The Player Piano was the Tupac Hologram of its day.
The most thrilling of our inventions are the ones that return to us a person we’ve lost or that recall a scene from the past that we couldn’t have experienced or a place we couldn’t have known. There’s a rush, a kind of zipwire effect. WOOSH. BANG. You’re there. And sometimes these experiences are so vivid they cross over into the uncanny and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. A list of these moments would be a long one, but try this ultra-vivid portrait of the Carusos in 1920. The rush here is a compound effect of a fabulous technology, as-yet unmatched in the digital era – a large, glass negative – plus the amazing light on that New York terrace and those eyes (those eyes are what Barthes would have called this photograph’s ‘punctum’). Or this: the first view of the earth from the moon. Tell me you didn’t shiver (and note, also, that in order to qualify as ‘uncanny’ it doesn’t need to be a hyper-real simulation of a human).
The player piano is another piece of nineteenth century tech that’s highly productive of the uncanny. The knowledge that the sound you’re hearing, when the paper roll begins to turn, reproduces with truth the actual playing of a long-dead musician – not the acoustic effect but an actual mechanical trace, punched into a paper tape by the actual force of the player’s fingers – changes the effect startlingly.
The fact that sometimes that musician was the composer – Gershwin or Rachmaninov or Stravinsky – makes it more uncanny still. I was lucky enough to be standing next to one of these player pianos – a kind of half human-mechanical hybrid steampunk cyborg – ten days ago in a Broadcasting House studio. Its owner Rex Lawson rolled it up to the studio Steinway and attached it like a grabbing symbiont to the keyboard and then brought to life one of Stravinsky’s amazing piano rolls. It was a remarkable experience: Stravinsky was very much in the room. Here’s a video I made of that strange encounter of machine, memory and music:
And, as if in confirmation that we live in strange times, a few days later, Tupac ‘appeared’ at Coachella, turning the uncanny dial up a few notches but instantly reminding me of that Stravinsky experience. I wish I’d been there, of course. Everyone who was says that it was amazing – and some were so freaked out by Tupac’s ‘appearance’ they declared that they disapproved, that it was somehow disrespectful. And the Tupac hologram, which was a synthesis of historic appearances and some mindblowing 3D simulation, is from the same family of technologies – a direct descendent, in fact, of Rex Lawson’s rattling, mechanical time machine. Spooky.