Due to my Uncle Archie-mandated odyssey, I was lucky enough to escape the worst privations of lockdown. I spent March and April not having to worry about where my next sheet of toilet tissue might be coming from, where I might obtain the baker’s yeast for the trad farmhouse loaf I know My Man was itching to create just as soon as he located his Welsh Grandmother’s recipe (he still has not found that recipe, I must remind him about that). Something about paddling a canoe up the Amazon meant that the subject of hand sanitiser never came up (I wore my golf gloves throughout), and while watching first-nation people toasting tacos over an open fire I never found myself yearning for dried pasta or noodles in a plastic pot.
However, I have been back in the bosom of Ealing’s leafy lanes for long enough to understand, with all due sympathy, up with what the rest of you have been putting. I do not wish to gloss over the many tragic stories of the current crisis, but perhaps these are best left to poetry. My ‘beef’, if I may, is with what the virus has done to the Spoken Word.
Our ears are attuned to a wide range of different qualities of sound, from the late-night drift of Long Wave to the pop and crackle of a needle in a vinyl groove. Even that most hallowed of analogue carriers, Frequency Modulation, has its foibles, characterised by a gentle hiss or the sudden degradation to mono part-way through a concert as a lone Cessna circles overhead. Compact Disc largely removed these colourations from our experience and we believed we had reached ‘Perfect Sound Forever’ as Mr Edison would have it. As CD arrived, I rushed out to replace my long-playing records of everybody from Betjeman, William Blake and Robert Browning to Marshal McLuhan, Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs, Favourite Poems Read At Home by Robert Donat and of course, the incomparable William Shatner. With that I found myself cursed to walk a road familiar to Hi-Fi buffs the world over, as I sought to recreate the experience of listening to the voice of the narrator in person, in the very room where I relaxed, cocktail in hand. Varieties of CD players, amplifiers, speakers, cables, oxygen-free copper mains leads, stands, plinths, baffles, spikes and pads were purchased before I at last reached my ideal system, the precise details of which are a secret known only to myself, My Man and the highly diligent proprietor of my local Hi-Fi dealer, who mysteriously seems to spend most of his time at his beach front house in St Tropez these days.
With today’s reproduction equipment I am sure that none of you have trouble identifying such stand-out classic microphones such as the Neumann U47s, Shure SM58 or Sennheiser 421 on a properly-recorded spoken-word piece. However, on my system I am also able to discern such subtleties as the effect on sibilants that the slightly over-stretched springs on the mic stands used in Abbey Road, as compared with the better-maintained stands at BBC’s Maida Vale. Well I remember first hearing the slight creak of the microphone being adjusted at the beginning of the incomparable ‘A Hard Days’ Night’ monologue by Peter Sellers, and wondering whether it was an auditory joke deftly smuggled onto the performance by George Martin himself. He had a reputation for possessing a puckish sense of humour.
However, if the medium is the message, then the message is that we now hear the world through laptop computers. Interviews, performances, monologues, commentaries, continuity announcements have all been relegated from well-equipped studios to whatever can be cobbled together at home. Over the last few months we have been subjected to a succession of cheap condenser microphones as built into phones, tablets, Apple Macintoshes and (whisper it if you dare) generic Windows laptops. The problem is compounded by poor mic positioning and the inherited acoustics of the speakers’ often poorly deadened bedroom, study, living room or kitchen. Then the audio signal is compromised in a dozen horrific ways by codecs, compression, decompression and converters such that one’s ears recoil in horror. My prized audio system is reduced to so much trash, forcing me to appreciate the subtleties of such electronic torture instruments as MPEG, WMA or AAC. I would prefer to listen to cassette tape, a day I never thought I would see.
After such auditory distortions, one would have thought that another two hours listening to poetry through the new technical wunderkind of Zoom would be more than a man could bear, but this weeks’ workshop was instead a deep and undeniable pleasure. Niall Cassidy returned virtually to the PP with a finely wrought epic, about his Blue Grandad who spent a life at sea. Pat Francis bravely joined the Zoom meeting’s auditory zoo to read a piece telling the wartime story of Aunt Mary, who was stymied on her way to a shelter by a fence. Caroline Am Bergris joined us to read a shocking poem on the transgressive behaviour of those who would kill time. Rithika Nadipalli has managed to escape London and visit the Lake District, from where emanated a haiku set at sunset. Nick Barth returned with his last poem before lockdown, concerning eight chords and a remarkable funeral. New member Amir Darwash brought us a dramatic poem of blood and fire and ultimate freedom. Finally, Martin Choules has been interesting himself in the reproductive habits of fish and the various stratagems employed by evolution to maximise survival. Not an obvious choice of subject for a poem, but Martin is anything but obvious.
At times like these I find the best thing is to soothe myself by listening to one of my favourite CDs, so after the workshop I chose a beautifully realised rendition of John Cage’s 4’33 by Claudio Abbado. A simple stereo pair of microphones record the piano from within a sealed anechoic chamber while the performer cools his heels in the next room, so as not to pollute the acoustics. I listened to it twice before retiring, emotionally spent and exhausted. Only a talent such as Abbado could carry this off.
If you have been, thank you for reading, and thank you for listening.