Tag Archives: Phonograph

The esoteric phonograph

Edison phonograph

Emerging in the gaps between biology and physics, matter and unseen ether, electricity is a liminal force that inevitably carries a powerful imaginative charge both ethereal and anxious.

Many of the influential early figures in the science of electricity, such as Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, and Guglielmo Marconi, couched the new technology in mysticism and spiritualism, or even linked it to extraterrestrial life. Even the inventor of the phonograph himself was somewhat of a techno-spiritualist; Thomas Edison once attempted to build a radio device capable of capturing the voices of the dead.

Since then, musicians and composers both highbrow and popular have twiddled and tweaked electronic and electrical instruments, as well as electromagnetic recording and broadcasting technologies, to tune into new sonic, compositional, and expressive possibilities. In so doing, they have also gone a long way toward reimagining the scrambled boundaries of subjectivity as it makes its way through the invisible landscapes—both dreadful and sublime—that make up the acoustic space of electronic media.

This according to “Recording angels: The esoteric origins of the phonograph” by Erik Davis, an article included in Undercurrents: The hidden wiring of modern music (London: Continuum, 2002). Above, Edison with his phonograph, photographed by Matthew Brady in 1878; below, his 1910 film A trip to Mars.

Related article: Esoteric orchestration

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Stravinsky and recording

Even before he signed a contract with the Columbia Gramophone Company in 1928, Stravinsky was firmly convinced of the importance of documenting his performance wishes through recording; in the early 1920s he was already making piano rolls for the Pleyel firm.

In a brief 1930 essay originally published in German—“Meine Stellung zur Schallplatte” (Kultur und Schallplatte 1 [March 1930] p. 65)—he even anticipated a compositional development that would be facilitated more than a decade later with the advent of magnetic tape:

“It would be of the greatest interest to create music specifically for the phonograph, a music whose true image—its original sound—could only be preserved through mechanical reproduction. This would well be the ultimate goal for the phonographic composers of the future.”

The article is reproduced in an English translation in Music, sound, and technology in America: A documentary history of early phonograph, cinema, and radio (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012). Below, Stravinsky in a 1955 Columbia Records recording session.

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Gramophone ethics

With outward horror, but with secret envy, let us contemplate a man who is wealthy, unambitious, and unencumbered. After breakfast he lights a cigar, sinks into an armchair, and rings for the butler to set the gramophone going.

While one’s imagination may boggle at the thought, let us free ourselves from such trammels of convention that would confine the gramophone to the first half hour of after-dinner plethora. There is music to be had for all times and seasons.

Further, a convincing argument cannot be made against listening to the gramophone alone: If one may read a book without company, how can enjoying music in solitude be indecent?

This according to “Times and seasons” by Orlo Williams (Gramophone June 1923, pp. 38–39), an article reprinted in Music, sound, and technology in America: A documentary history of early phonograph, cinema, and radio (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012). Below, a gramophone record issued a few months after the article appeared.

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Filed under Curiosities, Reception