April 13, 2008

McDaid's Keyboard Practice

I was wandering in the depths of my collection of mp3 files, looking for something to accompany a long walk, and stumbled upon John D. McDaid's "Keyboard Practice", which I'd found via a January 2006 Cory Doctorow posting on BoingBoing. It's still available (read by McDaid himself) for download, and its two hours of running time is really, I mean really worth your attention. An excerpt from John Joseph Adams' SciFiWire interview suggests a bit of the why, in terms of theme and antecedents:

"Keyboard Practice," which originally appeared in the January 2005 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, tells the story of a near-future piano competition. "[It's] conducted in the harsh style of American Idol, set in a world of ubiquitous podcasting and intelligent pianos, and narrated by a disaffected sound technician," McDaid said. "Drawing on the structure of Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations, the story is told through a series of short scenes—variations—at the climax of which the spirit of a former winner seems to appear."

McDaid added: "On one level, I was trying to write a hard-SF ghost story, using musical scores, DNA, A.I. and physicist David Bohm's notion of the 'implicate order' as points of entry. I was fascinated as a college student by [Douglas R.] Hofstadter's [book] Gödel, Escher, Bach. My friend Michael Joyce, a mainstream novelist, turned me on to the Goldberg Variations and suggested it had literary possibilities. That fit very nicely with the ideas I was playing with."

McDaid recently read and recorded an MP3 version of the story and has made it available as a free download on his Web site. "Podcasting is central to the story; it would be really obtuse of me not to use the [audio] medium," he said.

I have a lifelong entanglement with the music of J.S. Bach, and enjoy binges from time to time. McDaid offers all sorts of inducements to dust off various versions of the Goldberg Variations, but he also sneaks in some wonderful commentary on elements of present-day life. I'll quote a couple:

(Manny the AI piano on equal temperament)
"Equal temperament is a typical meat-assed solution," said Manny. This was one of the Manster's leitmotifs, and once he fired this subroutine, you had little choice but to take the ride. I was testing his solenoids, two hours until the second round started, so I just grunted noncommittally.

"A key's true intervals are based on harmonics, the vibrations of fractional lengths of its fundamental string. But that means an F relative to a C isn't the same as an F relative to a D. That's okay for one-key instruments, but in us keyboards, where the scale is modular and repeatable, my ancestors' Northern European artisans ran into tuning problems immediately."

I knew what was coming, with the same numbing certainty you have watching the first act of a tragedy. In case we humans missed it, here was our hamaitia, from Manny's unbiased perspective.

"So they resorted to a purely arbitrary mathematical solution. Equal temperament."

"And why," I said with mock curiosity, "is that such a bad thing?"

"In their pornographic haste to cram every key into one box, they bashed each one until it fit. Instead of fractions of the fundamental, the ratio of each successive semitone's frequency increases by the twelfth root of two. Does that sound like a solution designed by nature? It makes all keys suboptimal. But prior to digital instruments, it was imposed by your Western scale and the physical realities of keyboard hardware."

(describing the contestants)
There is, about the contestants, a common sense of anticipation and emptiness; despite well-honed performance personae, in some sense, they all have heads like blank media. Every year they come here, and I realize all over again that they are just kids, really; most teenagers, the rest still developmentally adolescent. Social misfits, chained to keyboards, with acne problems, arrested sexuality, feature length backlists of old comedy routines burned into long-term memory, obsolete tattoos, bedrooms plastered with fatally idiosyncratic icons, circles of friends who tolerate their clinging presence because it occasionally deters the wrath of vice-principals, fantasies of broad-spectrum competence...

I found the text of the story (48 pages) via ProQuest, and I'm happily reading through it to re-savor what I heard. There's a lot tucked into this one.

Posted by oook at April 13, 2008 03:53 PM