Music and cybernetics in historical perspective: introduction to the special issue edited by Christopher Haworth and Eric Drott

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Abstract

There is nothing especially surprising or controversial in observing the significant influence that cybernetics exerted on music, especially in its heyday during the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. Indeed, it is hard to see how things might have been otherwise. Cybernetics was distinct from traditional sciences in aspiring to create a universal interdiscipline that patched together the probabilistic worldview of information theory and the flattened abstractions of systems theory. Its founding Macy conferences of 1946–53 assembled a cross-disciplinary network of intellectuals, the majority of whom worked in what would now be termed STEM disciplines, but some (and some of the most influential) were drawn from social science, linguistics, literary theory, and management theory. Many of the scientists were returning to universities having undertaken war research, and the specter of totalitarianism shaped the overarching ethos of collaboration and cooperation that both the conferences and cybernetics itself would embody. Some believed that the superdiscipline could contribute to a postwar “Unity of Science” movement based on the universal concepts of information, feedback, and homeostasis, and in this way we can see cybernetics as aligned with supranational efforts to restore and protect liberalism following the war. Yet scholarship of the past 30 years has suggested that it was via its extra- scientific mediation that cybernetics secured such a foothold in the 20th- and 21st-century imagination. As Geoffrey Bowker put it: “Where traditional sciences operated behind the walls of the laboratory, cybernetics was everywhere you went. Where traditional sciences repudiated all possible mention of society, cybernetics proclaimed that it could produce the best possible description thereof, and that its universal truth was immediately tied to this historical conjuncture.” Bowker suggests that these factors worked together to position cybernetics as a “distributed obligatory passage point” capable of translating knowledge between incommensurate languages and facilitating exchanges of legitimacy in the process, and from one perspective the cybernetic traces in music are simply an affirmation of this. They show how successfully cyberneticians managed to consolidate their universal discipline across intellectual spheres, describing and to an extent creating the conditions of a new technological age—famously dubbed the “age of communication and control" by Norbert Wiener.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1
Pages (from-to)461-474
Number of pages14
JournalResonance: The Journal of Sound and Culture
Volume2
Issue number4
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2021

Keywords

  • Music history
  • Cybernetics
  • Cold War
  • Electronic music
  • Sound art

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