Justine Picardie’s If the Spirit Moves You (2001) is a book about bereavement, specifically the author’s struggle to come to terms with the death of her sister, Ruth, in 1997. Like many in her position, Justine longs for a sign that the departed is still somehow present – a longing that takes her on a journey through the realms of contemporary spiritualism.
It is a moving book in its own terms, but it also caused me to reflect on the relationship between death and silence, life and sound.
Picardie writes that “When someone dies, they do not always disappear out of your life. You have a relationship with them: a relationship that changes, that begins to accommodate their silence”. This silence of the grave is at the heart of bereavement, the recognition not only that the dead are no longer physically present but that we can no longer hear their voice. Death cuts short the song and dance of our lives – Victor Jara’s widow (Joan Jara) called her biography of the Chilean folk singer, murdered by the military in 1973, ‘Victor- an Unfinished Song’.
So it is not surprising that the search for evidence of life after death has so often focused on the will to hear voices from beyond the grave, a pursuit that has gone hand in hand with the development of recording technology. Oliver Lodge, an early 20th century scientist (he invented the spark plug) and Psychic researcher, wrote that 'the dead live in etheric wavelengths which operate at much higher frequencies than ours'. No less than Thomas Edison, the inventor of the phonograph, talked of inventing a machine to record the voices of the dead ‘if we can evolve an instrument so delicate as to be affected or moved or manipulated by our personality as it survives in the next life, such an instrument when made available ought to record something’.
Then there was the Russian Dr Konstantin Raudive who believed he could record the voices of the dead ‘by attaching a micro-phone to a detuned radio’ or by leaving a tape recorder running in an empty room. In her quest, Justine Picardie meets current day enthusiasts for EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) such as Judith Chisholm and Dale Palmer. The latter has moved on to digital approaches, through projects like the Global Association of Instrumental Transcommunication and the Noetics Institute, hoping to develop software to make the voices of the dead audible. Inevitably, computers are the new frontline for those hoping to communicate with other realms – some have claimed that spirits have subtly left messages on PC screens.
Ulimately Picardie comes to the conclusion that it's all just apophenia - seeing patterns and meaning where none exist. But as her friend David Toop says to her at one point ‘Well, of course I don’t believe in it, but that’s not the point – what’s interesting is that these voices have significance to people who are looking for somehting’.
The book put me in mind of an event I attended back in 2002 organised by the International Necronautical Society. The Second First Committee Hearings: Transmission, Death, Technology were held at the Cubitt Gallery in Islington and featured a talk by John Cussans on EVP which included reference to supposed radio stations broadcasting from the other side, set up by dead spiritualists:
'Friedrich Jurgensen... was a Swedish film producer I think, also an ornithologist, and I think as far as I can tell Jurgensen's was some of the first work in the nineteen-sixties... in fact it was using magnetic tape, and picking up on the white noise on magnetic tapes. Jurgensen had been taping bird calls, as an ornithologist will, and when he got the tapes home and listened to them he heard these voices in the white noise between... he thought he heard, well he picked up, he tuned into these voices, and eventually found, you know, decoded them, and interestingly enough also it was his mother that was speaking to Jurgensen, calling his name. And Jurgensen wrote a book... Radio Contact with the Dead in 1967. And that was the first work on EVP.
...EVP is Electric Voice Phenomena. The other technological term is ITC: Instrumental Transcommunication. And, yes, Raudive read Jurgensen's book, and that's what inspired him to do more and more research into the field. And it was Raudive who first encountered something called Radio Peter, which is the first documented claim that there are actually sending stations, radiotechnology, on the other side; that the people who are involved in ITC research, when they die they all meet up on the other side... ...and set up radio stations on the other side. And Radio Peter is that radio station'.
Raudive wrote that 'The astonishing conception that "other-worldly" transmitting stations exist emerges quite clearly from many of the voices' statements. Information received indicates that there are various groups of voice-entities who operate their own stations' (quoted in Haunted media: electronic presence from telegraphy to television by Jeffrey Sconce, 2000). In addition to Radio Peter, Raudive claimed to be in contact with another station called Studio Kelpe.
If only it were true, we could have some great listening when the present generation of London pirate radio operators pass on - 'big shout going out to the afterlife massive, hold tight the recently departed crew'.