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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


The Compositional Importance of 'Huh?'1

by James Bohn


"Carry flag like rag to the rostrum, wrap it around bust of Scriabin. Shout verses to industry and technology. Ahhh, the old values: the old battles!! Proclaiming I do not understand them, yet they do give me pleasure."2

Death In Scarsdale: 78 mm., 39 minutes, color, silent with closed-caption subtitles, a world-famous dermatological endocrinologist becomes platonically obsessed with a boy he is treating for excessive perspiration, and begins himself to suffer from excessive perspiration.3

The anomalous is significant! Destroy the bell curve, or better yet, invert it!

In an era when the global generic is gradually suplanting local variety, 'huh?' is more important than ever.

Like most others, I wake up, go to work, I eat, I go to sleep, I get up, I go to work, I eat, I go to sleep . . .

The last thing I want is the predictible!

Bring back the happening!

"They ask what the purpose of art is. Is that how things are? Say there were a thousand artists and one purpose, would one artist be having it and all the nine hundred and ninety-nine others be missing the point?4

Pick a card, any card.

I'm not much of a fan of Mozart's music5 with its order and its 2+2 symmetry. I prefer Gooseberry Neck.6 Its order is not one of predictibility, but rather it is an order based on tendancies, not inevitabilities. Flexible, not inflexible.

Rhythmic hum-drummery!

We cannot allow life to be like this!

No Q.E.D. Music!

"When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.
"The man who'd introduced them didn't much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one."7

Pre-Nuptial Agreement of Heaven and Hell: 35 mm., 59 minutes, color, sound, animated with uncredited voices, God and Satan play poker with Tarot cards for the soul of an alcoholic sandwich-bag salesman obsessed with Bernini's 'The Ecstasy of St. Teresa'.8

Art should be an experience that pulls you out of the ordinary, not shove you back in.

Composers work hard to write extremely creative pieces, and then write tiresome, dime-store, play-by-play oriented program notes.

I'm going to tell you a joke, and it will be funny because a double entendre near the work's climax . . .

The phenomenon of 'huh?' is better known in the discipline of comedy. It often deals with the reversal of the expected . . .

Q: How do you get down off an elephant?
A: You don't, you get down off a duck.

However, 'Huh?' need not be silly . . .

Like the turtle in The Grapes of Wrath.9

Like the monolith in 2001. An object: truly unique and unexpected. Inspiring the birth of intelligence, in the trying to make sense of it.

(             (?)            )               :)10

Walk around downtown Chicago, turn the corner, and there's this huge Picasso statue, same experience.

As Frank Zappa once said, "You can't write a chord ugly enough to say what you want to say sometimes, so you have to rely on a giraffe filed with whipped cream."

A teacher of mine once taught me the function of art galleries, art galleries are warehouses for artwork, so people can easily avoid seeing art. Likewise, he taught me the function of concert halls, concert halls are places where classical music is performed such that people can avoid hearing it.11 Around the same time William Rhodes, a friend of mine, had his string quartet premiered at Madison's West Towne Mall.

Far too many composers seem to dream of the glorious return of the Habsburg Empire.

No matter what you think of society as it exists, let's create art with a realization of where we live. We live in a society where Television is (for better or worse) king, a society of Computers and Cellular phones, of chemical warfare and genocide.

'Huh?' can also be subtle . . .

I find that Neo-Classic Stravinsky is amongst the most misunderstood music. It is commonly digested as being 'orderly' and 'pretty', and is thusly championed by many who normally hate music of the twentieth-century, and dismissed by those who think of themselves as progressive. They completely miss the subversion of the 'Status Quo', another instanciation of 'huh?'

At times 'huh' is more effective with a baseline.

Context is also important. One rusted out car within a sea of rusted out cars, such as the one where Interstate 81 and 84 meet at Scranton, Pennsylvania, makes little impact, however, the same object when placed in an open field has a much more dramatic impact.

Music is essentially patterns. Personally, I like to create patterns only so I have something from which to deviate.

Good-Looking Men in Small Clever Rooms That Utilize Every Centimeter of Available Space With Mind-Boggling Efficiency: Unfinished due to hospitalization. Unreleased.12

'Huh' can not only function within works, but between them, thus denying the labelers.

As corporeal beings shackeled to temporality, we are able to collect only a modicum of experiences. How much time do you want to spend on the predictable, the redundant?

'. . .'13

As Charles Ives once said, "You can't get a wild ride to heaven on pretty little sounds."

If we are going to talk about creativity in the arts, we should do so in a creative fashion.

Composer Jeff Harrington feels that very little New Music is interesting. He attributes this to his belief that so few composers these days lead interesting lives.

Living is more important than composing. Being a person is more important than being an artist.

Art is an experience: what kind of experience do you want to have?

Theorists and Musicoligists seem to emphasize the idea of 'unity'. One problem with this paragdim is that in the extreme it can be redundant, and lack variety.

As one who is, for lack of a better term, a spastic I have struggled with my self identity as a composer in an industry obsessed with the consistancy of unity.

How can I be myself and fit the mold?

Deny the mold!

With 6 billion people in this place, how do you plan to distinguish yourself?

If you are a professional Elvis impersonator, you will be at best, second rate.

Design yourself to be a vessel that contains yourself.

You must describe your must using your own words and phrases. If you describe your music using the words of others you will be lucky to ever free yourself from their paradigms.

(              (?)            )               :)14

Cage III - Free Show: partial animation; 35 mm. 65 minutes; black and white; sound. The figure of Death presides over the front entrance of a carnival sideshow whose spectators watch performers undergo unspeakable degradations so grotesquely compelling that the spectators' eyes become larger and larger until the spectators themselves are transformed into gigantic eyeballs in chairs, while on the other side of the sideshow tent the figure of Life uses a megaphone to invite fairgoers to an exhibition in which, if the fairgoers consent to undergo unspeakable degradations, they can witness ordinary persons gradually turn into gigantic eyeballs.15

Those who say 'its all been done' don't get out enough.

When you create something, try not to think in terms of labels. Otherwise, the blank sheet of paper will not be blank. It will be covered in detritus.

Labels usually used to discourage understanding and are usually used as an affront to individuality.

When we say that candidate X is a democrat, we either nod our heads enthusiastically, or we shake our heads with resolute disapproval. We have not talked about the issues, we have not gone anywhere as a constituency.

When we say that composer Y writes such-and-such kind of music, we either nod our heads enthusiastically or we shake our heads with resolute disapproval. Have we learned anything?

But Mom, I don't like vegetables!!!

'. . .'16

If you must think in labels, think in terms of 'huh?' A question is always better than an answer. A question begins a journey (education?), an answer can begin one or end one.

Valuable Coupon Has Been Removed: 16 mm.; 52 minutes; color; silent. Possible Scandinavian-psychodrama parody, a boy helps his alcoholic-delusional father and dissaociated mother dismantle their bed to search for rodents, and later he intuits the future feasibility of D.T.-cycle lithiumized annular fusion (UNRELEASED).17

Artists are the keepers of the word 'special'. Protect it. Treat it with respect.

An instrument can be a tool or a collaborator. It can also be an object or a sculpture. Composer Harry Partch has taught us that it can also be a prop, a set, or a character in a musical drama.

A pedagogical standard in the industry of music composition is the idea of economy of materials, that is that a 'good' piece is constructed from a minimal amount of motives which can be permutated, extended, and combined in a number of ways. While this can certainly be interesting, as far as I'm concerned its not the only show in town. Two composers who work against this economy include John Cage and Sever Tipei.18 Both composers will often present an idea only once in a piece. In such a context these unique events point to the specialness of life, rather than use an economical means to eke out a composition.

Cage alluded to this idea in an interview with Larry Austin, "If you look at nature, for instance, it often seems to be wasteful: the number of spores produced by a mushroom in relation to the number that actually reproduce . . . I hope that this shift from scarcity to abundance, from pinch-penny mental attitudes to courageous wastefulness, will continue to flourish."19

In the context of the same interview, Cage refered to this idea as 'moving-away-from-unity' and 'moving-towards-multiplicity'.20

During my last lesson with Salvatore Martirano, I brought in a recording of my piece Implosion for Vibes and Tape. He dug the way it veers off in unexpected directions, the way it wanders. He told me he was working on a piece called Me 'n her. It was a neat experience for me to find that we were both going in aesthetically similar directions, though we had never talked about these ideas explicitly.

"I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on."21

I am of the belief that some of the most important, most significant events in life are not planned, are not logical, but rather chance encounters, like the guy you sat next to during lunch one day in the fourth grade, a womyn you sat next to outside during a nice day, or a guy you didn't know, but talked to at a party.

The Film Adaptation of Peter Weiss's 'The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.': Super-8 mm., 88 minutes, black and white, silent / sound. Fictional 'interactive documentary' on Boston stage production of Weiss's 20th-century play within a play, in which the documentary's chemically impared director (Incandenza) repeatedly interrupts the inmates' dumbshow-capering and Marat and Sade's dialogues to discourse incoherently on the implications of Brando's Method Acting and Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty for North American filmed entertainment, irritating the actor who plays Marat to such an extent that he has a cerebral hemorrhage and collapses onstage well before Marat's scripted death, whereupon the play's nearsighted director, mistaking the actor who plays Sade for Incandenza, throws Sade into Marat's medicinal bath and throttles him to death, whereupon the extra-dramatic figure of Death descends deus ex machina to bear Marat and Sade away, while Incandenza becomes ill all over the theater audience's first row. Unreleased due to litigation, hospitalization.22

(             (?)            )               :)23

When using Digitally-based electronic instruments, there is a disassociation between the visual experience and the aural experience. That is to say that when I make the action of playing a sound, the audience has no idea what sound will come out, the sound of a piano, the sound of a dog barking, or something completely new. With such a disassociation, does it matter whether the sound is triggered from a device with black and white keys, a series of circular saw blades, the board game twister, or from a plaid jacket.

All music is more beautiful in plaid!

Dallas's dream was to someday live in an apartment large enough for him and his dearest friends to whip through it on roller skates, screaming "It's happening! It's happening!" at the moment of his triumph, but he was already thirty, lived alone on a waiter's salary, and had neither triumphs nor dear friends. His last friend had been his nearly silent college roommate, Chune Pei Liu, but Chune had gone to jail one night for uprooting and dragging a small holly tree across campus and then threatening the officers who tried to arrest him with kitchen knives, and he moved out without warning soon after that. He did not contact Dallas again, though he left behind half his clothes and twenty Ramen Dinners and his Daisy Seal-A-Meal and a hairbrush full of hair. He must have undergone some sort of spiritual revelation or transformation, Dallas figured. He was mildly envious.24

When you really look close everything is beautiful. Everything? Everything.25

Möbius Strips: 35 mm., 109 minutes, black and white, sound, Pornography-parody, possible parodic homage to Fosse's All That Jazz in which a theoretical physicist, who can only achieve creative mathematical insight during coitus, conceives of Death as a lethally beautiful woman.26

Composer Donnacha Dennehy, reserves the word 'shameless' for works that he particularly respected.

When I was a graduate student, I attended a performance of my teacher, Salvatore Martirano's compostion L's.G.A., complete with gas-masked politico and three simultaneous film projections. After the performance was over, I had the realization that I would probably never get a chance to experience a performance of this work again. After this realization, I felt like an extremely lucky person, a person who had been given a cherished gift.

'. . .'27

No steady drool of soup-kitchen lives!

I live in a third floor apartment that has a westward view of the Tauton river, so that I get to see the sunset over the water on a daily basis. Sometimes there are colors in those sunsets that stop you dead in your tracks, colors that you can hardly believe exist. This is also the experience I am talking about.

The arts have been crippled by the Reagan administration. Due to fear of budgetary concerns, I feel that many artists are afraid of the grandiose, the big gesture.

For those who are so inclined, the challenge can be not only to rebuild the budgets, but to conceive of big gestures that don't require big dollars.

Composer Dennis Bathory-Kitsz boasts three car horn symphonies that are performed by getting forty-some vehicles together in a parking lot, and conducting from the back of a flatbed truck.

When I was an undergraduate, my friends and I used to go out for beers at the Student Union on Thursdays during open mic night. In general, it was a constant wash of mediocre folk singers (so much for variety). Out of this experience, the Disposable Art Ensemble was born. We came to open mic one week, myself equipped with a portable modular synthesizer (all knobs and wires, no keyboard), my friends came prepared to play very loudly on a horrible upright piano. We were booed, we were hissed. We returned weekly, each time with a new member and a new name, as the Master of Ceremonies hated us.28 We went under the names: "The Kenneth Patchen Experience", the "Neo-Tonality in Early Minimalism Community Band", and the "Calumetville Volunteer Fire Department and Indeterminant Consort". Since I left the group, they've morphed into the "Society for Pleasant Music in the Suburbs" and most recently "Emergorchestra".29 One performance of the Disposable Art Ensemble featured: Synthesizer, Drum Machine, Piano, Percussion, Winds, and newspaper readings. Making an appearance with "Emergorchestra", I was one of two people to perform on the Chaerophone30, an inflatable chair with wind based noise makers attached. One performs the Chaerophone by sitting down.

Pick a card, any card.

Homo Duplex: Super-8 mm., 70 minutes, black and white, sound, parody of Woititz and Shulgin's 'poststructural antidocumentaries', interviews with fourteen Americans who are named John Wayne but are not the legendary 20th-century film actor John Wayne. Limited Release.31

"Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!"32

Time moves forward!

No Möbius strip lives!

The aesthetic of the B-side!

I believe in the aesthetic of the Rube Goldberg machine.

Living and dying are essentially the same process,
though the connotation is important,
if only I could live more than die.

Use technology to do new things rather than to simply supplant older things that are still valuable in and of themselves.

I feel that after the twentieth-century's preoccupation with reproduction and mass production, and its influence on the art world, that an admirable goal for artists of the twenty-first century would be to reclaim (with or without the use of technology) the idea of art as a singular, special event. A proverbial big bang for an ephemeral experience.

Most people love to watch fireworks. We'll endure large crowds and bad traffic for a chance to watch them. We even enjoy watching them on Television, yet who wants to watch a video tape of fireworks? Their transience is part of their allure, like the drama of the May Fly.

"Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!"33

All hail the channel surfers and the makers of mix tapes, for they hold the secret, that variety is the key.34

'. . .'35

Union of Theoretical Grammarians in Cambridge: 35 mm., 26 minutes, color, silent with heavy use of computerized distortion in facial closeups. Documentary and close-caption interviews with participants in the public Steven Pinker-Avril M. Incandenza depate on the political implications of prescriptive grammar during the infamous Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts convention credited with helping incite the M.I.T. language riots of 1997. Unreleased due to litigation.36

And I stood there that very evening in the presence of the setting sun, trying to memorize every last detail of it, awestruck and transfixed, being bathed by the music of Messiaen, moment to moment drifting to the memory of her mouth upon my center, experiences so rich with detail that I can imagine them to be worlds in themselves, and I try to mentally project myself into those worlds to prevent their collapse, to prevent their decay, to prevent the inevitable, to let them live within me so that I may be able to pull them out of my mind when they are needed, during committee meeting, confronted with blank paper, during late Monday nights in solitude, personal nirvana, yet I know I cannot drop into the fold, I have not mastered the fermata, I cannot preserve the tapestry, I will never be able to really appreciate all of this, I will never be able to really appreciate you, yet these experiences which stop us cold, which pull us out of the ordinary, which we may not ever understand enrich us, influence us, nudging us into the people we want to be, into the people we can be, into the people we've always loved, and always have been.