In his Théorie de l’information et perception esthétique (1958), the sociologist of culture Abraham Moles (1920–92) set out to demonstrate the applicability of information theory—a mathematical linchpin of cybernetics—to the arts more generally. Moles drew on classical psychophysics, Gestalt psychology, more modern behavioral psychology, and contemporary psychoacoustic research to advocate a cybernetic model of the perception and creation of art. Moles repeatedly returned to musical examples therein to make his case, leveraging his dual expertise in philosophy and electroacoustics, drawing on formative experiences with Pierre Schaeffer in Paris and Hermann Scherchen at his Gravesano studio. Moles’s interdisciplinary text found many attentive readers across Europe and, following an English translation by the precocious Joel E. Cohen (1966), the Anglophone academic world, but it was valued more as an inspiration for the burgeoning area of “information aesthetics” than as a source of hard scientific evidence.

Drawing lightly on positions in the history and philosophy of science articulated by Gaston Bachelard (who supervised Moles’s second PhD, in philosophy) and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger suggests a change of emphasis away from its apparent scientific infelicities and toward Moles’s use of sound-studio technique, which is described with reference to the technologies available to Moles in the years leading up to the publication of the Théorie. Moles manipulated and processed sound recordings—filtering, clipping, and reversing them—in his attempts to empirically estimate the relative proportions of semantic and aesthetic information in speech and music. Moles’s text, when understood in tandem with the traces of his practical experiments in the sound studio, appears as an influential and occasionally prescient exposition of the many possible applications of the principles of information theory to the production, perception, and consumption of sound culture that makes ready use of the latest technical innovations in the media environment of its time.

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