Olson, tape, noise

John Melillo

In response to a request to record his reading at Goddard College on April 12, 1959 (made available by the Slought Foundation and PennSound), Charles Olson quipped about the apparatus in front of him: “What happens if it just goes on and I don’t say anything?”

[audio: Charles Olson at Goddard]


Charles Olson: Well, I’m very glad that I’m going to be here for a few days. Because I’d really rather talk about poetry I’ll read, somebody else’s, than myself. Being at some stage of existence which makes that sensible.

Unknown Voice: You don’t mind using a tape recorder, do you?

Olson: Huh?

Unknown: You don’t mind using a tape recorder, do you?

 No. As a matter of fact, I’m going to just watch it, [Laughter from audience.] like a fire. Let’s sit here and watch that tape. [Laughter from Olson.] What happens if it just goes on and I don’t say anything? See, that’s the problem with reading, it gets to be kind of a bore, because it — it’s become a performing art, you feel as though you have an audience, and as if you’re supposed to do a concert or something, and uh, I don’t think I believe in verse in this respect at all. As a matter of fact, I know I don’t. [A long pause, followed by the shuffling of papers.] (Charles Olson at Goddard College 5)

The tape recorder, implies Olson, makes a demand that is contiguous with the audience at the reading. It calls for the reading to become a performance, like a “concert or something.” This problem seems ironic coming from Olson, who described projective verse as a return to the possibilities of the voice and orality. I would like to take Olson’s question — and his anxiety — seriously in order to argue that it embeds both a threat to and an unacknowledged affinity with his poetics.

The slow revolution of the reel-to-reel tape machine, along with the noise embedded in its functioning, indexes a complex of temporal processes. The tape registers bodily breath, voice, and movement, but it also historicizes and distorts those indexes of the speaking body. The tape records and plays back other sources and effects in the causal chain from vocal emission to recording to playback. The question — “What happens if it just goes on and I don’t say anything?” — playfully draws attention to the possibility of withholding voice and also emphasizes the act of recording itself as a spectacle, “like a fire.” Instead of voice, or a mimetic transcription of voice, what Olson foregrounds through this question are the noises that simultaneously underwrite and exceed voice.

So, what does happen if the tape machine just goes on?

1.) To watch the tape “like a fire” figures the sound-writing machine as a display of movement and energy. The recorder functions, first, as an electrochemical and physical mechanism. As the machine cranks and the tape moves, a metallic recording head rubs against a plastic strip (the tape) covered in iron oxide. Simultaneously, the machine’s microphone transduces sound waves into electronic pulses. These pulses create a magnetized field within the metallic recording head. As the tape passes by the recording head, this magnetic field reorders the particles of iron oxide in a shape analogous with the sound waves “captured” by the microphone.

2.) In the midst of these processes, the machine records itself recording. It leaves traces of these various transductions and transformations. As the sound impressions are analogized by electron movement and magnetized pattern, there is also an unevenness or remainder: e.g., the microphone limits (or overemphasizes) certain frequencies; the tape disintegrates partially; electrons scatter; and particles of iron oxide remain unmoved by the magnetic field. At the same time, other process traces are folded into the act of recording: the hum of the electric grid; fluctuations in the speed of the motor spooling and unspooling the tape at a different rate of revolution; the warp of the plastic tape as it stretches with each play and replay; the ghostly remainder of previous recordings …

These process traces produce, upon replay of the tape, the particular sound quality of the tape, especially in the sound of hiss. Hiss is the persistence of undifferentiated material remainders in the midst of pattern formation.

3.) To withhold voice and behold recording also transforms mechanism and measure into flow. That is, Olson recognizes in the machine not merely a passive accounting of vibratory impressions over time but rather a spectacle of duration: a nothing (or nothing-in-particular) happening that happens. This spectacular duration of nothing — only hinted at, only mentioned as an ironic possibility — parasitically inhabits Olson’s poetics, and, despite the almost one-second pause he takes after he mentions the possibility of just watching the tape go, I hear him acknowledging this continuous flow of noise through his nearly unbroken flow of speech. The tape recording figures the way in which recorded voice — and voicing as a performative and poetic act — carries this parallel, noisy duration with it and within it.


A particularly “dirty” recording of Olson reading “The Songs of Maximus” from the Vancouver poetry conference in 1963, also made available by the Slought Foundation and PennSound, contains many of the process traces endogenous to magnetic tape as a recording mechanism. Listen for the hiss, the hum, and, just after the cough, the sound of ghostly voices folded in, perhaps from some previous recording:

[audio: Vancouver 1963 “Songs of Maximus”]

Compare this recording with a recording made available to the PennSound website by Ron Silliman.

[audio: Silliman’s Recording of “Songs of Maximus”]

It is unmarked as the Vancouver reading, but it is certainly the same (the indexical joys of coughs!). However, if you listen to these recordings simultaneously, you can hear how the tapes quickly move out of sync with each other.

[audio: “Songs of Maximus” Comparison]

Slightly different speeds of revolution have affected the sound.[1] Charles Bernstein describes the uncanny effect (in relation to early experiments with voice recording): 

“Mechanically [manipulating] the flow of a recorded voice breaks down the perceptual distinction between space and time; it can be both disorienting and mesmerizing” (111).

Here, rather than a calculated sound effect, the breakdown between space and time highlights an important aesthetic and philological effect of mediation. The disorienting “plastic” temporality of recorded sound is a function of a material’s actual plasticity, its ability to stretch, warp, change in relation to its specific properties, environments, transmissions, and retransmissions. Tapes break down as they stretch and decay, but even digital media are subject to infrastructural decomposition.[2]

Plasticity and pliability may undo the phonotext, but they also structure it. These two elements produce, in each audition, a layering of temporalities. Even in a recording of nothing — as in watching the tape like a fire — distortion and the folding-in of noise combine the different moments and rhythms of reduplication, publication, decay, and fragmentation. These layered temporalities parallel layered spatializations: Olson, as a vocalic body, changes, as does the space in which his voice resounds. Noises destabilize the voice as a center or origin point.

Which brings us to another possible answer to Olson’s question:

4.) The machine captures all kinds of sounds. Stuff happens. Voices sound, papers shuffle, people move, people cough, people breath, the room reverberates with little sounds and murmurs, lost frequencies. If we listen to Olson’s Goddard preamble again but with the poet’s voice cut out, we can hear, in the space between and around his voicings, these other sounds happening.

[audio: Olson at Goddard College First Bit (Only Ambience No Voice)]

Voice punctuates these other continuums of sound. But tape softens these punctuations of voice because the layering of process traces flattens the distinction between the voice and the other room noises. Plasticity and pliability rearrange the spatial configuration of figure and ground. The recorded vocalization, then, answers the call of the twinned listening machines of tape recorder and audience, but at the cost of becoming not just one sound among other sounds but one set of frequencies within a collection of frequencies. 


I have stuck with this heuristic of answering Olson’s question in order not only to hear the ways in which electromagnetic tape “collects” and reframes the act of voicing but also to hear how Olson’s poetics of voice prefigures the displacements of its recording. In “Projective Verse,” he defines poetic voice as the performative outcome of listening to and recording speech:

“For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had. For the first time he can, without the convention of rime and meter, record the listening he has done to his own speech and by that one act indicate how he would want any reader, silently or otherwise, to voice his work. It is time we picked the fruits of the experiments of Cummings, Pound, Williams, each of whom has, after his way, already used the machine as a scoring to his composing, as a script to its vocalization” (“Projective Verse” 245).

The phonographic technology of the typewriter allows the poem to act as a “script to [the composition’s] vocalization.” “Voice” is a performative act, dependent on the indication of the poet’s recording of the “listening he has done to his own speech.” That the poet records a “listening” and not just “his own speech” means that the project of projective verse does not simply align breath, body, and self into a seamless construction. The projection of voice — mediated by listening, sound-writing, and noisemaking machines (whether the ear-syllable-typewriter-paper-reading-voicing machine or the voice-electromagnetic tape-playback machine) — never matches a pure hearing-oneself-speak. Instead, it imbricates voice and noise such that hiss, hum, breakdown, distortion, and repetition impose their drones and discontinuities, their parasitical temporalities, upon the continuous speech that structures what Barrett Watten calls Olson’s “in time romance of self” (124).

The indication of hearing-oneself-speak that precedes poetic vocalization is also, then, an index of noise. The figure of the self speaking, the precarious continuity of speech, also includes other, interjected sounds and their rhythms, periodicities, and continuities — coughs, faltering breath, interruptions, paper shufflings, drones, hisses, and more. Olson simultaneously includes and banishes such sonic strata. Just as undifferentiated rock can appear in all its granularity through and by the figures chipped into it, language can become a figurative order that is simultaneously made available to appearance by the flux of frequencies surrounding it and makes that flux and granularity apparent to the senses. Voice can point to its framing within noise as well as its composition by noise. Olson’s projective verse posits a pure spontaneous presence — and he might be positing it yet again in the anxious irony of his contemplation of the tape recorder — but the projection of voice also entails what the philosopher Robin MacKay, describing the work of a different sound artist, calls a “thickness of the heard.”  Vocalization as a “going-on-and-not-saying” reveals noise as a multiple layering of durations, traces, rhythms, and periodicities: a chaos of events contoured into a mute music.

[audio: Songs of Maximus — Song 2 — Voice Scrubbed]


This final track was made using the sound analysis and synthesis software Spear. I “scrubbed” Olson’s voice reading from “Song 2” from the “Songs of Maximus.” By picking out and deleting the frequencies associated with his voice, I could contour the track into something approaching the ambience of vocal shadow rather than a record of voicing.


1. It is hard to account for these different process-based fluctuations. They could happen in the recording, dubbing, or digitizing stages.

2. Jonathan Sterne describes how this timescale of the sound recording produces and is produced by a “hypertemporalized and detemporalized social consciousness” (310). Chris Mustazza has pointed out to me that the timescale for tape decay can be very short (around twenty-five years). This is a reminder that physical/geological processes can happen on scales that are not necessarily out of scale with human history. 

Works Cited

Bernstein, Charles. “Making Audio Visible.” InAttack of the Difficult Poems. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Olson, Charles. Charles Olson at Goddard College: April 12–14, 1962, transcribed by Kyle Schlesinger. Slought Foundation Recordings Collection. [PDF]

MacKay, Robin. “Climate of Bass Hunter.” Sleeve Notes. Florian Hecker. Acid in the Style of David Tudor. Editions Mego, 2009. CD. 

Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.” Collected Prose of Charles Olson. Edited by Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. Oakland: University of California Press, 1997.

Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.

Watten, Barrett. Total Syntax. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

John Melillo is an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Arizona. His book project, Outside In: The Poetics of Noise from Dada to Punk, explores the relationship between listening and noise through twentieth-century experimental poetry. He makes sound under the name Algae & Tentacles.