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From scientific instruments to musical instruments: the tuning fork, metronome and siren

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Fifteenth Annual Hans Rausing Lecture

My talk analyzes how nineteenth-century acoustical instruments meant to standardize musical performance and measure various dimensions of sound, such as pitch and beat, were a century later put to use as musical instruments themselves. Metronomes (and their predecessors, the chronometer) and tuning forks migrated from bourgeois households and rehearsal halls to physics and physiological laboratories and then back to concert halls, where they were the primary instruments of a number of twentieth-century compositions. Similarly, sirens, another instrument employed by nineteenth-century acousticians for determining accurately musical pitch, were heard with increasing frequency in the twentieth-century musical halls of New York, Berlin, and Paris. Drawing upon a material cultural history of science and technology, this lecture will trace how these objects were redefined by their new roles as the generators, rather than the quantifiers, of musical qualities, by exploring both the use of mechanical apparatus to standardize critical aspects of early nineteenth-century music and the resulting debates surrounding what such standardization meant to the art. Did these machines hinder or enhance expression and creative genius? Could they thwart the attempts of virtuosi to take liberties with the composer’s original intentions? Twentieth-century composers, such as Györgi Ligeti, Edgard Varèse, and Warren Burt, used these same acoustical instruments to subvert the very notions they were created to define and reinforce.

This talk is part of the Rausing Lecture series.

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