Two brief film sequences, in which paper blowing down a street (The Informer, 1935) and a candle passed along a table (The Old Dark House, 1931) make sounds. Next to them lies an antique microphone. This article charts the genealogies, cultural resonances, and interactions of these sound objects, drawing on the history of sound and acoustic technologies, film music aesthetics, and music philosophy. The sound objects give expression to fables about hearing in the machine age (1870–1930), and they disenthrall the inaudible: a sign of modernity. They provoke us to consider technological artifacts not as embodying empirical truths, but as mischief-makers, fabulists, or liars; and to confront technological determinism's sway in fields such as sound studies and music and science, which has given rise to intellectual talismans that sidestep the complexities in interactions between humans, instruments, and technologies. To underline this dilemma I make a heuristic separation between imaginarium, sensorium, and reshaped hand. This separation contextualizes a return to the film sequences and their historical precedents, with an emphasis on their patrimony from sound-engineer improvisation, and as aesthetic negotiations with the microphone itself. The carbon microphone, invented in 1878, had delivered a shock to machine age imaginations; its history is largely untold, and is sketched here to suggest that a fuller history centered on microphonics would lie athwart conventional scholarly accounts of sound technologies, listening, and hearing ca. 1830–1930. The sound objects, finally, give voice to a vernacular philosophy of music's efficacy. They merit an ethical metaphysics, where metaphysical language, ironically, asks us to be attentive to mundane objects that have been disdained and overlooked.
- © 2016 by the American Musicological Society. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press's Reprints and Permissions web page, http://www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints.