Helen Thorington: The Noise of the Needle

First published in EAR Magazine, October 1988 and
reprinted in Semiotext(e), Ed. Neil Strauss, pp 178-180, 1993.

...skr-eeee k!..The phonograph needle scrapes across the final grooves, slips back and forth...back and forth...rr..shssssssssss ...k... rr..shsssssssssss...k...The (still) familiar sound of an old record. A final skr-eeee k! and a cool disengaged British voice (female) articulates precisely:

Course Book 1. Technical Discussion A. Reproductive Interests: When to engage in female infanticide. As noted in the text, the problem with infanticide is that those who practice it forfeit the long-term interest of their genes in the cause of status, influence or perhaps money in the immediate future. Nonetheless there are situations in which parents are careless of their offspring - and societies in which parents kill their offspring...

(Building A Universe: Rifts, Absences and Omissions Premiered in quad sound at the Alternative Museum, January 1987; and produced in stereo for the New American Radio series. Spring 1987.)

Noise as a metaphor. The sound of an old record; the articulation of another kind of record—one almost as old and widespread as mankind itself, the long-playing record of the devaluation of the female, preserved in the subtler—but none-the-less effective reproductive technologies of today. Like the CD, the new record is quieter—no one need hear or see the techniques; the quietness and the cleanliness of the process mask the agenda.

Technologies are not natural; they are cultural. They evolve in response to the pressure of ideologies. They are accompanied by agendas. We suppress the sound of our equipment, the sound of the work we are doing; we edit out the noise to which our equipment is prey: the sound of the wind on the microphone's diaphragm; the pop that occurs when an interviewee delivers a percussive sound too close to the mic. We conceal our edits, learn very early how to cut close to sounds in order to mask the cut, or if they are inordinately stubborn, to cover them with an ambience, with music, with another sound. We stand on our collective heads, turn the world inside out trying to make our effort appear effortless and our work, comprised sometimes of hundreds of scraps of recorded sound, a unified whole...something natural.

We did not invent the idea. It came with the profession. It came with the technology we use. With the technology we clamor for when we cannot afford to use it. The suppression of the sound of the work—Dolby, DBX, digital technology, all originate here: in the felt need to suppress the sound of the work, the process of working. It is called NOISE; its elimination is of the first order of importance.

In comparing our world of electronic orality (the orality of media acoustics) to older oral cultures, priest and media theoretician, Walter J. Ong says that electronic orality
"is essentially a more deliberate and self-conscious orality...(It plans) happenings carefully to be sure they are thoroughly spontaneous."

(Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word, New York: Methuen, 1984.)

My use of NOISE in radio and audio productions is deliberate. I don't allow bad edits (if I can help it); nor include in an otherwise carefully recorded ambience the sound of the wind hitting the microphone. I'm as careful about unwanted noise as any other careful producer. At the same time, I record the noise of machinery, the clicks of my tape recorder, the spinning of the reel; I spend lavish amounts of time creating electrical malfunctions, recording static, and trying to control feedback, to make it sound not only feedbackish but interesting. I plan its use carefully. I call attention to the sound of work by using the sound of work to create my work. It carries part of my meaning. And part of my meaning is just that simple: to call attention to work, and thereby to the fiction I create and how I create it. As members of the audience, we should know that radio—from news to the most sophisticated, multi-layered composition, is a fiction. We should not be lulled into believing otherwise. Or if indeed the work is so good that suspension of disbelief occurs (and as a producer I strive for this as well), we should at least understand that in some way "we've been had," that the event is not "natural."

Not so long ago I was watching the McNeil-Lehrer Report. The
film got stuck and for a few seconds I watched an unsprocketed Jim Lehrer and his interviewee vibrate up and down on the screen. Would you believe I was shocked, that I actually believed I was seeing and hearing the live, well informed interviewers and their well-informed subjects, that there were bodies there, real people? not just a roll of well-edited celluloid.

Is it Ella or is it Memorex?

Well of course it's Memorex. A reproduction of Ella authenticated by being the product of Ella herself. Who stops to think about media manipulation (anymore)? Or about the points of view that come with it?

Microphones imply a point of view. We direct them at the sound material we think important. We subordinate or eliminate the sound material we think is not important. We do the same when we edit and when we mix. We bring ideologies to our work.

There was an NPR feature story, produced several years ago, about immigrant Asian women learning the English language. The feature opened with an educated white male telling us about them. Just information? Hardly. In the background the Asian women giggled. The giggles were the first sounds we heard under his authoritative male voice.

Agendas are not hard to find.

I come with them too. I use noise. At one level I want to remind the listener that all this tech stuff is electricity dependent; that its not a unified whole but a really crazy patchwork quilt: arrested sound—cut up (by hand or machine), pieced together (ditto), equalized, compressed, gated, harmonized, delayed, mixed, stored, transmitted, repeated...A lot of fabricated events, stored events, repeatable events. At another level I want to use this noise because it is or can be interesting sound. But there are other things going on too: I use noise to talk about agendas that bother me:

about what will happen when those scientists who appear in Building A Universe actually construct a working uterus; actually nuture an embryo for nine months. When I hear the sound of the old record, can I believe that freeing woman from her biological fate isn't just another male chorus singing "Good Night Ladies"? Or that the implications for the male world are not equally ominous? I'm not just talking as a feminist about the devaluation of women. I'm talking as a me about the devaluation of life.

about what is happening now that we are able to record and reproduce the sound of the human voice, once so unique and so inseparable from the human being him/herself.

about the implications of all these "authenticated stand-ins"—our liberation from our biological nature.

about a lot, a lot of other things.

Unfamiliar electronically processed sounds—left right, right left— move repetitively between the speakers. Other sounds, unfamiliar, electronic, repetitive sound from other locations.

From somewhere in the distance, controlled feedback grows louder. It has a human sound—as if someone were whistling. As it dies away, the sound of the human voice—a small segment of a human voice—is repeated, again and again, growing louder and louder, becoming more present. Overtop a voice, the same voice, young, female, speaks, says something, plays with the repeated sound, imitates it, becomes one with it; then suddenly asserts itself. The sound stops. All sound stops. There is silence. The voice speaks: a question? unmistakably a question, although the words are unrecognizable.

Slowly the sound world reasserts itself. The electronically processed left right, right left begins again. The scenario is repeated: once, twice. Feedback, the small segment of human voice different but the same. The final time the repeated sound is recognizable as shhsh. Shhsh, shssh, shssh; the voice-over imitates it, then suddenly, commands silence. And there is silence.

Music. The kind you're used to. It sounds like an organ playing. A knock at a door, repeated, and repeatedly unanswered.


Static. A klunk. A synthetic cymbal-like sound, builds and crashes like an ocean wave from right to left across the stereo spectrum. As it fades away, static, feedback, the loud klunk of another machine, another wave set in motion, sweeping left to right. And another, right to left. Lifting, curling into the red, crashing. Back and forth, unrelenting, pounding the small human voice wherever it is heard. Fragmenting, pulverizing it in the surf of sound. Gone finally, the machine clunks to a stop. There is silence. A long silence. In radio we call it dead air.

(From: Congruent Appeal: A Work In Process, 1988)

Is the caution a little noisy? Perhaps.

A very outspoken lady, Flannery 0'Connor, aware that she wrote for an audience that did not share her convictions or forebodings, defended her writing methods by saying, "With the hard of hearing you have to shout and for the blind you draw in large and startling pictures."