brilliantly as any rock group” (and awarding a very rare A+), he was remarking the degree to which distortions and experiments with time and space were if anything more radically available to narrative forms than they were to music.

The overdub made possible much more than the simple multiplication and manipulation of aural elements, it also added depth and richness to the soundfield. New possibilities of mixing, layering, and editing also revealed that the narrative representation of time, as well as spatial element I’ve just described, could be substantially reworked and given thematic meaning. In one knowing example, on 1969’s How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All, an accident with a time machine results in the duplication of each of the narrative’s major characters, who then fight or drink with each other.

This crisis of the unities is only averted when a pastiche of Franklin Delano Roosevelt interrupts the record’s fictional broadcast, announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and his decision to surrender to Japan. On a record released the year the United States began secret bombing in Cambodia, it is not only the phenomenological, but also the social and political, implications of this kind of technologically mediated writing that are striking: the overdub enables the formal representation of “duplicity” itself, with the gesture of surrender ironically but pointedly offered as the resolution to the present crisis in Southeast Asia.

To take seriously the Firesign Theatre’s experiments with medium, sound, and language may be a way of reviving techniques of writing — as well as recording, and of listening — that have surprisingly eroded, even as technological advances (cheaper microphones, modeling software, and programs from Audacity and Garage Band to Pro Tools and Ableton Live) have taken the conditions of production out of the exclusive purview of the major recording studios. In two recent essays in RadioDoc Review called “The Arts of Amnesia: The Case for Audio Drama Part One” and “Part Two,” Verma has surveyed the recent proliferation of audio drama in the field of podcasting, and urged artists to explore more deeply the practices and traditions of the past, fearing that contemporary aversion to “radio drama” risks “fall[ing] into a determinism that misses cross-fertilization and common experiment” (Part Two, 4). Meanwhile, Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett’s live performances from their excellent World According to Sound podcast are newly instantiating a form of collective and immersive listening that bears a resemblance to the practices that were dominant among Firesign Theatre listeners in the 1960s and 70s; this fall they are hosting listening events for Firesign records in San Francisco.

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The Firesign Theatre (mixing board): Bob & Robin Preston,  Image courtesy of  author

It is tempting to hope for a wider range of experimentation in the field of audio in the decade to come, one that either critically exploits or supersedes the hegemony of individualized listening emblematized by podcast apps and noise-cancelling headphones. But if the audio field instead remains governed by information-oriented podcasts, leavened by a subfield of relatively classical dramas like the very good first season of Homecoming, a return to the Firesign Theatre’s work can have methodological, historical, and theoretical value because it could help reveal how the experience of recorded sound had an altogether different political inflection in an earlier era. Thinking back to the remarkably heterogeneous set of Firesign Theatre fans with which I began, it is hard not to observe that the dominant era of the sample in hip hop is one where it was not the Walkman but the jambox — with its politics of contesting a shared social space through collective listening — was the primary apparatus of playback. However unwished- for, this determinist line of technological thinking would clarify the way media audiences are successively composed and decomposed, and show more clearly how, to use Nick Couldry’s words in “Liveness, ‘Reality,’ and the Mediated Habitus from Television to the Mobile Phone,” “the ‘habitus’ of contemporary societies is being transformed by mediation itself” (358).

Featured Image: The Firesign Theatre (ice cream baggage claim): John Rose, courtesy of author.

Jeremy Braddock is Associate Professor of English at Cornell University, where he specializes on the production and reception of modernist literature, media, and culture from the 1910s throughout the long twentieth century. His scholarship has examined the collective and institutional forms of twentieth-century authorship that are obscured by the romanticized figure of the individual artist. His book Collecting as Modernist Practic— a study of anthologies, archives, and private art collections — won the 2013 Modernist Studies Association book prize. Recent publications include a short essay considering the literary education of Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus and an essay on the Harlem reception of James Joyce’s Ulysses. He is currently working on a book on the Firesign Theatre.

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“Radio’s “Oblong Blur”: Notes on the Corwinesque”–Neil Verma

The New Wave: On Radio Arts in the UK–Magz Hall

This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground–Jacob Smith

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Blog-o-Versary 6.0 : Keep on Pushing (Our 400th Post!!!)

Keep on Pushin5

Click here for Sounding Out!‘s Blog-O-Versary “Keep on Pushing” mix 6.0 with track listing

Happy 6th Blog-o-Versary Team SO!

This year was tough, y’all. We know it. You know it. 2014-2015 was a year of rolling up sleeves, raging against the machine, typing furiously into the night, blocking the trolls, crying tears of frustration and anger, organizing heated meetings, fitting shoulders uncomfortably to various wheels while questioning exactly why and for whom, hugging our folks closer while unfriending Facebook “friends” like mofos, facing the millionth revision—or worse, the next police shooting, and the next and the next.

side eye emojiAll of us have reeled at one time or another at what sometimes seemed like a Niagara Falls of quicksand: mounting challenges, unexpected setbacks, pay and budget cuts (if you had a budget to begin with), hashtag memorials, calculated attacks, haters far more malevolent than your basic Taylor Swift variety, general piling on, restrictive and invasive university policies, less jobs/more adjuncts, and racist, sexist, and classist aggressions, macro, micro and everywhere in between.

But to quote one of my favorite poems from Langston Hughes, especially in these times, we are STILL HERE. And that really is everything. We can move mountains with that. We can. And, to cite the ethos of the Sounding Out! Editorial Collective: We remain committed, undaunted,

AND. clapWE. clapCLAP. clapBACK.clap

Here, for example, is SO! regular writer, Cornell Science and Technology Studies PhD Candidate, and producer Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo performing as her (m)other brain rapper SAMMUS at Ithaca Fest in May 2015, where she debuted her powerful new song protesting state violence against black people, “Three Fifths,” produced by DNilz for the upcoming independent film “Rodney.”

Sammus closed her performance with a stirring sonic memorial to the unarmed black men and women who have been murdered by police in the U.S. over the last 20 years, as well as a call to action for white listeners to acknowledge their complicity in the “law and order” state and the agency they have to end the deadly terror of white supremacist policing.

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We see you Sandra.  And we’re listening.  Image by J. Stoever, Ithaca, NY, 26 July 2015

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Sammus’s music and lyrics have long inspired the SO! crew to keep on pushing–you’ll hear another of her songs on our mix–but especially this year.  We talked a lot about how and why SO! continues to matter, specifically how can the collective labor here that seeks to understand sound as a medium of power be useful in struggles to make #blacklivesmatter once and for all, for example, or to end violence against transpeople?  To dismantle debilitating gender stereotypes about women? To stop the marginalization and exploitation of immigrants and undocumented workers in the U.S.?  And how to push the boundaries of US-centric sound work with local and/or comparative research from other countries–and vice versa? This year, we redoubled our collective efforts to produce top notch applied scholarship that intervenes in the challenges of our contemporary moment, not just the field of sound studies.

Not that we don’t plan to keep on pushing interventions there as well.  Team SO! spent a lot of time earlier this year reflecting, in real time, on our origin story for an article we co-authored for the new Digital Sound Studies anthology edited by the Soundbox Crew (forthcoming on Duke University Press, digital entries already live here).  We were grateful for the opportunity to articulate the politics of our founding and why SO! remains so vitally important to us (and we hope to you).  Here’s an exclusive sneak peek of our upcoming chapter  “The Pleasure (is) Principle: Sounding Out! and the Digitizing of Community”:

When we met in a humid apartment in upstate New York to plot a sound studies blog back in 2009, one of our key goals was to provide indelible visibility to the top-notch contributions we knew were being made to sound studies by scholars of color, graduate students, junior scholars and other groups marginalized in/by academia, so that their role in building this growing field could not be erased, ignored, silenced, hijacked, buried, or claimed by others better positioned by social and institutional privilege and its attendant cultural capital to gain conference spots and find publishers for their work. There is solidarity in the affects produced by giving voice, making visible, and, above all else: listening. Because connections undeniably matter, we decided to build our own, and to do so in a way that celebrated the people and the scholarship perpetually at the fringes of most fields, but especially those involving technology and music.

100Through the experience of collaboratively reviewing our history and together calling a new creation into being once again, we realized—on an entirely new frequency—how Sounding Out! and the community it kindles consistently sustains the three of us through stormy times: personally, professionally, and politically. I am not sure if it clicked in while scowling through the umpteenth revision or LMAO-ing through yet another Hangout, but we all came around to the truth that the right kind of work, performed with your ride-or-die people, can energize rather than enervate, center rather than scatter, and make you want to keep on pushing, especially when being pushed. For us, it never has been just about sound.

fistSo this year, for our 6th Blog-o-Versary, our theme, “Keep on Pushing,” honors the fact that sound can be both a balm and a motivator for years like this one and for times when the news is ENOUGH but we need to keep going. We also want to express our respect and gratitude for all the heavy lifting, daily grinds, and labors of love, pleasure, and sometimes frustration—both Tweeted and unsung—of ourselves and our ever-growing community of readers, writers, Twitter Followers, Facebook friends, Link sharers, survey respondents, sticker distributors, folks who archive us, writers who cite us, teachers who assign us, and peeps who talk us up and give word of mouth. We are all putting in work in a thousand and one ways, big and small, to make this community bigger, badder, and deffer each and every year. And *that’s why we are still here.

Thank you and here’s to lucky number seven in 2016!  

Team SO!

praiseLiana’s back!!: We had a bit of a personnel shuffle last summer, but in the end the stars aligned and we got Liana back. She edited this year’s February forum on gender and voice (which you can check out here) and selected the tracks for this year’s mixtape for the second year in a row. Outside of Sounding Out! she’s been publishing more, getting her break in the Houston Chronicle online column Gray Matters, developing a column for Chronicle Vitae, and working on a book proposal due later this year. You can keep up with her writerly adventures on Twitter: @lianamsilva

checkINDEXING: We told you this year was all about the grind.  We are working hard over here to make SO! more searchable.  With 400 posts and counting over 6 years, we recognize that finding what you need grows more challenging every Monday.  This spring, we debuted an alphabetical index of all of the themed series and forums and soon we will have completed full indexes by author soon and title soon, as well as some themed lists for teaching and general inquiry.

speakerMLA INDEX IS UP AND RUNNING!:  For folks privileged to have access to the Modern Language Association’s digital bibliography—perform a search for Sounding Out! and you will find links to all of our posts categorized as “articles.” The index is also searchable by author.  Now we are officially, as Hammer would say, 2 legit 2 quit.

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WE KEEP ON PUSHING THE ENVELOPE:  Now that sound studies is increasingly becoming canonized and institutionalized, we feel it is increasingly important to continue looking for new avenues of interest and inquiry and to experiment with the form of the blog and podcast.  This year we debuted a series of online sonic installations by artists and thinkers such as Salomé Voegelin (“Sound Art as Public Art”), the Berlin arts collective La Mission who performed a full series of sound and video installations in honor of José Esteban Muñoz for our Round Circle of Resonance series, and sound artists Sonia Li, Mendi + Keith Obadike and Anne Zeitz and David Boureau.  We also began a new running series called “SO! Amplifies,”  which allows us the opportunity to scout out innovative organizations, artists, installations, exhibits, community engagement projects, radio programs, etc. and bring them to your attention.

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THURSDAYS STILL ON POINT! Special Editor Neil Verma has continued to rule the Thursday airwaves with his specially curated series of guest editors emphasizing sound and media.  For a rundown of 2014’s programming see his excellent year in re-hear post from November 2014.  Right now we are in the midst of the “Sonic Shadows” series with more excitement to come!  And of course, Multimedia editor Aaron Trammell continues to curate an exciting and innovative open format podcast series on the last Thursday of every month. This year’s Blog-O-Versary mix is our 45th podcast!

160x160x41-smiling-face-with-sunglasses.png.pagespeed.ic.y2dwulXjw8RELAX! DON’T DO IT!: This year SO! started doing its part to promote healthier work habits by taking a week off here or there.  We hope that, rather than disappointing our avid Monday morning readership, we have encouraged our community to stop and gather strength too (or at least to explore our extensive back catalog. 400 posts!).  SO! is a marathon rather than a sprint and we are just getting started.

SPEAKING OF. . .

Sound and Affect

 WE’RE ALWAYS LOOKING FOR NEW FOLKS FOR TEAM SO!  Don’t forget we have our latest Call For Posts on “Sound and Affect” up and running with a deadline of August 15th.  Please submit a pitch and/or spread the word!!

Highlight Reel:  See what’s new with SO! authors and community members  this year! Congratulations everyone (and don’t forget to keep those cards and letters coming!).

  • Regina Bradley was selected as a 2016 Nasir Jones HipHop Fellow, Harvard University. She is also and incoming Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Armstrong State University in Georgia.
  • Stuart FowkesCities and Memory hit the 700 mark in terms of numbers of sounds, with more than 150 contributors and now over 200,000 listens. They’ve run open call sound project every few months, which have included:  Oblique Strategies: more than 50 artists reimagining field recordings using Eno and Schmidt’s oblique strategy cards for inspiration; Quiet Street: a sound map of the city of Bath that was installed as part of the Fringe Arts Bath festival; Sound Waves: for World Listening Day 2015, a sound map and edited piece looking at the role water plays in our lives; and Dreamland: a commission by the Dreamland amusement park in Margate, UK, to reimagine the sounds of a theme park.
  • Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo passed her Ph.D qualifying exams and has just returned from a research trip to Congo. She also has recently had the opportunity to put together some music and a sound installation for a stage play that will premiere at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem in early August 2015.  The organizers have put together a fundraising campaign via Indie Gogo; they’re trying to raise $15,000, right now they’re just shy of $10,000–please join SO! in supporting her work here.  As Sammus, she went on her first tour with rapper Mega Ran which included a performance at the SXSW festival in Austin, TX.  You can follow her on Twitter (@sammusmusic) or listen to her music, including her latest releases at http://sammusmusic.bandcamp.com/.
  • Kristin Moriah’s article on Uncle Tom’s Cabin/Onkel Tom’s Hütte was recently published in Lateral, the Cultural Studies Association’s online journal.  She will be presenting a paper entitled “Singing Books: The Curation of Sound in Sissieretta Jones’s Scrapbook” at the 2015 American Studies Association convention in Toronto.
  • Visual Editor Will Stabile is still out there every day, making it happen. He asked that we not worry about him. We still check in on him regularly though.
  • Justyna Stasiowska put together for the international conference “Post-technological experience. Art-Science-Culture” (Poznań 23-27 October 2014) the presentation “Soft machine – somaintrument,” on modes of programming perception in Maryanne Amacher’s instalations.  She also presented “Ephemeral performance or how does sound smell,” focused on programing a synaesthetic expierience in Ephemera and creating a new academic format  during “Fluid Sounds” (lectures, perfomances, performances and audio papers in Amager 18-21 June 2015). Lastly, she created a sound mix for a drag queen-inspired performance called Valentine Tanz, which focused on being a performance artist. The episode (the project is a series of performances), that she worked on juxtaposed the ballroom queer scene aesthetic with Marina Abramovic’s work on trying to deconstruct persona of a performer.
  • Kyle D. Stedman is co-editing a digital collection on sound and writing pedagogy. If you’re interested on submitting an idea for how you use sound in the classroom, read the CFP or listen to the audio version at the Soundwriting Pedagogies project page. He also podcasts every month or so at Plugs, Play, Pedagogy, a show about teaching writing and rhetoric in the 21st century, which led to a workshop and presentation on academic podcasting at the 2015 Computers and Writing conference.
  • Jennifer Stoever published three articles this year, “Fine-tuning the Sonic Color-line: Radio and the Acousmatic Du Bois” in  Modernist Cultures, “‘Just Be Quiet Pu-leeze’: New York’s Black Press Fights the Postwar ‘Campaign Against Noise,’” in Radical History Review, and  “Toward a Civically Engaged Sound Studies, or (Re) Sounding Binghamton,” in the Proceedings of Invisible Places / Sounding Cities. Sound Urbanism and Sense of Place (you can download the full volume here).  She was also named an Engaged Teaching Fellow by the Binghamton Center for Civic Engagement and enjoyed the hell out of herself co-teaching a radio arts course with filmmaker and Sound Artist Monteith McCollum.  They produced an accompanying live radio show (listen here!).
  • Aaron Trammell will defend his dissertation in September 2015 and will begin a two year postdoctoral fellowship at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California.
  • Alyxandra Vesey published three articles: “Mixing in Feminism.” Popular Music and Society (39) 4: 1-20; “Putting Her on the Shelf: Pop Star Fragrances and Post-feminist Entrepreneurialism.” Feminist Media Studies 15 (6): 1-17; and “Working for @LateNightJimmy.” Spectator: Performing Labor in the Media Industries 35 (2): 47-56.  Also, as the graduate representative for the Women’s Caucus, she helped put on SCMS’s “Participatory Pedagogy” networking event and workshop at last spring’s conference in Montreal.

The theme for this year’s Blog-o-Versary post and mix was of course inspired by Curtis Mayfield and his early group The Impressions. Thank you for this sonic uplift!

Jennifer Stoever is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sounding Out! She is also Associate Professor of English at Binghamton University.

Click here for Sounding Out!‘s Blog-O-Versary “Keep on Pushing” mix 6.0 with track listing


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Sounding Out! Podcast #44: Keep on Pushing!

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Keep On Pushing!

The Style Council, “Walls Come Tumbling Down”—Aaron Trammell
Tricky, “Black Steel”—Brían Hanrahan
Alabama Shakes, “Dunes”—Liana Silva
INSTRUMENTAL #1: Physics, “Delayed Drone”—Stuart Fowkes
Boris Dlugosch, “Keep Pushin” (Original Club Mix)—Luis-Manuel Garcia
Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators, “Keep Reaching’ Up”—Will Stabile
The Slits, “Typical Girls”—Art Blake
INSTRUMENTAL #2: AGF, “Bgcolour”—Salomé Voegelin
Nina Simone, “Work Song”—Neil Verma
Frank Wilson, “Do I love you/indeed I do”—Josh Shepperd
INSTRUMENTAL #3: Odon, “Never”—Primus Luta
tUnE-yArDs,  “Look Around”—Alyxandra Vesey
Sammus, “Power Ups”—Jennifer Stoever
INSTRUMENTAL #4: Sabrepulse, “Cityscape Dreams.”—Kyle Stedman
The Impressions, “People Get Ready” —Regina Bradley
Arrested Development, “Everyday People”—Kristin Leigh Moriah

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