2317: Julian Smith and Techno Jeep Return


Now let’s time travel three hundred years into the future to the year 2317. 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 is the site YouTube, which catalogs not only the audio files of historical musicians, but also captures many of their performances on video. A graduate student happens upon a video entitled “Techno Jeep” by an American “creator” named Julian Smith, which she finds captivating. Unknown to music history until now, Smith’s musical work represents the kind of obscure find that music historians relish. The student decides that she is going to create a critical edition of this work so that her contemporaries can perform it for modern audiences.

Where does she begin?

The first consideration should probably be an examination of the work’s musical structure, which is quite straightforward. The work is in common time and is fifty-two measures long. It follows a simple AABBCB (vernacular) form with a one measure introduction.

The second consideration is instrumentation. “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 2317, 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 composer’s intent by using a 2274 Chevy Tahoe, for example?

Third 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, say a high school band?

How should the work be presented to contemporary audiences? While most early 21st Century scholars would agree that techno music was primarily performed in clubs, this work was originally performed outdoors on concrete and asphalt. The acoustics of this space do not factor into the recording due to the use of directional microphones to record the specific sounds of the Jeep. Would it be appropriate to present this work on a concert hall stage or a middle school gymnasium? Should the performers wear concert blacks or 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? Arts organizations in 2317 live and die by the number of viewers subscribed to their all-digital performance programs. The original was not intended as a live performance but as a recording to be watched and listened to at a time and location unknown to the original performers. Perhaps the best performance would be recorded in two-dimensional media and viewed by the audience individually. Should the graduate student create an app that allows her contemporaries to view this centuries-old technology on their modern version of the handheld device? If so, is there any point in recreating the music for performance?

Further cultural issues arise. Only a small portion of 2317 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: Beatles, Bon Jovi, and Beyoncé. Contemporary music fans dismiss music of this time period as boring background noise heard at middle-of-the-road chain restaurants. Hundreds of enterprising music school graduates, trained in historical musical styles, are too busy writing new chamber music for violin, hovercycle and autolarynx, trying to appeal to younger audiences and carve out niche markets in a world with a profoundly unbalanced ratio of trained performers to available performance jobs.

The odds are long that Julian Smith’s Techno Jeep will find traction in the musical academy of 2317. Yet, this shouldn’t deter the graduate student. If history is an enormous jigsaw puzzle with every event and person and object constituting a piece, she has filled in one more sliver of a much, much larger picture. Recreating this music can bring people a better understanding of the aesthetic and academic proclivities of their distant ancestors and can connect them across a gap of several lifetimes and innovations. Surely, such scholarship is worth considering.