Digital to Analog: Poems and Histories

Digital to Analog: Poems and Histories

[Richard Monckton] Milnes brought [Thomas] Carlyle to the railway, and showed him the departing train. Carlyle looked at it and then said, “These are our poems, Milnes.” Milnes ought to have answered, “Aye, and our histories, Carlyle.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals

At the height of the Iraq War, the United States Department of Defense spent over three billion dollars a year to neutralize technology I carry in my pocket. That was, at one time, the annual budget for the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), formed in 2006 as a clearinghouse for Pentagon and private contractor efforts to jam the electronic signals that were being used to trigger the IEDs that were causing the majority of U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. (And JIEDDO represented only a portion of the expense.) One of the more common sources of such signals were, and remain, cell phones. A couple of wires, some explosive material, some screws or other bits of metal, and my phone—or yours—can be made into a shrapnel-filled bomb.



I’m going to guess that improvised explosive devices were not on Andrew Pekler’s mind when he conceived his 2013 installation The Prepaid Piano. Pekler—a USSR-born, California-raised, Berlin-residing electronic-music polymath—put five mobile phones, each set to vibrate, directly on the strings of a grand piano, in five different places. Audience members were then free to call any of the phones, either from their own phones or from phones provided in the hall; contact microphones on the piano’s soundboard then passed the vibrations over to a modular synthesizer, which looped and altered the sounds, the loops changing with the proliferation of incoming calls, while more direct interventions—knocking the case, plucking the strings—provided their own cycles of punctuation.

As documented on the 2014 LP The Prepaid Piano & Replayed (co-released by the UK-based Entr’acte and the Italy-based Senufo Editions), the result is more extremely sophisticated lark (in the John-Cage-as-trickster-sensei spirit of the punning title) than ripped-from-the-headlines commentary. The amplified sounds crackle, pop, and metallically purr; the synthesis ropes it all into a loping grind. It’s engagingly textured, fun, maybe a little melancholy in its slow-rolling machinery, but still a long way from any evocation of the more violent technologies that rend the world on a daily basis. But consider the elements of The Prepaid Piano: cell phones, wires, screws, electricity.

The trope of regarding technological advances—particularly those that enable or shape connections among people—as inherently insidious is so ingrained that it’s almost reflexive at this point. But all technology is both useful and dangerous, with human behavior tipping that balance to one side or another. Usefulness usually wins out: the more convenient a technology is, the more risk we’re liable to accept in adopting it. Cell phones embody that—they’re so useful that it’s hard to remember (or imagine) what life was like before they were prevalent; but, then again, they’re damaging enough that people inevitably wonder whether that previous life wasn’t, in fact, better.

Cell phone technology is particularly notable because the most crucial part of it—the cellular network itself—is completely unseen. You’d be hard-pressed to design a better allegory for the good/bad potential of technological advance than the cellular network. It is ubiquitous and invisible. It holds the potential for a connection to the world and a harsh, bloody severance from it. And it is everywhere, all around us, all the time.

* * *

On January 17, pianist Vicky Chow gave a recital at Northeastern University’s Fenway Center. Chow is best known as the pianist for the Bang on a Can All-Stars and is a standing member of other new music groups as well. For this concert, though, most of the collaborators were virtual. Christopher Cerrone’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn, for instance, a 2010 meditation sparked by a long wait for a subway train, layered in a third rail of digital processing, the upper end of the keyboard triggering glitchy, distorted echoes over a gentle, subterranean meandering of parallel tenths. Hoyt-Shermerhorn was a Boston premiere, as was Steve Reich’s Piano Counterpoint, the 1973 ensemble piece Six Pianos re-arranged (by Vincent Corver) for a solo pianist playing along to four pre-recorded tracks; Chow’s snap-tight rhythm and technique, along with the timbre—brighter than the original—re-emphasized the music’s mechanical churn (as well as its sense of a very 1970s-NYC prescribed commotion, echoing of Stephen Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People” from Company as testament to the strength of that zeitgeist).

Ronald Bruce Smith’s Piano Book was a world premiere. Smith (a Northeastern professor) pulled out most of the traditional recipes for disguising the piano’s decay—trills, scales, Debussy-like flourishes, an entire section riffing on Baroque-style ornaments—and étude-like tricks for keeping more than two registers in play with only two hands. (Chow juggled it all with flair.) But amplification and processing were present here, too, electronically stretching the piano’s resonance and pedaled sustain into thick, soft clouds of sound. It struck me that all the technology was serving a purpose similar to that of the cellular network: it was making the piano more musically convenient, expanding its palette, increasing its capability, not just disguising its quirks but electronically eliminating them.

The finale, John Zorn’s 2014 Trilogy (another Boston premiere) seemed, at first, to cast all that aside. The collaborators here were human—bassist Trevor Roy Dunn and drummer Ian Ding—and the electronic mediation was limited to the sort of basic amplification one would use for the ensemble being evoked, a standard jazz trio. But Trilogy is trickier than it seems: Chow was playing from a fully through-composed part while Dunn and Ding improvised around her, an illusion of jazz, punctiliousness and freedom blurred together, almost imperceptibly. Zorn, it turns out, was playing with technologies, too, just much older ones: musical notation and improvisation, using the one to expand the other just as the other three works on the program were used processing and playback to expand on the piano’s possibilities.

One effect of it all was to render another, rather sophisticated piece of technology largely invisible—that is, the piano itself. Pianos are complex, ingenious, immensely satisfying pieces of engineering. So are all acoustic instruments, in their own ways—decades or, in some cases, centuries of incremental improvements yielding machines of remarkable and efficient expressivity. And yet, for the better part of a century, that development has largely been frozen. The piano Chow was playing was not appreciably different from one Rachmaninoff would have played. The persistent presence of old repertoire in classical music has enshrined acoustic instruments’ virtues and limitations as equally sacred.

I can appreciate the expressive potential of preserving an instrument’s seeming imperfections—the piano’s inability to sustain a tone much past a few seconds, for example, has probably fueled as much compositional creativity over the past two hundred years as any aesthetic revolution. But, then again, that preservation has been going on for the entirety of my musical life and much longer, so of course I would find a way to get used to it. Good and/or bad, it is one of the defining characteristics of classical music now. Part of that is classical music’s great boon and burden, the weight of history: to know that the great virtuosi of the past played essentially the same instruments that we do is a powerful connection. And I would guess that’s why the dominant use of electronics in more-or-less-classical new music in the 21st century is still in tandem with the old acoustic instruments. One technology is layered over with another: strata of innovations.



The flip side of The Prepaid Piano & Replayed turns those layers into a palimpsest, effacing its acoustic, site-specific nature by way of Ableton Live’s audio-to-MIDI converter; the original recording, thus transformed, becomes a stream of instructions to a synthesizer. The virtual transfers enable Pekler to treat digital technology in the same, expressively-mine-the-imperfections way that generations of classical composers and performers have treated acoustic technology: the complex, noisy nature of The Prepaid Piano is, as Pekler admits, ideally designed to bring out the limitations of audio-to-MIDI. In a way, it highlights how much of the piece exists at the edge of so many less obvious musical technologies, especially those surrounding communication: composer to performer, performer to audience, audience to performer, and so forth. The Prepaid Piano & Replayed was issued as a limited edition of 300 vinyl copies—music designed around infinitely distributable wireless and digital means packaged into a rare and resolutely physical object.

For me, what Pekler’s project and Chow’s recital had in common was that they both prompted consideration of a particular feature of technology, musical technology in this case, but applicable to all technologies: the technology you notice is almost always, at the same time, pushing another technology into the unnoticed background. In that regard, technology isn’t entirely neutral, at least at first glance: the interface is always compressing the data, some information in sharper focus than other information. And I’ve found that one really fascinating question to ask myself while listening to music that utilizes technology—old technology, new technology, high technology, low technology—is this: what’s being hidden? What’s being effaced? What’s being pushed to the foreground, and what’s being pushed to the background?

In the coming months I want to explore some byways of how technology—cutting-edge or not—is being used in new music. Part of that story is already history; part of it is still, and always, being written. The quote at the top of this article, about poet Richard Monckton Milnes and historian Thomas Carlyle observing the trains, can be a bit of a guiding light. Emerson (who knew both Milnes and Carlyle) recorded it in his journals in 1842, when steam-powered rail travel was less than twenty years old. What was then Carlyle (and, in Emerson’s imagination, Milnes) offering a friendly reproach to get with the times now reads as an image of how technologies, as they become obsolete, can move entire systems of thought into a kind of limbo, passed by but still there. Humphrey Jennings, documentary filmmaker and general Renaissance man, included Emerson’s story in his extraordinary, unfinished, posthumously published anthology Pandæmonium 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers. Jennings commented on the passage:

It was in this year 1842 that J. C. Doppler noticed the differing pitch of train whistles—advancing and retiring—and proposed, by analogy, the Doppler effect in the spectra of certain stars.

Sounds—and music, and technologies—come and go, but even their coming and going is its own kind of testimony.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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