I was interviewed last week for the United States WW1 Centennial Commission’s weekly ‘Centennial News’ podcast, and had the chance to discuss the musical trends of the era. The episode can be downloaded or streamed here – my part is 36 minutes in.
“This time James and Sean take a trip back to the 80s – the 1880s that is. Aside from the original music we have celebrity appearances from Arthur Sullivan, Johannes Brahms, William Ewart Gladstone and Queen Victoria herself (possibly) – plus some very drunk old Englishmen (not us)”
For UK readers, BBC4 are now re-showing the 2015 series Sound of Song. If you are interested in the history of sound recording and the ways in which changes in technology led to vast changes in popular music in the 20th century (and, as you are reading this, I’m guessing you are interested) then it’s as good a place as any to start. The first episode even features the recording of a new wax cylinder, and a demonstration of the effects of microphones on singing technique. My only criticism is that too much was cut out, but the 100-hour documentary series I would like to see is probably not realistic on current BBC budgets.
Centuries of Sound’s radio show on Cambridge 105 is now available for listening at your convenience. Rather than simply present a mix of sounds from the year, here I discuss their recording and the world they were made in with my co-host Sean. This is our first ever show (sort of) so thanks for your patience.
Not even close to being the first sound film, and not particularly advanced technologically (being simply a mime to a pre-recorded disc), it’s still something of a marvel to see this performance 20 years before ‘The Jazz Singer’ and a few years before even silent shorts started coming out of Hollywood. Three minutes of your time, please, for a marvel of early cinema – a man dressed as Napoleon (?) miming to the French national anthem.
An odd book, but not one I’m particularly fond of, The Wind in The Willows is a mix of Edwardian rapture at frolicking in the splendors of nature, the high-church volksgeist mysticism that was in vogue at the time and classic anthropomorphic children’s moral tales. It does sort of hang together, and there are many memorable quotes and characters, but reading it undigested makes me feel uneasy, like there’s an unpleasant aftertaste I can’t quite place.
The 1985 Cosgrove Hall adaptation is how I first knew the story, and it’s still easily my favourite version. It apparently features the work of a young John Squire as a background artist too, and is available on youtube in its entirety (for now)
I’ve always used the terms “album” and “LP” interchangeably, so it came as a surprise to find out that the former predates the latter quite considerably. We started talking about albums in the sense of ‘photo album’ or ‘stamp album’ as early as the 1850s, and the first ‘music albums’ were along these lines – large books for collecting sheet music. Then at another stretch (and another few decades) we have collections of 78rpm discs bound together as a book. And why would you want to do such a thing? To record an entire opera, of course.
It is unclear who it was that originally had this idea, but the oldest album to have survived appears to be this 1907 recording of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera “I Pagliacci,” starring Puerto Rican tenor Antonio Paoli, and supervised in its production by the composer himself. In its latest (2017) reissue it sounds simply stunning – a testament to both the careful production given to it at the time and the painstaking restoration work done last year. A treatment I wish a lot of other early recordings could receive.
This week has seen the passing of Geoff Emerick, who served as sound engineer on The Beatles’ Revolver, Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road albums, starting at the age of just 20. His death hasn’t generated as much interest as those of George Martin or George Harrison, partly because his role was junior to other people working on the record, but mainly because even now most people are not fully aware of what the job of a sound engineer entails or why it is important. Songwriters have ideas, producers have a grand plan, musicians perform, but it’s the sound engineer who allows these things to come together to make a recording. They may view themselves as technicians, aiming to reproduce a sound accurately (though ‘accurately’ is one of those things that means very different things to different people) or they may be working to mould the sound in subtle, often barely audible ways. ‘Revolver’, for example, has been called a “concept LP about close-miking,” after Emerick insisted on breaking EMI rules to give the album that distinctively vibrant, intimate sound.
This tension between the technical and the creative has been there since the start. The father of sound engineering is a man called Fred Gaisberg, a piano player from New York who found himself working first for Berliner Gram-O-Phone, then its successor company, The Gramophone Company, later known as HMV. He viewed himself very much as outside the creative process, hoping to faithfully capture as many performances as he could with the limited time and materials available. Even with this approach, however, he managed to set up many of the standards which would be used by sound engineers for the rest of the acoustic era. Here is his description of the setup of a studio in New York, based on one of Gaisberg’s technical drawings
“Two recording horns are used, with the violins (which recorded least well) nearest to them. Squashed around them are the woodwind players, who would have been reinforcing the string parts. Behind them, but higher, were most of the brass, with the French horns facing backwards in order to direct the sound from their bells into the recording horn, the players following the conductor in a mirror. The conductor is pushed out of the way to the side where he can be seen but doesn’t obstruct the sound. Bassoons reinforce the ‘cellos, and a tuba and contrabassoon replace double basses, which would not have recorded adequately. Another surviving photograph shows Paderewski recording into a pair of horns and, unusually, it allows us to see something of the coupling mechanism. For a typical studio layout for a recording of voice with piano accompaniment, the horn is hung right in front of the singer’s mouth, and the upright piano is set above and behind the singer at a height that ensures that the maximum amount of piano sound enters the horn. Pianists were instructed to play fortissimo throughout. Singers, on the other hand, had to move towards the horn for quieter passages, and away for louder notes to avoid distortion. Inexperienced soloists were guided back and forth by an assistant, sometimes on a form of trolley!”
We have already encountered Fred’s work in a few different forms. It was he who fought to standardise releases as shellac records to be played at 78rpm, and he who set out to travel the world, recording Alessandro Moreschi and the first discs by Caruso, and doing much to set in motion recording in Asia and South America. It’s due to him that this mix has such an international feel – not only in anthropological recordings, but in capturing exciting new kinds of music from Mexico, Cuba and Argentina. The third track in this mix, from the orchestra of Enrique Peña Sánchez, sounds for all the world like a frantic early jazz recording, a clear illustration of the Hispanic influence on what was not yet even called ‘jass’, and evidence for what Jelly Roll Morton later referred to as his music’s “Spanish tinge.” How directly it connected, however, we still cannot know, for though recordings were taking place all over the world, we still have nothing from dance bands in New Orleans.
That’s a minor quibble, though. In 1907 there is a lot to celebrate.
Enrico Caruso – Vesti La Giubba (I Pagliacci) 00:00
Unknown – Sunderland Home Cylinder 33 02:17
Vess L. Ossman – Maple Leaf Rag 02:23
Orquesta De Enrique Peña – Los Guajiros De La Yaya 05:01
Octavio Yáñez – Anita 06:27
Ángel Villoldo – El Negro Alegre 08:34
Orquesta De Pablo Valenzuela – Happy Hobbs 10:11
Steve Porter – Flanagan’s Troubles In A Restaurant 12:14
Edison Vaudeville Company – An Amateur Minstrel Rehearsal 14:25
Billy Murray – I’d Rather Two-Step Than Waltz, Bill 14:52
Peerless Trio – Three Rubes Seeing New York 15:56
Ada Jones And Len Spencer – Burying The Hatchet 17:52
Eddie Morton – That’s Gratitude 18:33
Peerless Quartet – The New Parson At The Darktown Church 21:03
Ada Jones And Billy Murray – Smile, Smile, Smile 21:34
Albert Whelan – The Miser 23:51
Arthur Pryor’s Band – The King Of Rags 24:14
Yolande Noble And Percy Clifton – Buying The Christmas Dinner 25:54
Zonophone Concert Band – The Smiler 26:22
Carl Lüdicke – Der Musikalische Clown 28:18
Edison-Orchester (Berlin) – Alarmierung Der Berliner Feuerwehr 29:57
Gustav Schönwald And Fraulein Vincent – Am Telephon 30:17
Steidl-Quartett – Katzenliebe 30:48
Gustav Schönwald – Nachtliches Abenteuer Eines Studenten 31:53
August Molinari – Street Piano Medley 32:41
Gilbert Girard And Len Spencer – The Vagabonds (Roger And I) 34:49
Antonio Scotti – Sortita D’amonasro 35:14
Emma Calve – Habanera from Carmen 36:01
Maria A. Mikhalova Acc. Boris S. Troyanovsky – Why Should I Live And Grieve Alone? 37:30
Dmitry Bogemsky – The Tossing Of The Steamer 39:30
Orchestra ‘Harmonia’, Conductor Vasily Varshavsky – Sighs 40:06
P. A. Strakhov – The Departure Of A Train 40:56
Chorus Of Terek And Kuban Cossacks Of The Guards Of The Governor Of His Imperial Majesty In Caucasus, Conductor Mikhail Kolotilin – Walking On Water 41:15
Choir Of Makvaneti – Naduri 42:09
Count Leo Tolstoy – Excerpt From ‘Guidelines For Everyday Living’ 43:46
Choir Of Tbilisi – Metiuri 43:54
Victor Orchestra – A Hunt In The Black Forest 44:43
Mme Rollini – Ne M’ Chatouillez Pas 46:59
Bérard – Chargez 48:32
John J. Kimmel – Cakewalk 49:14
Fréjol – C’ Que Tu M’as Fait 50:24
Unknown – Sunderland Home Cylinder 18 51:41
Vesta Victoria – It Ain’t All Honey And It Ain’t All Jam 52:10
Edison Vaudeville Company – At The Village Post Office 53:19
Florrie Forde – I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside 53:42
Ada Jones – I’m In Love With The Slide Trombone 55:30
Edith Helena – Cavalleria Rusticana. Intermezzo; Arr. 57:42
Edison Venetian Trio – Sonoma 59:36
Gramophone Orchestra, Conductor I. P. Arkadev – The Music Box 59:49
Picolines Duet – Two Little Finches 1:00:43
Arthur Pryor’s Band – The Lion Chase 1:01:35
Banda De Policía – Álbum Recreativo Variacones De Saxofón Soprano 1:04:55
Antonio Hidalgo – Un Meeting De Raza 1:06:48
Martin Silveira – Nueva York 1:07:15
Arturo De Nava – Décimas Del Sargento 1:08:31
Uncredited Ensemble – Khaek Lopburi 1:09:42
Albert Benzler – The Chapel In The Woods 1:11:11
Alice Shaw & Her Twin Daughters – Spring-Tide Revels 1:12:10
George Islon – Christmas Eve In The Old Homestead 1:12:57
Billy Murray – So What’s The Use? 1:13:23
Percy Clifton – Dick Whittington 1:16:27
Edward M. Favor – Theodore 1:16:47
Choir Of The Royal Court Opera With Orchestra And Church Bells, Acc. Harmonium, Bells – Silent Night, Holy Night 1:18:47