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Music and Machines

Today’s musicians are no longer taking inspiration from babbling brooks or the trill of birds. Their inspiration comes from locomotives, lathes, and farm tractors that rumble, whine, and moan, drowning out the voices of nature and man

 

In the early 19th century, Ludwig van Beethoven refused to take a flat in Baden due to the lack of trees near the house. At the time he said, “I love trees more than men”. The result of this spiritual side of his was Symphony no. 6 (Pastoral) in F major, composed in 1808 to celebrate his fascination with nature.

A little more than a century later, in 1923, Arthur Honegger wrote the following words on the title page of the musical score for Pacific 231: “I have always loved locomotives passionately. For me they are living creatures and I love them as others love women or horses”.

In these two affirmations – which, actually, with a curious rigour, exclude any interest in man – we see how the orbit in which certain musical predilections moved was established between the 19th and 20th centuries. Because Beethoven, in the last season of his life, wandered the fields from before dawn into well into the night, writing: “Nobody loves the countryside as much as I do”. A friend of Honegger’s tells of how the musician’s flat in Rue Duperré had an entire wall covered in images of his majestic “friends”: hundreds of trains, and Honegger was an expert on all of their characteristics and technical details.

Therefore, today’s musicians are not taking inspiration from a “wonderful spring morning with the babbling of a brook and the trilling of birds”. They begin their pieces with the rumbling beat of a machine at work. “Now”, as Georges Auric wrote about the “ballet réaliste Parade” (music by Erik Satie; scenario by Jean Cocteau; staging, sets, and costumes by Pablo Picasso; choreography by Léonide Massine) “music humbly subjugates itself to reality, drowning out birdsong under the rumble of a tram”.

In fact, in Parade, put on at the Châtelet in 1917, the music, condensed into pure mechanical movement, was conceived to serve as background noise to the drums and stage noises in the foreground.

After Satie, it was Arthur Honegger’s turn. In 1918, he composed an exceptional musical piece featuring machines that rumble, whistle, and roar, along with the many elements and “voices” of cities at night. All of this with the sparest of music/noise, entrusted, for the most part, to the drums, which, in many cases, work alone to support the spoken word. With this work, Honegger took a leading role among avant-garde musicians, and this was established definitively in 1923 with Pacific 231. This symphonic representation of a train, a “Pacific-type engine – known as 2, 3, 1– for heavy, high-speed trains”.

With this, the composer attempted to translate into music the “visual impressions and physical sensations” that one gets from the spectacle of a 300-tonne train travelling at 120 kilometres per hour in the night.

These themes are full of essential lyricism – themes that are isolated at first, then more persistent, in other words repeated mechanically fully or partially, then alternated with different groups of instruments, resulting in the creation of a magnificent polymorphous counterpoint. They are developed and concentrated with enormous energy, creating the “engine” upon a solid rhythmic foundation. From the quiet respiration of an engine in repose, to the effort in starting, to the progressive “crescendo” of speed, the rhythm of the machine increases until it reaches its “lyrical” state of continuous motion.

And here are two musicians, a “romantic” from the 19th century, and a “neo-realist” from the 20th century, that meet on common ground and are evenly matched.

The first is the explosive Hector Berlioz who, in 1883, was commissioned by Paganini to write Harold in Italy, a symphonic poem for viola and orchestra. The third movement included a pastoral song that was both playful and poignant. It was meant to be the “serenade of a rugged mountaineer from the Abruzzo region singing to his beloved”. This merry zampogna song had a country dance rhythm, evoking tenderness and joyous rustic notes.

The second is the more understated Darius Milhaud who – less than a century later – wrote a series of pastoral songs for voice (mezzo-soprano) and ensemble. It was entitled Machines Agricoles.

In fact, the six songs represent six different types of agricultural machines and the words put to music were taken, verbatim, from farm-machinery catalogues. Therefore, Milhaud, whilst he creates a rural atmosphere, mainly focuses on describing, with lucid precision, the selection of machines, therefore imitating the rhythmic throbbing of engines, the beating of belts, and the din created by pulleys. For example, in Lieuse (the “Binder”, song no. 3), every inflection, even the slightest, of the voices and instruments, seems to get into gear, like a wheel in the precise construction of an engine, and this polytonal design creates a curiously lively and new effect. In Dechaumeuse-semeuse-enfouisseuse (the “Threshing machine”, song no. 4), the string instruments, with the mechanical movement that is like a murmur, support and bolster the human voice, with street cries like blasts of fanfare, celebrating the machines. In the background of the pastoral sound of the flute, which whispers the sweet, dreamy melody of a zampogna song, the voice says: “The combined thresher costs, including four ploughshares, 1,000 francs!”.

An examination, even an abbreviated one, of modern music inspired by machines would require much more attention and a great deal more space. We shall touch upon – and only to briefly mention them – the Ballet Mécanique from George Antheil and the automobile-inspired parody entitled Filling Station by R. Thomson; Telescopes meant for a large orchestra and the music for piano entitled Magnets by Leonid Polovinkin; to Poem of Space in which Marcel Poot sings the aeroplane, to G.M. Scelsi’s Rotary Press, to Train by Alexander Kastalsky, all the way to Gian Francesco Malipiero’s music for Ruttman’s film Steel.

In terms of the relationship between man and machine, this problem of our times has already made its way into the deepest, most despairing music from the most important contemporary musicians, such as Paul Hindemith’s Kammermusik, featuring the mechanical movement of an engine. Then there is Die Zwingburg by Ernst Krenek, as well as Jonny Spielt Auf, the most famous jazz-inspired piece in our era, in which mechanics and motors – radios, automobiles, trains, and jazz – are represented musically as a function of the relationship between man and machine. Another German, Kurt Weill, in the melody Der Lindberghflug emphasises the social value of machines (and, in its essential rhythmic nature, the conversation between the pilot and his machine over the limitless ocean, is touching), while the Italian Luigi Dallapiccola celebrates the intensity of aeroplane engines and radio-telegraphy machines in Volo di Notte.

Music by Sergei Prokofiev takes inspiration from the modern myth of mechanical civilisation in the ballet Le pas d’acier, written by Diaghilev in 1925. The work takes place in a factory, and the dancers are levers, gears, and pulleys. Half-nude men wearing leather aprons link arms in undulating circles, women contort their elbows, rotate their hand, and bend at the thigh like drills gone mad. “The music makes them move”, writes Coeuroy, “rumbling like an engine”. Russian composer Alexander Mosolov referred to his symphonic poem Iron Foundry as “machine music”. He owes his fame to this composition. In his own way, he’s a “romantic” in this area, a lyric poet who offers his impressions with a performance featuring a foundry in movement. This stylisation of life in factories is obtained, according to Roncaglia, with astonishing instrumental skill. The turning of wheels, the screech and squeal of metal, hammer blows in a cadenced rhythm, the hiss of metal casting, puffs of steam: it is all beyond imitation, reproduced to perfection, but within rhythmic parameters.

We saved the first of the modern musicians for last. He who can mould sonorous matter into incomparable symphonies of movement, with a piece that, more than any other, is linked to the present, with that mechanical rhythm suggested by the sense of dynamism of the automobile itself: Igor Stravinsky. But we’d need an entire essay for him alone.

Assez de nuages, de vagues, d’aquarium, d’ondines et de parfums la nuit; il nous faut une musique sur la terre, une musique de tous les jours”.

So wrote Jean Cocteau thirty years ago, and music for this world, for every day, exists today.
Of course this isn’t music that will appeal to those who are scandalised when the tenor takes the high C-sharp down a semitone in the romanza of I Puritani. Let them repeat with Don Bartolo of Rossini’s immortal Barber: “Music in my day was something else entirely”.

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