(Aldous Huxley, 1932)

Landing on the roof of Henry’s forty-story apartment house in Westminster, they went straight down to the dining-hall. There, in a loud and cheerful company, they ate an excellent meal. Soma was served with the coffee. Lenina took two half-gramme tablets and Henry three. At twenty past nine they walked across the street to the newly opened Westminster Abbey Cabaret. It was a night almost without clouds, moonless and starry; but of this on the whole depressing fact Lenina and Henry were fortunately unaware. The electric sky-signs effectively shut off the outer darkness. “CALVIN STOPES AND HIS SIXTEEN SEXOPHONISTS.” From the façade of the new Abbey the giant letters invitingly glared. “LONDON’S FINEST SCENT AND COLOUR ORGAN. ALL THE LATEST SYNTHETIC MUSIC.”

They entered. The air seemed hot and somehow breathless with the scent of ambergris and sandalwood. On the domed ceiling of the hall, the colour organ had momentarily painted a tropical sunset. The Sixteen Sexophonists were playing an old favourite: “There ain’t no Bottle in all the world like that dear little Bottle of mine.” Four hundred couples were five-stepping round the polished floor. Lenina and Henry were soon the four hundred and first. The saxophones wailed like melodious cats under the moon, moaned in the alto and tenor registers as though the little death were upon them. Rich with a wealth of harmonics, their tremulous chorus mounted towards a climax, louder and ever louder–until at last, with a wave of his hand, the conductor let loose the final shattering note of ether-music and blew the sixteen merely human blowers clean out of existence. Thunder in A flat major. And then, in all but silence, in all but darkness, there followed a gradual deturgescence, a diminuendo sliding gradually, through quarter tones, down, down to a faintly whispered dominant chord that lingered on (while the five-four rhythms still pulsed below) charging the darkened seconds with an intense expectancy.

[…]

“Sunk in their pneumatic stalls, Lenina and the Savage sniffed and listened.”

The scent organ was playing a delightfully refreshing Herbal Capriccio–rippling arpeggios of thyme and lavender, of rosemary, basil, myrtle, tarragon; a series of daring modulations through the spice keys into ambergris; and a slow return through sandalwood, camphor, cedar and newmown hay (with occasional subtle touches of discord–a whiff of kidney pudding, the faintest suspicion of pig’s dung) back to the simple aromatics with which the piece began. The final blast of thyme died away; there was a round of applause; the lights went up. In the synthetic music machine the sound-track roll began to unwind. It was a trio for hyper-violin, super-cello and oboe-surrogate that now filled the air with its agreeable languor. Thirty or forty bars–and then, against this instrumental background, a much more than human voice began to warble; now throaty, now from the head, now hollow as a flute, now charged with yearning harmonics, it effortlessly passed from Gaspard’s Forster’s low record on the very frontiers of musical tone to a trilled bat-note high above the highest C to which (in 1770, at the Ducal opera of Parma, and to the astonishment of Mozart) Lucrezia Ajugari, alone of all the singers in history, once piercingly gave utterance.

Huxley’s classic “negative utopia” Brave New World was a reaction to the generally Pollyannish views of the future held by many early science-fiction writers. Huxley countered the naive futurism of H. G. Wells and company with a pessimistic vision of technology run amok. But unlike later dystopias such as George Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s nightmare future is based not on violence but administered leisure. While Orwell’s book was inspired by the brutal totalitarianism of Hitler and Stalin, in which citizens are kept docile and complacent by an insidious regimen of controls that maintains the outward appearance of freedom.
Like all imaginings of the future, Huxley’s was rooted firmly in the present. The sexophonists’ musical enactment of copulation likely derives from the unabashedly erotic character of much jazz music and dancing in the 1920s, which provoked a widespread puritanical reaction which Huxley seemed to share. The Westminster Abbey Cabaret’s “colour-organ” could have been inspired by any number of period devices, from the Bauhaus experiments of Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack to the Clavilux of Thomas Wilfred, while the “scent organ,” based on the same principle, seems to be pure satire. (All these devices traffic in old dreams of synaesthesia that go back at least to the 18th-century “ocular harpsichord.”) “Ether music” was a common name for the disembodied tones produced by early electronic instruments such as the Theremin, while “synthetic music”—a phrase that appears throughout the book—invokes not only the electronic ersatz tones of the “hyper-violin” and “super-cello,” but also reproductions of sound via gramophone records and radios, which in the early twentieth century were viewed as debased surrogates of what would later be annointed with the delightful retronym of “live music.”
Text: Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932)
Image: Leonard Rosoman, illustrations for Brave New World (London: Folio Society, 1971)