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Scientists resurrect sounds from past in brash 'Pictures of Sound'

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By Randall Roberts
Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, 8:04 p.m.

The stated goal of the new combination book and compact disc “Pictures of Sound: One Thousand Years of Educed Audio: 980-1980” is impressively brash: “It's a collection that seeks to challenge existing assumptions about what historical audio itself is,” author and scholar Patrick Feaster writes.

Specifically, Feaster gathers from throughout history depictions of sound waves and alternative sound recording methods, some from before Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph in 1877, others simply different means of capturing sounds, and presents them along with illustrations and the stories of their creation. These images, figured Feaster, “could be ‘played' just as though they were modern sound recordings,” and set to do just that.

He was right, and the result is a fascinating, haunting and indeed defining, new work. For the CD, Feaster and his engineers have, like sonic Dr. Frankensteins, resurrected dead voices and melodies.

Feaster documents devices and methods lost to time, such as phonophotography, sound spectrograms and manometric flames, to capture and convey sounds. In 1877, for example, Eli Whitney Blake recorded sound by, according to Feaster, “using a glass photographic plate to record deflections in a beam of light bounced off a mirror attached to the membrane of a telephone mouthpiece.”

The CD is a surreal listen with 28 tracks sequenced to be heard while reading the book. Lost voices rise up, theoretical tones designed by conjecture and imagination jump out of history. On track six, Feaster conjures sound from a photo in an 1898 advertisement for a “Zon-a-Phon.” He took a high-resolution scan of the record in the ad, then, he writes, “converted it into a series of parallel lines” that he was able to “unbend” using Photoshop.

The result is a man's voice from 114 years ago. His name is Chauncey Depew; he was a politician who stumped for Abraham Lincoln and ended up a senator. He was also a noted after-dinner speaker, and this is one of his talks. He sounds like he can barely break through the past, the portal is so tiny. But there he is, miraculously. Similar feats occur throughout “Pictures of Sound,” making it an indispensable document of recording pre-technology.

Randall Roberts is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

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