David Byrne, Edison, technology and e-books

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While on tour with his band, David Byrne will occasionally take his bicycle out for a spin. This week, the former Talking Heads frontman cruised the streets of suburban New Jersey to find Thomas Edison’s home and lab, now a National Historic Park. The reason for his visit was that he’d been reading ‘Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music’ by Greg Milner. Byrne writes:

Edison arranged demonstrations of his ‘perfected’ wax cylinder recorders at various theaters around the continent. He’d have a known singer sing along with their own recorded voice, and then at some point the singer would stop and the recording took over. Testimonials claimed that the audience gasped and couldn’t tell the difference between the live singer and the recording (like ‘Is it real or is it Memorex?’ for those who remember those cassette tape ads).
This seems a little far-fetched, though it’s true that we do hear what we want to hear to a large extent, and the amount of hype Edison was capable of generating was considerable — and hype can affect what we see and hear. There was indeed some information that surfaced alleging that Edison had ‘trained’ the singers to imitate the quality and sound of the recordings — slightly pinched and not very loud — to make the gag work. This seems likely, as any decent singer could sing far louder than the volume of those old machines....


The rigged demonstration also gives an early hint at how performance is influenced by technology. Technology feigns neutrality — to simply record and capture (photography, audio, digitizing) — but not only does each technology skew the copy in some direction, the copy soon becomes the gold standard against which performance is measured. Even if the copy is not 100% faithful, in a weird backwards turn it becomes the “real” thing. While this seems almost comic — early singers imitating wax recordings or photographers imitating Impressionist paintings — with multi-track and now digital recording the worlds of recorded (and manipulated) sound and live performance drift ever further apart.

With the e-book loomingas an ever-larger presence in the publishing world, it is impossible to resist looking at earlier such shifts. As Byrne notes, the reproduction of a voice became more ‘real’ to the listener than the raw voice itself. The live performance becomes less authentic than the multi-layered, painstakingly assembled released version of a song. Could the same be said for e-books? What is the authentic ‘thing’ of a book — is it the words themselves? Does it matter if they’re in manuscript form or on a page between two covers?

I’m interested in his point that ‘technology feigns neutrality.’ Is an e-book reader simply a delivery system? Or are there hidden ways that it’s altering how we read, how we perceive of books, how we imagine books should be formatted and navigated? Can an e-book reader be the exception —is it indeed a neutral technology?


David Byrne’s first-person photo book ‘Bicycle Diaries’ is coming out this fall. Looks like it’ll be available in hardcover and on CD — but not as an e-book.

— Carolyn Kellogg