MUSIC AND THE MACHINE2018-02-22T12:59:25-07:00

When we evaluate performances, the terms “machine-like” or “mechanical” have negative connotations. To playing of that kind, we ascribe a regularity too scientific, an absence of expressive phrasing and “breathing.” Although, after all, the musical instrument is itself a machine, we demand that it be operated in a flexible manor and with human variability. Yet the boundary lines between the approaches are extremely subtle, and often quite narrow; on the one hand we ask for rhythmic precision and accuracy, and on the other we look for natural inflection. In musical compositions also, we tend to become impatient with a work that moves metronomically for too long a time span, or with one in which rhythmic or tempo changes are pervasive and unpredictable.

Yet the very concept of the machine (according to Webster’s New World Dictionary “a structure consisting of a framework and various fixed and moving parts”) has always attracted composers, and especially in the century-and-a-half during which the Industrial Revolution has gone—so to speak—into high gear. One of the reasons for the current popularity of baroque music lies in a sense of the motoric; some of Bach’s work has been waggishly called a product of the “inspired sewing machines.” In 19th century music, such a piece as Saint-Saëns’ Omphale’s Spinning Wheel comes at once to mind, in a long tradition of other revolving musical wheels from sleigh rides to spinning songs by Schubert and Wagner. Mechanical devices to “tell time” such as clocks, are very ancient indeed, and watches were developed hundreds of years ago. What has been especially appealing to composers in the action of a machine is exactly its metrical regularity, its “automatic” forward motion, the controllability of its speed and its “inhuman” power to get the job done.

In the first two decades of this century, when technology had reached a new plateau of sophistication and efficiency, the machine became a legitimate musical subject, not only to be imitated but celebrated. The movement called Futurism proposed the artistic use of new machines; many works (but by no means all) by Stravinsky, Bartok, Prokofiev, and Hindemith used mechanistic, motoric devices. Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 1 of 1922 employed a siren for its raucous close. Honegger’s Pacific 231 of 1923 glorified the brute power of a locomotive. The Toonerville Trolley and its German equivalent, The BahnFahrt, sent audiences into hysterics of laughter. The merry chugging of Villa-Lobos’s The Little Train of the Caipira (from his Bachianas Brasileiras No.2, orchestrated in 1938) has amused audiences of all ages. Yet the infatuation of transportational devices is much older; Christopher Rouse has drawn our attention to a choral-orchestral piece by Berlioz, written in 1846 called Le chant de chemins de fer (“The Song of the Railroads”)! In 1928 Alexander Mossolov composed his Iron Foundry, subtitled “Machine Music.” Edgard Varèse and several of his colleagues initiated music made by electronic means, opening a vast new area of sound sources and possibilities; more or less conventional materials co-existed, such as the 37 percussion instruments in Varèse’s Ionisation of 1931, under the hands of 13 players. The first really great piece electronically produced was also to come from Varèse, in his Poème Electronique of 1958, composed for the Brussels World’s Fair.

Of course, all sound-producing and reproducing structures are machines, from Edison’s wax cylinder to digital recording, from magnetic tape to the synthesizer. Every record player of whatever vintage (including the ubiquitous jukebox) is a machine, to be used for good or ill. The computer now stands as the ultimate (if not ultimately desirable) music machine. But it is as Varèse warned: “A machine can only give back what is put into it. It does not create . . . A bad musician with instruments will be a bad musician with electronics.”

Christopher Rouse’s The Infernal Machine, with its classical allusion to the grinding mechanism of fate, is a youthful member of a distinguished family. Among its forebears is Gunther Schuller’s witty and charming The Twittering Machine from his Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee (1959), in which the painter’s whimsical birds are literally cranked up to “do their thing.”

Stravinsky once said that it was the primary function of music to organize time; if that is so, then composers of our era will most naturally look to the machine for inspiration or guidance. But let them—and all of humanity—remember Goethe’s admonition: “In the end we still depend on creatures which we ourselves have made.” How that dependence may be overcome is most beautifully shown us by poets and composers. Perhaps the finest metaphor of that never-ending conflict between the inert and the living machine (such as the body) was created by Hans Christian Andersen, whose real nightingale—though not as virtuosic and glittering—still could do what the mechanical nightingale could not. Stravinsky’s opera and suite, Le Rossignol, transformed the story enchantingly into music.

© 1993 Musical Arts Association