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Kreuzer, Gundula. 2018. Curtain, Gong, Steam: Wagnerian Technologies of Nineteenth-Century Opera. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Rothe, Alexander Karl

In a recent Journal of the American Musicological Society colloquy, “Discrete/ Continuous: Music and Media Theory after Kittler,” Alexander Rehding argues that the late Friedrich Kittler’s media theory—and its subsequent development by media theorists after Kittler (Sybille Krämer, Bernhard Siegert, Wolfgang Ernst, Jussi Parikka)—has a great deal to offer current musicology (Rehding et al. 2017, 225). Despite criticisms from Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (2002, 832) that Kittler adheres to a form of technological determinism, and focuses too narrowly on the connection between media technologies and the military-industrial complex, Rehding claims that Kittler’s media theory can nevertheless help musicologists make sense of the material and technological underpinnings of music and sound.

One such application of Kittler’s media theory comes in the form of Gundula Kreuzer’s Curtain, Gong, Steam: Wagnerian Technologies of Nineteenth-Century Opera. Kreuzer’s book is an outstanding example of the productive ways that Kittler’s media theory can be applied within opera studies, and more specifically to the integrative multimedia experience of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). Yet what makes Curtain, Gong, Steam such an effective book—and without a doubt this book is truly remarkable for the ways it has changed the way I think about Wagner and opera in general—is that while it is in dialogue with Kittler’s media theory, it is not confined by the latter’s ideas or methodologies.1 As Kreuzer states in her contribution to the aforementioned JAMS colloquy (“Kittler’s Wagner and Beyond”), Kittler relied too much on Wagner’s idealized theoretical writings, and not enough on the material realities of how these operas were realized on the stage (Rehding et al. 2017, 231). As a corrective, Kreuzer aims to present her own media archaeology of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk—a history of the technologies involved in the immersive multimedia experience at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (230). Kreuzer’s book carries out this media archaeology by considering three often-overlooked technologies—the curtain, gong, and steam—which enable her to explore the mechanical aspects that Wagner sought to hide in his theoretical writings. Each chapter examines a particular Wagnerian technology, and each one illuminates some aspect of the relationship of the media involved in the Gesamtkunstwerk.

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November 13, 2019
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