Piotr Zak

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Piotr (or Pjotr) Zak is the name of a fictional Polish composer whose alleged composition Mobile for Tape and Percussion was broadcast twice on the BBC Third Programme on 5 June 1961 in a performance supposedly played by "Claude Tessier" and "Anton Schmidt".


The broadcast of the work was preceded by alleged biographical information about Zak as well as a programme note supposedly written by Schmidt. The text read by the announcer (Alvar Lidell) was as follows:

Piotr Zak, who is of Polish extraction but lives in Germany, was born in 1939. His earliest works are conservative, but he has recently come under the influence of Stockhausen and John Cage. This work for tape and percussion was written between May and September of last year. Within the precise and complex framework defined by the score, there is considerable room for improvisation.[1]

The work was reviewed by three critics,[2] who gave generally lukewarm or condemnatory reactions.[3] Jeremy Noble's review in the Times was mixed at best, stating "It was certainly difficult to grasp more than the music's broad outlines, partly because of the high proportion of unpitched sounds and partly because of their extreme diversity".[4] The Daily Telegraph′s critic Donald Mitchell, on the other hand, called the performance "wholly unrewarding", adding that Zak

exploited the percussion with only limited enterprise and his tape emitted a succession of whistles, rattles and punctured sighs that proclaimed, all too shamelessly, their non-musical origins.

There was nothing, one felt, to "understand" here. It was only the composer's ingenuousness that was mysterious. … How demanding Mozart [Serenade for Winds, K. 361] seems after the innocence of Mr. Nono [Polifonica–Monodia–Ritmica] and Mr. Zak![5]

Rollo Myers, writing in The Listener, was harsher still, accurately identifying the piece as a farce d'atelier (studio prank) with "no possible claim to be considered as music", and characterising the BBC's broadcast of such a thing "a serious error of judgment". Myers continued,

What made the whole thing all the more deplorable was the high-falutin' publicity surrounding it in which we were told, inter alia, that ". . . the tape exploits the full range of the aural spectrum, controlled by strictly measurable quantities—frequency ratios, velocity graphs and decibel indexes"—all this to describe what seemed to me to be a series of the more unpleasant kinds of kitchen noises, accompanied by bangs and thumps, hisses, shrieks and whistles.[6]

He concluded with praise for the other works on the programme, by Webern, Nono, Petrassi, and "the always satisfying Serenade in B flat for thirteen wind instruments by Mozart—which may have been missed by the many listeners who, I am sure, switched off their sets for the repeat performance of the Zak".

Nearly two months after the event, a BBC spokesman denied that the work was a hoax, describing it instead as an "experiment", in which "the percussion instruments on the tape were played at random. I imagine that Piotr Zak does not exist. But we did not hoax the listeners. It was an experiment".[7] A conflicting report published the next day claimed that the BBC confessed the entire programme had been a hoax.[8] It was revealed that the piece had been produced by Hans Keller and Susan Bradshaw at the BBC. By striking randomly and with deliberate senselessness at a collection of percussion instruments, the two (as "Tessier" and "Schmidt") had produced a strenuously meaningless twelve-minute "work" of superficially "avant-garde" character; this was completed by the addition of a selection of human whistling sounds (evidently meant to represent the "tape"), and with the resulting chaos being edited into some kind of whole by BBC technicians.[9] The hoax was revealed as part of the publicity for the BBC broadcast of a radio documentary, The Strange Case of Piotr Zak, first aired on 13 August 1961, in which Keller discussed his hoax with a number of music critics.[citation needed] The exact number and identity of these critics, as well as their expressed opinions, varies from one source to another. According to one report, there were only two: Jeremy Noble and Donald Mitchell, both of whom agreed that the manner of presentation required them to take the piece seriously, but, since they both had given it an unfavourable review, they could not be said to have been taken in[10] According to another, there were six "well-known" critics (not named), none of whom had ever heard the piece until it was played for them at the beginning of the programme. Four of them declared it worthless but the other two found it "stimulating, imaginative and very much worth listening to", according to this version. Only then did "BBC officials" first reveal the hoax.[11]

It is often assumed that the spoof piece was intended to ridicule 'modern music' and its composers, but this is not the case. Both Keller and Bradshaw were professionally involved in the world of contemporary music (Bradshaw as a performer, Keller as a BBC administrator and composition teacher). In fact, the Zak Mobile was intended to expose what Keller believed to be the low level of critical discourse associated with contemporary music.[citation needed] From this point of view, the spoof was not greatly successful: although the work was certainly reviewed as if it were a genuine composition, no critic expressed particular enthusiasm for it.

Compare to:


  1. ^ Keller, Bradshaw, and Lidell 1961.
  2. ^ Mitchell 1961b.
  3. ^ Noble 1961; Myers 1961; Mitchell 1961a.
  4. ^ Noble 1961.
  5. ^ Mitchell 1961a
  6. ^ Myers 1961, 1064.
  7. ^ Anon. 1961.
  8. ^ Lewis 1961.
  9. ^ Ottoway 1967, 269 and fn.
  10. ^ Garnham 2003, 124.
  11. ^ Benson 2000.


Further reading[edit]

  • Bosworth, G. H. 1961. "Mr. Zak and the Critics" (2), letter to the editor. Daily Telegraph and Morning Post (Saturday 12 August): 6.
  • Ericson, Raymond. 1966. "Timely Operatic Theme". New York Times (25 December): 11D.
  • Hutchings, Arthur. 1961. "Du Côté de chez Zak". The Musical Times 102, no. 1424 (October): 623–24.
  • Keller, Hans. 1982a. "The Future of BBC Music: A Mystery". The Musical Times 123, no. 1668 (February): 108–109.
  • Keller, Hans. 1982b. "Zak's 'Mobile'". The Musical Times 123, no. 1674 (August): 531.
  • Keller, Hans, Donald Mitchell, and Jeremy Noble. 1961. The Strange Case of Piotr Zak. BBC Third Programme (13 August, 5.30–5.55pm). Recording preserved in the BBC Sound Archives: LP26787. Script in BBC WAC.
  • Keller, Hans, and Anton Weinberg. 1996. "In Interview with Anton Weinberg". Tempo, new series, no. 195 (January): 6–12.
  • Maconie, Robin, and Hans Keller. 1980. Letters to the editor. London Review of Books 2, no. 5 (20 March).
  • Mitchell, Donald. 1961c. "… And Not a Hint of Zak". Daily Telegraph and Morning Post (2 September): 9.
  • Nichols, Lewis. 1962. "In and Out of Books". New York Times (20 May): Book Review 8.
  • Pasfield, William R. 1961. "Mr. Zak and the Critics" (1), letter to the editor. Daily Telegraph and Morning Post (Saturday 12 August): 6.
  • Porter, Andrew. 1961. "Editorial". Musical Times 102, no. 1424 (October): 618.
  • Porter, Andrew. 1965. "Some New British Composers". The Musical Quarterly 51, no. 1 (January, "Special Fiftieth Anniversary Issue: Contemporary Music in Europe: A Comprehensive Survey"): 12–21.
  • Porter, Andrew. 1982. "Zak's 'Mobile'". The Musical Times 123, no. 1671 (May): 319.
  • Wordsworth, William. 1961. "Contemporary Music" (letter to the editor). The Listener and B.B.C. Television Review 65, no. 1682 (22 June): 1096.
  • Zak, Pjotr [alias Hans Keller]. 1962. "Zak on Stockhausen". The Musical Times 103, no. 1433 (July): 484–85.

External links[edit]