This collection features primarily what might be called “listeners’ instruments”– that is, devices that aid in the audition of music, rather than its production. Such technologies remind us that our notion of music is determined in large part by what we can hear, and ask us to imagine sonic universes of micro- and macro-scales and distant times and places — worlds of sound lying beyond the “doors of perception” we call our ears.
Musica ex machina
For as long as suitable technologies existed, human beings have been fascinated with the possibility of automating the production of musical sound. Musical automata were devised as early as the first century AD by the Greek engineer Hero of Alexandria, and the histories of music and automation have been entwined ever since. The instruments in this exhibit play upon the fascination with “machine music,” whose apparent independence from human control or skill is at once a source of wonder and terror.
In Greek mythology, the chimera was a hybrid monster: with a lion’s head and body, a snake for a tail, and a goat head rising from its back, it combined elements from different animals into a new beast. The instruments in this exhibit can be thought of as “technological chimeras,” in which distinct units of earlier artifacts are welded together: organ pipes with steam engines, for example, or sound with photography. These devices also partake of another, more general meaning of “chimera”: an impossible or illusory fantasy.
Faster, bigger, louder: the industrial revolution ushered in a new scale of life, and a new notion of progress. In the realm of musical instruments, the pursuit of the louder by means of the larger became a particular obsession, manifesting in both designs for enormous instruments and plans for coordinating ever larger collections of individuals. The “Giganticism” exhibit reflects some of the most awesome and absurd dreams of the technological imagination.
The relationship between music and number is grounded in solid matter – in the bodies that resonate according to physical properties such as length, mass, and volume. The instruments in this exhibit short-circuit the physical passage between music and mathematics: they exist in an abstract or conceptual space, possessing dimensions and acoustic properties impossible to realize in the material world – but possible to imagine.
We like to think we wield our instruments to our own ends. But from antiquity to the modern age, we find musical instruments that turn living beings into mere components of a larger design. Alternately comical and cruel, these instruments unsettle the boundary between agents and objects, humans and machines, and prompt us to wonder – as listeners and musicians – how far our instruments exert control over us.
When we cannot see the source of a sound, we are liable to imagine what caused it. When the sound is one we have never heard before, the source we imagine is likely to be other than the reality. The instruments in this exhibit arise from the process of real sounds spurring the imagination to unreal(ized) instruments. The medium of radio was particularly conducive to imaginative leaps from sound to source, but examples can also be found in stage genres such as opera. We suspect many more imaginary instruments belonging to this category are out there, waiting to be found.
Dating back to the organs of antiquity, the keyboard has proven an enduring interface for real and imaginary instruments alike. Two main dreams animate the imaginary instruments employing keyboard interfaces: the ability to control fantastical sound-producing elements (cats, children); and the ability of a single musician to control a whole universe of sounds (Gambara’s Panharmonicon, Holywelkin’s Orchestra). Sometimes the keyboard itself is the subject of imaginative extension, testing at once the limits of technology and technique (Wendy Carlos’s Generalized Keyboard).