One of the main problems with making this Centuries of Sound thing is representation. The 1890s are the birthplace of ragtime and the blues, Buddy Bolden was playing proto-Jazz down in New Orleans, and over in Europe figures like Dvořák, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Puccini, Sibelius, Grieg, Saint-Saëns, and Rachmaninoff were leading classical music’s last great popular era. And what do we have in the way of photograph cylinders for this golden age? Marching bands, sentimental ballads, novelty instrumentals and nothing much else.

When I was about 10 I had a “Portable Action Replay Player and Keyring” which played 30-second clips from blockbuster movies, or monster trucks and dirtbikes.


Imagine for a second our civilization was destroyed and this was all that remained.

This is the narrow aperture which sound recording gives us at this point. Without a duplication process, every cylinder had to be an original, played into a brass funnel by at most five or six artists. These recordings were then consumed almost entirely in a small number of “phonograph parlors” which fed recordings to customers through a stethoscope-like device. Why would any fan of the arts consider this to be worth their time when the real thing was infinitely superior? And why would any serious performer take such a thing seriously?

The answer, of course, was that it was a living to be made. In this mix we meet (possibly) the best-selling artist of the decade and (maybe) the first million-seller, George W Johnson. Johnson was born in the South before the civil war, made his way to the streets of New York and found a living as a street performer, soon building enough of a reputation performing at the ferry terminal that both existent recording companies signed him up. Soon he was sitting in a “studio”, singing the same two songs into a bank of gramophones up to fifty times a day, for limited financial returns. “The Whistling Coon” is offensive all the way down the line from awful title to much worse lyrics, but apparently this is what the public wanted, and it made a black man the first star recording artist in the particularly racist post-reconstruction era of the USA. It’s included here as ignoring it would be an insult to his memory.

Also he can whistle very well, and that seems to have been a big deal in the early days of the record industry. Our mix starts with another example, “artistic whistler” John Yorke Atlee with the bird noise vaudeville staple “Listen To The Mocking Bird.” Then we have Sousa’s U.S. Marine Band with another of their jolly marching band anthems, followed by cylinder catalogue staple George J. Gaskin with “Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill,” a novelty song about  Irish workers drilling holes in rock to blast out railroad tunnels. Just before George W Johnson we have a much more offensive item from blackface performer Billy Golden, presented for historical reasons but with a serious warning about its content.

Another U.S. Marine Band recording follows, this one allegedly a “Mexican dance” and providing a deal more subtlety than usual. Then we have Welsh baritone J.W. Myers with a bit of light operetta,  an unknown singer called Will White with another bit of light operetta, a mournful trumpet solo from D.B. Dana, then the first of many selections from the 1890s foremost spoken word artist, Russell Hunting, here barely audible in his Irish ethnic stereotype “Casey”. This fades out into a pair of Julius Block recordings, firstly of noted Russian pianist and composer Sergei Taneyev, then of soprano Maria Klimentova-Muromtzeva, with Taneyev accompanying. Mixed into these we have the final words of C.H. Spurgeon, a British Baptist preacher whose influence was massive at the time. The words were, of course, not recorded at his bedside, but later by his son Thomas Spurgeon.


John Yorke Atlee – The Mocking Bird
U.S. Marine Band – Farewell to Dresden
George J. Gaskin – Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill
Billy Golden – Turkey in the Straw
George W. Johnson – The Whistling Coon
Hager’s Band – La Media Noche
J.W. Myers – Bell Buoy
Will White – Third Verse of Mary & John
D.B. Dana – Cujus Animam
Russell Hunting – Michael Casey as Physician
Sergei Taneyev – Mozart: Fantasie in C Minor, K. 396
Thomas Spurgeon – C. H. Spurgeon’s Last Words
Maria Klimentova-Muromtzeva and Sergei Taneyev – Schumann: Widmung, no. 1 from Myrthen, op. 25

Mp3 direct download click here


1890 big

Mp3 direct download click here

We’re a bit stuck in between ages here. The experiments are now fading into the background, phonographs are being introduced into the world, but the nascent music business still hasn’t really taken off. 1890 sees our last recordings from Edison’s British agent, Colonel Gouraud, and the first attempts, in Russia, to capture performances from classical musicians. What we don’t have that much of so far is the popular music of the time, though that was soon to change.


1. P.T. Barnum – Personal Speech To The Future
2. U.S. Marine Band – Washington Post March
3. Florence Nightingale – The Voice Of
4. Consolidated Quartet – My Old New Hampshire Home
5. Trumpeter Landfrey – Charge Of The Light Brigade At Balaklava
6. Alfred Lord Tennyson – The Charge Of The Light Brigade
7. Madamoiselle Nikita And Pyotr Schurovsky – At The Fountain
8. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky And Anton Rubinstein – 4-10 January 1890, Moscow
9. Ben Davies – To Mary
10. Miss Ferguson & Graham Hope – Big Ben Clock Tower Of Westminster
11. U.S. Marine Band – The Thunderer
12. Emile Berliner – Whist The Bogie Man
13. Karl Bernhardt – Wacht Am Rhein
14. Edwin Booth – Most Potent, Grave… (From Othello)
15. Vasily Samus – Dargomizhsky – I Am In Love, My Maiden, My Beauty

Our mix starts with a speech from P.T. Barnum directed at us, listening to him in the distant future. He is most famous these days for his circus and freak-show, but was a progressive activist and anti-slavery campaigner too. Next we have the first recording from the biggest star of the day, John Philip Sousa, though of course he is not playing here (Sousa dismissively called the phonograph “canned music” and refused to appear on recordings.) As leader of the US Marine Band, Sousa’s marches inspired local bands across America, and the “stomp” of these two-minute hits will perhaps surprisingly provide our first pointer in the direction of the Jazz explosion 27 years in the future. We also have The Consolodated Quartet giving an example of the vocal harmonies which would eventually morph into the Ragtime-era “barbershop” singing troupes of the early 1900s.

The second section of the mix is made up of three recordings made by General Gouraud in aid of the pension fund for the survivors of the charge of the light brigade. First Florence Nightingale, who seems to have known better than anyone else how to project her voice into a phonograph horn, then trumpeter Martin Leonard Lanfried sounding the charge on the same trumpet that was used on the day, and finally Alfred Lord Tennyson himself, reading the poem which made the charge so famous. A good blog post on the history behind these recordings can be found here.

Next we have the first of what will be quite a few selections from the collection of Julius Block, a Russian businessman who managed to get a prototype phonograph from Edison and bring it back to Russia. A keen music fan, Block counted some of the most important musicians of late 19th century Russia among his friends, and he was able to hold regular “phonographic salons” where they would come to be recorded. Block’s extensive collection was believed lost in the second world war, and has only been recovered within the last decade. Our first selection from these recordings features Mademoiselle Nikita, a singer from Kentucky who was at the time hugely popular in Russia. Then we have a clip of Tchaikovsky, unfortunately doing nothing more than clowning around in front of the machine. At the end of the mix we have Tenor Vasily Samus with a piece from mid-19th-century composer Alexander Dargomyzhsky.

Also in the mix; Ben Davies sings a surprisingly rare 1890 example of the sentimental ballads I will find myself wading neck-deep through by the end of the decade; Gouraud’s assistants’ recording of Big Ben’s chimes; another test disc from Emile Berliner – this time singing (in a sort of lugubriouly sinister fashion) one of the hit songs of the era; another uptempo number from Sousa’s U.S. Marine Band; a hearty rendition of the famous patriotic German anthem “Die Wacht am Rhein”, and a excerpt from Othello performed by Edwin Booth – then America’s most famous actor, but now better remembered as the brother of Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth.



1889 is by no stretch of the imagination a golden year for recorded music. A blip on the otherwise upwards trajectory in terms of both sound quality and things being recorded, it is, frankly, the worst possible starting point for anyone dipping in. With little in the way of technical improvements, it’s notable only for the presence of a handful of famous names (probably more than for any year until the 1910s) and the inclusion of a Berliner disc recording.


1. Effie Stewart & Theo Wangemann – The Pattison Waltz
2. Benjamin Harrison – Speech Excerpt
3. Issler’s Orchestra – The Fifth Regiment March
4. Otto von Bismarck – Spoken Words, October 7, 1889
5. Ludwig Karl Koch – Birdsong of Indian Sharma
6. Johannes Brahms – Hungarian Dance No. 1 (Excerpt)
7. Robert Browning –  Passage from How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix
8. Peter Schram – Leporello Aria Excerpts
9. Emile Berliner – Zahen, a, b, c

After a fluffed introduction, the mix begins with Effie Stewart, a soprano soloist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, accompanied by Edison technician Theo Wangemann on the piano. This is followed by the first recording of a US president, the often forgotten Benjamin Harrison. Then a return from Edison house band Issler’s Orchestra, this time playing something with a name, and a speech from another world leader, Otto von Bismarck, who would remain as the German chancellor (a role and a country that he created) until the following year. Another German is responsible for the following clip, the first recording of birdsong, recorded by 8-year-old Ludwig Karl Koch, already a pioneer in nature recording. Then a few words from Johannes Brahms and a frankly unbearable (but mercifully short) excerpt of his piano playing. Then another world-renowned artist, the apparently drunk 77-year-old Robert Browning, who is unable to remember the words to one of his most famous poems. He died later in the year, and the playing of this cylinder represented the first speech from beyond the grave. Then we have 70-year-old basso cantante Peter Shram running through some of his greatest hits, and finally a reconstruction of Emile Berliner reading the alphabet.

None of this is hugely exciting, and not much of it is lisenable, but at this stage there’s little choice.

Mp3 direct download click here



The gramophone and phonograph had been experimental toys for a decade, their inventors deciding to tinker with them from time to time in between other, more immediately lucrative projects. In 1887, aside from Edison’s occasional developments, Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Labs had developed significant improvements in both cylinder and disc recording, and Emile Berliner filed his first patent for what he called a “gramophone” – though the invention he launched a few years later would bear little relation to the patent. Most importantly, on March 28th, a group of businessmen from Philadelphia created the American Graphophone Company, in order to produce and sell phonograph machines – this eventually evolved into Columbia Records.

It would be nice at this stage to cite these developments as the birth of the recording industry, but that’s still a couple of steps away. These inventions, whether using cylinders or discs, were merely private prototypes of dictation machines, intended for listening on a stethoscope-like device – interesting in a vague way, but needing a showman to get people excited. This came in the form of civil war veteran (and medal of honor recipient) Colonel George Gouraud, who was employed as Edison’s agent in Europe.

On 14 August 1888, Gouraud called a press conference to introduce the phonograph to London, including playing a piano and cornet recording of Arthur Sullivan’s “The Lost Chord“. Sullivan (of ‘Gilbert & Sullivan’ fame) was one of the luminaries invited to Gouraud’s residence in South London for dinner parties where the phonograph was introduced to the great and good of English society as a parlour trick par excellence. The guests would listen to phonograph recordings, then record their greetings to Edison, to be shipped back to the USA. And that dinner, for the most part, is our audio record of 1888.

Our mix, then, begins with a recording of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, made by the Edison company for a frankly terrifying talking doll in 1887. Then we move on to arguably the oldest extant musical recording, the duo performing “The Lost Chord”, and Gouraud introducing the after dinner speakers. After an interlude from a white wax cylinder marked as “Piano Solo by Miss Eyre” we have the guests taking their turns to speak; Postmaster General Cecil Raikes, Edmund Yates, Sir Arthur Sullivan and A.M. Broadley – followed by a somewhat inebriated final toast from Colonel Gouraud.

After the party we have a few other surviving recordings from 1888 – first an unnamed performance from Issler’s Parlor Orchestra, a quartet led by Edward Issler who acted as Edison’s in-house band for their first few years of operation. Then we have a brief section of whistling from a Mrs Shaw, and a first sample of Edison himself speaking. Here he is testing out his device by describing a trip he would like to take around the world, obviously ad-libbed as it would make little or no sense to anyone with a map of Europe to hand.

Next we have a fantastic piece of history, if not a great example of sound recording; Gouraud took his phonograph along to record a performance of a choir or thousands singing Handel’s ‘Israel in Egypt‘. Three of these cylinders survive, but this is the only part where the voices manage to come through the wall of white noise.The real thing must have been stunning, but hearing it now takes a bit of imagination.

Finally we have Gouraud’s recording of British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone – a scratchy mess which unfortunately yields little in the way of comprehensible content. A recording of Queen Victoria, made around the same time, is apparently in existence, but is little more than a noise, and whether it is or is not actually Victoria speaking is still debated. This is not in the mix, but can be heard here.


MP3 download – Centuries of Sound 1887-1888




Track list

1. Unknown – Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
2. Unknown Performer & Miss Eyre – The Lost Chord
3. Colonel Gouraud – Introduction & Toast
4. Miss Eyre – Piano Solo
5. Colonel Gouraud – Introducing Messages To Edison
6. Postmaster General Cecil Raikes – Message To Edison
7. Edmund Yates – Message To Edison
8. Sir Arthur Sullivan – Message To Edison
9. A.M. Broadley – Message To Edison
10. Colonel Gouraud – Toast
11. Issler’s Parlor Orchestra – [Title Unknown]
12. Mrs Shaw – Whistling by Mrs Shaw
13. Thomas Edison – Around the World On The Phonograph
14. 4000 Voice Choir Conducted by August Manns – “Moses and the Children of Israel”  from Handel’s “Israel In Egypt”
15. Willam Ewart Gladstone – The Phonograph Salutation



1897 big

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Nearly two decades have passed, and Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s experiments with recording sound have so far not resulted in anything replayable. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, development are taking place which will eventually turn these ideas into commercial recordings. On on November 21st, 1877, Thomas Edison announced that he had invented a device which would be able to play back recorded telegraph messages. The next few years saw frantic experimentation with various media – single-use tinfoil sheets wrapped around cylinders (nearly all of which have unfortunately not survived) and discs of different materials, some of which have proved to be readable (if not particularly listenable) by the people at firstsounds.org.

The first sound you will be able to hear is the vibrations from the Metropolitan Elevated Railroad in Manhatten, the result of an experiment by Charles Batchelor to adapt a phonograph to trace waves on lamp-blacked paper so they could be examined visually. If you can make anything out of this aside from a spooky wind then you’ve done better than I have. Next we have the only substantial bit of tinfoil to be recovered, a brief musical performance of some sort, a recitation of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” (probably not by Edison), some laughter and indistinct speech sounds. Then there’s an oddity, an ambitious attempt to create a talking clock by French-American inventor Frank Lambert, the oldest sound recording replayable on its own device. You should be able to make out “twelve o’ clock, five o’clock” and a few other hours.

After these early experiments Edison moved his energies to developing the electric light, and the project was put on the backburner. The second half of this mix has some of the experimental Volta labs disc recordings of the early 1880s, all recorded by Charles Summer Tainter and Chichester Bell, two engineers employed by Alexander Graham Bell. The first of these is little more than a noise, the second a recitation of Hamlet’s soliloquy, the third a man repeatedly saying ‘barometer’. The glass plate recording after is slightly more interesting as it contains the following monologue;

It’s the eleventh day of March, eighteen hundred and eighty five.  [Trilled R] How is this for high!  Mary had a little lamb, and its fleece was […] as […], and everywhere that Mary went — oh, fuck.

The machine breaks, and the first recorded obscenity of history is etched into a glass disc. The final two Volta Labs recordings apparently contain dull descriptions of business, the target market for this invention being rich businessmen who wanted to save time in dictating notes.

I won’t spend a moment pretending that this mix is even halfway listenable, but it’s only four minutes long (too short for mixcloud) and it sets us up nicely for next time, when we’ll start to shift focus to things being recorded and not just artifacts of the process.


Most of the sounds here were recovered by the brilliant people here at firstsounds.org
A video of Edison operating his original tinfoil cylinder machine
In-depth research into Frank Lambert’s talking clock
An article on the birth of sound recording


1. Charles Batchelor – Metropolitan Elevated Railroad from 40 feet away
2. Thomas Edison – Schenectady Museum – 22 June 1878 in St Louis, Missouri
3. Frank Lambert – Recording for an experimental talking clock
4. Charls Sumner Tainter – Lateral Electroplated Disc
5. Unknown artist – Green wax disc – Hamlet’s Soliloquy
6. Volta lab – November 17 1884 “Barometer”
7. Tainter / Rogers – Photographic glass plate recording
8. Chichester Bell – Disc on Japan wax, April 1885
9. Chichester Bell – Wax disc, summer 1885


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, 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 you haven’t. The recording in circulation comes from a 1927 recreation for the Golden Jubilee of the Phonograph ceremony, the original being lost on a sheet of re-usable tinfoil fifty years earlier.

But it really doesn’t matter. The real start date for us is seventeen years earlier than that, on the 6th of April 1860, when French printer and bookseller Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville decided to add a tuning fork to his experiments with recording the acoustic properties of the human voice. This is what he used – his own invention, the phonoautograph


The phonoautograph was essentially an artificial ear. The barrel worked as an ear canal, a parchment membrane stretched over the end was the eardrum, then a pig bristle or piece of feather functioned as the ossicles, drawing a line of lampblack on a roll of parchment. The result looked like this:

It wasn’t intended to be played back, and it wasn’t – not for another 149 years at least. The story of how the sounds were extracted from these scraps of paper is best told by the people at firstsounds.org who made all of this possible. In 2012 PRI radio show Studio 360 ran a feature on the recovery of the audio, the extended version of which is the best possible sub-10-minute primer on the subject.

…and finally, of course, the actual mix! Consider yourself warned that this is very far indeed from easy listening. Instead of scratches we essentially have slightly tuned white noise, through which you can hear something; not enough to really make out much, but unmistakably a human voice.

mp3 download link

…and both MP3s in a single package on Mixcloud, who apparently don’t agree with 2-minute mixes


1. Diapason at 435 Hz–at sequential stages of restoration (1859 Phonautogram)
2. Au Clair de la Lune – By the Light of the Moon (April 9, 1860)
3. Excerpt from Ducis’s Othello (April 17, 1860)
4. Au Clair de la Lune – By the Light of the Moon (April 20, 1860)
5. Opening lines from Tasso’s Aminta (undated, probably April-May 1860)
6. Gamme de la Voix – Vocal Scale (May 17, 1860)
7. Jeune Jouvencelle (August 17, 1857)
8. Vole, Petite Abeille – Fly, Little Bee (September 15, 1860)
9. Vole, Petite Abeille – Fly, Little Bee (undated, probably September 1860)

2016 preview mix

2016 - Walking_reflection

Around this time every year, I’ll post a preview mix. This will be out of the usual monthly cycle, and put up as a placeholder while the year is still warm. When I eventually get round to these years there will be a more considered mix posted in its place.

2016 was, by all accounts, a bit of a rough year. In terms of music, though, it will probably be better-remembered.


David Bowie – Lazarus
Ian William Craig – Contain (Astoria Version)
Buz Ludzha – Basslines For Life
Nadia Rose – Skwod
Yussef Kamaal – Strings of Light
DJ Fresh & High Contrast ft. Dizzee Rascal – How Love Begins
Chance The Rapper – All Night (feat Knox Fortune)
Alex Anwandter – Siempre Es Viernes En Mi Corazon
Metronomy – Old Skool (Fatima Yamaha Remix)
Kero Kero Bonito – Waking Up
Frightened Rabbit – Get Out
Hannah Epperson – Iodine (Iris)
Jessy Lanza – It Means I Love You
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
A Tribe Called Quest – We The People…
Mark Prichard – ?
Shura – What’s It Gonna Be?
Kaytranda – Lite Spots
Anna Lunoe – Radioactive
French Montana – Lockjaw ft. Kodak Black
Solange – Cranes In The Sky
King – The Greatest
Innercity Ensemble – III
Neiked Ft. Dyo – Sexual
Joey Purp Ft. Chance The Rapper – Girls
Graphs – Foxdie
Royalston, August Storm – Jungle Gone Down (Kimyan Law Remix)
Logistics – Icarus
Urbandawn – Still Breathing (feat. Keeno)
Rawtekk – Harbour
Hedvig Mollestad Trio – Approaching / On Arrival
Blanck Mass – D7-D5
Pye Corner Audio – Ganzfeld Effect
DUDS – No Remark
Beyonce – Sorry
Ngaiire – Diggin
Lindstrøm – Closing Shot
Anoushka Shankar – Boat To Nowhere
ANOHNI – Crisis
Autechre – Latentcall
Aphex Twin – CheetahT2 (Ld Spectrum)
Young M.A – OOOUUU
Julianna Barwick – Beached
Radiohead – Daydreaming
Shura – The Space Tapes
Christopher Tignor – The Will and the Waiting
Nick Cave – Distant Sky

Coming tomorrow: 1859-1860