Monday, September 28, 2020

Acoustic archaeology; really?


     I’ve been involved with music much of my life, playing my violin at gatherings such as weddings and funerals, for a while in a country square-dance band, and for six years in a group we called Cold Biscuit at all kinds of functions.  It’s been fun and has earned extra money.


     I love most kinds of music and often listen through headphones as I’m writing fiction at my computer.  My favorite piece is Beethoven’s hauntingly beautiful “Moonlight Sonata.”  I even laboriously taught myself to play it on the piano over a month, although I’m no pianist.  I’ve listened to several accomplished pianists doing the piece and found each to be slightly different in style, this note progression played a bit faster or slower than others play it, that few bars played more loudly or softly, a note held a bit longer or not held quite as long.  Overall, this makes perceptible differences in how the piece sounds and thus subtle differences in how it affects me.  And that, in turn, got me thinking, just how, exactly, did the genius Beethoven himself play it?


     It seems only logical that we can never know.


     Or can we?


     There is a fringe scientific field called acoustic archaeology.  It explores the possibility that we can retrieve sounds from the past.  This seems ridiculous at first, but the idea grows on you when you think a bit deeper.  


     Early recordings were captured on wax cylinders by a stylus that vibrated in sync with sound input and in so doing incised indentations in the wax.  The sounds could be retrieved when a playback needle was drawn across those indentations at the same speed and the resultant sound amplified through a megaphone.  This was the essence of the early twentieth-century wind-up Victrola and the sound was not great, although it seemed astonishing in its time.  That same basic principle, greatly refined, still works with vinyl records, which are making a surprise comeback, and with superb fidelity.


     Columnist David Jones claimed in 1982 that sound waves will vibrate a metal trowel as they impinge on it, so if a plasterer happens to be singing lustily as he works, the trowel should create tiny ripples in the wet plaster, and if those ripples, when dried, could be read by a sophisticated-enough device (a laser?) at least parts of the worker’s song ought to be reproducible.


     Serious scientists are studying other ways old and even ancient sounds might be recovered.  One claimed to have retrieved the hum of a potter’s wheel by electromechanically reading the grooves in a pot cast on that wheel, for example.  Still deeper thinking posits that sound might subtly change a room’s very molecular structure in a faint but retrievable way through some future high tech.


     I was writing this post when a related article popped up in the news.  Egyptian Karnak priest Nesyamun died 3,000 years ago, but his mummified remains, which even survived the Nazi Blitz, are in remarkably good condition.  His dying wish was that he be allowed to speak in the afterlife so he could petition the gods for admission to eternity.  A team of scientists from Royal Holloway, London U., York U., and the Leeds Museum, CT scanned the old guy’s vocal tract, 3D printed it, and produced a sound through the printed replica, the first step in possibly reproducing words and even sentences from this priest who has not been heard for thirty centuries. They even have hieroglyphics incised on his coffin so they can perhaps have him say what he hoped to in the afterlife.  File that away in your weird folder.


     Meanwhile, if Beethoven ever happened to practice his “Moonlight Sonata” in an otherwise quiet church, say, which was being plastered at the time . . .



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