Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Art History


Emily Braun

Committee Members

David Grubbs

Claire Bishop

Jonathan Sterne

Subject Categories

Audio Arts and Acoustics | Modern Art and Architecture | Other Film and Media Studies | Other Music | Radio


Against accepted histories of the historical avant-garde, which have elevated artistic production in traditional media while suppressing sonic practices, this dissertation argues that artist-engineers working across Europe and the United States independently, if simultaneously, turned their attention to emerging sound technologies as new media for creative experimentation by the early 1930s. This spectrum of activity demonstrates the significance of sound in avant-garde practice, and indicates a wide-ranging artistic engagement with technological devices intended for mass audiences. While the common understanding of the relation between art and technology in this period amounts to one of mere enthusiasm for the novel formal qualities of machines and mechanical structures, this dissertation demonstrates that artist-engineers deployed the telephone, radio, film projector, and synthesizer as tools for direct artistic expression. In doing so, they transformed a fascination with the machines of modernity into a functional practice and extended the avant-garde project to explore new modes of perception into a sonic register.

This dissertation examines a cross-section of these experiments in the United States, France, Germany, and Russia. In 1932–33, orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977) collaborated with Harvey Fletcher, a prominent physicist at Bell Telephone Laboratories, and other engineers on the long-distance transmission of a symphony concert by telephone. Beginning in the late-1920s, the Surrealist radio plays of French artist Paul Deharme (1898–1934) used sound to influence the subconscious mind, drawing directly from methods developing concurrently in the field of Freudian psychoanalysis. In 1929, building on the recent invention of optical sound-on-film systems, German animator Rudolf Pfenninger (1899–1976) devised a method of artificial sound synthesis based on translating hand-painted sound waves into light and then audible sound through the use of a projector. And in 1930, Russian engineer Evgeny Sholpo (1891–1951), working with colleagues at the Central Laboratory of Wire Communication in Leningrad, invented a device for the production of synthetic sound, made from cut paper, to accompany motion pictures.

With the exception of Italian Futurist projects with noise in the 1910s, early twentieth century artists working with sound technologies, such as the figures I explore, have been excluded from canonical art histories and theories of the avant-garde. As a result, the conceptual artist and composer John Cage has emerged as the catalyst for postwar experiments with art, technology, and music. This dissertation fills in the historical lacuna between Futurism and Cage, a gap of nearly forty years, to demonstrate a continuum of sonic practices. In doing so, it reveals a previously-unexplored relationship between sound, the avant-garde, and technological innovation.