Vinyl is back in a big way.
Music lovers who booted their record collections during the compact disc’s approximately 15 year reign are scrambling to replace their old favorites, even in the age of streaming. They can’t get enough of that warm analog sound.
Can a wax cylinder revival be far behind?
A recent wax cylinder experiment by Metropolitan Opera soprano Susanna Phillips and tenor Piotr Beczala, above, suggests no. This early 20th-century technology is no more due for a comeback than the zoetrope or the steam powered vibrator.
Beczala initiated the project, curious to know how his voice would sound when captured by a Thomas Edison-era device. If it yielded a faithful reproduction, we can assume that the voice modern listeners accept as that of a great such as Enrico Caruso, whose output predated the advent of the electrical recording process, is fairly identical to the one experienced by his live audiences.
Working together with the New York Public Library’s Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound and the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, the Met was able to set up a session to find out.
The result is not without a certain ghostly appeal, but the facsimile is far from reasonable.
As Beczala told The New York Times, the technological limitations undermined his intonation, diction, or performance of the quieter passages of his selection from Verdi’s Luisa Miller. In a field where craft and technique are under constant scrutiny, the existence of such a recording could be a liability, were it not intended as a curiosity from the get go.
Phillips, ear turned to the horn for playback, insisted that she wouldn’t have recognized this recording of “Per Pieta” from Mozart’s Così fan tutte as her own.
Learn more about wax cylinder recording technology and preservation here.
Tchaikovsky’s Voice Captured on an Edison Cylinder (1890)
Download 10,000 of the First Recordings of Music Ever Made, Thanks to the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive
Optical Scanning Technology Lets Researchers Recover Lost Indigenous Languages from Old Wax Cylinder Recordings
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.
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