|Their Stage Is a Box, Their Music Exquisite
(Page 2 of 2)
Mr. Eric wants us to know that the phonograph is a reproducing machine. But the music box is a musical instrument. Every time you play a music box it gives a fresh performance. He pulls down an African thumb piano, the only other instrument in the world that uses the same principle to make sound.
We walk past mechanical birds in mechanical cages, eight-foot-tall musical
disc players, an English street organ from the last century, a three-foot-tall
model of a Gothic cathedral, hand-carved in wood and tremendously detailed.
"I think the sound of this one is unique," Mr. Eric said, lifting the church
off its base to expose the works. "The farther you walk away from it, the
more it sounds like an organ. It is what we call a `supermandolin' box.
It is also known as an `organocleide.' "
I point to a strange-looking contraption with metal discs. The discs are the oldest surviving playable recordings of sound. The phonograph was made in 1878 by Augustus Stroh, a German watchmaker who spent most of his life in London. He hooked up with William Preece, who was in charge of the Royal Telegraph Engineers and represented the cutting-edge technology of the time. Preece employed Stroh to produce a machine that would analyze and synthetically reproduce vowel sounds.
Each disc has the sound engraved into the edge and is played with a stylus and a diaphragm. Mr. Eric turns the little crank at the end. A vague blur of sound. He tries again, now faster, now slower. Finally "papa" comes out. "Papa, papa, papa." There are discs for mama as well, and for a large number of vowel sounds. It is a primitive machine, and seeing it sit innocently amid all the stunning musical technology, one may forget that it eventually killed the music-box industry deader than a doornail, until its pale resurrection as a kitsch collectible.
As we leave the room, Mr. Eric points to a small, ornate object. This is a gold snuffbox that Napoleon ordered for one of his generals just after the Austrian campaign in 1809. It is extraordinary: a watch as well as a music box. The watch chimes every 15 minutes, and the separate music box plays either as an alarm or on command. The device turned up in Moscow, where the general was probably killed in Napoleon's ill-fated Russian offensive.
A century ago, music boxes accounted for a full 10 percent of the Swiss economy. Would it be feasible to make one of comparable quality today? Mr. Eric shakes his head. "We have to appreciate how labor-intensive the process is," he said. "The larger ones you see would have taken anywhere from 500 to 2,000 hours to make. If you spend that long making a machine, how can it ever be worth it to the maker? Even at minimum wage, these boxes today could cost tens of thousands in labor alone."
As it is, the finer historic boxes sell in the tens of thousands. More commonplace instruments start at around $1,500.
Out on the freeway, driving past the beaches and megamalls, I remember Mr. Eric's first words: "They were working within a specific compass of music and a short duration of time, and they had to be clever to make that tiny bit of music interesting." Then, as now, some things were better than others. But turn the keys or pull the levers to wind the mainsprings of the best of them. Switch them on, let them play, and listen carefully. What comes out is the only bona fide live musical performance from the early 19th century you will ever hear.