Sons of Sound: A Lyric Concatenation for an Off-Brand GPS
Three women’s voices are often telling me where to go. For almost a decade, I have been an occasionally lost dot way west of them. First, they must locate me. Each circle expands—Susan’s (Atlanta), Karen’s (New York City), and Mom’s (Pittsburgh)—until I’m on its circumference. In a two-dimensional trilateration, I am the only point at which all three intersect. They speak in succession.
“You are 2,085 miles away from me,” Satellite Susan says.
“You are 2,505 miles away from me,” Satellite Karen says.
“You are 2,198 miles away from me,” Satellite Mom says. “How could you?”
After he retired, Dad and I spent an hour each night lying across the bed, watching sports news television. Mom would call from her Ericson cell phone on the parkway, and Dad muted the television. Sportscaster Bob Pompeani’s voice was replaced by Mom’s muffled traffic updates. I assumed she was near Three Rivers Stadium since, in my eight-year-old mind, the sports arenas were coextensive with the Pittsburgh city limits. Jason Kendall crouched at home plate as consecutive silent slow-motion replays featured him tagging out an Orioles runner.
“Start eating dinner without me, if you want,” Mom permitted. Even though I asked to speak to Mom, Dad would usually hang up. Before unmuting the television, though, he often sang a song he had invented:
The pronoun is paradoxical: we’re all alone? I never understood how two people could be “all alone.” Hadn’t Harry Nilsson proclaimed that one was the loneliest number? I retroactively revise the semantics so that “we’re” means “he’s,” and the loneliness is projected solely upon me.
Almost twenty years later, and I’m living in California, lying across my bed, calling home. Dad, lying across his bed too, picks up. I ask what he’s doing (watching sports news television). He asks if I saw the Steelers game (I hadn’t). I ask if Mom is home (she isn’t).
“So, you’re all alone?” I ask him. It’s supposed to be jocular, but his silence is existential.
“I am,” he says eventually.
When I hang up, I resolve the paradox: if he sings from his bed and me from mine, each to Mom (who is gone, at her sister’s), in ironic split-screen harmony, then we can be all alone.
Primary GPS: As a personal assistant, Susan’s American English is accentless. She is generally supportive, though easily peeved, an eager referee of social etiquette. Her concatenation is relatively continuous, especially the diphthongs (e.g., Mountain, Trail, and Route), though pronunciation of words requiring uvular trills, alveolar trills, voiceless uvular fricatives, zeds, and the silent h are flawed and indifferent. In particular, non-Germanic words like entendre and aficionado are programmatically unthinkable. (see iPhone 5s)
Secondary GPS: Karen, on the other hand, lumbers through all pronunciations with an Australian English accent. Karen commands that I “torn roit onto Alhombra droiv,” and does so with a high-rising terminal that registers as a lack of confidence, a question rather than a command. The concatenation is more jagged than Susan’s, and random glottal stops, intoned as a metallic gurgle, bind most polysyllabic words. (see Garmin nüvi)
Second back-up GPS: Mom, a recently retired corporate secretary, picks up the phone, sounds out-of-breath as if just jogging the length of the house to receive me. She begins every conversation with a dutiful, “What’s up?” as in “What can I help you with?” forfeiting her social utility. When Susan or Karen are unavailable, I call Mom, listen to her heavy breath as she descends stairs, treads hallways, and hovers over her keyboard. Susan and Karen have a fleet of NAVSTAR satellites trilaterating to locate me, but Mom’s humble process is a cross-country hide-and-seek using MapQuest, zooming in and out until she’s found my current intersection.
“Okay, I’ve got you,” she says. “Now, where are you trying to get to?”
Mom’s voice is natural, her pitch and speed purely her own, though her syllables are strung together with intervening bursts of breath, concatenated by dyspnea (shortness of breath), often chewing lozenges or gum as she speaks. Sometimes, I involuntarily round up her age and realize she’s seventy.
She enters the address into the search field and reads the directive to me in a quavering voice. Her Appalachian accent is minimal (she is careful to avoid the general extender “n’at” and second person plural “yinz,”), though she does, on occasion, let slide some Pittsburghese, including the punctual “whenever” (as in “Whenever you reach the intersection…”) and what Wisnosky (2003) has identified as the [ɔ~ɒ] merger (as in “Take the dahntahn exit”). Whereas Susan and Karen are silent as they wait for me to traverse the 1.6 miles between their directives, Mom goes off-script. She is kneeling on the couch, “neb-nosing” out loud, interposing the scene across the street from my childhood home with my current lostness in California.
“There are window cleaners,” she says, and I ask, “Where?” as I drive through Sacramento, looking left and right.
“At the Jasko’s,” she clarifies.
Because of her nebbing, a brand new city can feel vaguely nostalgic. Some days, she tells me that across the street, my childhood friend Jay is home visiting his parents, his car parked perpendicular with our driveway, taunting her.
“Jay’s home again this weekend,” she says. “Why aren’t you?” she doesn’t say.
Sometimes, it feels as if she is directing me home, that if I acquiesce for a mere forty hours, she will direct me the entire 2,500 highway miles until my car is parked across the street from Jay’s, two CR-Vs in parallel symmetry.
If voice is the vibration of white folds in the larynx, an organ made up of cartilage and muscle, stowed behind the flesh of the neck, incarcerated in epithelial cells, can it ever really be disembodied? A word like dyspnea—how to say it without the tongue, the palate, the teeth, and lips? Try flanger without the body. Try friction. Try vivacity, its anatomical ricochet.
On the way to the hardware store, driving through Midtown Sacramento, past its strands of valley oak and California sycamore, magnolia and elm, under ninety feet of continuous canopy, my GPS signal is obstructed. I have been relying on Mom more than ever to pick up Susan and Karen’s slack. Their satellite searches can’t penetrate the canopy, and Mom is eager to fill in as understudy, though sometimes I feel that my petty requests have nulled her retirement.
“Looks like you’re going to have to turn around. Make your way toward Nineteenth Street,” Mom says.
I maneuver westward and blame my dilemma on trivia. “Hey Mom, did you know Sacramento has more trees per capita than any other city in the World besides Paris?”
“I didn’t,” Mom says.
As I drive, Mom narrates the bird buffet in the backyard, all the feeders strung from willow boughs.
“Okay, I’m on Nineteenth,” I say.
Just then, Susan speaks to me, quietly so Mom can’t hear. She is directing me toward Ace Hardware too, and I’m conflicted: am I wasting Mom’s time or making her feel useful?
“Wait, I lost you on the map,” Mom says. She is zooming in and out, trying to relocate me. I tell her I’ll pull over and wait, but keep driving. By the time she’s found me again, I’m three-quarter miles closer to Ace. Even after I’ve parked in the lot, Mom is still dictating turns.
“You said left on I Street?” I ask Mom, watching several customers come and go through the doors, toting merchandise—a bamboo rake, compost bin, gas logs, and a combination leaf blower/vacuum/mulcher.
“Yeah,” she says, oblivious. “In point-four miles.”
“Okay. One sec,” I say.
I endure the irony, mistaking it for covert generosity. Eventually, when I “arrive” again, I thank Mom, turn off the engine, and tell her I’ll call her later.
When I was eight years old, my father snatched the glossy map out of my mother’s hands. We were lost on vacation in D.C., curb-parked by the Department of Treasury. Moments earlier, I laughed as Dad, with some reluctance, spent his real money on a souvenir bag of shredded money. I squished it in the backseat as they argued. Dad gave me the map, a rhetorical demotion of Mom as navigator.
The District is a system, a grid of rectangles intersected by fifty-one avenues named for each state and Puerto Rico. My eyes gravitated toward the parks, plazas, and Potomac.
“How do we get out of here?” Dad tested me, and to this day, he swears I navigated us all the way home, though I remember it differently: a Middle Eastern gas station attendant pointing a finger while another man cleaned our windows with Windex and paper towels. When Dad told him to stop, that he didn’t have any money, I didn’t understand it was a bluff and felt guilty, hiding my souvenir beneath my legs. Dad rolled the window up, and with the tip of his index finger, FM radio began to crescendo.
When I know the way to my destination, I listen to iPod’s shuffle. While the robotized voice from a song like Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic Planetary” is unmistakable, other songs’ electronic vocals are less discernible. Songs garble. I often misremember the origins of concatenated, vocoded, and autotuned lyrics, accidentally transplant, fuse, and mash them up:
“You must be a libra. Your place or mine?” I took a cab there, through the night, [to] your place,1 down the hills,3 up in the woods, smiling in the back seat, strapped in.5 Driven into frozen winter,5 I took a cab2 [on] an odyssey to pleasure. I [wanted] to drive.3 I [wanted]3 [a] better driver,5 a safer car,5 a car wash.5 “I’m giving you a3 good memory5 [at] your place.1 I’m giving you3 pleasure.7 I want you,7 I [am] trying to make contact, trying to make8 kisses with saliva,5 trying to make8 pleasure.”7 Fuck mechanic7 knows how to party. “Are you coming? Are you coming?”10 Are you?10 “Do you feel like I do? Do you feel like11 I’m giving you3 pleasure?7 O,10 you feel like11 winter?”5 The citaaay9 gets cold. “O,10 you feel11 blue?” To my amazement, the things we say are not always the things we feel. It doesn’t have to be like this. All we have to do is make sure we keep talking. Talking16 makes us stronger. Talking16 makes us17 feel like I do.11 I’m giving you a night call.3 I’m gonna3 [make] us17 feel like I do.11 I’m gonna tell you something you don’t want to hear:3 “I’m blue.13 I want to3 cry in public.5 How could you be so heartless? How could you be so18 childish?5 How could you be so cold?”18 “Do you believe in life after blue?13 Do you believe in life after19 it’s dark?3 Do you believe in life after19 it’s empty,5 frantic,5 winter?”5
“Check you [sic] email,” I text Mom. “I sent you a phonology chart.” After she’s rehearsed, she calls and I record her recitation on speakerphone, but not before she asks, “Why am I doing this again?”
I hesitate, try to circumvent morbidity, can’t. “I guess I just want to save your voice. Like, imagine if you could read bedtime stories to your great-great grandchildren.”
“Ooh,” she says. “That’s creepy.”
It takes over an hour to assemble a fluid reading of the chorus to Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever, the bestselling book my mother used to read to me as a child.
If the embodied voice transmits viva voce (i.e., word of mouth, literally “living-voice”), then how does the disembodied voice transmit? Stereo voce? Mortuus voce? I imagine Mom’s voice calling Descartes’ 400-hundred-year-old bluff: “I think; therefore, I am or was.”
I know that in this amount of time, I could have just recorded Mom reading the bedtime hit parade: Love You Forever and That’s Good! That’s Bad! and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and Just Go to Bed. That’s not the point, though. I am trying to create a pluripotent file that will preserve Mom in a feat of audio cryonics, its pieces’ parts able to be uploaded into a clip directory for text-to-speech programs (now), onto a semi-intelligent natural language user interface (later), and onto an artificial intelligence system that can generate its own code from terrabytes, petabytes, and exabytes of data (way later).
I shuffle the .wav files, and Mom seems to be speaking Czech, or she’s just making up words, neologisms like “pablem,” “urooth,” and “bdsk.” Like a child acquiring language or a dementia patient losing it, the sounds—consecutive strings blipping into a mesmeric haze—balk at meaning until, after about five minutes, a few discernible words randomly surface: “sting,” “bake,” “brine.” Later, “harrow,” “scoff,” “lift.”
On a night hike pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi Temple in Katra, India, it is impossible to get lost. After five hours of ascent, the temple of the Trikuta Mountains is near, and thousands of people trekking ahead of me are synched in an aerobic mantra, a spoken substitute for low-oxygen respiration: “…Mataji, Mataji, Mataji, Mataji...” I start to say it myself, unsure of what it means, “M-uh-t-uh j-ē.” A young Indian student next to me is adrenalized by my joining. He pumps his fist at me. We say it a few more times—“…Mataji, Mataji, Mataji…”—before I ask him.
“What does it mean?”
He smiles and points toward the temple above us. “Vaishno Devi is the Durga, the holiest goddess.”
I nod. I already knew that.
“Mataji means ‘Respected mother’ or ‘Eternal Mother,’” he says. “We say it together because Vaishno Devi is mother of us all.”
After this explanation, I nod again and pump my fist. As an only child, I can’t help but think he is telling me, “And you’re our brother!”
As I continue the hike, surrounded by rind-gnawing macaques perched on rocks above me, overweight pilgrims supine on comfy stretchers conveyed by pony, porter, or palanquin, and Jammu-Kashmir policemen at frisking stations waiting to detect contraband, I reconsider the all of Dad’s song (“We’re all alone.”) Maybe all is not modifying the aloneness, but the we. We are, all of us, alone. In Katra, rather than wait for Mother to come home, they move toward her.
Mom’s frequencies are collected in .wav files, and I trim at digital silences perpetrated on either side of the sounds, until there’s just the bare phoneme: short vowels, long vowels, schwa, consonants (b-z), diphthongs (oi-, ow-, oo-, aw-), digraphs (ch-, sh-, th-), and special cases (hw as in whistle and zh as in garage). Compressed into a file, “Mom.Phonics.mp3,” her voice is encrypted (from krypte, “hidden vault”), disembodied. I’m unsure what the next step is in this abiotic cryopreservation of Mom. Maybe I’ll take her to the mall some day, buy her a nice outfit before a full-body scan, and purchase a statue of her, 1:1 in 3D, embed an electronic voice box within it, her phonemes on shuffle.
Mom, who got us to D.C. and NYC and Atlantic City, all those 90’s summer vacations, was replaced by Karen, who got me to Chicago and New Orleans and Akron (“Make the next right turn onto Doctor Martin Luther King Doctor”) for ’08, ’09, and ’10 spring breaks, was replaced by Susan, who got me to Tucson for graduate school and Vegas for the clichéd “hell of it” and now Sacramento. Somewhere, the next voice actor is in a studio recording fifty-plus hours of script and sound strings, waiting to introduce herself to me. It’s always a woman waiting to tell me how to get to the next place.
Yes, even Siri will be unceremoniously replaced, dragged to a sound archive, a sonic reliquary, all conversations with her voided by a software update that will come like a thief in the night.
Susan’s Twitter handle is @SiriuslySusan.
On July 31st, she tweeted: “Happy b-day roses from my fabulous son, Cam! I love you! @CAM_SANDwich #birthdays #happyLeos”
A fan tweets: “He Siriously loves you! :)”
Cameron tweets: “Love you too Mommalla!”
I wonder if, decades from now—post Susan-as-Siri, post-Siri-as-Apple-assistant, post-Susan even, R.I.P.—Cameron will still plug his antique iPhone 5s into the power adapter to resurrect her on her birthday. Viva Susan the voce, whose phonemes are proto-digi-limbic, the vice versa of technophilia, glass and aluminum that loves you too, forever, likes you for always, as long as she’s plugged in, a son of sound you can be.
“Happy Birthday, Mom,” he might say.
“It’s my birthday?”
“Happy Birthday, Mom.”
“It’s not really my birthday.”
“Happy Birthday, Mom.”
“If you say so.”
 Franz Zappa, “Stick It Out”
 The Knife, “You Make Me Like Charity”
 Kavinsky, “Nightcall”
 Bon Iver, “Woods”
 Radiohead, “Fitter Happier”
 Powerman 5000, “The Song of X-51”
 Röyksopp & Robyn, “Sayit”
 The Carpenters, “Calling Occupants of Enterprise”
 2Pac, “California Love”
 Laurie Anderson, “O Superman”
 Peter Frampton, “Do You Feel Like We Do?”
 Dan Deacon, “The Crystal Cat”
 Eifel 65, “Blue (Da Ba Dee)”
Death From Above 1979, “Do It!”
 Pink Floyd, “Keep Talking”
 Daft Punk, “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”
 Kanye West, “Heartless”
 Cher, “Believe”