Author: Kelly Hiser

The Voice in the Machine

A photo of a person at a mixing desk using their finger to slide one of the controls

Electronic sound has been part of American musical life for over a century. As early as 1907, audiences in New York attended concerts featuring the massive early synthesizer, the Telharmonium. Just over two decades later, tens of thousands of listeners heard the theremin in concerts and radio broadcasts, around the same time that thousands of organists began playing the Hammond Organ in churches across the country.

Music historians tend to use these three instruments as examples of early technology that presaged—but were not part of—electronic music history, rarely mentioning the communities, traditions, practices, and meanings that coalesced around these instruments and their sonorities. To historians, the instruments and their popular practices simply weren’t revolutionary enough to merit inclusion. Their argument: early electronic instruments “did nothing to change the nature of musical composition or performance.” These instruments may have mattered little to composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, but their sounds and performance practices resonated with performers and audiences across the U.S.

A common thread runs through the early reception histories of these instruments: their emotional impact. Audiences heard their electronic sounds as deeply expressive, even human. In 1906 critics raved about the Telharmonium’s “delicacy of expression”; one Literary Digest writer claimed it was “as sensitive to moods and emotions as a living thing.” Two decades later, writers described the theremin’s sonority as “clear, singing, almost mournful” around the same time that Black Pentecostal worshippers celebrated the voice-like qualities of the Hammond Organ.

Today, electronic musical sounds have become so pervasive that we hardly notice them. We take their ubiquity as a matter of fact: one is hard-pressed to find much commentary on their impact or meaning. While historians often explain electronic music’s popularity as the outgrowth of the “pioneering” experimentalism of avant-garde composers such as John Cage or Stockhausen, no real evidence backs this up.

Electronic musical sound is essentially a “black box”: a technology so universally accepted that it is difficult to discern the processes that led up to its establishment. And yet occasionally, a new technology emerges that creates controversy, causing the black box to fall open and inviting us to examine why electronic musical sound seems as compelling today as it was more than a century ago.

“As tidy as a golf green”: a new(er) electronic sound and its haters

Enter Auto-Tune. In 1997 Antares Audio Technologies put Auto-Tune on the market as a Pro Tools plug-in meant to correct poorly intonated vocals. Auto-Tune’s fixes were meant to be indistinguishable to listeners, but within a year artists began using the tool in audible ways for expressive purposes. Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe” was the first high-profile instance. Studio engineers achieved the effect in this song and countless others since by setting Auto-Tune to makes pitch adjustments rapidly or even instantaneously (many artists now sing with Auto-Tune even before the production process begins). The results change not just the pitch but the timbre of the singer’s voice, rendering it machine-like and digital. Artists as varied as Kanye West, Kesha, and Bon Iver adopted the technique. T-Pain built his career on it, crafting a distinctive vocal sound that dominated the airwaves in the late aughts.

The increasing preponderance of Auto-Tune precipitated a backlash among critics and musicians that peaked with T-Pain’s popularity, and has not fully subsided. Most ground their criticisms of Auto-Tune in notions of authenticity and skill, but frequently lace their attacks with the kind of identity politics I’ve traced in the histories of earlier instruments like the theremin.

Robert Everett-Green, writing for The Globe and Mail in 2006 complained that Green Day’s recent use of Auto-Tune made punk seem “as tidy as a golf green,” and worried that as “dead-centre pitch” became the new norm, “a lot of popular music’s expressive capacities may wither away.” In a 2006 Pitchfork interview, Neko Case denied that artists used Auto-Tune as an expressive tool, declaring that its purpose was, “so you don’t have to know how to sing. That shit sounds like shit! It’s like that taste in diet soda, I can taste it—and it makes me sick.” Jay-Z’s 2009 “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” admonished artists to “put your skirt back down, grow a set man,” and “get back to rap, you T-Paining too much.”

For these detractors, and many more like them, Auto-Tune wasn’t simply the hallmark of an artistic poseur; it threatened to destroy the political, racial, gendered, and socio-economic identities of the music it inhabited and the musicians who used it. It neutered rap, turned punk’s anti-authoritarian stance on its head, and diseased everything it touched.

“Digital souls, for digital beings”

Yet some argued that rather than sap music of its authenticity, Auto-Tune honed and complicated the expressivity of the voices it inflected. While many attributed Kanye West’s sustained use of Auto-Tune on the 2008 album 808s and Heartbreak to Kanye’s poor singing skills, Oliver Wang wrote that the result was “a melancholy, intimate and decidedly quirky effort.” According to Wang, Kanye’s “ghostly, mechanical vocals enhance the album’s already despondent atmosphere,” even if the “inhuman” qualities of those vocals rendered it a “frigid, passionless despair.” Musicologist James Gordon Williams argued that T-Pain uses Auto-Tune to trouble “the binary between racially authentic sound and technologically manipulated sound,” and in so doing created an inimitable personal voice.

The theme of expressivity that recurs in the histories of the Telharmonium through Auto-Tune raises an inevitable question: Why? Why has electronic musical sonority—across time, instruments, and performers—sounded so human to so many? Is it because such sounds remind us that our lives would be completely dismantled without technology? That technology is an inextricable part of the human condition? When an Auto-Tuned voice sounds melancholic, is it because such reminders trigger feelings of dependency or inadequacy?

In his history of Auto-Tune for Pitchfork, Simon Reynolds posited that Auto-Tune is so compelling to modern listeners because its “sparkle suits the feel of our time”:

It makes absolute sense that Auto-Tuned singing—bodily breath transubstantiated into beyond-human data—is how desire, heartbreak, and the rest of the emotions sound today. Digital soul, for digital beings, leading digital lives.

Our immersion in digitality may explain the allure of the Auto-Tuned voice, but our inclination to hear the human in the machine is far from new. Technology is as old as humanity. Perhaps we have always seen—and heard—ourselves in our tools.

Beyond revolution

While Pitchfork grapples with thorny questions about technology and art, academic electronic music histories sorely lack nuanced approaches to the impact of technology on musical life. Scholars tend to treat the adoption of new musical technologies as points of rupture and revolution. In doing so, they obscure the ways musicians and listeners use technology toward more traditional ends, like expression and entertainment. This is not to say that technology does not change us, or what we do, or how we do it. Anyone who reads the news in 2019 is constantly reminded that technology shapes our lives and our world in myriad ways. It is crucial, though, that we not twist this fact into a totalizing concept of technological change, in which new tools sweep away existing values and activities. All too often, fixation on what we see as revolutionary obscures the work and impact of marginalized people.

When we pay attention to non-revolutionary popular electronic musical practices, we can begin to better understand why those practices and the sounds they produce command such lasting popularity. Mainstream electronic music historians would have us believe that electronic music owes its current popularity to the boundary breaking of avant garde composers. But from the Telharmonium to Auto-Tune, it seems there were never barriers to overcome: audiences and performers embraced electronic musical sound from the start. To the thousands of people who first experienced them, and to listeners today, electronic sounds ultimately mattered not because they were pioneering or innovative, but because they performed emotional, expressive, and cultural work that resonated with audiences. The instruments, techniques, and sonorities were new, but the ultimate ends—expression, communication, pleasure—were as old as music itself.

“Hearing” the Hammond Organ

A black and white photo of a man and an electronic instrument

The Hammond Organ was the first electronic musical instrument to become commercially successful. Just two years after it went on sale in 1935, major radio stations and Hollywood studios, hundreds of individuals, and over 2,500 churches had purchased a Hammond. The instrument had a major impact on the soundscape of both popular and religious musical life in the U.S., but it has been largely ignored by electronic music historians. Like the Telharmonium and theremin, whose own popular pasts are not widely known, the Hammond’s early history has much to teach us about how American audiences first encountered and understood electronic musical sound.

In fact, the Federal Trade Commission held an entire hearing in 1937 to evaluate the Hammond’s sonority. The Commission sought to determine whether a series of advertising claims about the Hammond’s timbre were “deceptive, misleading and false.” Though many of the hearing’s participants believed their testimony would go down in history as an important reckoning of what constituted “real” and “good” musical sound, the affair is largely forgotten today. What the hearing does offer is an unusually detailed record of contemporaneous arguments over the quality and value of a new electronic sound.

The Sacred Hammond Organ

The Hammond Organ became an immediate success when it hit the market in April 1935. By the end of the year, the Hammond Clock Company (soon to change its name to the Hammond Instrument Company) had sold over 800 units; the following year, Hammond added 300 new manufacturing jobs. Profits topped $100k by the end of 1936 and more than tripled the following year, during the height of the Great Depression.

Religious institutions made up the largest share of Hammond buyers, accounting for half of all sales in the 1930s. Advertisements targeted churches on a budget, highlighting practical concerns like the Hammond’s low cost and ease of installation. Ads claimed that all could now own an instrument that produced “fine” organ music, with tones comparable to that of a “concert” or “cathedral” organ. At $1,250, a standard Hammond installation was roughly double the price of a new Chevrolet sedan in 1935, but markedly less than all but the most modest pipe organ installations.

Hammond ad that ran in Christian Herald and Extension Magazine, early 1936

Hammond ad that ran in Christian Herald and Extension Magazine, early 1936. Federal Trade Commission v. Hammond Clock Company, Respondent’s Exhibits housed in the Hammond Organ Company records (Chicago History Museum).

Religious organizations of all types bought Hammonds, from mainstream American Protestants to Catholics, as well as newer denominations like Evangelical churches. In general, though, congregations owning a Hammond in the 1930s tended to be smaller, poorer, and more rural than those that possessed a pipe organ. Many Hammond buyers had apparently not been in the market for an organ at all until the Hammond became available.

Advertising that pitted the Hammond against pipe organs stoked outrage among a small but well-organized community of pipe organ performers, designers, and manufacturers. Many of the community’s most prominent members registered their displeasure in trade journals like The American Organist. In a January 1936 survey printed in the journal, renowned organ designer Emerson Richards derided the Hammond’s sound as “hollow, dry, and dead.” In his response to the same survey, Chicago pipe organist and historian William Barnes declared that the Hammond would “not bear direct comparison with the tone of any natural musical instrument.”

Barnes and Richards spoke on behalf of an industry that had entered the Great Depression already in turmoil. Organ business boomed during the silent film era, when nearly every existing pipe organ manufacturer and many new enterprises rushed to meet demand for theater organs, but talkies decimated that market by the early 1930s. When the Hammond arrived on the scene, the pipe organ industry was reeling. Although no surviving evidence suggests that the Hammond made a measurable impact on pipe organ sales, men like Barnes and Richards quickly adopted the new electronic instrument as a convenient scapegoat for the industry’s ills.

The Federal Trade Commission Gets Involved

Eight months after the Hammond went on sale, Emerson Richards petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to act against the Hammond Clock Company. In 1936 the Commission issued a formal complaint accusing the company of advertising claims that “unfairly diverted” trade away from its pipe organ competitors. The claims at issue ranged from the concrete (the Hammond’s price point) to the nebulous (its suitability for the performance of “great works”), but the complaint and resultant hearing centered around one question: did this new electronic instrument sound “as good as” a pipe organ?

To find an answer, defense and prosecution attorneys assembled a gallery of witnesses—pipe organ experts, performers, Hammond employees, even a physicist who traveled from the University of Texas to Chicago for the hearing. Both Richards and Barnes (quoted above) acted as consultants for the Commission’s prosecutor and testified as expert witnesses. Together with the prosecuting attorney, the men performed multiple tests and demonstrations. In one challenge, “expert” human listeners tried to differentiate between a Hammond and a $75,000 pipe organ in the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. For another series of “machine” tests, physicist Dr. Charles Boner took electrical measurements of Hammond and pipe organ tones using an instrument of his own design that identified and measured the intensity of each of the various harmonics present in a single pitch. Boner then plotted the results in a series of 36 charts that visually depicted the amplitude of each harmonic present in a given tone.

Both sides attempted to spin the battery of test results in their favor. Their testimony was acrimonious and lengthy, and filled nearly three thousand pages, preserved in the Chicago History Museum and the National Archives. Evidence, correspondence, attorney’s briefs, and the like add another thousand pages to the record. Those on the side of the pipe organ interpreted the visual differences between pipe and Hammond organ tones in Boner’s charts as scientific proof of the superiority of pipe organ tones. Meanwhile, Laurens Hammond maintained the human ear could not detect the differences registered by Boner’s instrument. When Hammond held up the lackluster listening test results of expert listeners for a series of excerpts played by a Hammond employee, the prosecution accused them of deliberately registering the pipe organ used for the test to imitate the Hammond, rather than the other way around.

A Fraction of the Hearing's Transcribed Testimony in the Hammond Organ Company records

A Fraction of the Hearing’s Transcribed Testimony in the Hammond Organ Company records (Chicago History Museum)

Other Hearings

In hundreds of hours of testimony, not once did the Commission consider the experiences of performers and congregations who used the Hammond Organ for worship. When the Hammond defense attempted to submit statements of support from church organists across the country, the Commission rejected them on the grounds that “testimonials are not good evidence.”

The hearing’s final set of demonstrations starkly illustrate this exclusivity. The Commission traveled to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to compare two organs: a famous pipe organ at Boardwalk Hall (designed by Emerson Richards himself) and the only nearby Hammond Organ, located at the African-American St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church. At St. Augustine’s, Richards played a series of scales and chords using the preset sounds of the Hammond Organ; he repeated this process, playing registrations that corresponded to the Hammond’s preset timbres, on the organ at Boardwalk Hall. Later, Richards and the famous organist Charles Courbin, who was present for the demonstrations, testified on the differences they perceived between the organs.

An unnamed figure appears in testimony, who Richards describes only as “a young colored man who sometimes plays the organ” at the church. For a brief moment, then, the hearing’s participants encountered a musician who actually played the Hammond for church services. Here was someone who might have provided testimony grounded in lived experience with the new instrument. But the lived musical life and opinions of this unidentified organist was irrelevant to the men running the hearing. He is mentioned just once in the recorded testimony. He does not speak or act. His body registered, briefly, in the official record, but his opinions—and his name—did not.

Though this organist and his musical practices failed to register as matters of concern, his presence in the record is silent testimony to the Hammond’s existence and impact outside the context of the Commission’s hearing. Historian Ashon Crawley, who is currently at work on a book on the role of the Hammond in Black Pentecostal churches, notes that the instrument’s sound was taken up as the sound of the Black Pentecostal movement itself where it was heard as a “human-like” voice. Crawley sketches an understanding of the Hammond’s sound in the Black Pentecostal church that is rich with religious and social meaning, an understanding far more complex and profound than the white men involved in the Commission’s Hammond hearing were able to imagine.

A Hollow Victory?

In July of 1938, when five Commissioners met to rule on the hearing, they agreed with the prosecution and its witnesses on nearly all points. The Commissioners ordered Hammond to cease making a number of claims, including that the Hammond could produce sonorities equivalent to a pipe organ’s, that it could “properly” render “the great works of classical organ literature,” and that it was comparable to a “$10,000 pipe organ.”

And yet, after hundreds of hours of testimony, tests, and demonstrations, the decision mattered little. Both sides claimed victory, but the hearing appeared to have no appreciable impact on either. Indeed, the Hammond seemed to expand rather than invade the pipe organ market. Until World War II, when both the Hammond Company and the pipe organ industry converted to war-time operations, Hammonds continued to sell at a brisk pace. And after a low point in 1935, a slow recovery began in the pipe organ industry, with sales and the number of pipe organ firms on the rise by the end of the decade.

Defenders of the pipe organ failed to grasp that not every church wanted or needed a pipe organ, and that the Hammond was actually well suited to many religious musical practices. We can only imagine what other kinds of testimony would exist had the Commission considered the experiences and opinions of the congregations who worshiped with a Hammond. The exclusivity was the point, though. It was the Hammond’s marketing intrusion into elite pipe organ spaces and practices that precipitated the complaint, and that elite ground was the only one the pipe organ experts believed was worth defending.

The dismissal of supposed non-expert Hammond players and listeners in the Commission’s hearing mirrors electronic music history’s failure to register the histories of early electronic instruments. Because instruments like the theremin and the Hammond first circulated in spaces outside of elite compositional spheres, their performers, practices, and receptions seem to exist outside of history altogether. In both the Hammond’s hearing and mainstream electronic music history, the cordoning off of everyday and popular music experiences drastically narrows our understanding of how electronic musical sound became meaningful and why it matters.

“Splendid Sonority and Vivid Expressiveness”: The Theremin before Sci-Fi

A photo of a female conductor circa 1930

Most people who haven’t heard of the theremin have heard it, usually in old science fiction movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (or spoofs like Mars Attacks). The instrument has a reputation as an oddball, by virtue of its unusual method of playing without touch (players control pitch and volume by moving their arms in proximity to two antennae), its notoriously slippery chromatic sound, and its association with all things alien and strange.

Yet the instrument was popular with U.S. audiences well before its appearance in sci-fi films. A significant surviving reception history documents recitals and concerts during the ’30s and ’40s, often given by women, known as “thereminists,” who played the instrument professionally or semi-professionally. Years before Hollywood cemented the theremin’s association with the alien or otherworldly, critics heard different qualities in its sonority: emotional expressiveness and excessive sentimentality.

This history isn’t widely known or taught, but it reveals much about how electronic musical sound takes on meaning and significance. While we might take for granted that the instrument’s touchless technique and new electronic timbre would naturally register with early listeners as alien and strange, contemporary reviews and commentary upend such assumptions and reveal the extent to which sonorities take on meaning in specific contexts, and in relationship to specific bodies.

A Theremin for the American Home

RCA Victor began producing the first commercial theremin in 1929 after leasing exclusive rights to the patent for a two-year term from its inventor, Leon Theremin. The company marketed the theremin as an instrument for the home, hiding its working parts—oscillators, vacuum tubes, and circuit board—in a polished wooden cabinet. Working with Theremin (an amateur cellist himself), RCA engineers shaped the instrument’s tone to evoke a cello in its mid-range and a violin at the top, sonorities they presumed would appeal to consumers.

RCA Victor theremin brochure c. 1930

RCA Victor theremin brochure c. 1930

RCA launched a campaign to familiarize audiences with the instrument’s sound. Department stores and music retailers across the country advertised demonstrations and concerts, and a series of weekly radio programs on NBC featured theremin renditions of popular repertory of the day and classical melodies like Camille Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan.” RCA marketed the instrument as a pathway to instant musical gratification for the amateur, promising that anyone could play it “without musical knowledge or training of any sort … without tiresome or extended ‘practice.’” The theremin (RCA hoped) would become “the universal musical instrument,” the piano’s heir apparent in millions of American living rooms.

Claims of universality notwithstanding, this campaign primarily targeted middle and upper-class white women, a demographic frequently associated with (and compelled to take on) domestic music-making and most likely to select music technology purchased for the home. Although men frequently played the theremin in demonstrations and broadcasts, RCA Victor’s promotional material almost exclusively pictured women playing the instrument. In Madison, Wisconsin, the local Ludlow Radio company sponsored several theremin concerts by a Mr. Lennington Shewell, but otherwise emphasized female use. The company launched a search for a “mystery co-ed” at the University of Wisconsin, alleging a gifted thereminist lived among the student body (no record of such a student survives). The local Capital Times gamely took up the publicity stunt, running an image of Ludlow’s office manager Charlotte Hilton with the instrument—although she admitted she did not know how to play it.

“Seek Mystery ‘Co-ed’ who Plays Theremin," Capital Times front page, Madison, Wisconsin, October 19, 1930

“Seek Mystery ‘Co-ed’ who Plays Theremin,” Capital Times front page, Madison, Wisconsin, October 19, 1930

Despite RCA Victor’s marketing efforts, the theremin was a flop: the company sold only 485 models and abandoned the instrument just two years after its launch. Any number of factors contributed to the theremin’s commercial failure, not least of them the instrument’s $230 price tag (roughly equivalent to $3,300 in 2018), which made it a luxury item at the start of the Great Depression.

RCA Victor’s most notorious blunder, though, was its gross misrepresentation of the instrument’s learning curve. It is incredibly difficult to play tonal melodies on a theremin: with no tactile interface and the entire chromatic spectrum available, the instrument lacks any readily apparent means to make a clear break between intervals, and requires a player’s hand to remain absolutely still in order to hold a steady pitch. Try to pick out even a simple melody on a theremin, and you’ll find yourself fighting a battle against continuous glissandi and poor intonation.

Thereminists and their critics

Despite these technical challenges, in the decades following the theremin’s commercial failure a small number of performers, most of them white women, concertized on the instrument in the U.S. and Europe. Among these, Clara Rockmore remains the most celebrated. A former child violin prodigy, Rockmore took theremin technique and virtuosity to a new level, developing a complex fingering method she adapted for each piece she performed. She carefully curated a repertoire for the instrument drawn mostly from works for violin and cello, with slow tempi and a great deal of step-wise motion that minimized the large pitch slides to which the instrument was prone. A typical program included works like Joseph Achron’s Hebrew Melody, Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera, and César Franck’s Cello Sonata in A Major. Her career included national tours as the opening act for Paul Robeson and a performance with the New York Philharmonic under Leopold Stokowski.

Clara Rockmore performs “The Swan” accompanied by her sister Nadia Reisenberg

Throughout her career, critics lauded Rockmore’s virtuosic playing and sophisticated musicianship. Reviewers frequently remarked on the instrument’s expressive powers in Rockmore’s hands, describing its tone as “warm” and “rich” and comparing it to the cello, violin, and human voice. They heard a “splendid sonority and vivid expressiveness” and a “clear, singing, almost mournful” tone in Rockmore’s playing. To this day, she remains influential among thereminists.

Yet critical response to Rockmore and the theremin was not universally positive. A rhetoric of noisiness threads through this early reception history, employed by (mostly white, mostly male) critics to mark the theremin as sonically obnoxious. During the ’30s and ’40s, when concert thereminists like Rockmore were active, critics often complained about their “excessive” use of vibrato and portamento. There is a practical explanation for such complaints: without the use of these techniques, it is next to impossible to locate pitches, or to create even the impression of accurate intonation, on the theremin.

Critics, however, did not limit themselves to practical questions about technique. Many turned to identity politics to signal their displeasure with the instrument’s slippery chromaticism, taking a cue from the long history of linking “excessive” chromaticism with bodies deemed sexually, racially, or otherwise aberrant. Writers for the New-York Tribune and Modern Music compared the theremin’s sonority to that of a “feline whine,” a fictional Wagnerian soprano dubbed “Mme. Wobble-eena,” and “fifty mothers all singing lullabies to their children at the same time.” Such comparisons are inseparable from the (frequently female) bodies that, in concert with the theremin, produced such sounds.

A few prominent figures in the American new music community at the time were particularly vehement in their criticism. In 1932 Marc Blitzstein wrote in Modern Music that the theremin’s “tone color remains lamentably sentimental, without virility. The most perfected [model], like a cello, exposes most brutally the cloying sound.” John Cage complained about concert thereminists in a 1937 talk (later published in the collection Silence). “When Theremin provided an instrument with genuinely new possibilities,” groused Cage, “Thereminists did their utmost to make the instrument sound like some old instrument, giving it a sickeningly sweet vibrato, and performing upon it, with difficulty, masterpieces from the past. Although the instrument is capable of a wide variety of sound qualities…Thereminists act as censors, giving the public those sounds they think the public will like. We are shielded from new sound experiences.”

The deficiencies commentators like Cage heard in the theremin’s sonority were not simply a response to the sound itself, but to the bodies and performance practices of thereminists like Rockmore. Composers of Western art music have long used “excessive” chromaticism to aurally mark women, and the thereminists’ frequent use of vibrato and portamento easily mapped onto the stereotype of the overly powerful and expressive operatic soprano. Meanwhile, new music proponents like Blitzstein often attacked traditional Western repertory in gendered terms as they sought to define a properly “virile” new music of their own. And we cannot dismiss the impact that the image of a woman performing held then (and holds now): such a vision can provoke both admiration and outrage.

Clara Rockmore

Photograph of Clara Rockmore (c. 1930s) by Renato Toppo, courtesy of The Nadia Reisenberg / Clara Rockmore Foundation

“Serious” and “Beautiful” Electronic Music

It is composers like Cage who stand as towering figures in electronic music—not performers like Rockmore—and it is his take on the theremin that you’re likely to encounter in a book on the subject. Rockmore held entirely different opinions on the aesthetics of electronic musical sound. Looking back on her career in a 1977 interview with Bob Moog, she lamented that:

From the beginning of electronic instruments, the interest of composers,…builders, and performers, is that of a search for eerie, new or strange sound effects….Modern composers are shying away from melody, frankly because I don’t think they know how to write really beautiful melody….Now they make sound effects and noises when they write.

Rockmore also lamented what she saw as Hollywood’s devaluation of the theremin’s sound to a sonic cliché. She complained that Hollywood exploited the theremin for its “weird noises…you were supposed to be frightened by the sounds. That was not what I wanted to add to. I just wanted to be a serious musician…play Bach!” John Cage might have belittled Rockmore’s repertoire choices as “censorship,” but for her, playing “masterpieces from the past” was a way to confer legitimacy on her chosen instrument.

Contrasting Rockmore’s words about the theremin’s sound with Cage’s demonstrates how their relative positions of power and vulnerability influenced their discussions of electronic musical sound. Both were musicians in elite spheres—one traditional, the other avant-garde. Both worked in niche musical areas and proselytized for their chosen work. Both, at least publicly, disdained musical sounds they did not like or found threatening to their own careers.

Cage is often praised for his commitment to artistic freedom, and it is his definition of freedom—freedom from tonality, from traditional repertoire—that has been taken up and promoted by most electronic music historians. Yet in the case of the theremin, Cage argued for the restriction of performance practices, and historians use his words to explain why thereminists are not properly part of electronic musical history. Rockmore had a different take. When explaining how the theremin fit in the broader electronic music scene, she said, “The theremin is just another musical voice that the artist can feel free to do with what he can.” It is time we expand our own notions of musical freedom. Our histories will only grow richer when we do.

“Underground” Electronic Music

A black and white brochure photo of a Telharmonium

Electronic musical sound saturates our sonic world. Check the pop charts any week, and you’ll hear sounds clearly identifiable as electronic in almost every track. We expect to hear these sounds, and rarely consider their presence, let alone their significance. Given their ubiquity, it’s clear that electronic sounds matter—but how? What do they mean to us? How did they become so valuable and so popular?

If you go looking for answers to these questions in the pages of electronic music histories, you are likely to read a story like this: in the middle of the 20th century, avant-garde composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen pioneered various techniques, ideas, and sounds that eventually led to a digital revolution in the 1980s, when electronic music exploded and came to dominate popular music.

Among other problems with this narrative: popular electronic music existed well before the experiments of these “great men.” Thousands of people in the U.S. witnessed electronic musical sounds played on early electronic instruments long before the celebrated midcentury experimentalists. Each of these instruments offers a history with its own answers to questions about encounters between audiences and new electronic sounds.

Crowd in Telharmonium Hall

Crowd in Telharmonium Hall, A. B. Easterbrook, “The Wonderful Telharmonium,” Gunter’s Magazine (June 1907)

Telharmonium Hall

The instrument that first introduced U.S. audiences to electronic sound was an enormous machine that drew accolades during two short seasons in New York City: the Telharmonium. Invented by Thaddeus Cahill and installed in the city from 1906 to 1908, the instrument occupied two floors of “Telharmonium Hall” at Broadway and 39th Street. In the basement sat half an acre of machinery, including switchboards, tone mixers, and dynamos—the large electrical generators that produced the instrument’s sound. Telephone wires carried the sound upstairs where receivers, somewhat amplified by simple paper cones, piped the music to audiences. Two, three, or sometimes four performers played the instrument’s hodgepodge of interfaces, including multiple keyboards, pedals, and switches.

Telharmonium Hall opened in 1907 to critical and popular success. During its first season, tens of thousands of people attended concerts there. The hall also offered subscription services a century before streaming platforms like Spotify came to dominate music consumption. Some of the city’s most lavish cafes and hotels, among them the Café Martin and the Waldorf Astoria, became subscribers, as did private individuals like Mark Twain. The Plaza Hotel went so far as to wire every guest room for Telharmonic service.

Laudatory accounts appeared everywhere from McClure’s and The New York Times to Scientific American and Literary Digest. “It is wonderful,” said Alfred Hertz, conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, “and I believe in telharmony as an art of music.” Famed tenor Enrico Caruso foresaw a musical “revolution,” and journalists agreed, predicting the end of the orchestra, a new era in musical appreciation, and the improved health and family life of Americans (at least some Americans) who would now have music, day and night, “on tap.”

Dinner from the Future

“Dinner from the Future” (depiction of an “ideal” family experiencing Telharmonium music, piped through their lamp, during dinner)

“Purer and Better”

For proponents of the instrument, the Telharmonium was an ideal vehicle for revolutionary changes in music production and consumption because of the quality of its tone, widely perceived as “pure” and even “perfect.” Purity has long been associated with whiteness. Rhetoric about racially “pure” musical aesthetics and sounds was already decades old by the 20th century, and was exacerbated by anti-immigrant policy and sentiment. “Purity” was central to a nationalist voice culture movement of teachers and musicians that thrived in the U.S. from around 1880 to 1920. Scott Carter, who has documented the movement, notes an obsession with pure vocal tones, rooted in racist beliefs about vocal clarity and anxiety over non-white immigrants.

Within the new science of acoustics, which Cahill carefully studied, purity of tone had a similar racial component. Tara Rodgers notes that acousticians like Hermann von Helmholtz equated “notions of the sine wave as ‘pure’ and ‘lacking body’ with whiteness and scientific objectivity,” and timbral variations away from this norm with “material embodiment (e.g. raced, gendered, classed) and transgressive pleasures.” Cahill designed the Telharmonium to produce and combine sine waves and to create various timbres, and touted the instrument’s tones as being “purer and better than those of the orchestral instruments.”

Journalists happily took up this talking point about the instrument’s sound, describing it as particularly pure in review after review. The Telharmonium’s audiences and commentators were almost exclusively middle- and upper-class white people, and while it’s impossible to know whether the average listener heard the instrument’s sound as pure, it is safe to say that they experienced it through the lens of their racial experience. White audiences were used to having all kinds of products marketed to them as “pure” (and therefore healthy and superior)—from soap to food to medicine. Telharmonic music was for this population: created and sold in elite white spaces, consumed by white audiences, and widely described as sounding white.

Telharmonium Performers

Telharmonium Performers, Ray Stannard Baker, “New Music for an Old World,” McClure’s Magazine (July 1906)

Insiders and Outsiders

Nowhere does a journalist or marketer make the whiteness of the Telharmonium’s sound explicit; as Jennifer Stoever points out, when whiteness is the racial default, its sonic qualities are rendered inaudible. Yet one New York Times story—“An Invisible Rival for the Hurdy Gurdy”—comes close, pitting the Telharmonium’s sound against music made by a pair of immigrant street musicians.

During the Telharmonium’s brief time in New York City, the number of Italian and Eastern European immigrants in the city and nation was rising rapidly. Then as today, overblown fears about immigrants fed—and were fed by—racist stereotypes and discourses about citizenship (at the time, these immigrants were not considered white). In “An Invisible Rival for the Hurdy Gurdy,” a pair of street musicians—“two swart Italians, man and wife”—set up their barrel organ just outside Telharmonium Hall during a performance. In the story, as the husband begins to crank “a syncopated air” out of the instrument, his wife stops him, crying, “Somebody in dis-a place ees playing da bigga org” and pointing to Telharmonium Hall. The “Sicilians,” The Times reports, “were awed. They realized that against the massive tones that came from the building their instrument offered a thin and hopelessly unentertaining substitute for such rival music—although theirs had the merit of being real.”

Yet awed as they were, the musicians themselves posed a threat to the order within Telharmonium Hall: the sounds of their barrel organ disrupted the concert. In response, the hall’s manager, who had been giving a demonstration of the instrument, directed the players to begin a performance of Robert Schumann’s “Träumerei,” assuring the audience that this would “put an end to the hand organ.” As predicted, the performance silenced the street musicians into awestruck and dumb appreciation.

Every aspect of this New York Times story carefully designates the Telharmonium as an instrument fit for white bourgeois society, using the immigrants on the street as a foil that drives the point home. The bodies inside Telharmonium Hall (both the “society folk and prominent New Yorkers” in the audience and the management) are racially unmarked, and therefore white, unlike the “swart” immigrants outside. The “great massive tones” and the comparison with the pipe organ connected the Telharmonium to Western art and sacred music traditions, while the sounds of the street musicians registered as disruptive noise rather than music. The Telharmonium’s repertory—mostly slow, lyrical “classical” and popular melodies—likewise drew on white Western traditions in contrast to the “syncopated” music of the street musicians, which easily could have been a popular ragtime tune with roots in Black musics.

Even the “unreal” status The New York Times assigned to the Telharmonium’s music appears as a (racial) merit that signals a freedom from materiality, not unlike the supposed immateriality of sine waves. In describing its sound as “unreal,” the author emphasizes the ephemerality of music emitted by hidden sources beneath Telharmonium Hall and transmitted over wire. In contrast, the physicality of the street music is almost excessive. Its means of production—the barrel organ and its player—are not only visible but conspicuous, marked as outsiders by their speech and skin.

At the Telharmonium keyboard

At the Telharmonium keyboard, A. B. Easterbrook, “The Wonderful Telharmonium,” Gunter’s Magazine (June 1907)

The End of Underground Music

After the promise of the Telharmonium’s first season, the instrument’s fortunes nosedived. Unable to navigate the enormous legal and logistical challenges of delivering music via telephone wires to subscribers across the city, the instrument’s financial backers extracted themselves from the project and Telharmonium Hall closed permanently in the spring of 1908.

Even if the Telharmonium’s backers had managed to create the infrastructure the instrument required, its success was hardly guaranteed. Despite the accolades from the white press, the instrument was notoriously inept with popular music of the day like ragtime. While the Telharmonium offered performers an array of controls for dynamic expression and timbre, Cahill seems to have thought little about how the instrument handled music that relied on rapid rhythms and clear attacks.

The Telharmonium’s history points us to a version of electronic music history rich with meaning and uncomfortable truths about how musical sound comes to matter to us. Its brief popularity suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that we have long located profoundly human qualities in electronic musical sound. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the humanity we find there is a deeply troubled one, rooted in our nation’s ongoing struggles over race, identity, and belonging.