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Famous voices live on through early technology

by Barbara Black

Jason Camlot's latest enthusiasm is a century-old recording of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, a leading actor of his day, performing the scene from George du Maurier's popular novel Trilby, in which the evil mastermind Svengali mesmerizes his subject, repeating his own name slowly over and over until Trilby succumbs.

For the young English professor, who is studying the impact of sound recording on literature, this item is rich in meaning. It is a rare example of the late-Victorian declamatory acting style, for one thing, but more than that, it's a vivid illustration -- both in form and content -- of the power of the spoken word.

As a child in Montreal, Camlot grew up fascinated by recording technology. After an undergraduate degree at Concordia, he did his PhD on the rhetoric of Victorian literature at Stanford University, whose excellent archive of recorded sound whetted his appetite for further research. Now he has embarked on a study of what he calls "phonopoetics," concerned with the impact of sound recording on literary production.

"When Edison invented the talking machine in 1877," Camlot explained, "he imagined it being useful and commercially viable mainly in offices, for dictation. He did not originally think of [recording] music, but focused on the spoken voice.

"Early fantasies of the technology included voice libraries of poets and statesmen, talking books, talking dolls, and the preservation of words spoken from the deathbed. That has provided interesting material for me."

Fragments of early voice recordings can be found in all sorts of surprising places. This summer, Camlot is going to Lansing, Michigan, to visit the Vincent Voice Library built up by a non-academic collector called Bob Vincent. Even Montreal has an interesting collection of recording machines (and a few cylinders, although mainly of music) in the little-known Musˇe Emile-Berliner, housed in a former recording production house in St. Henri.

Camlot/phonoThe late Victorians were fascinated by sound and technology. Camlot reminds us that Henry Higgins, Shaw's speech coach in Pygmalion (later My Fair Lady), was modeled on the actual phonologist Henry Sweet, who roamed London, writing what he heard around him in a shorthand script he had developed to reproduce the sounds of speech. Sweet also made recordings for his work on etymology, the study of the origin of words.

In the 1890s, when the technology was new, voice recordings on wax cylinders were made for their cultural and historical significance. Alfred Lord Tennyson was the literary superstar then, and he was recorded by an Edison enthusiast named Charles Steytler reading The Charge of the Light Brigade, whose opening lines ("Into the valley of death rode the six hundred") could be chanted by every British schoolchild.

Edison's agent in England, Colonel George Gouraud, collected this and other recordings of famous voices, including celebrity nurse Florence Nightingale and prime minister William Gladstone. Such recordings were played to audiences in large halls, both to advertise the new technology, and to commemorate significant historical occasions, such as the anniversaries of famous battles.

Camlot is particularly interested in this convergence of the commercial and nationalistic uses of sound recording in the early years. He is also going to England this summer to do research on Gouraud's collection.

Camlot/womanEven Queen Victoria had her voice recorded -- on the cond ition, which was fulfilled, that the recording would be destroyed after she had heard it. Majesty, as she well knew, depends on mystery.

What fascinates the scholar in Dr. Camlot is that voice recording "possesses the presence and immediacy of real speech, and yet is simultaneously 'other' and disembodied." While he is beginning at the beginning, in the late 19th century, he has much to look forward to as his project proceeds, from the earliest snippets of Tennyson and Robert Browning, to the richly evocative 20th-century performances of T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas.

Next month, Camlot will publish a book of poems, The Animal Library (DC Books). The collection includes poems inspired by his fascination with recorded voice.


Photo (right): Type-writing from phonograph dictation, an illustration from an 1888 publication on "The Perfected Phonograph," by inventor Thomas Edison.

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