At 17.05 on the afternoon of 18 September 2010, Sebastiane Hegarty made what was to be the last recording of his mother’s voice (she died in April 2011). As he says, the digital tape ‘invented our last moment’; a moment of no great significance, nothing meaningful was said, except that it now marks an ending. She talks to him while looking through her drawers for her purse that she’s mislaid. She mutters about no longer being able to get out to the bank because she can’t walk there.
Hegarty had been recording their conversations since he was seven. Not for any specific purpose usually, but out of habit, inspired by his ‘lifelong fascination with sound and phonography’. Sometimes his mother knew she was being taped; at other times he recorded her voice covertly, capturing those fleeting and unimportant moments in life, the casual comments, throwaway remarks.
On Saturday’s Between the Ears, produced by Chris Ledgard (Radio 3), Hegarty gave us a portrait in sound of his mother as he had known her; not the big moments, but the everyday intimacies of family life. His mother tells stories from her teenage years in Manchester. She chats away while getting ready to go out, aged 80. She asks Sebastiane to shave off the hairs on her chin. The experience of listening to It’s Just Where I Put My Words: A Voice Remembered could have been like leafing through an album of family snapshots, filled with nostalgia and haunting memories, Hegarty giving us the outline shape of his mother’s life. But it was much more than that.
Hegarty reminded us of what the philosopher Roland Barthes had written about photographs in 1980 when thinking of his mother who had died not long before. Barthes doubted that mere images of loved ones could speak to us, could provide any real sense of connection. It’s as if death removes from the photograph all sense of personality, all essence of self. Looking again at the photos only intensifies our sense of loss by reminding us not of who they once were but that they are no longer with us.
Audio, though, has vital qualities and underlying meanings not apparent in images. The first recording Hegarty ever made of his mother was in a coin-operated recording booth in Lime Street station in Liverpool. His mother had taken him and his older brother to visit relatives in Manchester, and as a treat on their return she gave them both enough money to use the booth. The excitement of that experience was enough to determine Hegarty’s future career, inspiring in him a lifelong fascination with phonography and its ability to record, preserve, resurrect the human voice.
Sound, for Hegarty, is a medium not just of communication but also of memory and understanding. His recordings of his mother are not just an archive. He also plays around with them, overlaying deliberate, contrived recordings of her singing, talking about his father, or Auntie Joan’s chip shop, with answerphone messages where she hesitates, stutters, reveals her lonely fragility.
After moving away from home he often recorded their telephone conversations, which leads him to realise that as an adult he listened to his mother much more often than he saw her. Talking to her on the phone was ‘a way of being there when I was not there’. Now he plays back the recordings, and she is there in the room with him even when she can no longer be present. He deletes his replies so that we only hear his mother’s voice. She comes across to us, direct, ‘bereft of reply’, creating out of random thoughts not just the ‘tale of daily survival’ of an elderly mother, but also ‘something that is essentially her; something beyond the story being told’. It’s not her words that matter, the actual communication, Hegarty realises, but the rhythm of her speech, and the non-verbal noise. ‘This is where I find her.’
He transfers a recording of his mother singing the ‘Ave Maria’ on to an Edison phonograph from 1909, transcribing her voice on to a wax cylinder and ‘putting it away like an heirloom’. Each time the recording is played, ‘another small detail of my mother’s voice is lost’, he muses, as the wax wears away. But he also knows ‘there is more to my mother’s voice than its record’. As he listens, Hegarty hears again ‘those unheard memories of her speaking, which only I can hear’.
He has no recordings of his father (who died when Hegarty was 15). A prison officer at Strangeways, he was, Hegarty now recalls, ‘abnormally prone to silence’. Hegarty can no longer hear his voice, either in actuality or in memory. This is something most of us will experience with our parents, since Hegarty’s recording project (made over more than 40 years) is unusual. We might have the photographic images, but no voice recordings. It’s too late now for my Dad, but how I wish.