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.

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