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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #416
Battle of the Bands
David Gunn

The "battle of the bands" is typically a good-natured rivalry among two or more competing bands of rock ín roll, jazz, country or contra extraction. Each ensemble plays for a predetermined period of time. When all are done, someone declares one of the bands the winner. It's as simple as that. Battles of the orchestras, on the other hand, are much rarer. For one thing, it's a logistical nightmare to get two orchestras together on one stage at the same time. For another, most inter-symphonic competitions are settled in a more gallant manner, such as by dueling or poison. But they do sometimes take place. One of the most famous battles occurred on August 4, 1984 between two rival European symphonies, and it brimmed with rancor. In fact, so embittered were the players that by the time the solo and first desk competitions had ended, the woodwind sections were at each others' throats with razor-sharp reeds, and the whole event soon escalated into a full-scale war. It took place in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, a landlocked West African country celebrated for its desert sand. And it took place on the very day that Upper Volta changed its name to Burkina Faso in honor of the one-year anniversary of a military coup d'état. Bloody though that governmental toppling was, it was child's play compared to the fierce orchestral conflict that followed.

The Hummock-on-Smythe Symphony Orchestra of Southwesternmost Lincolnshire--which the Penguin Guide to Classical Music shortens to Hossoosl--had commissioned a fanfare to commemorate its thirty-eighth anniversary without a conductor. The composer, who chose to remain anonymous, wrote a piece rife with B flats, each of which was to be played at a slightly different frequency. Combined with an assortment of tempi ramped up to breakneck speed and the inherent anarchy associated with a leaderless organization, the premiere of the piece was dangerously clamorous. The Times' music critic who attended the performance deemed it "the most discordant ever." Simultaneously, the Tonganoxie Philharmonic presented its inaugural concert in Turku, Finland, where it had relocated for two years while repairs were being made to its performance grange. The conductor, Klagenfurt, had chosen an all-Finnish program, unaware that traditional Finnish music reads boustrophedonically--that is, alternating left to right, then right to left. Both conductor and musicians read the music in the typical first page up-down, second page down-up fashion, and the resulting performance was so rich in cacophony that several wealthy benefactors imploded. A review appeared the same day in The Times that described the concert as "the most discordant ever." Naturally, each orchestra's supporters laid claim to the superlative, and a friendly rivalry ensued. Subsequent concerts of both ensembles featured increasingly inharmonious music. Tonal devotees fell by the wayside as the orchestras courted the dissonantphiles, who constituted a much larger proportion of the concertgoing public than had been previously thought. Atonal composers were suddenly back in style. Bleep-and-bloop music of the 1960s was again de rigueur. Well, some of it was, anyway. Remember, this was strictly a two-orchestra rivalry. No other symphony expressed the slightest desire to revisit that music. Eventually, Hossoosl, prodded by nettling comments from The Times music critics, challenged the Tonga Phil to a battle of the bands-type competition: neutral court; each orchestra plays for ninety minutes; winner declared by impartial jury.

The series of unlikely events that propelled both orchestras to Ouagadougou--from an impulsively charitable act by the Society for the Sanctity of Dead Flesh inverted by an Algonquin Hole to a nearly infinite number of variations on the letter E--beggars belief. But at last all logistical problems were solved on the aforementioned evening in August, 1984. While Burkina Faso had long been a haven for art and culture, the Burkinabe who attended the concert were ill prepared for the events that ensued. Oh, they readily adapted to the amplified screeching and de-tuned bass drums, and even embraced the hour-long tone clusters. But when the instrumentalists put aside their music and picked up tactical nuclear weapons, they correctly sensed darker forces at play here. Soon, the screeching took on an authenticity that only war can render. Musicians and instruments alike exploded, and the stage was forthwith littered with bodies. At least one beheading was captured on film, though the billowing cloud of mustard gas rendered the image hazy and at least slightly dubious.

But then, after the prescribed three-hour time frame, the hostilities, amazingly, ceased. The Times' critic, who had occasionally skulked onto the stage to egg on one side or the other, declared the battle a draw. This decision pleased no one, and he was summarily eviscerated to the nines by the Tonga Phil's percussionist's theremin.

"To the nines" also plays a role in today's 416th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar. Since we donít have any proper musical belligerencies to celebrate today, we'll instead observe today's ninth on-the-air anniversary, beginning with some ululating ninths from Kalvos.