Tahitian Field Recordings


Tahitian cylinders
Tahitian field recordings. Edison Blue Amberol [no numbers]. ca. 1923.

At first glance, the cylinders in the Tahitian field recordings grouping appear to be run-of-the-mill Blue Amberols—and these were in fact some of the most mass-produced cylinders of the cylinder era. Upon closer examination, however, they are something else entirely. The cataloger's note provides some insight:

Custom Blue Amberol recordings, possibly from a larger set of brown wax field recordings that were recorded in Faaone Tahiti, and possibly privately pressed as Blue Amberol cylinders by Edison in New Jersey. Recordings were possibly made by anthropologists Frank Stimson or Edward S. C. Handy in 1923. Four of the five cylinders are stamped "Tahiti-#" on the rim and handwritten notes on the boxes say "Himene Chorus, Faaone, Tahiti, 1923 (Handy)."

The biggest mystery to us is how these cylinders were recorded. The cataloger’s note suggests that these five recordings were perhaps privately pressed dubbings of cylinder recordings made in the field. Perhaps durable Blue Amberol cylinders could have been made for demonstrations or teaching use or study by these anthropologists by Edison. Since Edison had largely abandoned direct recordings onto cylinder by 1914, and commercial Blue Amberol recordings in 1923 were done on a disc and dubbed to cylinder were they actually recorded on discs? So why record on cylinders here? Are they unique? Was it somehow possible to record directly onto the hard plastic of Blue Amberols? And if they were dubbed from discs, why isn't there any noise from the dubbing equipment? These seem more likely to be Blue Amberols reissued from a hard wax Amberol in 1912 that was made from a 1908 cylinder recording. But why would this have been done in the 1920s when other equipment was available? There are more questions here than answers.

Unless the details of their recording techniques are among their papers at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii, Handy or Stimson’s Tahitian field recordings will continue to puzzle for the foreseeable future.

Fortunately, the contents of these recordings are as interesting as the questions behind their provenance.

The recordings fade in to an already-established harmony and end abruptly as the cylinder grooves run out, a common occurrence in cylinder field recordings.
Nevertheless, what is captured is undeniably human and vital in spite of the narrow dynamic and tonal bandwith the medium allowed.

Himene is etymologically related to the word hymn and the sound these cylinders capture is a marriage of the vocal songs of native Tahitians and the sacred choral music that the European missionaries left behind. It is a haunting sound that retains its distance while remaining innately familiar.

—Chris Warden, Reed College