Can Musical Machines Be Expressive? Views from the Enlightenment
by Steven Kemper and Rebecca Cypess
How can music produced by automated technologies be expressive? Transitive theories of expression dominated eighteenth-century ideas of automated music, and many contemporary designers of robotic instruments adhere to these ideas, increasing sonic nuance to make their instruments seem more like expressive human performers. A listener-centered understanding of expression—an “intransitive” perspective—allows us to see automatic instruments as capable of expression despite the fact that no human performer is present. The expressive potential of these instruments is best understood as a product of their mechanical nature—their idiomatic movements and sounds, which remain distinct from those of human-operated instruments. This article explores two case studies in the history of “expressive” automated instruments: Diderot and Engramelle’s cylinder-driven instruments from eighteenth-century France and contemporary robotic musical instruments.