Dictaphones became popular circa 1910, through the Columbia Gramophone Company, as a way of transcribing speech. Using wax cylinders, which by this point had been replaced by disc technology for most sound recording, these devices, resembling elaborate hookahs, were the last vestiges of Alexander Graham Bell’s revolutionary discoveries in sound fidelity. Some still claim that cylindrical wax’s actual aural replication is far superior than any other mode of recording, including our current strings of zeros and ones. These are important arguments, I think, but beyond my scope here.
The band Dictaphone has, ironically, eschewed the use of voice in its two previous LP’s, Vertigo II and M.=Addiction, for a language of machine-like hisses, sighs, and glitches punctuated by sparse strings and euro-jazzy clarinet riffs. This Belgian collective, led by composer Oliver Doerell, continues the formula on Poems from a Rooftop, but does include the spoken word on one notable track, “Rattle,” as well as elements of speech in the title song and “Maelbeek” (reference to a small “green space” in Brussels which many see as a monument in direct opposition to Belgium’s growing urbanization). If the album title looks familiar, it’s because you may remember that during Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009, citizens, in fear of government persecution, protested from their rooftops.
You’ll find Dictaphone under the genre “electronic,” which is, of course, misleading. All recorded music is electronic in the sense that electronic signals are required to transmit sound to contemporary recording devices, even those we may call “digital,” a distinction which complicates things even further (though it is true that there is no digital signal without an electronic one first). Besides the fact that Dictaphone uses traditional classical instrumentation in it’s compositions, the “electronic” elements of the music are often sampled “field noises”–meaning they are sounds recorded from the world, rather than sounds created by “electronic” instruments, like a Moog, say, or, to complicate things again, an electric guitar. If anything, these sound pieces are acts of resistance against the very idea of classification. And yet this is a controlled rebellion, each tune unfolding carefully and melodically, respectful of the silence which makes it possible.
Behind the idea of the dictaphone, or recorded sound in general, is the idea of capture–arresting motion, which is life, and, by artificial means, fixing it in time. And one wonders about these etchings in wax, the pressure of a stylus against a supple medium, vibrations and currents switching from off to on, on to off, off-off and on again, silence to non-silence–sounds that in Tolstoy’s words are “too dreadfully exciting” to not find means of impression.