by carl wilson

Au Claire de l'Histoire:
Recording History Revised

Music history, or at least the history of recording technology, is re-made today with the publication of Zoilus friend and ace anachronist Jody Rosen's A1 piece in The New York Times about the discovery of an 1860 "sound recording" that pre-dates the famous Edison "Mary Had a Little Lamb" side by decades.

The twist is that the "phonautogram" technology involved was a development in sound recording but not in sound reproduction, leaving our Benjaminesque paradigms in place. So history has been excitingly footnoted more than rewritten, I suppose.

Nevertheless, it's fascinating as an instance of how current technology is able to lend new meaning to past technology - it's an artifact that only gains significance now, when there's a way to translate it back into sound via digitization. I'm really curious what else is in the archive of what was done with phaunotogramophony. What parallel developments can we imagine with other dead-end retro-explorations if they were re-examined by current science? (I'm sure there must be hardcore-science equivalents, eg., revisiting naturalist observation of the 19th century with current software... scientists out there?) It's all very steampunk!

It does make me think of, for instance, Colin Nancarrow's work with player-piano rolls
or the digital reproduction of Glenn Gould performances on magical robot pianos.

On a personal note, I'm tickled that the piece of music in question, "Au claire de la lune" - and by the way, I suggest you listen to the later NYT mp3 example first, as it makes the 1860 one more comprehensible - is the one French songs all English-Canadians know from FSL classes (aside from "O Canada" en francais, I suppose, as well as "Frere Jacques" [pardon the lack of accents but they're a bitch to program at 2 a.m.] which everybody knows). Recorded music and bad French singing in Grade 9 share some DNA.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, March 27 at 12:38 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)



Is it sad that I read about four of the spam comments before I realized what was going on?

Posted by Dave on April 9, 2008 12:46 AM



Michaelangelo, I've heard a little of Bartok's piano playing (the piece he wrote for and recorded with Benny Goodman), and it hadn't struck me that way, but I'll listen for it -- thanks!

Posted by john on April 1, 2008 5:21 AM



I get a similar shock from the reconstructed colour photos of the Prokudin-Gorskii expeditions ( because they are amazingly lifelike records of a vanished world.
John, did you ever hear Bartok play his own music on the piano? It is as far removed from contemporary concert practice as the Transylvanian peasants he so admired.

Posted by Michelangelo on March 31, 2008 8:41 PM



Debussy recorded some of his music onto piano rolls that reproduce dynamics as well as pitch and tempo. The one piece I've heard -- "La plus que lente" -- Debussy's interpretation is by far the most beautiful I've heard. He plays with more rubato and a greater dynamic range than anybody else I've heard on the piece. That subsequent pianists have kept playing the piece, but more blandly, is really weird. Intense rubato and wide dynamics have been considered Romantic affectations in subsequent style regimes.

Copland disparaged records -- even as he made them -- saying, why do I want to fix any particular interpretation? Shouldn't interpretation be fluid and of-the-moment?

Attali's book is terrific, a real mind-bender.

This story points up how uncanny recording is. That sound-waves can be recorded *as sculpture* -- in 3-D respresentation -- and then played back -- it's freaky! How strange that somebody thought to record the soundwaves without thought of playing them back! How freaky that we are now capable of playing them back! We take recording for granted. My late father's voice is still on my mom's answering machine. When I call my mom and hear my dad's voice -- well, one of my siblings will only call our mom on her cell phone, because they can't bear hearing our dad's voice, it's too intense.

So this female of indeterminate age sang into Scott's machine. Now we're listening to her again. How freaking weird is that! Congrats to all who made it happen.

Posted by John on March 29, 2008 11:40 AM



i've been reading Jacques Attali's "Noise" for the past several months, and he continually points out that recorded sound was originally intended as a means of preserving live performances, though it eventually subverted those live performances and took over the music industry as the main form of entertainment. it's interesting to think that your, and Scott's, distinction between "recording" and "reproducing" could very well have meant the difference between a society based on the communal enjoyment of live works and one as we know it, predominantly taken with the private enjoyment of recordings.

Posted by allana on March 27, 2008 5:29 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson