August 17, 2016

On the audibility of time…

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Richard Wallace, University of Warwick

Every oral history interview has its place. I mean this literally.

No matter what the subject, who the interviewee, or what the circumstances of the interview, every recorded encounter occurs at a particular place and time. The environment in which an interview is recorded can have an enormous impact on the progress of the interview: an interview conducted at a place of work might lead participants to be more guarded in their responses, for example, and the dynamics of the interviewer/interviewee relationship can often depend on who is ‘hosting’.

More than this, however, and what I’d like to address in this month’s blog, is the way in which the environment can imprint itself in the sonic textures of the interview recording; how we can hear where we are, and why this might be interesting.

To do this I’d like to give a couple of examples from interviews that I have recorded during the last two years for ‘The Projection Project’ (, an AHRC-funded research project exploring the work and history of cinema projectionists. Perhaps inevitably, a number of these interviews have taken place inside projection boxes, where the verbal accounts of what being a projectionist entails is backgrounded by the hums, rattles, clicks and clatters that signify that projection is taking place. In essence I hear the work done twice – once as it is described, and again without words as it just…happens, there is the background.

One interview ostensibly took place in a quiet area of The Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle with the Deputy Technical Manager, Brad Atwill. As with all UK cinemas, the majority of their films are projected digitally. As it happened, at the time of the interview, the cinema was screening a 35mm film print of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). In a typical moment of serendipity, that always seem so unlikely, and yet happen so frequently in oral history interviews, just as Atwill is describing the novelty of screening film prints in the digital age, a loud rumbling sound can be heard on the recording. “That’s Interstellar, that rumble”, Atwill points out, and a few minutes later when a second, even louder, rumble can be heard, “that really needs sorting out. Erm, also the sound proofing isn’t great we’re sat right above the Classic’s circle.”

It’s an important moment for me because not only can we hear Atwill describing an unusual part of his current working routine (he doesn’t get to screen film prints regularly anymore) but the traces of his work is audible in the environmental recording. His statement “that really needs sorting out” is also significant, because – for a moment – the environmental concerns overtake the interview situation, Atwill stops being an interviewee and starts being a projectionist, identifying a problem and making a mental note to sort it out during his next shift. The rumble spoils the audio quality of the interview clip, but it tells us so much about Atwill’s working life, and also offers a record of him at work.

I’d like to conclude with one final example. I recently had an interviewee temporarily pause their recollections because their ornate clock began to chime the hour. When we interview people in their homes it is not uncommon for there to be a clock present in the room, and thus, also present in the recording. It’s not something that I imagine we pay great attention to at the time, but when I play the recordings back, the clocks seem to take over, insisting on their own presence; you can’t compete with time, even, it seems, at a sonic level. For a discipline that is so intertwined with exploring memory and its relationship with time, we might do well as oral historians to ensure that we are also paying attention to the aural, to those elements that exist in the recordings beyond the human voices. Listen to the clocks, they have things to tell us.

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  • Thank you for this informative and useful blog. I agree that historians have much to gain from looki… by Alexander Freund on this entry
  • hi Angela, there are consent forms with the interviews that have been transcribed, but not with the … by Andrea Hajek on this entry
  • Hi Andrea. Just a quick follow up question – what paperwork actually exists for the interviews? Are … by Angela Davis on this entry
  • hi Angela, thanks for this. I too am working with some archived interviews, alongside conducting my … by Andrea Hajek on this entry
  • I was interested to read the angle of your initial blog as I am in the process of planning an oral h… by Nickianne Moody on this entry

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