Prosthetic Music

If you haven’t seen scientist Steven Hawking give a talk, let me give you a quick background. Hawking has amyotorphic lateral sclerosis, which makes it virtually impossible for him to move anything more than his fingers, or to speak. A friendly computer engineer put together a nice little system for him, a program that displays a meny of words, a storage buffer and a Votrax allophone generator – i.e. an artificial speech device. He selects words and phrases, the word processor stores them until he forms a paragraph, and the Votrax says it. Or he calls up a prepared file, and the Votrax says that.(…) And there is Hawking, Sitting, as he always does, in his wheelchair, utterly motionless, except for his fingers on the joystick of the laptop (…)
Exactly, where, I say to myself, is Hawking?… Who is it doing the talking up there on stage?
In an important sense, Hawking doesn’t stop being Hawking at the edge of his visible body. There is the obvious physical Hawking, vividly outlined by the way our social conditioning teaches us to see a person as a person. But a serious part of Hawking extends into the box on his lap. In mirror image, a serious part of that silicon and plastic assemblage in his lap extends into him as well (…) No box, no discourse; in the absence of the prosthetic, Hawking’s intellect becomes a tree falling in the forrest with nobody around to hear it. On the other hand, with the box his voice is auditory and simultaneously electric, in a radically different way from that of a person speaking into a microphone.
Where does he stop? Where are his edges? The issues his person and his communication prosthesis raise are boundary debates, borderland/frontera questions.

I had a similar dilemma listening/watching some of the latest works by Steve Reich or Michel Van der Aa. Watching/listening, for example, violoncellist Maya Beiser in Reich’s Cello Counterpoint, or singer Barbara Hannigan performing in van der Aa’s opera One, I was wondering: Where does the performer’s body stop? Where are the performer’s edges?
Although any relation between performer and music instrument could be considered as prosthetic, it seems that exactly the relation between the human body and its artificial extension was strongly problematized in mentioned works. Through the history the relation between the performer and the instrument became ‘default’, almost organic relation. If the function performer-instrument is considered as the organism itself, now that organism was put in the prosthetic relation with the electronic sound system.

Barbara Hannigan in ‘One’. So, Performer as a cyborg?
Cyborgs – persons, systems – whose functioning is aided by, or dependent upon a mechanical or electronic device, are used as powerful metaphors, symbols or interlaced functioning relations in some music languages of contemporary composers. Performers human bodies became insufficient, and have been upgraded with devices that substitutes for, or supplements a part of the body, or moreover, the part of perception. Composers opened a network of prosthetic tasks for performers. Relation between the body of performer and the body of the instrument is placed in the relation with the pre-recorded sound.

One, Barbara Hannigan tuplets
Barbara Hannigan in ‘One’

Demands for performer’s perception, listening and act of performance have been changed. They are transformed into the sound cyborgs.
“Gradually leaving the usage of our natural receptive organs, our sensuality, we are guided as a handicapped persons with some kind of cosmic overreacting, phantom chasing of the different worlds and shapes, where the ‘old animal body’ doesn’t have its place anymore, where the complete symbiosis between the human and technology is taking place”, claims Paul Virilio, and continues to remember different prosthetic relations: “Conglomerate of the scanner, nose-spasms, wondering tongues, cyber ears, sexes without secretion and the other organs without body… it is just a cheating which tries to escape the death…”

Composer Michel van der Aa strongly problematizes prosthetic relations in his piece Here [in circles] (2002) and opera One (2003). Singer Barbara Hannigan is one and only diva of this opera/performance relation. Opera starts in complete dark. There are two white sheets on the stage. Behind one of them is Barbara Hannigan who rhythmically repeats one tone. First she sings ‘alone’, and when electronics starts, it takes exactly the same tone from the soloist and continues to reproduce it in its superior technical durability. There is the author’s first reference on the notions of one, only, unique. In today’s world of explosion of the information which is cloning and replicating its own realities, the notion of one, only, unique is obsolete. Van der Aa counts exactly with that problem. The soprano has an alter ego in the video that she does duets with. They interact and complete each others music and movements, describes him.

Composition by the same author Here [in circles] could be considered as a study for the examined opera. Moved by the rhythm of living in media and information society, he is founding the dramaturgy of the piece in the constant acceleration of the music flow. There is the playing with the fast forward rewinding sound, and also counterpointing the live performance to fragments recorded at the very same concert and broadcasted during live playing.

With all above mentioned ‘techniques’ van der Aa also plays in context of the opera. He is a triple author of One – he composed music, directed video and wrote a libretto. One become multiple in many ways: Barbara Hannigan meets her own reproduced video image on the stage. They are both dressed in the same way, they are both of the same size, and they both have the same voice – which is the most important thing for the whole opera. Multiplying of her own representation was a great virtuoso task for Hannigan, both visually and auditively. Opera ends with meeting of real Barbara Hannigan and her representation who is simulated to be around fifty years older. Two flows of time ended up together. Schizo-listening is one of the consequences in this case also. Virtuous usage of technology in this work, and also mechanical, almost hysterical, virtuosity which is demanded, are deeply integrated in the opera tissue. That ‘natural’ integration is the strongest actuality of this piece.

One, Barbara Hannigan, under tableBarbara Hannigan in ‘One’

We are put into the position to listen the opera One as a schizo-construction. Or even further, we are not listening the work any more, we are listening just the relation between the performer and a sound machine. And the performer supposedly is not listening to the whole piece, he/she is mainly seeking the right position to take in front of the ‘network condition’ of the work. Work is not important, relation is.
But, what happened to the composer in that process? He became a network of interfaces?
According to Lyotard, “grounded in electronics and informatics, the new technologies must be considered, always in the same light, as material extensions of our capacity to remember… “ The institution of composer in van der Aa’s case is prosthetic in terms in which philosopher David Wills uses this notion. He uses the term of amputation inseparable with the term of prosthesis. “It is not possible to amputate anything if we don’t know that we are able to produce the replacement for what we amputated. In that sense, the very prosthesis is also amputation”, claims Villis. Composers of the music we call prosthetic are not composing the narrative, mimetic music. Their music is functioning as a Deleuzian desiring machine. It produces a need to be heard in relation to other music, which is its own particularity.

— Jelena Novak
Written for Musicology Symphosium Music and Networking and broadcasted on Radio Belgrade III Program, July 2004