On voices from the past

Recently I attended a wonderful online event associated with the exhibition A Slightly Curving Space at the Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt in Berlin, curated by Nida Ghouse and inspired by the work of acoustic archaeologist Umashankar Manthravadi. I was unfamiliar with the concept of acoustic archaeology before attending this event, but not, it turns out, with the practice of it.

This summer, while at my parents’ house in Alabama preparing to move to Egypt, I rediscovered, buried in my parents’ CD collection, a recording I made in 2015 of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. I wrote the music, played guitar, and did some of the vocals; the better vocals, along with flute playing on the first song and most of the GarageBand production, were done by Erin Hollon (then an employee at the Trader Joe’s in downtown Brooklyn, now a “Creator, Traveller, Youtuber, Teacher & Natural Healer”; you can follow her inspiring Instagram @erinhollon and buy her elegant jewelry here).

Erin and I were married at the time; we divorced a couple years later. The Songs of Innocence recording was, and still is, inextricably linked for me emotionally with the trauma of the protracted disintegration of that relationship. Things were far from perfect between us when we recorded those songs, but it was in retrospect our most successful creative collaboration. Perhaps we were trying, by making Blake’s songs our own, to recapture something of the lost innocence of our own relationship–the kind of innocence Blake evokes so simply but beautifully in, for example, the very first stanzas of the “Introduction”:

Piping down the valleys wild 
Piping songs of pleasant glee 
On a cloud I saw a child. 
And he laughing said to me. 

Pipe a song about a Lamb; 
So I piped with merry chear, 
Piper pipe that song again— 
So I piped, he wept to hear.

The child weeps, I suspect, because he is not really an “innocent” child; he is a child who already knows Blake’s Songs of Experience all too well, and he weeps because the tension between innocence and experience, when deeply felt, always causes humans to weep.

Erin and I did, I think, reconnect with the lost innocence of our relationship through composing and recording those songs. But that reconnection did not long endure. Its ephemerality led me to believe that the project itself was a failure, and so for years afterwards I never listened again to the songs or shared them with anyone.

When I found the CD at my parents’ house, I located a CD player, took it onto the back porch, listened to the whole thing straight through–and wept copiously. I wept not so much out of grief for the relationship that had ended, but rather because I found the songs to be quite beautiful. For me, of course, their beauty has partly to do with their evoking memories of an intense period of my personal past. But I was also, perhaps, weeping with joy at the realization that there is some measure of beauty in the songs that transcends the ultimately rather sad, and, in the grand scheme of things, petty drama of Erin’s and my marriage. I wonder if this helps to explain why, in book 8 of the Odyssey, Odysseus, hearing the bard Demodocus sing of the Trojan horse and the sack of Troy, weeps:

That was the song the famous harper sang
but great Odysseus melted into tears,
running down from his eyes to wet his cheeks…
as a woman weeps, her arms flung around her darling husband,
a man who fell in battle, fighting for town and townsmen,
trying to beat the day of doom from home and children.
Seeing the man go down, dying, gasping for breath,
she clings for dear life, screams and shrills–
but the victors, just behind her,
digging spear-butts into her back and shoulders,
drag her off into bondage, yoked to hard labor, pain,
and the most heartbreaking torment wastes her cheeks. (trans. Fagles)

This is one of the “reverse similes” that Helene Foley analyzed in a famous article. Not only is the manly man Odysseus compared to a woman, he–the mastermind behind the sacking of a city in the bard’s story–is compared to a woman whose husband has been killed, whose city has been sacked, and who is enslaved by the victors. In other words, to a Trojan woman. Hearing his own past sung as bardic song, it seems, provokes Odysseus to hear the voices of other people in the story, people who suffered because of his successful stratagem–voices he could not hear in the midst of the action. Transformed into song, that action has transcended him and become something from which he can learn, weeping.

After listening to the CD, I at long last put it on SoundCloud, in the hope that these recordings from my past may contain something of value to others.

There is another moment in the Odyssey that I think of when I think of recordings of voices from the past, particularly the voices of those no longer living. It is the moment when Odysseus, having heard his mother, Anticlea, tell how his wife Penelope, his son Telemachus, and his father Laertes have coped with his long absence, and how she herself died of grief over this, tries to embrace her shade:

And I, my mind in turmoil, how I longed
to embrace my mother’s spirit, dead as she was!
Three times I rushed toward her, desperate to hold her,
three times she fluttered through my fingers, sifting away
like a shadow, dissolving like a dream, and each time
the grief cut to the heart, sharper, yes, and I,
I cried out to her, words winging into the darkness:
‘Mother–why not wait for me? How I long to hold you!–
so even here, in the House of Death, we can fling
our loving arms around each other, take some joy
in the tears that numb the heart. Or is this just
some wraith that great Persephone sends my way
to make me ache with sorrow all the more?’
My noble mother answered me at once:
‘My son, my son, the unluckiest man alive!
This is no deception sent by Queen Persephone,
this is just the way of mortals when we die.
Sinews no longer bind the flesh and bones together–
the fire in all its fury burns the body down to ashes
once life slips from the white bones, and the spirit,
rustling, flitters away…flown like a dream. (trans. Fagles)

When Pawpaw (my paternal grandfather) was in poor health, and the truth began to weigh heavy on my heart that each time I was with him in the flesh could well be the last, I made a few audio recordings of him telling stories from his childhood. I had cherished these stories since he told them to me at bedtime during my own childhood. I wasn’t completely comfortable making these recordings; it felt like maybe I was trying to embalm and preserve him while he was still living, like I was trying to use technology to do something freakish and unnatural. But I’m glad now that I made them. They are not him, the flesh-and-blood person, but they capture something of his voice, something that I can revisit, like Odysseus visiting his mother in the underworld. Listening to them, I want to embrace him, the flesh-and-blood person, and cannot. But “this is just the way of mortals when we die.” An archaeology of sound cannot raise the dead. But it can raise their shades; and this is something.

Here is my favorite recording; I retold this story to open my dissertation defense. I am sure that the Greek comic dramatist Aristophanes (the subject of my dissertation) would have appreciated it; perhaps their shades are now laughing together in the underworld.

Published by drsamuelc

Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo

One thought on “On voices from the past

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