Review of Pianola by Jo Milne and Drew Milne
(Cambridge, UK: rem Press, 2000)

by Bob Perelman

A schematic account: two hundred years ago, as poetry and painting were being troubled, undercut, and radically displaced by the machine, the artist vowed not to cease from mental fight until the dark Satanic mills would be converted into a rural Jerusalem. A century later, it was the Romantic war cries themselves that were converted, into Modernist assertions of solidarity such as Williams’s “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.” In the third stage, our present, Modernist solidarity with the machine has been superseded by Postmodern merger: a Damien Hirst sectioned cow in plexiglass, say; a computer-generated procedural text.

It’s hard to deny the general force of this common narrative. But Pianola, a small, deft collaboration between painter Jo Milne and her brother, poet Drew Milne, published by rem press in an edition of 250 copies, demonstrates the tenacity of an opposed narrative, where art’s beleaguered position in the machine world has not changed that much in two hundred years.

While it’s clear that art has long embraced the machine, the relationship remains unreciprocated. There’s all too much evidence in support of this, of the most obvious sort. Machines are ubiquitous and are crucial at all points in everybody’s lives; art subsists in niches and micro-niches. Machines are profoundly effective at what they do; the effects of art are so complexly mediated that they are often nearly ineffable for those who care and are quite invisible to the many who don’t. Machines are thoughtless, banal, yet in the accuracy and intricacy of their construction they make artistic claims like

Zukofsky’s “If number, measure and weighing / Be taken away from any art, / That which remains will not be much” seem strained. Machines routinely perform superhuman operations; all the arts are lodged inescapably within the narrow spectra of sensory rhetorics.                                             

Viewed and read within the coherence provided by their own spheres, Jo Milne’s paintings are beautifully elegant and Drew Milne’s poems accompany them in tight, energetic, tonally variegated grids. The layout of the book stages the dialog of word and image in a most restrained fashion, ministering to focused reception. But when this calm aesthetic autonomy is set against the larger horizon of the machine world, Pianola allows us to detect the old unresolved displacements that continue to trouble the foundation of art practices.

The grand piano was a prime arena for the display of ego and genius in the 19th Century; and music scores ministered to this aura. A Liszt could play things no one else could, and the scores of his music displayed the mysterious hieroglyphs of his prowess. Or a Rubenstein could interpret Chopin with unmatched fire and delicacy; the score would be incapable of revealing how he did it. The pianola was a doppelganger of this. Mostly, it was a large-scale music-box. A note from the Pianola Institute confirms the unsurprising fact that “The vast majority of music rolls for the normal pianola were not recorded at a keyboard, but simply perforated by a technician after being marked up in pencil with reference to the original sheet music. Thus there are no changes of tempi, rubato or phrasing on normal pianola rolls, and instead the operator is provided with a tempo control, which must be used to create musical performances.” Here was the site, not even of the mechanical reproduction of the work of art, but of mechanical production of entertainment. But I’m fairly sure that music rolls were also made, less frequently, from the performances of concert pianists. In such cases, the ineffability of master performance could be captured by the punched-out rectangles of the rolls. Or, in a later development exploited by a contemporary composers like Conlon Nancarrow, music of a speed and complexity quite beyond any concert pianist’s abilities could be punched onto a roll. Thus the pianola was a machine that could bring music down to a mechanical level, that could reproduce human uniqueness, and that could outstrip human virtuosity. In each case, the human senses are confronted by mechanical address. The Milnes’ relation to this is complex, but before discussing it, I’d like to sample the machine/art conflict in the design of the physical chapbook.

Pianola displays the delicately industrial chic of rem press productions. It’s about 8 inches square, with black cardboard covers displaying no print, front or back. So it’s hard to tell if, when you open it, the pages will be upside down or not. Such an object could possibly be some kind of anonymous manual, but the lack of print suggests much more strongly that it’s an art object, addressing no public marketplace, circulating via pre-arranged channels.

The binding suggests the opposite. The spine of small silver hoops is a well-made version of the cheap spiral bindings used in school notebooks. Such bindings make the manufacture of the object inescapable; and the signal emphatically that the pages they collect will be given over to routine, not ambition. A normally bound book proclaims its importance via a number of interlocking unities: title, author, genre, cover design. These tend to mask any awareness that the object you hold is the spawn of a factory. A spiral binding makes this fact inescapable, and it suggests only temporary utility: the pages are easy to tear out.

The final player in the rem press format drama is a small silver dot, handpainted in the lower right corners of the front and back covers. Looking very closely in good light, you can see that the dot lies between the words “rem” and “press” which are embossed to just the slightest degree on the black cardboard. Here, in plangent understatement, single time after single time, the hand of the artisan-artist publisher has registered its tiny silver protest against the crude iteration of mechanical reproduction. (Although it has to be a good thing for the dot-painter that there were only 250 copies.)

Once the front cover is opened, Pianola shows itself to consist of 9 color plates and 9 poems. Each item occupies the right page of a spread, so that only one plate or one poem can be seen at a time. The final printed page informs us that the plates are “photographic details…reproduced from Jo Milne’s series of Pianola paintings. These details were developed, along with Drew Milne’s poems, from scrolls for mechanical piano.”

I don’t know what “developed” means, either for the visuals or the poems. But in neither case does it seem to have a mechanical procedure. Jo Milne’s paintings, at least as they are relayed via the photographs, seem to sample, dramatize, aestheticize the mechanical patterns of the punched-out holes in the rolls. On some pages it seems as if the lens was quite close up to the canvas; on others it seems farther back. But her deft handling of paint is clear, and a strong sense of overall composition comes through as well. The paintings are focused on the surface, where patterns developed from the original punched-out ‘notes’ float above a distant matte layer, and sometimes above a muted mid-layer of notes. A few plates stage this surface/depth dialog much more equivocally; but most plates display vivid patterns of dashes of varying sizes, with the paint at times piled into thick impasto, above the indistinct texture of the lower layer(s). The opening plate uses a light silver that is rather close to the silver dots of the cover; other plates use a quite bright yellow, or white. The color, texture, and animation of the series of horizontal, or pyramidal, or ascending stairstep dashes suggests melody, aria, the grain of a special voice, sentence, or message.

I’m reminded of a photograph by British artist Cornelia Parker which presents a series of thick white powdery dashes trailing across an indistinct background. The referent is mysterious though the evocativeness of the photo demands an answer. Are these stars, microscopic marine life, molecular somethings-or-other? What we see turns out to a micro-photograph from the blackboard Einstein used in his last public lecture. As with Jo Milne’s paintings, the medium presents us with a mystery whose surface is an aesthetically satisfying picture of code. Once the decoding is done we are in very mediated touch with a mystery of high value.

Like I say, Pianola provides only identically-sized plates of photographic “details” of the paintings. The overall size and shape of the paintings would fundamentally alter their import. Are they squarish rectangles, like the plates? Or are they longer horizontals, like scrolls? Is each canvas an all-over pattern, as the plates suggest? Seeing the whole series of paintings might easily change my sense of lyrical aesthetic celebration of machine codes; perhaps there would be more irony directed against the pianola, more despair at the mechanical patterns.

Such format questions don’t come up with Drew Milne’s poems, which the pages present in their entirety. The first poem:

trill to this            its bleeding obvious
    shifts to a spark of mellow rings
in slash funky         so stoops the oops
       upside yon sauntering logarithm
           that trots but to mortify each still
simple but bristle                     such dogchat
        falls blown to log rock            the frank
but spanking fortissimo           cut now
       to one on one         dancerama done to
a lick of ooh and aah on mutinous
      pedals      pout and dimple embracing
this        its serene and blooming kisser  


As in the paintings, I can’t determine how the poems were developed from piano rolls. I do get a sense of consistent gesturing toward procedural regularities, some of which I can specify. Each poem is of the same shape: twelve lines, mostly broken in two, with one to three unbroken lines per poem. There’s some enjambment, but the staccato phrase is the primary mode. Musical terms occur in each poem, “trill,” “fortissimo” here; elsewhere, “viol of silence turn larkness visible”; “contrapuntal largesse,” etc. Most of the poems contain rhyming phrases suggesting popular titles like “Tutti Frutti” or “Scrapple from the Apple”: i.e., “so stoops the oops”; “lush dippy lippy”; “sheds loony toons”; “this itty bitty / oh so gawking skip”; “all hands on hoity toity     do the okey / dokey continental.” The kind of detournement of high art that makes the Miltonic “darkness visible” into “larkness visible” occurs throughout: “upside yon sauntering logarithm” takes the Elizabethan diction of “yon sauntering” and surrounds it with clashing contemporary tones, attaching the scientific “logarithm” to the end and, to the beginning, “upside,” which I hear as Black street-talk: “upside” as in “upside yo head.” “In slash funky” from the previous lines reinforces this.

It’s an overdetermined question whether such reference translates to opposition, solidarity, or union with the ‘pianola,’ i.e., with the totality of contemporary cultural machines. Attitude is sharply available at all points, but do the specificities add up in a particular direction? Contradiction sounds most loudly. To my ear the opening phrase, “Trill to this,” urges us toward aesthetic ecstasy (thrill to this); but the second phrase deflates this with class hostility: “its bleeding obvious.”

Do these poems manifest an overall attitude to their assigned role as art in the age of the pianola, the juke box, Napster? And if they do, how different is it from that of the High Modernists?

Pound and Eliot registered the class threat of the machine clearly. Behind the machine, the masses of “Rude Mechanicals” were no longer arranging themselves into the comedy of Bottom’s Pyramus and Thisby. Machine-made art could only produce mechanical, degraded results: “The pianola ‘replaces’ / Sappho’s barbitos”—there may be many strata of irony in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” but it’s hard to escape the typical starkness of the Poundian syllogism: Sappho, good: pianola, bad.

The pianola makes a contemporaneous appearance in The Waste Land: “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag.” If the four “O”s, the vulgarised pronunciation, and the impoverishment associated with “rag” didn’t underline the negativity sufficiently, then the surrounding lines should clinch the case:

“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember

      I remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag--
It’s so elegant
So intelligent
“What shall I do now? What shall I do?”

The pianola is a vivid symptom of cultural decay here. Like Frankenstein’s monster, it voids foundational aesthetic distinctions. Does the pianola know anything, remember anything? Is it alive or not? And it’s all too democratic, dragging the Bard down to the level of the most jejune rhyming. Given these grim facts: what shall the artist do now?

Eliot—early Eliot at any rate—is always more open to contradiction than Pound. Thus it’s possible to detect a slight hint that our non-functioning Modernist couple here might do better to go out and dance to the Shakespeherian Rag, even if it did emanate from rectangular holes punched into scrolls by uninspired technicians.

Drew Milne eschews Eliot’s use of narrative; in the Pianola poems, cultural conflicts occur between and within collaged phrases. So the surface and the overall shape is of course quite different from The Waste Land. But I read a similar unease at the artist’s position in the machine world, resulting in distaste, careful distancing, longing—though the proportions are different for in Milne than for Eliot. Here is the final poem in the sequence:

the shot put data boys sure do prod
     the pudding          rinky dinky triumph of
     nerd        mister kiss kiss bang bang on
salad days                and a pique-nique of ire
     one such rising goes        biff biff we are
an invincible brogue               the milky tooth
   party for the dumbfounded        let rip eh?
      scions of negativity    you play but the
         coolest customer in the feeble giblets
      section           petulant lustre glammed up
    in rich bitters of gimme        tilt oh lilt
me in the bother         and a not so bouncy ball

There are moments here—fewer than in some of the other poems—where I can read assertions of artistic power: “we are / an invincible brogue”; “let rip” though both are undercut within the phrase. Is Adorno’s negative aesthetics the only safe retreat for artists, “scions of negativity” surrounded by the “rich bitters of gimme”? I don’t know if in the final phrase, “and a not so bouncy ball,” Milne was imagining the bouncing dot that used to bounce over the words to sing-along texts in old pedestrian animations. If so, it’s a nicely pessimistic emblem of the mechanized verbal regimes that confront the poet. But whether that particular reading is accurate or not, the overall sense of the phrase-conflicts in the poems seems summed up by the first line above: “the shot put data boys sure do prod.” They’re strong brutes, those data boys, and to their prodding the artist answers—what?

Bio:  Active in the Bay Area poetry scene during the 70s and 80s, Bob Perelman moved to Philadelphia in 1990, where he teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.  His most recent books are Ten to One: Selected Poems, The Future of Memory, The Trouble with Genius: Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky, and The Marginalization of Poetry.


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