Thoughts and program note for a favorite piece.
Thanks to Second Inversion for premiering my video of Mark Applebaum’s Aphasia. Video, as always, by the amazing Four/Ten Media. We recorded this way back in February 2017, and I’m delighted with the final product.
I loved answering Maggie Molloy’s request for 2 short paragraphs with a gigantic brain barf about how training as a percussionist actually does a fairly good job preparing one for learning a piece for solo singer with tape:
Second Inversion: What are some of the unique challenges of performing a piece without making any sound?
Michael Compitello: What I love about Aphasia is that the performer’s hands are able to represent the character of both attack and sustain in the tape part. Some gestures peter out, while others end sharply. Some sounds require a more resistance in the air, and others float buoyantly. For me, this is a challenge. Percussionists in general tend to think a lot about how our notes begin, and less so about how they end. “Let ring” is a fairly common notation in scores, and without a tremolo, it’s rather difficult to play with the sustain on a marimba or xylophone.
With this piece there’s also nowhere to hide! Most of the time, I appear on stage with a lot of stuff. Marimbas alone are as large as sofas. One becomes accustomed to the security which a large instrument provides, and learning to sustain an audience’s focus with just a chair is frightening at first.
You’re also playing chamber music with a relatively stubborn partner. I came to Aphasia after playing Mark Applebaum’s Straitjacket, a four-movement work for solo percussionist and quartet. One movement of Straitjacket uses the same gestures as Aphasia, except they are accompanied by Foley sounds from the quartet. While percussion quintets are able to engage in very flexible chamber music, the sonic portion of Aphasia is fixed. Learning to follow the timing in the tape while appearing to create the sounds took a lot of practice, especially in the piece’s opening, where “centurion greeting” and “turn key” pierce long and varied silences.
SI: How does performing this piece relate to your experiences playing percussion music?
MC: As percussionists, much of what we do is theatrical as a matter of course, ranging from the impressive spectacle of drumlines to the graceful ballet of a single performer attending to a gigantic battery of instruments. Striking, scraping, and shaking objects seems to evoke inherent theatrical undertones, and what’s fun about percussion is the way in which great percussionists exist at the intersection of sonic poetry, visual drama, and athletic exertion.
There exists quite a significant strain of “concert” percussion music which concerns itself with the theatrical. These works range from the amplification and foregrounding of the physical gestures required to play percussion instruments to full-blown stage dramas with percussionists as the protagonists.
The most immediate parallel to learning and performing Mark Applebaum’s works is the “instrumental music theatre” of Mauricio Kagel and his spiritual descendants: the body of work created by the pioneering Trio Le Cercle in France in the 1970s and 1980s, including wonderful pieces by Georges Aperghis and Vinko Globokar.
In particular, Kagel’s works for percussion are similar to the types of execution required in Aphasia. Kagel’s music expresses a what he calls “exaggerated protest against the mechanical reproduction of music” and a move towards “an enjoyment of music with all senses.” (They’re also devastatingly funny — a sly criticism of the overt and sometimes opaque complexity and ritualistic spectacle of his peers at Darmstadt in the 1960s). In Match, the two cellists compete in a musical tennis match, with the percussionist acting as a referee. And in Dressur, three percussionists present a staged drama for wooden instruments.
As a performer, I love that Kagel’s works mobilize classical musicians’ most innate skills — closely and diligently following instructions, appearing serious, and creating a ritualistic spectacle of aesthetic abstraction. For me, Mark Applebaum’s works demand similar skills from their performers: a rigorous attention to detail without imbuing a personalization of gesture.
Similarly, the indelible works of Belgian filmmaker, composer, and sound designer Thierry De Mey (b. 1956) are also wonderful preludes to Aphasia. De Mey’s long-term collaborations with choreographers Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Wim Vandekeybus have engendered works which foreground the physicality and gestures inherent in performance, what he calls “the music of music.” In Musique de Tables (1987), he invents a vocabulary of gestures that directly mirror dance figures. 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.
In Silence Must Be! (2002), 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.
Lastly, I’d say that life as a percussionist imbues one with a particular kind of attitude — a willingness to try new things, an enjoyment of being a beginner, and immunity to looking silly on stage. We really exist at corner of rigor and absurdity. Even though Aphasia does not require the performer to make sound, I feel that a lifetime of ripping paper, breaking glass, hoarding styrofoam, and other pursuits gets one in the mood.
I also wrote a little program note for the piece:
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.