The Devil in the Recording

Posted in: talks  conferences  sound studies 

[The following is an only slightly modified version of the talk I gave at the ACH’s panel on “Digital Deformance and Scholarly Forms” at the 2015 MLA conference. For more details on how to reverse audio recordings, see my previous post on the subject.]

The Devil in the Recording: Deformative Listening and Sound Reproduction

It’s a well-known fact that you can find the devil in popular music. Simply take Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” play it backwards, and voila. You’ll get messages for, if not by, the Lord of the Flies. Obviously I’m being facetious. Few, if any, take this claim seriously, but it does offer serious ways to think about deformance in the context of sound recordings, particularly those with linguistic or literary content. The digital method of deformance I’ll speak about today, then, is a simple one. Using open source tools like Audacity, it’s easier than ever to play recordings backwards, to reverse a sound clip with the flip of a switch. I’ll touch just a bit on the history of such methods as they pertain to music and then speculate as to what they can tell us about approaches to thinking about literary sound recordings. I’m a modernist, and my examples will reflect this bias. My ultimate conclusions are as follows. First: reading backwards juxtaposed against audio reversal reveals the unique character of literary sound recordings to be simultaneously sounded and print, to be audiotextual objects as I call them. Second: deformance can offer us new modes for thinking about media failures and malfunctions that actually do exist constantly and all around us. In particular, audio deformance is something that the modernists were keenly interested in, and deformance as a practice can get us closer to the relationships they had with media.

So here is part of “Stairway to Heaven” backwards.


Can’t you hear the devil? The “Stairway to Satan,” as I will call it, suggests that we can find new linguistic content in an already extant sound message. Detractors of the “Stairway to Satan” narrative (numerous on Youtube if you care to check them out) suggest that this is just a function of our minds wanting to make sense of chaos. Is this gibberish? Or is it a collection of scattered sound components that can be reconstituted into a whole? In Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann’s essay on deformance from which this panel takes its cue, they discuss reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry backwards in a mode not too far removed from this discussion. Reading backwards can throw into sharp relief the linguistic components, the very pieces that make up a poem, and at the end of the day, you still have the lines, the words, or even the component letters. It’s possible to reassemble these into semantic meanings.

But sound recordings are something different. They are bound in time in a different way. Daniel Albright in Untwisting the Serpent describes music by way of “Lessing’s famous distinction between the spatially juxtapositive arts of nebeinander, such as painting, sculpture, and architecture, and the temporally progressive arts of nacheinander, such as poetry and music” (9). Our experience of music and poetry depend upon their ability to move forward in time. To put the distinction in the context of deformance: you can move around a sculpture and view it from different angles, but it remains the same sculpture. Deform a musical recording by reversing its waveform, however, and you end with a different musical artifact entirely, one with different component parts. Hence, it can sound like gibberish.

large waveform

Here is the waveform for the Zeppelin clip. The waveform here is a charting of intensity over time, and the reversal literally changes the original artifact. It’s a mirror image, but our ears are hard-pressed to be able to reconnect the new object to its original. Many kinds of deformance you can do on an audio recording would work in the same way – alter the pitches, smash them tighter, stretch them out, etc. You alter that wave, and you get something else entirely. At what point does it become something new?

But some reversed audio still sounds like a recognizable tune. Behind the “Stairway to Satan” claim is a long history behind it of musical reversal and mirroring. Musicians and listeners have been fascinated with the vectored nature of sound for centuries, and composers have experimented with reversal as a spur to creativity for ages. Take this melody.


The melody of the first ten measures is followed by a retrograde repetition of itself, meaning that it is a musical palindrome. All of the intervals of this first section become reversed and, if you were to fold the melody in upon itself, it would perfectly line up. Playing backwards is itself built into the creative process. The playback reflects this as the bouncing ball literally moves backwards on the page, but, if you were to write it out, it would look quite different. The kind of deformance that I am describing, that Zeppelin conspiracy theorists lament, and that Samuels and McGann suggest – it’s built into the music itself.

The melodic reversal of music like this works because, as Walter Pater taught us, music can be thought of as a “perfect identification of matter and form.” Flip the melody and you do not lose information, you get a new melody. The new object is still discernible as music because it is new music. The addition of linguistic content complicates the question - phonemes when reversed do not necessarily and easily coordinate with other phonemes. A recorded object with linguistic content has two distinct characters, each of which overlap with the other. It’s an obvious point, but one that I think has profound implications.

In Langston Hughes’s 1958 recording of “Motto” in collaboration with Charles Mingus and Leonard Feather, we can start to approach some useful conclusions about what this might all mean. The excerpt starts with an instrumental section and then Hughes comes in. So keep in mind that, in the reversal, we’ll hear the poetry first and then the instrumental part.


“Motto” Reversed

The recording is a useful analogy for vocal sound recordings more generally in that it has two distinct pieces – a musical (non-verbal sound) component, and a recorded voice (with linguistic content). The two elements often intertwine and are not easily separated (this example not withstanding). You can hear, I think, the stark difference between the reversed poetic content by Hughes and the reversed instrumental content. Hughes reversed sounds like nonsense, while the saxophone in particular still sounds like something of a melody. The digital reversal of sound recordings treats them both as waveforms with no semantic content – it reverses them just as easily and happily as it would any other sound recording.

We might expect the practice of deformance to throw into sharp relief the status of these recordings as sound objects. The pops, silences, and phonetic meanings of a reading suddenly become especially salient, and we might expect this reversal to make us hyper-aware of their sounded nature. In theory the deformance of these recordings more easily allows us to practice what Charles Bernstein has called “close listening,” examining the sounded nature of these objects. But, as the sounds themselves become distorted almost beyond recognition, the method can only provide clues towards such a practice. We might gain general senses, as with the Hughes, of the general prominence of certain registers or frequencies, silences and gaps, or of sections that are particularly filled with sonic activity. All of these might provide hints of content that might bear out fruitful analysis when put forwards again.

Deformance of poetic recordings forces us to consider the nature of recorded literary recordings anew. We might extrapolate from the character of this recording that all recorded voices contain a linguistic element as well an audible one. Not fully audio nor fully textual artifacts, I want to say that they are, instead something we might call audiotextual, a term that Jason Camlot has recently used in relation to the classification of Victorian literary recordings as an expansion of McGann’s own historicist approach to textual criticism.

Venn diagram of AudioTextual

I want to use the term as a play on audiovisual to describe the state of such sound recordings. Like the Hughes recording, with both an instrumental, sound component as well as a linguistic one, audiotextual recordings exist in sound as well as in print. It’s a fairly simple idea, but I think it is one that often gets concerned as we discuss sound recordings. Literary sound recordings are not reducible to their relationship with a print text: they have both sounded and print components. Audiobooks, in particular, not being “poetic” often seem to get left out of close listenings and treated as mere reproductions of print texts. If you read the reviews of any Amazon audiobook or LibriVox recording, you will see hundreds of people who expect an audiobook to be an unmediated, honest representation of the print origin. Audiotextual might be used equally to describe both Hughes’s literary sound recordings as well as Hughes’s poetry itself, saturated as it is with traces of the live performance techniques of jazz and blues musicians.

More profoundly, I think sound recording during the modernist period is an especially good candidate for deformative acts of listening and interpretation. It is well-known and often-noted that modernist authors were obsessed with the gramophone, but consider the nature of such representations. The gramophones are most often marked by the materiality of their failures. In the “Hades” episode of Ulysses, the machine disintegrates into parody at the very moment at which it is meant to revive the voice of a dead relative: “After dinner on a Sunday. Put on poor old greatgrandfather Kraahraark! Hellohellohello amawfullyglad kraark awfullygladaseeagain hellohello amawf krpthsth” (114). Sound reproduction during the period was not marked by the high fidelity, by the ability to authentically reproduce a deceptively “real” recording of life. It is a flawed act marked, as in Joyce’s case, by skipping needles, locked grooves, and hissing machines. For Joyce, this means uncovering a renewed sense that sound recordings were imperfect things, themselves subject to deformation by their own young technology. Joyce thinks of the gramophone recording as an object that can reach back into the past. He does not play it backwards as such, but the very act of playing the voice reverses time itself. And it does so in a manner that deforms the recording, altering its shape and transmission as a natural and comical part of the playback process.

Woolf’s failing gramophone in Between the Acts draws the elements of my short talk together nicely and can act as a closing image. During the pageant play at the heart of the text, a malfunctioning gramophone provides musical and narrative accompaniment: “The gramophone gurgled Unity-Dispersity. It gurgled Un…dis…And ceased” (201). The words themselves break apart into component syllables; semantic meaning evaporates as the grain of language pushes to the surface, and the heard word gives way to the gurgling materiality of the record itself. Woolf makes us hear the sound of the words as bound with their meanings. Her gramophone falls into locked grooves throughout the novel, transfixing its listeners and forming a community out of the audience of listeners by expanding the time with which they engage with each other. Not reversing time, certainly, but she does meditate on the ability of a malfunctioning gramophone to create anew through performance and deformance.

For Joyce and Woolf, the machines fail as often as they succeed. Deformance is thoroughly entwined with such performances. We may even go so far as to say that sound reproduction of this sort is a always kind of deformance, that no media form provides a pure, unaltered transmission of its content. As a critical practice, deformance, a systematic and intentionally disruptive form of engagement with materials, actually gets us closer to the kinds of media relationships that these authors would have known. The practice can offer us new perspective on literary and sonic materials, sure, but it can also provide us with something older. Deformative listening then, might be a practice of recovery, of attempting to recreate the phenomenological experience of a 1920s gramophone listening. The devil in the recording proves to be not the sort that conspiracy theorists would have you believe. The darkness lurking beneath sound recordings, be they musical or literary in nature, is the shadow of the materials, their very real failures, and the deformance that has always been present anytime we put needle to disc.

Works Cited

  • Albright, Daniel. Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Print.
  • Bernstein, Charles, ed. Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. Oxford University Press, USA, 1998. Print.
  • Hughes, Langston, Leonard Feather, and Charles Mingus. Weary Blues. MGM, 1959. CD.
  • Joyce, James. Ulysses. Vintage, 1990. Print.
  • Pater, Walter. “The School of Giorgione.” The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. 1873. Web.
  • Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969. Print.