Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Good Doctor


"Any musical value heard [in the cylinder recording] can be charitably described as the product of a pathological imagination."

This is musicologist Gregor Benko's remark about the nearly impenetrable noise on a very famous recording of Johannes Brahms playing the piano in 1889 at the home of Dr. Richard Fellinger in Vienna. Thomas Edison was sending emissaries to record the voices of famous people for use as advertisements. This wax cylinder was made for Edison by Theo Wangemann. Scholars have strained to analyze the rhythmic nuances of the recording's too-few measures of the 1879 arrangement of the first Hungarian Dance, and part of a paraphrase of Strauss's "Libelle". And many a lover of Brahms has gleefully imitated the introduction at the start of the cylinder:

"I am Dr. Brahms ... Johannes Brahms."

What a surprise! A strangely startling voice from the great, autumnal philosopher himself ...

But, perhaps not.

"The spoken text at the start of the cylinder recording has been wrongly attributed as belonging to Brahms. Numerous writers, scholars and amateurs alike, have presumed that Brahms introduces himself with the words "I am Doctor Brahms, Johannes Brahms". However a number of factors raise serious doubts as to who is speaking. The only mention of the recording by someone who was present (in the published memoires of Fellinger's son) states that Brahms was introduced. Considering the time between the announcement and the start of the music it seems improbable that the same person could segue from speech to playing so quickly particularly given the technological limitations.
The denoised excerpts reveals enough of the speech to suggest that the speaker (probably Wangemann) introduces Brahms as follows:

"...Dezember Achtzehnhundertachtundneunzig. Haus von Herrn Doktor Fellinger, bei mir ist Doktor Brahms, Johannes Brahms".

("...December Eighteen Hundred Eighty Nine. House of Mr. Fellinger, with me is Doctor Brahms, Johannes Brahms.")


Read about the playing and the talking, and the man who has painstakingly denoised the cylinder here.

3 comments:

8H Haggis said...

I have done my own deconstruction of the Brahms cylinder, using an entirely different process for removing noise, crackles, and distortion, and for clarifying the detail; and in MY version, everything is considerably clearer than the example you have given here on your webpage. It seems to me that the assumption that the first spoken phrase is the date given in German is likely wrong, as there may not be the required number of syllables uttered -- though I am at a loss as to precisely WHAT is being said. Then a second voice *perhaps* speaks in German - or possibly English - and indeed "Fellinger" may be discerned. But is it "house" or "haus" or "aus"? One cannot quite tell. The voice continues, and again it is speculation and bias that leads one to conclude with ANY certainty that German words, or English words, introduce Brahms (is it "bei" or "I"? The shape of consonants is ill-defined, even with effective noise reduction.) So, after many hours of repeatedly listening to these snippets at high and low amplitude, filtered, unfiltered, with extreme bandpass or with wideband signal, from different renditions of the original source copy of the record, *I* am still uncertain. About the musical performance I am MORE certain, however. The recording process has terrible artefacts of intermodulation distortion; certain chords are probably acoustically altered because of it. This seems to me to be a more likely explanation of the odd musical incoherency and liberties than that grossly wrong notes are being struck by the player. Furthermore, the registration of even closely separated whole tones is SO uneven that it is rare for two notes in a row to be captured with similar amplitude and clarity. It is almost impossible to make sense out of this jumble of sounds, other than the awareness that a few recognizable note sequences of the Dance are heard, interspersed with "wrong notes" that might be distorted in pitch or with voicing so radically altered that harmonics have intermodulated and produced that "wrong note" effect. The rhythm is oddly syncopated and uneven but one concludes that this, and the sense that the playing is capriciously accented, is not caused by temporal irregularity caused by cylinder rotation speed inconsistency, but by the utter failure of the mechanism to register certain leading voices, while accentuating isolated fragments of accompaniment and harmonies. It is mind-boggling to think that the great Brahms would have played ANYTHING this way, even as a lark (could the phonograph experiment have been accomplished at the end of a very long evening featuring far more brandy and cigars than prudent?) Remember that Brahms himself gave the world-premiere of his demanding B-Flat concerto only a few years earlier than the date of this record. Can we imagine that he could have played his masterwork as badly? I think not...

8H Haggis said...

I have done some further analysis of the "wrong notes" and discordant chords in the Hungarian Dance extract in the Brahms cylinder, and have an alternative explanation, differing radically from the Stanford researchers. Their musicological analysis proposes in effect that Brahms plays the piece in an unorthodox way. This assertion seems to be based on the conception that what one hears is REALLY what Brahms played, though dimly reproduced. But any methodology of removal of the mechanism's grinding noises, and the snaps and pops of the damaged wax, leaves a flawed sound canvas that is less representative of actual music than today's conditioned listener might suspect: we are used to bad, harsh-sounding telephone calls or distorted recordings, but those kinds of acoustical defects are not as damaging to the intrinsic musical or speech content, picked up by an electrical transducer with at least some degree of fidelity, as the havoc wreaked by the primitive Edison device in its earliest stage of development. After Fast Fourier Transform analysis of small segments of the audible dynamic and spectral contours of the remaining sounds, I have concluded instead that the "wrong notes" have little to do with the playing, per se, and more to do with distortion characteristics of the sound box (horn, coupling, diaphragm, and recording stylus.) This primitive and under-developed mechanical system obviously suffers from undamped ringing and severe resonances in the audible range that covers not much more than an octave above and below middle C. In effect, the pianist his *one* note, but the acoustical system vibrates instead at *another* note's frequency, due to the critical resonances. The horn and coupler would not do this to a large extent; the fault must be in the diaphragm and stylus, perhaps exacerbated by the recording medium itself. The resonances create a large variety of spurious frequencies, a veritable waterfall of jumbled tones that rise and fall and vary in content. Due to standing wave effects, there is both addition and subtraction of sound frequencies in specific narrow regions of the spectrum: one note might be loud and clear, while just a few cycles away another note is deeply attenuated and mixed with intermodulation products. Wrong notes and entirely peculiar chording result by this clangy sounding distortion-generating mechanism. Gregor Benko is exactly right, therefore, when he observes that there is practically no valid musicological significance in this artifact. And we can vindicate Brahms' competence, blaiming the primitive machine for the chaos.

Anonymous said...

8H haggis, and to anyone that doesn't understand the idea of music and rhythm... go to amazon.com right now and type in francis plante, a pianist that lived 1839-1928, there are recordings of him playing things with a different sense that we have all been so familiar with in the ways that famed singers such as Elvis, Ray Charles, and Paul McCartney work with. Dude, Brahms was clearly a rock'n roller that studied up immensely on his music theory and rhetoric. He also had the capacity to improvise from this knowledge base, which he had done for money while younger. The vision that I get is the same kind of vision I get when listening to paderewski or cortot as well. This is how we should all be playing pieces.. but we seem to like to put all these "works" into "nobody" can touch categories. Check out Jacque Lousier, he takes jazz and combines it with bach and chopin.. that should be second nature to artists. the ability to create, and not just "recreate".. the notes might be wrong... who cares, his drive and main points are all there, and very much full of fire.. i'm not really a big rubinstein fan.. but this makes me feel like the d-minor concerto he did, and i'm sure there were areas that were sloppy when brahms played it.. listen to paderewski and plante and cortot, they had the most fire and vision, and their audiences were left transformed and moved.. for you to attack the rhythm makes no sense.. thats the life, and it matches other accounts of recorded playing in which a much better understanding of playing, improvising, and composing went hand in hand...