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Vaucanson’s Faun and the Duck in the Attic

by DAVID YEARSLEY

In 1746 the parfumier and glove maker Pierre Dumoulin left his native Lyon and headed north towards Germany, on his way to foreign lands to exhibit three remarkable objects constructed by the celebrated maker of automata, Jacques de Vaucanson. This unlikely trio was made up of two robotic musicians and a mechanical duck.  One musical figure, dressed like a dancing shepherd, could play “twenty Tunes, Minuets, Rigaudons, and Country-dances” on a pipe held to its mouth with one hand while beating on a tabor with the other. The extraordinary duck was capable of all the movements of a living animal, the most remarkable of which were internal: after dabbling greedily at handfuls of corn offered it, Vaucanson wrote that,”The Matter digested in the Stomach is conducted by Pipes, quite to the Anus, where there is a Sphincter that lets it out,” transformed by the automaton’s ingenious gastro-intestinal apparatus into stinking excrement. No matter that this canard was later revealed to be an elaborate fraud, one which fooled many an 18th century scientist.

Though guilty of this charming hoax, Vaucanson was not an across-the-board quack. After Frederick the Great was unable to convince him to come to Berlin and be his personal automata maker, Vaucanson went to work for the King of France and invented the mechanical loom which proved to be a crucial technological impetus for the Industrial Revolution.  Vaucanson has a lot to answer for.  But Vaucanson’s first and most famous musical invention, the one he triumphantly presented to the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris in 1738, was a faun that played the flute. Nearly six-and-a-half feet tall, the faun was not a stiff, unmoving machine, but was astonishingly realistic: it had fingers with leather pads that stopped and unstopped the holes of the flute it held in its hands; it had lips and a tongue and a throat through which came a variable breath.  That Vaucanson was able to produce a convincing facsimile of human performance on this most difficult and varied instrument was a testament to the masterful engineering concealed within: three sets of three bellows produced different wind-pressures; a series of levers and pulleys allowed the lips to protrude and to change the size of the windway, controlled the action of the tongue and the movement of the fingers—all these carefully constructed parts, engineered to the minutest tolerances, were governed by a precisely pinned cylinder boasting a diverse repertory. With this the tour-de-force of mechanics Vaucanson claimed that his figure could produce motions—and music—comparable to “those of a Living Person.”   The mechanical flautist had startling implications for human musicians.  Writing in 1752, Johann Joachim Quantz, personal flute-master to Frederick the Great, claimed rather defensively that however impressive it might be, the faun’s  impeccable technique only highlighted what it lacked–the uniquely human gifts for performing a piece with the “proper fire.” Where human musical utterances were, at their best, stoked with emotion and ignited by imagination, machines were cold and unfeeling. Another of Bach’s ardent supporters, the theologian Johann Michael Schmidt, had this to say about Vaucanson’s invention in 1754: “Not many years ago it was reported from France that a man had been made had made a statue that could play various pieces on the flute, placed the flute to his lips and took it down again, rolled its eyes, etc. But no one has yet invented an image that thinks, or wills, or composes or even does anything at all similar.  Let anyone who wishes to be convinced look carefully at the last fugal work (The Art of Fugue) of the above-praised Bach … I am sure that he will soon need his soul if he wishes to observe all the beauties contained therein, let alone wishes to play it to himself or to form a judgment of the author.”What would Quantz and Schmidt have said about the modern recording industry and its procedures, about all those precise, nuanced, and infinitely repeatable “performances” digitally manufactured from the detritus of so many broken takes?  Part of Quantz’s objection was to the unvarying approach of the faun’s “interpretation”—it always played a given piece the same way, since its actions were determined by the pinning of the cylinder. But what Quantz never answered is why the person responsible for pinning the cylinder could not produce a single performance, which follows principles of human good taste, elegance, and even fire.Clearly, the philosophical problems posed by Vaucanson’s flute player are greater now than in Bach’s time.  Today we have new “cylinders”–discs with near limitless space for digital information: in some cases alternate versions are already  commercially available, thus offering a potential answer to Quantz’s objection regarding the “sameness” of mechanized performance. And what of a CD which can be programmed to select various pre-recorded possibilities as it plays through a piece?  Robert Levin already has made a recording of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy in which one can program the CD player to “perform” one of the two improvised alternatives to Beethoven’s quasi-improvised fantasy for solo piano that opens to the piece. (http://www.amazon.com/Beethoven-Concertos-Choral-Fantasy-Gardiner/dp/B00001IVOJ)It is not hard then to imagine a CD player that “thinks” for itself, one that can artfully navigate its way through the massive quantity of information stored within, one that is capable of changing nuances of tempo, dynamics, and ornament in infinite and pleasing combination. There could even be the occasional–and varied—mistake, the artfully placed error, to add a human blemish, setting off the flawless beauty of the rest of the performance.  Some editors already do exactly this: they purposefully seek out one, or even two, elegant miscues and work them into a performance, like in the beauty spot bellow below the right  eye of Boucher’s portrait of his wife reclining on her chaise longue in the Frick Collection.Does this portend, at last, the devoutly-to-be-wished-for destruction of the virtuoso ego? One way to accomplish this might be through a grand digital synthesis of Schnabel, Flesicher, Brendel and dozens of others; problems of tempo, pitch, and the like can be solved by computer. I want a new Vaucanson to make for me a musical automaton with the left hand of Pollini and the right hand of Richter. Or perhaps a digital test tube baby, the techno-love child—or perhaps clinically created product of digital-insemination—of Martha Argerich and Van Cliburn, that brilliant nature’s bachelor without progeny. I’ll bet that my fieldmix version of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata gathered from the best of 20 pianists of the 20th century can fool any international competition jury, and might even be better than the sum of its parts, thus defeating the Romantic notion of unique, individual genius.  Deep Blue V beat Kasparov long ago; my Schroeder XXI will clear the field of human competition. Disney 3-D glasses and big screen venues across the world will complete the sensory experience of perfection and even spontaneity.It is claimed that one can never edit in those ineffable elements that make-up a convincing performance.  This is a version of the Quantz and Schmidt critique of Vaucanson’s flute-player: that the soul will shine through.But commercial recordings are already ravaging this line of metaphysics.  More than any other musician, Glenn Gould was the pioneer of obsessive editing in the hermetic confines of the studio, all in pursuit of the perfect and, once achieved, immutable interpretation.  He brought this approach to bear most famously on Bach’s keyboard works.  Gould was the pre-digital prophet who first worked the dubious miracle that has now become standard operating procedure. Digital technology has made possible the attainment of a Pyrrhic faultlessness which is now the ideal. As has been pointed out by many writers, this ideal has a controlling effect on live performances which inevitably strive to match these levels of exactitude at considerable cost to the kind of variety Quantz and others cherished; and so the circle of live performance and digital recording spirals downward towards perfection.Will we see the end of interpretation, or at least witness machines superceding human performance? Ironically it is musicians themselves who, by mimicking the mechanized versions of themselves, are doing the most to make this happen.A recording should be the record of the real not a Platonic shadow. That is why Blue Note records of the 60s are so superior in every respect to Gould’s of the same period. I have a fondness for Gould’s fabrications, just I would also love to find Vaucanson’s long-disappeared duck in the attic of some Viennese junk shop.

As far as our recording cultures goes what we need, after all, is honest imperfection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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