The following article was originally published over at The Omnivorous Listeners Blog.
By Jocelyn Morlock
If everyone is a musical omnivore these days, composers perhaps even more than others, it seems likely that now and then we’ll mix a couple of things that don’t go entirely well together. Or maybe we’ll mix a couple of things that you wouldn’t think would go well together, only to find that the combination is awesome.
Some years ago, while I was a member of a Balinese gamelan, Gamelan Gita Asmara at the University of British Columbia one of our teachers was talking to us about a class he was teaching in cross-cultural musical interactions, and our conversation digressed from a discussion of musical fusion to fusion cooking. We started trying to come up two foods that just couldn’t work well together, and the most unlikely culinary pairing was mushrooms and chocolate. Raw mushrooms and chocolate syrup — not appealing. Fried mushrooms and onions with chocolate chips on top — also a no-go. Mole sauce was a possibility, although since it was savoury that seemed like cheating...
But I digress — the students in the cross-cultural musical interactions class tried eating some raw mushrooms and dark chocolate together, and it was weird, but it was only a matter of time before someone from the outside world figured out how to combine them in a wonderful way (click the picture):
Back to Gita Asmara, at one point in time we had a small group that learned a gamelan Kotekan on electric guitars and drum kit, and that was improbable and weird, and fun to do. More strange and delightful to my ear was listening to Gambang Kromong — a sort of mashup style of gamelan music from Jakarta. This recording of Stambul Bila includes gamelan instruments, Hawaiian style slide guitar, and Dixieland trumpet. I love it.
For several years the music director of our gamelan was Dewa Ketut Alit, one of the most amazing and unusual composers I’ve ever known. He’s written some great music for Çudamani, and for the ensemble he founded in 2007, Gamelan Salukat. Alit’s music might combine multiple gamelans of different modes, or incorporate Western instruments — whatever he does, it is always surprising (if not downright shocking) and exciting.
Among the best concerts I ever attended was a sold-out show by Robert Ashley and Jacqueline Humbert at Vancouver’s Western Front. Ashley, who died in 2014, was a deeply iconoclastic composer of what is referred to as opera, but bears little resemblance to Puccini, Wagner, or any other opera I’ve listened to. The first piece of Ashley’s I ever heard, "Automatic Writing" —
— takes as its starting point Ashley’s involuntary vocalizing from Tourette’s syndrome. This is one of the more unlikely premises for vocal music that I’m familiar with; the result is hauntingly beautiful.
When Ashley and his colleague (co-conspirator?) Jacqueline Humbert were performing at the Western Front, the entire experience was joyfully surreal. Something happened at the beginning of the event that set the mood for me: Jacqueline Humbert came onstage looking rather operatic, wearing this elegant black cocktail dress and a somewhat large, flashy rhinestone necklace. I was sitting near the back of the hall and it took me several moments to realize that the rhinestone necklace spelled out the word FUCK in glorious capital letters. One of the pieces they did was Au Pair (first part is here, other parts also available on YouTube):
Ashley and Humbert are having something of a dialogue — Ashley’s part is a combination of listener/commentator/Greek chorus as Humbert tells the strange story of a group of middle-class neighbours who all decide they want au pairs for their children. Their desire to employ trendy European nannies leads to a bevy of appalling though hilarious consequences. For days, the sound of Ashley’s voice mumbling “au pair…au pair…oh, my…” wormed its way through my ear.
I will leave you with one final video, of the music of Milton Babbitt. In my years of academic study, I had to listen to and/or analyze Babbitt’s music more often than I would’ve liked (to be honest, once was more than enough). To my surprise, The Bad Plus covered Milton Babbitt’s rather dry, cerebral piano piece, "Semi-Simple Variations." No one would expect to say of Babbitt’s music “it’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it” but, well…