Erich Moritz von Hornbostel was an „armchair ethnologist“. Due to his bad health the musicologist was unable to travel to faraway countries. Instead he sat at his desk in the Dorotheenstraße in Berlin and received the world through his phonograph. On from 1900 the world’s music arrived at his office in the form of more than 16.000 wax-cylinder recordings from all over the planet. Due to an edict by the Prussian Emperor all German trading as well as scientific expeditors were bound to travel with a phonograph and send their recordings to Berlin. Today we might put it that way: Hornbostel was in charge of the biggest field-recording project of all times.
In his case being a stay-at-home was definitely an achievement. His immobility gave Hornbostel the chance to develop a completely new perspective, an unprecedented acoustical bird’s eye view, and made him the founder of a new discipline: comparative musicology’s aim was to “unveil the dark and distant past (…) and to extract the timeless and the general from the abundance of our present; in other words: We want to get to know the historic and the basic esthetic principles of musical art.”
Approximately 100 years later Hornbostel’s acoustic present has itself become a dark and distant past. To our ears the 16.000 wax-cylinder recordings of the Berlin Phonogram-Archive sound like treasures from a long lost world. These treasures are not only raised by researchers but increasingly also by artists. The current archive’s management is generously granting them access to the recordings that have been digitalized over the past fifteen years. Thus Eva Pöpplein and Janko Hanushevsky (aka Merzouga) have become fellow armchair-travelers. They bring along a lot of experience, which they collected as heavy-duty field-recordists on intensive sound-expeditions through India and South-East-Asia. („Good Morning, Rickshaw“ – Deutschlandradio Kultur 2008; „Mekong Morning Glory“ – Deutschlandradio Kultur 2009 / Gruenrekorder 2011). Now they encompass the sonic landscape of the Phonogram-Archive with the same musical sensitiveness that can be found in their previous works. Just like Hornbostel the two are genuinely interested in something timeless, something general: the uniquely beautiful human ability to play with sounds and structures. Janko Hanushevsky integrates his electric-bass improvisations into the historic wax-cylinders’ cracks and scratches. And Eva Pöpplein sparingly applies electronic effects in order to distill precious essences from the sonic material. The result is a musical position-reckoning between the past and the future of sound-recording: Located at 52°46’ North and 13°29’ East, in the Ethnologisches Museum Dahlem, is the world’s most moveable armchair. Marcus Gammel, Deutschlandradio Kultur.