Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Politics of “Oriental Syncopation”

By Fritz Schenker

In this final post exploring issues of musical labor in the age of machine-age imperialism (the subject of a panel Allison Wente, Sergio Ospina-Romero, and I organized for the Society for Ethnomusicology’s 2017 annual conference), I’d like to briefly offer a case study that illustrates why we considered questions about labor, value, and imperial politics to be a useful way to think about musical matters in the early twentieth century.

During my research on the imperial circulation of popular music and musicians along a transpacific entertainment circuit in the 1920s, I came across several reports in Philippine newspapers that struck me as curious.<1> In the late 1910s and early 1920s, articles in the Manila-based newspaper The Philippines Free Press offered celebratory news about the pianist Louis Borromeo, a Filipino enjoying success on the US vaudeville stage.<2> These stories were published during a fierce political struggle. Filipinos sought to claim independence from US colonial rule through a campaign marked in part by combating US stereotypes that implied Filipinos were unfit for self-governance. Amidst the intense debates about how best to represent Filipinos to the world, Filipino journalists praised Borromeo, noting that he had “made quite a hit on the vaudeville stage in America.”<3>

What struck me as curious, though, was that Borromeo’s vaudeville career in the U.S. seemed to perpetuate the same stereotypes that Filipino politicians were trying to counter. From 1919 through 1921, Borromeo performed across the U.S. as part of a trio known as “D’avigneau’s Celestials.” The group – which also included two Chinese-Americans – captivated vaudeville audiences by claiming to be Chinese performers with a unique take on Tin Pan Alley, a take described by one reviewer from Topeka as “oriental syncopation.”<4>

The Celestials’ embrace of “oriental syncopation” was a strategy the performers employed to navigate the challenges facing non-white performers throughout the U.S. Similar to African Americans, Native Americans, Hawaiians, and Chinese vaudevillians, the Celestials shaped their performances according to the narrow expectations of racialized performance.<5> They appeared to conform to the conventions of “yellowface,” a set of performative tropes that signified a generic “Asian-ness” to most US audiences. Even as Filipino politicians toured the U.S. to promote their cause, Borromeo and his partners dressed in Chinese costumes (Fig. 1), performed Tin Pan Alley songs with Chinese-themes (including the 1919 hit “Chong (He Come From Hong Kong)”), and employed broad musical markers of “Asian-ness” in their compositions. For example, Borromeo’s 1920 foxtrot “Jazzy Jazzy Sound in All Chinatown,” used stereotypical markers such as grace notes, open fifths, hints of pentatonicism, and rhythmic patterns of four eighths and two quarter notes (Figs. 2 and 3).  Similarly, the song’s lyrics used pidgin English with phrases such as “winkee little eye, singee way up high” and “we’ll teach them to shimmy-lee with the Amelican [sic] melody.” While other Filipino vaudevillians, such as Domingo Gregorio, were actively trying to convince skeptical US audiences that Filipinos were not the same as Chinese or Japanese – a widely held view at the time – Borromeo seemed to be perpetuating stereotypes of Chinese culture that negatively portrayed a wide array of Asian groups, including Filipinos.

Figure 1: Borromeo in costume on the cover of "Jazzy Jazzy Sound in All Chinatown," by Louis Borromeo, Al. Hether, Herman Bush (New York: Fred Fischer, Inc., 1920).

Figure 2: "Jazzy Jazzy Sound in all Chinatown," mm. 1-4

Figure 3: "Jazzy Jazzy Sound in All Chinatown," m. 26

There are many ways to dismiss Borromeo’s positive coverage in The Philippines Free Press as distinctly un-curious, even banal. Perhaps the newspaper’s entertainment writers were not particularly political. Or maybe they were not concerned about Borromeo spreading stereotypes about Chinese. After all, even though US audiences were notorious for the inability to distinguish between different Asian groups, Filipino newspapers were also full of negative coverage about Chinese living in the Philippines.

At the same time, though, it is hard to ignore the broader context of Borromeo’s coverage in the Philippine press. As Borromeo toured the U.S., Filipino journalists such as I. I. Exconde argued that all Filipinos were responsible for representing the Philippines in the best possible light. “Wherever we go and whatever people we meet,” he insisted, “let us not fail to show up the true characteristics of the Filipinos.”<6> If Borromeo did not seem to be showing the “true characteristics” of Filipinos through his stereotypical performance of Chinese-ness, then what was his political value?

It is here, I suggest, where a turn towards musical labor and value can perhaps be a helpful way to better understand the seemingly paradoxical combination of Borromeo’s positive coverage and his embrace of stereotyped performances. My thinking here is influenced, in part, by the work of scholars such as David Gilbert. Gilbert’s work on value and musical labor among African American composers and musicians who strategically embraced stereotypes about black ‘natural rhythm’ in the early twentieth century sheds light on this very issue. In his study of James Reese Europe’s Clef Club, he shows how the area of professional value – the concern with working conditions and wages – can sometimes serve as a catalyst for transforming cultural value and contesting racial stereotypes.<7>

In a similar way, some of the Filipino coverage of Borromeo’s career points towards considering his political value as a musical worker. The Philippine Free Press articles tend to ignore his stage act in favor of celebrating his financial gains. As one headline blared, “[Borromeo was] Said to be Making One Thousand Pesos a Week on Vaudeville Stage in the United States.”<8> What Borromeo did on stage seemed insignificant compared to the opportunities his success afforded him offstage. For example, along with showing that Filipinos could command high wages, Borromeo also used promotional interviews for the Celestials to instead make the case for Filipino independence (as shown in the article from Topeka above). For Filipino journalists, it appeared that Borromeo’s growing wealth and the publicity that came with his growing success were his critical source of value.

I am continuing to explore the political significance of Borromeo’s vaudeville career amidst a transpacific debate about US imperialism (a debate that, not coincidentally, is deeply informed by racialized ideas about work).<9> I cannot help but think that questions about Borromeo’s significance as a worker – as someone whose performances seemed to matter less than what those performances afforded him – will be critical for thinking about how music and musical workers were made valuable and meaningful to both performers and audiences as the U.S. and the Philippines negotiated their colonial relationship.


<1>Frederick J. Schenker, ““Empire of Syncopation: Music, Race, and Labor in Colonial Asia’s Jazz Age,” PhD Diss. (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2016).
<2>For more about Louis Borromeo, see Peter Keppy, “Southeast Asia in the age of jazz: Locating popular culture in the colonial Philippines and Indonesia,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 44, no. 3 (2012): 444-464.
<3>“Says in Event of War Filipinos Would Remain True to Uncle Sam,” The Philippines Free Press (April 2, 1921), 7.
“<4>Has Gone to the East Now,” The Topeka Daily State Journal (January 11, 1921), 5.
<5>E.g., Louis Chude-Sokei, The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006); John Troutman, Indian Blues: American Indians and the Politics of Music, 1879-1934 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009); Adria Imada, Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012); Krystyn Moon, Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s-1920s (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005).
<6>I. I. Exconde, “Filipinos in Ohio are Doing their Mate,” The Independent (12 June 1920), 9.
<7>David Gilbert, “Clef Club Inc.: James Reese Europe and New York’s Musical Marketplace,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 24, no. 4 (2012): 430-56.
<8>“Said to Be Making...,” The Philippines Free Press (June 18, 1921), 24, 28.
<9>This debate echoes the long history of Filipino “laziness” that Syed Alatas explores in The Myth of the Lazy Native (London: Frank Cass and Co., 1977).


Fritz Schenker is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at St. Lawrence University. He previously held the same position at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2016.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Talent Scouts, Drunk Musicians, and other Recording Adventures in the Acoustic Era

By Sergio Ospina-Romero

Between 1905 and 1926, recording scouts of the Victor Talking Machine Company established temporary recording studios across Latin America. After setting up their equipment, these scouts faced multiple challenges, including identifying local talent, negotiating copyright deals, and, sometimes, wrangling tardy, drunken performers into the studio. The recording scouts were attempting to follow Victor executives’ master plans to open up new markets for the phonograph. Yet, it was up to these scouts and the people they worked with to figure out how to put Victor’s plans into practice. Some procedures, especially in relation to the operation of the technology of acoustic sound recording, were somewhat standardized. Likewise, some expectations were clearly set by the company. Nevertheless, the scouts had to make an unpredictable array of spontaneous decisions. Just like many of the musicians they brought in front of the recording horn, they were often playing by ear. Such improvisatory interactions, I believe, are at the center of the music industry’s worldwide expansion.<1>
Victor Talking Machine Logo, c. 1905
Over the course of at least twenty trips, these scouts recorded seven thousand selections. Most of the time two scouts were deployed and they spent between one and three months on tour. Their luggage included a portable recording machine, several flat wax masters, recording horns of various sizes and shapes, sound boxes, spring motors, and dynamos. Setting up makeshift recording studios ––or laboratories as they called them–– was a constant test for their imagination. As some sketches in the scouts’ travelogues show, the goal was to replicate the basic layout of the two adjacent rooms used at Victor’s headquarters in New Jersey; the recording machine was usually concealed in one room and only the horns breached through a wall ––or a curtain–– into the performers’ room.<2> Things usually did not go according to plan. Recording sessions took longer than expected, musicians needed more practice or had a hard time accommodating to the sound-capturing limitations of the technology. When playing live, time was not usually a major constraint, but in the studio, performers had to cut or add sections, change the tempo at different spots, alter dynamics, modify lyrics, or improvise arrangements.
Acoustic Recording of the Victor Salon Orchestra, c. 1920. [Published in Leech-Wilkinson, The Changing Sound of Music, available at]

As if dealing with the vulnerability of the recording equipment was not hard enough, the scouts had to assume unpredictable roles. They acted as business representatives, legal advisors, cultural mediators, translators, vocal coaches, talent scouts, music producers, journalists, and even lobbyists. Sometimes they even had to figure out how to get the musicians in a suitable physical condition to perform. On October 23, 1917, for example, Victor scouts were making recordings in Guayaquil, Ecuador. They were expecting a “Band,” seemingly one of the ensembles of either the Police or the Military, for a session that was supposed to begin at 8:00am. At 9:30am, however, the scouts called the Band headquarters to report that out of the 25 men expected only 10 showed up. They could not make the scheduled recording, but not only because of the lack of personnel. In the ledgers, the scouts wrote: “Holiday yesterday and the majority are intoxicated, Commander said.” Apparently, both the musicians who did not show up —and the ones who did— were drunk. Unable to play their instruments, they hung out in the studio, coping with their hangovers while the scouts scrounged up some food for them: “Had 100 B.B., large pot of soup, sandwiches, etc. ordered.”

That was not a good day for recording. Following this drunken incident, the vocal duet of Anura García and Clara Hauston made some recordings that did not even go beyond the trial stage. After them, another music group came into the studio and performed so poorly that the scouts simply wrote: “Records by Orquesta: Started two records. Mistakes. Lost two blanks. Called date. Told [them] to practice.” For the scouts, the recording expeditions not only entailed the potential encounter with unfamiliar or “exotic” musics, either pleasant or not to their ears. It also involved engagement in a cross-cultural journey in which almost anything could happen. And considering the ample range of selections captured ––from operatic renditions to all sorts of popular musics to recitations, comic sketches, and jokes–– it was a journey of discovery in which almost anything could become a good-selling record.

Record of “Los Funerales de Atahualpa,” by the Banda de Gendarmes de Lima, recorded in Lima, Peru, on September 17, 1913.

Capturing local music numbers on wax implied the potential circulation of these recordings far beyond their local audiences and traditional performance venues. Yet, rather than allowing for the portability of all kinds of vernacular musics, the scouts’ improvisatory interventions implied significant doses of arbitration in the globalizing ventures of the music industry. Who made it to the studio and what repertoires turned out to be massively disseminated depended on the aesthetic and/or acoustic judgments of the scouts, the frequent random selection of musical numbers, and the convoluted networks of local artists. The commercial paths record companies took in their global expansion were, as acoustic recordings themselves, ventures of trial and error.<3> Nonetheless, scouts’ extemporaneous actions on the ground are just traces of a bigger picture. To a significant extent, improvisatory practices ruled in the recording industry in the early twentieth century. The fulfillment of the industry’s global ambitions relied on a permanent reconfiguration of business plans, technological devices, consumption patterns, cultural referents, and of the industry itself.

Recording scouts helped companies like Victor create commercial empires that operated in tandem with the modern imperial enterprises of the United States. While on tour the scouts took advantage of imperial resources and networks. At the same time, they provided other networks and resources for the colonial agendas of the U.S. By sending convoys of recording scouts to open new markets for the phonograph, Victor was also opening, in a way, markets for US goods in general. In the same way, Victor benefited from the imperial structures and the spheres of economic and cultural influence of the United States. The US foreign policy of interventionism throughout Latin America in the early twentieth century is one of the most eloquent examples of these political and economical entanglements. In the milieu of the machine-age imperialism,<4> itinerant troops of recording scouts helped shape the unprecedented global contours of the entertainment industry. Amidst drunken performers and mesmerized audiences, they inaugurated practices of corporate colonialism that we now take for granted.

<1>Besides my own research project on Victor’s expeditions through Latin America, the activities of recording scouts in different parts of the globe has not been significantly studied, except by Karl H. Miller and Michael Denning. Fred Gaisberg’s Music Goes Round is perhaps the most emblematic account published by a scout, referring primarily to his activities in Europe and Asia. Some of his diaries, including his adventures through East Asia, are available online:
<2>See: Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, The Changing Sound of Music: Approaches to Studying Recorded Musical Performance (London: CHARM, 2009), Chapter 3, Paragraph 13–20,; C. A. Schicke, Revolution in Sound: A Biography of the Recording Industry, 1st ed (Boston: Little, Brown, 1974), 73; George Brock-Nannestad, “The Objective Basis for the Production of High Quality Transfers from Pre-1925 Sound Recordings” (Audio Engineering Society Convention 103, Audio Engineering Society, 1997),
<3>Schmidt Horning, Chasing Sound, 11.
<4>See: Jeremy F Lane, Jazz and Machine-Age Imperialism: Music, “Race,” and Intellectuals in France, 1918-1945 (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2013), 7–9.

Sergio Ospina-Romero is a Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology at Cornell University. His publications and research activities are focused on popular music in Latin America in the early twentieth century, particularly in relation to sound recording, mechanical reproduction, transnationalism, and music consumption. His first book, Dolor que canta. La vida y la música de Luis A. Calvo en la sociedad colombiana de comienzos del siglo XX, was just published by the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History. Sergio is the director of Palonegro, an incredible ensemble of Latin American music in Ithaca, NY.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Dissertation Digest: Interpretive Labor in Experimental Music

By Kirsten Speyer Carithers

My high school had strong band and choir programs, but no orchestra. Consequently, my first experience playing symphonic music came not with Haydn or Mozart, as might be typical for an oboist, but with preparations for the annual New Music Festival at my undergraduate institution, Bowling Green State University. Looking around the ensemble during a rehearsal, a realization struck me: even for advanced players, with years of experience performing difficult repertoire, this was work.

A decade later, I was employed at a large financial-services company, poring through incoming regulations and revisions as part of a team of compliance analysts. The lawyers and executives handed down the main decrees – long overdue, as this was the era of TARP and Dodd-Frank after all – and we assessed how, exactly, this would play out within our line of business. Procedures had to be re-written, customers notified, and training documentation created for the hundreds of employees within our division. This, too, was work.

What these two examples have in common, apart from eventually informing my research agenda, is the activity of interpretation: getting from the text comprising Point A (a score, a regulatory statement) to the action of Point B (a live performance or new procedure). The intervening process, like much creative labor, remained under-recognized. When I began narrowing down ideas for my dissertation, I was most curious about the relationships between composers and performers, especially for realizations of indeterminate music. <1>(From the first draft of the prospectus: “find out how these musicians felt about their contributions to these works without being named as composers of them.”) Already, I sensed an imbalance of power, although at that point I was thinking in terms of an idealized linear shift from vessel to co-author: a rather utopian notion of composer-performer collaboration. Working through a number of case studies, from Cornelius Cardew’s work as Stockhausen’s assistant, Petr Kotík’s establishment of the S.E.M. Ensemble and the Ostrava Center for New Music, Charlotte Moorman’s leadership in the New York Avant-Garde Festivals, and the activities of the numerous members of the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts in Buffalo, NY (including Cardew and Kotík), I gradually identified several primary categories of musical labor. Within an interdisciplinary framework encompassing music studies, critical theory, and media studies, I developed the concept of interpretive labor to theorize the work of musical performance.

My research has two central objectives: to examine what it means to engage in the act of (musical) interpretation, and to align musical performance with developing theories of labor. The first drew me toward hermeneutics and the work of a handful of philosophers and literary theorists, including Heidegger and Derrida.<2> For the second, new-media scholars provide some useful paths to supplement Bourdieu’s work on cultural capital and the classic writings of Marx.<3> On the whole, though, and particularly in musicology, the connection between these two areas has been little explored. (I’ll note here that I am particularly encouraged by a few recent developments, including the growth of the Economic Ethnomusicology special interest group of the Society for Ethnomusicology, and new work published by Timothy D. Taylor and Andrea Moore on related issues.<4> I think we’re onto something!)

My theory of interpretive labor has four related models: the Scientist, the Executive, the Hacker, and the Gamer. Each model accounts for a particular type or mode of creative work, including experimentation, translation, writing and re-writing, and altering the very notion of musical performance. From the self-directed work of realizing chance procedures to the potential exploitation of a compositional assistant, and from subversive engagement with notation to the free play of performance art, the musical avant-garde’s many modes foster a rich and varied understanding of labor. Performers – both within and beyond avant-garde movements – labor to navigate their relationships to the score and to the composer, their work frequently obscured by the conventions of artistic recognition.

The relationships among composers, performers, and audiences constitute micro-economies for the work of interpretation. All three groups negotiate their connections to the musical work and to one another before, during, and after performances, and this is most challenging when there is limited precedent tempering expectations. Interpretive work therefore forms a central component in this system. In short, it is a managed cultural ecology: an economy. Composer-performer-audience relationships are also reflected in and deeply connected to economies writ large. To address these issues in music, I have turned to emergent theories of labor in other creative industries, especially as developed in response to cultural work and affective labor, the proliferation of hidden work brought forth by digital and social media, and the attendant post-Marxist critiques thereof.

Throughout the project, I have looked to the interpretive and performative labor undertaken by the musicians of the Buffalo-Ostrava-NYC networks to inform my questions. To what extent do their activities track with historically leftist and/or socialist anxiety about unrecognized (and therefore uncompensated) work? Is the phenomenon of hidden work specific to, or simply more pronounced in, the performance of indeterminate pieces? When the scores and writings of John Cage and Cornelius Cardew disrupted prevailing composer-performer relationships, to what degree did this reflect shifting ideologies? How did those developments change the types of work expected of their interpreters? Investigating these issues quickly made it apparent that performers, on the whole, tend to be under-recognized as creators, but, of course, their perspectives are crucial to understanding the social, economic, and cultural stakes within their new-music networks.

At the same time, rethinking experimental music in terms of labor also suggests fruitful intersections with contemporary media. The rise of user-generated content mirrors some forms of work undertaken by avant-garde artists. For example, taking and posting photographs on “social” media, or creating a user guide for a video game, can demand significant investments of time and cognitive energy, just like making a realization of a graphic-notation score; these also simultaneously mask that effort under the guise of entertainment. My framework of “interpretive labor,” then, provides valuable insight into 21st-century creative industries as well as into the esoteric artistic networks of the 1960s and 1970s. Because of the long history of artistic activities as hobbies, lines can easily be blurred between work and play, resulting in (sometimes unintended) exploitation. And this certainly is not limited to the avant-garde; as the recent strikes and contract disputes of even well-respected orchestras attest, musical labor tends to be undervalued, across the board.

It is this question of labor in, and as, musical performance that intrigues me most and forms the foundation of this project. This brings to light lots of fruitful ideas: reframing performance practice as a mode of production, revising narratives within our music history courses to account for the labor of the musicians being discussed, reviving voices that have been left out of the conversation based on socio-economic status, reconsidering how we talk about particular types of work, and so on. In fact, artistic processes lend unique insight into the issues of creative control, representation, and access, among other crucial areas of inquiry, all of which form components in a system of labor and compensation. Perhaps by reclaiming the labor of music-making, we might also further validate the status of musicians as workers, eschewing outmoded ideas about “labors of love” that continue to obstruct standards of compensation and other forms of recognition.


<1>By “indeterminate,” I mean compositions in which one or more significant aspects – e.g., pitch, duration, voices or instruments used, etc. – are left open. This repertoire was largely developed from the 1950s into the 1970s (and beyond, to a lesser extent), and while it varies widely, it is frequently marked by unconventional musical notation, up to and including scores consisting solely of text or pictures.
 <2>See, for example, Barbara Bolt, Heidegger Reframed: Interpreting Key Thinkers for the Arts (London: I.B. Tauris, 2011) and Jacques Derrida, “The Deconstruction of Actuality (1993),” in Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews, 1971-2001, ed. and trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001).
 <3>A few relevant sources: Michael Rowlinson and John Hassard, “Marxist Political Economy, Revolutionary Politics, and Labor Process Theory,” International Studies of Management & Organization 30, no. 4 (winter 2000); Henry Klumpenhouwer, “Late Capitalism, Late Marxism and the Study of Music,” Music Analysis 20, no. 3 (October 2001); Mathieu Hikaru Desan, “Bourdieu, Marx, and Capital: A Critique of the Extension Model,” Sociological Theory 31, no. 4 (December 2013); Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. J.G. Richardson and trans. R. Nice (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986).
 <4>Timothy D. Taylor, Music and Capitalism: A History of the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016); Andrea Moore, “Neoliberalism and the Musical Entrepreneur,” Journal of the Society for American Music 10, no. 1 (February 2016). See also Robert J. Flanagan, The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras: Artistic Triumphs and Economic Challenges (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012).
<5>See, for example, Philip Kitcher, “The Division of Cognitive Labor,” The Journal of Philosophy 87, no. 1 (January 1990), pp. 5-22; E. Gabriella Coleman, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013); Eliane Bucher and Christian Fieseler, “The Flow of Digital Labor,” New Media & Society (April 2016), pp. 1-19; and articles by Ayhan Aytes (“Return of the Crowds: Mechanical Turk and Neoliberal States of Exception”) and Michel Bauwens (“Thesis on Digital Labor in an Emerging P2P Economy”) in Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, ed. Trebor Scholz (New York: Routledge, 2013).


Kirsten Speyer Carithers specializes in music of the 20th and 21st centuries, informed by interdisciplinary work in critical theory and the arts. Current research explores the intersections between music and labor across a spectrum of performance practices related to experimentalism from ca. 1960–1980, with additional interests in music and technology, artistic avant-gardism, and the connections between indeterminacy, improvisation, and creative labor. She has presented at conferences of the American Musicological Society, Society for American Music, and Modernist Studies Association, as well as Perspectives on Musical Improvisation (Oxford, 2014) and Performing Indeterminacy (University of Leeds, 2017). She is a lecturer at The Ohio State University and adjunct faculty in the Capital University Conservatory of Music, and is an active member of the AMS Pedagogy Study Group, currently serving on its Diversity and Inclusion committee. Her dissertation, "The Work of Indeterminacy: Interpretive Labor in Experimental Music," was completed at Northwestern University in March 2017.


Thursday, March 1, 2018

Mechanical Instruments and Taylorized Musical Labor

By Allison Wente

In this cartoon from John Philip Sousa’s 1906 article, “The Menace of Mechanical Music,” two anthropomorphized phonographs and a push-up piano player with its large-toothed mouth agape charge forward while the piano roll trails behind in the wind. The machines have come alive; the phonographs’ hungry horns and push-up piano player’s inner mechanism threaten to gobble up the reader. Sousa’s article criticizes phonographs and player pianos alike, and he claimed it is “simply a question of time when the amateur disappears entirely, and with him a host of vocal and instrumental teachers, who will be without field or calling.”<1> With this article, Sousa touches upon an anxiety around technology and its influence on labor and production, a common anxiety in the early twentieth century and one many people still feel today.

To be sure, machines and their music influenced multiple areas of musical culture during and even before the machine age, from film scores to popular music and even the concert hall. At the same time, the mechanization of labor and the growing popularity of industrialized labor practices based on Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management (1911) changed the musical marketplace and musical culture as a whole. As interest in mechanical devices that performed music — various models of player pianos, orchestrions, and mechanical bells — grew between 1900 and 1929 in the United States, the popularity of these mechanical instruments (along with music’s recorded alternative played via phonograph) gave rise to a new kind of musical labor, one that mirrored the ideals of efficiency, profits, and productivity prized in Taylor’s labor model. Consumers accepted music as something stored in a portable roll or record and issued from a machine and, as David Suisman put it, “music, which had once been produced in the home, by hand, was now something to be purchased.”<2>

Advertisements for mechanical instruments in magazines and motion picture trade papers illustrate the correlation between changes in labor culture and the rise of new musical machines. In The Audible Past, Jonathan Sterne shows how shifting ideas and developments in regards to areas such as colonialism, capitalism, and technological developments led to the cultural moment that prompted audio recording. Similarly, player piano ads give us a window into how changes in labor culture and new musical machines redefined music making, musical reproduction, and musical labor. The ads fall into two broad categories: those for player pianos in middle- and upper-class parlors, and those pushing mechanical instruments for motion picture houses. Each category encompasses different claims about the mechanical instrument’s value, including the instrument’s perfect musical reproduction and labor- and cost-saving capabilities for theaters, as well as the instrument’s appeal to crowds through mechanical novelty and spectacle. Analyzing the advertising strategies used to market these instruments uncovers a critical dimension to the anxieties around the nature of musical labor, and labor in general, in the first decades of the twentieth century.

But before I get into the nitty-gritty of a few advertisement examples, let’s talk about Taylorism, because Taylorized labor practices radically transformed the way in which many people worked, which in turn also influenced the ways people approached their lives outside of work. Taylor, a mechanical engineer known for his work on improving industrial efficiency, proposed a labor theory in which the end-result, production, took precedent over a rewarding labor process for the worker. Taylor’s system of scientific management breaks down labor into smaller tasks, essentially deskilling tasks to the level of unskilled or moderately skilled workers. The laborers function within a system, as part of a team of almost interchangeable workers. This model of mass production was the preferred method in factories by 1913-14, lasted throughout the First World War, and was still very much the norm for American factories during the 1920s, the machine age proper. In making the workplace more efficient, societal labor ideals shifted toward a system prizing rapid productivity, a system that rewarded workers for their ability to assume a place in the line and to increase production so that companies could produce and sell more and thus earn more money.

Mechanical instruments such as the player piano allow for a kind of deskilling of musical labor — the “skill” was programmed onto the piano roll. And though the deskilling of musical labor had a negative effect on the livelihood of many working musicians, the product helped bring much more music to people’s homes, alleviated the home-entertainment burden from many women, and lowered operation costs for motion picture houses by reducing the number of musicians required to accompany a film. In addition, player piano advertisers and salesmen promised families their mechanical instruments were “easy to play.”

This well-known example, one of a series of “Gulbransen baby” advertisements, claims, “a baby ‘invented’ the Gulbransen trade mark” when “years ago, a tiny year-old baby crept up, pressed a pedal, and gurgled gleefully when the Gulbransen played.”<3>

In selling mechanical instruments to motion picture houses, advertisers often emphasized the instruments’ practicality. In other words, selling the mechanical instrument to motion picture houses required less delicacy regarding labor reduction, perhaps because the labor saved is male labor, and perhaps because the dollars-and-cents of the theater as a business made such talk less crude.

For example, Creoma solo theatre orchestra-organs claimed to not require an operator at all thanks to their 134-note reproducing solo roll, saving motion picture houses the cost of hiring a musician.<4> Mechanical instruments reduced the amount of labor required, and therefore also saved money.

Other ads promised to provide additional features beyond the piano or organ, but without requiring an additional skilled musician to play them. For example, an advertisement for the Barton Piano Attachment promised that by using this attachment one pianist could play the piano, musical bells, marimba, xylophone, orchestra bells, pipe organ, drums (snare and bass), tom-tom, storm effects, cymbal, triangle, and autohorn — all with just his or her right hand.<5>

These advertisements for mechanical instruments for parlors and motion picture houses illustrate how changes in labor principles, especially due to the influence of Taylorism, fed into the changing musical marketplace of the early twentieth century. Whether marketing to parlors or picture houses, the bottom line of these advertisements was the same: manufacturers claimed the instruments reduced the amount of musical labor required to create a live musical performance. The early twentieth century’s Taylorized labor practices prized efficiency and productivity, and these practices softened the cultural mindset toward a reorganization, or mechanization, of life outside of work — a mechanization of art.

Although media changed from piano roll, to record, tape, CD, and Mp3, this time initiated drastic change in the reproduction, distribution, and consumption of recorded music. Early twentieth-century consumer demand for the musical commodity drowned out Sousa’s protests, rendering them imperceptible amid the rambunctious racket of mechanical instruments. And today, mechanically-consumed music is the norm as we stream music, often with little regard for artist compensation. Indeed, the reduction of musical labor due to mechanical recording and reproduction has only become more relevant with time as we enter an era in which we digitally stockpile more than a lifetime’s worth of music. Over a century later, examining the Taylorized historical context within which these cultural shifts began to take shape reveals much about the current attitude toward the value of musical labor in an age where quantization, auto tune, and digitization are the norm.

<1>John Philip Sousa, “The Menace of Mechanical Music,” Appleton’s Magazine 8 (1906): 280.
<2>David Suisman, Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 10.
<3>The Saturday Evening Post (26 October, 1918): 25.
<4>Moving Picture World (21 July, 1917): 491.
<5>Moving Picture World (15 March, 1913): 1148.


Allison Wente is Assistant Professor of Music at The State University of New York at Fredonia. Her work focuses on mechanical instruments and recording technologies, specifically the player piano in early twentieth-century America. She received a PhD in Music Theory from The University of Texas at Austin in 2016.