Max Brand Synthesizer
I am the Machine – A Personal Approach
Deep within the hallucinatory ramblings of an electro-acoustic sound, it is this voice, hollering, steeped in pathos and desperately overamplified, that sets your teeth on edge. The launch has already been prepared against a background of crackling tension, the rocket has been fired with a whizz and a bang, and has finally slipped into space to the sound of an atmospheric juddering: these sounds in the first minute of Max Brand’s tape composition The Astronauts (1962) are also accompanied by voices, but on the right side of the pathetic. Brand had used NASA recordings of the radio conversations between ground control and John Glenn during the latter’s first flight into space as the basis for his electroacoustic ode, a pathetic oratorio in honor of the god of technology.
“Glad to meet you, Mr. Brown. I am the Machine.” The technical and artistic visionary is looking for a voice – and his ego is already being merged into electronic circuits. In an inimitable meld of expressivity and a belief in machines, the composer used speech passages such as this – taken from the sketch of a performance project at the beginning of the 1960s – to formulate his electronic credo. The fictitious autobiography of the Machine becomes the composer’s self-referential identity loop: feedback at its best.
Max Brand, born in Lviv in 1896, had mutated 60 years later into a solitary pioneer of electronics in New York, and was hardly ever to achieve the publicity and only rarely the artistic and technical level of production that satisfied his own demands. However, from these years he left behind not only a wonderful machine and a collection of tapes but also the reputation of his artistically uncompromised obsession – and the tidings of an age that quite simply believed in technical utopias. After decades as a composer in which, between 1920 and 1955, success alternated with being ignored, in which, to escape the Nazis, he fled Vienna for New York via Prague, Paris, Lausanne and Rio de Janeiro, he decided to work from then on with electronic means exclusively. In 1956 this was basically not easy, but Brand’s special role derives from the fact that, unlike most composers of serious music interested in electronics at the time, he had no access to the studios that were then being constructed at the American universities and European radio stations. Accordingly, with a few friends he began to set up his own studio. They encountered the young Robert Moog, collaborated on the development of a number of components, bought a few components that were just about to go into production, and over the course of a good 10 years created the unique machine that still exists today and is perhaps the legacy of this artist.
Brand’s The Astronauts is probably his most famous electroacoustic work, and at the same time, in terms of concept, is symptomatic of his aesthetic view. Shortly before the end of this piece, Brand inserts a funeral march as the vanishing point of technology worship. Sacrifices must be made whether we want to or not, the speaker insists in an adjuring voice, while in the background the same voice, Max Brand’s, intones a Requiem aeternam, a truly unfathomable scene. What can be recognized in his theatrical concept as an Oratorio for speaker, orchestra – replaced by tape – and choir became, in the real world of the production, a furious and pathetic “home-studio production,” a testimony to its age, and a monument to the god of technology, a simultaneity of unrestricted furor and endured piteousness that would be hard to outdo.
Max Brand Synthesiser