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