Recording the visible world, recording sounds: the 19th century passed down to us two inventions which changed forever the way we live the present, relate to the past and understand the very concepts of reality and self-identity. Inventions almost as old as modernity itself, wholly interiorized and integrated in our daily lives – but who would deny their ever active revolutionary potential in the age of selfies, reality shows and do-it-all gadgets?
The country choir. Albumen print on paper, stereo card, F.G. Weller (Littleton, New Hampshire), 1872. Washington, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LOT 3523. Animation by Thiophene_Guy.
When it comes to music, the territories charted by photography and sound recording did not coincide for a significant part of their history, as much as they seem complementary nowadays. First of all, photography had been around for 20 years by the time Scott de Martinville was experimenting with graphic recordings of his singing, and another 28 years would pass until the Edison-Gouraud Crystal Palace recordings of Handel’s Israel in Egypt (1888), the earliest surviving recording of a musical performance in the full sense of the word. Secondly, huge musical landscapes and venerable traditions remained beyond the sight of record companies and enlightened dilettanti until at least the 1920s. On the other hand, we shouldn’t forget that, by the turn of the century, photography was increasingly becoming accessible to the technically-illiterate amateur, thus opening the door to the previously hidden world of personal mementoes, candid snapshots and home-made authenticity – a space one couldn’t just reenact in a photographic studio. Although technically possible with Edison’s phonograph (but not with its competitors), there was no “You press the button, we do the rest” musical phenomenon of a social magnitude comparable to that of vernacular photography. Home music-making, a defining phenomenon of pre-modern and early modern culture, was left aside and eventually etiolated by the talking machine and its successors – but it was also captured in images.
Phonograph or violin music on Christmas day? Gelatin silver print on paper, amateur stereo card, unidentified photographer, probably German, ca. 1910. Collection W. Wiggers.
In a nutshell, this is what this blog is about: photographic vestiges of musical culture and performance. From the opera house to the rural tavern and da capo; some of them easier to corroborate with historical information and available aural experience, others reduced to little more than nostalgia triggers. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter”? Those are definitely not the words of a music archaeologist, but we’ll keep the door to the consolations of imagination open on this blog…