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V/A - Pictures of Sound: One Thousand Years of Educed Audio: 980-1980

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Artist: V/A

Album: Pictures of Sound: One Thousand Years of Educed Audio: 980-1980

Label: Dust-to-Digital

Review date: Nov. 27, 2012

So you think you know what a record is? Patrick Feaster, a historian and ethnomusicologist who specializes in sound culture, has news for you; everything you know is wrong. Sure, Edison made the first audio recording equipment that was capable of play back, but people have been rendering sound on paper for centuries. We’re not talking about music notation here, but graphic representations of frequency and duration. Once they were cryptic documents, but now that technology has evolved to the point where computer programs can decipher them and render them as sound, it is every bit as fair to call them records as any wax cylinder, LP, cassette, CD, or computer file.

Dust-to-Digital and Feaster first joined forces to release a 7” of a realization of a fragment of “Claire de Lune” that French scientist Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s transferred to paper by means of a machine called a phonautograph. Since Feaster realized that such documents could be scanned, decoded, and turned back into audio, he has been on a mission to find more material that he could subject to similar processes. Oscillogram printouts, Morse code notations, piano rolls, and outmoded medieval choral notation; if it was on paper and he could figure out its parameters, Feaster could educe (elicit) sound from it.

This seems to have become an obsession, or at least a passion, which makes it just the sort of raw material that Dust-to-Digital has successfully transformed into monumental objects of adoration. Victrola Favorites and I Listen To The Wind That Obliterates My Traces each paired excerpts from a 78-RPM record collection with images that creatively commented upon and transformed the experience of listening to them. Packaged as hardcover books, they’re just the sort of thing you’d give as a gift to the record geek in your life. Pictures of Sound adheres to the label’s exacting production standards. The 28-track CD is tucked into a hardbound book with gold-edged pages that depict the recording devices, graphic audio representations, and performers. Feaster describes his processes and the history of his subjects at length.

But while the set’s presentation is unimpeachable, both the written and sonic material betrays it. When someone like Jonathan Ward of Excavated Shellac chases one of his records down a wormhole of history and mystery, his writing makes you want to follow him. Feaster is deeply knowledgeable, but seems to presume that we’ll find his discoveries as interesting as he does, and therefore fails to show why we should care about his entries into anything more than catalogs of facts and observations. And too much of the sound on this CD is historically interesting without being sonically compelling. It has its moments, such as a selection by Emile Berliner, the inventor of the gramophone, which we now know call a record player. What qualifies the track for inclusion here is that it is taken not form a disc, but from a print of one. Feaster scanned the images and had a computer read the grooves, so that we can hear Berliner first counting, then laughing, and then singing in three languages. What makes the track worth hearing, though, is the humor in Berliner’s voice. But moments like that are rare on this CD; more often the voices are blurry mumbles heard through a flurry of hiss. And Feaster’s decision to render all of the music, regardless of its source, in the same Wurlitzer-like keyboard voice makes it sound like a snippets heard in an organ showroom. Previous Dust-to-Digital sets have conjured wonder from collections of obsolete records and images; Pictures of Sound is like a dull college lecture.

By Bill Meyer

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