12 O'Clock Track: Ruth White, "The Litanies of Satan" | Bleader

12 O'Clock Track: Ruth White, "The Litanies of Satan"


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Ruth White
  • Ruth White
Early electronic-music composer Ruth White, born in Pittsburgh in 1925, doesn't enjoy the posthumous celebrity of her UK counterparts Delia Derbyshire or Daphne Oram, probably because she spent the bulk of her career, from the mid-50s onward, making educational recordings—among the helpful characters she devised were Mr. Windbag (who debuted in 1974 with his adventures in Metric Land) and Professor Whatzit & Carmine Cat.

On the other hand, she was also one of a tiny handful of students ever taken on by avant-garde composer George Antheil, most famous for his Ballet Mecanique, whose ensemble included multiple synchronized player pianos and three airplane engines (and somewhat less famous for developing a frequency-hopping torpedo-guidance system with actress Hedy Lamarr). In the late 60s and early 70s she made three fiercely experimental albums, including 1969's Flowers of Evil, which accompanied her radically processed voice—reciting her own unrhymed translations of Baudelaire's poetry—with multiple layers of synth and tape. Today's 12 O'Clock Track, "The Litanies of Satan," sounds like an occult ceremony conducted by Daleks.


In the liner notes, White explains her approach and process—and believe me, "dehumanized" is a perfectly apt term for what she's done to her voice. I'll let her do the talking for a spell:

To me, Baudelaire's poems are of such unique power that they always seem to rise above the level of the personal and sometimes existential nature of their content. In this composition, I have attempted to parallel the transcendental qualities of the poetry through electronic means.

For the words, I used my own voice as the generator of the original sound to be altered or "dehumanized." This seemed practical since my experiments with the medium were too time consuming to have been easily accomplished with a collaborator.

To modulate my voice, I used a variety of techniques. Changes of timbre were achieved with filters. Tape speed changes were used to control pitch. Into the shape of some words, I injected sound waves and white noise, thus changing the quality of their sound but not the flow of their delivery. By adding reverberation, I varied atmospheres and decreased or increased space illusions. To accent special words or phrases, I used controlled tape delays. Choruses were created by combining slight delays with multiple track recordings.

The musical settings around the voice were made with music concrète materials, a Moog synthesizer, other electronic generators, and conventional instruments, which were usually altered electronically.

In the translations, there was no attempt to rhyme the verse as in the original French poems. I tried only to keep the language as direct and simple as possible, for I always found that the dominating power of Baudelaire's ideas were in themselves of electrifying force.

The studio White built herself in 1964 is supposedly now in the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, though the museum's curatorial department hasn't returned my phone call—I'd hoped to determine whether the studio was on display, and perhaps get in touch with White directly or at least hear some news about her present whereabouts. I'm not even sure she's still alive. She'd be 86 or 87, which certainly isn't outside the realm of possibility. Anybody out there know anything?

Thanks to Chicago comics artist Anya Davidson for the tip.