Why are so many writers and artists turning books into albums?
For a brief few weeks around the close of 2014, it felt as if you could divide your acquaintances into two groups: those who were listening to Serial and those who were not. Devotees of this spin-off from the popular podcast This American Life soaked up the insistent, questioning voice of investigative journalist Sarah Koenig as she unpicked the frayed ends of a true-life murder case. But, beyond the fascinating, disturbing facts it forensically investigated, Serial’s enormous popularity suggested that the spoken word might have become the ‘new rock and roll’.
Spoken word has long been treated as if it were a genre, although, being pan-generic by definition, it’s more of a market category than anything else. At its most functionally archival, it consists of audiobooks read by actors (aimed at the visually impaired or frequent travellers), bbc releases of radio drama and comedy, or the British Library’s curated compilations of historical authors and poets reading their own work. But, somewhere between Richard Burton’s 1954 BBC rendition of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood (rightly celebrated for its phantasmagoria of Welsh accents and evocative sound effects) and William S. Burroughs’s experiments with cut-up tapes of his own voice, beginning around 1960 (and collected on the excellent CD Break Through In Grey Room, 2001), spoken-word recordings began to take on a life of their own, occupying a hinterland between avant-garde sound practice and dramatic recital – an interzone recently reopened as a site of exploration by a surprising number of contemporary writers and artists.
On tape, Burroughs mumbles the phrase, ‘The silver smoke of dreams’. These words could certainly apply to the remarkable Sleeping Tapes, a sequence of intimate, stream-of-consciousness monologues by the American actor Jeff Bridges, which appeared early this year as a download, cassette or vinyl (including a limited-edition wax-pressing in a die-cut, gold-leaf sleeve). It plays out as if inside the head of The Dude (as the actor is also known), yet it’s clear the vocal, soporific ambient music and nocturnal field recordings were all captured around the house of the Hollywood star. Another high-profile figure, novelist Michel Faber – author of Under the Skin (2000) – recently teamed up with uk experimental musician Andrew Liles to create Ohrwurm (2014), in which Faber reads a creepy tale not so much accompanied by, as battling against, an eclectic array of twisted samples and electronic cut-ups.
It’s a powerful and innovative combination: the experimental sound assembler and the literate speaking voice. The Hackney-based imprint Test Centre recognized this when it launched in 2011 with the release of Stone Tape Shuffle, an LP by Britain’s psychogeographer general, Iain Sinclair. His collage of book extracts, off-the-cuff musings, found noises, sound effects and improvised ephemera were layered onto a soundscape by Dan Scott. Much of the record feels like a private tape or voice memo made on the hoof with a mobile phone. It puts you right there at the author’s shoulder mid-dérive, reading aloud from Lud Heat (1975) and Suicide Bridge (1979) as traffic zings past. At one point Sinclair sounds like a frazzled David Attenborough, anthropologist of the modern city, larynx tightening against the encroaching smog. An incantation near the end of side B, imagining the route to Wessex and the Holy Grail while plodding the alleyways of east London, approaches the rapture of prayer.
Test Centre’s second LP was by Sinclair’s old friend, the filmmaker and novelist Chris Petit. Museum of Loneliness (2013) featured sonic interruptions by Mordant Music, an artist associated with the loose musical subgenre known as hauntology, and his smearings and reworkings of soundtracks from Petit’s films, such as Asylum (2000) and Content (2010), make for a subdued counterpoint to the author’s terse, bitter prose. The A side, ‘Dead Drunks’, features the Robinson character familiar from Petit’s fiction – and, by extension, from Patrick Keiller’s films, London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997). The LP is named after, and forms a part of, his Museum of Loneliness project and, on the record, Petit explains how this ongoing ‘non-institution dedicated to working in the gaps’ is ‘about returning to underground activity in a spirit of decommission and noncommission, in opposition to the cultural exhaustion of conventional systems. It being notable how those media have confronted the information revolution by becoming more conservative, by offering only more of the same, at the cost of any margins.’ Projects such as these records, perhaps, can be seen as doodles in the margin, where fresh ideas and identities can take root without the pressure of formal publication or broadcast.
That’s certainly true of another Test Centre LP, Pedigree Mongrel (2015), by the maverick (by BBC standards) art critic, television presenter and author Jonathan Meades. Like Sinclair and Petit (and recalling their common mentor, J.G. Ballard), Meades speaks in a privately educated English that sits delightfully out-of-kilter with the exploratory textual material. Meades’s memoirs – drawn from Pompey (1993), Museum Without Walls (2012) and An Encyclopaedia of Myself (2014) – skitter between autobiography and fantasia, at one point dipping into Cockney slang and announcing a break to ‘pop to the loo’, while occasionally allowing Mordant Music to dub his vocal into a wilderness of echo. This is both a more raconteurish and a less formal Meades than the one he has allowed to appear on tv.
Stewart Home’s LP, Proletarian Post-Modernism (2013), is the weakest link in Test Centre’s small catalogue: a lo-fi, no-frills compilation of live readings of Home’s mildly confrontational poetry and prose, in front of a tittering audience. Laboriously and fastidiously pornographic – like a revolutionary Readers’ Wives column – Home’s dutiful readings are surprisingly unsympathetic to his own deadpan transgressiveness and flatten out any residual humour. Home recently published a book via Penny-Ante Editions, a small imprint based in Los Angeles. After several years of print publishing, the company has just issued its first LP, What Gets Kept (2015), on which the writer, critic and frieze columnist Lynne Tillman reads selected passages from her books, such as Motion Sickness (1991), No Lease On Life (1998) and What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (2014). Her mix of essays, autobiography and cultural critique is well served by a vocal style that remains flat and serious across a range of emotional tones. A nice touch is to end with a handful of her favourite jokes, and her own hilarity at their telling becomes infectious.
At a time when digital interfaces and streaming apps have, in some senses, taken the fun out of assembling and curating personal collections of audio material, spoken-word recordings offer a liberating alternative, audibly melting text from the permafrost of print. A spoken text permits freedom of movement for the listener while, at the same time, for the artists, recordings can be made in – or salvaged from – ephemeral, mobile environments beyond the clinical, dry studio of countless audio books. The microphone, the portable recorder and the phone’s voice memo function allow the writer to become a performer and deliver her or his own words in a more elaborate setting than the promotional book reading. Text approaches the condition of music. And music – in the form of lengthy, unfettered improvization – can be a way of hearing afresh certain archival speech recordings, which are interesting as much for their historical grain and otherness as for what is being said.
A case in point is In Conversation: a salvaged tape of an informal evening with Wallace Berman, the American collage/assemblage artist and creator of the influential Semina magazine (1955–64). Released this year on LP by the New England-based publishing house Edition Muta, this lost recording was taped during a social gathering at Berman’s Topanga Canyon home in 1968 – crickets audibly chirp from the stoop outside. It’s an impromptu and rambling beat house party, Berman’s thoughts zooming in and out of focus alongside those of his friends, with snatches of pop music and domestic noise. Almost an abstraction of the idea of contingent audio, this ‘conversation’ captures the freewheeling spirit of its age while remaining diametrically opposed to the professionalized, informal formality of Serial. Eavesdropping on this record’s serendipitous weft of voices from 50 years ago, with its engaging flux of materialized and cast-off ideas, you can hear speech shaping thoughts in real time. Prior to both authored literature and to actorly performance of text, this is spoken word in its rawest, most mercurial state.