Gabriel García Márquez's literary portrait of the arrival of the pianola in Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude functions as a metaphor for the reception and cultural legitimization of player pianos in Latin America during their heyday in the 1910s and 1920s. As a technological intruder, the player piano inhabited a liminal space between the manual and the mechanical as well as between unmediated musical experiences and the mechanically mediated consumption of sounds. It thus constitutes a paradigmatic case by which to examine the contingent construction of ideas about tradition and modernity. The international trade in player pianos between the United States and Latin America during the first decades of the twentieth century was developed in tandem with the commercial expansion and political interventionism of the United States throughout the Americas during the same period. The efforts of North American businessmen to capture the Latin American market and the establishment of marketing networks between US companies and Latin American dealers reveal a complex interplay of mutual stereotyping, First World War commercial geopolitics, capitalization on European cultural/musical referents, and multiple strategies of appropriation and reconfiguration in relation to the player piano's technological and aesthetic potential. The reception of player pianos in Latin America was characterized by anxieties very similar to those of US consumers, particularly with regard to the acousmatic nature of their sounds and their perceived uncanniness. The cultural legitimization of the instrument in the region depended, however, on its adaptation to local discourses, cultural practices, soundscapes, expectations, language, gender constructions, and especially repertoires.
The new house, white, like a dove, was inaugurated with a dance. Úrsula had got that idea from the afternoon when she saw Rebeca and Amaranta changed into adolescents, and it could almost have been said that the main reason behind the construction was a desire to have a proper place for the girls to receive visitors. In order that nothing would be lacking in splendor she worked like a galley slave as the repairs were under way, so that before they were finished she had ordered costly necessities for the decorations, the table service, and the marvelous invention that was to arouse the astonishment of the town and the jubilation of the young people: the pianola.1
By the time this scene takes place in Gabriel García Márquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, Macondo is no longer the isolated village it had been when its only contact with civilization was through the occasional visit of what the author refers to as “gypsy” entourages. Following one of her sons, who had joined such a group, Úrsula Iguarán discovered the two-day path that separated Macondo from the rest of the world. From then on, life for the Buendía family and everyone else in Macondo changed dramatically. The “gypsies” first captivated the town with ice and, a little later, with the intricate process of making daguerreotypes. But after the sudden connection with the exterior world, a flood of new people and unimaginable merchandise began to flow in without containment. Together with other fashionable commodities and “costly necessities,” the player piano (a.k.a. pianola) arrived, not only as a “marvelous invention” but also as a token of modernity and cosmopolitanism. The instrument came disassembled, with its parts crammed into various boxes. “The import house sent along at its own expense an Italian expert, Pietro Crespi, to assemble and tune the pianola, to instruct the purchasers in its functioning, and to teach them how to dance the latest music printed on its six paper rolls.”2
The account of the arrival of the player piano in Macondo, even if fictional, vividly captures the intrusion of mechanical music into the everyday life of Latin Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century. There are no dates or any real geographical references in One Hundred Years of Solitude; instead, the narrative offers “a mosaic of historical and mythical elements [that] profoundly reflects the social and cultural reality of Latin America … [in a] combination of poetic-folkloric resources and testimony of a sociological nature.”3 Despite García Márquez's depiction of Macondo in an almost timeless fashion, his account can be read as a metaphor for popular culture in Latin America and the Caribbean.4 During its heyday in the 1910s, the player piano was a mediator between tradition and modernity and between the manual and the mechanical. A technological intruder, it inhabited a liminal space between unmediated musical experiences and the mechanically mediated consumption of sounds; as such, it symbolically bridged the gap between nostalgia for the past and novel desires for cosmopolitanism and modernity.5 In García Márquez's Macondo, as in other places in Latin America, new modes of listening, new musics, new dances, and new colonial patterns made inroads together with the instrument.
One morning, without opening the door, without calling anyone to witness the miracle, [Pietro Crespi] placed the first roll in the pianola and the tormenting hammering and the constant noise of wooden lathings ceased in a silence that was startled at the order and neatness of the music. They all ran to the parlor. José Arcadio Buendía was as if struck by lightning, not because of the beauty of the melody, but because of the automatic working of the keys of the pianola, and he set up Melquíades’ camera with the hope of getting a daguerreotype of the invisible player.6
This might seem a reiteration of the pervasive narrative about the naivety of new “barbarous” worlds and their fascination with the material and cultural marvels of old “civilized” realms.7 However, the interaction of José Arcadio Buendía with the player piano was not defined by a passive assimilation of the technology according to European or North American ideals of modern cultural experiences. “José Arcadio Buendía … took the pianola apart in order to decipher its magical secret. Two days before the party, swamped in a shower of leftover keys and hammers, bungling in the midst of a mixup of strings that would unroll in one direction and roll up again in the other, he succeeded in a fashion in putting the instrument back together.”8
In an allegory of Latin Americans’ own cultural engagement with player pianos, José Arcadio Buendía rewired the mechanism, and in doing so reinvented and reinterpreted, even if unwittingly, the quotidian interface with its uncanny music. The Spanish verb rendered by the translator as “took [the pianola] apart” is “destripó”—“gutted” or “eviscerated.”9 Far beyond mere curiosity, it was an act of re-signification, aesthetical reconstitution, reconquista, decolonization, and renegotiation of center-periphery relations—a kind of audiotopia.10 What began as an attempt to get hold of the “invisible player” and the ghost in the machine eventually entailed a reconfiguration of the whole mechanism and set in motion vibrant dynamics of cultural appropriation.
[T]hey gather together in the parlor, facing the unknown invention that had been covered with a white sheet. Those who were familiar with the piano, popular in other towns in the swamp, felt a little disheartened, but more bitter was Úrsula's disappointment when she put in the first roll so that Amaranta and Rebeca could begin the dancing and the mechanism did not work. Melquíades, almost blind by then, crumbling with decrepitude, used the arts of his timeless wisdom in an attempt to fix it. Finally José Arcadio Buendía managed, by mistake, to move a device that was stuck and the music came out, first in a burst and then in a flow of mixed-up notes. Beating against the strings that had been put in without order or concert and had been tuned with temerity, the hammers let go. But the stubborn descendants of the twenty-one intrepid people who plowed through the mountains in search of the sea to the west avoided the reefs of the melodic mixup and the dancing went on until dawn.11
In spite of the malfunctioning of the instrument and Úrsula's discomfort, the small crowd gathered at the Buendías’ became sufficiently caught up in the seemingly chaotic sounds that emanated from the player piano. And the party continued. As the years went by and their world was further transformed by inexplicable wonders of modernity, the player piano became a nostalgic symbol of bygone days when they had fallen in love with new and old repertoires in the form of mechanical music.
García Márquez's magical realism aside, studying the cultural reception and commercial distribution of player pianos in Latin America at the beginning of the twentieth century constitutes a great challenge. Primary sources are scarce and widely dispersed, and the topic itself has been rarely considered in historical, musical, or cultural studies. There are a considerable number of publications on the player piano industry in general, but most of them refer to the technical side of the mechanism and its glory days in Europe and the United States.12 The number and reach of advertisements for the instrument, the companies involved in the business, and the various available statistics give an idea of how significant the trade in player pianos actually was during the first decades of the twentieth century, but this literature is overwhelmingly in English and refers mostly to North America.13 To the historiographical mirage in which the player piano is usually overshadowed by the phonograph, as David Suisman has shown, we must therefore add the historiographical illusion that depicts player pianos as only (or mostly) a US phenomenon.14 Clearly, this was not the case. Much remains unrevealed in relation to the cultural and trade histories of player pianos. In what follows, I present some of these histories pertaining to Latin America, unmasking the ways in which the popularization of player pianos in the region relates to or differs from the processes of cultural legitimization that these instruments underwent in the United States. Moreover, I examine the extent to which the trade in player pianos across the Americas offers us a new perspective for studying the economic and cultural relations between the United States and Latin America in the early twentieth century.
The remainder of this article is organized in three sections. First, I briefly discuss the somewhat unsettling irruption of player pianos at the turn of the century, as well as some aspects of its technological evolution. The second part focuses on the international trade in player pianos between the United States and Latin America in the 1910s and on the activities of local entrepreneurs through the 1920s. The pages of the Music Trade Review, among other sources, reveal the way in which North American businessmen in the player piano industry made every effort to capture the Latin American market, in an interesting interplay of mutual stereotyping, First World War commercial geopolitics, and cultural capitalization. The last section is devoted to analysis of the cultural reception of player pianos in Latin America through the examination of contemporary newspaper articles and advertisements from various countries. Moving from the amazement and dread ignited by player pianos in Rio de Janeiro to an imaginary interview with a pianola in Mexico City and back to the Buendía family, we delve into issues of class, gender, tradition, and modernity, not to mention the music perforated in countless piano rolls.
The Acousmatic Spell of Player Pianos
Surveying the emotional responses to the first demonstrations of the phonograph, Mark Katz comments that “[a]mazement and even fear were not uncommon reactions to the technology.” As he reflects, “How would you explain a voice without a body? You might believe yourself the victim of a ventriloquist's hoax. You might conclude that you are in the presence of magic, whether good or evil. You might question your sanity.”15 We will see that such distressing, frightening, and mesmerizing experiences with disembodied sounds are also fairly common in testimonies associated with people's first encounters with player pianos. Pierre Schaeffer, Jonathan Sterne, Mladen Dolar, and others have shown that the mechanical reproduction of sounds gave way to a universe of acousmatic sounds, or “sounds that one hears without seeing their source.”16 The proliferation of acousmatic sounds that accompanied the spread of player pianos and phonographs was not easy to assimilate. Especially unsettling was the fact of hearing music without seeing the musicians, which prompted companies to use flowery advertisements to persuade the public that neither the visual nor the human aspects were utterly lost through the mechanization of music. Almost as if anticipating reactions like that of José Arcadio Buendía, such advertisements often included “ghostly outlines” of composers and performers.17
Historical analyses of acousmatic experiences have tended to emphasize the case of the phonograph.18 Yet, as Suisman establishes, the piano, the player piano, and the phonograph are all intertwined in the same “history of musical mechanization” and, by extension, in the history of the cultural legitimization of the mechanical reproduction of sounds. The popularity of the player piano decreased dramatically after the 1920s, but by 1900 it was much better known and considered much more revolutionary and modern than the phonograph. As Suisman suggests, focusing only on “the triumph of the phonograph and the fading of the player piano” is certainly “a myopic view of history”; indeed, “the two technologies emerged in tandem,” being entangled in the same cultural, commercial, legal, and phenomenological issues.19 Moreover, the player piano was, just like the acoustic phonograph, a technology of analog inscription and media storage. Even if they featured different technical procedures, piano rolls and phonograph records bridged the gap between past and present via the actual physical traces of the original sounds recorded. Such traces allowed for an encounter between past and present; not only between the past in which the recording or inscription was issued and the present in which it was “played back,” but between past and present in the transition from live music making to acousmatic and mechanical sounds. Indeed, the reproducibility of piano rolls and phonograph records radically transformed access to and the perception of musical sounds, and opened up unprecedented possibilities of media storage and music dissemination.20
Between the late 1890s and the 1910s the mechanisms of player pianos underwent rapid technological improvement in three stages characterized by three different machines. The earliest piano player was a freestanding push-up device with mechanical fingers that played the keyboard of a regular piano. The first models of pianola patented by Aeolian in 1896 operated in this way, and included a series of controllers to affect playback; intricate machinery allowed the performer to vary the tempo, to give more emphasis to the bass or treble registers, to control the sustain pedal, or to accentuate certain notes. In the next phase, the player piano per se—mostly as an internal mechanism in upright pianos—featured the same and other enhanced mechanisms to shape dynamics and expression. This was probably the kind of machine that García Márquez imagined as arriving in Macondo. Both piano players and player pianos required the performer to pedal constantly in order to pump the instruments’ player mechanism. Besides the manual controls for dynamics, the speed and intensity of their pedaling affected the playback of the piano rolls; thus, rather than being a straightforward operation, the pedaling and pumping of player pianos was frequently an art that required training and practice. Finally, the reproducing player piano (or simply, reproducing piano) did not require any performer or pumping whatsoever as the mechanism was activated and operated electrically. Reproducing pianos aimed to capture the musical interpretation and personal touch of particular pianists by recording and recreating in the rolls the strokes of their fingers and their expressive pedaling. Developed as early as 1904 with the Welte-Mignon system but gaining ample popularity with the Aeolian Duo-Art model of 1912 and Ampico's model of 1913, the reproducing player piano was meant to preserve the nuances of a pianist's live performance.21 Many famous pianists of the era recorded piano rolls, including Ferruccio Busoni, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Arthur Rubinstein, Igor Stravinsky, and Vladimir Horowitz, as well as celebrated Latin American composers and performers such as the Venezuelan Teresa Carreño, the Cuban Ernesto Lecuona, and the Chilean Claudio Arrau.
It might be argued that the sounds emanating from player pianos were not as acousmatic as those coming from a phonograph, since significant visual referents were still in place in the various models of player piano: the movement of the external “slender fingerlike levers” over the keyboard in piano players, the pedaling of a human being in a player piano, or the much more dehumanized but still visible strikes of the piano keys in the automatic playback of reproducing player pianos.22 Yet there is still an interesting correlation between the history of the player piano's technological development and the history of the cultural legitimization of mechanical sounds. Player pianos’ mechanical history, as summarized above, seems to reveal the extent to which human intervention became gradually less indispensable for the social assimilation of mechanically produced sounds. Thus, it also reveals some of the ways in which sound reproduction technologies made their way into the modern soundscape. To be sure, the proliferation of player pianos in domestic parlors did not imply a straightforward familiarization with the acousmatic experience, but it mediated the process in a way that the phonograph alone could never have done. Furthermore, like many innovative instruments before them, player pianos helped to redefine what music was or could be. As Thomas Patteson writes, “Mechanical instruments such as the player piano, originally intended to reproduce the popular hits of the day and immortalize the interpretations of great performers, were refunctioned as superhuman machines capable of realizing musical designs unplayable by ten fingers.”23 The music of Conlon Nancarrow was particularly paradigmatic in this respect.24
On the other hand, as Ivan Raykoff discusses, the player piano was a “new romantic machine” through which the “piano continued to exercise its spell” into the twentieth century.25 In the process of domesticating mechanical sounds, player pianos mediated between the “familiar” timbre of the piano and the disembodied sounds of the phonograph. If the phonograph implied a domestication of music, by taking it from the concert hall to the living room, the same can be said of the reduction of complete symphonies for four-hand piano arrangements or for perforated piano rolls. Indeed, the same logic of domestication has informed the wider historical narrative of continuous mechanization and dehumanization in the agency of making music that extends, at least, from the player piano to the iPod shuffle.26 Moreover, although some perceived the player piano as a merely practical machine, somewhat quotidian, mundane, and artificial—or a mere surrogate for musicians’ labor—many others “endowed” it with the mysterious and uncanny character associated with acousmatic sounds in general.27 The latter was particularly the case in the reception and perception of reproducing player pianos, the rolls for which were “recorded” by actual pianists and whose operation did not involve any human pedaling. As the keys of the keyboard literally played themselves, many witnesses could not help but wonder about the nature of the invisible player or the ghost in the machine. Allison Wente and others have shown that advertising reproducing player pianos as a means to capture the soul and mood of the interpreters was fairly common in the United States.28 As Raykoff also explains, “in the context of the vogue of spiritualism and the belief that communication with the deceased was possible through physical mediums,” the potential of player pianos for such intermundane collaborations was almost taken for granted.29
Latin Americans, of course, were not immune to the spell. As will become clear in the next two sections, the reception of player pianos in Latin America was accompanied by anxieties similar to those of US consumers. The arrival and dissemination of the instruments provoked uneasiness on account of the acousmatic and uncanny character of their sounds, the apparent dehumanization of musical labor imputed to their mechanisms, and the threat they seemed to pose to traditional forms of music making.30 At the same time, the cultural legitimization of player pianos in the region was contingent upon multiple arrangements and adaptations, both in the discourse about the instruments and in their assimilation into everyday cultural practices. As we will see, this entailed a hybrid scenario of tradition and modernity that not only accompanied the spread of mechanical instruments in Latin America but also informed the way US entrepreneurs thought about their commercial ventures in the region. Few images capture this as unambiguously as a photograph published in the Music Trade Review of a player piano being transported across the mountains of Colombia by a donkey and a horse (see Figure 1).31 While they may have seen it as a challenge to overcome nature by penetrating inhospitable lands—or, for that matter, seemingly virgin markets—the truth is that it was not merely an act of colonizing passive and mesmerized customers. As awestruck as they were, these customers soon appropriated the technology to make it their own, and, eventually, local entrepreneurs also ventured into the piano roll industry, albeit from a disadvantaged position in commercial and diplomatic terms. Like Pietro Crespi in García Márquez's novel, various agents made their way to the region on behalf of metropolitan companies to facilitate access to the mechanical marvel of player pianos and to promote, even if unwillingly, the local production of a plethora of piano rolls of Latin American musics and their circulation across the Americas.
The Player Piano Business in Latin America in the 1910s and 1920s
According to Timothy Taylor, the player piano was “the first mass-produced technology that allowed music to be made by individuals with no musical training or experience”; as such, it sheds light on a key moment in the transition from music as something made by oneself to music as something that could be bought and sold.32 In the early twentieth century, player pianos were indeed well placed as a technology to become an everyday commodity. The production of pianos had enjoyed steady growth since the late nineteenth century. Between 1870 and 1910 production grew from 85,000 to 600,000 instruments per year in Britain, the United States, France, and Germany combined.33 In spite of some ups and downs in the business, growth continued steadily until the late 1920s. By 1928 it was estimated that “more than half [of] America's city dwellers had pianos in their homes.”34 Although the phonograph business also prospered through the 1910s and 1920s, in 1900 the phonograph was still rare in various parts of the world. Phonographs were not only perceived by many people as foreign, unnatural, and inscrutable, but were “incapable of convincingly reproducing the sound of the piano” as player pianos did.35
Pianos and player pianos were part of the same industry and, for the most part, shared the same networks of production, commercialization, and distribution worldwide. In fact, as the same manufacturers often offered pianos with and without a player mechanism, trade statistics do not always distinguish between pianos and player pianos. To a significant extent, the inclusion of a line of player pianos saved the business for Steinway & Sons after its agreement with Aeolian in 1909 to produce the Steinway pianola. The company had been “on the verge of bankruptcy” in the previous decade, but the national and international sales of their instruments in the early 1910s “made it more lucrative than ever before.”36 In general, player pianos gained steady prominence within the piano industry through the 1910s and the early 1920s. While in 1909 they represented only about 12 percent of the total of pianos manufactured in the United States, by 1923 they had grown to constitute almost 60 percent of the 347,414 instruments produced there.37 The leading companies in the player piano business were Aeolian, Welte-Mignon, and Ampico (American Piano Company). While the packing and transportation of a piano from one part of the world to another was a rarity in the eighteenth century, these companies had since built systematic networks by which to sell, transport, and service instruments around the globe. Such expansion ensured that pianos and player pianos “were installed and played as never before in places of work, business, and leisure, in churches and schools—even in hospitals, asylums, and prisons.”38
Although both the piano and the player piano were sophisticated pieces of machinery, the self-playing features of player pianos and reproducing player pianos furthered their initial reception as a kind of gimmick. Little by little, however, served by intense advertisement and other marketing strategies, the player piano became a desirable object among the middle and upper classes, a bourgeois marker, and eventually—like other advertised commodities—a seemingly indispensable household object for multiple families driven by bourgeois and Victorian ideals. The apparent simplicity with which player pianos enhanced music making became a business strategy in itself. To the industry, as James Parakilas writes, “the difficulty of learning the piano was simply an obstacle to sales, whether to rich or poor, black or white, immigrant or native, and the technology of the player piano could obliterate that obstacle, eliminating even the choice between learning to read notes and learning to play by ear.”39
During the heyday of the instrument, in the first decades of the twentieth century, player piano enthusiasts, students, and teachers proliferated in the United States. By conveying a message of “democratization” with regard to access to, the availability of, and the ability to perform music, advertisements for player pianos “helped shape public attitudes … [and] articulate many of the ideologies that were to become underlying cultural assumptions about purchasing music.”40 At first, advertisements emphasized the idea of “self-expression,” that the player piano was only in charge of the mechanical issues while the interpretation of the human player remained as something unique and special; and that in spite of the mechanical assistance, it was the human being—and not the machine—who was making music and playing “from the soul.”41 Thus, in the modern arena of personal and aesthetic expressivity, the player piano mediated between making music by oneself and mechanical reproduction. Eventually, this would have significant implications for a new consumerist ideology in which buying music in piano rolls or phonograph records was not only a natural behavior but, as posed by Taylor, even “better than making it oneself.”42
Player pianos were industrial products embedded in colonial histories. The constitution of mechanical music as a commodity was also dependent on the internationalization of the business. In the context of the transformation of the United States into an industrial giant and powerful geopolitical actor between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the music industry participated in a deliberate agenda of economic and cultural imperialism. What began as the widespread commercial exploitation of the curiosity around sounding devices in circus-like exhibitions eventually turned into the constitution of dynamic transnational trade networks of musical merchandise backed by a powerful industry.43
Despite the relative enthusiasm with which player pianos were received across Latin America from the early 1900s, by 1912 US businessmen in the industry were struggling to reach what seemed to be a potential market. There were two manifest obstacles: competition with the European products that were still quite appealing to Latin American consumers, and the inefficiency of the US industry in developing culturally sensitive commercial strategies. On March 23, 1912, the Music Trade Review interviewed George P. Bent, president of his own company in Chicago, who had just arrived from Panama “after four months’ travel in Europe and South America.”44 Bent's itinerary had included “England, London and Southampton; Russia, Warsaw; Paris and other points in France and Germany and the principal commercial centers of South America, including Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Ayres [sic] and Valparaiso.” Summing up his commercial adventure, “Mr. Bent” offered the readers of the Music Trade Review a clear diagnosis of the situation and some insights into the best possible courses of marketable action:
So far as South America is concerned our chances of competing with Germany or any other European country are almost nil. … A great many radical changes will have to be inaugurated before we transact much business with South America or Europe. The tariff laws must undergo a decided remodeling in order to interest foreign manufacturers in a general exchange of business. Certainly we cannot expect to sell where we are not willing to buy. Trade, to be real trade, must be reciprocal.
In addition to not meeting the expectations of Latin American consumers with regard to sound and quality, another problem in the US industry was, according to Bent, its low level of productivity by comparison with European instrument makers. While European pianos were “in nearly all cases hand finished and require only four or five days for completion,” the North American “method of high grade finishing takes the better part of three or four months.” There were also political and cultural factors to take into consideration. For example, “the upheaval of governments in South America” and the “instability of the governments” was, for the same businessman, “the largest impediment to the progress of the Latin-American countries” and subsequently to the progress of the North American musical businesses in that region. “In many cases,” Bent continued, “conditions are far worse than even the press knows. Riots and revolutions are everyday occurrences.” Of course, he had not witnessed any such “upheavals” himself, as he had avoided many destinations in his South American travels, following the advice of “those who were in position to know whether it would be safe or not.”45 He even offered his own piece of cultural advice for successful marketing in the tropical realm of Latin America:
[T]o do business in South America one should be what the Spanish call a “manana [mañana] man,” which when translated means: “Not to want to do to-day what you can do to-morrow.” The American speed and hustle is not acceptable to the easy-going Latins or to Europeans either, for that matter. They have to stop and deliberate upon a question, mull it over so to speak, and give their decision a few weeks later. To transact business in South America the salesman would find it necessary to stay for weeks at one point, for they certainly cannot be hurried. It is not a satisfactory condition to the American particularly. Outside of all the foregoing, South America will some day be heard from. The country is rich in wealth of all kinds. Once the question of government is settled and the natural industries have the necessary chance to expand, then will South America come forward with strides that will surprise us.
While his cultural reading of the region and its inhabitants was of course stereotypical, the numbers would prove Bent right in his commercial predictions. Early in 1914 the Music Trade Review presented some “interesting figures regarding the imports and exports of musical instruments” from 1912, derived from the US Department of Commerce. In total, including organs, pianos, player pianos, and “automatic piano players,” the United States had sold almost 20,000 instruments worldwide, which represented nearly three million dollars.46 Divided into world regions, the “Best Customers” had been Europe (England mostly, followed by Germany, France, and the Netherlands), North America (most likely Canada and Mexico), Oceania, and South America. Of the total numbers, South America had bought 8 percent of the units, corresponding to 13 percent of the total sales made by the United States. Yet the differences in terms of kinds of instrument were significant. While South America had bought just 1 percent of the organs and 4 percent of the “automatic piano players” (probably referring to reproducing pianos), its share of the pianos and player pianos exported by the United States that year was of 1,410 instruments, which constituted almost 20 percent of the total.47 (See Tables 1–3.)
|Region/Continent .||Number of units .||Amount .|
|Region/Continent .||Number of units .||Amount .|
|Region/Continent .||Number of units .||Amount .|
|Region/Continent .||Number of units .||Amount .|
|Region/Continent .||Number of units .||Amount .|
|Region/Continent .||Number of units .||Amount .|
Sales of US instruments to South America in 1912 reached a total of $363,049. For the twelve-month period from July 1913 to June 1914 that figure rose to $525,803 (although this included “Central America”). Yet in spite of such encouraging numbers, the American industry remained outperformed by Germany, its “chief competitor … in the South American market,” which was selling “to the Latin Americans fully one-half of the musical merchandise they buy.” That was the balance exposed by Alfred Thomas Marks, “an Authority in This Special Field,” at the beginning of 1915, who explained further:
[A]s none of the South American countries manufacture instruments of any description this means that half the total demand is supplied by Germany. France exports to Central and South America pianos and band instruments to a limited extent, totaling last year $161,200. The remarkable feature of this state of affairs is not that we [the United States] have sold so little, but that we have sold so much. And the responsibility for such a great proportion of the business going to European countries must be laid at the doors of the American manufacturers, who have fallen far behind their European competitors in the matter of salesmanship and in seriously and intelligently endeavoring to understand the people and their requirements.48
In 1915, then, as in 1912, the commercial skills of US dealers were not sufficient to ensure a profitable market in Latin America. However, the “trade emergency in which the South Americans [found] themselves on account of the European war” constituted an invaluable opportunity “for American manufacturers to sell the greater portion of musical instruments and musical supplies” and thereby double their sales. With that in mind, Marks provided “A Survey of the Field” showing “some slight variations” in the favorability of North American and European products in different parts of South America. Brazil was a primary concern, as US merchandise was competing with French and German instruments, which, Marks insisted, “seem to be somewhat better adapted to Brazilian conditions. As most of Brazil is tropical, no veneered cases should be sent, and only the best glue, if any, should be used. The back should receive a good finish, as the instruments often stand out in the center of the room. Light weight, elaborate design and fine finish are required by the better class trade.” The figures also reflected a diverse panorama. In 1913, for instance, while Argentina had “imported $200,000 worth of piano-playing devices, of which amount over $100,000 was spent in Germany and only $26,000 in the United States,” Chile had “bought over $60,000 worth of piano players, and favored the United States with about 60 per cent of the amount.” By the same token, Marks highlighted the case of Uruguay as significant on account of its unusual lack of bias against the United States: “Uruguay presents the best market for American pianos, players and musical merchandise in South America, due to the fact that United States products receive a warm welcome in that country, and there is an almost total absence of the prejudice against this country that is so evident in all the other South American countries.”
The general picture in terms of the exportation of keyboard instruments (pianos, organs, piano players, and player pianos), piano rolls, and other “miscell[aneous] musical m[erchan]d[i]se” (“orchestra and band instruments, sheet music, etc.”) from the United States to Latin America between July 1913 and June 1914 (right before World War I) is shown in Table 4.49
|Country .||Pianos, piano players, and player pianos .||Organs .||Perforated music rolls .||Miscellaneous musical merchandise .|
|Country .||Pianos, piano players, and player pianos .||Organs .||Perforated music rolls .||Miscellaneous musical merchandise .|
Further on in his survey, Marks addressed what he considered to be some fundamental “Requirements in Dealing with Latin Americans.” To begin with, he stated,
[t]here is no fundamental difference between reaching Latin American trade and reaching trade in Europe, Africa or Asia, except this, that the Latin American trade always demands personal contact. Circulars, circular letters, catalogs, etc., addressed to prospective buyers or commission houses in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred accomplish nothing in Latin America. In other words, they are absolutely useless.
Moreover, “[t]o effectively reach the Latin American trade,” Marks encouraged his readers in the business, “you must send a salesman. That is the only way.” Secondly, it was necessary that such a salesman be proficient in Spanish (or Portuguese, for Brazil). But even “more important,” Marks exhorted, “is salesmanship”:
Send salesmen, not peddlers. … There is no material difference between salesmanship in any part of the world. A man who can sell goods in Texas can ordinarily sell them in London or Buenos Ayres [sic]. One point always to be remembered in dealing with South Americans is that they demand more personal consideration than do buyers in any other part of the world. They do not like the brusque, abrupt style of salesmanship—in fact, they resent it. As buyers, they cannot be classed with those in this country you can “sell between trains.”50
The commercial activities of US instrument makers in Latin America continued to expand in the years that followed. What looked like a temporary European (read “German”) withdrawal from the market due to the effects of the Great War was made more permanent through the 1920s by the massive invasion of US industrial goods throughout the Americas. Indeed, the dollar diplomacy and the series of “Kemmerer missions” across Latin America, together with various other forms of political and economic interventionism, would prove especially useful for the continuous expansion of North American businesses. Promoted as initiatives that would further the stabilization and enhancement of Latin American economies, the diplomatic actions of the United States in Latin America ended up favoring the consolidation of a relatively unchallenged monopoly of US entrepreneurs in various commercial areas, as well as facilitating the establishment of solid alliances between US manufacturers and local businesses in the region.51 Aeolian, Kohler & Campbell, Weber, Ampico, and other North American companies in the player piano business set up satellite offices or found local dealers who became their official representatives in various Latin American countries. For the most part, it is fair to say that while US manufacturers retained an almost exclusive monopoly in the production of the “hardware” (the player pianos), several businesses sprang up across Latin America to provide the “software” (the piano rolls, especially with selections of local musics and local composers), devising their own industrial processes for the massive production and dissemination of piano rolls with a creativity to rival that of Lucky Luke (see Figure 2).52 Thus, whereas the instruments traveled primarily southbound from the US and Europe, the piano rolls followed multiple routes, many of them journeying north from diverse factories in Latin America.
The significance of player pianos in Latin America is manifest in, among other things, their pervasive presence in periodicals in the form of advertisements for instruments and rolls. Focusing on periodicals published in Brazil alone, for example, Alexandre Dias retrieved the word “pianola” at least 5,775 times in indexical searches for the 1910s and 1920s. Moreover, in searching Brazilian archival records of mechanical media, he found that between 1901 and 1928 there were at least ninety-nine brands related to “pianola,” “piano rolls” or “perforated rolls,” a number that almost resembles the reach of the local phonographic industry at the time.53 These figures are an eloquent testimony to the technology's popularization as well as to the substantial rise in Brazilian stores specializing in player pianos and piano rolls from the early 1910s.
One of the most emblematic of those businesses was Casa Beethoven in Rio de Janeiro. By 1910 it was already offering daily player piano concerts as a way of promoting its instruments, and through most of the 1910s and 1920s it published countless advertisements for imported instruments as well as for foreign and locally produced piano rolls. Some carried curious phrases such as “There is only one God and there is only one player piano [the Weber pianola-piano]” (see Figure 3), “Does Your Excellency want to play the piano like Paderewski?” (see Figure 4), or “The piano-pianola with Metrostyle plays the piano, imitations [just] hit it” (see Figure 5).54 In one, Casa Beethoven boasted of having already sold 1,151 instruments, and in another it pointed out that even the pope had acquired a Weber player piano for the Vatican.55 Between 1909 and 1930, Casa Beethoven distributed seventeen different models of piano and player piano, including the emblematic Aeolian pianola (available with either sixty-five or eighty-eight keys), the Aeolian Duo-Art, the Weber pianola-piano, and the Steinway pianola, as well as “pianos autográficos,” the “pianauto-piano” (with an “automatic pedal” and a “silence lever”), and in the late 1920s, the innovative “radio-piano-pianola.”56
In the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil, the pianist José Domingo Feraud Guzmán began making rolls manually in 1910. Six years later, he managed to import a machine from the United States that allowed him to make up to sixteen rolls within an hour. He created the label Onix with which he remained in business until 1941, exporting rolls primarily to Peru and Colombia.57 In Medellín, the Vieco family became widely known for the manufacture of piano rolls and the repair of player pianos. The availability of music in this new format was especially significant in Medellín, as it provided alternative spaces for the diffusion of local repertoires beyond the performances of house orchestras and the domestic consumption of sheet music. In September 1916, the newspaper La Semana published a list of places with player pianos in Medellín, including elite residences, theaters, and cafés, which had purchased their instruments from the official local representatives of Kohler (Pedro and Daniel D'Achiardi) and Aeolian (Rafael Echavarria), based in the same city.58 In 1921 the Colombian composer and dealer Gumersindo Perea proudly publicized some piano rolls made by his own “electric machine” in Bogotá.59 Perea's company sold the Kingston player piano, referring to it in one of its advertisements as a “simple machine and elegant piece of furniture,” adding that “the performer can produce all the nuances of expression using the pedals alone. It never plays wrong notes.” The same advertisement also boasted that the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, the maker of the Kingston player piano, was “the biggest and most accredited factory in the world.”60 Perea offered his customers the chance to buy his player pianos through installment plans that could extend over up to four years for the repayment of the $800–900 (Colombian pesos) that the instrument cost.61 Like Perea, the local representative of the Victor Talking Machine Company in Bogotá sold Hardman player pianos (from Hardman, Peck and Co., New York), and the local representative of Columbia in the same city retailed the Angelus models produced by Wilcox & White in Meriden, Connecticut.62
From these accounts, it is clear that the US industry did not intend to build new cultural or symbolic referents as a way to have a sustained and appealing business in Latin America. In other words, US instrument makers mostly capitalized on the established cultural legitimacy of the European musical tradition. In this respect, names such as “Casa Beethoven” and “Casa Weil” seem to have been particularly strategic—or at least useful. Beyond labeling, the commercial activities of US companies selling player pianos through different dealers across Latin America echoed the economic and political strategies applied by the United States to consolidate its leadership throughout the Americas in the same era. Together with the increasing hegemony of the colossus of the North in economic, cultural, and political matters, the monetary and musical transactions related to player pianos proved to be a profitable and thriving business in Latin America for over two decades. Yet it was not merely a trade history. Commerce in both the instruments manufactured in the United States and the piano rolls produced by local and transnational industries relied on the cultural legitimization of the player piano. Such a process implied a reconfiguration of the instrument in each Latin American country according to local referents, meanings, and expectations. These included the settings in which the instrument intervened; culture-specific jokes and other forms of commentary used in advertisements; the rehumanization of the instrument in light of local constructions of musical labor; the redefinition of nineteenth-century discourses of gender, class, and musicianship by virtue of the new practices of consumption promoted by mechanical instruments; and most significantly, the (re)inscription of local musics in piano rolls and the configuration of cultural spaces for the hybrid display of tradition and modernity. The literary portrayal of Macondo's encounter with the player piano, and of the course of events before and after the party at the Buendías’ house, resonates as a particularly appealing metaphor.
On Machines and Musics: Cultural Legitimization and Transnational Circulation
As in the United States and elsewhere, the heyday of player pianos in Latin America extended through the 1910s and 1920s. The period begins with the consolidation of a dynamic trade in musical products from the United States, and closes with the rapid decline of the player piano business as a result of both the Great Depression and the coalition of radio and phonograph corporations in the realm of mass-mediated entertainment. Before 1910, however, in a fashion contemporary with the processes of cultural acquaintance and domestic dissemination of player pianos in the United States, some models made their way to different parts of Latin America. As early as 1902, for instance, two Aeolian products (a player organ and a player piano) arrived in Rio de Janeiro. In August of that year, the pages of the Brazilian newspaper O Paiz revealed not only astonishment in the face of such mechanical innovation, but also anxieties and radical rejection of what seemed to be an evil threat to good musical manners:
[A] cultural center that dominates the whole of the city of Rio de Janeiro received an Aeolian organ and a pianola, two mechanical instruments of North American production, two monstrosities that reproduce all the compositions of great men, fugues by Bach, sonatas by Andersen, concertos by Rubinstein—6,000 pieces, which depend only on the pressure of the feet for their reproduction, as in sewing machines—not as played by a pianist, but to satisfy the ears in the way the eyes are satisfied by good photographs of paintings and statues. … I say it will be a disgrace if two centuries of patient study are ever destroyed by the mechanical; and that this instrument is the greatest of the infamies, abominable, stupid, corrupting, and immoral.
The writer went on to refer to the instruments as “those diabolic devices that merit purification by fire.”63
In December 1905, Mexico City's Mexican Herald enticed its readers with the question “Do you know the famous American self-playing pianos?” and revealed the peculiarities of the external push-up mechanism that could be attached to any acoustic piano to reproduce music without the skill of a human being.64 In Bogotá, on the other hand, the appearance of player pianos prompted concerns about what was perceived as a threat to the city's traditional soundscape. A writer in the Colombian magazine Cromos, for example, warned his readers that with the arrival of automatic pianos “the physiognomy” of the city was to lose “one of its most typical features”—that is, manually played piano music.65 According to Egberto Bermúdez, however, “mechanical pianos … never displaced traditional instruments. The peril would come from a different front, that of the emerging record and radio industries.”66 In spite of the unease they at first inspired, player pianos were promptly assimilated. As in Macondo, the initial reactions of astonishment and fright soon gave way to jubilation and dancing.
As described by Alexandre Dias in his remarkable study of the Brazilian piano roll industry, in 1907 the Casa Arthur Napoleão, based in Rio de Janeiro, announced that it had received a model “of the famous pianola … an instrument that is the last word in the genre, a mechanical marvel.”67 According to Dias, player pianos were “very well received by the upper-middle class.” In spite of the unconcealed fears of some, “from the beginning the pianola was synonymous with social status, like the piano, and having one at home meant being able to offer visitors varied music performed on a real instrument,” at a time when radios did not yet exist and phonograph records “offered a rather rudimentary sound.” From 1908, travel brochures promoted cruises with references to “pianolas enlivening dances on board”; and by 1910 prestigious concert halls, such as that of the Jornal do Commercio, were announcing performances of the latest models of pianola “with its recent improvements.”68
The cultural legitimization of the player piano in Latin America entailed the assimilation of its artificiality and the integration of its disembodied sounds into the quotidian experience—or, as João Silva puts it, “the mechanization of everyday life.”69 To a considerable extent, such processes were mobilized by the activities of local industries on two specific fronts: first, in the promotion of player pianos as effective devices for musical recreation in countless newspaper advertisements that emphasized either its non-threatening mechanicity or the persistence of genuinely human aspects; and second, in the production of piano rolls of local repertoires, featuring local composers and performers. Even though all the instruments were imported from the United States or Europe, entrepreneurs, customers, and audiences in Latin America were invested, consciously or not, in the re-signification of player pianos and the music they reproduced in the light of local cultural referents.
In 1907 an advertisement published in Panama's Star and Herald by the Von Jenney Piano and Organ Manufacturing Company of San Salvador—a local representative of New York's Kohler & Campbell—insisted on both the ease of the instrument's mechanism and its successful acclimatization: “The Pianista piano player will accentuate an individual note or group of notes in exactly the same manner as the character of the composition demands, and the apparatus is very easily manipulated. … Our instruments are manufactured especially for this climate and guaranteed for ten years from date of manufacture.”70 Von Jenney himself established a temporary store in the lobby of Panama's Central Hotel, offering demonstrations and specialized inspection of the instruments. Such advertisements are ubiquitous in newspapers across Latin America through the 1910s, promoting player pianos under a multiplicity of names and labels, such as “pianola,” “pianola piano,” “piano automático,” “piano mecánico,” and “autopiano,” and identifying countless music stores, importing businesses, and local dealers. Some entrepreneurs, such as Juan M. Pardo in Veracruz (Mexico) or Casa Weil in Santiago (Chile), kept their advertisements running for days, weeks, and even months.
An advertisement published on the first page of Bogotá's El Tiempo in 1916 by the firm Camacho Roldán & Tamayo Librería Colombiana extolled the system's flawless control of dynamics, insisting that, with these improvements, mechanical and automatic execution had finally disappeared: “The Weber piano-pianola. It is the only instrument that is absolutely perfect and the only one capable of interpreting music in an artistic way, offering all the sentiment and individuality of each performer.”71 In another advertisement of a couple of months later, the same business highlighted “all the modern improvements” by means of which the performer could emphasize the expressivity of the melodies at will (see Figure 6).72 Casa Weil, representatives of Aeolian in Santiago de Chile, turned some of their advertisements into brief epistles to their customers. In one of them, published in El Mercurio in November 1918, they claimed that in spite of Aeolian's pianola being a sophisticated machine, its interpretation was “almost human.”73 In another, published two weeks later, the same business presented their “pianola piano” as an ideal synthesis of the mechanical and the human—an instrument capable of gratifying both the avid consumption of a burgeoning production of piano rolls and the attachment to traditional ways of making music:
Musically the pianola piano is both piano and pianola, each in the highest state of perfection, with the additional comfort provided by the instrument's compact form. Both instruments have been so well built, one inside the other, that when one plays the mechanism of the pianola it seems impossible that it could be separated from the piano; however, one has only to close the little door of the pedals compartment, and the pianola is gone. It is now only a piano, ready to be played. The transformation takes only a few seconds and in the same amount of time one can do the opposite—that is, change it back into a pianola piano.74
Player pianos were not only featured in advertisements. Some newspapers would announce or report on trade among customers, auctions, exhibitions, recitals, or parties.75 The “mechanization of everyday life” was also evident in certain deliberate acts of cultural reinscription of the player piano according to local referents. These included the production of a plethora of piano rolls of local popular musics in a short-lived but dynamic industry in various countries, as well as other interesting instances of the reinterpretation of the character, history, and personality of the instrument. In August 1921, for example, José Luis Velasco published an “Entrevista imaginaria con una pianola” (Imaginary interview with a pianola) in Mexico City's Excelsior, setting up the scene with the feminization of his interlocutor: “She moans about her years … because [the pianola] is a woman, and women are not resigned to growing old, much less so if they love.”76 In Velasco's opinion, the pianola was already mature enough and quite settled in the local environment. Yet, having worked the night before, she appeared to be tired and sleepy. In the same imaginary conversation, when the pianola speaks for herself she complains about her customers’ unrelenting demand for the foreign sounds of jazz, ragtime, and the foxtrot, while nostalgically longing for the good musical manners of the past: “They pedal for hours hoping to play all those foxtrots that you see piled up there. Nowadays … girls are fascinated by the impertinent mumble of American jazz. The banjo and drums are as indispensable now as the violin and cello used to be. … That music is noise, or rather, a torrent of noises. … Teenage girls … sink into the foxtrot and rise to the surface ‘shimmying.’”77 While bemoaning the sounds of jazz that she is compelled to reproduce, the pianola claims to be “from a good family” and acquainted with “the most renowned composers,” such as Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and Schumann, implying also that the interpretation of classical music in pianos and player pianos is simply the natural course of civilization.78
Unlike English, Spanish grammar implied a gendered configuration of player pianos and various other US commodities. Thus, the humanization of the player piano as a female artist was prefigured and reinforced by the use of the feminine article “la” in the formula “la pianola.” Even so, while Aeolian's blockbuster brand “pianola” was the most common eponym for the player piano in general throughout Latin America, a considerable number of advertisements resisted the feminization of the instrument and promoted the product under masculine formulas such as “el autopiano” or “el piano automático.” Unlike those in Mexico, Colombia, and seemingly most countries in the region, various advertisements in Chile used a masculine article, offering “el pianola” to their clientele. As a result, instead of depicting the instrument as an idealized female soul, as in Velasco's narrative, they furthered the masculine imagery of “el pianola” as “the king of all automatic devices.”79 While masculine grammar and allegories were apparently intended to emphasize the mechanical attributes of the machine, the feminization of the instrument pointed to everyday spaces and gendered practices of entertainment and music consumption. In spite of her pretensions to musical respectability, the female pianola imagined by Velasco is entangled, as were many other females of her generation, in a nocturnal world of employment for the benefit of a predominantly male clientele accompanied primarily by popular music. In more than one respect, Velasco used his player piano character to voice a set of male anxieties about women and gendered behavior, as well as to articulate tensions between the domestic and public realms, between classical and popular musics, and between bourgeois respectability and hedonistic modernity.
In terms of the use of the instrument, however, the same advertisements seem to indicate a less gendered scenario than is reflected by the promotion of pianos in the nineteenth century. Whereas pianos were frequently associated with female patrons, player pianos were commonly promoted, like phonographs and other mechanical devices, not only as desirable commodities for a male clientele but as objects for the enjoyment of the whole family.80
Mark Katz has discussed the idealization of the pedagogical potential of phonographs in the United States;81 in a similar manner, player pianos in Latin America were celebrated as essential tools for music education and for the cultural uplift of society. It was commonly claimed that having such an instrument constituted a surrogate for years of painstaking musical training. In the winter of 1920, for example, a writer who signed herself “Alda de D.A.V.” published a column in Santiago de Chile's El Mercurio arguing that since countless people were unable to perform live music well, the improvement of player pianos was indeed “a true wonder,” in that “any person who enjoys music can be a good performer” regardless of his or her musical skills. Moreover, Alda continued, by owning a player piano the family could acquire a much more sophisticated musical taste. Listening to Beethoven, Mozart, or Chopin, she contended, would also improve the personality of each family member and would reduce rudeness and disagreements: “Buying an autopiano for the family is as indispensable as school for the boys and a languages teacher for the girls of [high] society, because the autopiano educates and delights in an art that every cultured person should possess.”82 In the same spirit, an advertisement by Casa Weil, also in El Mercurio, admonished readers, “Do not let your children listen to music other than that of Aoelian's pianola,” because the pianola is “the best musical device for the artistic education of children” (see Figure 7).83 It is possible that player pianos and piano rolls of both classical music and musics from various parts of the globe were tools for programs of music appreciation in schools and conservatories just as victrolas and Victor records were in the United States.84
Even so, the most crucial aspect for the cultural legitimization of player pianos in Latin America, as elsewhere, was the unremitting availability of piano rolls of almost any kind of music. Surviving catalogs and collections of piano rolls demonstrate the range of genres and repertoires available to owners of instruments in the early twentieth century. Besides the countless rolls produced in the United States that were imported together with the instruments—as in García Márquez's story—and that included mostly classical music, ragtime, and foxtrots, thousands of piano rolls were produced by small businesses in almost every country in the region, featuring a diverse assortment of local and popular musics. For instance, as Juan Fernando Velásquez shows, Gumersindo Perea in Bogotá and Gabriel Vieco in Medellín were the first local entrepreneurs in the business of producing piano rolls in Colombia from the 1910s, often taking advantage of textile machinery to punch the paper rolls. While Perea distributed at least eighty-two pieces, mostly pasillos and foxtrots written by Colombian composers, Vieco's catalog included tangos, danzas, danzones, marches, foxtrots, pasillos, waltzes, and even Mexican songs, written by well-known composers in the region, such as the Argentinian Samuel Castriota or Vieco's own brother Carlos.85 The private piano roll collection of Antonio José Manrique in Armenia (Colombia), also studied by Velásquez, comprised almost exclusively popular music rolls manufactured in Colombia, the United States, Ecuador, and Spain by the industries of Gabriel Vieco (41 percent), QRS (26 percent) Onix (22 percent), and Victoria (11 percent). The music genres with the greatest representation in Manrique's collection are tango (29 percent), pasodoble (15 percent), foxtrot (11 percent), pasillo (11 percent), and waltz (11 percent). Despite the predominance of popular music in the activities of local manufacturers and the catalogs available to local dealers, some collections—such as that of the Colombian music critic Otto de Greiff—included mostly piano rolls of classical music.86
In 1912 the Casa Beethoven in Rio de Janeiro began the production of piano rolls under the brand Pianauto, focusing mostly on Brazilian music. According to Dias, the first piece in its catalog was “the samba ‘Quem são eles’ of Sinhô, and by 1929 [Pianauto] had launched at least 508 titles,” including popular music by composers such as Arthur Camilo, Honorino Lopes, and Ernesto Nazareth, as well as the academic compositions of Carlos Gomes and Arthur Napoleão.87 Dias located over two hundred rolls commercialized in Brazil in the early twentieth century, including rolls manufactured in Brazil, foreign rolls of Brazilian music by Brazilian composers, and rolls of Brazilian music written by foreign composers. The pieces produced by Casa Beethoven (Pianauto) loom large in the first group, featuring primarily tangos, sambas, waltzes, polkas, fados, and “fantasias,” while the genre that prevails, almost exclusively, in the other two groups is the maxixe.
Together with phonograph records, sheet music, itinerant musicians, and dance teachers, piano rolls were a key factor in the transnational dissemination of Argentinean tango and Brazilian maxixe that followed the international crazes for these genres in the early 1910s. As the cosmopolitan epicenters of these crazes, music stores in Paris and New York City imported a considerable number of records and piano rolls of these musics that had been produced in Latin America.88 Likewise, as Egberto Bermúdez shows, the Colombian elite of the time enthusiastically embraced tango and the “tango-mania,” often dancing to music emanating from pianolas at a variety of social events and dance academies. Indeed, Bermúdez writes, “the adoption of new technologies was another important incentive in the processes of the implementation and popularization of new musical styles” both locally and regionally.89 Local dealers also capitalized on the popularity and convenience of player pianos in the realm of dance music, as is evident from the following advertisement published in Santiago de Chile: “The charm of the waltz reaches the sublime when it is danced to the beat of an Aeolian pianola” (see Figure 8).90 Undoubtedly, in the United States and in Latin America the services of player pianos proved crucial for the dance floor in private settings and for public spectacles such as theatrical plays and silent films. The available documentation seems to indicate, however, that in Latin America the former use loomed much larger than the latter in the everyday practices of the consumption of mechanical music. Quite possibly, the opposite was true for the United States.91
As the player piano industry became established in the region and the new format gained cultural currency, even if only for a few decades, commercial coalitions between US manufacturers and Latin American dealers came to be a common occurrence. Of course, the terms of such exchanges were far from being sufficiently reciprocal. Nevertheless, by virtue of such relations the contents of piano roll catalogs grew significantly. As in the recorded music industry, the premise of keeping local music for local markets soon changed into a multidirectional stream of repertoires. Not only did piano rolls produced in the United States flood Latin American stores, but a good number of rolls perforated in Latin America—and elsewhere—were imported into the United States to supply the demand of immigrant communities and of a burgeoning clientele eager for foreign and exotic musics.92 An example is Colombian composer Luis A. Calvo, who regularly recorded music for Victor while piano rolls of his compositions were distributed by North American companies such as Universal and QRS.93 The label on the piano roll featuring Calvo's famous waltz “Cromos,” which was commercialized by QRS, included the inscription “Made Especially for Louis H. Abenheimer, New York, U.S.A. All Sales and Copying Rights Reserved.”94 Likewise, contemporary catalogs and archival collections indicate that the rolls recorded by Teresa Carreño for Ampico, Triphonola, and the Universal Music Company (of London), as well as those of Ernesto Lecuona for his own business in Cuba and apparently for Ampico, had a noteworthy international distribution.95
The lack of more detailed studies of piano roll industries in various countries in the region and the unavailability of information about the sales and circulation of piano rolls make it difficult to determine which genres or pieces were more popular than others. Nonetheless, to judge from surviving catalogs, lists, and collections, such as those examined by Velásquez and Dias, there seems to be a correlation between those genres and repertoires with major visibility in the public arena—due either to their popularity or to their use as emblems of national identities—and the musics represented in the piano rolls manufactured by local entrepreneurs.96 In the same way, the transnational popularity of tango in the phonograph and film industries, and particularly of artists such as Carlos Gardel, Ángel Villoldo, or Samuel Castriota, can be compared to the prominence of tango within the player piano business.97
As much as the cultural legitimacy of player pianos was consolidated in Latin America over the course of the 1910s, anxieties about them did not vanish entirely, nor did complaints about their intrusion into the soundscape. Martín Guerra, for one, wrote for a Colombian newspaper in 1923, “This device that resembles the piano in form is, in short, a wretched machine that pulverizes music. If only it were well-pulverized or at least well-crushed music. But what they serve up to the poor neighbor is not music, neither celestial nor even infernal music, but music without music.”98 Similarly, in 1928 the composer Gonzalo Vidal expressed his discomfort over the increasing presence of mechanical sounds: “Nowadays in Medellín, in all places and at all times, you hear only music that is boring, populachera, easily composed, banal, unpraiseworthy, and uninteresting. This is the work of gramophones, pianolas, and other devices.”99 Even so, player pianos were favorite accessories for a significant portion of society in the early twentieth century. The fact that they were expensive objects usually leads to an assumption that they were an exclusive prerogative of the elite. However, not only were player pianos prevalent in public spaces from cafés and taverns to cabarets and music stores, but manufacturers also made inexpensive models available to the middle class and probably even to the working class. As in the case of phonographs, local dealers devised various strategies to make the machines affordable for their clientele and expand the social geographies of their businesses, including rental plans and payment arrangements in monthly installments.100 For instance, the Argentinean company Pianos y Autopianos Florida, a representative of Kohler & Campbell, published a series of announcements in Buenos Aires's La Nación in 1910 promoting their products and offering customers the opportunity to buy them in installments, just as Camacho Roldán & Tamayo would do in Bogotá's El Tiempo in 1916 and 1917.101
Examination of the introduction and appropriation of modern cultural devices such as the player piano in Latin America seems to reveal the hybrid character of modernity in the region, as studied by Néstor García Canclini.102 Although his analysis focused originally on cultural processes pertaining mostly to the second half of the twentieth century, the panorama of the first decades also makes manifest the ways in which tradition and modernity were entangled within the same cultural milieu. For the most part, categories such as tradition and modernity—or for that matter highbrow and lowbrow—have not been discrete entities or obvious opposites in the cultural constitution of urban and rural spaces in Latin America. Modernity has not been a linear narrative of the continuous substitution of traditional ways. Rather, it has been an encounter of long-established values and new cultural practices, a collision of temporalities, and an amalgamation of conservative paradigms and progressive models. Becoming modern has been the result of strategies that negotiate between the access to modernity and cosmopolitanism—in social, economic, and technological terms—and the revitalization of traditional cultural elements.103 This does not imply, however, a reification of tradition and modernity as self-referential categories or discrete historical periods. To be sure, the very notion of tradition is developed vis-à-vis the idea of modernity, and vice versa. Material objects and cultural practices become traditional only as new objects and practices gain cultural currency as “modern.” Thus, rather than constituting a dichotomy, tradition and modernity produce each other contingently and performatively.104 The very history of the player piano, from a “marvelous invention” to commercial oblivion to an icon of nostalgia among antiquaries and collectors, offers a paradigmatic case.
Together with a myriad of modern “costly necessities,” the incursion of mechanical music in general and of player pianos in particular into the cultural landscape of Latin America triggered, among other processes, the hybridization of tradition and modernity. At the same time, it underscores the artifice of the tradition-modernity dichotomy. It represented not only the reconfiguration of traditional musical forms in unprecedented media formats, but also the coexistence of old paradigms of music making with the new possibilities opened up by sound reproduction technologies.105 As in the United States and elsewhere, however, the commercial success of player pianos in Latin America declined significantly following the challenging years of the Great Depression. While the phonograph business eventually recovered, albeit with great difficulty, the domestic and transnational trade in player pianos became almost completely extinct. Instruments still sat in countless parlors, but as the years went by most of them were rarely played, and were certainly not repaired once their mechanisms failed. Except in a very few cases, local piano roll industries did not survive. Thus, both the instruments and the music became obsolete. In short, new standards of modernity cast them into the realm of tradition. As in One Hundred Years of Solitude, player pianos became tokens of the old days in which a marvelous invention had puzzled a whole generation.
Rebobinando el rollo …
The player piano and the phonograph shared the same milieu of modern mechanization through which music making and music listening changed so dramatically. As mass-produced industrial commodities of the early twentieth century, these technologies inaugurated new patterns in the domestic consumption of music within the context of larger historical trends toward the privatization of social practices in general and the domestication of sounds in particular.106 The historical narrative of the industrial growth and international expansion of US companies in the player piano business is inextricably associated with that of the commodification of music. Both narratives are part of the same wider history of the linkages between music and capitalism, and more specifically, of a split engineered by a generation of businessmen between the production and the consumption of music. These narratives are also related to the history of the way an unprecedented soundscape of acousmatic sounds became akin to the very experience of modernity. In this respect, they are part of an even wider cultural history of sounding and listening.
In spite of the fact that the phonograph and player piano industries expanded internationally through similar strategies, the latter ultimately proved to be much shorter lived than the former. Indeed, the commercial empires of companies such as Victor, Columbia, Odeon, and Gramophone grew swiftly in the course of a few years through an assortment of initiatives designed to open up new markets for the phonograph everywhere. These included recording expeditions, the establishment of satellite factories and offices, alliances with local dealers, and the constitution of dynamic commercial networks for the circulation of a vast supply of records produced in various parts of the globe.107 Similarly, the activities of Aeolian, Ampico, Universal, QRS, and several other companies in the player piano and piano roll businesses propelled a massive transnational flow of musics, instruments, and other merchandise.
The pianola was not merely an innovative piece of gimmickry. In García Márquez's Macondo—as in Latin America—it epitomized the sonic invasion of disembodied music and mechanical sounds, all at once, through three instances of mediation and transmission. First, between the music inscribed “on its six paper rolls,” as reproduced by the player piano, and the mesmerized Macondian audience; second, between the inhumanity of the technical mechanism and the human intervention by which the different parts were assembled; and lastly, between the allegedly exotic new world of Macondo and the mediation of the “Italian expert” on behalf of civilization and progress. García Márquez wrote, “Pietro Crespi was young and blond, the most handsome and well-mannered man who had ever been seen in Macondo, so scrupulous in his dress that in spite of the suffocating heat he would work in his brocade vest and heavy coat of dark cloth.”108 For Macondians, Crespi was an outsider unveiling a modern commodity; as a European technical expert, he not only embodied the monopoly of knowledge over a complicated mechanism, but his own scrupulous dress seemed to symbolically resemble its very intricacies. Yet, the intervention of the expert vanished as the Macondians took over the mechanism, the instrument, and the music.
From the perspective of the historical assimilation of new technologies, trade and cultural histories are intertwined. In the context of the apparent clash between tradition and modernity in early twentieth-century Latin America, the player piano appears—among a multitude of modern devices—as a fascinating case of technological appropriation and cultural legitimization. As elsewhere, the incursion of the player piano into Latin America was followed by anxieties of different sorts that reflected the cultural tensions associated with its foreignness, its automation, and its challenging of conventional practices that would eventually come to be seen as tradition. Yet its ultimate assimilation should be read not as the resolution of such tensions, but as a more defiant type of musical re-signification, cultural negotiation, and technological reinvention. Just as José Arcadio Buendía eviscerated the pianola in order to discover its inner magic and put it back together in a different form in One Hundred Years of Solitude, so Latin Americans engaged with the new invention on their own terms, in accordance with their own cultural expectations and through their own repertoires. In both cases, although the instrument initially failed to work, the party ultimately went on, even if to the sounds of an illogically assembled mechanism. It could not have been otherwise. Macondo may be a metaphor for Latin America, but more significantly the player piano, as rewired by José Arcadio Buendía, is a metaphor for the ways in which Latin Americans engaged with the music and flood of culture that came from other places in the form of colonial dominance. The music that emanated from the player piano was completely different from the music originally perforated in the six rolls that accompanied the pianola; but it was to that music, and no other, that the Macondians ended up dancing.