In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Joseph Auner of Tufts University explains how musicians have responded to the rapidly shifting technology behind modern electronic instruments.
Joseph Auner is a professor of music and musicology at Tufts University where his research interests include music and technology, popular music, and the music of turn-of-the century Vienna and Weimar Berlin. He has a forthcoming history of 20th- and 21st -century music in the series Western Music in Context: A Norton History. He is currently writing a book entitled, Feeling Musical Machines. He holds a Ph.D. in the history and theory of music from the University of Chicago.
Dr. Joseph Auner – Technology and Music
We are used to hearing about the almost mystical attachment musicians have to the touch and sound of historical instruments, whether it be a Stradivarius violin, a fortepiano from the time of Mozart, or a Fender Stratocaster guitar played by Jimi Hendrix. But I have been exploring the more surprising development that even recently invented electronic instruments have attracted their own passionate connoisseurs, restoration experts, and real and virtual museums.
One example is the Mellotron, an instrument introduced in the 1960s that looked like a small white refrigerator with a keyboard on the top. Every key triggered a strip of magnetic recording tape with a few seconds of a note played by strings, voices, or flutes, such as those you hear at the start of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Though in its heyday the Mellotron was very high tech and popular, it was notoriously unwieldy and difficult to maintain; by the early eighties it had been replaced by digital synthesizers.
And yet musicians have continued to be drawn to the Mellotron’s distinctive sound, with its intriguing mix of artificiality and reality. It is now possible to buy digital samples of the Mellotron you can play on any computer, including a set made at the Abbey Road studios, meticulously recorded with the same microphones that the Beatles used. But for many musicians only the real instrument will suffice, and in 2004 the market for rebuilt Mellotrons had become so large that manufacturing resumed.
The story of the Mellotron illustrates the deep connections we can develop with technologies in all aspects of our lives. And just as with any relationship, people seem to fall in love with such devices as much for their quirks and peculiarities as for their capabilities.