Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Listening to a ghostly singer whose voice transcends time and space -- and the limits of the possible

It's almost drowned out now by random static and the hissing noise of time, but her voice was recorded before the Civil War, and her song now seems as ghostly as a faded daguerreotype.

It's amazing that we can hear it at all, and that I can play it on my iPod. It was recorded in France 148 years ago, in April of of 1860, a year before the Civil War started. Even stranger, the recording was made 17 years before Edison patented the phonograph, and 28 years before the first surviving Edison recording that can be played back. It could not be heard in its time, and it was never meant to be played back. It makes you wonder what other echoes are embedded in the world around us.

My time machine is a 10-second recording of a woman's plaintive French voice singing “Au Clair de la Lune.” The recording was discovered last month in a Paris archive by a group of American audio historians.
It was made, the researchers say, on April 9, 1860, on a phonautograph, a machine designed to record sounds visually, not to play them back. But the phonautograph recording, or phonautogram, was made playable — converted from squiggles on paper to sound — by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.

“This is a historic find, the earliest known recording of sound,” said Samuel Brylawski, the former head of the recorded-sound division of the Library of Congress, who is not affiliated with the research group but who was familiar with its findings. The audio excavation could give a new primacy to the phonautograph, once considered a curio, and its inventor, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a Parisian typesetter and tinkerer who went to his grave convinced that credit for his breakthroughs had been improperly bestowed on Edison.
The device consisted of a barrel-shaped horn that was attached to a stylus that traced the sound waves onto a sheet of paper blackened with soot. These wavy white lines on a black background charted the vocalizations of the singer, but there was no way to play them back or listen to them. Scott's device was really meant as a research instrument, making recordings of the human voice that could be studied -- and perhaps deciphered later. The recordings were no secret. Until now they've been considered curios by audio historians.

What's new is the technology used to decipher the recordings and play them back. Researchers who are part of an informal collaborative called First Sounds scanned the paper recordings and then used a computerized virtual stylus to play them back. The New York Times posted mp3 links for both the 1860 song and a modern recording to help orient you when you listen to the original. There's additional information at the First Sounds website, including drawings from Scott's original patent application.

Precisely because it is so crude and simple, the phonoautograph opens up some fertile territory for speculation: As Scott's recording demonstrates, you don't necessarily need fancy modern audio equipment to record of a sound wave's passage, though reading the record may be a different matter. Who knows? Maybe somewhere a dinosaur roared and a twig reverberated with the sound and left squiggles on a bit of wet clay that became fossilized. Perhaps this sound, or something like it, is just waiting for its traces to be discovered and decoded.

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