Saturday 31 May 2014

Clickety-Click update : Plagiarism in the Music-Hall

H.F. Juleene (aka John Parsons)
Of late I've been delving deeper into the overseas exploits of H. F. Juleene and Dot D'Alcorn with their Mephisto electro-musical entertainment.  As stated previously, their Mephisto act was stolen from that of J. B. Schalkenbach, but they toured overseas in places Schalkenbach hadn't set foot.  To its credit, Mephisto attained some originality from Dot D'Alcorn's role as Mephisto's operator; she was described (by Juleene himself) as "the only lady electrician in terrestrial orbit".

Earlier this month The Wire's website hosted a rendition of Juleene's Clickety-Click, performed by Fari Bradley, featuring an electrical clicker built by myself.  The song was published in score form around 1887, and is highly likely to be scored for Mephisto, with the clicks played on an electrical adjunct.

I've made a recent discovery that adds a new dimension to Clickety-Click and demolishes its claims to (musical) originality...

In 1887, Mephisto was touring around the US, playing in Pittsburg, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York.  Incidentally, some curious things happened on this tour - at the Lyceum Theatre in Chicago, June 10th 1887, Mephisto's bare wires were rigged onto chairs to electrically shock the audience at key points during the act.  An old man suffered an injury and sued both Juleene and the management.  Juleene and D'Alcorn saw the potential for publicity in this, and sought to contrive another incident of this sort, which they did later that year at the Brooklyn Theatre by consorting with the management to publicise another - fake - lawsuit.

Compared to other acts of the time Mephisto was a novelty, but it remained a rip-off to a gobsmacking extent: Juleene piled audacity upon audacity.  The new discovery concerning Clickety-Click reveals yet more audaciousness.  Whilst in Philadelphia, Juleene was evidently exposed to a very similar song called Clickety-Click March (c.1881) by Fred T. Baker.  Baker's version also featured the "clickety-clicks" written beneath the score, but the piece did not emerge from any electro-musical context.  Juleene appears to have retranscribed it, slightly altered some parts, and stamped his name onto it when it was published as Clickety-Click in The Musical Million (a weekly periodical published by Dot D'Alcorn's father, Henri D'Alcorn), presumably safe in the knowledge that no UK readers would recognise the melody.  Evidence still suggests that the so-called "electrofanatic" Juleene intended the clicks to be played electrically, but this episode highlights the smoke-and-mirrors nature of the music hall - where all is not what it seems, and everything is touched by piracy.

Plagiarism and priority disputes are still a concern today.  This is especially so in electroacoustic music where compositions are characterised less by 'songcraft' and more by basic 'active principles': harnessing natural phenomena where compositions are goaded to emerge almost automatically with minimal composerly intervention.  Such 'active principles' are so elemental that today's electroacoustic composers often clash over things as simple as amplified beetles on tin foil.  Recently, Prof. Nic Collins visited London from Chicago, and as we conversed on this topic in the King's Arms pub, he gave his own perspective.  Many of his students, he said, often proffer ideas that appear to hold new promise, only be told that "Alvin Lucier did that thirty years ago".  Lucier was Collins' former teacher and was composing experimental music throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s that rigorously employed natural acoustic principles.  Indeed, Lucier has perhaps explored all the most elemental 'active principles' for principle-driven electroacoustic musical compositions.  But anyways... More on this anon.... There's no need to be defeatist about the paucity of unexplored 'active principles', as the principles are incredibly variable depending on circumstances and environmental factors, and there is much variety still to be had from things as elemental as, say, feedback... and clicking...

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Clickety-Click - The earliest surviving electrical musical score?

The Wire's website now hosts a short recreation of what is believed to be one of the earliest surviving scores for an electrical instrument.  It is called Clickety-Click and is written by H. F. Juleene (aka John Parsons) - one half of the Victorian electro-musical act Mephisto, starring Dot D'Alcorn: "The Only Lady Electrician in the World".  The piece was published circa 1887.

For the recreation, I built a basic electrical-tapper and foot-switch combo, and Fari Bradley played the piece on Resonance FM's upright piano.  But it should be said that there's no explicit indication that the scored 'click-e-ty-clicks' were specifically intended for an electric adjunct.  However, the evidence strongly suggests it was intended for Mephisto.  (The publication in which it appears - The Musical Million - also published Juleene's The Mephisto Gavotte [referred to in a previous post]).

Clickety-Click isn't entirely representative of the electro-musical style.  One imagines that the scoring of its 'electrical' parts suffers from the constraints of traditional notation, and even the melody itself is wrung through the wringer of The Musical Million's popular stylings.  If we examine the score carefully, the actual sound 'click-e-ty-click' savours of an electric button - connected to an electromagnetic percussor - being pushed twice.  The two 'click-...-ty-...' sounds, synchronised with the first and last beats of the beamed three-quaver chords represent the 'on' state: the leading edge of the trigger, whilst the '...-e-...-click' sounds represent the automatic recoil in the 'off' state.

An actual description of the Mephisto entertainment illuminates the extent to which electricity was employed.  (The thematic and technical aspects of Mephisto were based heavily on J.B. Schalkenbach's electro-musical act):

"Bounding about amid flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, she [Dot D'Alcorn] explains how she means to electrify mankind by her magic powers, and how by the mere touch of her fingers on the keys of the organ storms shall rage, cannons roar, birds warble, churches come into view, ships sail, and railway engines their 'daily course of duty' run.  Presently, sitting down at the instrument, the young lady commences a series of operatic airs, sometimes 'pianisimo' and at other times 'organic'.  But the wonder is that as the music proceeds strange effects are produced.  A canary trills forth its accompaniment, a cuckoo calls, drums hidden away somewhere take up the oracle, and dazzling light flashes out for a moment among the audience and is gone before the people can turn round to see 'what's up'.  Castanets suspended in the air keep time to the melody, and an arrangement of cups and saucers half-way down the hall respond to the musical strains.  A cannon suddenly goes off in the gallery, and before the surprise it has evoked disappears the audience notice a miniature church in one corner suddenly lighted up.  Then, with a whistle and a snort, the circular railway sets in motion; a ship above the stage is seen buffeting with the waves, and a lighthouse throws its lurid rays around.  Vivid lights appear in various places, and as suddenly vanish; flashes of lightning cross the hall, a salvo of artillery is given, the rushing sound of a pelting storm can be heard, and, amid a crash, and peal, and flash of fire, 'Mephisto' disappears."
Dot D'Alcorn aka Susette D'Alcorn in pre-Mephisto days (circa 1883) dressed as 'Gentleman John' - a song that cocks a snook at young men-about-town of wealthy parentage.
More on this can be found in the current issue of The Wire #364...  Click to Clickety-Click to hear the recreation.

Wednesday 14 May 2014

The Wire #364 - and Interestingnesses on the Art of Noises

The latest issue of The Wire (#364) contains my surveyal of the forgotten electro-musical entertainments of the Victorian music halls.  (The electric musical tradition is not to be confused with electronic music, which has different origins, as described in a previous posting).  In the article, the centenary of the Italian Futurists' London debut of the Art of Noises is used as a springboard to examine earlier music hall performers who played advanced forms of 'descriptive' music involving electrical inventions, electric shocks upon members of the audience, imitations of locomotives, storms, battles, etc., and bombastic pronouncements in the stage press.

Whereas Victorian descriptive entertainments sought to simulate recognisable real-world sounds within musical themes, the Futurists radically inverted this: they instead sought to simulate music itself using noises derived from 20th century hubbub - forcibly modulating noises into musical frameworks.  The Art of Noises went way beyond simple imitations of real-world sounds, but nevertheless, superficially it retained 'descriptive' stylings despite efforts to transcend all previous traditions: it can be seen in the titles of the movements, the nods to the noises of urban life, and the provision of programme notes.  Russolo's notes reveal an advanced mode of listening: "my noise spirals are not mere impressionist reproductions of the surrounding life, but synthetically-treated noise emotions.  In listening to the combined and harmonized notes of the Exploders, the Whistlers, and the Gurglers, one scarcely thinks of motor cars, engines, or moving waters, but experiences a great Futurist absolutely unforeseen artistic emotion which resembles nothing but itself".

Luigi Russolo at the Coliseum, 1914
To shed more light on the Art of Noises concerts at the London Coliseum, I have transcribed here one of the most interesting articles about the event.  This lengthy text appears to have gone uncited in Futurist discussions.  It appears in the July 1914 issue of Musical Opinion, and is written by the editor of that journal, the organist Harvey Grace (1874-1944) under his pseudonym 'Autolycus'.

Accounts of Luigi Russolo's London Coliseum performances are few and far between, and some information appears almost contradictory.  It is reported that Futurist mouthpiece F.T. Marinetti gave a rambling speech in broken English on the first night, whereas other sources - presumably referring to subsequent performances - say that Marinetti had discoursed in Italian and was apparently cut short (see the 1930 autobiography of the manager of the Coliseum, Arthur Croxton, Crowded Nights and Days [Croxton's account is copied in Felix Barker's 1957 The House that Stoll Built]).  The Guardian appears to refer to the second night, reporting that Marinetti was absent, leaving Russolo in charge.  Elsewhere, C.R.W. Nevinson's Paint and Prejudice (1937) mentions that a gramophone playing Elgar accompanied the later performances to allay the heckling crowd.

To give some background to these UK performances - it should be said that it was first announced in November 1913 that in a matter of weeks the Futurists "threaten to inflict their music upon us" (the tone of the press was already negative before the first instrument had even touched down in the UK).  One single noise intoner (or, as they were termed at the time - "noise tuner") had a low-key exhibition in London, January 1914 and was said to sound "like a lion roaring".  The Art of Noises was finally debuted at the Coliseum on the week commencing 15th June 1914, and the musicians playing the noise intoners were borrowed from the Coliseum's own in-house orchestra.

Intriguingly, on the 24th June, the Futurists' noise intoners were played at the annual Printer's Pie dinner at the Savoy Hotel, with the noise functioning as a punchline for Hugh Spottiswoode's long, rambling dinner speech (alluding to Marinetti's own rambling introduction to the Art of Noises).  The conductor of the Futurist performance was supposed to be Sir Henry Wood (who had conducted Schoenberg performances earlier that year), but he was unable to attend, so Arthur Croxton - manager of the Coliseum - took his role, and was made-up to look like him by the famous master of disguises Willy Clarkson.  It was a raucous evening with practical jokes, a baby elephant's indiscretion, intonarumori punctuating the speeches, and a boxing match between two characters who were revealed to be illustrators John Hassall and Tony Sarg.

In the light of the reception of the Art of Noises (where the audience supplied its own onslaught of noises) it is interesting to peruse Marinetti's own statements on the music hall - his essay "The Meaning of the Music Hall" published in the Daily Mail in November 1913.

The illustrated transcriptions of Autolycus' musings and Marinetti's variety theatre manifesto are here:
Autolycus on The Art of Noises (1914) [transcribed from Musical Opinion July 1914]
F.T. Marinetti - The Meaning of the Music Hall (1913)

Sunday 4 May 2014

Exact Change #8 - Acoustic Circuit Bending: Hacking the Physical World

The current issue of the e-zine Exact Change (No. 8) features my illustrated article 'A Primer of Post­-Electronic Music and the Alchemical Subharmonic Lottery'.  This gives an outline of what I'm inclined to call 'acoustic circuit-bending' - a technique revolving around electromagnetic feedback fields and the acoustic coupling of found materials - a form of 'post-electronic' soundmaking.

The concept of 'post-electronic music' was first elucidated in my rambling, incoherent 2005 book Dropping Out where attention was drawn to the benefits of electrically sustained vibrations in mechanically drawing out combinations of subharmonics in acoustic apparatuses.  This inversely mirrors somewhat the emphasis on harmonics in traditional electronic tone building.  The practice was tied to dumpster-diving, where unpremeditated object combinations can be observed.  I originally wanted to recreate the complex sounds sometimes heard when travelling on decrepit old trains - and this precipitated a peculiar habit of resonating every ferric object I could find.

To my present shame, Dropping Out incriminated me for multiple indiscretions.  The foremost was my description of attempts to resonate rows of lampposts.  The concept had such genuine sonic promise, and it was not my intention to deliberately antagonise.  The acoustic potential of lampposts can be beheld by using a soft-headed mallet to strike the tubular neck, and immediately placing one's ear to the lamppost.  Because the tops of lampposts are usually open (to prevent build-up of humidity / moisture?), bits of leafy grit and muck accumulate inside the tube, and the striking of the mallet shakes down all this grit in a harmonic metallic cascade.  Many different partials and upper modes of vibration momentarily manifest themselves in this luscious sound.  Extensive trials also reveal that although lampposts - clustered in a particular street - are standardised in their construction, every lamppost has slightly differently pitched resonant frequencies.

Any low fundamental tones - typically associated with pronged structures - are absent in lampposts.  They are heavily damped to prevent this.  One may imagine, in some parallel universe where lampposts are undamped, on a blustery day they may gently hum in the wind: aeolian lampposts.  I dreamt that powerful electromagnets in cradles could be clamped to the necks, and rows of lampposts could all resonate in a chorus...  'Bowing' lampposts with giant Ebows.  But, because of this damping, electromagnetic resonation is impractical, and only the higher frequencies are accessible, therefore a piezo-electric system was devised.  The project, however, was scuppered in a 'disgraceful' attempt to have each lamppost self-powered by step-down transformers drawing off their own mains supply.  This is described in embarrassing language in Dropping Out (a juvenile production - and I'm relieved to say that copies are not generally available at the time of writing this).  Subsequent to this, some experiments were made with bits of lamppost and other street furniture.

Cover to a manual relating to a slice of errant lamp-post resold as an experimental instrument (circa 2003).
Resonating railings (photo courtesy of Toby Clarkson)
A similar effect to the imagined streets of resonating lampposts can be realised by resonating railings.  Like a grille, each rung has an ever-so-slightly different resonant frequency (a typical railing has a very low fundamental tone of around 30-50Hz).  Cardboard, plastic or wooden boxes can be wedged into the resonated railings to act as sounding bodies to diffuse the sound or introduce buzzing subharmonics.  When multiple railing rungs are resonated, an internally conflicted drone is produced that is both lively and trance-inducing when concentrated upon.

I was embroiled in an interesting altercation last year during a busk in Cambridge with my electromagnetic apparatuses.  I had procured some coinage on previous occasions through busking on my resonated wok toneshapers powered by car batteries.  On this occasion, I was busking with my baking tray resonator (which drones and alters its harmonic/subharmonic content according to the arrangement of coins inside the tray - £17.24 was obtained on this particular day) alongside resonated railings that I had engrafted my gubbins onto.  Two Police Community Support Officers accosted me.  I had assumed they would take umbrage at my electromagnetic 'EBowing' of street furniture, but this was not the issue.  Apparently, doing toneshaping drones is a form of begging(!).  A handwritten sign encouraged passersby to throw coins or paper notes into the EM resonated baking tray to alter the tone of the drone.  I argued that it was plainly *busking* which is perfectly legal - hence the acoustic element.  But they disagreed - it was begging because there was no "music".  We then argued very publicly about what constitutes music, touching upon every argumental cliché that has ever been farted out in amateur music-theory debates since the 1900s, but the argument took a surreal turn, because the PCSOs then accused me of committing a public order offence by simply protesting my case to them!   The argument itself became an offence!   I couldn't argue with that, although it was they who initiated the argument.

Read all about acoustic circuit bending and the use of electromagnetic coils to resonate objects in Exact Change #8.  In fact, 'reading' is a bit old hat now.  Being an ultra-modern e-zine, you can also look, listen and watch!