Tom Wolfe once quoted Marshall McLuhan declaring with "Nietzschean certitude" that artists are always engaged with the technology of the prior age. Although McLuhan often missed the mark, this point seems plausible when you read Dave Tompkins’s history of the vocoder, titled How to Wreck a Nice Beach. Tompkins explains how an instrument designed to encode wartime transmissions was repurposed by electronic musicians decades after it came into military use — and he does it not with the formal tone of a historian, but with a volcanic articulacy and deranged sense of humor more often found in post-modern fiction. Tompkins’ narrative leaps epochs, backtracks without warning, and the resulting structure is as eccentric as his madcap prose. You get the impression that the author did loving, careful research, then shuffled his deck of notecards.
How to Wreck a Nice Beach
By Dave Tompkins
Stop Smiling Books/Melville House
Mercifully, the book contains some introduction to this bizarre, obscure, and yet ubiquitous machine. A vocoder breaks human speech into frequencies, encodes them as data, and transmits the message to another machine that synthesizes the words, tone by tone, into the electronic impression of speech. It was used for top-level Allied transmissions during the second World War, scrambling exchanges between FDR and Churchill to transmit their stately voices as robotic drones. Yet it took patience to even produce coherent words as the robot spit out whatever phonemes were gathered by its rudimentary sensors. JFK, for example, is said to have switched off the machine in frustration as he tried to contact the British prime minister during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It should not be surprising to hear that the WWII cryptology experts Tompkins interviewed were unaware that the vocoder was being used in music, and none of the musicians he interviewed knew that the vocoder was once a tool of military intelligence. Tompkins’ account navigates between these two circles, sometimes with deliberate abruptness, in a narrative that is a startling compilation of interviews and archival research, but also a phantasmagoric rant. The account feels, at times, like a series of Pynchonesque episodes grounded, like Gravity’s Rainbow, in the material history of a curious machine.
The sheer oddness of the vocoder can introduce dark comedy into the most dire moments of perhaps the most dire century in human history. Tompkins mentions an engineer who remembers hearing the vocoder say “hell-bomb” after the attack on Hiroshima. This in the same book that describes a musician inspired to write his first hit single after watching the death scene in the video game Pac-Man. Artists like the free-jazz band leader Sun Ra and the German techno originators Kraftwerk were delighted to use the vocoder to produce a robotic tone that, for a handful of world leaders, had been an unpleasant distraction. The vocoder later became an integral element of Detroit techno and some of the more outré singles of early hip-hop, while the present fad of auto-tuning vocals is largely an imitation of this melodically mechanical tone. In describing one musician’s use of the vocoder, Tompkins writes, “This song didn't begin so much as it sneezed lasers and blinked out the lights.”
Then, as though the channel has been switched, the scene will return to some grim historical moment in which the vocoder played a role. For instance, the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn was forced at gunpoint to design a vocoder for the Kremlin. He once claimed Stalin wanted his own vocoder almost as much as he wanted his own atomic bomb. Held in a prison estate outside Petersburg along with other dissidents too brilliant to send to the gulag, Solzhenitsyn invented a method of synthesizing speech — a process he described in the novel The First Circle as akin to dismantling a beach and recreating it in another location. Coincidentally, when the emigre German scientist Manfred Schroeder was working on the American vocoder project, he was frustrated to find that his test phrase, “how to recognize speech,” was repeatedly misspoken by his machine as, “how to wreck a nice beach.”
This misrepresentation makes an apt title. Tompkins occasionally hints that his version of history also does not, and perhaps cannot, reach perfect fidelity. Instead, he seems to tell the story so that it evokes the particular strangeness of the vocoder. How to Wreck a Nice Beach is a patchwork of stories, sequence tangled, as though it barely matters whether Winston Churchill or Afrika Bambaataa is speaking through the vocoder. In other words, the medium, at least in this case, seems to be the message.