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MMD > Archives > June 2009 > 2009.06.25 > 02Prev  Next

The Future of Mechanical Music
By T. J. Fisher

I read with great interest the many entries on the future of mechanical
music.  I was glad to see so much positivism, because approached
correctly, mechanical music absolutely can have a great future.

Before I launch into my opinions, I should give some brief background
on my experience: I am a high school student from the Washington, D.C.,
area.  I was weaned (if you will) on the gorgeous Wurlitzer 165 band
organ at Glen Echo Park and have spent a great deal of time there.

My interest in mechanical music picked up quickly, and I began to do
much research into them, as well as see and hear very many instruments
in person while on the travels I have been fortunate enough to enjoy.
I recently began a partnership with Mr. Max Hurley, the regular
operator of the lovely Dentzel Carousel at Glen Echo Park and its band
organ, to produce recordings of that instrument, and I eagerly await
the opportunity to become involved in preservation and restoration of
mechanical music instruments

I think those of you who suggested such things as demonstrations
of instruments at malls have great ideas.  Any opportunity to get
instruments in front of the public is an opportunity to remind those
who remember an instrument they may have encountered of instruments in
general, to introduce people who have never seen an instrument to one,
and to inspire interest in all.  Perhaps when one or more of the people
at that event get home they will remember what they saw that day and
might do a bit of looking into mechanical music.  Much interest might
burgeon in this manner.

I feel that a key to the future of mechanical music is to make sure
it remains in the public eye frequently but not so often that it
"blends in" or does not seem exciting or novel.  Perhaps one way to
make the instruments seem "special" to the public is to be sure they
are displayed on holidays, perhaps at community events.  The more inner
workings of an instrument are visible, the more viable it is for these
types of situations, because it makes the instrument even more
interesting to the casual observer (art glass is beautiful, but
possibly unsuitable to these conditions).  The roll being visible is
absolutely fascinating to many and could attract a great deal of

One question that hasn't been addressed much is whether it is possible
to make mechanical music appealing to youth in general.  The answer,
I think, is that we shouldn't deceive ourselves into thinking that
mechanical music will be mainstream anytime in the foreseeable future.
However, just as independent films attract more viewers (who eventually
become invested and thus frequent viewers) by remaining in the public
eye, I think it's possible that recordings of mechanical music could
very well attract a niche audience.

One factor is that it's a novelty, which can help to attract initial
interest.  Certainly, in my own experience, people have said, "Oh, what
are you listening to?  Let's switch headphones!"  They have been very
interested (usually only casually, but occasionally more seriously) in
the music and in my explanation.

For the purposes of attracting youth, I think player pianos,
orchestrions, and the like are more viable than band organs, because
(again, this applies to my own experience) the reaction to band organ
music is usually more dismissive ("carnival music," meaning that they
are associating the music with carousels, which is not a positive
association for most) while the reaction to orchestrion music is
typically more positive.

Another is that the great variety of music that can be played by
mechanical music instruments can be all-encompassing; young people
who listen to classical music can find such music played by mechanical
music instruments, as can young people who enjoy the styles of music
popular in the first half of the twentieth century, and, to a far
lesser extent, the third quarter of that century.  I don't think it
could hurt to arrange more modern tunes, which is something I would
like to try at some point, although most tunes popular today are hardly
able to be arranged (and just as difficult to listen to).

I think mechanical music has some place in American history classes.
Brief discussion and a recording or video would make not only an
interesting and educational vignette (especially since mechanical
music is certainly a part of American culture) but would also attract
the attention of (as much as I hate generalization) the kind of young
people most likely to be interested: those who are interested in
history or intellectual pursuits seem to me more likely to find
mechanical music appealing on the cerebral level as well as in the
context of being pleasant listening.  It is these young listeners who
I feel have the most potential to be the next generation of mechanical
music enthusiasts.

Perhaps also mechanical music could attract interest in young
musicians; once again, generalizations are best avoided, but students
who rise above their peers to be seriously interested in music at
school are among those likely to be interested in mechanical music.

By nature musicians are attracted to music.  I know that, for example,
as a violinist, I was always particularly fascinated by Violanos; such
interests are what I would expect to come out of introducing mechanical
music to student musicians.  Recordings of mechanical music are fairly
readily accessible (even on iTunes, I was interested to note), so
I think there could be positive results if mechanical music was
introduced to young people such as those described above.

One last point: Those who have mechanical music instruments should do
their utmost to keep them operating and should promote them!  One group
that I think does an excellent job maintaining and promoting their
instruments is Knoebels Amusement Resort in central Pennsylvania.
Every time I visit the instruments are in good repair, and their gift
shops are well-stocked with a collection of close to twenty recordings.

Knoebels does an excellent job as well of emphasizing the history of
their instruments (as it does with all historical things in the park),
each of which has a sign with information about the instrument and its
past.  There is a great, easy-to-find brochure available on their web
site about their band organs and carousels; there are always plenty of
people observing and interested in all the instruments.

It is clear that Knoebels values its instruments.  Too many places with
instruments (sometimes with moderately large collections) do not
promote them at their location or to potential visitors, fail to keep
their instruments operating, and sometimes don't seem to know the
instrument exists.

(A recent call I made to the local branch of a national chain of
amusement parks for information about the band organ on their carousel
received responses along the lines of "Organ?  There is no church
here," and "Is the _what_ on our merry-go-round working?  I don't know
if we have one of those, let me call my supervisor").

I also think it is important to change rolls on publicly-displayed
instruments often so that those who visit more than once remain

Finally, I thank all of those owners of instruments (both publicly and
privately enjoyed) for their hard work maintaining their instruments.
There can be no future for mechanical music instruments without the
instruments themselves.  If we continue to work together to promote
mechanical music and keep the public aware of it, mechanical music
undoubtedly has a great future to look forward to.

TJ Fisher

(Message sent Thu 25 Jun 2009, 17:48:51 GMT, from time zone GMT-0700.)

Key Words in Subject:  Future, Mechanical, Music

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