Do the Sounds That Haunt You Have a Material Shape?
On the Weird Physical History of Media and Information
When I was eight years old, my mother and I lived in a house in rural Ontario that was rumored to be haunted. Two weeks after we moved in, I developed a double-dose case of chicken pox and the measles. During my month-long quarantine, when my mother left to start her night shift as a waitress and my uncle had not yet come home from the brass factory, I was often left alone in the house. There simply wasn’t enough money for a babysitter, and they likely thought I would sleep through the changeover, which I rarely did. The calming din of WOMC-FM, Detroit’s “Oldies 104.3,” was always left on in the living room as surrogate comfort in case I woke up. Underneath the warm radio static, it was the indisputable sound of silverware rattling away in the kitchen drawers that was the usual culprit for my awakening. Other nights, the phone rang for what seemed like hours, but whenever I picked up the receiver, the line was all dead air.
Late one night, bored from weeks of forced bed rest, I decided to brave a walkabout through the house. “I’ll Turn To Stone” by the Four Tops played on the radio, anticipating the events that would soon follow. Knowing I was alone in the house, I was able to act on a compulsion to revisit the contents stored in the underbelly of an old wooden bench in the foyer. It’s important to note something here: When we moved into the house, we essentially moved into a mausoleum. The house belonged to my mother’s new boyfriend, a schoolteacher who worked in a remote mill town nine hours north of us. His parents had died in quick succession, and he’d never made the effort to deal with the estate sale. So the house on Elizabeth Street was full of the stuff of everyday life: furniture, kitchenware, a piano, books. There was moldering food in the refrigerator, expired medication in the bathroom cabinets, and an ancient load of laundry left in the washing machine, which had compressed into a uniform cylinder of rotten, stinking fibers. Whenever we used the machine to wash our clothes, we contaminated ourselves with the sharp scent of mold, melding just a little bit more with the stubborn agency of the house. For at least five years the house had been shuttered. It was unlived-in for a decade, until my mother’s boyfriend handed us the keys and we crossed its threshold.
As I rifled through the bench’s contents that night, I did so under the sneaking spirit of discovery that colored life in that house, living alongside the unheimlich traces of someone else’s life, always feeling like a guest. When I first flipped open the bench’s hinged seat, I found stacks of yellowing papers and Ditto-copied sheet music. The real object of my obsession, however, was a weird flexi disc stuffed between the pages of a self-help magazine from the 1960s. The record was thin—as flexible as the magazine itself. I was compelled to rip the record out along its perforated edge and carry it to the toy turntable in my bedroom.
As a toddler, I was infatuated with the country records my uncle played, and I would try to make his vinyl resonate by spinning the LPs on one finger, using my other finger as though it were a stylus while singing made-up lyrics to “Your Cheatin’ Heart” as the adults laughed. By now, I was old enough to know I needed a record player to release what was hidden in the grooves. I needed to hear what was on that record, and I finally had the privacy to do so.
Finding a music cabinet in the parlor, I put the thin piece of vinyl on the turntable and dropped the needle. The scratch and pop that followed shifted my state of mind to prepare for whatever the record contained, but I was not equipped to process what happened next. The sounds bleeding from the speakers sounded demonic, like the beginning of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” which my older brothers (then living with my father) would play at full volume to terrorize me while they flicked my bedroom lights off and on for an extra-distressing strobe effect. In retrospect, this is hilarious. But being left to my own devices in an apparently haunted house was preferable to the extreme teasing I suffered under the rule of my hesher brothers. The slow, chanting voice of the man on the flexi disc was slurring out incantations and commanding me to do things in slow motion: “Lissstennn nnnowww… Rrrreeelaxxx yourrrr thhhhoughtsssss…” Stuck in place for an eternity, I suddenly regained the necessary footing to sprint toward the bedroom and dive under the sheets, putting maximum distance between myself and the sounds coming from the record cabinet.
The record in the magazine was, of course, a 45 RPM disc—but the turntable was set to 33 1/3. A simple enough technical fix, but it seemed as though a passé archetype born out of a horror film was unleashed, the recording giving it a space to become more concrete. Set to the right speed—under those circumstances, in that house—the exchange of sound in space might have felt the same. I’d learned a lesson early. Playing a record backwards, letting a platter of lock-groove vinyl loop, testing out the variability of songs playable at more than one speed, the perfectly timed skip—these things all “thicken” sonic media. They can create the feeling of sound coagulating into something protoplasmic, primitive sites for imagined conjurings to manifest with a greater efficacy.
Finding ways to allow our media to haunt us is crucial to understanding it. Embracing these sorts of “thick moments” bring about subjective emotional responses. Reconnect the disconnect. Historically, sound waves are the medium that joins ethereal and real dimensions, acting as unnerving translators capable of carrying messages between the living and the dead. “Media always already provide the appearances of spectres,” according to author and media theorist Friedrich Kittler. An offhand remark made by Thomas Edison went too far: An alternate use for his phonograph might be to record the last words of the dying, using cylindrical wax tubes to capture the voice that precedes the death rattle. Electrical scientist and physician William Watson plucked fur from his beloved taxidermied pet cat to use in his electrical friction machine. Cat static. Emergency telephones, buried in coffins. Phobic lifelines for premature burials. We listen to the laugh tracks of people who are long gone. This is the habitat of the sonic specter.“Playing a record backwards, letting a platter of lock-groove vinyl loop, testing out the variability of songs playable at more than one speed, the perfectly timed skip—these things all ‘thicken’ sonic media.”
The manifestations of the sonic specter are interwoven with the histories of media and material culture. They may take the form of innocuous wooden sticks planted near a lake, revived a century later through sonification. Or an entirely different stick, pounded upon the earth, which prompted a moment of sonic terror and became a defining experience for the co-founder of the Moog synthesizer. The sonic specter may latch itself to minuscule and obscure pieces of material history—things that may seem unknowable and mysterious, things that become reinstated into the present through modern speculation, discovery, and description. They may form narratives around commercially available acoustic devices, ones “made strange” through supernatural interaction. Architecture may swallow its own insidious sound history, hiding it in plain sight. We might reactivate it by yelling an infinite echo against the ceiling of an abandoned computer factory, or walk through a room that once hosted musical séances. Or we might choose to turn ourselves into broadcast ghosts by swallowing a radio pill or allowing our voices to rocket through the air on beams of MASER light. We might terrorize a city by hijacking the airwaves of a Chicago television station.
Sometime in the autumn of 2013, just a few months after starting my job as a museum curator of technology collections at the Henry Ford Museum, I received a garbled phone message. Someone was mumbling something about “got your number from this woman” followed by a guttural chain of sounds in which I was able to pick out “want to donate this cell phone.” I called the number back, and DJ “Uncle” Russ Gibb answered. For years, I’d hoped to discover the whereabouts of the microphone from WKNR-FM—the same equipment that filtered the spoken rumor of Paul McCartney’s supposed death. But he didn’t know. He did, however, have a 1970s-era suitcase-sized mobile phone that his former roommate, Eric Clapton, once threw in the Detroit River while in a rage with him. Gibb fished it out before it bobbed away, and he said it worked “just fine” once he unscrewed the earpiece and allowed the river to drain out.
The objects under my curatorial care are essentially a huge collection of Latourian black boxes. They exist as physical proof that the more seamless and successful a technology is, the more mystifying and opaque its inner functions become to the everyday user. Objects may develop lives and stories of their own, but they are self-obfuscating. With unrestricted access to an incredible archive of technology that lives just down the hall from my office, I endeavor to reveal resonance within the collections, wringing out forensic-level details in order to broaden understanding and expose impact beyond the allure of sleek shells (or messy tubes and wires). I have immersed myself in the minutiae of the sometimes foreign-seeming language of communications technology: variable condensers, polar relays, wavemeters, howl arresters, superheterodyne transceivers, and galena crystals. The challenge of studying the physical history of media, information, and communication is in knowing how to draw its scattered data back together again, and how to weave a story out of it, to make it accessible—all the while rooting it back to the object in question. Curators collect to neutralize the past, but we also collect the future in the present.
Sonic specters run rampant through the history of sound, and sonic artifacts haunt daily life at the museum. Out of all of the collections under my stewardship—ranging from histories of computing, television, radio, film, photography, printmaking, and graphic communication—I have had some of the most palpable moments with sound reproduction artifacts. This is not surprising, considering that sound has often served as the catalyst that locks a memory into place. Objects, some of which may have been silenced for over a century, vibrate with spooky resonance. Through their transition into becoming museum artifacts, they have become more alive. In their silence, they seem to hold back secrets. They are, and yet, they aren’t. They are present, and yet they shimmer at the edge of vision like ghosts. Black noise, waiting for someone to pay attention.
From High Static, Dead Lines: Sonic Spectres and the Object Hereafter. Used with the permission of Strange Attractor Press. Copyright © 2018 by Kristen Gallerneaux.