In 1877, Thomas Edison, already famous as an inventor and entrepreneur, used a tinfoil-covered cylinder to make a crude recording of himself speaking the words to “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The era of recorded sound had begun.
“The Art of Sound” tells only part of the story of this era, but that part is told with eye-popping visual beauty. Working from the capacious archives at EMI, the legendary British record company that traces its roots to 1898, author Terry Burrows has provided a lavish photographic survey of audio technology from the gramophone to the iPod.
Along the way, the reader learns about such marvelous artifacts as a device that plays records made of chocolate; the gramophone that Robert Falcon Scott took to the South Pole in 1910 (the gramophone survived, Captain Scott did not); and an Army-green suitcase unit “for use in war zones where there was no access to a power supply.”
If you’re an audiophile of a certain age, a full-page color photo of an original SONY Walkman circa 1979 is a potent madeleine. You can almost feel the rubbery give of the play button under your thumb and hear the thump and hiss of a killer mix tape starting up. The book’s ancillary material, a trove of album covers and record company catalogues, comprises a stunning visual history of modernist graphic design at its midcentury peak: all those swooping art deco flourishes, all that snazzy typography.
Visuals aside, though, a certain incoherence hovers over the project. Beneath the avalanche of images lies an oddly simplistic conception of how technology evolves. For one thing, “The Art of Sound” largely presents the progression of audio technology as linear and inevitable, an unstoppable march toward a triumphal digital utopia, rather than a messy zigzag of false starts and lucky accidents. It displays what scholars of the history of technology would call the fallacy of technological determinism. Sound today is inferior, as it happens, to its late-1970s analog peak. A true aficionado will tell you that no CD or MP3 will ever sound as good — as dry and warm and detailed — as a vinyl LP by, say, Steely Dan, playing on a high-quality stereo with good speakers.
“The Art of Sound” is inevitably light on the digital revolution and all its rapidly multiplying ramifications. Based as it is on the archives of EMI, a company that the Internet and Apple effectively destroyed, Burrows’s narrative lurches, like the fortunes of the corporation it shadows, to an abrupt end. There is something poignant about the fourth-to-last page, which is nothing more than an image of logos for Spotify, SoundCloud and Myspace .
In this respect, “The Art of Sound” shades into the meta-topical, becoming itself an example of the very obsolescences it so lovingly documents.
Michael Lindgren is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.
By Terry Burrows
Thames & Hudson. 352 pp. $50