1894

Caddo family butchering a Longhorn steer near Anadarko Agency, Oklahoma, 1894

The classic minstrel show is refracted through just about every aspect of American entertainment since. As a ritual, the minstrel show was as formalized as an exorcism. Each of its set parts has its own afterlife, appears peeking through a different window in American culture like a leering, priapic idiot glimpsed through a heavily barred attic dormer. The show had three main parts. Originally, it would begin with a sheaf of songs. By the 1870s this evolved into a full-blown mockorchestral overture, swerved only by the rather unsettling rattle of Mr. B’s bones. As this dies down, Mr. I steps to the fore and says, “Gentlemen, be seated.”

          David Wondrich – Stomp & Swerve; American Music Gets Hot

We’re a few decades into recorded sound now, but so far the field has been the preserve of innovators and hobbyists. In 1894 this is fundamentally still the case, but things are beginning to open up. This year saw the launch of the Graphophone G, the “Baby Grand” – the first machine designed for home entertainment. It sold for $75, or $100 with a horn, a listening tube and a set of records, and allowed the playing of both competing standards of cylinder, Edison and Columbia. Then in November, Berliner disc recordings finally went on sale to the general public. Very little of this would have filtered through into the average household, but for well-off, forward thinking types, having this device in your house was now at least an option. So the piano still has its place in the drawing room, for now, but the shift from home musicianship to mass consumption of recorded sound has begun.

And the actual sounds being recorded? Slim progress on that front, I’m afraid, but greater volume of production at least makes more to choose from.

Minstrel shows were still just about the dominant paradigm of American entertainment in 1894, and the obvious way to tap into this for the wax cylinder market was to produce cut down taster menu versions which could fit into the two-and-a-half minutes available. Our mix starts with the opening overture and first joke from one of these, complete (of course) with the usual racist slurs being thrown around, an unfortunate fact of the time. This is followed by another representation of commercial entertainment – a reproduction of a dance number performed by Edison’s in-house band to promote Edison’s electric lights.

Daisy Bell is one of the few hits of the 90s which is still well-known today, and is included more for reasons of familiarity than quality of performance or recording. After that we have the first of two recordings of Native American “Ghost Dances” collected by noted anthropologist Professor James Mooney. It’s unclear who is actually recorded on the cylinder, but it’s very likely to be Mooney himself. Then we have a clip of a grandfather using the phonograph for ins intended purpose, the dictation of letters – in this case to his grandchildren.

Nostalgia for the pre-Civil War South might seem at best distasteful today, but it was the very definition of a safe topic in the 1890s, and for that matter the only real way for black artists to gain a mass audience. The Standard Quartet were stars of a touring show called “The South Before The War” which presented the era of slavery as “happy days and pleasant nights.” A single recording of the group still exists, and it’s better than might be reasonably expected.

After the chimes of Harvard Clock Tower, and more from the unknown grandfather, we have some recordings from famed Russian violin player and composer Jules Conus, pianist and composer Anton Arensky, tenor Lavrentii Donskoi and pianist Vladimir Wilschaw. The Wilschaw piece is particularly interesting for its almost furious speed which seems to prefigure certain aspects of 20th century piano music. Then, after a very brief bit of speech, we have an excellent piece from a trio of two famous pianists and a violin player and a spooky sample of soprano Maria Ivanovna Gutheil. All of these recordings come from the archive of Julius Block.

Next we have a sentimental story about ‘Old Jim’ going off to war, backed with a mournful piece from “The World’s Greatest Cornetist” Jules Levy, then something from noted bagpipe player John MacColl. The Brilliant Quartette seem to have been blackface singers, but their singing on ‘Blind Tom’ is at least a tad more respectful and lacking in racist stereotypes than most of their peers.

After another “Ghost Dance” excerpt, we have an example of that other staple of the age, pre-vaudeville ethnic music hall performance, here a song and monologue about an Irish wedding. Then in our final stretch we have three songs from the understandably ubiquitous Sousa’s Band (twice called the U.S. Marine Band, but quite possibly exactly the same people), plus one similar piece from the 23rd Regiment Band. Of these the “Enthusiast Polka” is perhaps the best, featuring astounding cornet playing from a young Arthur Pryor, who will doubtless become a fixture of these mixes in the next decade. Then to finish there is some very accomplished stroke-style banjo and proto-country vocals from Charles Astbury and a brief bit of harmony singing from the Bison City Quartet.

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Tracklist

Spencer, Wiliams And Quinn’s Imperial Minstrels – Minstrel First Part
Issler’s Orchestra – Electric Light Quadrille
Edward M. Favor – Daisy Bell
James Mooney – Arapaho No. 73. Ghost Dance
Unknown – Personal Message from a Grandfather to his Grandchildren (excerpt 1)
Standard Quartet – Keep Movin’
Harvard Clock Tower – Chimes
Unknown – Personal Message from a Grandfather to his Grandchildren (excerpt 2)
Jules Conus – Chopin-Sarasate- Nocturne In E-Flat, Op. 9, No. 2
Anton Arensky – Le Ruisseau Dans La Forêt In G, No. 15 From 24 Morceaux Charactéristiques, Op. 36
Lavrentii Donskoi – Rubinstein- O Pechal I Toska From Nero
Vladimir Wilschaw – Godard- En Courant In G-Flat, No. 1 From 6 Morceaux, Op. 53
Joseph Sawyer – Birthday Speech, October 22 1894
Anton Arensky, Jan Hrímalý And Anatoly Brandukov – Arensky- Piano Trio No. 1 In D Minor, Op. 32- Second Movement – Scherzo- Allegro Molto
Maria Ivanovna Gutheil – Rubinstein- Sail
Russell Hunting – The Old Man And Jim
Jules Levy – The Last Rose Of Summer
John MacColl – Campbells Are Coming
Brilliant Quartette – Blind Tom
James Mooney – Caddo No. 2. Ghost Dance
Dan Kelly – Paddy’s Wedding
Sousa’s Band – The Crack Regiment
U.S. Marine Band – The Enthusiast Polka
23rd Regiment Band – New York Herald
U.S. Marine Band – The Directorate March
Charles Asbury – Haul The Woodpile Down
Bison City Quartet – Mill Medley

1893

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When looking back into the past, it’s important (but difficult) to remember that for everyone concerned it was just the present, especially at times like these when technology was making the world strikingly different. For Americans born into the civil war era, the gilded age of the 1880s and 1890s must have been a dizzying sprint up a mountain of advances, with the 1993 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago taking place right at the summit, opening four days before the worst stock market crash America saw until the great depression. Set over 690 acres, the fair set the tone for the next twenty-five years of architecture, arts, culture and the electrification of the world.

It was a bit too late for recorded sound, though, or a little too early. Edison’s wax cylinder “phonograph” and Columbia’s wax cylinder “graphophone” had been around for half a decade, and had lost much of their novelty value, while Emile Berliner’s disc-based “phonograph” was not quite ready to go on sale, and it would be another few years before the inception of the record business as we know it. All the same, in 1893 we can start to see more in the way of “hits” – music produced with an eye to selling, even if only as a souvenir or a fun novelty.

Our mix opens with the oddest of all curios, a song written and performed by a genuine group of  black professional musicians. Not that there was a shortage of black music out there, of course, but the endemic racism of the time and the philistinism of the people in charge of recording meant that their name “Unique Quartette” was particularly apt. It would be a bit of a stretch to claim “Mama’s Black Baby Boy” as in any way proto-blues; it’s a show tune from a group who clearly knew what white audiences wanted. But despite its clear taint of racial stereotyping, it does appear to at least reflect something about their lives, and for this it’s an invaluable record.

After a brief (basically indecipherable) clip from the only surviving record of Louis Vasnier performing as his character Brudder Rasmus (which apparently was listenable as recently as the 1980s), we move onto the usual business, a stomping marching band piece from the 23rd Regiment Band Of New York, and the first of two pieces of “artistic whistling” which apparently sold well at the time and seem marvelously odd with nearly 125 years’ perspective.

As we move on through the years, there will be a certain tension between representing what was popular at the time, presenting a wide spread of what was happening around the world and making something which is enjoyable to listen to. I would say the last of these is the most important, followed by the second, but the first also has a part to play, especially when choices are as thin on the ground as they are this year. 1893’s biggest hit was ‘After The Ball’, a particularly lugubrious sentimental ballad. The rendition here by “silver-voiced Irish tenor” George J. Gaskin epitomises the best and worst aspects of the genre, having a clear, singable melody, a rousing, emotional vocal performance, and an overwhelming, oleaginous droning quality, apparently designed to put an end to any unseemly high spirits.

A better sampling of the year may perhaps be found in Issler’s Orchestra’s “On The Midway” – a 140-second sampling of the Chicago World’s Fair which pitches itself as neither comedy nor advertisement – just a souvenir. The most interesting part of the recording is perhaps the end, where the “hoochie coochie” belly dancers are leeringly described while a tune known variously as “The Streets of Cairo” “The Poor Little Country Maid” and “The Snake Charmer Song” plays. This melody was improvised by showman Sol Bloom, who brought the belly dancers to the fair, and has since served as a shorthand for Middle-Eastern exoticism throughout western culture. You definitely know it.

Next up is the first recording from Ada Jones, easily the most prolific female recording artist of the pre-WW1 era, here singing another huge hit of the day, sentimental romantic ballad “Sweet Marie” without thinking of doing any sort of lyrical gender-swap. Then a clip of a speech in Afrikaans leads into our first Julius Block cylinder of the mix – a delicate, accomplished piano duet from Sergei Taneyev And Leo Conus. Then a monologue from Russell Hunting, nobly describing an apparently momentous game of baseball.

A brass-band waltz from Sousa’s U.S. Marine Band leads into “A flute solo played by Mr Arthur Houston of Norwalk, Ohio” – who he was and why this recording was made are complete mysteries, but the multi-layered harmonies he manages to produce are truly astounding.

To finish off the mix we have a trio of popular songs – a rendition of The Commodore Song from Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, a fairly lighthearted tune from George H. Diamond, and another bit of whistling from John York Atlee, this time accompanied by verses in which he sings an explanation of “why should I keep from whistling? As it isn’t any sin.” Quite.

Tracks

Unique Quartette – Mamma’s Black Baby Boy
Louis Vasnier – Adam And Eve And De Winter Apple (Excerpt)
23rd Regiment Band Of New York – A.O.O.S. March
John York Atlee – Anvil Chorus
George J. Gaskin – After The Ball
Issler’s Orchestra – On The Midway
Ada Jones – Sweet Marie
Unknown – Brown Wax Home Recording Of Speech In Afrikaans
Sergei Taneyev And Leo Conus – Leo Conus- Suite For Piano Four-Hands
Russell Hunting – Casey At The Bat
United States Marine Band – The Kiss Waltz
Arthur Houston – Flute Solo
Edward M. Favor – The Commodore Song
George H. Diamond – When Summer Comes Again
John York Atlee – Why Should I Keep From Whistling?

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1892

opening of columbian exposition

What was recorded sound for; historical record? dictation of memos? the arts? At this point nobody is really making the case for any one purpose. The phonograph is out there in the homes of the wealthy trend-setters, recording studios are being set up in major cities, and popular entertainers are being sought out to make recordings, but still, there is no sign of anything approaching a recording industry. Cylinders are recorded in spare moments in back rooms, and duplication is still impossible. The line between professional and amateur simply does not exist.

What does this mean? Well firstly that quality control is poor at best (but hopefully my job is to deal with that issue) and secondly that the moderating influence of standards and rules is out of the window. Everything is to some extent strange and experimental, unfiltered by clear ideas of what will sell, and as the medium is as yet uncensored, crude and openly sexual cylinders exist alongside the anodine and sentimental.

Our first selection is of neither type, but another military marching band (Holding’s Military Band, of whom I can find no information at all). Then we have Russell Hunting in his comic Irishman persona ‘Casey’ performing a vaudeville routine about conducting a door to door survey. This is underscored with a Julius Block recording of a young Jules Conus, a violinist and composer who survived as long as the second world war.

Next a trio of recordings about Grover Cleveland, who won the election of 1892 to become the only US president to serve two non-consecutive terms. A burly, mustachioed fiscal conservative, he presided over the great crash of 1893 which put his party out of government for a generation. The first recording is of the man himself, reciting a campaign speech convincingly in front of a handful of people in a studio. Then we have the Grover Cleveland march, performed by Patrick Gilmore’s band. Finally, a shockingly rude set of jokes about Grover and his wife Frances Folsom, who had married in the White House during his previous term, Folsom being 21 and Cleveland being 49 at the time.

A clarinet piece by William Tuson is followed by a couple of novelty songs – Take Your Time Gentlemen, about a parrot, and Saving Them All For Mary, an otherwise undistinguished ballad with a fairly interesting bit of proto-country banjo playing. The something more familiar – “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me A Bow-Wow” – generally taken as a childrens’ song these days, but full of smut and innuendo when presented on the vaudeville stage.

After another piece from a vocal group (the sort of thing later called “barbershop”) and a marching band’s attempt at a waltz, we have some more Julius Block cylinders, piano workouts from Arensky, Taneyev and Pabst, and a short excerpt of a Tchaikovsky operatic work. Finally there is another sentimental ballad, presented largely for the odd timbre of the singer’s voice and the melancholy of the accompaniment, and Walt Whitman finishes off the mix with a few lines from “America”, recorded shortly before his death this year.

Tracks

Holding’s Military Band – The Night Alarm
Russell Hunting – Michael Casey Taking The Census
Jules Conus – Sarasate – Zigeunerweisen, op. 20, no. 1
Grover Cleveland – The Cleveland-Harrison Campaign Speech
Gilmore’s Band – Grover Cleveland March
Unknown – Boarding The Folsom
William Tuson – Esquimeau Dance
Press Eldridge – Take Your Time Gentlemen
Al Reeves – Saving Them All For Mary
Silas Leachman – Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me A Bow Wow
Manhansett Quartette – Sally In Our Alley
Issler’s Orchestra – Cannon Waltz
Anton Arensky – Improvisation in E-flat
Sergei Taneyev and Paul Pabst – Suite no. 2 For Two Pianos, op. 23 no. 1 – ‘Le Savant’
Eugenia Jurjevna Werdan – Tchaikovsky – Legend, no. 5 from 16 Songs For Children, op. 54
Russell Hunting – Michael Casey At The Telephone
Richard Jose – The Blind Boy
Walt Whitman – America

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1891

1-Member-of-the-African-cho-010

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.

toyfilmviewer

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.

Tracks

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

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1890

1890 big

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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.

Tracks

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

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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.

Tracks

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.

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1887-1888

1887-1888

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.

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MP3 download – Centuries of Sound 1887-1888

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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

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1878-1885

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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.

Links:

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

Tracklist

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

1859-1860

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

phonautograp_25255_lg.gif

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:
marks.jpg

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

Tracklist

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)