In Pursuit of Echoes; or, the Vagaries of Coveting Nothing

What attracted me to live broadcasting to begin with is its transient nature. Radio plays are being played out in time rather than space. They pass through your mind, where they might well linger; but the sounds proper are gone as soon as they are heard. After World War II, when producers of radio plays in the US increasingly resorted to transcriptions, that is recorded sound canned for later broadcast, listening in lost much of its intimacy and immediacy.

The actors were no longer performing live and radio was no longer the immediate medium that brought absent listeners into the presence, the not-here-but-now of the speaker. The age of the rerun had begun; performers were becoming less engaging, less careful in their readings, and recording and editing technology presented those in charge with more opportunities to control and censor what was being uttered.

In the years between VJ-Day and the Korean war, commercial radio was more clamorous and importuning than ever. It had lost its lure, however, its hold on the American imagination. As in the myth of Echo, the living voice was tamed, became petrified, repetitive, and ultimately inconsequential. It was stillborn, already past before being presented. Recordings took the live—the life—out of radio.

Today’s technology has made it easier than ever to capture sound, to retrieve and release it, encouraging us to become ever less attentive, ever more in need of external memory, of megabytes, databases, and hard drives. Yet, as I was reminded last week, sound waves resist being shored; however preserved, they remain fleeting, that is, being fleeting, refuse to remain.

As a result of some carelessness on my part I damaged my computer and lost my entire library of recorded plays; some 7250 of them, gone. For months I was in pursuit of thin air and, with one shock to void a thousand voices, ended up with nothing. Storing radio ephemera, cataloguing plays neatly and listening to them with proper knowledge of their precise broadcast date, of their place in time, has been an obsession of mine for years.

When I began to write about the time art of radio dramatics I realized, time and again, just how much of what is preserved and available online is incorrectly or inadequately logged. It had been my aim to serve aural art by preserving it; but, having been thwarted in my efforts, the paradox of live recordings makes itself keenly felt. I was in pursuit of Echo, but now feel more like Narcissus staring into the mirror of his own folly. If only I could remember, re-member the missing pieces now almost beyond recall. . . .

Well, almost. The machine might have given up the ghost, but the aftermath isn’t the last act of Hamlet; “the rest” will not have to be “silence.” The pursuit continues, and I am forever catching up with the elusive echoes of sound’s past.

“War of the Worlds”: A Report from the Sensorial Battlefield

This 1950s paperback from my collection includes the script of the 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast.

We know that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacence people went to and fro over the earth about there little affairs, serene in the assurance of their dominion over this small spinning fragment of solar driftwood which by chance or design man has inherited out of the dark mystery of Time and Space. Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that are to our minds as ours to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. In the thirty-eighth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. . . .

With these ominous lines, read by Renaissance ham Orson Welles, opened what is now the best-remembered and most widely discussed of all US radio plays—Howard Koch’s adaptation of H. G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds” (30 October 1938).  Apart from this introduction, a slightly tweaked passage of Wells’s original narrative, the infamous Mercury Theater production took great liberties with its source.  It was an infidelity that proved most felicitous; for rarely has any story been transferred from one medium to another with greater ingenuity and with such sensational results.

Steven Spielberg’s cinematic update, which I experienced yesterday, pays homage to both Wells and Welles by quoting these words, by delivering them in a sonorous, Wellesian voice (Morgan Freeman’s), and by employing them as a literary bookend for an episodic melodrama that unfold as a series of more or less stupendous set pieces.  Freeman’s voice-over narration notwithstanding, Spielberg’s conventional sci-fi thriller—some kind of intergalactic Jurassic Park—has none of the qualities that made the radio play such an engaging and provocative experiment in adaptation.

Like all filmic reworkings, Spielberg’s spectacle struggles with and falters under the pressure of making terror visible, of equating the evocative with manifest dread.  The opening montage sums up the war to be fought by zooming in on the sources of threat and salvation, cosmos and microcosm.  Neither infinite outer space nor infinitesimal innerspace remains hidden from view.

The camera soon assumes the role of the terrorizing invader alluded to in Wells’s introductory remarks, as the menaced protagonists are being “watched closely,” “scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”  As in our daily lives, captured by infiltrating webcams and ubiquitous close-circuit security equipment, vigilance and violence coincide; the act of surveillance has become the art of assailants.  And still, the demand for ocular proof has to be satisfied at all costs.

Throughout the movie, the hero’s daughter is cautioned not to look as camera and special effects expose the audience to the horrors of alien warfare and the consequences of human frailty.  In one scene, she is being blindfolded by her father in an attempt to shelter her from the murder he feels compelled to commit.  For one brief moment, the audience is spared a graphic scene.  As the crime is being perpetrated behind closed doors, a close-up of the girl’s face reveals that her mind’s eye creates an image no less terrifying than the atrocities she had witnessed before.  The father, like most western adults, has become too dependent on visuals to recall the power of suggestion and the thrills produced by the insinuating ear.  The movie thus manages to disclose his failings—and our sensorial loss—but cannot combat the empire of the eye to which it is beholden.

However futile, the radio artists of the 1930s and ‘40s were among the last dramatists to wage war against the dominion of the visual world.  Howard Koch’s adaptation proved to be one of the last victorious battles, dealing such a blow as to put censors on guard against the forgotten force of non-visual stimulation.  Then, “in the thirty-eighth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. . . .”

Listening Away; or, Sound and Soli[ci]tude

Well, I missed Live 8 this weekend; or it missed me, rather. These days, I seem to be catching up with the world instead of living in it. Images of the present are all around me; but they flicker in a sphere of some remove, while the sounds of the past, close up and intimate, continue to envelop and move me. The world of today often appears to be a realm apart, not a reality that is part of me. Even if it calls out to me, I can barely be reached for comment.

So, the spectacle of Live 8 has passed me by. Of course, mass-mediated fund-raising efforts and public appeals are nothing new; they certainly precede television. There was good old Kate Smith, for instance, who raised millions for defense on US radio during the war loan drives of the 1940s. US programs like the Treasury Star Parade staged plays expressly for the purpose of raising awareness—and plenty of dough. Not long after VJ Day, public service announcements encouraged listeners to assist financially in the rebuilding of Europe, to give to those who, not too long ago, were to be thought of as adversaries, as evil incarnate.

War and peace propaganda aside, radio audiences were often urged to contribute to their communities and be socially responsible; they were reminded that careful listening meant responding and interacting, even though the actions to be taken were dictated to them. Undoubtedly, Live 8 is creating the greatest gathering of people in need of a latter-day Borrioboola Gha—an entire continent deserving of their aid, providing said far-away and its miseries will remain distant.

I recall the Band Aid efforts of 1985; I was enjoying the idea of being part of a great musical bloc party, but never thought much about the cause behind it nor made any contribution other than showing up. Today, making a spontaneous donation is as easy as pressing a button on your mobile phone; but can the televised images of spoiled pop stars and starving children assist in making Africa become more familiar, in making millions elsewhere matter here?

Can an image say more than a thousand uttered sounds? Supposedly, the fleeting sounds of live radio appeal to the emotion much more than print or visual media, which encourage closer scrutiny and permit reexamination—the remove of reason. Radio, it has been argued by McLuhan and his followers, is a fascist medium; it unifies by infiltrating the mind and by stirring each listener singly. It is the great sonic leveler—browbeating, cajoling, indoctrinating.

The aural medium strikes me as a more immediate, more readily suggestive propagandistic tool than other mass media. Sure, television or computer screens, too, can reach the multitude-as-individuals with whatever messages are being conveyed; but the eye, opening up a world, keeps it at a distance. We look on, stare or gawk at something other than ourselves; even our own image, once televised or screened, becomes strange to us.

Unlike the eye, my ear brings the world home, making even the infinite seem intimate. Whatever “eager droppings” spill over the “porches of my ear” melt into me, become me. I take sound in, am taken in, and, thus taken, carried away—by force and by choice—from the image empire of today. I am listening, away.

A Soundscape of Britain?

A few days ago I went to the Tate Gallery in London to see A Picture of Britain. This exhibition of paintings, coinciding with a BBC television series, did not exactly get rave reviews. Critics complained that the real Britain was, for the most part, left out of the picture. The works on display mainly feature idyllic representations of what Britain could be or ought to be, according to followers of the Picturesque or romantically inclined artists. In short, plenty of nature, little naturalism. I wonder how A Soundscape of Britain would turn out, if ever there were such a showcase devoted to national noise. What would be the representative sounds of Britain?

In the US, during radio’s so-called golden age, the Columbia Workshop and the later CBS Radio Workshop offered listeners aural snapshots and panoramas of New York, London, and Paris. “A Portrait of London,” for instance, which aired over CBS on 20 July 1956, took listeners to Big Ben, the city zoo, and Buckingham Palace, with Sarah Churchill (daughter of the former Prime Minister) serving as tour guide.

A few weeks earlier (7 July 1956), the Workshop had taken tuners-in to Paris, while “The Sounds of a Nation” (18 November 1956) sonically evoked the history of the United States. Some twenty years earlier, the Columbia Workshop had presented a “Broadway Evening” (25 July 1936), a noisy report from the bustling Big Apple. Other such programs include “Crosstown Manhattan” (8 December 1938) and Norman Corwin’s “New York: A Tapestry for Radio” (14 May 1944).

While more concerned with the spoken word than with the creation of collages in sound, Corwin conducted frequent experiments in bringing faraway places home to the radio audience with travelogue series like An American in England (1942) and Passport for Adams (1943), as well as the ambitious documentary One World Flight (1947), which consisted of interviews and recorded sounds from actual locations in Italy, India, and Australia.

Corwin’s travelogues did not simply revel in sound qua spectacle; they were propagandistic or didactic in nature, designed to glean messages from or impose meaning on bits and bites of sound. As Alexander Pope once put it, the “sound must seem an echo to the sense.” How, then, could one make sense of Britain through sound? What, besides the tolling of Big Ben, or the water gurgling in the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain (pictured above), or the chirping of robins, or the roaring North sea, or raindrops falling on hedgerows, might be A Soundscape of Britain?

Many years ago, visiting New York City for the first time, I walked through the streets of Manhattan to capture the sounds of the sirens, the pedestrians on the pavement, the honking of cars and the hollering of cabbies during rush hour. It gave me immense pleasure listening to these recordings back in the misery that was my home across the Atlantic. I could drown out the silence and loneliness in ways that a few pictures in my photo album could not accomplish. I have always loved wrapping myself in sound’s cape, escaping in sound . . .

Castles in the Air; or, No, No, Nostalgia

I am moving in.  At last I am beginning to feel more at home sharing my thoughts in this way. It seems somewhat daunting, at first.  If not altogether arcane, the internet as a communal space, an event in which to partake rather than a means for the taking or the taking in is still unexplored territory to me.  How can I file my claim in a land whose boundaries I do not yet grasp?

I am not calling this journal broadcastellan for nothing.  The past to me is not a dungeon cluttered with artifacts, nor a fortress to be taken.  It is a castle I am building with materials I gather while listening.  Tuning in, belatedly, to live broadcasts of the 1930s or ‘40s, I seem to be living on recycled air; but what I come across can still feel like a fresh current, not an atmosphere that is stagnant or miasmic.  Catching a reverberation of the past, I am breathing it in and breathe in it.  This stronghold is well ventilated.

I have always been suspicious of both history and nostalgia as motivations for looking (or listening) back.  History is the effort to make sense of the past, a figuring out—rather than a figuring forth—of it; nostalgia, by comparison, strikes me as an act of self-absorbed pillaging, a heedless appropriation.  If the former lacks creative freedom, the latter means taking liberties rather too freely.  In a review of a friend’s book I once called “nostalgia” the “fruitful reverie of a past whose text is a history of longing.”  Now, even I don’t quite know anymore what that might mean—but I can still feel it ringing true.

Nostalgia is a longing for an elusive and largely undefined bygone, while history is a longing for knowledge of what has truly been going on all along; but neither approach enables us to achieve a sense of belonging as we behold or hold on to the past.  Listening to historic broadcasts, I dwell on air; I do not linger in a vacuum.  I might be the creator of this castle, but its stuff—the found matter that is its foundation—has to be weighed, handled and shaped with care and understanding.

What is my place in this castle I am constructing? What is the responsibility of a broadcastellan—the present keeper of a home for live records of the past?