Philip Venables

Answer Machine Tape, 1987

25 September 2022 - news

Trailer video of excertpts (with non-contiguous edits)

This is the catalogue page for Answer Machine Tape, 1987.

Answer Machine Tape, 1987

after David Wojnarowicz 

Answer Machine Tape, 1987 is dedicated to Joséphine Markovits with great appreciation for her friendship and support.


Answer Machine Tape, 1987 was based on a concept developed in collaboration with Ted Huffman.  

Software Programming: Simon Hendry

Answer Machine Tape, 1987 was commissioned by Zubin Kanga with the support of a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship, Royal Holloway, University of London and The Marchus Trust; Time of Music (Musiikin aika, Finland), November Music (Netherlands) and Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (UK) with the support of Sounds Now and Creative Europe; and Festival d’Automne à Paris (France). Support for some research time was provided by Neustart Kultur.

Answer Machine Tape, 1987 was premiered by Zubin Kanga on 8th July 2022 at Time of Music Festival  (Musiikin aika), Viitasaari, Finland.

With thanks to:

Marcelo Gabriel Yáñez for his assistance with research and for the transcription of the audio tape.  
Anneliis Beadnell at PPOW Gallery for her assistance and liaison with the Estate of David Wojnarowicz.


45 minutes


solo piano with MIDI detection (e.g. KeyScanner), MaxMSP and software synth, Projector and Tape.
The Max interface is provided with the hire material.

Programme Note

Over the past five years, Ted Huffman and I have been researching and making pieces about queer personal histories. One recent project involved us researching US-American archives of queer artists and activists from the 70s and 80s, for which we worked in collaboration with Marcelo Gabriel Yáñez.  During the first Covid lockdown, I read Close to the Knives and The Weight of the Earth by David Wojnarowicz, and then, for further materials, Marcelo pointed us towards the Wojnarowicz archive held at the Fales Library at New York University.  Particularly, he told us about the existence in this archive of an answer machine tape from November 1987, the time of Peter Hujar’s death. 

David Wojnarowicz (1954—1992) was a visual artist, writer, performance artist and AIDS activist prominent in the New York City / East Village art scene during the 1980s up until his death from AIDS-related illness in 1992.  His work is well-known for its searing, autobiographical detail, and particularly for the spotlight it shines on the development of the AIDS crisis and the precarity of gay life and emerging artists in the city at the time.  David was a close friend and former lover of another artist, photographer Peter Hujar, whom David nursed through the final days before his death from AIDS-related illness on 26th November, 1987.  Among other documentations of this period, David took 23 poignant photographs (one for each human chromosome pair) of details of Peter’s body immediately after the moment of death — images which then became Untitled (1988).  David also kept the tape from his answer-machine after Peter’s death, which covers the time from 4th November— 1st December 1987, and features 80 minutes of messages from friends, other artists and musicians, his Gallerist, hook-ups, and others caring for Peter.

Zubin Kanga approached me some years ago about a new large-scale piece for piano, as part of his ongoing research project Cyborg Soloists, which aims to develop the artistic potential of various technological inventions for and extensions of the piano.  As a result, we decided to work with the KeyScanner from the Augmented Instruments Laboratory, which non-invasively detects key-strokes on a standard piano. We worked with programmer Simon Hendry to turn the piano into an enormous typewriter, following earlier work in 4.48 Psychosis (2016) and Denis & Katya (2019)The source tape, with only some messages removed for brevity, forms a central thread around which the piano-typewriter explore ideas of transcription and annotation.  The narrative presented by the tape is elliptical, opaque, mysterious, intimate — repetitive and yet never repeating.  The AIDS crisis haunts every message, and yet the messages themselves, like everyday life, deal mostly only with minutiae and banality.  Where are you?  Come to my gig.  When should I visit?  Call me back.  

Answer Machine Tape, 1987 is a work that is enigmatic and meditative, that opens a door for the audience, but requires them to take a step inside.  We eavesdrop into a private world, messages are transliterated into a musical fabric, become character studies, become reflections on a community, become attempts to decipher meaning. Transcription, and its failure in the face of extreme difficulty, becomes a poignant metaphor for the AIDS crisis and its devastating effect on a generation. 

Answer Machine Tape, 1987 is dedicated to Joséphine Markovits with much appreciation for her friendship and support.

Philip Venables

Buy score — available soon

Answer Machine Tape, 1987 is exclusive to Zubin Kanga until 11th July 2027. Material will be available for hire after that date.

(photo of David Wojnarowicz by Marion Scemama)

› tags: 2021/22 Season / Catalogue / David Wojnarowicz / Festival d'Automne à Paris / Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (HCMF) / November Music / Simon Hendry / Solo / Ted Huffman / Time of Music Festival / Zubin Kanga /