The Techno Jeep Revival of 2317
Why should we perform old music? Because it’s quality.
There is almost zero chance that anything you make will still be in use 100 years from now. The percentage of creative output that survives beyond the memory of its maker is minuscule, which means that anything older than your grandparents still used for its intended purpose is well-constructed. Some houses, tools, furniture, clothing, books, etc. that were made before 1917 and still retain their functionality and/or aesthetic vitality increase in value
The same can be said of music. If a work is still performed one hundred years after it was written, chances are it is well-constructed. Construction in this instance refers not to physical durability but to a work’s ability to communicate the human experience beyond the culture and context in which it was created.
Have a listen.
Handel wrote Water Music, of which this video is the most familiar excerpt, three hundred years ago. It was first performed on a party barge carrying the King of England and his consort up the River Thames. People crammed into their own boats and crowded the riverbanks to take it in. It was such a hit that Handel and his company of 50 musicians played the entire work (which typically lasts an hour all told) three more times as the barge traveled back down the river to the royal palace, lasting until after midnight.
Watch this video.
Now let’s time travel three hundred years into the future to the year 2318. Music historians are sitting in a specially constructed bubble room in the underwater ruins of Mountain View, California at the hallowed Googleplex UNESCO World Heritage Site. There, they, along with hundreds of other historians from around the world, are sifting through brontobytes of ancient data stored on archaic supercomputers.
Of particular interest to musicologists in 2318 is the site YouTube. A poor graduate student researcher, by then being paid only in stalks of celery for her 78 hour work week, is searching through the system for video evidence of an ancient bacchanalia called the Electric Daisy Carnival. By pure coincidence she happens upon the video Techno Jeep, which she finds captivating. Unknown to music historians until now, Techno Jeep’s musical work represents the kind of obscure find that music historians relish. The student decides that she is going to create a written edition of this work so that her contemporary professional musicians can perform it for modern audiences.
Where does she begin?
Techno Jeep features seven instruments: steering wheel, seat adjuster, lock button, 1st and 2nd car door, car engine, ignition indicator, and jumper cables. There are no surviving late 1990s Jeep Grand Cherokees in 2318, though the blueprints of one are available through the Smithsonian digital archives. Should she go to the time and expense to have historical engineers physically recreate a replica using modern materials, or should she try to create approximate sounds using modern instruments and technology? Is it possible to honor the sound and scope of the original composition by using a 2274 Chevy Tahoe, for example? Perhaps she can just make a bunch of electronic versions of the instruments, like a futuristic version of a MIDI file.
The next consideration is performance forces. Is it important to have eight performers? With seven of the eight people in the video being male and the lone female not playing an instrument but assisting in recording the men play theirs, does the gender of each performer make for a more historically accurate depiction of musical paradigms in the early 21st century? Could this piece be performed with multiple people on each instrument, say, in an ensemble of fifty? Is the purity and nuance of the original lost when too many people are added beyond what was included in the original performance? Is there an exception for academic music ensembles? Would it be more engaging to an audience as a Pentatonix-style a cappella arrangement?
How should the work be visually presented to contemporary audiences? While most early 21st century scholars in the 24th century would agree that techno music was primarily performed in vile establishments of forsaken morality and forgotten dignity called “nightclubs”, this work was originally performed outdoors on concrete and asphalt. Would it be appropriate to present this work on a concert hall stage or on the floor of a middle school gymnasium? Should the performers wear tuxedos and concert blacks or dress in period clothing of blue jeans, rubber sneakers, and ironic graphic t-shirts? Should they all run, in sync, onto the stage to take their positions in and around the vehicle?
Should the work be presented live at all? The original was not intended as a live performance but as a recording. Perhaps the best “performance” would be one recorded in two-dimensional media and viewed by the audience on its own time. Could the graduate student create an app that allows her contemporaries to view this centuries-old technology on the 2318 version of the handheld device (iPhone 297s Plus)?
Further cultural issues arise. Only a small portion of 2318 music listeners even cares about music from the early 2000s, and those people are incredibly opinionated about how to do it “right”. Any choice that doesn’t align with The Norton anthology on millennial music history is bound to draw criticism from scholars, performers, and music critics. Will performers risk programming such an obscure composer as Smith, even for a world premiere? The normal public radio audience really only likes to listen to the three Bs: The Beatles, Bon Jovi, and Beyoncé. Contemporary music fans dismiss music of this time period as boring background noise heard at middle-of-the-road Italian restaurants.
The graduate student eats her midday celery stalk and ponders this. What does this mean for Techno Jeep or any other musical work of similar profundity? The chances that anyone will ever know of Techno Jeep in 2318 are quite small. That it would find traction in the musical world of 2318 is smaller still. However, the fact that it has made it out of the dark chasm of history to the graduate student’s computer screen and into the ears of others should be cause for celebration! What percentage of all creative work and artistry over the course of eons of civilization and billions of lives survives beyond the memory of its maker? Should this work be given new life, or should it be allowed to fade into the recesses of history once again? Is it a museum piece only, or does Techno Jeep have the potential to aesthetically connect with audiences in 2318 in a way that connects human beings and human feelings and thoughts across centuries and generations? Time alone will tell what materials are quality enough.
How are we constructing quality music today? Should we? Is there too much of it for any one piece to matter anymore? Is our modern music made in the same way as our cars and computers and phones, made for maximized profit, utility in the moment, and to be discarded for the newest model? Handel wasn’t planning on that music lasting 300 years. He wrote it for a drinking party on a boat. It has made it this far in no small part due to its royal patronage, a system that no longer exists.
With that in mind, we might be able to see how music written 300 years ago can help us. Generations of musicians, historians, and audience members have asked these questions, answered many of them, and found value in their construction. It would be wise for us to learn that quality.