Waxing eloquent about eloquent wax


One of the 2004 recordings that hasn’t ever strayed far from my iPod playlist or the CD player in my “office” is Deathprod’s Morals and Dogma from that ever-plucky bastion of Nordic excellence Rune Grammofon. I’m a fairly serious fan of Supersilent, the Norwegian improvisatory ensemble which counts Helge Sten (that’s Mr. Deathprod to you) as one of its members, and have foisted their divine fifth release (called simply 5, with pieces named 5.1, 5.2, etc. to avoid any title referents) on many unsuspecting friends and radio listeners. The first place I’d heard the name Deathprod was on a remix disc of Norwegian electroacoustic pioneer Arne Nordheim that he’d done along with Geir Jenssen (Biosphere). In fact, I was so not-disappointed with the big, dark, wet slabs of hovering weave I’d heard before that I decided to spring for Deathprod, a “box set” version that includes the new disc, two long out-of-print recordings from the early 90s, and a disc of unreleased early work. You can’t fault either Sten or Kim Hiorthoy’s design for being too busy-a lovely black box full of lovely black digipacks with just enough information (in the helpful book) to help you tell them apart and identify which disc is which.That’s how the wax cylinder recording came drifting back into my life.

The aforementioned out-of-print Imaginary Songs from Tristan de Cunha featured some exotic sonic treatments which, on some investigation, turned out to be Hardanger fiddler and longtime Deathprod pal Ole Henrik Moe’s work transferred to wax cylinder and then played back for that great turn-or the-century-before-last sound.

Evocative of what I might imagine faraway Tristan de Cunha to sound like and properly faux ethnographic ‘n spooky? You betcha. It got me thinking right away about the proper collection of pluggo plug-ins to recreate the effect (wasteband to really brick-wall the frequency response, and warble for that special wobble? I’m open to suggestions).

Of course, there are other artists who, like Sten, have simply gone to the source and recorded their own wax cylinders. They Might Be Giants “I can hear you” from Factory Showoom came to mind right away (recorded at the Edison Studios in darkest Nueva Jersey). And there’s also the Music Tapes1st Imaginary Symphony for Nomad, too. You can hear a snatch of it here at Artist Direct.

But what about the real thing? Those neat historical artifacts? Another triumph for the New Flattened Information Space! Tinfoil.com is a veritable treasure trove of old performances, vaudeville routines, recitations (William Jennings Bryan, anyone?) Morse Code transmissions (apparently about Jack Johnson), and so on. My personal favorite would have to be the “Esquimaux Dance”, a piece written for clarinet, piano, anvil, and dog that appears to date from the 1890s. There’s even an article on hints and tips for Wax Cyclinder recording at home.

But the coolest thing I discovered while cyberrummaging is that a bunch of researchers have turned their attention to using scanning technologies for the purpose of working to restore old and extremely fragile wax cylinder recordings. You can find a PDF of a paper about their work here.