Music as Museum Piece

At the turn of the last century, Erik Satie utilized film segments, wrote absurdly specific performance instructions, used pistols and typewriters as instruments, and wrote egregious repetitions in his surreal musical compositions. Later, other composers like Mauricio Kagel and La Monte Young, whose Composition 1960 included a note to release a butterfly into the room, followed in Satie's footsteps. John Moran's new experimental opera, Zenith 5, now playing at Galapagos Art Space, is very much in the tradition of Satie. Moran treats the theatrical environment as a kind of sculpture garden of sounds. Each actor has a limited repertoire of gestures, like animatronic creatures in a haunted house.

An impresario (Katherine Brook) greets us, announcing in a delighted stage whisper, "There's a mouse in the house," falls down and scrapes her shin, and picks up a phone that beeps off the hook. An American Indian chief (Joseph Keckler) acts like a windup toy and chugs his arms as if he were a train, wades through water, and declares in a plaintive whine, "Hey, I'm Ray Charles." A granny (Erin Markey) snores in a rocking chair, awakens startled, and cackles. Two statues in lotus position (Mina Nishimura and Po Lin Tso) come alive to stampede as banshees, then shatter and collapse.

After the initial novelty of these random acts wears off, we sigh and realize there's no narrative. In place of a story, Moran presents us with an intricate, pointillistic collage of sounds and gestures. We must follow the stripped-down logic of a musical composition as it questions the very definition of music.

Instead of discrete notes, Moran has arranged elaborate sound cues in layered feedback loops. Instead of instruments, he "plays" on the sound board.

Whereas in traditional musical compositions it's not the notes themselves that hold our interest but the way in which they're combined, Moran's sound cues themselves are not that important, consisting of, for example, war whoops, bird chirps, warning dings at a railroad crossing, ticking clocks, chime sounds, and voices counting numbers.

What is important, though, is how these sounds recombine in new relationships as the work unfolds. The organization of such motifs produces rhythms, syncopation, and counterpoint. Moran explores the way that the gestures and sounds can harmonize or create dissonance with each other over time.

As with much theoretical music, however, the piece becomes more interesting as theory and less as music the longer one watches and listens. Both in a program note and in his informal introduction, Moran invites the audience to chat, order a beer, and even wander out of the room. One suspects he intended the piece as ironic Muzak, that ubiquitous, easy-listening programming designed to enhance consumer behavior and worker productivity in corporate spaces.

In many ways, Moran's highly programmed background noise is the opposite of John Cage's Zen-inspired compositions, such as his infamously silent 4' 33'', that challenge their audiences to listen closely to the ambient music of the environment itself. Moran, on the other hand, asks that we tune out occasionally and allow our attention to drift.

Both composers, however, examine not just the inner structure of music but the phenomenology of how we perceive it as well. How we listen, whether focused or bored, can be as important as what we're listening to.

Despite Moran's requests, everyone in the audience sat reverently still while watching and listening during the performance, which lasted a little over an hour. Moran might have had more success provoking his audience to ignore or interact with the performance if he had used Galapagos's front stage, which opens out to the bar, instead of the enclosed backroom, which one is charged $12 to enter.

Another possibility to elicit a freer environment would be to stage the piece at a museum space such as P.S. 1. Unlike theater and music audiences, who often feel they're entrapped (if by nothing other than the price of admission), museum-goers amble through an exhibit devoting a casual glance or an absorbed gaze as their interest dictates before blithely moving on. For example, could anyone be expected to sit through Douglas Gordon's entire 24 Hour Psycho (now at the Museum of Modern Art), which slows down the frames of Hitchcock's film until it takes a day to watch?

In fact, in 1902 Satie invented what he called "furniture music": background music that was meant to seem as peripheral and unexceptional as faded wallpaper. When Satie and his colleagues first performed it in a gallery, however, the patrons fell silent and listened attentively despite Satie's own protests.

Is it any wonder that Moran's work suffers a similar fate, unable to shake off our polite communal gestures of reverence for music as theater? After all, it was another opera composer, Richard Wagner, who insisted that theater audiences should be absolutely quiet during a performance.

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