Trust in Early Recordings…

I have just delivered an invited talk on my other research interest… early recordings. The talk considered some of reasons why the trustworthiness of early records are so regularly questions. Here is the abstract:

Over the past few years, I have arrived at the conclusion that one should feel genuine sympathy for any researcher that is misfortunate enough to study early recordings. This is not because their area of research is so bewilderingly broad. Nor is it because researchers of early recordings are required to read so many different kinds of texts. Rather, it is because no matter how far their scholarship advances, and no matter how significant their findings appear to be, scholars of early recordings are constantly questioned about the legitimacy of the very thing that they study. The precise nature of the questions varies, of course, but the overarching sentiment remains the same: to what extent can we really trust early recordings? In this talk, I consider the trustworthiness of early recordings. I survey three of the main ways in which such recordings may be described and understood; firstly, as a form of documentary evidence, secondly, as performances, and thirdly, as works of arts. I find the third option the most convincing, and conclude that early recordings are studio productions that come into being through multiple agents, in the form of recording musicians, technicians, engineers and producers who, combined, maximise the affordances of their technologies for the purpose of creating expressive works of art. Through an examination of such works, I believe that we do not only encounter historic performances, but have the opportunity to explore a broader artistic sensibility that reveals the individual and collective values of the time.