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Journal Article

How the sheng became a harp


Raz,  Carmel
Research Group Histories of Music, Mind, and Body, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Max Planck Society;

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Raz, C. (2020). How the sheng became a harp. Sound studies, 6(2), 239-256. doi:10.1080/20551940.2020.1794648.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0009-CB0F-3
In the first few decades of the nineteenth century, a new family of free-reed keyboard instruments – including accordions, harmoniums, and parlour organs – became hugely popular throughout Europe. Although these instruments relied on a novel acoustical technology borrowed from an ancient Chinese mouth organ known in the West since the seventeenth century, instrument makers and music critics alike consistently described the sounds they produced using ideas native to a Romantic tradition of affective discourse around windblown strings and spiritual transcendence. This essay traces the European reception of free reeds and interrogates the conditions under which keyboard instruments based on a Chinese technology came to be heard as embodying the properties of a very different instrument: the Aeolian harp. Although various agendas collaborated in obscuring the East Asian origins of the free-reed technology, it seems highly probable that changing political and racial contexts – most notably around 1830 – directly affected the ways in which the reeds were both heard and understood. Studying the appropriation of free reeds by the West as well as the technology’s postcolonial afterlives, I argue, can help us better understand the conditions under which sound objects are assimilated or rejected in changing cultural settings.