Musical Cultures in their Materiality from the Past to the Present: An Introduction
As a group of research master students we regularly delve into the Cultures of Arts, Sciences and Technology (CAST) at Maastricht University. Music, one of the most elusive arts, is often thought about in terms of its immateriality and transcendence. But coming from viewpoints that originated in the field of science and technology studies (STS), we know that there is another way, too often neglected, of studying the wonder of music, musical practices and culture – by looking precisely at their materiality.
So while the seven individual projects at the heart of this exposition cover a variety of topics and themes, they all address the same issue: What types of materiality exist in the context of music? How are objects integrated into music? How do they shape musical cultures? And what can you learn from such studies? But the more overarching question is: How does one add to existing knowledge of music, without having a profound technical understanding?
As STSers with a substantial curiosity for the arts, we have a keen eye for the role of objects in the conduct of daily practices. We are interested in the meaning that people attach to these objects and conversely, in what it is that these objects precisely do within their context of use. To study this, we focus on the materiality of music and musical cultures, from orchestra pits to self-built organs, and from musical works to online listening platforms. People attach meaning to all of these objects and all of these objects are active components in shaping the way we listen to and think about music.
Over the course of two months we submerged ourselves within those cultures that each of us was interested in. Conducting interviews, researching texts and websites or visiting the sites of different musical cultures, we learned how material objects are used in a variety of music making practices and shape ideas surrounding music or musicians. These objects we studied are the source of rich knowledge: they are material artefacts which are crafted for specific purposes and reading them can provide us with a lot of that knowledge about the cultures in which these objects are (or were) used. Indeed, the different histories of ideas and objects lie at the heart of any musical culture. Several of the research projects have traced and studied the history of the instruments, of the people and even of the architecture involved in the making of specific musical cultures.
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…you couldn't repair a musical instrument. He remembered the old bards saying that. They had a soul. All instruments had a soul. If they were broken, the soul of them escaped, flew away like a bird. What was put together again was just a thing, a mere assemblage of wood and wire. It would play, it might even deceive the casual listener, but . . . You might as well push someone over a cliff and then stitch them together and expect them to come alive.
Terry Pratchett, Soul Music (1995)