Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Origins of Music (3): The History of Sound Recording

Fred Gaisberg and William Sinkler Darby
12 x 7 inches, oil on wood, 2017
Sound Recording

Sound recording began in 1860, when Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville recorded Au Clair de Lune, a French folk song of the 18th century. At the time the recording could be seen but not heard. In 2008 researchers were able to produce an audible transfer of the recorded data and is now the oldest recording of the human voice. Another Frenchman, Charles Cros, is credited with the invention of recording with play back in 1877, the same year Thomas Edison recorded (and successfully played back) the 19th century American nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb. Arthur Sullivant's song The Lost Chord was recorded in 1888 and is considered the first musical recording. A recording from 1898 made by A.C. Haddon of the Torres Strait Islanders Aboriginals of Australia is the oldest ever to feature in the top 100. Emile Berliner started the Gramophone Company in Washington D.C. in 1894 and music recording quickly became big business. In the early 20th century adventurous music recording pioneers travelled all over the world and recorded the sounds of cultures that were rapidly disappearing.

Ethnomusicology is a term coined in the 1950s by Jaap Knust who recorded extensively in Indonesia. The term is usually applied to the study of the music of non-western cultures. The history of musicology starts in 1839 when Oskar Kolberg started collecting Polish folk songs. Ethnomusicological recordings, combining the fields of ethnology, anthropology, and musicology, differ from commercial recordings by delivering context. The history of the world was being mapped and recorded. One such pioneer (this is a good opportunity for a tribute) was Charles Duvelle, whom I recently wrote about. Duvelle is "one of the most important contributions to the human understanding of the rich biodiversity of our planet’s music and language." [Sublime Frequencies, who published a sort of retrospective on Duvelle's work earlier this year.] Duvelle died a few weeks ago at the age of 80.
Charles Duvelle
16 x 12 inches, oil on canvas paper, 2017
While Duvelle provided great context, he not always provided the performers' names, let alone biographical data. He often photographed them though (an invaluable asset in the context of the top 100 paintings.) The commercial world of ethnic recordings is much sloppier than that of ethnomusicology, but provided an abundance of sound recordings in the twentieth century. When names of musicians are given, they are often misspelled or misattributed. Recordings are often made in professional studios rather than in the field, and the distributers were not always upfront about the origin of the recordings. Data stored in long abandoned warehouses that once housed recording companies tend to disappear. Websites like Excavated Shellac are researching the origins of many such recordings from the earlier part of the last century.

It's Excavated Shellac who recently published the research into a 1904 disc recorded in Tbilisi, Georgia. The label on the disc from the Gramophone Company reads "Kabardinskiy Tanetz" (a dance from Abkhazia.) The identity and whereabouts of the performers is not known but host Jonathan Ward is able to retrace the history and context of the recording made by William Sinkler Darby, companion of Fred Gaisberg. Gaisberg and Darby met at Berliner's studio in Washington in 1898 to become partners at the English branch of the Gramophone Company. The company became EMI after the merger with Columbia in 1931, one of the biggest record companies in the world. The source for the above painting comes from the EMI archives and show the two Brits in furs characteristic of Central Asia. The recordings were made in February of 1902, it must have been cold in Tbilisi!

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