This article explores the relationship between domestic music making, technological innovation, and labor through a case study of the marketing of the RCA Theremin in 1929. Shortly after the arrival of Russian inventor Leon Theremin in the United States in 1928, plans to develop the Theremin as a commercial musical instrument for the home quickly took shape, aligning it with other commercialized domestic appliances. But the nature of the labor that the Theremin promised, according to its marketers, was different than the labor afforded by the vacuum cleaner or lightbulb: it promised to perform musical work. The domestic sphere was changing with the introduction of appliances to assist housewives in middle-class American homes. This involved changes in audio culture as well. Many forms of musical listening were moving from a public to a domestic sphere via the introduction of the phonograph and radio. The phonograph afforded housewives the convenience of playing Saint-Saëns in their parlors without the labor of practicing the piano, just as the electric light saved them the effort of attending to oil lamps. Marketing materials for the RCA Theremin promoted the instrument as a labor-saving device, aiming to fulfill the role of the piano in middle-class American homes but eradicating the need for practicing. I argue that this promise implicitly reveals the labor of domestic music making, which, like other forms of domestic labor, has been historically rendered invisible within a capitalistic system that values productive over reproductive labor.
Instrument or Appliance? The RCA Theremin, Gender, Labor, and Domesticity
Clara Latham is assistant professor of music technology at Eugene Lang College. Her research and creative practice focus on the relationship between sound, technology, gender, and sexuality. She is currently working on a monograph about gender and sound reproduction in electronic music, provisionally titled “Gendered Labor and the Electronic Musical Imaginary.”
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Clara Latham; Instrument or Appliance? The RCA Theremin, Gender, Labor, and Domesticity. Journal of Musicology 1 January 2022; 39 (1): 35–65. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/jm.2022.39.1.35
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