Etched Memory: Sound in Wax with Aleksander Kolkowski

In our digital age, audio devices recently thought of as obsolete have undergone a dramatic revival; vinyl records and cassette tapes are being newly produced, purchased in great numbers and widely fetishised. This is not only a riposte to the mundane ubiquity of digital media and to mass consumerism, it also reveals the irresistible attachment we have to the physical sound carrier. After all, the enjoyment, collection and sharing of recorded music has for most of its history been a multi-sensorial activity. The seemingly archaic, pre-electronic cylinder record, whose spiral groove of sound indentations is etched onto a wax substance acoustically, without any electronic amplification, can today also offer us a new type of listening experience.

The acoustic recording process may be primitive by modern standards, but it captures the essence, character and enough detail to allow the reproduced sounds and music to be appreciated. However it is very much a sonic impression rather than a clear and realistic representation of what was originally recorded. The low fidelity has some compensations; the accompanying surface noises inherent in the recording and playback of cylinders works in two significant ways: it creates an illusion (or truth) of time past, the noise is like a patina, the sonic distress marks of wear and ageing. These noises also act as a scrim or veil through which we strain to hear the recorded sounds and this auditory masking effect invites us to listen more attentively to the recording. The cylinder record demands a form of deep listening that is tinged with sounds of the medium’s own history of its making and use. Instead of the amped-up, electronically enhanced and hyper-real sounds we are subjected to in our daily lives, the wax cylinder is able to reproduce something that sounds much closer to a faded memory.

Since c. 2000, I have made music that utilises instruments and machines from the pre- & early electronic era of sound recording and reproduction. This work often explores how archaic recording techniques may be used to ‘age and decay’ sound – correlating with visual art concerned with deliberate disintegration and the process of decay, and how temporal manipulation is made possible within a composition, i.e. be transported back in time, then forward to the present through the sound recording mediums of the past. In recent work, I have sought to transform a physical sound recording medium into an auditory palimpsest containing multiple traces of sounds. The process uses concepts of erasure, sous rature, remembrance and decay as the basis for sound compositions that are recorded, partially erased then re-recorded, layered or superimposed onto wax cylinders, disc records or magnetic tape and also onto non-audio media such as exposed radiographic film.

Aleksander Kolkowski, June, 2018.