I was always perplexed by the LPs of John F. Kennedy speeches—bought and cherished by my grandfather—that still had a place in my mother’s record collection. The jazz albums, children’s stories, and Bill Cosby stand-up all made sense to me, but I couldn’t understand sitting down to listen through the 1961 Inaugural Address or the ’63 State of the Union. Yet this is what the phonograph was made for. When Thomas Edison recorded his famous version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in 1877, it was not sung but spoken. It was the reproduction of human speech that most fascinated Edison: the separation of the voice from body, and its preservation after the latter had died. Edison said of the phonograph: “This tongueless, toothless instrument, without larynx or pharynx, dumb, voiceless matter, nevertheless utters your words, and centuries after you have crumbled to dust will repeat again and again to a generation that will never know you, every idle thought, every fond fancy, every vain word that you choose to whisper against this thin iron diaphragm.”
My grandfather left behind so many words. He was after all a writer, a Jazz critic for Downbeat, Metronome, and Jazz Today. Those words he wrote were meant to convey the experience of sound, like these liner notes to Miles Davis’ Blue Moods: “His are moods, blue ones if we can allow for a pragmatic spectrum. Not the kind of blue that happens on Mondays those lastNIGHTWASanight, now-it’s-five-days-till-Friday kind of blues. More like Sunday blue; nothing to do in the morning, no family dinner, only a movie in the afternoon and a gig at night kind of blues.” For me, the sound I search for in these stylized prose is not that of a horn, but the voice of my grandfather. I want to know his moods, troubled and unpredictable as they were, but as always words come up just short: the sound cannot be resurrected.
There have of course been attempts to recreate human speech. Joseph Faber, a 19th century inventor who immigrated to the United States from Germany, created a “Talking Machine” that could speak comprehensibly in several languages. This was accomplished using bellows, tubes, adjustable chambers and a fake “tongue,” all manipulated by sixteen keys. The effect, however, was a ghostly monotone. Alexander Graham Bell, a contemporary and competitor of Edison, attempted a similar machine, even going so far as to kill a neighborhood cat with his brothers in order to examine its larynx. The goal was to replicate—therefore capturing for eternity—the sound of speech. This was done materially with the construction of an artificial skull fitted with rubber cheeks and lips; and technically, with a system of physical articulations devised by Bell’s father, an elocutionist. The younger Bell was so fluent with this system that the two of them would put on public demonstrations in which Alexander imitated different sounds based on a series of cryptic symbols: the father speaking through the son.
Apparently I met my grandfather once, but I don’t remember the sound of his voice. I don’t know if it rasped or lilted, where he would pause and where he would stress; instead I just have his words. There are liner notes to dozens of albums from the fifties and sixties—John Coltrane, Gerry Mulligan, Charles Mingus—plus the interviews, columns, and freelance pieces. Besides his published work there are pads and books filled with idle thoughts, observations, and little couplets of poetry. But there is no recording of him talking, nothing to help me sound out those words into speech. I have to wonder if the sound of his voice wouldn’t tell me more than the words he left. Isn’t that why he kept those Kennedy records?
Edison and Bell info: Douglas Kahn, “‘Death in Light of the Phonograph’ in Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus” from Wireless Imagination
Liner Notes by Bill Coss: http://www.discogs.com/artist/1664353-Bill-Coss?page=1