LECTURE - "The Geography Of Sound"
Home of the
02/17/96 - Dept. of Cultural Geography, Clark University, Worcester MA. v.1.1
11/25/96 - Gerrit Rietveld Akademie, Amsterdam. v.1.5
04/04/98 - Disastodrome!, South Bank, London. v.2.0
09/10/98 - Fall Of The Magnetic Empire, Knitting Factory, NYC. v.2.5
07/10/99 - The Savage God Festival, Lewes Live Literature, Lewes (UK) v.2.5.1
02/22/03 - Disastodrome!, Freud Playhouse, UCLA, Los Angeles v.2.5.2
12/01/08 - The School Of Architecture, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford (UK)
10/8/10 - Main Library, Copenhagen
I can identify and let you hear the sound of the Big Bang, the moment of creation for much of what we recognize as being characteristic of the 20th Century. But for this event you would perceive the world in a fundamentally different way. You would be a person unrecognizable to your present self. Here it is...
[Play Edison's "Mary Had A Little Lamb."]
1877 is Year Zero for the Magnetic Age. The inventor of the light bulb, the man who will later say, "I have not failed - I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work," invents the phonograph. Thomas Alva Edison drones "Mary had a little lamb" onto a wax cylinder, and introduces a framing device for the senses that is fundamental to the art and architectural movements of the 20th Century, a period characterized by the purposeful and deliberate fracturing of Scale. Most powerfully this revolution operates in the realm of sound and music, and fuels the evolution of a narrative frame that will invest the single human voice as Mediator of Scale, a role that we now take for granted to such an extent that it's hard to imagine the world that must have preceded our own.
The fracturing of Scale as a creative tool is evolving in various fields in the 19th Century - literature, theater, painting, etc. It is beyond the scope of this lecture to trace that evolution in all its forms. The most important developments in culture coalesce around technology. The Guttenburg press. The microscope. The telescope. The telephone. The automobile. Etc. It is technology that popularizes and broadcasts new paradigms as it's massaged into the homes and hands of the general population. (It can be argued that the invention of photography is as significant an event as Edison's achievement. For various reasons, again outside the scope of this lecture, I disagree.)
Edison is the Father of Rock n Roll.
After Edison the appearance of an Elvis becomes an inevitability, simply a matter of time.
That scratchy, off-hand reading of an ordinary nursery rhyme is perfectly shaped. Encoded within its simplicity and its parochial voice, like DNA, is a template that will replicate itself endlessly, that will intrude itself into, and re-frame the narrative voice. It's Vonnegut's Ice Nine. It's the Big Bang. One moment, Nothing, and the next a universe without boundary, expanding ever outward, in which All That Is can be simultaneously both pre-determined and unknowable.
A sidebar: Big Events are best heralded with Small Words. Alexander Graham Bell's "Come here Watson, I need you" works well. Whereas, Samuel Morse's "What hath God wrought" is overwrought. And who cannot fail to feel for the man when a transmission glitch garbled astronaut Neil Armstrong's "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind"? It's a blemish that, by all accounts, has plagued his mind down the years. He would have been on safer ground, and certainly more prosaically eloquent, solidly American ground, with something like "Okey-dokey" or "Well, here I am." Better yet, to an ecstacy-inducing degree, would have been, "Looks like Chevy Truck terrain up here," or "I sure could use a Budweiser right about now." You gotta watch out for this stuff. You don't get many opportunities. Instinctively, Edison followed the correct path.
What is the significance to Edison's choice of "Mary had a little lamb"? There is none. That's the significance. Edison could have droned some profundity, or an aphorism, of which he had a barn full. He could have recited one of his weird, stream-of-consciousness poems. He could have said anything. He said "nothing."
What are we to make of that? Simply that it wouldn't have mattered what he said. The significance is to be found in the sudden manifestation of a tool that allowed for sound to be experienced at previously unimaginable Scales. To that moment, whether it be the human voice, music, birdsong, noise, chatter, silence, etc., sound had always been experienced at a 1:1 Scale. A listener was in proximity to the source of the sound. The quality of the sound - its characteristics, its identity, its context - were all immediately apparent. More often than not a listener located the source of the sound by sight, or extension of sight. The acoustic geography of Space that framed the sound source, its context, was a known or knowable quantity.
A violinist plays a melody. You see the bow move against the strings. You hear the music that's produced. The sound has a resonance and reverberation that you can identify as being a product of the space that both you and the violinist occupy. The sound of the musical activity is framed not only by the acoustic qualities of the concert room but also by all sorts of sonic detritus - the sound of the audience, the sound of You, and the sound of incidental noises from both inside and outside the concert room. All are identifiable and locatable. The nature of the sensation and the nature of the experience are at a 1:1 Scale. Whatever the effect may be on a listener, it and the listener's response to it are in a context that is social, communal and "traditional." All is apparent. Questions about the meaning of the sound are of a certain nature, and quality, and are, to a degree, limited by the Scale of the experience. What you see is what you get. Veni, vidi, vici. You hear, you expect, your expectations are confirmed by other senses.
Our hearing is bilateral which is why stereophonic recordings are often perceived as being more "realistic" than monophonic. A sound arrives first to the ear closest to the source. The distance from the left ear to the right becomes the baseline of a triangle. That baseline introduces a time delay and phase distinction, even as the shape of the head itself is affecting perception of low frequencies, and the shape of the external ear "flaps" is shaping the acoustic envelope of the vibrations funneled to the ear drums. Still, all in all, it's basic geometry. A triangulation instantaneously locates the source of the sound and the position of the listener relative to it.
I walk down a hallway from the kitchen. The sound of a buzzing refrigerator tells me the velocity I am traveling and how far from the (unseen) refrigerator I have moved. These calculations are accurate because the Scale of the experience is 1:1. From the moment of birth my brain has been acquiring a vocabulary, a grammar and a language of sound and space. I know that the buzzing sound I am hearing is likely to be at a constant volume and, therefore, if the sound I am hearing is diminishing in volume then it is becoming more distant. A cow in the valley is as large as the cow standing next to me, it's just further away. That episode of "Father Ted" aside, it's not something people have to think about. It is an involuntary, possibly autonomic reaction.
We're in a large room. It's pitch black. You can't see the hand in front of your face. I say, "Get a beer from the refrigerator." Because the scale of the experience is 1:1 your hearing can locate the sound of the buzz coming from the fridge and you'll move to it more or less effortlessly in spite of the darkness. But, if I were to introduce artificial echoes, delays and reverberations of that buzz into the space of the room - if I were to fracture the Scale of what you were hearing so that is was no longer 1:1, then finding the refrigerator might approach the probability of blind luck.
Listening to a recording of sound - an example of Scale fractured - a person is effectively blind. Hearing is the only sense engaged. A listener has no other way of verifying the location or context of the sound. He is dependent on a Scale, or complex of Scales, that have been manufactured, defined, re-defined and fractured according to an agenda he cannot discern by any other means than that which is provided within the recording itself.
In a medieval painting or tapestry you may find soldiers standing on top of a castle wall. The soldiers are depicted as being as big as the castle itself. If there's a king he's depicted larger still. Did the painter or his audience not know that the cow on a distant hill is actually as large as the one standing nearby? Perspective in painting is an invention, like Edison's phonograph. It is a framing tool for the eye, much like the phonograph is for the ear. The medievalist told a story according to an agenda that placed its subjects in a particular context, one that was social and traditional, objective and hierarchical. Simplistically put, the story was told in a "Dragnet" fashion - "Give us the facts, ma'am, just the facts." As Perspective becomes a mainstream tool, as it is popularized, a new paradigm emerges. The artist's agenda becomes one of personalization and naturalism. The viewer does not view the picture in the same context that the medievalist does. He is drawn into it and encouraged to experience it subjectively, sensually, through the filter of the artist's own state of mind. The paradigm-shift that comes with Edison's phonograph is analogous.
Consider Edison's reading of "Mary Had A Little Lamb." Scale has been fractured at the most fundamental level - the sound of the spoken word which is SUPPOSED to reverberate, lose amplitude rapidly and become inaudible, instead, is preserved, taken out of the provenance of the physical laws of the real world and transformed into an object. It is no longer an experience in real time, it is a Thing that is a representation of an experience that's been pulled out of the stream of time. It is no longer a sensation. It is a mold that can reproduce the stimuli that invoke the sensation, a mold that is capable of stamping out endless, identical copies of that which shaped it. Like any other object - a refrigerator, book, chair - it is portable and marketable. It is detached from its time and place of origin. It is removed from the context of its creation and so it's intent, its meaning, its significance, its veracity, its authenticity is unverifiable by any other senses, by any independent source or knowledge. It is a construct and, therefore, constructible. It is a fabrication that depends on the currency of verisimilitude for its authority but can be readily counterfeited with impunity. As an object it is invested with meaning, portent and significance. Edison's gramophone cylinders, later acetate and then vinyl albums were fragile objects. They had to be handled carefully. They were valued as objects, and that value transferred to the sound encoded in them. It's interesting to trace the de-valuing of recorded sound that coincides with, first, the advent of the hardier but impersonal compact disk and then, more recently, with download audio wherein the object has been done away with altogether. Consider how this devaluation extents even to the language - it's no longer "music" that consumers demand but "content."
As a sidebar on fragility and the issue of verifiable context: I perpetrated a fraud at the start of this lecture. The wax cylinder of the first recording of "Mary Had A Little Lamb" was lost, or broken. Decades later he reproduced the recording you heard as a demonstration.
Sound is a sensation produced by the ear, induced by vibrations that travel across geography. Sound can only happen inside the heads of conscious beings. It is a product of the real world but does not exist there. A rock hitting the ground does not make a sound. The impact sets up a pattern of vibrations. If those vibrations reach a conscious being then ears make the sound. There is a causality that's apparent and obvious in a world in which the Scale of experience is 1:1. At that Scale there is effectively no distinction worth making between the rock hitting the ground and the sound it makes. But in the Magnetic Age that causality must perforce slip - the relationship of an activity that produces sonic vibrations to the sound of that activity can be seen to be nearly coincidental. In other words, a musician beating a drum is nearly coincidental to the sound of it. The old chestnut is easily answered. If a tree falls in the forest, but there's no one to hear it, does it make a sound? No. Sound only happens inside a brain - no brain, no sound. Music is a complex of ordered vibrations propagated by human activity. Drums are beaten, strings scrapped, buttons pushed. The intention of the music-maker is what defines this activity as music. So if a music box is left to play in the forest and there are no ears to hear it, but the vibrations that propagate are organized and intentional, what is happening is certainly music, but does the music box make a sound? No. Against all common-sense, it is possible to make music that produces no sound. Sound is a product of consciousness, not the real world. In the Magnetic Age this distinction can have significant repercussions.
We know well the five senses because they "face" outwards, informing us of the real world. But there is a Sixth Sense so fundamental, so inseparable from the life of any individual human being, that it is taken for granted and overlooked. We are physical beings. All that we can ever know is framed by that fact. So why should the consciousness that the body generates and sustains with such effort NOT perceive itself in those same terms? Why should it NOT be endowed with a sense of its own weight and a sense of occupying its own kind of space? And be able to locate itself and negotiate in that kind of a geography just as the physical body orients itself in the real geography of the real world? This is the Sixth Sense of body awareness. It is the weight of consciousness. We know we are alive, fundamentally, because we occupy space in a physical sense, and, as the sixth sense confirms, also in a metaphysical sense. The body can imagine the loss of any of the Standard Five senses but to image the loss of this sixth sense is to try to imagine nothingness. The mind reels away from this abyss for the simplest of reasons: the body knows it is alive, fundamentally, because it can locate itself. "I think therefore I am" is flawed because it allows for debate. Better to declare, "I can tell WHERE I am therefore I am," or "I can locate myself therefore I must be locatable," which is far more prosaic, far more rational and a whole lot more indisputable.
The five senses negotiate, map and locate in the geography of the real world. The sixth sense of body awareness with its counterweight - that thing that we recognize as consciousness - spins, shifts, and reorients itself like a gyroscope in its housing as it negotiates, maps and locates in the geography of the sur-real world. The distinction between internal and external, real and perceived, maps becomes blurred. Everyday we project ourselves onto surrounding landscapes. We interpret geographical features subjectively - an anthropomorphism of rocks, rubble, scenic vistas and roadside cafes - and expect to engage in conversation. We expect an echo. We demand instruction from those selfsame rocks, rubble, vistas, and beer cans by means of perspective and paradigm, geometry and parable, by means of sensual hieroglyphs.
The indigenous soundscape of the physical geography we inhabit, whether it be the steppes of Tuva, the industrial flats of Cleveland, or the Babylonian reaches of the Thames as it flows eastwards is also an acoustic frame, one in which all other sonic information and sensation resonates. Consider if we all lived in this room. Not only would the narrow acoustics of this space imprint themselves on every sound we conceived of but the esthetics of this space, the world view of this space, the vision and poetry of this space would likewise intrude themselves not only into the intent of any musical activity but also on the palette of sounds we would consider to have meaning. The way we made music and the sounds we might choose would fall within certain limited ranges. To the degree we maintain an isolation and purity of focus we are unique because of the meaning of the Geography we inhabit. I might even suggest that this above all other cultural, genetic, blood, race or historical issues should influence who we are as individuals and members of a society. Ideas are sustained by the Geography in which they are framed. A country & western singing Texan cowboy and a throat singing Tuvan herder have more in common with each other than either of them have with a city-dweller in America or Siberia. Space has meaning.
If the scale of what we are hearing is "real," a function of the known world, if there is a 1:1 corespondency, then we can locate ourselves accurately within that known geography. But, what happens when what you hear no longer represents a 1:1 correspondency with the known world? What happens when you hear, you expect, but then those expectations are confounded?
Musical activity and the sound of musical activity can be very distant cousins who circle each other in a strange Guess-Who's-Coming-To-Dinner kind of a dance. A Beethoven symphony, a John Cage construct, a Question Mark & The Mysterions b-side, or a field recording of morning in a Latvian estuary, each of these evidence intention, establish limits, and pursue an agenda. An alpha and an omega to any event invests that event with Meaning, or at least Significance. More so the objectification of that event.
Just as the the tree falling in the forest is only coincidentally related to the sound of the tree falling, the sound of musical activity is only tangentially related to the musical activity that produces it. This is the key to understanding the significance of the paradigm-shift caused by Edison's phonograph. With the facility to objectify sound comes the fracturing of Scale. With the fracturing of Scale comes the facility to generate sur-real geographies of sound and unique narrative voices. From there it is a short hop to the manufacture of potent sensual molds, sound objects that imprint the artist's agenda directly to the consciousness of a listener, bypassing, if desired, logic, reason and all higher intellectual function, relying instead on the power of sensation, emotion and intuition, the complex hieroglyphs that make up the elemental language of consciousness.
The sound of musical activity is a by-product of the music-maker's Intention as transformed by geography, by Space and Scale. Many hierarchical methodists go to great pains to ensure a 1:1 scale in the recording studio or concert hall but even the simplest vibration pattern encounters a confusion of reflective surfaces and, conforming to the geometry and architecture of a specific Space, ceases to be simple. Every surface absorbs and reflects frequencies differently. Delays, phasing and echoes are introduced. Space conforms the sound of any musical activity to its own shape and character. What you hear is a representation of that geography first and foremost. Musical activity is merely one constituent of that frame. The musician/composer must either choose to engage this framing as a "partner" in the creative process or he must try to subject it to the requirements of the object-composition.
It may be instructive to consider the modern recording process through which sound is objectified. Recording engineers aren't electricians. They're architects. They shape space. They devise virtual geographies. Baffles, walls and rugs refine surfaces and define acoustic qualities in order to produce specific spatial characteristics. Amps are placed in hallways, toilets and closets, at the bottom of ravines or out in the woods in order to capture the sound of the desired acoustical space. Singers stand in kitchens or at the bottom of stairs angled so as to face an acoustically compelling corner. An engineer I know spent 15 years collecting wood capable of yielding specific, desired acoustic qualities. Even electronic effects, reverb and echo units, are designed to imitate space and supply presets that ape the characteristics of various sized and shaped rooms. Massively expensive and utterly sophisticated boxes of electronics are valued for the ability to create nothing more than a variety of compelling virtual spaces.
Here is a masonic secret of the 33rd level, a craft secret of elemental significance: The Way Out is the Way In. Which is to say that an audio speaker is technologically nearly identical to a microphone. The simple wiring in of an dummy electrical load will turn any speaker into a microphone. Blood oaths with terrible consequences for betraying them forbid me to go further but the relevant point is that as Edison invents the phonograph he simultaneously invents the microphone.
Every microphone grabs sound with a distinctive spatial pattern, framing a targeted voice or musical instrument with the acoustic envelope of the real or virtual space in which it sounds. Scale, perspective and the entire breadth of hieroglyphic expression that can be encoded in sound are distinctly framed. And the microphone is stupidly egalitarian - all noise is created equal. Intention is irrelevant. Only bandwidth matters. The melodeon wheezes and clanks and the microphone in its inorganic and indiscriminate way captures those incidental, unintentional noises and accords them parity with intentional musical activity. The coughs, sneezes, squeaks, chairs scrapping, birds in the rafters, passing jets and sirens, the bats in the belfries common to symphony concert spaces are filtered away to a large degree by the human ear in real time. Your ears "decide" what is relevant and what is not. A microphone cannot make that kind of sense. It cannot decide what is important and what isn't. It won't ignore certain kinds of information in preference to other kinds. It won't discriminate, shows no prejudices, makes no judgments. The clicks and scrapes print as if part of the composer's intention. The microphone grants parity not just to the flotsam and jetsam of our sonic landscape but also to the human voice, importantly bestowing on it an otherwise impossible equality with intrinsically louder musical instruments.
There is a theoretical state called synæsthesia which describes a converging and scrambling of the senses. Sound is perceived as a color, shapes are tasted, colors felt, etc. Sound is the sense that figures more prominently than any of the others in synæsthetic manifestations, possibly because it encodes a fuller range of sensual, emotional, spatial, and intellectual information that is unfettered by the representational limits of sight. What we see must always be bound by three dimensions. What we hear has no such restrictions. It's said that the deaf feel isolated from the world in a way that the blind do not.
As an article of faith synæsthesia is as old as the hills. Unifying the senses has been a metaphysical doctrine for ages. The music of the spheres was reckoned to be an audible sensation generated by the nature of absolute harmony so that art and architecture could be perceived as much through music as through geometry and color. 19th Century poets, painters and musicians, sometimes fueled by drug experimentation, became obsessed with the notion that the senses could be shaken up and resynthesized. A hundred years later garage band psychedelia walked the same line. This literary, artistic and musical shaking was consciously and voluntarily cultivated as an imitation of the reality hoped for, as an artifice of doctrine. Persistent episodes are reported in which synthæsthetic faculties seem to be actual and involuntary. One hypothesis is that synæsthesia is a normal brain function whose workings register in the consciousness of a few rare individuals, and that these individuals are aware that they are synæsthetic while the rest of us are simply don't consciously register its subtle workings. Synæsthesia, whether an actual phenomenon or merely a useful metaphorical frame, is critical to the topic at hand.
Listening to sound objectified into a recording is like unpacking Russian matroushka dolls. The musical intentions of a band are filtered through the spatial characteristics of a variety of microphones. Dozens of individual tracks are mixed together and discretely processed with representations of the virtual soundscapes of a particular recording studio with all manner of often unintended sonic flotsam and post-production jetsam. Frames are framed within frames within frames. Transformed into an Object and marketed, the object produces sonic vibrations that are then imprinted with the virtual space and scale of a set of biased home hi fi loudspeakers, brutalized by the equalization stage of an amplifier designed to express the imperial ambitions of a Japanese multinational corporation. Extruded into the no-doubt eccentric spatial characteristics of your own living room the matroushka doll is finally completely unpacked and revealed. It's been a hellish journey. But now at an involuntary and synthæsthetic level this sound of frames within frames within frames provokes a negotiation and remapping of hieroglyphs in the gestalt of all the senses that we recognize as consciousness, causing the sixth sense to resonate, to engage the framing tools of perspective and scale in order to generate the final Grand Context in which Meaning can happen. It's Pavlovian. The bell rings and you salivate Meaning. It's the mechanism on which all of music hangs as an art and as a language. Posed a question you answer by reflex. And if the scale of what you are hearing is nonsensical and cannot be imaged on a 1:1 basis, at the synthæsthetic level sensors shift and sort, combine and recombine - the gears grind away until something shows up... because as far as you and I are concerned there is no acceptable alternative to Meaning.
It is the ungraspable, uncontrollable, unexpected, unintentional nature of Sound as a frame that is such a powerful tool in the right hands. It forces questions and confusions, doubts and mysteries, accidents and the unexpected. It forces ambiguities. It undermines contrivance and artifice. It creates a puzzle. It asks questions - a who, what, where, when and how encoded directly into sound itself. It forces the human consciousness to create a context, a solution, an explanation. The explanation comes not in words but in vision, not in a logical sequence of linear thoughts but a collage of hieroglyphic sensations. It forces the engagement of the imagination. It forces the listener to free associate, to translate, to personalize. It changes the nature of the listening experience. And here we find the power of rock music, in particular, to express the thing beyond words and logic. It is vision and intuition. "What does this mean?", "Why is this chosen?" are questions that the listener is forced to deal with having no other context to hand that that which is revealed within the recording itself.
The technological frame of the microphone makes redundant the massed choral voices and the restrictive vocal techniques required by purely acoustical venues. No longer in a desperate battle to be heard over the volume of accompanying musical instruments, the singer is freed to use any register or coloration of voice. Freed from hierarchical, composer-dominated production methods, the singer has opened to him a world of parochial and idiosyncratic expression. Highly individualized, personal and intimate modes of singing become possible. Greater value accrues to the singer's ability to express the personal and unique than to his vocal technique as he carves out and defends his own territory inside a wall of competing sound.
Crooners and bluesmen and cowboys and hillbillies find a voice. As they learn to manipulate Scale with the recording process a heightened sense of theatricality expands the range of available narrative techniques. A single human voice is resonant with an immediacy and a palpable sense of the moment. A man is speaking, not simply a musical functionary. He exists in a moment and in a place and in a time and then he is gone. He has a life and he will die. Yes, musical activity is invested with a sense of mortality. That's big stuff.
Well, since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell. It's down at the end of lonely street at Heartbreak Hotel.
Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel if not the earliest is possibly the most iconic demonstration of how the fracturing of scale establishes the singer as Mediator Of Scale and encourages the distinctive narrative architecture that is the very foundation of rock music. That architecture is an idiosyncratic mixture of the observational, the self-participatory, and the Intrusive Other, by which I mean the notion that the telling of a story should involve the incorporation of additional, intrusive musical, audio or lyrical POVs that run in parallel or at some angle to the central narrative, crossing it, intruding, overlaying, contradicting, deprecating, or even ignoring it.
A thorough analysis of this song is outside the scope of this lecture but consider the most obvious point, one so obvious that you've undoubtedly taken it for granted and consider it banal to mention: the human voice is the loudest sound on the recording. It is Scale fractured at the most basic level. Think of the crooners of the 30s, 40s and 50s. Someone like Frank Sinatra, fronting orchestral bands, could have never had a distinctive or influential career without the microphone. By the time he records "In The Wee Small Hours" in 1953 he has become an Einsteinian master of time and space.
Well, the Bell hop's tears keep flowin', and the desk clerk's dressed in black. Well they been so long on lonely street They ain't ever gonna look back.
It was in a stairwell in a concert hall in Den Haag some years ago that I had an epiphany of the first order. "Heartbreak Hotel" is not about the song's narrator, the Elvis Presley character. It's about the bellhop.
How could I have been so blind all these years, I thought to myself. Listen to how Elvis sings here:
[Play relevant chorus.]
The use of echo on the voice and the way the musical instruments are recorded and mixed establish a geography of sound that serves an agenda, enables a Perspectual Frame and reveals a complex of Scales. The listener is drawn into the Frame. He experiences the Moment through the mediation of the narrator. Now, get the point of how Elvis is using his voice. Is he not self-aware? Can he not see the pathetic comedy that is also the tragedy of his life? Is he not telling the listener, Yes, my heart is broken, my life is in ruins and, it's true, I am a comical figure worthy of both your pity and derision? All of that, mind you, within the space of a few seconds... unspoken.
There is a principle in sub-nuclear physics, widely accepted, which is that the act of observation, in and of itself, changes the behavior of the thing being observed. Elvis is aware of himself as seen by the bell hop and desk clerk. He knows how he must look to them. The observer is himself watched. The narrator is generated by the story he tells. It is a self-generated God's Eye Point Of View, but with attitude. Elvis brazens it out. Listen to the quality of his voice. He is assured, not diffident, not contrite. He has made himself a clown in his broken state but, What of it? And so the listener is directed to consider not so much the Elvis narrator but the bell hop who is watching him and a countless string of others who check into Heartbreak Hotel. Elvis makes the bell hop the focus of the song. We are drawn to think about the quality and character of the bell hop's life who becomes the truly tragic figure in the song. Yes, Elvis says to the bell hop, I am a figure of fun driven to this place - I know it - I have come to a separate peace, nonetheless - What's your excuse? - You choose to be here - Who is more pathetic?
Some twenty years later John Cale recorded his version of "Heartbreak Hotel." Search it out and listen. Compare the two. Evident is a significant evolution in the use of sound and Scale. Cale's version is also magnificent but note how his version de-emphasizes the bell hop angle as he pursues a moodier, more melancholic path.
In the Magnetic Age the singer stands as a priest mediating between the musicians and their intentions and the audience and its expectations. Often adopting an extreme persona, the singer is host, serving as funhouse lenses through which musicians look outward at the audience and to whom the audience looks inward for context, perspective, and scale. The human voice is the Mediator of Scale. It's a powerful role that will come to dominate the musical art of the Magnetic Age.In the moment that Edison invents the phonograph it becomes inevitable. Elvis is only a matter of time.