Chamber Music

In 1713 William Derham published Physico-Theology – a book intended as a ‘demonstration of the being and attributes of God’ but filled with experimental observations made by the author and his fellow Royal Society associates. In a footnote, Derham writes about shutting up a sparrow and a titmouse in a ‘compressing engine’ – an air pump – and watching them expire.

This is me reading that passage as I subject myself to Delayed Auditory Feedback, with my own words echoing back to me through headphones with a delay of 200ms.


I’m returning to the procedure of Delayed Auditory Feedback, a phenomenon that grabbed my attention back at the start of the residency. Right now I’m playing around with ways to integrate it into a dialogue-poem, but for now, here are the artists Richard Serra and Nancy Holt using it back in 1974, in a piece originally broadcast on public television in Amarillo, Texas:

Thanks to Jonathan Watts for bringing this to my attention. The film can also be downloaded or streamed from the incomparable Ubuweb (mp4).

“Don’t you understand trying to stammer?”

The phenomenon of DAF – Delayed Auditory Feedback – has been provoking interest lately, due to its use in a prototype “speech-jamming” gun invented by Japanese researchers. As Sophie has pointed out, the potential for using DAF to shut people up against their will needs to be strongly qualified, but I was interested to try it out on myself and see the effect.

So last week Zarinah Agnew kindly set me up with a pair of headphones in front of her computer, and loaded a programme which made everything I said repeat back in my ears at a variable delay. I’d brought a few different texts with me, to see if some material was harder to read than others. I had some Gerard Manley Hopkins – poems full of internal and end-rhymes, consonance and assonance – a short play by Gertrude Stein, wonderfully telegraphic (or should that be telephonic?), called ‘I like it to be a play’, and Maggie O’Sullivan’s Palace of Reptiles, with its poems rich in sound-play but not rhythmically constrained in the same way as Hopkins’ lines.

Zarinah started me off on a delay of 200ms, which usually causes maximum interference. I opened the Hopkins, and started reading. I wasn’t stopped dead in my tracks, but listening back to myself, I do sound a bit out of my head. The vowels are drawn out and slurred, the rhythm is all over the place, and when I read “pride and crared for crown” for “pride and cared for crown”, I make a mistake similar to the typical ‘preservative error’, with the ‘r’ getting carried over into the next word (Hashimoto and Sakai, 2003, give the example of “hypodermic nerdle”).

Here’s a snippet – low quality because recorded on my dictaphone, but you get the picture.

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Next we tried the Stein, at the same level of delay, and I found it easier, though my reading isn’t particularly fluent and I do produce a little stutter as I read “she expected a distress”, which sets me off slurring the next few lines.

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And again, here, one mistake causes ripples and wobbles which pass through the next few lines (which end, “Don’t you understand trying? / Don’t you understand trying to stammer? / No indeed I do not.”) I like this (unintentional) effect of a distorted sense of timing, as if I’m being played back on a faulty record player.

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Overall though, I seemed to manage the Stein more easily, getting through the short, clipped exchanges, with their well-marked pause points, more easily than the enjambed Hopkins.

The O’Sullivan poem (‘Now to the Ears’) was relatively easy as well, even with the 200ms delay: perhaps the well-spaced syllables of this particular poem are less pressurised and compressed than those of ‘The Sea and the Skylark’, even if equally sonically complex – though listening to this MP3 of her reading, my version is much too slow.

I’m not sure why I found it easier: perhaps I was just getting accustomed to the reverb, listening instead to my undelayed voice coming in through my cheekbones. The artist Charles Stankievech has written a very interesting article about the history of headphones, identifying them with a “bracketing of the world”, and tracing their genealogy from 19th-century stethoscopes. He cites Jonathan Sterne on how the stethoscope created new relations between doctor and patient, and turned the voice from a carrier of meaning, bearing patients’ self-descriptions of their illnesses, to a potential symptom in itself, a “kind of sound effect – a container of timbre and an index of the states that shaped it”. According to Stankievech, the invention of headphones which followed created a new, impossible space filled with floating “sound masses”, an “in-head” experience of sound “between the ears”.

Listening to your own voice replayed with delay imparts a dislocating twist to this perception of headspace, if that is what it can be called. Two forms of proprioception are set against each other, as your ears and your flesh return contrary signals about what you’ve just said. Zarinah told me that she had sound recordings of people who are completely knocked sideways by this, either reduced to making single sounds, or trying to shout over their own voices, which does nothing but increase the feedback, causing an escalating loop of interference as people try to out-shout themselves.

Further reading:
Hashimoto, Y., & Sakai, K. (2003). Brain activations during conscious self-monitoring of speech production with delayed auditory feedback: an fMRI study. Human Brain Mapping, 20, 22-28.
Stankievech, Charles. (2007). From stethoscopes to headphones: an acoustic spatialization of subjectivity. Leonardo Music Journal, 17, 55-59.
Sterne, Jonathan. (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham: Duke University Press.
Takaso, H., Eisner, F., Wise, R., Scott, S. (2010). The effect of delayed auditory feedback on activity in the temporal lobe while speaking: a positron emission tomography study. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 53, 226-236.