07. June 2022

Prof. David Trippett Guest Lecture

Prof. Trippett (Cambridge) will give a talk entitled "Sonic Matter" 


This talk tells the story of sound’s ambiguous physicality during the nineteenth century. It asks why, after two centuries of wave theory based on the vibrating string, there was an epistemological ‘wobble’ c. 1820, with serious voices advocating a return to the corpuscular theory not advocated since Isacc Beekman (158-1637) in 1616. Since sound is invisible to the naked eye, those who scrutinised it had to picture something that cannot actually be seen, fuelling a reliance on the mental abstractions germane to idealist system-building. That philosophical idealism has characterised the dominant aesthetics for histories of music during the first half of the nineteenth century is well known. Yet since the string theorists of the late eighteenth century, physicists and aestheticians increasingly conceived of sound in separable ways: as a material thing beholden to Newtonian laws; as an immaterial idea rooted in acts of perception. This resulted in nothing less than a discursive agon between two genealogies: sonic matter and sonic immateriality. The one extends from ‘sonic bodies’ in the 1820s (Wheatstone) to a determinate, natural ‘force’ in the 1870s in which sound is an ‘entitative substance’ (Hall). The other extends from the ‘sonic mysticism’ of the Jena Romantics (Wackenroder), to the ‘contentless play of forms’ of mid-century formalism that prized sound’s ‘nonphysical material’ (Hanslick), and Busoni’s claim that immateriality is music’s ‘very essence’.

This paper closes by examining a public debate at the Royal Music Association in 1890 between ‘wave’ and ‘corpuscular’ theories of sound, indicating the extent to which it remained an unresolved disagreement.   


The talk will take place on Zoom.

Please contact Ms. Diana Gleiss if you would like to attend.