Tales of the Minimalist Freighter

Wednesday, 3 March 2010 — 10:40pm | Classical, Film, Music, Science

Last month I attended a performance of Steve Reich and Beryl Korot’s “documentary digital video opera” Three Tales at the ADC Theatre, the first production in Britain since the UK premiere in 2002. I’m still not sure what to make of it.

On the surface it looks straightforward enough. The 65-minute composition for voice, acoustic instruments, and video divides neatly into three segments on subjects from the public face of twentieth-century technology—the Hindenburg disaster, the atomic bomb test in the Bikini Atoll, and the cloning of Dolly the sheep. We hear the familiar Reich technique of displacing and superimposing copies of repeated motifs slightly out of phase, which catches the ear well enough in recordings but in live performance has the air of a magic trick. As in Reich’s seminal string quartet Different Trains, many of the melodic ideas are derived from the pitches and articulation of human speech—but not, in Three Tales, the rhythms; here, the speech recordings are subtended to click into the frame of a regular pulse. The video speed, too, is synchronized to musical time and not “mimetic” time or real-time, if you get my meaning.

We see some captivating archival images in the first two movements, chiefly the ones that draw attention to the logistics of large-scale technology, like the construction of the Hindenburg (set to variations on the Nibelung motif from Wagner’s Ring) or the dislocation of indigenous people and livestock in preparation for the Bikini tests (with thunderous sforzandi from Genesis to spice things up). What I can’t quite fit into the picture is the Dolly movement, a contrapuntal collage of video interviews with prominent scientists like Richard Dawkins, Marvin Minsky, and Rodney Brooks. Korot tells us the work, as it was conceived, is more accurately called “Two Tales and a Talk”. Here’s how Reich described it:

Each of the three acts not only looks and sounds like it’s historical period, each is formally organized quite differently to comment on that period. […] [Dolly] is non-stop with certain kinds of material recurring in no clearly discernible pattern. Musically one might say Dolly was a kind of free rondo. The forms of each act reflect the historical period they describe.

But what does the piece say about technology? It sets up a debate instead of taking a firm position, adopting the ambivalence that is often so necessary for art to say anything at all. Commentators have remarked on the obvious irony of critiquing technology in a technologically enabled medium, but I think it would be facile to stop there: as in most of his earlier works, Reich’s crucial gesture is to forsake electronic synthesizers and recreate the effects of audio manipulation in acoustic human performance. It is an incursion of man on the domain of machine, not the other way round.

Yet the Dolly movement remains an uneasy fit. Consider a crude reading of the work:

  1. Hindenburg—Look at the majestic way people talked about big science! That didn’t turn out very well.
  2. Bikini—Look at the majestic way people talked about big science! That didn’t turn out very well.
  3. Dolly—Look at the majestic way people talked about big science! I wonder if it will turn out well?

I believe what we have here is a case of arson, murder, and jaywalking. Dolly now feels like a quaint late-nineties relic as revolutionary as Deep Blue—that is to say, not at all, in the grand scheme of humanity’s future. Cloning isn’t dragging us to the Singularity anytime soon, and conjuring images of Ray Kurzweil musing about robots replacing us all is a bit of a logical stretch.

Perhaps, as someone too irreligious to get his pants in a twist about the classic Promethean fears of man indulging in acts of creation proper to God, the message of Three Tales is lost on me. Or maybe the point is that the message is lost on everyone else.

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