M. Elizabeth Fleming: Partial Perspectives

M. Elizabeth Fleming (CUNY Graduate Center) reflects on her critical organological research on the horn, arguing for the ethical and socio-political potential of what she calls “partial perspectives” in configuring our embodied knowledge of what music is, and what music can be.

Partial Perspectives

The objects to be classified are alive and dynamic, indifferent to sharp demarcation and set form, while systems are static and depend upon sharply-drawn demarcations and categories. These considerations bring special difficulties to the classifier, though also an attractive challenge: his aim must be to develop and refine his concepts so that they better and better fit the reality of his material, sharpen his perception, and enable him to place a specific case in the scheme quickly and securely.…

 In general we have tried to base our subdivisions only on those features which can be identified from the visible form of the instrument, avoiding subjective preferences and leaving the instrument itself unmeddled with.

Hornbostel and Sachs, “The Classification of Musical Instruments,” Translated by Anthony Baines and Klaus P. Wachsman, 1961 [1914].

In pursuit of a scientifically informed system to classify the musical instruments of the world, Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs developed a taxonomy that grouped the objects according to their physical mode of sound production and gave them Dewey decimal–inspired numerals. For these categories, they proposed “culture-free” terms such as membrano- and idiophone that, since the H-S system’s first publication in the Zeitschrift fur Ethnologie in 1914, have become common in musicological conversation. However, Hornbostel and Sachs seem to have come up short in a new label for the taxa that contains Western orchestral brasswind, alphorns and vuvuzelas, cornettos and sackbuts, superbones and shofars, the Tibetan dungchen and the Aboriginal digeridoo. Gathered under the numeral 423, these are all instruments that sound principally through the partials of the harmonic series when the (4) aerophone’s (2) standing column of air (3) is set into motion by the player’s lips.

This diverse array was grouped under the Euro-centric label trumpet, which names an instrument rather than describing its mode of sound production, the vibrating lips of the player. The label reflects the organologists’ attempt to “leave the instrument itself unmeddled with,” following an ethics of instruments (following historian of music Emily Dolan and historian of science John Tresch) that values objectivity and positivistic inquiry into a music located in instruments, scores, and works that can be mapped, diagrammed, and placed in real and imaginary museums. The instrument-only naming effectively erases the body of the player, the mechanism of sound production divorced from “the visible form of the instrument,” denying the decay of the body and, perhaps by extension, the ephemerality of sound itself.


My issue with the H-S label is, I must confess, ultimately personal—or partial, following Donna Haraway’s 1988 essay “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” I am an example of homo sapiens with two lungs, two lips and other maxillofacial tissues long instrumentalized into a coupling mechanism called embouchure, endowed with five digits on her left hand, who regularly presents to and moves in the world articulated to a specimen of H-S class 423.232, a “trumpet” type aerophone (423), made chromatic (.2) by means of the addition of valves (.23), and of fairly conical bore (.232). I am a performing hornist—an instrumentalist assemblage of horn and human operator, a cyborg—and I write about bodily and instrumental technologies and techniques of music, sound, and musicology through case studies in my own mundane repertoire and the encounters it choreographs.

My relationship with my instrument is not simply one of subject and object, knower and known, nor is my instrumentality a means to an end. It is, in the sense of Haraway’s writing, the embodied, situated, and partial perspective from which I speak, and this in-corporation—body-at-instrument, cor à corps—is where my project of knowledge production begins and returns.

Horn E Fleming blog
Franz Joseph Fröhlich, Horn-Schule (Bonn: Simrock, 1811)

For decades, musicology worked from the total score, a notated artifact somewhat coextensive with the work that, through analytical, rational decoding divorced from its sundry embodiments in performance, held the key to the secrets of the composer’s mind and power. Performative and performatic approaches to music—from Carolyn Abbate’s revitalization of the “drastic” liveness of performance as a counterpoint to musicology’s “gnostic” and disembodied panoptics to Nina Sun Eidsheim’s exploration of “the figure of sound” (among many others)—have recovered the intimate actions of a music that may not be visible to the eye (nor even audible to the ear) in the score or “the instrument itself.” My approach insists that our initial, sustained, and most intimate experiences of music—for many of us, the practice of music seated at the piano bench, bow in hand, throat in song, performing our part within an ensemble—constitute a local and locatable knowledge and conditions our musical being-in-the-world. A specific instrumental embodiment becomes a musical habitus from which ultimate transcendence is not fully possible, but instead can be understood as reflexive, accountable, and with productive boundaries. It is only through the collected and collective vision of these partially knowing selves, as Haraway writes of scientific knowledge, that we might ever get at a full sense of what music might be.


Over a century later, Hornbostel and Sachs’s system remains the standard for the comparative classification of musical instruments. It has been revised any number of times, however, and almost all revisions have included a new label for 423: labrosones, lip-vibrated or lip-activated aerophones, or even lip-reeds. The latter makes obvious the instrumentalization—the organization and use—of the body that is generally demanded for the production of musical sound, and plots a line which brings even the voice into the organological domain. (The instrument of the voice, by the way, is quite closely related to 423 in terms of the materiality of its sound production: the voice can be described as an aerophone, blown at one end, with which sound production occurs by the vibration of myo-elastic tissue in, as opposed to on, the vocal tract.) New and critical approaches to organology have expanded the historically positivistic inquiry surrounding musical objects into a consolidated field of techné—as the shared root of both technology and techniques—and beyond the mere capture of instrumental objects toward embracing agentic, social, and portentous instrumentalities: where instruments can territorialize upon one another, interpolate networks of actants, or, quite simply, where musical practice not only codes but makes bodies.

From the partial and embodied perspective, Haraway says, “we just live here and try to strike up noninnocent conversations by means of our prosthetic devices.” Rather than panoptics, I seek that which is organized around the aperture of my embouchure, generally illegible behind the mouthpiece and submerged in the ensemble. The horn, however, is not merely a prosthesis for my musical voice; rather, “alive and dynamic” (following Hornbostel and Sachs), instrument and air impresses upon and within me in musical encounters where metal meets flesh and is experienced in pressurized resistances, nodes, and anti-nodes. Together we become hornist, interpellated into musical subjectivity through invitation into the concert hall, collected into the orchestra, re-membered and disembodied through instrumental technology and the ideologies of Werktreue and scientistic rationalism.

We enter the slippery space of an assemblage, where hands craft instruments that, in turn, craft hands and eyes and ears, where technological affordances become both bodily (dis)abilities and transcendent disembodiment, where instruments can propose and signal their own networks and webbings and music has, since time immemorial, always already been cyborg.


In Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Jane Bennett writes: “The desire of the craftsperson to see what a metal can do, rather than the desire of the scientist to know what a metal is, enabled the former to discern a life in metal and thus, eventually, to collaborate more productively with it.” An embodied perspective reminds us that music is a verb—musicking (after Christopher Small)—which in turn reminds us that knowledge production is both a doing and a doing-with. When bodies become instrumentally organized and instruments have resonant and anatomical bodies, we consider: What is the body in, at, or with the horn as it sings? But also: who or what is granted what kind of body, and under what conditions do we grant them voice? Musical corporealities and in-corporations ask us again to recognize the questions of ethics and politics deeply embedded within classificatory impulses and epistemological methods.

Instruments—whether musical or scientific—provide a means to extend the capacities of the eye, ear, or voice and boundaries of the lived, perceiving body. Embodied partiality thus recognizes its limits and the situating perspective of its technologies of vision, and takes on particular valences and productive compromises in 423 musicking. Labial sputterings are funneled into the approximate partials of the harmonic series rather than neatly organized and theorized diatonicisms. The cycle of breath coupled with the instrument yields hesitant entries and cracked notes—all too mundane and regular reminders of risk and peril. These drastic ruptures remove us from the gnostic omnipotence of the god trick, point to the ephemerality of performance, and become, perhaps, the sound of our own vulnerability and death. But if, in Haraway’s words, “immortality and omnipotence are not our goals,” speaking from within the risky and moving boundaries of our always partial perspectives reveals our limits and fears but may also rehearse our capacious abilities to live with dignity and the affordances to craft a world anew.

M. Elizabeth Fleming is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the CUNY Graduate Center, where she researches material and ethical relationships between the instrument—specifically the (French) horn—and the body, proposing a “new organology” of the hornist. In addition, she is an active performer in New York City. She can be contacted at mfleming@gradcenter.cuny.edu.