Quiet Time

neuhaus alarm clock

In 1979, artist Max Neuhaus proposed a silent alarm clock. Or, rather, a clock that awakens one with silence:

Instead of a bell which begins with a sudden clang and gradually dies away, this concept is precisely the opposite. The sound is introduced gradually; beginning inaudibly it grows slowly over a period of minutes and, at its height, suddenly disappears. The long subtle emergence of the sound causes it to go unnoticed. It becomes apparent only at the instant of its disappearance, creating a sense of silence.

The change would awaken you. It’s not even really silence that you’d hear — the normal background sounds would still be there. But “in this silent moment, for a few seconds after the sound has gone, a subtle transparent aural afterimage is superimposed on the everyday sounds of the environment, a spontaneous aural memory or reconstruction perhaps, shared by all who notice it, engendered by the sound’s disappearance.”

Turning Keys

Most piano music is written with the melody in the right hand, which seems unfair to left-handers. In 1998 left-handed Chris Seed determined to do something about it: He remortgaged his house and spent £28,000 on a “reversed” instrument built by Dutch fortepiano makers Poletti and Tuinman.

“At first Seed found it far harder to learn to play the instrument than he’d expected,” reports Rik Smits in The Puzzle of Left-Handedness. “It seemed as if he’d have to begin learning again from scratch. But once he got going, Seed’s brain turned out to be perfectly capable of converting everything he’d ever learned into a left-handed playing technique. Exactly what he’d hoped happened: all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place more or less automatically. Seed became at least as good a pianist as he was on a conventional piano and eventually he felt real delight in playing ‘as God intended.'”

Seed told the BBC, “The piano has transformed my playing, and I hope it will set a precedent for a future of left-handed pianists and uncover a whole new wealth of talent in the world of music.”

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.)