Sounds & Sights of Science #15

Mingrelian Songs with Nonsensical Syllables from 1909 – presented by Will Prentice


An unaccompanied solo male recitation of three songs from the Mingrelian region of present-day Georgia, recorded by the linguist Adolf Dirr 1867-1930) in Tiflis (Tbilisi) on 22 January 1909. The singer is a 16 year old grammar school pupil from the village Sergieti. According to Adolf Dirr's own notes, the first song is about a man who has stolen an ox, named Tschela, and exchanged it for a buffalo. As many songs in Georgia do, it also includes nonsensical syllables. The second and the third song consist entirely of nonsensical syllables. This track will also be heard on the CD edition of Adolf Dirr's Recordings from the Caucasus to be published later this year by the Phonogrammarchiv.



My own research explores the degree to which commercial sound recordings made in the Caucasus before 1917 can be considered representative of the cultures they portray. Dirr’s recordings, although made for purely scientific purposes, were made in the same time and place as those by the Gramophone Company, whose recording expert Franz Hampe made several hundred recordings in Tiflis in 1909. Comparison of these sets of recordings, from both technical and aesthetic perspectives, can reveal something of the filters which science and commerce applied to the subjects they intended to represent.


My role at the Phonogrammarchiv is primarily around the preservation of sound carriers and their content. Although this work is technical in essence, an understanding of the contexts in which recordings were made can be helpful in ensuring that our digital representation is as faithful to the original as possible. Adolf Dirr's recordings are a direct link to a former project of mine: In 2002, I edited the CD before the Revolution: a 1909 Recording Expedition in the Caucasus and Central Asia by the Gramophone Company, which also includes vocal performances by representatives of various nationalities in Tiflis (Tbilisi), representing – just as Adolf Dirr's recordings do – the multi-ethnic setup of the city at that time.


Will Prentice is audio engineer and preservation specialist at the Phonogrammarchiv; in his research he focuses on early commercial recordings.


Review of before the Revolution by Ted Levin (2002): https://doi.org/10.2307/3649213

Samegrelo – Zemo Svaneti: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samegrelo-Zemo_Svaneti