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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Performing the Mechanical: Industrialism, Androids, and the Virtuoso Instrumentalist

  • Author(s): Nassar-Fredell, Leila Mintaha
  • Advisor(s): Winter, Robert S
  • et al.

Transactions between musical androids and actual virtuosos occupied a prominent place in the music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Instrumentalists and composers of instrumental music appropriated the craze for clockwork soloists, placing music in a position of increased social power in a society undergoing rapid technological transformation.

The history of musical automata stretches back to antiquity. Androids and automata, vested by audiences with spiritual and magical qualities, populated the churches of the broader populations and the Renaissance grottos of the aristocracy. As the Industrial Revolution began, automata increasingly resembled the machines changing the structure of labor; consequently, androids lost their enchanted status. Contemporary writers problematized these humanoid machines while at the same time popularizing their role as representatives of the uncanny at the boundaries of human identity.

Both instrumental performers and androids explored the liminal area between human and machine. As androids lost their magic, musical virtuosos assumed the qualities of spectacle and spirituality long embodied by their machine counterparts. In this process virtuosi explored the liminal space of human machines: a human playing a musical instrument (a machine) weds the body to a machine, creating a half-human, half-fabricated voice.

In the nineteenth century the virtuoso's hybrid status as exalted human and advanced machine was confronted by the far darker identity of industrial laborers tied to their rapidly modernizing equipment. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) composed his Lied, Gretchen am Spinnrade, a setting of a scene from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, featuring Gretchen sitting at a spinning wheel amidst the rapid changes taking place in the Viennese textile industry. The piano mediates between representation of a machine and human emotion. Schubert's Rondo in B minor, the "Rondeau brilliant," explores instrumental mechanics as an alternate human interior.

Just as audiences negotiated these contested identities for the human machine at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, we ourselves now face transformational waves of technology. Instrumental music and traditions of virtuosic performance still engage with the core issues of an industrialized society. Performers in this tradition inevitably explore the limits of human identity, even as that identity reconfigures itself in digital media and artificial intelligences.

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