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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #191
Die Musikalische Schreibmaschine
David Gunn

The setting sun reflected red and blue-gray off of the glass walls of the towering office building. Gazing out over the city from a tastefully furnished room on the topmost floor stood the composer, as gaunt as the building was monolithic. He watched the denizens below him as they began their nighttime rituals of bus poker, movie races, subway comedy, and pasta brawls. By the time the street-level cacophony had washed up to him, it had softened, and taken on an agreeably sonorous luster.

The composer walked over to his desk, sat down, and ran his fingers over the knotty pine veneer, tapping the burls as if they were organ stops. He studied the pictures on the desktop. They were illustrations of music he'd written in the past, important milestones in his career: an herb symphony, a chorale for gazetteers, the Upholstery Sonata. After a few minutes of rumination, he punched a button on the intercom. Immediately, the secretary burst through the door like a moth through the business end of a Bunsen burner. They looked at one another, as always, with surprise. The room was filled with a nervous tension. No words were spoken; both knew the ritual well. At last, the composer leaned back in his chair, tapped the piņata dangling just overhead and began to hum. A jagged melody coalesced out of the seemingly haphazard droning, and he motioned to his secretary. She promptly sat down at her work station and began to type.

Before it was deposed by the computer, the musical typewriter enjoyed widespread popularity during the late '60s and early '70s. The machine was not easy to work efficiently, however, and skilled operators were in constant demand. It consisted of a bi-level keyboard, numerous shift controls and, importantly, a correcting key. The first level of keys represented two chromatic octaves, F to F. One set of shift keys raised and lowered the notes by additional octave increments. Another group of keys changed the value from whole note to 64th note. The lower level keys were for dynamic markings, time signatures and bar line refinement. As long as the piece didn't make unusually intricate demands on the score, the musical typewriter could produce an attractive, water-repellent manuscript in half the time it took to do so by hand. However writing a score of orchestral proportions, while possible, took a very careful eye to detail. Because the machine was manual and had no electronic components, it operated strictly in real time. It had no capacity to store and retrieve data. Conversely, there was never any risk of operating one in a thunderstorm.

Ironically, it was a thunderstorm that brought the curtain down on the musical typewriter's celebrity. On April 6, 1971, Igor Stravinsky was sequestered on the topmost floor of the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan working on what he hinted would be his greatest work, a composition that could stand as the musical milestone for the 20th century. Late in his 88th year, Stravinsky's writer's cramp had recently become chronic, so he borrowed one of these musical devices from his agent, Dubuque Bengaze. Although he allowed no one into his chambers, friends in an adjoining room could hear Stravinsky banging out notes on the hotel piano, followed by intermittent typewriter keystrokes. The correction key had a little bell attached to it -- a vexing way to acknowledge a mistake -- and its incessant ringing was accompanied by Russian curses, progressing from restrained to fulminatingly loud. Meanwhile, the wind shifted, and storm clouds that had been brewing on the horizon had scudded directly above the hotel. Lightning flashed, thunder boomed, and rain fell suddenly hard upon the streets. People who had been engaged in the nighttime rituals of bus poker, movie races, subway comedy and pasta brawls scurried for cover. And then, tragedy struck. According to an eyewitness in the adjacent office building, whose high, monolithic glass walls reflected red and blue-gray from the bursts of lightning, the window in the topmost suite of rooms in the Algonquin Hotel abruptly flew open. A short, wiry man held what looked to be a large typewriter over his head, uttered something unintelligible, and flung it out the window. Simultaneously, a bolt of lightning struck the machine, caromed off, and then struck the man in the hotel room. The attendant thunder sounded like a bomb, and the people in the adjoining room suffered acute tinnitus. The door to Stravinsky's room had been blown out, and his friends discovered him, charred and lifeless. Looking for a scapegoat, they denounced the musical typewriter as the mechanical interloper that brought an end to the composer's life and, in particular, his magnum opus.

Soon thereafter, the device was universally reviled, and even banned in 17 states, and the company that manufactured it, DeSoto Musical Products, went out of business.

We, however, i.e. Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, are still in business -- the business of providing you, our listening audient, with the absolute best in contemporary music that we don't have to pay for, and nowhere will that be more evident than in this exclusive 191st episode, with or without the services of he who would be Kalvos.