What would it be like if scholars presented their research in sound rather than in print? Better yet, what if we could hear them in the act of their research and analysis, pulling different historical sounds from the archives and rubbing them against one another in an audio editor?
In today’s episode, we get to find out what such an innovative scholarly audiobook would sound like–because our guest has created the first one! Jacob Smith‘s ESC (University of Michigan Press) is a fascinating sonic exploration of postwar radio drama and contemporary sound art, as well as a meditation on how humans have reshaped the ecological fate of the planet. Before we listen to an excerpt of ESC, Mack interviews Jake about how his skills as a former musician came in handy for his work as an audio academic.
You can listen to ESC: Sonic Adventure in the Anthropocene in its entirety for free courtesy of the University of Michigan Press.
Jacob Smith is founder and director of the Master of Arts in Sound Arts and Industries, and professor in the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University. He is the author of three print-based books on sound: Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media (University of California Press 2008); Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures(University of California Press 2011); and Eco-Sonic Media (University of California Press, 2015). He writes and teaches about the cultural history of media, with a focus on sound and performance.
Today’s show was edited by Craig Eley and featured music by Blue Dot Sessions. Our intern is Gina Moravec.
[ethereal music plays]
A book unbound.
Tired of the everyday grind? Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? Want to get away from it all? We offer you escape. Escape, designed to free you from the four walls of today. For a half hour of high adventure.
[old, dramatic music plays. In between are people listing off natural disasters.]
Hey everyone. Welcome back to another episode. This is Mack Hagood. My partner chris cheek is out, so you just got me today. What you just heard is an excerpt from ESC. A fascinating project that’s one part podcast, one part audiobook. And it’s produced by my guest today, Jacob Smith. Jake is the founder and director of the Master of Arts in Sound Arts and Industries program at Northwestern University, where he’s also a professor in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film. So, for those of you who are regular listeners to the show, you know that I work in this disciplinary space that gets called sound studies. So we have all these folks working in this space of sound studies. And yet, how do we publish all of this research that we generate? We publish it in print, or in pixels on the screen, right? We do it via the written word. And that’s why I was so excited about having Jake Smith on today because he is challenging that paradigm, working in sound, and doing something that really could only be done in sound. His new project ESC is an audio native audiobook.
[guitar music plays]
So what do I mean by that? So basically, this is a book length critical reading of a CBS radio drama from the 1940s and 50s called Escape. But instead of just reading about the radio drama, we actually hear the radio drama itself. And through Jake’s excellent production techniques, we also hear his criticism, and we hear these sounds sort of matched up against the work of contemporary sound artists. The through line argument of the the piece is that this moment in the 40s and 50s, after World War Two, when this radio drama was being produced, is also the moment that was sort of a tipping point in the Earth’s geological history. It’s the moment when human beings start having a larger impact on the Earth’s ecology than any other natural force does.
[guitar music fades out]
So it’s an adventurous project. It required an adventurous editor, which Jake was able to find in Mary Francis at the University of Michigan press. So we’re going to listen to this interview with Jake about the production. We’re also going to listen to excerpts of the production and then at the end of this podcast we’ll listen to a nice long chunk of the first episode of ESC. But first, we started off by talking about the iconic theme song for the show.
[theme song plays, which is Night on Bald Mountain]
So first of all, I can’t take credit for writing the theme song. That’s Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.
Oh, right. Okay.
It’s the theme song to the show escape. When I was doing the proof of concept. I’d had these conversations with Mary like, maybe it could just be audio. Maybe I could just make this argument in sound. Instead of just having a few clips, maybe I could really weave my discussion
into actually listening to the episode and to the story. It would be kind of like a DVD commentary, but with my commentary just kind of woven into the audio itself and bring in work by these other amazing sound artists, etc. So Mary was like, well, let’s just just try it, do a proof of concept, do one episode, and see if it works. And at that point, I totally panicked. This could not work at all, you know, conceptually, this might work. And so one of the first things I decided to do was make a theme song. And so maybe I could make my own version of the escape theme. But again, this is the very early stages, and I’m thinking, this might not work at all that maybe this is a terrible idea. I sat down with my guitar Okay, I’ll learn the song, let’s see if this will work. I have no idea if this will translate into something that I could make. But I had this great Omen, which is I sat down and played the opening theme from escape. And it was in A minor. If you’re a guitar player, you know this was not E flat minor or you know, C sharp It was a flat so I could just pick up my guitar and just strum this big open cord and I was like, this is gonna work because I can play this. It’s an A minor. So that was the first moment where I felt like oh, maybe my embodied skills as a musician intersect here with my scholarly work because I can play in A minor and I can play version of this theme song. So that was kind of the beginning of the proof of concept working for me. I was a musician and recorded music for many years playing in bands and touring around in a van and making records, making some really bad music videos.
[Jacob’s music plays, which is mainly vocals and guitar. Song fades out.]
That it ended up being something that was kind of disconnected from my academic work. I still wrote about music and sound and voice. But any recording or musical performance that I did was something kind of separate and different. It had its own little separate section on my CV at the end of my CV there’s something like additional professional work and would list all the musical things I did, but it didn’t really live with the other stuff it wasn’t, didn’t count as a publication. It ended up being really exciting for me to try to recombine those. To think about how working with sound sound editing, my own vocal performance might be woven back into the spectrum of my academic work.
[low, ethereal music plays]
The radio drama series escape, ran on the CBS Radio Network between 1947 and 1954. Escape was an anthology drama, which meant there was a new original story for each episode. It’s earned a place among the pantheon of shows that are considered to be classics of the Golden Age of American Radio. When it came time to do a new project, what I decided I really want
wanted to do was to bring ego criticism into sound studies or to explore how might those things live together? What might sound studies bring to ego criticism, what my ego criticism bring to sound studies? And one way that I found that those two things met was around the concept of the Anthropocene. Scientists and environmental critics differ about when the Anthropocene begins, but many see a decisive shift occurring immediately following World War Two.
[explosion sound effect plays]
At that time, fallout from nuclear explosions left a mark in the planet’s geological strata, and a great acceleration in resource extraction, population growth and energy consumption, meant that the world’s ecosystems began to change more rapidly and extensively than in any other comparable period in human history. I was really compelled by the fact that that’s also the end of the Golden Age of American Radio Drama, when radio was such a vibrant way of telling stories and a powerful narrative media form in American cultural life. I started to get really interested in how might I hear the birth of the Anthropocene in this era of Golden Age Radio.
[older radio show plays]
The Columbia Network takes pleasure in bringing you “Suspence.”
[omminous music plays]
“Suspense.” Colombia’s parade about standing thrillers. Produced and directed by
William Sphere and scored by Bernard Herrmann. The notable melodramas from stage and screen, fiction and radio presented each week to bring you to the edge of your chair to keep you in suspence.
So I’m listening to lots and lots of Golden Age radio partly inspired by my colleague Neil Varmus work, partly inspired by this sense that it’s a time that’s coinciding with the birth of the Anthropocene. At the same time, I’m listening to all this wonderful work by contemporary sound artists working in the area of field recording, using digital tools to go out into the world, allowing us to listen to the natural world in a really dramatic new way.
[nature sounds play]
I found myself wanting to create a mashup of those two things. It felt like two very different Golden Ages of sound work. On the one hand this. studio based radio drama of the late 40s and early 50s.
We offer you “Escape.”
And then this beautiful new flowering of field Recording by people at Chris Watson, Yana winter, Sally Mcintyre, Christina Cooper, Peter Cosack, really inspiring work that was opening my ears to the non human world. I wanted to bring these two things together. I find myself listening to these incredible cinematic field recordings, but then wanting it to turn into a narrative. Like the Golden Age radio shows I was listening to.
I awoke late in the afternoon, a sharp hunger picking at me.
Then while I was listening to these Golden Age radio shows, I kept on wanting it to stop for a minute and just immerse me in a space, the way the field recordings would.
[animal and nature sound play]
So in each episode, I tried to leave a lot of space for sound to let the work of sound artists speak for itself, or to let that kind of interesting mashup of post war, adventure storytelling collide with field recordings. To create a very different kind of emotional experience. So I found myself
reimagining the argument in all kinds of ways in the process of doing it in sound. I also found that the emotional element of the argument would come out in all kinds of different ways. It starts to become much more of a musical experience. And for me, at least, that meant a more emotional kind of experience. It just really changed the process of writing for me.
[Sad, slow music plays]
Yes, the use of sound to actually open up an idea. And I think it’s particularly important, as you said, because it provides that emotional level but also because it provides time for people to process what they’ve just heard. Because when you’re reading a book, you can look up and God knows I do this all the time. I swear, when I read, I think I spend more time looking at the ceiling then at the book, which is why I’m such a slow reader. I just get interested in an idea that I just want to sit there and think about it. The podcast, if you’re just talking the whole time, you’re not providing anyone time to do that. To make their own contribution to the conversation in their head.
Yeah, I think that was one of the biggest things I learned in the process of working on ESC was that kind of temporality. Very different from writing, where it’s just kind of one idea after the other. I really started to feel the places where I needed to slow down and leave some space, or bring in sound to give the listener room to digest or think about an idea. And that was one thing that, for me was really beautiful about engaging so closely with these Golden Age radio narratives. Because those guys really knew what they were doing. You know, they’re really tight 30 minute narratives. And at just the moment where you need to catch a breath, they’ll be this little beautiful little three second musical riff.
[More of the audio drama plays. A man speaks, followed by a music interlude.]
I ended up using those all the time throughout ESC, because it would be at that point in my analysis where it was like we need to break, we need to catch our breath. So just the rhythm and the temporality of making an argument in sound, felt different and could move more into music or into umbeyonce. And I really loved those transitions.
Yeah, and that’s something I really like about your podcast is that those little musical breaks or Sonic breaks, sometimes you made them. Sometimes a sound artists made them in the past decade. Sometimes they come from decades in the past. And so they’re all these different textures of those pauses, which I find is super rich in sonically just stimulating.
That’s one thing I’ve really learned from Neil Verma. He’s really showed me how one of the exciting things about sound studies now is starting to think across sounds, and get a broader sense of the history of audio work. It’s kind of only now in some ways that we’re able to line up these different traditions of sound art and sound work in a way that say filmmakers have been doing for a long time. I think about New Hollywood directors who are constantly making references to classical Hollywood in the 30s, 50s culture in 70s films. We’re kind of used to that interesting polyphonic dialogue in film culture. And that’s one of the things that I wanted to bring to ESC. That it’s not just about this podcasting moment, but how can we line up this podcasting moment with exciting things going on and field recording and sound art but also with this earlier era of sound work that has its own kind of wonderful nuance all these things might live together in new kinds of ways. And I think that’s one of the things that the emergence of sound studies is helping us to hear.
And now, here’s more from Jacob Smith’s ESC Sonic Adventure in the Anthropocene.
Let’s get started with one of the most popular stories told on escape, which begins like this.
[Epic music plays]
Tonight, we escaped to a lonely Lighthouse of the steaming jungle coast of French Guiana and the nightmare world of terror and violence as we bring you again in response to hundreds of requests, Three skeleton Key starring Vincent Price.
[theme song plays]
This is the opening of the Escape adaptation of George Gustaf’s short story, Three Skeleton Key. As you can hear from that reference to hundreds of requests. This was a popular story and Escape broadcasted on three different occasions in 1949, 1950, and 1953. Not only was Three Skeleton Key one of the most popular episodes of escape, but it features some prominent themes that cut across the entire run of the show. In particular, it’s one of 70 episodes of Escape that take place along the network of global shipping. This means that more than one third of Escape stories took place in the mid century network of ocean going ships, ports, and in this case, lighthouses. So, Three Skeleton Key is a representative episode of escape, because the theme of ties is a global news network of travel and trade, but it also depicts the infrastructure of that network in a state of disruption and collapse. In this and the next two episodes of my podcast, we’ll be listening to some of Escapes infrastructural adventures. This means I’ll be paying attention to the infrastructure in the narrative, and to the narrative of the infrastructure, to how sites like lighthouses can be the fictional settings for adventure, as well as features of the environment with their own history. We’ll see that this kind of infrastructural disposition is a useful way to help us bring an environmental awareness to these shows. Infrastructure sites can be contact zones between human networks and non human creatures, and they require that we think about multiple levels of scale from the personal to the global. We’re listening to a recording that was made by the sound artist Alan lamb. These are sounds made by an abandoned telegraph wire in the Australian outback. By bringing those wires to life, lambs work is a great example of how sound art can have an infrastructural disposition.
[the sound plays]
At the start of Three Skeleton Key, we meet Jean played by Vincent Price. Jean’s a member of a three person crew that maintains the lonely lighthouse described in the opening announcement. Jean sets the scene.
Picture this place, a gray tapering cylinder welded by iron rods and concrete to the key itself. A bear Black Rock 150 feet long, maybe 40 wide. That’s at low tide. At high tide, just the lighthouse rising 110 feet straight up out of the ocean. Set in the base of the light was a watertight bronze door, and in you went, and up. Yes, up and up and round and round past the tanks of oil in the coils of rope casks of wicks, racks of lantern, sax of spots, and cartons and cans and up and up and up around and around. Over the light store room was the food store room and over the food store room was the bunk room where the three of us slept. And over the bunk room…
This opening sequence establishes the broadcast as what Nicole Starosielski calls a nodal narrative. That’s a story that takes place within the node of an infrastructural network like this lighthouse. The lighthouse was an essential node in the network of international shipping and Jean explains that his lighthouse exists to warn ships away from dangerous submerged reefs.
Lighthouses like Jean’s proliferated in the second half of the 19th century, with the rise of steam powered shipping and increased calls for coastal aids to navigation. We’re listening to the sound of foghorns, a sonic component in this ship to shore technological infrastructure. The construction of lighthouses on the bare rock of an exposed coast required sophisticated tools and new engineering techniques, and they were recognized as a stunning technological achievement comparable to the great suspension bridges, railways and early skyscrapers of the era. Francis coastal light technology was considered to be the gold standard at this time, which makes it fitting that Three Skeleton Key is set in a French lighthouse. Moreover, French Diana had a reputation as an outpost at the edge of the civilized world, and was widely considered to be uncolonisable by Europeans due in part to it’s dangerous harbors and malarial swamps. That reputation was reinforced when it became a French penal colony in the 1850s. That history is referenced in the story. When we learned that the name Three Skeleton Key refers to three convicts who escaped from the penal colony, only to die of hunger on the rocks. When they were discovered, all that remained of them was their bones picked clean by the birds. It’s here that we should note that escape had preferred sites of adventure, and it’s episodes tended to cluster in particular geographical areas, like the South Sea Islands, South America, Africa, India and the Caribbean. This is a reminder that the years when escape was on the air coincide not only with the golden age of radio and the dawn of the Anthropocene, but with the period of decolonization and whatever else it might be. The show is an archive of sensibilities shaped by Western imperialism, colonial and corporate exploitation, racism, and white male heterosexual fantasy.
So listening adventurously to Escape will require a post colonial as well as an eco critical ear.
The French Diana setting also amplifies the sense that the lighthouse is a network node that situated precariously within its surrounding environment.
And all about it the churning water, great greens scum dappled warm like soup and sweet
warming with gigantic back like devil fish, great violet schools of Portuguese men of war and yes, sharks, the big ones, the 15 footers. If this weren’t enough, there was a hot, dank rotten smelling wind that came at us day and night off the jungle swamps at the mainland, a wind that smelled like death.
So from the perspective of an infrastructural disposition, the opening minutes of Three Skeleton Key signal that this will be a nodal narrative in which strategies of installation will play a central role. In other words, this is going to be a drama about a struggle to keep the lighthouse separate from its surrounding environment. To stabilize the steady flow of traffic through the global shipping network.
[sound of water]
That dramatic tension is enacted on the level of the show’s sound design. Jean ends his tour of the lighthouse in the gallery, where his description of the light is accompanied by shimmering orchestra stabs.
She was a beauty. big steel and bronze baby with a son gleaming through the glass wall. All about bouncing blinding little beams of the big shining reflectors, delivering and refracting through her lenses. The whole gigantic bulk of our balance like a ballerina on the glistening steel axle have a rotary mechanism. She was a sweetheart of a light.
[sound of a clicking light]
I want to think more about this sound, the clicking of the lights mechanism. So I’ve looped this section of the broadcast. This is another strategy that I’ll be using throughout the podcast to reboot Escape for an era of digital audio. Now that Escape’s episodes exist as digital files available online. Not only can I match them up with contemporary sound art, but I can manipulate them. Zooming into details that were left in the background of the original broadcast.
The sound of the steady regular clicking of the light in operation is what Roland Barton might call a Russell, the sound of the good functioning of a machine. It’s happy machines that Russell Bart writes. Like the PR have a well tuned engine. The clicking of the light provides a reassuring sign of multiple parts in coordinated motion, the smooth working of a complex integrated mechanical system. The sonic contrast to the light’s reassuring Russell arrives in spectacular form. When Jean and his co workers notice a derelict ship heading directly towards the reef.
[dramatic music plays]
A green master a big one about a half mile off and coming down out of the north northwest coming straight for us. You must understand our light was what it was for a very good reason. Dangerous submerged reef surrounded us and ships kept clear, but this one, this sailing vessel was coming straight on.
Once the ship gets close enough to observe with binoculars, the men are horrified at what they discover.
I had to focus and then my breath froze in my throat. The decks were swarming with a dark brown carpet that looked like a gigantic fungus but undulating and on the mass and yards the guys and all were hundreds no thousands no mil- I don’t know. An endless number of enormous rats.
The ship crashes against the reef and the mass of hungry rats and circle and ingolf the lighthouse.
Look, see them?
No. Oh yes, I do. up at the other end of the rock. Millions.
They smell us. Here they come. Close the door.
[sound of rats scurrying and a door struggling to get closed]
This non human multitude is a showcase for stunning sound effects. The squealing rats were created in the studio by rubbing wet corks on a sheet of glass. The sound effects of the show were admired by radio professionals as well as audiences as indicated by this announcement at the end of the episode.
sound effects on Three Skeleton Key created by Cliff Thorsness and executed today by Mr. Thorsness, Gus Bays, and Jack Smith had been awarded the best of the Year by Radio and Television Life magazine.
Later in the show, the chaotic sound of the rats is contrasted with the soothing Russell of the machine. During a scene in which the animals cover the gallery windows and admit pained screeches when the beam from the rotating light touches them.
The light drove them mad as it swung slowly and smoothly she blinded them with a fierce, stabbing bar of light moving continually about. Moving around and around and they twitching and shuttering eyes flaming when they were struck by the light. The bright light moving and behind on the dark side of the room so close so close. I did not turn my back but you cannot help turning your back when you’re in a room made of glass and the dark side of the room you could not see them only their eyes, thousands of black, lights blinking and twinkling lights like the czars of hell.
The dissonant harmony of Russell and squeak is the sonic representation of the tension between infrastructure and environment that structures the story. Remember that one of my goals is to concretize the abstract spaces of escapes adventures. I’ve already added some concrete details about the lighthouse to ground it in a history of French colonialism and modern engineering. What might happen if we learn some more concrete details about the rats? Ships rats, like the ones in this story are often the example of a worst case scenario of an invasive species.
[mellow music plays]
One famous account of the devastating impact that ships rats can have on a fragile Island ecosystem concerns a small volcanic island northeast of Australia. In June of 1918, a ship called the SS Mocambo struck a reef off of Lord Howe Island and rats from the ship scurry to shore, causing an immediate and drastic reduction in birdlife on the island. Within three years of the rat’s arrival, five species of endemic forest birds had become extinct. In 1921, a resident of the island wrote that just two years earlier, the forests of Lord Howe Island where joyous with the notes of myriad birds, large and small, and of many kinds. Two years later, the ravages of the rats had made the call of a bird a rarity, such that the quietness of death reigns were all was melody.
Sally-anne McIntyre is a sound artist whose work addresses the issue of extinction.
ThIS IS THE hollow type of the Lord Howl Swamp Hen. Extinct. There are two skins of this bird in existence. One here at the Natural History Museum. And one in Liverpool at the World Museum. There are also several paintings and some fossil bones.
McIntyre goes to museums and makes recordings of specimens of extinct birds, like this Lord Howe Island swamp Hen. The eerie silence of these stuffed birds, is a powerful way to draw our attention to the irrevocable loss of extinction.
McIntyre is the kind of ecologically minded sound artist whose field recordings I want to put in conversation with Escape’s studio based adventures. In another work, McIntyre transcribed written accounts of the call of the extinct Hooya bird to be played on music boxes.
[the bird call is played]
She then playback he’s ghostly sounds in the birds original habitat. We call Baquteen’s example of the abstract spaces of adventure. For a shipwreck one must have a sea, but which particular sea, makes no difference at all. When we listen to Adventure this might be true. It doesn’t make much difference at the lighthouse is off the coast of French Diana, or Africa or India or New Zealand. But if we listen adventurously from the perspective of island ecosystems like Lord Howe Island, then concrete geographical and ecological details about the history of ships rats, for example, start to make a great deal of difference. And Three Skeleton Key begins to sound in a different way. By telling the story of an isolated island community under siege by a horde of ships rats, Three Skeleton Key facilitates a mode of adventurous listening from a non human perspective, placing us in the position of lard, how islands extinct fan tales, fly eaters and starlings.
[ethereal music plays]
And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. To hear ESC in its entirety, head over to the University of Michigan website. The link is in the show notes for this podcast and on our website where as always, you can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to the things we talked about. And also find previous episodes of our show. It’s at Phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you’d rate and review us in Apple Podcasts. And you can also find out about us on Facebook and Twitter. Today’s show was edited by Craig Eley with music by Jake Smith Span, the Mysteries of Life and Blue Dot Sessions. Thanks to our intern Gina Moravec. Phantom Power is produced with support from the Robert H and Nancy J. Blaney Endowment, the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities