Harper’s, July 2001
THE ARCHIVES OF Smithsonian Folkways Records occupy an inner chamber of the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife Programs & Cultural Studies, an office tower two blocks from the Washington Mall. Exit the elevator, follow a carpeted, auricular corridor to a glass door with a keypunch lock, continue through and down a hall littered with the carcasses of obsolete computers, turn left at a bronze bust of Woody Guthrie, enter a small room. One wall is all steel shelves lined with vinyl LPs, thousands of them. Against another wall stand several tiers of audio equipment: amps, mixers, recorders, black boxes of uncertain purpose woven together by thick audio cables. The floor in between hosts three desks, countless stacks of papers and books, cardboard boxes overflowing with blank compact discs–everything spilling into everything else, the whole place exhibiting the frailty and barely contained order of an overly active human brain.
That brain belonged most recently to Moses Asch, legendary music producer, ethnographer, social activist, and all-around audio visionary. In 1948, after several years working in radio, Asch started the Folkways Records label. Its modest mandate: to assemble a complete acoustic document of, well, everything. Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, whom Asch was the first to record, became signatures for the label, along with other classic folksingers like Pete Seeger and Ella Jenkins. Eventually the Folkways catalogue came to embrace more than two thousand titles and an ever widening definition of what Asch called “people’s music,” everything from black gospel, mountain ballads, and sea chanteys to Native American ritual songs, Caribbean dances, and avant-garde poetry. Asked at one point what exactly the term “Folkways” encompassed, Asch replied: “Anything that is sound.”
Just before his death in 1986, Asch agreed to donate his label to the Smithsonian, on one condition: every recording, no matter how obscure, must remain in print and commercially available. “Do you delete the letter Q from the alphabet,” he once said, “just because you don’t use it as much as the others?” To Asch, Folkways was no mere repository: it was a bastion against aural oblivion. Times would change, distinctive sounds would disappear. And the more commonplace the sounds were—the more indicative of their moment—the more likely they would disappear without notice or acknowledgment. Accordingly, the catalogue came to include several dozen recordings of various sounds so mundane that few people but Asch would think to preserve them, sounds that I found myself absorbing with fascination for several days not long ago.
The twentieth century was built for the ear. Sound was first recorded in 1877 on Thomas Alva Edison’s phonograph. The subsequent age of industry brought new sounds, newer ways of capturing them, and an increasing urgency to do so. Forget the images, forget the abstract paintings and stuttering newsreels, forget all the visual jetsam that millennial enthusiasts recently forced us to revisit. To appreciate the twentieth century, it seemed to me, I should leave my eyes behind, plug in the headphones, and listen–to cable cars, calliopes, frog calls, Jupiter rockets, surgical banter, steam locomotives, punch clocks: the work songs of the whole carbon-based enterprise.
Historically, we are creatures of vision, slaves of the iris. The elements of our selves–our loves and labors, arts and letters, our past and its presentation–are assembled largely through our eyes. “The keenest of all our senses is the sense of sight,” Cicero wrote. “Perceptions received by the ears or by reflexion can be most easily retained if they are also conveyed to our minds by the mediation of the eyes.” The memory palace that Asch built, and that continues to expand and advance into the twenty-first century, is founded on the opposing premise: that what matters most is what is heard, not what is seen; that sonic memories are at once more primal than visual ones (a dog recognizes his master’s voice, after all, not the photograph of him) and more evanescent.
“Sounds are like smells,” Anthony Seeger, curator and director of the Smithsonian Folkways label since 1988, told me in his office on my first afternoon there. “They’re tremendously evocative, but they tend to get left out of discussions, of historiesÂ—of museums.” He waved in the general direction of the Mall. “Walk around the Smithsonian: you don’t hear anything.”
BEFORE JOINING Smithsonian Folkways, Seeger ran the anthropological archives at Indiana University, whose collection of field recordings is surpassed only by that owned by the Library of Congress. Seeger’s mission, as he saw it, was to integrate the disparate media—audio, video—into a unified whole, what Seeger and his colleagues referred to semi-seriously as the Archive of Total Human Experience. Central to his scheme was a contraption called the Aroma Disk. Marketed briefly in the early 1980s, the Aroma Disk was a tabletop odor factory. Pop a disk—”Italian Bistro,” say—into the toasterlike device, heat it up, and, voila, your living room would be transformed into a Florentine bistro. That was the idea, anyway. The problem came when Seeger tried to play back the archived odors.
“I played one, and this greasy aroma started coming out,” he said. “The smells were just oils that would coat everything else in the archive.”
Sound, thankfully, is easier to preserve and safer to revisit. Sound is energy: anything that moves, however slightly, emits it. A wing beats, a leaf flutters, the surrounding molecules of air or water reverberate with waves that reach the ear as a surf of noise. If it can be seen, if it exists, it can be heard—you just have to listen closely. With the proper set of amplifiers, for instance, you could tune in to the atoms of Earth’s outermost atmosphere as they crackle and vibrate in the heat of the sun. If so inspired, you might then record an entire album of it, like Smithsonian Folkways title C-5013, produced in 1955: Ionosphere: Synchronized Ionosphere Observations. Or, following the example of audio engineers at the Naval Research Laboratory in 1952, you might drop a microphone into the ocean and record Sounds of the Sea, Volume One. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t what I heard. I listened with eyes closed, immersed. Rockfish, toadfish, sea robin, croaker–their eerie cries rose from the depths: rasps and bleats, roars and clicks, an aural corona as teeming and alien as the upper atmosphere.
In 1960, Albro T. Gaul, a former entomologist for the New York City Department of Parks, recorded for Folkways an entire album of the sounds of insects. Here is the desperate buzz of a fly caught on flypaper, here the horrible rasp of a wasp scraping meat from a fish bone. Here is the thrum of a flying hornet: more rapid as Gaul attaches tiny weights to the insect, slower as it depletes its eleven-minute store of glucose. For comparison’s sake, Gaul recorded various insects in flight: mosquito, bumblebee, May beetle, warble fly, dragonfly—a panoply of roars and hums that brought to mind a Folkways recording from 1956, Sounds of the Annual International Sports Car Grand Prix of Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Smithsonian Folkways is both an archive and an active record label, which makes Seeger both a curator and a record manager. It is a peculiar combination, for which Seeger seems specially bred: he is a member of the extended Seeger clan of folk musicians (a nephew of Pete, Mike, and Peggy) and a respected scholar of ethnomusicology. Seeger’s main task is to contain Folkways within manageable boundaries. He doesn’t acquire many new recordings, despite the enticing offers that regularly cross his desk; his budget is limited and his staff is overworked. Whenever possible, he acquires by donation, and in bulk. “I collect record labels,” he said. In the past ten years, Folkways has absorbed the catalogues of five smaller independent companies, including Dyer-Bennet Records (fifteen albums by 1960s folk musician Richard Dyer-Bennet) and Paredon Records, publisher of such leftist classics as Che Guevara Speaks and I Hate the Capitalist System. With the absorption of the Cook Laboratories and Sounds of Our Times labels, both founded in the 1950s by audio engineer Emory Cook, Smithsonian Folkways added German drinking songs and belly-dancing music to its catalogue, as well as valuable documents of pure sound like Voices of the Sky: Propellers and Jets and Music of the Carousel. One of the most requested titles in the catalogue was released with some fanfare three years ago: Sounds of North American Frogs, compiled for Folkways in 1958 from the archives of the American Museum of Natural History.
The task of physically maintaining the Folkways collection falls to Jeff Place, the principal archivist. He rolled in around noon—affable, with a paunch, a thick beard, and a head of dark hair. He wore a green T-shirt with the logo ORPHEUS RECORDS. His answering machine held a message from a filmmaker. Does Folkways have any songs about chickens? Place called back: Yes, three hundred and thirty-eight. He hung up, then looked over at me from behind his computer.
“To me, the weirdest cut is on the Sounds of Medicine record.”
He stood up from his desk and went to the shelf, riffled through the LPs, and extracted the title in question, Sounds of Medicine: Operation Body Sounds, recorded in 1955. The jacket cover was orange and black and was illustrated with a close-up photograph of … something: stalactites, it looked like, but biological and internal, the insides of a lung, maybe, or a clogged artery.
“Check out band eleven on this one.”
There were twelve tracks in all; number eleven was entitled “Sounds of the Bowels–A Normal Hungry Man Smoking a Cigarette Before Dinner.” Who could say no? I slipped the album from its sleeve, placed it on the turntable, and set the needle on the proper track. Presently the voice of a physician intoned that now we would be listening through a stethoscope placed against a man’s belly. “The sounds that are heard here are the normal contraction and movement of the intestines.” There followed an unsettling array of noises: groans, rumbles, gastrotectonic burblings, like thunder on a distant plain or a volcano erupting underwater. At one point I swore I heard the cry of whales.
I skimmed the other tracks: “A Woman with Valve Disease of the Heart Before Surgical Operation,” “A Man with Inflammation of the Heart due to Active Rheumatic Fever”—metronomic tales of urgency and arrhythmia. It seemed gratuitous, and slightly obscene, until I read the liner notes and grasped the purpose: the sounds were diagnostic. Normally blood passes through the heart smoothly and in silence. Diseased valves, however, cause the blood to churn and eddy with a murmur audible to an attuned physician. An obstructed bowel gurgles at an abnormally high pitch; a bowel with peritonitis suffers in ominous silence. According to Hippocrates, an infection of the pleural space surrounding the lung produces the sound of “bubbling vinegar.” I was hearing code.
Inspired, I returned to an album that had captivated me all morning: Sounds of the Office, recorded in 1964 in the Warren, Pennsylvania, offices of Eltronics Inc., by one Michael Siegel, an audio engineer with an ear for pending extinction. What did they produce at Eltronics Inc.? Who knows. What matters is how they sounded–and that those sounds, once prototypical, have largely ceased to exist. The scratch of pencil on paper, a metallic thunk: “Time clock,” the liner notes read. A clacking and a rapid-fire mechanical chugging: “Calculator.” A deep, thrumming hum: “Thermofax,” whatever that device was. The sounds unfurled into images, took tangible shape, evoked their visible source: the creak of cabinets made unmistakably of wood, the clink that announces—yesterday, today, forever—the meeting of coffee mug and spoon. At one moment in my reverie—lost in a flutter of paper, a rhythmic clacking of keys, the tiny-bell ping of an approaching margin—the spell broke and I opened my eyes to the cluttered modern office around me. My ears flooded with banalities: computer keyboards tapping in hushed monotone, telephones buzzing like locusts. Quickly I tried to shut them out, clamp my eyes tight, turn the present off. Quiet, I wanted to shout. I’m listening to a typewriter.
Now, with the coded message from Normal Hungry Man’s internal organs echoing in my head, I turned again to the “Manual typewriter” track on Siegel’s recording. I listened through again, then again, and again, each time more closely and with growing excitement. The keys made different sounds, I noticed: some were higher or lower in tone than others. Judging from the length of the subsequent pauses, I could distinguish punctuation—commas, periods—from normal letters. There was an overall, discernible rhythm to the clacking, a cadence entirely absent from the robotic “Old electric typewriter” track later on the album. With the punctuation to guide me, I could make out sentence length. I could, I was almost certain, decipher the words being typed. They were the same words Siegel had spoken to the typist earlier on the “Dictation and transcription” track: “On behalf of Folkways Records, I want to express my sincere thanks for the kind cooperation you gave me in recording the sounds of the office …”
The machines were speaking to me. What else to hear next but Voices of the Satellites!, recorded in 1958 by Haverford College professor T. A. Benham. By that year, five artificial satellites were orbiting Earth. Benham was one of thousands of short-wave buffs avidly tracking the satellites’ radio signals, analyzing the changing pitch and tone for indications of the crafts’ speed and whereabouts, as one might judge the speed and distance of a moving car from its Doppler effect. Sputnik, launched years before I was born, was audible again four decades after its death: a tinny whine that reminded me only of all the Saturday-afternoon spaceship movies that formed my understanding of the 1950s. And here, speaking again, was Sputnik2, launched in November 1957 with the first live payload, a young German shepherd named Laika. The Soviets had attached a microphone over Laika’s heart. Benham had caught its signal too, and now it beat out at me: blip blip blip, a faint radio pulse, the distant hammering of a bygone tool.
THE ANCIENT ROMANS envisioned the human mind as a wax tablet; memory was the inscription engraved in it by physical experience. What they envisioned was the phonograph.
The first incarnation of Edison’s phonograph in fact was a rotating cylinder of tinfoil. (Wax soon replaced foil as the more sensitive recording medium.) You spoke into a mouthpiece, your words vibrated a small metal diaphragm attached to a tiny chisel or needle, which traced a series of indentations—more or less deep depending on the amplitude of the sound—into the foil. Run it backward and your voice spoke back—thereby enabling, Edison boasted, “the gathering up and retaining of sounds hitherto fugitive, and their reproduction at will.” Sound without sight: for the first time ever, the voice was disembodied. Edison toured with his invention, conjuring the voices of absent orators and public figures. Audiences flocked as if to a seance. Scientific American glowed: “Speech has become, as it were, immortal.”
And it was recorded speech, not music, that most concerned Edison in the early years of the phonograph. He believed fervently in an afterlife and the possibility of communication between the living and the dead. A primary use for his invention, he wrote in 1878, would be “to preserve for future generations the voices as well as the words of our Washingtons, our Lincolns, our Gladstones”—as well as “the sayings, the voices, and the last words of the dying member of the family.” (Also high on the list: letter writing, dictation, and books for the blind.) Edison would eternalize the human voice, the word, the very soul. Alas, from the outset, mechanical memory proved only as trustworthy as the original gray matter. At five o’clock on the afternoon of December 12, 1890, a small group gathered at Edison’s lab to mark the first anniversary of the death of Robert Browning. A white wax cylinder—the repository of Browning’s voice, recorded only eight months before his death—was placed on the phonograph. The ensuing soliloquy would mark “the first time that Robert Browning’s or any other voice has been heard from beyond the grave,” as one audience member later recalled. And what did the dead have to say? In a cheery voice, Browning began reciting his work, but soon stumbled. “Speed echoed the … I forget it! er.” A second voice on the cylinder prompted him to continue, and he did, briefly. “Then the gate shut behind us, the lights sank to rest … I—I am exceedingly sorry that I can’t remember my own verses.”
By the late 1940s recorded sound had ceased to be a spooky novelty. It was an obsession, and a new medium, magnetic audiotape, was available to accommodate it. The first generation of audiophiles was born, amateur documentarians with portable recorders and a passion for ephemera. Seeking to capture “the audible expression of life around us,” Tony Schwartz, a New York artist now in his seventies, carried his microphone everywhere, recording everything: the sounds of a printer’s shop, interviews with bus drivers, cocktail parties, jump-rope rhymes, conversations at an all-male luncheonette. From hundreds of reels of tape, he compiled numerous albums for Moe Asch and Folkways, including New York 19, a collection of sounds overheard in his postal code, and 1, 2, 3 and a Zing Zing Zing, the songs and stoop games of the children in his neighborhood. It was the era of the ear. Television was still a novelty; the home stereo reigned supreme. Sounds abounded and drew passionate recorders and listeners. In a 1956 interview with The Saturday Evening Post, record-store mogul Sam Goody described his more avid customers. “It’s pitiful, sometimes, if they’ve got it bad. Their eyes get glazed, they go white, their hands tremble…. As I watch them I often feel that a dope peddler is a gentleman compared with the man who sells records.”
The mania for high fidelity grew so pronounced that a clinical psychiatrist at Sainte Anne’s Hospital, in Quebec, felt compelled to address it. “Many recording companies have started to cater to the vast demand for esoteric sounds from an eager public,” wrote Dr. H. Angus Bowes. His article, “Psychopathology of the Hi-Fi Addict,” appeared in a 1957 issue of Diseases of the Nervous System; it described the doctor’s efforts to treat more than a dozen audio junkies. “Let me emphasize that there is nothing abnormal in the enjoyment of these novel noises. The audiophile may play them once or twice and then will usually shelve them for the diversion of visitors. The addict may play them ad nauseam. One I know continually plays a recording of the waves breaking on the sea shore…. I tried to help in his emotional growth by interesting him in Debussy’s `La Mer’ but he found its shimmering crescendos too frightening.” Among the favorite sounds of the hi-fi addict, adds Dr. Bowes, are those produced by “that aggressive phallic symbol, the train.”
I confess that for some time I had looked forward to getting my hands on Smithsonian Folkways’ titles F-6152 through F-6156: Sounds of Steam Locomotives, volumes 1 to 5. When I did, I devoted an entire afternoon to them. In 1952, Vinton Wight, a railroad aficionado from Colorado, realized with alarm that the age of steam engines was nearing an end. So he began recording it, ultimately editing his tapes into four albums—Steam, Steel and Action; Make-up of a Train; Colorado Narrow Gauge; The Stack Music Spectacular—that he convinced Asch to print. Fifty years later the sounds filled my headphones. Caressing my ears was the heavy exhalation of Union Pacific #9052, a locomotive with a 4-12-2 wheel arrangement, as it eases into the station in Lincoln, Nebraska. Now came #801, a high-stepping 4-8-4, hissing out of Omaha with passenger train #7. Every engine expressed a personality as individual as the men who drove and tended it. “If you have never heard an 0-6-0 switcher start out to do its evening chores,” Vinton writes in the accompanying notes, “here is your chance.” Volume 4, released in 1958, was contributed by a retired Bell Telephone employee who found the train sounds on a competing label “too limited in variety.” The first track opens with his quavering voice: “These recordings were made by Harold S. Ludlow of Vermilion, Ohio, through which passes the main line of the New York Central between New York and Chicago. Every steam locomotive of the New York Central system has now been junked.”
I was unprepared for the emotional weight of these recordings. These were ghosts like no others: lonely, haunting, they spoke of dark, rainy platforms, of aimless couplings and decouplings, of the vastness of plains and passengers hurtling toward unremembered ends. Proust describes rounding a bend in the road: he sees a stand of trees he’s seen before, but whether he first saw them in a dream or in the distant real past, he can’t say. “I watched the trees gradually recede, waving their despairing arms, seeming to say to me: `What you fail to learn from me today, you will never know. If you allow us to drop back into the hollow of this road from which we sought to raise ourselves up to you, a whole part of yourself which we were bringing to you will vanish forever.’” But what ghosts were these train sounds to me? What memories were they evoking? I am too young for steam engines—barely old enough for manual typewriters, for that matter. Into whose past were these engines pulling me? I’ve heard steam locomotives before, of course, in films, on television. Was I resonating to a hand-me-down sound? And was that cinema sound even real? Often as not these days, a slammed door in Hollywood is not a door at all, merely the sound of a phone book dropped to the recording-room floor with a bang more convincing than the real thing. Perhaps I was not resonating to a true sound at all, merely to a simulacrum, to a studio sound jury-rigged from bastard noises.
Or perhaps, I’m thinking now, what vibrates in the listener is not some literal recollection of the sound’s source but simply the memory of raptness. The most evocative sounds—field crickets, distant trains, the master’s urgent voice—are sounds heard from afar, produced by things unseen; in the mind’s eye they are an absence. What you recall instead is the listening. The message of the trees to Proust was not Remember us but rather: Remember that you noticed us. Remember how. To hear is to recall every cherished moment of attention, to experience again every act of hushed audition. What I heard at the Smithsonian was the passage of time: the heart-rending space between one tick and the next, between a sound and its echo. I heard the eternal now, and in that moment I was ageless.
THE GOLDEN AGE of sound never ended: it continues, occluded by the visual hegemony. Technology provides ever more sensitive methods of hearing, ever more accurate means of recording, and an ever changing suite of sounds to assimilate. One scientist has recorded the hiss of snow on open water; another, the faint and eerie murmurings produced by the aurora borealis. A third has developed an equation to describe the sound of rain falling on the ocean’s surface; with it, he can deduce the size of the raindrops, the amount of rainfall, and, ultimately, the progress of climate change. Marine biologists have discovered a compressed layer of seawater, deep down, that transmits the songs of whales for thousands of miles along its length, like a transoceanic Dixie-cup telephone. (Navy submarines have employed it for decades.) With the same low-frequency microphones used to study earthquakes, scientists have found that elephants track the movements of other elephants dozens of miles away through delicate seismic sensors in their toenails. I once spent a day with an entomologist who has discovered an array of albino insects that live only in the tunnels carved out by the underground flow of lava. The insects, mere flecks of life, sing: not audibly to humans—the scientist could hear the insects only after he placed them in a balsa-wood sounding box—yet very clearly to one another. They live exclusively on tree roots that hang, interwoven, throughout the cave. Vibrating their bodies, the insects drum mating calls and territorial warnings through what amounts to a web of telegraphy. But the trees above are being crowded out, or cut down, or paved over, the scientist told me; the roots of song are disappearing.
More sounds born, more sounds passing, always faster than ever. I find it impossible now not to dwell on this: at my desk, in a meadow, on the bus. Siren, blue jay, Greyhound: which of these sounds will not exist next century, next year, next week?
“Sometimes we play the sounds of the typewriter to visiting school-children,” Seeger said to me at one point. “They don’t know what it is.”
I had taken a break on my last afternoon in the archives. Seeger and I sat across the street, in the wood-paneled dining room in the former Smithsonian Library. Seeger is a child of sound. At age one he was carried in a basket by family members to sing Christmas carols at Lead Belly’s apartment in Greenwich Village. At age six he met Woody Guthrie; he regularly accompanied Uncle Pete to the Newport Folk Festival. In sixth grade he bought a Folkways album of the music of India; in eighth grade it was African music; in ninth grade, Japanese. “In college I decided that there were so many Seegers making a living by performing music that I’d do something else,” he said. “Something fun, of course, so I became an anthropologist who studies music. I was interested in the relationship between what people believe to be the structure of their universe–their cosmology–and the music that they make.”
Seeger’s academic specialty is a remote Amazonian tribe called the Suya. On the wall of his office is a photograph of him conducting field-work: a balding, unmistakably white man of middling girth, naked but for his undershorts, he is painted and befeathered to resemble a hummingbird and is dancing in a line of native hummingbird-men all a head shorter than himself. The Suya, Seeger learned, spend almost as much time singing and dancing as they do hunting and gathering; aural and even olfactory cues are more central than visual ones to the Suya worldview. Seeger said: “You explain something to me, I say, ‘I see.’ A Suya says, ‘I hear.’ So we got along fine; we both understood the importance of sounds.” The social hierarchy of the Suya, Seeger discovered, is organized around the expression of sound. For example, adolescent men are permitted to sing tribal songs only partway through, and only in a high, tense voice; older men are permitted the full song and a relaxed tone. “How you sing signals who you are and your place in the community,” Seeger said. Sound is the medium of Suya identity. One tribe member lamented to him: “When we stop singing, we will really be finished.”
Seeger was poking his salad with a fork. “I like sounds,” he said. “The Science of Sound series is as fascinating as anything else. What’s changed a lot is recording technology. Some of those Science of Sound recordings were well conceived, but we could do better today with higher fidelity. Insects, for example: I’d love to do more. But there’s very good portable video now, so some of what would have been sent to a record company is now sent to National Geographic or some place like that. The real question is, what can sound tell us that other mediums can’t?” Smithsonian Folkways hopes to tap into the National Air and Space Museum’s collection of space noises: astronauts’ voices, radio signals from gamma-ray bursters. At Cornell University, scientists are assembling an enormous archive of birdsongs and whale songs; some of those might find their way into the Smithsonian Folkways catalogue.
“I hear new sounds all the time,” Seeger said. “The sound here is an interesting sound.” He cocked his ear to the restaurant babble. “Of course, it’s associated with having eaten well.” The alarm on his wristwatch began beeping: time to return to the office and take a call from Paris. Seeger said, “I often like silence, or what passes for it.”
IN 1861 A FRENCH anatomist named Paul Broca discovered that a filament of cortex in the left frontal lobe of the brain is essential to human speech and memory. Thomas Edison read of the discovery and was fascinated with its implications. “Eighty-two remarkable operations upon the brain have definitely proven that the meat of our personality lies in that part of the brain known as the fold of Broca,” he wrote. In Edison’s mystical cosmology, the human soul consists of a swarm of microscopic monads, or “life units”: busy little homunculi that take up residence in the cerebral groove identified by Broca. “Everything we call memory goes on in a little strip not much more than a quarter of an inch long,” Edison wrote. “This is where the little people live who keep our records for US.”
The soul of the Smithsonian Folkways archive, it turned out, was not the room where I sat conjuring the sounds of the century from vinyl grooves. That was just the listening room, the read-only memory, open to visitors willing to make do with plastic copies. That room held a door to another room, the sanctum sanctorum where the original recordings are stored: wax discs, aluminum discs, discs made of glass, acetate reel-to-reel tapes, all stowed on movable shelves at a carefully controlled temperature and humidity. These are the master recordings, the records that Jeff Place keeps.
It is all he can do to keep them. Recording technology is constantly evolving; each advance dooms the current format to obsolescence. Place pulled out an early album, a recording on an aluminum disc that can be played only with a cactus needle. “A metal needle on a metal disc: that doesn’t sound too good.” The turntable I was stationed at was a marvel capable of playing a record at any speed—74 rpm, should you need such a thing—and correcting for those records whose speed and pitch change over the span of the disc.
What doesn’t fade away decays. Wax discs are frangible: a lost flake is an irretrievable snippet of sonic memory. Place works with wrinkled reel-to-reels from the 1950s that can be played only with utmost care. Even the reel-to-reels from the 1970s are becoming sticky and unplayable. Place showed me his solution: a Farberware Convection Broil Oven that sits on the floor near his desk. “Put the tape in the oven for six hours and the stickiness goes away, at least temporarily.” That’s long enough for Place to copy it into the latest recording format, digital. Disc by disc, tape by tape, Place is transposing the contents of the archive into the irreducible chorus of ones and zeros. It is not a task undertaken lightly. Recorded memories weaken with repeated listening. With each listen, each run of the stylus, every rub of the tape head, the original source is degraded slightly, reduced further into pure noise. To replay is to destroy.
What is the human ear to do? The more we come to rely on mechanical memoryÂ—the more we seek out, capture, squirrel awayÂ—the harder it is to keep up with the contents. How many ones and zeros are there ultimately room for? “Men are becoming so vastly ingenious in finding the means of magnifying and embalming every little ripple of human energy, that we tremble for the consequences,” the editors of The Spectator lamented in 1888, a decade after Edison unleashed the phonograph. “The earth will soon be made a museum of odds and ends of form and speech; and unless man suddenly takes a great leap into a moral greatness worthy of all this storing, we may have future generations drowned beneath the accumulated scraps of ancestral voices and expressions…. Shall we not come to regard it as a singular virtue when men obliterate voluntarily traces of themselves which, instead of being useful to posterity, would only serve the purpose of the dust in which useful things are so often smothered? Are we not discovering a great deal too many means of defeating the benefits conferred by oblivion?”
Seeger said: “There was a moment, when I was first invited to run the archives, when I asked myself, ‘Why should there be any archives at all? Sounds are evanescent, they run out—the waves run out.’ I spent a few months thinking about it. But I was impressed by the number of people who came here to listen to old sounds so that they could carry them forward: Native Americans who’d say, `We’d like to hear this song so we can perform it again.’ Marx said that the past `weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.’ Just when they are about to transform themselves in an entirely new way, they look to the past and conjure up the ghosts of past eras. He was absolutely right. At moments of social transition, people are often trying to see the past in order to move forward. By saying that these recordings should be available, it’s because I think we have a role in shaping the future.”
And the sounds of typewriters, of propellers, of a coffee spoon clinking on a cup—what conceivable role might they have in shaping our future? What are they saying as they recede? What part of ourselves do they wish to bring us before it vanishes entirely?
Seeger thought for a moment, then smiled. “I have no idea.”
MEMORIES FADE, or flake away, or are subsumed under the accumulating weight of new sensations and the relentless pressure to remember. Who knows where they go. Maybe they wait down there forever, primed to blossom again at the least prodding. Or maybe they just disappear, return to some molten state of neurochemistry, relinquish their wiring. That’s how it works in the real world anyway. Locomotives, typewriters, calliopes, punch clocks: they all end up in the scrap heap, to be chewed up and recycled by other machines built expressly for the task and with halos of noise all their own. Naturally, Folkways preserved those sounds too.
Sounds of the Junk Yard was recorded in 1964, the same year that Sounds of the Office was recorded, in the same Warren, Pennsylvania, by the same Michael Siegel. I took my seat, set the needle in the groove, and donned the headphones once more. A symphony of decomposition greeted me. The first minute and sixteen seconds were dominated by a harsh, gurgling hiss: “acetylene torch, cutting apart an automobile engine,” the liner notes said. There was a brief pause, then a rattling hum and weighty clunks of metal falling against metal (“loading pickup truck by hand with 400 lb. bales of aluminum scrap”). Then another growling engine (a forklift) echoing in a warehouse, some banging (empty fiber drums), a discordant orchestra of clangs and thuds, scrapes and clatterings, threaded through by a faint buzz of human voices, all of it gaining speed and volume and reaching a momentary climax at minute twenty-two: one voice decipherable now—”pull it out! pull it out!”—then a deafening clatter as what sound like a thousand pots, pans, and Christmas ornaments (in fact, countless sheets of aluminum scrap) fall to a concrete floor.
At some point, attempting to match unfamiliar noises to the descriptions in the liner notes, I realized I was utterly lost. What I thought was Side 1 was actually Side 2: that paper baler was actually an alligator shear, the crunching of cartons in fact was a barrel being emptied of aluminum chips, the fiber drums were heavy pipes. And then, suddenly, I could hear it all: buzzing wasps, gurgling bowels, propellers, race cars, rockfish, thermo-faxes, the singing ionosphere, and Laika’s capsuled heart beating down through it.
In his waning days, Edison concocted a design, never realized, for the ultimate recording device, what he referred to as a spirit catcher. Held to the lips of a dying person, this supersensitive microphone would capture the sound of the human soul—that swarm of microscopic recordkeepers—as it departed the body. What did Edison expect to hear? Warbles, whispers, roars? A murmur of librarians? Whatever it was, it swirled now in my headphones: the vital force, the xylem and phloem through the stem of life. I felt giddy. I was beyond sound, beyond silence. I laughed out loud. Place glanced over at me like I was nuts.
I started over. I flipped the record to the correct side and found my proper place in the liner notes. Only then did I notice the notes themselves. Siegel’s descriptions were terse and time-coded; the segments stood apart from one another in stanzas.
26:52-30:46 burning out an old car.
26:55 windows crack out.
27:30 metal crackling.
27:54 fresh draft.
I read them all, then read them again. They were astonishing little documents: poems—onomatopoems. It was as though I’d uncovered a map. Of what? To where? Recently I spoke to Seeger on the phone; last autumn he stepped down from the curatorship of Smithsonian Folkways to take an academic post at U.C.L.A., where he has resumed his anthropological work with the Suya. (The new curator, Daniel Sheehy, is also an ethnomusicologist, and the former director of folk arts at the National Endowment for the Arts.) Seeger related the story of a Suya tribesman named Ntoni. One day, after a long illness, Ntoni woke to discover that he had lost his spirit. In a place like New York, a loss of one’s spirit is an unenviable plight; among the Suya, however, it is a mark of distinction, for the loss enables the individual to commune with the spirits of the forest. Ntoni watched as animals removed their skins; he saw the trees wave their arms; he met the spirit of the armadillo and learned its song: “I am the armadillo, leaping, dancing, singing.” The woods sang to him and to him alone. Ntoni listened closely to the songs, learned them, translated them, and repeated them to his community; he helped incorporate them into the tribe’s ceremonial and social fabric. Ntoni became the primary source of new songs for the Suya, the only tribe member with an ear to the ground.
Siegel, Seeger, Place, Edison, anyone with headphones or a functioning ear or a moment to be still and listen—they seek a similar knowledge.
37:12-39:05 dump truck unloading sheet metal scrap.
37:12 lifting up dump carriage.
37:50 move truck to start sheets sliding out.
38:40 removing what is left by hand.
I’ve pinned these koans on my wall. I revisit them, turn them over like stones. I know now where sound goes when it dies. It comes back again, reborn: language.