k!..The phonograph needle scrapes across the final grooves, slips back and
forth...back and forth...rr..shssssssssss ...k... rr..shsssssssssss...k...The
(still) familiar sound of an old record. A final skr-eeee k! and a cool
disengaged British voice (female) articulates precisely:
Course Book 1. Technical Discussion A. Reproductive
Interests: When to engage in female infanticide. As noted in the text, the
problem with infanticide is that those who practice it forfeit the long-term
interest of their genes in the cause of status, influence or perhaps money
in the immediate future. Nonetheless there are situations in which parents
are careless of their offspring - and societies in which parents kill their
(Building A Universe: Rifts, Absences and Omissions Premiered in quad sound
at the Alternative Museum, January 1987; and produced in stereo for the
New American Radio series. Spring 1987.)
Noise as a metaphor. The sound of an old record; the articulation of another
kind of recordone almost as old and widespread as mankind itself,
the long-playing record of the devaluation of the female, preserved in the
subtlerbut none-the-less effective reproductive technologies of today.
Like the CD, the new record is quieterno one need hear or see the
techniques; the quietness and the cleanliness of the process mask the agenda.
Technologies are not natural; they are cultural. They evolve in response
to the pressure of ideologies. They are accompanied by agendas. We suppress
the sound of our equipment, the sound of the work we are doing; we edit
out the noise to which our equipment is prey: the sound of the wind on the
microphone's diaphragm; the pop that occurs when an interviewee delivers
a percussive sound too close to the mic. We conceal our edits, learn very
early how to cut close to sounds in order to mask the cut, or if they are
inordinately stubborn, to cover them with an ambience, with music, with
another sound. We stand on our collective heads, turn the world inside out
trying to make our effort appear effortless and our work, comprised sometimes
of hundreds of scraps of recorded sound, a unified whole...something natural.
We did not invent the idea. It came with the profession. It came with the
technology we use. With the technology we clamor for when we cannot afford
to use it. The suppression of the sound of the workDolby, DBX, digital
technology, all originate here: in the felt need to suppress the sound of
the work, the process of working. It is called NOISE; its elimination is
of the first order of importance.
In comparing our world of electronic orality (the orality of media acoustics)
to older oral cultures, priest and media theoretician, Walter J. Ong says
that electronic orality "is essentially
a more deliberate and self-conscious orality...(It plans) happenings carefully
to be sure they are thoroughly spontaneous."
(Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word, New
York: Methuen, 1984.)
My use of NOISE in radio and audio productions is deliberate. I don't allow
bad edits (if I can help it); nor include in an otherwise carefully recorded
ambience the sound of the wind hitting the microphone. I'm as careful about
unwanted noise as any other careful producer. At the same time, I record
the noise of machinery, the clicks of my tape recorder, the spinning of
the reel; I spend lavish amounts of time creating electrical malfunctions,
recording static, and trying to control feedback, to make it sound not only
feedbackish but interesting. I plan its use carefully. I call attention
to the sound of work by using the sound of work to create my work. It carries
part of my meaning. And part of my meaning is just that simple: to call
attention to work, and thereby to the fiction I create and how I create
it. As members of the audience, we should know that radiofrom news
to the most sophisticated, multi-layered composition, is a fiction. We should
not be lulled into believing otherwise. Or if indeed the work is so good
that suspension of disbelief occurs (and as a producer I strive for this
as well), we should at least understand that in some way "we've been
had," that the event is not "natural."
Not so long ago I was watching the McNeil-Lehrer Report. The
film got stuck and for a few seconds I watched an unsprocketed Jim Lehrer
and his interviewee vibrate up and down on the screen. Would you believe
I was shocked, that I actually believed I was seeing and hearing the live,
well informed interviewers and their well-informed subjects, that there
were bodies there, real people? not just a roll of well-edited celluloid.
Is it Ella or is it Memorex?
Well of course it's Memorex. A reproduction of Ella authenticated by being
the product of Ella herself. Who stops to think about media manipulation
(anymore)? Or about the points of view that come with it?
Microphones imply a point of view. We direct them at the sound material
we think important. We subordinate or eliminate the sound material we think
is not important. We do the same when we edit and when we mix. We bring
ideologies to our work.
There was an NPR feature story, produced several years ago, about immigrant
Asian women learning the English language. The feature opened with an educated
white male telling us about them. Just information? Hardly. In the background
the Asian women giggled. The giggles were the first sounds we heard under
his authoritative male voice.
Agendas are not hard to find.
I come with them too. I use noise. At one level I want to remind the listener
that all this tech stuff is electricity dependent; that its not a unified
whole but a really crazy patchwork quilt: arrested soundcut up (by
hand or machine), pieced together (ditto), equalized, compressed, gated,
harmonized, delayed, mixed, stored, transmitted, repeated...A lot of fabricated
events, stored events, repeatable events. At another level I want to use
this noise because it is or can be interesting sound. But there are other
things going on too: I use noise to talk about agendas that bother me:
about what will happen when those scientists
who appear in Building A Universe actually construct a working uterus; actually
nuture an embryo for nine months. When I hear the sound of the old record,
can I believe that freeing woman from her biological fate isn't just another
male chorus singing "Good Night Ladies"? Or that the implications
for the male world are not equally ominous? I'm not just talking as a feminist
about the devaluation of women. I'm talking as a me about the devaluation
about what is happening now that we are able
to record and reproduce the sound of the human voice, once so unique and
so inseparable from the human being him/herself.
about the implications of all these "authenticated
stand-ins"our liberation from our biological nature.
about a lot, a lot of other things.
processed soundsleft right, right left move repetitively between
the speakers. Other sounds, unfamiliar, electronic, repetitive sound from
From somewhere in the distance, controlled feedback grows louder. It has
a human soundas if someone were whistling. As it dies away, the
sound of the human voicea small segment of a human voiceis
repeated, again and again, growing louder and louder, becoming more present.
Overtop a voice, the same voice, young, female, speaks, says something,
plays with the repeated sound, imitates it, becomes one with it; then
suddenly asserts itself. The sound stops. All sound stops. There is silence.
The voice speaks: a question? unmistakably a question, although the words
Slowly the sound world reasserts itself. The electronically processed
left right, right left begins again. The scenario is repeated: once, twice.
Feedback, the small segment of human voice different but the same. The
final time the repeated sound is recognizable as shhsh. Shhsh, shssh,
shssh; the voice-over imitates it, then suddenly, commands silence. And
there is silence.
Music. The kind you're used to. It sounds like an organ playing. A knock
at a door, repeated, and repeatedly unanswered.
Static. A klunk. A synthetic cymbal-like
sound, builds and crashes like an ocean wave from right to left across
the stereo spectrum. As it fades away, static, feedback, the loud klunk
of another machine, another wave set in motion, sweeping left to right.
And another, right to left. Lifting, curling into the red, crashing. Back
and forth, unrelenting, pounding the small human voice wherever it is
heard. Fragmenting, pulverizing it in the surf of sound. Gone finally,
the machine clunks to a stop. There is silence. A long silence. In radio
we call it dead air.
(From: Congruent Appeal: A Work In Process, 1988)
Is the caution a little noisy? Perhaps.
A very outspoken lady, Flannery 0'Connor, aware that she wrote for an
audience that did not share her convictions or forebodings, defended her
writing methods by saying, "With the hard of hearing you have to
shout and for the blind you draw in large and startling pictures."