They sound like the warbles of a sad ghost — the wobbling, slightly musical murmurs that represent the earliest audio recording. The man responsible for it was Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a French printer and bookseller who recorded it in 1860 on his phonautogram, the first sound recording device. His mechanism featured a quill, which transcribed sound wave vibrations into lines we can process and playback today, and while his first recording seems like more noise than song, it actually captures someone singing “Clair de Lune.”
“Consider yourself warned that this is very far indeed from easy listening,” as James Errington explains. “Instead of scratches we essentially have slightly tuned white noise, through which you can hear something; not enough to really make out much, but unmistakably a human voice.”
Errington is the founder of Centuries of Sound, a monumental, ongoing project to release mixtapes for every year of recorded sound, in chronological order. An ESL teacher with a vast interest in sound and music, he began the ambitious project in January after coming across a collection of cylinder recordings on archive.org. Since then, he’s created and published online playlists from 1860 — featuring the “Clair de Lune” recording — to 1895 — a year after the release of the first device designed for home entertainment, the Graphophone G. Each strives to exist as a summary of the sounds that best capture the 12 months, in terms of technological feats that occurred as well as as significant songs produced during that period.
His second playlist, for instance — which actually spans from 1878 to 1885 to span the early experimental years of sound recording — includes Charles Batchelor’s recording of one of Manhattan’s old elevated trains (not much but howling winds); Frank Lambert’s recording for an experimental talking clock (you read that right); and a glass plate recording that features an innocent recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” that ends with the first recorded obscenity as the machine breaks. At four minutes, it would barely fill an actual mixtape, but the samples of the nine files give a clear sense that this was an significant period of diverse tinkerings that would pave the way for listenable recordings. Every mixtape also includes helpful historical context written by Errington based off his own research.
“I consider it to be a creative work — an exploration of time through the perspective of sound,” Errington told Hyperallergic. “From my side it’s all about that process of immersing myself in a particular time and trying to make something from it.”
His current approach to making a mixtape is find every recording possible for each year, place them in a folder, and over a month, edit the selections down to a manageable collection that is varied. During that time, he also watches documentaries and reads literature pertaining to the era at hand to learn more about its cultural landscape.
It’s a process that’s worked well so far, as Errington’s only dealt with years for which only a few hundred recordings still survive (and most are in the public domain). But as he enters the 20th century, he’ll have thousands of mp3s to sort through, and will start consulting websites like Rate Your Music and Acclaimed Music to pick top hits, making sure to include selections across years, genres, and countries. But the final mixtape also reflects his own taste: “Ultimately, if I don’t like something it won’t go in,” he said.
Errington’s already had a taste of the challenges ahead of him. At the start of every year, he plans to post a preview mix; the first is one for 2016, which includes everything from David Bowie’s “Lazarus” to Christopher Tignor’s “The Will and the Waiting.” It’s already at the absolute maximum duration he’s set for himself — two hours — but he’s still working on editing it to be a more considered mix. Mixtapes, of course, are deeply personal, and you probably won’t agree with everything on it. I’d personally argue that slotting in some recordings of protests would present a more well-rounded playlist.
Still, it’s fascinating to literally listen to how far we’ve come since Scott de Martinville’s phonautogram. But as many of Errington’s blog entries bemoan, we’ve also lost a lot of sound as recordings were destroyed and materials simply degraded with time.
“There was an absolute explosion of music around New Orleans between, say, 1890 and 1920, but nobody seems to have even considered going down and recording any of it,” Errington said. “Nobody even recorded Scott Joplin, except for a few terrible quality piano rolls he made towards the end of his life. Of course, a lot of this may have been recorded and then lost — I imagine we only have something like 1% of cylinders made in the 1890s surviving.”
In an attempt to amass as many diverse recordings as possible as he moves into the 20th century, he’s issued an open call for help. Nothing is off the table, from Greek folk songs to early microtonal recordings to French political speeches.