Phonographic recording signalled the first moment in history when humans were able to listen to an event whose present had already passed. These sonic documents were produced during colonial fieldwork in an ‘arrangement’ to “collect as many examples of traditional music as possible, in order to create and follow theories about the origin and evolution of music.”1 Recorded between 1893 and 1954, the wax cylinders at the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv form part of the world’s most prestigious collection of phonograph recordings.
From its outset in 1900, the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv was closely collaborating with the Museum für Völkerkunde (now the Ethnologisches Museum). The ideological starting point for that institution and its discipline was primarily formed by racial and cultural fallacies like that of evolutionism, which established itself as the most important explanatory principle of ethnology in the 19th century. Western evolutionist theory postulated that people move from primitive to highly developed cultures, producing a subdivision of ethnic groups between 'civilised peoples' and so-called endangered 'primitive peoples' who were supposed to be rescued by the former. Based on this thesis, research expeditions and the so-called 'civilising mission' of colonialism can be derived. In addition to the main ethnographic medium of photography, the documentation of sound was also instrumental in legitimising colonial ideology and its construction of 'colonial truths'.
After being relocated several times in the early 20th century, the current site of the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv was opened in 1952, within the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin-Dahlem—an affluent suburb south-west of the city centre. In 1999, the collection was inscribed onto the ‘Memory of the World’, a UNESCO register that reifies a predominately European history of heritage.2 The Phonogramm-Archiv and its collection of 16,000 wax cylinder recordings will soon move into the infamous Humboldt Forum in Berlin. Concurrently, 20,000 artefacts from the archive’s ‘parent’ institution, the Ethnologisches Museum, will venture into a new permanent exhibition inside the reconstructed Berlin Palace on Museum Island. Though, not all will meet a public fate: nearly half a million objects held by the institution will remain locked up somewhere on the city’s periphery.
Here is a sound in three acts: the life and death of a wax cylinder is excavated from its suspension inside the Phonogramm-Archiv. Orbiting around one immortalised event—a field recording of the Balinese chant Kecak made by Dutch ‘ethnomusicologist’ Jaap Kunst—we examine the granularities of sound to disrupt the object’s authorship and entangle it with a decolonial methodology. Gazing into the interstices of silence and noise, we shift our attention beyond the wax cylinder’s recording of Kecak and onto the entirety of its recorded event. Through the processes of recording and listening to the sound of history, a project of sonic divergence emerges.
Phonographic recording transfers sound onto the surface of an object. Technically, this recording method is the most direct means of transferring sound onto a ‘physical support’ to ensure that its trace is reproducible. Sound can thus be propagated onto a variety of materials: metal, wood, liquid, string, or wax, for example. The choice of surface is key in the determination of the recording’s sound quality and tonal characteristics. The first ever phonographic recording was made with ink, whereby sound was marked onto a sheet of paper by a vibrating needle. This was, however, more of a visual representation of sound as it could not be played back. Decades later, wax quickly became a popular medium for the widespread dissemination of sound when the first commercial model of Thomas Edison’s phonograph was made available to a public audience in 1888.3
In the ‘cutting’ of a recording, a stylus inscribes grooves onto the wax cylinder’s surface as a visible transcription of the event. This method allows minimal obstruction between the vibrations of air into the phonograph’s ‘diaphragm’ and the stylus’ marking onto the wax surface. The process aims to produce the fewest possible interferences between the event recorded and its material trace. These vibrations carved onto a wax cylinder are rendered into marks that an event may leave—of both their preservation and transformation into something else. Though, the cylinder’s recording might be better understood as an entirely new event, one unlike the ‘original’ as a result of its transformation.
These ‘markings’ of sound reproduced onto the wax cylinder also have a tendency to disappear from the surface if listened to too many times. In fact, the quality and preservation of this object depends precisely on how much it is used: the more you replay it, the more it abrades. In order to ‘save’ the wax cylinder, the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv has entered into a game of (im)mortality in its method of reproduction: the so-called ‘galvano-plastic’ process made it possible to produce a negative form of the wax cylinder from copper. Through a process of galvanization, the object is coated in a conductive material and slowly rotated whilst suspended inside a copper plating solution. The speed of its rotations increase, and its charged shell thickens. However, as the copper particles attract and form a negative mold, the seventeen hour-long procedure inevitably results in the destruction of the positive form.
In the museum and archive, the original stops living. The wax cylinder knows this all too well.
Towards the end of the 20th century, the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv began a tedious process of digitizing its collection of wax cylinders. Transferring the ‘best’ reproductions or still-intact originals onto DAT cassettes, the archive’s digitization has served to revive each cylinder’s event an infinite number of times. However, this process produces further divergence.
During the wax cylinder’s transposition from analog to digital, an archivist must set the correct speed of revolution in order for the most accurate sound to be copied over. The Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv diverged from a commercial recording norm of 160 revolutions per minute (rpm), and would copy a wider range between 75 and 250. The preferred method to set the recording speed is via a pre-recorded reference tone of 435 Hz.4 However, half of the Phonogramm-Archiv’s collection is missing such a tone, so other reference points for establishing the original rpm have been sought out: transcribed notations, metronome markings, and collector’s statements heard at the start or end of a recording.5 Another common method has, at times, involved archivists themselves:
“A rough setting can be attained through indications in the documentation about the performers and the instruments that are used. However, the assessment becomes difficult in those cases where the recording is of a music culture one is not familiar with.”6
An archivist unfamiliar with the challenges of digitising a wax cylinder may, accidentally, create incidental sonic debris, such as inflections of tone and pitch that diverge the original’s recording. The re-production of histories beyond the Phonogramm-Archiv’s understanding or experience is left to the institution’s archivist who risks disrupting and creating further distance to the event during the process of digitisation.7 As two opposing technologies reckon with each other, the cylinder’s reality is translated from a physical inscription to a binary code of 0s and 1s.
During a digital sound recording, the membrane of a microphone vibrates as sound waves are received. This vibration is then transformed into an electrical impulse, interpreted by converters as binary code. The output of this process is not the sound we hear, but a very faithful imitation of an event that has been recorded. The analog recording impresses the vibration of air onto the physical surface and, while playing it back, re-stages the same vibration. By contrast, the digital recording adjudicates what is a ‘signal’ from what is ‘noise’, removing everything considered error or inaccuracy to keep the sound ‘clean’.
The phonograph’s recording—by precisely inscribing that sound wave—‘stops’ a moment in time, and with it acquires all the imprecision of its own temporality and technique. Whilst analog recording engraves the moment, its digital successor imitates it: an approximation of the original event.
A distinction between that which is analog and that which is digital: wax cylinder recordings are noted for having strong background noise. Such noises represent an inseparable part of the wax cylinder’s intention: to mark the metaphorical distance between listeners and the time-space where the recording was first produced.
To produce the possibilities of listening to an event again and again, the Phonogramm-Archiv attempts to immortalise the life of the wax cylinder. During the process, however, we diverge further from the story of its original, mechanical capture. Revolutions may falter under their own weight of change.
2021 and beyond
In line with the Government’s COVID-19 roadmap to re-opening the country, the doors open on 17 May 2021.
Almost all of the Barbican’s casual staff don’t show up for front-of-house shifts. They have moved out of London or found employment in places that value them more. The Barbican’s creative upper class have to become hosts and invigilators to open the centre.
Barbican Stories is published.
Barbican employees are shocked at the stories and recollections of racism in the book. They can’t believe that this is all true and so they dive into their minority workforce to find out for themselves, once and for all. Unconvinced and under mounting public pressure, the Barbican hires an external consultant (a friend of a director) to publish a public race report that concludes that whilst the Barbican could do better, there is no systemic issue.
2,000 workers across London’s cultural sector create a picket line in solidarity with Barbican workers. The demands of the protest are impossible and necessary.
During the Barbican’s opening concert, as the conductor enters the stage to fill the auditorium with music, it is instead filled with the sound of 400 people standing up and leaving the orchestra on stage with no audience. A violinist cries.
All the employees of colour evacuate and the Barbican is left with a purely white workforce. There is a palpable sigh of collective relief: If there’s no one but white people, then we can’t be racist!
Artists stop aligning themselves with backward institutions so cultural producers at the Barbican have to become artists to fill the programme.
Whiteness clings to the walls like moisture. Visitors are too ashamed to cross the picket line.
Coffees go undrunk, B R U T A L tote bags collect cobwebs, the conservatory grows wild. The ducks leave the lake in solidarity. Old Barbican guides litter the foyer. The orange carpet turns grey with dirt.
Eventually, audiences don’t need a picket to stop them from coming to the centre. A primed and ready-to-pay cultural audience now reflects the fastest growing demographic in London. Now, these younger and more diverse audiences that make up the city’s landscape find different and better cultural spaces that actually care about them and reflect their lives without skirting around the ugly facts. Why see another token diversity event when there are now whole institutions dedicated to the complexity of the diaspora?
One by one, lights are cut from the Barbican’s many rooms and offices, as they grow dusty in the absence of people. Moss grows between the cracks in the concrete.
The only room that remains open is the directorate office.
The directors maintain a throne of old catalogues, leaflets and newspaper clippings, in a never-ending meeting where the only thing on the agenda is to dust.
One unremarkable day, the Barbican ruins collapses in on itself. The debris blows away to reveal an ON SALE sign.
The only thing worth anything at the Barbican is the land it used to occupy (and even that won’t cover the debt left behind by the brutal beast).
Blitz Property Developers find EC2Y 8DS and they love a bargain.
Once again, the site is raised by the Blitz.