January 11, 2012

Dave Tompkins on writing and travelling with the vocoder


Dave Tompkins has been traveling around the world during the last year to talk about his history of the vocoder, How To Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, which is now available in paperback. An early telephone technology, the vocoder was used during World War II to guard phones from eavesdroppers and was later re-purposed as a voice-altering tool for musicians, eventually becoming a ubiquitous sound in popular music.

In an essay for Pitchfork, Tompkins details his travels with the vocoder, which recently included a presentation at a National Security Agency cryptologic symposium. In a preamble to Tompkins’ essay, Pitchfork calls the book “complex and impeccably-researched history”; in New York magazine Sam Anderson called it “an intergalactic vision quest fueled by several thousand gallons of high-octane spiritual-intellectual lust.” Luc Sante called it a “secret history of our time.”

As Tompkins recounts his tour:

The vocoder has placed me in some odd situations over the past year of book touring. I’ve lectured inside a monolith near a parking deck which houses the original Trans Europe Express caboose. In Miami Beach, I played a recording of Egyptian Lover walking “Planet Rock” backwards for Arthur Baker and John Robie (news to them). In L.A., I signed someone else’s book (titled The Violence of Childbirth) but later found no proof of its existence. A man in Maastricht passed me the phone numbers of a “disease agent” and an iceberg melting in real time. In New York, a civil war submarine engineer offered to build a subwoofer from the disinterred skull of H.P. Lovecraft, which apparently now sits on a coffee table in Atlanta. In a nutshell, it was a good year.

But talking vocoders with the NSA was, how do you say, another story. Here was a federal subsector equipped with its own clown troupe, a demographic well-informed on this misapprehended creature that was once restricted to presidents, dictators, and brass jaws. Most in attendance already knew how the vocoder had guarded (and frustrated) the phone conversations of Churchill, JFK, and perhaps themselves, during World War II and the Cold War. In the hushed realm of “Secret Telephony,” the vocoder had become a bad word. As one NSA employee told me, it sounded like you were speaking from the bottom of a trashcan. The fidelity was literally garbage.

Tompkins full essay is available at Pitchfork.

Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.