How the performer came to be prepared: Three moments in music’s encounter with everyday technologies

In Natasha Lushetich, Iain Campbell & Dominic Smith (eds.), Contingency and Plasticity in Everyday Technologies. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 125-41 (2022)
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What kind of technology is the piano? It was once a distinctly everyday technology. In the bourgeois home of the nineteenth century it became an emblematic figure of gendered social life, its role shifting between visually pleasing piece of furniture, source of light entertainment, and expression of cultured upbringing. It performed this role unobtrusively, acting as a transparent mediator of social relations. To the composer of concert music it was, and sometimes still is, says Samuel Wilson, like the philosopher’s table: “an assumed background on which one writes.” Like other instruments standard to Western art music, the piano was designed to facilitate the production of a consistent and refined timbre. More than most other such instruments, the piano also facilitated a kind of sonic neutrality. With its wide pitch range and smoothing of the percussive attack of its predecessor instruments, the piano presented composers with a technological means of approaching composition from a seemingly objective vantage point. It exemplified, in Heideggerian terms, the instrumentality of the instrument, serving as a mediator between idea and expression that apparently adds no character of its own. This notion of the invisibility, or transparency, of the mediations that musical technologies such as the piano enact is one of my areas of concern here. So too is its inverse: when these mediations become visible or opaque. Transparency has been a topic of significant recent theoretical attention. Stefanos Geroulanos, for example, has detailed how the supposed transparency of intersubjective, epistemological, and social relations was a major point of critique in postwar French thought, where the supposition of transparency was taken to suppress how the world was “complex, layered, structured, filled with heterogeneity” – and, as I will stress here, contingency. The thinkers Geroulanos considers, from Jean-Paul Sartre through to Jean-François Lyotard, can be said to be united in their refusal to invisibilise mediatedness. From a starting point of conceiving of the piano as a technological artifact, and in particular from John Cage’s ‘prepared piano,’ I will explore how a similar concern has appeared in musical contexts, albeit not without the risk of reversion back into a logic of transparency.

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Iain Campbell
University of Edinburgh


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