Dressur | Mauricio Kagel
German-Argentinian composer Mauricio Kagel is one of the most intriguing composers of the 20th century. Many of his diverse works contain undercurrents of surrealism and anarchism in an effort to shed light on—and often confront—the musical tradition. The half-hour percussion trio Dressur (1977) is rooted in Kagel's concern for how audio recordings have altered the tradition of audience experience. "In the 19th century people still enjoyed music with their eyes as well, with all their senses," Kagel has expressed. "Only with the increasing dominance of the mechanical reproduction of music, through broadcast and records, was the reduced to the purely acoustical dimension. What I want is to bring the audience back to an enjoyment of music with all senses. That's why music is a direct, exaggerated protest against the mechanical reproduction of music." Like many of the other works in Kagel's "instrumental theater" idiom, Dressur therefore combines the visual element with the auditory, the theatrical with the musical. Using over 50 instruments and non-instruments, Kagel creates sound out of theater (such as when a percussionist slams a chair on the ground several times), and theater out of sound (such as when castanets mimic the sound of a typewriter). The percussionist is a particularly fitting conduit for the visual-aural convergence: even in the most traditional works, his or her striking a variety of instruments, often while clearly visible behind several seated performers, seems to possess an inherent theatricality.
Le corps a corps | Georges Aperghis
The work of Georges Aperghis (b. 1945) questions how we understand and create meaning in our lives. Aperghis is best known for his work in experimental theater—he founded Atelier Théâtre et Musique outside of Paris—but his works for concert stages also grapple with language, memory, and narrative. Le Corps à Corps (1978) is a grim telling of a gruesome crash during a motorcycle race. The percussionist and his zarb, which is a Persian hand drum with a cultural proclivity towards musical storytelling, both experience and remember the event, with the musician narrating the story while serving as the protagonist. It is a grisly story of oozing blood, clouds of dusts, deafening cheers, panting breaths, and lifeless bodies. After a didactic “Ouverture” exposes the primary percussive language of the piece, we hear the story fragmented (“La Recit”), recounted amidst sports commentary and foley sounds of the race. Gradually, Aperghis builds the words towards towards an explosive collision with the drum (“La Lutte”), which he punctures with the most terrifying sound of all: silence.
Musique de tables & Silence must be | Thierry de mey
Thierry De Mey (b. 1956) is a Belgian filmmaker, composer, and sound designer whose long term collaborations with choreographers Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Wim Vandekeybus has engendered works full of a joyful passion for intuitive movement and a physical sense of rhythm within our bodies. De Mey’s music foregrounds the physicality and gestures inherent in performance, what he calls “the music of music.” Musique de Tables (1987) was inspired by a lexicon of gestures de Mey created for Wim Vandekeybus’ dance piece “What the Body Doesn’t Remember” (1987). Wim’s piece required a musician (De Mey) to follow a dancer’s movements, so De Mey invented a vocabulary of gestures that directly mirror dance figures. In Musique de Tables, three performers sit at amplified tables, tapping, scraping, sweeping, flicking, and plié-ing through a percussive Grand Divertissement where the constituent sections—overture, rondo, fugato, gallop, etc—emphasize a witty unity of visual and sonic gesture.
Silence Must Be! (2002) is a sort of sequel piece to Musique de Tables, where the apparatus of sound making is removed, creating an ethereal, magical plane. Rather than a ballet of the hands, this is a ballet of the air: a single figure creates various gestures, mostly moving in silence but eventually evoking the once-imagined sounds. Moving from gestures of a conductor to balletic figurations in the air, De Mey eventually fuses his visual vocabulary with speech, spelling out the piece’s name (an anagram for long-time collaborators Ictus Ensemble) on a flat plane for the audience to read.
Aphasia | Mark Applebaum
Mark Applebaum (b. 1967) is a musical inventor and consummate original thinker whose music combines the unrelenting rigor of post-war European Modernism with a strong sense of the ridiculous and whimsical. He zooms obsessively and exactingly close to the mundane, finding theatrical and dramatic elements in his own focus. Aphasia, a language impairment condition, typically results from brain trauma, resulting in the inability to comprehend and produce language. Applebaum calls his Aphasia (2010) a depiction of “expressive paralysis” inherent in confronting the act of composition anew. At the same time, the piece also enacts aphasia. A single performer gestures with what Applebaum calls “a kind of alien, pre-verbal, and rhythmic sign language.” Their motions are synced precisely with pre-recorded vocal fragments, alternately frenetic and calm, sharp and dulcet—gestural neologisms that appear deeply ingrained but meaningless. All the while, the performer is frozen; “automatic, robotic, performed, steady, practical, habitual and silent.” We watch and listen but cannot comprehend. Finally, we escape. Gestures and words align semiotically, counting in ascending numerals in multiple languages, creating a direction that seemed so unthinkable earlier.