Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Thomas Mann - The DJ in 1924

Just finished Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain and was surprised by an early reference to record playing, and the manner in which it posits the record player (the person, not the instrument) as an active performer, i.e. a DJ.

In it the protagonist, Hans Castorp, is recovering in a tuberculosis sanitorium in the Alps, which seems more like a restful snowy resort than a hospital, and the establishment acquires a gramophone and a collection of records. Hans Castorp is most taken with the device and takes it upon himself to learn its workings and discover its joys:
He made himself acquainted with the new possession, and worked in undisturbed enjoyment through the contents of the heavy albums. There were twelve, in two sizes, with twelve records each; many of the flat, round, black disks were inscribed on both sides, not only with the continuation of a piece of music, but also because many of the plates held two distinct records. Here was a world to conquer, large enough that even to survey it was a difficult task at first, and bewildering; yet a world full of beautiful possibilities. He played some twenty or thirty records; using a kind of needle that moved softly over the plate and lessened the sound, in order that his activity might not offend the silence of the night. But twenty or thirty were scarcely the eighth part of the riches that lay asking to be enjoyed. He must be content tonight with looking over the titles, only choosing one now and again to set upon the disk and give it voice. To the eye one was like another, except for the
coloured label in the centre of each hardrubber plate; each and all were covered to the centre or nearly so with concentric circles; but it was these fine lines that held all imaginable music, the happiest inspirations from every region of the art, in choicest reproduction.

Later Mann describes Hans Castorp's active role as player of records, classifying Castorp as a 'performer', and defined against that of the 'audience':

Later in the day, after the noon and evening meals, he had a changing audience for his performance—unless one must reckon him in with the audience, instead of as the dispenser of the entertainment. Personally he inclined to the latter view. And the Berghof population agreed with him, to the extent that from the very first night they silently acquiesced in his self-appointed guardianship of the instrument. They did not care, these people. Aside from their ephemeral idolatry of the tenor, luxuriating in the melting brilliance of his own voice, letting this boon to the human race stream from him in cantilenas and high feats of virtuosity, notwithstanding their loudly proclaimed enthusiasm, they were without real love for the instrument, and content that anyone should operate it who was willing to take the trouble. It was Hans Castorp who kept the records in order, wrote the contents of each album on the inside of the cover, so that each piece might be found at once when it was wanted, and “ran” the instrument. Soon he did it with ease and dexterity.

Here Mann captures many of the features of the modern DJ - 'guardian of the instrument', 'keeping the records in order' - essentially the selecta! - and running the instrument 'with ease and dexterity'. This in 1924!

Here's the marvellous Paul Scofield, of Patrick Keillor renown, reading the text:

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