From: Patent Tactics, George Brock-Nannestad
My wishes for a Happy New Year 2009 to ARSCLIST readers draw on
events 101 years ago that were commemorated a few weeks ago.
To those who also subscribe to the MUS-PERF-REC list I need to say that
1) they have already received a new year's greeting from me
2) the present account is only slightly revised with respect to that
A short account of a colloquium 8-9 December 2008 in Paris, France.
This list is concerned with recorded sound and for that we need sound
archives. The present account refers to an event that did more than any other
event to place the idea of sound archives in the mind of the general public,
not just in the minds of researchers and their institutions. Today we take
sound archives for granted, but the whole sound archive movement would not
have received any attention in practice, if one particular event had not
occurred: the sealed deposit in December, 1907 of important shellac records and
instructions for a gramophone in the vaults below the Paris Opera house. They
were intended to remain untouched for 100 years, and they have essentially
survived to this day.
Apart from advertising the Gramophone Company this public event was the best
advertisement the sound archive idea could get, and it was spoken of far
outside scientific circles. Scientific sound archives had been created in
Vienna and in Berlin, but the general public did not care much. This event
actually depositing original materials in lead caskets that were not to be
opened for 100 years spoke to the public imagination. It also represented the
first intended time-capsule of commercial sound records. And it was an
inspiration to funding bodies all over the world to "go and do likewise".
This actually happened, if you look in the right places.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF) had invited specific speakers (and
free entry for an audience) to participate in a colloquium to commemorate
this deposit in 1907 of leaden caskets containing commercial records. It had
been repeated in 1912 with a new selection as well as a complete horn
All of the caskets or "Urnes" had been opened before the colloquium, except
for two that are left untouched for posterity. I had already commemorated the
event in May, 2007 by presenting a paper in Vienna (contained in Convention
Preprint 7007 from the Audio Engineering Society), and my mention of a
content of asbestos in the Urnes had the consequence of making the opening
process much more laborious for safety reasons.
The colloquium was essentially in French, and it was structured as one day of
facts surrounding the deposit, opening, extraction of content, historical
facts, sound archiving as such, and one day of analysis of content:
performance practice, influence on composers and performers. The latter day
took place in a salon in Opéra Garnier.
A publication will eventually emerge in the form of a proceedings.
The first morning session was moderated by media researcher Ludovic Tournès
and comprised a discusssion between those who moved the Urnes in 1989 from
the opera house to the BnF and a documentation by Elizabeth Giuliani and
Pierre Vidal (BnF) of the two ceremonies in 1907 and 1912, with the wishes
expressed in the bequeathal document by Alfred Clark as a guide to the
colloquium. For the 1912 session, the official speech by Firmin Gémier had
been pre-recorded and enclosed as a test pressing in one of the Urnes.
The second session was dedicated to the actual content and handling of the
Urnes. My responsibility was to discuss the state of the art of recording and
reproduction in 1907.
My paper essentially wanted to give several pieces of information, while
documenting them with views of original papers.
One line of approach was Alfred Clark, the real cause why we were there,
who was very dissatisfied with the Head Office (Birnbaum and Trevor Williams,
but in particular Birnbaum), and he left the Cie. Francaise in January 1908,
just after his success!! He did not return until late that year, after a
change at the Head Office recommended by Eldridge R. Johnson who was a friend
of Alfred Clarks. I played a small part of a speech he had recorded 20 years
after the event.
The second line was that of the competition - I had promised BnF to
discuss in some detail also Pathé and their differing technology.
The third line was the way that this cultural phenomenon was marketed,
using all available advertising techniques to demonstrate how prestigious the
Gramophone record was. And I put the deposit of the Urnes into that
The fourth line was the actual manufacture of records, drawing on so
much supporting industry.
The fifth line was that although the artistes were very satisfied and
impressed with their own records (demonstrated in their letters of
recommendation), Mr. Clark was not satisfied with the quality of the
recording, and he complained very much to the Head Office and several reports
on how to improve the quality were written before 1907. I demonstrated a few
of the visual problems, but Alfred Clark also had complaints about the sonic
This is so much information in a very complex structure, and I had to
condense a series of lectures that would take a whole day into -- 25 minutes!
I chose to do it by presenting very many pictures very quickly, putting them
in context by comments.
Thi-phuong Nguyen, a scientist from the conservation department of the BnF,
took us through the composition of the Urnes and of the records inside,
having had access to the best spectrographic techniques needing only minute
amounts of material.
The group of people engaged in the actual opening of the Urnes and the
unpacking of the content lasting several months then spoke about the
procedure and showed a video resume of all the precautions taken to avoid
contact with asbestos that had been used to insulate the content when the
lids were soldered to the Urnes before evacuation. The 1907 Urnes had been
much better protection for the content than the 1912 Urnes.
A round-table on modern techniques for extracting the signals from these
century-old records ended the morning, moderated by Daniel Zalay from the
Paris Conservatoire. The modern techniques were all optical, according to
three different principles that were addressed by Jean-Hugues Chenot of INA,
Ottar Johnsen of the Fribourg (Switzerland) Technical University, Peter Alyea
of the Libray of Congress, and Luc Verrier of the BnF, all following an
overview of the field by myself. Apart from hearing sounds emanating from the
modern optical methods, some still in the development phase, we were also
treated to an acoustical gramophone playing a (later) pressing of one of the
The afternoon session started with a paper by Pekka Gronow on
commercialisation and discometrics, ending with a quest for "lost children";
records that were known from contemporary catalogues, but which have not been
seen by modern people. The presentation was in English, but a paper version
had been ably prepared by Xavier Sené (BnF).
Chris Clark of the British Library spoke about some early attempts to
interest the British Museum in sound recordings; it turned out that they
would only accept metalwork (matrices), and these were given over a range of
years to the British Library. There were several rounds of donation, and in
the discussion afterwards I was able to inform the audience and Chris (via my
research at the EMI Music Archives) that the Leo Tolstoy recordings
demonstrated were deposited as late as 1919. Chris Clark's paper in an
English version is available from:
and click on "Gramophone and the BM.doc", a download of 7MB.
Rémi Jacobs, retired executive of EMI Classics in France contributed a few
words and announced that EMI was going to issue a complete set of re-
recordings of the Urnes-material on CDs early 2009.
Mathias Auclair from the BnF and the Musée de l'Opéra and Aurélien Poidevin
of Université Paris VIII gave us an insight into the commercial recording
activities (some of them live) of the Paris opera during the long directorship
(1914-45) of Jacques Rouché.
The afternoon ended with a presentation by Thomas Ledoux and Jérôme Dupont of
the IT department of the BnF on modern ways of ensuring long storage life of
contemporary sonic content. The audience was not entirely convinced.
The second day took place in the Salon Florence Gould at the Opéra Garnier.
It was dedicated to the cultural content of the Urnes and during the times
they were deposited. This was truly taking the recorded document as evidence
for performance style.
Yves Gérard from the Paris Conservatoire spoke about recordings of and by
Camille Saint-Saëns who was well represented in the Urnes and on piano rolls.
He had found 40 versions of "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix", and he
demonstrated how innovative Saint-Saëns actually was.
Frédéric Lemmers discussed the considerable influence of Belgian artists on
the operatic stage in Paris of the turn of the last century, several of whom
were represented in the Urnes.
It was unavoidable (but also necessary) to present Gaston Leroux's "Le
Fantôme de l'Opéra", and this was concisely done by Guillaume Fau of the BnF,
read by Elizabeth Giuliani.
Antoine Hennion, Head of sociology research at l'École des Mines gave us a
fundamental discussion of the changes ("mutations") of musical content in the
last century and the loss of the legitimacy of classical music. Both the
concepts and their treatment were very thought-provoking.
The afternoon started with a discussion of the artists and their performances
on the selection of records found in the Urnes. Obviously, to hear them all
would have been magnificent, but we were given a thorough discussion of six
of them from the two years of deposit, and compared to more modern
performances of the same arias. This huge perspective was drawn by François
Le Roux, well-known performer (baritone) and vocal coach and it was an eye
opener to the general audience. The record collectors present would have
known at least the historic sounds already. Among the differences discussed,
the absolutely well-controlled effect of register change (from head to chest)
was demonstrated and contrasted with the modern way of equalising the two.
The day ended with a dialogue between two performers from the French stage,
Pascal Dusapin and Benjamin Lazar, who discussed in particular the similarity
between spoken voice and song and made an interesting reference to Yvette
Guilbert's delightful book "L'Art de chanter une chanson". There are some
things that do not change. We were also treated to a live performance by
Lazar (without microphone) of a piece from "Cyrano de Bergerac" in old
French, to demonstrate this.
At the end we heard again the momentous words spoken on the test pressing
from the 1912 deposit by Mr. Firmin Gémier, theatrical producer and
All in all it was both a very symbolic and informative colloquium, and those
of us who live to a ripe old age may look forward to a repeat in 2107. Most
certainly the content of the original urns will be safe (if they do not fall
from the 17th floor they are presently stored on). What happens to younger
material remains to be seen.
A lot of the images and sonic content relating to the Urnes has been made
available by the BnF as a virtual exhibition in French on:
P.S. I have used the expression "Urnes" all the way, because it conveys the
strange presence of French past.
the above text Copyright (c) 2008 George Brock-Nannestad
(sorry about that!)