Alexandra Hui Earns Dean's Eminent Scholar Designation

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Hui Presentation

From the Letter of Nomination--

Hui’s research has always been at the intersection of culture and science. She has specialized in what is now sometimes called history of the senses, which means the history of the five senses. Her book was about the German national identity as manifested around a debate about what made Germans such a musical people. Why were leading composers German? Why were the best concert halls in Germany? Why were the best musicians German? Why did so many Germans enjoy symphonic and operatic music? To a large number of investigators, the reason was clear. The ears of persons of German descent were fundamentally different than other ‘races.’ Germans by inheritance had structures in their ears than provided a certain clarity of sound and that resulted in the musical heights of the new nation state. Richard Wagner, Ernst Mach and Herman Helmholtz were but three of the participants in their extraordinary discussion.

Her next grand project—the one she is doing now—is about passive sound and humanity. Starting with Edison (if not before) and continuing through the various psychologists up through the Hawthorne Experiment, Hui traces the uses of background sound as a tool for the manipulation of humans. This study includes the creation of industrial psychology, the structure of public spaces, the authority of science, attempts to make mechanical bird calls, and most notably the establishment and reign of Muzak, a company that has recently disbanded not because its products did not work but because its name had become synonymous with shallowness and artificiality. In short, Hui will explore the history of a phenomenon with an incredible number of tentacles in an extraordinary number of venues.

Hui now examining the intersection of natural and artificial sound and using such things as duck calls and the people who make them as a way of beginning to parse out the various connections and contradictions. She does not fear to go where no historian has gone before. Instead, she follows her well honed instincts and manages to make dramatic contribution after dramatic contribution to the profession.

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