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Songs Of Entropy: Lawrence Kramer, In Search Of The Audiable
The Quietus , August 24th, 2019 11:37

In an exclusive extract from his new book, The Hum of the World, philosopher and musicologist Lawrence Kramer explores the ghosts of early recording technologies

The first mechanical recordings of the human voice are well over a century old. The passage of time has lent them a spectral aura, not only because so many years have gone by, but also, perhaps more so, because the audibility of the recording mechanism is so much a part of their sound. The signal-to- noise ratio, enhanced by decay, is too nearly even, so that the sound of the apparatus becomes an expression of the voices’ remoteness in time. The noise assumes aesthetic resonance. These recordings come to us less as harbingers of a world in which, at long last, the voice is no longer ephemeral, than as relics of a world in which the ephemerality of voice was inherent in voice itself. Recorded voices were the exceptions that proved the rule before they became the rule. The predestined erasure of voice was audibly present in the very recordings that promised to prevent it. That recordings allow the dead to speak is no longer remarkable. But in listening to words uttered in the 1880s, or ’70s, or ’60s, we are still hearing death doing the talking.

Or the singing. The earliest known recordings of a human voice preserve both speech and song, with pride of place going to song. In the first one of all, made in Paris in April 1860, the inventor, Edouard Leon Scott de Martinville, sings a phrase from the folk song “Au clair de la lune.” But there’s a catch: these recordings were inaudible by design. It has only become possible to hear them thanks to present-day technology. Martinville’s recording device, the phonautograph, was meant to produce a visual, not an auditory, record of sound. The machine, as its name announces, would permit sound to write itself down. The writing would be readable and therefore reproducible in the manner of a musical score, but of a score recalling an actual performance rather than projecting a potential one. The result, Martinville wrote, would be “an imperishable trace of those fugitive melodies which the memory no longer finds when it seeks them.”

Oblivion will have met its match. The snippet that Martinville sings says as much. The first verse of the folk songs begins: “Au clair de la lune, / Mon ami Pierrot, / Prête-moi ta plume / Pour écrire un mot” (By the light of the moon, / My friend Pierrot, / Lend me your pen / To write a word.”) Martinville has just enough time to reach “Prête-moi,” but the allusion is clear: the phonautograph will supply the pen, which the sad clown Pierrot, in the next stanza, proves unwilling or unable to do. The subtext of the song suggests that the lovelorn Pierrot lacks more than just a pen. The inventor’s device will supply what is missing; it will allow his voice to inseminate sound.

The earliest known recording of singing voices that allowed for audio playback is an Edison cylinder of an extract from “Moses and the Children of Israel,” a section of Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt. The recording was made on June 29, 1888, at London’s Crystal Palace. The voices numbered four thousand, backed by a five-hundred-piece orchestra performing for more than twenty-three thousand spectators. The number of singers is astounding today, but voices in the thousands were a normal feature of Victorian Handel festivals. The grandiosity of the ensemble finds its musical expression in the tempo of the performance, which is much slower than the twenty-first-century norm. These festivals were regarded as religious occasions, and the recording offers proof, if any were needed, that the Victorians liked them solemn.

The cylinder is badly degraded. Most of the time the music barely floats over the noise of the recording. Here and there the voices become more distinct before sinking back toward the threshold of audibility and, in one passage near the end, sinking below it as the noise blots them out. The decay affects the quality of the sound as well as its clarity. Only the higher voices are generally audible; there are a few scattered traces of the lower voices; the orchestra goes unheard. The recording is less compelling for what it preserves than for what its poor condition could not destroy. Listening to what remains gives a pleasure and a knowledge of its own.

What pleasure and what knowledge may be clarified by an analogy to watching a film on decaying celluloid stock. Bill Morrison’s film Decasia: The State of Decay (completed 2002) makes an aesthetic of that apparently anti-aesthetic experience. The film is an extended collage of damaged footage from silent films; the blots, blotches, and erasures, carefully preserved, become part of the images they supposedly degrade. Morrison frames the film with a shot of a whirling dervish, whose motion becomes a self-reflective image of cinematic projection in the celluloid era. The dancer, Morrison says, “is the projector, the feed reel holding the future and the take up reel spooling up the past.” True to historical practice, the dance goes along with music, but the soundtrack, by Michael Gordon, is, of necessity, so detached from the imagery that the film at times reproduces the effect of uncanny separation of seeing and hearing that Mahler made audible in the Scherzo of his Second Symphony. Morrison’s expressive aim, however, was exactly the contrary of Mahler’s. “I chose . . . shots,” he explains, “that fit my narrative and also looked strikingly beautiful. I was interested in images that interacted with the decay, so that figure and ground were always interrelated. . . . I wanted people to feel an aching sense that time was passing and that it was too beautiful to hold on to.”

The 1888 Handel recording inadvertently works to the same end. Like the counterparts in the images of Decasia, the sonorous blotches on the voices are not merely cancellations, nor are the vocal sounds that remain merely attenuation. Their combination, the counterpart of signal and noise, has a positive form. What we hear on this recording is less a reduced form of the music and the voices than it is the full form of the music and the voices in the act of their disappearance. As the music and singing flicker in and out of discernibility, as the thin, lightly shrill sound of the higher voices persists through the auditory mist, what we hear is the lingering and the persistence. The recording discloses—half discloses, half imparts—the impetus in the sound to go on resonating. In this sound from the otherwise inaudible past, the recording detects sound seeking a future for itself. The recording is a rare one indeed. It is not just a recording of lost and winnowed voices. It is a recording of the audiable.

Excerpted from The Hum of the World: A Philosophy of Listening by Lawrence Kramer, published by University of California Press. © 2018 Lawrence Kramer

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