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mathematician, composer, photographer, fiddler

12 Apr 2019 | categories: Photographs, Bicycles, Music, Film

Two Favorite Inventions

Carl McTague with Two Favorite Inventions (2019)

The tandem bicycle & player piano. This beautiful tandem [named Magnificient, after la Bête’s horse le Magnifique in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946)] was designed by Benno Bänziger, whose designs combine European sensibility with California hot rod style. [He grew up in the Swiss embassy in West Berlin obsessed with all things Californian.]

For some excellent player piano music, hear me on the radio playing recordings of the player piano études of my hero Conlon Nancarrow (1912–1997), sent to me by composer and Nancarrow champion Charles Amirkhanian, after I sat next to him by chance at a Nancarrow festival at the Southbank Centre in London in 2012.

A week after my radio appearance, at Eastman House in Rochester, I met and shook hands with Keir Dullea, who played astronaut [“I’m afraid I can’t do that”] Dave Bowman in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). At the film’s climax, Bowman deactivates HAL’s circuits as HAL sings “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)”, Blooming Magnificient – A Bicycle Built for Two the first song ever sung by a computer—an IBM 704 at Bell Labs in 1961. [The song’s musical accompaniment was programmed by another hero, computer music pioneer Max Mathews.]

Daisy, Daisy,
Give me your answer, do!
I’m half crazy,
All for the love of you!
It won’t be a stylish marriage,
I can’t afford a carriage,
But you’ll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two!

After deactivating HAL, Bowman makes his cinematic & enigmatic descent onto the monolith—a descent inspired, I believe, by Berton’s descent to Solaris in Stanisław Lem’s 1961 novel—to the soundtrack of Atmosphères (1961) by György Ligeti, who did much to promote Nancarrow and whose later piano études were inspired by his. [Andrei Tarkovsky, in his 1972 film, transforms the same descent into a pastiche of allusions to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow (1565) and Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son (1669)—or, rather, transforms these allusions into the surface of Solaris. Abbas Kiarostami’s final film 21 Frames (2017) is, incidentally, a meditation on the same Bruegel.]