Michael Hennessey on Charles Bernstein's 1976 tapework "Class"

from Michael Hennessey’s “A Life, Spliced: On the Early Tapeworks of Charles Bernstein,” published in The Salt Companion to Charles Bernstein, edited by William Allegrezza, Salt Publishing, 2012.

“I am a recording instrument” — William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch [1] 

“Oh Charles, how could you be so cruel. Charles turn that magadget off … I'm gonna get my own tape recorder and I'm gonna tape your conversations Charles.”  — Bernstein’s mother, Sherry (from “#4: a portrait of one being in family living”)[2]

More than thirty-five years after the release of his first book, Asylums, Charles Bernstein is justifiably recognized as one of America’s most influential living poets — a fact attested to by his recent career-spanning collection, All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010).  While, as a pioneer of Language Writing, Bernstein has made significant contributions to contemporary poetics, his work as a scholar, editor, curator and pedagogue are perhaps of equal, if not greater, importance, and indeed, all of these discrete facets work together in a complementary fashion to construct his overall aesthetic, which is equally a product of numerous extra-literary cultural interests including music, film, drama and the visual arts.

One major trend throughout Bernstein’s life’s work is a close focus on sound and media.  In a 1994 interview with Hannah Möckel-Rieke for example, Bernstein prophesied that, “[t]he advent of audio on the net promises to make available the sound of poetry in a way that has been previously stymied by the dearth of readily available audio recordings,”[3] and a decade later, he co-founded (with Al Filreis), PennSound, an online archive of recorded poetry that currently boasts more than twenty-two thousand recordings and millions of annual downloads.[4]  PennSound is the culmination of several decades of tireless critical advocacy for the integral role of sound within poetics, which also includes the radio programs Close Listening and LINEbreak, the Segue Reading Series (co-founded with Ted Greenwald at the Ear Inn in 1977) and the Bernstein-edited Segue CD, Live at the Ear (1994), along with the groundbreaking volume Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (Oxford University Press, 1998).  Likewise, it’s no stretch to see Bernstein’s innovative use of technology in projects as diverse as the small press literary journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, as well as the Electronic Poetry Center and the long-running POETICS Listserv, as being temperamentally linked to the aforementioned foci on sound, poetry and novel modes of cultural delivery. 

Because of the significance of both sound and media throughout Bernstein’s long career, it’s surprising that his early experiments with audio poetry — both the 1982 Widemouth Tapes cassette Class, and the mid-1970s home recording sessions that yielded the materials for that release — have been largely neglected.[5]  Arguably, one can trace all of Bernstein’s sonic explorations back to this fruitful period in his early aesthetic development — when he was not only greatly inspired by contemporary music and tape manipulation, but also considered the possibility of splitting his creative focus equally between sound and poetry — and certainly these recordings are deserving of wider critical attention.


Track 4: “Class” (1976)

In the penultimate, [title] track [of Class], we find Bernstein experimenting with yet another technique, creating a monophonic collage of samples from well-known films, including Marlon Brando's Oscar-winning performance in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront, a brief snippet of Casablanca's "As Time Goes By," and two songs from the Depression-era musical Stand Up and Cheer ("Baby Take a Bow" and "I'm Laughing"), which are juxtaposed with fragments of his own ambient speech. Unlike other tracks on Class that are carefully constructed from layers of pre-recorded tracks, the cassette’s title track is the spontaneous product of intentionally crude edits. 

To create the track, Bernstein used the “very low end mono cassette [recorder]” on which he’d originally recorded the track’s raw materials, and “played the forward and reverse keys, like you’d play a piano” as that machine was fed into his “new fangled stereo cassette recorder.”[6]  The resulting sound, riddled with abrupt and unambiguously mechanical lurches, splices and repetitions that jumble syntax and jump across the frequency spectrum, blurs the lines between speech and pure sound.  However, this frantic editing, while perhaps the most technically impressive facet of “Class,” is only used selectively through the course of the track, which otherwise consists of lengthy, uninterrupted passages of film dialogue and song.  The tension established between these macro- and micro-components allows the listener a momentary respite, and also effectively mimics the interplay of silence and sound (through the split-second drop-outs that accompany each edit) and the vast emotional incongruities between the source materials: the desolation of On the Waterfront, the wistful romance of Casablanca and the blithe joy of Stand Up and Cheer!

The piece's focal point is a stunning and stuttering deconstruction of On the Waterfront’s famous soliloquy — “I coulda had class . . . I coulda been a contender” — as delivered by the once-promising boxer Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), which evolves slowly over the track’s length.  “Class” begins (after a brief excerpt from Steve Reich’s Drumming that also closes the track) with the speech in its entirety, running for a full ninety seconds and coming to a close at the scene’s natural ending, which dissolves into the song “I’m Laughing” from Stand Up and Cheer! (a derisive response from the world to Malloy’s troubles).  When the song ends, Brando is back, repeating a smaller portion of the scene ending with the phrase, “It wasn’t him, Charlie, it was you,” which then loops cleanly and completely (an effect not unlike a skipping phonograph record) for forty seconds, before the intrusion of another cheerful song from the musical, “Baby, Take a Bow.”  The next brief interruption consists of the opening strains of Casablanca’s “As Time Goes By,” overlaid with Bernstein’s own voice, complaining to an unknown person (“you don’t take any initiative and you expect me to do the whole thing”) — these two tracks alternate once more, with the latter engaging in a brief, ragged loop, before Brando returns again, setting up the track’s sonic climax.

Lasting almost four and a half minutes, this meditation on Malloy’s iconic lines, “You don’t understand, I coulda had class . . . I coulda been a contender . . . I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it,” scrambles the material into an increasingly dizzying and claustrophobic series of cuts that simultaneously efface any meaning whatsoever (appropriately, the phrase “you don’t understand” serves as a refrain throughout), while more acutely reiterating the full emotional weight of Malloy’s situation, each cut accompanied by a thumping punch-in noise that hits listeners with as much force as the longshoremen’s fists which nearly kill him at the end of the film.   Bernstein’s extended, virtuosic performance here yields some startling effects, both sonically and syntactically, as evidenced by this transcribed approximation of one of the track’s more intricate passages:

you don’t understand
some money / you don’t understand I
you don’t understan
you don’t understand
money / you don’t understand, I coulda had class … I coulda been a conten
I coulda been a conten
I coulda been a contender
had class
you don’t understand, I coulda had class
you don’t understand, I coulda had class
you don’t understand, I coulda had class
saw some money / you don’t understand, I coulda had class
for you, you saw some money / you don’t understand, I could had class . . .
I coulda been a contender . . . I coulda been somebody
            tender . . . I coulda been somebody
            contender . . . I coulda been somebody
            I coulda been somebody
            been somebody
I coulda been somebody
I coulda been somebody

This section is bookended by longer, uncut excerpts of the speech, with the latter abruptly segueing into a recapitulation of “Baby, Take a Bow” and a closing sample of Drumming.

“Class” is perhaps the most disembodied track on the cassette, consisting almost exclusively of manipulated found materials, and the source of this raw audio — largely television reruns of films from the 30s, 40s and 50s — is notable for a number of reasons.  First, one must take into consideration the effect of television on the development of Bernstein’s aesthetic imagination.  Loss Pequeño Glazier, conducting an autobiographical interview with Bernstein in 1996 recalls the poet’s assertion that his work “is as influenced by Dragnet as by Proust,” which he interprets as “indicative of the sources of ‘information’ we have in a media culture like ours.”[7]  This hybrid embrace of high and low culture, literary and non-literary texts is a key characteristic of Bernstein’s poetics.  Elsewhere in the same interview, Bernstein describes his media-saturated childhood idylls: “I liked TV and hanging out at home … some years I missed as many as 40 days.  And at home there was the chance for reverie, for sleeping late, for making tuna fish sticks sprinkled with paprika, for watching daytime TV.” “I read TV Guide religiously in those days,” he continues, “and knew all the panelists on the celebrity game shows, all the actors on the sitcoms, and all the comedy shows from the early 50s that I had missed the first time around”[8]  Television also served as a vital catalyst for some of Bernstein’s earliest uses of audiotape: “I got my first tape recorder when I was 12 or so,” he explains, using it “to tape TV shows’ themes and the like.”[9]

At the same time, the specific characteristics and limitations of the television medium serve as a vital alchemical component of Bernstein’s tape collage, particularly when further exploited by the process itself, similar to the inclusion of diegetic radio broadcasts in “Piffle (Breathing).”  These film samples aren’t purely digital, high-definition artifacts (as we would likely experience them in the present), but rather clips transformed multiply as they are broadcast terrestrially, received by a television antenna (perhaps distorted by poor tuning) and amplified through the set’s tinny speaker, then recorded on one cassette tape which is, in turn, manipulated and rerecorded by another tape machine.  In this chain of events, the television set plays an important role, not only significantly altering the timbre of the original sound to produce the sort of “degraded sounds” Bernstein was interested in achieving (listen, for example, to the washed out strings accompanying Brando’s famous lines or the bell-like over-compressed rendition of “As Time Goes By”), but also allowing for a private viewing experience, where one is free to interact with the films in the way that he does.[10]

There are several precedents for this sort of aesthetic — both appropriative and deconstructive — within Bernstein’s earliest work.  “Accused,” one of his very first tape experiments neatly embodies both of these characteristics.  “In 1974, City College’s History Department erupted into a bitter political dispute in which older faculty members … accused their younger colleagues of disruptive leftist agitation,” Bernstein explains in the PennSound liner notes to this recording. “In this work, I perform the 1975 CUNY faculty senate report on the matter.” [11]  Over the course of forty-five minutes, the poet makes his way through the entire text, working in a fashion similar to the recursive jump-cut style of “Class.”  Here, for example, is a transcription of the first twenty seconds of “Accused”: “the problem / background of the problem / the problem prior / prior to / prior to the / prior to the / prior to the 1960s / prior to the 1960s the / the senior members / the senior members / the senior members / members of / of / of the / of the.”  The one key difference, however is that this effect is not generated by mechanical means, but rather is Bernstein’s “live imitation of a tape loop or the way I would later ‘play’ the tape recorder.”[12]  The resultant effect is reminiscent of both John Giorno’s multi-voiced loop-influenced early appropriative poetry, or Brion Gysin’s “Permutation Poems” (such as “I Am That I Am,” “Kick That Habit Man” or “Junk Is No Good Baby”) — which “exercise … a more mathematical variation of the [cut-up] concept [upon] a short phrase”[13] — and Bernstein indicates that both of the aforementioned poets entered his frame of reference around the time he began his tape experiments.[14]

“Afternoon Tape,” which fills out the 1975 Accused Cassette also employs a milder, more conversational version of this mimicry — effectively pairing it with actual tape manipulation — and other early recordings such as “Coco-Rimbay” and “Sen-Sen” hybridize the technique, wedding repetitions (of both regular speech and Jackson Mac Low-esque gutteral phonemes) with a layering of multiple voice tracks similar to “Piffle (Breathing).”  Finally, the epic tape collage, “#4: a portrait of one being in family living,” is perhaps the most closely aligned to “Class,” making extensive use of the rewind-button stutter loop technique on a variety of recordings, mostly self-made, whether familial field recordings, readings from a wide array of cultural artifacts and personal narratives.  What’s most interesting here are the myriad approaches that Bernstein takes to appropriation — while some texts are incorporated into the collage in their original forms (a recording of psychiatrist David Cooper, songs by Billie Holliday and Fats Waller, a recording of an argument between the poet and his parents), others are transformed from their origins as either text or sound sources, including Bernstein’s recitation of dialogue from Casablanca and reading from the work of Poe — and the way in which these samples co-exist with the other audio fragments.  It should finally be noted that this appropriative approach shaped Bernstein’s early writings as well, most notably the poem “Asylum,” which is constructed wholly out of excerpts from sociologist Erving Goffman’s Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates.[15]


1. William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch: the Restored Text (New York: Grove, 2001), 184.

2. Charles Bernstein, “#4: a portrait of one being in family living,” Early Recorded Works, PennSound, 2009: MP3

3. Bernstein, “An Interview with Hannah Möckel-Rieke,” My Way: Speeches and Poems (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999), 72.

4. n.b. I’ve been a member of the PennSound project since 2007, when I joined the staff as managing editor, and was promoted to editor in 2010.

5. The entire body of Bernstein’s homemade tape experiments, including Class, is available on PennSound, while an individual page for Class also exists on the site ). All references contained herein are to these versions.

6. Bernstein, e-mail interview.

7. Bernstein with Loss Pequeño Glazier, “An Autobiographical Interview,” My Way, 236.

8. Ibid., 235. Cf. “Contradiction Turns to Rivalry,” in Islets/Irritations (1983), which consists entirely of appropriated TV Guide-style show synopses.

9. Bernstein, e-mail interview.

10. Ibid.

11. Bernstein, Early Recorded Works.

12. Bernstein, e-mail interview.

13. Jason Weiss, Back in No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2001), 79.

14. Bernstein, e-mail interview. The poet reports meeting Gysin in Paris in the mid-1970s; he’d later appear on the 1980 Giorno Poetry Systems album Sugar, Alcohol, & Meat.

15. Bernstein, “Acknowledgments and Notes,” All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems, (New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2010), 299.