Patrick Feaster easily recalls the moment he first heard the French lullaby "Au clair de la lune" crackle out of the speakers of his home computer. Bleary eyed, sunrise fast approaching, Feaster could clearly pick out the grainy, ethereal voice of a young girl making herself heard for the first time since she was recorded a century and a half earlier, in 1860.
Feaster is a hunter of ancient sounds stored in recordings that have been impenetrable to modern methods of playback -- or that were never even intended to be heard. But with a clever method the recent Indiana University PhD developed in his spare time, Feaster breathes life into timeworn stores of aural information.
"I stayed up all night correcting this sound file," Feaster says of the lullaby. "Gradually, over the course of the night, this voice begins to take recognizable form, until somewhere around 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, I can hear the whole thing, and it's immediately recognizable -- I know how 'Au clair de la lune' goes. And I sat there thinking, 'I'm hearing someone singing a song before the outbreak of the American Civil War, and I'm the only person alive who has heard this.'"
The rest of the world got its chance soon after, when the played-back sound was presented to eager ears at a recording conference at Stanford in 2008. (Feaster refers to the presentations as "unveilings.") The show resonated with the audience's historical bent, because at 150 years old, this particular rendition of 'Au clair de la lune' -- recorded on a phonautograph, a device created by Édouard-Léon Scott two decades before Edison's 1877 invention of the phonograph -- became the oldest known recorded sound.