Writing Sound: Phonautography, Phonography and Marianne Moore’s Syllabics

By | 15 February 2023

9 April 1860, a room in Paris. Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville is singing ‘Au clair de la lune’ into his astonishing invention. For twenty seconds he sings, slowly.

Au clair de la lune
Mon ami Pierrot –

He is singing into a barrel made of Plaster of Paris. It is open at one end, tilted to catch his voice. At its other end is a brass tube, spoutlike except that it has a membrane stretched across it and, fixed to that membrane, a needlelike point. This point touches a cylinder covered in lamp-blacked paper, to be cranked by hand. As he sings, cranking the handle, the membrane at the barrel’s end moves with the movement of his voice. Its needle is scratching a wavering line into the lamp-blacked paper – is writing the shape of the sound of his voice, otherwise a disturbance of air so subtle as not to move even the bright dust hung in angled light inside a darkened room. Its lines, scratchings on background dark, are like lines of rain falling through headlights, lines of rain stop-motion advancing across night window-glass –

Can one hope that the day is near when the musical phrase escaped from the singer’s lips, will be written by itself and as if without the musician’s paper and leave an imperishable trace of those fugitive melodies which the memory no longer finds when it seeks them?
Will one be able to have placed between two men brought together in a silent room an automatic stenographer –
Will the improvisation of the writer, when it emerges in the middle of the night, be recoverable the next day with its freedom, this complete independence from the pen, an instrument so slow to represent a thought always cooled in its struggle with written expression?

–Scott, ‘The Principles of Phonautography’, 1857

At the age of fifteen, Scott started work as a printer. He had a shop selling books and prints at 9 Rue Vivienne, at the back of the courtyard. He was interested in shorthand, in the history of shorthand. One day – he was about thirty-seven, printing a treatise on human physiology – he thought to copy the workings of the human ear with a machine. The tympanum: a membrane at the end of a horn. The ossicle: levers controlling a stylus pressed against paper, wood or lamp-blacked glass. 26 January 1857: he gave his design in its sealed envelope to the Academie Francaise. 25 March 1857: he received French patent #17,897/31,470. It was, he said, ‘la parole, s’écrivant elle-même’ – speech, writing itself.

His phonautograph wrote, he said, in singular hieroglyphics – awaiting their Champollion. It was a signature of someone’s voice. It was listening by sight –

this trace is a kind of reptile, the coils of which follow all the modulations or inflections – the deep voice – the high-pitched voice – a high-pitched voice descending to a deep voice – an intense voice – an average voice – a weak voice – the trill on the letter r – the outburst of the voice –1

He had it write the sound of a tuning fork, the sound of an actor speaking lines from Tasso’s Aminta, the song, ‘Fly, little bee’ –


Spirits speaking through a mind finely attuned, a hand scratching words on paper –
          ‘No, we have come to give you metaphors for poetry,’ they said to Yeats, taking his wife Georgie to be their phonoautograph, and sleeping phonograph –

When the automatic writing began we were in a hotel on the edge of Ashdown Forest, but soon returned to Ireland – always more or less solitary, my wife bored and fatigued by her almost daily talk and I thinking and talking of little else. Early in 1919 the communicator of the moment – they were constantly changed – said they would soon change the method from the written to the spoken word as that would fatigue her less, but the change did not come for some months –
          We had one of those little sleeping compartments in a train, with two berths, and were somewhere in Southern California. My wife, who had been asleep for some minutes, began to talk in her sleep, and from that on almost all communications came in that way. My teachers did not seem to speak out of her sleep but as if from above it, as though it were a tide upon which they floated –

– Yeats, A Vision III

  1. Patrick Feaster ‘Daguerreotyping the Voice: Léon Scott’s Phonautographic Aspirations’, in ed., Annette Stahmer, Parole #1: The Body of the Voice / Stimmkörper (Cologne, Salon Verlag, 2009) 18–23, online
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