- Curtain, Gong, Steam: Wagnerian Technologies of Nineteenth-Century Opera by Gundula Kreuzer
Music and materiality have been getting along nicely lately. In 2017, the American Musicological Society awarded book prizes to volumes that examined—in radically different ways—music's relationship to the instruments and technologies required to produce it: Thomas Patteson's Instruments for New Music: Sound Technology and Modernism and Roger Moseley's Keys to Play: Music as a Ludic Medium from Apollo to Nintendo. Part of the pleasure of this work is the feeling of grounding: the power to pluck music out of the ether, replacing idealized works with labouring bodies, richly textured interfaces, and glitchy performances. These satisfactions presuppose that music had been dangling precariously in a state of ideality, in need of some hard materiality to tie it back to earth. How, we might ask, did music get stuck up in the ether in the first place? And how did it come to be that talking about materiality implies an act of unmasking?
One answer might simply be 'Wagner'. Or at least it seems like a plausible answer after reading Gundula Kreuzer's Curtain, Gong, Steam: Wagnerian Technologies of the Nineteenth Century. In this compelling book, Kreuzer takes us to the epicentre of the tensions between music's ideality and its materiality. She confronts the most ephemeral and least scrutinized aspects of Wagner's music dramas: his staging and stage machinery. In doing so, Kreuzer lays bare the fundamental conflict between Wagner's desire for theatrical transcendence and his attitudes towards stage technologies. For Kreuzer, stage design represents the greatest hurdle for Wagner's totalizing vision: his theatrical visions required layer upon layer of mediation that were far harder than music, musicians, or even singers to control.
The precolonic part of Kreuzer's title is magnificently straightforward: she devotes a chapter to each of the three nouns. The postcolonic part gets more complicated: what does 'Wagnerian technologies' mean? It does not connote Wagner's totalizing ownership over curtains, gongs, or steam, nor does it imply his perfecting touch or profound originality. The combination of Kreuzer's historical sensitivity and the ambitious temporal sweep of each of her chapters—occasionally bringing us into the ancient world, and repeatedly reaching into the twentieth century and beyond—often shrinks Wagner down to size. Indeed, Kreuzer lays bare the scale of Wagner's debt to previous composers and the ways in which later figures 'out-Wagnered' Wagner. The book offers several possible definitions. Kreuzer draws an essential, Kittlerian distinction between technology and media: the objects she follows transform from technologies—that is, mere supplements—to fully-fledged media that speak to our sensory organs and are replete with the power of functioning as a dramatic agent. (The tam-tam, for example, undergoes a metamorphosis from 'tautological dramatic signpost to nuanced sonic commentary', p. 143.) Elsewhere, Kreuzer posits that Wagnerian technologies are those that have special powers to mediate between different 'sensory realms', poised between materiality and ideality. But there are many other, implicit, definitions suggested in the book: Wagnerian technologies might be those that functioned—positively or negatively—as synecdoches for 'Wagner', the objects that were highlighted in parodies of music drama, and were folded into fantasies of future musics.
The first chapter, 'Wagner's Venusburg', begins not with a particular technology, but with the Venusburg scene from Tannhäuser, which Kreuzer invites us to understand as an early version of Bayreuth, a Gesamtkunstwerk in miniature. Here, we can read Venus as embodying Wagner's greatest theatrical desires: she is the director in total control of 'vivid multimediality'. Those teaching fast-paced music surveys surely will be tempted replace the typical excerpts from Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre with this scene. And if Venusburg [End Page 560] offers us a distillation of Wagner's directorial vision, then Venus's ultimate failure to keep Tannhäuser in her rosy, perfumed thrall likewise points to the ways in which Wagner's lofty visions often fell...