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Long ago, music was recorded on a wax cylinder like this. Out of curiosity, contemporary opera singers experimented with wax recording at Lincoln Center’s New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Once at my old job, we tried an ice-breaker game in which we said our first name and an adjective describing ourselves. My first name begins with “c,” and the first adjective that popped into my head was “curious.” Since then, I’ve often thought that was the right word for me. I am curious.

And I admire people whose curiosity takes them interesting places. Recently the curiosity of a Met tenor led to a fun experiment with wax recording that you can listen to online.

Anthony Tommasini writes at the New York Times, “Whenever Luciano Pavarotti was asked to name the greatest tenor ever, he always answered Enrico Caruso, who became a household name from his recordings, made from 1902 until his death in 1921.

“But how did Pavarotti know? Especially on Caruso’s breakthrough records, the sound is scratchy, wiry and wobbly. The same holds true for early recordings of Nellie Melba, Luisa Tetrazzini and other luminaries of that era. While there are entrancing hints of astonishing voices, it’s hard to tell what they were really like. If only we could record a singer today on the equipment used back then and compare the playbacks to modern recordings.

“Well, that precise experiment took place earlier this month at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, thanks to the curiosity of Piotr Beczala, a leading Met tenor.

“Touring the Met’s archives a couple of years ago, Mr. Beczala mentioned that his dream was to record some arias under early-20th-century conditions. He wanted to learn firsthand how faithful — or far-off — the results would be.

“Peter Clark, the company’s archivist, mentioned Mr. Beczala’s fantasy to Jonathan Hiam, the curator of the performing arts library’s Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound; Mr. Hiam then contacted Jerry Fabris, from the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey, who knows a collector in Illinois who makes wax cylinders like those Edison once produced. …

“The material surrounding the wax cylinders is not really wax, [Mr. Fabris] said, but something called metallic soap. Before using the cylinders, he had to warm them up under a light to make the material soft enough for the stylus to cut grooves as the disc spun. …

“Mr. Beczala was first up, singing ‘Quando le sere al placido’ from ‘Luisa Miller,’ accompanied by Gerald Moore, who played on a small upright piano so as not to compete with the voices. Putting the cylinder in place, Mr. Fabris was careful not to touch the surface: Even a slight thumbprint can create an impression. While Mr. Beczala sang, Mr. Fabris held a small brush in one hand and a little squeezable air bag in the other to disperse the dustlike shards of wax that are created when the stylus cuts into the cylinders.

“Since the machine has no meter to check levels, Mr. Beczala tried out the opening of the aria twice, the second time moving closer to the machine. Both times, the ringing, virile quality of his sound came through fairly well, though dynamic variations essentially disappeared. Mr. Beczala was most rattled that his intonation sounded off — though this was a flaw of the equipment, not of his solid technique. …

“Listening to the playback, he commented that the resonance was not bad and that the high notes were O.K. But his softer singing sounded faint and distant, and the consonants, he said, ‘are nonexisting,’ though in the room his diction was excellent.”

Read more about this at the New York Times, here, and listen to the wax cylinder recordings the experiment produced.

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I learned from an article in the NY Times last month that Thomas Edison’s first voice recordings were for talking dolls. And until recently, no contemporary person dared listen to them.

Ron Cowen writes, “Though Robin and Joan Rolfs owned two rare talking dolls manufactured by Thomas Edison’s phonograph company in 1890, they did not dare play the wax cylinder records tucked inside each one.

“The Rolfses, longtime collectors of Edison phonographs, knew that if they turned the cranks on the dolls’ backs, the steel phonograph needle might damage or destroy the grooves of the hollow, ring-shaped cylinder. …

“Sound historians say the cylinders were the first entertainment records ever made, and the young girls hired to recite the rhymes were the world’s first recording artists.

“Year after year, the Rolfses asked experts if there might be a safe way to play the recordings. Then a government laboratory developed a method to play fragile records without touching them.

“The technique relies on a microscope to create images of the grooves in exquisite detail. A computer approximates — with great accuracy — the sounds that would have been created by a needle moving through those grooves.”

Read more here.

Artifacts: Collection of Robin and Joan Rolfs
A government laboratory found a way to listen to recordings on fragile wax cylinders inside dolls made by Thomas Edison in 1890. 

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