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The Anthropomorphic Analogy: Humanising musical machines in the early modern and contemporary eras

  • Rebecca Cypess (a1) and Steven Kemper (a1)

Since the late twentieth century, the development of cybernetics, physical computing and robotics has led artists and researchers to create musical systems that explore the relationship between human bodies and mechanical systems. Anthropomorphic musical robots and bodily integrated ‘cyborg’ sensor interfaces explore complementary manifestations of what we call the ‘anthropomorphic analogy’, which probes the boundary between human artificer and artificial machine, encouraging listeners and viewers to humanise non-musical machines and understand the human body itself as a mechanical instrument.

These new approaches to the anthropomorphic analogy benefit from historical contextualisation. At numerous points in the history of Western art music, philosophers, critics, composers, performers and instrument designers have considered the relationship between human musician and musical instrument, often blurring the line between the two. Consideration of historical examples enriches understandings of anthropomorphism in contemporary music technology.

This article juxtaposes the anthropomorphic analogy in contemporary musical culture with manifestations of anthropomorphism in early seventeenth-century Europe. The first half of the seventeenth century witnessed a flourishing of instrumentality of all sorts. Musical instruments were linked with the telescope, the clock, the barometer, the paintbrush, and many other instruments and machines, and these came to be understood as vehicles for the creation of knowledge. This flourishing of instrumental culture created new opportunities for contemplation and aesthetic wonder, as theorists considered the line between human being and machine – between nature and artifice. Manifestations of the anthropomorphic analogy in seventeenth-century conceptions of musical instruments help to contextualise and explain similar articulations of the anthropomorphic analogy in the present day.

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Organised Sound
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