Fascinating! Origins of recording the oral tradition, lost & now found

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New Sounds, Old Voices“, written by Jacob Mikanowski in this week’s New Yorker, holds interest for recording techies and audiobook historians alike. Mikanowski follows the research path of Carl Haber, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and winner of the MacArthur genius grant for his work on sound restoration. Haber and his team have developed a technology which can more or less photograph the earliest methods of recording sound and translate into digital audio – from disintegrating wax cylinders to the  phonautograph, or “speech writer.” The most interesting part of the article, for me, is Haber’s work with Milman Parry’s recordings – here’s a quote form the article (and you can see the inspiration for ALA’s Odyssey Award):

Since receiving the MacArthur grant, Haber has been working on restoring a collection of sounds that might shed light on the origins of the Western literary tradition. In 1933, a young Harvard scholar named Milman Parry travelled to Yugoslavia in hopes of solving the Homeric Question: How were the Iliad and the Odyssey composed? Classicists had debated for over a century whether the epics were written by a single, literate author or improvised in stages by numerous musicians and bards elaborating on a series of set themes. Parry believed that the answer could be uncovered by analyzing the work of living bards, mainly found among Bosnia’s Muslims, who still sang tales of heroes and wars, especially during the thirty nights of Ramadan.

In my book Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature, the first chapter looks at the history of children’s audiobooks. When doing the research, I became fascinated with the science of sound recording – and articles such as Mikanowski’s show that new discoveries are still in store. What might future researchers discover in those moldering reel-to-reel & cassettes in the basement 😉 If you’re interested in that first chapter, you can read it online here: http://www.alastore.ala.org/pdf/9780838911570_excerpt.pdf

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About the Author:

Mary Burkey is an independent library consultant in Columbus (OH). An enthusiastic audiophile, she has served on all four of ALA's audiobook award committees as well as the Audies. In addition to writing the "Voices in My Head" column for Booklist, she is the author of Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature (ALA, 2013). Follow her on Twitter at @mburkey.

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