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WorkshopSound supplies: Raw Materials and the Political Economy of Instrument Building”

May, 21-22 May 2021


Organized by Fanny Gribenski (Centre national de la recherche scientifique and IRCAM), David Pantalony (Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation), and Viktoria Tkaczyk (Humboldt University Berlin) 

 For any information or request, please contact Fanny Gribenski at

At the turn of the twentieth century, there was an increasing demand and quest for sonic perfection. Orchestras were equipped with a wide range of innovative and improved musical instruments crafted by the most renowned instrument builders out of carefully selected raw materials from all around the world. At the same time, a whole series of new sound media and large communication systems were being established, which also depended on the availability of vast amounts of raw materials. Cities like New York, Paris, Berlin, Kolkata, Cape Town, and Rio de Janeiro became important bases for instrument builders, manufacturing industries, and glorious world fairs that celebrated the great wealth of instruments and technologies. But where did all these raw materials—including different kinds of wood and glue, sand, iron and copper, wax, shellac, ivory, horn, animal skins, and rubber—come from? And how did they reach their destinations? 


Our workshop “Sound Supplies” addresses this neglected history of the supply chains that made modern music cultures and audio communication possible. We endeavor to trace the geographic (often colonial) provenance of these materials and analyze the corresponding scientific and artistic processes of extraction. How did the specific choices of the users and makers apply to the entire supply chain? What were the logistics, large-scale infrastructures, and economic and political systems that facilitated the smooth and steady distribution of raw materials? What ethical impact did the provenance of certain materials have on the production industry and the resulting cultures of music and communication? In particular, throughout the workshop we will inquire how manufacturing industries shared the means of transportation, processing, and production; which new professions and forms of expertise emerged out of the exploitation of raw materials; and what practices of distribution, recycling, or waste resulted from the selection of raw materials. Finally, we will examine the consequences of answering these sorts of questions on present-day archival and conservation praxis.



21 May 2021

3-3.30. Introduction

3.30-4.15. Panagiotis Poulopoulos (Deutsches Museum): “From Mahogany to Masonite: Sourcing and Applying Unconventional Materials for the Musical Instrument Industry”

4.15-4.30. Break

4.30-5.15. Edward Gillin (University of Leeds): “Keyed In: Ivory, Slavery, and the Colonial Networks of the Piano, 1850-1931”

5.15-5.30. Break

5.30-6.15. Michael Silvers (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign): “On Bows and Brazil”

6.15-6.30. Break

6.30-7.15. Fanny Gribenski (Centre national de la recherche scientifique / IRCAM) and David Pantalony (Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation): “Forging Acoustic Precision: Tuning Forks and Chains of Value in the Euro-American Cast-Steel Trade (1860-1900)”

7.15-7.30. Break

7.30-8.15. James Q. Davies (University of California Berkeley): “Kautschukmelodie


22 May 2021

3-3.45. Viktoria Tkaczyk (Humboldt University): “Phonography in the Making: Palm Growing, Mining, and Research in the Humanities”

3.45-4. Break

4-4.45. Elodie A. Roy (Newcastle University): “For a Natural History of the Gramophone Record: Origins and Politics of Shellac”

4.45-5. Break

5-5.45. Gavin Williams (King’s College London / University of California Berkeley): “Carbon Black Audiovision”

5.45-6. Break

6-6.45. Matthew Hockenberry (Fordham University): “They Wrap Your Voice in Paper: Supplying Sound in the Electrical Industry”

6.45-7.45. Conclusion






From Mahogany to Masonite: Sourcing and Applying Unconventional Materials for the Musical Instrument Industry

Panagiotis Poulopoulos (Deutsches Museum)


The manufacture of musical instruments in the industrial era was shaped by the adoption of new, unconventional materials combined with innovative methods in their application, which met the demands of large-scale production. Wood, a typical component of numerous instruments, is a representative case. For instance, the circulation of previously unavailable wood species, such as mahogany, was strongly influenced by the politics of colonial trade, whereas the diffusion of new materials developed as substitutes of wood, such as Masonite, often resulted from creative experimentation driven by commercial requirements. Using several examples ranging from pianos and harps to electric guitars, this paper will discuss the routes, networks, and practices through which these materials were obtained and disseminated within the musical instrument-making business.


Keyed In: Ivory, Slavery, and the Colonial Networks of the Piano, 1850-1931

Edward Gillin (University of Leeds)


Historically, music has often carried spiritual value, appearing to transcend the material world and exert power over human emotions: to explore the labour and global supply chains behind the manufacture of musical instruments is at once to problematize this metaphysical understanding.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the production of late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century pianos. The supply of ivory for keys was dependent on colonial trade networks, the exploitation of human labour, and the extermination of elephants, while throughout Africa, slaves and tusks were exchangeable goods. By tracing ivory’s journey from Africa to Europe and America, this paper argues that to uncover a political economy of an instrument’s production is to reveal music as something very social, political, and material.  Pianos were very much instruments of empire.



On Bows and Brazil

Michael Silvers (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)


My current research involves the cultural, commercial, and musical history of pernambuco wood. The Portuguese founded their South American colony primarily to export brazilwood, or pau brasil (Caesalpinia echinata; its heartwood is known as pernambuco wood), which grew throughout the Atlantic Rainforest, for a red dye derived from the wood. The now-endangered resource, the nation’s namesake, is also known to many musicians of the Western classical tradition as the source of the most desirable tonewood for making bows for string instruments. How are the aesthetic demands of musical culture (resulting in the valorization of this wood) related to the quieting of Brazil’s rainforest soundscape? In my paper, I discuss preliminary findings in this project. 


Forging Acoustic Precision: Tuning Forks and Chains of Value in the Euro-American Cast-Steel Trade (1860-1900)

 Fanny Gribenski (Centre national de la recherche scientifique / IRCAM) and David Pantalony (Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation)


From the 1840s to the turn of the twentieth century, cast-steel tuning forks embodied the emergence of precision in the acoustic field. Ever-larger instruments standardized pitch across a broad range of academic, cultural, and industrial contexts, where they produced increasingly loud, precise, and sustainable sounds. Today the iconic character of this artefact in both past and contemporary scientific and musical cultures may give the impression of an inevitable development. Yet as our paper demonstrates, the materialization of new ideals of sonorous accuracy through cast-steel instruments was the product of complex and changing economic, military, geographical and political contingencies. Throughout the nineteenth century, old and new forms of cast-steel were a highly valued material produced through a series of technical transformations of specific irons that came from Swedish forests and were shaped by complex commercial, political, and technological exchanges between the Baltic sea, Great Britain, and the Continent. Relying on this precious commodity, the modern tuning fork emerged from an unlikely network of miners, transportation labour, iron forgers, steel processors, instrument makers, manufacturers of diverse wares, scientists, consumers and politicians whose relations shaped quality standards in steel markets which, in turn, forged the nineteenth-century culture of acoustic precision.



James Q. Davies (University of California Berkeley)


My paper presents materials collected on sound and rubber, in relation to the Atlantic rubber trade, from around 1867 to 1890. My determination is to do more than "follow the actors," as Latour might say – tracking political ecologies of rubber in musical instruments, gramophones, or telegraph systems. I also want to speculate that aesthetic ideas about musical elasticity, elastic tempi, and elastic concepts of manipulable sound were beholden to that rapidly-expanding colonial trade. A keyword for me is "extraction," musical as much as material: the rubber boom in the Amazon linked to the Hanseatic rubber exchange linked to telegraph systems laid in the Atlantic. My title refers to Eduard Pechuël-Loesche's descriptions of the "rubber-melodies" of Vili-speaking peoples on the Loango coast of West Central Africa.


Phonography in the Making: Palm Growing, Mining, and Research in the Humanities

Viktoria Tkaczyk (Humboldt University)


Around the year 1900, palm growing, mining, and research in the humanities shared a common task: they all contributed to the making and working of phonography. In my contribution to the workshop, I will shed light on these historical coincidences by focusing on the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv, founded in the early twentieth century. The systematic and continuous use of the phonograph by members of this archive exerted great influence on several humanities disciplines at the time, including comparative musicology, anthropology, and language studies. In its initial phase, the phonogram archive was also the domain of Moritz Erich von Hornbostel, known today as one of the founding figures of comparative musicology. But Hornbostel had initially been trained as a chemist. As such, he was well-informed about the processes of extraction of raw materials such as carnauba wax in Brazil and montan wax in the lignite mining area of Germany’s Ruhr region––both of which were essential for the production of the phonograph cylinders used daily at the archive. As I hope to show, Hornbostel and his colleagues’ knowledge about the material provenance of the cylinders resonated with the research agendas developed at the archival institution during the eras of the German Empire, World War I, German colonialism, and the Weimar Republic.   


For a Natural History of the Gramophone Record: Origins and Politics of Shellac

Elodie Roy (Newcastle University)


This paper retraces the slow geo-political emergence and ‘deep time’ (Zielinski 2006) of the shellac-based gramophone record, at the suture of natural and historical environments. I argue that the record may be approached as a particular ‘commodity fossil’ of the industrial age (in Benjaminian terms), crystallising a variety of mediations, (micro-)materialities, activities, socialities, localities, histories, and temporalities – as well as potentially containing ‘the complete system of global exploitation’ (Leslie 1999: 119). In particular, my paper surveys the long-term material dependencies and relationships between the UK and British India (most notably London and Calcutta) in the context of the shellac trade (without which no record industry would have been possible). This notably allows me to question the tacit colonial and imperialistic frameworks which underpinned much of the development of early phonography. 


Carbon Black Audiovision 

Gavin Williams (King’s College London / University of California Berkeley)


A condensed form of soot, carbon black is an industrial byproduct created in the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas. The material's history shadows the arc of the Anthropocene: taking shape as "Lampe-Blacke" around 1600, both word and matter became widespread only in the nineteenth century. Its many (ongoing) uses as pigment—in painting, printing presses and photocopier toner—are well known. Yet along with diverse textual and visual applications, carbon black enjoyed a varied sonic life around 1900 as a crucial material in the making of microphones, telephones and gramophone discs. This paper considers an audiovisual landscape persistently mediated by carbon black, to investigate the agency of a dirty (albeit recycled) material in constructing the senses. 


They Wrap Your Voice in Paper: Supplying Sound in the Electrical Industry

Matthew Hockenberry (Fordham University)


This project examines the structures of supply for the electrical audio industry, focusing on the work done by Western Electric for the Bell System in the first decades of the twentieth century. Through an investigation of Western's "material series" of industrial advertising and reports the company had sent from the "far corners" of their increasingly global supply chain, I consider the sourcing practices for materials like paper and aluminum in Western's telephone, recording, and broadcasting equipment lines as the company moved from the casual markets that had defined an earlier era of electric acoustical experimentation towards maintaining the rigid lines of supply that would come to define the structure of sound for the telephone system.






James Q. Davies is Associate Professor of Music at UC Berkeley. He is author of Romantic Anatomies of Performance (2014), co-editor with Ellen Lockhart of Sound Knowledge: Music and Science in London, 1789-1851 (2016), and series editor of the book series New Material Histories of Music with the University of Chicago Press. His current research project is a nineteenth-century history of music in the circum-Atlantic world told in relation to the medium of the air. Creatures of the Air, 1817-1913 explores sonic orders of environmentality, coloniality, and political ecology: ideas about breath control, ideas about air-conditioning systems in buildings, as well as ideas about music and climate


Edward Gillin is a cultural historian Leverhulme Fellow at the University of Leeds who specializes on nineteenth-century science, technology, architecture, and acoustics.  His forthcoming book, Sound Authorities: scientific and musical knowledge in nineteenth-century Britain, will be published later in 2021.


Fanny Gribenski is a research scholar at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and IRCAM in Paris. Her first book, L'Église comme lieu de concert. Pratiques musicales et usages de l'espace analyzed the role of music in the production of sacred spaces. She is currently working on her next book project, Tuning the World: Acoustics, Aesthetics, Industry, and Global Politics, dedicated to the history of pitch standardization in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe and the United States.


Matthew Hockenberry is a media historian and theorist whose work examines the media of global production. An Assistant Professor of Media Industries at Fordham University, his current book project develops a media history of logistics, exploring critical developments in the epistemology of assembly by tracing how media forms shaped the emergence of logistical production and distribution in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


David Pantalony BIO


Panagiotis Poulopoulos is assistant curator for musical instruments at the Deutsches Museum, Munich. His latest research projects and publications have focused on the documentation, preservation, and exhibition of musical instruments, as well as on aspects of musical instrument design, manufacture and trade. Panagiotis is also a member of ICOM Germany and of CIMCIM-ICOM, for which he served as Advisory Board Member from 2016 to 2019.

Elodie A. Roy is a media and material culture theorist. She is currently preparing a monograph entitled Shellac in Visual and Sonic Culture: Unsettled Matter (Amsterdam University Press), and is the author of Media, Materiality and Memory: Grounding the Groove (Routledge 2015) as well as the co-editor of Phonographic Encounters. Mapping Transnational Cultures of Sound, 1890-1945 (with Eva Moreda Rodríguez, Routledge 2021). 


Viktoria Tkaczyk is a professor in the musicology and media studies department of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and works on technologies and knowledge techniques from the early-modern to the modern period. She received her PhD in theatre studies from Freie Universität Berlin and was subsequently a Feodor Lynen Fellow at the REHSEIS (Université Paris-Diderot/CNRS in Paris). Between 2011 and 2014, she was an assistant professor of arts and new media at the University of Amsterdam and from 2015 to 2020, she headed the Max Planck Research Group “Epistemes of Modern Acoustics” and the German Research Foundation-funded project “Epistemic Dissonances: Objects and Tools of Early Modern Acoustics” at FU Berlin (CRC 980). Tkaczyk has published widely on the history of aviation, mechanics, architecture, and acoustics and initiated the database “Sound & Science: Digital Histories.” Her most recent work addresses the history of the neurosciences, experimentation and testing, archiving and data processing infrastructures, and the politics of applied knowledge.


Gavin Williams is a Lecturer at UC Berkeley. His research explores music and media around 1900; he is currently writing a quirky history of the shellac disc. He is the editor of Hearing the Crimean War (Oxford University Press), winner of the Royal Musical Association/Cambridge University Press Edited Volume Book Prize 2020.



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