The Menace of Mechanical Music & the Reconfiguring of Memory and Hope

The open sentence of John Philip Sousa’s panicky and prescient 1906 essay on the business of recorded sound “The Menace of Mechanical Music” begins 34-year-old article titled “Record Industry and Egyptian Traditional Music: 1904-1932” in the journal Ethnomusicology, written by composer, performer, author and musicologist Ali Jihad Racy:
“Sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or panama hats, political war cries or popular novels, comes now the mechanical device to sing for us a song or play for us a piano, in substitute for human skill, intelligence and soul.”
Fun, chuckly stuff, cause we all know records won and Sousa died so fooey on him. But what is it doing at the beginning of a scholarly article on Egyptian music?
Two answers:
1) Racy’s article concerns itself with the circumstances through which some monumentally great and almost supernaturally refined singers like Abd-l Hai Hilmi (who fits the phrase invented by Will Schofield for people like Kevin Ayers, “Toxic Dandy”), Ahmad Idris, Zaki Mourad and Yusuf Al-manyalawi, had their performances etched in stone during the first three decades of the twentieth century so that they can still sweep the hearts of human beings into the clouds. This would have been impossible without the “mechanized menace.”
and 2) The music that these singers performed at then end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century went extinct in the 30s, partially because of the radical world-wide economic changes of the 30s and the accompanying proliferation of entertainment media which were both higher-tech and cheaper, namely radio and movies. Racy concludes his study in 1932: “The choice of this date is prompted by several historical and musical factors that had crucially challenged the efficacy of the disc in Egyptian musical life. For example, April 14, 1932 marked the premiere of the first Egyptian musical film … In Egypt the musical film functioned as the most popular and effective medium of musical dissemination that drove the disc to a second position.” So, in the 30s, Where people once sat by the the speaker and reveled in the sound for a few minutes, they now sat in a dark room and stared at a shadowplay which served as context for songs.
When Racy writes that “in a sense, the early 30s may thus be regarded as the beginning of a new post-phonograph era in Egypt,” it doesn’t mean that Egyptians stopped buying or listening to records. He implies that what it once meant to be a musician and what it once meant to listen with one’s ears to music changed. Naturally, the music in the films was different than that on the earlier records, both sonically grander and formally simpler, and the records which were made after the ascent of film music reflected that shift. The most important case-study of this transition in Egypt is also the most important musician of the past century for the entire Arab World and one of the greatest singers ever to record, Oum Kalthoum, who began recording as a classical singer in the old style in 1924 and changed with the times, transitioning to film stardom in the 40s. But she is another story for another day.

All of this, in fact, is prologue to this short and beautiful clip from an Egyptian film of the 40s – I don’t know its name – depicting the magic of listening to records, the projection of wishes into the sound, the drawing of the listener’s inner life into communion with the sound through memories – the ever-changing memories of the listener and the fixed memory on the disc. In the 40s, it was depicted through the film medium which undermined the record. And now you’ll see it on your computer screen as it similarly undermines film. Even so, the human need for that moment of communion is completely transparent. Some say that half of the world’s languages will go extinct in the next hundred years and with them, countless concepts and modes of thought. No one has tried to quantify the impending changes in music, but in a hundred years, someone will dream into sound. What dreams?

Categories: Ian Nagoski, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.

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