- How to Make Hyperobject Sound ArtOccupying the Electromagnetic Field with the Firesign Theatre
To define music merely as "sounds" would have been unthinkable a few years ago, though today it is the more exclusive definitions that are proving unacceptable.—R. Murray Schafer, The New Soundscape (Schafer 1969, 1–2)
Young people can get into all sorts of music; my idea of "heavy" is certainly…is more Incredible String Band and Firesign Theatre and things like that where you sit down and you go right there, right into your head. Everybody calls "heavy" sort of a noise and crash bang and big belting riffs, and I think they've got it all the wrong way round.—Robert Plant (Plant 1970, n.p.). [End Page 39]
Ninety-fifth Street soldiered on for several years.… It was there I learned of R.F.K.'s assassination…It was where Peter Delacorte late one night recited an entire sideOf a Firesign Theatre record from memory, and set John [Ashbery] on that pathTo his friends' subsequent dismay.—John Koethe, "Ninety-fifth Street" (Koethe 2009, 372)
This essay is about the only artists who hold equal importance for the poet John Ashbery and for cutting-edge hip-hop DJs from Steinski to Madlib. Formed amid the counterculture, shaping it and living it yet also able to be its most discerning satirists, the Fire sign Theatre are today remembered (when they are remembered) as a curious artifact of a different era. Yet they invented a form of aural art so fully realized and so unique that even among the vast proliferation of audio work in the early twenty-first century, there is nothing that comes close to matching it for its ambition, complexity, or sonic range.
This is true in part, we suggest, because of the almost total domination of the radio and podcasting field by nonfiction "documentary" productions, at the expense of radio's much longer heritage as a medium for welding fiction, music, and sound. And, relatedly, it is true because of a fundamentally transformed relationship to recording and its physical environment, illustrated here by a photograph of the Firesign Theatre in the studio, printed on the back cover of their 1970 album, Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (fig. 1). The picture is emblematic insofar as it evokes precisely the opposite of placing a microphone close to a performer: "close-miking." Close-miking achieves a dry, nonreverberant sound that carries very little information about its ambient physical medium, let alone the performer's coexistence with other performers. What we see instead—evidently this is something the Firesign Theatre wants us to see—is four people performing together on a sound stage.
The room's ambience emerges silently in the photograph itself, and for a fascinating reason: we do not see the microphone, the object that often functions in the visual field rather like the vanishing point in a classical perspective painting—we are drawn to it, it provides the anchor for the image, it is a powerful technology that says something affirmative about powerful technology, [End Page 40]
Click for larger view
View full resolution
and so on. The absence of a foreground (and in Jakobsonian terms, foregrounding) anchor in the form of a microphone suppresses the techno-social project of this medium, which is to create, amplify, record, and send sound speech, happening on and in a physical medium that is its condition of possibility (Jakobson 1960). A deep Firesign tactic consists exactly in insisting that we see more than that speech is mediated—a gesture that can often collapse into a gee-whiz technological trick, a trick whose slogan is perhaps And now for something completely different.
The contrast between Monty Python and the Firesign Theatre is instructive here, as it will be at many points in this essay. What happens instead, in the case of the Firesign Theatre, is not a forcing or a shocking but an appreciating, a...