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1863 __ Electric concert — « Paris au XX° Siècle »
Jules Verne (1828-1905)
Comment : Jules Verne's “Paris in the 20th Century” (1863) includes suspended pneumatic tube trains that stretch across the oceans. “Paris in the 20th Century”, completed in 1863, describes skyscrapers of glass and steel, high-speed trains, gas-powered automobiles, calculators, fax machines, and a global communications network. It should be noted that Verne was as concerned with social issues as he was with futuristic inventions. Like George Orwell's 1984, Verne's novel is a grim and troubling commentary on the human costs of technological progress.Before he wrote “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”, “Journey to the Center of the Earth” or “Around the World in Eighty Days”, Jules Verne wrote a short novel about Michel Dufrenoy living in “Paris in the Twentieth Century”. This novel was written in 1863, the same year that saw his first novel, “Five Weeks in a Balloon” published. Long believed lost, the manuscript for “Paris in the Twentieth Century” was discovered in 1989 when Verne's great grandson opened a safe which had belonged to the French author. When Verne had first submitted the manuscript to his publisher, he was told that his vision of Paris in 1960 was too dismal and no one would believe the incredible suggestions he was making. His world of the future is, in point of fact, the raison d'etre of the novel. “Paris in the Twentieth Century” is sadly lacking in plot as it follows our hapless hero around a Paris which recalls to the modern reader the Londons of Orwell's “1984” or Gilliam's “Brazil”. Awarded a Poetry Prize from the factory-like Academic Credit Union, Dufrenoy, an artistic dreamer, must go to work at his cousin's bank, where he is ineptly set to use a computer-like device. His inability to master the keystrokes causes him to be moved to another position where he meets another dreamer, the musician Quinsonnas, who introduces Dufrenoy to a small enclave of other Bohemian dreamers who have little place in the industrial/capitalist society which rules Paris. Dufrenoy also finally has a chance meeting with his Uncle Huegenin, another dreamer, like Dufrenoy or Dufrenoy's father, the last great composer. Despite the wishes of his Uncle Stanislas Boutardin, who is looking after Dufrenoy's best interests, Dufrenoy strikes up a friendship with the uncle who is more closely akin to his own soul. (Steven H. Silver)In fact, Verne's predictions, perhaps inevitably, are stuck firmly in his cultural biases. He makes quite a number of excellent projections as to where art (music, literature, painting) will go, and have indeed gone, but he writes them in order to horrify his audience. The irony is intensified when you consider that Verne's editor rejected the book as too unrealistic and pessimistic. For example, Verne mentions several times how dreadful a composer Wagner is, and then extrapolates into the twentieth century. Quinsonnas' piece, "After Thilorier -- A Grand Fantasy on the Liquefaction of Carbonic Acid," actually sounds far more interesting than anything Verne holds up as the idealized time before "sounds gradually gave way to noises whose musical value was no longer appreciable". (James Schellenberg)We can read in “Paris in the 20th Century”, the first description of an “infernal” “electric concert” with 200 pianos connected altogether and played by one musician.Technology is omnipresent and the main engine of societal change. There are horseless carriages driven by hydrogen engines and driver-less trains powered by magnetic fields and compressed air, while, not so far from where the Eiffel Tower went up in 1899, there looms a giant electric lighthouse. Parisians in the 20th century have fax machines (’photographic telegraphy permitted transmission of the facsimile of any form of writing or illustration”) but no television sets or telephones. Certain garments of clothing are made of finely woven metal, yet the fashion and sexual mores of Verne’s 1960s remain decidedly Victorian. A vast “telegraph network” covers the Earth, making possible instant communication and transactions over great distances. Verne also indulges in some absurdist robotics. There is, for example, a multipurpose piano that, at the push of a button, doubles up as a dining table-a contraption that would have been the envy of any self respecting Dadaist. Also, we are shown an Electric Concert where “200 pianos wired together by means of an electric current could be played by the hands of a single artist”. Somewhat less amusingly, nearly a quarter of a century before the implementation of the electric chair, Verne envisions prisoners condemned to death “executed by electric charge”, in what he describes as a “better imitation of divine vengeance”. For a man who is often regarded as a singer of the praises of technology, Verne presents a rather grim picture of its effects. Also, the fact that he portrays the obsession with technological improvement as inextricably associated with the drive for profit is noteworthy. Nonetheless, Verne cannot decide whether to be fascinated or horrified by the glittering edges of this wondrous age. His own position is a conservative one, and would have seemed so even to his contemporaries. During the narrative, Verne uses his characters as mouthpieces extolling the virtues of classical harmony in music, bravery in war and the “good old days” (circa 1863). Like all prophecies, Verne’s novel tells us more about the time it was written than about the time it supposedly predicts. Modernity was pounding at the threshold of Verne’s age, and the Industrial Revolution augured a time of changes, of great wonders and uncertainties. In this context, this novel is a revealing document, an ironic and admonitory comment on the society of its day. Reality, as if any further confirmation was needed, will always be much stranger than fiction. Verne’s vision errs wonderfully, and is darkly accurate in many respects. However, nothing can palliate the impression that we are reading this one hundred and fifty years too late. (Andres Vaccari)
Original excerpt 1 : « Far away he still saw something like an immense light; he heard a powerful noise that could not be compared to anything. Still, he went on; finally he arrived in the middle of a terrifying, deafening sound, in an immense room that could easily hold ten thousand people, and on the pediment could be read the words, in letters of flame: "Electric Concert." Yes, electric concert! and what instruments! Following a Hungarian procedure, two hundred pianos put in communication with one another, through the medium of electric current, were playing together guided by a single artist's hand! A piano with the strength of two hundred pianos. » (Translated by Charles T. Downey)
Original excerpt 2 : « Chapitre V.[Cependant], la télégraphie électrique aurait dû singulièrement diminuer le nombre de lettres, car des perfectionnements nouveaux permettaient alors à l’expéditeur de correspondre directement avec le destinataire; le secret de la correspondance se trouvait ainsi gardé, et les affaires les plus considérables se traitaient à distance. Chaque maison avait ses fils particuliers, d’après le système de Wheatstone en usage depuis longtemps dans toute l’Angleterre. Les cours des innombrables valeurs cotées au marché libre venaient s’inscrire d’eux-mêmes sur des cadrans placés au centre des Bourses de Paris, de Londres, de Francfort, d’Amsterdam, de Turin, de Berlin, de Vienne, de Saint-Pétersbourg, de Constantinople, de New York, de Valparaiso, de Calcutta, de Sydney, de Pékin, de Nouka-hiva. De plus, la télégraphie photographique, inventée au siècle dernier par le professeur Giovanni Caselli de Florence, permettait d’envoyer au lojn le fac-similé de toute écriture, autographe ou dessin,et de signer des lettres de change ou des contrats à cinq mille lieues de distance. Le réseau télégraphique couvrait alors la surface entière des continents et le fond des mers; l’Amérique ne se trouvait pas à une seconde de l’Europe, et dans l’expérience solennelle qui fut faite en 1903 à Londres, deux expérimentateurs correspondirent entre eux, après avoir fait parcourir à leur dépêche le tour de la terre. [...]Chapitre XVII.Michel se trouvait enfin devant la Bourse, la cathédrale du jour, le temple des temples; le cadran électrique marquait minuit moins le quart. “La nuit ne marche pas”, se dit-il. Il remonta jusqu’aux boulevards. Les candélabres s’y renvoyaient leurs faisceaux d’une blancheur intense, et des affiches transparentes sur lesquelles l’électricité écrivait des réclames en lettres de feu, scintillaient sur les colonnes centrales. [...] [Enfin], il arriva au milieu d’un assourdissement épouvantable, à une immense salle dans laquelle dix mille personnes pouvaient tenir à l’aise, et sur le fronton, on lisait ces mots en lettres de flamme : CONCERT ÉLECTRIQUE. Oui ! concert électrique ! et quels instruments ! D’après un procédé hongrois, deux cent pianos mis en communication les uns avec les autres, au moyen du courant électrique, jouaient ensemble sous la main d’un seul artiste ! un piano de la force de deux cents pianos. »
Source : Verne, Jules (1863), “Paris au XX° Siècle”, Hachette, Le Cherche Midi éditeur, Le Livre de Poche, 1994, p. 61 and pp. 163-164..
Source : Verne, Jules (1863), “Paris in the 20th Century”, Translated by Richard Howard, New York : Random House, 1996.
Source : Mikkonen, Kai (2001), “The Plot Machine : the French novel and the bachelor machines in the electric years (1880-1914)”, Rodopi, p. 84.
Urls : http://www.capsu.org/history/pneumatic_despatch.html (last visited )

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