Thesis ID: CBB797125669

Oblique Music: American Tape Experimentalism and Peripheral Cultures of Technology, 1887 and 1950 (2019)


Pfender, Joseph William (Author)
Cohen, Brigid (Advisor)

New York University
Cohen, Brigid
Publication date: 2019
Language: English

Publication Date: 2019
Physical Details: 317

In the 70 years since its dissemination, magnetic tape has inspired a foundational turn in media studies, inspiring a poststructuralist reconception of representation. But magnetic tape itself was not as unprecedented as this framing conveys, and new styles of tape music composition that emerged in the late 1940s were in fact influenced by a much earlier culture of technology out of which tape emerged. This dissertation argues that early tape experimentalism in New York was influenced by late 19th-century cultures of science, technology, and religion. In their respective milieux, Gilded Age Spiritualists, Atomic Age cyberneticians, and avant-garde composers reckoned with secular empiricism’s drive to systematization in one of two ways, either articulating a new humanism by embracing a totalizing materialist cosmology, or retrenching to the individual as the site of aesthetic and psychological meanings. Oberlin Smith, the unsung inventor of magnetic sound recording, entertained an agnostic interest in Spiritualism’s radically materialist theology; defined as a “religion of proof,” Spiritualists had mythologized the machine to the point of divinity. Against the current musicological consensus, this project proposes that magnetic recording first emerged from industrializing American culture that was saturated with 19th-century Spiritualism, rather than an industrialized, German culture imbued with a 20th-century techno-ideology. This reframing renders open-ended tape experimentalist music, by American postwar composers Otto Luening, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and Louis and Bebe Barron, legible as a recapitulation of much older tensions between mystification and materiality, generating musical and logocentric intensities against magnetic tape’s affective flatness.

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Authors & Contributors
Braun, Hans-Joachim
Hui, Alexandra
Katz, Mark
Ash, Mitchell G.
Birdsall, Carolyn
Hiebert, Elfrieda
Osiris: A Research Journal Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte
American Music
French Cultural Studies
Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television
Cambridge University Press
Amsterdam University Press
Sdu Uitgevers
University of California, Los Angeles
University of Minnesota Press
Verlag Karl Alber
Technology and music
Sound Recording Industry
Science and culture
Sound studies
Benedict, Ruth Fulton
Boas, Franz
Fechner, Gustav Theodor
Fielding, Henry
Gurdjieff, Ivanovich George
Helmholtz, Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von
Time Periods
20th century, early
19th century
20th century
18th century
20th century, late
United States
California (U.S.)
New York (U.S.)

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