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SIX Listening for Objectivity Being human, William Homan Thorpe and Charles Seeger were naturally suspicious of their own observations.1 It was in 1950 that the two men decided independently to buy machines to replace their own ears in the laboratory. These machines would be proxy listeners, using electronic filters to transform recorded sound into a series of electric pulses that would, in turn, move a stylus , whose quivering needle inscribed an image on a nearby rotating spool of specially prepared paper. To a casual observer, the machines looked like kymographs. You might wonder why two trained human listeners would want to exchange their ears for machines in the first place. Thorpe and Seeger worked in different countries and in separate fields. They had never met and probably had never even heard of each other. Yet in the years after World War II, they shared a set of common concerns about music’s role in the familiar path from professoriate to laboratory directorship. Thorpe, a deeply religious man and avid naturalist, was cobbling together a laboratory for avian song research on the outskirts of Cambridge, England, building dozens of birdcages from repurposed wire barricades left over from the war.2 Seeger, a conductor and intellectual known for his brash confidence and administrative skills, was in the midst of a transition from government work to a post at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he would help develop a new institute for ethnomusicological research.3 Without knowing each other’s work, the two men independently came to the same conclusion: that studies of sound required them to doubt their own ears. Hearing music in the 1950s was a disturbingly vulnerable experience. The decade was bracketed at one end by Theodor Adorno’s claim that music manipulated the masses for political and financial gain, and at the other end by Pierre Bourdieu’s discovery that musical preference had more to do with one’s 126 Animal Musicalities social class than with any intrinsic musical ability or taste.4 Psychologists had argued for the past several decades that laboratory experiments showed listeners responding to factors that had nothing to do with acoustics.5 In the aftermath of World War II, governments hoped to manipulate that vulnerability. The French inundated the radio waves of occupied Germany with French masterworks, while the Americans sponsored concerts they imagined would prevent the spread of communism.6 Music scholars and scientists, meanwhile, were in the midst of the separation of musical knowledge from racial science described in chapter 5, with all its attendant anxieties about the misuse of cultural research in scientific settings. In the laboratory, researchers needed some way to extract themselves from this vulnerable position. How could you speak for other animals, or even other people, when you couldn’t be sure your own ears were reliable? Thorpe and Seeger found a partial solution to this problem in the sound spectrograph, a machine developed during the war by Bell Laboratories. Bell Labs had a long history of innovating ways to visualize sound, part of the company’s philanthropic commitment to deaf education. During the war, the labs had turned to technologies like radar and sonar as ways to visualize the enemy.7 The spectrograph, developed under engineer Ralph Potter, capitalized on the old fantasy of a voiceprint, an image engineers had once imagined would identify friend or foe “ten, 20, or even 40 years later.”8 One-half of the machine was a repurposed kymograph, replicating the form of the nineteenth-century laboratory apparatus in a rotating cylinder and stylus. The novelty of the new device was its other half, which had the capacity to strategically transform sound into a vibration that, once sent to the stylus, was easy to read. Using a series of electronic filters to screen out select bandwidths of sound from the source recording, the machine acted like a kind of prism for sound. The result was a compartmentalized vision of the original source recording, divided into intelligible information. By transcribing directly from a source recording, the spectrograph replaced human listeners with a mechanical mediator that had a single, unchanging way of describing what it heard. The description itself, moreover, was a reassuringly familiar image borrowed from the kymograph’s mechanics. Yet this process posed its own problems. Separating researchers from musical experience also separated them from music. Researchers found themselves in a double bind: to study music objectively, it was necessary to remove personal experience from the process of listening...


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