Wim Klein was a remarkable man to say the least. Variety performer, drinking organ, pederast. And as a mental arithmetic prodigy in the service of a recognized research institute. He is now the subject of a musical theater performance.
Wim Klein (1912-1986) worked for almost twenty years as a scientific mathematician at the international physics laboratory CERN in Geneva. Wim Klein, the last human computer is the title of the performance about the mathematical miracle. “It was the honorary title he received after he retired from CERN,” says director and actor Jan van den Berg, born in Veldhoven.
‘A little faster than computers’
“Klein entered service there in 1958. Scientific institutes such as CERN, NASA and NatLab needed human mental computers for complex calculations. They were faster than computers. Klein had registered with Cornelis Bakker, the then Dutch director of CERN, under a cocktail party in Annecy. After passing an aptitude test, he was hired.”
Klein worked there until 1976. He has given tours in recent years. “He had long since been overtaken by computers. After his retirement he returned to Amsterdam. There he was murdered. The perpetrator was never found. I got to know his story while working on a documentary about CERN,” says Van den Berg.
He would rather buy love than put in the effort
“In my performances, I have a preference for subjects where the imagination of art is not often unleashed. So not love, hate, beauty, but beta subjects. People tend to push it aside. A subject like the structure of the genome (collection of genetic material from a cell or a virus, ed.) is so complicated, that is what science is about, they believe. But it concerns us all, including artists.”
Cold case in Amsterdam
Wim Klein’s colorful life story gave Van den Berg plenty of material for a performance. He also uses the members of the Brabant ensemble Vlek. He shaped the evening into a variety show, dressing the musicians in 1950s costumes. “I wondered what it looked like in Klein’s head. He was not only a mathematical prodigy, he had a war trauma, was a variety artist, a chain smoker, a spirit organ and had contacts with wizards. He would rather buy love than put in the effort. He ended up as a cold case in Amsterdam.”
Wim Klein deserves a dynamic performance, says Van den Berg. “We turn his life into thirteen and a half songs. In between I tell the story. There are different styles in the songs. They form a kaleidoscopic patchwork, they are as harsh as Klein’s own life.”
Metal funk punk
The members of Vlek are responsible for the music. “It’s really become kaleidoscopic”, says Boschenaar Bart van Dongen, keyboard player at Vlek. “Each member of Vlek has set one or more of Jan’s texts to music. Stylistically, we transform from a variety orchestra into a kind of metal-funk-punk band. Still, we keep one sound. It is not a theater performance, but a concert become ghosts.”
Tilburg guitarist Jacq Palinckx has written four pieces that all have a different atmosphere. “The computational side of Wim Klein is discussed in two pieces,” he says. “I let Vlek improvise according to a formula where numbers and proportions play a role. In another I highlight his Tourette’s side. Apparently he had to interrupt his calculations with cursing and expletives. It is audible in the music as a tension that hardly comes out, but can suddenly break out into a scream. The nicest reaction I got was that it is also interesting for math teachers.”
Wim Klein, the last human computer, by theater Adhoc. Thursday 19 January in Verkadefabriek, Den Bosch. Starts at 20.30. Sunday 5 March in De Nieuwe Vorst, Tilburg. Starts at 15:00.
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