Innovation lost in time

Today I went to The Musical Museum with @kocicenka. It’s our holiday, but we are spending it in London to save some cash!

The Musical Museum is a pretty interesting place. Its website however leaves a lot to be desired!

Its full of incredibly complex and laboriously made mechanical self playing musical instruments. We went on a tour with a nice bloke who explained a lot of it to us.

He explained and demostrated steel pin drum music boxes, then pin disc music boxes and then onto player pianos with paper piano rolls. After that he showed us some orchestrions and other mechanical player instruments including a violin duet one which was quite bizarre. At the end we saw a recorded piano roll performance from Gershwin.

The whole thing was extremely impressive. So much effort and work has gone into achieving the ability to create a distributed musical experience in this era. Between 1880 – 1929 these machines really were the only way you could experience music on demand in the home. They were initially only owned by the rich, but towards the end of that era much cheaper versions became available which much of the middle class could afford.

Of course when recordings and gramophone playback became viable, all of this became practically obsolete.

As I wandered around, it struck me how the vast amount of effort embodied in these machines, which involved some incredible innovation and extreme precision and skill is lost in obscure museums. I guess it happens in all fields which involve technological progression.

I’m certainly already feeling this is a factor with the musical work I have done which is inextricably linked with software. As devices and operating systems progress software made for them is forced to maintain compatibility or become redundant – its an interesting point to consider.

I also recently went to an event at the Science Museum which featured a reunion of some early BBC Radiophonic Workshop members and the founders of EMS.

Peter Zinovieff was there and I had a great chat with him afterwards. The work he did at EMS pioneering sequencing and synthesis control with computers was really fascinating. His story at the end of this video about how his studio was abandoned and destroyed is truly heart rending. I think its a real shame when innovation of this level gets lost in time.

I hope to talk with Peter a lot more soon.


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