Lanza: The 1987 Max Headroom Broadcast Incident
Mauro Lanza’s latest composition The 1987 Max Headroom Broadcast Incident for “augmented” string quartet will be making its world premiere on May 15 at the 'Friche la Belle de Mai Festival' in Marseille, France. It will be performed by Quatuor Diotima. The piece, dedicated to Fausto Romitelli, is a tribute to obsolete (or soon to-be-obsolete) technology and a dark and dreary future where 1980s cyberpunk sci-fi media rules the roost.
Here’s an excerpt from the composer’s introduction, in which he recalls the famed television signal hijacking that occurred 30 years ago in the United States.
The Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion was a television signal hijacking […] that occurred in Chicago, Illinois, United States on the evening of November 22, 1987. The signal pirates, whose identities were never found, succeeded in getting their broadcast intruded onto WTTW (a local Public Broadcasting Service television station).
The pirate broadcast, which lasted 90 endless seconds, featured an individual disguised as Max Headroom (a sci-fi computer-generated television character quite popular in the 80s, coming from dystopian near-future dominated by television and large corporations).
Around 11:15 p.m. an episode of the British TV-Series Doctor Who was suddenly interrupted by television static, after which an unidentified man wearing a Max Headroom mask and sunglasses appeared. The man started to moan, scream and laugh, uttering various random phrases (the audio was distorted and crackling), including New Coke's advertising slogan "Catch the Wave" while holding a Pepsi can (Max Headroom was a Coca-Cola spokesperson at the time). He then tossed the can out of sight, presented his middle finger […], sang an excerpt of “I’m losing you” (a 1966 Motown hit recorded by the Temptations), hummed the theme song of Clutch Cargo (a clumsily-animated television series of the 60s), […]. The transmission then blacked out for a few seconds before resuming the Doctor Who episode in progress.
The 1987 Max Headroom Broadcast Incident was written for a prepared string quartet, “augmented” with the use of transducers. The digital elaboration of the instruments is hugely inspired by the modulation technology once commonly used – and in part still used today – in TV and radio broadcasting.
The piece was commissioned by IRCAM, ProQuartet, Milano Musica and Warsaw Autumn.
Further performances of the piece:
Orléans, May 23, Théâtre d’Orléans
Paris, June 7, Centre Pompidou
Photo by Roselyne Titaud