Speaking Clocks and Time Machines
Transmitted BBC Radio 3, 25 February, 1997. listen
Sound is time. A sound is a temporal phenomenon, an event in time, rather than an object in space. This is why there are no sound-objects. When we ask `what was that sound?’ we are too easily satisfied with our replies: `Just the wind': `A car backfiring somewhere’ `A mouse, going clip-clippety-clop on the stair’. These do not name the sounds, but the initiating causes of the sounds. Sounds themselves refuse to be reduced to the condition of objects.
It is perhaps the sense of the temporality of sound that means that when we want to measure and control the passing of time itself, we do it above all through the use of sounds. We hear time passing, rather than seeing it, because passage is the essential condition of sound.
We are surrounded by the sounds of calibrated time. Humans have heard the sound of time since the coming of public time, and before the coming of the public clock, with bells and various kinds of sonorous alarm. In English, we learn to `tell the time': telling as counting has become inseparable from tolling.
The modern world is an ordered riot of sounded time. Time speaks to us, in the machines we use to mark it. Perhaps we tend to think of time as a machine, because of the machines we have developed to mark it, to give our time back to us, above all to speak to us of time.
While we use the passage of sound to register the sense of time’s passage, we also create different tones and timbres to give us different experiences of time. Time speaks in many different voices. The slow strokes of Big Ben associate political solemnity and the immemorial time of death and regular recurrence. But this kind of time is too grand and diffuse for most of our timekeeping purposes. Thus we have quickened and condensed the sounds of time. Now, we have pips, blips and beeps: the very names of these sounds suggest that we want them to be elementary particles (palindromes seem not to belong to time, because they are infractions of the rule of irreversibility, they can go backwards and forwards, while true sound-events are not reversible…). The pip or the beep is a bright little bead of nowness; the sound of punctuality, of sound itself reduced to a dimensionless point. It is a symbol of time captured and congealed.
But all this has changed since the advent of recording technologies. When we record and replay a sound, we turn it into a manipulable object; we actualise the ancient dream of arresting and possessing time. But we do this by separating the sound from its occasion and its cause, the object that we ordinarily substitute for the sound when we name it. The recorded sounds with which we are surrounded play out times of their own. In the early years of modernity, the anxiety was that the world was speeding up – that everything was being drawn into nightmarish synchonicity by the contagious force of acceleration. But that nightmare of synchronisation has not come to pass. Our world is a world of multiple times; of variable, manufactured nows. This is largely because our world is a world of recordings, replications and action replays; and above all, a world of replicable sounds. Such a world is characterised by multiple rhythms, durations and temporalities; by temporal comings, goings and crossings, of rifts and loops and pleats in the fabric of linear time. The ubiquity of recording technology and recorded sound makes the distinction between the here and now of actual sound and the there and then of replayed sound difficult to sustain. The present is haunted by the traces and echoes of the past, recapturable in recorded sound, and itself made ghostly by the possibility that it itself may be being recorded, will have been a recorded, replayed sound.
We want exactitude from our sounds of time. But sounds and noises exist in time as well as merely marking it. They have, they preserve memory. The sounds of our actual and imaginary machines have a history. The future, for instance, used to sound different: it used to be more clamorous and heroic. We all know what a time-machine sounds like: the grinding, shrieking, respiratory labour of Dr. Who’s Tardis enacts the sense of pain and effort that once seemed essential to overcome the laws of time; our time machines – our voicemail, CD players, cassette recorders – are quieter, more docile and more domestic.
But our time machines also ensure that the sounds of the past are still with us. The superseded futures of early twentieth-century science fiction are in fact still alive and well, in an active, sonorous archive. And they can speak, out of turn, or out of time. Now, in Britain, official time has a reassuringly husky male voice, who speaks on behalf of a sponsoring company. What did it mean for time to have a female voice, as it did for so long? Occasionally, at times of crisis, noises from other times break through: sounds from other times can be the sound of time itself being disrupted.
Air-raid sirens sounded again…sirens that hadn’t been tested in a decade or more. They made a noise like some territorial squawk from out of the Mesozoic. A parrot carnivore with a DC-9 wingspan. What a raucousness of brute aggression filled the house, making it seem as though the walls would fly apart. So close to us, so surely upon us. Amazing to think this sonic monster lay hidden nearby for years.
Like the other noises of contemporary life, the noises of time are inhuman sounds pushing towards the condition of voice. Time is of our essence, we are creatures that can only live in time, though it is equally our nature to aspire to the control or capture of time. We may have always wanted time to have a voice, to speak to us. But now, perhaps, time has many voices. There are many different times, and each one has its own tongue.