April 5, 2008

Music v. Noise Part 2

The first Futurist opera, Victory Over the Sun, was presented in St. Petersburg in October, 1913, with music by the Russian composer Mikhail Matyushin, and with sets and costumes designed by the Constructionist artist Kasimir Malevich. Essentially a collection of incomprehensible nonsense, the opera concerned a group of "Futurecountrymen" attempting to conquer the sun. The librettist, Alexei Kruchenykh, demanded that the performers, attracted by a casting call that stated, "Actors, do not bother to come, please," pronounce the words with pauses between each syllable: "The cam-el-like fac-to-ries al-read-y threat-en us …" which had the effect of "getting on everyone's nerves."

While the premiere was generally a success attended by like-minded artists and students and guarded by large numbers of policemen, the critics were uniformly unkind, causing the composer Matyushin to deride their "herd mentality." However, Victory Over the Sun is notable for representing a "comprehensive collaboration by the poet, the musician and the artist, setting a precedent for the years to come."

Nor was ballet immune from the assault of the merry pranksters. A new group of iconoclasts had arisen after the First World War that called itself the Dadaists, a loosely knit assembly of poets, painters, amateur boxers and hangers-on that included the Frenchman Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp had first gained notoriety with his 1911 painting Nude Descending a Staircase, a work very much influenced by the Italian Futurist painters. Duchamp's general irreverence and nuttiness were to have a profound effect on 20th century art. (In fact many years later Duchamp and his wife Teeny were to participate in a composition by the American composer John Cage, in which the production of tones was linked to a chess game played by Cage and Duchamp.)

In 1917 Duchamp submitted to an art exhibition in New York a porcelain urinal, which he had purchased from a plumbing shop, laid on its back, signed in black pen, "R. Mutt 1917," and titled, "Fountain." Although it was rejected by the selection committee, its status as a "found object" is legendary, and represents the first instance of an everyday object ostensibly elevated to the status of art merely by the act of it having been selected by the artist.

On December 4, 1924, the Dadaists presented their ballet Relâche — which means both "relaxation" and is the theatrical expression for "no performance tonight" — based on a scenario instigated by Duchamp's accomplice in hijinks, Francis Picabia. Relâche had been commissioned by Rolf de Maré, director of the Parisian Ballets Suédois. The production began with a man dressed in firefighter's gear, chain smoking in direct contravention of the theatre's building code, who continued shifting a quantity of water between two buckets throughout the evening.

The ballet is in two parts, with a film, Entr'acte, projected between "acts." The film begins with shots from various angles of a bearded man dressed in a ballerina's costume jumping up and down on a glass pane, and ends with a grinning corpse emerging from a coffin that had been dropped on the ground, and features music by the eccentric French composer Erik Satie: "Satie's exasperatingly minimalist music, whose repetitions recall nothing so much as a needle stuck in the groove of a phonograph record … was claimed as the first music written expressly for a film."

The second act continues the absurdist provocation, and includes the prominent display of a large sign that reads, "Satie is the greatest musician in the world." The production concluded with its authors, including Satie, driving onto the stage in a tiny five horsepower Citroën. "They were greeted with catcalls, and the Ballet Suédois was dissolved forever." As de Maré put it: "Relâche was too much for all of us." The 58-year-old Satie was savaged in the press. "Adieu, Satie," read the headlines, and the scandal was attached to his name until his death less than a year later.

Satie was no stranger to balletic shenanigans. In 1917, he had been involved in another production in Paris, Parade, with a text by Jean Cocteau and sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso. Satie worked for an entire year on the score, which incorporated many of Cocteau's suggestions for instrumentation, such as "typewriters, sirens, aeroplane propellers, Morse tappers, and lottery wheels." Parade, which features characters dressed as ten-foot-high skyscrapers and teams of acrobats performing to frenetic waltzes played on xylophones, predictably attracted widespread derision. Satie was denounced, and replied to one conservative critic, "Vous n'êtes qu'un cul, mais un cul sans musique," which translates roughly as, "You are only an ass, but an ass without music." Satie was actually fined heavily for making this remark.

All of this cacophony and calculated outrage inevitably led to, of all things, silence, and John Cage's 1952 composition 4'33". Yet Cage was perfectly aware that complete silence was physically unachievable, which he had proven to himself the year before by sequestering himself in an anechoic chamber at Harvard University. There he became aware of two remaining sounds: those of his own nervous and circulatory systems. 4'33" is comprised of three sections, each of which was demarcated by its original performer, the pianist David Tudor, by successive opening and closing of the keyboard lid.

Although one might expect Cage's watershed composition to mark, in some sense, the end of music and the beginning of postmodern sensibility, the idea of non-music involving instruments never played was extended by the American composer LaMonte Young, who in the early 1960s wrote a number of pieces that reflect both Cage's ideas and those of his Dadaist precursors. The "score" for Young's Piano Piece for David Tudor #1 reads as follows: "Bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onto the stage for the piano to eat and drink. The performer may then feed the piano or leave it to eat by itself. If the former, the piece is over after the piano has been fed. If the latter, it is over after the piano eats or decides not to."

Or Young's Composition 1960 #7, which consists simply of the simultaneous sounding of a B and an F#, with the direction, "to be held for a long time."

But the record for the most demonstrably irritating piece of music ever written must go to Terry Riley's In C, a relentlessly minimalist piano piece composed in 1964. The piece consists of nothing more than various permutations of a C major scale, repeated over 15 hours.

Of its New York premiere, a contemporary reviewer observed that halfway through the piece most of the audience had long since disappeared. Near the end of the performance, there was nobody left in the auditorium save for a handful of masochists, and when the piece finally concluded, one sado-masochist rose to his feet and shouted, "Encore!"

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