New visualizations!

For several years I have had an interest in the Digital Humanities, particularly mapping, GIS (geographic information technologies) and visualizations, and in January this year I decided to take the plunge and start a Certificate in Digital Humanities taught by distance learning at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (Spain). Whereas in the past my forays into mapping were limited to Google Maps, in the last few months I have had the chance to experiment with other software, such as Google Earth Pro, QGIS and Cytoscape. I have uploaded two of my experiments into the ‘Visualization’ sections of the website, both concerned with the gabinetes fonográficos (recording studios) active in Madrid in the period 1896-1904: one of them maps the gabinetes in the city, whereas the other connects gabinetes and the singers who recorded for them. It’s incredibly easy to get carried away by the multiple possibilities offered by the software – but these tools can offer valuable insights into the archival data that might not have come so readily otherwise, as I explain in the above pages.

Phonograph and disc factories

Another interesting strand emerging from my archival research in the last couple of weeks are the various factories of phonographs, gramophones, cylinders and discs that were established in Europe from the late 19th century onward to satisfy increasing demand. Local and international recording labels printed photographs of these factories in their catalogues and other documents, which leads to some interesting questions – first of all, there’s obviously the desire to connect recording technologies with state-of-the-art scientific discoveries. But we can also observe a certain anxiety to establish whose labor was behind cylinders and discs, which had by now became prized commodities. Businessmen were keen to emphasize how much effort they, and secondarily their engineers and manual workers, had put into developing their products. The labor of musicians was sometimes forgotten here.


Here’s a photograph of the factory of the Edison Bell Company (I haven’t been able to establish whether it’s the London or the Huntington plant), showing several women workers. The photograph, as well as the paragraph below, were printed in a history of Edison Bell published by the company itself in 1924:

“In its production the Moulded Record passes through many processes, requiring the services of Chemists, Moulders, Borers, Polishers and Trimmers, after which it passes to the Department, a section of which is shown above. The Records are here carefully examined, tested, sorted and boxed. For these duties we find female labour is the most suitable, and we are enabled to provide employment for a large number of women and girls.”

Frédéric d’Erlanger: an aristocrat and recording pioneer

This elegant gentleman here is Frédéric d’Erlanger, a banker and aristocrat who, together with several members of his family, became a shareholder of Italian label Fonotipia in 1904, shortly after the label’s foundation. Fonotipia, which also acted as an agency of Odéon for Italy, is well-known among record collectors for its releases of legendary opera singers, including María Barrientos, Elvira de Hidalgo, Francisco Vignas, Giovanni Zenatello, Léon Éscalais and many others.

D’Erlanger himself had an artistic temperament, and in 1909 he wrote the opera Tess (based on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the Dubervilles), of which a few arias were recorded by Fonotipia.

D’Erlanger is not the only aristocrat among recording pioneers: in my research on Spain, the names of the Marquis of Alta-Villa and the Marquis of Tovar crop up frequently. It’s also interesting to see how recording labels were typically very keen to associate themselves with royalty as a marketing technique, with Fonotipia itself becoming official purveyor to Italy’s queen mother Margherita di Savoia.

Sorry, sopranos and baritones – you’ll never be worth more than a tenor

When I started my research into gabinetes fonográficos (establishments who sold phonographs and gramophones, and also produced and sold their own recordings around 1897-1903), I was quite struck by their pricing strategies. Nowadays, we can expect certain minor variations in the prices of recordings from the same label (that’s without taking into account deals, sales, clearances, etc.), but in the era of the gabinetes such differences were quite extreme: a wax cylinder containing 3 minutes of music could cost as much as 30 pesetas and as little as 3,5, depending on the genre of the piece, the celebrity status of the singer and – perhaps more decisively – their voice type. The following advertisement by Sociedad Anónima Fonográfica, published in Boletín Fonográfico in 1900, shows how well-known, highly sought-after tenors such as Julián Biel and Enrico Giordano could command 15 or 20 pesetas for their opera recordings, whereas baritone Francisco Pertierra had to make do with 4 for his zarzuela recordings.

Which proves that tenors are and have always been worth more than anyone else, of course… 🙂


Sociability and the phonograph: a word cloud

Library of Ateneo de Madrid, early 20th century

After making the map ‘Collective phonographic sessions in Spain, 1890-1905’, I am left with more questions than I started with! (but that’s just as well: it’s what I expected). One such question, which I’ve been exploring in the last few days, is how early phonography was received into the spaces of sociability that proliferated in 19th-century Spain. These spaces (ateneos, sociedades, clubes, centros, círculos, liceos, casinos, and also cafés and theatres) allowed the emerging bourgeoisie first and the working classes later to socialize, learn, entertain themselves, exchange ideas and develop their class identity in a rapidly changing environment.

 The above word cloud is my attempt at visualizing the presence of phonographs in the different types of spaces of sociability. While some were more geared towards the cultural and educational (ateneos, liceos, some centros for the working classes), others privileged the recreational (café, casino, salón), and others combined both. With the phonograph being both a scientific development and an entertainment machine, it is clear that its appeal for members of these societies was complex and multifarious: making sense of it is my next challenge.

First post!

The early history of recording technologies is often told, in a quasi-epic way, through a few selected names of individuals (Thomas A. Edison, Enrico Caruso) and companies (Pathé, Gramophone). In this blog, intended as a companion to my AHRC-funded research project Early Recording Cultures in Spain, 1880-1905: Towards a Transnational History, I will be offering brief glimpses of the lesser-known entrepreneurs, musicians, inventors and listeners which contributed decisively to shaping Edison’s inventions into the practices and artifacts we know today – focusing mostly in Spain but also beyond.

Some of my research today at the Biblioteca Nacional de Catalunya (BNC) has focused on Catalan soprano Avelina Carrera, perhaps the first Spaniard to record the well-known aria ‘Vissi d’arte’. The BNC holds a copy of the non-commercial recording she made, on wax cylinder support, for the Catalan businessman and phonography aficionado Ruperto Regordosa. Regordosa  (who left some 300 non-commercial recordings mostly of opera and zarzuela, all held at the BNC) did not date his cylinders, but, with Tosca having been first performed in Madrid in December 1900 and in Barcelona in in February 1902, Avelina might have recorded the aria when she was in Barcelona in spring 1902 for a stint at the Liceu – or maybe the year after, when she was in Barcelona again.

Here’s one of Avelina’s commercial recordings – for Fonotipia (Milan) in 1908: