Ancient Trash Cans In The Wind

Grandpa Fulton, as always it seemed left to do the parenting, was helping Joe put on his Halloween costume, a robot suit comprising two cardboard boxes covered in tin foil and decorated with assorted electrical dials and gauges that Grandpa had found in the attic.

“You know, Joe, your costume reminds me of Halloween 1931. Now that was a night to remember.” Grandpa Fulton commencing another of his old timer reminiscences, Joe a captive audience, it’s very difficult to escape when wearing two oversize cardboard boxes.

“In ’31 a Windy City millionaire arranged a Halloween fancy dress ball and concert to raise funds for the Art Institute of Chicago. The venue was the Palace of Fine Arts, the last remaining building from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Impressive looking neoclassical building, all columns and sculpted figures, but it’s all fake, just a plaster façade. The theme of the ball was Industry and Science, and to guarantee music to match an original concert score was commissioned. An American composer, George Antheil, traveled back from Europe to write his first and only symphony, Urban Industrial Soundscape for Automatons. His score didn’t require any traditional orchestral instruments - instead Antheil collaborated with inventor Nikola Tesla to develop a series of electro-mechanical musical devices specifically for the premiere. Unique music requires unique instruments, he pronounced. I was apprenticed to Nikola Tesla at the time, employed to cable up the electric motors, so I got a free ticket.

“On the evening of the ball folks arrived in all manner of fancy dress. The less adventurous in traditional witches and devils getups, more fashionable types chose characters from the latest Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff films - Dracula, blood dripping from canines, Frankenstein, bolts jutting from neck. One man dressed as Svengali, attempting to hypnotize any girl that came within distance. As you might expect given the party theme many folk came dressed as spacemen or rocket ships. Plus all manner of robots, including several robot Marias like you’d see in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

“The symphony began while the partygoers mingled in the main exhibition room. Tesla’s electro-mechanical orchestra was arranged into a number of sections. One section consisted of a steam engine connected to steel pipes and tubes that generated whistles and hissing sounds. Another consisted of electric motors, bearings either already worn or deliberately distressed, attached to imbalanced rotational weights. As the motors turned, bearings murmured and rumbled, the sounds resonating on baseplates, creating a deep humming that built and decayed as motor speeds rose and fell. In the east wing, more motors, connected via belts to thousands of camshafts, drove oscillating mallets up and down, the mallets striking metal, wood and plastic sheets of various dimensions. In the west wing a set of bronze bells on chains were being drawn across metal gratings. The chains repeatedly wound and unwound on drums, generating a noise like ancient trash cans in the wind.

“Placed against the walls of the palace were a set of steam powered oscillators, Tesla coils, tuned to the natural frequencies of the structure. These produced massive thuds and booms giving the underlying beat of the music. Frequencies so low they caused sudden bowel evacuations in more than one guest walking past. All of the orchestral machinery was operated by life-size automata dressed in rubber and chrome robot suits, perhaps illustrating Tesla’s own belief that the human soul is just a self-propelled automaton controlled by external stimuli.

“In the center of the main hall, under a 20 foot Tesla coil, organic noises from various marine animals in a tank were recorded, and then processed through banks of electric circuitry, humming vacuum tubes, resistors and capacitors, re-amplified and transmitted by radio wave to loudspeakers throughout the building. From one tank came the pulsating drone of male midshipman fish, driven to a sexual frenzy by female hormones released into the water. Another tank contained pistol shrimp slowly feed on a diet of small fish. As their huge claws shut, the collapsing cavitation bubbles generated percussive snaps, killing their prey, and all picked up by hydrophones to be amplified and echoed to the party goers.

“The final part of the orchestra was the audience members themselves, coaxed into vocalizing ‘buh’ ‘t’ and ‘kuh’ sounds into a highly amplified microphone, as if imitating the sound of drums and cymbals. Joe, this was the sound of the future for sure.

“The rest of this tale is a bit much for your young ears, but this is Halloween so what the heck, just don’t tell your mom. To make the cacophony of industrial noise tolerable alcohol was nigh-on obligatory, and by midnight the party was in full swing. Don’t forget, Joe, this was the height of prohibition, so everyone’s fancy dress costume included a hiding place or two for a bottle of scotch or vodka, but initial supplies soon ran dry. Drivers were sent off in search of supplementary booze. Al Capone’s warehouses were considered a fair source of liquid tax return for the good citizens of Chicago now he was locked-up, and gin, vodka and whisky began arriving by the truck-load. The free-flowing alcohol, the scent of mating fish pheromone, the deep almost primordial humming of the tesla oscillators - it wasn’t surprising folk started getting frisky and feisty. Hands started wandering where they shouldn’t, sometimes welcomed and returned, or else fists would fly and small brawls broke out. Two of the robot Marias were found fighting inside a restroom after exchanging insults regarding the enormous size of their fake metallic breasts.

“As the evening started getting interesting, or degenerating depending on your viewpoint, an electrical storm began to brew over Lake Michigan. Was it caused by Tesla’s machinery or drawn to it? No one will ever know. Either way a massive lightning bolt flew down from the sky, hitting the generators and overloading the orchestra’s circuitry. Sound volumes rocketed to ear-damaging levels. A nightmare, people were petrified, literally frozen in fear. The Tesla oscillators shaking the structure of the building uncontrollably, closed loop feedback spiraling out of control, the plaster façade began to break away. Fearing the worst, Tesla pulled the massive master power switch to off. More sparks flew but with enormous energy already within the system it was too late. The façade fell away, giving the appearance that the very building itself was collapsing, and the streets around the Palace of Art filled with tumbled and crumbling caryatids and telamones.

“Then suddenly the storm cleared, and the partygoers heard the distant sound of police sirens. Revelers quickly came to their senses realizing that Elliot Ness and his posse of Bureau of Prohibition officers were coming. Everyone fled out the back, taking the secrets of the evening’s events with them. Afterwards no one knew what to do with Tesla’s mysterious machinery. You can still find it there today in the very same building - now the Chicago Industrial Museum. That’s a true story, Joe.”