Tuesday, March 07, 2006

the pound squad

More or Less at WorkSwaying to the Trochee's HeaveScanning Recordings for Audible Speech
yesterday i joined ben friedlander (who is in town on his sabbatical from the university of maine and who also read at bridge street sunday night with tim davis) at the national archives II in college park to do work on the recordings of ezra pound's radio speeches from the 1940s. (UPDATE: photos here)

Ezra Poundpound was an expatriate american poet living in italy 1924-1945 and a frequent guest on rome radio's broadcasts intended for anglophone listeners. pound used these broadcasts as an opportunity to denounce yankee imperialist capitalism and preach his own gospel of fascism and jewish conspiracy theory (with all of its requisite racial slurs) to anyone who might be listening. the foreign broadcast information service (FBIS, now under the CIA) began monitoring and recording these broadcasts which, once the US entered WWII following the bombing of pearl harbor, were considered treasonous. after the allies declared victory in europe, pound was apprehended and held in a containment cage in pisa, then brought back to the states to stand trial for treason. he ended up pleading insanity and spending the next 13 years in saint elizabeth's hospital here in southeast DC.

in 1978 yale psychology professor leonard doob published an edition of pound's radio speeches, using pound's own typescripts still residing at yale's beinecke library. he claims in his introduction that his book reproduces all known extant speeches, but ben discovered yesterday that there are roughly two dozen recordings of speeches not unaccounted for by doob. so this is at the very least one reason for undertaking this work, namely to add to the record and make it as complete as possible.

the recordings themselves are also of inherent interest, and ben hopes to do some kind of audio edition of these recordings. the pound tapes are held in record group 262, "Records of the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service, 1940-1947." the recordings were originally made on memovox discs. now a brand of obscenely expensive wristwatch, memovox refers to a kind of recording technology

a warped memovox discmanufactured and used for intelligence gathering during World War II and through the early 1950's. The machines were probably conceived for dictation, but their ability to record up to sixty minutes made them well- suited in their day for monitoring lengthy broadcasts from around the world.

The essential technology of a Memovox is stylus-and-groove, and is thus similar to Thomas Edison's original dictating machine. A signal, generated by a microphone, was amplified and used to drive a stylus that cut analogous grooves into a sixteen-inch acetate disc. However, Memovox incorporated a lead screw that kept the disc rotating at a constant linear velocity across the stylus. This feature greatly increased the capacity of the medium. Memovox discs have an impediment when it comes to playback-at least theoretically- because the grooves were cut, they would not necessarily be able to play on any memovox machine. These days [few?] memovox machines are extant save those in museums or institutions. Memovoxes can be played back on a standard 16-inch turntable with a modified motor, tonearm and stylus with alterations.

from the photo you can see how easily the thin, 16-inch memovox discs warped. so the memovox recordings of pound's radio speeches were transferred to reel-to-reel tape at some point and finally to standard audio cassette (sometimes not always successfully or with technical difficulties created by poor media). an archivist listened to portions of all these recordings, dated them (presumably from the boxes in which the original memovox discs were contained) and evaluated them for quality ("very good" through "poor") in preparation of a printed finding aid that was probably made up sometime in the 1980s (possibly by leslie waffen of NARA's audiovisual archives division, whom ben and i would like to speak with at some point). the two dozen newly discovered recording will likely not all be audible enough to transcribe. and there is also the matter of locating, if they are extant, the actual FBIS transcriptions that were made of the recordings at the time. (doob clearly consulted these, and used some as his copy texts, but does not indicate where he obtained them. the staff person at NARA II thought they might be at the archives in downtown DC.)

fascinating how the cadences pound uses in delivering these speeches is very similar to the cadences he uses when reading his poems.

also fascinating to wonder about the FBIS employees who actually made those recordings, who might have been listening to pound in the US and UK, who made the FBIS transcripts and did the audio transfers.


Jessica Smith said...

wow, tom this is so fascinating!

DUSIE said...

so, what exactly is the 'pound squad? are you working on some kind of pound project with ??? i checked out the pics above, it's great to see you all!