26 Aug 2018

Shuffles the Deck Over and Over

The Henry in Seattle is showing Mungo Thomson’s Composition for 52 Keys in the first gallery as you walk in. It’s beautiful to see the piano alone in the room, and somewhat spooky to see the keys fall by themselves.

Thomson’s Composition for 52 Keys will not run through all the possible combinations of musical notes during our lifetimes nor the lifespan of planet Earth.


Mungo Thomson (U.S., born 1969). Composition for 52 Keys. 2018. Custom code, computer components, Yamaha Disklavier piano. Henry Art Gallery, Commissioned by and Gift of William and Ruth True, 2018.1. Yamaha Disklavier piano provided complements of Classic Pianos Bellevue.

A Soundtrack for Long Time Scales

This is eerie like the player piano from Westworld, though more thoroughly post-human as it soon becomes clear that this composition is not intended for a human hand span. Part of the game in Westworld is to recognize the tune from it’s first few offbeat bars (The Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black, Radiohead’s No Surprises). But what’s the game when there is nothing to recognize? No melody returns, no pattern emerges, only a steady pace of notes that sounds both composed and random.

Are we even sure it’s the same composition as it continues to spool out, always changing? Or is it refusing to change? What’s the game of meaning when the tarot cast is always different, yet still sounds the same?

Is this the same song? I stand listening beside my wife and wonder, is this the same marriage?

In either case, I could stay, listening forever.

Here’s the gallery statement in full:

There are more ways to arrange a deck of cards than atoms on earth.

—Yannay Khaikin

Composition for 52 Keys pairs a deck of fifty-two playing cards with the fifty-two white keys of a digital player piano. Thomson’s custom computer code assigns the cards to the piano keys. Working in ascending order to match low card to low note and high card to high note, the program then shuffles the deck over and over, and plays these shuffles as sequences of notes. A sequence of fifty-two single notes is played, then a pause between shuffles, then another sequence, and so on, as the program explores every possible combination.

The number of possible sequences in multiple shuffles of a fifty-two-card deck and the odds of the sequence ever repeating are astronomical. Thomson’s Composition for 52 Keys will not run through all the possible combinations of musical notes (more than 8 x 10 67th, or 8 followed by 67 zeroes) during our lifetimes nor the lifespan of planet Earth — assuming constancy of electrical power to the work and other contingencies.

Mungo Thomson’s works in film, sound, sculpture, and photography examine the perceptual mechanics of everyday life in relation to a wider historical and cosmic scale. Composition for 52 Keys is presented as one of the newest additions to the Henry’s collection. It was commissioned by William and Ruth True and gifted to the museum in celebration of the Henry Art Gallery’s 90th anniversary.

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