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Maximilian Plessner: “Antiphone” (1884)


November 13, 2012, 1:55pm

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Roald Dahl: “The Sound Machine” (excerpt)


Famed for such beloved stories as James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Norwegian-British author Roald Dahl is not someone you would expect to encounter on the esoteric pathways of sonic experimentation.  But Dahl’s short story “The Sound Machine,” originally published in The New Yorker in 1949, belongs without question to the literary tradition of imagined technologies of the musically fantastic.  This tradition, most famously represented by E. T. A. Hoffmann in the early 19th century, envisions sound technology as a sort of prosthetic ear allowing us to hear the phenomenal world we know exists but cannot sense—the domain of what Douglas Kahn calls the “impossible inaudible.”

"The Sound Machine" tells the story of an eccentric inventor by the name of Klausner, who is working feverishly on a device that will make audible the tones beyond the scope of human hearing—ultrasound.  The machine functions, as Klausner explains, "like a radio": in real time, it captures ultrasonic vibrations and transposes them down into the range of audibility.

Klausner sighed and clasped his hands tightly together.  ’I believe,’ he said, speaking more slowly now, ‘that there is a whole world of sound about us all the time that we cannot hear.  It is possible that up there in those high-pitched inaudible regions there is a new exciting music being made, with subtle harmonies and fierce grinding discords, a music so powerful that it would drive us mad if only our ears were tuned to hear the sound of it.  There may be anything…for all we know there may—’

'Yes,' the Doctor said, 'But it's not very probable.'

'Why not? Why not?'  Klausner pointed to a fly sitting on a small roll of copper wire on the workbench.  'You see that fly?  What sort of noise is that fly making now?  None—that one can hear.  But for all we know the creature may be whistling like mad on a very high note, or barking or croaking or singing a song.  It's got a mouth, hasn't it?  It's got a throat!'

The Doctor looked at the fly and he smiled.  He was still standing by the door with his hands on the doorknob.  ’Well,’ he said.  ’So you’re going to check up on that?’

'Some time ago,' Klausner said, 'I made a simple instrument that proved to me the existence of many odd inaudible sounds.  Often I have sat and watched the needle of my instrument recording the presence of sound vibrations in the air when I myself could hear nothing.  And those are the sounds I want to listen to.  I want to know where they come from and who or what is making them.’

Klausner’s experiments with his sound machine unveil a world of hitherto unknown phenomena, just as he expects.  But, as with most stories of this ilk, there is a dark, Faustian twist: what Klausner hears is no harmonious “music of the spheres,” but something of unspeakable horror that shatters him forever…

As he listened, he became conscious of a curious sensation, a feeling that his ears were stretching out away from his head, that each ear was connected to his head by a thin stiff wire, like a tentacle, and that the wires were lengthening, that the ears were going up and up towards a secret and forbidden territory, a dangerous ultrasonic region where ears had never been before and had no right to be.

I will not give away any more about the plot of the story.  Unfortunately, it is not available online, though it has been published in several collections of Dahl’s writings.  As evidence of the story’s haunting and suggestive power, it has also been adapted for other media numerous times since its original publication. Probably the earliest of these adaptations appeared in 1952 in the comic book Weird Science, in a considerably modified form, under the title “The Sounds from Another World”:

In 1981, “The Sound Machine” was adapted for television as part of the British series Tales of the Unexpected, which regularly featured vignettes based on Dahl’s stories:

Finally, there is a handful of modern short film versions available on the internet. The most artful of these is by Zahid Chohan, who took the bold step of realizing Dahl’s story entirely without dialogue.

May 25, 2010, 9:28pm

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