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burdt on 08/10/2011 at 09:00AM

Tahitian Field Recordings

Blue Amberol Tahitian Field Recordings

Cylinders 8667 to 8671 are a mystery for several reasons.

At first glance they’re run of the mill Blue Amberols. These were some of the most mass produced cylinders of the cylinder era. 

Upon closer examination, however, these cylinders are something else entirely. Here's the cataloger's note for further insight:

Custom Blue Amberol recordings, possibly from a larger set of brown wax field recordings that were recorded in Faaone Tahiti, and possibly privately pressed as Blue Amberol cylinders by Edison in New Jersey. Recordings were possibly made by anthropologists Frank Stimson or Edward S. C. Handy in 1923. Four of the five cylinders are stamped "Tahiti-#" on the rim and handwritten notes on the boxes say "Himene Chorus, Faaone, Tahiti, 1923 (Handy)."

The biggest mystery here is how these cylinders were recorded. The cataloger’s note suggests that these five recordings are privately pressed dubbings of brown wax cylinders. This is almost certainly not the case because the groove widths and reproduction speeds don’t match up with those belonging to production Blue Amberol cylinders of the era. Furthermore, if these were dubbed from wax cylinders, the playback noise of the second machine should be audible, but extra noise just isn’t there. How were these five cylinders recorded then?

The groove width and reproduction speed matches up with that of brown wax cylinders. Perhaps a brown wax recording machine was jerry-rigged into recording onto Blue Amberols. How did the field recordists find five blank Blue Amberols then? Cylinder shaving machines existed for deleting brown wax recordings. Perhaps these were also jerry-rigged into deleting pre-existing Blue Amberol recordings.

Unless the details of their recording techniques are among their papers at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii, Handy or Stimson’s Tahitian field recordings will continue to puzzle cylinder enthusiasts for the foreseeable future.

Fortunately, the contents of these recordings are as interesting as the questions behind their provenance.

The recordings fade in to an already established harmony and end abruptly as the cylinder grooves run out, a common occurrence in cylinder field recordings.

Nevertheless, what is captured is undeniably human and vital in spite of the narrow dynamic and tonal bandwith the medium allowed.

Himene is etymologically related to the word hymn and the sound these cylinders capture is a marriage of the vocal songs of native Tahitians and the sacred choral music that the European missionaries left behind. It is a haunting sound that retains its distance while remaining innately familiar.

(I have posted pictures of an additional mystery object that accompanied these cylinders after the jump.)

I asked our cataloger Zak for images related to the field recordings and he sent me these pictures. Upon expressing my confusion he replied:

The mystery piece of electronics came with the Tahitian field recordings. It's function is uncertain, though it's provenance is the same

My guess is that it's some sort of variable power source or resistor but I'm not sure. 

Any ideas?

Mystery electronic component from the Tahitian cylinder cache

Another angle of the mystery component

A close-up

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User Comments

01
tweberfree on 08/10/11 at 06:46PM
It looks like an old heater.
02
MUhlenkott@aol.com on 09/08/11 at 04:40PM
This is amazing. I'm guessing you've contacted the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. They would be very interested and probably have pertinent info. Both Handy & Stimson did research for that institution.
03
MUhlenkott@aol.com on 09/08/11 at 04:43PM
Sorry, should have read your article first!
04
yellowfaithful on 10/04/11 at 12:46AM
That is in fact a heater with rheostat function (the non-conductive porcelain knob at the the top, that runs on a track).
You may want to check a Sear & Roebuck Catalog from the active period of Stimson or Handy's recordings - ??-1923, for the exact model.
The real question is "Why would this type of small (8 in long) space heater, be helpful to a cylinder field recorder?"
From the standpoint of recording "heat" is needed to warm up the wax before it is used to lessen the surface noise of the recording (pair fluidity with fidelity), however, if the temperature became too hot it would have the capability to quickly erase (flatten) a wax recording.
Sadly, I do not think that you could erase a Blue Amberol with heat due to its chemical composition.
Blue Amberols are made from cast of master cylinders - these masters being made of wax or other compound mixed with wax. This might suggest that the field recorder used B. Amberol wax masters, same size and length, for the the recording on a jerry-rigged older machine.
If that were the case then the heater may have solely been used for heating the wax blank for a higher fidelity recording.
The only question I have is about the use of an older machine?
05
tweberfree on 10/04/11 at 02:17AM
Thank you, yellowfaithful, for confirming that this was a heater! Not sure if I should feel smart of just old. Lol. (I once had a similar heater -- inherited it from my Oma.)
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