New Sounds

The Italian Futurist painter Luigi Russolo had no training as a composer, but in 1913 he argued that music had become “a fantastic world superimposed on the real one,” a collection of “gentle harmonies” that pursued “purity, limpidity and sweetness of sound” but had nothing to do with the real world.

He proposed that “this limited circle of pure sounds must be broken, and the infinite variety of ‘noise-sound’ conquered.” “We find far more enjoyment in the combination of the noises of trams, backfiring motors, carriages and bawling crowds than in rehearing, for example, the ‘Eroica’ or the ‘Pastoral’.”

Accordingly he invented a new set of experimental instruments, the intonarumori, or “noise makers.” There were 27 varieties, all acoustic. Typically a performer turned a handle that rattled or bowed a set of strings, and the surrounding box and horn amplified the sound.

When Russolo and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti debuted their “noise orchestra” in April 1914, it caused a riot, but Russolo was undisturbed. “I am not a musician,” he wrote. “I have therefore no acoustical predilections, nor any works to defend.”

The Senster

In September 1970, cybernetic sculptor Edward Ihnatowicz unveiled a remarkable piece of robotic art at a Dutch science museum. Standing 8 feet high at the shoulder and “resembling a giraffe or dinosaur,” the Senster was basically a mechanical lobster claw mounted on a six-jointed neck actuated by quiet hydraulic rams. Using an array of microphones, the creature would turn its head in the direction of a sound, its speed proportional to the volume. If the direction of the sound source remained constant, the rest of the body would gradually follow, making the “animal” appear to home in on the sound. It would shy away from loud noises, and at overwhelming sound levels it would raise its neck vertically and “disdainfully” ignore further sounds until the volume came down. Doppler radar units enabled it to detect the motion of visitors; it was attracted toward small motions but “frightened of sudden movements.” All of this ran on 8K of core memory, but Ihnatowicz found that visitors quickly imputed an animal-like intelligence to the sculpture, and the atmosphere of the exhibit was much like that at a zoo:

In the quiet of the early morning the machine would be found with its head down, listening to the faint noise of its own hydraulic pumps. Then, if a girl walked by, the head would follow her, looking at her legs. Ihnatowicz describes his own first stomach-turning experience of the machine when he had just got it working: he unconsciously cleared his throat, and the head came right up to him as if to ask, ‘Are you all right?’ He also noticed a curious aspect of the effect the Senster had on people. When he was testing it he gave it various random patterns of motion to go through. Children who saw it operating in this mode found it very frightening, but no one was ever frightened when it was working in the museum with its proper software, responding to sounds and movement.

MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks later suggested that intelligent behavior can be achieved when sensory signals are mapped as directly as possible to motor signals through a large number of loosely coupled processes, with minimal internal processing. The Senster wasn’t updating an internal model of the world; it would simply turn its head toward a sound, but its behavior struck visitors as intelligent.

(Aleksandar Zivanovic, “The Technologies of Edward Ihnatowicz,” in Paul Brown et al., eds., White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980, 2008.)

Pianissimo

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1119646

Composition 1960 #5, by avant-garde composer La Monte Young:

Turn a butterfly (or any number of butterflies) loose in the performance area.

When the composition is over, be sure to allow the butterfly to fly away outside.

The composition may be any length, but if an unlimited amount of time is available, the doors and windows may be opened before the butterfly is turned loose and the composition may be considered finished when the butterfly flies away.

“I felt certain the butterfly made sounds,” Young wrote, “not only with the motion of its wings but also with the functioning of its body … and unless one was going to dictate how loud or soft the sounds had to be before they could be allowed into the realm of music … the butterfly piece was music.”

In Visible Deeds of Music (2002), Simon Shaw-Miller writes, “An insect recognized as of great beauty, often understood as a symbol of transformation in art, is here the instrument itself. Its flight acts as a visual metaphor for the absent melody, or inaudible sound; Young is reported to have said to his colleague Tony Conrad, ‘Isn’t it wonderful if someone listens to something he is ordinarily supposed to look at?'”

Finale

schnittke gravestone

Composer Alfred Schnittke’s gravestone bears a musical staff with a semibreve rest under a fermata, indicating that the rest should be held as long as desired. It’s marked fff, or fortississimo, meaning that it should be performed very strongly.

Overall it might be interpreted to mean “a decided rest of indefinite length.”

New Music

The score for British composer Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise is 193 pages of abstract and geometric shapes. There’s no indication as to how to interpret these, but Cardew suggested that the players work out a plan in advance.

bussotti

Sylvano Bussotti’s Five Pieces for David Tudor drives conventional notation in the direction of graphics and visual art. “For Bussotti, musical results, whatever they may be, flow directly from the visual,” writes Simon Shaw-Miller in Visible Deeds of Music (2002). “The ear plays no part until the work is performed.”

berberian

Stripsody, by Bussotti’s friend Cathy Berberian, is composed as a cartoon strip, complete with characters (including Tarzan and Superman) and sound effects at approximate pitch (including oink, zzzzzz, pwuitt, bang, uhu, and kerplunk). The instructions explain, “The score should be performed as if [by] a radio sound man, without any props, who must provide all the sound effects with his voice.” Here’s an example:

See Difficult Music.

Keyboard Variations

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_caricature_of_Louis-Bertrand_Castel%27s_%22ocular_organ%22.jpg

Inspired by Isaac Newton’s theory that the seven notes of the diatonic scale were related to the colors of the spectrum, French mathematician Louis Bertrand Castel in 1725 invented an “ocular harpsichord” outfitted with lanterns so that “the pressing of the keys would bring out the colours with their combinations and their chords; in one word, with all their harmony, which would correspond exactly to that of any kind of music.” Voltaire devoted Chapter 14 of his Eléments de la philosophie de Newton to the the theory and to Castel’s instrument, and Telemann composed several pieces for it.

The Great Stalacpipe Organ in Luray Caverns, Virginia, produces its tones by striking stalactites with rubber mallets. Leland W. Sprinkle spent three years in the 1950s identifying promising stalactites, shaving them to pitch, and wiring solenoids to trigger the mallets. The tones can be heard throughout the cavern even without amplification, but a loudspeaker system is normallly used.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Katzenkavalier.jpg

I think I’ve written elsewhere about the Katzenklavier, a thankfully imaginary instrument first described by Athanasius Kircher in 1650. In the words of one writer, “if a key was pressed on the keyboard, the corresponding tail would be pulled hard, and it would produce each time a lamentable meow.”

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_Piganino.jpg

Allegedly Louis XI of France challenged Abbé de Baigne to do the same thing with pigs to produce a “piganino”:

That brutal monarch, Louis XI of France, is said to have constructed, with the assistance of the Abbé de Baigne, an instrument designated a ‘pig organ,’ for the production of natural sounds. The master of the royal music, having made a very large and varied assortment of swine, embracing specimens of all breeds and ages, these were carefully voiced, and placed in order, according to their several tones and semitones, and so arranged that a key-board communicated with them, severally and individually, by means of rods ending in sharp spikes. In this way a player, by touching any note, could instantly sound a corresponding note in nature, and was enabled to produce at will either natural melody or harmony!

“The result is said to have been striking, but not very grateful to human ears.”

After our civilization has destroyed itself, the Adriatic will still be playing harmonies on the “sea organ” in Zadar, Croatia. Wind and waves interact with a system of polyethylene tubes to produce sound in a resonating cavity. In 2006 architect Nikola Bašic received the European Prize for Urban Public Space for the project, voted the best among 207 candidate projects from across Europe.

12/17/2016 UPDATE: I completely forgot the mouse organ! (Thanks, Gavin.)

Small Business

https://www.sydsvenskan.se/2016-12-08/vem-ar-musen-som-oppnat-butik-pa-bergsgatan

From reader Magnus Ehinger: A mouse has apparently opened a restaurant and nut store in Malmö, Sweden, just outside the Kebab House at the intersection of Bergsgatan and Almbacksgatan. The restaurant is called Il Topolino (the Italian name for Mickey Mouse), and the nut store next door is Noix de Vie (“nuts of life”).

The restaurant offers a variety of cheese and crackers, according to the tiny menu posted outside, and the nut store offers pistachios, almonds, and hazelnuts. Also arranged outside are a tiny bicycle and posters for mouse-related films (including Night of the Were-Rat).

No one knows who’s behind this — a group called Anonymouse posted images on an Instagram account as this project took shape, and recently left an update reading “Without spoiling too much we can tell you that we’re working on a new scene, and in 2017 you’re going to be able to see plenty more.”

More information, and photos, are here. (That’s an English translation — here’s the article in the original Swedish. Thanks, Magnus.)

Memento Mori

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cornelius_Huyberts_Vanitas-Diorama_Frederik_Ruysch_1721.jpg

Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch had a curious sideline: He arranged fetal skeletons into allegorical dioramas on death and the transience of life. Set amid landscapes made of gallstones, kidney stones and preserved blood vessels, the skeletons are decorated with symbols of short life — one holds a mayfly, another weeps into a handkerchief made of brain meninges. Worms made of intestine wind through their rib cages. “Quotations and moral exhortations, emphasizing the brevity of life and the vanity of earthly riches, festooned the compositions,” notes Stephen Jay Gould in Finders, Keepers. “One fetal skeleton holding a string of pearls in its hand proclaims, ‘Why should I long for the things of this world?’ Another, playing a violin with a bow made of a dried artery, sings, ‘Ah fate, ah bitter fate.'”

Johannes Brandt, a Remonstrant teacher, wrote:

Oh, what are we? What remains of us when we are dead?
Behold, it is no living thing, but dry, bare bone instead.
Bladder stones you see in heaps, piled higher by the morrow:
Here one learns about life’s course through storms of pain and sorrow.
These wise lessons Ruysch presents with wit and erudition,
Amsterdam is fortunate to have this great physician.

Panorama

Diagnosed with autism at 3, Stephen Wiltshire quickly became fascinated with drawing London buildings, and by age 8 he was sketching Salisbury Cathedral for former Prime Minister Edward Heath. Known as “the living camera,” he can draw an accurate, detailed picture of a subject after seeing it once — including subjects as complex as major cities. He’s completed enormous canvases of Tokyo, Rome, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, Madrid, Dubai, Jerusalem, and London, drawing each from memory after a helicopter ride.

Below is the full time-lapse of his portrait of Singapore, drawn from memory over five days in 2014. “That he has a gift makes no sense at all to Stephen,” his sister Annette told the New York Times. “He knows that he draws very well, but he picks that up from other people — he sees the warmth on their faces, they tell him how much they like his work, and that makes him very happy. He loves the attention.”