In anticipation of returning to my dissertation chapter on the “mechanical music” phenomenon in 1920s Germany, I decided it would be fun to do a series of posts on musical machines through the ages.
I use the word “machine” here to denote musical instruments that create sound without the “real-time” involvement of human agents. Machines are distinguished from tools, which require active labor to operate. The musical equivalent of the tool is the conventional instrument, such as a drum or a violin. (This tool/machine distinction is borrowed from Lewis Mumford.)
In our thinking about technology, there is a strong tendency to privilege the new at the expense of what has come before. In common usage, the word “technology” is synonymous with consumer electronics such as the iPhone. In music, this technological myopia leads many to believe that “electronic music” began with Kraftwerk, and that before electricity, music was somehow non-technological.
The images below, taken from 17th-century treatises, give striking evidence of the fascination with musical machines in the early modern period. Some of these images depict instruments that were actually built: Salomon de Caus, for example, was a renowned designer of technical wonders, and his musical fountains and automata were featured in the famed Hortus Palatinus in Heidelberg. The images of Fludd and Schott, on the other hand, array well-known components such as the ubiquitous pinned cylinder (familiar to anyone who has ever examined the inside of a music box) in purely fantastical designs. The line between technical reality and imaginative play is not always clear.
From Salomon de Caus, Les raisons des forces mouvantes (1615)
From Robert Fludd, Utriusque cosmi… (1617-1624)
From Gaspar Schott, Magia Universalis (1657-1659)
May 01, 2012, 8:55pm