Monday, 12 March 2012
QEDcon: Sarah Angliss - Voices of the Dead
Sarah Angliss makes robots and is a historian of sound technology. She completed a number of visual and audio demonstarions during her talk. To see the performace at the end of her talk please skip to the bottom of this post.
In 1933 Howard Flynn heard a dead woman speak in his company store room when he found a tube lying undisturbed in a box. The cylinder, covered in mildew, was the type used in an Edison Phonograph to play sound. It turned out to be the long lost voice of Florence Nightingale recorded in 1880.
In scientific American, an advert reported a device which will enable the voices of the dead to be heard. The technology was young and they didn't quite understand a use for it T this stage. Looking back at the marketing, it's now clear that they were looking for a quick fix to market the device.
An excerpt from the recording of Florence Nightingale is played for us. It says "when I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life." she had interest in the idea that her voice would survive after her.
But the "killer app" was not in recording your voice for it to survive your death, but in music.
We had a demonstration of recording something on a phonograph. A new head and wax cylinder was used to record the voices of two members of audience. This was played back and the audience members sounded very similar to Florence Nightingale.
When you hear a recording made with a phonograph, there is a strange sound and timbre. Many of the Victorian stereotypes come from these artefacts. But they most likely sounded very different from their recordings.
Believers in paranormal phenomenon used the phonograph to try and communicate with the dead. But sound recordings were also used in wonderful ways. People could travel the World and bring back recordings from the source.
We listened to a new recording. It sounded human but very odd. It turned out to be a seal named "Hoover". The seal learned the sounds of humans. He was found and looked after in swimming pool, raised by humans. Recording sounds very human. Seals are primed to imitate.
We are then introduced to the idea of teaching bird songs to sing. There was an industry of books and Recorders (musical istrument) that focused on teaching birds songs. These songs were written for birds to learn.
But is this really possible? In the 1950s a study was done but the bird didn't learn anything. But birds can learn tunes but perhaps not that complex.
Sparky Williams, the worlds most talented budgie, spoke 500 words allegedly. But was this in fact a case of ventriloquism?
The talk finishes with a live performance using a Theremin, bells, and a disembodied ventriloquist's dummy head...