Vocal letters: A migrant’s family records from the 1950s and the phonographic production and reproduction of memory

Panayotis Panopoulos

Recommended Citation: Panopoulos, P. (2018). ‘Vocal Letters: A Migrant’s Family Records from the 1950s and the Phonographic Production and Reproduction of Memory’, entanglements, 1(2): 30-51.

In memory of my father, Kostas Panopoulos (1937-2015)

Prologue: Family Matters

Among several voice memories, most of them rather vague and opaque, from my childhood years, there is a quite clear and crispy one; it comes from the sound of a cassette tape, which my grandfather, my father’s father, brought back from his trip, in the early 1970s, to Sydney, Australia, where he had travelled in order to visit two of his sons and a daughter, grandchildren and other relatives who had migrated in the ’50s and ’60s. The night before his return flight, the family came together and they recorded that tape, so that relatives in Greece would be able to listen to the migrants’ voices, greeting them and singing Greek nostalgic songs and songs about migration (xenitia[1]). Four decades later, I specifically recall the sound of my uncles’ and aunts’ voices, full of suppressed tears, and a certain Greek popular song from the ’50s, sung solo by my father’s youngest brother:

 

“I will climb and sing

On top of the highest mountain,

So that my pain, along with the sound of [bouzouki] strings,

Will be heard in xenitia”[2].

 

Originally, the last verse would refer to erimia (wilderness, desertedness), but in migrants’ lips erimia would often turn to xenitia, in a meaningful poetic gesture of appropriation/ adjustment of the song to their own lived experiences. For years and years, the sound of this cassette, now lost, probably forever, was the most vivid memory I would have from my relatives, before I met most of them in person, years later.

 

Photographs have always been an indispensable part of my family history; they would continuously travel between my father’s village of origin in the region of Arcadia, Peloponnese, and the city of Athens, but also between Greece and Australia. Since both my grandfather and my father’s youngest brother were professional photographers, I have a rich archive of family photographs and a rich history of exchange of family images. Nevertheless, that flow of photographs never had such a profound effect on me as the voices in the cassette recording of my family in Australia. I don’t know if it was the scarcity and singularity of this cassette or the fact that it was so moving -in some cases even disturbing- for my relatives in Greece to listen to it together in family meetings, but I can vividly remember that the vocal traces of people I had not met in person and the reactions they produced within my family left a deep mark of separation and absence, based on the strong sense and the obsessive repeatability of an (im)material presence.

 

Introduction: Lost and Found

It was in January 2015, during an exhibition he held in an art space in Athens, that Panos Charalambous, visual artist and avid record-collector, let me know about a very special set of items in his big collection: a body of 19 acetate, 10-inch, 78 rpm. records which were produced in the late 1950s in the United States of America by Konstantinos Chronis, a migrant from the village of Roino, Arcadia, Peloponnese. Charalambous had spotted these records a few years earlier at a flea market in the center of Athens. They were placed all together in a pink plastic case for long-play records and Panos was intrigued to acquire them by the fact that all of their labels were hand-written, in a rather unhandy script. On most of them, one could read the titles of well-known Greek folk songs, but in some others there were phrases like: “They offer and ask for news from Roino” or “On this side no voice, it doesn’t have…, it doesn’t have voice” (in mixed Greek and English script, crossed out). Some of the records were seriously damaged, but most of them were in quite good condition. Using an electrophone from the ’60s, we listened together to these rare and delicate acetates, in the art gallery where Panos held his latest show: Aquis Submersus.

 

 

In his work of the last decade, ranging from Phonopolis (2004) and Voice-o-graph (2006) to Aquis Submersus (2014), Charalambous tackles issues of (im)materiality, presence and absence in phonographic production and reproduction. He mainly focuses on collecting old records and addressing the interweaving of recorded voice to place and memory. Of special interest to him are the recorded voices of Greek singers who have acquired worldwide repute, from Maria Callas to the Greek-Italian experimental vocalist Demetrio Stratos, as well as local stars of folk singing in his native Akarnania (western Greece), like Takis Karnavas[3]. Charalambous works with various media, engraving, video, installation, performance, creating contexts for the production, manipulation and destruction of vinyl records, conceptualized as tokens of (non-) destructibility, but also as ruins of a whole cultural and technological epoch. His work puts together his childhood memories of listening back in the 1970s, at his native village of Rivio and lake Amvrakia, with family archives of commercial records, and the voices of 20th century recorded in vinyl, “the black marble of the century” (Charalambous, 2004). In his live performances, he uses all kinds of sharp edges (agave leaves, rose thorns, eagle nails) to play his vinyls and “resurrect” their voices[4].

 

 

The particularity and rarity of the Chronis’ acetates presented the artist with a very special instance in the world of recorded voice: records that were not multiple copies circulating in a commercial network, but unique items of vocal singularity and address in specific kinship and local networks. An ethnographic perspective bridging anthropological and artistic interests concerning the role of acetates in the production of social memory and structures of feeling was long overdue.

 

Konstantinos Chronis of Roino migrated to the USA in the beginning of the 20th century. Half a century later, he recorded and sent his family acetates to his younger brother in Greece as a form of vocal letters, including family news and nostalgic narratives, folk songs and highly emotional promises about visiting his native village once again[5].

 

After I prepared a digital sound-file and a detailed word transcript, we decided to trace the social life of Chronis’ acetates backwards, meeting their original receivers, members of the family and co-villagers of Konstantinos Chronis in Athens and in the mountainous village of Roino. The records triggered a series of encounters in anthropology and art that bring out the role of vocality and phonography in the production and reproduction of memory[6]. Vocal traces of more than half a century ago, probably considered forever lost, return to stir up memory, which was also the strong stimulus for the records’ production in the first place. Different layers of memory are assessed and discussed as various performances and levels of (phonographic) vocality accumulate through time.

 

The Recordings

So, I greet you all with love, your uncle Konstantinos Chronis, and you also have many greetings from Kostoula [his wife] and from Dimitris [his son], too, and as always from my children, farewell to you then, now I will sing on the other side [of the record]”.

 

[Chronis, after recording himself playing the shepherd’s flute]: “As you can see, I have not forgotten the reed yet. I have carried it, I have brought it with me over here since ’911, but I hadn’t…, I had never played on a record so that you can hear it.

 

Konstantinos (Kostas) Chronis was born around 1890 in Roino. He migrated to the USA in 1910, following the first massive transatlantic wave of migration from Greece and other countries of southern Europe (Laliotou 2004, Dounia 2014)[7]. According to his nephew Tasoulis (Anastasios) Chronis, whom I interviewed in Roino, he was so eager to migrate that he even forged a letter, supposedly written by his father, to be officially invited by a relative already settled in the USA. Konstantinos’ father, Anastasios Chronis, was a shepherd. Kostas had four sisters, Kyriakoula, Charalambo, Konstantina and Sofia, and a younger brother, Giorgis. He returned to his native village in 1918 to marry Kostoula Nastou in a pre-arranged marriage, but he left Greece for the USA again soon, in order to avoid being drafted and go to the war front. His wife and child followed suit. Konstantinos Chronis settled in California and worked as a farmer in vineyards. Information about his early years in America is rather scarce, but in the ’50s, by the time he made the recordings, he was probably a well-established vineyard-owner.

 

Among members of his family in the village, there was a strong memory of his visit for some months in 1957, with his wife and children, and a more vague memory of an earlier visit during the ’50s (possibly in 1953-’54). The records in Charalambous’ collection are only a part of the records Chronis sent to his brother in the ’50s. A villager in Roino remembered songs from the records he had sent, which were not included in the records of the collection. Chronis was probably sending records for several years, both before and after his trip(s) to Roino in the ’50s. His recorded voice, somehow, frames his return to the village, communicating strong emotions and nostalgic images and sounds from the old days, before the visit, and memories from that visit, after it. In some cases, though, it is not clear if memories refer to the more distant or to the more recent past, or even to an atemporal experience of homeland.

 

“I desired and wanted to come to the homeland to see you all, because you write to me and I haven’t met you. And I always have grievances a little bit, and when I have grievances I always want to start singing a little bit low/ slowly. Now, I know that I tell the old songs, but back then these are the songs they used to tell and these are the songs I like, and when I tell them, no matter how old they are, and when I dance like the old ones, I make them all marvel at me.”

 

“… even the stones from which I was drinking water, I remember them too, but what can man do, xenitia is far

 

The records are full of information about his family back in the village and in the United States. Names of relatives, especially, are repeated again and again, in affirmation of relatedness, opening channels of communication and keeping them open through repeated performances of recognizing connectivity. An upcoming family event in the village, the wedding of a niece, and the name-day of his brother become reasons for making and sending new records, with songs and wishes; they reveal a strong desire to participate in the family narrative. The following long excerpt comes from the record titled: “They offer and ask for news from Roino”. Several of the issues discussed thus far are prominent in this passage.

 

Chronis (following his wife’s greetings): “Now we will have a little chat as well. How are you? How are you doing? Last year, same day, we were all together. This year, very far. But, always, if we are in good health, all the rest will be okay. Now, as the time for the shearing of your sheep is coming closer, we remember how you were shearing [the sheep, last year] and at the same time you were telling it low/ slowly [that is, you were singing]. We had a very heavy winter over here this year, it was very disastrous, but it didn’t damage us a lot. What could we do, it was raining for forty days and forty nights. But if we are in good health, everything will be all right. Angelo [his sister in-law], I doubt not, will by now be preparing to go to Skafides [a place-name, literally meaning small basins], in order to weed the rovi [a kind of animal-fodder], to bring to the animals. We don’t have so many things to tell you, we wish you all the best for Saint George’s day [the celebration of the patron-saint of the village], many wishes to all of you named George to enjoy your name-day, you first of all, our in-law Giorgis, Chronakos and all. Also, I already had a letter from your teacher, writing that you had the new Epitaphios [he wrongly says “metaphio”, instead of “epitaphio”] in church and we were very pleased to hear from people that they made a very nice “metaphio”. I wish you all live long and enjoy it and may Saint George help us all. We have nothing else to tell you, we also had a good time in Easter over here, we went out [to the countryside], we had some fun, but xenitia is always xenitia. Eh, ’960 is coming closer, we have to start preparing now. How is Giorgos and Kostakis, with the baby girl [his brother’s grandchildren], I doubt not that the baby girl will be clopping as well, she will be running and going to the [village] square now. How is our sister, Charalambo, brother, [how are] her children, Konstantina, Kyriakoula, are they all well? I haven’t heard from Konstantina and Kyriakoula; I had sent some medicine to Charalambo, but I don’t know if I have bumped her off completely or it was good that I sent it to her. We have nothing else to tell you. You have many greetings from everyone, neighbors and friends, from our children, yesterday Asimo of Nastos was here as well, we had a little chat, we talk with Olympia every now and then, Panayota… somebody went and told her that Chronis celebrated in Roino and she tells him how can he celebrate, since he was so cold [literally, the cold has eaten him], he was shivering over there. All this we remember and we think they are dreams. So, goodbye and I wish you all [the best].”

 

Chronis does not use English or mixed (Greek-english) expressions at all. The only phrase in English in the records is “some day”, which he immediately translates into Greek. Again, the context of its use is a highly emotional and nostalgic reference to his desire to see his home village one more time.

 

Poor Roino, we won’t see you again. Niece, listen to me telling it [singing] a little bit low/ slowly. Some day [in English], some day [in Greek] you may see me in Roino, if we don’t die. So, give greetings to everyone, we are all well and I wish you all to be well. But nobody is writing to me, I do not know why, you either got rich or your business has grown!”

 

Recorded voice follows a one-way track, from “modernized” America to “backward” Greece. Relatives in Greece can only write back. This imbalance is one among several controversial discrepancies in this unequal exchange. Interestingly enough, Chronis’ voice represents and resonates the past and the strongest connection to his place of origin as he sings and talks about this origin in the new reality of xenitia. Reference to life experiences in the United States is minimal (“the winter was very heavy over here this year”) or always connected with a sense of nostalgia for the home country  (“we celebrated [orthodox] Easter in the country, […] but xenitia is always xenitia”).

 

The main feature of the records is the folk songs Chronis sings both a cappella and accompanied by Greek folk musicians. One of the obvious reasons he made these records, after all, was that his brother, Giorgis, was very fond of singing. The word Chronis repeatedly uses to refer to singing is the standard Greek term for “telling”, “talking” (leo). Singing is conceptualized here as an act of communication, the restoration of a suspended dialogue with his home and family.

 

We gathered here and we tell it [we sing] and we make plans on how to catch the airplane and come to the [village] square when you will have the wedding of Asimo, to dance. {Female voice intervening: ‘You have to invite us!’}. But Panayota, along with Lambrini, they will wait, they say, for the carnations, we cannot come without an invitation!.{Female voice: ‘The wedding candies of homeland!’}. We joined each other and we tell our poverty, what else can we do, we remember the homeland, we like it for a trip, but [not] … to stay over there. What can we do with it [the homeland], since it happened to be so poor and you make it even worse! You have greetings from everyone, we are all well, the children, the relatives, all well; those of us who are alive. The ones who died, they are gone, … long live your children!

 

 

 

 

 

Most of the songs in the records are well-known songs of the local repertory of Peloponnese and mainland Greece [Recordings 6,7,8,9], while some others can be personal improvisations on popular poetic formulas sung on various standard tunes.

 

 

Yesterday, the day before,

 I passed through the mountain slopes,

 And I saw the houses of Roino,

 They were destroyed

 And something like a grievance came to me

 And like a big evil.

 I ask the trees

 They do not answer

 Fir trees

 They do not reply…”

 

The personification of nature and of places is one of the most important characteristics in the poetic language of the songs, while many of them are grievous and mournful. The association of xenitia with death is a standard poetic theme of ritual lamenting and singing imagery in Greek culture, and it has been studied in detail by philologists and anthropologists alike (Danforth and Tsiaras, 1982, Alexiou, 2002). Death and xenitia are used as metaphors of one another, while migrants are often likened to birds, which also dominate in Chronis’ imagery of lamenting songs on xenitia.

 

 

You, birds migrating,

 Birds who have migrated,

 You didn’t stay a lot [they didn’t stay a lot] {dialogic singing}

 At our poor village [our village]

 But there came a time you left [they left]

 To go to a foreign land

 Beware that xenitia won’t cheat you

 So that you will never come back

 

 

Vocalizing Memory

 

“Get a speechless figure

A motionless body

Get my photograph, too,

Which is unforgettable”.

(Dounia, 2014: 124).

 

 

Styliani, I forgot to tell you on the other record that I have had a grandchild from my son Dimitris, he had a very beautiful girl…

 

“…we will send you more records [soon] and we will do the best we can. See you [in Greece] in ’960”.

 

More than any written letter, acetate records, like home-made cassettes a few years later, address a collectivity of listeners (both literate and illiterate), who can listen to the voice of their relatives together, often in wide, family, neighborhood or village collectivities. In this form of “vocal letters”, a collective voice speaks and sings to a collective audience. Moreover, in opposition to written letters, which are defined by a strong sense of absence, recorded voice in “vocal letters” is a mark, although often an uncanny mark, of presence. On the other hand, Chronis’ acetates created an asymmetry between the two sides involved. Relatives back in Greece were not able to send something similar in reciprocation; the exchange was imbalanced. Meanwhile, recorded singing of Greek folk songs in America somehow reversed the “natural” flow of local singing from Greece to xenitia. Migrants often presented themselves as the conveyors and preservers of local Greek traditions, while singing the “old songs” realizes a deeply emotional reaction and the conscience of a wide gap, not only in space, but also in time. The records constitute a continuous confirmation of memory of old and more recent experiences of the homeland, as well as an always open promise for return or at least of the desire and an indissoluble urge to do so. This is often addressed in narratives about wide meetings of Greeks, especially orthodox Christian celebrations in the countryside which, no matter how successful they are, they seem to lack the taste of home. The performance of songs and the narrative reference to Greek customs, like roasting the lamb in Easter and feasting in the country, magnifies the sense of Greekness among migrants, who are proud of following the agricultural and ritual cycles of their native homeland in xenitia.

 

Chronis’ motivation to record his songs and vocal messages and send them to his family, in a time when the standard form of communication between migrants and their families was through letters and photographs, was commented upon, during my research, by villagers who remembered him stating that he considered the recording of his voice as a way of immortalizing the memory of himself[8]. Someone recalled him telling something like: “I will not die; you will listen to me, in the records, for ever”. It is quite significant that the word he uses in the records to refer to them is plakes (sing. plaka), which handily brings to mind engravings on memorial plaques. Although plaka was the standard term for records during the ’50s, it nevertheless adds an extra sense of monumentality to the acetates. We are certainly before the era of the magnetic tape and the cassette recorder as a ubiquitous technology of everyday life.

 

In her work on the use of early sound-recording technology among Dutch amateurs, Karin Bijsterveld points out that:

 

“In most cases, the family sound album topped the list of things to do with a tape recorder. The function of such a ‘talking family album’ was to record the precious moments of family life, like ‘little John’s first speech’. Subsequently one would share the tape with ‘relatives, friends and acquaintances living elsewhere’. But having a tape recorder was also important with respect to one’s own memory. Every family, after all, had one or more albums with photos of important or happy moments. From now on, Philips submitted, these memorable moments could be relived more completely, thanks to ‘a faithful reproduction of all that was said and done, played and sung’. The tape recorder, in other words, was introduced as a family ‘memory’ device” (Bijsterveld, 2004:616).

 

A similar use of the tape recorder has been documented by Nicola Scaldaferri in an Albanian-speaking community of south Italy with a rich history of migration to the United States:

 

“Starting from 1957, one of the things brought by Peppino on his trips was a Recordio tape recorder. With this device, he recorded the voices of relatives and friends separated by the ocean, and then shared them by organizing small house parties that became both recording and listening sessions. He thus realized a series of true sonic postcards, to which, during the 1960s, he would also add amateur videos shot with a Super 8” (Scaldaferri, 2014:9).

 

Tape recorders are perceived as devices which take the voice, they worm out the voice of a person, in order to take it, to transfer it to his relatives and friends overseas. From the recordings of uncle Peppino cited by Scaldaferri in his article:

 

“(…) I am your nephew Franco, and just as my voice will come to America, I wish I could come there too; we thank uncle Peppino for bringing our beautiful voices to you in America, where you can hear it in all comfort, as if we were near you.

 

(…) I am your nephew Andrea, and I thank uncle Peppino who has been so clever and has brought from America this marvellous thing that lets you listen to our voices”. (Scaldaferri, 2014:11, Original in Arbëresh, bold in Italian).

 

We can only guess the reception of the incoming voices of Chronis and his family back in the ’50s in Roino. The question becomes even more intriguing when we think that the voices came in the standard format of the commercial recordings of those days, that is the gramophone record. The unidirectional flow of voices permits us only to realize that, contrary to Scaldaferri’s example (voices travelling from Italy to America and vice versa), Chronis and his nuclear family (voices from America to Greece) do not express any kind of wonder about the technology of mediated voice. In their case, they are at any rate the bringers of technological modernity. On the other hand, the device itself is the only index of the way of life overseas. The technology of recording is not used to reproduce any sounds of the migrants’ new life or different forms of living in the other side of the Atlantic, contrary to what happened with the letters or photographs of migrants (Dounia, 2014). Again, Bijsterveld contends that:

 

“The same [deeper contact with the ambiance than a photo] applied to the ‘voice letter’, another repeatedly promoted product the tape recorder hobbyist might pursue. ‘With Gevasonor, the magnetic tape, you may … record whatever you want to tell to relatives in Canada, Australia and South Africa. This allows them to really hear your voice later on, with all its warmth, all its emotion’. Sound tapes thus became a form of ‘family ties’. Simply reading a letter aloud was not so interesting, as one Dutch how-to book on tape recording from the mid-1960s indicated. The challenge was to realize creative sound recordings by combining the sounds ‘of all sorts of domestic events, such as living room music, the knocking together of a rabbit cage, … bickering, pet sounds, … a characteristically creaking door, the ding-dong of a pendulum, the milkman at the door, the radio tuned to Hilversum I or II [the Dutch BBC, KB] on the background, … all sounds that for relatives faraway from home will be enjoyed like honey on the tongue. They will get that homey feel again and be intensely part of everyday life at home for a little while!’” (Bijsterveld, 2004: 617-618).

 

Chronis stands far from such interests. This must certainly be attributed to the technological characteristics of recording with acetates, as opposed to the flexibility of tape-recorders, which dramatically changed structures of feeling. But, as the following excerpt shows, Chronis was also strongly interested in rendering the idealized soundscapes of his homeland in his vocal letters (cf. Panopoulos, 2015). For him, recording his own voice is the absolute “memory device” for bringing himself back home in both a literal and a metaphorical way. The sounds he records are his own memories of sounds he has brought from his homeland to America and he sends back in the form of his speaking and singing voice, the voice of his memory.

 

Yesterday, we had Easter, we went out, to the mountains, around three hundred of us altogether and we were roasting the lambs and they were asking me if you have an alarm in the village to wake you up… and I tell them that there are many alarms, around twelve the rooster would crow, at one the donkey was braying, at two the women started: ‘Angelo, eh Angelo, shall we go to Skafides to weed the rovi? Should I send my daughter with you?’ And so we discuss all this over here and we laugh a little bit, you tell about us, we tell about you over here and that’s how the poor life of human beings is passing by, what can man do […] sometimes, the rooster was crowing at ten o’clock in the evening … and you were telling, I tell them, that the weather is changing and so we laugh over here with this stuff, also. So, goodbye and you will hear again from us soon.

 

Return

 

Where do voices go post mortem? It is a question we all pose when we try to define loss, not as the loss of a body but as the loss of a trace of a body. In that sense, the resurrection of the dead to come will be a resurrection of voices, through recording, through vinyl, it won’t be a theological resurrection. Resurrection exists as an ability of recording and re-reading […] The vinyl is the field of recording, the black marble of the century, so that the recording will be a prospect of resurrection.” (Panos Charalambous, unpublished interview to Eckehard Pistrick at the Athens School of Fine Arts, 18/11/2015).

 

In the photograph hung at the right side of a wall, filled with framed family photographs, in the house of his nephew Tasoulis Chronis in Roino, we see for the first time Konstantinos Chronis, dressed in formal local costume, and his wife in a quasi-ancient-Greek dress. The old black-and-white retouched photograph is an elegant photo-collage made in 1924 in the USA. Giorgis sent a photograph of his wedding to his brother Kostas and Kostas added to it a photograph of himself with his wife and an older photograph of their father, Anastasios Chronis.

 

Under this family photo gallery, in Tasoulis’ house in Roino, on the 13th of August 2015, the voices of the Chronis family were resurrected, as Panos Charalambous played the records for nephews and nieces, grandchildren and neighbors to hear[9]. Tasoulis, in his nineties, and his wife Olympia, their daughter Eleni, Tasoulis’ sister Rina and her daughter Youla, were among many other people who attended this event, which came as an abrupt cut in the regular flow of time, bridging different eras and places in the present and the past of the family and the village. Talking about one of the major events in his personal life, the early death of his beloved son Giorgos, named after Tasoulis’ father, that is Konstantinos’ younger brother, Tasoulis reckoned how Chronis’ records might had ended up in the flea market. He remembered how, years ago, burglars broke in and emptied his son’s house in Athens. Stories from different times and places were interwoven with the voice of Chronis speaking and singing, and with what we, me and Panos, also had to say about what we had learned and felt listening to the records. Rina commented on the hardship of pastoral life in the village that made her uncle want to migrate in the first place: “because of this, the night-tending of the flocks, he left”. Also, stories about his destiny to become rich, omens of his good luck, as every stone he would hold had ants underneath, when he was building a fence along with Rina’s and Tasoulis’ father, “while our father’s had none”. The story about how he borrowed money, in USA, from a German migrant, who insisted on visiting him at his home to meet his wife before lending him, and how he was convinced to do so when he saw that she was a hard worker: “If she had lipstick on her lips, he wouldn’t have given him a single penny”. Comparisons of poverty in the past with the present economic crisis in Greece were made several times, while Rina at some point burst into a strange mixture of tears and laughter when her uncle on the record was complaining about the poverty of his country, which drove him away: “Ah, you poor, you should see now how bad things are…”. Digital files of the sound-recordings and photocopies of the word transcripts have by now probably crossed the Atlantic to meet Chronis’ family in America.

 

 

The processual and collaborative aspects of this project have effectively influenced the terms of its conception, background and realization in interweaving anthropological and artistic threads and priorities in a single current. Moving from an accidental retrieval of a material relic from the piles of a flea market to the exploration of a family’s history and memory of migration and the return of the voices in the records to their initial recipients, the artist’s intention in the project to resurrect the voices of the dead among their living relatives and village community met the anthropologist’s interest to reassess the experience of the records’ reception and social life, in a performance of ethnographic/ artistic DJing, through which the recorded voices addressed their original receivers once again in a meaningful gesture of mending a broken chain of contact and communication.

 

Epilogue: Styluses

“The listener knows that ‘memory forgets more easily texts than melodies’, he also knows that in order to make sonic units resound, to revive images, to resurrect voices (sonic portraits) the insight of their revelatory force is necessary … the quest for a sparkle where the needle ‘clicks’, ‘rumbles’, ‘scratches’, in the clicks and pops, in the skips, in the momentary albeit vivid lighting; when the stored experiences charge the content of a particular current audiovisual situation … it happens that bizarre luminescences make visible the most close, the most familiar aspects of everyday life” (Charalambous, 2004:33).

 

Every letter coming from her sons and daughter in Australia was a major event in the life of my grandmother. I remember her reading the letters again and again using her index finger as a stylus following the grooves of a record. In a similar way, my grandmother would usually repeat the lyrics of a song she heard for the first time after every single verse, whispering the words to memorize them. During our visit to Chronis’ family in Roino, we recorded some other styluses, as well: The walking-stick of Rina as she was pointing to her father in the photograph that became the focus of our visual attention for the whole time of our visit; or the corner of another old framed picture that was used by Tasoulis to help us read the traces in the same photograph of his father and uncle. These styluses operate as needles for stitching memories, like the rose thorns and agave leaves in Charalambous’ experimental live performances.

 

 

By “cutting” his acetates, Chronis was creating an archive of older and recent memories of his family and village to send back home. Perceiving himself as an original bearer of these memories, he recorded their (im)material trace, his speaking and singing voice, on plaques that could monumentalize it for the future and for the styluses that would care to resurrect it.

 

 “All the trees in the morning

 Are full of dew

 My little eyes too

 Are full of tears

 Because I recall many things.

 

Appendix: photo essay

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Notes

[1] The place but also the condition and the experience of migration.

[2] For an excellent performance of this song by Marika Ninou, one of the most important Greek singers of the ’50s, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4Gm4wmKIsc (last access: 26/4/’17).

[3] E.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J79wvSfwKkc (last access: 26/4/’17).

[4] The following excerpt from a text by Thanasis Moutsopoulos, included in the exhibition catalogue of Aquis Submersus further contextualizes Charalambous’ work in the contemporary Greek art-scene: “[Charalambous] strips and uncovers the vulgar side of rural countryside and lumpen culture. I think that more than anything else, this exhibition of Charalambous has to do with the presentation of a ruin. This ruin is, apparently, contemporary Greece itself; more specifically, maybe the post-olympic-games euphoria. His direct reference to the demolition of Columbia records’ factory is the capstone of this project. Memories from Monet’s Water-lilies reappear in basins with electrophones, they float on the water of lake Amvrakia among hundreds of floating records, sending out the voices of Takis Karnavas, Maria Callas and Demetrio Stratos. The insolvency of the petit-bourgeois dream has now become chillingly apparent and, along with it, the comme il faut art of recent years, the vision of international success, the adoption of international idioms, the nouveau riche and all kinds of bubbles. Everything seems to be over” (Moutsopoulos 2014: 15-16, my translation).

[5] “Acetate discs (also known as lacquers or instantaneous discs) are a type of phonograph record created using a recording lathe to cut a groove in real-time, rather than mass-produced from moulds” (Wikipedia). Acetates were a quite popular sound-recording technology among migrants in the ’40s and the ’50s. They could be produced at home and played immediately after their “cutting”. Since their coating was very delicate, they wore out after some time and this is the reason they are very rare nowadays. Later on, “Voice-o-graph” booths became the popular means for recording one’s voice, before the gradual ascendance of the magnetic tape (Bijsterveld 2004, Levin 2010).

[6] These encounters were also fuelled by our recent anthropological and artistic work concerning the (im)materiality of voice, realized in the context of a long-term collaborative project of artists and anthropologists working on voice and the body, sociality and addressing, phonographic technologies and memory: “Fonés (Voices) is a group of visual artists and social scientists exploring the multiple ways in which sounds produced by living bodies are transformed into matter for thought and art making. We explore voice as a means through which social relationships are constituted and acquire meaning. We are also interested in voice itself, and not solely in the messages it transmits or the codes it uses. We are exploring the materiality of voice as a sound phenomenon, its sensory and aesthetic qualities, its connection to the body that produces it and its detachment from it, the ways it is shaped through techniques and technologies and the ways it defines multiple socio-cultural and ‘natural’ environments” (Panopoulos and Rikou 2016).

[7] In the New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), “Const Chronis” from “Roino, Greece” is registered to have arrived on 15 September 1910. He was 19 years old, single and he traveled from Napoli, Italy aboard the ship “Regina d’ Italia”.

[8] See Sterne (2003), on the relation of phonographic technologies with technologies of embalming and canning; also, Weiss (2002) and Panopoulos (2016), on the role of the technological mediation of voice in transforming subjectivities and changing perceptions of the relations between worlds.

[9] On the importance of uniqueness and addressing in theorizing the voice, see Cavarero (2005).

 

References

Alexiou, M. (2002). The ritual lament in Greek tradition, 2nd Edition. Revised by Dimitrios Yatromanolakis and Panagiotis Roilos. Washington DC: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Bijsterveld, K. (2004). ‘What do I do with my tape recorder…?’ Sound hunting and the sounds of everyday Dutch life in the 1950s and 1960s’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 24(4): 613-634. DOI: 10.1080/0143968042000293892

Cavarero, A. (2005) [2003]. For more than one voice: toward a philosophy of vocal expression. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Charalambous, P. (2004). Phonopolis (Exhibition Catalogue). Athens: Artio Gallery. List of works available at: http://staging.georgemoraitis.gr/works/

Danforth, L.M., and Tsiaras, A. (1982). The death rituals of rural Greece. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Dounia, M. (2014). The Greek migration to the United States of America during the first half of the 20th century: the sublimation of memory through post correspondence, Photography and Film. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Athens, [In Greek].

Laliotou, I. (2004). Transatlantic subjects: acts of migration and cultures of transnationalism between Greece and America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Levin, T. Y. (2010). “Before the beep: a short history of voice mail”. In N. Neumark, R. Gibson and T. van Leeuwen (eds.) Voice: vocal aesthetics in digital arts and media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. pp. 17-32.

Moutsopoulos, T. (2014). “The ghosts of gypsiness and the perennial dirtyness”. In Aquis submersus (Exhibition Catalogue), Panos Charalambous. Athens: Batagianni Gallery, [In Greek].

Panopoulos, P. (2015). ‘Homeland as sound and sound as homeland: cultural and personal soundscapes in Christos Christovasilis’ short stories’, Ethnomusicology Translations, no. 1. Bloomington: Society for Ethnomusicology. Trans. Vasiliki Chatzopoulou.

Panopoulos, P. (2016). ‘Inside/ media: voices of the absent, antinomies of transmission’. In P. Panopoulos and E Rikou. (eds)Fonés. Athens: Nissos Publications, pp. 328-340, [In Greek].

Panopoulos, P., and Rikou, E. (eds.) (2016). Fonés. Athens: Nissos Publications.

Scaldaferri, N. (2014). “Voice, body, technologies: tales from an Arbëresh village”. TRANS – Revista Transcultural de Música – Transcultural Music Review, 18(2014): 1-21.

Sterne, J. (2003). The audible past: cultural origins of sound reproduction. Durham: Duke University Press.

Weiss, A.S. (2002). Breathless: sound recording, disembodiment, and the transformation of lyrical nostalgia. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

 

Acknowledgements

Many people offered great help and support in realizing this project. I would like to give special thanks to Tasoulis (Anastasios) Chronis, his wife Olympia and their family, to Giannis Chronis for providing detailed information concerning his family genealogy, to Thanasis Kyriazopoulos and his family, and to all the other friends in Roino. Many thanks are also due to Tania Vikatou, visual artist Giannis Kontaratos and ethnomusicologist Eckehard Pistrick, who have accompanied us in our visits to Roino and are responsible for some of the photographs presented here, and of course to Panos Charalambous for his creative collaboration in the project. Sevasti-Melissa Nolas and Christos Varvantakis were, from the first moment, very enthusiastic about including this work, along with its visual and sonic material, in Entanglements Journal; I am grateful to them for their genuine interest. Alexandra Bakalaki, Margarita Dounia, Eckehard Pistrick, Marika Rombou-Levidi and Pinelopi Topali read earlier drafts and made immensely helpful comments. The responsibility for the final text is, of course, mine alone.

The project formed an essential part of “Flatus Vocis” and “Voice-o-graph”, a series of installations and sonic happenings by Panos Charalambous (with Vassilis Charalambidis, Angelos Krallis and Panayotis Panopoulos), performed in the “Parliament of Bodies” (Public Programs, curated by Paul B. Preciado) of documenta 14, Athens (July 16-17, 2017) and Kassel (July 7-8, 2017), during which I also made a presentation entitled “Five Fragments of Vocal Letters”, based on the present text [http://www.documenta14.de/en/calendar/23403/voice-o-graph][1]. It was also presented at the three-day festival Detritus: New music from degraded media, curated by Yannis Kotsonis, in a performance of Panos Charalambous and myself and a lecture I gave under the title: “Vocal Intimacy: Homerecordings of Homesickness and the Memory of Voice”, at a roundtable in which I participated with composers and sound artists Olivia Block, Stephen Cornford and Graham Lambkin (Onassis Cultural Centre, January 28, 2018). I have also presented parts of the text and material in several other events. More specifically, under the title “Vocal Letters: Sounds of Greeks Across the Atlantic”, in the “audiophile series”, curated by Eckehard Pistrick, at bi’bak, a non-profit association for contemporary art and community-based projects (Berlin-Wedding, February 9, 2017), and under the title: “‘Farewell to you then, now I will sing on the other side…’: Phonography and Memory” (in Greek), at the Conference in honor of Theodoros Paradellis, Department of Social Anthropology and History, University of the Aegean, Mytilene, Greece, May 19, 2017. I wish to thank the organizers and curators of these events for their kind invitation, as well as all the wonderful audiences in the aforementioned performances and lectures for their attendance, participation, and most stimulating and insightful questions and comments.

 

Notes to Acknowledgements 

[1] The text I have authored to accompany Charalambous’ page in documenta 14 daybook reads: “Where do voices go when we no longer hear them?” For more than a century they would go on gramophone records, 45 rpm singles, and 12-inch vinyl LPs, but also on some very special, handmade 78 rpm records, the 10-inch acetates, which you could use to record your own voice and send to your familiars, no matter how far away they lived. Specifically, emigrants in America used them often, relying on their grooves to carry their voices across the Atlantic.

What does a collector-artist do when he discovers such an archive of records in the forgotten stacks of a secondhand shop in Athens? What kind of responsibility does he assume toward these voices, or toward the people they address? What kind of relationship can he, Panos Charalambous, born in 1955 in Aetolia-Acarnania, Greece, form with them? How should he handle the vulnerable life of these voices? And, if he decided to return them to their original recipients, when, where, and how to do so?

Every time these records are played, they are irreparably worn. The voices have been engraved on sensitive material, susceptible to time and duration. Every temporary resurrection promotes their total annihilation; they can only exist if one assumes responsibility for their precarious existence, accepting their course to destruction by resurrecting them one more time; taking their lives into one’s hands and brushing aside the fear of their death.

Are some resurrections, however, more valuable than others? The needle does not catch in the grooves the same way each time: the voices may return even more clearly, despite the noise from the material of the record itself, from the deep cuts and the painful scratches. It may only take the right room, perhaps the room where the voices were first listened to, under the photographs that preserve the image of the people speaking, when images finally meet their voices once again, along with the living voices of the people who recognize them, for memory to speak. Ruins as well as resurrections, these vocal monuments are the “black marble” of the last century (http://www.documenta14.de/en/artists/13576/panos-charalambous).

 

 

Panayotis Panopoulos is Assistant Professor of Music and Dance at the Department of Social Anthropology and History, University of the Aegean, Greece. His research interests concern the anthropology of sound, voice and performance. He is currently conducting research on the culture of the Deaf community in Greece and participating in projects with visual artists. “Voice-o-graph”, a recent collaborative project with visual artist Panos Charalambous, was presented at documenta 14, Athens/ Kassel in June and July 2017. He has been a Research Visiting Fellow at Princeton University (2002-3, 2012) and the University of California, Berkeley (2009). https://aegean.academia.edu/PanayotisPanopoulos

 

 

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