The Sound and Society workshop is pleased to announce our final event of the quarter next Wednesday. Brad Spiers (4th year PhD Candidate in Music History/Theory) will present his work as he steps down as Sound and Society co-coordinator. Please join me in thanking Brad for his organization of the workshop this year (and years prior in its instantiation as Music History/Theory). Our heartfelt thanks also goes to all of our attendees and presenters for your participation, engagement, and enthusiasm this year!
Next Wednesday, Brad will present a portion of his first dissertation chapter, entitled:
Artful Anatomy: Music and the Voice of an Enlightened Machine
Wednesday, May 30th, 2018
4:30 – 6:00 PM
Humans have long yearned to remake their humanity on a machine, but these efforts took a new turn during the Enlightenment. Driven to explain the mysteries of life, thinkers used machines to identify, test, and recreate the capacities and behaviors that they believed make humans unique. Paradigmatic were the automata, clockwork-powered homunculi that were designed to move like humans. This chapter studies one such automata, a mechanical flautist by the French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1789). Vaucanson endowed a machine with artificial lips, lungs, and fingers that could play an ordinary flute. Beginning in 1734, his machine was displayed before clamoring French audiences. It charmed Voltaire, who dubbed its inventor “a modern day Prometheus,” while Diderot and D’Alembert praised the flautist’s “finesse in all its details” and the “delicacy in all part of [its] mechanism.” Today, Vaucanson is celebrated as the father of the modern quest for artificial life. His automaton struck a delicate balance between “musician” and “instrument” that became a model for subsequent experiments. Yet, historians of science single-out the automaton for its lessons in anatomy, lauding the machine’s muscles and organs whilst ignoring its aesthetic labors.
This chapter challenges that narrative by demonstrating the important roles of music and music-making for the automata’s functioning. In particular, I explore how 18th-century conceptions of the voice—both as an anatomical organ and a perlocutionary act—were are an important context for the machine’s construction and consumption. By creating a machine that was capable of playing the flute, I argue that Vaucanson not only simulated vocal anatomy (by automating the organs for respiration and enunciation) but performed an analogous mechanization of vocal rhetoric by programming the machine to play music. The result was a bifurcated mechanical being—an artful anatomy—that was capable of uttering its human “nature” on multiple registers. Indeed, by attending to this dualism, we better understand how Vaucanson’s flautist was not merely a happenstance collision between music and machine, but part of a larger technological project that used art to probe the boundaries of human and artificial life.
Special thanks to Bill Hutchison for serving as respondent. Refreshments will be served!