The (In)visible Metronome

As I’ve been eagerly awaiting the publication of the Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (due out in October), I was pleased to discover one of the articles I’m most interested in – Myles W. Jackson’s “From Scientific Instruments to Musical Instruments: The Tuning Fork, Metronome, and Siren” – in the form of a talk at the Brooklyn Experimental Media Center.   It’s a fascinating presentation on how “nineteenth-century acoustical instruments meant to standardize musical aesthetical qualities such as pitch and beat were a century later put to use as musical instruments themselves.”

The stars of the story are the tuning fork and metronome.  Jackson takes us from Maelzel’s successful commercialization of the metronome (1815) to Ligeti’s Poeme symphonique for 100 metronomes (1962); and from Johann Heinrich Scheibler’s tonometer (a set of 52 carefully calibrated tuning forks) and proposal to standardize A’ at 440 Hz (1834) to Warren Burt’s Music for Tuning Forks (1985).  Along the way, we learn about conflicting demands for standardization and individual freedom, competition between composer, performer, and scientist for authority over musical parameters, and the use of tuning forks and metronomes by twentieth century composers “to subvert the very notions they were created to define and reinforce.”

I was most struck, however, by Jackson’s conclusion: “by the twentieth century, the metronome and tuning fork were transformed from the visible into the invisible.”  He elaborates: in the nineteenth century, metronomes and tuning forks were mechanical contraptions never to be used during performance and potentially depriving performers of freedom.  In the twentieth, they became a resource for composers to explore new musical realms – music between the standardized pitches of the scale, and outside the confines of a beat.  These erstwhile regulators even, in cases such as Ligeti’s Poeme symphonique, replaced performers.

I was struck by this because to my mind, Jackson described precisely the reverse of the process he named.  Where he saw metronomes and tuning forks becoming invisible, I saw them becoming visible: they moved from the practice room and laboratory into the concert hall, from behind the scenes to center stage.  In fact, the visibility of instruments in both figurative and literal senses (we are conscious of them and we see them) is integral to Ligeti’s Poeme symphonique.  His score not only discusses how performers should go about acquiring 100 metronomes, with instructions to advertise the need for and/or sources of the instruments; it also specifies, “it is preferred that pyramid-shaped metronomes be employed.”  However, the score does not specify how the metronomes should be arranged spatially, leaving this to the discretion of the performers.  As a result, the piece has been performed with various arrangements, each putting its own visual aesthetic stamp on the work.

In what way, then, did the metronome become invisible?  I suspect Jackson’s conclusion turns on a certain idea of the aesthetic.  We could say that in Poeme symphonique, the instruments disappear in the aesthetic effect: we no longer see or hear metronomes as such – we see and hear art.  The process is something like when one repeats a word over and over again until it ceases to be meaningful as a word, becoming pure sound.  The amassing of 100 metronomes aids this process, as instead of recognizing individual metronomes, we see and hear their combined effect – a visual and auditory gestalt that directs our awareness away from the material instruments.

This argument makes a certain amount of sense – at least it is one way to experience Poeme symphonique.  But to say the metronome became invisible obscures what I consider one of the more important aspects of the work: the use of instruments for both musical and visual effect.  What Ligeti accomplished with 100 metronomes continues today with San Francisco sculptor-scientist-musician Oliver DiCicco, who, as the New York Times put it, creates “musical objects that are both sonically and visually arresting.”  His 2008 installation Sirens, with its “u-shaped pieces of metal and wood that resemble undulating tuning forks,” continues the story of nineteenth-century acoustical instruments being transformed into musical instruments.  It also beautifully demonstrates that instruments can be simultaneously visible and musical, material and aesthetic.

Viewing-listening: Myles Jackson, “From Scientific Instruments to Musical Instruments”; Ligeti’s Poeme symphonique; Oliver DiCicco’s Sirens

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