Science And Sex
Part of the BBC Proms 2014 programme, A Man From The Future is based on the life and work of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who broke the Enigma code, allowing the Allies to win WW2 by anticipating U-Boat position, therefore ending the German maritime supremacy. Turing is considered today a pioneer in computer programming. While worthy of a Nobel Prize, his work was hampered by two facts: he worked for the Secret Service and was openly homosexual at a time sodomy was still considered “gross indecency”. He was prosecuted and he committed suicide in 1954. Only in 2009 the Gordon Brown government apologised, a royal pardon being granted by the Queen in late 2013.
One does not know much about music when it’s not a song or a movie soundtrack, but was lured to listen to this orchestral suite as it was composed by the Pet Shop Boys, following their previous endeavours out of the pop format, like their 2004 soundtrack for Battleship Potemkin or their 2011 ballet The Most Incredible Thing. The music mixes the BBC Orchestra, the BBC Singers, electronics and excerpts from Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing; it is more a musical tale than anything, composed as it is of eight segments.
The BBC programme has three segments, all premiering in their live version at the Royal Albert Hall. First segment is a live rendition of the rather pompous Overture to Performance, a symphonic Megamix orchestrated by Richard Niles and played in, well, overture to each live performance of the PSB eponymous 1991 World Tour. Following the tempo of 10 previous hits, the piece jumps from classical to big band, and is more a nudge to loyal fans than something able to stand on its own.
The second segment, Four Songs in A-minor has songs PSB written in this key orchestrated by Angelo Badalamenti and sung by Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders. Her distinctive voice has not aged one bit and she does a great job at performing Love Is A Catastrophe, Later Tonight, Vocal and, in duet with Neil Tennant, the version of Rent previously sung by Liza Minelli. The two stronger songs are the slow ones and the two others, more recent ones paling in comparison, especially Vocal, not a great track to begin with. It is nevertheless a great performance by a very gifted singer.
A Man of The Future closes the programme, orchestrated by Sven Helbig. Once again, one is anything but a musical reviewer but what is captivating in the 45′ piece is the narration by actress Juliet Stevenson, lifted with talent from what seems to be a very clever and well written biography. The story is tells is more involving than A Beautiful Mind or The Imitation Game, two award vehicles which attempted at an Alan Turing biopic and both failed, the former by replacing homosexuality by Jennifer Conelly and the later promiscuousness by a quasi-chaste attraction to a co-worker. The piece is also reminiscent of the Paddy McAloon solo track I Trawl The Megahertz, on the album of the same name.
“Can you feel what I feel? Can you feel what I think?” is a major motive here, asking one fundamental, unanswerable question; what’s in me which is the same than the others, and what’s in me which is different? Being a mathematician and a genius,Turing couldn’t be satisfied by the unanswerable and so he dreamed of an universal machine, combining pure mathematics and mechanics, an electric brain.
He started his unholy collaboration with the British Secret Service at Bletchley Park, “the goose who lay the golden eggs and never cackles”, according to Churchill. After slaying the Enigma encryption code, he devised his own encryption system, Delilah, “the deceiver of men, turning secret words into white noise” – and Churchill’s in the process.
Turing laid the basis of computer programming by focussing on two essential functions of the human brain: memory and control. Heaven knows he would have been able to do next if a trap organised by the British police has not laid to his prosecution, chemical castration and ultimately his suicide. “A homosexual is automatically considered a security risk”, tersely stated an official, and indeed Great Britain would have its fair share of evil gay spies in its Philby period.
Brilliantly exposed as “a conflict between innocence and experience”, Turing’s predicament, conflicted as he was between the universal and the individual and feeling “a lack of reverence for everything but the truth”. The final segment features a recording of Gordon Brown’s apology, “I am very proud to say we’re sorry”, the text of the Royal Pardon, and a capella last words, “The law killed and the spirit gave life.” Tough stuff.
(The Chrissie Hynde performance is captured on a cell phone, the rest is audio only. A record and a more visual production of the show are in project.)