❚ SOUND ARTISTS IN RESIDENCE ARE, it seems, all the rage. Not only has London’s Victoria & Albert Museum got one (that’s him, the cool barefoot dude, above right), but so too has the Science Museum (the less cool dude from another planet, above left). And this week they got together to make some wax recordings on the kind of two-minute cylinders our great grandparents used to dance to. The big diff is the kind of beatbox sounds Jason Singh makes — scratchity screechity hoppity whack rhythms made using nothing but his mouth, lips and tongue. He styles himself a “vocal sculptor” since essentially it’s his voice making sinuously textured percussive music, the role of a microphone being simply to help amplify it.
The reverse diff for him was not using a mic, but instead sticking his head deep inside a 7ft-long acoustic horn that channelled his voice down to a Mica membrane pressing on a flat-edged sapphire stylus, the vibrations from which cut a hill-and-dale spiral groove on a wax cylinder revolving at 160 rpm on a wind-up clockwork Edison phonograph Fireside model A, made in about 1909. His recording engineer was the shaggy professional musician, Aleks Kolkowski, who is running a series of experimental demonstrations during the next month on the art of acoustic recording. Each lunchtime session features a distinguished guest musician, artist or writer who will record acoustically by speaking or playing sounds without the aid electricity.
In Jason Singh’s case, his performance was a piece of magic before the recording began. His sound test had you looking round the room for an orchestra and a chorus of jungle animals. It was unbelievable that everything we heard came from inside this lanky young man himself. Aleks warmed the cylinder with a red lamp to soften its ceresin and stearic wax mix. Jason’s head vanished inside the horn while his extremities twitched to his turntablist rhythms and the stylus cut the acoustic recording. It was unexpectedly thrilling to witness, with swarf flying off the recorder, though Jason’s voice was slightly too muffled inside the horn for the audience to judge the quality, so it was agony to have to wait to hear the outcome while the cylinder was set aside to cool.
A second session saw Jason mixing samples and loops at a console, these more complex sounds then feeding out through a regular loudspeaker which faced into the same acoustic horn. This utterly different sonic landscape was nearer to musique concrète which treats pre-recorded sound as raw material.
Playback time arrived. Jason and Aleks positioned their ears on either side of the phonograph, now equipped with a pick-up stylus and a huge antique brass concert horn. From a low register, Jason’s human beatboxing slowly grew into distinct and intricate musical patterns, but suffused and somehow wonderfully other-wordly. He was rewarded with rapturous applause. His own verdict: “Wicked!” Aleks wondered whether the second more experimental recording would prove as successful, and indeed moments did give the effect of wind howling across the Arctic tundra. Jason’s verdict: “Exorcist!”
The best recording will soon be posted on Aleks’s archive website Phonographies where you can hear digital transfers of his many other recordings made on contemporary wax cylinders.
➢ The series of Phonographies, Wax Cylinder Recording Demonstrations, continues through June at the Science Museum, London SW7 2DD. They will feature an author, a wildlife sounds curator and a thereminist. Events are free but booking is advised through the museum line 0870 870 4868
FOOTNOTES TO PHONOGRAPHIC HISTORY
❏ Above: Edison Home Phonograph model A, No 825 made in 1879, playing a comic song by Scottish music-hall star Harry Lauder
➢ The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was established on January 1878 to exploit the inventor Thomas Edison’s new machine by exhibiting it. He received $10,000 for the manufacturing and sales rights and 20% of the profits.
In the late 1890s Edison began mass-producing cylinder phonographs though by 1905 flat-disc 78rpm machines began to outsell their cylinder rivals. Columbia, one of Edison’s chief competitors, abandoned the cylinder market in 1912. However, the Edison Company continued to make Blue Amberol cylinders until the demise of the company in 1929.
❏ Listen to Ada Jones & Billy Murray sing Come Josephine in My Flying Machine on an Edison Blue Amberol cylinder from 1911 (© Linda C. Joseph)