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Palais de Tokyo installation view, 2007

Detroit, 1967

Palais de Tokyo installation view, 2007

Thomas Bloch plays "When I Get Like This," 2007






“[T]he armonica excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood that is apt method for slow self-annihilation. If you are suffering from any nervous disorder, you should not play it; if you are not yet ill you should not play it; if you are feeling melancholy you should not play it.” - Friedrich Rochlitz

The Glass Harmonica, or Armonica, has been blamed for causing premature births, convulsions in farm animals, domestic squabbles, madness and death. Benjamin Franklin, an American inventor and political figure of influence in both the United States and France, invented the musical instrument in 1762 after seeing a concert where water-filled wine glasses were rubbed to produce different tones. Franklin’s armonica was made of 37 lead glass bowls mounted on a horizontal spindle. Its “celestial voice” was praised by many, including Goethe, Mozart and Thomas Jefferson, who said it was the “greatest gift offered to the musical world of this century.” Despite this, many scholarly texts of the time warned of the instruments ill effects. Its description in a dictionary of musical instruments states that its sounds “are of nearly celestial softness but (...) can cause spasms.” In his ‘Method to Teach Yourself Harmonica’ from 1788, J.C. Muller states, “If you are irritated or disturbed by bad news, by friends or even a disappointing lady, abstain from playing it, it would only increase your disturbance.” The instrument was banned in a town in Germany when a child died during a Glass Harmonica concert there, and one of its most famous players, Marianne Davies, was hospitalized for nervous disorders.

Viennese doctor Franz Anton Mesmer used the Glass Harmonica to condition his clients for hypnosis and to soothe them after his Animal Magnetism treatments. When the public’s suspicion of his techniques became prohibitive to his practice, Mesmer was forced to flee Vienna for Paris. In Paris Mesmer was considered a magical healer to the elite, but many saw him as nothing more than a charlatan. It was a few years before the French Revolution, in 1784, when King Louis XVI appointed a Faculty of Medicine to formally discredit Mesmer’s theory of Animal Magnetism. This committee included Benjamin Franklin and Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. The King’s wife, Marie Antoinette, herself an amateur player of the instrument, was rumored to have participated in mystical orgies that took place in Mesmer’s Paris studios where the sunless rooms were filled with incense and the ethereal tones of the Glass Harmonica.

Franklin’s instrument seemed to have strange powers, which were both magical and damning. One could say then, that its musician is not only in charge of producing harmony, but is endowed with a supernatural power over his audience. He seems to be a magician and a medium, or an executioner who may himself pay for the thrill of creating harmony. Later, doctors would speculate that some deaths attributed to playing the Glass Harmonica were caused by lead entering the musician’s bodies as their fingertips rubbed the instrument. Lead poisoning is known to cause neurological damage, chronic abdominal pain and death. Despite it’s malign reputation, over 4000 Glass Harmonica’s were built and more than 400 pieces of music were written for it.

Franklin, the first man to harness an electrical current, which was an integral step in the development of the motor, designed his mechanical instrument that mimics the sound of an organ in the same period of time that music was coming to be in the service of the emperor, as well as the church. Some 60 years later, when the term “scientist” was first coined, the instrument’s popularity was dying out, mostly due to the growing size of concert halls and orchestras that drowned out the Glass Harmonica’s delicate sound. Man’s order was replacing divine order; hypothesis and experiment could be used to figure out how things functioned.

The Enlightenment provided the chain of reason that allowed Man to control his universe, like the assembly line of Fordism would allow workers to own what they produced. It promised liberation from the forces of nature, destiny, or God’s plan through scientific method and the progress of efficient systems, just like the automobile endowed its purchaser with free reign over the newly developed communities of the sprawling suburban landscape. By implementing social organization– from the Church, to the Enlightenment, to the Free Market– Man seems to be narrowing down space with ever more efficient movements. Franklin and Ford were aiming for technological progress. They were working towards self-empowerment or individual freedom, some way to float above nature, but this environment is filling up with sound; It is it the relentless chatter of all these objects. Driving down the freeway listening to the 5 Royales, or sitting in a concert while Thomas Bloch plays the Glass Harmonica, as soon as the song begins, there is an anticipation for the end.

Jaime Lutzo, 2007


special thanks to thomas bloch, heimo lattner, alain declercq, and jaime szczepanski