One Sixteen Thirty-Eight is exactly 5,435 words long – no more, no less. It’s a painstakingly structured collage whose tonalities and formal organization mirror, in prose, the real-life recording it describes/reviews. It discloses its own nature as it goes – just like that painstakingly structured collage of a CD called Radio Morocco (Sublime Frequencies, 1983), whose track titles and lengths the essay copies. The essay has nine sections; each one is an album track. (If the second track on the real-life Radio Morocco, “Quartertone Winds,” drifts languidly for five minutes and twenty seconds, then the essay’s second section, “Quartertone Winds,” must drift languidly for exactly 520 words.) By the eighth section, we see the reason for the piece’s title: on the morning of January 16, 1938, the first recording of Mahler’s Ninth was made in Vienna, while that very same night in New York, Benny Goodman played his famous Carnegie Hall concert. What would it have been like to have attended both events? The essay imagines two (semi-)fictional characters who did just that. By the time the final track ruminates on nuclear war’s wiping out the priceless recorded legacy of humankind, the reason for all the formal strictures becomes apparent: we are inevitably empowered and limited by past decisions. Whether we are learning to carry on in a world permanently shadowed by Mutually Assured Destruction, or simply selecting snippets to enshrine permanently in a collage, our sociotechnical predicament is the same: choices constrain.
Alex Checkovich works as an instructor of ‘the body in space’ at the University of Richmond, where for the last ten years he has taught freshman seminars called ‘Nature-,’ ‘Health-,’ and ‘Technology in American History.’ His chief interest is inventing/discovering OULIPO nonfictions.