A definition of recorded sound seems fairly straightforward: a capture of sound waves over a period of time that can be played back and listened to. In his 2012 book, Pictures of Sound: One Thousand Years of Educed Audio: 980-1980, Patrick Feaster challenges this definition, arguing that the only necessary condition for a document to be a sound recording is that it “should represent sound in a certain very specific way — namely, by expressing it in terms of amplitude or frequency as a function of time.” If we expand our definition of a sound recording to include visual representations of sound, the number of documents that can be considered historical audio increases dramatically.
Until 2008, audio preservationists, archivists, and historians had been using the straightforward definition of recorded sound stated above. That all changed when the First Sounds initiative (co-founded by Feaster) recovered a phonautogram created by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in 1860, seventeen years before Thomas Edison debuted his phonograph. The phonautogram was a visual representation of Scott singing a snippet of the French folk song “Au Clair de la Lune” and was never intended to be heard. Scott believed he was creating a stenography of sound, a new type of language that he believed people could learn to read. (I wrote about Scott’s phonautogram in a previous post). Using methods he outlines here, Feaster was able to “play back” Scott’s phonautogram:
The resulting audio, stripped of all context, is unremarkable. It’s a garbled snippet of a man singing. But add in the context, and it is a direct sensory link to a moment in time over 150 years ago.
Educing historical sonic inscriptions — “to actualize them for sensory perception from a latent or potential state,” as Feaster puts it — may not meet the stringent definition of recorded sound for some audio scientists, but the process literally allows us to hear the past. The effects of listening to these historical snippets (the book comes with a CD) range from fascinating to, for me at least, a little unnerving. One cannot help but feel like a time-traveling voyeur, no matter how mundane the moment in which the sonic inscription was created may have been.
We can only visualize the past based on the information we have. Epic poems, paintings, books, archeological artifacts, and petroglyphs all contribute to the narrative of our shared history. But wouldn’t it be nice if that narrative also had a soundtrack?
Below is a video of Patrick Feaster explaining his methods for educing audio, and providing examples. It’s academic and more than a little technical, but Feaster has a great sense of humor about the whole endeavor that makes it surprisingly easy to follow.Dust to Digital