Euphonia / 23 May 2001
“I don’t think I have your right phone number.”
“Gimme whatcha got, slim.”
“I get this — I dunno, there’s this recording, sounds like the phone company lady.”
“Oh right, it’s the Default Outgoing Message. I need to change that.”
“That DOM can pogue mahone!”
“Calm, my friend. Calm.”
Using equipment easily and cheaply procurable from my local Radio Shack and instructions supplied by the always helpful Negativland, I am able to build what they call a phone fidelity device, which drastically improves the quality of audio transmitted over a telephone. This allows me to embed an unprecedented level of subtlety and density into our answering machine message. To create this Message I piped the computer, several microphones, an oscillator, and a Roland TR-808 through a mixer which I then connected to the phone.
One time I was in a closed garage — “Very, very few people know about this, OK?” [Kiefer Sutherland’s dad in JFK] — which was illuminated by a single bare lightbulb. There was a boat in this garage, and I was climbing around in this boat and you should put your money on the theory that I was pretending it was a craft made for traveling through space, or maybe high above endless stretches of postapocalyptic desert. Sound effects provided by yrs truly. Maybe I’m taking evasive action, flinging myself away from the control panel just as it bursts into multicolored sparks, but anyway I suddenly stand fully erect and I smash my head into the bare bulb, shattering it and rendering it nonfunctional. My god I am blind! I cannot see! I shriek over and over and the smell of singed hair is exactly what my jury-rigged phone setup smells like when it’s up and humming.
As with every project I undertake, I want the Audience to enter a fully realized world that is both disturbingly familiar and hauntingly incoherent. What’s crucial here, then, is the segue between their mundane, empty lives and the potent sound-vision with which they are about to be assaulted. Thus the Message begins with a recording of the telephone ringing, so the Listener doesn’t even realize that the phone has stopped ringing and the Message has picked up. They’re still sitting there, waiting for something to kick in, maybe composing what they’re going to say, some funny greeting, and meanwhile they’re already succumbing to the effects of the message. For you see, this is when I bring in the subsonic tones of the oscillator. At a certain smallish wavelength, lurking there below the hearing-level of a human being, sound can cause powerful reactions of discomfort and depression (this technique is also put to use by el protagonista of the book I’m allegedly working on at the moment, just FYI). It is not my wish to cause too much distress to the Listener, but rather weaken them at the get-go, making them more susceptible to the remainder of the Message.
The recording of the ringing then begins to slow down and distort — again, almost imperceptibly at first, so the Listener isn’t sure what exactly the problem is, just that there is a problem. The distortion gets worse, a little piercing, and then shatters into a delicate shower of warm, pleasant, humming throbs, and I swear the fidelity device is so effective that these sounds almost come through in stereo.
This is the emotional breakthrough of the Message, the payoff for all the tension of the opening seconds. It’s the age-old technique of punishing a subject in order to make his/her appreciation of the reward that much stronger. Now the Listener is one-hundred percent on your side, engaged with the Message on a primordial level. I could abuse this power, and I certainly have in the past, but for now I merely fade out the throbs and fade in a quiet, wet beat from the 808 which provides the foundation upon which I lay Anna’s voice, softly and slowly intoning a list of locations—
back porch, basement, bedroom, book store, bowling alley, coffee shop, dairy aisle, kitchen, lawn, movie theater, office, radio shack, restaurant, turnpike, unknown, waterpark
—all the possible places we could be at the moment, in alphabetical order. Her voice is ghostly, ethereal. It goes on for twenty seconds, with a grainy recording of rain and birdsong and ocean surf and thunder and crickets (it’s sort of this megamix of all those meditation sound FX albums) emerging around the edges, eventually consuming the words entirely, swelling in volume and clarity until the wonder of the natural world around us becomes almost overwhelming to the Listener, their pre-planned greeting long obliterated from their heads, tears welling up, smiling with open mouths. And how they react to the shocking, jarring interruption of the BEEP of the Verizon voicemail system — a reaction that I can subsequently review when listening to my messages — says more to me than hi yeah uh gimme a call when you get a chance ever could.