Friday 7 January 2011

Edison Speaks from Beyond the Grave

And other marvels of the mechanical age:

In 2008 a BBC radio announcer made a personal apology to the family of deceased Hollywood screenwriter Abby Mann after dissolving into uncontrollable laughter while relaying details of his death on a morning news bulletin. The inappropriate hilarity had been provoked by the item immediately before it: a recording of a human voice made in 1860 had just been successfully reconstructed in a California sound laboratory, making it the earliest in human history. Registered by French typesetter Edouard Léon Scott de Martinville on a device of his own invention called a ‘phonautograph’, it had existed for almost 150 years as little more than the representation of a sound wave etched onto a sheet of soot-covered paper. Played back digitally in the twenty-first century using a ‘virtual stylus’, what had originally been picked up by the phonautograph as a rendition of the French folk song ‘Claire de Lune’ sounded in a BBC radio studio more like ‘a bee buzzing in a bottle’, sending the announcer into a barely-suppressed fit of the giggles. A spectral set of associations hold such moments together. The barely discernable voice retrieved from a smoky deposit with its accumulated cloud of a song; the dead writer’s obituary and a sense of time passed; even the historical overlay of different media upon each other, from script to the mechanical sound recording, cinema and broadcast radio: all work together to provoke precisely this kind of hysterical response. Ghosts can’t help themselves: they are always where they have to be, not where they want to be, calling out to us from somewhere beyond our own senses. To laugh, under these circumstances, is a useful means of expressing incomprehension – which, in itself, covers for a reluctance to believe.

The Wire writes: "Revisiting his family farm with Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Michael Esposito captured the sounds of his ancestors for their wax cylinder project, The Ghosts of Effingham. Ken Hollings spools back to the days of Thomas Edison to investigate how obsolete recording devices and the dead voices captured on them have changed our perceptions of the material world."

Buy it. Read it. Believe it.

Pictured above: the Ghosts of Effingham wax cylinder from Ash International; the cover for The Wire #323, January 2011

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