Final Brown Bag of the Semester – December 6, 2013

Patrick Feaster, Department of Communication and Culture, Indiana University, Bloomington

Note: Dr. Feaster has been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Historical Album for his album “Pictures of Sound: One Thousand Years of Educed Audio, 980-1980”. Winners will be announced on January 26 at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards Ceremony. Good luck!

Deciphering the World’s Oldest Audio

ABSTRACT: Over the past several years, I’ve been involved in converting a number of historic visual representations of sound directly into playable digital audio.  The best-known examples have been a phonautogram of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville singing “Au Clair de la Lune” in the year 1860, originally made for visual analysis rather than playback; a gramophone disc of inventor Emile Berliner reciting the poem “Der Handschuh” in 1889, which survives today only as a paper print in an old magazine; and musical notations from as long as a thousand years ago.  In my presentation, I’ll explain and illustrate the various processing techniques through which these primeval pictures of sound have been “educed,” or made audible.  I’ll also discuss what I believe we can learn from listening to them rather than merely looking at them—that is, I find that critics and journalists often approach them mainly as curiosities or proofs of concept, but my own broader research program has centered on devising ways of “reading” early sound recordings much as scholars of early cinema “read” early films, and in that spirit I’ll offer some “readings” of specific audio texts.  Along the way, I’ll consider how the work I’m describing complicates common assumptions about what a “sound recording” itself is, demonstrating the contingent nature of boundaries between media histories and prehistories more generally.

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