1993 "Essay in Lieu of a Sonata" San Francisco Art Institute exhibition brochure
by Paul DeMarinis
Reflections on "The Edison Effect" - a series of audio installations consisting of electro-optical devices which play ancient phonograph records with laser beams.
My title "The Edison Effect" has multiple references. It refers first to the profound and irreversible effect the invention of sound recording has had upon music, the soundscape, upon the time and place of our memory and sense of belonging. It should also call to mind Thomas Alva Edison's illicit claim to the invention of the light bulb, and his general propensity for copying and appropriation as an emblem of the inherently uncertain authorship of all recorded works.
Finally, it invokes a metaphorical allusion to the physical phenomenon known as the "Edison Effect" wherein atoms from a glowing filament are deposited on the inner surface of light bulbs causing them to darken. It was this phenomenon of thermionic emission that, when understood, made possible the invention of the "audion" or vacuum tube. This, in turn, led to the development of sound amplification as well as radio, television and the earliest digital computers. The metaphorical image of the darkening of the light is an ancient one, recurring in the I-Ching, in Mazdaism, and in Shakespeare's oxymoronic "when night's candles have burnt out". Enantiodromic reversal at the atomic level can be used to symbolize opposing primal forces and may serve to mythicize otherwise commonplace occurrences.
Edison's name and face are synonymous with invention, brilliance and technological innovation. As the modern Prometheus, he lured millions toward the light. The light bulb, commonly believed to be his consummate invention, still stands as an iconic exclamation of ideas, innovation - the stroke of genius. (1) The discovery of a potentially fatal flaw inherent in the invention - that the light-producing bulbs would themselves darken, causing them to cast shadows rather than light - was perceived by Edison to be a potential bug, a stain upon his brilliant reputation.
To compound the paradox with irony, this is the only bona fide scientific phenomenon which bears the inventor's name. Whereas other nineteenth century colossi, such as Tesla, Ampere or Volta had basic units of measure or even third world nations named after them, Edison, universally resented by the scientific community and deemed by them a charlatan and promoter, was grudgingly awarded only this obscure and obscuring "effect" to immortalize his name.
It is often the case that a new medium's first major flaw or contradiction is destined to become its dominant metaphor. The disembodying upside-downness of Della Porta's camera obscura, the shadows created by light falling on Niepce's photographic emulsion producing a "negative" image, the montage necessitated by the frailty and shortness of early celluloid film - these have become the mechanophors which convey the richness and complexity of our experience.
No less with the whole of Edison's oeuvre. Like the lightbulb, the phonograph casts its own unearthly shadows upon listening, upon our memory and our sense of time. It is the false and deceptive quality of the voice which emanates from the phonograph or gramophone, compounded by the mindless soliloquy of the broken record, which lends its root to our word "phony". The exact repetition of this falsehood ingrains itself in our memories, creating a sequence of recognition, anticipation and fulfillment which is in itself addictive and predictive. Prior to the invention of mechanical recording, references to the now commonplace phenomenon of a tune-running-thru-the-head appear absent from literature. (2)
The invention, or rather, the discovery, of sound recording and reproduction by Edison came as a shock to the entire world, the inventor included. Edison's reputation had grown as an inventor of electrical miracles - but the talking machine was a simple mechanical contrivance which could have been built successfully several centuries earlier, in plenty of time to skyrocket Bach and Mozart to international stardom.
The technological wheels had long been in spin. Beeswax, a medium with a natural propensity for capturing aromatic and sonic essences, was abundantly available. Spring driven clockwork motors with speed governors had been around since the seventeenth century. The theory that sound consisted of mechanical vibratory disturbances, held since Aristotle's time, had been quantitatively studied by Marin Mersenne, who actually recorded the vibrations of a tuning fork on the surface of brass bar before 1650.
At the time of the phonograph's gestation, Edison's legendary research team had been working furiously on three diverse electrical contraptions. One (a forerunner of our FAX machines) was a machine for copying and transmitting images. Another was a variety of recording telegraph for embossing Morse code. The third was an electro-mechanical device for amplifying voice received over telephone lines - Edison wanted to call it the "telespeacan" - although it couldn't. All three involved a threaded lead-screw moving a stylus which impinged upon a rotating drum. In retrospect, the synergistic serendipity seems obvious: a copying machine, a machine for storing words, a machine for making sounds... but it was not so at the time.
When Edison announced that he could record and reproduce human speech, he met with incredulity. Eminent authorities, including French scientist Sainte Claire de Ville, upon reading announcements of the talking machine, pronounced it a fraud and a hoax perpetrated by a concealed ventriloquist - totally phony. Either Edison's reputation for chicanery had preceded him, or there existed conceptual barriers which made the feat seem more difficult than it actually was.
Perhaps the very notion of compressing the vitality of human utterances, of squeezing the flights-of-fancy of musical invention into the unidimensional coffin of machine reproduction was abhorrent on some primal level. Or perhaps, there persisted the stubborn notion that sounds are inherently transitory and must always be synthesized or intoned-anew (3) , as in the Futurist intonarumori ( - music boxes with an agenda. ) The spirit of that doubt is lost forever. Now, as he stood in the shadow of his own reputation, Edison appeared both larger and flatter than life.
Among the cognoscenti, Alexander Graham Bell, Edison's main competitor at the time, was shocked when he heard news of the phonograph - amazed that he had not invented it himself. "It is an astonishing thing to me that I could possibly have let this invention slip through my fingers when I consider how my thoughts had been directed to this subject for so many years." (4 ) he confided. But Bell had missed by a mile - his researches had been directed toward devising mechanical models of speaking and of hearing. What Edison had created in the phonograph was a mechanical model not of hearing, but of remembering.
A dream of early phonographers was to read with their eyes the wiggly line inscribed by the needle as a lasting trace upon the wax - allowing the illiterate to write, the uncouth to compose, even the spirits of the dead to speak. Such efforts soon proved futile. (5)
The scopic impulse relentlessly afoot in western civilization appears to have been delayed by almost an epoch. If the nineteenth century had invoked sight alone to comprehend the infinity of space, ( superseding the eighteenth century's insistence that space is known by the sense of touch,) a more ancient tactile paradigm persisted in matters of memory, perhaps due to their traditional codings in the form of renaissance spatial-mnemonic systems. Until very recently - the 1980's, - the memorative act of audition still consisted of dragging a diamond stylus, fingernail-like, across a vinyl blackboard. As the needle played, it eroded the memory it touched. Ever so slightly, as the needle touched, the sounds present in the room in which it played were minutely engraved and added to the record.
Edison's earliest efforts were feeble impressions on tinfoil, easily erased by the act of playing them. Indeed, the first recording was so frail it only could reproduce once and then die. Later efforts in wax proved durable enough to be played dozens of times before the effects of the mechanism combined with the sounds in the environment would modify and erase them forever. And still each record was a unique object. The Edison laboratory's earliest cylinders of mass production were created by capturing the sound of an orchestra on twenty or more phonographs - the orchestra's output of a two minute waltz might thus amount to many hundred cylinders per day. (6)
By the turn of the century, with the advent of electroplating and gold-molding, many thousands of records could be manufactured, sold, played, enjoyed and worn out before the orchestra would need to reconvene and intone the waltz anew. The escalation of this economic exercise culminates in the digital compact disc - a consumer item whose durability is adamantine and whose relation to the original soundwaves - thus its use-value - is determined wholly by the ruling taste. The laser touches but fleetingly upon the groove, the impact of its photons abrading no material whatsoever. The rupture is complete. The emancipation of memory from touch has been fulfilled. The age of the palimpsest is over.
(c) 1992 Paul DeMarinis 1 Notwithstanding Felix-the-Cat's ectoplasmic punctuation marks - insights which could become tools of inquiry or aggression.
2 We do not know if Emily Dickinson's image of the "mind running in its groove" refers to sonic material, nor if Edison drew on her imagery for his inspiration.
3 Such synthesis implies a prior analysis. Inherent in such a notion (which persists to this day in computer music) - is the idea of physical modeling - basically, a proof that the author totally comprehends and thus dominates the system in question.
4 Cited in Douglas Kahn, Wireless Imagination, MIT Press, 1992 p.86
5 It was not until the final decades of the twentieth century that the visible traces of speech succumbed to human reading, and then by only one human, Victor Zue.
6 The fact that the several recording phonographs were spread out in the studio has made possible the excavation of primitive stereo imaging by combining two cylinders from a single "take."