Go back to article: ‘Organising Sound’: how a research network might help structure an exhibition

Collections, objects and exhibitions

From our very first steps in conceiving of an exhibition on science, technology and music, we have wanted to use the objects we hold within our collections as a major intellectual, as well as practical, resource. The particular collection that a museum holds may be seen as embodying a kind of genius loci. The sum history of a museum’s collecting practice should be seen as a significant determinant of its distinctive programming capabilities, enabling its voice to be distinguished from competing attractions. The proposed theme of histories of listening and hearing promises to do justice to the collections of both the Science Museum and the RCM. Here I describe some of the objects that were discussed during the workshops, or in the period since, where our thinking has been inflected by those 2015 discussions. To give an immediate example that follows naturally from the discussion so far, one display candidate is the Museum’s Pyrophone (fire organ), a nineteenth-century instrument that produced sounds from tuned gas flames. This instrument was originally displayed at the Special Loan Collection of Scientific Apparatus in 1876, one of the Science Museum’s founding exhibitions (Bud, 2016). This object offers itself as an ideal display candidate: it could only have been conceived in an industrial world where town gas was readily available – it combines this connection with the steam punk appeal of an imaginable counterfactual history in which such instruments had become more than novelties.

Figure 5

Colour photograph of a pyrophone musical instrument

Pyrophone, patented and made by Frédéric Kastner, France, 1873

The fact that the curator Victor Chew was, from the late 1950s, intent on actively collecting sound recording and reproduction devices, as Jennifer Rich has shown in her article in issue 07 of this journal – means that we are able to create a nuanced display on this aspect of the history of listening (Rich, 2017). This would not need to be a technical history of recording technology, but could respect recent scholarship, which has shown that recording has led to several different kinds of revolution in music (see Sterne, 2003; Katz, 2010; Pinch and Bijsterveld, 2011). Recording detached the experience of music listening from the need to be present at a performance. It made it possible, even for non-musicians, to become deeply familiar with pieces of music and increasingly it made music into an accompaniment to everyday experience. After recording, music became ubiquitous, not just in the parlour, but in the city, and in the cinema where it became a key component of representing and experiencing modernity. The Science Museum Group collections represent the technology of sound-on-film, and inclusion of one of these devices could readily become the focus for a surprising display of the way in which filmmakers and artists very soon began to use such equipment not only to record dialogue, but to create different kinds of sound collage that effectively amounted to musique concrète more than a decade before the term was coined (Cox, 2017; Boon, 2018). These less well-known examples of the impact of recording on music could be used to provide a genealogy and a context for other aspects of recorded listening, such as the interaction of disc recording durations with musical form, including the three-minute pop song. At another level, sound recording instruments have been pressed into service as analytical instruments, and this is seen in the collecting traditions of ethnomusicologists as much as in individual composers’ appropriation of folk forms. Béla Bartók was, for example, able to study Eastern European folk music because he could closely study recorded Edison phonograph performances (Bartók and Baker, 1933, p 271). Glen Gould perfected his 1955 Goldberg Variations by listening back to his own practice performances (Elie, 2012). New York Minimalists built a whole genre on the foundation of tape loop music; and hip-hop and sampling-based music translated art music into the mainstream. Sampling also has a genealogy as could be shown via a musical device from a very particular technological niche: the Mellotron, launched in 1963, is a musical instrument where each note on a conventional musical keyboard triggers the playback of a length of magnetic tape carrying a tuned recording. This did the job that a decade and a half later began to be done by digital samplers. In addition to three instruments acquired from the manufacturers, Streetly Electronics, SMG holds the Mellotron purchased by the BBC in 1963–4, where it was used as a sound effects databank (Niebur, 2010, pp 125–7). 

Figure 6

Colour photograoh of an early type of sound effects synthesizer

Mellotron FX console, manufactured by Streetly Electronics and purchased by the BBC in 1963–4

It will be evident to those that know it, that our discussions on the revolutions wrought by recording would be haunted by Jacques Attali’s division of the history of music into three ages, which defines our modern era as a phase that is dominated by the existence of recording. In Attali’s account, our current age has the tag ‘repeating’, since recording has enabled the ‘stockpiling of music’. It is an age that is radically different from two earlier eras; one dominated by notated music and another, pre-modern, pre-notational period where music was marked by particular ritual associations (Attali, 1985).

Myles Jackson’s demonstration-lecture in the third workshop showed that the Science Museum’s acoustics collection holds a good selection of the significant acoustical instruments that he had already explored in his work Harmonious Triads. As Jackson shows there, nineteenth century physicists used musical instruments as experimental systems; in turn their research helped musicians in their performances as well as leading directly to improvements in the design and manufacture of musical instruments. The musical reed, for example – as Jackson showed using a tonometer made by Appunn and a concertina by Wheatstone – was a mainstay of those engaged in uniting music and physics. It enabled precise tuning and therefore determination not just of ‘absolute’ pitch, but also of relative pitch in the sense of addressing the problem of temperament in keyboard tuning, where a compromise always has to be made between mathematically equal intervals and those that sound tuneful in each key (see Jackson, 2006, pp 153–7). This was part of the important theme of standardisation, where music is of a piece with many aspects of nineteenth century science. Here, as Jackson showed, instrument makers worked with musicians and researchers to create devices such as tuning forks and metronomes, that could be used to address local differences (for example creating a standard pitch of concert A), the tempo at which pieces would be played, and solutions to the temperament problem. Had it been practical to transport the Museum’s enharmonic harmonium from storage in Wiltshire, the workshop audience would have witnessed another exhibition display candidate which, with its with 84 keys per octave, is a survivor of the nineteenth century debates on temperament.

Figure 7

Colour photograph of a Wheatstone concertina instrument fashioned in wood

Bosanquet's enharmonic harmonium, c1876. Enharmonic harmonium with 4 1/2 octaves tuned in 53 equal temperaments with 84 keys per octave, designed by R H M Bosanquet (1841–1912) of St John's College, Oxford, and constructed by T A Jennings of Hackney Road, London in 1872–3. Bosanquet's research into musical intervals and temperaments was influential in determining the design of keyboards for modern musical instruments.

Incidentally, the display of a concertina, not as the folkish thing it is now generally seen to be, but as the archaic high-tech of 1829, could supply one of those elements of surprise that are part of the toolkit of exhibition curators; Charles Wheatstone, the scientific instrument maker and scion of a musical instrument-making family, launched the English version in that year.

As some of these examples imply, today’s curators work on the basis that the potential narratives to which objects belong are not limited by the conceptual worlds of those that collect them. This was also seen in the workshops. For example, when Tom Rice spoke of Florence Nightingale’s perception of the curative power of peacefulness, he opened up the possibility that Nightingale’s moccasins, which the Museum holds as part of the Wellcome collection, could go beyond simply being thought of as personalia, and present themselves as surprising candidates for display in the context of noise and health.

Figure 8

Colour photograph of a pair of aboriginal north american moccasins

Pair of leather moccasins, said to have been worn by Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, 1850–1856

These are just a very few examples of objects that might be displayed under the ‘history of listening’ rubric, and it awaits further research to reveal the many more candidate display objects in the collections, especially the RCM’s collections, which were not explicitly addressed in the workshops.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170814/007