July/August 2010
Rick Moody

The Gospel of the Drum Machine

Addiction to metronomic regularity causes synthetic-goth avatars to seek God.

Discussed: Bandito the Bongo Artist, Chewy Melodic Bits, Unilateral Robot Preferences, The So-Called Motorik Drumming Style, The Most Evangelical Song Johnny Cash Ever Recorded, Fascism, El Lissitzky, Goth Moping, Kajagoogoo, Gratitude

Invention of an Erstwhile KGB Agent

The first drum machine, after a fashion, was the metronome. It was invented by Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel in 1812, and patented four years later by one Johann Nepomuk Mälzel. Evidently, the device caught on, especially after Beethoven made notation in a score for the metronome setting he favored. Salieri was also a fan. Soon metronome markings were common. Ostensibly, the purpose here was to torture poor music students, in order to rid them of their listing and surging rhythms. Faster when excited, slower when pondering the meaning of a particular passage. And yet eminent composers began complaining of “metronomic regularity” soon enough. (“I do not mean to say that it is necessary to imitate the mathematical regularity of the metronome, which would give the music thus executed an icy frigidity; I even doubt whether it would be possible to maintain this rigid uniformity for more than a few bars.”—Hector Berlioz)

Still, the metronome, in one form or another, achieved market dominance and held it for a very long time. True, for the purpose of a music lesson, the ticking of the metronome could be anywhere you wanted it to be in the time signature. For example, if the piece in question were a waltz, you could set the metronome for ninety, and then imagine that the TICK of the metronome were in the middle of the measure—beat, TICK, beat—or at the beginning—TICK, beat, beat, which would be a rather traditional waltz—or even at the end—beat, beat, TICK. The same was true whether the piece was in threes, fours, or fives, or nines, as long as its measures were evenly subdivided. This was plenty of rhythm, this was a versatile rhythm, even if unsophisticated.

Still, in the course of music history, when music runs into an implacable and immobile musical truth, such as the truth which holds that the metronome has its limitations, then music history has no choice but to call out for someone like Leon Theremin.

Leon Theremin, the late, great inventor of the radio-wave playback device known by his surname, the musical instrument that launched the electronica revolution, the instrument that made his wife, Clara Rockmore, one of the foremost classical-music interpreters of her time (and if you have never heard her renditions of the classics on the theremin, you owe it to yourself), Leon Theremin, erstwhile KGB agent, was also a designer of a drum machine, perhaps the first drum machine that was ever to have any great impact.

  • An expanded version of this essay will appear in a collection of the author’s essays on music, to be published by Little, Brown in fall 2010.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Rick Moody’s forthcoming novel is The Four Fingers of Death. He plays music in the Wingdale Community Singers. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

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