To come out touching nothing but a piano, or Coding Down, by John C. Welchman

To come out touching nothing but a piano, or Coding Down

by John C. Welchman

He had a perfervidly morbid sense of music and especially of what a piano can do as a co-conspirator in the production of imaginative improvisation: “it was the piano, the instrument of solitary intimacy that was and that in the future would often be his principal confidant.“1 But more than this, his piano improvisations occasioned frenzied, oracular outbursts, and wild hallucinations “conjuring up the underworld,” for example, in the company of Richard Wagner’s capaciously superstitious wife.2 Recalling musical compositions from his early teens, he referred to their dark ethos as”the blackest and most radical things I know in raven-black music." He wrote of the “torturing” of the piano by the despondent possession of youth— “to the point of drawing from it cries of despair“—hands ‘heaving up’”the mire of the most dismal gray-brown harmonies." To what might this give rise? Well, surely, inevitably, the sense of “how one is recognized, as a pessimist."3

More surprisingly, Nietzsche also thought about the redistribution of music in small, corporeal increments (“truly everything good in music should be able to be whistled”); about the specific gravity and sheer mass of the piano (“Germans have never known how to sing and lug their pianos along with them everywhere”);4 about the converting power of re-scoring for piano (“from the moment there was a piano score of Tristan … I was a Wagnerian”);5 about the prophylactic capacity of the piano ward off sexual depredations (of a visit to a brothel in Bonn during his college years he famously remarked that he “came out touching nothing but a piano”);6 and even about the forms of servitude to which, rightly or wrongly, music might be given: “Modern music is just the progressive withering away of the melodic sense. Melody, as the ultimate and most sublime art of art, obeys logical principles that our anarchists would like to decry as slavery."7

Writing somewhat in the gap between the era of the piano and the new age of its mechanical surrogate, the pianola, Nietzsche offers us an almost alarmingly perspicacious critical panorama of the defaults, seductions and dangers of the instrument and of its place in the history of both music and modernity. Almost everything that attaches to or will befall the piano as well as the possible fate of its removal from the sphere of touch is hinted at here—along with a few untimely meditations that venture much further afield such as those referring to sexuality, darkness, pessimism and slavery itself. One of the lessons I want to draw out here concerns the reconfiguration of “originality” that underwrites the philosopher’s relationship to a musical “master,” which he recalibrates as a form of incorporation. Prompted by the piano redaction of Parsifal in July 1882, Nietzsche realizes “how deeply under Wagner’s influence he has come, and how difficult it is for him to shake it off”—a realization that gives rise to “true shock” at the extent of the closeness of their musical relation. Nietzsche’s reaction is not to “rid” himself of some unwanted over-determination but to work through and beyond the “incorporation” by digesting it into a form of resistance.8 The lineaments of this move—reduction (or recoding), influence, incorporation, and resistance—provide a model, it seems to me, of the negotiation of Slave Pianos with the double bind of avant-garde mastery and improvisation—with the difference, perhaps, that Nietzsche’s pessimism is replaced by humor and irony (not that they are lacking in Nietzsche elsewhere—or, for that matter, that they aren’t sometimes “dark” in the work of Slave Pianos).

Nietzsche gives us something more urgent and discutable than those who railed against (or more rarely advocated for) the pianola during its popular ascendancy in the first decades of the twentieth century. In the context of his tart lamentation that “The pianola ‘replaces’ Sappho’s barbitos,”9 Ezra Pound, for example, asserted his general distaste for the lack of ‘dignity’ engendered by those forms of art that depend “on too great a mechanical element in [their] execution.” “I think the organ has given way to the piano,” he continued, “largely because the organ is too mechanical. The pianola is worse, and should be relegated to seaside dance halls … .”10 But Pound also notices an important continuity between technique, repetition and mechanical destiny in which the piano is also implicated: for “the more a piano is ‘played,’ and perhaps the better it is played, the more it resembles a railroad train or a pianola.”11

If Pound is a—somewhat exceptionalist—critic of what one commentator referred to as “the pianola’s place in the emerging culture of simulation,”12 the creative annexation of the pianola for avant-garde purposes is a distinctively minoritarian enthusiasm, whose rare proponents in the first three decades of the 20th century include Igor Stravinsky, George Antheil, and Paul Hindemith. Stravinsky’s commitment to mechanically reproduced pianistic effects can be dated to his first attendance at the Aeolian Hall in London in 1914, which was followed by his composition in 1917 of a study for pianola for the Aeolian Company in the same city, performed in October 1921 at the Aeolian Hall and “subsequently published as roll #T–967B.” As Thomas Y Levin notes, “in 1923 … he signed a six-year contract with Pleyel in Paris to record his entire opus on pianola rolls.” Stravinsky’s essay, “My Position on the Phonograph Record” (1930) “calls not only for recording practices that take advantage of the plastic capabilities of phonographic reproduction, as the composer claims to have done in his records for the Columbia label … [but] also insists that ‘it would be a of the greatest interest to produce music specifically for photographic reproduction, a music which would only attain its true image—its original sound—through mechanical reproduction. This is probably the ultimate goal for the gramophonic composer of the future’”13 Another method of experimental mechanical composition involved direct marking on the pianola scrolls and was “demonstrated as early as 1926 at a ‘Festival of Mechnical Music’ in Donaueschingen where Ernst Toch and Gerhard Münch had composed pieces in this manner for a Welte-Mignon pianola. These works were ‘performed’ by Paul Hindemith (who serviced the machine) together with a similarly generated work by Hindemith that served as an accompaniment to Oskar Schlemmer’s ‘Triadic Ballet.’”14

Nietzsche’s thought burrows right under the bookends of disavowal and appropriation—and the popular approbation between them—that mark out the signifying territory of the pianola in the first half of the 20th century. When it surfaces, if, in fact, it does, it has the uncanny capacity to undermine what is probably the only other profound philosophical engagement with these coordinates—in the writings of Theodor Adorno. One dimension of Adorno’s thought departs, conceptually, from where Stravinsky and others left off—in practices that committed themselves to the materiality of reproduction. Slave Pianos, of course, would add the conceptual to the material, and in this sense stand on Adorno’s shoulders. What he argues offers to redefine the very conditions of music: “Anyone who has ever recognized the steadily growing compulsion that, at least during the last fifty years, both musical notation and the configuration of the musical score have imposed on compositions (the pejorative expression ‘paper music’ betrays this dramatically) will not be surprised if one day a reversal of the following sort occurs: music, previously conveyed by writing, suddenly itself turns into writing.” There are costs associated with this move, of course, the most evident of which is music’s vaunted “immediacy”; but there is also “the hope that, once fixed in this way, it will some day become readable as the ‘last remaining universal language since the construction of the tower,’ a language whose determined yet encrypted expressions are contained in each of its ‘phrases’ [satz].”15 Adorno’s misplaced musico-linguistic utopianism, notwithstanding, the encrypted expression that resounds from each of the associative units of a re-encoded music offers a new mode for the ‘standing-in’ of sound, which in its way revolutionizes the whole process of ‘sounding-out.’

This innovative place can redescribed as the antithesis of a competitive musical universalism—based in fact on the overlay of multiple immediacies—that also reached fever pitch around the same time as the pianola: synaesthesia. The cross-over between color and sound (grapheme-color and tone-color synaesthesia are the dominant couplets in the literature on synaesthetic experience) negotiated by Wassily Kandinsky, the Lithuanian Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis and others is dependent on a deeply internalized reinflection of perceptual information that recent research has related to connective re-sequencing at the neural level.16 The operational scene of synaesthesia is, therefore, paralinguistic in the sense that its switching system is activated prior to the subject’s eventuation through socially coded expressions such as language. The work of Slave Pianos reverses this apparent order, so that their recouplings of sound and image are staged in the coded spaces of language and its traditions, thus deflecting, even parodying, the experiential short-circuiting, and psychological innatism of modernist (or clinical) synaesthesia. To the legacy, then, of iconographic and compositional interaction, and the inheritance of synaesthetic re-envisioning, Slavepianos helps to create a new formation for the system of exchanges between the visual, the musical and linguistic based on the scrambling, repetition, and spacing of their collision as codification.17

It has to be said that Adorno sometimes turns back on himself—perhaps so far back that he risks morphing into the alter persona of Pound—when he impugns the depersonalization or dehumanization of mechanical and later electronic music in the genealogy that reaches from Stravinsky to Stockhausen. But, yes, Slave Pianos is an apparatus of capture in the guise of a tintinnabulating Trojan Horse. Its captivity narrative is literal in multiple dimensions—in the sense that the pianos are enslaved, transported, condemned and hung; in the sense that pianos are made up of plural lengths of lethal wire, that they are both highly strung and strung up; and in the sense that the slave piano is defined by its taking, or being taken: by the capacity of the project to produce capacity through appropriation or archival redistribution or nomadic replay.