A Thousand Years of Audio Recording: Patrick Feaster’s Pictures of Sound

On March 27, 2008, a story ran on the front page of The New York Times that a group of researchers were playing sound recordings older than those of Thomas Edison. This seemed impossible—nonsensical—for Edison, everyone knows, was the father of the phonograph, having invented the machine in 1877. Yet a group of sound recording specialists had succeeded in reanimating ten seconds of “Au Clair de la Lune” recorded in 1860 by a phonautograph, a device that recorded sound visually and was not designed to play it back. This technology had been devised in the 1850s by a French tinkerer and typesetter named Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, whose apparatus drew squiggly sonic impressions on paper blackened by smoke. These renderings, which he called “phonautograms,” were never intended to yield sound themselves, but thanks to the creative deployment of twenty-first century technology, Scott’s nineteenth-century etchings were, for the first time, coming to life.

If you’re wondering what these visual recordings sound like, they are included in the recent CD-plus-book Pictures of Sound: One Thousand Years of Educed Audio: 980-1980, compiled, edited, and annotated by Patrick Feaster, one of the sound recording specialists responsible for bringing Scott’s phonautograms to life. 1Feaster, who has a Ph.D. in folklore and ethnomusicology from Indiana University, is an authority on early phonography and audio archeology, and with this unique collection, he prompts us to rethink the definition of historical audio. As source material he uses pictures—visual representations of sound, music, speech, rhythm—and these pictures get “played” in the same manner as a record player playing a record or an iPod playing an MP3. In Feaster’s hands, mute images that recorded sound graphically get converted back into audio, the result of which is to trouble commonplace ideas about what “sound recordings” are.

The way that Feaster gets sound from the images is tricky business, but not as tricky as one might imagine. Basically, he uses widely available software applications designed to “read” images and convert them into sound, which they do by treating them either as sound spectrograms (i.e., a graphic representation of a sound’s constituent frequencies) or as waveforms. Generally, this type of software is used by sound artists whose source material might be any kind of imagery—the Mona Lisa, a photograph of some kittens, whatever. But Feaster employs it to “read” material that was originally sonic, such as the encoding of a barrel organ as it was played by a celebrated eighteenth-century pianist or the transcription of waveforms from the grooves of a phonograph disc on to paper. Thus, through ingenious repurposing of software, Feaster is able to “play” the images produced through various kinds of experimental graphical recording, ranging from diagrams of the singing of Russian peasants to sound spectrograms prepared by the National Academy of Sciences in connection with an attempt by the FBI to develop a voice recognition program. And this does not mean “play” in some loosey-goosey, figurative sense. It’s quite literal, as evidenced by the results. With a bit of guidance from Feaster’s text, listeners to the CD can make out sounds that stretch from speech exercises and an after-dinner oration to a Bach fugue and the call of a bald eagle. Some examples are clearer or easier to make sense of than others, but Feaster excavates real and meaningful audio in every case.

This synesthetic work has numerous implications, resounds in numerous registers. First, it provokes a radically new periodization of sound recording history, as announced by the thousand-year time frame in Feaster’s subtitle. This does not, by any means, dull the sheen on Edison’s achievement (nor that of Emile Berliner, inventor of the disc phonograph, after him), but rather historicizes them in a new way, establishing a longue durée for ways that people have thought about, and worked on, capturing and preserving aural phenomena. Released from the fetters of modernity, sound recording sings of more varied human impulses. Admittedly, all of Pictures of Sound’s examples are drawn from the West and the lion’s share from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but taken as a whole, they sketch a new history of sound recording not based exclusively on conventional audio artifacts, and not based on the prevailing narrative that runs from Edison to the rise of the commercial music industry.

A second way that Feaster problematizes the concept of sound recording is perhaps even more important. In some of the examples, he produces audio from graphic images that were themselves constructions or composites. In other words, they are “sound recordings” in the sense that they represent sound, but they are not “sound recordings” in the sense that there was no originary event that was literally recorded. This is analogous to a “sound recording” of computer synthesized music today or heavily produced pop productions; we tend to call such things “recordings” but they are “recordings” of something that never existed previously. The same problem inheres in the term “play back,” for it is used even when there is no back—no prior sonic event. To get around this problem, Feaster proffers a new term for the process of bringing sound out of an object. Instead of audio “play back” or sound “reproduction,” he calls it eduction, from the verb educe, meaning “to bring out, elicit, develop, from a condition of latent, rudimentary, or merely potential existence,” 2and hence the subtitle of the collection, “one thousand years of educed audio.” In this way, Feaster can talk about producing audio from his sources without reference to their origins.

This coinage is also useful because it emphasizes the distance between putting sound into an object and drawing sound out of an object. As Feaster’s work demonstrates, these are ontologically distinct phenomena, which can exist entirely apart from each other. Sound can go into an object and not come out, as with a sound spectrogram (barring Feaster’s intervention), and sound can come out of an object with nothing originally having gone in, as with a “recording” of computer music. Thus, here and in his work more broadly, Feaster problematizes a commonplace (and seemingly intuitive) understanding of what a sound recording is, namely, a thing that conveys a sonic event from the past into the present, which it does more or less well, depending on its degree of “fidelity.” Rather, he opens up space to appreciate that what we call sound recordings are particular kinds of constructions, produced by any number of means and methods, and in any number of media. 3

Notes:

  1. Patrick Feaster, Pictures of Sound: One Thousand Years of Educed Audio, 980-1980 (Atlanta: Dust-to-Digital, 2012).
  2. Oxford English Dictionary, quoted on 49.
  3. For an enlightening discussion of these issues, see Patrick Feaster, “‘The Following Record’: Making Sense of Phonographic Performance, 1877-1908,” Ph.D. thesis, Indiana University, 2007, pp. 30-49.

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