Thesis ID: CBB497166926

“Wond’rous Machines”: How Eighteenth-Century Harpsichords Managed the Human-Animal, Human-Machine Boundaries (2021)


The tenuous boundaries that separate humans, animals, and machines fascinate and sometimes unsettle us. In eighteenth-century France, conceptions of what differentiates humans from animals and machines became a sustained topic of interest in spaces that were public and private, recreational and intellectual. This dissertation argues that eighteenth-century harpsichords were porous sites where performers, composers, artisans, academics, and pedagogues negotiated the limits of these fragile boundaries. French harpsichords are at the center of my dissertation because they embodied an experimental collision of animal parts and other biomatter, complex machinery, and visual and musical performance. Taken together, I consider the ways that instruments had social import apart from sound production alone, expanding the definition of “instrument” beyond traditional organological studies of style in craftsmanship and musical aesthetics. I use an “entangled organology” that traces economic, technological, scientific, and environmental convergences to reveal the thick networks through which harpsichords traveled and the behavioral codes and motivations that instrument makers, performers, listeners, composers, and philosophers embedded into them. I follow the 1687 French embassy to Siam to show how harpsichords were crucial in intercultural, diplomatic exchanges as gifts, bribes, or as sources of teachable knowledge. I examine Jacques de Vaucanson’s 1738 flute-playing android to show how musical instruments mobilized debates in human anatomy and the mechanical arts. I then focus on bird and monkey genre paintings (singerie) on harpsichords’ surfaces to show how harpsichords evoked the contested human-animal divide. Next, I use Jean-Philippe Rameau’s harpsichord manual of 1724 and songbird pièce to narrate musical confrontations with nature between player and machine. Finally, I bring together early modern brain and nerve theories and an analysis of a pair of keyboard rondeaux by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer to demonstrate how harpsichord music embraced neurocultural findings on the exceptionalism of human cognition over animals and machines. Drawing from historically informed performance practices, the history of the book, the history of science and technology, art history, and material culture, “Wond’rous Machines” questions implicit assumptions about music, music making, and the fixity of musical instruments to argue that there are kinds of musical engagements, or musicking, that conventional organologies cannot explain.

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Authors & Contributors
Connor, Steven
Hui, A. E.
Katz, Mark
Millard, Andre J.
Otto, Peter
Pannese, Alessia
Annals of Science: The History of Science and Technology
Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation
History and Technology
Journal of American Culture
Science as Culture
Cornell University Press
Johns Hopkins University Press
Oxford University Press
Reaktion Books
University of Illinois Press
Technology and music
Musical instruments
Auditory perception
Science and culture
Human-machine interaction
Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb
Helmholtz, Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von
Luhmann, Niklas
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques
Edison, Thomas Alva
Kurt Grotrian-Steinweg
Time Periods
19th century
18th century
20th century
17th century
20th century, early
16th century
United States
Soviet Union

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