Saturday, 13 July 2013

Vox populi

Last Thursday I delivered the Ben Pimlott Memorial Lecture at King’s College, London, on ‘Vox Populi?: The Recorded Voice and Twentieth-Century British History.’ It told the story of voice-recording technologies from gramophone records onwards, focusing in particular on the anthropologists, oral historians and dialect scholars – people like the Scottish poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson, the radio producer Charles Parker and the linguist Stanley Ellis - who travelled round the country in the 1950s and 1960s recording voices on the new portable tape recorders.

In the course of writing the lecture I became a bit of a connoisseur of great radio voices: John Arlott’s Test Match special burr, so evocative of English summers past; the beautifully sonorous Richard Burton as First Voice in Under Milk Wood (a voice trained by its owner's mentor, Philip Burton, by taking him up into the Welsh hills and making him shout across the valleys); the dying fall at the end of Garrison Keillor’s sentences as he recounts the news from Lake Wobegon; Charlotte Green reading the Shipping Forecast, making you glad you’re not anywhere near Rockall tonight.

The miniaturisation and democratisation of voice-recording technology over the course of the last century means that we have largely forgotten what a strange and quasi-magical thing it is to preserve someone’s voice. A voice has a signature as distinctive as a fingerprint and a recording of it is a uniquely intimate encounter with that person. Since a voice is essentially just an exhaled breath, a series of vibrations of air produced by different parts of the body from the abdomen to the lips, a recording of it can convey the sense of being alive at a moment in time and space perhaps better than any other historical evidence. Recordings of voices remind us that their owners are not just textual traces but were once breathing bodies, trying, just like us, to make themselves heard.

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