The 1987 Max Headroom Broadcast Incident

Published on May 11, 2017

For Augmented String Quartet

This quartet finds its inspiration in a pirate story. Not pirates of the Caribbean, with an eye patch and a parrot on their shoulder. Not airline hijackers either…. although…. Here, it is more "information pirates". In other words, the ancestors of today’s hackers. Their crowning achievement is absolutely unthinkable today, as long as the technologies they played with are obsolete: one night in November 1987, they hijacked a Chicago-area TV channel’s signal, replacing over 90 seconds of the scheduled show with a strange and fantastic transmission that would be perfectly at home in a David Lynch film. This was a double hijacking; in addition to the signal intrusion, they also committed identity theft. And they didn’t steal just any identity, because one of them was disguised as Max Hedroom, an extremely popular computer-generated science fiction TV personality. With total disrespect for the media they had taken over, the hijackers made fun of diverse advertising slogans, media icons, TV series, and songs.

This moment of interrupting the established order could only seduce Mauro Lanza who has already composed several pieces on this subject (recently at IRCAM with Ludus de Morte Regis [2013]). For this quartet, he makes use of an imagination that borrows references from the horror film Videodrome by David Cronenberg—in which particularly morbid video signals can possess a man and deform reality—and cyberpunk science-fiction in homage to Fausto Romitelli.


What does one do with this type of subject with an "augmented" string quartet? Hijack it, of course! Mask its identity and speech just as the hijackers did with the TVs of millions of Americans. Using a process inspired by techniques for frequency and amplitude modulation, common practices in radio and television, the composer shakes up the quartet’s microcosm, its hierarchy and codes.

Previous Projects at IRCAM

Ludus de Morte Regis (2013), for chorus and electronics
Häxan, la sorcellerie à travers les âges (2009), music for a silent film by Benjamin Christensen (Sweden, 1921)
Vesperbild (2007), for ensemble, toy instruments, electronics
I funerali dell'anarchico Passannante (2005-2006), for chorus and electronics 
Le songe de Medée (2004), music for the ballet by Angelin Preljocaj for ensemble and electronics
Mare (2004), for soprano, ensemble of children’s instruments, and 8 instruments
Burger Time ou les tentations de saint Antoine (2001), for tuba and electronics
Erba nera che cresci segno nero tu vivi (1999), for soprano and synthesized sounds

Works by Mauro Lanza

  1. Ludus de Morte Regis by Mauro Lanza
  2. Vesperbild by Mauro Lanza
  3. Burger Time ou les tentations de saint Antoine by Mauro Lanza