There are three main things that strike me while listening to William Burroughs reciting The Last Words of Hassan Sabbah (1961) from Nothing Here Now but the Recordings (1959-1980, 1981). The first is Burroughs’ distinct, gravely monotone, the second is the content of the words, and the last is imagining the room in which the tape was recorded.
Early in the piece (at approximately 1:40), there is a whistle that sounds as if it might be coming from a train. Later, I hear sounds like cars passing below, so I imagine the recording to be taking place in a room on the second or third floor of a building where there is a small amount of now-and-again traffic outside. Since I can hear the car sounds, I think there must have been a window open in the room, and because of this, I determine the weather must be pleasant. If the temperature were too hot, perhaps I would hear the sounds of a fan, but I do not perceive these. In my imagination, the recording is taking place in the fall. The dry of imagined fall weather compliments the dry of Burrough’s rasp.
In terms of Burroughs’ voice, when I am listening to the recording with my eyes closed, I very definitely feel his voiced words in the bottom-front of my throat. This experience is visceral and somewhat painful, perhaps my subconscious attempting to silently speak along with him in an octave of which I am incapable. Once locked into his cadence, the piece becomes all about the content.
The content. Burroughs and Brion Gysin (his frequent collaborator, mentioned by name in this recording) were ahead of their time. Unlike with Kurt Schwitters’ Ur Sonata, Burroughs is not using a made up language, but he is using the cut-up technique invented by Gysin that can be experienced as similarly nonsensical. In this particular recording, it does not sound to me as if the tape itself were spliced (although it might be), but that the imagined page from which Burroughs is reading was perhaps ‘sampled’ into itself. Several phrases are repeated throughout the recording, especially, “Don’t let them see us. Don’t tell them what we are doing. Are these the words of the all powerful boards and syndicates of the earth?” Sometimes this approach begins to sound as if the meaning is devolving into nonsense or a crazed rant, but upon closer inspection, the nonsense may be a metaphor revealing a truth that society refuses to see. One could argue this tape to be the prescient beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement.