placeholderA Man from the Future

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In commemoration of the centenary of the birth of the brilliant British mathematician and pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing, Neil and Chris began work in 2012 on what they have described as "a rather epic piece of music." Although they had originally considered composing it as a ballet to follow up on The Most Incredible Thing, they ultimately settled on a suite or song-cycle (not an oratorio, as Neil specifically pointed out to an interviewer, and it's certainly not an opera, as some have asserted online) that focuses on key episodes of Turing's life and work. Perhaps one of its closest parallels among preceding works is U.S. composer Aaron Copland's 1942 composition Lincoln Portrait, which similarly backs spoken passages with orchestral instrumentation—though, unlike A Man from the Future, it does not include choral vocals. Copland's work has become a symphonic standard, particularly in the States, but critics have struggled for years with how to categorize it. As for the Tennant-Lowe work, it has been described elsewhere as an "orchestral pop biography in eight parts for electronics, orchestra, choir, and narrator." A lumbering, somewhat redundant mouthful, to be sure, but unquestionably accurate.

To briefly summarize both his tragic life and his profound accomplishments (which are far better documented in detail elsewhere), Alan Turing (1912-1954) is widely considered the father of modern computing. In 1936 he published an academic paper that laid the basic foundations for computer science, proving that—though only a theoretical possibility at the time—a machine could solve any mathematical problem expressed as an algorithm. His later publications built upon and expanded this concept, establishing basic tenets of electronic computation that remain valid today. During World War II he led successful efforts to crack various German military codes—most famously the supposedly indecipherable Enigma code—thereby contributing greatly to the Allied victory, saving countless lives in the process. Following the war he resumed his academic work in the fields of mathematics and computer science, including pioneering work in the area of artificial intelligence. He also branched out into the new field of mathematical biology, observing how mathematical formulae underlie the development of patterns in living creatures, from the veins of a leaf to the stripes on a tiger's coat. In 1952, however, he was arrested and found guilty of homosexual acts illegal in Britain (as well as most of the rest of the world) at the time. Not only did he lose his government security clearance, but he was given a choice between prison and "treatment" that constituted, in effect, chemical castration. He chose the latter, but soon became deeply depressed at the physical, mental, and emotional effects it was having on him. In June 1954 he was found dead of cyanide poisoning with a half-eaten apple—the presumed method of administering the fatal dose—at his side. The subsequent inquest ruled that he had committed suicide.

The Boys' idea for composing music focusing on Turing's life and work first arose from Chris having watched a television documentary about him. Neil has stated that Alan Turing: The Enigma, a 1983 biography by Andrew Hodges—himself both a mathematician and an outspoken advocate in the "gay liberation" movement of the 1970s—also proved a major influence on their Turing project, even to the point that much of the text they employed was borrowed verbatim from the Hodges book. As Neil told interviewer Robbie Daw, "We went through Andrew Hodges' book and took just phrases, really, to indicate what was going on at a particular time" in Turing's life. For this reason, Hodges receives a co-writing credit along with Tennant and Lowe for each movement of the work.

What about that title: A Man from the Future? The Boys have confirmed that it comes partly from Turing's impact on the world we live in today. Computers have become ubiquitous, integral parts of our nearly all of our lives. The world today would be all but unimaginable and unrecognizable without them. (Consider, for instance, that you wouldn't even be reading this right now if it weren't for computers.) And every single one of those computers is based fundamentally on concepts that originated in the mind of Alan Turing. In a very real sense, back in the late 1930s, he created the future: the world we live in today, but which he himself would not reach except in his mind. In that sense, then, perhaps he was indeed a man from the future. But the title comes from another fact as well: his ahead-of-his-time attitudes about his own homosexuality. He seemed to think it was nothing to be kept hidden from others. He even matter of factly referred to it when he reported to police his suspicions that his boyfriend at the time was indirectly involved in his home being burglarized—only then to find himself under arrest. Had Turing indeed lived in the future, that part of his story would not have had such a tragic outcome. So, again, it was almost as if he had come from the future.

Approximately 48 minutes in length, A Man from the Future consists of eight distinct movements both electronic and orchestral in nature, with spoken narration and lyrics sung chorally. One portion of it, titled "He Dreamed of Machines," came to light well in advance of the rest, during which Neil both sang and provided narration. In the final version of the complete work, however, he sang along with the chorus (his voice being only occasionally discernable), but did not provide the narration. The narrator for the premier performance was acclaimed Shakespearean actor Juliet Stevenson (which of course makes her a leading contender for also providing the narration for the expected recorded version). The orchestrations were by German composer Sven Helbig, who had previously provided that same service for The Most Incredible Thing.

The constituent movements of A Man from the Future are, in order:

The world premiere of A Man from the Future took place on July 23, 2014 at the Royal Albert Hall as the third and final portion of an entire evening of Tennant-Lowe music performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra and others, Chris and Neil included. This was part of the 2014 BBC Proms, described on the official PSB website as "the world’s biggest classical music festival, offering eight weeks of world-class music-making from a vast array of leading orchestras, conductors and soloists from the UK and around the world." The performance was aired live on BBC Radio 3.

Following its debut, its critical appraisal in the press proved rather mixed, though fortunately leaning more toward the positive side. One of the more strongly positive assessments came from the pen of John Aizlewood of the London Evening Standard, who wrote:

The real joy [of the evening] was A Man from the Future.… The 45-minute extended song-suite had its clunky moments but it was joyously light on its musical feet, encompassing sublime Kraftwerkian wonder, the sheer power of orchestra and choir at full pelt.

The sheer scale required to perform it may mean A Man from the Future is consigned to history. Let's hope not: it deserves better.

The March 2014 issue of the PSB Fan Club publication Literally stated that it's "undecided" whether A Man from the Future will be recorded in the studio for release, although Chris interjected, "It probably will be at some point." Neil later confirmed with Mojo magazine's Ian Harrison that it would indeed be recorded "in the fullness of time," although it's possible they might not do so until after it's "extended in a slightly more theatrical way"—a possibility that hints at something more akin to an oratorio, although, in light of the qualifier "slightly," almost certainly not a full-fledged stage musical. He also suggested that there would be future live performances of the piece, and not just in Britain. Then, in the March 2014 BBC radio documentary about the Pet Shop Boys, Neil stated that he and Chris plan "to expand [A Man from the Future] a bit into maybe a more visual theater piece," which they expect to unveil "in about two years' time." This, says Neil, is why they haven't yet recorded or released it. (That "about two years" has unfortunately come and gone.) Later, during the U.S. leg of their Super Tour in Autumn 2016, Neil told me, "We are planning to expand it into a more visual production with additional music. We don't consider it finished yet but plan to record it at some point."

Whatever the case, A Man from the Future is simply too good not to receive the far wider attention that only the release of a recording, whether purely audio or audio-visual, can provide.


Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know

Writers - Tennant/Lowe/Hodges
First released - [not yet released]
Original album - [not yet released]
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

The opening movement of A Man from the Future is set in 1926 and focuses on Turing's adolescence, specifically his discovery of certain basic scientific truths and his emerging sense of his own sexuality. The title refers to a book he had been given several years earlier, Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know by Edwin Tenney Brewster (1866-1960), first published in 1912 (the same year as Turing's birth), which carefully explains key facts of life and the universe in scientific as opposed to religious terms. Alan told his mother that "this book had opened his eyes to science—but more than that, it opened the book of life, attempting to answer the questions, what have I in common with other living things, and how do I differ from them, and by what process of becoming did I myself finally appear in this world?"

As it soon emerges, another key lesson that Turing discerns from the book is "How the body is a machine." Through repetition and later echoes—and especially the minor and sometimes discordant chord patterns that underlie it—this phrase takes on portentous overtones, though it suddenly and unexpectedly resolves on a major chord at the very end. It's a crucial point with profound implications for Turing's future, for if the human body is a machine that thinks, then comes the question that would become a focus of Turing's career: can humans themselves build machines that also think?

Turing's other great awakening is to his "desire for his own sex," particularly to his love for a schoolmate, Christopher Morcom. But, unfortunately, Christopher suffers from tuberculosis and dies only a few years later, leaving young Turing devastated. But he determines to soldier on, putting (as he states in a letter to Christopher's mother) "as much energy if not as much interest into my work as if he were alive, because that is what he would like me to do." More than one commentator has noted the poignancy of couching the story of Turing's first crush within a movement that concerns "natural wonders" given the once-common attitude that homosexuality is "unnatural"—an attitude that would, by the end of this narrative, have tragic consequences.

The lovely music of this first section seems at times to have an almost child-like simplicity, especially compared to subseqeunt movements, but that's most appropriate given its focus on childhood. Yet it also introduces a deeply yearning quality—largely conveyed through liberal use of sumptuous but unresolved chord progressions—that becomes one of the dominant moods of A Man from the Future overall. And its musical complexity develops much more obviously as it moves toward its conclusion.

One other interesting aspect concerns the bits of Morse code (beep – beep beep – beep) that first appear in this movement and recur sporadically throughout. Not knowing Morse code, I had no idea what it was "tapping out," if anything meaningful. But one of my site visitors has translated it as the words of the title, A Man from the Future, over and over again, which I've since verified. It's a delightfully subtle in-joke offered by the Boys—and an especially pertinent one considering that Morse is one of the earliest common examples of binary code, which would become a cornerstone of computer science, of which Turing is a founding father.


He Dreamed of Machines

Writers - Tennant/Lowe/Hodges
First released - [not yet released]
Original album - [not yet released]
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

The second movement of A Man from the Future—and the first to be heard by the general public, "He Dreamed of Machines"—was premiered by the Pet Shop Boys at their December 5, 2012 concert in Salford, U.K. with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, accompanied by the Manchester Chamber Choir and guest guitarist Johnny Marr. It was, however, revised in various ways (some fairly obvious, others quite subtle) for the debut performance of the piece overall.

With a steady undercurrent of four throbbing bass notes on the synthesizer (notably, the first highly prominent appearance of that instrument in the score, representing the machines of which Turing dreams), atop which build soft but haunting orchestral chords and "synth washes," the opening narration sets the scene: in Summer 1935 in Grantchester, where "he lay in a meadow and dreamed of machines." The chorus echoes these words, though changing the word "meadow" to "field." (Grantchester is a village near Cambridge University, from which Turing had only recently completed post-graduate work and where he was still conducting research.) Turing's "machines"—or, as he referred to them, "universal machines"—could, in his determination, "perform the equivalent of human mental activity: an electric brain."

It continues to alternate between spoken narrative and singing, growing in volume and intensity. The choir's often wordless and slightly dissonent vocals add a vaguely eerie quality to the music. The mood evoked by this blend of word and synthesizer/orchestral/choral music is intensely visionary in nature, as if we, the listeners, are eavesdropping on Turing's almost mystical glimpse into—indeed, even his own invention of—a future he would never live to see.

Beautiful and extremely powerful, "He Dreamed of Machines" ultimately emerges as something of the musical centerpiece of A Man from the Future, seeing as how its music returns for a reprise in the final movement.


The Enigma

Writers - Tennant/Lowe/Hodges
First released - [not yet released]
Original album - [not yet released]
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

Set in 1938 and 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, this segment describes how Turing offers his services to the British government, to whom he vows (forebodingly) to keep its secrets. He takes on the task of leading the effort to crack the German naval "Enigma" code—thus far considered indecipherable. In time, his successful efforts to crack the code "denied the ocean lanes to Germany and secured them for the United States." Significantly, Turing attains in the process "a sense of dialogue with a machine." This would lead eventually to his development of the concept of computer programming.

As a sidenote, "The Enigma" would be performed in a dramatically rearranged, purely instrumental form as a "Chris Lowe solo" during the Pet Shop Boys' 2016 Super Tour show.


Other Ranks

Writers - Tennant/Lowe/Hodges
First released - [not yet released]
Original album - [not yet released]
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

This movement—in some ways the most curious and atypical of the piece overall—seems to have a dual focus. The repeated refrain of "Delilah, deceiver of men" refers to Turing's groundbreaking wartime work on the development of an electronic scrambler (codenamed "Delilah" after the biblical temptress) that enabled voice messages to be securely encrypted for transmission, rendering them only as unintelligible "white noise" to anyone without the appropriate decryption technology. The first mention of Delilah is quickly followed by the repeated pairing of "Science and sex." This may seem like a peculiar juxtaposition until you realize that, in this case, Delilah indeed represents the intersection of science and sex: a technological achievement named for an icon of dangerous sexuality.

The title of this segment, however, refers to its other main focus, Turing's growing comfort with and enjoyment of working with colleagues, including "other ranks" of society with whom he would not ordinarily engage in what was, at the time, a fairly rigid British class system. It's during an alcohol-fueled social gathering with co-workers (accompanied by comparatively raucous music that affectionately parodies the popular big band tunes of the 1940s) that Turing deeply shocks an assistant with a casual, unapologetic revelation of his homosexuality.

Why these two subjects are essentially conflated in A Man from the Future seems a bit mysterious—unless, of course, it's simply that they happened to occur right around the same time. On the other hand, could it be that the white noise of Delilah serves as a metaphor for Turing's failure to understand the effect of his personal revelations on his colleagues? In other words, they fail to hear what Turing intends them to hear quite innocuously and instead "misinterpret" his words through the distorting filter of the homophobic culture in which they live. In short, the culture is an even greater "deceiver of men" than Delilah. This interpretation acquires added weight when you consider once again this movement's other recurring refrain: "Science and sex," which, for good or ill, became the two defining forces in Turing's life.


The Memory and the Control

Writers - Tennant/Lowe/Hodges
First released - [not yet released]
Original album - [not yet released]
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

This subject of this movement is Turing's development of the concept of the computer, including its two primary components: the data that it stores and draws upon (the Memory) and the means by which a person tells the machine what to do with that data (the Control). The chorus takes up this phrase—"The Memory and the Control"—as a mantra. As the narrator informs us, "He had created something quite original: the art of computer programming."

If, as with the earlier movement "The Enigma," there seems to be less to say about "The Memory and the Control" than most of the other segments, it's because these two movements focus more on Turing's achievements than on the emotional heart of the story. They're more "documentary" in nature than the other movements. But, then again, it's because of those very achievements that we know about him today at all. This fact—that his achievements make him exceptional—will, with some irony, prove highly salient by the conclusion of A Man from the Future.


The Trial

Writers - Tennant/Lowe/Hodges
First released - [not yet released]
Original album - [not yet released]
Subsequent albums - (none)
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This beautiful yet anguishing movement—the true emotional centerpiece of the entire work, just as "He Dreamed of Machines" seems the musical centerpiece—chronicles the sequence of events beginning in 1951 that led to, in effect, Turing's downfall: his meeting with Arnold Murray, their sexual relationship, his arrest, his trial on charges of "gross indecency," and his sentence. The narrator describes the parallel of Turing's intellectual and romantic interests as "the problem of his theory and the problem of his life." Using Turing's own words, the chorus brilliantly summarizes these complementary interests with the recurring questions—

Can you think what I feel?
Can you feel what I think?

—subsequently repeated by the narrator. The chorus adds two further questions—

Can we sleep together as lovers?
Can we think and feel the same thing?

—sung in a slightly more legato and romantic manner than the first two, which were more staccato and scientific in mood. The music at this point is both gorgeous and, again, deeply yearning, bearing an undercurrent of sadness that suggests Turing's all-too-human loneliness and the fate that awaits him for striving to overcome that loneliness through physical love with another human being.

Following Turing's arrest, we hear a brief, sorrowful snippet of the traditional Irish folk tune "Molly Malone" (aka "In Dublin's Fair City" and "Cockles and Mussels"), played on a lone violin. Turing himself played the violin, and this was one of his favorite tunes, probably because his mother was Irish. It also happens to be the very tune that Turing played for Arnold Murray during their first evening together. But the manner of its evocation in "The Trial" emphasizes Turing's sad, lonely standing at this terrible point in his life. The male members of the chorus then coldly declaim Turing's conviction. In quick succession, the narrator outlines Turing's sentence of "chemical castration" and his subsequent loss of government security clearance, thereby severely limiting his research and work.

Turing himself fully grasps the negative implications of this turn of events for his reputation and, even worse, his theories. He sarcastically describes the situation in a false syllogism (an intentionally faulty application of computer-like logic), referring to himself in the third person:

Turing believes machines think.
Turing lies with men.
Therefore machines do not think.

This was Turing's parody of a famous (and truthful) syllogism that has been used for centuries to illustrate a basic tenet of logic:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore Socrates is mortal.

Turing's words assume an air of foreshadowing when you consider that Socrates himself had been sentenced to death by self-administered poison. More subtly—but, once grasped, even more devastatingly—he puns with the double-meaning of the word "lies," expressing his fear that his "lying" (having sex) with men would lead people to believe that he's "lying" (telling a falsehood) when he says that machines can think.


Only in His Death

Writers - Tennant/Lowe/Hodges
First released - [not yet released]
Original album - [not yet released]
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

Following the narrator's brief setting of the time and place, the chorus opens this movement with a stanza from Oscar Wilde's 1897 poem "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," which Turing had quoted at one point in 1941:

… Each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

As his biographer Andrew Hodges has noted, this refers to a very specific event in Turing's life. He had quoted the poem "when he broke off his engagement to marry Joan Clarke, his fellow codebreaker at Bletchley Park, explicitly because he was gay and could not go through with such a thing." This incident is emblematic of Turing's "conscious rejection of conventional life."

Turing's career was, in essence, over. His personal nature had proven incompatible with his public work. This, compounded with the physical and emotional effects of his chemical "treatment," leads him to commit suicide in 1954. "Only in his death," the narrator instructs us, "did he finally behave as he had begun: the supreme individualist, shaking off society."


A Man from the Future

Writers - Tennant/Lowe/Hodges
First released - [not yet released]
Original album - [not yet released]
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

Chris and Neil had composed a piece titled "An Apology"—incorporating recorded excerpts of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's 2009 public apology to Turing's memory—with a view toward it being the concluding movement. But in the wake of the posthumous royal pardon granted to Turing in late 2013, they reworked it into what they originally called "The Pardon," though they later renamed it to become the "title movement." It reprises the music of "He Dreamed of Machines" while also referencing some of the other preceding segments.

This movement still includes Gordon Brown's recorded voice, soon followed by the chorus singing the words of the Queen's pardon. It represents Turing's ultimate vindication, heightened by the triumphal tone the music takes when the text of the pardon concludes "…in the sixty-second year of Our Reign." It's a truly moving moment. But this is immediately followed by a pronounced note of continued injustice in that, as the narrator puts it, Turing is being treated as "an exception." Countless others who had been persecuted or at least oppressed by the government for their homosexuality remained unpardoned.

The "Can you think what I feel? Can you feel what I think?" questions are invoked by the chorus once again, this time almost accusingly, as if Turing were speaking from the grave to plead for greater understanding and empathy as well as to give voice to modern-day gay people reflecting on the irony and unfairness of the situation. We're left with the sense that, until past generations of homosexuals have also been exonerated, Turing's legacy cannot truly be honored in full.*

At the very end, the music drops away, leaving the narrator to offer in the silence a slight paraphrase from the Bible (2 Corinthians 3:6): "The law killed, and the spirit gave life."

*It should be noted that this situation was largely though not completely rectified in October 2016 when the British government passed what had come to be known as "Turing's Law," which went into effect in January 2017. It extended a blanket posthumous pardon to people who had been convicted of sexual offenses that were consensual and no longer illegal. Those still living, however, would be required to apply for such a pardon, a provision that many object to for various reasons. One such man, for instance, has said that he will refuse to make such a request since "to accept a pardon means you accept that you were guilty." He wants an apology instead. Others have noted how unfair it is to force now-elderly people to resurrect and relive such painful periods in their lives in an effort to undo an injustice that should never have been committed against them in the first place.


List cross-references

One or more of the movements of A Man from the Future appear in the following lists: