What else if not a wax cylinder?

Edi Danartono Ollie George Ekaterina Golovko
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Berlin-Dahlem, Phonogramm Archiv, 28 August 2020

On the first grey August morning, we travelled to the Phonogramm Archiv in Berlin Dahlem to “visit” a wax cylinder that contains the first sound recording of kecak, a Balinese dance and music drama developed in the 1930s. Recorded by Dr. Friedrich Dalsheim during the production of the ethnographic movie Insel der Dämonen [“island of demons”] in 1931, it marks the genesis from a sacred trance ritual to a secular chanting performance. Held within Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum (then called the Museum für Völkerkunde), the Phonogramm Archiv contains more than 16,000 original phonographic recordings, textual and photographic documents, as well as other historical recordings and playback devices. Grey clouds reminded us where we were, marking a gap between the imaginative place of recording – Ubud on the tropical island Bali – and our physical location in the outskirts of Berlin.

The establishment of relations (or, at least the interaction) with objects and documents held in a collection forms the basis for archival research. In our case, this was the specific wax cylinder that stored the recording in the phonograph cylinder collection of the Ethnologisches Museum. However, we could not access the artifact due to the collection’s ongoing move from the depot in Dahlem to the new Humboldt Forum on Museum Island in Mitte.

Listening to the sounds and reading through the associated documents made it clear that we needed to find a linkage between the object we could not see and the circumstances that produced this recording. The embedded sound of the wax cylinder and storage of its form inside the archive represent two key aspects that should be addressed while thinking about the history of documentation of kecak, or the intangible at large.

Recording a wax cylinder

Phonographic recording is a technique that allows the transfer of sound onto the surface of an object. As the sound is nothing but movement, its recording creates a displacement of air propagated by waves and can be compared to a shockwave that is impressed onto the surface. The sound can thus be propagated onto a variety of materials: metal, wood, liquid, string or wax, for example. The choice of surface is key in the determination of the recording’s sound quality and tonal characteristics.

The first ever phonographic recording was made with ink. The sound was marked onto a sheet of paper by a vibrating needle; it was in some sense more of a visual representation of the sound than a phonograph recording, as it could not be reproduced. Wax cylinders embed the grooves visible to the eye in a physical transcription of the recording onto the wax surface. The sounds carved onto an object offer a productive metaphor for the traces events may leave, of their conservation and their transformation into something else.

From a technical point of view, phonographic recording is the most direct way to transfer a sound onto a ‘physical support’ and ensures that the sound is reproducible. This method to record sound has very few obstacles between the actual sound and its physical marking on the surface of the cylinder. The recording is the result of the needle scratching across the wax surface that aims to produce the fewest possible interferences and mediation between the situation and its material embodiment.

The big difference between analog and digital is that analog recording engraves the moment, while digital imitates it. Digital recording and digital reproduction is an imitation of an event that happened; the phonographic engraving is not an imitation because the analog recording, by precisely using that sound wave , impresses the event onto a surface and thus captures a moment with all the inaccuracies and errors of that specific moment. The digital – instead by imitating – removes everything that is considered error or inaccuracy. Phonograph recording is a momentum.

The sound that we hear on a wax cylinder has strong background noises that can be understood as signals that mark the metaphorical distance between the listener and the time-space where the recording was produced. These noises of the mechanical recording are both part of the event that was recorded and the moment of listening.

The physicality of the sound reproduced on the wax cylinder is also embodied in its tendency to disappear from the surface if listened to too many times. In fact, the quality and the survival of this object depends precisely on how much it is used: the more you replay it, the more it frays. In this sense, listening to the ephemeral material of the cylinder is an excellent metaphor for the moment that is moving away. The more you listen to it, the more that moment becomes vaguer and less decisive: disturbances, inaccuracies and noises take over. The digital instead idealizes an event in a ‘perfect’ form that does not change over time.

Phonographic recording signaled the first moment in history when humans were able to listen to an event whose present had already passed through exclusively technical mediation. This relationship and perception of sound events has shaped the sonic perception of the past: a scratched, disturbed sound. A phonographic recording, photograph or manuscript are objects that tend to ‘vanish’ over time and create distance between the listener-viewer and the source event.

Archiving a wax cylinder

Preserving an object that cannot be used for its purpose is quite common for archival or museum practices. The object is transformed from something that has a purpose into a relic to be admired. What do we preserve when we conserve a wax cylinder? Is it that moment that was immortalized, or the memory of that moment? Here, the wax cylinder is an ideal metaphor of memory. The more time passes, the more its form blurs and the more disturbances it produces. The cylinder is a rhythmical repetition to a limited number of times of the lived moment that was recorded. In order to save the phonographic recording, we need to digitalize it. The digitalization of this memory helps to revive the moment, an infinite number of times. While saving the moment and giving us the possibility to listen to it an infinite number of times, it also takes us further from the moment immortalized by the mechanical recording.

Thinking more and more about this specific wax cylinder takes us to the idea that by preserving this object we are actually preserving the fact that a European man went to Bali and made this recording. We are preserving his experience and courage, as well as his ability to bring back a ‘trophy’. In the museum or archive, the ‘original’ stops living – in our case quite literally. The original wax cylinders were first galvanized, a method with which a negative of the cylinder could be made from copper. With the copper negatives you can still make copies today, but the production of the electroplating inevitably results in the destruction of the original. The sound is preserved over the long term, the troubling murmurs and hisses of the past fade away.

“When men die, they enter into history. When statues die, they enter art. This botany of death is what we call culture”, says the movie by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker (1953). This bringing back of artifacts is an act of dying. Western museums celebrate these dying objects by keeping them behind glass or sequestrated inside storage, depriving them of their voices, and an ability to speak for themselves. However, this is not the only possible way to deal with the intangible.

What else if not a wax cylinder?

Throughout European history and culture, archiving has been made equal to the possession of a physical object and the storage of that object somewhere (i.e. in a museum or state archive). This condition is characteristic of the West’s material approach to culture and knowledge that orders a physical proof of existence. Such an approach is diametrically opposed to that of so-called oral cultures, of those not based on written or material matter for transmitting and conserving knowledge. This epistemic divide is crucial for the re-thinking and re-imagining of archives. Should the immaterial and intangible be stored? How and where should it be embodied?

As a visual and metaphoric example of such, a natural storage can be understood via the ‘tree’, and tree-as-archive as it is depicted in the feature-length film Fad’jal (1979) by the Senegalese filmmaker Safi Faye. Faye’s ethnographic fiction depicts her native village situated in the Sine-Saloum region of Senegal. The near two hour-long film shows the life of the village through its agricultural, spiritual and collective activities. Faye’s point of view and privileged access to the village gives her a possibility to observe and document the village’s life in a form of negotiating ethnographic filmmaking, and an insider’s meditation on familiar events. Faye shows how villagers work in the fields, produce salt, give birth and bury their peers, as well as how knowledge transmission is practiced.

The movie begins with a scene in the village school where children are re-sharing to their class the story of Louis XIV, emperor of France. This scene is the only representation of formal education and its role for the people of the village. While children repeat the lesson, their manner of speaking and postures show that there is no way they can relate to this obscure figure: “Louis XIV était le plus grand roi de France. On l’appelait le roi Soleil. Sous son règne fleuraient les lettres et les arts.”[1] The scene ends as the lesson does, with the view of the children leaving their classroom. Shot from inside, we see a fixed image of children running to the school’s courtyard, leaving this space of imposed and constricted knowledge. Faye never takes us back to the school during the film’s remainder – it does not seem to be a generative place for her narrative. Together with the church, Faye shows these elements of the present that cannot be overlooked, whether we like it or not. The colonial history is not the main interest of Faye, but it cannot be disregarded if an overall picture of the village is to be attempted. The school and the church are two closed spaces and built environments that can be contrasted with the other open locations of the film.

The movie represents a sketch of the village’s life and maintains a narrative framing throughout. Faye focuses on oral history and in particular its transmission and appropriation. This thematic thread is focused onto a group of young boys – mostly adolescents – who gather around their maam (grandparent or elder in Wolof) and listen to the history of Fad’jal, the place they belong and inhabit. The story is divided into several parts and alternates with the other visual scenes of the movie. Finally, in order to close the discursive circle of the film, Faye shows the scene where the children gather around the kapok tree and start re-telling the story. This polyphonic narration shows how they feel to belong to this history in their roles not only as listeners, but also its narrators. The elder is not there, his role in their narration had been fulfilled. The young boys are now bearers of the history and will take it further with them. In this final scene, we observe how a young generation enters into the possession of knowledge and its embodiment through voice.

The storytelling experience takes place under big trees that offer shadow and protection to the elder and boys. The first scene shows them under a large baobab tree, in other occasions a kapok tree, or even places where several trees unite. This ‘under the tree’ space marks a central point of knowledge transmission to those who are interested or present. Faye depicts a clear-cut contrast between the formal schooling exported to Senegal by France, and the intrinsic oral history that endures. ‘Under the tree’ space is simultaneously protected and open, where whoever is interested can ‘walk in’. This is a place where sounds from the village interfere with the narration of history, in contrast to the closed space of a school; in one of the scenes, the elder stops speaking because sounds of music reach them. The life of the village, its present and its past are clearly linked in the images of Faye, as well as in the soundscape created by the filmmaker.

Still from Fad’jal, Safi Faye (1979)

The movie constitutes the image of the tree as a place of knowledge, a place of transmission and protection. It makes us think of archives and their intangible counterparts: the ‘under the tree’ space correlates with the integration of this history and its typology of knowledge production with the surrounding environment – it is harmonically part of it. The sound of the elder’s voice is not enclosed and can be heard by anyone passing by or interested to join. At several arms length, the colonial institutional spaces such as the village school are instead the space of containment, as defined by Fanon, contributing to the spatial compartmentalization of the colonial world:

“The colonial world is a compartmentalized world. It is obviously as superfluous to recall the existence of “native” towns and European towns, of schools for “natives” and schools for Europeans, as it is to recall apartheid in South Africa.” – The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon, p. 3 (1961)

Faye reveals the epistemic compartmentalization that is also present in Fad’jal where different worlds co-exist. She presents a magisterial praise of orality and its role for the society at large, illustrated via ‘under the tree space’ as a symbolic and metaphoric archive of immaterial and intangible knowledge production, preserved within the village society. The openness of the tree and its ability to embrace everything that is told and shared among listeners is another reality compared to the world of closed, classified and categorized archives that inhibit access without special invitation or authorization. Faye’s image of the tree remains guidant in the idea of alternative archives: open, shared, and unrestricted by the walls and constrictions of buildings.

This contribution was developed in the framework of the Whole Life Academy as part of the workshop “Archive for the Eleventh Hour”.

  1. Louis XIV was the greatest king of France. He was called the Sun King. Under his reign letters and the arts flourished. 

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