8.07.2007

The Voice Print Codex

I.
In the futuristic-sounding year of 1999, my friend Tom informed me that he had a record that would interest me. This was big news: Tom was the guy who introduced me to Futurism, Albert Ayler, and the Shaggs. His recommendations did not disappoint, and I took the record from him with no small amount of anticipation.

It was encased in a black & white record sleeve featured a guy wearing sunglasses and a suit and sitting on what appeared to be a park bench. One leather-gloved hand was pressed over his mouth, as though he’d just stifled an exclamation. The album was called Voice Print. It was put out by a guy named Hatten.

Opening up the gatefold sleeve revealed a big, dark, glossy expanse of nothing—the whole inside of the gatefold was printed solid black.

The record itself had a black label with no song titles, only track lengths, although for all intents and purposes the Voice Print record was more or less unbroken sides of audio. The only thing spoiling the overall austerity was the logo of “Middle Earth Books,” the entity I assume released this album, stamped on the label. Middle Earth Books? I thought.

[Editorial Disclaimer: Now, because of what eventually became of Hatten’s Voice Print project, I’m not entirely sure that I can divulge too many details about the record’s actual content. I don’t think Hatten would be too keen on it. I will say that the record had nothing to do with hobbits and elves, but was more of a sound collage sort of thing. ]

The record was totally, gloriously ridiculous. People saying the world “life” over and over, existential bon mots were delivered in a loud stage whisper, and randomly plucked guitar, plinked piano, and other self-conciously “weird” noises. Like many notable failures, Voice Print is a little hermetically sealed world with its own system of logic. Some of it’s actually effective, some of it “less so.” Despite not being very good by conventional standards, it’s clear that Hatten really tried to make a great audio collage. And Voice Print was what he imagined that a good audio collage ought to sound like, modelled off of a perfect Ur-collage that only he could fully comprehend, and for which he was an imperfect avatar.

At this point in my life, I’ve managed to hear more experimental audio things than I’d care to count. Back then, however, I’d never heard anything like Voice Print ever before. I hadn’t developed any kind of resistance to it: my mind was open and trusting, ready to be imprinted. I was even hungry for this sort of thing: hold me up to a bright light, and you'll see its watermark.

I was about 18 or 19 when I was introduced to this record, and it was a weird time for me. Over the course of a boring and depressed summer, I must have listened to it, oh, I don’t even know . . . several dozen times, probably. It was just more interesting than many of my other records, and there was always something that I hadn’t noticed before. I’d kick back with Voice Print, eat an onion and cheese sandwich, and think to myself: this Hatten guy really went for it. He really went through with it, and I’m listening to it now. It was a hot summer, and mosquitos flew in through the window to bite me.

Consider how much work committing one’s audio collage to vinyl must have been back then. It’s 1970-something, and Hatten is sporting the shades, the leather gloves—he’s eager to put his collage on an LP for posterity. He spent all this time writing the material on Voice Print, and performing it, and doing the musicky plinking thing underneath it all. Probably edited the thing on tapedecks, or by slicing tape together, or however such a thing was put together back in the olden days.

I’m betting that Hatten knew someone who wanted to put this out, if only because I can’t imagine him shopping it around. So the guy at Middle Earth Books collects the Hatten tapes and then they get the artwork together, and put together the actual design to send to—I don’t know, wherever that got sent. The cost estimate for the artwork is kind of high because of the gatefold cover with the big black printed square, but Hatten won’t compromise. He says “Damn your eyes—I want people to open this cover and reflect upon the inky void contained therein! You’re not in Hobbiton anymore, buddy boy, so don’t cross me or I will smite you.”

The Voice Print tapes got shipped to a pressing plant, where they were mastered, and then a test pressing gets sent back to Hatten for review. He might have said something like “The midrange could be a bit more pronounced.” If so, there was more mastering, Hatten signs off on the thing, and then gets his package of Voice Prints in the mail.

I wonder how Voice Print was distributed, if at all. Did Hatten try to sell them in stores or galleries, or give them to friends? Did he end up with a box full of 499 Voice Prints in his basement? There is so much of this story that is unexplained, I’m afraid. My friend Tom only had a copy because his mother knew Hatten back in the day. I wonder how many other people might have a copy.

II.
Years after hearing Voice Print for the first time, I turned 25. In recognition of this momentous achievement, my friend Tom threw me a huge birthday party. My friends were there, friends of friends were there. Some random assholes were wandering around as well.

People would come up to me and say “Hello, I understand it is your birthday so you should have this drink” or something to that effect, and I was flattered. It was an Event and I was its capering overlord, scurrying from room to room (each illuminated by many different colored lights), drink in hand, trying to communicate with people over the general din. I bumped into a friend of mine, who plucked something tiny and invisible out of the air, crying “It’s a flower . . . for you,” uncurling his fingers to reveal an empty palm. Some folks were doing a kind of dance I did not recognize, and they could not agree on the steps. More and more people wandered in, drawn by promises of fun communicated via cellphone.

My darling girlfriend, who had a made a big deal out of the fact that she’d miss my birthday because she had mixed up the date while buying a plane ticket back from her hometown of Oakland CA, arrived with her suitcase in tow.

“Did you change your flight?” I asked, incredulously.

“No, I’d been lying, you jerk,” she said. “I’d scheduled my flight to come in today all along.”

“Ha ha ha! What capers!” I cried. “This sure is fun!”

Then my friend Tom came up to me with a cell phone and said “Here.”

“Hi, it’s Tom Hatton,” said the voice on the other end. “I hear you like the Voice Print record.”

Dear Reader, I had not prepared for this. And sadly, my idiot brain knew not what words to formulate. I’d gleefully euthanized the last vestiges of grammar and syntax lurking in my mind. I had lost the ability to communicate rational ideas, and even walk entirely upright—I was like a mandrill loosed from the zoo. Concepts such as “left” and “right” were ungraspable. This is all fine and good if you’ve planned a night floating in the amniotic sea of oblivion, but not so fine and good if you’re suddenly called upon to think about conceptual art.

I am sorry to say that I failed myself and brought shame upon my house. It was over before I even put the phone to my ear. All of the questions that I’d like to ask Hatten now utterly abandoned me. It had honestly never occurred to me that I’d end up shooting the shit with Hatten about Voice Print. I stumbled around, trying to find a quiet place in the apartment while my mind desperately tried to switch gears.

“Tom tells me that you’re a fan of Voice Print,” Hatten said.

“Uh, yeah. That I am, Hatten,” I said.

“What do you like about it?”

“ . . .”

“Hello?”

“Hi, I’m here—sorry. Uh, I just really like Voice Print I guess, um, you know, because . . .”

And there, dear Reader, my mind seized up and I started stuttering. I don’ t even—look, even today I don’t know why I like Voice Print.

Now that I’m old, I tend to think about why I like something or why I don’t. I didn’t do this in my youth, and my present-day attempts to peer through the murk of intervening years yields little in the way of insight. I guess I just developed an affection for that record before I’d learned to think critically. I also like that Bat Out of Hell album a whole lot—see, that’s another thing that snuck in there. People trepan themselves to try and regain that state of wide-eyed wonder. I don’t particularly care why I like Voice Print, but if I could have figured it out whilst on the phone with Hatten, I might have avoided saying:

“ . . . I, uh . . . really like . . . audio.”

“ . . .”

“ And, uh . . .”

“ . . . Yes?”

“Uh . . .”

But despite my idiocy, Hatten was a good sport and a generous guy. He told me some stuff about Voice Print and talked about his art a little bit. He and his wife, Marcia Kocot, have been creating art as a duo for decades. They’ve used a number of different names in the past, hence the different spelling between Hatten, the name used on the record, and Hatton, his last name.

I haven’t seen any Kocot/Hatton stuff in person, unfortunately. For more on their art in general, please check out this excellent interview with them. (Also, that's where I got most of these pictures.)

Kocot Hatton planned to create a life-sized replica of the Empire State building.


They made a film of the American flag. During the course of the film, it started raining on the flag.


They painted self portraits every day for a year and exhibited them face-down.


They really walk the walk, if you know what I’m saying.

Hatten’s words spilled out of my friend’s tiny Nokia phone into my ear, vying for attention above speakers blaring Tower of Power songs. My brain struggled to make information out of words, and I couldn’t think of any questions to ask, and our conversation wound down. I had blown it.

“Before you go,” I said, “do you think it’s possible that I could get my hands on a copy of Voice Print?”

“Actually, we’ve taken all the separate copies of Voice Print and combined them to form a large, unplayable slab of vinyl,” Hatten said.

“My friend has a copy, though,” I said.

And while time and alcohol have conspired to draw a veil over Hatten’s reply, I’m fairly sure he said:

“Well, I urge you to destroy it immediately.”

But don’t quote me on that.

Here is a photo of Voice Print now:


And here is a detail:


Somehow I got around to thanking Hatten and he hung up. Despite my general inanity during the conversation, I sprang to my feet, renewed—I felt that a sort of tele-osmosis had taken place; I’d absorbed positive audio energies from Hatten, washed clean my third eye, and could now begin my twenty-fifth year with some degree of clarity. I’d spoken with the voice behind Voice Print, and he was a nice guy. Not every serious conceptual artist person would take the time to call a drunken twenty-something on his birthday and chat.

III.
One thing still bothered me, though. I didn’t like that Voice Print was now a giant unplayable slab of vinyl—it just didn’t seem fair. For the Kocot/Hatton piece where all the self-portraits are laying face down so they can’t be seen, well, I get the feeling that no one ever actually saw them. As in, it’s doubtful that they were displayed in a gallery, and that Kocot/Hatton probably made the portraits for themselves and not others. I could be wrong, I only ever saw a tiny little photo of the piece and was too dumb to ask Hatton about it when I had the chance.

I believe Hatten made Voice Print before he and Kocot began collaborating, and it seems that he doesn’t really like it much anymore. That’s fine, but letting the LP exist in the wild for thirty years and then destroying in a millennial cull feels like a cop out. Does the fact that a copy is kicking around mean that vinyl pillar Voice Print is somehow compromised?

Dear Reader, I’ll bet that no one has listened to Voice Print as much as I have. I’ll bet that even Tom Hatton himself hasn’t. I’m very possibly the world’s pre-eminent expert on Voice Print. All signs point to the fact that only one known playable copy of it currently exists. And as long as that remains in storage, it’s doubtful that anyone will ever have the opportunity to listen to it, and enjoy it, as I have.

However, with great power comes great responsibility. I suppose that I'm Voice Print's designated mourner. Somewhere, in a safe place, the lone surviving piece of 33 and 1/3 rpm samizdat resides. As the last person who listens to this record, I can’t help but wonder if, way back when, Tom Hatton could have imagined that this is what the audience for Voice Print would be 30 years on.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Editorial Update: Since writing this, several other copies of Voice Print have surfaced (see comments). Dear Reader, if you yourself have come across this exceedingly rare vinyl, please leave a comment and let us know where you found it. I'm curious as to how many copies are floating around out there, and how far they were dispersed.

13 comments:

Garth said...

This is perhaps your best post to date.

Thomas said...

Rick - that was fantastic. There is a signed unopened copy of voice print waiting for you in NYC should you ever come home!!

M said...

I can't believe you just made me want to listen to "i love you" over and over, and random guitar twangs, for I hate such things. Well played Stinson.

Also, it's possible that I was one of those random assholes at your party. In fact, I'm sure of it because I remember thinking, "it's that guy's birthday. I should go say happy birthday...but he doesn't even know me...but it's so rude not to...but he'll be like, 'who are you and why are you here?' and I'll be like, 'free beer'? and he'll think to himself, 'what a random asshole' " and it ended in me getting plastered. Is it too late to say happy birthday?

Rick said...

Jesus, I really have an actual copy of Voice Print?! SIGNED? Holy shit! Wow, the item itself. Tom, how ever did you work that? Thank Hatten for me, would you?

Thomas said...

Well - Hatton sent the record after your birthday and my mother neglected to tell me about it until semi-recently. It comes with a catch however....

Give me your address and I will send it to you.

_T

Rick said...

M—you and D were not random assholes at all. Rest easy, good people—you guys were safely in the "friends of friends" category at that point. In fact, I seem to remember happily shaking D's hand after spying him sitting on Tom's red couch, 99¢ bottle of Colt .45 in his hand.

When I'm saying "random assholes," I'm more talking about that guy wearing a leather trenchcoat and too much hair gel who chainsmoked menthol cigarettes and kept stalking around the apartment as if there was someplace important that he had to be, some girl who tried to vomit in an ashtray and put it back on the bookshelf, and some doofy guy in a blue button-up shirt and chinos.

Also, I think you guys would like Voice Print. It's good stuff.

The Brooklyn Sea Hag said...

HA! I am NOT the girl who vomited in the ashtray... But I think I brought her to the party.

BatterButler said...

Add another extant copy of Voice Print to the registry: my friend just found a sealed copy in Kerrville, Texas! Did Tom say how many were made or how they were distributed? The record is a collaboration with Kocot, who went by "X" at the time. She took the photograph on the jacket.

A copy also sold on Ebay in 2005 for $40.
http://www.popsike.com/pix/20050505/4726448035.jpg

autofyrsto said...

Thank You Thank You Thank You!!!!

About five years ago, I bought a copy of VOICE PRINT at Salvation Army "Store 1" in Roxborough, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I have since occasionally Googled "Hatten Voice Print" in vain to learn more about this mysterious work of art.

I pulled the record out this morning to digitize it and add it to my digital music library. Thought I'd try Googling it once more....

I really dig the album, but it sounds like you have listened to it more than I have. Rest assured you are still the world's pre-eminent VOICE PRINT expert.

Wait until I digitize it, tho. I'm on your heels!

~tim g

Andy Zax said...

Yet another Hatten fan here...

I bought my (seemingly unplayed) copy of "Voice Print" in a used book store in Los Angeles in 1993, and have been intermittently fascinated by it ever since. The album's total obscurity is one of its most remarkable characteristics; not a single one of the many hardcore collectors of micro-pressed esoterica with whom I'm acquainted has ever turned up another copy.

I've Googled in vain over the years, searching for any shred of information about this record. Thanks for solving the mystery!

Rick said...

Thanks, Andy!

If I remember correctly, Hatton said that Voice Print was in part inspired by U.S. policy towards Cambodia. So, there's that to think about when listening to it.

I'm really curious as to how many copies of Voice Print are actually floating around out there.

Rick said...

Tim, if you can listen to Voice Print more times than me, I will gladly cede my title of world's pre-eminent Voice Print expert to you.

Jackson said...

Regarding the art of Hatten/Hatton and Kocot, I used to work across a small parking lot from a high-rise at 8th & Walnut St, Philadelphia. The building stood directly adjacent to the Washington Square Park that gives this neighborhood its name. Anyway, I used to walk through the lobby and/or to the elevator next to the lobby where the large yellow and black piece of theirs was being displayed. I thought nothing of it at the time, had never heard of the artists but I did like the work.

After moving onto to a museum marketing job, I had an appointment with a friend of the museum to meet, schmooze, promote, etc. This was strictly business, but I ended up getting along so well with the owners of this gallery that we spoke for over 2 hours. Turns out they are friends of the Hatten/Kocot team and while we chatted, they showed me that piece in a book, which I had previously seen regularly without knowing the first thing about it. Not only were they incredibly nice, funny and interesting people, but they were not snobs or name-droppers, knowing nothing about my previous relationship with the piece. Larry Becker Contemporary Art Gallery is a main place where Hatton and Kocot show in Philly and a certified friend of the artists. Anyway, it was like your experience with the record...random upon random upon random.

Your post was interesting and distracted me from my work quite handily, so I figured if you were ever in Philadelphia, you might like to know where you could sneak in and take a peek at some art by Mr. H * Mrs. K.