Inventing the Recording | The Public Domain Review
o the question “When were recordings invented?”, we might be tempted to answer “1877” — the year when Thomas A. Edison was first able to record and playback sound with a phonograph. But what if we think of recordings not as mere carriers of sound, but as commodities that can be bought and sold, as artefacts capable of capturing and embodying values and emotions; of defining a generation, a country or a social class? The story then becomes one that unfolds over three decades and is full of many layers and ramifications. Without Edison’s technological innovations, recordings would have certainly never existed — but hammering out the concept of recording were also a myriad of other inventors, musicians, producers and entrepreneurs from all over the world. Most of them were enthusiastic about being part of a global revolution, but they worked in close connection with their milieu too, shaping recording technologies and their uses to relate to the needs, dreams, and desires of the audiences they knew.
Edison initially believed that the phonograph would be most demanded in offices and companies: recorded sound, he thought, would make business communication easier by doing away with the ambiguities of written language. However, the Improved Phonograph and Perfected Phonograph, which he both launched in 1888, took recording technologies in a different direction. Audiences turned out not to be interested in the phonograph because of its practical uses, but because it entertained them: the first phonograph parlor opened in San Francisco in 1889, and was soon followed by thousands others all over the United States. In Constantino’s native Spain — more rural, less industrialized — phonographs were paraded around cities and towns instead and temporarily installed in civic centres, schools, hotels and churches; for a modest fee, locals from all social classes were able to acquaint themselves with the latest discoveries of science.
Et ça c’est passionnant... à relier au fait que avec la photographie numérique, on regarde instantanément les images qsui viennent d’être prises
It was not the thrill of listening to internationally famous performers and speakers that drew audiences to these phonographic sessions. Accounts suggest that phonograph operators were most successful when they recorded local musicians and speakers in front of the audience and then immediately played back the impressed cylinder. It was this, the act of recognizing familiar voices, that ultimately astonished audiences and persuaded them that the phonograph could reproduce reality as it was. A writer for the Madrid newspaper La correspondencia de España wrote after attending a phonographic session in November 1892 that: “We were truly surprised to hear several pieces that the phonograph reproduced with incredible accuracy and purity. […]. Not even a single note or chord is lost. Even the most delicate fioriture are repeated.”
De l’invention à la diffusion
The phonograph became a domestic appliance with the successive launches of the Spring Motor Phonograph, the Edison Home Phonograph, and the Edison Standard Phonograph between 1896 and 1898. With this came the need for a constant supply of professionally produced, well-crafted recordings that could lure upper- and middle-class phonograph owners back to the shops again and again. The recording as a commodity was born — but it still had to be embedded with values and meanings potential buyers could relate to; values and meanings that resonated with ideas they might have had about themselves, but also connected them to the powerful narrative of the global revolution brought over by recording technologies.
In turn-of-the-century Spain, buying a wax cylinder meant identifying as a member of an emerging middle class who was no longer interested in indulging in luxury for luxury’s sake, but was committed to the country’s economic and social advancement through the dissemination of science and technology. Many owners of gabinetes were themselves part of this emerging middle class, such as electrician Julián Solá in Madrid, and opticians José Corrons in Barcelona, Obdulio Bravo-Villasante in Madrid, and Pablo Lacaze in Zaragoza.
In the era of the gabinetes, though, wax cylinders still differed from modern recordings in one crucial aspect: they could not be duplicated in a reliable and effective way. Most surviving recordings from that time are one-offs. If a gabinete was faced with an unprecedented demand for, say, recordings of “La donna è mobile” by Constantino, the only way to satisfy customers would be to hire Constantino to record several takes of the aria, all different from each other. It was unrealistic for the Spanish industry to rely on a few outstanding or well-known performers to meet the demand, and so, alongside with Constantino, a multiplicity of lesser known, jobbing singers ventured into the recording industry with a modicum of success. Some singers of the era, in fact, are only known to us in connection with the recording industry.
The gabinetes’ enthusiasm and commitment, though, did not help them survive when the gramophone, which recorded on reproducible discs, took hold in Spain after Compagnie Française du Gramophone opened a Spanish branch in 1903. They resisted for a couple of years, but by 1905 many had closed down and the rest were operating as subsidiaries of the Compagnie or other multinationals such as Pathé and Odéon. Constantino, who had by then embarked on an international career in Eastern Europe and America, recorded zarzuela arias for the Barcelona branch of Pathé in 1903, followed by G&T in Berlin, Edison Records in Italy, Pathé and Odéon in Paris, and Victor and Columbia in the United States. Many of his colleagues who had thrived during the era of the gabinetes found themselves unable to compete against better or more established singers, and went back to the stage.