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Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville - Au Claire de la Lune

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Artist: Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville

Album: Au Claire de la Lune

Label: Dust-to-Digital

Review date: Dec. 2, 2009

The story goes that Thomas Edison first recorded sound when, in 1877, he used his newest invention, the phonograph, to capture his own voice reciting “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” But as so often turns out to be the case, the story loses something in the telling. In this case it’s the fact that a Frenchman named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville had used his own invention, the phonautograph, to put his own voice on a piece of soot-covered paper 17 years earlier.

In Edison’s defense, this was not another case of commercial rivalry obscuring scientific fact, as was the case with his determined efforts to beat out Nikola Tesla during the battle between direct current and alternating current. His invention had a decisive edge; it could play back the sounds it recorded. Scott’s devise was never meant to yield a sound, just inscribe sound waves upon paper. After his phonautograms were filed away at the Institute of France’s Academy of Science in 1861 they were pretty much forgotten for 147 years, when a couple researchers from First Sounds saw pictures of the archive and initiated an effort to decode the things.

The first recording of a human making music was actually a fragment of Scott humming “Au Claire De La Lune.” It’s not much of a performance, just twenty seconds of undistinguished warble wafting out of a backdrop of hiss. But then, it was never conceived as one; Scott just wanted to prove that his gadget could render images of sound. If not for its historical import, no one would want to hear it twice. But if you care about recorded sound, you’re at least curious, right? It’s already possible to hear progressive iterations of “Au Claire De La Lune” that came from the efforts of Stanford University scientists to accurate render it at the First Sounds website, but there’s a certain poetry in putting the first recorded music on an actual record.

Enter Dust-To-Digital. The label has hitherto been known for its lavishly packaged compact discs of mainly 78 rpm-era music, and “Au Claire De La Lune” is the inaugural release of their new vinyl sub-label Parlortone. It is, as one might expect, a visually delightful fetish object. The sleeve depicts Scott’s phonautogram on one side and his notes plus a picture of the machine on the other. The single has a nifty etching on the non-sound side. The looks are very important, because let’s be real, who’s going to play this thing over and over again? It’s not like you’re hearing an amazing piece of music, a Charley Patton or Louis Armstrong or Marika Papagika, through the hiss and fuzz. You’re not even hearing the sound of a stylus hitting shellac. So it better look good on a shelf, and it does. But I do hope that Scott’s voice gets sampled and inserted into top 40 hit or Eno’s next boot-up chime to spread like a virus around the world.

By Bill Meyer

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