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The Rest is Noise, Part 2: Percy Grainger and the Phonograph

October 30, 2009
The Edison Phonograph

copyright: Norman Bruderhofer (

I mentioned in my first post about Alex Ross’ book, “The Rest is Noise”, that I was about to read Darius Milhaud’s memoirs.  Unfortunately it wasn’t quite the book that I’d expected; it read more as an inventory of his works than the anecdotal travel journal that I’d perhaps hoped for.

However, another interesting subject discussed by Alex Ross has now diverted my curiosity – the invention of the phonograph.  In particular, I was fascinated to read about how, at the beginning of the 1900s,  some composers adopted this newly invented ‘recording cylinder’ in order to use it for their own means:

“Percy Grainger, the Australian-born maverick pianist-composer, was among the first to apply the phonograph’s lessons.  In the summer of 1906, Grainger ventured out into small towns in the English countryside with an Edison Bell cylinder, charming the locals with his rugged, unorthodox personality.  Back home, he played his recordings over and over, slowing down the playback to catch the details. He paid attention to the notes between the notes – the bending of pitch, the coarsening of timbre, the speeding up and slowing down of pulse.  He then tried to replicate that freedom in his compositions.”

(“The Rest is Noise” by Alex Ross, 2008)

The Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók also took a phonograph with him when, in 1907, he went to the Eastern Carpathian Mountains, in Transylvania, in order to record villagers’ folk songs.  Similarly to Grainger, this was a search at grass roots’ level for inspiration for his own compositions.  I can’t help but draw parallels between this and modern day sampling of old vinyl recordings.  In both cases, the artists look to older forms of music which have slipped from public cognition and rearrange their rhythms and melodies for a new audience.

I haven’t yet discovered much more information on Bartók’s recording trip but there’s a fair amount of information about Grainger out there in cyberspace.  I’ve just finished reading “Percy Grainger” by John Bird, which is written in the more fluent and anecdotal style that I’d hoped for when reading Darius Milhaud’s autobiography.  As well as Grainger and Bartók, Bird mentions the names of other early pioneers of the phonograph, which provides me with yet more paths to investigate.  Interestingly, most of the names mentioned are anthropological fieldworkers rather than musicians:

[Grainger] became the first folk-song collector in the British Isles to make live recordings of his singers.  Madame Evgeniya Lineva, the Russian folklorist, was perhaps the first person ever to use the phonograph for field recordings, in 1897.  This was closely followed in 1899 by Dr. W. Fewkes’s recordings of North American Indians; quite independently, recordings of native folk-music had been made in New Zealand and Tasmania before the turn of the century”

(“Percy Grainger” by John Bird, 1982)

One of the m0st fruitful lines of enquiry that I’ve followed has been regarding Dr. W. Fewkes, whose name brings up pages and pages of interesting links and references when googled (for instance, try googling ‘fewkes phonograph’).

Inevitably though, writings about these practitioners are generally more concerned about their actual work, whether that be music or anthropology,  rather than the tools which they employed in the process.  Consequently, it has been frustrating trying to track down descriptions of how things were recorded with the phonograph (as opposed to what was recorded).

A few old articles and books that have been mentioned sound like they may be the kind of thing that I’m after, but so far I’ve not been able to track down a way of accessing these other than having to pay various university libraries for them.  I’m not averse to doing this but if anyone knows a way of reading the following articles online for free I’d be very grateful if you would share the link with me:

  • Percy A. Grainger – “Collecting with the Phonograph”, Journal of the Folk-Song Society, 3/12 (1908-09) 147-242
  • J. Walter Fewkes – “On the Use of the Phonograph among Zuni Indians”, American Naturalist, (1890) 24:687-691
  • “The Ammassalik Eskimo” – edited by William Thalbitzer (2 vols.)(1923) 544-559 (These pages contain a discussion of the use of the phonograph for research).

Just as there are now all manner of blogs and online articles analyzing every detail of sound technique, I would love to discover some historic description or diary entry which might expand upon the phonograph’s use as a recording instrument.

My solution to this lack of technical detail discovered so far is a change of tack.  I’ve now started looking for books which are more specifically about the history of the phonograph rather than books which are about music history and just happen to mention recording along the way.  To start with, I’ve ordered “The Fabulous Phonograph” by Roland Gelatt from the library, but there’s a whole host of material out there that I’ve come across; all seemingly coming at the subject from different angles.  I’ll list some examples for those who might be interested:

  • “The Anthropology of Media: A Reader” by Kelly Michelle Askew and Richard R. Wilk
  • “Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film” by Peter Wollen
  • “The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction” by Jonathan Sterne
  • “An International History of the Recording Industry” by Pekka Gronow, Ilpo Saunio and Christopher Moseley
  • “Audiophotography: bringing photos to life with sounds” by David M. Frohlich
  • “From Tinfoil to Stereo: The Acoustic Years of the Recording Industry, 1877-1929” by Walter Leslie Welch, Leah Brodbeck Stenzel Burt and Oliver Read

I think part of my fascination with this subject stems from the fact that I feel some kind of affinity with these early pioneering field recordings – these practitioners are in many ways the forebearers of what we sound professionals do today.

I’m afraid this post has turned out to be pretty much like a bibliography without the actual book to go before it!  My ‘research’ into this subject is rapidly turning into a bit of a pet study project which I’d perhaps like to eventually turn into some form of dissertation.  However, as a hobby in my spare time, that is likely to take quite a while, so I thought I’d jot down some of my discoveries so far in case other people also find the subject interesting and would like to read more about it.

From → History

  1. SUSAN HEDWORTH permalink


    I have some questions about the phonograph, which I am hoping to copy to use in a play. Are you still reading these posts???

    Susan Hedworth

    • sonicskepsi permalink

      Hi Susan, yep still get notified of new comments. I’m not an expert but I’ll do my best to help you with your research. Fire away!

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