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The Heritage of the Future: Historical Keyboards, Technology, and Modernism


This dissertation examines modernist twentieth-century applications of the pipe organ and the carillon in the United States and in the Netherlands. These keyboard instruments, historically owned by religious or governmental entities, served an exceptionally diverse variety of political, technological, social, and urban planning functions. Their powerful simultaneous associations with historicism and innovation enabled those who built and played them to anchor the instruments’ novel uses in the perceived authority of tradition, church, and state. This usage became particularly evident after World War II, when Philips Electronics and the engineers and musicians whose careers were shaped by the military-industrial complex and the Cold War used the organ and carillon to present alternative visions and performances of their research, knowledge, and services.

The organ served as a vehicle for innovation for early electronic music and sound synthesis pioneers in three ways. First, it provided a model for an efficient user interface for new synthesizer technologies that found both musical and military communications applications. Second, the pipe organ became the first instrument to be electronically simulated on a commercially viable basis. As a result, the first federal legal proceedings to define the successful simulation of musical sound centered on the electronic organ. Electronic organs also helped shape a historicist “neo-baroque” movement that was, in part, both a reaction to and an outgrowth of their commercial success. Third, inventors in the field of electronics, particularly military electronics, turned to organ building to satisfy a desire to connect with historicist ideas about craft and tradition. They became leaders of the Organ Reform Movement after World War II, dedicated to reviving aspects of Baroque organ building. I build on Richard Taruskin’s critique of “historically informed performance” as itself a form of modernism in order to elucidate previously overlooked relationships between Reform organ building, organ recording artists, the military-industrial complex, and cold war politics.

The carillon served as a vehicle for international exchange after World War II, facilitating the sharing of soundscape and landscape design ideas between America and the Netherlands. In the 1950s, the people of the Netherlands donated a carillon to the United States as a sounding symbol of political harmony between the two allies. However, the resulting political squabbles and the disharmony and decay of its bells tolled the ineffectiveness of this instrument of diplomacy. In the following decade, Philips Electronics took inspiration from suburban American corporate research parks to construct a techno-cultural complex in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. This International Style park used the Dutch carillon’s sonic and visual symbolism to re-center the perceived core of Eindhoven and of civic authority onto Philips’ campus.

An important part of the broader history of postwar expansion and the military-industrial complex are the science-fiction, mystery, and filmic spinoffs and sonic imaginaries associated with these reinvented carillons and organs, and the way such narratives cross the boundaries between high art and popular culture. The institutions and donors that built carillons often justified them with utopian rhetoric about creating community, public music, and elevating general musical taste. However, a vein of dystopian fiction about bells in literature, opera, film, and television counterbalanced that discourse. The realm of fiction ties together this dissertation’s overarching themes of historical revival, technological innovation, modernism, and military electronics research.

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