Friday, 22 August 2008

The Last Laugh

Many recordings of prank phone calls hinge on the pleasures of impersonation. The telephone allowed the user into spaces and interactions that could or would not be broached in person. Even though people make most of their calls within the neighborhood in which they live, there still exists in the telephone the potential to transcend spatial boundaries within towns and neighborhoods and to interact with those who live “across the tracks.” That is, the phone can be used to infiltrate the spaces of economic or ethnic “Others.” The ability to cross social boundaries is taken up by phone pranksters who infiltrate the homes of people whose ethnicity, race or class might typically have prevented a face-to-face interaction. The infiltration of space on prank calls is often achieved through the vocal impersonation of ethnic, racial and class types. Impersonation was relatively easy to achieve on the telephone, a context where signs of class and background that would be obvious in face-to-face exchanges were, in Carolyn Marvin’s words, “disturbingly invisible.”
One prankster who utilizes gender impersonation is Brother Russell, whose victims are the hosts of ultra-conservative Christian radio call-in shows. Russell often impersonates an elderly Christian woman, and on a call titled “The Last Laugh,” he poses as an elderly woman named Emily and asks for a prayer for “her” wayward nephew. After the prayer is performed over the radio, she and the radio preacher exchange bursts of ecstatic laughter. The title of the track becomes clear when, just as the stirring background music swells, Emily’s laughter becomes both maniacal and clearly male.

Brother Russell subtly reveals his act of impersonation and the depth with which he was able to infiltrate the show’s religious proceedings. The call features a remarkable vocal “sleight of hand” when the impersonation is suddenly revealed. The sound-only environment of the telephone allows for this stunning technique, a performance somewhere between quick-change slapstick comedy and the digital morphing of 1990s cinema.
The play with morphing flexible identities through vocal performance suggests how telephone interaction might be compared to other recent media practices. Scholars writing about new digital media have often described how identity can become fluid and flexible in the virtual space of the Internet. Much of the academic analysis of race and gender on the Internet has stressed the virtual, fragmented nature of online identity. Examples of prank and obscene phone calling reveal how a similar flexibility existed in the virtual space of telephone talk. But race tends to assert its presence on the Internet nonetheless, in the language and graphic images users employ. Similarly, the fluidity of identity heard on prank calls is not used to eliminate social or racial hierarchies, but instead to bring them into even sharper focus.

Cohen ‘Phones For a ‘Phone

This is the first of two entries on recordings of prank phone calls: a fascinating amateur comedy entertainment based on secret recording.

Though anxieties about telephone misuse existed at the turn of the century, anonymous prank calling would have been difficult in an era of operator switchboards and party lines. During the first decades of the century, telephone service involved routing calls to a central office where the caller would speak to an operator who would manually connect the two parties. Operator switching made anonymous calling difficult if not impossible since the operator knew the source of any incoming call. Further, it was widely believed that operators eavesdropped on conversations. Operator switching would also have made evident the way in which the phone exchange represented a modern technological and social network or what Tom Gunning, in his analysis of how the telephone functions in the films of Fritz Lang, describes as a “technological web”.
A genre of popular phonograph records recorded in the first decades of the twentieth century illustrate some ways in which the social and technological network of the phone was experienced at this time. “Cohen on the Telephone” was a popular comedy skit that was recorded by numerous performers and record labels between 1910 and 1930. “Cohen” records are an example of the ethnic stereotyping typical of the Vaudeville stage and heard on much of the early output of the phonograph industry. Cohen is a Jewish immigrant whose comic monologs are motivated by telephone conversations in which he is unable to accomplish his goals, most often due to misunderstandings based on his thick European accent. On the majority of Cohen records, we hear only Cohen’s side of the conversation: a technique for motivating a comedic monolog employed more recently by performers such as Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart and Lily Tomlin. An interesting variation on that form can be heard on a record featuring Joe Hayman, a performer credited as the originator of the Cohen character. Note how, on “Cohen ‘Phones for a ‘Phone” (Columbia), we are presented with a more complex range of characters in order to suggest the “technological web” of the telephone network.

The expanded cast is used to represent the social network of the telephone as tangled, confusing, and overwhelming. We laugh at Cohen’s difficulty in navigating through a bureaucratic telephonic space where visual cues are absent and standards of social status and decorum become uncertain.
Cohen makes clear how not to behave on the telephone, demonstrating Jonathan Sterne’s assertion that “early telephone conversation was a learned skill,” and enacting a cautionary tale for an immigrant population struggling to learn the codes of modernity. But Cohen is not presented solely for ridicule: after all, he has the best lines and his sardonic wisecracks and asides work to forge a sense of camaraderie with the listener. Indeed, part of the popularity of these sketches, presumably with immigrants very similar to the hapless Cohen, can be traced to the way in which Cohen’s failures can be due as much to the deficiencies of the telephone as to his inability to cope with modernity. Either way, the Cohen sketches demonstrate how telephone service with operator switching was experienced as an entry point to, and reflection of, larger social networks of the modern city: the phone is Cohen’s connection to his landlord, the phone company, the plumber, the health department, and the gas company. “Cohen ‘Phones for a ‘Phone” also illustrates another reason why anonymous calling would have been difficult at this time: party lines. One might never be sure when “some guy on the wire” might “butt in,” or simply listen in to a personal conversation. Cohen records represent telephonic space as a confusing urban grid as well as a crowded modern street.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The Okeh Laughing Record

Besides Steve Porter’s “Laughing Spectator,” a lot of laughter can be heard on early phonograph records. One of the most successful examples was the “Okeh Laughing Record,” released in 1922. This recording did so well that it was quickly followed by two sequels called, not surprisingly, “The Second Laughing Record” and “The Okeh Laughing Dance Record.” In the most prevalent model of the laughing record genre, a recurring, elementary narrative frames the laughter. The record begins with a very solemn performance of a musical solo (often a horn or a vocal performance). The introductory music on these laughing records establishes a classical performance with a one-to-one relationship between the musical performer and a listener. This performance is then punctuated by a fluff of some kind, an audible (sometimes barely audible) mistake that interrupts the smooth flow of the musical solo. Immediately following the mistake, a woman is heard to break out laughing. As the recording develops, the musician nobly tries to continue the instrumental solo, but the laughter of the woman in the audience proves so unsettling and infectious that the performer “cracks up” as well, revealing his identity as a man. What follows for the rest of the record are waves of laughter from both the man and woman, each one’s guffaws stimulating and encouraging the other’s, interspersed by short-lived attempts by the man to return to his performance.

The main purpose of these recordings seems to have been the incitation of the listener’s infectious laughter, a project in which they were successful far beyond the scope of their local cultural origins. Early gramophone producer F.W. Gaisberg wrote that Burt Sheppard’s “Laughing Record” was “world famous,” and had sold “over half a million in India alone.” He provides this brief description of its reception: “In the bazaars of India I have seen dozens of natives seated on their haunches round a gramophone, rocking with laughter, whilst playing Sheppard’s laughing record.” It seems to me that laughing records helped to ease anxieties about a potentially disturbing new medium. Laughter served as a kind of suture between the rigid and the flexible, the social and the individual, the mechanical and the human. The incitation of infectious laughter in the listener would work to remove anxiety about interacting with a machine, making the phonographic apparatus appear more “human.” The ability of a mechanical recording to “crack up” helps it to emanate a sense of authentic presence and humanity. Laughing records, then, were important ways of establishing the credibility and authenticity of early recordings, alleviating the anxiety of hearing a disembodied, recorded voice.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The Laughing Spectator

Hello, and welcome to this new blog: Vocal Tracks. Each post will include a sound recording and some of my comments on it. The first several entries will be recordings that are discussed in my book, VOCAL TRACKS: PERFORMANCE AND SOUND MEDIA (University of California Press 2008). After that, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on whatever wonders of the century of recorded sound have most recently captured my fancy. I’m starting out this month with the record that I use to begin my book: Steve Porter’s “The Laughing Spectator” from 1908. It’s a record that was released in only the second decade that sound recordings were mass-marketed for entertainment. Made at the dawn of an era of mass media, “The Laughing Spectator” demonstrates the remarkable versatility of the voice as an instrument of performance.

In the course of little more than two minutes, we have heard a spoken announcement, a comic dialogue, the laughter of an audience, and singing. Porter’s voice is more versatile than it might at first appear, since he is performing the parts of both Mac and Reilly. In this, Porter was part of a phonographic tradition in which performers would play multiple parts of a dramatic routine. Such an act often had to be specifically identified on record company promotional material to be fully appreciated, and the brief opening dialogue with the “Professor” (“Say, Mac, where’s your partner?”) is meant to cue the listener to appreciate the full dimensions of Porter’s vocal achievement. This is only one way in which performers took advantage of how the modern media separated them in time and space from their audiences. But of all the voices we hear, it is the performance of the laughing spectator himself that fascinates me. We hear an individual performer emerge from an anonymous, undifferentiated audience. As we recognize that goat-like laughter as a performance, the laughter of the crowd is made to seem “real,” even though the sounds of the audience are every bit as constructed a performance as the other sounds we hear. But the “The Laughing Spectator” can also illustrate how the sound media have gravitated toward the voice at the limits of language. Consider how the wordless vocalizing of the eponymous hero is able, through his unrestrained and unmistakable laughter, not only to distinguish himself from the rest of the audience, but eventually to join the performers onstage: the voice that functions as an index of the body in the throes of raw, unrestrained emotion upstages a comic performance built on wordplay. Modern media technologies have been adept at capturing expressions such as this, and in the process have redefined what counts as performance and allowed us to hear the voice in new ways.