Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville: “No. 5” (“Au Claire de la Lune”)

Music Reviews Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville
Édouard-Léon Scott de  Martinville: “No. 5” (“Au Claire de la Lune”)

Earliest sound recording an intriguing historical tidbit, but not everyone will need to own it on vinyl

On April 9, 1860, 17 years before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, French scientist Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville made the world’s first successful sound recording. And of all the sounds he might’ve attempted to capture, he chose the human voice, singing a song.

This painstakingly restored release—discovered at the Institute of France’s Academy of Sciences in 2008—was originally preserved on a sheet of paper wrapped around a cylinder under a smoking lantern, the soundwaves cast in ash.

It’s a fittingly rock ’n’ roll beginning for the recording industry. Listening now, a century-and-a-half later, one can’t help but ponder how Martinville must’ve felt; capturing something as ethereal and intangible as sound in 1860 must’ve been akin to catching and holding a ghost. Of course, Martinville’s experimental take of himself singing “Au Claire de la Lune” (labeled “No. 5,” though no earlier takes have been found) is little more than a 20-second blast of static with a barely audible voice ?delivering an even less audible melody—a little bit like the end of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Guess it only took us about 140 years to come full circle. Thanks to Dust-to-Digital, the full recording of “No. 5” can be heard for free online (dust-digital.com/newsletters/09-08.htm), so not everyone will feel compelled to spend $7 on the limited-edition 45-rpm vinyl package. But for some, myself included, owning this tiny but monumentally important piece of history feels incredibly satisfying. This is as close as we’ll ever get to that first mysterious moment that forever changed our world.

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