Prior to Thomas Edison’s groundbreaking invention of sound recording and playback technology in 1877, the ephemerality of sound meant that it only existed in the moment of its creation. To “record” sound before this time meant it appeared as oral or written descriptions or musical scores. In 2008, Patrick Feaster, a researcher and educator specializing in the history and culture of early sound media, and his colleagues revolutionized the field of historical sound recording by suggesting that attempts to record sound waves as visual tracings almost two decades before Edison’s breakthrough could be “played back” today as sound. In this compelling discussion with Northwestern University artist-at-large Dario Robleto, Feaster speaks about his work and the pair’s recent collaboration on “playing back” the earliest 19th-century attempts to visually record the human pulse and heartbeat.
Interweaving historical research, poetic storytelling, and innovative approaches to image and sound processing, a multi-year collaboration between Robleto and Feaster have sought to discover the unexpected sounds of our shared past. Together the pair has worked as “audio archaeologists” with the lost sounds of history. Their work has discovered and made audible the first pulse and heartbeat recordings and the first dreams and emotions registered as blood flow to the brain, each originally traced in soot from flames in the nineteenth century. Currently, they are working on reanimating the first electrical signals recorded from the heart and brain in various states of emotional experience.