How long has there been recorded music? We know there are wax roll recordings that date back to the late 1800s as we have records of them still either in their original forms or transformed over to vinyl in attempts to preserve them. The majority of our knowledge of early recordings comes from music that was recorded to be played on the old wind-up machines.
I’m sure most of you have seen at least a picture of those old gramophones, or Victrola as they were called, with the huge speaker trumpets that looked like a cornucopia horn. I remember being amazed at how heavy the tone arm on one of those things was, and that the weight of it, combined with a diamond needle, didn’t dig holes in the records. If you’ve ever held one of those old 78 rpm records, you’d know they were built for punishment: thick circles of vinyl that could be used as throwing weapons if you really wanted.
In their day, the 78 — and the equipment used to make them — was as much a technological breakthrough as the CD burning process is for us today. While computer technology has allowed anyone who wants to turn their home computer into a recording studio, the 78 equipment not only allowed people to record, it also made music available to the general public on wide scale for the first time. Not many people would have owned a wax tube player, but a gramophone was another matter.
Rob Mills and Jeffery Taylor are the Seattle Washington based experimental music group Climax Golden Twins. In the past they have composed music for gallery and museum installations, film soundtracks, worked on documentary films, and contributed soundscapes to NPR radio shows. Their latest project, Victrola Favorites: Artifacts From Bygone Days, available on the aptly named Dust To Digital label, is a multi-media project that celebrates the diversity of music recorded for playback on the Victrola.
The two CD set comes in a 144-page, 6″ X 9″ hardcover, cloth bound book. It is crammed full of pictures and memorabilia of old 78 records. Photos of old record labels are blown up to fill a whole page, while old full-page newspaper advertisements have been reduced in size to easily fit the confines of the page. It’s like some sort of strange pressed flower arrangement where the act of preserving the material changes the original image to suit the needs of its medium.
An image of an old tin of German-made gramophone needles is blown up to a size where only a portion of the image is seen on the page, while an old British postcard that included a record (Tuck’s Post Cards by appointment of the house of Windsor) has its front and back displayed in full on another page. The first image in the book, which you might overlook as its hidden beneath the first CD, is of neither a record nor the paraphernalia that accompanies them.
Lifting the CD out of its slot, you could be forgiven for squirming a bit as it reveals the image of a multitude of insects crawling around. Even though they are by no means realistic in appearance, I still managed to feel like you would when lifting a rock and finding the earth under it alive and moving. The revealed little creatures are a type of beetle that secretes a resinous substance called Lac. When the substance was purified, it was used to make the old shellac records.
This explains the brittle nature of old 78 records because they weren’t vinyl at all. While it sounds sort of organic and natural to make records from the secretions of an insect, I’m betting the process was not only time consuming and labour intensive, but in the long run also environmentally damaging. Consider that the resin secreted was left behind on the leaves of trees by the insects. Who knows what chemical reactions occurred when the stuff was processed into shellac. Still it’s fun to think of the old records being made from what sounds like the trail of an insect as it crawled through a tree.
The music contained in the two discs is an example of every type of recording you can imagine. You’re taken on a journey around the world with stops in India, China, Japan, Africa, Thailand, Persia (now Iran), Greece, Portugal, Hawaii, Mexico, and the United States. Everything from sound effects (“Sounds Of London” is a recording of church bells ringing in that city) to the sound of the Chinese Buddhist Nuns (“Chanting The Ten Vows” in a recording made in Hong Kong) can be heard.
It really is a case of traveling from the ridiculous to the sublime in some cases, when one second you can be listening to an excerpt from classical Chinese Opera and the next something called “The Insect Powder Agent,” which I’m not sure was a commercial or a piece of strange radio drama. Needless to say there are some pieces that will appeal to some people more than others, and in my case I was particularly interested in the recordings of early Blues musicians like Blind Boy Fuller or Noble Sissie and his Orchestra.
Some people might find the seemingly haphazard nature of the music disconcerting, as it really doesn’t follow any noticeable pattern. Some of the juxtapositions (like the Seven Galleon Jug Band’s recording of “Wipe Em Off” followed by the Mozmar Caire Orchestra from Egypt playing “Raks Baladi Hag Ibrahim”) are even jarring in their sudden changes of sound and tonal quality.
There really isn’t any deep hidden meaning behind the way the songs are laid out anymore than there is a pattern to the arrangement of the accompanying pictures. If you ever have made a compilation cassette tape or CD of some of your favourite music, you’ll know you usually have your own reasons for why certain songs go together, and I’m sure that’s the case with Victrola Favorites: Artifacts From Bygone Days and its creators, Rob Millis and Jeffery Taylor. I can’t believe that they would have done anything accidentally. Even a decision to be completely random is a deliberation after all, and they would have known it would result in a certain amount of disorientation on the part of the listener. In any case, part of what made this an interesting listening experience was not being able to anticipate just what what would be hearing next.
One thing is for certain: no matter how confusing the sounds might sometimes become, this is a fascinating musical voyage around the world, and one that anyone with an interest in the history of recorded music won’t want to miss.