OUR Field Guide 4: C is for Comedy


“I think itʼs gonna be a little bit ridiculous,” Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, director of Omaha Under the Radar, told Melissa Dundis of KVNO Radio, referring to the festivalʼs grand finale, a rendition of Frederic Rzewskiʼs Les Moutons de Panurge (1968) led by Bassoons Across Nebraska. Rzewskiʼs score directs any number and combination of instruments to follow each other monophonically through a modal melody played in rigorously defined, sequential fragments, but with the caveat that if someone gets lost, they should stay that way. The piece “becomes like this herd mentality, but eventually, inevitably devolves into absolute chaos, like a herd of stupid sheep,” Amanda explains. The seriousness of so much contemporary performance can seem like ridiculous moodiness. Amanda says that the way she likes “to infuse humor into [OUTR] is through chaos, […] by maybe making people uncomfortable, or making them feel like things donʼt need to follow the protocol.” Humor as the overthrower of established orders can play an obvious role in any “progressive performing arts scene.”

For more than one of the programs in this yearʼs festival, however, this overturning of an

order seems like only one of at least three possible roles for humor—and not a defining

role: the overturning of an order can be farcical more than comic (cf. Brexit). “Les

Moutons de Panurge” makes for a somewhat ironic title: out of spite for a swindling

shepherd, Panurge hurls the sheep he has just purchased into the sea, sending the

shepherdʼs remaining flock to a watery grave. And yet the piece seems buoyant. It takes

extremely minimal material—a monophonic line—and refracts that material through

particular rules and unknown contingencies (“any number and combination of

instruments”). From one perspective, the piece devolves into chaos; from a comic

perspective, it blooms. The piece seems like a perfect finale not because it breaks the

rules, but because, by following its own rules, it yields a massive, jubilant form, albeit a

form bordering on chaos.

In that flight toward chaos, a third aspect of the comic appears. Humor overturns an

order, it establishes a new order of its own—however whimsically, tenuously, chaotically,

or ironically—and it approaches a vantage point on an imagined, vibrant totality. This

third aspect has something to do with what the literary critic Kenneth Burke had in mind

when he described his “comic frame” as “most serviceable for the handling of human

relationships.” Nabokov told readers of a paperback series on “Modern Literature”: “one

likes to recall that the difference between the comic side of things, and their cosmic

side, depends upon one sibilant.” Kate Campbell, performing with Katelyn Halpern as

the bicoastal duo KATES on Wednesday, talks about how the element of chance, risk,

and the unknown provides a kind of “antidote” to the rest of her contemporary music

career. “A well-rounded spectrum of feelings and experiences is whatʼs important,” she

told me, and “the humor is important because it sticks out” in a scene that tends to be

oh-so-serious. In that explanation, humor appears as one bright color in a broader

palate. But I mentioned to Kate that in Lachenmannʼs GOT LOST (2008), programmed

for Friday by Liz Pearse and Stacey Barelos, the composer says that a “message of

ridicolas” unifies three disparate texts; in a sense, that message provides a valence on

a big picture. Kate talked about the “warmth” of humor. I thought there was something

thick and enveloping about that image, and I asked her whether she thought perhaps

the comic not only added one color to a palate but even flowed through drafty cracks

scattered all across the spectrum. She said she could buy it, and itʼs something like a

theory of the comic as a fuller world maker and world surveyor that Iʼd like to peddle

here.

GOT LOST is a setting of what Lachenmann calls three “only seemingly incompatible

texts” in Portuguese, English, and German: a poem by Pessoa claiming that all love

letters are ridiculous; a notice found in a Berlin apartment building elevator at the

beginning of this century circumlocutiously requesting the return of a laundry basket

which mysteriously “got lost”; and “Nietzcheʼs not entirely unpathetic evocations (in an

internal dialogue) of an imaginary wanderer in impassable and dangerous territory,” as

Lachenmann puts it. (The entire score with notes can be seen in low resolution on the

Breitkopf website.) Lachenmannʼs adjective phrase—“not entirely unpathetic”—sums up

the ambivalence which pervades these texts. The imaginary wanderer is lost in a hostile

territory, a ridiculous yet altogether human condition. Pessoaʼs speaker turns the

ridiculousness of love letters upon itself over and over and over again: “All letters of love

are/ Ridiculous”; they wouldnʼt be love letters if they werenʼt; “if thereʼs love,” love letters

“have to be/ ridiculous”; “Only those who never wrote/ Letters of love/ Are really/

Ridiculous”; “I wish I were in the times/ When I wrote love letters/ Not thinking how/

Ridiculous”—the poem goes on in this way through further transformations. The

elevator notice seems especially ridiculous when the soprano sings forte, ascending

through wide, irregular intervals: “I NEED MY LA–AB–G–RUNDRY” (measures 193–

195)—the plaintive “laundry” interrupted by Abgrund, the German word for abyss.

Although not entirely unpathetic, the sopranoʼs song is strangely beautiful enough to

make you think about not thinking about how ridiculous it is.

In Les Moutons, GOT LOST, and in the piece KATES will perform, much of the humor is

undergirded by a process whereby fragments torn out of an imagined whole—“only

seemingly incompatible” parts—are put back together in surprising ways. Kate explains

that she and Ms. Halpern will be stationary in their performance this year; sounds will

move through a dialogic, ethical, or textural space. A text by Ms. Halpern will be spoken

in fragments set to “improvised ambient cells” played on BitKlavier, a program by the

composer Dan Truman which functions as a kind of prepared digital piano (a digital

piano with digital nuts and bolts shoved between its digital strings). As the piece unfolds,

the software takes over and cycles the cells through unpredictable permutations. A

spoken dialogue will move in parallel to whatever comes out of the keyboardʼs

processes. Kate says the piece is directly inspired by a performance last year by Paul

Pinto; the common thread between Mr. Pintoʼs performance last year and KATESʼ this

year, she says, is a playful pleasure in seeing what happens as the game plays out. And

what matters from that perspective is how things play out as a whole: something

happens in the interstices between otherwise scattered fragments. The aesthetic which

watches for those happening interstices is closely related, I think, to something

Lachenmann describes: his three texts, he says, “interrupt and pervade one another,

thus marking out a space that ultimately remains foreign to them, and in which—as in all

of my compositions—music reflects upon itself with ʻexpressionʼ-less joviality.”

The interruptions are easy to hear: Abgrund interrupts laundry in “LA–AB–G–RUNDRY.”

GOT LOST brims with contrasts. The pianist is responsible for “rapid pedal changes,”

“percussive pedal movement with reverberation,” “sustained resonating effects”

produced with “ʻsilentlyʼ depressed keys,” damped strings, a “bell-like mixture of

overtones,” guiro-like “actions” played on the keys, strings plucked pizzicato with the

fingernail, whispering clusters played with a “wiping gesture” across the strings, “actions

on the winding of the strings” executed with a fingernail or plectrum, and actions

executed with a plastic hammer. There are even moments where the pianist is asked to

execute “indeterminately pitched ʻphonetic actionsʼ” using their own voice. The soprano

part is at least as adventurous: consonants are extended, Rs rolled, unvoiced phonetic

actions darkened or brightened, cheeks patted or slapped, the hard palate clicked. The

singer must inhale and exhale audibly at times, and detailed instructions are provided

for the pronunciation of ordinary consonants. On top of all this, there are a little more

than five dozen Spielanweisungen or “game instructions” for both performers: in the

opening minutes of the piece, for example, the soprano is asked to “inhale through halfopen

mouth” while performing one action and to perform another action “almost

whistling”—quasi appears as a modifier in at least five distinct instructions. With so

much going on, the piece is apt to sound like a long series of events, each interrupting

the last.

The interruptions mean nothing for Lachenmannʼs jovial space unless we can also hear

the way his wildly varied fragments “pervade one another”: laundry and Abgrund make

“LA–AB–G–RUNDRY.” The workʼs seemingly endless changes will seem monotonous

unless you listen for those changes as grounded in a total form. Events of very different

natures are layered in painstakingly defined proportions. The piano part “is to be

approached no less soloistically than the vocal part.” Lachenmann, describing the

opening minutes of the piece, writes: “Under no circumstances should the pitchelements

involved (which should as it were be heard in the distance) obscure the air/

breath elements.” The very first measure of the piece appears in two distinct,

complementary halves. In the first, the pianist and the soprano stagger the entrances of

a shared phonetic action: they each crescendo through a relatively low “Fff” sound

appassionato. In the second, the soprano rises subito senza espressione through a

“Vvv” sound, perfectly synchronizing her rhythm with extremely low, muddy, dissonant

attacks in the pppp pianoforte. A varied balance between contrast and commonality

provides immense satisfaction throughout Lachenmannʼs music. It also grounds some

of the most ridiculous passages in GOT LOST: in measure 192, the piano goes tacit as

the soprano sings “DRY–ER” in two rhythmically precise syllables on middle C, at least

two beats of total ensemble silence appearing on each side of the not entirely

unpathetic utterance. I would encourage OUTR audiences to listen for these sorts of

pervasions, for the ways that distinct pieces work together, sequentially, synchronically,

and texturally, to form a beautiful whole.

Not only does a comic frame require us to look at the relationships between finely

formed parts and meticulously proportioned wholes—between a “private situation” and a

“general situation,” to put it in Burkeʼs ethical terms—but it obliges performers to think

more holistically about their performances. Kate could easily have had Lachenmann in

mind when she told me, “So much contemporary music is so hard, and itʼs all the

musician can do to just get up there and get the notes out; and they do an amazing job,

but they forget that their face is completely dead!” To realize the lighthearted aspects of

KATES, she finds she needs to be more aware of every aspect of her stage presence.

She praises Ms. Pearse for her attention to this fuller stage presence, and we agreed

that the opportunity to see her and Ms. Barelos interpret GOT LOST with wit was

among the festivalʼs most exciting offerings. Neither KATES nor Lachenmann offer

anything like slapstick, and neither go looking for laughs. But they do both profit from

the detailed attention to the complete body of a performer which we associate with great

slapstick performers in the age of audiovisual media.

And just as slapstick performers must sacrifice themselves to the pratfall, so we can

expect to find performers and audiences getting lost in GOT LOST, Les Moutons, and in

the performance by KATES. Perhaps KATES capitalizes its name for much the same

reason that Lachenmann capitalizes the phonemes of his three texts, for the same

reason that robots in comic strips speak in all caps: particular identities are lost as

things are atomized into mobile units of raw information. The performers who are

instructed to stay lost if they get lost in Les Moutons must go their own way. We can say

that rule is a good one not because it lets people do what they want—it doesnʼt: the

performers are directed to follow the leader and told that if they get lost, theyʼre not

allowed to seek a way back into the fold—but because itʼs productive of such an

explosive total form. The atomizing breakdown is important not by itself, but as the basis

for a particular and particularly satisfying recombination. The wonderful Englishlanguage

elevator notice might have caught Lachenmannʼs eye because it highlights

the paradoxical effects for a total ethical situation of the thing which gets lost. The

laundry basket almost certainly got stolen, not lost—thatʼs part of what makes the plea

for its return so pathetic. Whoever got it lost was probably glad to give it a new home.

When we look through the comic frame, we look for something like this appearance of a

multivalent, malleable, total situation where things are bound to get lost and where what

gets lost by one person gets found by another.

If some audience members will be coming to OUTR with a knowledge of contemporary

performance based mainly on pop-cultural parodies or satires of experimental art, that

might be an asset if we can nudge their bodies of knowledge through something like the

comic frame Iʼve been describing. There really is something a little bit ridiculous about

contemporary performance. The question is, what do we do with that ridiculousness?

The comic frame completes its work not when it tears down the old order, but when it

takes the materials it produces through that destructive act and weaves them together

both joyfully and with an eye for the density of a life lived among others. Perhaps

OUTRʼs humorous aspects can help us run the ridiculous through a rounded vision

which sees life as ridiculous only by seeing how ridiculous it finally is to see it that way.


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