Affective Traces: Sounds of Intimacy and the Phenomenology of the Voice in Amateur Tape Exchange during the Vietnam Conflict

Matthew Campbell

Cognitive Ethnomusicologist, Ohio State University, USA

“It was just more … real … as if they were there. Personal … in a way a letter couldn’t be. The tapes were really what got me through it.” These words from my grandfather, Lt. Col. James T. Gunby, allude to the palliative and intersubjective salience of the voice, communicated between Spokane and Khorat via technology newly available to military families during the Vietnam Conflict: the portable reel-to-reel tape recorder. Based on dialogic interpretations of five reels recorded in 1967, this paper details the verbal framings, multimedia juxtapositions, and paralinguistic performances through which my grandparents and their children shared the minutiae of their daily lives while negotiating their overlapping roles as husband/father/pilot, wife/mother/provider, and together, partner, confidant, and citizen. In their experimentation with recording, my grandparents gave aural form to their letter-writing practices, opening generative gaps between intention and execution, the symbolic and the real. These gaps reveal and reify intimate “excesses” from silences to frame breaks, the “grain” of the voice to bodily expression, and comments on the medium itself. I argue that it is precisely these unintended “spillages” which engendered a sense of immediacy and “closeness” both my grandparents described as essential to their relationship. Far from ephemeral, these tapes provided a sense of grounded materiality and malleability beyond that of a written letter. They captured the affective soundscapes of the officer’s club, rambunctious living room, and twilight bedroom while also remaining open to endless rewinding/replaying, creating active listening spaces more immersive than the inner-languaging of reading and imbued with the spontaneity of the unrehearsed and unexpected. While enduring the fear and separation of wartime military life, reel-to-reel supplied my family with a novel means of constituting temporary “presences” to bridge the geographic, temporal, and affective distances that divided them.

10:30 (PRM Lecture Theatre) Saturday, November 24
Session 1: Active Cultures of Recording


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