by Patrick Feaster, Media Preservation Specialist, Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative, Indiana University
Before you read any further, kindly stop and give the following piece of audio a listen.
Notice anything strange about it?
A little background: it’s one of the oldest known sound recordings made in Togo, captured on a phonograph cylinder by a German colonial administrator named Julius Smend around the year 1905. The intensive, repetitive playback needed for transcription and study caused such soft wax cylinder recordings to wear out quickly under the heavy reproducers of the time, but Smend entrusted his recordings to the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv, which had a strategy for overcoming this problem. When wax cylinders came in from the field, a galvanoplastic process was used to form metal molds around them, destroying the originals but making it possible to cast as many duplicate copies afterwards as might be desired. So that’s what happened to Smend’s Togolese recordings, which are available to us today only as they came out of the galvanoplastic molding process, and not as they went in.
Erich Moritz von Hornbostel—a pioneering ethnomusicologist who served as the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv’s first director—later went through the various collections of field recordings in his care to choose representative examples for his “Demonstration Collection,” an anthology of world music he made available for sale to interested researchers and educators. Several of the examples he picked were from Smend’s Togolese collection, including the one presented above: selection #78, identified as “chorus song with flutes and rattles, hunting song ‘tantana.’” The Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University holds two copies of it, one belonging to each of its two separate sets of the Demonstration Collection (purchased from Berlin by Henry Cowell and George Herzog respectively).
And both copies have the same, rather serious problem: when they’re played in the expected way, the audio runs backwards. Lest you have any doubts about this, here’s the recording again, reversed to run the right way this time:
So what had gone awry?
Back in 1905, it would have been just about impossible for anyone to record or play an original cylinder backwards by mistake. Standard phonograph motors were built to run in only one direction: forwards. Meanwhile, the cylinders themselves were formed with a tapered internal bore having a larger internal circumference on one end than the other, so that when they were slipped onto a mandrel they could advance only so far before sticking snugly in place. If someone had tried to put a cylinder onto the mandrel wrong-end first, either for recording or for playback, it wouldn’t have fit. Cylinders could only be recorded in one direction, and afterwards they could only be played in one direction: spiraling from the end with the wider internal circumference towards the end with the narrower internal circumference.
But we’re not dealing here with an original cylinder; we’re dealing with a molded duplicate, and that makes all the difference. What must have happened is that the original cylinder was positioned upside down when the metal mold was formed around it. Later, when that mold was used to cast copies with the tapered bore running in the “right” direction, the resulting cylinders would all have come out backwards, with the groove spiraling from the narrower-circumference end to the wider-circumference end. Standard phonographs at the time would only have been able to play these cylinders backwards. And the original cylinder would have been destroyed in the process of making the mold, leaving no opportunity to check the copies against it.
Did you recognize that the recording was backwards when you first listened to it? If so, congratulations on your phonographic savvy! But if not, don’t feel bad: you’re in good company.
After all, Erich Moritz von Hornbostel himself must not have recognized the problem, since he chose to make this cylinder part of his Demonstration Collection as a representative specimen of Togolese music. Nor did he stop there. He also transcribed a segment of the music—backwards—and published his transcription in an academic article about the general characteristics of African music, accompanied by the following analysis (pp. 47-48):
An orchestra of [wind instruments] joins with the vocal chorus in the following quartet from North Togo (Kabure). It is accompanied by rhythmic beats executed with rings which usually serve to stretch the bow; the beats are inaudible in the phonogram. Here also the vocal part is the chief one. The flute begins by moving parallel to it a fifth higher. It is, however, far from being in harmony with it, it tuning being the result of non-musical factors, and, in fact, of mere chance. But it follows the vocal part only half-way and even there not strictly, indulging in playful deviations; then, instead of going on to the second half it repeats the first one, thus transforming the tune into an ostinato. The two (?) horns behave even more independently. One more or less adapts its flourishes to the outline of the principal tune as far as is permitted by its restricted compass and its pitch, which is very discordant like that of the flute; the other confines itself to a drone on the tonic. It is remarkable to what extent the instrumental idiom is reflected by the vocal melody; obviously the phrases in the third bar resembling a flourish of trumpets imitate the horns.
Of course, when Hornbostel writes that the flute “begins” by following the vocal part, but then departs from it in the “second half” by repeating the “first half,” he has the sequence of events turned around, just as the cylinder itself does.
Elsewhere in the same article, he expresses confidence in the phonograph’s ability to capture authentic sonic realities. “As material for study, phonograms are immensely superior to notations of melodies taken down from direct hearing,” he writes, insisting that “only by means of the phonograph can we get the ‘real thing’” (p. 32). Perhaps he had actually sensed something odd in the “tantana” recording, but if so, he might have chosen to ignore his misgivings as misleadingly ethnocentric. When transcribing music from a cylinder, he claims, “a great amount of practice and constant revision are required to avoid mistaking what has really been sung or played for intervals and rhythms prevailing in our own music” (p. 33). From this perspective, even if something in a field recording had sounded strange to him, he probably wouldn’t have questioned its truth.
The “tantana” cylinder poses an interesting dilemma when it comes to preparing files for preservation and access. On one hand, if we think of the audio in terms of its documentation of Togolese music, then it ought surely to be presented in the direction in which it was originally recorded. On the other hand, this cylinder has also had a long and significant history of being played in the other (reversed) direction. That’s how Hornbostel listened to it while forming his views about African music, making his transcription, and deciding what to include in the Demonstration Collection. And it’s also how Henry Cowell and George Herzog—as purchasers of copies of the Demonstration Collection—would have played it to their comparative musicology students. So from the standpoint of twentieth-century scholarship, instruction, and publication, we might have good reason to present the audio in that direction. Or it might be better yet to present it in both directions, leaving it to individual users to decide which one best suits their interests. Meanwhile, our choice about which version(s) to make available—whatever it might be—should also be clearly and conspicuously spelled out, so that someone looking for one version of the audio wouldn’t unwittingly come away with the other. And it’s a lot to have to explain!
Just another example of MDPI’s commitment to knowing our legacy media backwards and forwards.
Great article, Patrick! I appreciate finally knowing the full explanation to that mystery!