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DTHPS Report Summary

Project ID: 638241
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.1.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - DTHPS (Sound and Materialism in the 19th Century)

Reporting period: 2015-09-01 to 2017-02-28

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

The research project investigates a scientific and materialist perspective on music and sound in the 19th century. It aims to enlarge substantially our understanding of the dialogue between 19th-century music and natural science, examining in particular how a scientific-materialist conception of sound was formed alongside a dominant culture of romantic idealism.

The basic problem being addressed is that idealism / idealist metaphysics has exerted a disproportionate influence over the writing of the history of music during the 19th century: sound as disembodied and intangible, at once a philosophical monstrance and poetic tool of metaphyiscs. But sound was also regarded by writers as tangible, material and subject to physical laws. This has led to a blind spot in research, where these perspectives remain unintegrated.

The research is important for society because (i) we live in a new technological age in which sound objects, devices and technologies continue to change how we interact with sound, often with dizzying speed; by understanding better how this very process took place in the past, we are better equipped to ground our knowledge of the present; (ii) historiographical writing on 19th-century music tends to neglects acoustic theory, the natural sciences, and the philosophy of materialism, all of which were powerful discourses; by excavating these sedimented fields of knowledge and integrating them with music-driven discourses, we will help redress this problem and seek to achieve a more integrated view of musical and scientific culture for the period; (iii) writings in the History and Philosophy of Science have not integrated with musicology well (with one or two notable exceptions), and this project is seeking to bridge the disciplinary divide through its personnel, outputs, and events.

The project’s overall objections, therefore, are:

- to pursue lines of research that can integrate the historical discourses of natural science and music for the period
- to establish an intellectual framework for philosophical materialism that can account for both idealist and materialist metaphysics of sound
- to investigate the role of sound for scientists and mathematicians working on everything from Heat (Fourier) to physiology (Müller)
- to establish for the first time a cultural history of the sine wave, as the mathematical emblem of sound
- to pursue research into alternative histories of listening, and other modes of perception
- to examine the means and manner of interaction between materiality and sound in all its manifestations for the period.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

Executive summary of work performance during the first 18 months of the project

PI has research the following three major fields:

- printed sources material available on discourses of materialism
- the phenomenon of ultrasonics, their material existence and perception
- The role of phrenology in music education, theories of the creative process, and material / mechanical cognition.


Three postdoctoral researchers have successfully been recruited. All have now started work on their individual areas of work within the project’s fields. These are detailed in the ‘Periodic Financial Report - Part B’ document.

Major work has been completed on an edited volume, Nineteenth-Century Opera and the Scientific Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018). This presents 14 chapters that offer path-breaking research within the auspices of the project, and will influence future research directions within the fields of music studies, opera studies, and the history and philosophy of science. I anticipate this will go to press early in 2018.

The first major international conference was organized and planned to take place in Cambridge on 17-18 March 2017. The audio for all talks is now uploaded to the project site, and freely accessible.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

Already the research underway progresses beyond the state of the art:

Trippett (PI): has published the first Anglo-German studies of phrenology and music, which specifically scrutinizes the relation of philosophical materialism and mechanical cognition to music composition and pedagogy. The discourses of mid-century materialism are virtually uncharted within the filed of music and sound studies.

Van Drie: is examining alternative sensory perception, specifically modes of deafness and vicarious sensory experience, for the first time

Gillin: is studying the special, formative role of sound in British scientific and mathematical work during the 1820s – 1860s. The degree to which Wheatstone, Faraday, Babbage, and Whewell were all invested in the study of acoustic is being clear for the first time.

Kromhaut: is studying the cultural history of the sine wave, its mathematical origins in Fourier’s analysis of heat, and Ohm’s application of this to sound. This kind of work is entirely new to the field of historical sound studies.

The wider social implications of this work have thus far been limited to the scholarly community connected to sound studies, musicology, and history and philosophy of science: through publication, one major international conference (which fell just outside the reporting period), and the project site. I anticipate that as the research reaches the stage of publication, there will be far greater public engagement.

One unexpected discovery from the project’s research into sound objects (and representations of sound in non-normative manuscripts) was the music for Liszt’s incomplete opera, Sardanapalo. This has lain silently for nearly 170 years before the PI established that it could be rescued. The PI’s work into this, the creation of a first edition with Editio Musica Budapest, and the prospect of future performances of this music received worldwide attention in the news media, including the New York Times, London Times, BBC, CNN, Global Times (China), as well as numerous radio, blog and follow-up interview pieces. The media interest is summarised here: https://storify.com/laurajeffrey/liszt-opera-sardanapalo. A dedicated site for this project carries the ERC logo: https://www.sardanapalo.org.
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