A plea to the listener – and please stop this at 0:32…

Here, Jack Dangers sampled Wyndham Lewis reading from The End of Enemy Interlude, available on this fine collection. Now, if you want a decent Meat Beat Manifesto track, try this tasty blend of Helter Skelter with Radio Babylon. The Future Sound of London used a similar bassline on Papua New Guinea but the notes are different – are people deaf? Yes, the Prodigy put the same beat on Charly, but chopped it further. MBM reworked the sample from Bobby Byrd’s Hot Pants (Bonus Beats) and soaked it in reverb, but The Stone Roses had already used a shorter loop on Fools Gold, no?

So, with further a(u)d(i)o, what to write about? As Emlyn noted in his self-effacing “porcine hearing appendage” of an introduction to this series, it is not easyfinding words to discuss music. More specifically, any attempt to articulate individual sounds is rife with danger – and nigh on impossible without recourse to embarrassing onomatopoeia.

Not Luke Fowler: “Have you got that rare La Monte Young record on Shandar with Jon Hassell on trumpet?”

Not DJ / head chef Michael Kilkie: “What the hell are you talking about?”

Not Luke Fowler: “You know, the one that goes: A~a~aa~aaa~aaaa~aaaaa~aaaa~aaa~aa~a~aa~aaa~aaaa~aaaaa’…”

(a further plea to stop reading and leave this playing for its duration, sadly 4 times shorter than the original recording; bonus prize of temporary enlightenment for anyone with the ‘slack’ in this day and age to do so)

We could resort to metaphor for the purpose of general description. Colliderscope notes that Goethe referred to architecture as “frozen music”. If this is the case, my current flat would be an ill-advised cover version of Foreigner’s I Wanna Know What Love Is. Before anyone goes rushing to check Google Maps’ Street View, please consider that this information is given voluntarily and not designed to encourage prospective stalkers to take up residence in my garden. I don’t need the hassle in my life. There’s been heartache and pain; the thing is, I don’t know if I can face it again. Anyway, I can’t stop now: I’ve travelled so far… to change this lonely life…

Altogether now! *raises arms and eyebrows, inhales…*

(not The Farm, Emlyn, come on: deep focus)

Those of you who aren’t singing along at this point – at least in your mind’s ear – must a) be happily too young; b) have lived in a cave in the mid-to-late 80s; or c) have exquisite taste. To those who are indeed channelling Louis Grammatico and the New Jersey Mass Choir, I offer my sincerest apologies.

This brings us to research showing that the unsurprisingly-named auditory cortex in the temporal lobe is at the core of perceiving, storing and regurgitating sonic memories. On a few occasions, I have found myself prey to a particularly stubborn and distasteful earworm, wondering why it should have emerged from the depths… only to realise that the fleeting glimpse of a word, one isolated snippet of a song lyric completely out of context on an unrelated document, has – like a positive streamer which travels upward to connect with the pre-formed trajectory of the negative stepped leader to complete the “return stroke” of lightning – set off an instant reaction; this has then run for some time before apprehension of its existence, let alone any question over its origin.

Interestingly, Kraemer et al. have demonstrated that this type of example – where a discrete linguistic unit stimulates semantic knowledge for reconstruction of a song – may well mirror how figural imagery (“visual imagery elicited when considering names of objects”) operates. Both processes are reported to bypass their respective primary cortices, with neural activity in adjacent “lower resolution” areas being sufficient for materialising representations in the mind. However, in the absence of semantic information (e.g. with instrumental music or “depictive imagery”), both primary auditory and visual cortices are required and become the focal point of neural activity, with perceptual processing operating at “high resolution”. This is still not well understood, though, with other areas of the temporal and frontal lobes also playing a part.

Are we populated by examples of “catchy” music commonly just beyond conscious reach, irrespective of aesthetic preference? What parasitical audio horrors lie dormant, only ever seconds away from reasserting themselves in the mind of their host, following the appearance of a suitable catalyst?

Long-term memory appears to rely mainly upon repetition for reinforcement, with the subsequent blessing that much of the sensory noise bombarding us on a daily basis is filtered out and consigned to history. Exceptions to this rule usually occur when sense impressions are accompanied by strong emotional responses, trauma or incongruities that stand out from the general data set. Similarly, music – even on first hearing – can help cement a combination of other sensory impressions received while listening, leading to strongly evocative recall [shameless reference to own comments regarding The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me? and The Prisoner here].

The fact that there are such exceptions leads me to speculate that we do not necessarily have to notice them at the time to determine their longevity. Is it just me, or is one prone to burp out seemingly random quotes or statements at the oddest of intervals, without the slightest inkling from whence they have come?

“Polar bear livers contain potentially lethal amounts of vitamin A.”

Ok, I admit that I did notice that one at the time and have wheeled it out on many a suitable occasion, finger held aloft. Back to sound: when we read, to what extent does our internal voice – projected onto the written word – selectively embed itself on the author’s behalf? How many phrases of speech from subliminally “overheard” conversations are permanently resident within, despite the absence of any intention to eavesdrop? What else gets racked up on the jukebox?

“Hearing” full answers to these questions might well confirm that we are possessed by and subject to all manner of competing memes, discourses and registers, many of which never reach the light of consciousness; taken together with those that do, how stable is the “narrator” at the centre of this cyclone? Before proceeding to juicier realms of high weirdness, please allow me to offer up a

Patronising and incomplete overview of communication history

[Disclaimer: it is beyond the scope of this blog (and my waking life / sanity) to examine ownership and control of technology, the threat that any new form of empowerment represents to church or state, or subsequent attempts to counter this with censorship. The primary concern here is for music as sound, sound as voice, voice given body. If anyone can be arsed, a parallel history tracing the visual component of communication along similar lines would be most welcome.]

* recommended listening material for the next 77 minutes *

For aeons our species sought to preserve information uttered vocally only through the memory of a select few. Following a phase of scribal culture, the development of theprinting press undermined hitherto sacred roles in the transmission of ideas.

With every technological advance comes an inherent understanding of its limitations and creative desire to extend the boundaries of what is deemed possible. In this respect, we find evidence for a growing sense that “printed text was not enough”, rendered explicit in literary fiction – as we shall see later – by invention of fantastic machines physically embodying the voice. This is simultaneously tantamount to nostalgia for the proximity of utterance, in the face of enforced depersonalisation. It also betrays tacit acceptance of the momentum toward recipients of communication becoming increasingly passive.

As a side note, in relation to the cumulative impact of access to the printed word and its subsequent development into electronic formats, there is a strange irony in the fact that a text regarded as “the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book” should present “the avoidance of abiding in extremes of mental attachment” as its core lesson.

The race to eliminate time and space as barriers to communication features such notable landmarks as Claude Chappe’s semaphore lines as a form of “mechanical internet”, Alexander Bain’s proto-fax machine, Baron Schilling’s use of binary in his electromagnetic telegraph, Cooke and Wheatstone’s electric telegraph and its fascinating role in criminal detection, and the 16km call made by Alexander Graham Bell on 10th August 1876, despite many claimants and contributors to the invention of the telephone. This final event marks the first proper advance in transmission of audio signals for 5,000 years or more, since drums were first used for communication across relatively small distances: a voice from a body, present as a real-time participant, is disembodied in order to achieve physical reconstitution in the vibration of the receiving “speaker”.

11 years earlier, James Clark Maxwell, building on the work of Michael Faraday, had first predicted the existence of radio waves. 11 years later, Michelson and Morley put the idea of the aether – the Aristotelian quintessence, the fifth element acting as a transmission medium for light – to rest, Heinrich Hertz generated the first experimental radio waves in his laboratory, and Nikola Tesla filed patents for his alternative method of electrical power distribution: AC vs DC. At this point, too many protagonists enter the fray to give any fair assessment of who was responsible for the invention of radio. My head tells me to side with Tesla, but my heart retains a bias for Marconi, given that I lived 7km away from Poldhu Wireless Station when less than a year old until the age of 3.

With only a passing nod to the prediction of television, earliest experiments in transmission of a televisual image [it just had to be a ventriloquist’s dummy], first long-distance television pictures [it just had to be Central Station] and pioneering video recordings using audio technology (the gramophone record), let us backtrack to consider this potted history using helpful terminology, kindly donated by Douglas Kahn in his introduction to Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio and the Avant-garde.

Kahn mentions 3 figures – vibration, inscription, transmission – “that begin to account for how sounds are located or dislocated, contained or released, recorded or generated”. These 3 terms correspond roughly to core stages – oral, printed, electric – in the incomplete overview of communication history given above. For now, we will ignore the evolution of electric into electronic with the rise of circuitry, returning the focus back to music, sound and voice, and attempts at meaningful articulation.

The story of the desire to preserve the voice and give it body is a frothing morass of beauty, curiosity, obsession, hoax, ennui, acrimony, madness, mysticism and the desire to cheat death, one that ends in a proliferating cacophony of voices which are mostly disembodied, many of which cascade daily into our permeable brains. In attempting to make transient intangibles manifest and attain a degree of immortality, this quest leads into dark and frankly ridiculous corners of the human psyche.

Please return for the next instalments of this article – blogs are limited to 40,000 characters per post, apparently :( – which describe various attempts to visualise, represent, capture, replicate and disseminate sound, discussed under the headings of vibration, inscription and transmission.


Mix-Blog: A bit like a mix-tape but with blogs instead. Read more from the series here.