The amateur tape recording of literary readings and lectures began almost overnight around 1960 – mostly due to the sudden availability of 4-track portable tape recorders to the domestic market. I say “overnight,” because until the invention and use of transistors to replace vacuum tubes, tape recorders were large, bulky and expensive devices, often the size (and weight) of a small piano, and found mainly in commercial sites such as radio stations and recording studios. Even these machines were very recent. Audio recording on magnetic tape had been first developed in World War II Germany. Examples of the German machines had been brought to the U.S. after the war and used as the basis for the Ampex company’s equipment that in 1948 could pre-record Bing Crosby’s radio shows. Crosby had helped finance its development. Marketing of monophonic portable tape recorders to the household market appears to have begun around 1955.
This emergence of portable tape recorders was coinciding with the development of stereophonic sound recording and with the marketing of both stereo LPs and pre-recorded stereo reel-to-reel tapes, media which throughout the 1960s would compete with one another (with the LPs being cheaper and the pre-recorded tapes superior in sound). Many of the early portable tape recorders could play these stereo tapes but could record only monophonically. The 1959 advertisement above by Norelco advertises a machine that is the “stereo version” of a previous portable monophonic model. These new machines were not cheap – the stereo Norelco (marketed in Canada as a Philips)
Audio equipment to play the new stereo LPs was also expensive, and the prices motivated many people to build amplifiers and preamplifiers from plans or kits that became available from companies such as now legendary Heathkit. My college roommate in 1959-62, William (Bill) Walker, a music major, was one such person, and had built a vacuum-tube based amplifier which he planned to be eventually part of stereo system. He worked part-time and in summers at a repair shop as a radio and television technician, and through that shop was able to buy at discount in 1960 the Norelco machine above. In July of 1961, when Robert Duncan came to Vancouver to give three lectures on contemporary poetics in Warren Tallman’s basement to Tallman’s poetry students – among them myself, George Bowering, Daphne Marlatt and Fred Wah (all of whom are going to be in Kelowna), my roommate Bill volunteered to record the lectures and the first Tish-group poetry reading that followed them. No one else at the events, including Tallman, at this time owned a tape recorder. As far as I know, these may have been the first ‘amateur’ audio recordings of poetry made in Vancouver – the first recordings made outside of radio-station studios.
Making these recordings was complicated by the fact that both Bill and I had summer jobs in Abbotsford in the Fraser Valley (Bill at the radio/television repair shop), approximately 1 ½ hours from the Tallman house, and had to drive there and back for each of the three weekday night lectures, as well as for the Saturday evening group reading. The three 3-hour Duncan recordings that Bill made are now available for download on the Slought Foundation website, but listed only as being from Fred Wah’s “collection” – presumably because Fred donated his personal copies. Slought makes no mention of Bill Walker, who under Canadian law (which somewhat idiosyncratically gives copyright in audio recordings to the person or institution which causes the recording device to be operated) holds the copyright in them. It’s true that Bill has never complained about the use that those at Duncan’s lectures, and others, have made of his tapes since that 1961 summer. But his generosity both in 1961 and later would still, I’d think, be worth some acknowledgement. His recordings of the lectures are also available on the PennSound website , where each is mistakenly listed as a “reading” and given no recording credit or indication of source.
It’s fascinating to me how quickly poets and those interested in poetry adopted the new recording technology. Those summer 1961 recordings were being made only 2 years after the equipment to make them had become available to the general public. Warren Tallman would purchase a 4-track stereo tape recorder – a Wollensak T1515-4 – within the next year, probably during a summer visit to San Francisco (I don’t believe Wollensaks were ever sold in Canada). A recording of Charles Olson’s Christmas 1957 reading would begin circulating in Vancouver that year – probably through copying from Tallman’s new machine. Duncan would have a tape recorder by at least 1962 – his correspondence with Denise Levertov shows him taking his "recorder" to New Mexico (January 18, 1962: 331) and his listening to the 1963 Vancouver summer workshop tapes almost immediately after the event (September 10, 1963: 425-6). Levertov is envious, and that November tells Duncan that she wants “to buy a 4-track, like yours, probably a Sony” (429) but household expenses keep her from finding the necessary money. In 1965 she must finally have acquired one, because Duncan indicates in a July letter that he will go to the Berkeley language lab and duplicate the Vancouver tapes for her and in mid-August she thanks him for for “the tape. It is a treasure” (503). I don’t purchase one myself until the fall of 1963, when I finally have a full-time teaching position and can get one at an “education discount.” The cost for my Concord recorder is around $450 and my monthly salary, before taxes are deducted, is $490. I take the machine with me on visits to Vancouver and make copies from Tallman’s growing collection.
Was there a relationship between the tape recording of poetry readings and the growing popularity of public readings in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s? The interest in poetry as an oral performance by the poet came first, I’m sure, although amateur tape recordings helped legitimate the public reading as an editing moment, worthy of being archived as a set of textual variants, as in George Butterick’s use of them in his University of California Press editions of Olson’s poems. In my experience there was for the reader a difference between the two; the public reading was a social occasion; listening to a tape-recorded reading tended to be private, like reading a book. I don’t recall seeing people clustered around a tape recorder to hear the latest Olson or Bowering reading; moreover when Daphne Marlatt or George Bowering sent me a new poem when we were living in different cities in the later 1960s, they sent it on paper, not on a spool of tape. Tape machines and reels of tape were still too expensive to rival paper circulation, and I was editing a magazine, Open Letter, which used paper and required knowledge of the poet's visual formatting of a poem. Occasionally a publisher would include a small LP with a book, as New Directions did with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 1961 collection Starting from San Francisco, but LPs were rarely possible for the publishers of poorly financed little mags. Cassettes would be less expensive to use, and indispensable for sound poetry once adequate recording quality became possible in the early 1970s; nevertheless for another three decades paper would be the mostly unquestioned medium of magazines. On the other hand, for publishing a large group of new poems to a small audience, circulating a tape or cassette was much quicker than producing a book. One developed during the 1960s a sense of the tape recording as the latest news – tape recordings of Jack Spicer’s Vancouver lectures were circulating before a text could appear in the Georgia Straight. If one missed a reading of someone’s new poems one could catch up by finding a copy of the tape. One didn’t urgently need to attend the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference when one knew that tape recordings of every lecture and reading would quickly be available for purchase (or copying) – which is how both Denise Levertov in Temple, Maine, and myself writing qualifying exams in Los Angeles soon experienced that conference.