Stuff Muzak #2: The Pursuit of Play in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Posted by on August 17, 2017


The first Stuff Muzak column got me thinking about the historical origins of freer hyperrealist tendencies, so I started digging around at the tail end of WWI with the Futurist and Dada movements. The Futurists were incorporating the sights, sounds, and smells of contemporary life into their art, focusing on the cacophony of modern cities, factories and industrial sounds, and the rumbles of modern war. Their “Art of Noise” embraced new realities, adopting hyper (or at least new) forms of volume and odor and bombast. A couple years later, almost exactly a century ago, the folks who anti-coalesced into Dada were finding one another in Zurich. Many of them were newly-minted veterans of WWI left to figure out what might come after a new brand of global catastrophe. The attendant horrors of intensely personal violence in the first World War had weakened the Dada tribe’s faith in humanity, and how can you place your trust in the institutions, traditions, courtesies and art forms of cultures capable of such intense hostility toward one another? It was time to fracture the forms of the past and begin anew.

Hyperrealism along the lines that Creshevsky and others have described seems to spawn a little further in the future. It’s probably fair to recognize Futurist/Dada origins as part of a beginning, though there is a certain quality of abrasive detachment that took several more decades to heal. And the Futurists weren’t in the business of transcendence; their art was a sometimes brutal immersion into the the chaos and confusion of modern life and the supposed “beauty of war.” Without placing too many limitations on what hyperrealism can be, one can see a trend of liberated imagination — one that gradually built experience with recorded forms of performance through the assistance of evolving technology. That’s generally closer to the pursuit of play than war.

Considering the hyperrealist concepts of bounty and superperformers as articulated by Noah Creshevsky, traveling to the late 1940s brings us to a body of work that likely serves as a cornerstone of hyperrealism: the player piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow. Raised in Arkansas in a home with a player piano, Nancarrow worked as a jazz trumpet player in his youth. He eventually settled in Mexico City when the U.S. government refused to issue him a passport after a stint with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. As a composer, Nancarrow was attracted to music with difficult, fast passages and complex rhythms, and performers found his early work nearly impossible to play.

After reading Henry Cowell’s observations in his New Musical Resources about the potential for using player pianos to realize music too complex for human performers, Nancarrow decided to put the idea into action. Starting with the sounds of ragtime and boogie-woogie jazz of his youth, he first explored the limits of rhythm and tempo in a series of increasingly ambitious “studies,” eventually exploring forms of subtle polyphony and metric modulation of simultaneous tempii that are difficult to hear accurately, let alone perform. This seems like the essence of hyperrealism: starting at culturally-familiar points of reference, these studies became a life’s work of creative exploration, taking our ears into soundscapes that were only possible before through imagination.

Music was a little slow to tune into that inner voice of imagination during the “Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase, perhaps because music was already inherently abstract as a non-representational discipline. Photography, for example, had long “replaced” painting for purposes of visual documentation, leaving painters free to experiment with various conceptual and visual abstractions (and then of course photographers too looked beyond simple point-and-shoot realities). But outside of Cowell’s theoretical proposition, the player piano was adopted only as a reproducing medium, and a cumbersome and expensive one at that. After a brief period of outselling conventional pianos in the 1910s, player pianos had been almost completely replaced by radios in private homes by the late 20s, making them a collective pioneer in the dead format corner of the music industry, along with wax phonograph cylinders.

To many, the proliferation of player pianos was not a nurturing scene for new creative works. Commercial player piano rolls were punched to replicate Tin Pan Alley hits of the day and the major themes from classical works, largely replacing the need for hiring piano players and even taking piano lessons if you were inclined to enjoy music at home. Novelist William Gaddis in particular was fixated on the rise and fall of the player piano as a dividing line in the arts, the beginning of a modern age where skill, practice, talent and knowledge in the arts could be replaced by the consistency and convenience of mechanical reproduction.

Gaddis saw the punched holes in physical player piano rolls as the precursor to the punched cards used heavily in midcentury computing, although to be fair, machine-readable cards predate the player piano by a few decades. More broadly, he saw the player piano as a metaphor representing a loss of individuality as society became more reliant on mechanization. That is, systems of organization that would lead toward a homogeneous culture in which “the analogy of the artist’s threat to the social fabric becomes obvious, and the ‘scientific’ case for order demanding his elimination is made clear” (Agape Agape: The Secret History of the Player Piano).

Gaddis raises a number of issues worth considering, but in the case of Nancarrow and many musical adventurers since, he may be yelling at clouds that have been cleverly put into service for data storage. Nancarrow’s player piano studies are perhaps the first body of musical work made possible only by leveraging technology intended for the reproduction of preexisting music. In this sense, Nancarrow’s work is an obvious antecedent to folks like John Oswald, Creshevsky, Zappa’s Synclavier compositions, Christian Marclay’s vinyl manipulations, and the CPU overload of Black MIDI. These kinds of works are cousins of sample-based music generally, but they share a unique focus on the idea of “hyperperformance,” or flights of musical virtuosity that aren’t readily attainable through musicians’ fingers. And it’s just plain fun. Whether a given Nancarrow piece is funny, broody, or aggressive, they all point to a giddy headspace where the mind outrageously outpaces the body.

But sometimes the body catches up. Those picking up a copy of Arcana II to check out Creshevsky’s hyperrealism article will find a lot of kinship in the essay and music of Ernesto Martinez, who uses specially modified instruments along with the age-old technique of hocketing, (interlocking passages between two or more performers) to realize his own “hyper-human music.” Leveraging the physics of sound with advantageous physiological considerations, pairs of musicians turn otherwise impossible musical ideas into exciting and playful realities. Lukas Ligeti has approached similar territory with his “Pattern Transformation” as well, which you can also read about in Arcana II. Put a hyper-human duo together, add another performer or two playing on and around their foundation, and you never know what inner space you might find yourself exploring.

Hybrids of mind, body and machine can be used to wild hyperreal effect, too: a favorite of mine is David Rosenboom’s Zones of Influence, originally composed in the mid-80s and freshly revised/recorded for release on Pogus Productions in 2014. This mind-expanding piece is a quintessential manifestation of Rosenboom’s “propositional music” concept, which he describes as “a point of view about composing in which composers might build proposed models of worlds, universes, evolution, brains, consciousness, or whole domains of thought and life, and then proceed to make dynamical musical embodiments of these models.”

It’s a process taken to the extreme with Zones of Influence. Starting at the level of instrument conception, using a custom Buchla/Rosenboom-designed digital music interface called the Touche (a sort of alternative to MIDI). As percussionist William Winant executes the percussion parts for Zones of Influence, he is triggering melodic fragments in the Touche system, whose melodic and contrapuntal attributes are determined by algorithms built into the composition. Later parts of the piece incorporate live keyboard accompaniment, too, which variously narrow and expand the possibilities of melodic-fragment attributes. It’s a rich, imaginative piece that’s hyperreal both in sound and concept — the abstract audio equivalent of pushing a David Foster Wallace novel into a SIMS session, but without the pesky footnotes.

Like Nancarrow and the others mentioned above, Rosenboom’s Zones approaches hyperrealism from the hyperperformance perspective, highlighting melodic and rhythmic virtuosity rarely expected in human performance. But there are other ways to create immersive hyperrealist soundscapes, of course. Hyperenvironments seem to be a new branch of the hyperrealism tree, which may or may not involve hyperperformance. This music focuses on creating impossible acoustical spaces through clever microphone and mixing techniques, effects such as gated reverbs, or sound design software packages like Max/MSP or SuperCollider. At a basic level, maybe you’ve felt that “jolt” out of a cavernous or wide-open space that suddenly reveals a compact, intimate environment no larger than the space between a pair of headphones.

As a mixing strategy, this has popped up over the years, like the treatment of choral vocals on the Dirty Protectors’ “Getty Address” or Bjork’s “Medulla.” In the context of hyperrealism, building and manipulating the perceived dimensions of a soundscape takes on a level of musical significance usually reserved for melody/harmony, rhythm, or timbre. Composer and Zs guitarist Patrick Higgins made this kind of spatial manipulation easy to focus on with his 2015 Bachanalia for Telegraph Harp, since the J.S. Bach pieces he’s performing on solo guitar are largely familiar to many listeners. Capturing these solo performances with a selection of strategically-placed microphones in reverbant spaces allowed Higgins to further shape the recordings into morphing hyperenvironments, placing listeners’ ears into unfamiliar territory while making sense of otherwise mostly familiar pieces.

The latest Alan Sondheim CD, his 2017 Limit with Azure Carter and Luke Damrosch on Public Eyesore, pushes the notion of hyperreal environmental manipulation almost beyond music into time travel. Building on their previous Threnody disc, this Sondheim trio is essentially an acoustic improvisation unit whose music continues to expand the unique sonic possibilities first heard in his Ritual-All-7-70 recordings released via Bernard Stollman’s ESP Disk label in the late 1960s. However, carefully-conceived real-time signal processing provides a compositional framework for this new music that results in a truly unique listening experience. Sondheim deploys hot-rodded live compression to reverse normal musical dynamics, causing the notes he is playing on various instruments to be restrained while normally “extramusical” sounds such as breaths and moving around on the instruments are exaggerated.

Luke Damrosch’s SuperCollider programming takes on pronounced significance in this set, reinserting very short musical fragments backwards into the mix in a manner that approaches “real-time reversal,” affecting both reverbation and the familiar timbral formants of acoustic instruments. The aural result is utterly fascinating, as an improvising ensemble seems to be working in a heretofore impossible pocket just before “in the moment” even begins. If you’re a sheet music reader, you may have come upon a few examples in literature where the practicalities of notation create philosophical quandaries on paper. The eighth rest at the very beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is an example, with so much potential energy bottled up in an insistent piece of music that it somehow feels strange to be led with a rest. Imagine an ensemble drawing from that energy and expanding the duration of that rest into whatever length they desire, rendering potential energy kinetic before the ear can even process what has happened, and you’re getting near Sondheim’s Limit.

Whatever the approach, and with a definition that’s yet to stabilize completely (as I’m writing this, the recent Hans Appelqvist, Matt Wellins, David Kanaga jams on our perennial favorite Orange Milk are hitting me all up in the hyperreals), there is lots of exciting creative exploration just waiting to be done. And it’s a lot easier nowadays without the laborious physical prep work that folks like Nancarrow had to face. Let’s have some fun…