Kant’s Telescope, Beethoven’s Telephone

30 Nov 2011
12:00 pm - 1:30 pm

470 Stephens Hall

Event Type

Deirdre Loughridge
UC Berkeley, Department of Music

In a letter of 1823 to his patron and student Archduke Rudolph, Beethoven advised keeping a notebook by the piano and swiftly sketching one’s musical inventions, for in this way one “learns to capture immediately the most remote ideas.” By “the most remote” (*die entlegenstent*), we might think Beethoven meant “the most original” – the most unlike anything heard before. These implied meanings are indeed relevant, but “the most remote” also invokes a trope of musical inspiration based on listening at a distance. This trope emerged in the late eighteenth century, together with an interest in technologies of looking at a distance. In his anthropology lectures, for example, Kant likened the “assisted eye” of an observer at a telescope to the “assisted hearing” of an improviser at a keyboard: both instruments brought to awareness something previously below their users’ threshold of consciousness. For early Romantics, such analogies between vision and hearing supported new ways of thinking about music. Inaudible worlds could be revealed by composers much like invisible worlds could be revealed by astronomers: the latter had their telescopes, the former some species of telephone.

My presentation will focus on the trope of composers listening at a distance, the role of mediating technologies in this trope, and the relevance of the trope to Beethoven’s music. I hope, however, that my presentation will stimulate a broader discussion of the status of listening (as object of knowledge and observational technique) in the history of science and technology; and of what is to be gained by historicizing music and science together as ways of knowing ourselves and our world.

This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  Office for the History of Science and Technology

Our Events

Other Events of Interest