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Sunday 10 July 2011

Philip K. Dick, music critic

For an icon of popular culture, Philip K. Dick had a decidedly uncool knowledge of classical music. In an article written several years ago I mentioned his interest in Wagner's opera Parsifal, and the numerous references to it in VALIS. But classical music features in one way or another in many of Dick's works. Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen is mentioned in the introduction to A Maze of Death as the source employed for some of the material in the book. Mozart's Magic Flute is described, in considerable detail, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the hard-boiled cop Rick Deckard is an opera buff, naturally). In Ubik, a helicopter plays Beethoven's Missa Solemnis (one of the most sublime musical works of the nineteenth century) as background muzak. In The Game-Players of Titan, a teenaged kid forks out 125 dollars for a vintage recording of a Puccini aria. And so on.

But long before any of these novels were written, one of PKD's very first short stories was (in my opinion) a pure exercise in classical music criticism. The Preserving Machine was published in June 1953 when Dick was 24 years old. It's about an eccentric scientist who, worried that Western civilization is on the point of collapse, invents a machine to preserve musical works for future generations. The machine accomplishes this by encoding the music in the form of living creatures. Unfortunately, as soon as the creatures are released into the environment, they start to adapt to it by evolving into different forms, and the music becomes distorted beyond recognition.

The Preserving Machine is generally perceived as the time-honoured tale of a scientist whose invention has unforeseen consequences, and/or a satire on the fragility of human civilization. Of course it's both these things, but if either of them had been Dick's primary intention when writing it, the story would have had less emphasis on the composers and their musical works, and more emphasis on the machine itself and the way the creatures get out of hand. As it is, I can't help thinking that Dick's original intention was to make a point about the relative resilience of different composers' works, and that he came up with the story simply as a vehicle for symbolizing that point.

One reason for this view is that the story, taken at face value, is pretty ludicrous. At the time it was written, audio recordings in the form of 78 rpm records were well established (in fact PKD's first work experience was as an assistant in a record store). But the preserving machine doesn't use audio recordings, it uses printed scores. What use would those be to future civilizations? They could understand audio recordings of music, but dots and lines on paper would be meaningless to them! On the other hand, to a classical music buff, the score is the true work of art -- not any particular interpretation of it. This was obviously Dick's view at the time the story was written.

The real significance of the story is in the description of the forms taken by the works of different composers. The Mozart work (not a popular piece like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik or the overture to The Marriage of Figaro, but the much more highbrow String Quintet no. 4) takes the form of a miniature peacock-like bird... presumably symbolizing beauty and delicacy. Bach's Forty-Eight Preludes and Fugues come out as small spherical bugs, presumably representing mathematical precision (although their geometric perfection is soon marred by the development of poisonous spines). Brahms, that most conservative of composers, is represented by a low, flat, many-legged centipede... the ultimate in stability and unflappability. The Schubert animal is a sheep-like creature, playful and immature, which is soon torn apart by the Wagner animal -- a fierce, wolf-like creature.

The most interesting creation, and the one that I think the story is really all about, is the Beethoven beetle. Of course, beetles symbolize resilience and survivability, which is the whole object of the exercise... so there's a hint there already that Beethoven's works are the "best" in this respect. But more significantly, the Beethoven beetle is the only creature that doesn't change itself in order to adapt to its environment. At the very end of the story, the beetle has built a little mud house for itself... quite a sophisticated one, since the beetle is described as "snapping the door firmly shut behind it". In other words, the Beethoven beetle has adapted the environment to suit itself, rather than the other way around!

Postscript (December 2013): Here is a short video I put together on the same theme as this blog post...


tuffy777 said...

Phil was once a DJ on a classical music station

Andrew May said...

Thanks Tessa, that's interesting. Phil was very knowledgeable about lots of things! A few weeks ago I did a post about the Daily Telegraph article with the photo of you captioned as a "child bride"! I bought it when it came out and have carefully kept it ever since!