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Music and the transhuman ear: Ultrasonics, material bodies, and the limits of sensation

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Amid recent moves toward sound as vibrational force, this article argues that hearing has a special role in determining our natural sensory limits, and that recent attempts to push against these limits foreground the underlying matter of what status the biological body has in music perception and performance during the technological age.

Between 1876 and 1894, prominent German acousticians—including Helmholtz—argued that humans could hear vibrations as high as 40,960Hz. While this was ultimately discredited, recent post-tonal works have notated pitches that explicitly play with, or exceed, the ordinary range of human hearing; (cf. Schoenberg, Per Nørgård, and Salvatore Sciarrino). In the context of existing ecological approaches to listening, this article asks what kind of listener such works imply. Specifically, it investigates the musical relevance of Umwelt theory by the Baltic German biologist Jakob von Uexküll, in which individuals “create” the bubble of their perceivable environment according to a reciprocal interchange between limited sense capacity and mental habit. I contrast Uexküll’s acceptance of human limits with a transhumanist worldview which anticipates the enhancement of biological sense capacities through technology. Such “morphological freedom - the right to modify and enhance one’s body” (Bostrum 2009) putatively includes augmentation of the auditory system. Finally, by tracing the genealogy of human prosthesis back to the founder of a philosopher of technology (Kapp 1877), I critique the potential for technologies in clinical audiology to grant access to ultrasonic frequencies, and assess the implications of augmented, prosthetic hearing for non-impaired listeners.

The discourse of transhumanism poses questions for musical listening as soon as the body becomes an assemblage subject to variation. It raises the question of how identity—ours as well as that of musical works—might be affected by “morphological freedom,” the extent to which self-identity becomes the lost referential when agency is distributed between biological and non-biological parts, and it asks what value are the new intellectual vistas that emerge when musical experience is conceived in material terms as communication between bodies.



3603 Music, 36 Creative Arts and Writing

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Musical Quarterly

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Oxford University Press (OUP)
European Research Council (638241)
Leverhulme Trust (PLP-2014-336)