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Quote of the Week: Byrne on Edison’s Legacy

An excerpt of a recent journal entry by David Byrne:

    I’d read in a new book about recorded sound (Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music by Greg Milner) that [Thomas] Edison arranged demonstrations of his “perfected” wax cylinder recorders at various theaters around the continent. He’d have a known singer sing along with their own recorded voice, and then at some point the singer would stop and the recording took over. Testimonials claimed that the audience gasped and couldn’t tell the difference between the live singer and the recording (like “Is it real or is it Memorex?” for those who remember those cassette tape ads).

    This seems a little far-fetched, though it’s true that we do hear what we want to hear to a large extent, and the amount of hype Edison was capable of generating was considerable — and hype can affect what we see and hear. There was indeed some information that surfaced alleging that Edison had “trained” the singers to imitate the quality and sound of the recordings — slightly pinched and not very loud — to make the gag work. This seems likely, as any decent singer could sing far louder than the volume of those old machines.

    Although this may make Edison out to be a bit of a three-card Monte showman (as, like that game, the demonstration was rigged), it also shows what a talent he had for marketing and promoting his inventions. Coming up with an amazing idea and even patenting it was only half the battle… at least as far as getting it out there goes.

    The rigged demonstration also gives an early hint at how performance is influenced by technology. Technology feigns neutrality — to simply record and capture (photography, audio, digitizing) — but not only does each technology skew the copy in some direction, the copy soon becomes the gold standard against which performance is measured. Even if the copy is not 100% faithful, in a weird backwards turn it becomes the “real” thing. While this seems almost comic — early singers imitating wax recordings or photographers imitating Impressionist paintings — with multi-track and now digital recording the worlds of recorded (and manipulated) sound and live performance drift ever further apart.

Full entry at journal.davidbyrne.com.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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