16: Song Swap (Transcript)

Craig Shank I’m Craig Shank

George Drake Jr. …and I’m George Drake Jr. This is Everything Sounds.

Craig Shank Alright, we have a story, but neither of us are fluent with the nuances of French and we’d rather not butcher the name of the main person involved in this story. So, we’re going to put it up to Google Translate and hopefully it’s right.

Translation  Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville

Craig Shank Okay, maybe it would have been better to just try it ourselves. So, for your reference our ‘American’ pronunciation is Edward Leon Scott De Martinville.

George Drake Jr. That’s pretty good.

Craig Shank Eh, it’s ok.

George Drake Jr. …but, from here on out, just to spare us any more confusion, we’ll just refer to him as Scott. So, Scott was a bookseller and printer that lived in Paris in the 1800’s. Now, as a printer he was able to do plenty of reading, naturally. He read about the latest advancements in science and technology and eventually photography caught his interest.

Craig Shank He wanted to take the concepts behind photography, capturing light and images, and apply those to something that would record the sounds of human speech. He essentially wanted to create a more accurate version of stenography that wouldn’t have any omissions. After investigating and tinkering for three years he was granted a patent for a new invention on March 25th, 1857.

George Drake Jr. He called this contraption the “phonautograph.” His design was influenced by the human ear, which he had learned about from reading anatomy texts while he was working. The phonautograph used a horn to funnel the sound into a diaphragm, which then moved a stylus. That stylus inscribed an image of the sound waves that were collected on paper or glass.

Craig Shank The sound was captured, but it was basically imprisoned. He only intended for the phonautograph to capture visual images of the sound and he hadn’t conceived of a mechanism to play back the sound that had been captured. No one really thought about recreating sounds until the 1870’s.

George Drake Jr. These sounds were locked in place until 2008 when a group of researchers decided to try to play some of the sounds Scott had recorded. They optically scanned his recordings and turned the scans into digital audio files using specialized computer software.

Craig Shank With one of the recordings that was revived the researches had to make a few assumptions. They chose a playback speed that would have likely suited a female singer and this is still the earliest and most clearly recognizable record of the human voice from April 9th, 1860.

George Drake Jr. In 2009, while playing back more sounds from the phonautograph, the researchers heard Scott clearly identify himself in a recording and realized that they would need to go back and adjust the speed of the playback because it was actually Scott that was singing, not a woman. So, ultimately, this is what it should have sounded like.

Craig Shank The phonautograph was the first attempt to capture sound and since then, a lot of things have changed. Recordings are now almost an essential part of our daily lives. However, recorded music seems to be what people value most when it comes to recordings. Most music is now widely available, but there’s one song that’s locked away, similar to how the phonautograph recordings were, but in this case, it’s locked away by choice.

George Drake Jr. In many ways, we take recordings for granted, especially when it comes to music, but here is somebody in Brooklyn that is trying, in his own way, to restore the value of recorded music.

Alec Duffy Uh…Yeah, that’s complicated. So, well…I’m Alec Duffy and I’m a theatre director, primarily and I run a brand new art center in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn called Jack, which is actually named after my grandfather.

Craig Shank Alec grew up acting, but when he went to college he decided that directing was more his speed. After he moved to New York, he began producing new plays with new actors. He started a theatre company called, “Hoi Polloi.”

George Drake Jr. A typical day for Alec usually involves rehearsal, working on projects with actors and collaborators, and probably some fundraising. Then there’s usually an event in the evening at Jack, the art center that he mentioned a minute ago.

Craig Shank Alec’s passion for music plays a large part in his interest in the theatre. Most of the pieces he’s involved with have a strong musical component. Outside of public performances, Alec has also written his own music.

George Drake Jr. A few years ago, Alec wrote a song titled, “Everyday is Christmas.” It’s pretty nice, actually..

Alec Duffy (singing) I walked down the the street and see a wintry wonderland. The candles in the windows and the Salvation Army Band…

Alex Duffy The general gist of it is that, you know, I’m eschewing the holidays because when I’m with you, everyday is Christmas. So, I don’t need that holiday fervor, you know, the big build-up to the holidays. It’s a love song.

George Drake Jr. It’s a unique take on what you’d typically think of when it comes to holiday songs.

Alec Duffy …and the chorus is, “Every day is Christmas when I’m with you.” It’s kind of an old…it kind of sounds like a standard, basically. A jazz standard or something like that.

Alex Duffy (Singing) I’ve got the perfect present, one not wrapped up in a bow. She lifts my spirits high when I’m feeling low. Others long for the holidays, yes indeed, they do, but every day is Christmas when I’m with you.

Craig Shank We’ll get back to “Everyday is Christmas” in a minute, but we need to give you some background on one of Alec’s favorite musicians, Sufjan Stevens. Sufjan started releasing music in the early 2000’s. You might know one of his songs, “Chicago,” from being featured in the soundtrack for Little Miss Sunshine.

George Drake Jr. Alec found out about Sufjan Stevens when his album, “Michigan” was reviewed on WNYC in New York. He immediately fell in love with his music. Now, coincidentally, Alec found out later that he actually worked in the building that Sufjan did around that time, but he never ended up meeting him since his popularity increased to the point that he didn’t have to work an everyday job, but Alec had an idea to do a stage adaptation of his album.

Alec Duffy And so, after I lost my opportunity to meet him personally, I wrote to his manager. I wrote to his record company trying to see if they would somehow give us the rights to work on a stage adaptation, but never heard back.

Craig Shank That might seem disappointing, but don’t feel bad for Alec. He’d cross paths with Sufjan again. In fact, in 2007, “The Great Sufjan Song X-Mas Xchange” was launched. People were asked to write, record, and submit a Christmas song via email. The winner of the contest would give the rights of their recorded song to Sufjan and his label and in exchange, they would receive the rights to a previously unheard Sufjan Stevens Christmas song.

George Drake Jr. See? It’s all coming full circle. Now, you see where this is going.

Alec Duffy So, I thought, “You know what?” I actually had a holiday song that I had written and composed like a year earlier and recorded and I thought, “It’s not Sufjan’s style at all. It’s not gonna win, you know? But, you know, I have it. I might as well just  submit it for fun.”

George Drake Jr. Two months later, Alec got a phone call from Lowell Brams, Sufjan’s stepfather and co-founder of his record label.

Alec Duffy He says, “Sufjan selected your song. Congratulations!” And he said, “You’ll be getting a CD in the mail in about a month or two of his song, kind of written in response to yours and you’ll have the rights to that.” And sure enough, two months later I got this packet in the mail and it included this personal letter about how much he liked my song and what he liked about it as well as the box set of his holiday albums at that point, the previous box set to the one he just released. And then a little card with drawings on it and, of course, the CD of the song which I put in and I was expected the song to be kind of a throw-off, you know, because I was like, “Oh, he had to write a song for this contest winner and he’s got other, bigger fish to fry,” but it was….I found it beautiful and I thought ranked among some of his best songs. And so, then came the process of trying to figure out what to do with this song.

Craig Shank Alec initially thought he would just put the song up on the internet. In fact, almost immediately, he was contacted by Sufjan Stevens fansites and blogs. They wanted the song to share with their readers, but then Alec talked to his friend Dave Molloy about the song and the contest.

Alec Duffy We were just expressing how special this song contest was and how special it was to have won this song and to just…and to try to find an equally special way of sharing it with the world instead of it just going on the internet and just becoming one of a million songs on people’s iPods that we felt like we had to frame it in a particularly special way.

George Drake Jr. As they talked they decided that they could intentionally make the song as rare as some songs used to be. Now, keep in mind that recorded music is still a relatively recent technological advance in human history and even a few decades ago until the last few years, people still had to hunt for some recordings that were either limited releases, imported, or just no longer in print.

Craig Shank Alec and Dave talked shared their stories about tracking down old Prince b-sides or rare Beatles reissues. They wanted to recreate that feeling of finding music that was unique, special, and rare.

Alec Duffy So, we decided to hold these listening sessions where people were invited to come over to our house or people could just request to come over to our…in most cases, my apartment and listen to the song and they’d basically get two chances to listen to it while they’re there. We serve them tea and cookies because we just felt like it fit with the nature of the song…kind of create a warm atmosphere. We talk a little bit about people’s history with Sufjan, listening to Sufjan..We invite four people at a time. So, we get to know each other and then we eat some cookies and drink tea and then headphones go on everyone and everyone listens to the song once and then get some thoughts, people’s reactions, and then they’re given a chance to listen to it a second time, talk about it some more and then the session is over.

George Drake Jr. Some people have traveled from Baltimore and other areas relatively close to New York City to hear the song, but Alec understands that some people simply can’t make the trip. So, whenever Alec and Dave travel, they bring the song with them.

Alec Duffy When we’re in another city we kind of hunt out people who have emailed us from those cities and have set up listening sessions in those cities.

George Drake Jr. They have arranged listening sessions internationally as well. One experience in Poland stood out when Dave was traveling.

Alec Duffy He was on a train going through Poland and someone came into his train car with a Sufjan Stevens t-shirt on and so he offered that guy a private listening session on the train.

George Drake Jr. They even tried to recreate their listening session concept in Finland.

Alec Duffy We were contacted by the biggest, well, self-proclaimed biggest Sufjan Stevens fan in Finland and we actually had to be there for a theatre collaboration and so we met on the steps of the main cathedral in Helsinki and put the headphones on him and we had cookies and tea, but he heard the song…

Craig Shank One of the more memorable sessions for Alec involved a couple that was expecting a child. The woman was eight months pregnant at the time and listened to the song when it was played the first time and then she put the headphones on her stomach for the second time. Alec later held a Christmas party at his apartment for people that had heard the song.

Alec Duffy So she and her husband returned with their baby, now. And so, their baby got a second opportunity to hear the song. It was fun.

George Drake Jr. Despite Alec’s best efforts to host listening parties in his home and around the world, some people still don’t agree with what he’s decided to do with the song. He acknowledges that it’s likely frustrating for some Sufjan Stevens fans that can’t travel to New York or don’t live in cities where he’s likely to travel to. However, Alec doesn’t think of it as being that different than other events that we can’t take part in at some point.

Alec Duffy Any way you frame an event there’s going to be people who will get a chance to experience it and other people that don’t, just like I couldn’t see the, you know, a special art event because it costs $55 and I don’t have $55 or something…because something is going on in Chicago that I’m frustrated that I can’t see, but it also lends a specialness to that as well, that that thing happened and I didn’t get to see it and isn’t that a shame?

Craig Shank Luckily for Sufjan fans, Alec plans to continue hosting these parties indefinitely, unless of course, he hears objections from one person in particular.

Alec Duffy I think if Sufjan Stevens himself somehow had an objection to the concept, then, you know, maybe that would force a change of heart or, you know, change of what we’re doing, but in fact, we actually met him after a concert that he did in New York a couple years ago and he hadn’t really…he hadn’t heard of what we were doing, apparently and I explained it to him and he seemed…he was surprised that people would actually make this pilgrimage to come hear this song and it kind of shocked him.

George Drake Jr. But what will happen if Alec can’t host the listening sessions himself? He’s given it some thought and he isn’t entirely sure.

Alec Duffy I mean, is it something that you pass down? I don’t know if I’m going to have children or not, but will it be something like the family jewelry or something like that that will get passed down or will it be, you know, upon my passing released out into the world? I haven’t really figured that out yet.

Craig Shank For the time being, all it takes to hear the song is a little bit of sleuthing and being in the right place when Alec sets up a listening session. Fortunately for me, I was in the right place. I was in his apartment, but I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to hear the song. I thought it might ruin the mystique, but eventually I decided that I’d listen once and forgo the second listening and Alec agreed to let me keep the recorder on as long as it wasn’t near the headphones. Then we talked about why they only use headphones for the sessions…

Alec Duffy Yeah, it started as….for two reasons. One, because I don’t know, for some reason both Dave Molloy and I feel like when we want to listen to something special we use headphones. And two, because it avoided the risk of people recording it…secretly.

Craig Shank Then he made sure everything sounded ok before I heard the song. We obviously don’t have the song for you to hear, but this is how Alec describes it:

Alec Duffy It’s a pretty plaintive song. It’s called “The Lonely Man of Winter.” He kind of paints a picture of childhood. Driving through snow-banked streets and with…you know, in the backseat of the car, being with friends during the holidays, but…and there’s some really obscure lines which we haven’t figured out what he means and they must be personal references. There’s a reference to Hoppington’s hat, which we’ve Googled and can’t find anything, so it must have been some friend of his and his hat or something like that, but it’s very much a personal, somewhat mournful song.

Craig Shank If I personally had to pick another Sufjan song to compare it to, based on what I can remember, it would probably be “Casimir Pulaski Day.” If it were shorter with less banjo and more piano, but after the last notes of the song this was my immediate reaction:

That was gorgeous. That was really cool. Yeah. Wow…

George Drake Jr. And that seems to be what Alec is going for. Thanks to the internet, everyone can access just about any song they’d like anywhere at any time. However, arranging these listening sessions helps this particular song have the kind of impact on people like it did on Craig. When you know that you’re not going to experience something again in your lifetime, no matter how small the event may be, if you start to think about it in those terms, it immediately feels different to you. That is what drives Alec in his work and with his listening parties.

Alec Duffy As a theatre director I’m constantly engaged in trying to create an experience for an audience and so it’s kind of natural that, given this song, I wanted to create an event which brought people together and created something special which they would never forget and certainly that’s been the response to the people who’ve come here and experienced the song. It’s something that they’re never going to forget and that’s…although it is a certain small audience that we’re reaching, that feels better to me than just having the song be a part of a million peoples’ iPods.

Craig Shank You can find links for Alec’s production company, Hoi Polloi, and the Jack Art Center at our website, Everything Sounds dot org.

George Drake Jr. We love producing this show and we hope that you love listening to it. We’re an independent production and so far, we’re funding everything on our own without outside assistance. All of our bus tickets, flights, parking fees, gas….everything…that all comes only from what we are able to put into the show.

Craig Shank If you want to help cover some of those costs and expand the places we can go and stories we can cover, consider becoming an Everything Sounds Audiophile. You can contribute on a one-time or monthly basis and you’ll get access to bonus material as it becomes available. Learn more at everything sounds dot org slash support.

George Drake Jr. And a special thanks to First Sounds dot org for the phonautograph recordings we used in the first part of our show.

Craig Shank Thanks for listening to Everything Sounds. Until next time, I’m Craig Shank

George Drake Jr. and I’m George Drake Jr.

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