matthew

The absolute first

Thomas Edison is well known for a number of inventions, one of them being how to record and playback sound in 1877. He used a foil cylinder and a stylus attached to a horn. Once the cylinder was recorded, Edison could then play it back.

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville 1817-1879

However, it would not be correct to say that Edison was the first person to record sound. That honor goes to Frenchman Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville whose earliest recording from 1860 was of someone singing Au Clair de la Lune. He used a soot covered paper in which he traced the audio wave. The problem, though, was that he did not have any means of playing back the audio. Unlike earlier attempts, some going back to 1857, this recording had a 250 hertz tuning fork as part of the recording which allowed modern scientists the ability to calibrate the speed to a certain extent, although the recording device was hand cranked.

It was not until 2008 that scientists were able to play back this recording from 1860. In this clip, the original recording is first, followed by attempts to “clean them up” to make them more intelligible.

Truly a voice from the past.

A career begun in war

World War II was a very hard time for the people of Britain. German air raids, destruction, food shortages, and many other factors went towards making life hard. British entertainers helped keep spirits up, with veteran performers such as Vera Lynn and George Formby becoming early favorites. Sometimes a star is born, almost out of necessity.

In the early 1870’s, a new hotel was built near what was to become Piccadilly Circus. There was to be a concert hall in the basement, but the managers of the hotel petitioned to change the proposed concert hall into a theatre. Permission was granted, and the underground Criterion Theatre was born.

Because of the theatre’s unique location, the BBC made use of it for many of its broadcasts during World War II. On October 17, 1942, The Beeb was preparing to broadcast one its programs, “It’s All Yours.” A man went to the program, hoping to record a message for an uncle who was stationed in North Africa. The man’s daughter accompanied her father to the theater, but before the program began, air raid sirens sounded and the audience became nervous. To ease the tension, the BBC producer asked if anyone in the audience would like to sing, or tell a joke or story, to help the audience calm down. The daughter, who had wanted to be an entertainer since a young age, volunteered. She sang a song from the turn of the century called “Mighty Lak a Rose.” The orchestra began to play behind her, and the audience was enchanted. When the song was over, the orchestra gave her a standing ovation. The girl was asked to sing on the program, and her performance drew hundreds of letters. Her singing career was born. Two years later she added film to her resume.

By the early 1960’s, the girl was a popular singer and actress across Europe, but she did not become known in the US until 1964 at the ripe old age of…32 with her hit, Downtown. I was not able to find a recording of her 1942 broadcast, but here is a video exploring the life of a young Petula Clark.

Where have I heard that before?

When I was in college, I had an English instructor who really enjoyed the subject. His bachelor’s degree was in Marine Biology, but he happened to do some work in a lab with a man to whom the subject was a hobby – a passion. That man was named John Steinbeck.

With an inspiration as Steinbeck, my instructor’s interests turned from Marine Biology to English. He wrote a number of books including a biography of Peter Mark Roget – father of the thesaurus. One day in class my instructor brought up the subject of plagiarism. He was renown enough to be asked to review manuscripts of textbooks for English education. One such book had a poem, supposedly written by a student of the author of the book. My instructor recognized it – he had read that poem in a publication that had, as I recall, a nationwide readership of perhaps fifty people. One of those people happened to be my instructor. That was enough to stop the textbook writing career of that author dead in its tracks. 

Plagiarism may be overt in the written word. In music, however, it may crop up subliminally. A songwriter may get a chord progression in his head and he may go with it, not realizing it had been heard before.

Often times it is not a conscious act on the part of a songwriter to rip off from another songwriter, but it can happen despite one’s best intentions.

A Catchy Melody

Back in the late 1960’s, my mother listened to KING-FM in Seattle. It was (and still is) a classical music station. Today I understand it is non-commercial, but back then it was a commercial station.

If there are any commercial classical stations today, they tend to play the “Top 40” of classical music. Back then, KING-FM would play a wide range of music, anywhere from Gregorian Chants to Aaron Copeland. They would also play contemporary compositions as well.

One such piece was by American composer Terry Riley called In C. This piece is named for the fact that there is one instrument or another playing a C note as something of a metronome throughout the piece. It may be buried from time to time, but it is always there. I think I can guarantee that this won’t be an ear-worm.

A few years ago I was talking to a musician and I mentioned In C to him. He was impressed that I knew of it, as not many people do.

Now you are part of an elite club.