Debussy Versus the Smoke Detector



Unpublished, 1999

We are trapped in the weekly exodus. Friday night peak hour on a hot summer evening makes travel across Melbourne a gruelling experience. The reclining sun shines directly into our car. The traffic inches along and there’s no air through the window. Worse, our car makes such a rattle it is almost impossible to have a sustained conversation. But relief is ahead. We are on our way to a piano recital, to sit in a cool hall for an hour and focus on just one thing.

Significantly, we are on our way to South Melbourne Town Hall. Like many ‘downsized’ institutions, the Town Hall has been stripped of its council functions. After successive blows to its inner suburban pride, the building is a relic of a once noble past. South Melbourne’s gritty football team was exported north as a plaything of Sydney’s nouveau riche. Its claim to the riverside was lost to the new Southbank development, with its cascade of shops, cafes and casino. Most dramatically, the residents are annually dispossessed of their lakeside by the Grand Prix, which chokes its streets with revving egos. What better refuge for the February Piano Festival!

The final concert is a Debussy recital by the respected pianist Ronald Farren-Price. A few hundred students and pale music lovers fill the hall. The concert begins around dusk, while the sun outside gives way to the elegant lights inside. The applause is already intense as the world-renowned ‘local boy’ enters the hall, sporting a classic tuxedo and bow tie. Without fuss, he sits down at the keyboard and commences his performance.

Compared to the histrionics of Glenn Gould or David Helpcott, this is a restrained recital. Farren-Price’s body is entirely focused on the keys, with no superfluous grunts or gestures. He plays seamlessly as though notes drip from his fingers. Vigorous athletic strides are complemented with slow caresses. It is mesmerising, almost.

Despite this virtuosity, I find it difficult to concentrate. It is the end of a busy week, for God’s sake. Occasional repetitions and variations catch my fancy, but I am wading rather than swimming through the music. I feel slightly ashamed of my inability to attend. Perhaps I’ve lost the ability to sustain focus, after a week spent ‘multi-tasking’ seven different projects.

Then he stops. The brief interval between movements allows me to catch up with the music¾ as though this silence is the first note I have truly heard all evening. Inside this silence, Farren-Price draws his body up like a diver, poised for a moment before thrusting himself back into the keyboard. The singularity of his attention is like a funnel down which many minds in the audience are travelling to the next movement. Drawn with them, I begin to lose myself in twists and turns of Le Vent dans la plaine.

Soon after the third movement, I hear a beep from somewhere behind me. I don’t think anything of it at first, but when it repeats I begin to feel uncomfortable. It’s probably a smoke detector—the kind of device programmed to emit warning beeps when batteries are running low. The smoke detector belongs to the pioneer generation of devices that ‘smarten up our spaces’, followed eventually by barcodes, mobile phones and microchips.

That it happens to start beeping now is a minor incident compared to the gravitas of the occasion, but the effect is fatal. With each auditory incursion, I have to fight my way back into the music, knowing at any moment that this sniper would again take aim at my pleasure.

I’m sure others share my discomfort. The sound is not loud enough to constitute a public disruption. But judging from the ripple of body movements that follows each beep, it is clearly discernible. Will it break the pianist’s concentration? He does not visibly acknowledge its presence. In the solemnity of the occasion, I don’t think he could have admitted it anyway.

The beep lasts about two-thirds of a second and I guess it’s an ‘E’. You would think nothing of it as a singular event, but repetition places it squarely on the future horizon of consciousness. With every recurrence, the cycle of unease intensifies. First, there is an intriguing variation beckoning my attention. I follow it with trepidation, fearing the fragile moment will be shattered at any moment. For a while, I think the danger has passed¾ that the smoke detector’s batteries have finally expended. But I am like a toothache victim in denial, mistaking a lull between throbs as a permanent remission. Beep. It’s like building a house of cards during a sandstorm.

The worst fear occurs inside those poignant short intervals between movements. For a beep to intervene here would be like laughter during a funeral oration. By sheer luck, we are spared the worst.

I know I’m being ‘precious’ about this. I’m neither a ‘fan’ of Debussy, nor even a regular concertgoer, but I am curious about the dialogue between machine and human intelligence.

If the interruption had been a bird, we might greet it amusingly as another creature spontaneously making its own natural music, reflecting Debussy’s own interest in the fluid movements of nature. If it had been a cough, we might have felt some sympathy for the perpetrator and had faith that he or she would have eventually exited the hall. If it were a truck, we could feel enraged at the crass outside world smashing this fragile moment. These alternative sources possess some kind of readable intelligence that we can use to frame the interruption out of the performance.

However, the smoke detector is a purely random, illegible, interruption. On its own, we could celebrate it in Cage-like fashion as exploring the complexity of a random beat. Yet accompanying Debussy, it is sheer violence. This is no techno beat to explore the mind of the cyber-beast; it is a moment of the ‘real’ in its tragic minor key.

What happened in the Town Hall is not narrative. It is not a public experience. It is a rent in the fabric of official reality shared privately by hundreds of people.

Inexhaustible, Ronald Farren-Price repaid rapturous applause with five encores. Perhaps we are all hoping to extinguish this demon with the sound of our own hands. By all accounts, the evening is a terrific success. Even I would have to say I found the concert intensely pleasurable, despite the distraction.

Is this how the finer arts deal with technology?—carry on regardless like aristocrats reaching for their snuff while passing through the seedy end of town. During its modern era, high culture acquired an intensity to defy the machinery of human violence on a massive scale. Whether it can survive the plague of devices that are beginning to flood our own time is yet to be seen.

As Debussy says in the program: ‘There is no theory. You have merely to listen. Fantasy is the law.’

That law faces a new breed of enemy.