Association for Recorded Sound Collections annual conference, Los Angeles, California, May 2011.
Three years ago, the playback by the First Sounds initiative of a phonautogram recorded in 1860 challenged the long-standing practical distinction between pictures of sound waves and sound recordings we can hear. Today, we can listen—with a little work—to virtually any waveform we can see on paper. But what kinds of historic “phonogram images on paper” are there out there to hear—what are they, where are they, what do they sound like, and how old are they?
In addition to the now-familiar phonautograms, we’ll consider some other core examples, including experiments with photographic sound recording from 1878 and ink-on-paper prints of “lost” nineteenth-century gramophone discs. However, we don’t necessarily have to stop there, if we’re willing to play a bit with our assumptions about what a “sound recording” is. What if we adopt the current WIPO treaty definition of “phonogram,” which encompasses synthetically created waveforms that aren’t actually records of past sound events? What if we don’t limit ourselves to the oscillographic format (time versus amplitude), and also consider sound spectrograms (time versus frequency)? Depending on the definition we choose, there are arguably playable “phonogram images” dating back to the Middle Ages! We’ll explore all of these options, illustrated with images—and, of course, with sounds as well.