Georgina Born
University of Oxford

Culture, Materiality, and Time in Non-Reductive Histories of Music Technologies –– from the Player-Piano to Musical Robotics

What is it to write the history of a musical instrument, like the player-piano? There is a tendency and a temptation, understandably, to write this history and that of all music technologies and instruments from the perspective of the winners: those heroic objects that emerge, along with their accompanying heroic inventors, from the melée of competing innovations to become established in the pantheon of key instruments––those that have succeeded in garnering large, expansive markets, communities of use or even communities of practice. But how adequate as history are such teleological accounts of the victors? In this talk I want to consider some of the new perspectives on writing the history of music technology, and histories of music, that have arisen in recent years. I exemplify some of these new perspectives through cases from recent fieldwork on contemporary digital music cultures and technologies, and I address in particular the emergent field of musical robotics, which, in some accounts, considers the player-piano as a forebear. Through the field of musical robotics we can glimpse the outlines of a history before, or without, victors or even directionality: a fluxious history that composes and is composed by a drifting mass of related practices and innovations, permeable at the boundaries, and without telos, a decentered mass involving, often, only minor differences, generating a vast and unsettled diversity. Does this kind of historical portrayal conjure up better the emergent nature of music technologies, before the closures effected by stabilization and standardization?

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Georgina Born is Professor of Music and Anthropology at Oxford University and a Professorial Fellow of Mansfield College. Earlier she worked as a musician on cello and bass guitar, performing with the groups Henry Cow, Art Bears, Mike Westbrook Orchestra, Michael Nyman Band and other ensembles, as well as playing improvised music as a member of the London Musicians’ Collective and with Derek Bailey’s Company.

Georgina Born’s work combines ethnographic and theoretical writings on music, media and cultural production. Her books are Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde (1995); Western Music and Its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music (edited with David Hesmondhalgh, 2000); Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC (2005); Music, Sound and Space: Transformations of Public and Private Experience (ed., 2013); Interdisciplinarity: Reconfigurations of the Social and Natural Sciences (edited with Andrew Barry, 2013); and Improvisation and Social Aesthetics (edited with Eric Lewis and Will Straw, 2017). From 2010, Born has directed the research programme ‘Music, Digitisation, Mediation: Towards Interdisciplinary Music Studies’, which examines the transformation of music by digitisation and digital media through ethnographies in seven countries in the developing and developed world. Among her visiting professorships are, from 2013 to 2015, being Schulich Distinguished Professorship in Music at McGill University, in 2014 Bloch Distinguished Professorship in the Department of Music, University of California, Berkeley, and from 2014 Honorary Professor in Anthropology at University College London. Born is a Fellow of the British Academy where she Chairs the section on Culture, Media and Performance. In 2016 she was awarded an OBE for ‘services to Musicology, Anthropology and Higher Education’. <