Imaginary Mechanical Instruments

A glimpse of a real live exhibit of imaginary mechanical instruments at the Center for New Music in San Francisco:


A note on the show from your curators, Deirdre Loughridge and Thomas Patteson:

In a time of unprecedented activity and innovation in sound technology, a museum of imaginary musical instruments may seem unbearably twee. What could these phantasms have to do with the real instrumentarium that expands dizzyingly around us every day?

We believe that these artifacts matter now more than ever, when our world is held so powerfully in the thrall of real technologies and the often deterministic rhetoric that accompanies them. Imaginary instruments are relevant not as a form of escapism or unhinged fantasy, but precisely because they highlight the permeable boundaries between the actual and the possible. Just as, according to Jung, everything that appears in a dream represents an aspect of the dreamer’s psyche, all that the human mind dreams up is a commentary on the mundane realm we inhabit. To conceive of a counterfactual technology—whether impossible or merely impractical—is to make a statement about the empirical world, to shed light into the shadows of the real, and to proclaim the possibility of things being otherwise.

Although imaginary instruments have a history probably as long as that of human technology itself, they share with the aesthetics of modernism and the avant-garde a certain visionary impetus. Like the best new music, they issue a challenge to convention and posit the existence of alternative ways of hearing, thinking, feeling, and being. With this special exhibit, we share some of the most outlandish, delightful and intricate imaginary musical instruments from the last 400 years; may they inspire many more.

July, 2016

Head on over to the Center for New Music in San Francisco to see “Imaginary Mechanical Instruments.” Go Friday, Aug 26 at 7pm to enjoy a free reception. Visit the Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments anytime to see more fantastic, counterfactual musical inventions.

Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments


Wendy Carlos’s Multiphonic Generalized Keyboard

The Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments is what it sounds like: a collection of musical instruments (including sound transmission and storage devices) that have been imagined but, for one reason or another, could not be brought into reality. There is a long history of such musical instruments. The museum’s collection spans from Antiquity (Lucian’s Bull of Phalaris) to the present (Antares’s Direct Mind Access). Some of its items (like Bacon’s Sound-Houses) seem prescient; others (such as Grandville’s Steam Concert) seem bizarre. Some (Nadar’s Dagguerreotype of Sound, for instance) appear as prods to technological development; others (like King’s Symphony in 1995) as warnings about going too far. All attest to the intricate process through which our worlds shape our musical and technological imaginations – and vice versa. As Thomas Patteson and I write in our curators’ introduction to the museum:

Ranging from the physically impossible to the simply impractical, from the “never” to the “not yet,” imaginary instruments rattle suggestively at the windowpane separating our comfortable sense of reality from that nebulous space beyond. In the words of Ernst Cassirer, such instruments are “concerned in the final analysis not with what is, but with what could be.”

As of today, the museum is open for visitors. Please wander about, check out some exhibits – we hope you find as much joy and wonder exploring its imaginary musical instruments as we have.

Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments