Imagine silence, because that’s all you can do. It does not exist. There is always sound, energy making tiny journeys from a maker to a mind.
Sound is not a dimension. It is just a mechanical wave. It needs a physical medium through which to propagate. It’s the displacement of air. It cannot be the space itself.
|22982||YPWIO||wave-length.||longeur d’ondes.||largo de la onda.|
The amplitude of a wave is related to the amount of energy it carries. Between us there is much.
We can detect sound on our skin. Our ears only start to do the work when the sound comes at a certain frequency.
|19133||UVTED||Skin.||Peau(x), cuir(s).||Piel(es), cuero(s).|
You touch my skin frequently. It carries the information of your intent.
|06547||EZCOU||frequently||fréquemment, souvent.||freceuentemente, a menudo.|
Just after we met, I was down with a cold and you visited often. Later, you stayed for reasons, none of them sound.
Podcasting Notes: Structure
This American Life Radio Producer Ira Glass says that a good story must have an anecdote followed by a moment of reflection.
My sister killed my mother because her teeth were playing Greensleeves. It was to be expected really — she hates that song. Even as she lay there dead on the bed my sister said the music kept playing until my mother’s mouth ran dry.
Moment of Reflection:
They say madness runs in a family. A madness so indiscreet as to reframe those close to her mad themselves. Perhaps that’s why I’m a little dull in company. I don’t want to be considered out there. Just steady, controlled, I seek knowledge and insight to stay in here. I keep messages to a minimum. Or at least I should have. But all truths require a code to unravel them. This is how it happened in ours:
We start without verbal communication. No real words at all. Spanish (you) and Irish (me). I choose you so I don’t have to speak about my backstory. The vocab of my history, too complex for the first long time.
Unpicking the obvious I can reach as far back as the walks we took together just after we met, when we purchased the words that would deliver us to the end. We walked right across town, one of many trips that would become routinely serendipitous adventures exploring the city’s limits. We passed thousands of people those days but what any of them looked like, any single one, I forget.
We found the books browsing in Rugs to Rhinos on the Harold’s Cross Road. We paid €60 for each copy and were delighted with each other. They spanned both our worlds and connected us. You a computer coder, me a radio producer.
This narrow slip of paper is bound into the opening pages of MARCONI: INTERNATIONAL CODE VOL.I
“Terminational Index to Supplement”
To us this didn’t mean the condition of being terminated. Or we do not think so at the time.
Query: Could there ever be a guide to this? To supplement what?
We don’t need words; looks and gesture are powerful enough. We agree. But then of course later words are needed. Eventually they come. In wicked torrents.
You have a misty quality to you that seems to resist language and talking. It took you many years to learn English to a competent level. I point out, much later, when you have found your voice and it is fluent and rigorous, that your programming languages are far more complex than English and you learned those quickly. You say that there is no ambiguity in computer languages but that all conversation is open to interpretation. And that all humans are more complex than machines. And besides, you say, that if you’d learned quicker our arguments would also have come quicker and with too much candour.
Could it be that simple, that what we don’t know doesn’t hurt us?
We each had one book. There should have been many volumes but only two were for sale. They contained over five-hundred pages of five-digit codes and their translations. A standard telegraph code in nine languages to “foster commercial relations between businesses in all parts of the world.” Written by James Cruickshank Henderson Macbeth for the Marconi Company in 1919. When telegraph operators drummed out these codes on their machines it was difficult to make mistakes as any two characters could be transmitted improperly without resulting in confusion with another code word. This is the first example of a checksum.
You are excited to hear this and tell me all about these error detection messages. I am unsure I get how they work but put it down to my lack of technical ability and your poor language skills.
In the instructions, they cite ‘EHMIT’ as an example, with columns for its number, code letters, English, French and Spanish translations, each letter to be sent by Morse code across the wires:
|05126||EHMIT||Owing to the failure of.||en raison de la faillite.||debido a la quiebra de.|
The first entry in the index is:
|00000||ABABA||A or An.|
The first proper word:
And it goes on to give variations on this:
|00003||ABAND||abandon all claims.|
|00006||ABASG||if they abandon.|
|00008||ABAWK||they have abandoned.|
|00009||ABAZL||they have abandoned all claims.|
|00010||ABBEA||they have abandoned the proceedings.|
And so it continues to the next word:
We both feign rejection of smart phones even though we have them. We prize our own antiquated code that connects us as we transcribe or send photos of the pages, using it when we can, contextualising as we go.
In the early days of telegraphy when international communication seemed like practical magic, the idea of the messages that pulse out into the ether, dematerialise and transmit over time and space seemed to many proof that different planes of consciousness existed. In our first flush we text each other the codes at night.
In turn we scroll the pages for the meaning.
|GIRAC||how are we to?|
We translate and read into each phrase our physical yearnings and send in return a code, or many, from the lists:
|GIRAC||how are we to?|
|GIRED||how are you to?|
|GIRHE||how can they?|
|GIRIF||how can we?|
|GIROG||how can you?|
|GIRPI||how do they?|
|GIRUK||how do you?|
|GITAB||how have they?|
|GIUYK||how shall we?|
The coy nature of these phrases give form to confession. Contracted for trade. Shorthand snaps for more detailed expressions, elegantly made then exchanged.
You work in logistics. Enterprise systems designed to manage large volumes of critical data. Labelling systems.
|03305||CEXOT||Data||Les données.||Los datos.|
Complex Systems. Big machines talk to big machines. My instinct is to know. To learn everything about this code. Online my cursor hovers over many books on the subject. Deciphers, histories of, biographies. I’d never have time to read them so surf the web instead.
Guglielmo Marconi was one of the great pioneers of long distance radio transmission and the originator of our codes books. He is considered the father of modern radio. When he started out his business plan was to provide long distance mobile communication on a global scale.
Within all genius is rooted a little madness, no?
He became convinced that sound never dies. Sound, it was thought, just becomes too quiet for our human ears to detect. It decays.
I remember an old Vedic mantra that a presenter whispered into my ear once: “the world is sound.” We were at a drinks night and it almost worked until I remembered his wife and three children. His middle- aged breath decayed upon my cheek and I found a new drinking buddy for the night.
So theoretically, if the myth holds, in Marconi’s mind by building the right listening device any sound could be recoverable. He wanted to know what music the orchestra was playing as the Titanic went down (in fact he was supposed to be on the ship but circumstance made him change his plans). Just as well, perhaps, as the Marconi telegraphers on board failed to relay a message about icebergs and so he would have witnessed firsthand the consequences of a failed communication.
Perhaps, he later thought, if he could find the pocket of the world where it was stored, he could listen to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.
Who could take a census of the sounds that have sounded? Even a fixed mind would find too many footsteps marching hands clapping thighs slapping knees knocking Ps & Qs dropping. Surely they cannot be found again and heard in resolution?
I’m in bed with my laptop on my knee. I read how telegraphers were required to hold silence for three minutes at fifteen and forty-five of the hour. The ships out at sea with the weakest signal were then able to cut through with a distress signal. I read about Anna Nevins in the Waldorf Astoria telegraphic station in 1909 who used to send coded messages to her lover on the steamship Oceana, a thousand miles away.
I think of you on a ship far away. It’s far more romantic than the thought of you in your hotel away on business, eating room service again.
Nevin’s story is reported in The Bismarck Tribune which, to my surprise, has two stories on the same page about popular mechanics. The second isn’t as romantic and involves Charles Quill who volunteers himself to be strapped into an electric chair, similar to one in Sing-Sing prison, and subjected to 1800 volts of electricity, 100 more than your average electric chair. Average? As he was being electrocuted his assistant would touch his skin with alcohol soaked rags which would catch fire. The current was so strong that he could power a bulb and light a cigarette with his finger.
My flitting from topic to topic worries me. I’m easily bored and rarely settle into a long book. I tell myself that because my job allows me to learn new things every day that that’s enough and I shouldn’t worry. I prefer fragmented knowledge gained slip-by-slip from many sources.
Most of my radio work these days is in podcasting. My latest series, a science one, on microorganisms. Mycology. It becomes very clear very quickly that I could become a Fungi-Freak. The more you read the more you feel that they rule the world: ‘the primary instigators of life on earth.’ A bold statement.
Lesson One: Fungi are fungi and mushrooms are edible fungi.
Episode idea: The Mushroom Cult of Guatemala. Intercut with relevant diary entries, biographies of archaeologists and anthropologists. Intercut with readings by an actor.
It’s known, I read, that women and men’s codes were also distinguishable. Operators in the early 1900s could tell, long distance, the unnamable peculiarity of a woman’s dots and dashes. Nearly all women, it says, have a habit of rattling off a lot of meaningless dots and dashes before they say anything. Can that really be true? I look back at the last code I sent you:
To the point I think.
|04894||EFTER||please be more explicit.|
I smile and flick through the book to find a response. It is tricky though as we’re talking early 20th century commercial terms, not 21st century sexting. Subtlety is the only option:
|18631||UPFOB||when shall we?|
In bed we grip each other’s smooth shoulders, make obscene love and create a cave around us. Time is slow and everything seems significant.
When we move in we have a suitcase each - on top our code books become our bedside tables. Our flat for the first few weeks contains nothing else of note but our code books so you would find it difficult to pin down who might live here and who we are as people.
In the beginning I can’t see you objectively. You are foreign and therefore mysterious. You are strong and therefore desirable. Then when we have been together for a long time, my life set on top of yours and yours set on mine, I am even less objective.
The first present you give me is a necklace with the letters YJYVS on it. I check the book.
I fiddle with it constantly. People ask what it means but I say they’re just random letters.
|02413||BEGYD||private code.||code personnel, privé.||clave privada, particular.|
We enjoy the mystery. We read our own truth into the phrases. But then the low voice of context is heard again.
A good friend in the radio community asks me over for a listening session with a few others. It’s like a book club but we all suggest pieces to listen to together and talk recording and interview techniques. We discuss the Full-Schwartz. In the radio community we are all enthralled by the authenticity of this method. Stephen Schwartz was an American radio producer who developed this technique. If you are to interview someone about a particular time or subject, you lie them down and ask them to close their eyes. You want them to talk in the present tense and not about the past so it must be as if it were happening right now.
It’s a walk-through that explores the territory between what is yours to tell and what is mine to request or want to know. The lacuna, the space, the past, the trace, what we allow to rest in our memory, the sounds, the smells, the pictures of that moment. Capture it. Be in it.
We compare walk-throughs we’ve done. I do not discuss the following with anyone but you.
My sister and I use walk-throughs of our family home. It calms her. We started when she was nine and I was seven. If she was losing it a bit, even then I would know. We’d sit on the floor, back against the front door as we mentally ‘walk’ through the house naming as many objects as possible in each room as we pass through.
She is convinced she remembers every detail of her life. She can walk through it from the age of four. To me this seems like torture. I rely on forgetting.
I meet with her doctors again. I do every time I’m in. They say she is living in her memory of all events. It’s creating a jumble for her. Limited insight means yes, she can remember, probably, but also there’s plenty she can’t or refuses to.
She had only screamed at her but it was enough to give Mum such a fright her heart gave out. There were no marks, but my father and I heard it from downstairs and knew everything was wrong.
By the time the tumbling scream had reached us in the kitchen, Mum was dead. And although we must know there’s no such thing as silence it felt our lives were in parenthesis until we reached the room where she was. Nobody asked how it happened just when it happened. We told them that but never why.
I research madness and sound.
When Shostakovich turned his head on a side, he was subject to a flow of melodies. Was this a piece of shrapnel in his head?
Then I wonder as I’m telling you many, many months later if you will think I’m crazy too, but you think I’m just self-destructive which is a different thing entirely. By telling you, is the sound dispersed even further or does it just have one more object to bounce off?
I look up how sound reflects and start to love the terms parabola and ellipse.
I think the way we talk is like an ellipse, a whispering gallery where you stand on one side and I on the other and we can still hear each other clearly even in a room full of people.
Years in, I get frustrated with you for not speaking enough, then you’re speaking too softly in a crowd. No one can hear you. I say it kindly at first and then with increasing anger. Speak up. By the time we come to the end we’re shouting across the distance and I can hear you fine.
I know I’m easily:
but don’t you find fighting:
I win an award for my Fungi podcast. I get wildly drunk on champagne at the ceremony and giddily dance all night with the community. I meet the middle-aged but attractive presenter in a lift on the way to the rooms and inexplicably hold his hand and fall from grace as my body and lips answer his demands.
We never say it out loud. But there are always those silences that can never be there:
|fois, époque(s).||época(s), vez (veces).|
|21316||XOHZU||time is the essence of the contract.||temps (durée) est l’essence du contrat.||el tiempo es lo esencial del contrato.|
A year of time and I am pregnant and we are ecstatic. I start eating folic acid by the scoop-full. I research all about babies. I’m asked, can I do a podcast on the stages of pregnancy. From first scan to the first cry. I do episodes on morning sickness, measuring the baby by comparison to foodstuffs: peanut, avocado, butternut squash. It’s gathering a huge following.
At twenty-nine weeks another scan. I’m recording during it. So now my audio edit allows me to hear back how I reacted to the news being sounded out. Possible Colpocephaly. We do not understand the terminology and rely on our phones to decode the doctor’s words as soon as he leaves the room.
I edit out that bit and put in a voiceover instead to explain what happened. My editor doesn’t want to put people off listening. My producer head wants to tell him that this is radio gold. The mother-me wants to vomit up my heart and not feel a thing. The podcast’s tone shifts and we speak very little at home. I sit in bed for days charting my horror:
|ELWAY||feeling has not improved.|
|EMFAO||what is the present feeling in regard to?|
|EJYMB||fault arising from.|
|EJYRC||fault attached to.|
|EJYVD||fault has been found with.|
|EJYZE||fault has been remedied.|
|EJZUF||fault has developed in.|
|EKANK||fault is serious.|
|EKAOL||fault is not serious.|
|EKAWB||fault of packing.|
|EKAZC||fault of shippers.|
|EKBAD||because of the fault.|
|EKBIE||can any fault be attached to?|
|EKBOF||chief fault is.|
|EKBUG||could find no fault with.|
|EKCHI||great fault has been found with.|
|EKDAK||has the fault been corrected.|
|EKDEL||it was our fault.|
|EKDRA||it was not our fault.|
|EKDYB||it was their fault.|
|EKDYB||it was their fault.|
|EKDYB||it was their fault.|
|EKELD||no fault could be found with.|
|EKEME||owing to a fault in.|
|EKENF||where does the fault lie?|
|EKERG||who is in fault?|
I’m pessimistic about my prospects. Is this karma? A possible abnormality in the baby’s brain makes me cast my mind back to my sister the first time I visited her in hospital. She was crouched under her blanket at the window in her room, a crumpled silhouette.
Same parents. Same school. Same food. My potential was stark before me. I am a sliver away from this. My daughter a sliver closer.
Patients shuffle through the corridors. She just sits there giving nothing away to anyone but me, in case it’s used against her. I don’t blame her. I leave her there chewing over the science of things that aren’t so and wonder on whom this all rests.
This is an excerpt of a piece that was originally published in The Lifted Brow #39. Get your copy here.
Zoë Comyns writes and produces/presents radio and has broadcast on BBC, RTÉ, ABC RN and Newstalk. She is based in Dublin. @zoecomyns