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Kahn, Douglas, and Gregory Whitehead, eds. The Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.

Co-editors Kahn and White describe their purpose in The Wireless Imagination as an attempt to compile a collection of “first utterances” rather than a Last Word on the subject of abstract sound. But these utterances are so disparate, so dispersed, that the reader may be more frustrated than enlightened, perhaps wishing instead for something a little less pomo and a little more old-fashioned: coherence. Kahn and Whitehead write, “Rather than simply starting to pull theories of aurality out of a hat, we have chosen to ground Wireless Imagination in the more modest intent of documenting and charting sonographic resonances among the above existing histories, strangely dissonant and cacophonous as they may strike the naked ear” (x).

Fair enough. Some of the essays are indeed historical and useful (Mel Gordon’s “Songs from the Museum of the Future: Russian Sound Creation (1910–1930)”; Mark E. Cory’s “Soundplay: The Polyphonous Tradition of German Radio Art”; Christopher Schiff’s “Banging on the Windowpane: Sound in Early Surrealism”). But what’s wrong with theorizing? Perhaps the fault of the volume is that it suffers from sprawling theory: there’s theory all over the place, and some of it makes little sense. A few essays indulge in the kind of critspeak that would turn off all but the most ardent theory fetishist (Charles Grivel’s “The Phonograph’s Horned Mouth”; Gregory Whitehead’s “Out of the Dark: Notes on the Nobodies of Radio Art”; Allen S. Weiss’s “Radio, Death, and the Devil: Artaud’s Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de Dieu”). I do not mean to make a blanket attack against theoretical work. The problem with these essays is not that they deploy theory, but that they do so in a way that makes them appear both elitist and every bit as non-significant as the abstract sounds they’re ostensibly about.

Probably the most interesting portions of The Wireless Imagination are those that detail someone’s response to sound. Alexander Graham Bell worked with his father to try to find a written language for non-language sounds; the young Bell and his brother tried to get their dog to speak by moving its jaws, eventually getting it to “say,” “How are you, grandmamma?”; Thomas Edison believed that each person has small, noise-producing beings within them, and devised a machine to record these “life units” exiting dead bodies as they lay in their coffins.

Nearly as interesting are the fictions, or prose inventions. Velimir Khlebnikov, in “The Radio of the Future,” presages Muzak: “During periods of intense hard work like summer harvests orduring the construction of great buildings, these sounds [“la” and “ti,” or the pitches A and B] can be broadcast by Radio over the entire country, increasing its collective strength enormously” (21). Khlebnikov resurfaces in a detailed essay by Mel Gordon on Russian sound creation from 1910–1930 as a proponent of zaum, Alexei Kruchenykh’s “language” that incorporated all kinds of random sounds, from baby talk to the speech of schizophrenics. Khlebnikov’s zaum was meant to transcend all cultural barriers. Additionally, Khlebnikov invented a “universal alphabet,” in which each phoneme (just 25 in all) causes a certain emotional response, and is linked synesthetically with a color. So the phoneme “P,” for example, causes “explosion, release of pressure,” and is related to the color black outlined in red. Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus (1914) tells of a deboned head stored in a liquid called aqua micans. This head can be reanimated through the efforts of a hairless cat, who, upon taking a red pill which turns it temporarily into an electric battery, swims to a metal cone and completes a connection with the head through the cone.

It seemed as though life once more inhabited this recently immobile remnant of faces. Certain muscles appeared to make the absent eyes turn in all directions, while others periodically went into action as if to raise,lower, screw up or relax the area of the eyebrows and forehead; but those of...

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