Friday 4 September 2020

Parallel Worlds - Pre- and Post-Electronic Music Technology in Electronic Sound #68

Electronic Sound issue 68
To coincide with the release of Oscillatorial Binnage's album 'Agitations: Post-Electronic Sounds', this month's Electronic Sound magazine (with Devo on the cover) contains my six-page article on pre-electronic soundmaking and its technological parallels with post-electronic music.  This blogpost provides some further perspectives.  A common thread linking pre- and post-electronic approaches is the acoustic manipulation of musical tone and rhythm, necessarily through physical mechanisms.  The study of pre-electronic music reveals parallel histories in electronic music... 'Parallel Worlds' is the title of the Electronic Sound feature.

J. B. Schalkenbach's Piano Orchestre Electro Moteur
It's rather historic to see neglected innovations of the past that I've long been excavating at last being assimilated into such a mainstream electronic music publication as Electronic Sound magazine: the electronic feedback instrument of Alfred Graham (which has no presence in electronic music history whatsoever, beyond my own publications), and Johann Baptist Schalkenbach's Orchestre Militaire Electro-Moteur are touched upon in the article (Schalkenbach's instrument gets a whole page to itself!).  The stories behind both are more thoroughly documented in my book 'Magnetic Music of the Spiritual World', for which I'm *still* seeking a proper publisher in the wake of my tiny self-published edition of 2015.  This project is, in fact, now expanded to encompass further examples of what I call 'failed histories' beyond the pre-electronic era... There's an enduring irony that failed histories seem to beget failure, inasmuch as they seem impervious to wider publisher interest - my project deemed by one outlet as "too eccentric".

Many of these hitherto undocumented histories were discovered through my activities on the fringes of the antiquarian book world.  Ephemera and self-published material is of particular interest - items seldom found catalogued anywhere else.  Such items represent lone voices calling out from the abyss.  At a second-hand bookshop, I once found a volume of acoustical patents, each with their original blue wrappers, and replete with fold-out diagrams, all bound into a hardcover for some unknown private library or collector some hundred years ago.  One particular patent in this book sheds some light on the 'failed history' dynamic...

In 1879, a patent was deposited by one Eugene Ernest Bornand for a rudimentary "musical instrument" called 'Le Vibrateur'.  This pre-electronic sound-effects device is briefly mentioned in the Electronic Sound article, as well as the Oscillatorial Binnage 'Agitations' CD booklet.  Le Vibrateur was designed by Bornand to alter the sound of a voice or a musical instrument.  The passage of sound through a flexible tube would cause two convex plates attached at the end to vibrate.

Eugene Ernest Bornand's 'Le Vibrateur'

Le Vibrateur was similar to the classic Punch and Judy 'swazzle' in that it distorted sound.  The obvious difference was that the swazzle - a reeded diaphragm - was inserted directly into the roof of the performer's mouth to create the buzzy voice, whilst Bornand's instrument had a tube enabling more varied uses.  The swazzle was considered a trade secret to Punch and Judy performers, yet boasted an international presence as widespread as the Punch tradition itself: in France the swazzle is called the sifflet–pratique, and in Italy the pivetta, etc.  It would've been considered perverse (in Punch and Judy circles) for some monopolist to attempt to patent the swazzle.  Despite the aforementioned differences, Bornand's Vibrateur is eyebrow-raisingly close to the swazzle, but Bornand widened the commercial scope of his innovation, encouraging a more practical use for it in fog signalling.  Bornand also saw the Vibrateur's potential in recreating orchestral sounds: "by varying the size, shape, and material used, I can produce imitations of every musical instrument, so that I can create the same effect as a full orchestra".  With post-electronic sound in mind, an aspect of interest for modern ears was Bornand's suggestion of new sonic possibilities - the Vibrateur player could adjust the buzz of the plates by pressing them together "causing the evolution of modified sound, weird, grotesque, or euphonious".

Little is known about the Vibrateur's patentee: a mysterious figure who declared his profession as "artist lyrique".  The term artiste lyrique was unusual in Victorian Britain, but was sometimes deployed as a pretence to elevate the art of the 'characteristic vocalist' into Frenchified bohemian realms (although it was generally reserved for female vocalists).  No trace of Eugene Ernest Bornand can be found in censuses, and his (or her, or their) patent appears to be communicated to the Patent Office directly, rather than through an international agent, making it likely the inventor was based in the UK.  There's a genealogical record of a Swiss national named Eugene Bornand arriving in Britain in August 1851, but there the trail goes cold.  It's possible that there was no such person as Eugene Ernest Bornand - it may be a pseudonym.  British performers often adopted more exotic-sounding names, and it wasn't unknown for patentees, especially music hall performers, to use nom-de-plumes, but there's no record of Eugene Bornand on the entertainment circuit either.

As part of the legal process, Bornand's patent had a witness signatory, a London-based "Wm. H. Le Troir" of 26 Budge Row.  This *was* a pseudonym (or could it be the printer's failed attempt to decipher an illegible signature?) - this was actually William Henry Le Fevre, a patent agent, engineer and president of The Balloon Society of Great Britain.

In the Vibrateur patent, Eugene Ernest Bornand gives his own address as "8 Howland Street" in Fitzrovia, London; a residential street in London's West End - a suitable dwelling for an artiste lyrique, in the entertainment district.  Howland Street was an interesting neighbourhood at this time...  At 7 Howland Street lived Adam Weiler, an activist cabinet-maker and friend of Karl Marx.  Meanwhile, 9 Howland Street hosted Swiss artist Frank Feller, lodging with older German painter Anthony Rosenbaum (painter of 'Chess Players', held by the National Portrait Gallery).  At 6 Howland Street lived the Pitman family who were all musicians going back for many generations, with the youngest daughter, 22-year-old Elizabeth Catherine Pitman being a teacher, and later, professor of music.  But who lived at 8 Howland Street?

Beyond what's stated in the Vibrateur patent, there's no record of a Eugene Bornand living at 8 Howland Street.  The 1881 census, however, does show one likely individual boarding there: a 22-year-old "vocalist" named Tom Ross.  Could this be the artiste lyrique, Eugene Bornand?  Stated as being born in Cheshire, Tom Ross is similarly elusive, with no further positive matches found in any genealogical databases.  Two of Tom Ross' fellow 8 Howland Street lodgers are in the same age bracket and likewise have theatrical professions - Charles Scott, also 22, was a "characteristic dancer" from Sheffield, and a John Preston: a 19-year-old "dress designer / milliner" from Devon.  These fellow travellers are also difficult to trace definitively.

Eugene Bornand's identity cannot yet be proven, but his sole patent, Le Vibrateur, is a significant example of a forgotten invention, overlooked or deemed unprofitable at the time, that may now be reappraised - in a manner only possible after the advent of electronic sound - through the lens of modernity, as a proto-effects-unit; an attempt to mechanically engage with musical tone, and a useful component for any post-electronic apparatus (indeed, Oscillatorial Binnage use similar methods on 'Agitations').

Whether or not Eugene Bornand was Tom Ross is a moot point.  The obliteration of both these identities from historical records illustrates the 'failed history' dynamic.  In the entertainment world, there's a tendency to pile pseudonym upon pseudonym, and when you factor in the constantly shifting whereabouts of a travelling performer, it makes cobbling together a biography of such an individual via official documents near-impossible.  Poverty was also a key factor: in a cautionary exposé of the perils of performer life, the 1885 edition of 'The Truth about the Stage' by the pseudonymous 'Corin'* warns prospective entertainers against "the meretricious glare of life behind the curtain," and its "halo of romance, which is rarely dispelled until the fatal step is taken and when it is too late to turn back".  (And maybe there's a lesson here for modern electronic and experimental performers... as I sense increasingly sharply through experience.)

* (Bizarrely, Corin - the author of 'The Truth about the Stage' (1885) was apparently the pseudonym of William Lynd, the great-grandfather of writer and The Wire contributor Clive Bell.)

Oscillatorial Binnage's 'Agitations: Post-Electronic Sounds' is out now on Sub Rosa records.  Read more in this month's Electronic Sound #68.

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