Nick Brooke's experimental opera Tone Test is based on the Edison Company's infomercials from the 1920s, in which Thomas Edison enlisted the Metropolitan opera diva Anna Case to show that his records when "compared to the living artist reveal no difference." Eighty years later, Bob, the son of antique music collectors, confronts the memory of the voice that has become an unforgettable reminder of his sometimes painful childhood.
In 1915, Metropolitan Opera soprano Anna Case (pictured, right) walked into a phonograph store in Des Moines, Iowa, and began singing alongside her own record. The audience at the store said they couldn’t tell the difference. The idea caught on: between 1915 and 1920, the Edison company organized over 4,000 “tone tests” across the nation. Case gave the most famous tone test on March 10, 1920 in Carnegie Hall, which featured the “so-called dark scene, where the artist steals from the stage, while the phonograph is playing.” Case later admitted to having trained her voice to sound like the phonograph.
Considering himself a music connoisseur, Thomas Edison often personally chose the musicians who recorded on his label. Case was his favorite because of her straight, non-vibrato tone. Newspapers report Edison traveling many miles to see Case’s concerts, and he asked to hear a recording of her on the first transcontinental phone call.
For the fancier tone tests in major cities, the Edison company procured the services of a lighting designer who would create dramatic fade-outs and generally keep the audience in the dark about whether the performer was lip-synching. Phonograph trade magazines suggested that the tone test stage be set like a living room, with carpet, standing lamps, and recliners. This reflected a general conflation of the concert hall and living room during the period. The new Edison phonograph was promoted for its ability to bring the most famous singers into the living room, and many domestic musicians gave up performing when their families bought Edison’s new “musical instrument.”
Tone Test is composed almost entirely from samples of Edison Diamond Disc recordings, and reflects a general cross-section of the Edison catalogue circa 1917.
About the Creator
Nick Brooke, composer & co-librettist, mixes musical sampling, lipsynching, and theater into a genre all its own. In his works, vocalists and actors are trained to mimic sampled collages of sound effects, pop songs, and musical ephemera, blurring the line between recording and live performance. His work Tone Test received its premiere at Lincoln Center Festival in 2004 and previews on NPR and in the New York Times documented its innovative aesthetic.
Brooke’s instrumental works have been performed by the Paul Dresher Ensemble, the Nash Ensemble of London, Orchestra 2001, Dan Druckman, and New York's Gamelan Son of Lion. His work has been performed across the U.S. and in Europe, and featured at the Lincoln Center Festival, the Spoleto Festival, and the MATA Series. He has received awards and residencies from the Guggenheim Foundation, ASCAP, the Rockefeller Foundation, Djerassi, and the MacDowell Colony. Originally a clarinettist, he is also an avid instrument builder, thereminist, and researcher of early musical automata. During a two-year fellowship to Central Java, he studied gamelan and collaborated on musical projects with Javanese composers, dancers, and visual artists. He holds degrees in music composition and philosophy from Oberlin, and a Ph.D from Princeton. He teaches at Bennington College.
July 22-24, 2004:
Lincoln Center Festival 2004. American Opera Projects and the Lincoln Center Festival presented the WORLD PREMIERE of Tone Test at the Clark Studio Theatre ( Rose Building , West 65th Street and Amsterdam Ave in NYC) at 8:30 pm with the following cast and crew:
Music and Libretto Nicholas Brooke
Director: David Herskovits
Music Director: Alan Johnson
Set and Costume Design: Carol Bailey
Lighting Design: Beverly Emmons
Technical Director: Dan Dryden
Anna Case: Dina Emerson
Bob: Gregory Purnhagen
Live Sound Mixer, Keyboard: Christopher Tignor
March 13, 2004:
American Opera Projects presented a concert reading of excerpts from Tone Test , music and libretto by Nicholas Brooke. Directed by David Herskovits. Starring Gregory Purnhagen and Dina Emerson. Workshop performance, co-produced by Department of Music at Hamilton-Murray Theater, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ. 8:00 pm.
Oct 31-Nov 1, 2003:
American Opera Projects presented a concert reading of excerpts from Tone Test as part of the AOP First Chance series. Music and libretto by Nicholas Brooke. Directed by David Herskovits. Starring Gregory Purnhagen and Dina Emerson. South Oxford Space 138 S. Oxford Street, Brooklyn, 8:00 pm.