Guy Maddin and the Origins of Muzak


From Night Mayor, courtsey of the National Film Board of Canada


In his newest short film, premiering this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, Canadian fabulist Guy Maddin chronicles a monomaniacal Bosnian émigré and his extraordinary invention, the Telemelodium.  Entitled, rather appropriately, Night Mayor, this fourteen minute phantasmagoria of shadowy laboratories, topless sprites and eruptions of light epitomizes Maddin's own obsessions with an imaginary history–of childhood, urban legend, and apocrypha– filtrated through equally obsolescent technologies.  Set in Maddin's hometown of Winnipeg –subject of his recent award-winning film and book My Winnipeg–on the eve of the Second World War, the film's eccentric scientist and titular "night mayor," Nihad Ademi, has designed a multimedia device that transports sound and image by harnessing the energies of the Aurora Borealis.  Through the sell of wired receivers to subscribers throughout the continent, Ademi's Telemelodium becomes both an entertainment unit and an apparatus of unimaginable power.  The Canadian government, in an act of censorship and historical expurgation, descends on the Ademi family and seizes the instrument for its own sinister purposes. 

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As a cinematic connoisseur and perennial curator of technological exotica, Maddin has based Night Mayor's fictional Telemelodium on the history of the Telharmonium–the twentieth century's first electronic "synthesizer".  An invention of engineer and composer Thomas Cahill patented in 1898, the Telharmonium (also known as the Dynamophone) preceded the more popular Theremin, Wurlitzer organ, and ondes Martenot by decades but existed for hardly twenty years before it was disassembled and abandoned to historical footnote.  A colossal mechanical contraption consisting of thousands of dynamos, switching systems and oscillators, it took nearly four years and a quarter of a million dollars for the New York Electric Music Company to build the 200 ton, 60 feet-long machine at Cahill's behest.  Using the rubric of a traditional organ, the Telharmonium was outfitted with a double keyboard that required two players to explore its seven octave, 40 to 4000 Hz range.  Constructed in Holyoke, Massachusetts, the completed synthesizer was moved to Midtown Manhattan in 1906 for a recital at the newly christened Telharmonic Hall.  However, the real plan for the Telharmonium was much more ambitious in scope.


Per Cahill's request, the New York Telephone Company allowed music from the hall to be transmitted through the phone lines to paid subscribers throughout the city.  By generating enough current and attaching an acoustic dynamo to the phone receiver, the Telharmonium could be amplified to a sufficient volume to serenade any sized room.  Major landmarks and institutions like the Museum of Natural History, the Waldorf Astoria, and Louis Sherry's restaurant were some of the first to sign up for service, allowing patrons to sample this new electronic sound in lobbies, bars, and exhibition halls.  The wealthiest of the uptown elite could also pay to have the music routed directly into their drawing rooms.  Cahill assured investors that his device could channel music to 20,000 dwellings throughout Manhattan on multiple circuits.  Wireless transmitters eventually replaced many of the cables because the high frequencies of the Telharmonium caused citywide phone interruptions.  However, the recitals were short lived.  By 1908, the novelty of the Telharmonium had waned and complaints of major electric malfunctions from telegraph agencies and the Navy forced the closure of Telharmonic Hall.  Although the Telharmonium was rebuilt and re-exhibited at Carnegie Hall, the huge debt incurred by investors caused Cahill's Telharmonic Company to declare bankruptcy by 1914.  As rumor went at the time, a gaggle of blood-thirsty executives, angry at the constant phone interruptions, destroyed the monstrous instrument and threw the remains into the Hudson River.


In addition to anticipating the development of additive synthesis in electronic music, the Telharmonium marked an artistic trend endemic to the twentieth century – the advent of “decorative” music, more popularly known as Muzak.  A form of “incidental” sound performed as a background score for shopping, eating and promenading, the Telharmonium inaugurated a music geared toward domesticity and everyday ritual rather than the public recital.  Like Muzak's instantly recognizable aura of manufacture, the orchestrated acoustic pieces translated through the rotating cylinders of the Telharmonium had a streamlined tonality that was both entrancing and alien to listeners, supplying soundtrack without necessitating one's full attention.  While the consumption of music would not be sufficiently privatized until the mass production of the wireless radio and the record player, Cahill was the first inventor to see the commodification potential of interiorizing sound and “sound experience” through electricity.


A masterful slice of quixotic filmmaking, Maddin's dramatization of the Telharmonium's unique provenance and unorthodox usage is also a valued contribution to musical scholarship in its more recondite incarnations–and something to think about next time you're in an elevator.


Guy Maddin's Night Mayor screens at the Toronto International Film Festival Saturday, September 12 and Sunday, September 13.



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