is a multimedia composition discussing the issues of democratic social movements emerging from digital media. The protagonist of the opera is American programmer, journalist, political activist and hacktivist Aaron Swartz, one of the icons of modern antisystemic rebellion, symbol of self-sacrificing effort to oppose the appropriation of the public domain by private capital and corporate interests, legitimised by modern state structures. During his short and extremely intense life, Aaron Swartz fought primarily for universal and egalitarian access to knowledge and education as a factor affecting social progress. He believed deeply that modern technologies and the internet are a vital battleground for a better, more just and democratic world.
The internet is now a global stage for all kinds of artistic activity, and the process of music composition, sound generation and transformation is accessible to an increasing number of artists. The dynamic development of new technologies and free access to recordings, educational materials, and software changed the way we listen to and understand music. It launched a process of democratisation of high culture.
In this work, musical, literary, and visual contents are linked together by common technologies and intermedia translations. New instruments, analogue, electronic, and digital devices as well as speech synthesis software were custom-designed for the opera.
Aaron Swartz appears in the work as a scattered memory. There is no main narrator, but a series of recorded voices, avatars, and bots from the opposed camps of authority and resistance. The tension between the two manifests itself in sound, verbal, gestural, technological, and visual material.
Aaron S is formally divided into three movements. The text was written in three languages: English, Polish, and German, a choice driven both by Aaron Swartz’s biography and the circumstances of the work’s gestation. English was not only the communication language of Aaron Swartz but also the political and legal context in which he functioned. The story of the Luddites, quoted in the first movement, is also a reference to English language. In the second movement, which refers in its title to Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, German language appears. Kafka’s novel is brought up by Swartz himself, who read it during his own trial: I’d not really read much Kafka before and had grown up led to believe that it was a paranoid and hyperbolic work, but I found it precisely accurate—every single detail perfectly mirrored. This isn’t fiction, but documentary. For Aaron, Kafka’s The Trial was apparently a sort of mirror in which he saw his involvement in the oppressive system of blurred legal regulations. On the formal level, the use of three languages alludes to the Hegelian triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, which becomes history. The opposite parties in this triad are conformism and revolt as clashing powers.
In the first movement, the libretto starts from the story of Luddites, closely linked with the industrial revolution in England, when due to mechanisation and the emergence of the factory model of industrial production, whole groups of artisans lost their source of income and were unable to sustain their families. They were witnesses and victims of changes in economy and production means. They had no choice but to oppose the expansion of producers, and began destroying factory machines as organised groups. That gesture of destroying a machine as a tool of oppression was the key aspect for us. The Luddite revolt collapsed and many insurgents were hanged. They died like Aaron Swartz, a revolutionary of the internet age.
The analogy becomes even closer if you remark that Charles Babbage developed his theory of the analytical machine, a sort of protocomputer, in the 1830s. In his book On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures of 1835, he suggests factory owners should use computing machines as a factor of increasing work efficiency, diminishing the need for human work, and consolidating the position of owners in the relation between work and capital. Our libretto makes use of that publication in several instances. On the other hand, it also quotes a Luddite song and a newspaper article on the execution of three Luddite activists.
In the second movement, where a fragmented narrative presents the point of view of an embittered prosecutor—a metonymy of the oppressive system that destroyed the life of Aaron Swartz—there are references to Kafka, Celan, Negri, and the FBI files of the Swartz case. Authority is something tangible here: an effective mechanism, however blurred by its comicality, which defines its interests and conditions, as well as an abstract one—which we have conveyed by a specific voice emission technique. Voice is digitalised here as an automatic voice emulator recorded on an analogue vinyl and played back from a hacked gramophone, allowing to interfere in its monotonous, flat, immutable emission logic.
In the third movement, on the other hand, there is a collection of mottos from the Aaron Swartz case: sentences of accusation and control as well as threads of Aaron’s own voice, subjected to translative rotation with the use of hacked smartphones with Google Translate installed on them. By shifting the mutually recording microphones and loudspeakers, we obtain a sort of ballet, an aleatory poetry of interception. This can be seen as a gesture of ridiculing and disarming power in the field of its robotic slogans.
The epilogue, in which aas pipes play a key role, is a voice from the future, with the perspective of overcoming the present system’s logic without usurping the power to draw a specific utopic plane. Technology combined with the human voice speaks here of transcending the existing order and the possibility of a better world—one for which Aaron Swartz fought.
The dramatic presentation thus develops from revolt against computing machines at the beginning of their domination over human life, through the moment of their rule as the system’s tool of controlling population, up to when technology becomes an extension of the human world as the world of freedom.
The Aaron S Collective thanks Donnell Knox, Aleksandra, Dominika, Grzegorz, Marcin, Rafał, Teonika, and Zuzanna for lending their voices, and Wojciech Wojciechowski for subediting the German parts of the libretto.