Have we reached peak vinyl? That seems the most likely explanation for the reissue of the obscure spoken-word album, Speech after the Removal of the Larynx, originally released by Smithsonian Folkways in 1964 and belonging to a narrow audio category that may be best described as medical documentary. Sure, you may know somebody who owns two different albums of babies crying (used to diagnose illness), or perhaps even a series of 45s that teach medical English to German doctors, reenacting scenarios applying to varying specialties. But that’s one person, one sick, hoarding individual (who or may not may be the author of this piece). Yet the October release of this Hippocratic curio suggests an appeal to more than just the medical professional and the crazy record collector. In an age when digital communication is instant and easy, this analog platter taps a basic fear: What would we do if we could no longer communicate?

Like a horror movie from David Cronenberg’s prime, Speech after the Removal of the Larynx, for all its clinical distance, documents a kind of body horror. The larynx is the small organ near the top of the neck that controls speech and breathing. Unfortunately, laryngeal cancer results in the need to remove the organ, severing the patient’s ability to verbalize their thoughts and desires. Liner notes by Dr. Harm A. Drost, head of the speech department at a prestigious Dutch teaching hospital, may primarily appeal to student physicians, but despite the clinical illustrations and photographs, there is an element of poetry, and dread, in the undertaking. Drost writes, “[w]e cannot imagine what it is like to be really ‘dumb.’ Even the individual who finds himself faced with the loss of his vocal organ cannot begin to conceive the proportions of this loss.”

It’s that dread that makes the album more than just an educational artifact. A doctor with a distinct accent of his own narrates the set, and he opens by introducing the pleasant sounds of a coloratura soprano, Mado Robin. Cinematically, this is the establishing shot of normalcy, a peaceful day in the neighborhood or at the opera. But then the album shifts into a kind of scared-straight public service announcement. From this peak of human vocal capability, the record descends into the other end of the spectrum: “Man without Larynx.” The attempt at speech sounds painful, and not just physically. The listener hears (projects?) a tangible, emotional wound that one imagines comes from the profound inability to express oneself.

In a sense, the album recalls the episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” in which a temporarily paralyzed Joseph Cotton tries in vain to let emergency techs and morgue staff know that he isn’t a corpse—he’s alive! The distorted speech heard here seems to cry out in a similar distress.

The recordings demonstrate how humans have been able to adapt, with varying success and intelligibility, to the loss of the larynx. The most promising method has been to substitute use of the larynx with the esophagus, which leads to a distinct, gravelly tone that can sound jarring. The track “Basic Sound of the Esophageal Voice” is a vivid sample, and beyond the album’s instructional purpose, seems ready for some enterprising turntablist to scratch and add beats. Anybody working on a horror movie soundtrack would do also well to use its unearthly timbres. If this suggests that physical disability makes the larynx-challenged into an Other to be shunned, then that says something crucial about the human condition: we fear and avoid those who are unable to communicate. Which explains Twitter, doesn’t it?

With 14 tracks totaling 22 minutes, the album ends up costing more than a dollar a minute, which may seem too much for something with such limited entertainment value. You might think that this was the kind of album you could be able to dig out of your local dollar bin, but original copies have gone for as much as three figures. Previous archival releases on the eclectic Fantome Phonographique label have ranged from an album by legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum to a collection of recordings made in the early 20th century by Alessandro Moreschi, the last known castrato. Despite catering to such specialized tastes, one wonders how easy it will be for Speech after the Removal of the Larynx to sell out even its meager edition of 500 copies. But it is indeed a fascinating document, and one that even ends with a track that suggests a perhaps prescient concept. On the final track, a patient uses a Western Electric device to sing a halting performance of “God Save the King,” which seems resonant to our volatile era.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Various Artists: The Ladies of Too Slow to Disco 2

Quality, catchy music that deserves your respect. …