Sound in Wax

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The earliest wax cylinder phonographs—the first commercial medium for recording and reproducing sound—were entirely mechanical. They were hand-cranked and needed no electrical power. All that was required was a lathe, a waxy surface, a sharp point for a stylus, and a resonating table. To impress sound waves onto wax, the voice or instrument was positioned closely to the large end of a horn. The vibrations moved a needle, which carved a groove on the rotating wax. According to Walter Murch, an acclaimed film editor and sound designer, everything used in these early machines was available to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. But it took until the middle of the nineteenth century, and the genius of Thomas Edison and his team, to execute the recording process.

Why did it take so long to capture sound? Musician David Byrne has informally speculated that maybe it didn’t. Perhaps someone in antiquity invented a similar device and later abandoned it; or perhaps the device itself was simply demolished in the ruins of history. While conceivable on a technological level, this hypothesis is unlikely considering the prevailing ethos of the ancient world. The ephemerality of sound was part of its attraction: it was momentary, mysterious, transient and transcendent. As this fleetingness was highly valued, there was little or no inclination to record. Murch puts it this way: “Poetically, the beauty of music and the human voice was used as a symbol of all that’s evanescent. So the idea that you could trap it in any physical medium never occurred to [them] . . .”

This contrasts with the rush to develop written systems that enshrined language. The ancients recognized that certain things should be documented, like governmental records, priestly decrees, royal chronicles, philosophical treatises, etc. What these shared in common was a silent beginning: they were soundless thoughts committed to paper (or papyrus or parchment or tablets or wood). Writing gave concrete form to facts and concepts that, while often referencing observable phenomena, had no tangibility of their own. In contrast, sound was understood as being completely formed. It was received sensually, experienced kinesthetically, and processed emotionally. It existed in the moment it was made.

It is worth noting that Edison first thought of wax cylinder recorders as dictation machines. They were to record the owners’ ideas and messages and, ideally, preserve the great speeches of the day. This limited purpose reflected the limitations of the early devices: they were too crude and imprecise to capture the nuances of musical performance. True, music recording and playback were in Edison’s long-term plan, and they became major functions as the machines advanced. But it is feasible to consider that Edison’s initial goal of preserving dictation was—and arguably still is—a worthier and more practical goal than detaining music.

Musicians commonly lament that they are slaves to their own recordings. The version that appears on an album is the version that fans want to hear, and deviations are typically received as imperfections, inaccuracies or unwanted departures from the “authoritative” source.  Some improvising musicians even feel obliged to give their audiences note-for-note reproductions of recorded solos. This is not to negate the enormous benefits and incalculable cultural impact of musical recordings. Our understanding of music as a diverse human enterprise owes mightily to the proliferation of recorded sounds, and musical creativity thrives when there is access to other music. But something of music’s temporality is lost in recording. Imprinting sound in wax or digital audio creates the illusion of permanence.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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