An adventure in recorded sound

03Jun16

It all started with an old record. Jalal Aro wanted to hear it, but couldn’t — not without the right machine. The quest to find that machine sparked a love affair that has bloomed into a business, and one of Paris’ most fascinating private museums.

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I visited Jalal recently with my friend Des, author of the marvelous Soundlandscapes blog. As we walked along the Boulevard de Rochechouart, Des pointed to a succession of shops devoted entirely to musical instruments and sound recording.

It was a fitting location, Des explained, because this used to be one of Paris’ biggest entertainment districts. Looking at this mainly commercial street I struggled to imagine it full of cabarets and theaters, music spilling into the streets. But a quick Wikipedia search confirmed the boulevard’s pedigree: It was home to Rodolphe Salis’ famous Chat Noir cabaret, among many others.

Théophile-Alexandre_Steinlen_-_Tournée_du_Chat_Noir_de_Rodolphe_Salis_(Tour_of_Rodolphe_Salis'_Chat_Noir)_-_Google_Art_Project
Théophile Steinlein’s original advertising poster for the cabaret, via Wikipedia.

I felt a twinge of nostalgia when I considered how much Montmarte has changed since those wild and heady artistic days. But that colorful past hasn’t entirely vanished, I soon discovered: It’s still very much alive again inside Jalal’s Phonogalerie shop.

At first glance it looked a bit jumbled, as if I’d stumbled into someone’s attic.

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But after a moment a sense of order emerged. One room contained shelves full of records, all alphabetized in neat rows. Other shelves housed antique cylinders, while another room seemed devoted almost entirely to amplification horns. Amid it all were dozens of old recorders and players of various vintages.

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I asked Jalal where he got these old machines. “Many from collectors,” he said. Collections are being broken up as a new generation inherits them and doesn’t know what to do with them. A few phonographs end up in flea markets; others at auction.

“And what do you do with all these machines?” I wondered. Some he lovingly restores to their original condition for sale or display in his museum. Others he rents out as film props, Jalal said. (You can spot a couple of Jalal’s machines in Midnight in Paris and Inglorious Basterds.)

“But for me it’s not just about the machine,” he added. “It’s about the complete experience.” That means also listening to the music, as well as collecting the posters and memorabilia from the earliest years of recorded sound.

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You can have that “complete experience” for yourself right around the corner from Jalal’s shop, in the Phono Museum. Here you’ll find some of the best specimens Jalal has collected and restored from every era — in total, more than 250 machines representing 140 years of recorded sound. AND EVERY SINGLE DEVICE WORKS.

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Looking at the sheer variety and complexity of the machines, it boggled my mind that Jalal would know how to fix them all. The ingenuity of some of these devices was dazzling!

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For institutions and individuals alike, the early phonographs represented a significant investment — so they were crafted to last, with the same standards you’d expect of fine furniture. Many were outright works of art.

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But the real thrill for me happened when Jalal’s wife Charlotte fired up the first machine — a double-needled contraption intended for use in a music hall. I smiled when I imagined couples, dressed in their Sunday best, dancing to this frenetic music. It must have seemed like magic at the time.

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It still seems like magic, in fact. It’s magic to be able to hear some of the first sounds ever recorded on an original Graphophone.

Or to hear music amplified on a paper speaker.

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Or to listen to an original recording of Enrico Caruso’s voice. This last one moved me particularly after Charlotte explained how the recording had been made: Caruso had literally leaned into a cone that captured the vibrations and translated them into grooves on a disc. Only a few copies could be made during each session, so he had to sing the same song over and over to mass-produce discs.

In all, he made some 260 commercially released recordings between 1900 and 1920, to such success that he became one of the first global musical celebrities. And all of this history was encapsulated in this single, shining moment:

I could go on about the edible chocolate records …

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… and the thrill of seeing the RCA Victor dog “live”…

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… and the cool neon jukebox …

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… and the world’s first talking doll. All of which still work!

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But instead I’ll suggest that if you’re ever in Paris, you visit the museum for yourself. Seeing — and hearing — so many of these machines together is a one-of-a-kind experience, and not to be missed. It truly does transport you back to an era when music was magic.

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The man behind the magic: Jalal, right, shows a museum visitor how one of Edison’s original batteries worked.

One final note: The Phono Museum is self-funded, so its existence depends on admission fees and donations. If you can’t go but would still like to contribute, you can do so here.

My enormous thanks go out to Des for arranging my visit, and to Jalal and Charlotte for their kind hospitality.

IF YOU GO:

Phono Galerie
10, rue Lallier, 75009 Paris
Open Thursday through Saturday, 2 – 8 p.m.

Phono Museum
53, boulevard de Rochechouart, 75009 Paris
Open Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, 2 – 6 p.m.
Saturday 2 – 7 p.m.
Concerts on first Sunday of the month, open 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.

“Sound tour” admission is 10€ for adults, 5€ for children ages 6 – 15 (under 6 is free).
Contact the museum for special group rates.

MORE, FOR MUSIC FANS:

In keeping with Montmartre’s live music tradition, Jalal has also begun organizing concerts at the museum on the first Sunday of each month. See who’s playing next.

Are you a collector, or a music fan? See what’s available for purchase at the Phono Galerie shop.

Jalal has written a brief history of recorded sound (in French), which you can read here.



39 Responses to “An adventure in recorded sound”

  1. OUTSTANDING! Finally, a reason for me to go to France!

    • 2 hmunro

      How funny that for years I’ve been trying to lure you to France with photos, Jim — but it was the sound files that finally pushed you over the edge! 🙂 Well, regardless of why you go I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

      • I love old audio and video gear. I have had to strongly resist the urge to fill my home with Victrolas and console televisions.

        • 4 hmunro

          “I have had to strongly resist the urge to fill my home with Victrolas and console televisions.” Ha ha! It’s a good thing you’re such a disciplined person, Jim. Although … perhaps you could partner with Jalal Aro and open a U.S. branch of his Phono Museum?

  2. Reblogged this on Sing Better English and commented:
    Many thanks to H for the photos, words and sheer Sherlock Holmes zeal of this post.

  3. Reblogged you, with much gratitude for bringing this museum into my world. Next time I’m in Paris …

    • 8 hmunro

      Next time you’re in Paris … please let me know! Perhaps our visits will coincide, and we can drop in on Jalal together. (Now, *that* would be an adventure I’d cherish.)

      • What a lovely idea! I will.

        It sounds as if Paris is very worried about the Seine rising at the moment – the highest level in 35 years, I read. They’ve had such a difficult time over the last couple of years.

        • 10 hmunro

          Poor Paris has indeed had a rough time of it recently. It’s in times like these I’m grateful to know a bit about the city’s history, so I can remind myself of how resilient her people are — and that eventually life will go back to normal. It’s been strange to see so many of my favorite spots along the river (where I was walking or sitting just two weeks ago!) completely submerged, though. It goes to show how transitory our experiences are, and how quickly things can change.

  4. Wow! Great story, great blog.

  5. Great post 🙂

  6. Wow – a place of history, ole is gold. enjoyable post

  7. Amazing stuff! Hope you don’t mind me sharing!?

    • 18 hmunro

      Don’t mind at all — honored you liked it that much, in fact. Thank you!

  8. Amazing collection. Even his name sounds like music (to me).

    • 20 hmunro

      What a beautiful comment! I’ll pass it on to him; I think it would greatly please him. Thank you so much for stopping by!

  9. 21 Asha Marie

    Love this post. You make waiting to travel almost painful.

    • 22 hmunro

      I know this feeling you describe, Asha Marie — the “almost-painfulness” of waiting to travel. What a wonderful expression! Thank you so much for taking the time to comment.

  10. Well done. Your post reflects Jalal’s enthusiasm perfectly. His shop is a magnificent Aladdin’s Cave, isn’t it? And the museum is quite unique.

    I still find it amazing that he’s built all this up from nothing and with very little support from the Paris City authorities. Maybe one day they will appreciate the value the museum brings to the city.

    On a different note, I’m getting worried about your sound recording. I feel competition coming on!!

    • 24 hmunro

      Your description of Jalal’s shop as an Aladdin’s Cave is spot-on — not only for all the treasures it contains, but also because of the sense of magic that pervades the whole place. It very clearly is a labor of love for him.

      As for that last bit of your comment: Ah, but you have nothing to fear! I frankly have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to sound, in spite of have spent several days in total now observing the master. Perhaps next time we meet, you can offer some technical suggestions?

  11. This is magnificent!

  12. This is amazing !!! Seems like a fresh breeze blown into the same old mechanic world !! Great work!

    • 29 hmunro

      I think Jalal would love your description of his museum — I’ll send him a note and encourage him to read your comment. Thank you so much for stopping by!

  13. Reblogged this on thisisnottv and commented:
    Cuando la música forma parte de nuestras vidas.

    • 32 hmunro

      Mucho le agradezco el “reblog.” Espero que sus lectores lo disfruten.

  14. 33 pmmiller1

    This is completely awesome, H. In addition to being a great blog post, it should be published in some magazine, somewhere!! I hope that happens! (Love the audio too; so haunting.)

    • 34 hmunro

      You’re so sweet, Pam — and so optimistic to think a magazine somewhere would want my writing! I’ll be content if this piece sends Jalal just a couple of new visitors. Maybe you and Noah! 🙂

  15. Amen. Hallelujah God Bless you friend.

  16. Montmarte was so romantic, but some years ago I went back to Paris and found Champs Elysees so changed and with less magic atmosphere, sad…fortunately the magic was back in Notre Dame and Louvre 🙂

    • 37 hmunro

      You’re so right that the “magic” seems fleeting in some of these places. I felt the same way about the Cour de Commerce Saint André during my last visit. I suppose it’s a natural, given that Paris is a living, breathing city — and also because we travelers are never the same people twice, either. What may have seemed charming to us five years ago might today seem shabby or too gentrified. All of that said, I’m with you on the Louvre and Notre Dame! The latter especially will always be special to me and deeply sentimental, I think.
      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment!

  17. Your blog is a so nice discover, I like to follow you 🙂
    I totally agree with you!!! Travel is a very special experience, I have been in London on last december, brought my son to Warner Bros Studio, so delightful! we breathed the Hogwarts atmosphere! 🙂

  18. 39 Jade

    Now I really want to got to France


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