Voice recognition

Introducing the Writers at Warwick Audio Archive

Last week, Warwick University's Writers at Warwick Audio Archive went live. Containing more than 200 recordings of poets, critics, playwrights, journalists, novelists, academics and musicians reading from, and answering questions about, their work, it represents the digital realisation of over 30 years of collaboration and conversation. Researchers will be able to listen to, say, a 1979 recording of Allen Ginsberg (reading with Peter Orlovsky and Tom Pickard at the young Warwick Arts Centre), or a 1975 recording of Seamus Heaney, a mere ten years into his career.

All but a very small number of the archive recordings can be accessed by anybody free of charge (provided they are used for educational or research purposes only). And more than a few of them will be of particular interest to New Statesman readers. Take the list of "Red Reads: 50 Books That Will Change Your Life" that we compiled over the summer: recordings (in some cases, multiple) of Linton Kwesi Johnson (number 11 on the list), Tony Harrison (number 22) and Jonathan Coe (number 49) reading and in conversation are all available for listening.

Some of their comments are, inevitably, as entertaining as they are illuminating. Here's Harrison, for example, talking in 1999 about reconciling Greek myth with his own dialect:

You'll find in Prometheus the central character is an ex-miner, an ex-shop steward, an inveterate smoker who has emphysema but still smokes 70 a day -- you'll find that he speaks Yorkshire all the way through. He has big speeches -- becomes identified with the great Promethean hero -- but he speaks Yorkshire all the way through. Whereas the representative of the gods, who's like a Peter Mandelson of Zeus, speaks very RP.

And here's Coe discussing the extent to which some of the odious Winshaws in his novel What a Carve Up! are based on real-life individuals:

One of my favourite characters -- although I hate all of these figures and have them killed off in various unpleasant ways towards the end -- one of my favourite characters is the tabloid journalist, whose name is Hilary. People often ask me who she's based on -- it's very dangerous to give an answer to that question really. There's no disclaimer at the beginning of this book saying that "all the characters in this book are fictitious" and that "any resemblance to any person living or dead is coincidental" -- but she's a compound, really, of people who will be familiar to you if, for some perverse reason of your own, you take the Sunday Express or the Sun or something like this. She's also a novelist, Hilary, because of course no tabloid columnist these days' career is complete unless they've knocked off some novel and sold it for a six-figure sum to some cynical publisher.

What else will New Statesman readers be especially drawn to? Germaine Greer interviewing her namesake, Griffin-slaying Bonnie, reveals a great deal about a figure not many people were too familiar with before that Question Time (not least Greer's and Greer's occasionally slightly sickening admiration for one another and the "great deal" they see themselves as having in common). Potentially most recommendable of all, though, are the performances (and that really is the only way to describe them) of the New Statesman columnist Will Self in 2002 and 2007. Here he is responding to a question about, of all things, the perineum:

Perineum? What, the area between the base of the testicles and the anus? Or between the vagina and the anus of a woman. Aren't we all fascinated with that? I mean, it's just that some people don't know the name for it. And more fool them. It seems to me that -- well, you could just as well as saying the "perennial issue" say the "perineum issue" is, well, really at the base of it all. I mean, when Eliot writes, "Broadbottomed, pink from nape to base,/Sweeney knows the temperament of women/And wipes the suds around his face," I think that Eliot is thinking: perineum. I think Alain de Botton, the contemporary popular philosopher, I can never hear his name without thinking: perineum. But that's just me. Or maybe it isn't.

 

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If tattoos could talk: Glen Campbell's life in music

The late singer made a trade of music, and made it look easy.

There was a rudimentary tattoo on his left upper arm, which he’d given himself at the age of nine: a small cartoon dagger, scratched with a needle and filled with ink, 72 years ago, in the yard of the house he shared with 11 brothers and sisters in Bills­town, Arkansas. In his last years, doing interviews about Alzheimer’s in his final home of Nashville, he’d wear T-shirts and you could just make out the tip of the dagger emerging from his sleeve. But for decades you wouldn’t have seen it, beneath flower-power shirts on his late-1960s TV show, or the fitted tuxedos of the 1970s, as he played the “William Tell Overture” on his guitar with the philharmonics of the world.

His accent came and went, too, as he adapted his vowels and crossed his Ts for the sophisticated compositions of his regular musical partner Jimmy Webb, another southerner making his way in LA. Campbell was the son of a sharecropper but he didn’t like getting his hands dirty. When he left home at 14 to become a musician, it was a practical move for the family – the money was good, and without him there was more room in the house.

As the first-call guitarist in the elite LA session group the Wrecking Crew, he played on 500 tracks in one year. Carole Kaye, who later delivered the bass line on his most famous song, “Wichita Lineman”, told me they all went out to buy big diamond signet rings with their wages one day. Glen peered into his: “Hey, look, I can see Russia,” he said.

Dirt poor, down-home, authentic – he may have been those things, but it was not his business to claim to be. He wasn’t a songwriter; he was an interpreter of other people’s material – a concept almost alien in a modern musical climate that expects songs to be a reflection of an artist’s inner life. He would take the most urbane track and throw it back at his audience with an incandescent ordinariness. “It is like a bird flying, it’s like somebody breathing, it is easy for him,” his musical director TJ Kuenster said.

Exactly how he achieved it was more mysterious. He had a habit of speeding things up, injecting light and energy into songs and turning them into something kinetic and fresh. His vocal entries often lagged a fraction of a second behind the beat, making each one sound like a spontaneous thought.

On his prime-time TV show, with his hair sprayed into a high wave, he’d awkwardly navigate the light comedy of the day: the Smothers Brothers riding hippos through the studio, or the skits with Sonny and Cher. His talking voice was chirpy; then he’d sit down to play Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and it was as if a switch had been flicked. His face fell into a state of instant clarity, intense but faraway, with sometimes a hint of pain – though you knew the pain wasn’t his.

He never sang about himself, which made the private self a separate entity. There was the lost Glen of the late 1970s, blank of eye and huge of beard, free­basing cocaine in a Vegas hotel room, having fisticuffs with his girlfriend. There was the middle-aged golf-playing Republican, baptised in a freezing creek under the watch of his younger wife; then tanned and born again, happily doing his Donald Duck impressions on stage. There was the lapsed Glen who hit the whiskey again as a pensioner, drove drunk, attempted to knee a policeman in the genitals, ran down a freeway, got snapped for a famously bad mugshot and spent ten days in prison, where he still managed to perform an impromptu set on a couple of hay bales.

But at any point in the 55-year ride, amid the personal dramas and lapses of musical taste, he’d open his mouth and what came out was deeply serious. You couldn’t imagine him writing a shopping list but he had an ear for poetry – teeing up particular lines in Webb’s songs for his audience, asking how someone so young could write “Asleep on the Wind”, an impressionistic portrait of a legendary bird that spends its whole life in the air. He’d take Webb’s tracks away and arrange them for his guitar, playing them back at their composer in his trance-like state. When the song was over, he’d snap out of it and laugh. “Those chords! If I start thinkin’ about them I miss ’em! I love it! Write me another one like that!”

When I noticed the tattoo sticking out of his T-shirt, faded like a biro scrawl, it struck me as strange that the same piece of skin had passed through so much of 20th-century music, with its changing notions of what it means to be “authentic”. The arm had travelled from sacred harp singing in Steinbeck’s south to Bob Wills’s hayseed country shows in the golden age of 1950s TV; from Vietnam protest songs to the stifling world of residencies in Las Vegas – and finally to the life of a “country legend”, via the theatres of Missouri and the golf courses of Arizona. In middle age, he recorded religious albums that sounded as pure as “Wichita Lineman”. Once again, he was acting as a funnel, for a different kind of light.

He was the real deal not because he turned his personal experience into a marketable commodity but because he made a trade of music, and made it look easy. He followed the gold rush, sold himself, got himself back just in time – yet in his playing, and the very touch of his tongue on his teeth, he was astonishingly truthful. It was the ultimate life in music, and in that sense, too, he is a piece of time lost. 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear