Sunday, 12 May 2013

A Museum of Impossible Music

We can all remember the famous advertising slogan from Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, “If you've done six impossible things this morning, why not round it off with breakfast at Milliways, the restaurant at the end of the universe?” But what of the house band at Milliways? What melodies might spring from their impossible instruments? And how could such music be housed in a museum – an institution that has always found it notoriously difficult to exhibit even the most common or garden variety of music?

The question seems to impinge on the 'pataphysics of Alfred Jarry – a problem in search of an “imaginary solution” – or the erotics of Georges Bataille, the symbolic economy – or its “speculative disorder” – in the late work of Jean Baudrillard. “Imaginary media,” wrote Eric Kluitenberg, “when understood as machines that mediate impossible desires, should be regarded as impossible machines.” The very notion of a museum of impossible music pushes us to the limits of both music and museum and, simultaneously, back to their originating impulses – in the ritual conjuration of impossible forces, and the simple act of collecting as a kind of anamnesis close to time travel.

So we might look to ideas from the literature of fantasy and science fiction to fill the first room of our imaginary museum: Richard Kongrosian, the psychokinetic pianist who plays Brahms and Schumann without touching the keyboard in Philip K. Dick's (1971) novel, The Simulacrum; the 'feely' encountered in the imagined 2039 of Stanislaw Lem's (1971) The Futurological Congress, with its “obscene compositions”. Going back further, we might think of the musical languages of the inhabitants of the moon encountered by Francis Godwin and Cyrano de Bergerac in their cosmic voyages from the seventeenth century – indeed, any music that has been conceived of existing in the vacuums of space must be, strictly speaking, impossible.

Kepler's harmony of the spheres

Johannes Kepler once assigned diverse polyphonies to the heavenly bodies and Charles Fourier thought to re-arrange the planets of the solar system for the sake of their harmonic consonance. Between these two, and extending beyond in either direction, lies a centuries-long theorising of the mystical correspondences inherent in the music of the spheres that sought not just a figurative value but, as Joscelyn Godwin says of Fourier, “the pretension to objective accuracy and mathematical precision.” The richly elaborate illustrations that adorn many of these mystical texts might adorn the walls of another room in our museum with schizoid diagrams of arcane numerology and stellar conjecture. In his own brief rumination on the theme of impossible music, composer and University of Sussex lecturer on music informatics, Nick Collins, mentions his own text composition: ”Clash two stars together”.

The nineteenth century was a boom time for impossible music. The rise of virtuosi such as Niccolo Paganini and Franz Liszt saw repeated accusations that their caprices and études were unplayable, beyond the range of human capacity. Their supposedly freakish abilities became the object of a curiously medical discourse. Paganini's abilities were explained by physicians as the result of his unique physiognomy, and his corpse was even disinterred, half a century after his death, to be viewed reverently by the Czech violinist František Ondříček, as though the body itself was some sort of magic relic. 

A cast from Franz Liszt's hand, from the Liszt museum, Budapest
We might regard the various casts and models made of Liszt's hands in a similar light, and display them side by side with Paganini's medical reports. When not regarded as a freak of nature, the virtuoso was often lambasted as an unfeeling machine, and numerous mechanical contrivances were developed as pedagogical aids to further the creation of more virtuousi – Logier's chiroplast, Kalkbrenner's guide des mains, Herz's dactylion: all were summoned to the aid of pianists who wished to play the impossible, and they all deserve a place in our museum.
In a paper published in the journal Popular Music, in 1983, H. Stith Bennett defined impossible music as a kind of gap between a communicable potentiality and its ultimate realisation, opened up by new forms of notation,
Whenever new notation systems are invented, musicians feel the pressure to stretch their performances to incorporate new notational potentials. In fact any notation can be set out in such a way that it gives directions that are impossible for even the best musicians to follow. During this experimental period, those who are producing notation feel the pressure to accommodate their activities to the performers at the same time that the performers are stretching their abilities in response to the notational challenges. Inevitably, musicians move away from performance conventions which are taken for granted by their audiences, and instead perform in a way that is unexpected, unsettling and filled with mystery. For audiences, hearing what has never before been heard creates an ironic atmosphere; some resistance too, perhaps, but also the magical actualisation of the impossible.

While Bennett's language recalls the wording of Arthur C. Clarke's famous “Third Law”, that, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, it also provides an apt rubric within which to conceptualise both the reaction to the virtuosi of the nineteenth century and, since Bennett regards recording technology as itself a “synthetic phenomenal” form of notation, certain further developments in the musicology of the impossible over the last century.
Albert Bernal Impossible Music (2006+)

With the twentieth century, recording technology proliferated mechanical musicians. George Antheil and Conlon Nancarrow took up the challenge of composing works for one of the earliest, the player piano, which would be physically impossible for human hands – a project to be echoed many decades later by tracks on the Aphex Twin's album, Drukqs, programmed for the Yamaha Diskclavier MIDI-controlled grand piano.

Modern technology has made possible simulations of many otherwise impossible musics. In developing the tones to chime the ages for Stewart Brand's Clock of the Long Now project, Brian Eno began investigating the physics of bells and soon found himself experimenting with digitally created “hypobells” whose real world realisation would require the suspension of several physical laws: bells impossibly large or impossibly small, entirely made of glass, or possessing bizarre acoustical properties which might make certain harmonic partials ring indefinitely long. 

In a similar vein, American composer, David A. Jaffe, created a piece of computer music, ‘Silicon ValleyBreakdown’ involving such impossible string instruments as a mandolin to small to pluck, or a monochord the length of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Alongside these virtual experiments, we might exhibit sculptures from 2001 by Christian Marclay which he referred to as “impossible musical instruments”. These included a bass guitar made of rubber, drum sticks made of glass, a tuba and a trumpet conjoined at the mouthpiece like siamese twins.

Christian Marclay Virtuoso (2000)

On a more macabre level, recording technology configures the possibility of jamming with the dead. The early twenty-first century genre of the ‘mash-up’ allows for duets between musicians who could never possibly have met in reality: the voice of Caruso over a backing track by Jimi Hendrix, Britney Spears singing over a Gene Krupa beat.

I like to imagine that one room of this imaginary expo could be dedicated to those composers who have been so outstretched and outgunned by their ambitions that their proposals have leapt forward into the never never. Here we might find Edgard Varèse, who for some twenty years in the first half of the twentieth century laboured over a great operatic work called variously The One-All-Alone, L'Astronome, and L'Espace

Though it was never completed, we find adorning the walls of our museum the various drafts of libretti written by some of the century's literary titans: Alejo Carpentier, George Ribemont-Dessaignes, Robert Desnos, Andre Malraux, and most extraordinary of all, Antonin Artaud, who described, “Depressurized soundings. The music will give the impression of a distant cataclysm and will fill the room, falling as from vertiginous heights. Chords will originate in the sky and then deteriorate, going from one extreme to the other. Sounds will fall as if from very high, then suddenly stop and spread out in bursts, forming vaults and parasols. Tiers of sounds...”

Scattered amongst them are torn fragments of score, sketches of grand totalising realisations for which such classic modernist musical tropes as sound spatialisation, the work for percussion, even for electronic music, were practically willed into existence by Varèse in the service of his proposed music drama.

Edgard Varèse, Poème électronique (1958)

On the wall facing these fragments of Varèse's we might find a portrait of the great Russian synaesthetist, Alexander Scriabin, who once proposed a sonata of pain with solo for toothache. Even earlier in the century, Scriabin spent almost as long as Varèse, planning his “Prefatory Action” known as The Mysterium. To be performed in the foothills of the Himalayas, it was to last a week, and for a finale, bring about the destruction of the entire universe followed by the birth of a new world and a new man from its ashes. Scriabin's biographer, Faubion Bowers, describes the climax of The Mysterium:

On the seventh day, after the assault on the senses of all the arts battering at man's psyche, and with the music incarnating ectoplasmic visions, all men and all nature would combine to bring the world to its closest possible point of being on “the plane of unity.” Mass joy would be like the ocean endlessly shifting and unchanging. Soul and matter would be released from their corporeal bondage one to the other. Male and female polarization would vanish. The divine androgyny of two sexes in one (as Plato once envisaged them) would first return and then become a nullity. Everything – man and his world – would plummet into the “ecstatic abyss of sunshine.” The time lag between the event and the impact of the event would telescope.
Scriabin, Sketch from Mysterium

Beyond the ecstatic visions of Scriabin, we might ask what remains impossible in the high-technology world of the twenty-first century where every new bit of off-the-shelf kit promises to create “any sound imaginable”.

The impossible is made of more than mere technics. If “politics is the art of the impossible” (Vaclav Havel), then an exhibition of the impossible in art must needs be political. The final room in our museum, then, would be handed over to guest curators from the Impossible Music Sessions of New York City. 

Conlon Nancarrow Study No. 49c

Founded by author, accordion player and human rights activist, Austin Dacey, the Impossible Music Sessions stage the non-appearance of banned musicians from all over the world. Whether underground rock groups from Iran, refused visas for performance over seas, or imprisoned Cameroonian singers, an empty stage in downtown Brooklyn becomes the scene of an international musical meeting via the telepresence of live feeds and mobile phones. Conceived by its founder as a “world-wide underground railroad for musicians”, the Impossible Music Sessions stand as a tribute to what can be achieved in the face of impossible situations.

A recent book by Adam Harper promises infinite possibilities for future music-making, but in a footnote he proposes an interactive musical situation which goes beyond the possibilities even in his expanded musical vision: a work for two performers who must respond quickly and in real time to each other's playing, while one is situated on Earth the other on Mars.

Harper's somewhat flippant examples shows that no matter how broad one's imagination, how open to the possibilities of the future, something will still remain out of reach. It also shows how thinking about the impossible and stretching the limits of the possible often go hand in hand. Curating a history of impossible musics can not only show how yesterday's impossibles can become today's realities (many of those “unplayable” works of Paganini and Liszt, for instance, are now standard practice for a professional soloist), but also provide provocative food for thought for future formal experiment.


But a museum of the impossible is inevitably also a museum of failure. Like Paul Virilio's proposed ‘museum of accidents’, it can provide a counter-narrative to that Whig history of music as a smooth progress towards greater and greater heights of beauty and expressiveness (perhaps coming to an end somewhere round the late works of Brahms or Puccini). The museum of impossible music would be an antidote – or a grotesque supplement – to that canonisation of the great works critiqued in Lydia Goehr's Imaginary Museum of Musical Works.