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Nineteenth-Century Digital Music: Sociopolitical and Proto-Digital Implications of the Street Crank Organ in Europe

Project description

Social and technological history of the crank organ as a proto-digital musical instrument

The crank organ is often seen as outdated and a symbol of the past. However, it has a lot in common with later digital music. The EU-funded NCDM project aspires to reframe the crank organ and other mechanical instruments as proto-digital forms. To do so, it will study the organ’s social history as a window into working-class, poor and itinerant urban musical life, in addition to its technological history as a precursor to modern-day computer music. This work will provide a new perspective on the organ’s place in music history and new insight into the emergence of digital music.


This interdisciplinary research project proposes a reframing of the crank organ and other mechanical instruments as proto-digital forms, offering a new perspective on the organ’s place in music history and opening up a new understanding of the emergence of digital music in terms of a continuity, rather than as something radically new causing a rupture with the analogue past. Due to be added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Heritage, the crank organ is often viewed as a signifier for oldness, outdatedness, or the past; a closer look reveals strong commonalities with later digital music. Going beyond the technical level, I will confront these forms of music-making as part of a socioeconomic infrastructure utilising human and natural resources. The crank organ is the concrete shadow of digital music’s more obviously material past, and reintroducing into that history a hand-powered, wooden machine that operates on similar binary principles to electronically reproduced MIDI music can help re-anchor contemporary digital artefacts to their material roots. A massive increase in the accessibility of useable music composition tools with the advent of digital audio technology has correlated with a global division of labour which obscures the physical production of the machines. In terms of sustainability, the rematerializing of chains of production and consumption is an important project at this time. I will explore the social history of the organ as a window onto working-class, poor and itinerant urban musical life, alongside the technological history that sees the programming of these organs as a precursor to modern-day computer music, and demonstrate the intersections of these ideas. This fellowship will be carried out in Utrecht University under the supervision of Prof. Maaike Bleeker, with Dr. Floris Schuiling as a second supervisor, incorporating a 6-month secondment in the Speelklok Museum under the supervision of curator Marieke Lefeber-Morsman.


Net EU contribution
€ 175 572,48
3584 CS Utrecht

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West-Nederland Utrecht Utrecht
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 175 572,48