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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Telephone Love

My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.

When I randomly search through my archives, I often discover themes just waiting for me to find them. One such theme is that of telephone sounds used in electronic music. Along with radio broadcast sounds, the sounds of telephone networks comprise one of the original sources that inspired the earliest electronic music. These might range from the obvious, the sounds of telephones and telephone conversations used in popular music but can also extend to more experimental electronic music in which sounds generated by the telephone system have been used in the abstract based on the qualities of the sounds themselves.

I set about searching through the archives for telephone sounds and this podcast is a sampling of what I found. Communication in electrical sound. Isn’t that what the telephone system is? That many artists have found ways of using the soundscape of communication networks in electronic music is not so surprising. Generations of telephone equipment created the ghost sounds of networks past that can be followed in music over the decades.

Some of the recordings are from the libraries of Bell Telephone Labs and AT&T, mostly old advertisements about the future of telephony or, as in the case of one cassette recording, pre-recorded messages that they called “telephone tunes” intended for use in analog cassette answering machines. Remember those?

In researching this I gathered some sounds that have been assembled by one Evan Doorbell. Evan's Phone Tapes are a fascinating "documentary" of what the phone system sounded like during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Evan has recorded many hours of "phone tapes" of the old phone network. Evan has posted both narrated tapes with his commentary and "raw tapes" without narration to the Telephone World website where they can be heard.

The story of Jane Barbe is worth noting for her voice pops-up in many of the operator recordings of the telephone network. Jane was a voice actress who lent her talents to the readings of many general messages for various phone companies, including AT&T. She began recording messages for the Audichron Company, announcing time, temperature, and weather, which earned her the nickname of the “Time Lady.” In the 1970s and 1980s, she regularly recorded intercept messages used when a number is disconnected or dialing errors. Jane died in 2003 but her spirit lives on in the many splendid operator messages she delivered in that tolerant, patient, and understanding tone. Some of the other operations heard in this program were not quite as gifted as Jane, as you will hear. For this episode I created a track called “Telephone Work” using sounds from Evan Doorbell’s library of sounds and operator voices. You are listening to some snippets of the raw sounds right now as background to this introduction.

I have some other forms of vintage recordings that show how central to our lives the telephone has been for so many years. Going back to 1916, I have an early Victor recording of comedian Barney Bernard performing “Cohen at the Telephone” in all its scratchy glory. Then we will hear a recording from 1950 by Helen Myers who put together a playtime record for children, billed as an action game, with the simulated sounds of a telephone operator in action. I also explored some possibilities for including an LP recording from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago for a 1969 exhibit called Art of the Telephone. For this occasion, the museum called a couple dozen artists—all male by the way which is kind of too bad—and asked them to record by telephone a description of what they planned. The LP serves to document that exhibit. The entire recording is about 45 minutes long but I’ve excerpted about 10 minutes of select portions for this podcast. We will also hear several short telephone works, the Telephone Piece by Yoko Ono, Telephone Song by Laurie Anderson, and Telephone Symphony by Phil Millstein. Several other works are included along the way, all closing with an extended version of The Telephone Call by Kraftwerk that includes some additional telephone effects and operator disconnect messages.

You can check out the playlist for this podcast for the complete details about each track.

Episode 87

Telephone Love


1. June Carol Lodge, Telephone Love from the 12” 45 Telephone Love (1988 Pow Wow). Produced in Jamaica and featuring Reggae singer, actress and fine artist Lodge. 6:17

2. Laurie Anderson, “Telephone Song” from United States Live (1984 Warner Bros.). United States Live was recorded live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York City, Feb. 7-10, 1983. Voice and electronics (telephone), Laurie Anderson. 1:27

3. Helen Myers, Telephone (1950) from Let’s Play (1950 Victor). A 78 RPM shellac double disc set billed as, “Exciting action games with true-to-life sound effects.” “We dial the operator with our imaginary phone and there she is!” intones the instructions. This simulated telephone operator places a long distance call, sends a telegram, and connects for a call to South America. 3:40

4. Bell Telephone Systems youth commercial, 1969. 0:35

5. Barney Bernard, “Cohen At The Telephone” from Cohen At The Telephone / Goldstein Goes In The Railroad Business (1916 Victor). 3:23

6. A∀A∀A, “Telephone Song” from A∀A∀A (1991 A5 records). UK release featuring Bass Guitar, Andy Pile; Composed by, musician, producer, Derek Timms; Guitar, Voice, Dzal Martin; Noises, Producer, Steg Read; Percussion, Kwaku Dzozornu; Piano, John Jolliffe; Voice, Barny James, Cid Bishop, Ellen Parry, Steve Norchi; Voice, Bass Trombone, Trombone, Lol Cottle; Voice, Drums, Gary Ferguson. 5:41

7. Kraftwerk, “House Phone” from The Telephone Call (1987 Warner Bros.). 45 RPM EP with three variations of The Telephone Call from the album Electric Café (1986 Warner Bros). This song has some variations on the phone sounds and is quite a different compostion entirely. Synclavier programming, John Mahoney; written by Schneider, Bartos, Hutter. 4:56

8. AT&T, Telephone Tunes: Pre-Recorded Outgoing Announcements for Telephone Answering Systems (1992 AT&T). Cassette of pre-recorded novelty answering machine messages. The tape begins with instructions then plays two of the eight tones I’ve selected (“No Bones Rap” and “Phone Blues”). 1:20

9. Art by Telephone, complete transcript, Museum Of Contemporary Art Chicago (1969). From the liner notes: "Shortly after its opening, the Museum of Contemporary Art planned an exhibition to record the trend, incipient then and pervasive today, toward conceptualization of art. This exhibition, scheduled for the spring of 1968 and abandoned because of technical difficulties, consisted of works in different media, conceived by artists in this country and Europe and executed in Chicago on their behalf. The telephone was designated the most fitting means of communication in relaying instructions to those entrusted with fabrication of the artists' projects or enactment of their ideas. To heighten the challenge of a wholly verbal exchange, drawings, blueprints or written descriptions were avoided. A key role in producing this exhibition has been played by the museum's curator, David H. Katzive. He not only conducted and edited the crucial telephone conversations but directed the production and enactment of the works in the exhibition." (Jan van der Marck, from liner notes). An exhibition organised by the Museum of Contemporary Art under the sponsorship of the American National Bank and Trust Company of Chicago. November 1 to December 14, 1969. I have excerpted 10 minutes of the artist proposals. I couldn’t help but notice that the only contributors to the exhibit were male artists, so I apologize in advance for this slice of chauvinism from the late 1960s. Still, the conversations are interesting. 9:44

10.Thom Holmes, “Telephone Work” (2022 Privately Issued). I thought it would be fun to gather some telephone sounds from the 70s, 80, and 90s and remix them into a piece of music. All of the sounds originated with the extensive library of archival sounds collected by Evan Doorbell and made available on the Telephone World website. I worked with various network sounds from different generations of phones and networks plus many examples of operator voices, especially that of Jane Barbe, the most frequently used recorder of general operator messages for AT&T. 5:08

11.Matteo Uggeri, “Upside Down” by Comaneci from The Telephone (2022 Grey Sparkle). Matteo Uggeri is an Italian visual designer and composer from Milan. Uggeri made phone calls to a variety of musicians and asked them to sing a song on the telephone. This is one result. The album was released in three formats, from an extremely limited to 15 copies "Dial Box Edition", that includes a real old hacked (but working) phone handset with a true 3.5mm audio jack; a limited CDr with 85 different black and white postcards covers included; and an edition of 30 cassettes. 3:32

12.Hal McGee, “Kitchen Sink Sinfonietta” from Tapegerm Collection Volume Five (2007 HalTapes). Loops Didgeridoo, Voice & Guitar, Ed Drury; Loops Organ, Hebephrenic; Music By "xxxxx", The Joke Project; Noises Collab Fragments, Zan Hoffman; Noises Miscellaneous Audio Fragments From Videotapes, Andrew Chadwick, Blast, Brandon Abell, Charles Smith, Christopher Miller, Gina Vivinetto, Jen Abell, Ron Palachik, Tom Miller; Noises Sound Files, Cjjbrozt; Theremin, Keyboards Casio Va-10, Jen Abell; Vocals 1986 Telephone Conversation, Charlie Goff, Debbie Jaffe, Hal McGee. 11:17

13.Yoko Ono, “Telephone Piece” from Fly (1971 Apple) 1:01. The closing track on this double-LP by Yoko. 0:32

14.T.D.C. (Techno Dance Club), “Your Telephone (Radio Edit)” from Technonation (1994 Anima Vox). Russian techno dance music with the telephone theme. T.D.C. is performed, arranged, and mixed by Вадим Угрюмов, Дмитрий Машуков (Vadim Ugryumov, Dmitry Mashukov). 4:08

15.X-Ctasy, “Call Me Mr. Telephone” from Call Me Mr Telephone (1990 Smile Production). Italian release written and produced by L Nicolosi, Tony Carrasco. 6:09

16.Phil Milstein, “Telephone Symphony” from Tapeworm: SFX By Phil Milstein (1990 50,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Watts Records). US-based artist and tape manipulator, Phil Milstein. 1:01

17.Kraftwerk, “The Telephone Call Remix” from The Telephone Call (1987 Warner Bros.). Synclavier programming, John Mahoney; written by Schneider, Bartos, Hutter; Remix by Francois Kevorkian, Kraftwerk, Ron St. Germain. This is an extended version of the original album track and includes different languages and other operator messages not heard in the original. 8:12

Opening background sounds: Network sounds originally recorded by Evan Doorbell and arranged/edited by Thom Holmes.

Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.

Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.

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