Intersections Study Day

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09:00–10:50 Session 1. Wagnerisms

David Trippett, University of Cambridge,

Keynote 1: Siegfried’s polychronics: towards a musical application of animal listening

Nineteenth-century histories of human-animal aurality have typically centred on questions of animal ‘music’ in which music shores up the identity of being ‘human’ as much as human listening authenticates the value of what music is or should be. With echoes of Giorgio Agamben’s ‘anthropological machine’, being animal became an index for calibrating through sound the higher value of being human (Gautier 2014; Zon 2017; Mundy 2018).

Against this impulse, this talk traces an intersection of natural scientists and music theorists that posed a different kind of question: can animal auralities be calculated, even simulated for human listeners? Attempts by nineteenth-century physiologists Johannes Müller and Karl Ernst von Baer, alongside the Leipzig theorist Moritz Hauptmann, offer case studies in the attempt to understand animal hearing. These took the form of thought experiments, quantified in space and time. In this paper, I revisit these experiments in relation to Richard Wagner’s famous depiction of animal-human communication in Siegfried where the phenomena of polychronic listening and drug use, as mechanisms for altered perceptual realities, becomes recontextualised within nineteenth-century comparative anatomy and its debates over animal aurality.

This raises the question of whether a shared epistemic outlook between music theorists and natural scientists could ever elide depictions of listening, between the symbolic and the mimetic, and the extent to which contemporary listeners witnessing such depictions on stage might be considered agents of a Foucauldian ‘unity of discourse’, i.e. within the terms of a shared intellectual history for music and science.

David Trippett is musicologist and cultural historian. His research focuses on nineteenth-century intellectual history, Richard Wagner, and the philosophy of technology. Other interests include Franz Liszt and post-Classical Weimar, performance theory and the grey area between improvisation and composition, as well as posthumanism and musical creativity in the digital age. 

Following an edited translation of Carl Stumpf’s The Origins of Music (OUP, 2012), his first monograph, Wagner’s Melodies (CUP, 2013), examined the cultural and scientific history of melodic theory in relation to Wagner’s writings and music. Other publications include editions and translations, as well as research and review articles, and some media work.

In research and teaching, he approaches music and its cultures in the widest interdisciplinary sense, incorporating perspectives of cultural and intellectual history, music theory and the history of science, and as well as mediality and the philosophy of technology. His latest project, funded by an ERC Starting Grant, is entitled ‘Sound and Materialism in the 19th Century’ and examines how a scientific-materialist conception of sound was formed alongside a dominant culture of romantic idealism. Alongside this, he recently completed a critical edition and an orchestrated performing edition of Franz Liszt’s Italian opera, Sardanapalo. This received its world premiere in August 2018, and a recording was released in 2019 to critical acclaim.

Major prizes for research include the Lewis Lockwood Award and the Alfred Einstein Award of the American Musicological Society, the Bruno Nettl Prize of the Society for Ethnomusicology, the Donald Tovey Memorial Prize of the University of Oxford, a Deems Taylor Award of the American Society for Composers, Authors, and Publishers, and a Philip Leverhulme Prize in History.


The Didone Project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC)
under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme,
Grant agreement No. 788986.