Sounds From the Past | CAI

Sounds From the Past

Jun 5, 2018

Credit Harp Gallery /

I have a long and somewhat odd history with old phonographs and records.  During my early years on the Cape I once salvaged several old Enrico Caruso records - 12” in diameter and only recorded on one side – from an abandoned dune shack.  Over the years I also bought several dozen more old records from Ben Thatcher’s Sound Museum in East Dennis. I kept them all, though it was years before I had anything to play them on. 


Then, one day, while helping a friend clear out her mother’s apartment in Queens, we unearthed an old 1915 Sonora Gramophone. It was in the basement of the building and the cabinet had been trashed and sprayed with graffiti, but the machine itself appeared to be in working condition. I spent the better part of a winter sanding and refinishing the cabinet until it shone with golden mahogany finish. I oiled the machine itself and tried it out with several of the old records. The sound was rich and beautiful.  I felt I had finally come home.


Over this Memorial Day weekend I put on a few of the old, oversized records: Jascha Heifetz playing Debussy’s “Girl with the Flaxen Hair.” A dance by Grieg. Paul Whiteman’s rendition of Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture.” The Heifetz recording was pretty scratchy, but instead of muffling it with the built-in flannel damper, I slid the damper off the megaphone to increase the scratchiness, which in turn increased the sense of listening to something very old. 


Why do I like listening to very old records on a very old machine?  I think it’s both the age of the record itself and the instrument it’s played on. Because the phonograph is acoustic, it’s “off the grid,” which means I can listen to it – and I have –even when the power goes out. I also enjoy being a physical part of playing these old records. That is, they require a manual transfer of energy from my arm to the steel handle that winds the mainspring, which in turn stores kinetic energy in its coil until I physically release the small metal “brake” and the record begins to turn. But playing them also connects me directly to the performers themselves. I know that it was Heifetz bowing 100 years ago or more that set a mica disc to trembling, which in turn carved these spiraling grooves on this shellacked disc, a disc I can hold in my hand and run my fingers across its ridged surface.


I’m no sentimentalist, no Luddite, no anti-tech purist.  I cheerfully admit that I depend on the Internet to sustain the pleasures I get from this analog machine. For instance, I purchase its steel needles online, and when the original mainspring finally broke one day, I surfed the Internet to find the only antique phonograph repair shop in the Northeast in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.  


In this sense I suppose I’m like the Inuit hunter who rides out onto the snow-covered tundra on his combustion-engine Skidoo to engage in the traditional caribou hunt. I do what it takes to keep doing the things I value most.