Composing by Framing

Jed Speare
The Wounds Of Returning: Sound Works II 1974-1983

We received our copy of this Jed Speare compilation in March 2016. We now find that this unique American phonographer sadly passed away in May this year. Since there are not many compilations or instances of his work available, and you’re not fortunate enough to own Sound Works 1982-1987 released by Family Vineyard in 2008, then this collection from Farpoint Recordings deserves your immediate investigation. It’s published as a CD with a large fold-out printed in full colour with photographs and annotations.

The 1982 LP Cable Car Soundscapes, released by Folkways in America may help you situate his work in context. It appears to be a species of documentary recording crossed with journalistic tendencies, telling a story with its collage of sounds and voices. Christopher DeLaurenti has described Speare’s skill as “composing by framing” in his recent tribute; “interviews are edited with phrases carefully sequenced not only for “the story” but for the mood, humor, and the irony inherent in the then-imminent phasing out of San Francisco’s once iconic cable cars.” [1. Source: A Tribute To Jed Speare,]

I found that view helpful to understand ‘Écrier’, a substantial 1983 work which opens this collection. It’s a set of field recordings collected over three days, and the composer uses familiar musique concrète techniques of aural transformation and repetition. It was recorded at a French psychiatric hospital and comprises recordings of the building, with its echoey corridors and hard floors (you can almost see the linoleum or parquet flooring in these vivid recordings), but also recordings of voices of three patients. “The doctor knew that these voices were special”, reports Speare diplomatically, and with considerable empathy he deploys his recordings of these “remarkable speech patterns” in the body of the work. Without prejudice, we are drawn into the world of the institution and catch a glimpse of the innermost lives of these inmates, with their strange repetitions and murmurings. I am sure it wouldn’t be far off the mark to find parallels with Fred Wiseman’s 1967 film, Titicut Follies.

‘Mettle of Metal’ is an extract from the Cable Car LP noted above. Starting out as pure documentary of mechanical sounds, it soon enters a zone of profound transformation to create mesmerising, dream-like images of abstract cable cars. The subtlety and craft of this work is extraordinary and represents a very honest sound portrait; Speare does not call attention to himself, or his techniques, but keeps us focussed on the subject and the sounds. In his notes here Speare tells us the project was originally sponsored by a commercial company, but he sold the rights to Folkways because he knew they would keep it in print in perpetuity. [2. You can purchase a custom CD, cassette or download from]


Another lengthy work here is ‘White Strand’, a 1983 piece of which we hear some 22 minutes of excerpts; it’s slightly more conventionally “musical” than some of the other sound art on this collection, and documents a performance event in San Francisco with the artists Rob List and Wendelien Haveman. In these beautifully muted and muffled recordings we can make out an accordion, piano, percussion and strings playing short phrases in overlapping loops, generating a sort of spastic minimalism; like Terry Riley’s In C performed by grasshoppers. Speare may or may not have been adding his slowed-down recordings of a ferry boat to this event, but he remains largely silent and mysterious as to his exact contributions. “The sounds in my work…become obscured through the transformative process working with them.” They did it in a roomy loft space in a neon production shop in SF, and it seems important that they were able to occupy the entirety of this space. ‘White Strand’ is a compelling piece of gorgeous, naturalistic noise; I can see why Christopher DeLaurenti is inspired by Speare, and we could also see parallels with work of fellow American Jim Haynes.

In company of the above, the extraordinary ‘Crib Death of an Astronaut’ seems uncharacteristic, but it’s still an exciting three-minute mash-up of noise, produced mainly by the process of tapes passing over the playback heads at high speeds. Rehearsal tapes of 1980s band Flipper, and noises from the Moon Cresta arcade game, are layered into this heady rush of sound. It’s one part of a collaboration between Speare and the performance artist Reverend Billy, who preaches evangelistic messages against the excesses of consumerist society. I think this eventually became a multi-media theatre piece called Automystica-American Yoga, of which this ‘Astronaut’ piece, with help from film-maker Perter McCandless, was one segment.

Also here: two musical compositions for chamber instruments Speare wrote in the 1970s, ‘Canto’ and ‘Espy’; and the short but astonishing ‘Idiolect II’, a voice piece that gives us a glimpse of Speare’s work in the 1976 group Philadelphia New Language Actions; it may appear to be improvised voice work, but is in fact a carefully orchestrated set of vowel sounds and consonants prepared by Speare.

A true pleasure to be introduced to the work of this impressive phonographer and ecologist; a set like this can only hint at the depth and breadth of his work and many collaborations, but it’s a very good place to start.