What is this?
Centuries of Sound is an attempt to produce an audio mix for every year of recorded sound. Starting with 1860, a mix is posted every month until we catch up with the present day. The scope is moreorless everything, music of course, but also speech and other sounds, the only limit being that music and sounds used must be from that year. Mixes start under three minutes, and will get longer until they are two hours long (guessing this will be sometime in the 1930s). Rough “preview” mixes of contemporary years are also posted at the end of each year – 2016 is already up.
Music and sound editing in particular has always been my thing, though usually not in such a focused way. Growing up in the UK, and later living in the Czech Republic, I spent a lot of my time making mixtapes and spent my time with people who were constantly making, listening to or talking about music. In 2006 I moved to China, and though it was an amazing experience overall, I missed that community aspect of music, especially when I got married and moved in with my in-laws, for whom music was simply not a part of life. So I redirected my energy elsewhere – editing all the music I’d accumulated, making themed mixes, and writing about every song by Pulp. Then one day I came across some recordings from 1899 and I thought “why not make mixes for each year?”
Of course it wasn’t that simple – it was a year or two before I’d started really doing anything systematically. This meant making a very big spreadsheet, scouting out online archives and deciding what could be included (yes to piano rolls, no to music boxes.) Then from the start of 2015 I’ve been doing my best to live a year every month, listening to the music of course, but also reading and watching whatever I can find, preferably histories or original media rather than things that are set in that time.
Right now my approach is to get my hands on absolutely everything I can find, put everything in one big folder, and listen to them over a month to edit them down to a manageable collection of 50 or so tracks. This has worked well when there are only a few hundred surviving recordings out there, but I’m about to start on 1909 and have almost 2000 recordings to sort through, so I probably need to shift to relying on my spreadsheet quite soon. This is why it’s vital that I start getting more recommendations in – I don’t want to miss anything if possible.
What do I get out of this?
Just the joy of the creative process and the experience of immersing myself in the past. The best moments in this process are when I hear something amazing and completely new to me. When I’m editing down the tracks this means that I have an extra incentive to keep as much variety as possible.
Why didn’t I include (song/artist)?
If I’m not into a genre I always try to get a feel for it, but ultimately if I don’t like something it won’t go in. At this early stage I’m already finding I have to resist the temptation to include music just because it’s familiar. This is not supposed to be the biggest hits for whatever year, and getting into the era of more familiar sounds, a lot of things are not going to be included.
Who is this aimed at?
When working on any sort of creative project there is a balance between your experience and that of the listener (or viewer, reader, etc.) but I think often this is mistranslated as trying to aim for a “target audience.” I do not believe that such a homogeneous group of people exists, and if I didn’t love making these or I didn’t think other people could enjoy them then there wouldn’t be any point in the project.
How do I stay objective?
I do my best to include every style, culture, language and ethnic group, but if something isn’t up to the standard, it won’t go in the mix. Naturally this is my own judgement, but I feel the results of a creative process are always going to be superior to the kind of disconnection needed for real objectivity. Generally I find that narratives emerge as a mix is being made, and generally they come as a pleasant surprise.
Where do I get my material from?
A list of books is on the front page. A list of other sources will be up soon.
What do you need?
So far we are still in the very early days, where a very limited selection of recordings are available, but as we get into the 20th century I hope to include the widest possible spread, both in terms of geography and genre. Please send your suggestions of songs, listed with artist and (hugely important) year to centuriesofsoundmail at gmail.com – or just enter them here –
Episodes are released on the first Monday of each month. Other blog posts are generally out on Mondays and Thursdays. Preview mixes will be up shortly before the end of each year.
Where should you start?
If you are a completionist, 1859-1860
If you want to hear famous voices, 1887-1888
If you want to hear something at least reasonably listenable, 1892
If you want to hear something quite a bit more listenable, 1897
If you want to hear ragtime, 1898
If you want tin pan alley, 1899
If you want to hear performers who are still well-known in the modern day, 1902
If you don’t think Bert Williams is still well-known, Enrico Caruso appears in 1903
If you want to wait until the first jazz record, 1917
If you absolutely cannot stand pops, crackles or hiss, 1940, give or take a decade
If you think music started with rock ‘n’ roll, 1954 (but actually quite a bit earlier)