Music, Sound, and Technology in America: A Documentary History of early Phonograph, Cinema, and Radio

Timothy D. Taylor, Mark Katz, Tony Grajeda (eds.)
Music, Sound, and Technology in America: A Documentary History of early Phonograph, Cinema, and Radio
Duke University Press, 2013
US$27.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)

It was once a cliché to remark on the absence of sound from scholarly discussion. Now it is not only tiresome to keep doing so, it is also somewhat incorrect. As Timothy D. Taylor outlines in his general introduction to the volume, Music, Sound, and Technology in America “contributes to a small but fast-growing body of literature by musicologists and ethnomusicologists that is shedding light on the development of important music and audio technologies” (7). As outlined in this introduction, the book is divided into three sections, each on the phonograph, the cinema, and the radio. In the last section, Mark Katz suggests that, “radio in the 1920s and 1930s came to symbolize, perhaps more than any other technology with the possible exception of the automobile, Americans’ sense of themselves as modern people” (254). It does seem the case from this anthology; although I have not done enough general research to make my own claim. But as a group, the three technologies covered here do seem to have something of that status today, and I wonder, perhaps with more reading, what else I might discover had such importance. A bulk of my own memories, and those knowledges of personal histories that I’ve patched together from the memories of others, indeed circle around experiences with these three forms, experiences both solitary and shared, both joyous and sorrowful. The impact of these technologies on the lives of early twentieth-century Americans – and world citizens – has clearly been sustained through to the twenty-first century and their acknowledgement in this single volume is heartening.

The problem at the outset of the volume is the layout, which signals an absence of commentary and consequently of a narrative thread and personal or empirical voice. Much of the information in these introductions is panned out as a broad and basic outline of each topic under discussion, which is then followed by a selection of written artifacts from the eras of their invention. This approach and general coverage can at times be quite dry to read and, to a reader familiar with the general history of the material, there isn’t much of a hook. This led me to assume, at first, that the anthology is more of an introduction to the historical and scholarly field for those first entering research, or perhaps begging for some initial knowledge. Yet in Tony Grajeda’s introduction to the cinema section of the volume, he assumes that, “To many students and scholars alike, it might be surprising a century later to learn that, in its earliest decades, cinema was not confidently known or identified as we now know it to be today” (140). Grajeda’s revelation, as he might suppose it, is known to me as a student and scholar, and I can’t imagine even an early student of the interdisciplinary arts who wouldn’t be aware of the very basics of film’s genesis.

Taylor’s introduction to the section on the radio was the most engaging, discussing not only the evolution of the technology, but its place in the homes of citizens and as a medium in which entertainers began to work. Out of the three sections in the volume, the radio is the one with which I am the least familiar, and thus it was the section from which I learnt the most and could source most interest. So whether or not Music, Sound, and Technology in America is intended as such, I read this volume as little more than an introduction to topics, shining light on such brief yet dense articles so as to only outline each technology’s development. But perhaps I would suggest that it is not so much something to be read in full, as it is something to be kept for reference. Most of the information, and even much of the material, can be read in already released books or may already be known via general knowledge. Its number one selling point is the high volume of primary sources, articles that have been collected and reprinted for convenience.

In my own current research, I have spent many hours trawling through volumes of the Journal for the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, sourcing articles or inclinations that indicate engineers cared for the cinema as an art form rather than just a place to exhibit technological grandeur, and cared for the emotions of the audience. Thus the following inclusion perhaps means the most to me of anything else in this anthology: an article, originally given as a speech to the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, by Warren Nolan in 1929. He tries to warn his fellow engineers that they should not publicise or celebrate the individual achievements of its members “when they endanger the illusion of a darkened theater”. As he says of their profession, “Mechanics are an auxiliary, an aid to an emotional effect” (231). At least, in mainstream Hollywood cinema of the time, mechanics were an auxiliary, intended, at large, to be masked for the benefit of a certain realism. It is heartening to know that the engineers behind the screen, behind the entire production process of filmmaking, thought of the audience’s (and us, the reader’s) feelings and responses to be of utmost importance.

Another favourite is the article written for Modern Music in 1929 by Carol-Bérard, a plea for the acceptance of noises as suitable for recording, in which he delights in the “dissonant and rhythmic combinations” of everyday noises. He references the inventions of Leon Thérémin and Maurice Martenot, devices that produced musical electronically, and suggested that by recording by expanding the concept of music, we could “create symphonies of noise that would be grateful to the ear” (112). It is only a brief glimpse into the contribution of avant-garde sensibility to the ideas of recorded sound – knowing much more about it, it is an unsatisfyingly slim selection (buffeted only by a few musings by Igor Stravinsky). Once again, I become aware that perhaps this volume is too ambitious, that there is too much to cover, and that it would benefit from the shapeliness of a commentary or more general historical exploration.

Other than this, the most interesting, revealing sections of this anthology are those which are anecdotal or personal in some way, that impart an opinion on development rather than simply listing details of developments as they came about. In a section titled, ‘What the Fans Think’, the inclusion of a number of letters written to the magazine Picture Play gives an insight into audience responses to developments of the sound picture, and to the means of adding sound to the exhibition of films. A Dutch film fan wrote, in 1929,

Wings was shown in our town, with sound effects. The drone of the airplanes was so beautifully produced that it seemed they were flying inside the theater. Therefore, I am for the sound effects. But spare us, for Heaven’s sake, from the talking movie in its present form…I attended a demonstration of the Vitaphone…The sound was clear and natural, but when a person appeared on the screen and started to speak, the audience burst out laughing, for the voice seemed to come from everywhere – from his ears, from his nose, his hands, but not from his mouth. (233)

An amusing image, perhaps comparable to the overused 1931 quote from motion picture engineer John Cass, who complained that when a number of microphones were used to record sound for a film, it would present as though the audience would have five or six very long ears extending in multiple directions. An odd and illustrative metaphor, although one quite scathing of his own aims to refine the inclusion of sound in films. Of the selection of Picture Play letters included in the anthology, many contained complaints about the inaccessibility of foreign accents to unaccustomed ears – even “Yankee talk” and “Southern drawl”. A Californian woman, in 1929, dismissed films as a “thing of the past’ due to the intrusive sound of the Movietone, and other apparatus noise pollution. She threatens, “I’ll have hereafter to spend my evening with my books – the films are a thing of the past with me, so long as they continue in their present noisy state” (234). With a little bit of personality, a narrow channel through which to access moods of the day not tempered by propriety, these letters fill some of the few pages in Music, Sound, and Technology in America that lend it any real warmth. There are other documents and letters written from audience members or users of devices, including an incredible description of ‘hearing’ music over the radio by Helen Keller, that contribute relatable warmth to the book.

That’s not to say in the least that Taylor, Katz, and Grajeda are not dedicated to representing the histories of their beloved technologies. But the technologies themselves are almost stripped of humour and life, of their realistic roles in society both historically and today, by the dry tone and language that bulks up the anthology. This is what stunted my willingness to engage with it fully as a history of the technologies and devices. In his introduction to the phonograph section, Katz writes of the breadth of reactions to new technology, from amazement to fear to anxiety that music could be “unmoored from its temporal origins”, and that human voices could be seemingly entirely disembodied (11). Quoting an article from 1923, Katz recalls that when listening to music and voices through the phonograph, people would still “desire the physical presence”, the proof of the human element (16). The copy, as it were, was just not enough for them. I feel the same about this book. Articles are reprinted, each text bleeding into the text and font of the others, their historical differences muted on every additional similar page. Whether or not it’s fathomable or would be a neat visual reading experience, I did yearn to see where and how these articles were originally printed, and that something essential in feeling that connection to, and understanding of, historical progress is lost. Even with the odd advertisement or photograph reprinted, the general uniformity of each text leaves them a little unsatisfying, almost hard to accept as true. There’s something to truly treasure in a tangible history.

It’s hard to say that a tangible, dynamic history is something that this anthology really gives us. I do think that it is perhaps suited to students or readers without much prior knowledge of the field, or perhaps for someone after a reference with little time on their hands. Leon Alfred Duthernoy, a concert singer who gave his impression of his first radio concert in 1922, wrote that, when he sang, “I ranged the gamut of human emotions, from helplessness to exultation” (267). Sadly, none of the exhilarating feeling of his experience of the technology and burgeoning future transpired from reading this book. For the more engaged researcher, going back to original sources would be more rewarding, and provide more of a connection – perhaps only chimerical, but at least a satisfying one – to the material.


About the Author

Eloise Ross

About the Author

Eloise Ross

Eloise Ross is Program Manager and President of the Melbourne Cinémathèque. She has a PhD in cinema studies from La Trobe University specialising on sound and embodiment, and writes and teaches about film.View all posts by Eloise Ross →