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Memory lessons

IT'S SEPT. 9, 1951, in Richmond, and Nubella Johnson has just gotten into town with her mother, husband, and children after a long night in the car. Nubella drove all the way, anxious to start her vacation with the rest of her family in Apartment K at 451 Commercial Ave. By 12:45 a.m. the kids have finally gone to sleep, and the Johnsons sit down to record a letter to Nubella's brother Lester on the phonograph. They lead in with some quiet, bluesy piano jazz, and then Nubella tells Lester how much she misses him. "There's so many things I could say," she says, holding back tears, "but I just can't get them together." Nubella tells Lester she wishes she had sent the record sooner, before "everything went wrong."

You could still do this back in the '50s. You could still use your phonograph to record audio letters, or "recordio-grams" as they were known, on special blank recordable discs and then send them to friends or loved ones in predesigned envelopes, often stamped with slogans like "a personally recorded message for you." The recordio-gram was the last remaining trace of Edison's original intention for the phonograph, a talking-machine that could talk memories, the first apparatus that could record and store memories in sound.

The first time Edison recorded his own voice was the first time a voice could not only be played back to its owner but also be made to outlive its owner. The advent of the recorded voice was the advent of the disembodied voice – the voice that contained the self but could be separate from it, the voice that could travel without needing the warm body of blood and tissue where it once resided in vibrations, muscle, and bone. "The world that existed prior to our ability to study the recorded human voice," remarks the phono-obsessed narrator of Marcel Beyer's remarkable 1997 novel The Karnau Tapes, "had yet to become a world worthy of that name."

Beyer's narrator works as the chief sound archivist for the Third Reich but in his spare time is a collector of phonographically recorded sound on a mission to make a "vocal atlas" of the world around him. He is particularly enamored with the recorded human voice and its ability to work as a vessel of memory – a voice that contains and transmits the history of its owner. "I shall always find it inexplicable," he marvels at one point, "that a recorded voice – just the fluttering of someone else's vocal cords – should have such power to stir the emotions." He believes that because each moment of speech leaves a scar on the vocal cords, we are all marked individually by traces of our voice, our larynxes holding the unseen key to an autobiography that most of us never knew we were writing.

Lester may have never received his sister's voice letter, but more than half a century later it's the first track on The Private Press, the new album of sample-based music from DJ Shadow. There's a little of Beyer's narrator in Shadow, who likewise lives to collect sounds and then figure out what to do with the records that records keep. In his hunt for new vocal lines and breakbeats, Shadow presumably came across the Johnson recordio-gram like he would any old record, another piece of vinyl collecting dust in a thrift store, its memories waiting to be unlocked by a complete stranger. But unlike the way he tweaks Dennis Olivieri's "I Cry in the Morning" on "Six Days" or Barry O'Brian's "Tell Me Why the Tape Wobbles" on "Right Thing," Shadow doesn't sample Nubella. He lets her letter to Lester play at the beginning and end of the album, turning one woman's personal correspondence meant for no one's ears other than her own brother's into a conceptual frame for a beat-bolstered collage of stolen moments that retails for $17.99.

Shadow's use of personal voice recordings is one step more evolved than Damien Jurado's recent collection Postcards and Audio Letters. Instead of phonograph letters, Jurado focuses on taped letters he found – two sides of taped correspondence between two struggling lovers and a report from a 1983 Christmas. Jurado also includes discarded answering machine tapes that captured a divorced couple bitterly fighting over the safety of their child ("I don't care what you like," the man barks to his ex. "You can't do jack-dick about it. That's really stupid. Don't fuck with my life just because it's not up to your expectations").

As compelling as the recordings are, Jurado just compiles them and edits them together into separate tracks. Shadow uses Nubella's letter to hint at a larger statement about the spacious post-hip-hop and neo-electro landscapes he surrounds it with. He suggests that contemporary pop music, at its core, comes from the same place as Nubella's letter to Lester, from the unceasing desire to record our lives in our own voices, to give our memories a sound of their own.

E-mail Josh Kun at jksfbg@aol.com