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“What is real is not what I articulate, nor its impression, but its substantive mechanical reproduction: the phonograph completes the reality of the sign . . . . It speaks to me much better than I myself could: it still expresses itself when I am already silent: you will listen to me in it after I am gone.” Charles Grivel
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Nana: [fade in] The good made up for the bad. It really did. I'm so very thankful. I think I've got a good life. Really. I had a good life. It was experimental, but it was fun. [fade]
This is my grandmother, Aurore Cormier, recorded in 2007 when she was 93 years old, two years before she died. I made this recording at the house where she lived with her two daughters, my aunts Mickey and Lynette, in Southington , CT. The whole idea was to preserve her voice and some of her stories, to have something to listen to after she was gone. And I think that Nana—which is what the grandchildren called her—is keeping that in mind when she speaks about her life in the past tense—I had a good life. It was experimental, but it was fun.
Nana: Now you guys have to do the rest of the work.
Lynette: Oh really.
Nana: I'm all done now. [laughing]
Mickey: I've got news for you, so am I.
Nana: I can't produce anymore. [laughs] What do we do for an encore?
On tape, I asked Nana to retell some of her familiar stories, like the circumstances around meeting my grandfather
Ken: And how did you meet?
Nana: Oh, on the bus. I was so uneasy; I felt eyes on me all the while. And it was him. He was across with his girlfriend. He hadn't been going out with her that long, but they were courting. And he was sitting across from me and I felt those eyes on me. And every time I looked he was looking at me. And then he told me later, he was saying to himelf, that's the girl I'm gonna marry. It was love at first sight with him. Isn't that weird? And anyway [fade]
My father was her first child, the oldest of four, born in 1939.
Nana: Your father and I were… he used to love music, you know? And I used to put him in his high chair and put the radio on. He was very little when he even started listening to the soap operas. He was just fascinated. He remembers all the, uh, Batman and all that was on radio then. And he used to listen to that, and he knew every character and every show you could think of. He remembered every, every show on the radio. He had such a mind for that. Dad said, “I hope you do well in college with that.” Dad used to get mad at him . . . [fade]
So it was my grandmother in the 1940s who, despite the objections of her husband, encouraged my father's childhood obsession with radio. He did not, in fact, do well in college with all of that. When my grandfather pressured him to seek an engineering degree at the University of Connecticut , he attended reluctantly and then summarily failed his courses. A few years later he put himself through an education program and became a public school teacher. Not the radio disc jockey he always envisioned himself becoming, he did however manage all the audio/visual equipment at his school. From time to time he would borrow a 16mm projector or a reel-to-real audio tape recorder and bring it home. Some of my earliest memories are of recording sound on that reel-to-reel machine.
Dad: How are you?
Baby Ken: How are you?
Dad: Is it your birthday today?
Baby Ken: Bir-bray.
Dad: How old are you?
Baby Ken: I'm gonna be two.
Baby Ken: Yeah.
Dad: Two what?
Baby Ken: I'm gonna be two.
Dad: You're gonna be two years old?
Baby Ken: Yeah, I'm gonna be two.
Bob: Say, you are two.
Baby Ken: I are two.
Dad: You are two what?
Baby Ken: I are two . . . old.
Of course, I don't remember my second birthday, but that recording—the “I are two” recording—became a defining moment that I would replay on the machine and in my mind from that day forward. It was my earliest training in performance and sound recording. My brother Bob is four years older than I am, and I would watch and listen as he and my father played out scenes and characters.
Bob: So the little billy goat said, Hey, want go up to the hillside to eat grass and grow fat? And he said, “Alright.” So first the little one came. And then, uh, Trip trap trip trap.
Dad: Who's that trip trapping over my bridge?
Bob: It is I, little-sized billy goat gruff.
Bob: I'm going to the hillside to eat grass and grow fat.
Dad: I don't care where you're going. I'm gonna eat you up. You look good.
Bob: No, don't eat me up. There's a middle-sized billy goat gruff coming, and he's more fatter and tender than I am.
Dad: I don't care, I think I'm going to eat you up.
Bob: No! Daddy, stop that. Say, alright, go! Say that.
Dad: I'm gonna eat you up!
Bob: No! Daddy! Daddy!
Dad: Hah hah!
It's no wonder, I suppose, that now my own home office is a mini-recording studio; that I actually write, perform, and produce music, documentaries, and sound art right here at my desk; and that I teach creative writing and sound production in college. No matter where I go I've usually got an audio recorder with me. And when I think about this session with my grandmother, as I sit here listening, cutting it together, it dawns on me only now, more than a year after her death, to what extent she actually influenced my own life's path. Back in the early days of radio, television, and pop music, she got caught up in all the excitement right along with her kids. She understood their desire to take it all in.
Nana: They'd listen to Presley. Elvis Presley? So one time I went in town and I bought Lynette the “Hound Dog.” Dad says, “Why did you buy her that?” I says, “Roger, she's a teenager. She loves that stuff. It's gonna pass after a while.” He couldn't understand that. “You're putting thoughts in their minds.” I says, “No I'm not.” So I says to her, I says, “Don't talk about it. Just play it in your room and . . . you know. I had bought her the record. She was so thrilled. Oh we used to listen to radio. When the kids were growing up, on Sunday night they used to have all those, uh, The Lone Ranger and all that. Dad and I used to get in bed, the kids used to get in bed with us or sit on the floor and we used to listen to all those programs before they went to bed. I love my radio, but I can't hear it anymore. It's just static to me on account of my hearing. So I have one here that takes cassette, and your father recorded all of Frank Sinatra for me, but I can't hear it anymore. You know? It's just like, uh, just static.
I remember setting up the microphone for this interview, trying to be as nonchalant as I could, thinking that I didn't want to make Nana feel self-conscious with the equipment. But of course she was entirely comfortable with being on mic, even glad at the opportunity to get these stories recorded for posterity. Not only does she tell her stories, she relives them, she performs them, she entertains her audience, the ones listening as she speaks as well as those who will listen to her later over a set of speakers. A few weeks after I recorded her, I sent Nana an edited collection of some of the best moments, but like she said, it was all static to her.
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In the early twentieth century, the phonograph was marveled at for its ability to preserve the voices of the dead. With the emergence of wireless broadcast, the idea that disembodied voices could travel through the ether led some to speculate that we had stumbled across a portal between the here and the hereafter, and that lurking in all that radio static were bound to be ghostly voices from the distant past. Toward the end of his life, Marconi himself is said to have been working on “a device that would receive living voices from all human history, hoping even to someday hear the last words of Jesus on the cross” (Sconce 61). Because of her hearing impairment, Nana's own voice and the voices of those around her must have felt like they were awash in a field of static, snippets of phrases and expressions emerging here and there, only to recede back into a blanket of white noise. But to us, her voice was the very embodiment of clarity, one that rose above the static of the everyday grind and spoke in sonorous tones of humor, compassion, and humility. She grew up in the early days of the wireless imagination, and she spent many evenings glued to her radio, fascinated by the voices that emerged from thin air. Now, as I edit this piece, Nana's voice fills the room as it once did, still expressing itself though she is already silent. All the voices, of the dead and the living, captured here on tape. None of us are what we once were. Our younger selves, even the words we spoke moments ago, gone from our bodies at the very moment of articulation, but forever ringing in our ears.
Baby Ken: [singing] Turn it off!
Bob: Turn it off?
Baby Ken: Yeah.
[tape clicks off]
Grivel, Charles. “The Phonograph's Horned Mouth.” Wireless Imagination: Sound,
Radio, and the Avante-Garde. Ed. Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead.
Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994. 31-61.
Sconce, Jeffrey. Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000.