Berea in Soap
The following is an attempt to capture rush hour traffic of Berea road in soap, using the phonograph, (one of the first sound recording devices) an invention of Edison originally intended for the capturing of business phone calls. Several diffent types of soap were tried out for their ability to carry an inscription.
This is achieved by a telephone call to Durban. Colleage Jan Henry stood at the side of the road at 10:08 on Tuesday the 8th of July, with his mobile phone on an outstretched arm to register the traffic and peripheral sounds. The call was then received in Amsterdam, taken directly from the telephone line and amplified into the horn of the phonograph. The sapphire recording head then cuts the signal into the soap.
Berea Road is the main road from Durban, South Africa, to the interior.
In the early days it was a mudslide in summer due to its bad surface and steep decline. A tollgate once operated at the crest of the hill to raise funds in order to pay for the hardening of Durban’s roads. This road still functions as the main artery for commuters to and from the city, a pathway bearing the affluent guts of the city.
At the base of Berea road lies Warwick Avenue triangle. About 300 000 commuters a day pass through the junction, which was once a tourist attraction with its famous Indian and fresh produce markets.
The Junction accommodates between 5 000 and 7 000 informal traders, some of which had built makeshift homes from plastic and wood, trading directly from their houses onto the street.
All of these settlings have since been made illegal and removed. Some 200 buses and 2 000 taxis converge on the area daily, and 60 000 to 70 000 passengers commute by train from the nearby Berea Road station. The junction has become a free-for-all for criminals who rob shops and hijack, murder and mug pedestrians almost daily. A significant percentage of these events are claimed by Taxi Mafia, caught in wars of competition over the public transport industry through- out the city.
During 1996, three friends and myself lived in a perpendicular road off Berea road called Florence Avenue. As spoilt young students we moved from the sheltered suburbs of a nearby city to the chaos of Berea. In our first year of living here we had seen stabbings and drug busts, several of us having been threatened with knives. It had become practice to carry mace in either handy key rings or larger spray cans the size of deodorant. In the upheaval of Berea, inspiration was spawned. People were loose and mixed.
In contrast to the plastics of insular suburbs, people spoke. Music was loud. The street was not only a travel route, but an extended mess of a community centre, a destination.
A warehouse, ‘Marine Salvage’ sold excess, lost and sunken stock from the harbour, another shop sold bulk sweets you couldn’t digest.
Late one night we stripped down to our underwear and ran around in the pouring rain, another night we rubbed Vaseline on the door handle of our landlord’s car and tried to piss in the window.
Schoenberg to soap
Shown here is one-sided record of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, cast into soap and hence loosing quality through the inability of plaster to hold fine detail. The original cast is eaten away when the needle runs over the grooves holding the potential piece of music. This illustrates that the hardest of the three soaps used to record Berea can be inscribed yet when palyed back will discitergrate. In effect this means the white cylinder holds an inscription which can be seen but not heard.
A somewhat vaselined up Schoenberg record after having been cast.
The Austrian musician Arnold Schoenberg had devised many techniques for what he had termed ‘The Emancipation of Dissonance’ achieved primarily through atonality, or serial music, a technique whereby a composer would arrange all twelve pitches in a piece, having to exhaust all tones before returning to the original note. This actively denies a sense of resolution and results in a position autonomous of scale.
The sounds of a cast soap record are reduced to a splutter when eaten away by the playback needle.
The word “atonality” later became a negative term to describe and to condemn music in which chords were organized with no apparent coherence. Riots erupted at both Austrian premieres of his two string quartets in 1905 and 1908. Such experiences led him often to feel persecuted by a public that could not understand his music.
An earlier piece Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night, 1899) was written for string sextet in the chromatic tradition of Wagner’s Tristan. As an Opera Tristan had already stretched tonality to its limits.
The three cylinders mounted above make evident the different quailty of the soaps, as a result of their respective ingriedients. In the end the cylinder on your right was the only soap able to carry and inscription. The centre cylinder didnt even make it onto the machine as it was pecked at by chickens before even hardening The various materials and the outcomes of the attempts are documented below.
A simple soap can be made from animal fat and caustic soda. The soda seen here is sold as drain cleaner. It is a highly corrosive substance and especially aggressive when mixed with water. When mixed with fat it transforms and becomes harmless. Among other factors, the subtle balance between these two elements results in various consistencies of soap.
In attempt to make a soap cylinder to capture the rush hour traffic of Berea road, the first fat used was by chance ‘Ossewit’. The combination of drain cleaner and cooking fat had produced a cylinder too soft to be recorded into. When left to set outside the cylinder was pecked at by chickens.
The central pin of the phonograph was reproduced in order to hold a thicker casting of the cylinder. As opposed to a thinner sheathe, the soap cylinders had to be thick blocks.
Mixer and bracket used for stirring fat and caustic soda mix (apprx. two hours)
Rubber latex mould and centring device
Ossewit and Beeswax (Carnauba)
When mixing bees wax into a batch of Ossewit – then heating, a thick froth, much like that of sticky caramel was produced. This had resulted in a suitably hard, yet useless cylinder due to the morphing of the latex mold and the bubbles trapped in the surface.
The morphed shape causes the needle to miss the surface and bump its base as it spins, and the bubbles defeat the idea of a delicate recording surface.
Melt and Pour Soap
Drie Hekses ‘Melt and Pour Soap’ sets in two hours after pouring. Produced a relatively hard cylinder, which was reshaped in a lathe. The surface is receptive to the sapphire recording head but remains too malleable to allow the cylinder to be played. In effect the reproducer head eats further into the surface from which it is supposed to read, actively erasing an already bad recording.
Corner describing process
two minute cylinders from the turn of the century, released by and featuring: the Thomas Edison band
Prior to the use of wax as a recording material, was the tin-foil reproducer
One standard wax cylinder can hold around two minutes of inscription.
Rob is a trader in various merchandise as well as an avid collector of telephones.
Rob’s brother, Fred van Olphen, has been running an outdoor and camping franchise ‘Beaver Zwerfsport’ since 1977.
Around ten years ago a friend of his brother had passed away. His job was to manufacture a soap for cleaning high altitude fabrics, namely Gor-Tex. The soap was, and is still called, ‘Tech-Wash’. Rob was asked to take over the manufacture of this product by his brother around three years ago.
The porous membrane of high altitude Gore-Tex needs to be kept clean in order to remain porous. It is a fabric which allows for air to escape but allows nothing in. When the pores become blocked the fabric no longer functions and at high altitudes vapours of the body condense and freeze.
Shown here is a bottle of Tech-Wash.
‘Tech Wash’ is available at all Beaver Zwerfsport outlets, across Belgium and the Netherlands:
Before the production of Tech Wash, Rob had been involved in the import of a cheap but high quality soap from Czechoslovakia. The soap sold well on the market in Den Haag, which led to Rob ordering new stock every month. By the time the soap factory had closed Rob had sold over 42 000 bars.
Fred’s soap technician friend had also been working for a company named ‘Slee’ in Den Haag. This company had been experimenting with many different recipes and at one stage had come across a recipe for a soap to clean products containing feathers. This soap is made using a special type of wood from Southern America and involves a process of much brewing and filtering. Despite its awful smell, Wood-soap is very effective for this specific purpose.
The quality of a soap can be measured by its consistency when scraping ones nail through the surface. A good soap will gather and form a loose coil much like a pencil shaving. A bad soap will generally produce shrapnel. Identified by this technique, the soap sold on the market had thus become popular.
Half a bar of one of the 42 000 bars of soap sold by Rob.
When visiting Rob he had recommended a visit to a Turkish shop which has a good cross section of quality soaps at an affordable price. Our contact person was to be ‘Idris’, a student of law and importer of the various soap from Turkey. Idris wasn’t at his store at the time; never the less we bought the following soap.
Rob also mentioned that in most parts of the world soap has the name of either ‘Sabuna’ or ‘Savon’. This bar of soap is from my flat-mate Bas Louter. It’s from France and with the name ‘Savon’ in combination with the Turkish ‘Sabunu’, Rob holds true.