Phonographic Encounters. Mapping Transnational Cultures of Sound, 1890–1945

Roy, Elodie A.; Rodriguez, Eva Moreda
London 2021: Routledge
Anzahl Seiten
268 S.
€ 153,65
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Daniel Morat, Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut, Freie Universität Berlin

The history of phonography and early sound recording has been established as an interdisciplinary research field for scholars from history, media studies and musicology for some time. More recently, this field has also moved towards questions of global history and postcolonial theory, since the recording industry has been operating on a global level from the beginning.[1] The new collective volume edited by Elodie A. Roy and Eva Moreda Rodríguez, Phonographic Encounters. Mapping Transnational Cultures of Sound, 1890–1945, is a welcome addition to this particular area of the research field. In contrast to some strands of the recent literature, the authors of Phonographic Encounters depart from lesser-known starting points, in order to move “beyond Western-centric narratives of early phonography” (p. I). At first sight, this promise is kept. Only one of the twelve chapters is entirely focused on one of the big European metropoles: Thomas Henry’s chapter on record sellers in Paris. However, still eight of the twelve chapters deal with examples from Europe or North America. Thus, rather than leaving the West behind, one of the achievements of Phonographic Encounters is to decenter the West itself, and thereby to decenter the existing narratives of early phonography. This is taking place on the geographical level, on the level of the main protagonists and on the level of the recording technology itself.

On the level of geography, it is especially interesting to have case studies of early phonography in smaller European countries like Portugal (by João Silva) or Sweden (by Ulrik Volgsten), or larger, but still somewhat “peripheral” countries like Italy (by Benedetta Zucconi), Spain (by Eva Moreda Rodríguez) and Russia (by Karina Zybina). It brings to mind that, when we speak of eurocentrism, we are most often thinking of Great Britain, France, and Germany. But Europe itself is quite diverse and there are dynamics of center and periphery at work within Europe, as well as within the different European countries. This is particularly obvious for instance in Italy with the industrialized north and the rural south. These regional differences also play themselves out when it comes to the immigrant communities in the United States. As Siel Agugli shows in his chapter on Italian record shops in Philadelphia, the “transnational identity” that the Italian community of Philadelphia developed with the help of the phonograph also had a regional dimension to it through the “repertoires in dialects that reinforced or redefined cultural ties with specific regions in Italy” (p. 232). Similarly, the British settlers in Australia could use the phonograph to keep their cultural ties with Britain and to spread “British sonic preferences” (p. 71) in the colony, as Henry Reese shows in his chapter on settler colonial soundscapes in Australia. Interestingly, the only maps reproduced in the book are the city maps of Philadelphia in Agugli’s chapter. Maybe some of the other chapters would also have benefited from similar illustrations. But even without the actual maps, the collection as a whole is aptly subtitled “mapping transnational cultures of sound”, because the chapters do a very good job at taking the reader to and through local, national and global spaces. This zooming in and zooming out and the changing of different geographical scales is part of the decentering of a single narrative.

On the level of the protagonists, the collection allows the reader to follow the ‘middlemen’ of early phonography. Not the famous inventors and entrepreneurs like Edison, Berliner or the Pathé brothers, but the scouts and recording technicians, the record dealers and amateurs stand center stage in most of the chapters, as well as language scholars and politicians (in Britta Lange’s chapter on German dialect recordings during the Second World War) and intellectuals and legal experts (in Zucconi’s chapter). The recording scouts and local agents play a particularly important role in the chapters by Sergio Ospina Romero on the recording expeditions of the western music companies and by Andreas Steen on early phonographic practices in China. In both chapters, the shift of attention to these protagonists also decenters a one-way-narrative of empire or colonialism, because – as Steen argues – the local experts, whom the foreign scouts had to rely on, pursued their own goals. Ospina Romero argues along similar lines when he states that by focusing on the “men on the ground” and by “exploring the quotidian challenges of recording scouts” and the “everyday situations in the expeditions”, one can get at the “actual playground of imperial dominance and cultural resistance” (p. 21). Similar to Agugliaro’s chapter on shop owners in Philadelphia, Thomas Henry maps record shops in Paris. He argues that with the new culture of listening to records, the role of record shop owners changed from mere businessmen to music and record connoisseurs who functioned as “ambassador[s] of ‘phonographic art’” (p. 249). The first decades of the 20th century saw the emergence of new professions not only in the record industry, but also in the consumer industry and in retail more generally. J. Martin Vest, in his chapter, tells the story of window dresser Ellis Hansen, who in 1909 developed a program of centralized window-dressing production for the Victor Talking Machine Company.

By focusing on the question of how to “sell sound through the eye” (p. 205), Vest’s chapter is also an example for the third level of decentering: the decentering of the sound recording technology itself. In her introduction, Elodie Roy states that the collection aims at broadening the understanding of phonography by framing it “as a dynamic socio-material practice of recording, collecting, retrieving and passing on [of] sound – involving a vast variety of intermediaries, materials, machines and localities” (p. 2). The different chapters do a very good job at living up to that claim, especially the chapters in Part II on “auditory practices and the shaping of new listening identities”, which place the phonograph and the gramophone within a broader setting of cultural practices. This includes the inter-medial connection of the phonograph to other forms of mechanical music that João Silva analyses in his chapter on the Fado do 31. Records were only part of a larger setting of media and social practices through which, as Silva writes, “music became part of everyday life” (p. 87) in the 20th century. In his chapter on new ways of listening to recorded sound in Sweden during the interwar years, Ulrik Volgsten calls this very same process the “musicalization” (p. 117) of everyday life. He looks at the ways in which records contributed to the transformation of the “general perception of what music is”: “from being essentially something one did together with others […] to becoming an object, a personalized commodity intended for individual consumption in private detachment” (ibid.). Volgsten links this to broader “socio-cultural processes such as individualization, commercialization and globalization” (p. 118).

Even though Volgsten’s argumentation is very convincing, one could ask to which degree this claim is nourished by the kind of generalizing narrative about the globalization of music through western technology that the collection as a whole precisely wants to decenter. Aren’t concepts like individualization, commercialization, and globalization not still very much shaped by a western perspective? But even if the collection does not abandon these kinds of concepts and narratives completely, it takes important steps to problematize and challenge them by shifting the focus from the dominant nations to the smaller and more peripheral ones, from the famous protagonists to the lesser-known middlemen, and from the recording technology itself to a broader set of phonographic practices.

[1] Michael Denning, Noise Uprising. The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution, London 2015; Harry Liebersohn, Music and the New Global Culture. From the Great Exhibitions to the Jazz Age, Chicago 2019.