James and Sean take you on a journey back to the year 1901 to listen to original, unmediated, often completely unacceptable recordings from the early days of the gramophone. This time we have rousing sort-of proto-proto-proto-jazz, stunning vocal acrobatics from a Russian soprano, vaudeville comedy which may or may not have stood the test of time, and our first recording from Japan. Some fascinating and often genuinely good stuff rescued from the vaults after 118 years – come join us!
In my day job I sometimes take groups of kids to this place, the Scott Polar Museum in Cambridge.
Before we go on trips there we do an activity which involves making a list of what you would take with you on a trip to the Antarctic. This is an odd task to give them, because the big reveal (you wouldn’t take ponies instead of dogs or dress in tweed instead of furs, but guess who did!) is never made. Not a huge surprise as the Scott Polar Museum was founded in memoriam of Robert Falcon Scott, by one of his associates, using funds raised in response to his (heroically?) disastrous trip.
The “was Scott a tragic hero or a tragic idiot?” pendulum has swung forwards and backwards a few times in the last few decades, and it’s probably beyond the scope of this site to come down on one side or the other, except to say that flawed human beings are the kind interesting stories are written about, so we shouldn’t be surprised that more attention is paid to Scott’s doomed trip than to the success of Roald Amundsen, the supposedly cold, professional Norwegian polar explorer who soundly beat him to the South Pole and lived to tell the tale.
As with many old stories, the tale of the trip has acted as tea leaves, in which we see what we want to see. Was he a hero, showing the pluck and courage of boarding school and the army? Was he an egotist, refusing all intelligent input and taking his men to their doom? Was he a hero of science, losing his life to bring back 35lbs of geological specimens? Was he a typical man of the British Empire, brought up to believe that confidence in yourself and your country should be the be all and end all, with a legacy of encouraging the same type, these “heroes” whose blustering incompetence won short-term plaudits, but sowed the seeds of many of the problems of the modern world?
These debates are (IMO!) ultimately more interesting than the story of the expedition, but that’s what we’re here for anyway, so here are some resources on Robert Falcon Scott and the Terra Nova Expedition of 1910–1913
Sound is the name we give to certain frequencies of fluctuating pressure waves which resonate the human eardrum and are able to be perceived by the human brain. Waves fitting this description have existed since the big bang, all of them dissipating forever into space without any decipherable trace.
Towards the end of his life radio pioneer and otherwise shrewd businessman Guglielmo Marconi imagined that he would be able to recover these sounds, given a powerful enough receiver and a device able to filter them. It’s an appealing notion, that we can hear Bach or Julius Caesar or any of the musicians working before music began being written down using full notation (only 500 years ago), but of course such a thing is impossible. As soon as waves are created, they begin to dissipate, intermingle, bounce around and echo – these resonances aren’t just a vital element of every sound we hear; in many ways, they are the sound we hear.
The story of sound, told in sound, has to begin with its earliest capturing. Now, the story you may have heard about the birth of sound recording goes something like this; Thomas Edison, alone in the lab after a hard day’s work in 1877, manages to record a recital of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” onto a wax cylinder. You may have even think you have heard the recording, but I can guarantee you haven’t. The recording in circulation comes from a 1927 recreation for the Golden Jubilee of the Phonograph. The original was lost on a sheet of re-usable tinfoil fifty years earlier.
But it really doesn’t matter. The real start date for us is nearly a quarter of a century earlier, in the studio of French printer and bookseller Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. The year was 1853 or 1854, and he was working on engravings for a physiology textbook, in particular a diagram of the internal workings of the human ear. What if, he thought, we could photograph sounds in the way we do images? (photography was a quarter-century old at this point) He began to sketch a device, a way of mimicking the inner workings of the human ear in order to make lines on a piece of paper.
I cover a plate of glass with an exceedingly thin stratum of lampblack. Above I fix an acoustic trumpet with a membrane the diameter of a five franc coin at its small end—the physiological tympanum (eardrum). At its center I affix a stylus—a boar’s bristle a centimeter or more in length, fine but suitably rigid. I carefully adjust the trumpet so the stylus barely grazes the lampblack. Then, as the glass plate slides horizontally in a well formed groove at a speed of one meter per second, one speaks in the vicinity of the trumpet’s opening, causing the membranes to vibrate and the stylus to trace figures.
The result of this wasn’t a reproducible waveform, of course, such a thing was neither imagined, nor intended. As with Edison later, the primary practical use of this new science was for stenography. Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville imagined that we could take these sounds and use them to identify single letters, or phonemes (something which is still pretty tricky now) – here is an example of an attempt to match word to sound trace – a truly futile project at the time.
The phonoautogram, as he called it, went through a number of prototypes, with the horn being replaced with a barrel and the sheet of glass replaced by a roll of parchment coated in lampblack (soot) in which markings could be made with a single thread from a feather. It wasn’t until 1859, however, when with the help of Rudolph Koenig he built a reliable version of the machine, and transcribed the sound of a tuning fork, that the recorded sounds become truly decipherable.
By “decipherable” I mean this – sitting in a vault in Paris for 150 years before the amazing people at Firstsounds.org (David Giovannoni, Patrick Feaster, Richard Martin and Meagan Hennessey) decided that recovering something from these scraps of paper was a project worth pursuing. Re-engineering these tracings into sound waves was a painstaking, technical business, but finally a recording was ready for the world – the sound of (probably) Scott himself singing the French folk song Au Clair de la Lune, recorded on the 9th of April 1860.
The release of this recording, stretching our record of sound back nearly two decades, caused a minor sensation. Here is Charlotte Green on BBC Radio 4 reporting the news – the giggling fit afterwards is due to another guest in the studio saying it sounded like a bee was trapped in their headphones.
The best telling of the story of how we came to have these recordings is from 2012, when the PRI radio show Studio 360 ran a feature on the recovery of the audio. This extended version of a fasinating, comprehensive sub-10-minute primer on the subject.
So here it is, our first mix. This is the second version of this mix – the original contained only the 1860 recordings, but since then a number of others have emerged online, including a restored recording of a cornet from 1857.
Tracklisting and details
1. Diapason at 435 Hz–at sequential stages of restoration (1859 Phonautogram) 0:00
This is an example of the tuning fork tone which made the restoration possible. We start from noise, and from the noise, a sound emerges.
2. Notes played on guitar by Adolphe Giacomelli (1853 or 1854) 0:24
3. First ever voice recording captured from the air (1853 or 1854) 0:29
These are some of Scott’s earliest experiments, made on his earliest prototype machine.
4. Phonautography of the voice at a distance (March 1857) 0:30
5. Song of the voice, changes in tone (July 1857) 0:34
6. Song at a Distance (“The Echoes”) (August 17, 1857) 0:51
7. Ashen Pipe (Aug – Oct. 1857) 1:07
8. Stylus of Bristle (Aug – Oct. 1857) 1:35
9. The Sound of a Deep Voice (October 1857) 1:46
10. The Lord’s Prayer (October 1857) 1:58
11. Study of the Timber of the Voice (November 1857) 2:20
These are recordings made on the earlier version of the phonoautogram machine, mostly indecipherable as the speed was not properly regulated. The “Song at a Distance” possibly features the voice of a young girl, and should it later be decoded it may count as the first recorded music.
12. The Timber of the Cornet (December 1857) 2:31
This is now the earliest fully-recovered recording. The soloist is unknown, but the tone of the instrument is unmistakable.
13. Au Clair de la Lune (April 9, 1860) 2:45
14. Shakespeare : Othello excerpt (April 17 1860) 3:13
15. R, I, RI, R, A, RA, RIRA (Will Laugh) (April 18, 1860) 3:21
16. Racine : Phedre (excerpt) (April 19, 1860) 3:27
17. Tasso : Aminta (excerpt) (April – May 1860) 3:44
18. Vocal Scale (May 17, 1860) 3:57
19. Cherubini : Et Incarnatus Est (Sept 1, 1860) 4:12
20. Masse : Fly, Little Bee (September 1860, or later) 4:25
These are the fully-restored recordings from the final version of the phonoautogram. Note the difference in the sound of “Au Clair de la Lune” compared to the radio broadcast. At the time it was believed to be the recording of a young girl – now it is thought to be Scott’s voice.
Today is the 107th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The story of the “unsinkable” liner hitting the iceberg is so famous it hardly seems worth retelling for the umpteenth time, except perhaps for the producers of Entertainment Tonight, who reported on the sinking of the Costa Concordia with this headline
So, here’s a pack of materials suitable for immersing yourself in Titanic lore for a day or so, if such a mood has taken you.
Thomas Hardy – The Convergence of The Twain
A contemporary poem by Thomas Hardy, expressing the fairly original idea that the ship and the iceberg were destined to meet each-other and foolish humans could do nothing to prevent it.
We are very pleased to announce that Centuries of Sound has been nominated for the Bullseye Award (which “honours the podcasts that are producing exceptional listening experiences for niche audiences and those underrepresented in other British media”) at The 2019 British Podcast Awards.
“Why was the phonograph valued so highly as a means of musical progress? To answer this question we must recognise two perceptions widely held in early twentieth-century America: that classical music was a powerful cultural and musical force to which Americans sadly lacked exposure, and that technology, perhaps more than any other agent, could foster positive social change” – Mark Katz, “Capturing Sound”
Musical taste is a battleground populated by fanatics on all sides, and perhaps the worst flashpoint of all is the argument that things ain’t what they used to be. These days this point of view is often characterised as ‘rockism’ – perhaps best defined in a 2004 New York Times article by Kelefa Sanneh
A rockist is someone who reduces rock ‘n’ roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher. Over the past decades, these tendencies have congealed into an ugly sort of common sense… …Rockism isn’t unrelated to older, more familiar prejudices — that’s part of why it’s so powerful, and so worth arguing about.The pop star, the disco diva, the lip-syncher, the “awesomely bad” hit maker: could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world?
This is not really a new phenomenon, of course – read papers from the 1960s and you will find cultural commentators of many varieties complaining about the ubiquity of rock music, which to their ears is self-evidently inferior to jazz or classical – and this even has not entirely been consigned to history, take this characteristically pompous 2015 BBC lecture from Roger Scruton, where he whinges about popular music being popular.
The belief that there is a difference between good and bad, meaningful and meaningless, profound and vapid, exciting and banal – this belief was once fundamental to musical education. But it offends against political correctness. Today there is only my taste and yours. The suggestion that my taste is better than yours is elitist, an offence against equality. But unless we teach children to judge, to discriminate, to recognise the difference between music of lasting value and mere ephemera, we give up on the task of education. Judgment is the precondition of true enjoyment, and the prelude to understanding art in all its forms.
Scruton is naturally in favour of the more refined varieties of jazz, and presumably ragtime, but nevertheless his general attitude is exactly that of the gatekeepers of music in 1912, chief among them Thomas Edison. Up until this point, Edison had been resolutely on one side in the format wars – his cylinders against the now-open-source disc recordings. Now, however, he had been persuaded to start making discs, but entirely on his own terms.
It really is something to see these objects. Instead of the standard side-to-side movement, Edison insisted on keeping his hill-and-dale etching technique. With grooves of up to a couple of millimeters deep, the records need to be substantially thicker – 6mm compared to the 1mm you would expect from a shellac disc. That’s the thickness of two pound coins if you’re British, or three nickels for Americans. It’s a substantial, serious object, made for only the highest quality sounds – and what sounds were they? In the words of the demonstration disc sampled in this mix
In as much as this instrument is capable of a real interpretation of music, Mr Edison intends to make it the means of offering all of the world’s finest music to the American people. From month to month, he will present purposeful programs of music, including the works of the great composers, a revival of English opera and historic lyrics, a review of the music of the nations, gems of grand opera, the fine old songs so aptly called ‘heart songs’, the best musical numbers from modern light opera successes, and all of the contemporary popular music
Don’t think for a moment that the last of these means that we are going to be getting the most cutting-edge ragtime dance numbers – for “popular music” here we should read “parlor songs” – perhaps from Tin Pan Alley, but not from its more baudy end. The sort of music you would buy on the printed page, and perform at a social event, performed on disc by trained tenors, backed by an orchestra. Not the music I am interested in putting in this mix, on the whole.
To be fair, however, from the angle of classical music, this commitment to quality of performance and fidelity of sound did lead to some excellent recordings being made. It’s because we have these discs that we can hear very early recordings from Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the most renouned pianist of his day, later president of Poland and representative of the country at the 1919 peace conference in Paris. And then there’s Fritz Kreisler, perhaps the greatest violinist in the world, whose distinctive sound was hugely influential around the world, and whose celebrated rediscoveries of works by Pugnani, Tartini and Vivaldi were later revealed to be his own compositions. “The name changes,” he commented, “the value remains.” These recordings may not reflect the musical revolutions happening out of earshot, but it is nevertheless wonderful to have them in such a condition.
As for the “music of the nations” – well, there is plenty of this, naturally, but not much of it on diamond disc. In Eastern Europe foundational klezmer records are being made. Armenian priest, musicologist, composer, arranger, singer, and choirmaster Komitas is recording devotional vocal works which remain vitally important in the Caucasus to this day. And let’s not forget Paraguayan Agustín Barrios, one of the most prolific virtuoso guitar players and composers of all time, who is establishing the importance of an instrument we will be hearing a lot more from.
There was plenty to pick from for this mix, then, but less of the popular music I’ve been foregrounding in the last few years. It’s not really a loss, though – the music here can speak for itself as to its value. The real revolution will have to wait a year, but will be all the sweeter for that.
Harry E. Humphrey – Edison Diamond Disc Advertising Record (1) 0:00
Empire Military Band – Dill Pickles 0:36
Harry E. Humphrey – Edison Diamond Disc Advertising Record (2) 2:05
Ignace Jan Paderewski – Debussy- Images Set 1 – #1 Reflets Dans L’eau 2:45
Komitas Vardapet – Kele Kele 4:35
Woordrow Wilson – Speech 6:41
Fritz Kreisler – Præludium by J.S. Bach 7:00
Theodore Roosevelt – Liberty of the People 8:41
Naftule Brandwein’s Orchestra – Turkische Yalle Vey Uve (Tanz) 9:55
Choir of Shilda – Chakrulo 13:05
Orchestra Orfeon – Sirba 14:01
Belf’s Rumynski Orkestr – Khosidl 16:03
Alexander Moissi – Prometheus 18:40
Victor Military Band – Stomp Dance 18:54
Ramsay – The Five Bachelors 20:51
James I. Lent – the Ragtime Drummer 20:57
Lovey’s Trinidad String Band – Mango Vert 21:50
Chiquinha Gonzaga – Falena 24:44
Agustín Barrios – Matilde (Mazurka) 26:44
Theodore Roosevelt – The Right of the People to Rule 29:35
Ignace Jan Paderewski – Chopin- Êtude in a Flat, Op. 25,1, ‘Aeolian Harp’ 30:17
Paul Lack – Vive la rosie’re 32:16
Harry Fragson – Other Department, Please 32:38
Al Jolson – Brass Band Ephraham Jones 35:56
Cal Stewart & Steve Porter – Village Gossips 37:46
Prince’s Orchestra – Black Diamond Rag 38:24
Elsie Janis – Fo’ De Lawd’s Sake Play a Waltz 41:10
Billy Murray & Ada Jones – Wedding Glide 42:43
Guido Deiro – Deiro Rag 44:16
Joe Weber & Lew Fields – Mosquito Trust (Mike and Meyer) 45:54
Edison Concert Band – Woodland Serenade 46:27
Koos Speenhoff – Diender Van Het Callandmonument 48:33
Lucien Rigaux – Vous avez quequ’chose 50:05
Ignace Jan Paderewski – Liszt- Trois Çtudes De Concert, S 144, ‘trois Caprices Poçtiques’ – #2 in F Minor, ‘la Leggierezza’ 52:16
Parlow-Falkenstein – Menuett G Flat Major & Valse Bluette 52:48
Weber & Fields – Race Horse Scene 54:55
Frank Curtis – If They Bury Alexander’s Band 55:20
Clarice Mayne – Joshua 58:01
Billy Murray & Heidelberg Quintet – I Want to Love You While the Music’s Playing 1:01:53
Fisk Jubilee Singers – Band of Gideon 1:03:46
Nagaraja Rao – Flute Instrumental- Purna Shadjamam (Krithi) 1:05:24
Anon – Yangzi River Boat Rowing Song 1:07:14
Unknown Artist – Tar Solo 1:07:52
Kanape – Entertaining Song 1:10:11
Anon (New Guinea ) – Timbunke Vocalist W Interlocking Flutes 2 1:10:42
Jenab Damavandi – Bidad 1:10:57
Gesang Des Zauberarztes – ??? 1:11:21
January 1 – The Republic of China is established as Dr. Sun Yat-Sen takes the oath of office as the Provisional President at Nanjing.
January 8 – The African National Congress is founded as the South African Native National Congress in a four-day meeting at Bloemfontein.
January 9 – The 130 foot tall Equitable Building, New York City’s first skyscraper, is destroyed by a fast moving fire.
January 12 – The Lawrence textile strike begins in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Men, women and children from 25 different nationalities hold out for nine weeks until March 13, when American Woolen agree to the strikers’ demands.
January 17 – The British Antarctic Expedition, consisting of Robert Falcon Scott and his team of four explorers, reach the South Pole, only to find the flag of Norway that had been planted by the Norwegian Expedition led by Roald Amundsen.
February 4 – Franz Reichelt, 32, French tailor and engineer, plunges to his death after jumping from the Eiffel Tower to test a wearable parachute.
February 12 – The Qing Dynasty of China comes to an end after 268 years as the Empress Dowager Longyu signs an agreement on behalf of Puyi, the 6 year old Emperor of China, making General Yuan Shih-kai the President of the new Republic.
March 1 – Albert Berry becomes the first person to make a parachute jump from an airplane in flight, leaping from above the Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, Missouri.
March 1 – Emmeline Pankhurst is among 148 suffragettes arrested in London for breaking windows, including that of 10 Downing St
March 29 – The three remaining members of Robert Falcon Scott’s South Pole expedition die while waiting out a blizzard in their tent, still nearly 150 miles from their base camp. Their bodies will be discovered by a search party in November.
April 10 – RMS Titanic, the largest ship ever constructed, begins its maiden voyage from Southampton, England at noon, with a final destination of New York City.
April 14 – At 1140pm, RMS Titanic strikes an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean. The ship stas afloat for two hours and forty minutes. Only 705 of the people on board survive, while 1,500 die.
April 17 – Russian soldiers kill 270 striking gold miners and wound 270 others after firing into a crowd as they protested. The miners had gone on strike in Siberia to demand a reduction in the workday and improved food and sanitation.
May 14 – Frederik VIII, King of Denmark, collapses and dies while taking an evening stroll while on vacation in Germany. Found a
May 24 – Charles Dawson brings the first five skull fragments of the Piltdown man to the British Museum. Dawson’s ‘missing link’ will be proven to be a hoax in 1953.
May 29 – L’après-midi d’un faune, a ballet choreographed and performed by Vaslav Nijinsky, premiers at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. Nijinsky shocks the audience and is booed offstage.
June 22 – At the Republican National Convention, U.S. President William Howard Taft is nominated for a second term ahead of former President Theodore Roosevelt, who leaves the convention and forms a new Progressive Party.
July 1 – The Woolworth Building in New York City becomes the world’s tallest skyscraper, at 792 feet.
July 2 – New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson receives the Democratic Party nomination for President of the United States.
July 4 – 41 are killed in a train collision near Corning, New York
July 6 – The 1912 Summer Olympics are formally opened at the Swedish national stadium in Stockholm. Twenty-eight nations and 2,407 athletes (including 48 women) participate.
July 7 – Harry Houdini escapes handcuffs, leg irons, and an underwater coffin
July 7 – The first Automat in New York City, providing fast food to customers in a self-service format, is opened by Horn and Hardart at 1557 Broadway in Times Square.
August 7 – Physicist Victor Hess of the Vienna Institute for Radium Research, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, becomes the first person to discover cosmic rays.
August 8 – Cincinnatus Leconte, President of Haiti, and 300 soldiers are killed in an accidental explosion at the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince.
September 12 – French Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré signs an agreement with the Russian Empire, providing that if the German Empire mobilized its troops, France and Russia would do the same.
September 21 – Harry Houdini gives the first public performance of his escape from the Chinese Water Torture Cell. The trick, never done before by anyone, required Houdini to get out of a lock
September 28 – The ‘Ulster Covenant’, a protest by adult citizens of the province in northern Ireland against a proposal to give Ireland self-government apart from Great Britain, is signed by 237,368 men, and 234,046 women.
October 14 – Theodore Roosevelt is shot and wounded by John Schrank, a New York City saloonkeeper. The bullet is slowed by Roosevelt’s metal eyeglasses case and the folded, fifty-page manuscri
October 17 – The Ottoman Empire declares war on Bulgaria and Serbia.
October 18 – The Ottoman Empire and Italy sign the First Treaty of Lausanne to end the Italo-Turkish War, with Turkey agreeing to grant independence to Tripolitania and Cyrenaica long enough for them to come under Italian control.
October 30 – James S. Sherman, the Vice President of the United States, dies in office, six days before the presidential election.
November 5 – Woodrow Wilson is elected President of the United States, with former Presidents Roosevelt and incumbent President Taft finishing in second and third place, respectively.
November 28 – Albania declares independence from The Ottoman Empire, bringing an end to more than 400 years of Turkish rule.
November 29 – The University of Maryland is destroyed by fire
December 4 – African-American boxer Jack Johnson shocks much of America by marrying ‘outside his race’ to white American Lucille Cameron.
December 6 – In excavations at Tell al-Amarna in Egypt, the Nefertiti Bust is unearthed, intact, after a burial of 32 centuries.
December 8 – Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany convenes a war council at Potsdam, after receiving news that the United Kingdom would join with France and Russia in the event of a European war.
December 23 – The Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, is wounded when a bomb is thrown at him in Delhi. The mastermind behind the plot, Rashbehari Bose, escapes to Japan where he livs the rest of his life.
December 26 – Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa is able to escape from the military prison of Santiago Tlatelolco, and flees to the United States, hiding in El Paso, Texas.