Diary of a Mad Composer
Making music is a social activity. There are exceptions, of course, but ever since human beings started to make music, we have done so with other people, whether in a concert hall or a social ceremony. This month’s feature on Meredith Monk is meant both to serve as a reminder of this fact and to set into relief how unremarkable it should be to point such a thing out. But it can be hard to get through the layers of commodification and the agendas of academia and general hipness to see what is right in front of our eyes—and to hear with our own ears.
It can also be hard to see the social aspect in a lot of avant-garde composing. Composing, not music making; composing, not musicians working together. That was the lingering, unsettling feeling that I left the Kitchen with on November 8, after the second of two performances of Stockhausen’s Originale (1961), a feeling that was washed away and replaced with a sensation of joyful promise after John Zorn led a performance of his seminal Cobra at Roulette, three weeks later. Stockhausen’s piece, as anarchic as it may seem in performance, is a truly classic (as in the history of the classical tradition) case of the composer as authoritarian figure, dictating, via the score, instructions to the performers, while Cobra (1984) is the avant-garde as social collaboration, a mix of opinions and attitudes where musicians are encouraged to work together (when they are in superficial opposition, the deeper context is that they are finding a way from one musical idea to the next). In Cobra, Zorn is the leader, but in the sense of being a guiding force among equals, and the piece is designed to allow other musicians to take on the mantle of leadership when their ideas compel them to do so. Originale is not just a theatrical work, it’s a Happening! The Kitchen performances commemorated the 50th anniversary of the New York premiere of the piece. It feels 50 years old, an artifact of a time that is now culturally distant. Originale is a bastardization of John Cage’s theatrical works—they inspired Happenings but, in their disciplined rigor, are nothing like their spawn—which, especially in the example of performances of his Song Books (1970) over the past few years from Alarm Will Sound and Avant Media, remain astonishingly fresh and vital.
Stockhausen, who generated a cult of personality around himself, was, for all his strengths, shaped by the same cultural attitudes that called for the reverence of composers, from Beethoven to Wagner, and beyond. Originale calls for performers to play assigned roles, but those roles are artificial recreations of their personal beings: actors are “Actors,” poets “Poets,” painters “Painters.” At the Kitchen, the layers of intentional self-consciousness led to performances that were both relaxed and rigid, with performers who were comfortable in their own skins but hampered by a solid boundary of diffidence about what it was they were doing. The moments that came to life had a casual, personal feel that went against both Stockhausen’s instructions and Cage’s aesthetic: Joan Jonas splashing paint in a rush, Eileen Myles absent-mindedly picking through sheafs of her poems, a performer dressed in a classic X-Men costume, reading from an Avengers comic book, and getting some of the myriad characters mixed up.
The performer Narcissister did an extraordinary striptease, all the way down to heels and the world’s largest merkin, from which she pulled a wolf mask. She used that to put on a Red Riding Hood charade where she played granny, the wolf, and Little Red herself all at the same time, a titillating mix of cannibalism and orgiastic self-love. But she was a ringer.
All told, everyone who performed was fine, but the piece didn’t connect. It demands our regard rather than our involvement; it might as well be Brahms, just without any personal touch.
Cobra could not have been more different. Zorn talked about the piece with Anthony Coleman before the performance, and pointed out that it, and the rest of his game pieces, were part of a process that not only integrated composing but also ensemble play—the music can only be realized by musicians working together and expressing their own ideas and mastery of the form. A “sense of community made these game pieces possible,” he said.
Live, the music is as close to a Quaker meeting as anything else—musicians speak only when they have something to say. Of course, with the kind of all-star band Zorn had at his disposal at Roulette—Marc Ribot, Trevor Dunn, Kenny Wollesen, John Medeski, Cyro Baptista, George Lewis, Mark Feldman, Erik Friedlander, Ikue Mori, to name but a few—there were a lot of things to say.
The point of Cobra is to shape individual improvisations into something larger, for the musicians to come together in a creative common purpose. At Roulette, the results were fantastic, a combination of attentive listening and generous ideas. On recordings, the game pieces tend to emphasize rapid, disorienting sonic jump cuts, the Zorn/Carl Stalling short-attention-span theater concept of composing. But Cobra does not necessarily have to be played that way, and it was marvelous and enlightening to hear the musicians and Zorn, listening as hard and reacting as quickly as the players, finding material that supported some mesmerizing, long playing. If Originale is something of a sepulcher to a bygone era of European modernism, Cobra is as alive and alert as its namesake, but hot-blooded.