Donoho Colloquium: Playing History, The Digital Rebirth of Old Media

Patrick Feaster is a specialist in the history, culture, and preservation of early time-based media. 

The Winter 2016 Donoho Colloquium

  • 5:00 PM, Monday, February 8, 2016
  • Filene Auditorium, Moore Hall, Dartmouth

Historians and literary critics routinely read documents “against the grain,” using them in ways their creators didn’t expect in order to gain insights their creators didn’t mean to provide.  However, we don’t need to limit ourselves to innovative readings.  We can also educe historical documents in unexpected but informative ways, “eduction” being my term for any process we use to make media content meaningfully perceptible to our senses in the first place—say, exposing a printed page to light, projecting a film, or playing a record.  Creative methods of eduction have long been possible, but digital technologies have made them easier and more attractive to pursue than ever before.

Case in point: in the spring of 2008, the First Sounds Initiative made international headlines by releasing digitally recovered audio from a recording dated April 9, 1860, seventeen years before Thomas Edison invented his phonograph.   The haunting vocal rendition of “Au Clair de la Lune” had been recorded by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville on the phonautograph, an instrument he had designed to trace sound vibrations on soot-blackened sheets of paper so that people could look at the wavy lines and try to decipher them visually.  By playing back Scott’s phonautograms as sound, we arguably subverted his original intentions, but at the same time we made it possible for listeners to experience his work in a newly enlightening and enchanting way.

And phonautograms aren’t alone.  Many other types of historical document can likewise be “brought to life” digitally as audio or moving pictures, even though that wasn’t their original purpose—a point I’ll illustrate using such varied source materials as medieval musical notation, telegraph strips, moon-phase charts, nineteenth-century records of the pulse and breathing, and chronologically averaged groups of images ranging from mummy portraits to yearbook photos.   Drawing on that whirlwind tour of examples, I’ll discuss the implications this emerging branch of the digital humanities could have for our future understanding of what “counts” as historical audio and video.

Biographical note

Patrick Feaster is a specialist in the history, culture, and preservation of early time-based media.  A three-time Grammy nominee, co-founder of the First Sounds Initiative, and current President of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, he has been actively involved in locating, identifying, and contextualizing many of the world's oldest sound recordings and has pioneered a number of digital processing strategies for bringing historical sources to life as audio, video, and 3D imagery.  He received his doctorate in Folklore and Ethnomusicology in 2007 from Indiana University, Bloomington, where he is now Media Preservation Specialist for the Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative.