Early Sound

For the last couple of years I have been picking through Wikipedia for information about the earliest recorded people, both in photos and sound. In a way these are the first people we can truly say existed or that we can know directly.

My interest in early recordings was prompted by a number of things; Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, that “Marconi became convinced that sound never dies” and various articles in the media, like the one below that pushed back the earliest known recording of a human voice from Edison’s recording in 1888 to April 9, 1860, nearly 30 years.

The Phonautograph

Before Edison’s recording cylinder, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville constructed the Phonautograph, a recording-only medium that he saw as a way of generating art from sound or perhaps even a kind of stenographic device. A vibrating membrane blew smoke patterns onto a rotating drum of paper, creating long sooty sheets of paper.

In an amazing piece of hi-tech archaeology from Berkeley Labs, the sound of a man – possibly Édouard-Léon himself – singing ‘Au Clair de la Lune’ was recovered from one of his early experiments.

It’s a terrible recording, but this is where we started.

The only 18th Century voice

Until the clever guys at Berkeley find some other unintentional recording, the only other way to push that date back is through early recordings of older people. Recently an old Edison recording made in Germany was discovered, containing the voice of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. The recording was made in 1889 but Helmuth himself was born in 1800, making this the only opportunity we have to listen to a voice from the 18th century, to cross ‘the Great Span’ of 200 years, as Alger Hiss would have it. This recording is significantly better than the Phonautograph.

No earlier human voice exists, but acoustic archaeology may yet find a way to reconstruct accidental recordings, perhaps from a potter’s wheel or a waterline – who knows?

However, if we broaden our definition of the ‘recorded voice’ to include lyrics with melodic and rhythmic notation, we can go back further. There is an amazing sequence in Werner Herzog’s The Cave of Forgotten Dreams where an archaeologist produces a neolithic bone flute, describes the hole spacing as matching a pentatonic scale and then proceeds to play ‘the star spangled banner’ (or ‘to anacreon in heaven’ as it was once known) on a 40,000 year old instrument.

The Delphic Hymns

Although we know of a number of ancient instruments, we have little evidence of what was played on them until the first musical notation arrives. We lose the direct connection that a recording gives us and the result is much open to interpretation. The rest of these sounds are modern approximations, played on the same MIDI instrument.

There are two hymns from Delphi, including words and music, which were inscribed on marble as competition winners in ancient Greece. Below is an image of the second, followed by a recording of the first. The songs were written to Apollo by an Athenian named Athenaeus in 128 BCE.

(MIDI courtesy of wikipedia, MP3 conversion by Solmire)

The Greek Tomb

Another 100 or so years later, we get the first complete song, on a funerary monument; the Seikilos epitaph;

If we are willing to accept fragments of notation, we can go back even further.

Hurrian songs

Dating from the Bronze Age, 1400 BCE, we have the Hurrian cult hymn to Nikkal. Discovered in the Royal Palace at Ugarit (modern Syria) in the 1950s, this fragmentary cycle of songs were recorded on clay tablets. The largest surviving fragment was sung and intended to be accompanied by a stringed instrument. Indeed the tablets also include tuning instructions.

Here is a link to an interpretation on SoundCloud.