A Music Theater Playlist • VAN Magazine

You walk onstage, and it’s terrifying: a senior recital gone wrong, a late masterclass with a renowned soloist, a career-ending prank with your parents in the terrifying audience. As always, it’s inexplicably hot on the boards (or too cold, or the lights are too bright) and you’re sure the audience can see the sweat glistening on your frustrated, unhappy face. You jostle notes left and right, running through an old favorite, singing and swaying, trying to pretend you really are, in fact feeling this time, when you catch yourself thinking: This is absurd. what are we Do here?

To perform in a traditional classical music context is to attempt to dance gracefully through an obscure series of conventions and traditions without revealing the game: walk out to applause, bow to the audience, play, bow a few more times, smile, walk out to applause. No words, no applause between moves, no audience participation, no mistakes.

At some point in the 20th century, a jaded generation of post-war composers decided to stop playing by these rules and start using to shock, amuse and confuse. Often tied to absurd ideas, the pieces born out of boredom and existentialism from this heterogeneous mid-century group attempted to poke holes in the unwritten assumptions of Western concert music. But they also tried to expand his limited sound and theatrical repertoire by including stage directions, lyrics, acting, slapstick comedy, costumes, and more. The curtain has been drawn to reveal the Music Theater in all its glory, a chaotic chimera of traditions practically begging to be laughed at.


Mauricio Kagel, “Match”

Argentinian-German composer Mauricio Kagel is perhaps the most prolific provider of extra-musical and theatrical elements on the concert stage. Almost all of Kagel’s works incorporate an extra-musical buffoonery, be it the tuba and palms of his mock opera “Staatstheater” or the enigmatic mime of his work “Con voce”, in which performers are invited to more or less silently imitate playing their instruments. While not the first to attempt the theatrical concept pieces that would become his hallmark, Kagel certainly took the absurdity of stage life to an early extreme.

In “Match”, two cellists play what can only be described as a game of musical tennis mediated by a percussionist-referee. This 1966 rendition features old-school avant-garde camerawork and flashy editing that leans into the eerie valley, creating an enigmatic black-and-white short from an already musical theater piece. wacky.

Luciano Berio, “Sequenza V”

Although Kagel had a more sustained stint in the realm of musical absurdity, some of his better-known mid-20th century counterparts also wrote plays with aspects of comedy, absurdity, and drama. Among these experimenters was Luciano Berio, whose best-known works include his “Sinfonia,” a twisted tour of cultural history via musical and textual quotations in which eight singers speak, whisper, and shout passages from Samuel Beckett and Claude Lévi. – Strauss.

Alongside “Sinfonia”, the series of 14 solo instrumental pieces entitled “Sequenza” are Berio’s most performed works, and for good reason: their targeted and virtuoso explorations of instruments, from the harp to the accordion, make them easy fodder for recitals and solo showcases. . Perhaps the most famous of the group remains the solo trombone work, “Sequenza V”, in which a solitary trombonist wields a piston mute for unparalleled comedic effect. Seemingly based on an encounter a young Berio had with a clown named Grock, the piece asks the performer to turn to the audience mid-performance and ask the simple but deadly question “Why?” Ever since Christian Lindberg performed “Sequenza V” as a clown in 1994, the tradition of donning a wig and clown make-up to perform the piece has continued, for the greater good of humanity.

Karlheinz Stockhausen, “Der Kleine Harlekin”

Costumes are often the easiest way to get a foot in the door of musical absurdity: in a musical context so linked to the image of a coat and a tailcoat, the initial shock of seeing a performer donning a wacky outfit is sure to bring the whole charade of musical formality into question. In “Der kleine Harlekin,” stylistic chameleon and would-be intergalactic alien (according to himself) Karlheinz Stockhausen puts a silly costume to good use, even invoking a long-standing cultural tradition in the process. With reference to the commedia dell’arte character of the Harlequin, Stockhausen has the performer don the Harlequin outfit and dance around the stage in a playful manner, directions that Karel Dohnal certainly takes to heart in this performance. More a monodrama than a musical work, “Der kleine Harlekin” uses the tropes of classical musical performance and turns them into an absurdist pantomime.


György Ligeti, “The Mysteries of the Macabre”

György Ligeti’s ‘Mysteries of the Macabre’ is a bit harsher, a reduction for soprano and instrumental ensemble of an aria from the eclectic Hungarian composer’s only opera, ‘Le Grand Macabre’. Several different versions of the piece exist, but the core remains the same: a frenetic coloratura soprano screams, whispers and groans in coded, almost nonsensical language, trying to warn the indifferent conductor and orchestra of the coming a great Macabre (or the end of the world). She is Gepopo, head of the secret police, and her desperate pleas are met with derision by the instrumentalists, who mock her with bongos, slide whistles and shouts of protest. In this rendition, Barbara Hannigan, a veteran of the work in all its guises, also takes on directing duties, focusing all the attention (and derision) on herself.


John Cage, “Salon Music”

In “Living Room Music,” John Cage takes the most mundane settings and transports them to the concert stage, having a quartet of performers tap, slap and talk through a gauntlet of beats and lyrics. Intended to be performed on furniture, boxes, and whatever else you might conjure up from your living room, the theatricality of the play relies heavily on its staging. Yet the inclusion of texts by Gertrude Stein gives the piece an air of absurdity – Stein’s fragmented and repetitive language draws attention to the inherently meaningless rhythms of speech. Like all the theatrical pieces in this playlist, “Living Room Music” asks the audience: why not this on a stage? Why not in music?


Steven Takesugi, “Sideshow”

The legacy of mid-20th century theatrical and absurd music was by no means lost on subsequent generations of composers, who often drew inspiration from performance art, theater and contemporary philosophy. Among these composers is Steven Takesugi, now a veteran statesman of a “postmodern” strain of musical composition that is equally concerned with pastiche, parody, the grotesque, and the insane. More disturbing than anything in “Le Grand Macabre” is Takesugi’s highly programmatic work “Sideshow,” a carnival nightmare that turns performers into monstrous attractions. The acting chops required of musicians throughout the play’s hour-long duration are staggering: if the performers are in fact playing their instruments, they are also required to fake death, fake page turns, to make grotesque faces and synchronize with an electroacoustic track. In the interpretation of NO HAY BANDA, you never know what sounds are electronic and what are the grunts, gasps or noodles of the performers themselves. The set’s name, a reference to David Lynch’s surrealist cult classic ‘Mulholland Drive’, captures the essence of the piece: there are no bands here, only eerie models waiting for their cue.


Mark Applebaum, “Tlon”

No living composer has been more successful in spreading the gospel of musical absurdity than Mark Applebaum, the zany Stanford-based composer whose TED Talk-style lectures with titles like “The Mad Scientist of Music” brought his creativity to life. playful and radical to a wide audience. Contrary to the darker visions manifested on stage by many of his predecessors and contemporaries, Applebaum’s defiance of musical conventions is accompanied by a clownish smile and a knowing wink. Noticing an Applebaum piece on a new music program can be akin to finding an inflatable bouncy castle in the middle of a graveyard: unexpected, but not unwelcome.

Of all of Applebaum’s works, “Tlön” strikes most at the heart of the musical dilemma presented by all of classical music’s revered conventions. A reference to a mythical world created by the inhabitants of a fictional country in Jorge Louis Borges’ short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, the title of the play evokes a conception of the world that sees nothing as real except what passes through the mind, and flirts with the idea that habitual thought patterns can change the way we perceive and react to the material world. The concept of a conductor’s piece without music is so silly and obvious that it’s easy to blame yourself for not thinking of it first, but for all its inherent whimsy, the resulting performance is surprisingly beautiful, a dance piece to a silent soundtrack.


Georgia Koumará, “Come in and find your supper!”

For every great composer who plunges into the well of musical absurdity, there are dozens of newcomers who create equally (if not more) compelling works in a similar idiom. Funny bite has a big part in music composed by young composers these days, for reasons that should be obvious (there’s a lot to parody there). However, with “Come in and find your supper!” by Greek composer Georgia Koumará. it’s hard to say what, if anything, we’re kidding: games? Compliance? The art itself? Named after a children’s game called Huckle Buckle Beanstalk, which involves hiding an object so a seeker can find it, the piece is a wild ride of conspiracy, surrealism, and highly compelling chamber music textures. True to its name, the room, after beginning with a flurry of pointillist activity, finds a quartet of violin, cello, flute and clarinet discussing their plans to hide a series of objects in the room for a lone seeker can find them. When the seeker enters, he is ridiculed by some and helped by others. Like the absurd, the rules of the game are never clear to the public. ¶