Berlin’s Erich Moritz von Hornbostel was one lucky musicologist. Unable to travel, he was aided by a Prussian emperor’s edict that required all wax cylinder music passing through the country to be brought to him. During the early 20th century, he accumulated over 16,000 of these treasures. One can only imagine what he might make of the modern era, in which one might accumulate 16,000 albums by clicking a simple button ~ no camels, tariffs or passports involved.
But wait ~ not everything is available on iTunes. The only way to encounter von Hornbostel’s famous wax cylinders is through the Berlin Phonogram Archive. Recent access was granted to Eva Pöpplein and Janko Hanushevsky (Merzouga), field recording artists in their own right. This dream-come true has resulted in a love letter to the format, a single-track collage of wax wonder, electronics, and electric bass. This is the sound of sound forgotten, left to rot, recovered and brought into the light. The source material spans the globe: tribal chant, dusty choir, speakeasy solo. Lines and pieces of lines are echoed, looped, rubbed against each other like sticks used to create fire. And all through the recording, amplified for full effect, is the sound of the cylinders themselves: crackling, warping, popping. When a rainstorm arises in the fifth minute (just after a yodel!) the effect is exquisite, layer upon layer upon layer. One thinks of the people on the recording, long dead – then the actual cylinders and the travelers being pelted by rain – then the wide eyes of the current artists and their own additions – and finally the fact that one is playing this sonic onion in one’s own home. Remarkable. In one sense, the world has gotten small enough to fit on a single disc. Conversely, the single disc opens up the world, from Egypt to Mexico, Switzerland to Samoa. One imagines this grand experiment being recorded to wax cylinder itself, stored for a hundred years, and unearthed by the next generation of musicologists, a fine fate to befall such a brave and lovely recording. (Richard Allen)