The aural time traveler

by Charlie Huenemann

GrafonolaSome years back my musicologist friend introduced me to the charming world of gramophones. (A brief history may be in order: before there were iPods and YouTube, there were CDs; before that, there were vinyl records, still very much in vogue among hipsters today; and before that – from roughly 1895 to 1950 – there were thick and heavy shellac records that were to be played at 78 revolutions per minute. That's what I'm talking about. Wikipedia, of course offers a much longer history.) I became an enthusiast on the spot, and we formed the Logan Gramophone Society, which meets on secret dates set to the lunar calendar, and involves scones, tea, and fezzes. Our university's music department has a veritable treasure trove of old records which supplies us with an inexhaustible supply of the quirky, the charming, and the incredible.

The earliest recordings were made before there were any amplifiers, let alone mixers or equalizers. Recording artists played into a horn, and some mechanism translated their sound waves into a wavy line scratched into wax. (We should all devote a moment to marveling at the fact that the sound of a singer accompanied by strings and tuba can all get squashed into a single wavy line.) That wavy line was then wrapped into a spiral and stamped upon many shellac disks, which were sold through record stores. Consumers would then buy the discs, take them home, place them upon their turntables, and place a needle at one end of the spiral, and send the disc into motion. Then the whole process would reverse itself: the wavy lines would vibrate the needle, and those vibrations would be sent out the horn for all to enjoy.

The point is that the sound travels from producer to consumer without ever disappearing into some electronic circuit to be changed or shaped. Jascha Heifetz plays his violin into a horn, those vibrations become scratches, those scratches become vibrations, and I hear Heifetz play. Everything is on the surface; nothing ever goes into a black box. I am one step away from direct, physical connection to Heifetz, as I would be if I handled his bow or tried on his hat. It is a form of aural time travel.

MechanismI can easily access every component of my circa 1920 Columbia Grafonola. The only complicated parts are in the wind-up mechanism that spins the platter. You crank up the old gramophone, and the energy is stored in a steel spring, which dispenses the energy gradually over time to the spinning platter. Nothing needs to be plugged in to anything. The structure which transforms the wavy lines into sound is simplicity itself: a steel needle transfers its vibrations to a thin sheet of mica – think eardrum – and that sheet is at one end of a tube which extends down the tone arm and into a flared horn, which is where most of the sound comes out. (Actually, the sound leaks out all over the place, which explains some of the scratchy, hissing noises.) At the big end of the horn are two wooden slats which can be opened or closed to control the volume.

Several years ago I brought my gramophone to an elementary school. I explained all this, as best I could, and the kids were utterly fascinated. (I lost a bit of credibility when I claimed there was a time before computers, which they regarded as patent nonsense.) They were especially fascinated by the large, shiny, black discs. “How many songs does one hold?” they asked. “Well … two,” I said, “one on this side and one on the other.” “No way!” they cried. And then – strangely – they all suddenly wanted gramophones. The fact that a disc held just two songs sent them into utter fascination. I don't know, but I think what was so appealing was the fact that you could look at the disc and see the song – it was right there, nothing hidden – and there was no hidden magic standing between them and it. Kids like that kind of tangibility, that immediacy of connection. Who doesn't?

“Valse” from Serenade for String Orchestra (Tschaikowsky, Op. 48), Jascha Heifetz, Victrola Records.