Last year, I organized a panel on “Engaging (with) the Senses: Historiographic, Ethnographic and Artistic Reflections on Studying Practical Knowledge” at the annual conference of the German Society for the History of Medicine, Science and Technology (DGGMNT) in Berlin. The section was composed of three presentations and a live recording session with an Edison phonograph.

Historians of medicine, science and technology haven often described bodily form of knowledge as “tacit” or “personal knowledge” (Michael Polanyi), or as a kind of “working knowledge” (Douglas Harper) that encompasses a knowledge of materials and the actors’ kinesthetic sense. Sensory skills are learned by doing, by dwelling in a community of practice; they are hard to describe and often difficult to study from historical sources. The study of sound and media technologies (from gramophones to stethoscopes and digital cameras) offers an intriguing inroad for the investigation of bodily knowledge. First, users of these technologies explicitly engage their senses; second, they sometimes struggle with learning how to properly use them. In these moments of failure or disruption, actors try to verbalize their otherwise unobserved bodily experience and, then, leave traces of their practical experience in historical sources. Furthermore, studying sound and media technologies offers us, as scholars, the possibility to engage our own senses. Many media technologies can still be observed in everyday practice, or they can be found in museum collections or simply bought on ebay; thus we can use these technologies to inform our senses and to learn more about the bodily experience of historical actors. This does not mean that we can simply re-enact the historical use of sound and media technologies, but tinkering ourselves with these artefacts can offer new insights for the investigation of practical knowledge – and this is what we did during in our section that encompassed three paper presentations and a live recording session with an Edison phonograph.

In his presentation, Andreas Fickers (since September 1, 2016, founding director of the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH)) made a passionate plea for experimental media archaeology. Inspired by experiences with doing experimental research in the fields of history of science, archaeology and musicology he argued for the heuristic potential of experimental media archaeology for a history of technology interested in the sensorial dimension of technology. Based on the concept of re-enactment, experimental media archaeology tries to explore new ways of experiencing and understanding the materiality of media technologies by interacting with these objects in a playful manner. In order to do so, historians need to de-auratize historical objects and turn themselves into experimenters and the museum into a laboratory. Engaging with the historical artefacts in an experimental setting stimulates the sensorial appropriation of the past and enables the critically reflection of the (hidden or non-verbalized) tacit knowledge that informs our engagement with past media technologies. In creating such a space for creative exploration and “thinkering” with either original artefacts or replicas, the researcher will get a first-hand experience of the heuristic difference between studying textual and visual representations of past media technologies and experiencing their performative qualities and limitations in real-life interaction and re-use. The heuristic value of doing historical re-enactments lies therefore not in the (impossible) reconstruction of an “authentic” historical experience, but in creating a sensorial and intellectual experience that will demonstrate the differences between textual, visual and performative approaches to the past.

Anna Harris (Assistant Professor at the Department of Technology and Society Studies, Maastricht University) and Melissa Van Drie (since October 1, 2016, research fellow at the Faculty of Music, Cambridge University) explored creative strategies which attempt to overcome the challenges of sharing sensory experience by studying how medical professionals learn and teach skills of listening to sound, or sonic skills. They examined the tools, resources and methods employed from 1950 until present, which help both novices and experts communicate about new auditory practices and experiences. They showed that the events they studied were enacted not only by the individuals and materials studied, but also by the research methods employed to study the phenomena of interest. In doing so, they considered both participant observation and historical enquiry as ways of enacting an “empathetic engagement with the practices and places that are important to the people participating in the research” (Pink 2011). These are methods, each with their own possibilities and limitations, which are bodily ways of seeking routes by which to share or imagine sensory practices. Anna and Melissa considered these ethnographic and historical techniques (e.g. drawings and re-enactments) as a way to attempt sonic alignment with those they studied.

The London based sound artist and researcher Aleks Kolkowski presented the re-enactment of an early orchestral recording session from the acoustic era of sound recording and reproduction. The re-enactment took place in November 2014 together with musicians from the Royal College of Music, London, along with a team of researchers and sound engineers. The model for this re-enactment was the legendary recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Arthur Nikisch in 1913 – one of the earliest recordings of a complete symphony and the very first by a major orchestra and conductor. Using technology and techniques of the period, two movements of the C minor symphony were recorded on wax discs. It was the first attempt to record an orchestra acoustically since the 1920s and the advent of electrical recording. Aleks described the technical process and the historical context of the original 1913 recordings; and spoke about what they have learned about early, acoustic recordings through this re-enactment; the major challenges involved and the effect this manner of recording had on the performers and their music-making. You can read more about this project in the journal of the Science Museum London.


Aleks Kolkowski and Melissa Van Drie explain the technique of wax cylinder recording. On the right you can see the Edison phonograph equipped with a recording horn.

Then, Aleks Kolkowski and Melissa Van Drie demonstrated how to record and playback a wax cyinder on an Edison phonograph. This was not only a new experience for Melissa who had agreed to sing a shortened version of the song “Honey Bun” from the 1949 Broadway musical “South Pacific“; it was also a new and insightful experience for the audience in Berlin. Aleks’ recording machine was an Edison “Fireside” model A, (1909-1911); the blank cylinders for recording on came from Paul Morris in Exeter, UK. He’s one of only 3 persons world-wide who still manufacture blank wax cylinders.

The audience was not only intrigued to witness the recording process but also to listen to the instantly played back wax cylinder. Later, Aleks also transfered the clinder to a digital file format. Usually, he records from a 1.5m length brass concert horn (c. 1900) using use a large diaphragm mic (typically an Audio Technica AD4040). However, this time he used a transducer that fits directly over the throat of the reproducer where you’d normally fit the horn (the reproducer is the cylindrical head that houses the diaphragm and playback stylus). Aleks likes this method because the digital recording replicates quite closely the experience of hearing through acoustic listening tubes (the common way people listened to recordings back in the 1890s-early 1900s). Here’s the mp3 of the recording:


Aleks Kolkowski preparing the phonograph for the instant playback of the recorded wax cylinder; note the different shape of the playback horn.

Finally, one might ask what does this have to do with Kunstkopf stereophony? On first sight: nothing. Still, for me this was the starting point to think about also re-enacting Kunstkopf recordings – by now scheduled for the end of November, 2016. I will tell more in a post later this year.