Friday, April 8, 2011

Edison phonograph cylinders (1888): Handel - Israel in Egypt

(I seem to have lost the ability to format these posts, so they're all running together into one blob/blog. I hope to straighten it out soon.) These used to scare the shit out of me - I mean, old recordings. I don't know why, because they also fascinated me. Even now, sleuthing around on the net, I want to push the date as far back as I can. The 1880s is pretty far. But not the farthest. In the 1870s, a man named Lambert created something called the "talking clock", which wasn't much except a sound experiment. He recorded his voice saying, "One o'clock. . . two o'clock. . . ", etc. Not very exciting, and there are weird sounds that no one can interpret. It's recorded on an iron cylinder, a medium no one else wanted to try. Oh, and: a guy found a piece of black paper a few years ago with little etchings on it, fed it into his computer, and it sang, "O claire de la lune. . . ", just one line of it. It's of historic value, of course, but it'll never make the Top 40. Apparently it's from 1860 or 1840 or the war of 1812 or something. Frankly, I think it's a hoax, like that guy that claimed to have a recording of Chopin playing the Minute Waltz (which, by the way, referred to that other meaning of "minute" - small - and NEVER played in a minute like Liberace did.) It was the same technology, after all, pieces of black paper with soot on them. Good thing the maid didn't see them. Then things went to wax, which didn't sound much better. The cylinders distorted and even melted in the heat, and shattered when they dried out. Only a few survive, transcribed to modern sound to save playing them to death. (Though I think you can probably read them with a laser by now.) There is a whole site on these eerie Crystal Palace recordings, supposedly the first recorded music in history. I was happy to catch up with these excerpts here. A legend has grown up around them. Supposedly there were four thousand voices gathered to sing Handel's Israel in Egypt. (The Crystal Palace site says it was only 3,000: a thousand people missed practice and were told they couldn't participate.) That's kind of hard for me to believe: for one thing, I don't think this Crystal Palace would accommodate thousands of singers unless it had the dimensions of a football field. For another, with all those decibels I think the recordings would have been a little more distinct than this. But it's ghostly and a little ghastly to listen to this dim wavering voice from the past. It keeps wafting in and out, but at times it's strong enough that you can hear distinct Handelian chords and harmonies. Then it just sort of wafts back into the distant past. Still scares the shit out of me.

Of vinegar and things

Yesterday I went in to Vancouver so I could go to Dressew and look at fabric. Last time we were over at my son’s place, Erica was on the floor furiously coloring pieces of paper, then gluing them together. She finally wrapped it around herself and asked me to tape it in the back. It was a costume she was making for herself. She is so great at design, and not yet 6 years old! So I thought it might be a good birthday present (May 18, same day as my Dad) to buy some colorful and easy-to-handle fabric that she can cut and tape (or Velcro). Dressew is a vast emporium of fabric and notions that draws people from out of province. Some of it was outrageously expensive, $25 a meter, but I did find some great remnants for $2 and some glittery fabric for less than $5 a meter. I got a lot of different things for under $25. This is what's so great about that place, but I noticed the yarn stock had been drastically cut. I do wonder if stocking all that yarn was a bit of an experiment. The stuff that was left wasn't too practical to use. There are all sorts of costume accessories out now, which is strange because it's nowhere near Halloween (and Mardi Gras has passed). Do they cater to the trans-bi-queer-masquerade community, I wonder? Bill and I took the train home together, which is always pleasant. The 4 seats face each other, and a middle-aged couple sat across from us. They were maybe in their mid-40s. He had a shaved head. Both were maybe 30 or 40 lbs. overweight. At once it became obvious they were a "couple", though I initially thought from his gushy manner that the man was gay. (Forgive my stereotyping, but that’s what I thought. I wondered if it was one-o’-dem Liza Minnelli type-a things.) We had to put up with this all the way home as they made out, held hands, smooched and snuggled. They each had a full backpack with them, which made me wonder if they were running away. I remembered a similar couple on our European trip, and Bill muttered, "Second marriage." It does make you wonder what the backstory is. To cope with all their murmurings, I started reading things to Bill out of the Georgia Straight, a newspaper which used to be underground but is now overground, except for the eight-page full-color spread for hiring hookers in the back. There's a new movie called Hanna starring a young actress called Saoirse Ronan (whom I saw in The Lovely Bones - she was good). We had a contest to see who could pronounce her name (though I think it's something like "Shuh-res"). Then I saw one of the Straight’s inimitable restaurant reviews for a pizza place where they cook the pizzas for "about 90 seconds" at 900 degrees F. They described vinegar this way: "velvety, barrel-aged 12-year-old Reggio Emilia San Giacomo balsamic vinegar", prompting Bill to say, "I prefer the white stuff." Then I said, "Shall I read Savage Love to you?" He said "probably not", so I read only bits of it. Most of these people seemed to fall between the gender cracks (if you will excuse the expression). Dan Savage referred to "one of those guys who are into transwomen and/or born-male-trans-genderqueers-who-live-as-female-but-aren't-quite-passable", a handle nearly as long and confusing as the vinegar (and how can vinegar be "velvety", anyway?). I sat there for a while trying to figure out the meaning of "passable". Does it mean he/she can "pass" in the old racial sense, or does it mean the person is a real bow-wow? There’s no use pretending. I can’t keep up.