Introduction
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1 This is a book about music, opera especially, the phonograph, and cinema centered on questions concerning modernity, subjectivity, and nature emerging in the years immediately preceding 1910 and following in the next decade or so thereafter. The cultural practices of my concern either date from those years (three chapters) or are constituted by late-twentieth-century looking back at that time period. Along the way, I pause the main narrative to take up related issues in two freestanding excurses. I’ll characterize the subject matter of the individual chapters and excurses in due course. The governing idea for what follows developed over a number of years, but the seed for it was a well-known (at least to literary scholars) text by Virginia Woolf, writing in 1924, where she noted: “On or about December, 1910, human character changed.”1 A few years ago, the by-then dim memory of Woolf’s remark, which I initially encountered decades ago in an undergraduate class on modern British literature, came to mind for whatever reason. I’ll return to Woolf’s text presently, but suffice to say for now that her date for fundamental change coincides with the December 10, 1910, premiere at the Metropolitan Opera of La fanciulla del West, Puccini’s initial, if tentative (but hardly insubstantial ), genuflection to modernism, a score well noted for its dynamic aggressiveness and harmonic discord. I’ve thought about this opera for many years. I bought a recording when I was in high school, around 1960, and very much liked it from the first hearing. The link between Woolf’s remark and Puccini’s opera, however arbitrary, set me to thinking what it was about the opera that had for so long appealed to me. Considering the matter led me down a number of different paths (among the pleasures of any sort of INTRODUCTION 2 • I N T R O D U C T I O N research), and the result is this volume, the totality of which at times moves quite far beyond this opera, regarding which I would be less than frank were I to assume that the connective tissue shared by the chapters and excurses will seem entirely evident simply by the names I’ve given to each of them. However, if I’ve succeeded in the task I set for myself, by the time you finish reading what follows, the historical, social, cultural, and aesthetic homologies should be clear. Individually or taken together, in any event, I’m confident that the cultural artifacts and practices I’ve considered are historically and culturally significant: that much as the minimum. Woolf’s concern in 1924 (coincidentally the year of Puccini’s death) looking back to 1910 was the changing state of English literature, which faced new aesthetic demands in the twentieth century; in brief, her concern was modernism. Writers, as she put it, “tried to compromise” (like Puccini, of which more later), but compromise wasn’t up to literature ’s cultural task. “And so,” she wrote, “the smashing and the crashing began.” And here, though speaking about literature, Woolf provides a vivid series of explicitly sonic metaphors that mark quasi-epistemic cultural change: “Thus it is that we hear all round us, . . . the sound of breaking and falling, crashing and destruction. It is the prevailing sound of the Georgian age—rather a melancholy one if you think what melodious days there have been in the past . . . if you think of the language, and the heights to which it can soar when free, and see the same eagle [now] captive, bald, and croaking.”2 Taking a different but related tack a few years later, the Futurist (later fascist) poet F.T. Marinetti celebrated modern noise as the fitting harbinger for a modernism allegorized in this instance as an apotheosis of violence. He wrote to his friend and fellow Futurist Luigi Russolo about the sonorities of what he had heard at the battle of Adrianapolis, Turkey, in October 1912. In an orgasmic ecstasy of words piled atop one another, he took unambiguous pleasure in the sonic (and olfactory) chaos that gave him pleasure as music: “What a joy to hear to smell completely taratatata of the machine guns screaming a breathlessness under the stings slaps traak-traak whips pic-pac-pum-tumb weirdness leaps 200 meters range Far far in back of the orchestra pools muddying hyffing goaded oxen wagons.” To which Russolo drily responded, “We want to give pitches to these diverse noises...


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Subject Headings

  • Music -- Philosophy and aesthetics.
  • Modernism (Music) -- History -- 20th century.
  • Opera -- Social aspects.
  • Motion pictures -- Social aspects.
  • Sound recordings -- Social aspects.
  • Nature in music.
  • Nature in motion pictures.
  • Puccini, Giacomo, 1858-1924. Fanciulla del West.
  • Fitzcarraldo (Motion picture).
  • Days of heaven (Motion picture).
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