Phonography (I)

28 May

In ‘The Witness’, Borges provides us with a written report of his imagined Saxon’s witnessing but, in doing so, he reminds us that we have neither the Saxon’s own written account nor the sonic record of the bells he hears: those sounds are lost. Recording is intimately connected with the notion of destruction, both the destruction of the past and of the self, for there is a sense in which autobiography and the work of remembering can be seen as a self-witnessing and a destruction of the self’s past. Self-witnessing is dramatically exemplified in Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’ (1833, rev. 1845), where the narrator attempts to record his fate on a ‘doomed’ ship: ‘I shall from time to time continue this journal … At the last moment I will enclose the MS. in a bottle, and cast it within the sea.’  The close of the tale, which we assume to be the found manuscript itself, attempts to stay true to this promise as the ship goes down in a whirlpool:

But little time will be left me to ponder upon my destiny – the circles rapidly grow small – we are plunging madly within the grasp of the whirlpool – and amid a roaring, and bellowing, and thundering of ocean and of tempest, the ship is quivering, oh God! And – going down.

(Edgar Allan Poe, ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’, The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, ed. David Galloway (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), pp. 105-106.)

If Poe’s tale still bears a sense of horror nearly two centuries after its first publication, it is surely because we recognize that, even in an era where the black boxes of aeroplanes provide records of doomed journeys far more accurate than the writing and dispatching of the manuscript allowed Poe’s narrator, there is still a point beyond which nothing more can be recorded that would be of relevance to the person marked for death. As Poe’s epigraph to the tale translates: ‘He who has but a moment to live/No longer has anything to dissimulate’.  But what has been dissimulated up to that moment lives on, in a manner of speaking.

(This sense of being too short of time to communicate what is necessary is captured nicely in a fado performed by Ana Laíns and entitled ‘Pouco Tempo’ [Little Time]. The song describes a situation in which there is not enough time to ‘keep everything I carry / in thought / to write everything I feel’; everything disappears in the wind.)

What are the limits to witnessing? Can we be witnesses to our own destruction? In the sense of Poe’s narrator, the answer must be no: we are always stuck in a ‘working-towards’ such a witnessing via a process of ‘getting down’ what we can get down before we ‘go down’. From another viewpoint, however, we might say that remembering is about witnessing our own destruction. Both of these possibilities are played out quite literally in Samuel Beckett’s monologue Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), in which we witness a man, Krapp, witnessing his own life as he records memories onto his tape recorder in ‘celebration’ of his birthday and plays back old recordings from previous similar occasions. The 39-year-old Krapp – the ‘middle voice’ of the three (re)presented – is ‘played’ by the actor manipulating a tape machine on which is heard his ‘younger’ voice; the ‘actual’ Krapp being played by the actor is thirty years older.

‘Middle Krapp’ recounts his thoughts on listening to an earlier tape (which we do not get to hear) made when he was younger. He is furious with the romantic idealist he used to be and mocks his younger self, allowing ‘Old Krapp’ to join in as he listens. But the 39-year-old still holds to certain ideals, the recording of which is now treated with contempt by the old man, who then records his own critique. The process we catch Krapp in, then, is similar to the perfecting process, or ‘working-toward’ mentioned above. Each successive attempt to fix life and thought somehow gets it wrong and must be updated, though for how much longer we cannot be sure due to Old Krapp’s admonishments to himself to cease this endless torture and to the ‘last tape’ alluded to in the title. Do we know this is the last (final) tape that we are witnessing being made in the same way that we know we are reading the message in the bottle in Poe’s tale? Or is ‘last’ only supposed to refer to ‘preceding’, as in the way Krapp continues to listen to preceding attempts to come to terms with his life?

Krapp’s Last Tape provides a good example of how nostalgia and loss interlock with technological attempts to prevent loss, and how those attempts are both a damming of the reservoir of memories and the means by which that reservoir can be tapped. Krapp is caught in a cyclical process of remembering and memorializing, of recapturing the past and planning for the future (a future where the importance of remembering the past now being recaptured and the moment of recapturing it will prove both fascinating and repellent. In other words the past of the now and the now are the raw materials to be mined in the future of the now. The now, at the same time, is the repository of the sum of experience of the past of the now – the latter has no substance outside of the former – just as the now will become a part of the repository that constructs the future of the now.

In the words of film director Atom Egoyan, who filmed Beckett’s monologue in 2001 (thus providing another kind of ‘last tape’ in the form of a videotape), ‘With [the play], a man listening to his younger self commenting on his even younger self – Beckett is able to express the central paradox of personal archiving technology; its ability simultaneously to enhance and trivialize experience.’  David Toop, who discusses Egoyan’s work, has his own ‘take’ on this: ‘a strip of tape passing through the playback head of a tape recorder, threatening to unspool as it comes to the end of its reel, is analogous to the memory of a life threading through the space and time of the world, then unspooling into nothingness.’

It is possible to bring together the Beckett of Krapp’s Last Tape, the Roland Barthes of Camera Lucida and the Walter Benjamin of ‘The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction’ in considering the implications that mechanical reproduction has for the process of witnessing. In all there seems to be a division between the faithful witnessing offered by the mechanical process of recording and that element that breaks through (punctures) the ‘merely’ mechanical. This element is the fetishized object, the aura regained. It is this regaining of the aura that is connected to Egoyan’s point about technology enhancing even as it trivializes.

It is useful here to consider the ways in which recording has followed writing in embracing a dialectic of transcription and creation. Just as writing is both a creative and transcriptive act in that it not only records but invents (is inventive), so mechanical reproduction is, as is already apparent in its name, a form of production as much as mimesis.  As has often been noted, composition in western classical music developed to such a degree that it reached a point where music no longer preceded text – the complexity of the orchestral score was such that the realization of it in music was inconceivable without the finished ‘text’. In considering Krapp’s Last Tape, we must not only dwell on the use of recording technology to ‘memorize’ the protagonist’s life and experiences but must bear in mind the use of the same technology to allow Beckett to create his dramatic monologue.  In this sense, recording has a creative as well as transcriptive role ‘to play’. This is a point that Toop takes up in connection with his own work as a musician and composer. Refusing the ‘pessimism’ of Jean Luc Godard – who has one of his characters suggest that ‘technology has replaced memory’ – Toop claims:

Other than those times when I’m sorting back through boxes of tape, like wearish old man Krapp, delving into the archives for the purpose of resuscitating past music for a new audience, I record on minidisk, onto CD, or directly onto the hard disk of my computer. Then I work on the sound files, burrowing into their imaginary space microscopically, transforming them from raw material into a sketch, a fragment moving towards a composition, even a finished composition.

In one sense this is comparable to the practice of composing music by writing notation on staves, building a composition by remembering or imagining sounds and their organisation, then documenting by purely visual method the information needed to bring that remarkable feat of imagination to life at some time in the future.

(David Toop, Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2004), pp. 99-100. However, Toop does go on to say that ‘in another sense, it’s completely different’ as his music is all stored in the computer and the computer can play it, with no need for an ensemble.)

The use of recorded sound to reconfigure the sonic past has been central to sample-based musics such as hip hop and its numerous offshoots, leading to a revolution in the way popular music is produced, performed and heard (albeit one that has numerous precursors in twentieth century avant-garde music).

There are spatial as well as temporal implications arising from these processes, all of which contribute towards the production of social space. Beckett’s stage instructions and Egoyan’s filmic interpretation are important in this regard; in both we find that a space of intimacy is produced. The use of microphones, tape recorders, cameras and broadcasting technologies create a totally reconfigured sonic space in the twentieth century.

The implications for fado practice, as for other popular music genres, are numerous. Not least among these is the fact that there is no longer a necessity for projection, or rather that there are possibilities for new kinds of projection. What defines many modern fado singers such as Carlos do Carmo and Camané is their ‘microphone voices’, a point to which I will return. These technologies also have implications for the process of bearing witness, bringing with them new possibilities of surveillance, bugging, and listening-in. This allows a removal from the ‘primal scene’, a putting-off and making-distant of the act of witnessing, notable in the experience of the contemporary listener of music. The fact that witnessing can involve removing oneself from the action via technologies of surveillance is often forgotten in the literature on witnessing, no doubt due to the emphasis placed in that literature on ‘first hand’ witnessing, of having been there.


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