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Title: Listening to Cybernetics: Music, Machines, and Nervous Systems, 1950-1980
Authors: Dunbar-Hester, Christina
Issue Date: Nov-2007
Abstract: The influence of the field of cybernetics on scientific thought and disciplines has been explored in a number of contexts. However, cybernetics was remarkable for its portability and potential application in a wide variety of contexts; from the inception of the field, “cyberneticians” in the sciences had explicitly envisioned applications reaching beyond the purview of scientific disciplines. This paper explores connections between cybernetics and experimental music from 1950-1980, which was a period of experimentation with electronic techniques in recording, composition, and sound production and manipulation. Examples include musicians, engineers, instruments builders, composers, and cyberneticians who invoked cybernetic themes in their work on electronic or experimental music. “Cybernetics” was used and interpreted in a variety of ways by these actors, from human-machine integration, to Shannon and Weaver’s work on information theory, to the ideas of autopoiesis (self-making), control, and indeterminacy in complex systems. These examples present a fuller picture of cybernetics, which was, as scholars have noted, a malleable and “seductive” concept and body of practice(s). This paper will discuss the resonance between the concepts undergirding experimental and electronic music composition and construction in the 1960s and cybernetic theory, which resulted from complex and interrelated ideas about human-machine interaction and relationships, communication and control, and changing aesthetics. The paper argues that the uses of cybernetics by experimental musicians illuminate the migration of cybernetics between arts and scientific discourse communities, and represent a difficulty in addressing cybernetics as a universal scientific discourse.
Description: This text was presented at re:place the second conference on the histories of media, art, science and technology - November 15-18 2007, as a peer-reviewed scholarly work chosen for inclusion. This text may have been or will be published and/or presented elsewhere by the author.
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