BY Charlotte Taylor in Influences | 10 SEP 03
Featured in
Issue 77

Hear, hear

The British Library's recordings of writers and poets

BY Charlotte Taylor in Influences | 10 SEP 03

On inventing the phonograph, the first thing Thomas Edison recorded was his own voice shouting 'Hello!' Next, he bellowed 'Mary had a little lamb' into the mouthpiece while the recording needle scratched away. From the moment of its creation this invention has served at least two purposes: generating disembodied greetings and offering a way to preserve our literary productions.

These are the ends the British Library hopes to serve by releasing a pair of CDs called The Spoken Word: Historic Recordings from the British Library Sound Archive (2003). The two discs present 55 tracks under the broad headings of 'Writers' and 'Poets'. Brought together not by their aesthetic sympathies but by the arbitrary fact that all were born in the 19th century, such authors as James Joyce and Compton Mackenzie sit side by side, while Gertrude Stein and Edith Sitwell eye each other coolly across several tracks. Yet it is the very disparate quality of these selections that concentrates our attention on the medium itself.

Some would say that hearing poems and stories read aloud returns us to a time when the only way to publish - in the sense of making something public - was to speak. Plato saw writing as a threatening technology. 'Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful', he cautioned. Centuries later Marshall McLuhan warned that writing by hand was the least of our worries; the advent of print set us adrift in a Gutenberg galaxy where we were not only amnesiacs; we were isolated and mute. As he told it, audio media would reconnect us to one another like electronic nerves. However hot these media are, though, they don't bring us back to the Homeric fireside where poet-singers performed epics laced with mnemonic hooks. Edison's 'Mary had a little lamb' was something new, its verses etched not in our memories but on a cylinder covered with aluminium foil.

In the earliest recordings included in the collection - those of Robert Browning, from 1889, and Alfred Tennyson, from 1890 - the words spoken are barely audible, mixed with audience cheers and the crackle and hiss of the antiquated recording device. Unlike our discriminating ears, which listen only for intelligible data, audio media record everything without prejudice, and they often add distortions of their own. Friedrich Kittler speculates that written notation helped keep us deaf to ambient sound (Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 1999; originally published in German in 1986). Musical symbols represent an orderly progression of tones; letters correspond to conventional phonemes; numbers denote the abstract notion of quantity. We had no register for noise until the phonograph attuned our ears to a revelatory cacophony of gurgles, pops, squeals and whines. Recording and broadcasting technologies also created an entirely new category of sound: the aural fuzz we call static.

Such new sonic possibilities produced a creative boom for avant-garde artists trying to upend the tradition. If literature attempts to bestow an imaginative order on reality, the phonograph fights this order with its high fidelity to the incoherent sound textures of the world. Inspired by technology, F. T. Marinetti called for 'a telegraphic lyricism with no taste of the book about it' and 'the bold introduction of onomatopoeic harmonies to render all the sounds and noises of modern life' ('Destruction of Syntax - Imagination without Strings - Words in Freedom', 1913). Antonin Artaud's instantly banned 1947 radio piece 'Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de Dieu' (To Have Done with the Judgement of God) explored the radical possibilities of using noise as language and language as noise. Current work, such as Kristin Oppenheim's experiments with voice as a sculptural element, continues to push sound poetry forward.

On the British Library collection, the 'I knew too that he was through' of Stein's 'A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson' (recorded 1935) transforms sound into a cooing telegraph of affection. Besides this piece and the marvel of hearing Ezra Pound read 'The Seafarer' (recorded 1932) while banging on a kettledrum, the 'Poets' disc offers little of the avant-garde legacy. (The best source for sound poetry from modern to contemporary remains Ubuweb: Instead, we hear the early years of the 20th century as a Mexican stand-off between Victorian, popular and high Modernist verse.

The juxtapositions suggest that poetic voice may be just that - a reflection of the author's way of speaking. William Carlos Williams delivers abrupt cadences in a flat twang. 'They enter the new world naked', he declares, and his voice indeed sounds naked next to W. B. Yeats' sumptuous elocutionary pretensions. T. S. Eliot, with his nasal, quavering tones, is Prufrock.

The 'Writers' disc intensifies the desire to believe that voice reveals personality. Most of its selections are snippets of lectures or informal addresses, and so instead of attending to the rhythms and diction of a composition, we listen for some ineffable essence of the self. 'The voice is the incarnation of the soul', wrote Théophile Gautier. 'Hearing a voice, I know a soul, and the words it utters do not deceive me.' Or is this a fantasy born out of longing? 'It is characteristic of the voice to die', counters Roland Barthes. 'I never know the loved being's voice except when it is dead, remembered, recalled inside my head, way past the ear; [...] it is one of those objects which exist only once they have disappeared' (A Lover's Discourse, 1978). Voice is the phantasmic residue that lingers in the imagination after the aural event of hearing someone speak, a loss as much as it is a gain.

For his audio work I Am Sitting in a Room (1969) Alvin Lucier recorded his own voice, and then recorded the recording, and then recorded that recording, and on and on. When the final tape was played, one heard indistinct cadences that teased the ear, unmistakably human sounds hovering on the edge of decipherability. Does this piece show that the voice degenerates in technological reproduction, or that technology can reduce 'speech' to that essence which is 'voice' - as Robert Frost describes it, 'an oversound,/Her tone of meaning, but without the words'?

The haunting paradoxes of the medium may best be summed up by the opening words of G. K. Chesterton's recording. His welcome anticipates a farewell: 'Pardon me if the first few words that reach you resemble a hollow voice from the tomb.'