From the Library: Mechanical Music

The days before the gramo­phone and the radio were still filled with music. Not only did peo­ple per­form for each oth­er at home in the par­lour, or go out for an evening’s enter­tain­ment to the dance-hall or music-hall; the ears of our Vic­to­ri­an antecedents were also assailed by musi­cal per­for­mances from ‘record­ed’ sources, though not in the man­ner we expe­ri­ence today.

In the pub, the equiv­a­lent of juke box­es, mechan­i­cal instru­ments like the Sym­pho­nion, would take a coin in the slot and play often quite com­plex arrange­ments from one or more discs car­ry­ing a pat­tern of pins or holes allow­ing mechan­i­cal or pneu­mat­ic con­trivances to play the notes. Some peo­ple had instru­ments like this – essen­tial­ly large and com­plex musi­cal box­es – at home.

Out in the street, along­side the cacoph­o­ny of horse-drawn traf­fic and ear­ly motor vehi­cles min­gled the sounds of more mechan­i­cal instru­ments, from the bar­rel piano and street organ, which oper­at­ed on a sim­i­lar prin­ci­ple to that already described (the “bar­rel” was the rotat­ing ele­ment car­ry­ing pins that played the notes) to the great steam-pow­ered organs (or Cal­liopes) found at fun­fairs, which gen­er­al­ly used reams of linked cards with slots in them that passed through a “card read­er” allow­ing com­pressed air (not steam: the steam engine just drove the mechan­ics) to pass through and play the music – not only via pipes but also dri­ving per­cus­sion instru­ments that clanged, thumped, rat­tled and chimed.

You will hear music from all these kinds of instru­ments today, play­ing tra­di­tion­al tunes of the peri­od in a pro­gramme that evokes the sounds of the Vic­to­ri­an age.

In addi­tion we will be fea­tur­ing the music of one of’s artists, Pro­fes­sor Arm­chair, aka Glen Bled­soe, who plays (among oth­er things) tunes of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry on mod­ern elec­tron­ic instru­ments in a style very much rem­i­nis­cent of these mechan­i­cal devices, and with an excel­lent sense of humour, on his album Too Much Mus­tard.

• From the Library is pro­duced by Radio Riel in con­junc­tion with the Cale­don Library in Sec­ond Life. Today’s pro­gramme was pro­duced by Elrik Mer­lin.

For more infor­ma­tion on the Cale­don Library, cur­rent exhibits and the work of Sec­ond Life ref­er­ence libraries in gen­er­al, please vis­it the Cale­don Library Web site, or one of their loca­tions in-world.

You can lis­ten now at — the ide­al URL for you to use in your home par­cel media address in-world — or sim­ply vis­it any Cale­don Library branch in-world and press Play on your embed­ded music play­er. (If you want to lis­ten off-world, eg in Winamp or iTunes, and the above address does­n’t work for you, click here.)

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