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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.)

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burdt on 05/04/2011 at 09:00AM

Amateur Cylinder Recordings

Edison Brown Wax Blanks

Brown wax cylinders, the primary medium for commercial recordings between 1895 and 1901, were in circulation much longer as wax “blanks”—to be recorded on and "shaved" (erasing the old grooves) and recorded on again.

The following is a selection from our minor collection of these. Each recording is a small wonder, for it is highly doubtful that their creators would ever have imagined that they would be heard so many years later.

A boy recites a psalm in the sober, headlong fashion of a child. How old is he?

Men sing to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.”  Have they had too much to drink? 

The vocal duet of Suwanee River—is that a husband and wife, brother and sister, friends?

And then there are the animal noises--is that a real cat or someone imitating a cat? We hope it is the latter...

These few minutes of sound give us an aural snapshot of the lives of people from a previously silent era.

This glimpse into the quiet past has its complications though.

Since amateur recording practices weren't standardized at this time, level discrepancies, speed fluctuations, and unintended noise were recurring issues that we have to deal with while preserving and digitizing these cylinders today.

In spite of these engineering problems, the essence of the past remains. It is this, more than anything, that keeps us listening.

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