Voices of the Dead

11 February 2013

In the video above, the composer, roboticist and sound historian Sarah Angliss demonstrates a contemporary voice recording made using an Edison phonograph, an entirely mechanical device that requires no wires or batteries. In the post below, she describes some of the ideas she will be exploring in her talk at The Voiceon Friday 1 March at Wellcome Collection.

In 1933 Howard Flynn heard a dead woman speak. The strange encounter happened in his record company storeroom, where he found an old wax cylinder lying undisturbed in a sealed mahogany box. Flynn had seen cylinders like this before. In the earliest days of sound recording, sounds were stored as grooves etched into the wax. But this one was covered in mildew, which obscured its surface like moss on a gravestone. Undeterred, Flynn slipped the cylinder onto an old phonograph, wound the phonograph handle to make the cylinder spin, then placed the machine’s playback stylus onto the wax. At first, he heard nothing but rumbling and popping as the stylus skidded over the mildew. But a few seconds later, he heard a woman speaking clearly but faintly – a voice that had been lost for many years:

Flynn was listening to the only surviving recording of Florence Nightingale, a message she’d recorded on wax in July 1890 to raise funds for destitute veterans of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Nightingale left one other sentence: a blessing to her comrades at Balaclava. But today, it’s the opening 50 seconds of her message which are so striking. Working in the military hospitals of the Crimea, Nightingale knew better than anyone that the dead were dead. Yet, in the little time she had to leave a trace on the wax, she spoke about the prospect of her recorded voice surviving the grave.

Just as the photograph could keep a visible trace of someone after death, the phonograph could keep a vocal trace. Thomas Edison, its inventor, made his first public phonograph recordings in 1877 using cylinders covered in tin foil. Within a year, he was experimenting with recordings on wax. Although there had been earlier attempts to capture sound using soot on glass, his was the first device which could record and play back sound. Nightingale wasn’t alone in having a slightly morbid reaction to the disembodied voices that emanated from his machine. Shortly after hearing a tinfoil recording in Edison’s lab, a reporter for Scientific American remarked on ‘the startling possibility of the voices of the dead being reheard’, adding:

“When it becomes possible, as it doubtless will, to magnify the sound, the voices of such singers as Parepa and Titiens will not die with them, but will remain as long as the metal in which they may be embodied will last.”

As an electronic composer, I often work with disembodied voices, treating them more like plasticine or daubs of paint than vocal recordings as I cut, splice, timestretch, repitch, layer, retrograde and otherwise use them to create music. I’m part of a tradition that began with Edison’s early experiments in the 1870s. I’m fascinated by the time when people first heard a voice that was disembodied – the eeriness of this encounter. When their voices have been immortalised in sound recordings, the dead never seem to fully leave us. To the listener, they continue to exist in a disembodied, unresponsive limbo, only limited by the lifetime of the wax cylinder, vinyl record, hard disk or other medium where their sounds are captured. We are so used to hearing deceased strangers, we rarely stop to think about its oddity, for instance when we sing a teenage love song performed by someone buried 40 years ago. Or when we watch an old television sitcom and find ourselves joining in with the laughter of the dead.

The Voice takes place at Wellcome Collection on Friday 1 March. You can find out more about Sarah’s work at www.sarahangliss.com.