Machine Memories: Recorded Sound and Memory

Curator's Note

In George Stevens’ Penny Serenade (1941), a couple’s phonograph records symbolize the peaks and valleys of their marriage, which at the start of the film, seems to be over. As Julie Adams (Irene Dunne) is packing to leave, she picks up an old album of 78-rpm records, each holding a special memory. In fact, Penny Serenade’s narrative vignettes are built around the phonograph records in that album. With each new record played, a new flashback recounts Julie’s relationship with Roger Adams (Cary Grant). In Penny Serenade, the phonograph is a memory machine--each record a means of time travel. Later in the film, the couple’s friend Apple Jack (Edgar Buchanan) says to Julie, “Those fool songs kind of take you back, don’t they?” While Penny Serenade is drenched in nostalgia for many current viewers, the phonograph was already a subject of nostalgia when the film was made. Because of their affective power, we fetishize songs and the machines that we used to play them. Is there something unique about recorded sound’s ability to summon memories and all the emotions associated with them? What is the affective role of recorded sound in relation to memory? Does aural media have some unique role in cueing memory, in relation to other media forms?


very interesting piece, Kyle. I especially liked the product placement for Victor Records and the early PA system on which the song was originally heard. The latter made me think of the ways musical memories used to be a much more public affair. Music seems to tie together personal experiences and public spaces. A song not only elicits memories of a moment in time, but also where you were at that moment. I wonder if current generations experience musical nostalgia in the same way? Have portable technologies enhanced our sense of placed memories (I was listening to Britney's "Hit Me Baby One More Time" on my i-pod when I was last at that particular 7-11 buying gum and gasoline) ? Have our entire lives become soundtracks? Or, has the personalization process become removed from public spaces (I play my i-pod at the office to drown out everything else around me, not enhance the experience)

Thanks for the interesting comments, Avi. Music has always been a public as well as private affair -- often at the same time (Sony Walkman, iPod). Anahid Kassabian has some interesting writing on ubiquitous music. The other reason I'm really drawn to this clip is the material aspects of the memories embodied here. The record she plays, the film suggests, is the same one that first brought the couple together in the music shop -- the record skips at the same place in the cinematic present as it does in the flashback. There's something about the objects themselves. Here I'm thinking of Daniel Sterne's character in Diner (1982) and how he argues with his new wife over his organizing system. He explains that every recording has a specific memory attached, which in turn triggers a variety of emotions and connections. Most of cinema's preoccupations with other media -- radio, television, new media -- are made plain in movies made before or during the time those media emerged. However, the phonograph (and more generally, recorded sound) was already old hat by motion picture's emergence. Does that make cinematic depictions of the phonograph in particular, and recorded sound more generally, prone to nostalgia of varying kinds?

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