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[ARSCLIST] Article on UCSB Cylinder Restoration Project

From today's Wall Street Journal:

Wax in My Ears: An Online Journey
September 10, 2008; Page D11

Back when I was an adolescent collector of antique phonograph records with
limited pocket capital, my quarry was the black shellac 78. The immediate
ancestors of vinyl LPs, these 78 rpm records were playable on the 1918
spring-wound, French-polished mahogany Victrola I had bought for eight
bucks at a local antique shop. Conveniently, they were also playable on
any modern turntable equipped with a 78 rpm setting. There was, however,
another recording format that I ignored -- wax cylinders. These were
mainly produced by the company owned by the phonograph's inventor, Thomas
Edison. Not only were cylinders extremely fragile and hard to store, but
they could be played only on antique cylinder phonographs, an investment I
could ill afford. But now, thanks to the Internet, I have been able to
supplement my shellac collection while discovering the extraordinary
pleasure of cylinders. And, as I can preview and download my finds on my
computer, no antique equipment or new shelf space is required. The
material is usually free for personal use, though you should check each
Web site for usage-rights information.

Because historic records of classical repertoire are amply represented on
CD, my chief crop as a Web harvester of virtual wax and shellac is the
repertoire of late-19th and early 20th-century popular music -- vaudeville
routines, minstrel shows, ragtime, dance and salon music, all of it
exploited by Edison and other record companies. Among the Web sites that
feature digital transcriptions of old recordings, one of my favorites is
Turtle's Jukebox (http://turtleservices.com/jukebox.htm1) with a small but
slowly growing archive of Victor, Columbia and Edison records made before
1930. Also interesting are the historic recordings section of the Internet
Archive (www.archive.org/details/78rpm2) and the Edison Historic site at
Menlo Park (http://www.nps.gov/archive/ edis/edisonia /sounds.html3).

However, for its scholarly attention to detail, high audio standards, ease
of navigation and sheer abundance of delightful material, my favorite
haunt is the Cylinder Restoration Project at the University of California,
Santa Barbara's Todd Library (http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu4). Its
vast archive of 7,500 cylinders dates from the 1890s through the 1920s.
Many are in the public domain, and most are downloadable in MP3 format and
24-bit WAV, as well as streaming audio. David Seubert, the library's
curator of performing arts, says that "being able to take material
inaccessible to the general public -- much of it for over a century -- and
make a large amount of it available for free is immensely gratifying."

Launched in 2002 and funded in part by a $205,000 National Leadership
Grant awarded in 2003, the CRP has been transferring its cylinders using a
French-made Archeophone together with digital audio editing software.
According to Mr. Seubert, "the Archeophone is a universal cylinder player
employing electrical reproduction and modern styli (such as Stanton or
Shure cartridges) to play back any of the varieties of cylinders made by
Edison, Indestructible and other firms. Unlike antique equipment, it
allows minute control over the playback speed and a much higher quality of

Though Edison has always been credited with inventing the phonograph, he
based his first cylinder on a French invention, Lèon Scott's
Phonautograph, developed between 1853 and 1860. Scott's mechanism was
simplicity itself: A recording horn funneled vocal sound waves to a
diaphragm (think of a kazoo) connected to a vibrating bristle stylus,
which left the visible pattern of the sound waves along the surface of a
revolving paper cylinder coated with lampblack. But "Phonautograms"
couldn't be played back.

Edison improved on Scott's idea. Instead of paper, he used tin-foil --
along which the stylus made a groove. And it was on this still fragile
medium that Edison made his very first sound recording in 1877 -- "Mary
had a little lamb." Playback reversed the process and produced the sound.
Edison initially regarded his invention purely as a dictation machine, and
in the 1880s his agents were recording the voices of celebrities from Lord
Tennyson to Florence Nightingale on wax cylinders -- more practical than
tinfoil. One recording, from 1888, preserves the prophetic voice of the
English composer Arthur Sullivan (W.S. Gilbert's musical partner) saluting
Edison with the observation that "I am . . . astonished at the wonderful
power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much
hideous and bad music may be put on record forever. . . ."

By 1900, recorded speech was yielding to recorded music, especially opera.
But by 1905 cylinders were losing their market share to disc records,
invented by Emile Berliner in 1887. Though discs became the industry
standard, Edison continued to produce cylinders through 1929 (in a more
durable celluloid plastic he called Blue Amberol).

Though there is some fascinating opera and concert music among the CRP's
cylinders, the bulk of the repertoire is popular, featuring gifted
performers who were household names in their day. Billy Murray, Henry
Burr, the tenor Walter Van Brunt and the Scottish comedian Sir Harry
Lauder were already familiar to me through their recordings for Victor and
Columbia. But the Web site's archives introduced me to several artists,
most notably the delectable comedic songstress Ada Jones and her frequent
recording partner Len Spencer, a versatile character actor with an
exceptionally malleable baritone speaking voice.

In routines like "The Crushed Tragedian," "Hezekiah Hopkins Comes to Town"
and "Becky and Izzy," Jones and Spencer exploit crystalline diction and
consummate gifts for accents, dialects and vivid characterization that
reflect the American "melting pot" at the beginning of the 20th century.
Many of these accents -- especially upper crust and Bowery New York, Down
East, Southern minstrel, Yiddish, German, Italian and Irish -- represented
a then-living variegated ethnic tradition that stretched back to before
the Civil War. Even Standard American speech, as spoken and sung here, has
an elegant, almost patrician crispness that has passed from the scene.

Musically, the cylinder repertoire of humorous songs, romantic ballads,
vocal quartets and dialect routines vividly preserves the alternatingly
sentimental and upbeat tastes of the era between the presidencies of
Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson. There's also an invaluable
representation of genuine Americana. "If you want to know how hymns were
sung 100 years ago," Mr. Seubert says, "or how country music was sung and
played, these cylinders preserve authentic performances."

Among the most compelling recordings in the archive is a group of
cylinders made by the composer Victor Herbert (1859-1924) with his
orchestra. He was widely popular as a symphonic conductor as well as for
such hit operettas as "Naughty Marietta." His recordings of concert works
like Brahms's Sixth Hungarian Dance and Mendelssohn's "Ruy Blas" overture
document the expressive late-19th-century performance style, with its
flexible tempos (rubato) and emotional string portamento (sliding between
important notes). Of course, Herbert's recordings of his own compositions
represent definitive interpretations -- the 1909 "Rose of the World" from
"The Rose of Algeria" is especially touching, with a golden cornet
substituting for a romantic tenor. Surprisingly, the recorded sound of
Herbert's cylinders is often so good that you can hear the delicate
subtleties of his instrumentation and also the eloquent precision of an
ensemble well-drilled by a beloved chief who knew exactly how he wanted
his music to go.

Mr. Scherer writes about music and the arts for the Journal. His current
book is "A History of American Classical Music" (Sourcebooks).

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