mr redheffer’s perpetual motion machine (2015)

Marc Yeats - Composer

mr redheffer’s perpetual motion machine (2015)

mr redheffer’s perpetual motion machine for two pianos | duration: circa 13 minutes | dedicated to ivon oates


Note about the title:
In 1812 a man called Charles Redheffer appeared in Philadelphia. He had with him a miraculous perpetual motion machine that required no source of energy to run. Or so he claimed. He set up a working model of this machine on the outskirts of the city, near the banks of the Schuylkill River, and displayed it to curious Philadelphians. He also applied for funds from the city government to build a larger version of the machine.

On January 21, 1813 eight city commissioners visited Redheffer. Their intent was to inspect his machine in order to determine whether he should be granted the funds he had requested. Redheffer carefully watched them during their inspection, and he stopped them whenever they tried to get too close to the machine, claiming that he was concerned they might damage it. Nevertheless, one of the inspectors still managed to notice something strange about the machine: it was not working in the way that Redheffer claimed that it worked.

Redheffer had explained to the inspectors that his perpetual motion machine was providing the energy to power another, separate machine through a set of interlocking gears. However, the inspector noticed that the gears of the perpetual motion machine were worn in the wrong direction if it was really powering the other device. Instead, it was clear that power was being routed to the perpetual motion machine from the other machine.

Instead of openly challenging Redheffer on this point, the commissioners decided on a more subtle method to expose him. They instructed a local engineer, Isaiah Lukens, to build a machine that worked on the same principles as Redheffer’s machine, but whose power source was even more ingeniously hidden (Lukens’s machine is still owned by the Franklin Institution in Philadelphia). Then they displayed this machine to Redheffer.

Redheffer, seeing that his secret had been discovered, hurriedly left Philadelphia and moved on with his scam to New York City. Back then, news travelled slowly between cities, so no one there had heard of him yet. He opened an exhibit of his machine in New York City in 1813.

Again his machine attracted a great deal of attention, but one day Redheffer was visited by the mechanical engineer, Robert Fulton. Fulton noticed that the machine was wobbling slightly, and he deduced from this observation that the machine was being supplied its power by a hidden hand-crank. Whoever was turning the hand-crank was doing so in an irregular, jerky fashion that was causing the machine to wobble. The only question was where the hand-crank and its operator were hidden.

Fulton offered Redheffer a challenge. He said that he could expose the secret source of the machine’s energy, and that if he failed to do so he would pay for any damages he might cause in trying. Redheffer agreed to this, and so Fulton immediately removed some boards from a wall neighboring the machine. A long hidden cord made of catgut was revealed. Fulton followed this cord upstairs where he found an old bearded man sitting and eating a crust of bread with one hand, while he turned a hand-crank with the other. An angry mob, realizing the scam, demolished the perpetual motion machine, and Redheffer fled.

Performance notes:
The two pianists play independently of each other. Music is cued to begin only with both pianos starting at the same time [including silent bars]. There is no ‘fixed’ synchronisation between the pianos. Whilst the relationship of each instrument is flexibly placed against its neighbour, care has been taken to calculate potential outcomes of coincidence and variability. To this end it is vital that metronome markings are adhered to as accurately as possible although the composer appreciates that it is the various interpretations and practicalities inherent in the realisation of tempi that contribute to the richly unique nature and interplay of each performance.

The score and parts:
I have not produced a score for mr redheffer’s perpetual motion machine, difficulties and variables associated with displaying the musical material in vertical alignment as represented in real time are considerable. Each performance will yield somewhat different results, interplays, gestural and harmonic references and outcomes. As a result, the material contained within the piece can only be read via both piano parts. Consequently there is no definitive performance of the piece.

mr redheffer’s perpetual motion machine can only be realised through performance [as opposed to comprehended by reading through a score]; this is the nature of the music – it has to be experienced to be ‘known’.

Time code:
Time code is not used to imply the use of any kind of click-track in performance or as a straightjacket to flexible performance within the ensemble. However, players are advised to use a stopwatch individually during the performance to help guide timings, prevent long-term tempo-drift and delivery of their material to achieve an outcome that most closely matches the composer’s intention. This is particularly useful after longer pauses or where tempo has slipped due to playing under or over the metronome markings and enables the performer to compensate by playing a little faster or slower to ‘catch up’ or extend / cut short pauses and rests as necessary to remain broadly on track with the time code.

0.0” timecode corresponds to the start of the piece and allows both performers to set their stop-watches/timing devises together before physical playing commences. 0.0″ is in effect a ‘synchronise watches’ event following which approximately 6 seconds elapses before playing begins.

Time code has been added to each instrumental part for two further purposes.

1] To help gauge the overall duration of each part during personal practice thereby enabling the performer to get a good ‘feel’ for the various tempi and overall duration of the material.

2] To serve as a collective reference point in any area of the piece during rehearsals where the ensemble can start rehearsing by each player locating the nearest time code point to the agreed starting point and beginning from there. This is in lieu of rehearsal marks being used for vertical reference and rehearsal purposes in the usual way.

3] to prevent tempo drift and keep the tempi / delivery relationships between the two pianos ‘tight’.