You don’t need to be an au­dio­phile to ap­pre­ci­ate this art

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY MICHAEL LIND­GREN book­world@wash­ Michael Lind­gren is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to The Wash­ing­ton Post.

In 1877, Thomas Edi­son, al­ready fa­mous as an in­ven­tor and en­tre­pre­neur, used a tin­foil-cov­ered cylin­der to make a crude record­ing of him­self speak­ing the words to “Mary Had a Lit­tle Lamb.” The era of recorded sound had be­gun.

“The Art of Sound” tells only part of the story of this era, but that part is told with eye-pop­ping vis­ual beauty. Work­ing from the ca­pa­cious ar­chives at EMI, the leg­endary Bri­tish record com­pany that traces its roots to 1898, au­thor Terry Bur­rows has pro­vided a lav­ish pho­to­graphic sur­vey of au­dio tech­nol­ogy from the gramo­phone to the iPod.

Along the way, the reader learns about such mar­velous ar­ti­facts as a de­vice that plays records made of choco­late; the gramo­phone that Robert Fal­con Scott took to the South Pole in 1910 (the gramo­phone sur­vived, Capt. Scott did not); and an Army-green suit­case unit “for use in war zones where there was no ac­cess to a power sup­ply.”

If you’re an au­dio­phile of a cer­tain age, a full-page color photo of an orig­i­nal SONY Walk­man circa 1979 is a po­tent madeleine. You can al­most feel the rub­bery give of the play but­ton un­der your thumb and hear the thump and hiss of a killer mix tape start­ing up. The book’s an­cil­lary ma­te­rial, a trove of al­bum cov­ers and record com­pany cat­a­logues, make up a stun­ning vis­ual his­tory of mod­ernist graphic de­sign at its mid­cen­tury peak: all those swoop­ing art deco flour­ishes, all that snazzy ty­pog­ra­phy.

Vi­su­als aside, though, a cer­tain in­co­her­ence hov­ers over the project. Be­neath the avalanche of im­ages lies an oddly sim­plis­tic con­cep­tion of how tech­nol­ogy evolves. For one thing, “The Art of Sound” largely presents the pro­gres­sion of au­dio tech­nol­ogy as lin­ear and in­evitable, an un­stop­pable march to­ward a tri­umphal dig­i­tal utopia, rather than a messy zigzag of false starts and lucky ac­ci­dents. It dis­plays what schol­ars of the his­tory of tech­nol­ogy would call the fal­lacy of tech­no­log­i­cal de­ter­min­ism. Sound to­day is in­fe­rior, as it hap­pens, to its late-1970s ana­log peak. A true afi­cionado will tell you that no CD or MP3 will ever sound as good — as dry and warm and de­tailed — as a vinyl LP by, say, Steely Dan play­ing on a high-qual­ity stereo with good speak­ers.

“The Art of Sound” is in­evitably light on the dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion and all its rapidly mul­ti­ply­ing ram­i­fi­ca­tions. Based as it is on the ar­chives of EMI, a com­pany that the In­ter­net and Ap­ple ef­fec­tively de­stroyed, Bur­rows’s nar­ra­tive lurches, like the for­tunes of the cor­po­ra­tion it shad­ows, to an abrupt end. There is some­thing poignant about the fourth-to-last page, which is noth­ing more than an im­age of lo­gos for Spo­tify, SoundCloud and Mys­pace.

In this re­spect, “The Art of Sound” shades into the meta-top­i­cal, be­com­ing it­self an ex­am­ple of the very ob­so­les­cences it so lov­ingly doc­u­ments.


ABOVE: A record­ing stu­dio, circa 1900. The “mouth” of the record­ing horn faced the mu­si­cians or singers, and at its other end, a sty­lus cut the mas­ter gramo­phone disc. LEFT: A royal mi­cro­phone, used when mem­bers of the Bri­tish royal fam­ily were called upon to ad­dress the na­tion or an­other large gath­er­ing. They also had their own per­son­al­ized mi­cro­phones.

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