Phonozoic

Presentations by Patrick Feaster


Select Past Presentations
(with original abstracts)

A red dot indicates an item freely available for viewing and/or listening.

“The 1880s Speak: Recent Developments in Archeophony,” Association for Recorded Sound Collections annual conference, Rochester, New York, May 19, 2012. [Watch and hear above]
Over the past year, a succession of newly audible sound recordings from the 1880s has attracted worldwide attention. The first to hit the news was a talking doll cylinder from 1888, discovered bent severely out of round at Thomas Edison National Historical Park (TENHP) but digitized optically at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) to yield a female voice reciting "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." Next came six discs recorded as experiments between 1881 and 1885 at Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory, played back through the collaborative efforts of LBNL, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, and the Library of Congress, enabling us to eavesdrop on a key chapter in the inventive history of recorded sound. Most recently, a box of unlabeled cylinders lately digitized at TENHP has turned out to contain a trove of material recorded by Theo Wangemann—arguably the world’s first professional recording engineer—during his fabled European trip of 1889-90, including the only known recordings of Otto von Bismarck and Helmuth von Moltke. This presentation will outline how these recordings have been identified and contextualized, why each of them is significant, and what might be next.


"Banjo Lize and the Logic of the Ventriloquist's Screen," keynote address, International ARIAS-CRIalt Colloquium on Sound in Theatre, Montréal, Québec, Canada, November 23, 2012.
The innovators who first adapted theatrical forms to the phonograph had a newly practical reason for isolating the aural elements of theatre as a distinct object of interest and cultivation. However, the practices they adopted had been anticipated by the preexisting tradition of stage ventriloquism—a tradition exemplified by an auditory “dentist scene” enacted solo on the London stage in 1803 by the French ventriloquist Fitz-James, who reportedly concealed himself behind a folding screen while performing it because its fiction “required the imagination to be too completely misled to admit of the actor being seen.” Like the ventriloquist’s screen, the phonograph had the effect of concealing its performers from view; and like Fitz-James, early phonograph artists could exploit their invisibility to contrive aural illusions which ancillary visuals might otherwise have rendered less effective. In such cases, the limitation of phonographic theatre to the aural channel was not a liability but an asset—a positive means of strategic concealment. The foregoing point is richly illustrated by Banjo Lize by Len Spencer and Vess Ossman (1903), a work of phonographic theatre representing a dialog between two African Americans: a male departing by steamboat and a female who plays the banjo. Like the ventriloquist’s screen, the phonograph positively concealed from view some mechanics of the originary performance that might otherwise have compromised the fictional narrative: for example, in the recording studio, Vess Ossman performed the banjo pieces while Len Spencer voiced both characters. But in 1904, Siegmund Lubin repurposed Banjo Lize as the soundtrack for a Cineophone film depicting a single blackface performer onstage with a banjo—a fair visual representation of the live theatrical performance genre Spencer and Ossman had invoked as a model, but also a prime example of the distracting mechanics the ventriloquist’s screen had aimed to conceal.


"He Was the Edison Phonograph: Len Spencer, an Old New Media Pioneer," Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, New Orleans, Louisiana, March 13, 2011.
Leonard Garfield Spencer (1867-1914) was a prominent innovator in the new media of his era. He is mostly remembered today as a pioneer recording artist—it is his voice that proclaims “I am the Edison Phonograph” on the famous EDISON ADVERTISING RECORD—but he was also active in live performance, cinema sound, automated multimedia installations, and sheet music publishing. Even within phonography, Spencer was not only a performer, but also an exhibitor, scriptwriter, inventor, and talent agent. Viewed strictly from the perspective of cinema history, Spencer may seem a relatively minor figure. However, if we consider his career in the broader context of the distinctive new intermedial complexes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he emerges as a substantial contributor to the development of mechanically mediated narrative and entertainment. One obstacle to assessing Spencer’s surviving work is that it consists mostly of phonograms, often in the genre now known as “audio theatre,” and there is little precedent for reading such phonograms with the attention scholars routinely devote to early films. Media historians can readily point to individual cinematic landmarks such as THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, but they can rarely name equally groundbreaking phonograms or even identify what ground there was for them to break. As I will show, Len Spencer had a hand in numerous key turning-points in the evolution of phonographic narrative, a form which predates cinematic narrative by some years but has rarely received serious attention. He originated or popularized such record-making strategies as the use of voice actresses for female roles instead of males in falsetto, extradiegetic music and prerecorded background sounds, and the extension of a narrative over multiple discs. As a performer, he specialized in comic stage dialects, but his repertoire ranged from “serious” oratory to the banter of auctioneers and medicine pitchmen. Spencer also organized talent for the “talking behind the screen” approach to cinema sound and devised apparatus to accompany phonograms with sequences of images or three-dimensional androids—enterprises with significant visual components. Nevertheless, the common denominator spanning all his work was its emphasis on sound and the voice. Can a vision-centered discipline of media studies comfortably accommodate a successful and influential “new media” pioneer who so conspicuously privileged sounds over images?


“‘The Phonograph Does Not Imitate’: Conflicting Mimetic Paradigms in Early Phonography,” Mimesis Now conference, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, April 6, 2012.
The American phonographic culture of the late nineteenth century was torn between two competing paradigms of aural representation, both of which proceeded logically from the phonograph’s remediation of the representation of sound by means of sound.  One of them was “fidelity,” the ideal that mechanically “reproduced” sounds should be wholly indistinguishable from their originals, taking advantage of the distinctive indexical link which tympanic sound mediation had newly introduced between them.  The other, which has received far less critical attention, centered on an older mimetic tradition that valorized creative aural illusions and skilled vocal mimicry.  In this spirit, virtuosic “imitations” frequently provided subject matter for the phonograph to reproduce, and innovative performers cleverly exploited the heightened potential for illusion afforded by a sound-only medium (akin to the earlier ventriloquist’s technique of retreating behind a screen onstage to block distracting visuals while enacting particularly complex aural “scenes”).  Meanwhile, actual “reproductions” (in the modern sense) were themselves sometimes cognitively assimilated to “imitations.”  The criteria for separating acceptably “real” phonograms from “fakes” remained up for grabs until roughly the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century, when “fidelity” effectively won out at the expense of fiction.  My presentation will explore this little-acknowledged historical dynamic through several brief audio examples that illustrate specific phonographic conventions—rooted in the older mimetic tradition—by which Anglo-American male performers of the 1890s and 1900s sought to represent women and ethnic and racial minorities before the recording horn.


"Minstrelsy, Vaudeville, and Melodrama in Early Phonographic Audio Theatre,” CRI/CNRS/ARIAS Scientific Workshop on Theatre Sound, Montréal, Québec, Canada, February 13, 2010.
Early commercial phonography in the United States was dominated as much by what is now called “audio theatre” as by recorded music. This was historically the first use of a time-based recording-and-reproduction technology as a medium of narrative fiction, predating any analogous developments in cinema. Many of its conventions were drawn from those of theatre sound, and most of its practitioners were originally recruited from the stage. Despite this overlap in techniques and personnel, early phonographic audio theatre was not—at first—always framed as an explicit translation of preexisting theatrical forms into a new medium. Nevertheless, theatrical forms were frequently chosen as subject matter for audio theatre. My presentation will explore the strategies through which recordists and phonogenic performers sought to represent established theatrical forms through sound in the phonography of the United States before the First World War. The minstrel show was well-known at the time not only for its convention of “blackface” and the stylized dialect associated with it, but also for a fixed sequence of elements and a distinctive stage configuration: a semicircle with “end men” at either end and an “interlocutor” at the center. The minstrel records introduced in the 1890s translated the standard minstrel “first part” into three-minute pieces of audio theatre which their makers rendered comprehensible by cleverly exploiting listeners’ familiarity with the conventions of the form. Vaudeville was less rigidly structured, but it too had conventions on which record-makers could draw, e.g., performers cueing the “professor” for music. The vaudeville monologue posed particular challenges as performers sought to adapt onstage banter with copresent audiences to the exigencies of phonography. Finally, phonographic adaptations of excerpts from the stage versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde set a precedent for the use of extradiegetic mood music in subsequent audio theatre.


“Audio Theatre and the Phonograph in the United States, 1877-1908,” CRI/ARIAS/CNRS International Conference on Theatre Sound, Paris, France, November 19, 2010.
Early commercial phonography in the United States was dominated as much by what is now called “audio theatre” as it was by recorded music. This emergent form of narrative fiction—which predated any analogous developments in cinema–drew many of its conventions from the world of theatre sound, and most of its practitioners were originally recruited from the stage. Nevertheless, phonographic audio theatre did not merely “reproduce” the aural elements of theatrical performances as they would have been enacted live. Rather, performers and recordists worked creatively to adapt theatrical forms to the exigencies of the new medium, taking into account such factors as the loss of the visual channel and the temporal disjuncture between the moment of recording and the moment(s) of playback. At first, live theatrical presentations such as blackface minstrel shows and vaudeville acts were favorite subjects of audio theatre—happenings that the phonograph could artfully “depict,” much as it could depict a dog fight, an auction, or a parade, often with simulated responses from an audience. Later, such depictions in general came to be perceived more and more as records of “vaudeville” performances, while the interest in representing theatrical contexts receded. This presentation will outline the major developments in American phonographic audio theatre prior to 1908, illustrating them with concrete listening examples.

 

 

   

"Phonogram Images on Paper and the Frontiers of Early Recorded Sound, 1250-1950," Association for Recorded Sound Collections annual conference, Los Angeles, California, May 12, 2011. [images and audio from ARSC | Watch and hear above]
Three years ago, the playback by the First Sounds initiative of a phonautogram recorded in 1860 challenged the long-standing practical distinction between pictures of sound waves and sound recordings we can hear. Today, we can listen—with a little work—to virtually any waveform we can see on paper. But what kinds of historic "phonogram images on paper" are there out there to hear—what are they, where are they, what do they sound like, and how old are they? In addition to the now-familiar phonautograms, we‘ll consider some other core examples, including experiments with photographic sound recording from 1878 and ink-on-paper prints of "lost" nineteenth-century gramophone discs. However, we don‘t necessarily have to stop there, if we‘re willing to play a bit with our assumptions about what a "sound recording" is. What if we adopt the current WIPO treaty definition of "phonogram," which encompasses synthetically created wave-forms that aren‘t actually records of past sound events? What if we don‘t limit ourselves to the oscillographic format (time versus amplitude), and also consider sound spectrograms (time versus frequency)? Depending on the definition we choose, there are arguably playable "phonogram images" dating back to the Middle Ages! We‘ll explore all of these options, illustrated with images—and, of course, with sounds as well.

“Theo Wangemann: The Man Who Made the Phonograph Musical,” Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, New Jersey, February 4, 2012; redelivered as keynote address, Phonovention, Michigan/International Antique Phonograph Society, Union, Illinois, June 6, 2012.
This presentation will explore the life and career of Adelbert Theodor Edward Wangemann (1855-1906), who was arguably the world’s first professional recording engineer. Entrusted by Thomas Edison with the task of applying the newly developed wax cylinder phonograph to music, Wangemann oversaw the first regular production of prerecorded cylinders at West Orange in 1888-89, ushering in the beginnings of the American musical recording industry.  Then, in 1889-90, he played a prominent role in introducing Edison’s invention to continental Europe, generating publicity through the recording of prominent statesmen and musicians—many of whom we can now hear for the first time, thanks to a box of his cylinders preserved at Thomas Edison National Historical Park.


“Phonogram or Phonautogram: Nineteenth-Century ‘Reproductions’ of Sound for Eye and Ear,” Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada conference on Victorian Media, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, April 26-28, 2012.
It’s often said that the Scott phonautograph of 1857 could record sounds but not “reproduce” them, whereas Edison’s phonograph of 1877 was intended specifically to “reproduce” recorded sounds.   A crucial distinction certainly exists between the phonautograph’s inscription of sound for visual apprehension and the phonograph’s inscription of sound for audible actualization. However, framing that distinction in terms of the “reproduction” of sound (as is almost universally done) isn’t fully consistent with Victorian discourses and practices surrounding the two technologies.  In 1859, when the phonautograph was introduced to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Aberdeen, it was characterized as “a new method of reproducing the human voice and other sounds”—albeit on paper. Conversely, the Edison phonographs exhibited in England in 1878 and 1888 were instruments not solely of “reproduction,” but also of creative aural fictions and manipulations.


"New Directions in Phonautographic History," Association for Recorded Sound Collections annual conference, Washington DC, May 29, 2009 [Text and audio from Phonozoic | audio from ARSC]
Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville gained widespread attention in March 2008 when sounds he recorded in the mid-nineteenth century were finally played back – a striking proof of concept. Since then, new findings have made it possible to reconstruct the course of Scott’s sound-recording experiments in unprecedented detail, fundamentally reshaping our understanding of what he recorded when, how, and why. This presentation will trace Scott’s ideas and efforts between 1853 and 1861 in light of recent archival discoveries, for the first time setting forth a history informed by the study of all his known phonautograms. It will also unveil an alternative playback method that has helped unlock a number of phonautograms that at first glance seemed unplayable. We will both see and hear various pre-phonographic records of speech, music, and noises, some of which provide our only evidence for key stages in the development of phonautography itself – for example, the shift from recording individual notes to attempting to capture continuous singing. We will hear even the famous “Au Clair de la Lune” in an entirely new way. The latest discoveries confirm that Scott’s approach to phonautography differed markedly from that of others in the pre-Edison era. Scott’s uniquely romantic sense of his invention’s potential and his ambitious experiments with it have bequeathed us a legacy of primeval recorded sound that is, in retrospect, just as remarkable as the invention itself.


"From Echo to Tinfoil: The Early Phonograph in Light of its Prehistory," Association for Recorded Sound Collections annual conference, Stanford University, March 28, 2008 [audio from ARSC]
Today we tend to understand the advent of the phonograph in 1877-78 in terms of what was to come later. But it meant something very different to commentators of its own time, who knew only what had gone before – including various past predictions about future sound media that continued to shape their expectations. For some time, inventors and speculative writers had been pursuing three elusive goals: a “speaking automaton,” a “photography of sound,” and a means of furnishing live music and speech on demand “like gas.” They shared consistent ideas about how each of these developments could change the world: what it would be good for and what its drawbacks might be. Such precursors as Faber’s talking machine and Scott’s phonautograph weren’t mere scientific curiosities but had invited a lot of heady futuristic speculation in their own right, ranging in subject from the automated political speech to the preservation of the vocal performances of the dead – sound familiar? Then came the phonograph, which held out the promise of fulfilling all three of these goals at once but which, at the same time, turned those goals on their head. After all, it did not do quite what the critics had been expecting but instead forced together what had, until then, been regarded as incompatible and contradictory ideals of speech and music. In framing the phonograph’s invention in terms of the earlier limits of imagination and technology it overturned, this “pre-phonographic” perspective places the exhibition practices and journalistic hype of the tinfoil era in a new and revealing light.


"Explorations in Early Phonographic Theater," CRI/CNRS/ARIAS Scientific Workshop on Theatre Sound: Intermédialité et spectacle vivant. Les technologies sonores et le théâtre (XIXe-XXIe siècle), Montréal, Québec, Canada, March 4, 2009.
Past scholarship has linked the cultural emergence of the phonogram to such precursors as stenography (another seemingly automatic, objective system of writing) or a general rationalization of hearing (e.g. the “audile technique” of stethoscopy), but it was equally remarkable for its representation of nuances of performance that eluded more traditional forms of inscription—for example, the paralinguistic features of elocution. On one hand, this makes early phonograms rare sources of information about aural aspects of contemporaneous theater, such as the stage caricatures of ethnic speech on which much American popular culture of the period drew. On the other hand, the quest to entextualize such vocal nuances has a rich history of its own, extending back to the phonautograph of the 1850s and to even earlier efforts to inscribe the “melody and measure of speech” by hand—a history largely dominated by the desire to record meaningful but traditionally ephemeral sounds of theatrical declamation. But an understanding of early phonograms as “records” belies their frequent status as artful fictions that exploited the semiotic capacities of phonography not to document reality per se but to anticipate the genre now known as “audio theater.” An examination of the formal features of early fiction phonograms (e.g. deictic language, presence or absence of recorded audience response) reveals an enduring tension between a descriptive mode, in which the phonograph merely reported a self-contained performance event for detached listening, and a substitutive mode, in which the listener was invited to participate as a full audience member. While this dilemma was rarely written about, we can hear its impact on early phonographic practice if we compare and contrast pioneering efforts to adapt specific conventions of live theater (particularly vaudeville) to the new medium. Each of the above points will be concretely illustrated with brief but representative listening examples.


“Listening for Context in American Dance-Call Records, 1889-1909,” Society for Ethnomusicology annual conference, Atlanta, Georgia, November 20, 2005.
In recent decades, ethnomusicologists have routinely questioned the value of phonograms (sound recordings) in general, and commercial ones in particular, as either research tools or subjects for research.  Two commonly encountered objections to them are (1) that they are not objective records of events and (2) that they may embody “musical sound” but not the “musical behavior” that has increasingly come to serve as a focus of attention within the field.  The uses to which “armchair” researchers put phonographic listening as a methodology in the past have widely been branded naïve, misguided, or simply uninteresting.  I suggest, however, that listening to phonograms also has much to offer scholars whose interest lies in human behavior and interaction rather than in contextless “sound products.”  Precisely because they are not objective records, many commercial phonograms have value as subjective reflections on the subjects performers seek to represent in them, emphasizing elements they consider essential to an effective representation, excising those they consider inessential.  Performers’ choices in this regard are necessarily also contingent on what kinds of events they expect their phonograms to enable when “reproduced”: are their potential listeners expected to engage with what they hear as audience members, detached eavesdroppers, active participants?   By analyzing the conventions with which performers represented dance-calling traditions on commercial phonograms recorded in the United States between 1889 and 1909, this paper uses phonographic listening to illuminate both popular perceptions of certain nineteenth-century dance forms and the emergence of the mediated musical event itself as a cultural phenomenon.

 
 

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More Past Presentations

"History of Cincinnati Music Part 5: Ohio Phonograph Company," with David N. Lewis, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, 12 February 2014 (watch on YouTube).

"'I Wish You Could See Me Now': Listening to the Phonographic Past," Seventeenth Annual Cultural Studies Conference at Indiana University, April 13, 2013.

"Value of Archival Sound Recordings," part of Technical Committee session "Making the Case: Why Audio Preservation Can't Wait," Association for Recorded Sound Collections annual conference, Rochester, New York, May 18, 2012.

“Voices from the Grave (1850s-1890s): Recent Discoveries in Archeophony,” Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, Bloomington, Indiana, April 18, 2012. [Announcement | same via AES, with poster]

"Inventing the Sound Recording: The Evolution of a New Medium, 1877-1892," National Museum of American History Tuesday Colloquium, December 6, 2011.

"Strategic Evaluation of Media Collections: The Indiana University Media Preservation Survey," with Mike Casey, Association for Recorded Sound Collections annual conference, May 20, 2010. [audio from ARSC]

“The Quest for the World’s Oldest Recorded Sounds,”
Audio Engineering Society Chicago meeting at Niles, Illinois, November 20, 2008. [Announcement]

“‘For Private Edification and Instruction’: Phonographic Indecency in the Victorian Age,”
with David Giovannoni, Association for Recorded Sound Collections annual conference, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, May 4, 2007.

“James Andem and the Ohio Phonograph Company,”
with David N. Lewis, Association for Recorded Sound Collections and Society for American Music joint annual conference, Cleveland, Ohio, March 14, 2004.

“Wax Cylinder Phonograph Recording: Demonstration and Discussion,”
with Martin Fisher, Archives of Traditional Music Noon Concert and Lecture Series, Indiana University, Bloomington, November 7, 2003.

“The Dawn of the Recording Industry, 1888-1892,”
Archives of Traditional Music Noon Concert and Lecture Series, Indiana University, Bloomington, September 13, 2002.

“American ‘Exhibition’ Recordings, 1888-89: Prologue to the Recording Industry,”
Association for Recorded Sound Collections annual conference, Santa Barbara, California, May 11, 2002.

“Phonographic Heirlooms: Sound Recordings of the American Family,”
Great Lakes American Studies Association conference, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, March 16, 2001.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Original content copyright © 2009-2012, Patrick Feaster.