Deirdre Loughridge
University of California, Berkeley

The Sentient Harpsichord

Compare a harpsichord and a philosopher, Denis Diderot urged a fictional d’Alembert in his Entretien entre d’Alembert et Diderot (1769). The harpsichord’s keys are analogous to the philosopher’s senses, its strings comparable to the nerve fibers of the body, which likewise oscillate and set one another resonating so as to enable feeling and thought. In sum, the philosopher is but a harpsichord endowed with sensibility and memory – a sentient instrument, or as Diderot also put it, both musician and harpsichord at once. Taking the parallels further, Diderot imagined granting the sentient harpsichord capacities to feed and reproduce itself, so that it might birth “little harpsichords, living and resonating.”

Though fairly well known, Diderot’s image of a sentient harpsichord has largely been read as a whimsical product of his “cheerful materialism” – a naïve philosophical outlook that was quickly to be snuffed out by anxieties about the displacement of humans by their mechanical simulations and Kantian ideas about brute matter antithetical to living force. The image is thus ripe for reconsideration, for Diderot’s speculations resonate strongly with current critical movements that take “things” seriously. Vital materialisms, object-oriented ontologies, alien phenomenologies: these movements advocate attending to things, recognizing their existential equivalence to humans, and granting them agential roles in our narratives. This talk puts Diderot’s writings in dialogue with such movements, with two ends in mind: to assess – through consideration of mottoes, iconography, lutherie and playing technique – what made the harpsichord an especially apt figure of human-instrument equivalence; and to use Diderot’s sentient harpsichord as a test case for the ethical and political claims of present-day efforts to vitalize matter.

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Deirdre Loughridge is a Lecturer in the Department of Music at the University of California, Berkeley. Since receiving her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 2011, Loughridge has held fellowships from the Mellon Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies. Her research inquires into the material cultures of music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as the long history of music and technology ("from bone flute to auto-tune," as her undergraduate course and current book project on the topic are called). Loughridge’s publications include articles in the Journal of Musicology, Eighteenth-Century Music and Journal of the Royal Musical Association, and her first book, Haydn’s Sunrise, Beethoven’s Shadow: Audiovisual Culture and the Emergence of Musical Romanticism, is forthcoming from University of Chicago Press (July 2016). On the web, Loughridge is co-author of the Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments which features both delightful and disturbing keyboard instruments.