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  • Captivating TechnologiesReflections on the Equal-Tempered Diatonic Keyboard
  • Peter Avanti (bio)

[W]hen you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind: it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.

—William Thomson (1883, “Electrical Units of Measurement,” 73–74)

The organ is an instrument strongly bearing the character of a machine. The person who operates it is rigidly bound by the technical aspects of tone formation, providing him with little liberty to speak his personal language.

—Max Weber (1921, The Rational and Social Foundations of Music, 117)

Since [cultural] patterns [of expression] are always acquired through and in the context of social relationships and their associated emotions, the decisive style-forming factor in any attempt to express feelings in music must be its social content. If we want to find the basic organizing principles that affect the shapes or patterns of music, we must look beyond the cultural conventions of any century or society to the social situations in which they applied and to which they refer.

—John Blacking (1973, How Musical Is Man? 73)

[T]echnology … emerges from social systems and thus necessarily reflects, internalizes, and often changes power relations and cultural assumptions.

—Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz (2011, The Techno-Human Condition, 32)

Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts.

—Friedrich Nietzsche (1882, quoted in Friedrich Kittler, Gramaphone, Film, Typewriter, 200) [End Page 150]

This reflection on the diatonic keyboard and associated technologies in Western musical culture connects several histories not often related: music technology, production, the modern Western concept of knowledge and truth through reason, and the social or ethico-aesthetics of musical culture and their relation to Eurocentric ideology. I begin with observations on the Euro-American cultural embrace of instrumental reason, technology, and technological systems, particularly their relation to musical technologies, both hardware and software: mechanics, tuning, notation, publishing, manufacturing, electronics. Then I briefly revise the history of the keyboard, its emergence in Western musical culture from the ancient Greek/Egyptian hydraulis/organ to the equal-tempered pianoforte to the keyboard switches of today’s digital synthesizers and controllers. Finally, with a nod toward the disruptions and aspirations of African American and European avant-garde innovations and experimentation, I offer considerations on the diatonic keyboard’s continuing importance for today’s musical culture and its tools of production.

My interest is to better appreciate culture, technology, and production as intersecting, collectively shaped configurations, and to enhance understanding of Western musical tools and musico-technological expressive conditions and habits. These tools are important to the social practice of making music and are formative and reflective of the way we construct meaning and identity, and live in the world. Exploring sites of cultural production and memory requires examining aspects of what have become social, technological, and expressive givens, what Antonio Gramsci called our senso commune (common sense), including histories and practices that are frequently unquestioned.1 Exploring the historical and conceptual givens underpinning today’s fast-moving musico-technological innovation, and our social, ideological, aesthetic, and emotional relation to these technologies as consumers and producers, can illuminate larger aspects of our present technological mind-set or imaginary—whether utopian blind faith or dystopian blind fear. Our tools correlate to creativity, and therefore to the relative similarities and directions of expressive production and aesthetic expectations. That is, our instruments simultaneously emerge from, limit, direct, and spur conceptual and aesthetic horizons as they are invariably part of larger technological systems, competing ideologies, the political economy, and a collective social imaginary.

Technologies and the systems that support them contribute to the formation of our existential, aesthetic, and psychological understanding of culture, self, and the choices we face in the natural world.2 Appreciating the larger social and cultural underpinnings of our technologies for musical expression and production points to a revision of the history of musical culture, and to the perception and viability of other musical tools, sounds, and...


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pp. 150-183
Launched on MUSE
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