Arts & Culture

How the ‘talking machine’ allowed music and dance to cross oceans

7 min read

In the late 1920s, with the advent of new technology, gramophone and “talking machine” companies were able to capture the sounds and rhythms of life in cities across the globe. From New York to Havana, Paris to Honolulu, labels like Victor, Gramophone Company, and Okeh competed to record vernacular music. Genres such as jazz, rumba, tango, and hula gained international currency and became accessible to listeners as never before.

“It is hard to overestimate the sonic transformation that took place,” said Michael Denning, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American Studies at Yale University. “An unprecedented range of musical voices, instruments, and ensembles were put in front of the microphone.”

In “Decolonizing the Ear: The Work of Music in the Age of Electrical Reproduction,” Denning discussed the history and significance of the electronic “recording boom.” His Oct. 30 talk was the keynote lecture and kickoff event for “Crosscurrents: American and European Music in Interaction, 1900-2000,” a three-day conference designed to explore trans-Atlantic relationships and connections in the musical life of the 20th century.

Addressing a crowd of professors, visiting scholars, and students at the Center for European Studies, Denning argued that the electronic boom represented a key turning point in global music practices. The boom was short-lived: It “burned itself out” by the 1930s when sales plummeted in the face of worldwide depression. Nonetheless, Denning said, that brief moment was the “central music revolution of the 20th century, with more consequences than the modern musics of the avant-garde.”

The framework for Denning’s lecture, which he peppered with musical selections from the era, was based on three primary questions. First, he asked, “Is it legitimate to see these distinct musics from around the world as part of the same turning point?” His answer was yes: The new technologies, he said, created a “world music-space” that transcended national boundaries.

“Recording immediately became one of the characteristic global consumer goods industries, dominated by transnational agencies,” said Denning.

“The explosion of music in the U.S. was just one part of the story,” he added. “Tango in Buenos Aires, samba in Brazil, and hula in Honolulu all flourished in a form that did not exist a decade previously.”

Denning also wondered if the boom was “truly an expression of popular and vernacular musical energies.” Again, he answered in the affirmative. In the course of his research, Denning found that much of the music-making took place in working-class neighborhoods and slums. He also noted that mass-produced instruments like the accordion and Adolphe Sax’s saxophone were adopted into ensembles throughout the world.

“Industrial instruments became new timbres that echoed around the globe,” he said. Perhaps most significantly, Denning added, records were played and enjoyed by patrons in bars and coffee shops.

In the third part of his lecture, Denning queried the relationship between music and global politics.

“What connection is there between sonic expressions and the complex process of decolonization?” he asked. “The recording boom is heralded as one of the cultural dramas of the century — and I want to argue that it decolonized the ear to figure a new world.”

Music, said Denning, became a fundamental stake in the struggle over what he called the “national popular.” Before the recording boom, much of the vernacular music was rejected by nationalist elites. Afterward, he said, they were often reconceived as national musics.

“In Brazil, for example, the samba had been confined to the favela [slum] in previous years, but it won over the authorities and began to emblemize anti-colonial nationalism,” he said.

Denning also argued that the circulation of recordings across regions enabled forms of national and transnational affiliation and solidarity.

“The music of the sonic revolution became the basis for developments in music around the world,” he concluded. “It broke down lines between vernacular music, art music, and the international commerce of music. … These musics are the registry of a century of worldwide migrations.”

An international language

Denning’s keynote lecture heralded the first of many conference discussions about transcending national boundaries through music. Over two days, scholars from Germany, Canada, England, and the United States addressed a range of issues including national identity, touring, wartime concerns, and exile and emigration.

“It is very gratifying to have the opportunity for scholars from both sides of the Atlantic to come work together,” said Carol Oja, William Powell Mason Professor of Music and one of the conference organizers. Her colleague and co-organizer Anne Shreffler, James Edward Ditson Professor of Music, added:

“I hope that people will come away from the conference with broadened horizons, and discover aspects of the trans-Atlantic experience they had not known before. Much of the research presented here offers a new perspective on musical activity in the 20th century.” For example, James Deaville of Carleton University presented an analysis of the songs of African-American entertainers in turn-of-the-century Vienna.

The papers focused primarily on the first half of the 20th century. Research that addresses the latter half will be presented at the second part of the conference, scheduled to take place in May at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, Germany.

“The conference itself embodies the spirit of trans-Atlantic interchange,” said Shreffler. “We have worked closely with our colleagues in Europe since 2006 to develop and carry out the program.”

Live music, particularly works that reflected the transatlantic theme, played an integral role in the weekend events. On Thursday night, a concert in Paine Hall featured a world premiere by renowned French-American composer Betsy Jolas. Titled “Teletalks,” the piece was inspired by Jolas’ memory of making trans-Atlantic phone calls as a little girl.

“Making phone calls was a sacred moment for my family, when everyone would gather around the telephone,” said Jolas, in a pre-concert discussion with Vivian Perlis, director of the Oral History American Music program at the Yale School of Music and Library. “I had heard about underground cables, but being very young I imagined my voice actually crawling at the bottom of the ocean all the way to America.”

Her recollection of static, obstructed dialogue and calling back-and-forth led Jolas to compose the piece for two pianos, which can be envisioned as speakers on the telephone.

The concert also included a premiere of a version of “Amériques” by French-American composer Edgard Varèse. The arrangement, for two pianos eight hands, was discovered in 2004 at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel.

The concert on Friday evening featured the Chiara String Quartet, current Blodgett Artists-in-Residence at Harvard. Among other works, they played “Different Trains” by American composer Steve Reich. The piece is an imagined account of how Reich’s own childhood during the war years would have played out had he lived in Europe. “Different Trains,” which Oja described as a “very personal, harrowing statement,” includes taped interviews with Holocaust survivors as well as European and American train conductors.

The final concert took place on Saturday afternoon (Nov. 1). Bruce Brubaker, chair of the piano department at New England Conservatory, played works by Bussotti, Brown, and Curran.

“Crosscurrents” was organized jointly by Harvard’s Department of Music, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich, and the Paul Sacher Foundation. The conference was made possible with the support of Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS); Diana Sorensen, dean of arts and humanities for the FAS; the Provostial Fund; the Department of Music; the Program in the History of American Civilization; and the Center for European Studies, with additional support from the Fromm Foundation at Harvard, the Harvard Musical Association, and the Goethe Institute of Boston.