“A baroque thing for anyone to have constructed”: Vocality, Skeuomorphism, and Anarchiving
in the Player Piano Installations of Peter Ablinger
For two decades now, composer Peter Ablinger has been at sporadic work on a series of installation pieces entitled Quadraturen III. In each of Quadraturen III’s nine entries, the guiding principle has generally been the same—“acoustic speech synthesis,” whereby a voice recording is subjected to a spectrogram analysis, making it possible for the audio’s continuous analog curve to be digitally sampled and reinterpreted as a discrete set of musical data points. This information Ablinger then feeds into a custom-designed playback apparatus for piano—an “upgraded” Vorsetzer, as it were—the idea being that the sheer speed and quantity of the attacks will produce a simulacrum of the original voice, which the hearer will recognize as such with the aid of a simultaneous projection of the corresponding text. The listener thus “wavers” between the reception of an (admittedly mediated) vocality, and something like what composer Clarence Barlow, pioneer of the applications of Fourier analysis and computer-assisted composition Ablinger here relies upon, has (1997) dubbed “spectastics” (spectral stochastics).
Foremost among the questions raised by Quadraturen III is: in an age of almost unlimited digital means and manipulability, why does Ablinger rely upon the defiantly analog medium of the piano to reconstitute his phantom voices? After all, as Carolyn Abbate (2001) has observed, the enterprise of producing speaking (and singing) automata was already technologically démodé by the latter stages of the nineteenth century, let alone the twentieth. With this fact in view, this paper will interrogate Ablinger’s application of the player piano as a skeuomorph, here defined binarily, as both a holdover from an old medium to a new one, and as a previous design element retained ornamentally (i.e. non-functionally). First, I posit that Ablinger’s installations amount to so many anarchival “sonic time machines,” in the media-archaelogical acceptation of Wolfgang Ernst (2013, 2016). I will then argue that Ablinger’s experiments can be understood as demarcating a particular mode of (here, technologized) hearing, facilitating what Tom Gunning (2003) refers to as the “re-enchantment” of the player piano via the “marvelous” reproduction of the voice. In this, Ablinger capitalizes on the ambivalent status of his antiquated medium, the player piano having long been poised between critical antipodes, the one claiming it dehumanizes, the other that it acts as carrier of the musical “soul.” Quadraturen III finally cuts both ways, for the mediation of piano sound in the reproduction of vocal timbre also serves to play up our awareness of what Steven Connor (2001) calls the “lost estrangement” of the pervasively mediatized twenty-first century voice.