The Music Of The Future is not interested in making predictions about the state of the music business, or what the use of new technologies will mean for musicians. Instead, its publisher describes it as “more like a history of failures, mapping 200 years of attempts by composers, performers and critics to imagine a future for music. Encompassing utopian dream cities, temporal dislocations and projects for the emancipation of all sounds, The Music Of The Future is finally a sort of call to arms for everyone engaged in music: to fail again, fail better.” With that mission in mind, revisiting the context behind past sonic experiments is a good starting point.
Robert Barry is a freelance writer and composer. As well as writing for The Wire, he is a regular contributor to Frieze, Art Review, and Fact. He is also visual arts editor at The Quietus and digital culture editor at Review 31. His music has been featured in films and published, in the form of scores, by BCNVT of Stockholm, Sweden.
If you had picked up a copy of Modern Electrics magazine in April 1911, you would have found guides for ‘The Practical Electrician’, a description of a ‘Condenser for High-Power Transmitters’, as well as reports of new inventions from Europe, and various readers’ letters (including one from a fifteen year-old Lewis Mumford). Published since 1908, Modern Electrics was the first regular magazine to cater explicitly to a burgeoning audience of electrical enthusiasts and radio hams. From very early on, the magazine’s editor and publisher Hugo Gernsback deliberately courted his audience as a self-conscious network of hobbyists who were encouraged to communicate their thoughts and activities with the magazine and with each other. The principle means he used to do this was the magazine’s letters page.
But in the spring of 1911, Gernsback added something unusual to his editorial content. Tucked in amongst the how-tos and the circuit diagrams was the first instalment of a story he had written himself entitled Ralph 124C 41+. Opening in an American home in the year 2660, the story promised to be “as accurate a prophecy of the future as is consistent with the present marvellous growth of science.” He called it a work of “scientifiction,” but it wouldn’t take long for him to ditch that term, in favour of the much less awkward coinage “science fiction.” The story’s eponymous hero is one of the world’s top “super-scientists,” one of only ten in the world. Ralph is a man of the future, a model for young inventors everywhere. He speaks to his colleagues via “telephot,” writes up his notes by transmitting them directly from his brain by aid of the “menoscope,” and when he sleeps his “hypnobioscope” channels chapters from Homer’s Odyssey straight into his dreams.
In one early scene, Ralph takes a pair of house guests down to his “tele-theatre.” It is described as a “large room” with a “shallow stage at one end, with proscenium arch and curtain.” A switchboard of cords and plugs connects Ralph’s tele-theatre to a performance of an opéra comique called La Normande, live from New York. “A great number of loud-speaking telephones were arranged near the stage, and the acoustics were so good,” Gernsback writes, “that it was hard to realise that the music originated four miles away at the National Opera House.” The tele-theatre is a marvel of twenty-seventh-century technology, capable of broadcasting a perfect representation of the action taking place on a distant stage. Every actor appears full-size and perfectly life-like, their voices carried by telephot as clear as a bell. “Between the acts,” the story goes on, “Ralph explained that each New York playhouse now had over 200,000 subscribers and it was as easy for the Berlin and Paris subscribers to hear and see the play as for the New York subscriber.”
The thing that strikes me about this passage is the extraordinary lengths Gernsback goes to in order to maintain the nature and form of opera as he knew it. The actors, singers, stage, and scenery have remained perfectly preserved from the nineteenth-century opera house, unaffected by their new means of dissemination – instead, the domestic interior itself has been rearranged to accommodate the presence of a whole little theatre, complete with proscenium arch and curtain.
To some extent this attitude is still alive today. You can see it when you watch most operas that have been filmed for DVD release, or at any of the much-vaunted high-definition broadcasts from the New York Met or London’s Royal Opera House. Shot in a style somewhere between rock concert video and daytime television drama, the cinematic language inevitably looks and feels all wrong. Very quickly the jarring close-ups and conspicuous crane shots work to alienate you from the music and the story. Nobody seems to have learnt from Robert Ashley’s recognition, some three and a half decades ago, that an opera on television only really works when it’s expressly designed as a TV opera. This attitude comes across very clearly in a speculative 2012 piece for Opera News by Philip Kennicott. He imagines a future in which “the ‘opera house’ is now simply a space, anywhere in the world, equipped with the technology to project a fully embodied three-dimensional facsimile of live opera.” But still he pictures “Siegmund singing to a holographic Sieglinde.
Kennicott can conceive of a complete transformation in the way opera is presented and experienced with seemingly no thought of any change to the operas themselves. “It could be a warehouse in Topeka,” he continues, “or an empty stage in an old movie house that has fallen into disuse.” Into that space Kennicott seems to envision the teleportation of Don Giovanni apparently oblivious to his changed circumstances, just like in Gernsback’s tele-theatre. But for a while back in the twentieth century, there was an idea that the new bottles of the international telecommunications network might benefit from being filled with some new wine.
In May of 1927, an American airmail pilot named Charles Lindbergh shot to fame after flying solo, non-stop, from New York to Paris, in a record thirty-three and a half hours. Rush-released within two months of the expedition, Lindbergh’s autobiography, We, had carried the suggestion of the flight as not so much a solo mission, more a joint effort; an enterprise shared symbiotically by the man and his flying machine. Bertolt Brecht, then a young playwright in Berlin, was clearly taken by this idea. He was inspired to devise a man-machine interface of his own, a work that would use the technology of the mass media to inspire and empower ordinary people. He determined to compose an opera especially for the radio.
Brecht would not have called it an opera himself. He harboured a suspicion of the term. Too much baggage. In fact, Brecht was pretty suspicious of music in general, preferring what he called “misuc,” which would be something like “the singing of working women in a back courtyard on Sunday afternoons,” as his friend, the composer Hanns Eisler, would recall. “In misuc nobody may wear tails and nothing may be ceremonious.” But the Lehrstücke (or “learning plays”) that Brecht created around then were, on the whole, dramatic productions with sung dialogue, tending to be heavily reliant on the music of Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith who, as composers, were involved in the conception of the work from the get-go. They were also received, at least, largely as music: reviewed in the music press, and premiered at major music festivals. Der Lindberghflug, Brecht, Weill, and Hindemith’s work based on We, was first performed at the Donaueschingen Festival (albeit temporarily relocated fifty miles up the road to Baden-Baden), one of the most revered contemporary music festivals going. In style and substance it resembles operas from the period like Arnold Schoenberg’s Von heute auf morgen, Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf, and Hindemith’s own Neues vom Tage. There is just one major difference between Der Lindberghflug and its contemporaries: Der Lindberghflug had a hole where its leading man was supposed to be.
The idea was that, when broadcast, the part of Lindbergh himself would be omitted, with scripts distributed in advance for audiences to sing, speak, or hum the part themselves from the comfort of their kitchens. But the scheme rarely went quite as planned. At Baden-Baden, they played it on a split stage, partitioned down the middle, with the orchestra and other parts on one side, dressed in their concert blacks, and on the other side sat Josef Witt, relaxing in his shirtsleeves in a mock-up of a domestic dining room, singing Charles Lindbergh as if he hadn’t left the house. As it started, Brecht went around the concert hall trying to encourage people to stand outside and listen through the loudspeakers that had been placed on the exterior of the hall, as if determined that the work should not be experienced without some form of technological mediation. For the most part people ignored him.
Despite numerous revisions over subsequent years, Der Lindberghflug was never broadcast over the radio sans Lindbergh as originally intended. No domestic audience was ever given to sing that part. But in the very year that the real Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, a recent émigré to the United States called Edgard Varèse was seized by the thought of a radio opera of his own. And the story would be out of this world.
“I’m going to cut loose in my next work,” Varèse wrote in a letter to a friend in November 1928, “and give myself the luxury of living in the year 3000.” Over the subsequent two decades, the composer’s plans would go through many revisions, changing its name (one minute The One-All-Alone, the next L’Astronome, later Espace), changing its librettist (at various times Alejo Carpentier, Robert Desnos, Antonin Artaud, André Malraux), altering its form and its technical means over and over again. What remained relatively consistent was the image of an astronomer in his observatory receiving radio communications from an alien civilisation in a far-off galaxy.
From this germ of an idea, Varèse dreamed up what might have been the very first multimedia opera, in the modern sense of that term. Electronic music could scarcely be said to have even existed in the early Thirties. This did not prevent Varèse practically willing it into existence with a plan to hang loudspeakers throughout his performance space in order to spread electrically-generated sounds through space. Certainly no-one – aside from the likes of Hugo Gernsback – was talking about anything like telematic performance, but Varèse wanted to place singers in the four corners of the world, linked up live by radio transmission, and all singing together in a wireless paleo-cyberspace. There were to be coloured lights, filmed projections, onstage acrobatics, and sounds drawn from sirens and aeroplane propellors. The climax of the piece sounds like total pandemonium: stock markets crashing, fleets of ships disappearing into the sea, angry mobs roaming the stage, and even Charles Lindbergh’s plane vanishing from the sky.
But it never happened. Varèse spent decades working on the piece, going through draft after draft of the libretto and enough musical and scenographic ideas to leave the rest of the twentieth century struggling to catch up. Only a few disjointed scraps of score, with one unfinished, rejected draft of a libretto, remain to serve as evidence.
In the end, The One-All-Alone or L’Astronome or Espace seems to have simply become too grandiose to admit any possibility of realisation. Its composer’s vision exceeded reality. Bits of it, though, did make their way into other works. Tantalising glimpses, like hrönir slipping from another world into ours, would pop up here and there: one fragment became a standalone work,Ionisation, the first composition in the Western canon for percussion instruments alone; the “sonic beams,” originally intended to be played by ondes martenots, found their way into the poo-wip electronic noises of his Poème électronique for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels Expo in 1958; and Déserts, his magisterial work for orchestra and tape of the early Fifties, held onto some of the radiophonic element, since Varèse managed to get two different French broadcasters to transmit the first performance at once, so that listeners with two radios at home could tune one into each station and hear it in stereo.
“What interests me about Varèse,” Henry Miller wrote in his Air-Conditioned Nightmare of 1945, “is the fact that he seems unable to get a hearing.” Miller’s essay collection drew together a series of observations made by the ex-pat author, driving through his homeland upon returning from self-imposed exile in France. At that time, in the 1940s, Varèse was becoming the object of a strange kind of fascination, as if he were not so much an artist as a mad scientist, his brow forever furrowed as he stared intently out of photographs. His music was considered cold and cerebral – there was even a rumour that the scientists behind the Manhattan Project had spent their time working on the Bomb listening to Varèse.
But outside of Oak Ridge and Los Alamos, his music was little performed – and unloved when it was. No composer of the early twentieth century thought so much about the audience, put so much emphasis on the relationship between the work and its listeners, and was yet so spurned by them. At the premiere of his Hyperprism, the crowd laughed through the work; during Déserts, they sneered openly. “The situation,” Miller concluded, “is all the more incomprehensible because his music is definitely the music of the future.”