The Firesign Theatre are the only group that can claim among its devoted fans both Thom Yorke and John Ashbery; who have an album in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress and also coined a phrase now used as a slogan by freeform giant WFMU; and whose albums were widely distributed by tape among U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, and then sampled by the most selective classic hip hop DJs, from Steinski and DJ Premier to J Dilla and Madlib.
Formed in 1966, they began their career improvising on Los Angeles’s Pacifica station KPFK, and went on to work in numerous media formats over their four-decade career. They are best known for a series of nine albums made for Columbia Records, records that remain unparalleled for their density, complexity, and sonic range. Realizing in an astonishing way the implications of the long playing record and the multi-track recording studio, the Firesign Theatre’s Columbia albums offer unusually fertile ground for bringing techniques of literary analysis to bear upon the fields of sound and media studies (and vice versa). This is a strategy that aims to reveal the forms of political consciousness that crafted the records, as well as the politics of the once-common listening practices binding together the disparate audiences I have just named. It is no accident that the associative and referential politics of the sample in “golden age” hip hop would have recognized a similar politics of reference and association in Firesign Theatre’s sound work, in particular in the group’s pioneering use of language, time, and space.
The Firesign Theatre is typically understood as a comedy act from the era of “head music” — elaborate album-oriented sounds that solicited concerted, often collective and repeated, listening typically under the influence of drugs. But it may be better to understand their work as attempting to devise a future for literary writing that would be unbound from the printed page and engaged with the emergent recording technologies of the day. In this way, they may have crafted a practice more radical, but less recognizable, than that of poets —such as Allen Ginsberg or David Antin, both of whose work Firesign read on the air — who were also experimenting with writing on tape during these years (see Michael Davidson’s Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word, in particular 196-224). Because their work circulated almost exclusively on vinyl (secondarily on tape), it encouraged a kind of reading (in the strictest sense) with the ears; the fact that their work was distributed through the networks of popular music may also have implications for the way we understand past communities of music listeners as well.
The period of Firesign’s contract (1967-1975) with the world’s largest record company parallels exactly the recording industry’s relocation from New York to Los Angeles, the development of multitrack studios which made the overdub the dominant technique for recording pop music, and the rise of the LP as a medium in its own right, a format that rewarded, and in Firesign’s case required, repeated listening. These were all factors the Firesign Theatre uniquely exploited. Giving attention to the musicality of the group’s work, Jacob Smith has shown (in an excellent short discussion in Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures that is to date the only academic study of Firesign) how the group’s attention to the expansion of television, and in particular the new practice of channel-surfing, provided both a thematic and a formal focus for the group’s work: “Firesign […] uses channel surfing as the sonic equivalent of parallel editing, a kind of horizontal or melodic layering in which different themes are woven in and out of prominence until they finally merge. Firesign also adds vertical layers to the narrative in a manner analogous to musical harmony or multiple planes of cinematic superimposition” (181). But more remains to be said not only about the effect of the Firesign Theatre’s work, but about its carefully wrought semantics, in particular the way the “horizontal” and “vertical” layers that Smith identifies were used as ways of revealing the mutually implicated regimes of politics, culture, and media in the Vietnam era — at the very moment when the explosion of those media was otherwise working to disassociate those fields.
The group’s third album, Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers is typically understood as their first extended meditation on the cultural phenomenology of television. Throughout the record, though there is much else going on, two pastiches of 1950s genre movies (High School Madness and a war film called Parallel Hell!) stream intermittently, as if through a single channel-surfing television set. The films coincide in two superimposed courtroom scenes that include all the principal characters from both films. By interpenetrating the school and the war, the record names without naming the killing of four students at Kent State and two students at Jackson State University, two events that occurred eleven days apart in May 1970 while the group was writing and recording in Los Angeles. Until this point rationalized by the framing fiction of a principal character watching both films on television, the interpenetration of the narratives is resolvable within the album’s diegesis—the master plot that accounts for and rationalizes every discrete gesture and event—only as a representation of that character’s having fallen asleep and dreaming the films together, a narrative sleight of hand that would testify to the group’s comprehension of literary modernism and the avant-garde.
The question of what may “cause” the interpenetration of the films is of interest, but the Firesign Theatre did not always require justification to elicit the most outrageous representational shifts of space (as well as of medium and persona). What is of more interest is the way rationalized space — the space implied by the “audioposition” of classic radio drama, as theorized by Neil Verma in Theater of the Mind— could be de-emphasized or even abandoned in favor of what might instead be called analytic space, an aural fiction in which the institutions of war and school can be understood as simultaneous and coterminous, and which more broadly represents the political corruptions of the Nixon administration by means of formal and generic corruption that is the hallmark of the Firesign Theatre’s approach to media (35-38).
While the techniques that produce this analytic soundscape bear some resemblance to what Verma terms the “kaleidosonic style” pioneered by radio producer Norman Corwin in the 1940s — in which the listener is moved “from place to place, experiencing shallow scenes as if from a series of fixed apertures” — even this very brief sketch indicates how radically the Firesign Theatre explored, deepened, and multiplied Corwin’s techniques in order to stage a more politically diagnostic and implicative mode of cultural interpretation. Firesign’s spaces, which are often of great depth, are rarely traversed arbitrarily; they are more typically experienced either in a relatively seamless flow (perspective and location shifting by means of an associative, critical or analytical, logic that the listener may discover), or are instead subsumed within regimes of media (a radio broadcast within a feature film which is broadcast on a television that is being watched by the primary character on the record album to which you are listening). According to either strategy the medium may be understood to be the message, but that message is one whose horizon is as critical as it is aesthetic.
The creation of what I am terming an analytic space was directly abetted by the technological advancement of recording studios, which underwent a period of profound transformation during the years of their Columbia contract, which spanned the year of The Beatles’s Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (arguably the world’s first concept album, recorded on four tracks) to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (arguably that band’s fourth concept album, recorded on 24 tracks). Pop music had for years availed itself of the possibilities of recording vocals and solos separately, or doubly, but the dominant convention was for such recordings to support the imagined conceit of a song being performed live. As studios’ technological advances increased the possibilities for multitracking, overdubbing, and mixing, pop recordings such as Sgt. Pepper and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) became more self-evidently untethered from the event of a live performance, actual or simulated. In the place of the long-dominant conceit of a recording’s indexical relation to a particular moment in time, pop music after the late 60s came increasingly to define and inhabit new conceptions of space, and especially time. Thus, when in 1970 Robert Christgau asserted that the Firesign Theatre “uses the recording studio at least as brilliantly as any rock group” (and awarding a very rare A+), he was remarking the degree to which distortions and experiments with time and space were if anything more radically available to narrative forms than they were to music.
The overdub made possible much more than the simple multiplication and manipulation of aural elements, it also added depth and richness to the soundfield. New possibilities of mixing, layering, and editing also revealed that the narrative representation of time, as well as spatial element I’ve just described, could be substantially reworked and given thematic meaning. In one knowing example, on 1969’s How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All, an accident with a time machine results in the duplication of each of the narrative’s major characters, who then fight or drink with each other.
This crisis of the unities is only averted when a pastiche of Franklin Delano Roosevelt interrupts the record’s fictional broadcast, announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and his decision to surrender to Japan. On a record released the year the United States began secret bombing in Cambodia, it is not only the phenomenological, but also the social and political, implications of this kind of technologically mediated writing that are striking: the overdub enables the formal representation of “duplicity” itself, with the gesture of surrender ironically but pointedly offered as the resolution to the present crisis in Southeast Asia.
To take seriously the Firesign Theatre’s experiments with medium, sound, and language may be a way of reviving techniques of writing — as well as recording, and of listening — that have surprisingly eroded, even as technological advances (cheaper microphones, modeling software, and programs from Audacity and Garage Band to Pro Tools and Ableton Live) have taken the conditions of production out of the exclusive purview of the major recording studios. In two recent essays in RadioDoc Review called “The Arts of Amnesia: The Case for Audio Drama Part One” and “Part Two,” Verma has surveyed the recent proliferation of audio drama in the field of podcasting, and urged artists to explore more deeply the practices and traditions of the past, fearing that contemporary aversion to “radio drama” risks “fall[ing] into a determinism that misses cross-fertilization and common experiment” (Part Two, 4). Meanwhile, Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett’s live performances from their excellent World According to Sound podcast are newly instantiating a form of collective and immersive listening that bears a resemblance to the practices that were dominant among Firesign Theatre listeners in the 1960s and 70s; this fall they are hosting listening events for Firesign records in San Francisco.
It is tempting to hope for a wider range of experimentation in the field of audio in the decade to come, one that either critically exploits or supersedes the hegemony of individualized listening emblematized by podcast apps and noise-cancelling headphones. But if the audio field instead remains governed by information-oriented podcasts, leavened by a subfield of relatively classical dramas like the very good first season of Homecoming, a return to the Firesign Theatre’s work can have methodological, historical, and theoretical value because it could help reveal how the experience of recorded sound had an altogether different political inflection in an earlier era. Thinking back to the remarkably heterogeneous set of Firesign Theatre fans with which I began, it is hard not to observe that the dominant era of the sample in hip hop is one where it was not the Walkman but the jambox — with its politics of contesting a shared social space through collective listening — was the primary apparatus of playback. However unwished- for, this determinist line of technological thinking would clarify the way media audiences are successively composed and decomposed, and show more clearly how, to use Nick Couldry’s words in “Liveness, ‘Reality,’ and the Mediated Habitus from Television to the Mobile Phone,” “the ‘habitus’ of contemporary societies is being transformed by mediation itself” (358).
Featured Image: The Firesign Theatre (ice cream baggage claim): John Rose, courtesy of author.
Jeremy Braddock is Associate Professor of English at Cornell University, where he specializes on the production and reception of modernist literature, media, and culture from the 1910s throughout the long twentieth century. His scholarship has examined the collective and institutional forms of twentieth-century authorship that are obscured by the romanticized figure of the individual artist. His book Collecting as Modernist Practic— a study of anthologies, archives, and private art collections — won the 2013 Modernist Studies Association book prize. Recent publications include a short essay considering the literary education of Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus and an essay on the Harlem reception of James Joyce’s Ulysses. He is currently working on a book on the Firesign Theatre.
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Editor’s Note: This is Liana, Managing Editor for Sounding Out!, introducing you to this special fall installment of our series “Tune Into the Past,” penned by our very own Editor-in-Chief and Guest Posts Editor, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman. We at SO! have been waiting for months for Jennifer to share with us a brand-spanking new blog post! She’s back in action this month with a post that asks readers to listen to the cultural landscape that foregrounded Norman Corwin’s success as a radio writer and producer, inspired by her research on her book manuscript on the sonic color-line. In particular, Jennifer addresses the notion of colorblindness and its very real repercussions on radio artists and producers of color in the 1940s. Want to catch up on our series on Norman Corwin? Check out this summer’s posts by radio scholars Neil Verma, Shawn VanCour, and Alex Russo. If you’re all caught up, open your ears and your eyes then (to paraphrase Kurt Cobain). —LMS
Almost every day, I hear someone on the radio hailing America as the home of democracy. Yet almost every network is guilty of discrimination against the Negro performer. There are a few isolated cases of Negroes in broadcasting, but the lily-white policy is seldom violated.—Lena Horne, Chicago Defender 1940
The fine pieces in the “Tune in to the Past” series have thoughtfully considered the audible legacies of Norman Corwin: the “kaleidosonic” aesthetics that Neil Verma called the “Corwinesque,” the virtually seamless melding of artistic and commercial concerns that Shawn VanCour analyzed, and the echoes of Corwin remixed into WNYC’s Radiolab that Alexander Russo amplified. But the research I performed for my book manuscript, The Sonic Color-line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening, about the fraught relationship between race and 1940s radio, left me pondering the gaps and silences of Corwin’s soundscape. Radio’s “Golden Age” was also its most racially segregated: was the philosophy of “colorblindness” that Norman Corwin publicly espoused key to keeping it that way?
It’s not my goal to undermine Corwin’s work, but rather to enhance our understanding of it by embedding his broadcasts in the wider political, historical and sonic fields in which he was enmeshed. Just as Corwin’s sounded legacy left long-lasting traces in our media, so too have the silences and omissions fostered by the media executives, casting directors, union bosses, radio critics, and sonic auteurs of the “Golden Age.” If Corwin’s work is difficult to access save for far-flung archives and spotty collector’s catalogues, the exclusions of African-American producers, performers, and listeners are even harder to hear, in part because of his very insistence that radio’s microphones were colorblind. As the epigraph from Lena Horne testifies, the discourse of democracy is not mutually exclusive with segregation. In what follows, I discuss the intensely segregated history of the “Golden Age of Radio,” arguing that one of Corwin’s most far-reaching legacies may not have been set in motion by his virtuostic broadcasting, but rather by the World War II-era liberalism that shaped it.
The apex of Corwin’s radio career coincided with a profound shift in America’s dominant racial formation, the beginnings of “colorblindness.” By colorblindness, I mean the belief that if individuals and institutions ignored skin color as a signifier and eliminating race as an official category of identity—particularly within governmental institutions—it would cease to matter in American life and all groups would have equitable access to the privileges, opportunities, and freedoms afforded by citizenship. The shift toward colorblindness—what Michele Hilmes calls America’s “wartime racial realignment” in Radio Voices—was predicated on creating a sense of unity that would inspire men across the color-line to sign up to fight what was dubbed a war to end racism and fascism, even as it raged on in their segregated hometowns. The Pittsburgh Courier’s Double V Campaign—Victory against fascism abroad and Victory against racism at home—addressed these ironies. Barbara Dianne Savage’s Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race details the suppression of many black newspapers on military bases due to the Double V Campaign, as well as the pressure it put on government radio programs to address race. However, she notes:
if black people had been forced to rely on radio as their primary means of communication about the failings of the federal government, they would have been on an impossible mission, since they were admitted to radio only as entertainers or as briefly invited guests expected to be on their best behavior (94).
Despite high-profile protests in the black press, mainstream broadcasters constructed radio as an unmediated purveyor of equality and truth with increasing frequency during World War II—its “lofty aerials, symbols of freedom” according to New York Times radio critic Orrin Dunlap. In the case of Norman Corwin, he wrote a symptomatic (and nervy) editorial for Negro Digest in 1945 that depicted U.S. radio as a direct material and technological representation of colorblindness itself.
In “A Microphone. . . is. . . Color Blind”–what revealing ellipses!–Corwin assures black readers that “my feeling about Negroes in radio is that they belong as surely as the microphone.” This strange opening gambit compares black participation in radio to the mute technological presence of the microphone that, while absolutely central to broadcasting, is an object with no inherent agency. Unlike the proprietary, agenda-setting presence of whites in radio, a microphone amplifies the voices of others, while speaking not a word of its own. From his privileged vantage point, Corwin doesn’t quite realize how colorblindness enables him to use black people as tools.
And, while Corwin’s title insists on the microphone’s colorblindness, his article suggests otherwise. Much of his description of what America is missing without black people’s radio presence has to do with aural racial difference: “I have found the same thing that makes Negroes supremely great artists in song makes them great in speech. The color and warmth conveyed in the performance of a Negro artist is directly communicable by air. The microphone is a faithful reporter and says exactly what it hears.” In addition to perpetuating the old stereotype of black people as natural performers, Corwin’s realist depiction of the microphone as a “faithful reporter” that “says exactly what it hears” covers up exactly how much black voices were sculpted for white consumption during this period in radio; as actor Johnny Lee (“Algonquin C. Calhoun” on Amos ‘n’ Andy) told UCLA graduate student researcher Estelle Edmerson in 1954: “I had to learn how to talk as white people believed Negroes talked. Most of the directors take it for granted that if you’re a Negro actor, you’ll do the part of a Negro automatically.”
Whereas radio listeners were able to hear a wide range of white voices in a spectrum of roles—major and minor, comedic, dramatic, musical, informational—the sound and the content of black speech was circumscribed by the sonic color-line that marked it as “automatic,” essential, comedic, and potentially dangerous. Corwin’s use of the word “communicable” rather than “communicated,” for example, is a revealing flourish giving black sound a tinge of contagion and infectiousness. While ostensibly celebrating black voices, this passage simultaneously assures white listeners that they will still be able to unequivocally identify the race of any speaker over the “colorblind” airwaves and that this experience will be a pleasurable one for them. While the microphone may be color blind, it clearly is not color deaf.
That Corwin assumes a white audience becomes more obvious with his assertion a few lines later that “I have found too few Negroes who have taken an interest in radio. I suspect it’s because they don’t know about it.” This statement is fairly incredible, considering that the Research Company of America published a study in the radio industry magazine Sponsor that placed African American radio ownership at 87%, just shy of the national figure of 90% (October 1949, 25). Sponsor dubbed black audiences “The Forgotten 15,000,000.”
In addition to being inaccurate, Corwin’s suggestion that African Americans had limited knowledge of radio performs one of the signature moves of colorblindness; it makes institutional barriers to access—lack of training, networks, and mentorship, as well as straight up discriminatory hiring practices—invisible by asserting that black people only need to work harder to succeed in the American media industry. Under colorblindness, the failure to achieve success equitable to white citizens falls squarely on the shoulders of those oppressed. It also willfully mutes the protest of many black actors—such as Butterfly McQueen—who refused to participate in the segregated industry and the agency of all the black listeners who turned the dial on shows distasteful to them, allowing the fantasy of a unified (white) America to remain a powerful referent.
By and large, Corwin’s article paints colorblindness as already achieved. In his estimation, it is up to black people themselves to take advantages of the opportunities he suggests already await them via the colorblind microphone: “My attitude is not unique among radio directors—at least not in the main centers of radio[. . . ],“Corwin insists, “there is less prejudice in this field than in any other. It exists unfortunately, but you can get a hearing.” For someone whose bread and butter was rhetorical flourish, Corwin’s use of passive sentence construction to discuss racial prejudice is significant—he naturalizes it as something that merely “exists,” tooling along without any specific historical agent performing the discriminatory and oppressive actions. Such omission lets the white gatekeepers of the 1940s radio industry off the hook for both the institutional and individual forms of discrimination that kept the industry largely, as Lena Horne phrased it, “lily-white.”
Radio’s profound whiteness was aural as well as visual. In Corwin’s colorblind America, a radio “hearing” comes at a heavy price for African Americans. Without commenting on educational segregation, Corwin proclaimed: “Negro schools should have in their curriculum courses in public speaking, radio, theater. There is no reason why there should not be Negro announcers. It is important to study diction so that distinction in speech cannot be noted.” While Corwin begins “A Microphone. . . is. . .Color blind” by arguing that black voices should continue to retain the racial markings that are legible (and pleasurable) to white listeners, he then suggests they must also simultaneously sound enough like the white voices surrounding them in order to be heard and accepted as fellow American citizens. Radio didn’t just passively reflect the sounds of American citizenship during this period–it actively constructed them on a foundation of exclusion and silencing.
There remains, then, a profound disconnect between the full exercise of American citizenship, the idealized discourse of colorblind equality forwarded by government officials, media critics, and prominent broadcasters exemplified here by Corwin, and the actual representation of African Americans as radio producers, performers, and listeners during and after this period. At the same time as state-sponsored colorblind ideology rose to prominence during the war years, the U.S.’s airwaves became almost exclusively white. There were no black writers regularly employed by any national radio station during the 1940s and there was not a single black member of the Los Angeles Writer’s Guild. While black authors Langston Hughes and Carlton Moss wrote occasional scripts on one-shot contracts, they were about topics deemed of black interest by the networks. Black radio critic Joe Bostic—who would later become one of the nation’s first black radio sportscasters—described the limited openings for black radio performers:
publication last week of the most authoritative and comprehensive of the radio polls showed not a single Negro entertainer placing in the first ten of any branch of radio entertainment. Such a compilation outlines, in bold relief the disturbing fact that the Negro, long a leader in every phase of entertainment, is being excluded in this newest and most lucrative branch (People’s Voice, 1942).
Regular on-site broadcasts from nightspots that featured black performers all but vanished after 1940, meaning that the vast majority of black musical performances broadcast over the American radio networks were conditioned and mediated by white announcers and sponsors as well as the sounds of white-oriented programming that introduced and followed them.
To be clear, I don’t blame Corwin individually for the ideology of colorblindness and the world it has wrought, but I do think it is important to consider his role as a cultural producer in the “Golden Age” of segregated radio, and as a power broker who helped shape the media landscape with which we now contend. While we commemorate his labors as a sonic artist with high journalistic standards who undoubtedly worked to “glorify the ‘common man,'” we also have to consider the institutionalized privilege that enabled him to claim this role as his own, as well as the many people silenced by him doing so, inadvertently or not. Tuning in to the past demands a vigilant ear attentive to the profound silences of exclusion: the traces of words muted, mangled, disciplined and unsaid, as well as the subterranean reverberations ghosting the triumphant tones of the “Golden Age,” a shadow broadcast, on the lower frequencies, of all the sounds that might have been.
Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman is co-founder, Editor-in-Chief and Guest Posts Editor for Sounding Out! She is also Assistant Professor of English at Binghamton University and a former Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University (2011-2012).