The Sound of Literature: The Commercialization of the Audiobook

audio-stockJune is national Audiobook month, and as such let’s take a brief look at the history of the format. Though many of the earliest recordings were speeches and excerpts from stories, the first full audiobooks, or talking books as they are sometimes known,  were pressed and made available in the early 1930s as an effort to make literature more accessible to the blind. Some of the earliest test pressings were of Helen Keller’s Midstream and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. As we know today, audiobooks have become a popular and relaxing way to engage in reading without cracking open a book and can make a long car ride a little less dull.

vonnegut imgOne of the leading pioneers in the talking book industry was Caedmon records. Prior to the 1950s most talking book efforts were undertaken by small organizations responding to the need from soldiers who’d lost eyesight in World War I and II. Typically founded by womens’ auxiliary groups, they often recorded everything in house, pressed the records and mailed them out themselves. Caedmon, founded in 1952 by two women fresh out of college, took advantage of the recent innovation of the 12-inch LP record to make and package longer works for commercial production.

One of their first releases was Dylan Thomas reciting his own poetry, which made the 2008 list of the National Registry of Historic Recordings for being a seminal work in the commercialization of audiobooks. Caedmon also released a number of childrens’ storytelling recordings like Boris Karloff reading the “Three Little Pigs,” and more scandalous volumes like the works of french writer, Jean Genet.

The Marr Sound archive holds a substantial number of Caedmon releases including many works of William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, collections of Childrens’ stories, original readings of passages from Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce–in case you’re up for a Bloomsday celebration on the 16th–and countless other excerpts and full-length works of literature. The label was critical in reaching a broad audience of listeners with professional voices and re-released nearly obscure recordings (such as the Joyce) to bring the sound of literature to the masses. It shaped the way the American public would come to love and voraciously consume audiobooks today. Audiobooks have evolved with audio formats to suit the needs of the public: 12-inch LP sets, soft-cased cassette sets, CDs, the more recent isolated mp3 Playaways, and uninterrupted mp3 download services (no changing or flipping tapes or discs!).

The Faces of Radio: Behind the KMBC Microphone

In 1935, KMBC was blooming into a Kansas City media empire under the direction of Arthur B. Church. Though a few years before the advent of the Brush Creek Follies–a program that would become one of KMBC’s staple programs–the station was already proving to be a fruitful grounds for talent of all varieties.

Listeners of KMBC mostly knew the voices of the radio talents: the wisdom of Uncle Ezra and the folksy organ-backed tales of Ted Malone; the radio-drama, Life on the Red Horse Ranch, and the songs of Herb Kratoska and Tex Williams. But in 1935 the station produced a film reel to give the public a chance to view the faces behind their favorite programs.

The reel, “Microphone Personalities: Camera Flashes of Program Features that have clicked with millions of Columbia Network Listeners” was a feature designed to sell KMBC programs to other networks. And it appears in the Marr Sound Archives from the Arthur B Church video collection.

Uncle Ezra Butternut of the Happy Hollow program is one of the first personalities to face the camera. He claims to be no actor, just a man with some opinions, and that much is evident from his odd stares into the lens. Similarly, Ted Malone and his organist are backlit silhouettes, not facing the camera for their demonstration.

The musicians, however, seem to have an easier time with the visual medium. Tex Williams appears decked out in cowboy regalia, custom made chaps with “TEX” applique-d on the leg. Herb Kratoska’s easy-going jazz guitar and vocalizations bring more energy, but eye contact still seems to be an issue. If there’s a fourth wall here, no one knows about it.

A young Paul Henning–before he took up the typewriter and moved to Cali-for-ni-ay–sings a saccharine song into the camera, calm and easy, but seeing this makes me glad he pursued television writing instead.

The most natural performances come from the cast of Life on the Red Horse Ranch. Unlike old Uncle Ezra, these are actors, and adapting to the visual medium much better. Even a glimpse at the sound-effect man, turning a wheel to make the prairie wind, rattling metal sheets and shutting small doors is a treat to watch. Following their brief radio-play the band closes with a hoe-down number of banjo, stand-up bass, and accordion solos.

KMBC became most widely known for it’s “country” themed programming that started with the hillbilly antics of Happy Hollow and evolved into Brush Creek Follies, which ran for 20 years. Other very popular programs were western and cowboy-oriented programs like Life on the Red Horse Ranch and The Texas Rangers program. KMBC oversaw national distribution for many of these shows, which led to great success for Arthur B. Church and is a vital facet of the station’s legacy.

The Menschmaschine and the Kosmische: The Divergent Paths of Krautrock

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Germany was still licking a few fresh wounds from World War II and having an enormous concrete wall dividing the capital didn’t lend to any less tumultuous times. Social unrest and student riots perpetuated through German youth culture. While some youth rebelled by joining left-wing militants like the Red Army Faction others explored the counterculture of creating some of the most inventive and influential music of the 20th century, birthing the Krautrock movement.

Florian Schneider and Ralf Hutter in 1973

Florian Schneider and Ralf Hutter in 1973

Perhaps the most commonly known German band of this period was Kraftwerk, who managed to chart in the UK and US thanks to cheerleaders like David Bowie. One possible explanation for Kraftwerk’s success is that they fit into the English-speaking world’s imagination of Germans: mechanical, unemotional and slickly engineered–like a finely tuned automobile. In name and demeanor, Kraftwerk is a thoroughly German band and essential to the revitalization of German culture and art.

Though easier to locate than most first-editions of Krautrock records, early Kraftwerk albums are a difficult find for crate-diggers, so it’s a real treat to find Ralf & Florian held in the Marr Sound Archives–Kraftwerk’s third studio album and a major breakthrough for the band. While it lacks the paeans to marvels of manufacturing and technology that run through most of their subsequent albums, there is a marked movement towards the “Menschmaschine” concept. Percussion is entirely by drum machine and except for a few claps and Florian Schneider’s processed flute, all instruments are electronic; they favored Farfisa organs and electric pianos to accomplish what would become their signature sound. They condemned the guitar strum for being too human, and preferred more electromechanical approaches. What results is mathematical and calculated; loop-based parts build momentum through repetition.
Through the 1980s onward interest in Krautrock artists continued to grow and names were saved from obscurity. The psychedelia revival of the 1990s proved to be fertile ground for reissues of hard to find releases like Ash Ra Tempel’s 1971 self-titled debut. The 1997 reissue on french label, Spalax, brought the two adventurous tracks to a wider audience.

Ash Ra Tempel in 1971

Ash Ra Tempel in 1971

Ash Ra Tempel’s musical aesthetic couldn’t be further from the persistent control of Kraftwerk–the two sides contain one song apiece, spanning 19:52 for side A’s “Amboss” and 25:31 for side B’s “Traummaschine.” Where Kraftwerk relied on repetition, Ash Ra Tempel approached songwriting as free-flowing jams of jazz-influenced drumming and electric guitar oozing and soaring through mountains of delay and reverb with bits of low-key electronic drones.

Ash Ra Tempel’s improvisational style was commonly referred to as “Kosmische” or cosmically-oriented music, and it’s easy to understand why. The two tracks have an exciting, metaphysical quality to them, balancing serenity with explosive licks. Their entire discography–particularly this seminal album–is an absolute trip, and deserving of its legendary place in the acid rock canon.

Konrad "Conny" Plank at the Controls.

Konrad “Conny” Plank at the Controls.

However, the link between these two very different albums of the 1970s is not merely country of origin. The engineer at the helm of Ralf & Florian and Ash Ra Tempel is truly what makes them such outstanding works. Konrad “Conny” Plank was an influential engineer who became known for his early adoption of multi-track recording (one of Europe’s first) and proved to be an ace at manipulating sound through mixing, reverb, echo and EQ effects to create distinct sounds that seamlessly blended the abstract with the conventional. His work heavily influenced David Bowie’s collaborations with Brian Eno and John Lydon’s Public Image Limited. Throughout the 1980s he racked up production credits for the Eurythmics, Echo and the Bunnymen, and The Damned among others.

In 1975 Lester Bangs wrote that the future of music is German. And though few German bands managed to crack the US charts since then, the influences of Kraftwerk, Ash Ra Tempel and their contemporaries permeated from the late 1970s onwards. Krautrock continues to be a relevant inspiration for some of today’s most respected artists.

Been Through Some Stuff: Cedell Davis and the Table Knife Blues

Cedell Davis with Table Knife

Image from Fat Possum Records

True innovation cannot be forced, and is often the result of circumstances or a mere accident. Penicillin was the result a petrie dish left out over the weekend. As a musician who has let the strings of an instrument or two detune over the course of a long time, I’ve stumbled into rare inspiration out of laziness (firstly, to avoid my instrument for several weeks; secondly, to fail to take 3 whole minutes to tune it when I pick it up again). But others innovate ways to triumph over difficulty. Blues guitarist, Cedell Davis, is one such man. Though not prominently featured in the film, his appearance in the 2005 documentary, You See Me Laughin, made an enormous impression on me. Amidst a veritable cavalcade of characters–including R.L. Burnside and his many offspring and admitted murderer T Model Ford–Cedell Davis appears in a small room playing a guitar with a table knife for a slide, clutched firmly in a two fingers of a hand gnarled by a childhood bout with polio, inelegantly moving up and down the fretboard.

His picking hand is not as dexterous as other bluesmen; he strums, but not simply. His left hand works the strings, playing the everliving crap out of each chord and note, and his voice howls with great power. Blues are a high-stakes emotional genre–even, perhaps especially, for an old man who was playing guitar before polio mangled his hands at the age of 10–and it’s plenty evident in Davis’ style.

But before the Fat Possum film crew came to Arkansas and Mississippi Hill Country and had Iggy Pop and other gush about these dilapidated bluesmen, Louis Guida received a grant to document many previously unrecorded Arkansas blues musicians. Many had appeared on King Biscuit Time, a 15 minute per weekday of country hill blues music from 1941 to the present. Until the 1960s it was a live-format radio show where artists would perform in studio, then it switched over to a recorded blues format, and later swelled to an hour-long program.

In 1976 over the course of eight months, Guida recorded over 50 musicians. 17 sessions and 9 hours of recordings later the result was Keep it To Yourself:  Arkansas Blues released by Rooster Blues records.

Keep it to Yourself Album Cover

The Marr Sound Archive holds Volume 1:  Solo Performances, which is a small collection of very powerful blues music. Cedell Davis’ four songs for the album are in good company with Reola Jackson, who’s song for the record was recorded in the Cummins Prison for Women where she was an inmate at the time. Davis plays 2 original songs, “Lonely Nights” and “Big G Boogie” with the hokum song, “Let me play with Your Poodle” and “How Much More.”

It seems easy enough, probably anyone could sit down and play a guitar with a table knife slide, or mess around with the tuning pegs, but seeing Davis and listening to him truly emphasizes the point that blues cannot be learned or practiced, you have to come by it naturally.

Iron Curtain Avant Garde: Recordings from the Warsaw Autumn Music Festival

Album Cover

Album cover for Lutoslawski’s “3 Poems by Henry Mirchaux” and Szabelski’s “Preludes for Chamber Orchestra.”

In 1956, Poland was well under Communist rule with much of Eastern Europe beyond the Iron Curtain. However, the artistic mainstream of Poland was vastly different from the Social Realist style that dominated murals, music and other public art of neighboring USSR and East Germany. Though funded by the government, artists and musicians openly embraced Avant Garde compositions, which manifested itself in everything from cinema posters to the annual Warsaw Autumn Music festival.

The communist state strongly supported composers, and encouraged them to compose music that was distinctly national, which composers like Lutoslawski and his peers accepted as a challenge. His works were strongly influenced by Polish folklore, but he took stylistic liberties to craft strikingly original works that were viewed abroad as successes in Modern Classical Music.

From 1949 to 1956, Poland was cut off from the Western music world, so Polish composers were unable to keep up with Western contemporaries’ new trends in composing. But once the Stalinist Rule was overturned in 1956, scores of scores were finally available to them to reconnect with the rest of the Musical World. This climate created the perfect environment for the Warsaw Autumn, where composers debuted new works for the entire world and groups from around the world were invited to play concerts at the National Philharmonic Hall in Warsaw.

The festival helped launch the successful careers of several Polish composers like Krzysztof Penderecki, who, in 1959 at the age of 25, debuted “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” which used extended instrumental techniques—such as playing behind the bridge on string instruments—and used tone clusters to add musical texture. This work gained him international acclaim and firmly cemented Warsaw as an international center of Avant Garde composition.

In the 1960s, the festival gained more serious international attention, drawing significant audiences of fashionable Poles and international music critics. According to Eric Salzman, The Pittsburgh Orchestra earned a swell of applause for their performance of a work by Gunther Schuller, however the works they performed by Copland, Piston and Hindemith failed to capture the attentions of the audience.

In 1963 the Warsaw Autumn held 17 events with a total of 96 works performed to 18,900 listeners throughout the duration of the festival. Among the works performed, Witold Lutoslawski debuted “3 poems by Henry Michaux,” a work for chorus and orchestra and Boleslaw Szabelski debuted “Preludio” for chamber orchestra. The works were recorded upon their debut and paired as a 10 inch record distributed internationally by the Warsaw-based Muza label. The compositions are both strong examples of the prominent Polish Avant Garde style–full of haunting sonic textures mixing voices and scattered orchestra instruments like piano and flute, unconventional meter and technique.

This record went on to win the 1964 Koussevistky International Recording Award in New York as well as the First Prize of the Tribune de Compositeurs from UNESCO in Paris the same year.

In the Marr Sound Archives, we have many works from Polish Avant Garde composers active in making the Warsaw Autumn an unqualified success that continues to this day. This recording of two remarkable performances from the 1963 Warsaw Autumn is available for in-library use.