Category Archives: Nikola Tesla

Tesla, recorded

Violet Fire, an opera about Nikola TeslaVio­let Fire, the opera about Niko­la Tes­la that I worked on as libret­tist with com­pos­er Jon Gib­son, is final­ly get­ting a stu­dio record­ing! It’s a lit­tle late—the world pre­miere and U.S. pre­miere hap­pened in Bel­grade and New York in 2006—but I’m still excit­ed. Last week, Jon con­vened a stel­lar group of musi­cians at a record­ing stu­dio in Brook­lyn to lay down tracks for the record­ing.

Jon Gibson, Gregory Purnhagen, Dean Sharenow
Jon Gib­son look­ing over score, left; singer Gre­go­ry Purn­hagen, cen­ter; record­ing engi­neer Dean Sharenow, right

I was able to sit in one day as the solo singers record­ed their parts. They includ­ed Scott Mur­phree, who played our orig­i­nal Tes­la; Peter Stew­art, our orig­i­nal Mark Twain; Solange Mer­din­ian, as Tesla’s friend Katharine John­son; Gre­go­ry Purn­hagen, as the Reporter; and Marie Mas­cari as the White Dove. The great Mick Rossi led the record­ing as music direc­tor and con­duc­tor.

Scott Murphree as Tesla
Scott Mur­phree, singing the part of Tes­la

Each char­ac­ter in the opera is there to show a dif­fer­ent facet of Tesla’s life, from the most inti­mate to the most pub­lic. Mark Twain, who sensed the mag­ni­tude of the inventor’s break­throughs in alter­nat­ing cur­rent and wire­less trans­mis­sion, sings in praise of his accom­plish­ments and glob­al influ­ence, while the Reporter offers com­men­tary on Tesla’s wax­ing and then wan­ing fame. Katharine John­son sings plain­tive­ly to her “dear and silent friend” who, devot­ed to his work, seems to have “no human needs.” Mar­ried to the writer and edi­tor Robert John­son, Katharine host­ed Tes­la at many din­ner par­ties. Her elo­quent­ly emo­tion­al let­ters to him reveal a deep but one-sided attach­ment to the inven­tor.

The real Mar­garet Storm wrote a book, The White Dove, that gave the opera its name: in it, she described Tes­la as “Prince of the Vio­let Fire,” and told of his being born on Venus and then trans­port­ed to Earth to offer his oth­er­world­ly knowl­edge to human­i­ty. And the char­ac­ter of the White Dove is inspired by a pigeon that Tes­la, late in life, admit­ted to lov­ing and car­ing for in the parks of New York. The opera took form around the sense that this bird should be allowed to sing.

Marie Mascare as the White Dove
Marie Mas­cari, singing the role of the White Dove

It was won­der­ful to hear Jon’s music brought to life again by these great singers and musi­cians. In the sin­u­ous melod­ic lines and slid­ing chords, I hear the sad­ness woven in with Tesla—not just from his self-imposed human iso­la­tion. When Scott Mur­phree, as Tes­la, sang the line “An end to suf­fer­ing…,” it car­ried both Tesla’s grand, glob­al-scale ambi­tions, and also the fail­ure to achieve them that would inevitably fol­low. Then there’s this line sung by the Reporter, tak­en near-ver­ba­tim from a poignant head­line in the New York World: “At night and in secret, Niko­la Tes­la lav­ish­es his love on pigeons.” Great explo­sions of ener­gy, secret com­mu­nion with birds, oth­er­world­ly visions—all these things are part of Tes­la, and they’re all in the opera, real­ized through Jon’s beau­ti­ful music.

After the tracks are edit­ed, a record­ing of Vio­let Fire should be available—soon, I hope. I’ll let you know.




Living Tesla’s Dream

Cities at night seen from space
Amer­i­can Mid­west at night — a piece of Tesla’s world­wide elec­tric grid, tak­en from the ISS, 9/29/2011

Today is the 160th anniver­sary of Niko­la Tesla’s birth. Tes­la was a seer of elec­tric­i­ty, whose vision of a world trans­formed with an elec­tric grid pow­ered by his alter­nat­ing cur­rent sys­tem sure­ly seemed like a wild dream in the late 19th cen­tu­ry. Tes­la is claimed as a hero in both Ser­bia and Croa­t­ia, hav­ing been born and raised Ser­bian in what’s now Croatia—a trea­sured icon, kind of a cross between Albert Ein­stein and Abra­ham Lin­coln.

Exact­ly ten years ago, I was in Bel­grade for the pre­miere of Vio­let Fire, the opera about Tes­la that I worked on as libret­tist with com­pos­er Jon Gib­son, along with many oth­er huge­ly tal­ent­ed artists and per­form­ers. Our opera had been invit­ed there as part of a cel­e­bra­tion of Tesla’s 150th birth­day. In fact, Vio­let Fire’s open­ing night fell on Tesla’s birth­day, July 9 (he’s pop­u­lar­ly sup­posed been born on mid­night between July 9 and 10).

National Theater in Belgrade
Nation­al The­ater in Bel­grade, show­ing the Vio­let Fire ban­ner

My week in Bel­grade was won­der­ful, nerve-wracking—as the­ater can be—and sur­re­al. The first per­for­mance went well. The next night, many of us went to see anoth­er per­for­mance in the Bel­grade sum­mer arts fes­ti­val (BELEF)—this one by Lau­rie Ander­son, the avant-garde musician/artist who counts Tes­la as an inspi­ra­tion. After the per­for­mance I got pulled back­stage to meet Ms. Ander­son, and told her how much I’ve been inspired by her work.

I found myself in a dim bar-like room, with Lau­rie Ander­son and Niko­la Tesla—well, a per­for­mance artist dressed in Tesla’s dis­tinc­tive for­mal attire, who had made appear­ances in var­i­ous loca­tions in down­town Bel­grade that day. Sev­er­al Croa­t­ians were there, includ­ing a tall young woman who was an aspir­ing filmmaker—and an actu­al descen­dant of Tes­la. The group of us left the the­ater, led by the festival’s direc­tor through the balmy sum­mer night to the open plaza of Repub­lic Square.

Program image, Belgrade Arts Festival, 2006
Pro­gram image, BELEF (Bel­grade Sum­mer Arts Fes­ti­val) , where Vio­let Fire had its pre­miere in 2006

There under the stars, across from the Nation­al The­ater where our opera was still run­ning, we joined a crowd of peo­ple in and around a strange loom­ing structure—an ad-hoc build­ing glow­ing blue from inside. This was Clus­ter, its mak­er explained to me—a par­tic­i­pa­to­ry soft­ware project, hous­ing mul­ti­ple com­put­ers and shar­ing freely with all vis­i­tors. It was an inspired trib­ute to Tes­la, who had envi­sioned shar­ing the fruits of his work freely with the world.

I felt like I had wan­dered inside a dream—walking with Tesla’s ghost, his great-grand niece and Lau­rie Ander­son down dark streets to dis­cov­er a puls­ing blue thought-clus­ter. And this feel­ing, I’m real­iz­ing now, is some­thing like what I strug­gle to describe about Tes­la and his lega­cy. Our increas­ing­ly wire­less world, with its lit-up nights, its vir­tu­al­ly free stream­ing data, its elec­tric cars, is an embod­i­ment of Tesla’s visions for the future. We are liv­ing inside his dream.

Tes­la also imag­ined the future as a peace­ful place where war would be obso­lete, where women would be equal to men, and we’d all be knit­ted togeth­er in a hive of pro­duc­tive work. Right now this all seems very far away from the intractable prob­lems, suf­fer­ing and dis­cord that still sur­round us. Some­day, maybe, more of Tesla’s dream will become real­i­ty.

More about Vio­let Fire:

More posts about Tes­la


Tesla in Bankruptcy

Tesla's Wardenclyffe Tower under construction
Tesla’s War­den­clyffe Tow­er

On March 18, 1916—one hun­dred years ago today—the New York World ran an arti­cle with the head­line: “Tes­la No Mon­ey Wiz­ard; Swamped by Debts, He Vows.” The news fol­lowed a court fil­ing that revealed the great inven­tor, Niko­la Tes­la, had no assets and owed thou­sands in back rent to the Wal­dorf Asto­ria, where he lived.

This moment in Tesla’s life marks a turn­ing point: his great dis­cov­er­ies in alter­nat­ing cur­rent, radio, tele­ro­bot­ics and oth­er fields were all behind him. Tes­la had been pur­su­ing sev­er­al projects, includ­ing the devel­op­ment of his blade­less tur­bine and mar­ket­ing med­ical devices. But his com­pa­ny suf­fered from high over­head, and he was pay­ing con­tin­u­ing legal fees in a fight to declare that his radio patents had prece­dence over those of Mar­coni. To have his finan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties aired so pub­licly must have been extreme­ly painful for a man who made a point of liv­ing at the high­est stan­dards of Old World ele­gance.

Tesla’s finan­cial trou­ble would also lead to the final destruc­tion of his mas­sive War­den­clyffe Tow­er. The domed tow­er, built at the east­ern tip of Long Island, had been part of Tesla’s grand plan to beam infor­ma­tion and ulti­mate­ly, elec­tric ener­gy around the plan­et. By 1916, with the project stalled, Tes­la signed over the War­den­clyffe prop­er­ty to the Wal­dorf Asto­ria. A year lat­er, the hotel had it demol­ished, and its mate­ri­als sold for scrap—a sad­ly anti­cli­mac­tic end for a project that embod­ied a far more ambi­tious vision for radio broad­cast­ing than Marconi’s.

Many inven­tors deal with ter­ri­ble dis­ap­point­ments, and many find them­selves swamped by invest­ments in their own dreams. But Tesla’s ups and downs seem to have an epic sweep. While he con­tin­ued to come up with large-scale ideas after 1916—including his “death ray” antimis­sile system—none would come to fruition. Instead, he became a sort of future-sci­ence seer, mak­ing pre­dic­tions that were wel­comed more as sci­ence fic­tion than as real-world tech­nolo­gies.

See more posts on Tes­la:

Nikola Tesla







Link to Vio­let Fire, the opera about Niko­la Tes­la I worked on as libret­tist:

Violet Fire, an opera about Nikola Tesla










An elegy for Tesla

Elegy for Tesla, installation by Jeanne Jaffe at Rowan University Art Gallery, detail
Ele­gy for Tes­la, instal­la­tion by Jeanne Jaffe at Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty Art Gallery, detail

Jeanne Jaffe’s ambi­tious Ele­gy for Tes­la is a high-tech, dream­like and heart­felt med­i­ta­tion on Niko­la Tes­la, the leg­endary sci­en­tist and inven­tor. Jaffe’s mul­ti­me­dia instal­la­tion fills the Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty Art Gallery with videos and sound, 3-D print­ed mod­els of his icon­ic inven­tions, and ani­ma­tron­ic, motion-acti­vat­ed fig­ures of Tes­la that move and, in some cas­es speak.

Tes­la stands as an avatar of mas­sive cre­ativ­i­ty, with his hun­dreds of patents, and basic break­throughs in alter­nat­ing cur­rent, radio, robot­ics, and even com­put­er cir­cuit­ry. Jaffe pays homage to his achieve­ments, while embed­ding them in the medi­um of a life that had strange­ly myth­ic ele­ments. She’s par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive to the poignan­cy of the old­er Tes­la, the eccen­tric lon­er who fed and cared for pigeons, whose lim­it­less imag­i­na­tion had run up against the lim­its of the public’s recep­tion of his work.

This aspect of Tes­la is part of what drew me to work with com­pos­er Jon Gib­son on Vio­let Fire, an opera that tried to cap­ture the inner life of Tes­la in all its strange­ness through music, move­ment and video. So I was delight­ed to be asked to write the cat­a­logue essay for this exhib­it. One part of the Tes­la mythos is the white pigeon he befriend­ed, and who trig­gered in him a vision of blind­ing light. Jaffe, who has cared for birds her­self, sur­rounds Tes­la with a flock of ten­der­ly mod­eled pigeons; for me, they can be seen as car­ri­ers of his ongo­ing inspi­ra­tion, and mark­ers of his intense, intu­itive con­nec­tion with the nat­ur­al world.

Elegy for Tesla, gallery view
Ele­gy for Tes­la, gallery view

But Tes­la, in the form of his motion-acti­vat­ed dop­pel­gangers, steals this show. Cura­tor Mary Sal­vante coor­di­nat­ed an NEA-fund­ed col­lab­o­ra­tion between Jaffe and stu­dents and fac­ul­ty in Rowan’s Engi­neer­ing Depart­ment to cre­ate the sys­tems that ani­mate her sculp­tures. They stand, and move, in a per­fect salute to Tes­la as “magi­cian” of wire­less elec­tric­i­ty.

I’ll be at the recep­tion on Thurs­day – if you can’t make it, the show will be up through Jan­u­ary 30.

Ele­gy for Tes­la, an instal­la­tion by Jeanne Jaffe

Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty Art Gallery/West, Glass­boro, NJ, through Jan­u­ary 30, 2016

Recep­tion Thurs­day, Octo­ber 8, 5–8 pm, start­ing with artist pre­sen­ta­tion and pan­el dis­cus­sion at 5 pm.


Nikola Tesla’s hidden contribution

Tesla cover image

Tes­la fea­tured on the cov­er of the Elec­tri­cal Exper­i­menter, 1902

Niko­la Tes­la is a hero to geeks every­where, who will be cel­e­brat­ing his birth­day this week. World-famous in his life­time, the prodi­gious­ly gift­ed inven­tor fell into semi-obscu­ri­ty after his death in 1943, even though his inven­tions helped cre­ate the world we live in now.

Tesla’s fans know about his ground­break­ing work in many fields: his inven­tion of radio (sor­ry, Mar­coni), his cre­ation of the alter­nat­ing-cur­rent motor, his sin­gle­hand­ed devel­op­ment of remote-con­trol robot­ics, to name a few—all before 1900. Like some vir­tu­oso of inven­tion, Tes­la worked solo, per­fect­ing most of his inven­tions in his head. Even­tu­al­ly, he held sev­er­al hun­dred patents.

But there is one devel­op­ment for which he hasn’t got­ten cred­it, even as a col­lab­o­ra­tor. And if you’re think­ing it may be the elec­tric car—that’s not it. We should also give Tes­la his due for con­tribut­ing to the birth of mod­ern sci­ence fic­tion.

Tesla’s imag­i­na­tion nev­er turned off, and he con­tin­ued to churn out ideas with world-chang­ing implications—if they had been real­ized. His World Broad­cast­ing Sys­tem, antic­i­pat­ing the Inter­net by decades, end­ed as a half-built ruin on Long Island. He thought up “death rays” made of charged-par­ti­cle beams, exper­i­ment­ed with using prin­ci­ples of res­o­nance to cause earth­quakes, and even pro­posed pulling elec­tric­i­ty down from the ionos­phere, to pro­vide vir­tu­al­ly free ener­gy around the globe.

These and oth­er huge-scaled projects didn’t come to be, but they inspired oth­ers who were part of Tesla’s cir­cle. One of them was Hugo Gerns­back, a young writer, inven­tor and pub­lish­er of pop­u­lar sci­ence and sci­ence fiction—a term that he coined. (The Hugo award, one of sci­ence fiction’s high­est hon­ors, is his name­sake.) Tesla’s inven­tions and ideas res­onat­ed intense­ly with Gerns­back: arti­cles about Tes­la ran reg­u­lar­ly in his ear­ly mag­a­zine, The Elec­tri­cal Exper­i­menter, and Tesla’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy, My Inven­tions, appeared in its pages. The young author insert­ed Tes­la into a sci-fi sto­ry of his own, The Mag­net­ic Storm, in 1918. A few years lat­er, Ger­snback found­ed the leg­endary Amaz­ing Stories—the first mag­a­zine devot­ed sole­ly to sci­ence fic­tion.

Tesla’s work can be seen as a kind of tem­plate for ear­ly sci­ence fic­tion: they both share a world­wide focus, spec­u­la­tion on war and peace, and a gen­er­al hope in the pos­si­bil­i­ties of human progress. The way I see it, it was as if some of the visions Tes­la was offer­ing couldn’t be encom­passed by soci­ety in his time, and had to spill over into the are­na of imag­i­na­tion. There they fed the blos­som­ing of a new art form—the first in human his­to­ry to focus on the future.

Sci­ence fic­tion has become an immer­sive back­ground to our lives, via Star Trek, Star Wars, Dune, the Matrix and many oth­er imag­ined future worlds that owe their exis­tence to the genre of pop­u­lar sci­ence fic­tion. It’s almost sec­ond nature for us now to slip into these vir­tu­al envi­ron­ments, try­ing on pos­si­bil­i­ties and work­ing through omi­nous sce­nar­ios, using the future as a can­vas to help us fig­ure out what’s hap­pen­ing now, and where we want to go. We take this time-shift­ing between present and future for granted—as much as we take for grant­ed the elec­tri­cal pow­er that sur­rounds us, thanks to Tesla’s world­wide elec­tri­cal grid.

Hap­py Birth­day, Niko­la Tes­la, and thank you for help­ing to intro­duce us to the future.


Mark Twain & Crowdfunding

Mark Twain in Niko­la Tesla’s Lab­o­ra­to­ry, 1894

I’ve just writ­ten a guest post for The Head & The Hand Press, con­sid­er­ing how Mark Twain’s inno­va­tions in pub­lish­ing could be seen as a pre­cur­sor to the grow­ing trend of crowd­fund­ing for books. Twain/Clemens thought out­side the box not only in his writ­ing, but in the busi­ness of books. You can read the post here.

Twain’s pas­sion for inno­va­tion and inven­tion led him to admire the work of Niko­la Tes­la. Here’s a pic­ture of him in Tesla’s New York lab­o­ra­to­ry, hold­ing what looks like one of Tesla’s wire­less light bulbs. You can just make out Tes­la on the left.

And speak­ing of crowd­fund­ing, the pre­order cam­paign for The Head & The Hand’s Aster­oid Belt Almanac is in its final week. Order a book, sup­port a great inde­pen­dent press, and get a beau­ti­ful anthol­o­gy of new writ­ing and art, all at once!


Gravity and the Noosphere

gravity-movie-trailer-hd-stills-clip-detached-sandra-bullock--150x150I loved see­ing Grav­i­ty. In my opin­ion, the Plan­et Earth should be nom­i­nat­ed for a sup­port­ing-play­er Oscar. I drank in the mas­sive, stun­ning views of the earth in the back­ground of so many scenes—completely con­vinc­ing, thanks to high-lev­el CGI effects. At those screen-fill­ing dis­tances, you could make out the thin, blue-white film of the atmos­phere, the del­i­cate out­er mem­brane that makes life on earth pos­si­ble. There they were: the bios­phere and the atmos­phere, as seen from space for real by just a few hun­dred peo­ple so far.

That soft shell of atmos­phere offers a visu­al ana­logue to oth­er, unseen lay­ers, both actu­al and imag­ined. There’s cyberspace—a zone of real­i­ty that’s tied to phys­i­cal things like com­put­ers, servers, satel­lites and fiber-optic cable, but can’t be seen or felt. We call this domain dig­i­tal, but what does that mean? It doesn’t seem far­fetched to think of this quick­ly fill­ing-in world­wide web as anoth­er, invis­i­ble shell sur­round­ing the earth’s sur­face.

And then there’s the noos­phere, an idea put for­ward by the the­olo­gian Pierre Teil­hard de Chardin about 90 years ago. He was inspired by Vladimir Ver­dan­sky, a Russ­ian sci­en­tist who him­self gets cred­it for com­ing up with the term “bios­phere.” With the noos­phere (the pre­fix comes from Greek nous, for mind) Teil­hard invites us into a kind of thought exper­i­ment: imag­ine that all of human thought sur­rounds the earth in an invis­i­ble shell. As our men­tal out­pour­ings grow and inten­si­fy, this “think­ing lay­er” fills in and comes into its own. Teil­hard sug­gest­ed that the noos­phere would emerge out of tech­nolo­gies “extend­ing a close­ly inter­de­pen­dent net­work” around the world. At that time he was refer­ring to radio, tele­type and television—but his descrip­tion seems to eeri­ly antic­i­pate the Inter­net and our cur­rent web of dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

This promise of the noos­phere pulled me in when I first heard about it. It was there when I wrote in the libret­to for Vio­let Fire about Niko­la Tesla’s vision of the earth becom­ing “a sin­gle brain” through his planned World Broad­cast­ing Sys­tem. In Leav­ing Alexan­dria, the nov­el I’m work­ing on, it has helped me envi­sion the accu­mu­la­tion of knowl­edge, from ancient libraries to our expand­ing dig­i­tal cyber­sphere. We can’t see any of these the way we can see the translu­cent enve­lope of our atmos­phere, but that doesn’t stop us from expe­ri­enc­ing them around us.


How Tesla kidnapped my imagination

older Tesla

There’s some­thing about the inven­tor Niko­la Tes­la that has strong­ly attract­ed artists—much more than his arch-rival Edi­son, let’s say. Tesla’s amaz­ing life and grand visions have pulled artis­tic cre­ations from those he captivates—a stream of operas, music, plays, nov­els and sto­ries, film and video. I know about this first­hand, because it hap­pened to me. Dis­cov­er­ing his sto­ry led me to write a libret­to for what became the opera Vio­let Fire.

Niko­la Tes­la, born in 1856 to Ser­bian par­ents in Croa­t­ia, was a vision­ary scientist/inventor who helped cre­ate the bedrock of our tech­no­log­i­cal world, with his ground­break­ing dis­cov­er­ies in elec­tric­i­ty, radio, robot­ics and even com­put­er cir­cuit­ry. His intense stream of visu­al­iza­tions led him to amass over 700 patents. Some of his visions, like his idea to pull elec­tri­cal ener­gy from the upper atmos­phere, still sound like sci­ence fic­tion. He was a charis­mat­ic fig­ure who moved through New York’s Gild­ed Age high soci­ety, befriend­ing Mark Twain and oth­ers, but lived and died alone.

From top: Nikola Tesla as an old man; a still from Violet Fire
From top: Niko­la Tes­la as an old man; a still from Vio­let Fire

When I first learned about him, Tesla’s sto­ry knocked me over. How could he not be uni­ver­sal­ly known? His visions seemed like those of a mys­tic, yet they had led to inven­tions that have had glob­al effects on how we live. With his strange, out­sized life and visions, it seemed to me that only an opera could hope to por­tray him. I cen­tered the sto­ry on Tesla’s rela­tion­ship with a white pigeon, whose death brought him a vision of pow­er­ful light. Vio­let Fire was brought to life by the beau­ti­ful, haunt­ing music of Jon Gib­son, and the con­tri­bu­tions of direc­tor Ter­ry O’Reilly, chore­o­g­ra­ph­er Nina Winthrop, and video design­ers Sarah Drury and Jen Sim­mons. Exact­ly sev­en years ago, on Niko­la Tesla’s 150th birth­day, my col­lab­o­ra­tors and I had the great hon­or of see­ing the pre­miere of Vio­let Fire at the Nation­al The­ater in Bel­grade.

Our opera isn’t the only one inspired by Tes­la. A large-scale opera, Light­ning in His Hand, has been mount­ed in Hobart, Tas­ma­nia. Melis­sa Dunphy’s song cycle, Tesla’s Pigeon, was recent­ly per­formed in New York, and a new opera by Jim Jar­musch and Phil Kline is in the works. As Tes­la is redis­cov­ered, I’m sure there will be more works inspired by him—maybe in art­forms we haven’t yet imag­ined. Hap­py Birth­day, Niko­la Tes­la.