restricted access FOUR Songs on the Dissecting Table
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FOUR Songs on the Dissecting Table Dr. Hornbostel’s problem was whether knowledge was worth killing for. The issue was made simpler by the fact that human lives were not required. Instead it was the life of a song he proposed to sacrifice on the laboratory’s dissecting table: “When we laboriously dismember and disentangle the melodic thread with our scalpels—some fundamentally condemn such vivisection—we thus make the blood congeal; the living event must stiffen into an immobile corpse, at which it first becomes possible to identify the architecture of the now-intelligible whole.”1 With this gruesome assessment, Hornbostel proceeded to perform two vivisections that year, analyzing the Thai songs “Kham hom” and “Thai oi Kamen.” He attached to this act the bloody and violent description above, disregarding the obvious fact that songs have no material anatomy, no legal rights, and no apparent need for protection. Before judging the author of this deed as cruel or bizarre, take a moment to imagine him. In 1920 Erich Moritz von Hornbostel was the director of the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv, a collection of sound recordings from around the world. In photographs his eyes seem mild, perhaps tired, as they peer out from a narrow pair of pince-nez perched over his carefully trimmed beard. Like Hornbostel, the songs in the archive were tidy and well groomed, each inscribed on a wax cylinder labeled with the date, title, and artists therein. In later years students remembered that these songs, Hornbostel’s research subjects and the objects of his imagined scalpel, were also his Herzenssache, matters of the heart.2 The year 1920 was the start of a brief and tenuous decade of good fortune for Berlin, wedged between the shameful defeat of 1918 and the depression of the following decade. This was a city of learning and science, home to Alfred Einstein , Max Planck, Theodor Adorno, and Edmund Husserl. Berlin’s scientists and scholars were especially proud of the city’s legacy as Europe’s center for experi- Songs on the Dissecting Table 85 mental physiology. During the previous century, physiologists at the University of Berlin had made discoveries about virtually every organ in the human body, largely through vivisections performed on living animals. The Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv took part in this tradition, acting as a small part of the university’s new center for experimental research in psychology, the Berlin Psychological Institute.3 The institute built on Berlin’s scientific legacy to investigate new topics at the juncture of physiology and the far more ambiguous terrain of the human mind. Adjoining the Phonogramm-Archiv were rooms where psychologists studied vision, sight, smell, touch, and hearing. Their experiments relied on measuring instruments and techniques that had originated many years earlier in the bodies of animal subjects, applied now to the mind and not the body. When Hornbostel pulled a slender cylinder off its shelf, he faced a task of formulating empirical knowledge about music that his predecessors in Berlin had once confronted using animal subjects. The psychological laboratory presented Hornbostel with an ethics of knowledge grounded in notions of difference , including differences between humans and nonhumans, that allowed individual animals to be sacrificed for generalizable data. When music took the place of animals in Hornbostel’s research, the ethical dilemmas of scientific knowledge-making transferred to the problem of generating musical data. Data and its making are the subjects of this chapter. Hornbostel’s description of musical vivisection brings together poles of knowledge and difference that framed the researcher’s ethical dilemmas at the start of the twentieth century.4 Out of these dilemmas emerged notions of musical knowledge-making as a practice demanding both scientific and moral discernment. In this chapter, I locate that discernment in the forgotten history of a machine, tracing Hornbostel’s phonographs to a technological ancestry in the tools of vivisection, whose purpose was to extract knowledge at the price of nonhuman life. To look backward to that convergence of ethics and data is to adopt a dual fascination with knowledge and morality. What happens in the musical laboratory? Is anyone harmed? Does some kind of wrongdoing take place, or merely science? And what are we, turning from past to present, to do with our findings? INTELLIGENT REFLECTION In the laboratory, there is a moment when emotions and intellect seem at odds. Your scalpel is poised over a perfectly healthy and undefended dog. You are about to cut a section of the tubing leading from her...


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