“It may not be universally known that you can play CDROM software disks on ordinary audio CD-players. The digital sequence is misread as an analog signal. Eighteenth-century English poetry, as interpreted by my Yamaha stereo receiver and peripherals, generated an edgy square-wave buzz, around a low E-natural, a discordia concors lower than a table saw (except when it is cutting a piece of wood with a split end), more like one of those neck hair trimmers that the stylist pulls
out of a drawer in the final phase of a haircut, but with excellent spatial separation and some gratuitous conchshell oceania on top. Disk 3 (1800-1900, poets A-K) sounded much the same. Every so often the power-substation effects would let up a little and there would be some shortlived but lyrical swooshing, as of several cooling hoses playing over the mind at once, although this was not nearly as pronounced as in the excellent Library of the Future CDROM, Version 3 (which offers the complete texts of “over 1,750 historical, classical, and cultural tides” for $149.95): this has some very well-defined swooshing intervals that put me in mind of the circular-sander finishes that David Smith used for his big minimalist sculptures, finishes that as you stare into them become three-dimensional, and yet, like some works of science fiction, yield little in real brain-nourishment. As a beginner’s encyclopedia, played on a computer, it has its uses (offering black-and-white pictures of lumber mills, for instance), but as a found John Cage for headphones, as a multimedia dramatization of James Russell Lowell’s phrase about “the omniscience of superficial study”, perfect.
The CD-ROM that works best under this sort of auditory misprision, though, is Compton’s Encyclopedia.
The first track is given over to the usual vagrant digital buzzing and swooshing. But in track two, the left and right channels split, and each carries a separate inventory of audio clips.
In your right ear you hear an intelligent woman reading alphabetized words like abdominal cavity, adrenal, algae, brackish, bronchial tree, catastrophic, cephalothorax, conflicting, and contour feathers, while in your left, a Ted
Baxtery voice booms out political clichés. (“Give me liberty or give me death!” “The British are coming!” “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!”) The woman quietly continues with: massive collapse, minute food particles, and mucous membrane, while Roosevelt angrily declares war on “the Japanese empire.”
You’ll hear potential energy, prolonged, protective coloration, pyroclastic rocks, receptors, rectangular grid, residues, rhythmic pulsing, savage, and serrated bristles, over Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Stoloniferous, structural defects, taxonomic order, and tentacles accompany Kennedy’s “Ask not” speech. Underground burrows, vulcanism, and voluntary muscle are superimposed over a moment from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Water-dwelling species comes in over the bark of a dog, a mosquito whines over the Equal Rights Amendment. A third didactic man intones gerlike projection over some hooting monkeys, and he enunciates encroaching and engorgement over the casual grunts of a pig. The experience is hypnotizing, draining, and not to be missed: it is like living through four years in a suburban school in forty-five minutes.”