REVIEW: Mikel Rouse and Ben Neill's electronic opera "the demo" pays homage to scientist Doug Engelbart's 1968 Demo of computer technology
By Joe Ferguson
Some historians have proposed that April Fools Day originated in France in 1564 when Charles IX decreed that the new year would no longer begin on Easter, as had been common throughout Christendom, but on January 1st. Those who clung to the old ways were considered “April Fools.”
It is, perhaps, coincidental that this April Fools Day I had the opportunity to see Mikel Rouse and Ben Neill’s brilliant new piece The Demo at Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall.
The piece centers on a demonstration given in San Francisco in 1968 by Stanford scientist Doug Engelbart, who introduced the world to modern computing. He presented a mouse, digital text editing, multimedia communication, and networking to an audience of a thousand leading computer professionals. His 90-minute presentation electrified the audience, and would become known simply as The Demo. Rouse and Neill recreate the event as electronic opera.
Rouse, playing Engelbart, sits at a desk in front of a large screen which cuts between live action and clips from the original demonstration. Rouse controls the images with a computer set up that is both modern and retro. Across from Rouse, Neill--playing the electrical engineer William English who worked with Engelbart--performs on a mutantrumpet, a hybrid electroacoustic instrument he invented that combines three trumpets and a trombone.
Behind the co-creators, half a dozen singers perform a libretto drawn from the computer text that Engelbart displayed on the auditorium screen in the original Demo. Projected on screens mounted on the ceiling and around the theater are computer-related images that display changes in technology since the 1968 demonstration.
Rouse and Neill are accomplished artists identified with a musical style known as totalism, which was a reaction to American minimalism of the 1980s and 1990s. Their approach presents diverse rhythmic and tonal complexity, often with several tempos and musical strains running simultaneously. This is in stark contrast to the ordered mid-century presentation of Engelbart and his collaborators in 1968.
Engelbart, with his suave, Mad Men visage, began his demonstration by using everyday examples, and then scaffolding on those ideas to present more complex material and applications. Rouse, Neill, and their collaborators seemed to be going all at once--an at-times dizzying effect that mirrors global technological development.
The piece is a fitting tribute to an event that is probably not well known outside of computer science, and it was appropriate to premiere it in Silicon Valley, the heart of the computer and internet revolution. The event was well-received and very-well attended.
During the performance I was trying to imagine what it must have been like to be one of the members of the audience during the original demonstration. I wondered if anyone had any idea of what profound implications the technology they were seeing was going to have on the world. On April 1st this year, I witnessed an homage to an event that changed the way we do just about everything these days. Gone are the old ways, not by decree, but by technological advancement.
The Demo was performed April 1 and April 2, 2015 at Stanford University
See excerpts of the live performance here
This performance was the world premiere of The Demo:
Co-created, Composed, and Performed by Ben Neill & Mikel Rouse
Co-conceived by Ben Neill, Mikel Rouse & Bob MCGrath
Directed by Bob McGrath