[Taken from a forthcoming article co-written with Patrick Feaster]
Film scholars have typically taken film editing as the primary gauge of measuring narrative expression in early cinema. Dramatic routines heard on early phonograph records reveal sonic analogues to some much-discussed cinematic editing techniques. In the case of the Haydn Quartet’s New Years at Old Trinity (Victor 1904), a group of young men are heard to gather outside a church in downtown New York City in the moments before midnight on New Year’s Eve. One of the men addresses the group: “Say boys, I’ve got a good story to tell you,” he says, “you know that Jones girl with the black eyes?” He is interrupted by one of his friends, who jokes, “who gave ’em to her?” The group laughs, and the conversation stops as we hear the sounds of revellers in the background. After a moment, a voice announces, “Hold on boys, the chimes are going to play.” We hear the sound of the church chimes, and the young man returns to his story. Before long, he is interrupted again, this time by an Irish policeman who says, “Move along there, don’t block up the sidewalk.” Later the men are narrowly missed by a passing car that hits a dog, and then by Columbia University students singing their school song. “Say, will you ever finish that story?” one of the men asks. The answer is no, as after the group sings “Auld Land Syne,” the record ends with the sound of the church clock striking twelve and the eruption of noisy celebration at the arrival of the New Year.
The young man’s never-finished story becomes a unifying narrative theme joining together disparate bits of ethnic humor and scenic interest, but note how the shifting back and forth between multiple scenes can be heard as a sonic analogue to crosscutting or parallel editing: editing which moves between simultaneous events in separated locales. The impression created by the intercalation of the young man’s storytelling and the various events surrounding and interrupting it is not so much that these events are unfolding in linear time as that they are different, virtually simultaneous events taking place in a larger contiguous space. Like crosscutting, the sonic narrative technique heard here provides a heightened sense of suspense, since it builds the listeners anticipation of hearing the end of the young man’s story, as well as the arrival of midnight. The richness and diversity of audio story-telling techniques heard on early recordings captured in a “single shot” suggests an over-reliance on editing as the guiding consideration for narrative development in the modern media. Phonograph records such as New Years at Old Trinity, Night Trip to Buffalo, Trip to the County Fair, and Muggsy’s Dream were developing their own complex and compelling narrative language for depicting multiple times and spaces, as well as various subjective states.