Last weekend, doctoral student Amanda Beardsley participated in the Frick Symposium on the History of Art, presented by the Frick Collection and New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. Amanda joined graduate students from across the northeast in this long-running event, presenting her paper, “Celestial Mechanics: Harvey Fletcher and the ‘Gospel of Modern Science’,” on Friday afternoon:
In 1940, physicist and “father of stereophonic sound,” Harvey Fletcher stood on stage at Carnegie Hall playing recordings of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in one of his first exhibitions of stereo sound. Fletcher, representing Bell Laboratories, was interested in “creating a wall of sound” that could produce a perfect replication of sound’s most “pure form.” Responses to Fletcher’s presentation were unanimous: sound now had a new ability to be louder than ever with “spellbinding” and even “terrifying” effects. Fletcher had succeeded in “sculpting sound” that “echoed” and “crashed” as mightily and sublime as nature itself. As a consequence, the world rushed to utilize the impact of stereo in popular religion and culture spanning from audio-visual production to radio broadcasting.
As a project largely contingent upon collaboration with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, what was the motivating power behind Fletcher’s innovation and why did it gain such rapid traction? Is there a means of producing belief by making use of the material and scientific properties of sound? This paper argues that Fletcher’s relationship with Mormonism is telling of the entanglement of religion and science throughout history. Looking to his affiliation with Mormonism and media technology, I argue that Fletcher’s work on acoustics has been instrumental in constructing a historically and religiously specific ideal believer and cosmology. The attempt to perfectly map sound onto the believer attests to the larger spectacle of popular religion, and, subsequently, the traces of religious ritual found in popular spectacle in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.