An experimental Mind-Turning Tape

Some years ago I put together a curious forty minute tape, which was designed to take the hearers, seating in a dark room with good audio sound all around them, on a journey from difficult samples of poetic speech, through experimental work with sound overlay, by way of sounds from a southern swamp, the singing of wolves, back by a sanifying touch of Bach, to Dylan Thomas and finally to a conclusion with a rousing section of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper.

In short this was a trip from words to music by way of a variety of unusual sound matrices. The students in several classes tried this out, they sat ten minutes in relative darkness to acclimatize them to the sound of 'nothing', then the tape began.

There were no sounds in the audience, they were as it were, struck dumb, absorbed, inundated, and when they left the auditorium three fourths of an hour later, they wandered around in a hallucino-mimetic daze. When I saw them later, they told me that hearing the tape had been a powerful experience, totally absorbing at the time, but also conferring a lingering effect which last days, weeks. Some of the student told me how impressed they were even in the next term, and one former student recited to me in detail each segment of the program with the sounds still lingering in his memory ---- fifteen years later.

I am unable to account for the strength of this effect. I knew something important was being constructed as I assembled the audio segments, I knew it was going to be good. But I had no idea how strong the effect would be.

Unfortunately the original tape was lost, but such great advances have been made since that time in the quality of audio recording and mastering, that I suspect we would find it dated in absolutely quality of sound. Others can easily assemble similar materials and see what effects can be produced. I add a list of the segments I originally used below; all were taken from vinyl platters of the time:

EE Cummings reading a poem.

Gertrude Stein recorded reading a section entitled "Picasso"

Robert Ashley. chorus murmuring the words "She was a visitor" on overlay tape.

Steve Reich, multiple consecutive over-recording of "Come out to show...."

Sections of Jilala, Moroccan religious chanting

Luciano Berio's "Visage" with the voice of Kathy Berberian

Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, taped and retaped sounds of birds.

An Audobon (Cornell Univ.) recording "Sounds of a Southern Swamp"

Recording of wolves singing/howling in chorus (Robert Redford's disc)

Bach's Art of the Fugue at the beginning, with the falling cadence matching the last wolf-howl.

James Joyce, a section from Finnegan's Wake read by Sioban McKenna

Dylan Thomas, reading from "Over Sir John's Hill"

The Beatles, conclusion of the Sgt. Pepper record on orig. vinyl.

What can be concluded from this sequence and its remarkable effects on half a dozen years of intelligent student minds? First that unusual assembles of unexpected sounds have a different total-effect value from individual segments. There is a mass effect. Second, anyone with modern equipment and access to a good music and spoken-art library, can do the same job at any time with little effort, and the result with be much better in terms of audio-recording quality and sound projection in a good auditorium.

Do it, someone! I assure you that it is worth the trouble.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College