Tag Archive | Sound

Sounding Out! Podcast #54: The Sound of Magic

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

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




Medieval charms run the gamut from offering protection for journeys (travel was often perilous) to warding your cattle from thieves (the runic letter for ‘cattle’ also means ‘wealth’) to various kinds of healing for people, animals and even the earth. Many of them include verses that are meant to be sung.

What is the sound of magic? How do you sing it properly without notation? Does it affect the efficacy of the charm if you sing it wrong?

‘Sing ðis gealdor’ Sing this charm the Anglo-Saxon texts command. The words are even linked as ‘galdorsangas’ incantations, but the doom-and-gloom 11th century preacher Archbishop Wulfstan uses that term in the pejorative sense of things to avoid, lumping it together with ‘sorceries’ as things to avoid. In its time the right way of singing was understood but, as is the case about much of the social context, we have lost the specifics.

How to recreate an Anglo-Saxon charm in a modern sound file then? If you’re going to do it right, how do you capture the magic in a way that’s true to the source material and yet accessible to a modern audience (even if it’s just my students)? I was determined to do it and do it right.

K. A. Laity is the author of the novels White RabbitKnight of the White HartA Cut-Throat BusinessLush SituationOwl StretchingPelzmantelThe Mangrove LegacyChastity Flame and the collections Unquiet Dreams and Unikirja, as well as editor of Weird NoirNoir Carnival and Drag Noir, writer of other stories, plays and essays. Her stories tend to slip across genres and categories, but all display intelligence and humour. Myths and fairy tales influence much of her writing. The short stories in Dreambook [originally Unikirja] found their inspiration from The Kalevala, Kanteletar, and other Finnish myths and legends: the stories won the 2005 Eureka Short Story Fellowship and a 2006 Finlandia Foundation grant.

Dr. Laity teaches medieval literature, film, digital humanities and popular culture at the College of Saint Rose, though she was at NUI Galway as a Fulbright scholar for the 2011-2 academic year.

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

‘A Clateryng of Knokkes’: Multimodality and Performativity in “The Blacksmith’s Lament”–Katherine Jager

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

EPISODE LI: Creating New Words from Old Sounds–Marcella Ernest, Candace Gala, Leslie Harper, and Daryn McKenny

Optophones and Musical Print

The word type, as scanned by the optophone.

From E.E. Fournier d’Albe, The Moon Element (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1924), 141.


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.

Photograph of the optophone, an early scanner with a rounded glass bookrest.

Reading Optophone, held at Blind Veterans UK (formerly St. Dunstan’s). Photographed by the author. With thanks to Robert Baker for helping me search through the storeroom to locate this item, which was previously uncatalogued and “lost” for many years.


Scientific illustration of the optophone, showing a book on the bookrest and a pair of headphones for listening to the tonal output.

Schematic of optophone from Vetenskapen och livet (1922)

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.

Francis Picabia's Optophone I, a series of concentric black circles with a female figure at the center.

Francis Picabia, Optophone I (1922)

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:

Needless to say, any succession or combination of musical notes can be picked out by properly arranged transparencies, and I have succeeded in transcribing a number of musical compositions in this manner, which are, of course, only audible in the telephone. These notes, in the absence of all other sounding mechanism, are particularly pure and free from overtones. Indeed, a musical optophone worked by this intermittent light, has been arranged by means of a simple keyboard, and some very pleasant effects may thus be obtained, more especially as the loudness and duration of the different notes is under very complete and separate control.

E.E. Fournier d’Albe, The Moon Element (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1924), 107.

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.

Piechowski, wearing a suit, scans the pen of the A-2 reader over a document.

Joe Piechowski with the A-2 reader. Courtesy of Rob Flory.

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.

An image of the letter r as scanned by the optophone and compressed optophone.

From Patrick Nye, “An Investigation of Audio Outputs for a Reading Machine,” AFB Research Bulletin (July 1965): 30.


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.

Lauer's fingers are pictured in the finger-rests of the Visotactor, scanning a document.

Harvey Lauer reading with the Visotactor, a text-to-tactile translator, 1977.

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.

A hand uses the metal probe of the Cognodictor to scan a typed document.

The Cognodictor. Glendon Smith and Hans Mauch, “Research and Development in the Field of Reading Machines for the Blind,” Bulletin of Prosthetics Research (Spring 1977): 65.

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.

Mauch Stereo Toner from Sounding Out! on Vimeo.

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.”

Scan of a braille letter from Jameson to Lauer.

Letter courtesy of Harvey Lauer. Transcribed by Shafeka Hashash.

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. 

A young Kurzweil stands by his reading machine, demonstrated by Jernigan, who is seated.

Raymond Kurzweil and Kenneth Jernigan with the Kurzweil Reading Machine (NFB, 1977). Courtesy National Federation of the Blind.

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.

Learning to Listen Beyond Our Ears: Reflecting Upon World Listening Day


World Listening DayWorld Listening Month3 took place last week, and as I understand it, it is all about not taking sound for granted – an admirable goal indeed! But it is worth taking a moment to consider what sorts of things we might be taking for granted about sound as a concept when we decide that listening should have its own holiday.

One gets the idea that soundscapes are like giant pandas on Endangered Species Day – precious and beautiful and in need of protection. Or perhaps they are more like office workers on Administrative Professionals’ Day – crucial and commonplace, but underappreciated. Does an annual day of listening imply an interruption of the regularly scheduled three hundred and sixty four days of “looking”? I don’t want to undermine the valuable work of the folks at the World Listening Project, but I’d argue it’s equally important to consider the hazards of taking sound and listening for granted as premises of sensory experience in the first place. As WLD has passed, let us reflect upon ways we can listen beyond our ears.

At least since R. Murray Schafer coined the term, people have been living in a world of soundscapes. Emily Thompson provides a good definition of the central concept of the soundscape as “an aural landscape… simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving that environment; it is both a world and a culture constructed to make sense of that world.”(117) As an historian, Thompson was interested in using the concept of soundscape as a way of describing a particular epoch: the modern “machine age” of the turn of the 20th century.

"Rock Series - Microphones" by Flickr user Stefano Tambalo, CC BY 2.0

“Rock Series – Microphones” by Flickr user Stefano Tambalo, CC BY 2.0

Anthropologist Tim Ingold has argued that, though the concept that listening is primarily something that we do within, towards, or to “soundscapes” usefully counterbalanced the conceptual hegemony of sight, it problematically reified sound, focusing on “fixities of surface conformation rather than the flows of the medium” and simplifying our perceptual faculties as “playback devices” that are neatly divided between our eyes, ears, nose, skin, tongue, etc.

Stephan Helmreich took Ingold’s critique a step further, suggesting that soundscape-listening presumes a a particular kind of listener: “emplaced in space, [and] possessed of interior subjectivities that process outside objectivities.” Or, in less concise but hopefully clearer words: When you look at the huge range of ways we experience the world, perhaps we’re limiting ourselves if we confine the way we account for listening experiences with assumptions (however self-evident they might seem to some of us) that we are ‘things in space’ with ‘thinking insides’ that interact with ‘un-thinking outsides.’ Jonathan Sterne and Mitchell Akiyama, in their chapter for the Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, put it the most bluntly, arguing that

Recent decades of sensory history, anthropology, and cultural studies have rendered banal the argument that the senses are constructed. However, as yet, sound scholars have only begun to reckon with the implications for the dissolution of our object of study as a given prior to our work of analysis.(546)

Here they are referring to the problem of the technological plasticity of the senses suggested by “audification” technologies that make visible things audible and vice-versa. SO!’s Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman has also weighed in on the social contingency of the “listening ear,” invoking Judith Butler to describe it as “a socially-constructed filter that produces but also regulates specific cultural ideas about sound.” In various ways, here, we get the sense that not only is listening a good way to gain new perspectives, but that there are many perspectives one can have concerning the question of what listening itself entails.

"listen (069/365)" by Flickr user Tim Pierce, CC BY 2.0

“listen (069/365)” by Flickr user Tim Pierce, CC BY 2.0

But interrogating the act of listening and the sounds towards which it is directed is not just about good scholarship and thinking about sound in a properly relational and antiessentialist way. It’s even less about tsk-tsking those who find “sound topics” intrinsically interesting (and thus spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about things like, say, Auto-Tune.) Rather, it’s about taking advantage of listening’s potential as a prying bar for opening up some of those black boxes to which we’ve grown accustomed to consigning our senses. Rather than just celebrating listening practices and acoustic ecologies year after year, we should take the opportunity to consider listening beyond our current conceptions of “listening” and its Western paradigms.

For example, when anthropologist Kathryn Lynn Guerts first tried to understand the sensory language of the West African Anlo-Ewe people, she found a rough but ready-enough translation for “hear” in the verb se or sese. The more she spoke with people about it, however, the more she felt the limitations of her own assumptions about hearing being, simply, the way we sense sounds through our ears. As one of her informants put it, “Sese is hearing – not hearing by the ear but a feeling type of hearing”(185). As it turns out, according to many Anlo-ewe speakers, our ability to hear the sounds of the world around us is by no means an obviously discrete element of some five-part sensorium, but rather a sub-category of a feeling-in-the-body, or seselelame. Geurts traces the ways in which the prefix se combines with other sensory modes, opening up the act of hearing as it goes along: sesetonume, for example, is a category that brings together sensations of “eating, drinking, breathing, regulation of saliva, sexual exchanges, and also speech.” Whereas English speakers are more inclined to contrast speech with listening as an act of expression rather than perception, for the Anlo-Ewe they can be joined together into a single sensory experience.

"Listening, Regent Street, London, 17 December 2011" by Flickr user John Perivolaris, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Listening, Regent Street, London, 17 December 2011” by Flickr user John Perivolaris, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The ways of experiencing the world intimated by Geurts’ Anlo-Ewe interlocutors play havoc with conventionally “transitive,” western understandings of what it means to “sense” something (that is, to be a subject sensing an object) let alone what it means to listen. When you listen to something you like, Geurts might suggest to us that liking is part of the listening. Similarly, when you listen to yourself speak, who’s to say the feeling of your tongue against the inside of your mouth isn’t part of that listening? When a scream raises the hairs on the back of your neck, are you listening with your follicles? Are you listening to a song when it is stuck in your head? The force within us that makes us automatically answer “no” to questions of this sort is not a force of our bodies (they felt these things together after all), but a force of social convention. What if we tried to protest our centuries-old sensory sequestration? Give me synaesthesia or give me death!

Indeed, synaesthesia, or the bleeding-together of sensory modes in our everyday phenomenological experience, shows that we should loosen the ear’s hold on the listening act (both in a conceptual and a literal sense – see some of the great work at the intersections of disability studies and sound studies). In The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty put forth a bold thesis about the basic promiscuity of sensory experience:

Synaesthetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the centre of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist conceives it, what we are to see, hear and feel. (266)

Merleau-Ponty, it should be said, is not anti-science so much as he’s interested in understanding the separation of the senses as an historical accomplishment. This allows us to think about and carry out the listening act in even more radical ways.

"Listening Room" by Flickr user Consumerist Dot Com, CC BY 2.0

“Listening Room” by Flickr user Consumerist Dot Com, CC BY 2.0

Of course all of this synaesthetic exuberance requires a note to slow down and check our privilege. As Stoever-Ackerman pointed out:

For women and people of color who are just beginning to decolonize the act of listening that casts their alternatives as wrong/aberrant/incorrect—and working on understanding their listening, owning their sensory orientations and communicating them to others, suddenly casting away sound/listening seems a little like moving the ball, no?

To this I would reply: yes, absolutely. It is good to remember that gleefully dismantling categories is by no means always the best way to achieve wider conceptual and social openness in sound studies. There is no reason to think that a synaesthetic agenda couldn’t, in principle, turn fascistic. The point, I think, is to question the tools we use just as rigorously as the work we do with them.

Owen Marshall is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. His dissertation research focuses on the articulation of embodied perceptual skills, technological systems, and economies of affect in the recording studio. He is particularly interested in the history and politics of pitch-time correction, cybernetics, and ideas and practices about sensory-technological attunement in general.

Featured image: “listen up: ears really are strange looking if you think about it” by Flickr user woodleywonderworks, CC-BY-2.0

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Snap, Crackle, Pop: The Sonic Pleasures of Food–Steph Ceraso

“HOW YOU SOUND??”: The Poet’s Voice, Aura, and the Challenge of Listening to Poetry–James Hyland

SO! Amplifies: Eric Leonardson and World Listening Day 18 July 2014–Eric Leonardson


That Infernal Racket: Sound, Anxiety, and the IBM Computer in AMC’s Mad Men

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead for Folks Not Caught Up with Season 7, Episode 5!]

In one of the more memorable – and squirm-inducing – scenes of this season of AMC’s Mad Men, brilliant but eccentric copywriter Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) presents his colleague, agency copy chief Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) with his own severed nipple, placed carefully in a gift box. Ginsberg explains to the understandably horrified Peggy that the gift is both a token of his affection and a means of relieving pressure caused by the arrival of Sterling, Cooper & Partners’ (SC&P) newest acquisition: a humming, room-sized IBM System/360 mainframe computer. Explaining his enmity for the machine and his increasingly erratic behavior, Ginsberg tells Peggy that the “waves of data” emanating from the computer were filling him up, and that the only solution was to “remove the pressure” by slicing off his “valve.”

The arrival of the IBM 360 in the idealized 1960s office space inhabited by Mad Men is obviously an unsettling presence – and not only for Ginsberg. Since its debut in Episode 4, commentators (e.g. WaPo’s Andrea Peterson, Slate’s Seth Stevenson) have meditated on the heavy-handed symbolism surrounding the machine – both in terms of its historical significance and its implications for plot and character development. Typically cued through noise (or lack thereof), it is worth reflecting upon the role of sound in establishing the computer as a source of disruption. Between the pounding and screeching of installation and the drone of the completed machine’s air conditioner and tape reels, the sonic motifs accompanying the computer underline tensions between (and roiling within) SC&P staffers grappling with the incipient digital age. Likewise, the infernal racket produced by the installation and operation of the IBM 360 adds an important dimension to the tensions resulting from its presence, which can be read as allegories for the complexities and contradictions of our relationship with technology.


The tone of the conflict is set even before we meet the IBM 360 toward the end of Episode 4: The Monolith – a reference to Kubrick’s 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (Slate’s Forrest Wickman ably discusses the references). Like the unnerving silence used with such great effect in that film, the absence of sound frames our first encounter with the computer – or at least its promise. Early in the episode, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), newly rehabilitated from his forced exile from the agency, arrives one morning at SC&P to find the office deserted. The ghostly sequence is clearly meant to symbolize Draper’s detachment from the firm. But as the episode progresses and tensions mount over the possibility that the IBM 360 will render jobs obsolete, the desolate office suggests a more ominous meaning – a once lively space muted by cold, impersonal automation.

In following scenes, successive stages of mainframe installation are marked by convergences of conflict and cacophony. First, there is the din of the creative team as they evacuate their beloved lounge – now earmarked as computer space – and during which a distraught Ginsberg projects his indignation onto art director Stan Rizzo, who appears more accepting. “They’re trying to erase us!” Ginsberg exclaims bitterly. Later, Draper lounges on his office couch as a clop clopping of hammers outside signifies tangible change. As if this weren’t enough of a distraction, two men in the corridor begin to chat loudly over the noise. Going out to investigate, Draper strikes up a conversation with one of the men, Lloyd Hawley, installation supervisor and founder of a small technology company competing with IBM. “Who’s winning?” Draper asks innocently, “who’s replacing more people?” Clearly irritated by Draper’s tone, Harry Crane – SC&P media director and the computer’s lead cheerleader – offers Draper a condescending apology for the loss of his “lunchroom,” assures him the change was “not symbolic.” “No, it’s quite literal,” Draper retorts. Unabated, the pounding and screeching of construction work emphasizes his point.

For the remainder of the episode, the raucous noise of construction acts as a leitmotif underscoring tensions between characters – between Peggy and Lou Avery (Draper’s priggish replacement at creative director), and between Draper and the interloper Lloyd. Finally, the end of construction is punctuated by a return to silence, as Peggy arrives one morning to see workers glide mainframe components noiselessly into the office.

Mad Men Logo. Used under the auspices of fair use for identification and critical commentary.

Mad Men Logo. Used under the auspices of fair use for identification and critical commentary.

With this emphasis on technology as a source of symbolic, physical, and sonic disruption, Matthew Weiner and the creators of Mad Men draw upon a rich literary tradition. A relevant example contemporaneous with the show’s “present,” is literary critic Leo Marx’s 1964 text The Machine in the Garden, which examines the complicated relationships between a “pastoral ideal” and technological progress within American literature and popular imagination. Marx’s analysis reveals that sound is often used to convey the disruptive presence of technology within the bucolic landscape of the American continent. In Hawthorne’s Sleepy Hollow for example, it is the interrupting shriek of a locomotive whistle that breaks the author’s harmonious reverie: “Now tension replaces repose: the noise arouses a sense of dislocation, conflict, and anxiety” (15). In the decidedly un-pastoral modern office space, the noise of the computer installation nevertheless signifies a momentous social change and irrevocable loss. Picking out these tensions has always been one of the show’s strengths – whether it is the computer, Draper’s double identity, or the quiet endurance of women to the misogyny of midcentury work and domestic life.

Change, however, has significant consequences for Ginsberg, the young copywriter and Holocaust survivor who, as CBS’s Jessica Firger observes, has been deteriorating psychologically for some time. The proximity of the IBM 360, and the incessant drone of its mind-controlling waves eventually puts him over the edge. As Draper and Peggy enter the office early in Episode 5, Ginsberg glowers into the room housing the IBM 360. “Stop humming, you’re not happy!” he explodes. As Peggy attempts to soothe her colleague, our perspective shifts to look out at them from inside the glass-encased computer room. From here, the mainframe’s ambient noise muffles Peggy’s words, suggesting isolation between human and non-human. This play of speech and silence reoccurs later in the episode as Ginsberg, working alone on a Saturday with tissues wedged in his ears, spies Lou Avery and SC&P partner Jim Cutler inside the computer room, their voices made inaudible by the droning computer in a delicious homage to 2001 (see Vulture’s amusing gif). But the noise is clearly affecting Ginsberg. “It’s that hum at the office! It’s getting to me!” he tells Peggy later that evening. He even claims the computer has affected his sexuality.

Ginsberg’s noise complaints would have resonated in 1969 New York. In November of that year, the New York Times ran a feature on the city’s nerve-shattering noise pollution, calling it a “slow agent of death.” In addition to the myriad construction projects, subways, car horns, jet planes, and standing machinery populating the city soundscape, office workers found scant respite indoors where phones, air conditioners, “computers and typewriters and tabulators” whirred, whined, and clacked throughout the day. The article went on to report that scientists studying the impact of prolonged noise exposure on the human body had concluded a variety of ill effects on the heart and nervous system. Though no connection was made between computers and sexuality (as Ginsberg claimed), the article reported that laboratory rats under prolonged noise exposure had indeed “turned homosexual,” an opinion that underlined deterministic associations between sexuality, psychological disorder, and external stimuli.

An advertisement for the IBM 360. Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons.

An advertisement for the IBM 360. Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons.

As SO! editor Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman has argued, noise in midcentury New York also signified a sonic-racial politics, in which the mainstream “listening ear” recoiled at the “noise” created by Black and Puerto Rican others. In terms of Mad Men’s computer however, it is technology, economic anxiety, and mental illness, rather than ethnicity that frames sonic disruption. The basis of these tensions are similar however, and various interactions with SC&P’s IBM 360 demonstrate, as Stoever-Ackerman writes in SO!, “the ways in which Americans have been disciplined to consider some sounds as natural, normal, and desirable, while deeming alternate ways of listening and sounding as aberrant [and] dangerous.” Though similar, the conflict with technology on Mad Men does not suggest a clear us/them, or us/”it” binary. The banging of construction may be at first antagonistic, but it’s finite – eventually the computer is normalized within the SC&P office space to the extent that Peggy chides Ginsberg’s exasperation in Episode 5 by insisting “it’s just a computer!” Ginsberg’s reaction is more complex however, implicating a contradictory relationship with technology: once fully installed, has the droning computer become “natural, normal, and desirable” despite previous ambivalence? Is the keen awareness and anxiety towards technology symbolized through Ginsberg (albeit in a extreme form) suggested as the “aberrant” listening practice, or could it be Peggy’s apparent acceptance?

Like most cultural texts set in the past, it is possible to read Mad Men allegorically, as suggesting a certain ordering of meaning and values. From the perspective of those who have long since domesticated computers, the controversies and tropes activated by SC&P’s IBM 360 might strike us as familiar, even quaint. As the sociologist Bruno Latour has argued however, we would be wise to consider how technology exerts a kind of social agency that structures and impacts our daily lives. As historical symbolism, the sounds and noises of the IBM 360 on Mad Men should remind us that technological progress is not teleological, but a struggle over meaning in which anxieties (about jobs, mind-control, surveillance, subjectivity, etc.) may be variously accommodated, suppressed, or dismissed as irrational.

Featured image: An IBM 360 Mainframe. Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0

Andrew J. Salvati is a Media Studies Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University. His interests include the history of television and media technologies, theory and philosophy of history, and representations of history in media contexts. Additional interests include play, authenticity, the sublime, and the absurd. Andrew has co-authored a book chapter with colleague Jonathan Bullinger titled “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past” in the recent edited volume Playing With the Past (2013)and has written a recent blog post for Play the Past titled The Play of History.”

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“The Noise of SB 1070: Or Do I Sound Illegal to You?”– Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman

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