Skin + Vinyl: Sherre DeLys

To meditate on archival recordings—divided in time by roughly 25-year spans—appeals on a number of levels. You imagine the sounds of one era crashing into another and again into another: the ’20s Zulus Ball, the ’40s Australian radio interview with Helen Keller, the ’70s theremin rendition of Valse Sentimentale.

But there are additional collisions, such as the body itself and the voice.

Helen Keller and her translator Polly Thompson, late 1940s

Radio artist Sherre DeLys has imagined the sounds at one vantage–King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band from 1923—and another, the 1948 radio interview with Keller. The latter is a voice not quite ‘of a body’ so much as filtered through that of her long-time translator, Polly Thompson. Her voice guides Keller’s who cannot hear her own vocalization, though we are privy to its lilt.

To bridge these crackly vinyl sounds and cadenced voices, DeLys offers something entirely ethereal—the instrumentation of the theremin. For that, she has chosen another archive: the 1976 recording of Clara Rockmore playing Tchaikovsky’s Valse Sentimentale.

The theremin, then and, now in its resurgence, signals a voice like no other. Its wobbled hue feels physical to the ear. Hands hover mysteriously over the instrument to elicit sounds in completely unfamiliar performance stances.

There’s a realm of infidelity of such relationships, of bodies without hearing or sight and instruments never being touched, though sounds emanating out of each of them.

Fidelity was commissioned by the Australia National radio program, The Listening Room—ABC Classic FM, 10 December 2001. Narration by Tony Baldwin.

Enchanted Voices

In 2016, DeLys talked about her creative process with sound artist and writer Norie Neumark and how voices of Helen Keller and King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and Clara Rockmore seemed to call out to her. In this excerpt, there’s a running theme of collaboration: between touch and voice, of power and the body.

“When I first heard the archival recording of an interview with Helen Keller, conducted with the aid of her companion of 34 years, Polly Thompson, you might say the voices ‘touched’ me literally. My emotion registered first as subtle physical sensations, as it’s often possible to notice when paying close attention to the body while listening. 
When the interviewer asks a question, we hear Polly repeat the words softly so that Helen can feel vibrations. Helen reads Polly’s lips, with her first finger on the lips, second on the nose, thumb resting on the throat. Helen’s utterances are strange to the hearing world’s ear, and ‘uncivilized’ in contrast with Polly’s perfect British diction, the two voices weaving in counterpoint as Helen strains to reply and Polly repeats her words rolling the ‘r’s’ in red rroses. [… T]he voices in this interview offer the opportunity to appreciate the musical texture of our connectedness to others.
Hearing this the first time, my mind went to the haunting recording of Tchaikovsky’s [work] performed by Clara Rockmore playing the theremin, an early electronic instrument played without touch, accompanied by her sister on piano. In that moment I recognized that I wanted to make a radio piece that simply set these two recordings—the interview and Clara’s soaring voice-like theremin performance—side-by-side to hear what happens when they speak together.

Inhabited is a perfect description for the way this played out. At the moment of my first hearing, the Helen Keller interview was in conversation with the sisters’ performance in ways that I didn’t fully understand, although I can now articulate correspondences around touch and voice. I instinctively put a ‘gash’ into the recording so that a 45 second portion of the interview is repeated immediately after first hearing. While a number of listeners have spoken to me of a mysterious power that this conversation between two recordings seems to hold, none have mentioned noticing the very obvious repetition. Perhaps under the spell of this ancient disc recording, with its exquisite surface noise, understanding human expression through language recedes as we are taken up, inhabited, mesmerized by the music of voice.”

Explore the full conversation, Enchanted Voices: Voice in Australian Sound Art, and follow the ongoing deep listening and collaborations of Sherre DeLys.

For more about Clara Rockmore and her unprecedented theremin collaborations with Black musicians in mid-century, see The Theremin’s Voice.

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