Masks and Robop

Instead of ghouls, ghosts, gorgons or gargoyles, one of the scariest things to think about on October 31st is the potential awfulness of other human beings.  In Fritz Leiber’s 1950 short story, “Coming Attraction,” even after World War III, reckless hooligans threateningly rip skirts off women with fish hooks attached to cars, wrestlers beat their spouses when they don’t win their matches, and nations still develop new ways to bomb each other.  Perhaps most appropriate or ironic for a blog post going up on Halloween is that, in the story, all women in America wear masks all the time, not because of religious stricture, but because of fashion that originated from anti-radiation clothing.

But because I’m a music guy, one line in particular really struck me whilst reading the tale:

Besides the inevitable chorus of sneezes and coughs (they say America is fifty per cent allergic these days), there was a band going full blast in the latest robop style, in which an electronic composing machine selects an arbitrary sequence of tones into which the musicians weave their raucous little individualities. (p. 40)

How cool does that fictional “robop style” sound?  In the late 1940s, Leiber (1910-1992) would have heard of bebop where virtuosos like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker adeptly soloed over fast chord changes.  He also would have heard about 20th century composers such as Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Boulez, and Babbitt experimenting with serialism, a technique where an arbitrary musico-mathematical sequence is created first and is then used to determine the music’s pitches, intervals, and durations.  Or he might have heard of the aleatory music of John Cage where chance (such as by dice throws) determines how a piece of music is composed or performed.   In the decades following Leiber’s story, certainly we’ve seen a greater interaction between live musicians and electronics both in the experimental fringe of classical music and in pop, rock, and dance music.  Authors of speculative fiction take the trends of their time and project them into the future; no wonder Leiber’s “robop style” sounds inevitable.

– Tim

1 Comment

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One response to “Masks and Robop

  1. lizzy

    shudder…too many shades of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. Why does that remain so relevant (says a proud feminist)…
    I’d rather have the pro sports teams stand up against family violence than breast cancer….

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