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from an article published in BIXOBAL by the Ri Be Xibalba label in the Winter of 2008.
…if a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture. It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly become opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent. (Marshall McLuhan)
I’m looking at a photo of an Inuit man (I won’t say Eskimo) complete with furs, laughing as he listens to a small portable Victrola. I can feel the cold air, smell the drying seal blubber, and hear the scratching record… Photos such as this are not uncommon and always with the same theme: the surprised “native” listening to the magical sounds produced by the white man’s invention. I always wonder what those natives thought upon hearing ghostly voices rise up from an inert black disc. Nowadays only advertising would show something along these lines, as stereos are ubiquitous. (Though photographers at the time thought of these images as documentary, many of them are actually a form of advertising: cultural, colonial, even racist propaganda…all the fun topics you can’t advertise these days so openly) The Inuit man underscores the power of Edison’s invention and its considerable effect on our world. It was an advertising genius or particularly savvy PR agent who first coined that phrase talking machine—almost human, somehow possessing consciousness…
If it were not that the days of belief in witchcraft are long since past, which-hunters such as those who figured so conspicuously in the early history of our country would now find a rich harvest of victims in the Tribune building. Here are located the head-quarters of two marvels of a marvelous age. The telephone (which) is now eclipsed by a new wonder called the phonograph. This little instrument records the utterances of the human voice, and like a faithless confidante repeats every secret confided to it whenever requested to do so. It will talk, sing, whistle, cough, sneeze or perform any other acoustic feat. With charming impartiality it will express itself in the divine strains of a lyric goddess or use the startling vernacular or a street Arab. (Harpers Weekly, 1878)
Naturally it took an enormous human voice to catapult the phonograph towards its place in history: Enrico Caruso, the golden throated tenor was the first recording superstar and there is no doubt that he contributed heavily to the success of the phonograph—his voice fit the medium perfectly, worked magically within the limited registers the early devices could record and had the power to project and emote beyond the scratchy grooves. It is hardly surprising that the human vocal range is what attracts and commands our attention. And while some vocalists suffered due to the limitations of the early recording devices, many I think actually benefited—to my ears those early country blues artists, Blind Willie Davis for example, just sounded so mysterious and other worldly sunken into 78rpm grooves—the roughness accentuating the darkness of the music…
Along with Caruso, the other hero of the early record industry was Nipper, the faithful dog listening to “his master’s voice” that became one of the most famous corporate logos of all time. The original painting depicts the dog actually sitting on a coffin, curiously listening to his dead master’s voice played back from a cylinder. The geniuses at the Edison company in England, when presented with this painting to use as potential advertising around 1899, said no…a dog on a coffin? Too depressing. Clear off. The painter, Francis Barraud, painted over the cylinder player with a “flat disc” player (flat discs…records…were invented by a gentleman named Emile Berliner in the 1890s) took it down the street and sold it to Edison’s rivals the British Gramophone Company, soon to be re-named HMV (for His Master’s Voice) which eventually blossomed into the mega-corp EMI. A few years later cylinders lost the battle with flat discs and were obsolete…coincidence?
Nipper steered talking machine advertising away from the device as a machine or tool, which is really what it is, to something nearly human. The dog also revealed the promise of this new invention: life after death, preservation, immortality. Strangely tangible objects (records) from what is intangible (music). The voice was set free from the body. The white man had cheated death. Even Edison, the arrogant old turd, believed he might be able to make a phonograph that could record the vibrations of the spirit world, which were otherwise too faint for us to register among the living. Inventing the light bulb and recorded sound was not enough: Edison wanted to prove the existence of an after life, of a divine voice.
As we all know since we are reading this Bixobal amidst our piles of instruments, Sun Ra LPs, rare funk 45s, and Cagean sound art excursions, it is music and sound that are the divine voice…Edison would never figure that out because he was mostly deaf and had terrible taste in music. But his invention gave all of us obsessive boys (yes it’s mostly boys sad to say) something (else) to do with our selves. Though it was more: it was a defining step in the burgeoning “information age”–the age of Google, of downloading, of home entertainment, of commoditized mass produced information that is our savior and curse today. It was the point where people had to suddenly understand the relation between man and machine, original and copy. We had to understand what it might mean for the oral tradition and for culture and creativity. We mostly failed, and simply set about figuring out what people would pay to listen to…this is probably the real reason the Inuit man was laughing: the machines didn’t talk at all. They reproduced, which is what humans are best at anyway.