Ducks and Études

In early 1746 the parfumier and glovemaker 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 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.” The grains had been miraculously transformed by the automaton’s ingenious gastro-intestinal apparatus into stinking excrement. The canard was later revealed to be an elaborate fraud, one that fooled many eighteenth-century scientists.

Though he perpetrated this in famous anatine 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 Louis XV of France and invented the mechanical loom which proved to be a crucial technological impetus for the Industrial Revolution.

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 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 minute tolerances were governed by a precisely pinned cylinder that delivered a diverse repertory. With this 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, 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.

One of Johann Sebastian Bach’s ardent supporters, the theologian Johann Michael Schmidt, was equally dismissive of Vaucanson’s invention, though the critique of it he published in 1754 also revealed unease at the implications of technological advance: “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 Bach … I am sure thathe 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 and sound-manipulating technology—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.

The philosophical problems posed by Vaucanson’s flute player are, if anything, greater now than in Bach’s time.

It is not hard to imagine a digital performers and performances 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. Our artificially intelligent performer could even learn to throw in occasional mistake—the artfully placed error, the human blemish that brings the beauty of the interpretation into even greater relief. Some recording editors already do exactly this: they purposefully seek out one, or even two, elegant miscues and work them into the final, collated take.

Does all 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, Rubinstein, Horowitz, Schiff, Lang Lang, and Yuja Wang among others. Might a new Vaucanson devise 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 of Martha Argerich and Van Cliburn.

I’ll bet that my master-mix version of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata gathered from the most famous twenty pianists active today could 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 at chess long ago; Schroeder XXI could well clear the field of human competition.

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 have long been battering away at this metaphysical Maginot Line.  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 bearing most famously–or infamously—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 faultlessness which is now the ideal. As has often been pointed out over the last decade, this standard has a controlling effect on live performances which inevitably strive to match these levels of exactitude at considerable cost to the kind of variety and warmth Quantz and others cherished. The circle of live performance and digital recording spirals downward towards dubious perfection.

Then there is the Canadian piano virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin whose digital technique (I mean his fingers, not his post-production editing chops) and his capacity for synthesizing various keyboard styles are so colossal that artificial intelligence and robotics still have a long, long way to go before coming close to his abilities.  This much is obvious from his jaw-dropping, brain-frying, finger-busting twelve études in the minor mode. The set is an homage in title and concept to that of the nineteenth-century French piano and organ genius Charles-Valentin Alkan whose fiendishly difficult music Hamelin also tosses off with dumbfounding brilliance.  Hamelin also happens to be the name of the German town from whence came the fairytale about the rat-catching Piped Piper, though the Canadian pianist could never be satisfied with a single, fluting line. With this Hamelin it’s an ebony and ivory blitzkrieg.

Finished in 1992 when Hamelin was in his early thirties, the first of his twelve test pieces is a “Triple Étude” riffing simultaneously on no less than three different Chopin works, each very difficult in its own right. Hamelin’s two-minute sprint starts off innocently enough, but by the halfway point it’s as if the pianist has sprouted two more arms each equipped with five super-accurate fingers.

The miraculous feat ends in an expansive, pianissimo chord in A-major, the minor escapade flashing a mischievous grin as it evaporates into thin air, the whole thing so unbelievable it must have been a mirage. From here the collection gets even more superhuman.

Hamelin’s digits move at bullet train speed, but do they move the spirit, too?  The music is fun but freakish, the man a machine of many phenomenal pianists in one.

In spite of Hamelin’s current superiority over digital competition, will we eventually see the end of interpretation, or at least witness machines superseding human performance in ways that go beyond merely getting the note sright? 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.

What musical culture needs in order to fend off the machines is the real shit: honest imperfection.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at