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Reviews: Technology and Music

Discover Magazine reviews technological impact on music for 2000 and more.

Dec 1, 2000 6:00 AMApr 27, 2023 3:08 PM


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People have embraced technology as a means of making music for thousands of years, but technology is rarely the subject of a major classical composition. Indeed, the few notable exceptions have tended to befuddle music lovers. Alexander Mossolov's The Iron Foundry, a 1923 experimental piece filled with the sounds of whirring machinery, was dismissed by one critic as "music of a metallic nightmare." The response was even more derisive to George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique, which featured airplane propellers and a siren. At the 1927 New York premiere, the audience pelted the orchestra with paper planes folded from programs.

Composer Steve Reich and video artist Beryl Korot have received much warmer receptions from the audiences in New York, San Francisco, and other cities who recently previewed Hindenburg, the first act of their opera Three Tales. By 2002 Reich and Korot plan to stage an epic musical dramatization of three pivotal technological events of the 20th century: the 1937 explosion of the dirigible Hindenburg, A-bomb testing in 1946 at Bikini atoll, and the 1997 birth of Dolly, the cloned sheep. The unabashed motivation of Reich and Korot is to engage audiences in the intensifying debate over the spiritual, religious, and ethical implications of fast-paced technological innovation, which often seems frighteningly out of control and out of touch with the needs of humanity. "The question is, How far do you pursue knowledge?" says Korot.

Reich and Korot set out to answer that question in a work that bears little resemblance to traditional opera. Hindenburg is a stunning assemblage of minimalist music, sung text, eerie chants, and recorded sounds, with archival film footage, photographs, and other images flashed on a giant screen. The piece opens with beating drums and still shots of the burning German zeppelin. Voices intone the German ambassador's public reaction to the crash: "It could not have been a technical matter." What follows underscores the then pervasive faith in technology even as it hints at a darker underside. Reich quotes Wagner's Das Rheingold as the video shows workers building the zeppelin at a Frankfurt factory. The striking sounds and images bring to mind one word: hubris. Yet there is hope. "The Hindenburg has gone," declares a newsreel announcer at the end of the piece. "Her tragedy will not halt the march of progress." As if to emphasize the point, a lone airplane wing swings into sight, blocking out the burned dirigible.

The demise of the Hindenburg was viewed by many as a technological aberration. But the beginning of the atomic age at mid-century, says Reich, "marks a very different mentality. This is the first time that human beings have the physical wherewithal to do away with themselves en masse. Everybody thinks, 'Well, we hadn't counted on this.' " The advent of genetic engineering at the century's close marks yet another view. Technology is now turning, says Korot, from "looking outward to looking into ourselves." This development has generated hope for improving human health as well as anxiety over the danger of tampering with DNA.

Reich and Korot plan to weave into the next two tales the voices of spiritual leaders, philosophers, and scientists. Their goal is to stimulate discussion about where technology is taking us. "For all its excitement and possibility for good, there's a sense that you're unleashing something that can't be recalled once it's out there," Reich says. Still, he and Korot are under no illusion that their work will stir massive change. "Pablo Picasso was arguably the greatest artist in the 20th century, and one of his greatest works is Guernica, which is about civilian bombing," says Reich. "As a work of art, Guernica is a towering masterpiece. As a political gesture, it was a failure! A total, absolutely irrelevant nothing! He didn't stop civilian bombing for a millisecond!" But, says Korot, "on the personal, humanizing level, he had an impact, I'm sure— on the individuals who came to see his work."

Dec 2000 Science Toys

'Tis the time for techno-toys again. Here's our pick of the best.

PHOTO DELAY Kodak's Advantix Preview Camera (about $350) uses film but allows you to save money on processing by checking on the spot whether someone blinked or the flash failed. The Preview has a built-in tiny imager that takes a digital picture simultaneously with the film impression, and displays it on the LCD screen in the camera back. Press a button to mark how many prints of the picture you want or if you don't want any at all; the directions are magnetically stored on the film for the developer.

STOP ACTION The Quad-Cam from Accoutrements ($14) has four shutters that open in sequence at one-quarter of a second intervals, each exposing a quarter of an individual film frame. The result: time-lapse photos. The Quad-Cam has no flash and is best at capturing fast motion in bright sunlight, bird wings flapping, for example.

MOUSE POWER A new computer mouse called the FinRing ($80 from BossWave) saves a lot of hand movement and wrist ache. The tiny wireless device fits on the index finger, and has two buttons you click with your thumb. To move the cursor up and down the screen, tilt your finger forward and back; to move it across, tip your wrist side to side. An internal gyroscope measures your digit's movement, and radio waves transmit the commands to the computer. An inertial harmonic device in the iFeel MouseMan ($60 from Logitech and Immersion) translates cursor movements into various types of bumps and vibrations that can help you quickly pinpoint items on the computer screen.

MULTI-TASK Nifty new plug-ins from various manufacturers are helping turn the Handspring Visor, a handheld computer introduced last year, into an all-in-one device.The Eyemodule ($150 from IDEO), converts the Visor into a digital camera. The images are a bit hard to see on the small screen and are displayed only in black and white, but they can be easily downloaded to a PC where they show up more clearly and in color. Other Visor plug-ins include the Geode GPS receiver ($250 from GeoDiscovery), a wireless modem ($369 from Novatel), and an MP3 player ($269 from Good Technologies). A VisorPhone module ($299 from Handspring with activation) transforms the handheld computer into a cell phone and allows you to take notes in the middle of a call.

STAR TRACK Most home telescopes are notoriously difficult to calibrate and require extensive knowledge of astronomical positions. Celestron's Nexstar 80 GT ($550) makes the task easy with the help of computer chips. Simply line up the telescope to north, punch in your approximate location and the time, and the internal motors automatically point it to localizing stars. Then use a handheld controller to click on one of 4,000 celestial objects in an internal database, and the scope automatically moves to the correct position and tracks the object in the sky. Viewers can also manually direct the instrument's motors to find other unlisted objects.

SOUND SOLUTION Radio fans can tune in stations from all over the world through the Internet, but only if they stay near their computer. Sonicbox ($100) liberates listeners by relaying the radio signal from the computer to a regular stereo up to 100 feet away. A base unit plugs into the PC and transmits to a receiver plugged into the stereo, which is tuned to an empty radio frequency. Listeners can use a wireless controller to change stations from the backyard. — Fenella Saunders

Image by Christopher G. Clark Jr./Washington University in St. Louis

Dec 2000 Science Books

Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon Patrick Tierney W.W. Norton & Co., $27.95.

American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon's 1968 book, The Fierce People, turned the isolated Yanomamo tribe along the border between Venezuela and Brazil into a public sensation. Now Tierney, an anthropologist turned human rights activist, has created a sensation of his own with a book that shines a spotlight on the scientists and journalists who flocked to the Amazon to observe the people Chagnon described as being extremely violent. Tierney claims that Chagnon exaggerated Yanomamo ferocity to support his own ideas about traditional cultures, and that other researchers and reporters perpetuated his claims. Chagnon's findings have influenced the thinking of prominent scientists like E.O. Wilson and Steven Pinker, and Tierney's claims, if substantiated, are sure to ripple widely. Tierney goes even further: He charges Chagnon and others working in the Amazon with cultural degradation and abusive medical experimentation.

To the traditional communities they study, anthropologists often seem godlike, possessed of infinite resources and powers. Scrupulous researchers try to minimize this effect. Tierney argues that Chagnon and others exploited it. For example, Tierney claims that Chagnon extracted closely guarded secrets about Yanomamo society by paying local informants with prized steel axes, a research practice that created economic disparities that ignited old tribal rivalries.

Tierney's description of a 1968 expedition sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission is far more troubling. Tierney says the avowed purpose of the expedition, led by the late and highly regarded geneticist James Neel, was to study the effects of radiation on DNA mutation rates. Neel's team collected blood samples from tribal members for comparison with those from survivors of the Hiroshima bombing. But Tierney contends that Neel had an additional agenda: to test his belief that isolated Amerindian groups did not have depressed immune responses, as was commonly believed. To do so, says Tierney, Neel, aided by Chagnon, inoculated some Yanomamo with a live-virus measles vaccine known to provoke an illness nearly indistinguishable from measles itself. Tierney implies the inoculations may have sparked the measles epidemic that swept through the Yanomamo shortly after.

Sarah Richardson

Altered Egos: How the Brain Creates the Self Todd E. Feinberg, M.D. Oxford University Press, $25. I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self Rodolfo Llinás, M.D. MIT Press, $24.95.

In the science of consciousness, the question is as stubborn and unyielding as the fabled sword in the stone: How does a human sense of self, an "I," come about? In a pair of new books, two neuroscientists tug at the sword in very different ways.

Feinberg, a clinical researcher at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, takes the anecdotal approach of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat author Oliver Sacks, vividly relating the bizarre and often amusing case studies of his brain-damaged patients. Unlike Sacks's assortment of eccentrics, however, all of Feinberg's examples have a particular sort of disability: a disruption in their sense of self. These patients with altered egos "experience a transformation in the personal, the aspects of identity that are most significant to the self," Feinberg observes. Following a stroke or head injury, they invent fanciful life histories, hallucinate doubles of themselves, or fail to recognize their own arm or leg. When asked to whom the limb belongs, many male patients reply, "My mother-in-law."

"Mental unity depends on the physical integrity of the brain," says Feinberg. When that integrity is compromised, the brain can no longer maintain a seamless sense of self with clearly defined boundaries and a firm grasp on reality. Such unity doesn't spring from any one place inside our skulls. Rather it is distributed among many different parts of the brain, all linked together in what Feinberg describes as a "nested hierarchy" of neural activities with no chain of command.

Evolutionary theory, rather than case-by-case observation, is the starting point for Llinás, a noted researcher at the New York University School of Medicine. He traces the development of the nervous system from the simple irritation reflex of a one-celled creature all the way to the complex activity of the human brain, an organ so sophisticated it can generate a continuous, convincing mental movie of the external environment. "We are basically dreaming machines that construct virtual models of the real world," says Llinás.

These models are built from knowledge that has been internalized (the ability to walk, for example) and more immediate knowledge acquired through the senses (the feeling of a rocky path underfoot). The brain evolved, says Llinás, to smoothly integrate these two streams of knowledge.

Feinberg suggests that the disparate parts of the self are held together by "meaning" and "purpose." Llinás, by contrast, insists that the self is but a "local apparatus," a "convenient invention on the part of the brain." Neither Feinberg, with his warm and fuzzy observations, nor Llinás, with his coldly reductionist analysis, succeed in freeing the sword in the stone. But they may have loosened the sword from its moorings.— Annie Murphy Paul

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