Zak’s “Mobile”: is the rest noise?

Hans Keller, Music and Musicians 1985

Hans Keller, Music and Musicians, July 1985

On 5th June 1961 an event of seismic significance shook the Established Musical World: during a broadcast concert given by the English Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Bruno Maderna, the World Première of Piotr Zak‘s Mobile for Tape and Percussion was given featuring the percussion virtuosi Claude Tessier and Anton Schmidt. The astute and attentive reader of this blog will, at once, realize that we have already written about this key event, but, fear not, for this is not one of those all-too-frequent repeats one all-too-frequently finds on the airwaves these days.

Armed with the background from our previous post, it is now possible to move into the playground thanks to the treasure trove in a small folder of material relating to this (in)famous event newly discovered in the Hans Keller archive here at the University Library. I thought we might take a closer look at some of it, whilst keeping in mind the serious point Keller wanted to demonstrate.

Writing in his article ‘Luigi Nono and the art of computed music’. Listener, (25 May 1961), p.945, John S. Wiseman sets the scene for the forthcoming broadcast:

“Piotr Zak is one of the youngest [supporters of Nono]; and we may expect him to become one of the most controversial figures of the future. He is said to have shown himself a convinced follower of the ideas propounded by Kagel, Stockhausen and others. His art would exploit the full frequency range of the aural spectrum, so that its realization must be controlled by strictly measurable quantities – frequency ratios, velocity graphs, decibel indexes – replacing conventional notation. Scores are not published because he considers them private instructions to the professional performer – a surprising parallel with certain Renaissance practices. A Mobile for tape and percussion will be broadcast on 5th June.”

Two reviewers picked up on the broadcast and gave Mobile their full critical attention: Jeremy Noble, writing in the Times the following day reported that “The BBC’s policy of giving the musical avant garde a hearing needs no justification, but there are bound to be occasional lapses; Piotr Zak’s Mobile…sounded like one of them…” and Donald Mitchell (a close friend of Keller’s) for The Daily Telegraph observed “The first performance in this country of a “Mobile”…by Piotr Zak…proved wholly unrewarding….There was nothing, one felt, to understand…”.

Artist's impression of what the notation for the opening of Mobile may have looked like (Zak refused to allow the score to be published)

Artist’s impression of what the notation for the opening of Mobile may have looked like (Zak refused to allow the score to be published)
© SW

Keen to pick up on this and other reactions, Keller persuaded the BBC to arrange a discussion programme involving himself and the two critics to explore the serious motives behind his experiment which was broadcast on 13th August the same year. Such was the impact of both programmes that Keller received many letters, now in the Archive, from listeners (including some from the USA). A flavour of their content will suffice here:

“Dear BBC et al, – May I offer a loud “hurrah” from across the Atlantic…”; “Dear Hans Keller, – …your experiment touched on the nature of art in a way that has interested me for years…”; “Dear Hans Keller, – Warm thanks for Piotr Zak! He will strike chill into phonies…”; “Dear Hans Keller, – With your ‘Grubenhund’ [shaggy-dog story] you have shown that the so-called Avant-garde movement is something which has no precedent in the history of music…” [This last from Egon Wellesz]. Keller’s former schoolmaster Eric Kollman also wrote from Cornell College in Iowa enclosing a couple of cuttings from the Des Moines Register which had picked up the story. And, intriguingly, a letter of 23 March 1962 from R. V. Ward, then Editor of the Richmond and Twickenham Times included a cutting of his “Music Notes” column reporting the first performance of Zak’s Opus 2: “…the BBC broadcast, during its experimental stereo session, both mono and stereo tape recordings of Opus 2 from that notorious young non-composer Piotr Zak. No doubt as the result of the drubbing he got from the critics for his first effort last year, he has abandoned his extempore wolf-whistles and random bangs and bumps in favour of ultra-orthodox post-Webernian instrumental pointillism.”

A few months later, in July 1962 Musical Times carried an article by Piotr Zak himself: ‘Zak on Stockhausen‘ which, in essence, is a thought-provoking commentary on the musical context within which Stockhausen’s Zyklus: no.9 was composed:

Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s ‘No 9 Zyklus’ for one percussionist with obligatory imagination is now to hand (Universal 25s). The score occupies a unique position in the development of music….never before, to our knowledge, has a work itself influenced a work it was influenced by; and it is that very relation that obtains between Stockhausen’s Cycle and my own Mobile…”

An extract from Stickhausen's Zyklus: no.9. 1961 Universal Edition

An extract from Stockhausen’s Zyklus: no.9. 1961
© Universal Edition

Many years later, Keller was to return to the point he made with Mobile in one of his legendary “Keller Columns” for Music and Musicians:

“For the first time in the history of music, our musical world now includes unmusical people, to the extent of their being…unmusical performers and, yes, composers. In fact, it all started at the composing end: the atonal revolution in our early century, though a musical genius initiated it, made unmusical composition possible, for the simple reason that so few musical musicians understood what Schoenberg was on about that in inverse proportion, the composing road was free for the phoney, the cheat, the unmusical pretender.”
(From Musicality, Music and Musicians, June 1985)

But I want to end with an extract from an email I received recently from Zak’s grand-daughter Zofia:

“Dear SW (if I may be so informal), I have re-read recently my grandfather’s ground-breaking article in Musical Times on his hero Stockhausen’s work Zyklus which puts forward the extraordinary concept of a work influencing a work it was influenced by… I have always felt the Mobile would play a transcendental role such as this, that it would become a touchstone for realism and the re-assertion amongst contemporary composers of their innate, inborn gift for “thinking music not thinking about music” (I have put that in quotation marks as I am sure I have seen or heard it before somewhere) [quite right, Zofia, I thought, it’s the central tenet of Keller’s philosophy, peppered liberally throughout his letters and articles]. I am proud that my grandfather was able to play such a, pivotal, thought-provoking role.

With kind regards, Zofia Zak”

It only remains for me to wish all my regular readers a thoroughly musical anti-phoney Happy Holiday.



Creative commons



This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Zak’s “Mobile”: is the rest noise?

  1. But of course Keller was right, and even not right enough: Schoenberg’s idea of 12-tone music was, to begin with, a very unmusical idea. There is a direct line from his dodecaphony via John Cage to the nonsense celebrated in Darmstadt nowadays, this entirely outdated and puerile farce dedicated to ‘new music’:


  2. Pingback: At the event: Encoding Music | MusiCB3 Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.