Last Monday night, I spent some time tinkering with these bad boys:
I spent the most time with the Smith-Corona Sterling, cajoling the paper into the slot and around the rotating dowel-thingy, spinning the wheel, and then hammering away on the keys. Much to my delight, the machine responded in a cacophony of sound: “clunka chunka chunka ding!” But while the machine was certainly vocal, the letters that it inscribed upon my painstakingly loaded piece of paper were dim and subdued, hardly legible at all. How fitting, I thought. In the case of this particular typewriter, the space between writer and text became dilated and stretched—the apparatus situated between author and text resulted in a fuzzy or indistinct impression.
Kittler offers an explanation of the different types of impressions: “Impressions tend to belong to either of two classes: they either possess greater intensity, a unique sharpness of outline and fixity of line, or they are weaker, more blurred and imprecise, but nevertheless arranged in a certain order that imposes itself on us” (31). The impression that the Sterling Corona made upon my piece of paper was of the latter description: “weaker, more blurred and imprecise.”
I don’t want to be too critical of the Sterling Corona, because I found it an incredible and lively machine. Instead, I think that any content expressed through a medium necessarily loses a bit of itself. Kittler makes reference to the ways in which recordings or reproductions of any one thing are always somehow inferior to the original. For example, Kittler refers to the strange sensation of hearing your own recorded voice played back to you. As Kittler notes, there is a strange, cold, tinny quality to the recorded voice, and you find yourself asking, “Is that really what I sound like?” I think it would be easy to delve into a discussion of simulacra and whatnot, with Baudrillard in my back pocket, but I’m not going to do that right now, because I have some other things on my mind. Namely, I am interested in further discussion of the concept of distance and gaps, especially as that distance applies to recorded music.
I thought it was super cool when Kittler started applying his analysis of sound and music to Pink Floyd’s “Fat Old Sun.” The lyrics of the song implore the listener to experience the song in a certain way, to sit in silence, to “pick your feet up off the ground,” and to await a “silver sound from a time so strange.” As Kittler says, “Nobody knows who is singing—the voice called David Gilmour that sings the song, the voice referred to by the song, or maybe the voice of the listener who makes no sound and is nonetheless supposed to sing once all the conditions of magic have been met.” In this way, lyricist and listener become conflated—singer and hearer are one. Kittler continues: “An unimaginable closeness of sound technology and self-awareness, a simulacrum of a feedback loop relaying sender and receiver. A song sings to a listener ear, telling it to sing. As if the music were originating in the brain itself rather than emanating from stereo speakers or headphones” (37). Indeed, the song seems to strip bare the process of listening and experiencing music, and, in so doing, to bridge the gap between voice and listener. Sometimes, when I am just about to fall asleep, I can hear an entire song played in my head, exactly as it would be played through the speakers of my computer. It’s a strange phenomenon of dormant memorized impressions rising to the surface of my subconscious, and I think it relates well to Kittler’s notion of music that comes from the brain, rather than from a recorded device. Suddenly, the music seems to transcend the medium used to express it. Suddenly, it becomes one with the listener, and the distance between the two collapses.
Kittler provides an excerpt of Rudolph Lothar’s The Talking Machine: A Technical-Aesthetic Essay,” in which Lothar contends that, “Only when we forget that the voice of the singer is coming from a wooden box, when we no longer hear any interference, when we can suspend it the way we are able to suspend a stage—only then will the talking machine come into its own artistically” (45). I disagree with Lothar whole-heartedly. While I think it is indeed valuable to dissolve the distance between artist and listener, as Pink Floyd did in “Fat Old Sun,” I think it is equally valuable for an artist to call attention to his/her medium. The Beatles, for example, are famous for their inclusion of anomalies within their recorded works—beeps, squeaks, and voices that don’t belong, recording glitches, sounds of rustling paper, etc. While most recorded music from the Beatles’ time invariably includes some anomalies, since recording technology was still evolving, the Beatles’ music is particularly fraught with anomalies, to the point where they cannot go ignored, or cannot be merely chalked up to shoddy recording work. Instead, I think that the inclusion of anomalies speaks to a level of self-consciousness, meta-awareness, or self-awareness within the music itself.
I’m pretty excited because I intend to spend my night listening to “The White Album” on vinyl because I feel it has the most anomalies in it. I just think there’s something lurking behind the anomalies, and I intend to find out what that something is. (And no, I won’t jump on the “Paul McCartney is dead!” bandwagon.)