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National Geographic Meets Xenakis (MP3)

There are many dedicated blogs, social networks, Flickr feeds, and del.icio.us link collections whose laser focus seems almost unnervingly specific. Podcast series are no different, for example the ongoing one by Sean Williams, its self-explanatory title Voice on Record. It collects all manner of archival documentary audio of its subject matter from, as Williams puts it, “a gigantic range of fascinating, famous and ordinary people recorded on vinyl.”

The key words are “people” and “vinyl.” The two of the core pleasures of Williams’ series are (1) the varied manners of speech — word choice, tone, affect — and (2) the found-object quality inherent in the surface noise. When a piece of vinyl is particularly aged, Williams is known to apologize politely in advance for the sound quality.

In fact, that qualifies as an additional pleasure in Voice on Record: (3) the depth of close listening that Williams brings to the material. He’s no mere collector. He occasionally pauses recordings to interject his take on the material, sometimes probing the stated facts, often guessing at the underlying circumstances.

Such is the case in an episode dedicated to the voices of animals (MP3), when a particularly consistent echo captures his imagination. He proposes that the echo is the result of “something going on between the sync head and the playback head,” and then asks that anyone who worked for the responsible company in the 1970s get in touch if they have any insight.

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The recordings in question are a series of 7″s (played at 33 1/3, not 45) narrated by Peter Scott (and, late in the episode, another gentleman), with all manner of birds, bats, apes, and so on, all cackling and calling, whining and singing. As Williams (or whoever wrote up the description that accompanies the episode online) puts it, “Some of these animal voices are spine tingling and some sound like electronic free improv.” At one point during the broadcast, Williams draws a comparison between a specific call and 20th-century composer Iannis Xenakis’ modern classical work “Concret Ph” from 1958, which he identifies as having been made from sounds of burning charcoal.

More on Voice on Record at voiceonrecord.blogspot.com. The episode was broadcast last June 8, 2010, and uploaded at the end of January 2011 to resonancefm.com.

(Image of bird from flickr.com, used via Creative Commons license.)

By Marc Weidenbaum

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