Multi-genre chamber work for one female singer, one actor (male), five musicians and audiovisual apparatus
Human beings cannot be unplugged,
nor can they unplug themselves; they only
ever care about themselves.
But above all, unlike the machine, they
cannot step outside time.
For the machine, there is no time, whereas
man is condemned to live in time.
(Excerpt from the libretto of Frank Witzel)
The chamber work Alan–T. is based on the life of the mathematician Alan Turing. His was a paradoxical life, in which critical trajectories both scientific and social were to collide, to violent effect. Turing was an unsung hero of the Second World War: father of artificial intelligence, a mathematical genius and yet ultimately a casualty of the puritanical England of his time, as a result of his self-confessed homosexuality.
After openly acknowledging a homosexual relationship, Turing was forced in 1952 to undergo chemical castration, homosexuality being a criminal offence in Britain at the time. Shut out from scientific circles and gradually excluded from society altogether, Turing died at the premature age of 42 in circumstances yet to be fully explained.
The trajectory of this exceptional figure’s life, and his relationship with the wider community, demands the most intense reappraisal. The concentrated genius and sheer historical importance of his work seem to be in sharp contrast to his social status and role as a victim. Turing seems, in a tragic sense, to embody the history of the 20th century: one of its very greatest contributors to scientific progress and yet the victim of dark forces and profound intolerance – all because he was different.
The libretto, by German author Frank Witzel, depicts a character who is both historic and symbolic. It is a non-linear journey whose narrative shifts from the exterior to the interior – recalling memories and fragments of existence as it shifts towards larger metaphysical questions.
The text, divided into six parts, shows us Turing—portrayed by the German actor Thomas Hauser—speaking at the twilight of his life: alone, in his apartment which he himself called the “nightmare room,” he reminisces about his childhood, his investigations on the subject of machines and of artificial intelligence, which he himself invented, and recalls his trial and exclusion from society. Several characters are interwoven around this central performance (portrayed by Polish singer Joanna Freszel): Turing’s mother; Joan, his colleague at the codebreaking centre in Bletchley Park during the war; and the daughter of Dr Grünbaum, who treated Turing in the final years of his life.
The text revealed Turing to be a fragile, nonconformist character, fascinated by numbers, by alchemy and by the fundamental condition of things. Despite the oppression to which he was subjected, he remains a luminous character whose intelligence projects him beyond reality, like an alchemist of existential thought. The stage work itself is based on the concept of the ambiguity between human and machine.
The stage is divided into two main areas: at the back, the real world, made up of elements from Turing’s apartment (desk, bookcase, bed...). The protagonist wanders around the space, con des in a recording device, takes notes, consults his archives...
Downstage, the Machine: a semicircular space, marked out by transparent panels and filled with a vast technical apparatus (computers, projection screens, cables). In this cold, technological space, the five musicians are, in a sense, operators whose work takes place in a hostile, complex environment of sounds, lights and video images. Here, each musician has an avatar of his own, which is controlled by means of a programme explicitly created for the project.
The singer oscillates between these two worlds: reconnected to the real world when she takes part in a dialogue with Turing in the apartment and, what is more, an active participant in the machine’s operation during the sung sequences in which her voice is multiplied and merged with the electronic textures.
Situated on the threshold of the operatic genre, the project shifts between a theatrical narration, purely musical and sung sequences, and conversations between avatars. In the absence of a linear historical framework, the project is still rooted in an increasingly clear dramatic structure: the genius of Turing resists the hostility he is faced with, and ultimately it is he who takes control. In the final sequences, Turing leaves his apartment to enter the machine at the moment when the text tenderly describes his final moments.
This Machine—which he invented—then seems to dissolve, leaving us with the final mysterious notes found scattered in Turing’s apartment after his death:
Hyperboloids of wondrous Light,
Rolling for aye through Space and Time.
Harbour those Waves which somehow might
Play out God’s wondrous pantomime.
Harbour those Waves...
Alan Turing (1912–1954)
was born in 1912. A brilliant student as a young man, with a predisposition towards mathematics; in an Anglo-Saxon Puritan context his abilities are not particularly encouraged by his teachers; he is interested in Einstein and his questioning of the laws of physics (Euclid and Newton). University: initiation in logic and the central limit theorem, the decision problem (and the order of decision-making) and the question of probabilities; questioning his own faith (he became an atheist) following the death of a close friend; meeting with Wittgenstein (with whom he had profound disagreements regarding the concept of truth). An active runner. In 1938, enters a department of the British secret services; participates in research to break the Enigma code used by the Nazis. Develops several machine prototypes and devises a model that will enable the encryption of the human voice. After the war, continues his work on machines and logical systems; devises numerous projects variously inhibited by institutions, which have misgivings about him; makes a foray into the sphere of biology, before continuing his work that will go on to form the basis of artificial intelligence; in 1950, publishes an article providing an overview of his research: Computing Machinery and Intelligence. During this period Turing also acknowledges his homosexuality. Turing is involved in a trial relating to his private life and his sexual orientation, which he never denied; with the Cold War in the background, he is prosecuted by the British government and sentenced to chemical castration; he is excluded from the scientific community and the psychological consequences of his treatment force him into extreme isolation. Turing’s body was found poisoned at his home in 1954. The story of a half-eaten apple said to have been found next to him has become legendary: some have even seen in it the origin of the Apple company logo... One of Turing’s favourite films was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
In December 2013, the British government offers a posthumous apology for the treatment inflicted on Alan Turing.