Centuries Of Sound is a blog that launched in January of 2017 with an intriguing mission: to chronicle the history of recorded sound by releasing a mixtape of recordings from every year since its invention. The project’s creator, a sound-editing hobbyist by the name of James Errington, went beyond Thomas Edison’s famous “Mary Had A Little Lamb” recording in 1878 and started way back in 1859 with an invention known as the phonautograph, which transposed sound waves onto sheets of parchment. The contraption had no means of playing back the sound, however, and it wasn’t until 2012 that researchers would decode the recordings. For this first chapter in the history of sound, Errington has combined nine of these primitive, eerie recordings into a two-minute mix, accompanied by a story from the radio show Studio 360 about the restoration process that brought them to life.
From there, the blog jumps ahead to 1878 and Edison’s invention of the phonograph, the first machine capable of both recording sound and playing it back. It starts with an attempted recording from atop the elevated railroad that used to run through Manhattan, the results of which are nothing more than spooky, scratchy wind sounds. That’s followed by voices Edison captured at the Schenectady Museum in 1878, recordings that were meant as the basis for a talking clock, the recitation of a soliloquy from Hamlet, and what sounds like the first recorded swear word, as an engineer lets out “Oh fuck” after a phonograph malfunctions while he’s recording “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”
Things get a little more listenable in 1887 with a recording of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” It’s also with this third mix that we start to get a sense for Centuries Of Sound’s editing style, as speeches start to be layered over musical performances, creating a listening experience that’s as pleasurable as it is educational. Errington’s posts dedicated to individual years start with 1889 and have, so far, progressed through 1892.
Amid all this, Errington calls attention to the issue of representation, as one of his primary goals is to paint a global, multi-cultural picture of recording history. Despite the musical innovations happening all over the world during this period, the surviving recordings present a pretty narrow document: “marching bands, sentimental ballads, novelty instrumentals and nothing much else,” he wrote. And to give you an idea of the scope he’s seeking as the project forges into the 20th century, he’s put out a call for experts in “Rembetika, early microtonal recordings, French political speeches, Tagore songs or anything else.” You can get a taste of that diversity through the first big mix he ever published to the blog, a massive two-hour compilation of sounds and music from 2016.