Music and seismology merged in the daily work of the Caltech professor Hugo Benioff, who united the avant-garde technology of the 1920s with a nineteenth-century Helmholtzian aesthetic, cultural, and scientific understanding of music. The transducer facilitated this merger, mediating between science and music and allowing for new ways of listening to waves outside the audible range. Benioff had the capacity to listen—“listening” understood here not as passive perception, but as an active search to distinguish and separate signal from noise, whether from in- or outside of the instrument. For more than forty years, Benioff worked as a sonic expert, perfecting the recording and reproduction of waves and vibrations of all types and frequencies. After tracing elements of Benioff’s biography, I examine how he incorporated the technology of the transducer in his workshop into his seismological and musical instruments, notable not only for the control, austerity, and clarity of lines of their modernist design, but also for a new kind of poetic technology. Benioff’s seismological instruments made it possible to listen to a large variety of previously undetectable phenomena such as the free oscillations of the earth, and his work with the pianist Rosalyn Tureck on electric musical instruments aimed to reproduce the pure sound of traditional instruments. I argue that Benioff’s search for an aesthetic reconciliation of the scientific modern with an enchanted view of the world is very much a product of the social, cultural, technical, and scientific conditions of the interwar period.
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Research Article| September 01 2021
The Art of Listening: Hugo Benioff, Seismology, and Music
Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences (2021) 51 (4): 468–506.
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Matthias Dörries; The Art of Listening: Hugo Benioff, Seismology, and Music. Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 1 September 2021; 51 (4): 468–506. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/hsns.2021.51.4.468
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