Vol. 35 Issue 3 Reviews

Chris Salter: Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance

Hardcover, 2010, ISBN 978-0-262-19588-1, 480 pages, illustrated, US$ 40; available from The MIT Press, 55 Hayward Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02142, USA; telephone (+1) 617-253-5643; fax (+1) 617-258-6779; electronic mail mitpress-orders@mit.edu; Web mitpress.mit.edu/.

Reviewed by Margaret Schedel
Stony Brook, New York, USA

When particles or quantum systems are entangled, their properties remain correlated across vast distances and vast times. Light-years apart, they share something that is physical, yet not only physical. Spooky paradoxes arise, unresolvable until one understands how entanglement encodes information, measured in bits or their drolly named quantum counterpart, qubits. (James Gleick, The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood, p. 10)

Salter Book CoverWhile Chris Salter titled his book after “performance practices that consciously and intentionally entangle technologies so that they are inseparable from the form and operation of the work” (p. xxxv), I think the physics definition from James Gleick is equally apt; this book covers art works correlated across distance and time, covering the entire history of technology and performance from 1900 to the current day. Mr. Salter wrote the book because he felt that “performance studies has largely been a human-centered affair, remaining, with a few exceptions, conspicuously silent on issues of machines, technologies, objects and matter, and increasingly proving inadequate for wrestling with the complex human-machine relationships that mark not only contemporary artistic practices, but also scientific ones within technoculture” (p. xxvii).

This ambitious volume contains eight chapters, almost 40 pages of introductory material, a conclusion, and a glossary in addition to the mandatory references and index. When covering such a wide range of topics in performance and technology overlaps are bound to occur; Mr. Salter uses what he calls a “simplified hyper-text cross-referencing system” (p. xviii) to prevent repetition, citing his own text as necessary. Another nice feature of the book is the glossary with technical terms italicized in the text; this allows the reader to keep the linguistic flow, while still being able to find information when needed. This glossary alone would be an invaluable primer for anyone starting to experiment with technology and performance. I agree with Mr. Salter’s statement that it is a “necessity for theorists and practitioners to know what came before” (p. xiv). This valuable book is a comprehensive history of “seemingly disconnected disciplines” (p. xxvi), which holds together thanks to the disciplined scholarship of the author.

The chapters are first divided based on theme; each chapter then chronologically covers the span of the twentieth century machine age, to the first stirrings of the of the computational age, to the current day. It is fascinating to see how each artistic practice evolved with, and at the same time helped develop, the available technologies. Chapter 1, Scene/Machine, examines the theatrical and architectural space, while the similarly-titled Chapter 2, Media Scenographies, explores new kinds of “spatiomechanical, electrotechnical apparatuses” (p. xxxvi), such as the stage design of Josef Svoboda. Chapter 3, Performative Architectures, investigates kinetic architecture, ending with the current practice of transforming surfaces of buildings with media, which segues directly into Chapter 4, Projected Image: Video, Film and the Performative Screen, which considers projected and televisual arts, specifically how they have transformed the idea of the physical. Chapter 5, Sound, will be the most familiar chapter to CMJ readers; it ends with gesture-based controllers which leads easily into Chapter 6, Bodies, which includes dance, theater, and other body-based performance art practices. Chapter 7, Machines/Mechanicals, focuses on robo/mechanical performers, as theatrical, visual, musical, or kinesthetic creations whilethe last section, Chapter 8, Interaction, “considers the impact of computational technologies on artists and researchers creating environments that blur the distinction between performers and spectators” (p. xxxix).

Mr. Salter covers a lot of ground, and the book reads more like an encyclopedia or broad survey with glimpses of some deeper threads. It is difficult to read cover-to cover, but it is an amazing overview of the evolution of each of the forms. Obviously, chapter 5 is of special interest to the readers of CMJ, but it may not provide much new information. I believe chapters 1,2, 7, and 8 would be the most relevant and informative for computer musicians. 

One section of the book I think every artist living today needs to read is the forward by theater director Peter Sellars. A particularly lovely image I will quote often is: “What is technology? A pencil, a stick of incense, or a feather” (p. x). Mr. Sellars believes strongly in the scope of the book, writing that “extending the boundaries of this book across disciplines and geography means that surprising artists show up in the context of a much richer cross-pollinated image-flow than in many previous histories of avant-garde practices” (p. ix). While much of the book focuses on the facts of particular artists or performances, in this short introduction Mr. Sellars grapples with the issues of humanity and technology.

Mr. Salter is a musician by training and, appropriately, Entangled begins on 13 August 1876, the opening day of Richard Wagner’s Bayreuth theater, because “the overall vision of Wagner’s theater of illusion set an important future precedent for larger attempts at synthesizing architecture, drama, music, and technology in utopian spaces dedicated to the performance of singular works” (p. 4).  Other books on computational media also use Wagner as a touchstone, notably Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality,edited by Ken Jordan and Randall Packer. What sets Entangled apart from other books on technology and art is the focus on performance, and the fact that it is by one author, which means there is a single-minded approach to an organizational scheme, and a welcome lack of repetition of foundational narrative. 

It would be impossible to review the entire book in depth; instead I will focus this review on Chapter 5. Readers may extrapolate to the other chapters. Mr. Salter starts with the Futurists’ noise orchestra, moves to Thaddeus Cahill’s Telharmonium, and then to the Theremin. After discussing these early instruments, he devotes several pages to a single composer, Edgard Varèse, then moves to serialism, tape, and the new electronic music studios. John Cage warrants several pages, followed by a discussion about the live electronics experiments of the early 1960s with David Tudor, John Cage, and Gordon Mumma given attention.

The next section moves toward theatrical presentations covering such groups as Fluxus and Ongaku and the composer Mauricio Kagel. In a section titled the “second wave of live electronics,” Mr. Salter covers Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Larry Austin, and Alvin Lucier, composers he feels reacted to the counter-culture movement of the late 1960s. This section goes through 1980, when the micro-computer arrives. He discusses Max Matthews and Lejaren Hiller, then moves on to The League of Automatic Composers’ networked performances and George Lewis’s improvisations with complex machine-learning programs. This discussion leads naturally into interactive systems with the shift to real-time systems, exemplified by Tod Machover.

The next section moves back into theatrical presentations; Laurie Anderson’s contributions are highlighted in addition to Phillip Glass’s operas and Steve Reich’s multi-media theater works. The next section covers laptop musicians: over 30 composers and bands are listed. Then, in anticipation of the next chapter, Mr. Salter discusses the return of the body, including gesture-controlled instruments and performer-musicians including Michel Waisvisz, Pamela Z, and Atau Tanaka. This is not a chapter about computer music per se; there is no mention of acousmatic music, or diffusion (which I would argue is a performance). Instead, the chapter focuses on the evolution of musical performance via technology. Mr. Salter covers a huge range of topics, composers, and performers in a short time—the other chapters are similar in scope, and in density.

I had one slight issue with the chapter on sound. I know that women are underrepresented in our field, but I was struck when reading the chapter how few women were mentioned. In order to make sure my feeling wasn’t subjective, I counted all names mentioned including performers, visual artists, composers, engineers, and programmers, and came up with 152 men to 13 women. The numbers are probably worse, if a band was made up of all men I counted it as one entity, however if it had a woman I counted each band member separately. The chapter takes seven pages before a female is mentioned, Clara Rockmore the Theremin virtuoso, then twelve pages later the painter Mary Bauermeister is referenced in the context of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Originale; later on that same page, Mary Ashley is listed as a member of the ONCE group. Pauline Oliveros is referred to by name, but none of her work is examined, and it is another ten pages before Laurie Anderson gets half a paragraph. In a section on vocalists, Diamanda Galas, Pamela Z, Shelly Hirsch, and Jerry Hunt are listed, and two of Ms. Galas’s works are referenced as examining the AIDS crisis. Jerry Hunt gets a further paragraph with four works mentioned, and a description of his music. Beryl Korot is given credit for her work “on” Steve Reich’s pieces. In the laptop computer section three women are cited in a list of thirty, and in the final section Laetitia Sonomi gets a full paragraph, but the author credits her engineer Bert Bongers and gives more space to the technology in the Lady’s Glove than to a description of her performance practice.
I know how hard it is to condense a century and a half worth of music into one chapter, but this is the third book I’ve been asked to review in a row which purports to take an encompassing view of the field  (the other two were Sound Unbound for Organised Sound and The Oxford Handbook of Computer Music for CMJ), and, in my opinion, fails to do service to the women in computer music.. I acknowledge it can be more difficult to find sources for women’s contributions, but this problem will continue to be self-replicating until authors take on this challenge. I don’t mean for my reviews to become a platform for feminism, however I feel the need to speak up.

That said, Entangled is an outstanding primer on the performing arts and technology; I have asked my library to purchase it and anyone who reads it will have a full, indeed an almost over-full, understanding of the ways artists in multiple mediums harness the power of machines and computation to create works of art.