“Au clair de la lune” (fragment) (Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville)

The earliest playable sound recording is this phonautogram of 9 April 1860–played back for the first time in 2008 through the miracle of the First Sounds collective. This trax consists of the first ten words of an eighteenth-century folk song (and sometime lullaby) intoned very slowly and as carefully as possible: “Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot, prête moi—” (“By the light of the moon, my friend Pierrot, lend me…”). If M. Scott had not run out of recording space, the commedia dell’arte trickster figure Harlequin would have gone on to tell his “friend” that he’s searching for a pen and a light, so that he might make a record of his thoughts. Pierrot rebuffs him and sends him to his neighbor. In the final verse, the search for implements transmutes into a discovery of the shaft (la plume indeed) and eros (le feu) with the aid of the girl next door, and the trickster beds down Pierrot’s beloved. Much as in the long version of Kenneth Anger’s film, Rabbit’s Moon (1972), Harlequin teaches Pierrot braided lessons on desire, deceit (double entendres), and inscription/reproduction (the apparatus). The song operates, then, as a metacritique regarding the mimetic and psychological limits to Scott’s labors. Relatedly, the trax ends with an open-ended “lend me,” implying, at minimum, some form of outside supplement to reproduction. An ear, perhaps?

 

Scott’s phonautograms can be heard at: http://www.firstsounds.org/sounds/scott.php

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