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Acid Seven: Telharmony

Press surrounding new technology puts a lot of stock in tech's 'revolutionary' potential. The market language of 'disruptive' technologies promises a total shift in the constitution of social life as we know it--the iPhone 'Changes Everything,' etc. What is left out of the equation, both by our cultural imagination and the hyperbolic chamber of advertising, is the eventual fate of even the most 'disruptive' tech: it's rarely able to make the waves it claims it can.

Christo Sims wrote of the Downtown School in NYC, a school 'reinvented' for the 'digital age.' This was purported to be an ambitious -- even revolutionary -- alternative model of schooling. It was to do away with the 'factory' mode of educational instruction, and set an example for a schooling system mired by economic inequality. It would do this through implementing 'cutting edge' game-based learning, and promote racial and ethnic diversity. This was the direct answer to a segregated, failing school system. The experiment, backed by wealthy philanthropists and progressive education reformers, failed.

Extant divisions of class and race persisted, as Sims writes, because "a mostly upper-middle-class white and Asian-American faction of the school’s parents had been pressuring the administration to crack down on what they saw as untoward behavior by some lower-income students, all of whom identified as Black or Latino." The 'cutting edge' learning modules were still constricted to state-mandated standardized test scores, meaning there was very little game designers could do to fundamentally change the curriculum. This was the experiment's weak point: nothing that contributed to the problems of the schooling system could fundamentally change.


Those problems were instead "rendered technical," or reduced to something solvable by a single technological improvement. As is expected of 'revolutionary' changes in the neoliberal epoch, it came dressed in all of the symbolically progressive language of something that might actually change something, and delivered next to no change. But these excited stirrings of revolutionary technologies are by no means only a byproduct of the current neoliberal consensus. Every technological invention births a vision of the future centered around its potential.


The first synthesizer weighed 200 tons. The player sat at a console and keyed out electrical signals to the next room, where 145 power generators spanning 60 feet produced the corresponding audio frequencies. This sound was fed either through an acoustic horn, as the amplifier did not yet exist, or wired into telephone receivers to be broadcast in hotels -- or the homes of wealthy patrons. Mark Twain was one such patron. His biographer writes that during a New Year's Eve party, "music came over the regular telephone wire," transmitted through home phonograph horns. At midnight, they heard "Auld Lang Syne" -- a live broadcast before radio.


Thaddeus Cahill, the inventor of the instrument, would revise his machine every few years. The funding came relatively easy -- all it took was a single meeting. Cahill arranged to demonstrate the machine by phone call. They met in Baltimore, and heard the instrument as it was being played in Washington. This was no small feat for its time, and already embodied a vision of the future in the cultural imaginary -- what's next with that new thing, electricity? More importantly, though, it represented a distinctly American business opportunity. In Europe, early telecommunications were run by the state. Across the pond, we left it to private enterprise, accidentally creating the first national monopoly (oops!)

The grand reveal of the Telharmonium left quite the impression on reporters. Reynold Weidenaar writes that it was speculated "[the] Telharmonium would mark the age of musical democracy. It was yet another benefit of electricity, that great unifying force on which Americans had spent a billion dollars the previous year--for information, communication, light, heat, locomotion, and so on. Now music was to be added" (The Magical Music of the Telharmonium, pp. 72-73). If the sound of any instrument could be synthesized from the Telharmonium's central station, what use would any of those old hunks of wood and metal be? Demonstration concerts and hotel installations continued, but the instrument's viability was challenged.


Consumers complained that music traveling over the telephone wires interfered with regular communication. The tides of capital were turning, and Cahill had run the instrument like a business. Over the next few years, Cahill disassembled and reassembled his machine. In those final years, he held more demonstration recitals, but it was clear that he could never return the instrument to its former glory. Cahill closed shop for good in 1918, and the Telharmonium was salvaged for parts. No recordings of the instrument exist.


In a way, the Telharmonium was the realization of a previously fictional invention. Edward Bellamy's socialist utopian novel Looking Backward (1888), set in the distant future of the year 2000, 'predicted' the Telharmonium. But there is an important distinction here: the musical inventions in Looking Backward were necessitated by a complete restructuring of society. One could access a variety of live musical programming 24 hours a day only because industrial capitalism had given way to a fully employed, quasi-state socialist society. One character describes the arrangement:

"Of course, we all sing nowadays as a matter of course in the training of the voice, and some learn to play instruments for their private amusement; but the professional music is so much grander and more perfect than any performance of ours, and so easily commanded when we wish to hear it, that we don't think of calling our singing or playing music at all. All the really fine singers and players are in the musical service, and the rest of us hold our peace for the main part" (Looking Backward, p. 63).

The protagonist, Julian West, is a wealthy man who has only begun to see the 'labor troubles' of his day because his builders are on strike. This was a reference to the conditions of the late 19th century US; a series of economic depressions and recessions, along with brutal labor conditions, incited a working-class uprising. These struggles culminated in the Haymarket affair in 1886, wherein demonstrators, protesting for the 8 hour workday, threw dynamite at police following the murder of a striking worker. Tensions were still increasing at the time of Looking Backward 's publication, and so too was labor militancy. Bellamy's vision of the future was one in which labor militants had won -- unconditionally.


West, waiting for the strike to end, is sleepless. He calls on his doctor, an experimental hypnosis practitioner, to help him sleep. He is set into a trance state, and as he sleeps, his property is destroyed -- presumably by striking workers. He is presumed dead until 113 years later, when an excavator finds him. Awoken from his artificial slumber, he discovers this new utopian society. The contradictions of industrial capitalism dissolved, and 'naturally' gave way to state ownership of the nation's productive forces, full employment according to each worker's aptitude, and direct state distribution of all necessary goods. A 24-hour musical program was just one of these goods. 

The case of the Telharmonium was not, by any account, inspired by any sort of dream of societal reformation. Cahill simply wanted to create an instrument that would rid the performer of the imperfections of acoustic instruments. He delegated the work of running the 'business' side to others, and even its relatively modest longevity is thanks to their ability to 'sell' the idea of the instrument. This is where many of the futuristic visions came from: the machine was novel enough to sustain the 'shock of the new' its sound inspired. 


"You have a system that can do anything you want in music," wrote Metropolitan Opera conductor Alfred Hertz, "It is wonderful, and I believe in Telharmony as an art of music" (The Magical Music of the Telharmonium, p. 173). Fundamentally, the invention did change everything -- just within the confines of the building that housed it. It laid the groundwork for a means of producing tones electronically -- through a prohibitively expensive and labor-intensive construction. There was no way that performers could eschew the piano for the Telharmonium. 


By rendering technical the problems of acoustic instruments, Cahill was able to solve the tuning problem, but his room full of dynamos created a host of new problems. Moreover, the intricate and expansive inner workings of the machine were invisible to the listener; it was only a matter of time before the instrument's signature sound was no longer new and exciting. Experimental electronic composer Edgard Varèse, who had read of the invention in a scientific magazine, was fascinated by the instrument.  As if a tragic omen, Varèse later reported that he found the sound of the Telharmonium disappointing.

Return to Shuttlecock on the seventh day of each month (give or take) for a transmission from Pat’s ongoing journey into the experimental and genreless music of Kansas City. Follow them on Twitter.

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