Culture Rover

#179 - Are We Not Men?

"The relation of the performance of music to sound is complex and ambiguous: this is what makes possible Mark Twain's joke that Wagner is better than he sounds." - Charles Rosen, "On Playing the Piano," New York Review of Books, 21 October 1999

Jeremy Boyle's wonderfully strange auto-band, "Duet: Self-Playing Guitar and Drums," consists of instruments that perform together through the use of midi-controlled pneumatic devices. The sculpture, if that is what we should call it, put me in mind of a debate that raged between Charles Rosen and others a few years ago over the relationship of human hands to the tone of piano notes.

Rosen argued that "a single note on the piano cannot be played more or less beautifully, only more or less forte or piano. In spite of the beliefs of generations of piano teachers, there is no way of pushing down a key more gracefully that will make the slightest difference to the resulting sound….The graceful or dramatic movements of the arms and wrists of the performer are simply a form of choreography which has no practical effect on the mechanism of the instrument." He was met by disagreement about this from other musicologists and piano players.

Boyle's band (video clips of its performances are available at his website) asks us to consider the relationship between the body and the musical instrument as we watch and hear pneumatic piston pumps pluck an electric guitar and beat on a drum set. Like any good rock band, they are wired.

But is this an authentic band? What does it mean to "play" an instrument? What is the difference between playing a drum or an electric guitar with your body and programming other machines to play those machines? Are all instruments machines and all machines instruments or do these fall into different categories of mechanical production and reproduction?

The band creates tender, but also troubling, music: the song goes on, but there is only the faint memory of muscle and skin, the sly presence of a man behind the plexiglass, pistons, and wires. Should we focus on the wizardry here and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain? Or is he the key figure orchestrating this band -- its secret member? Who is amplifying who here?

Boyle's sculpture may erase human presence, but it do so rather quaintly. After all, we live in an age of digital sonic reproduction and manipulation, a soundscape of drum-machine beats and recorded samples, of digitally-filtered voices and textured drones, bleeps, and blips. Yet, in its quaintness, Boyle's work makes us reconsider the meaning of the human. We listen to and watch his song in a McLuhanesque place where bodies end and their technological extensions begin.

There are fingertips dancing in that space, on the edge of those pneumatic pumps, and there are smudge marks on the gleaming metal strings and cymbals.

5 October 2007

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