Vocal Tracks and The Laughing Spectator

Spoken WordIn his new blog, Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media, UC Press author Jacob Smith published the following entry called, “The Laughing Spectator”:

Hello, and welcome to this new blog: Vocal Tracks. Each post will
include a sound recording and some of my comments on it. The first
several entries will be recordings that are discussed in my book, VOCAL
TRACKS: PERFORMANCE AND SOUND MEDIA (University of California Press
2008). After that, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on whatever wonders of
the century of recorded sound have most recently captured my fancy. I’m
starting out this month with the record that I use to begin my book:
Steve Porter’s “The Laughing Spectator” from 1908. It’s a record that
was released in only the second decade that sound recordings were
mass-marketed for entertainment. Made at the dawn of an era of mass
, “The Laughing Spectator” demonstrates the remarkable versatility
of the voice as an instrument of performance.

In the course of little more than two minutes, we have heard a spoken
announcement, a comic dialogue, the laughter of an audience, and
singing. Porter’s voice is more versatile than it might at first
appear, since he is performing the parts of both Mac and Reilly. In
this, Porter was part of a phonographic tradition in which performers
would play multiple parts of a dramatic routine. Such an act often had
to be specifically identified on record company promotional material to
be fully appreciated, and the brief opening dialogue with the
“Professor” (“Say, Mac, where’s your partner?”) is meant to cue the
listener to appreciate the full dimensions of Porter’s vocal
achievement. This is only one way in which performers took advantage of
how the modern media separated them in time and space from their
audiences. But of all the voices we hear, it is the performance of the
laughing spectator himself that fascinates me. We hear an individual
performer emerge from an anonymous, undifferentiated audience. As we
recognize that goat-like laughter as a performance, the laughter of the
crowd is made to seem “real,” even though the sounds of the audience
are every bit as constructed a performance as the other sounds we hear.
But the “The Laughing Spectator” can also illustrate how the sound
media have gravitated toward the voice at the limits of language.
Consider how the wordless vocalizing of the eponymous hero is able,
through his unrestrained and unmistakable laughter, not only to
distinguish himself from the rest of the audience, but eventually to
join the performers onstage: the voice that functions as an index of
the body in the throes of raw, unrestrained emotion upstages a comic
performance built on wordplay. Modern media technologies have been
adept at capturing expressions such as this, and in the process have
redefined what counts as performance and allowed us to hear the voice
in new ways.

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