Mozart vs Machine – Futuristic opera mashing-up Mozart, electronic sound and video


This Thursday (September 28), The Yard in East London will host a performance of Mozart vs Machine. It certainly isn’t the first time that electronic music explores the grand masters of the past, but the mashup presented in the new Mozart vs Machine takes it one step further, adding the visual arts piece as well. In Mozart vs Machine, composer Dominic Robertson (the artist formerly known as Ergo Phizmiz) pieces together ideas and notes from across history into an irreverent collage of music and theatre that blurs the boundaries of opera and performance art.

The plot is simple enough; Alone in his Manhattan research laboratory, Raymond Scott, the father of electronic music, is developing a machine to generate random musical patterns. When one of his devices accidentally tears a hole in the universe it distorts time and brings him face to face with classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

‘For first you write a sentence,
And then you chop it small;
Then mix the bits and sort them out
Just as they chance to fall:
The order of the phrases makes
No difference at all.’
Lewis Carroll / D W Robertson Mozart vs Machine

Inspired by Mozart’s love of billiards and Scott’s experiments in electronic sound, follow these extraordinary characters as they debate random chance and the creation of music, with some help from film-pioneer Georges Méliès, Lewis Carroll’s logic games, and composers John Cage and J S Bach.

A history of opera and music explored through a pin-ball journey across the universe.

Coming back to Mozart vs Machine, its been devised by Robertson (who as Ergo Phizmiz conceived similarly askew productions including an adaptation of Flann O’ Brien’s surrealist classic novel The Third Policeman) with Mahogany’s artistic director Frederic Wake-Walker, and featuring a cast including English National Opera’s Rebecca Bottone, Mozart vs Machine brings together a wealth of historical figures including the father of electronic music, Raymond Scott. When a device Scott invents to create random musical patterns accidentally tears a hole in the universe, it begins a fantastical encounter that brings him face to face with classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. “Central to the piece is the question of how vital the march of technology is to the transformation of music: to what extent composition is a product of scientific advances”, explains Robertson. “What happens when Mozart, a composer of imagination, paper, and ink, is placed in a theoretical space with Raymond Scott, an inventor of chance-generated loop machines, and what sense of mutual recognition can these disparate historical figures find?”

What follows is part surreal vaudeville, part philosophical debate, exploring creating music, random chance and the ownership of ideas … all with a little help from film-pioneer Georges Méliès, Lewis Carroll’s logic games, composers John Cage and J S Bach and a local chorus of senior citizen jurors.

The music and action of Mozart vs Machine features celebrated excerpts from Mozart’s operas such as The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute remixed by Robertson. This is accompanied by large scale video projections and animation, which the live action moves in and out of, frequently ‘breaking the fourth wall’. The result is an almost over-the-top spectacle that constantly plays with the audience’s expectations, asks pertinent questions about contemporary culture and offers an enticing audio-visual brew to boot.

Dominic Robertson was recently interviewed in relation to the upcoming launch of the new opera:

VB: I know your productions are all different, but what might an audience expect from going to see Mozart vs Machine?

I accidentally invented a genre called ‘The Excessive Entertainment’ a few years back with a piece called Gargantua, where the idea was this assault of information that was extremely entertaining, to the point where it was almost agonising. Mozart vs Machine is very much in that tradition – hardcore, super-media entertainment…which I think is what opera can be redefined as, actually.

VB: Looking at the cast of the opera, they’re playing people like Raymond Scott, John Cage, Mozart, J.S. Bach…quite an across-the-board range of people conducting various forms of experimentation with music.

DR: Yes, it’s a little snapshot-journey through music history, finding all these weird associations and connections between them. The root of it was a story that when Antonin Artaud was in a psychiatric institution, a friend sent him a letter with a commission to make a French translation of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’. Artaud returned the letter with his translation of the first verse, but he said “I’m not going any further than that, thank you very much, because the man who wrote this is an absolute charlatan with no poetic sensibility. I’ve done my best to correct him here, but let me tell categorically that Lewis Carroll did NOT write the original version of ‘Jabberwocky’ – the original version is MY version and Lewis Carroll has stolen it from me via time travel, and then made his bastardisation of it from this time travel theft ”.

Then I was reading an annotated version of Alice In Wonderland, and I found a footnote saying that Lewis Carroll thought he’d discovered a mechanism for reversing time by winding a paper piano roll through a music box backwards, which proved to me that Carroll did have an active interest in time travel, and made me think that maybe Antonin Artaud was telling the truth. So basically the storyline of ‘Mozart vs Machine’ concerns this mechanism – Mozart is put on trial for going through time and stealing music, and basically everything that is presumed to be melodically or structurally derived from him is proven to be stolen from other people in the future.

Dominic Robertson is a writer, composer and collagist, working across radio plays, opera, song writing, and electronic music. His work has been presented by BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 6 Music, Bayerischer Rundfunk, WFMU-FM (USA), Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Tête à Tête Opera Festival, Worm, DePlayer, and Operadagen Rotterdam, and spans hundreds of hours of audio, video and performance. A uniquely single minded artist, with a challenging, often satirical, and provocative body of work, he has carved a reputation as one of the most innovative artists working today.