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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #197
The Pavlov Digestive Orchestra
David Gunn

The date, February 27, 1936; the time, 2:30pm; the place, the Institute of Industry, Labor and Music Recital Hall of the Ryazan Seminary in St. Petersburg, Russia. Eleven men and four women are in the great room, milling about and talking quietly amongst themselves. Five of the men are standing in a circle; with their cigarettes, they are communally blowing a giant smoke ring. Another man has donned an otter suit and is jumping back and forth through the ring. One of the women carries a trapeze, which she occasionally whirls over her head like the leg of a whooping crane. Two other women are playing a card game whose rules are so convoluted that they've sent their handlers to Ulan Bator to find the only known authority on the game and bring him back to Russia to arbitrate the final draw sequence. Two more men are standing on tiptoes whistling Dixie in parallel fifths. Three others are engaged in a slow-motion rendition of Macbeth for Pantomimes. Having begun the play at an ice hockey practice two weeks ago, they are only now into the final act. And the fourth woman has plastered herself to the wall, just under the plaque advertising Vladivostok Harpoon Menorahs.

A tall, bearded man in a white lab coat enters the room. His extreme height belies his age, which is 86½. The others patently ignore him, even after he releases a pair of feisty lammergeiers. He stands quietly, observing the disparate activities, and occasionally scribbles notes onto a clipboard. Then he walks to a podium, turns on the microphone, and whispers, "Remember that dancing the hula in a crowsuit on Monday is illegal." Instantly, all 15 men and women cease their activities and race to the rear of the auditorium where an assortment of musical instruments is piled. Each picks up a different instrument, hastens back to the stage at the front and sits down on one of 15 chairs arranged in a semicircle. They wait passively, seemingly without anticipation. Two minutes pass. No one moves. At last, the man at the podium leans towards the microphone again and says, "Remember that ..."

Before he can say another word, the men and women begin to play their instruments autonomically. Like a DeSoto roadster pulling a string of boxcars laden with lead weights, it takes a while to get going, but eventually everyone seems to be playing from the same sheet of music. Gradually, a melody emerges, followed by exposition, development, recapitulation, and a brief stab at counterpoint. Another man watches unseen from the balcony. He appears to be following the music on a score, and frequently glances at his wristwatch. He turns a page and peers expectantly down into the shadows of the loge boxes. Suddenly, a mariachi band explodes from the fifth row of the mezzanine seats and cha-chas its way to the front stage, joining the other musicians. And now the familiar strains of El Salon Mexico are clearly discernible. The musicians continue with their note-correct but mechanical performance until the lab-coated man again leans close to the microphone and says, simply, "Mesopotamia." As one, the musicians put down their instruments, glance uneasily around, and commence anew their millinery activities.

The man in the balcony gathers up his music, shakes the hand of another bearded gentleman who has suddenly appeared out of the shadows, hands him a check, then goes downstairs to join the others.

What you have just witnessed is the first documented instance of a performance by an Eastern European orchestra-for-hire. The customer, Aaron Copland; the broker, Professor I.P. Pavlov; the musicians, a group of patients undergoing conditioned reflex experiments at the Royal Digestion Academy of Leningrad; the result, an acceptable sight-reading of El Salon Mexico at a pro-rated cost of 120 rubles per minute a full three months before the composer officially published it. Unfortunately, an hour after the performance, poor Pavlov was found dead at his summer dacha two hours outside the city, an incident that was never satisfactorily explained by the Soviet Seminary Constabulary.

While it's unlikely you'll ever hear a complete performance of The Mexican Hair Styling Shoppe on Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, notwithstanding this 197th episode, it's quite probable we will sample the fare of bands for hire from time to time, and let you, our listening audient, be the judge of its value at 120 rubles per minute, coincidentally the speed at which I now turn the microphone over to Kalvos.