writings

I have an idea. For many years my ears have suited the conditions of modern city life better than the average man’s. But in the country the situation is reversed. I haven’t heard a bird sing since I was 12, but I can hear anything on the phonograph.[1]

As the project unfolded, I began to focus upon technologies of inscription. I was already interested in the origins of artifacts and memories, in translation and in the transference of one thing to another. This has to do with the way things move, with fluidity and motion, especially in things we cannot see, like sound. How do you make an accurate picture of sound? How do you graphically represent something you cannot see so that you can keep it, or even sell it?

Sound is described as ephemeral because we cannot see it or touch it. There is fluidity to the way sound moves, its waves—an aquatic quality. Technically speaking though, sound is physical vibration transformed into compression waves that travel through matter, even solid matter. We experience sound as hearing when these vibrations reach the membrane of our own inner ear and are replicated there, and this internal vibration is translated and transformed into the experience of hearing.[2]

I began to notice and document films where sound vibrations are inscribed—albeit temporarily—onto a liquid’s surface. This exploration occurs even in mainstream Hollywood films. In Walt Disney’s Snow White, Snow White, relegated to servitude by the evil step-queen, sings as she cleans. These vibrations of joyful song travel through the air and come to play on the cool clear water, which only a moment ago revealed her reflection. The song is illustrated by the gently rippled surface of the well’s water. New waves appear, disturbing the first, and then another voice—the prince who joins her in song. In It’s All Gone Pete Tong, alcoholic, hard living and recently deafened Frankie Wilde realizes he can have his life as a DJ back when he sees vibrations in his scotch. He devises a system of seeing sound using contemporary computing technologies to translate audible sound into visual waveforms. The result of his effort, an indescribable and awe inspiring musical performance unlike anything anyone has ever heard. Finally, in Jurassic Park a close-up on a child’s glass of water, the surface vibrating wildly, announces the impending arrival of something large, scary and unexpected. The extreme close up on the cup is the first indication that T-rex is coming (and marks the arrival of digital compositing to the movies).

The description of sound as a tangible and visual presence that undergoes a transformation process towards the human experience of hearing led me to investigate the inscriptive mechanics of the phonograph. Gitelman, during our interview, describes how the phonograph operates to capture, graphically represent, and then output sound vibrations:

The earliest phonograph is actually a very simple instrument. It is not electronic. The system was entirely mechanical. Basically, your voice activated a diaphragm as it did in early telephones, so you’re making a little membrane move and on the bottom of that membrane was a stylus. And so the stylus would go up and down basically with the force of your voice. It is just the force of your voice that activates it. And that would sort of incise those grooves into some kind of surface. And then if you caused that stylus to move up and down again over those bumps, it would produce the same sound right back at you again. And that was Edison’s realization. It’s a very simple mechanical device that is voice activated.[3]

The mechanics of the phonograph replicate the functions of the body—corporeal vocal and auditory systems. Robert Hodge, the audio engineer at the Belfer Audio Laboratory responsible for the maintenance and restoration of the early cylinders archived there, describes the moment Edison realized he could record sound:

Thomas Edison had started out to develop a means to record telegraph signals. His machine was designed to record the dots and dashes that the telegraphed message or Morse code is composed of. But he found that the recording, when played back at a high rate of speed, would emit tones. He realized that sound could be recorded.[4]

One of the connections I hoped to establish in the video is between the phonograph, the capture of sound, and my fictionalized Edison’s body. The prioritizing of sound as the experience of hearing and the rooting of this experience as auditory perception, establishes a circuit linking listeners to technology and back to the body again in a multitude of patterns. I was fortunate to capture (on video) Hodge’s anecdote of how Edison listened to performers by biting down on the edge of his auditioning phonograph. Mr. Edison’s Ear might indeed be built around this recorded tidbit. When I, in turn, told this story to Dr. Kenneth Norwich, the physician and engineer who appears in the video, this was his reply:

There’s a story about Helen Keller, which I just thought about. Apparently, even though she could not hear or see, she nonetheless enjoyed opera. What she would do is bring a wooden crate to the theatre and sit on that crate and through vibrations somehow experience the music.

This description of sound as a tactile presence prompted me to then inquire how the experience of hearing occurs physiologically, specifically, what happens once the auditory nerve receives the information that causes us to perceive the sound as hearing. Doctor Norwich replied that while there are systems for mapping electrical impulses that the brain receives, however,

…mapping is one thing, but to describe how we actually obtain the human experience transcends this. In other words, human experience seems to go beyond the merely physical. We can describe the structure of soundwaves and the processes that occur within the body, but to describe how one obtains experience is something that goes beyond the limits of science, and even if we could explain it in quantitative terms, we probably would lack the language to do it.[5]

Consider the ephemeral nature of sound becoming substantial through technologies at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the modern period. Imagine the physicality of sound emerging during this age of invention and possibility. Imagine the general disorientation of this time—the pain of entry into modernity. Think of the phonograph as an inscriptive device that captures something invisible. Think of this machine as a metaphor for the late 19th century. What is the relationship of the body to the machine to text to image? Then imagine this as it relates to the inventor’s own body.

Endnotes
1. Thomas Edison, from: Dagobert D. Runes, The Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas Alva Edison, New York: Greenwood Press, 1968, p. 58
2. “A sound wave sound traveling through a fluid medium (such as a liquid or a gaseous material) has a longitudinal nature. This means that the particles of the medium vibrate in direction parallel to the direction the sound wave travels. If the sound wave travels from west to east, then the particles of the medium vibrate from west to east (and from east to west). As a sound wave impinges upon a particle of air, that particle is temporarily disturbed from its rest position. This particle in turn impinges upon its nearest neighbor, causing it to be displaced from its rest position. The displacement of several nearby particles produces a region of space in which several particles are compressed together. Such a region is known as a compression or high-pressure region. A restoring force typically pulls each particle back towards its original rest position. As the particles are pulled away from each other, a region is created in which the particles are spread apart. Such a region is known as a rarefaction or low-pressure region. Because a sound wave consists of an alternating pattern of high pressure (compressions) and low-pressure (rarefactions) regions traveling through the medium, it is known as a pressure wave.
When a pressure wave reaches the ear, a series of high and low-pressure regions impinge upon the eardrum. The arrival of a compression or high-pressure region pushes the eardrum inward; the arrival of a low-pressure regions serves to pull the eardrum outward.  The continuous arrival of high and low-pressure regions sets the eardrum into vibrational motion. The eardrum is attached to the bones of the middle ear —the hammer, anvil, and stirrup. As these bones begin vibrating, the sound signal is transformed from a pressure wave traveling through air to the mechanical vibrations of the bone structure of the middle ear. These vibrations are then transmitted to the fluid of the inner ear where they are converted to electrical nerve impulses which are sent to the brain.

Since the eardrum is set into vibration by the incoming pressure wave, the vibrations occur at the same frequency as the pressure wave. If the incoming compressions and rarefactions arrive more frequently, then the eardrum vibrates more frequently. This frequency is transmitted through the middle and inner ear and provides the perception of pitch. Higher frequency vibrations are perceived as higher pitch sounds and lower frequency vibrations are perceived as lower pitch sounds.

The intensity of the incoming sound wave can also be transmitted through the middle and inner ear and interpreted by the brain. A high intensity sound wave is characterized by vibrations of air particles with a high amplitude. When these high amplitude vibrations impinge upon the eardrum, they produce a very forceful displacement of the eardrum from its rest position. This high intensity sound wave causes a large vibration of the eardrum and subsequently a large and forceful vibration of the bones of the middle ear. This high amplitude vibration is transmitted to the fluid of the inner ear and encoded in the nerve signal which is sent to the brain. A high intensity sound is perceived as a loud sound by the brain.” www.glenbrook.k12.il.us/gbssci/phys/mmedia/waves/edl.html

3. Interview with Robert Hodge, November 17, 2004
4. Interview with Robert Hodge, November 17, 2004
5. Interview with Kenneth Norwich, July 23 2006