Phonographic recording signalled the first moment in history when humans were able to listen to an event whose present had already passed. These sonic documents were produced during colonial fieldwork in an ‘arrangement’ to “collect as many examples of traditional music as possible, in order to create and follow theories about the origin and evolution of music.”1 Recorded between 1893 and 1954, the wax cylinders at the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv form part of the world’s most prestigious collection of phonograph recordings.
From its outset in 1900, the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv was closely collaborating with the Museum für Völkerkunde (now the Ethnologisches Museum). The ideological starting point for that institution and its discipline was primarily formed by racial and cultural fallacies like that of evolutionism, which established itself as the most important explanatory principle of ethnology in the 19th century. Western evolutionist theory postulated that people move from primitive to highly developed cultures, producing a subdivision of ethnic groups between ‘civilised peoples’ and so-called endangered ‘primitive peoples’ who were supposed to be rescued by the former. Based on this thesis, research expeditions and the so-called ‘civilising mission’ of colonialism can be derived. In addition to the main ethnographic medium of photography, the documentation of sound was also instrumental in legitimising colonial ideology and its construction of ‘colonial truths’.
After being relocated several times in the early 20th century, the current site of the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv was opened in 1952, within the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin-Dahlem—an affluent suburb south-west of the city centre. In 1999, the collection was inscribed onto the ‘Memory of the World’, a UNESCO register that reifies a predominately European history of heritage.2 The Phonogramm-Archiv and its collection of 16,000 wax cylinder recordings will soon move into the infamous Humboldt Forum in Berlin. Concurrently, 20,000 artefacts from the archive’s ‘parent’ institution, the Ethnologisches Museum, will venture into a new permanent exhibition inside the reconstructed Berlin Palace on Museum Island. Though, not all will meet a public fate: nearly half a million objects held by the institution will remain locked up somewhere on the city’s periphery.
Here is a sound in three acts: the life and death of a wax cylinder is excavated from its suspension inside the Phonogramm-Archiv. Orbiting around one immortalised event—a field recording of the Balinese chant Kecak made by Dutch ‘ethnomusicologist’ Jaap Kunst—we examine the granularities of sound to disrupt the object’s authorship and entangle it with a decolonial methodology. Gazing into the interstices of silence and noise, we shift our attention beyond the wax cylinder’s recording of Kecak and onto the entirety of its recorded event. Through the processes of recording and listening to the sound of history, a project of sonic divergence emerges.
Phonographic recording transfers sound onto the surface of an object. Technically, this recording method is the most direct means of transferring sound onto a ‘physical support’ to ensure that its trace is reproducible. 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, whereby sound was marked onto a sheet of paper by a vibrating needle. This was, however, more of a visual representation of sound as it could not be played back. Decades later, wax quickly became a popular medium for the widespread dissemination of sound when the first commercial model of Thomas Edison’s phonograph was made available to a public audience in 1888.3 In the ‘cutting’ of a recording, a stylus inscribes grooves onto the wax cylinder’s surface as a visible transcription of the event. This method allows minimal obstruction between the vibrations of air into the phonograph’s ‘diaphragm’ and the stylus’ marking onto the wax surface. The process aims to produce the fewest possible interferences between the event recorded and its material trace. These vibrations carved onto a wax cylinder are rendered into marks that an event may leave—of both their preservation and transformation into something else. Though, the cylinder’s recording might be better understood as an entirely new event, one unlike the ‘original’ as a result of its transformation.
These ‘markings’ of sound reproduced onto the wax cylinder also have a tendency to disappear from the surface if listened to too many times. In fact, the quality and preservation of this object depends precisely on how much it is used: the more you replay it, the more it abrades. In order to ‘save’ the wax cylinder, the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv has entered into a game of (im)mortality in its method of reproduction: the so-called ‘galvano-plastic’ process made it possible to produce a negative form of the wax cylinder from copper. Through a process of galvanization, the object is coated in a conductive material and slowly rotated whilst suspended inside a copper plating solution. The speed of its rotations increase, and its charged shell thickens. However, as the copper particles attract and form a negative mold, the seventeen hour-long procedure inevitably results in the destruction of the positive form.
In the museum and archive, the original stops living. The wax cylinder knows this all too well.
Towards the end of the 20th century, the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv began a tedious process of digitizing its collection of wax cylinders. Transferring the ‘best’ reproductions or still-intact originals onto DAT cassettes, the archive’s digitization has served to revive each cylinder’s event an infinite number of times. However, this process produces further divergence.
During the wax cylinder’s transposition from analog to digital, an archivist must set the correct speed of revolution in order for the most accurate sound to be copied over. The Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv diverged from a commercial recording norm of 160 revolutions per minute (rpm), and would copy a wider range between 75 and 250. The preferred method to set the recording speed is via a pre-recorded reference tone of 435 Hz.4 However, half of the Phonogramm-Archiv’s collection is missing such a tone, so other reference points for establishing the original rpm have been sought out: transcribed notations, metronome markings, and collector’s statements heard at the start or end of a recording.5 Another common method has, at times, involved archivists themselves:
“A rough setting can be attained through indications in the documentation about the performers and the instruments that are used. However, the assessment becomes difficult in those cases where the recording is of a music culture one is not familiar with.”6
An archivist unfamiliar with the challenges of digitising a wax cylinder may, accidentally, create incidental sonic debris, such as inflections of tone and pitch that diverge the original’s recording. The re-production of histories beyond the Phonogramm-Archiv’s understanding or experience is left to the institution’s archivist who risks disrupting and creating further distance to the event during the process of digitisation.7 As two opposing technologies reckon with each other, the cylinder’s reality is translated from a physical inscription to a binary code of 0s and 1s.
During a digital sound recording, the membrane of a microphone vibrates as sound waves are received. This vibration is then transformed into an electrical impulse, interpreted by converters as binary code. The output of this process is not the sound we hear, but a very faithful imitation of an event that has been recorded. The analog recording impresses the vibration of air onto the physical surface and, while playing it back, re-stages the same vibration. By contrast, the digital recording adjudicates what is a ‘signal’ from what is ‘noise’, removing everything considered error or inaccuracy to keep the sound ‘clean’.
The phonograph’s recording—by precisely inscribing that sound wave—‘stops’ a moment in time, and with it acquires all the imprecision of its own temporality and technique. Whilst analog recording engraves the moment, its digital successor imitates it: an approximation of the original event.
A distinction between that which is analog and that which is digital: wax cylinder recordings are noted for having strong background noise. Such noises represent an inseparable part of the wax cylinder’s intention: to mark the metaphorical distance between listeners and the time-space where the recording was first produced.
To produce the possibilities of listening to an event again and again, the Phonogramm-Archiv attempts to immortalise the life of the wax cylinder. During the process, however, we diverge further from the story of its original, mechanical capture. Revolutions may falter under their own weight of change.
Today, the Phonogramm-Archiv’s collection of wax cylinders reside in an annex of the Ethnologisches Museum in Dahlem, a building constructed in the style of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) during an expansion in 1973. Before entering the building, we register ourselves with a security guard and await the arrival of the collection’s archivist. Brought through catacomb-like corridors, doors of mountainous weight and stairwells painted white with pale green lacquered handrails, we arrive at the resting place of Jaap Kunst’s wax cylinder.
Not dissimilar to other institutions, the depot we found ourselves in is an environment of conditioned circumstances. It has a temperature of nineteen degrees celsius and a relative humidity of fifty percent, a syncopated soundtrack of humming neon lights and murmurs from an air conditioner, all of which when taken together attempt to mimic a neutral space. Here, in this performatively coy room are musical instruments from gamelan orchestras, whose only emitted sounds are those of silence. Originating from the Southeast Asian islands of Bali and Java, these instruments are accustomed to a climate of high temperatures and humidity. Their primary functions were spiritual: to be played at religious rituals and ceremonies, as well as traditional performances. Now, however, the ensemble is attuned to a spiritual decay—conservational poison is used to ‘preserve’ their function for archival purposes only—inside storage within the depot of Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum.
Neighboring the gamelan storage room, the first audio recording of a Balinese Sanghyang resides here. An inventory of empty, ‘silent’ wax cylinders necessary to capture this event had been allocated to Kunst by the Phonogramm-Archiv’s then-director Erich von Hornbostel in exchange for his act of sonic collecting. These cylinders embarked on an extended journey—from Berlin to the Sunda Islands and back—as Kunst went on to produce 300 or more recordings on his trips to Indonesia, documenting musical performances and rituals. We seek arrangements for listening to this performance, and attempt to move as close to its recorded event as the wax cylinder allows.
cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak
From that moment, disease began to ease as death and illness were overcome by sheer oral percussion. To this day, the people of Bona believe that the chanting and dances in trance outside the temple walls saved the village from the epidemic. This moment also marked the emergence of Bali’s most popular dance performance: the Kecak.
In its history from a sacred to a secular chant, the most famous Kecak dancer is I Wayan Limbak from the village Bedulu. When interviewed in the 90s about the origin of Kecak, he recalls a story with a similar arc. Already in the early 19th century, before the Dutch colonization of Bali and in the era of Bali’s kingdoms, Kecak dances accompanied trance rituals, the so-called Sanghyangs. These Sanghyangs were held every year to prevent the cholera pandemic, a rite of prayer performed every night around the village that was believed to ward the disease away.
Inside the Phonogramm-Archiv, the room we’re in is just large enough for three. Monochrome, ethnographic photographs from a non-European continent decorate otherwise plain walls, while drawers are labeled by geography: ‘Afrika’, ‘Asien’, ‘Amerika’ and ‘Ozeanien’. On the table we’re led towards, a Hi-Fi receiver is connected to a pair of speakers and a myriad of playback devices for a variety of mediums—vinyl records, magnetic tape, analog audio cassettes and compact discs. We immerse ourselves into Kunst’s recording of the Kecak via the wax cylinder’s digitized successor, a DAT cassette tape.
Every transferred sound begins with a short, customary introduction which signposts from which cylinder and collection the listener is about to hear:
Es folgt die Übertragung der Walzen der Sammlung “Kunst, Bali”. Es folgt Walze 1.
[Coming up the transfer of the cylinders of the collection “Kunst, Bali”. Coming up, Cylinder 1.]
Additional materials of correspondence, provenance and consignment accompany the phonographic recording. Yellowed papers of different grammage, typesets, handwriting and signatures compose together what feel and appear as the past breaking into the present. A watermark shines through one prominent sheet: a mark which signifies the longing of its maker, towards the distant islands the sounds of these cylinders were first captured on. Another sheet of paper reveals terse descriptions of all fifteen wax cylinders recorded by Kunst in Bali:
Abridged from numbers five and six: “Sanghyang dedari. Male choir (at the end gaggling [Schnattern])”, “mostly gaggle [Geschnatter]”.
It remains uncertain who exactly wrote these descriptions. Scribed in German, the curators of the archive assure us that both the director of the Phonogramm-Archiv at the time Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and his colleague Curt Sachs were diligent in avoiding disrespectful formulations. Whoever it was, these words reprise another compression of the actual acoustic event.
Confined to this room at the Phonogramm-Archiv, one’s listening to Kecak is directly produced by the archive’s prefigured auras of hospitality and hostility: the latter feeling affected through the bureaucracies a visitor must face to be given permission to access the collection’s hold. Given the inability to revisit the recording’s original event, any act of listening to its field recording will forever reanimate the conditions in which a colonial gaze captured it. Though, in this space of re-listening, the hands of coloniality and premature technology are easily forgotten. The field recording we listen to operates not only as a narrow range of frequencies, but narrow-minded vectors of power: it comes to represent a recording of an assumed, objective reality. The DAT cassette dislocates the event of Kecak and echoes its sound further away. Is there room for narrative to diverge inside the Phonogramm-Archiv?
In recent years, the act of listening to the wax cylinder had been temporarily transposed outside of the Phonogramm-Archiv listening room—though this public display was only down the corridor.8
In 2013, as part of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem programme the exhibition Seeing Music: Lichtklangphonogramm transformed the optical and mechanical characteristics of the archive’s wax cylinder collection, producing novel installations that facilitated an alternate perception of listening. The artists behind the exhibition—Melissa Cruz Garcia, Aleksander Kolkowski, Matteo Marangoni and Anne Wellmer—produced a mixture of site-specific installations: magic lanterns that visualised a cylinder’s textural grooves, self-made ‘gramoscopes’ that hacked a gramophone’s tunnel by transforming it into a projector of light and image, and a multi-body listening booth of selected recordings from collection. Described as an artistic treatment of ethnographic material, the artists facilitated an ocular engagement with an event originally recorded as something purely sonic.9 When asked about the exhibition’s potential to inform the Humboldt Forum’s unconfirmed future display of wax cylinders, Ethnologisches Museum director Lars-Christian Koch appeared skeptical of the presence of artistic intervention within this space:
“As an ethnological museum, we have an educational mission. We are not an art museum. If we want to seriously convey what other music cultures are like, how they treat sound in their processes, how they shape sound, then the question is, how much art or artistic design we require to optimize this conveyance.”10
Koch’s hesitancy to open up room for such narratives in the space of the Humboldt Forum is unsurprising given the long-standing aversion between ethnographer and artist.11
His intention to ‘optimize’ artistic interpretation neglects the reality that both the music and cultures recorded were done so on the aforementioned colonial terms. Silencing the noise contained in these field recordings omits its glaring context from the museum’s “educational mission”, not too distant from a former ‘civilising mission’. If Seeing Music’s artistic intervention of re-interpreting the wax cylinder is not welcome at the Humboldt Forum, another means of listening must be sought out beyond the confines of the listening room. By decentering the diegetic sound of Kecak heard within this particular wax cylinder, we turn instead towards the recording’s incidental, underscored noise to listen to its other realities that were present at the time of recording.
Our ears hone in: the Dutch colonial rule of Bali began in 1849 and reached full control after two puputans (mass suicides) by the royal houses of Badung and Klungkung, in 1906 and 1908 respectively. At this juncture, a cultural policy known as Baliseering (Balinisation) was enforced to prohibit the ‘modernisation’ of Bali and maintain it as a ‘living museum’. Such realities were inaudible, beyond sound and the Phonogramm-Archiv’s collection, and stand to be heard in the noise of Jaap Kunst’s recording.
In More Brilliant than the Sun (1998), artist and theorist Kodwo Eshun advocates for a methodology that enables another kind of listening. Eshun’s alignment of Afrofuturist frequencies with jazz, breakbeat, as well early techno productions, drove him to propose a means of listening to artistic compositions outside that of Western theory and its canonical methods of analysis. Instead, he carves out an idiosyncratic guidebook for “dense personal narrations of imaginations” that emphasises an auditory experience’s material output: vinyl grooves, record sleeves and liner notes included.12
Sound artist Pedro Oliveira has framed sonic fiction’s potential through its ability to voice previously unheard stories, to modify the perception of sound and its effect/affect, in ways that are as much political as they are aesthetic.13 He writes:
“Eshun’s sonic fictions are…a means by which the subaltern speak, sound, and unfold their knowledge as theory and culture. Sonic fictions are the proposal for a radical divorce from so-called universal (metropolitan and/or Eurocentric) theories of musicology and social and cultural studies, to make room for other systems to claim their space.”15
Utilising Eshun’s methodology of sonic fiction onto the colonial artefacts in the Phonogramm-Archiv comes highly charged, however. We must first decouple artistry from artefact, renouncing Jaap Kunst—and any field recordist complicit in the archive’s creation—from the role of artist in their production of the wax cylinder’s recording. Doing so allows us to listen with the noise and not with its producer: a reminder of the place and context through which the cylinder was first inscribed, a reminder of the spatial and temporal distance between listener and event—the listening room and Bali. In other words, we decenter the ethnographer as producer and compose a means of listening beyond their control.
A step further, our interest in sonic fiction is woven and informed by Saidiya Hartman’s notion of ‘critical fabulation’: a discursive practice that deals with representing what the archive deliberately omits. In Hartman’s essay Venus in Two Acts (2008), she attempts to tell an impossible story: the account of an enslaved young girl, brutally killed whilst captive on a British slave ship. The personhood of Venus, named only once in the legal documents from the trials that followed, emerges at the very limits of the archive. Hartman’s writing is at times autobiographical, leaning into a similar empiricism to that of Eshun’s sonic fiction that reveals her authorship in (parallel to) the story of Venus. As much a counter-history as it is critical theory, Hartman welds the gaps between silence and noise. In our own undertaking, such gaps—marked between Jaap Kunst’s original recording of Kecak onto a wax cylinder and our own act of listening today—establish an opportunity to compose a historical narrative counter to that which was originally inscribed.
Woven together, a sonic fabulation is one that must tell one of many impossible stories contained within the Phonogramm-Archiv. To displace Jaap Kunst’s gaze and mediation, we drum up another imaginary. Widening the aperture for analysis beyond soundwaves alone, a sonic fabulation of the wax cylinder and other, similar objects departs from the depot and listens with the yellowed documents left behind, the broken wax seals of colonial correspondence, and the haphazard commentary made by archivists which are bundled up with preserved recordings. With each act of sonic fabulation, the wax cylinder’s suspension inside the archive might then be slowly loosened.
To tell a story ‘against’ the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv, as Saidiya Hartman might say, is to tell a story of the wax cylinder’s sonic debris. What was once consequential, the unintended and immovable residue of its mechanical recording, is felt out differently as a sense-making tool for critical ways of interpreting the sonic artefact. Turning directly towards this space in between silence and noise, other subjects for listening emerge.
Throughout the wax cylinder’s unstable course of living, revolutions may result in death. At a rate somewhere between 80 and 250 per minute, their divergence narrates its own story.