25 Oct 2015

Edison Ledges (diagram for twelve archival silences)

"even as strange geographies corrugate, fracture and smear worldly scale and tempo, the ground isn’t somehow evaporated into virtual information flux, but, quite to contrary, we are brought to the end of the non-place, to a point where place can be and must be re-established anew as an accountable habitat in the renewed image of these very same deformations." 

- Benjamin Bratton, 'On the Nomos of the Cloud: The Stack, Deep Address, Integral Geography'.

the short study Edison ledges (diagram for twelve archival silences), re-purposed various archival sound recordings, in this case, commercially released Edison wax cylinders c.1890-1920 catalogued within the 500+ cylinders that form part of the collections of a small Hobart-based museum dedicated to sound technologies, the Sound Preservation Association of Tasmania (S.P.A.T). The cylinders were recorded, and the music subsequently removed, leaving only the precursory audio, and the final run-out grooves. Inverting the kinds of editing processes used, for example, in digital archival sound preservation, in which an editor would normally edit out these audible silences and use noise reduction software to progressively remove the grain media to reveal the music, here, the grain, the noise and the silence are all that remain of the technical, epistemological and economic act of late 19th century audio recording. 

These resulting “audio thresholds” were then digitally arranged as a simple compaction of strata, in two stacks of twelve five-second layers, in groups of six: 6 openings and 6 codas, their arrangement still corresponding to the linear temporal manner in which they were recorded, with six pre- and six post- music silences forming a staggered pyramid structure, whose arrangement allowed no audio overlays, processing, or other editorial intervention. 

So the structure of the finished piece looks something like this: 


Another way of looking at this might be as a figure of narrative de-centredness – a self-enclosed series of entries and exits, bracketing an empty centre. Something like this: 


in this diagram (or poem) what appears as an empty centre, could also be understood as a series of inconclusions, multiple centres. The piece is serialist, and potentially endless, with an additive, indexical structure, rather than a narrative structure. This echoes the infrastructure of the archive itself, which - according to Lev Manovich - is organised on database, rather than narrative logics.

This empty centre - the (now missing) content of these mass-produced cylinders - includes various types of popular music: comedy skits with out-of-date racial slurs and sexist mother-in-law-jokes, mawkish, warbly violin tunes, Chopin nocturnes played in-studio by working pianists who have already done twelve one-off recordings that morning, and crisp, chipper military marching songs rendered sub-robotic by the sonic proclivities of the hyper-speed turning of the cylinder medium. Also edited out were the audio introductions which characterise early Edison recordings. These 'vocal liner notes' necessitated the speaker shouting into the phonographic recording horn, a purely pragmatic process that inadvertently lends the resulting intonation a peculiar aesthetic formality, what to our ears, listening in from a different century, hears as style: that loud, shrill, “Victorian” oratorial voice.

Such content is itself the sound of history, dictated by form and moulded within the pragmatic constraints of the recording process. With its removal, what is left audible is the aural bones: various levels of materiality and various strata of time: the real-time mechanism of the cylinders' playback (on an Edison fireside phonograph - the particular machine is also held in the collections of the S.P.A.T archive), the breathily hyperactive spinning of the cylinders themselves, rotating at speeds of between 90 and 160 rpm, and the materiality of the storage media's own life, comprised of donations from the vernacular home-libraries of Tasmanian listeners, with a murky, unknowable provenance of around-the-house popular entertainment. Lastly, there are the sounds of the S.P.A.T office, on the day I recorded the cylinders, another form of more recent recorded silence, now also forever temporally displaced from its situatedness as an unnoticed, fleeting moment of audiblity in a particular room, made audibly material by my own recording process.

With ages ranging between the 1890s and the 1920s, these cylinders are contradictory objects: both mass-produced and uniquely stamped with history. Their potential aura-fetishism, in the digital era, is at odds with their ordinariness, and part of their interest lies in this irresolvably contradictory status – the fact that, even though they are some of the earliest available records, they are also commercially produced copies. What are such objects doing, in a sound archive? Arguably, their aura doesn't hold up: this shoring-up against loss can be justified neither by their status as one-off documents, nor be tied to the preciousness of their content. To approach their historical uniqueness requires a materialist method, and one that includes actual real time re-listening; this listening re-activates a situation in which the unique event of (re)recording interacts with a unique event of playback. Arguably, a listening-in to history necessitates the removal of those sounds which are copied: namely, the music itself.

In the late 19th century, alongside the development of technologies of visual reproduction, the advent of sound recording brought a radically new ontology – a different kind of memory-object - into the world. The relationship of sound to music was radically changed by this process, as was the relationship between sound and silence. The emergence of texts in which these changes were brought to the medium of sound itself are often discussed through the lens of John Cage's mid century work on silence, which, alongside other studies such as George Brecht's “Gap Events” (the score of which lists three instructions, the second focusing on the space “between two sounds”) reveals the re-casting of experimental sound practice investigating the cultural effects of recording. As David Grubbs reveals in Records Ruin the Landscape; the problems Cage had with the idea of the recording itself were a direct provocation for his work with silence, with 4'33” a problem solving exercise around a development he found distinctly problematic. Beyond Cage's catalytic listening moment, itself seemingly emerging from disdain for the solidifying of a live event into the reified repetition of recording, a project whose outcome was the simple crystalisation of a highly complex cultural shift (the effects of which are still reverberating), artistic projects have continued to reveal that the limits of the recorded sound object have always included its silence. Furthermore, these silences tend to be particular, not generalised: there is little more specific than a listening-space revealing itself.

One thing recorded music teaches us is that a centre can be anywhere; also that silence has always been a part of music performance. The Edison recording process was conducted live in the studio, so the silences before and after each track are also potently infused with that live space. Within each cylinder there is a multitude of silences: between notes, between phrases, before the music begins (as the performer prepares), when each of the pieces ends. As the century progressed, sound was increasingly haunted by the particularity of silence in its connection to death, as history inserted itself into the widening gap between sound and silence, helped along by the moving of the initial gesture of the techological magic trick of sound recording beyond the memory of anyone actually living. The concept of “hauntology” has come to stand in for some versions of this process within contemporary sound culture, but before it was a genre it was first discussed by Jacques Derrida as a play both on Karl Marx’s introduction to the Communist Manifesto, “a spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism”, and on the word ‘ontology’.

When the curator of the project Sweet Tribology, an experimental radio maker and sound artist named Julia Drouin, says “ontological”, she - like Derrida - says it with a French accent. To Anglo ears at least, this comes across as distinctly ghostly. Sweet Tribology gathers 25 sound projects, all based on responses to 1 minute excerpts of recordings of wax cylinders in the S.P.A.T archive. The artists are all women. You can read more about it here. The notion of translation and the nexus of ontology/hauntology might be one key, both to Julia's more lighthearted approach toward the historical material of sound recording, and the oblique angle of my own project's inclusion within it.

Edison ledges (diagram for twelve archival silences) was recorded prior to Julia's harnessing of the same wax cylinders for her project, and is properly a study for a larger work that focuses on wax cylinder silences, tentatively called the long nineteenth century (a flock of margins, a decentred field). This excerpt, however, thanks to Julia, will have its own life, and a variety of further unexpected ontological/hauntological outcomes through its association with the Sweet Tribology project. It has already been transmitted over local radio waves in Spain, and has been pressed to edible chocolate records, with the audible hill and dale grooves of the original cylinders, within the recorded silences, transferred to the medium of the 45rpm single. These outcomes complicate the idea of “sound preservation” itself. What is being preserved here, and how?

Collaborations between small museums and artists create the possibility for artist projects to intervene into archives to create hybrid readings of history which re-interpret set narratives. My future work with S.P.A.T will include a radio documentary based on sounds and oral histories of localised technology, and in the past it has has included the use of one of their phonographs – a beautifully preserved Edison Gem – as a playback device for the work Collected Huia Notations (like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has retreated), a gallery exhibition whose centrepiece was a new sound fossil - a wax cylinder, recorded with piano decipherings of archival western musical notation of extinct New Zealand birdsong. This multi-layered transcription piece was a lateral take on the notion of historical absences which focused on the silencing of environment, and the complex human complicity within both species extinction and their enduring record in archival memory.

It was also a meditation on sonic materiality. The "new" cylinder made for Collected Huia Notations was far more fragile than the used in Edison Ledges (diagram for twelve archival silences) and the wider Sweet Tribology project. Its contemporary replication of an early, pre-commercial “white wax” cylinder ultimately rendered an object more aligned with a test pressing or - to use the New Zealand experimental music idiom - a lathe cut record or 'Geraldine' (to reference the work of Peter King Industries), one that had its own mortality very firmly foregrounded within the fragility of its playback, rather than one aligned with the later more stable brown “wax” cylinders, or the blue Amberols which now survive in numbers in archives and antique stores, as historical artefacts of the early recording industry. Although interestingly, to my mind, Julia's pressing of S.P.A.T's collection of blue amberol and brown wax commercial records to chocolate re-inscribes this more stable media-strata again into a fragile and unstable medium, a medium in flux, whose ephemerality is further compounded by its ingestion by listeners at the end of the project, in a process which allows us to re-imagine the listening body as simultaneously a digesting body, joining the ear to the stomach, the corpus to the intellect. The history of chocolate records is almost as long as recorded sound history itself, with commercial novelty edible records, along with the special tiny gramophones to play them on, first appearing in 1902. Julia's intervention into this history is like her intervention into recorded music history via the S.P.A.T archive - part playful, loving homage, and part potential critical re-reading.

It's not quite accurate to call these "obsolete" media. The re-membering of processes by artists intervening in technological histories and archives can not only change our conception of how time works from a linear model toward a more multi-dimensional, multi-directional temporality, but arguably help save those crafts and processes themselves from the cultural scrapheap. This relates to technical formations like radio, which as Tetsuo Kogawa writes in his 1990 essay Toward Polymorphous Radio, can reach "extreme potentials" when their commercial applications have largely subsided, but also to archival practices, such as cataloguing. Working with the silences of early commercially recorded media, one encounters something akin to a geology of sound, what one of the foremost theorists of such a notion, Jussi Parrika, calls "a critique of a teleological notion of media evolution that assumes a natural progress embedded in the narratives of the devices." Furthermore, one again discovers that the centre is everywhere.  That when approaching narratives of already-extant media (such as commercially recorded wax cylinders) within an art context, to listen to their materiality, is to discover, hidden within the linear timeline of media evolution, another polyphony, a set of dislocated and open-ended texts, devoid of any fixed centre. What I like to think of as "a time capsule moving in both directions".

Roland Barthes' set this movement out a while ago in his distinction between a 'work' and a 'text', which hinges around the notion that whereas a work is a closed system with a fixed center of meaning, a text is an open system, a decentered or multicentered interplay of differential traces and floating signifiers. While a work is simply "lisible" (readable), this kind of decentered text is 'scriptable" (writable), i.e, it induces multiple interpretations. Barthes writes: "In this way the Text is restored to language: like language, it is structured but decentered without closure (...) The Text is plural. This does mean just that it has several meanings, but rather that it achieves plurality of meaning, an irreducible plurality." This decentredness is something Barthes also found materially expressed the interior of a traditional Japanese room: "In the Shikidai gallery, as in the ideal Japanese house, stripped of furniture ... the center is rejected (painful frustration for Western man, every- where "furnished" with his armchair, his bed, proprietor of a domestic location). Uncentered, space is also reversible ... there is nothing to grasp."

And there we have it, an instruction of what to listen out for, within the materiality of the historic: it is a kind of future, but one which is akin to buried knowledge, something audible within the timeline, that reverses the timeline back on itself, that shows itself only through smallness and slowness, as untapped and overlooked potential. that lost to language, but which still extant, un- or dis- coverable in ways we might have lost or not yet have the language for.