Voice Machines: The Castrato, The Cat Piano and Other Strange Sounds
2016 - 2017 (January-June)
Bonnie Gordon's primary research interests center on the experiences of sound in Early Modern music making and the affective potential of the human voice. Her first book, Monteverdi's Unruly Women (Cambridge University Press, 2004) frames the composer's madrigals and music dramas written between 1600 and 1640 as windows into contemporary notions of sound, body, voice, and sense. She has explored similar issues in a variety of contexts, including articles about contemporary singer-songwriters Kate Bush and Tori Amos and an interdisciplinary and cross cultural volume of essays co-edited with Martha Freldman about courtesans entitled The Courtesans Arts, (Oxford University Press, 2006). Dr. Gordon is the recipient of two grants from the Folger Shakespeare Library, a dissertation grant from the American Association of University Women, a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at Brandeis University, a Bunting Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. She has also been the Robert Lehman Visiting Professor at Villa I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. Dr. Gordon also plays rock, jazz, and classical viola; works on curricular and co-curricular civic engagement programs that engage social injustice through the arts; and writes for news outlets, including the Washington Post and Slate.
At I Tatti Dr. Gordon is working on a book project called. Voice Machines: The Castrato, The Cat Piano and Other Strange Sounds. It uses the Italian castrato as a point of departure and a critical provocation for asking several questions about the interrelated histories of music, technology, sound, and the limits of the human body. It positions castrati as sonic figures who tell a story about music, sound and technology in an era that has been understood as pre-technological. The book explores the porous relationship of voices and instruments and the inherent materiality of sound. Castrati both represent the inherently artificial nature of the human voice and provide the extreme example of what happens when the natural is manipulated through machines. Chronologically, this era stretched from the late sixteenth century, when these artificially constructed singers first appeared in Italian courts and churches, through the eighteenth century, when they occupied a celebrity status on the operatic stage. Framed on one end by Monteverdi and on the other by Handel, the book juxtaposes already well-studied composers and works with ephemeral spectacles and festivals. Geographically, the book lingers in Rome, Florence, Ferrara, and Venie. Early seventeenth-century Rome occupies a prominent place in the narrative because the city stood as a cosmopolitan hub for both the castrato trade and machine culture. Seventeenth-century Rome was also the historical locus in which castrati shifted from serving rather narrowly as high voices without the dangers of the female body to standing out as exceptional.
Dr. Gordon is also working on Jefferson’s Ear; a project about sound, race, empire, and enslavement in early America. Moving between Virginia, New Orleans, Haiti, Paris, and London, the book begins what is and is not in Thomas Jefferson’s music collection. The book argues that the silences in the written record resound with the racial fear and exclusion that were as much a part of the American Revolution as inalienable rights, and that musical aesthetics mattered deeply in the emergence of race as a political and social category.