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The Essay
Show #274
The Festival of Disturbing Music
David Gunn

Smackover may sound like a town well suited for stormy domestic disputes, but in reality -- or at least in my perception of reality -- this town in southcentralmost Arkansas is best known for its stormy annual music competition, The Festival of Disturbing Music. Each August, performers from around the world descend onto this otherwise sleepy town to present new works specially composed to annoy, unsettle, irk and generally adversely agitate the listener. Past winners have been Lava Music, a fiercely environmental composition performed at a temperature of 2,000°F; the Barked Shinphony, in which the legs of randomly selected audients were abraded with barbed-wire cudgels; and an anonymous electronic etude that accurately mimicked the sound of debeaking an unanesthetized parrot. This year's contestants had unnerved the spectators with flamethrowers, telemarketers, tax audits, virulent philosophers, fire ants and Arch Ludlow's enamel shirt, and the hall was littered with the vestiges, some still smoldering, of players and patrons alike. The penultimate performance was particularly disturbing. Anwar Singh had somehow harnessed the mysterious acoustic phenomenon known as the Taos Hum, an inexplicable 195-Hz drone of unknown origin that was discovered in the mountain canyons of northern New Mexico. Once heard, it lodges in the listener's subconscious like a Popeil infomercial, often driving him either insane or to southern New Mexico. Singh had incorporated the Hum in his Variations on 4'33" for Marching Band, and now more than a few audient members were writhing and moaning in their seats.

The final piece on the program was as intense as it was brief -- a mere three minutes and fifteen seconds in length. But what devastation it wrought! Paleolithica Paul stood up from the remains of the baby grand piano after the final crashing chord from her Seismic Sonata had reduced the bottom third of the keyboard to ivory- sheened splinters. The stage resembled a field of fumaroles, and molten methane lapped against the first row of seats. The entire structural integrity of the concert hall had been compromised, with most load-bearing beams cocked at disingenuous angles. The windows had all imploded, and many audients now sported stained glass tattoos. But the systematic destruction of a piano and its surroundings can engender great pathos, and her adoring fans hooted their approval, holding up miniature versions of her piano and pulling off the legs and ripping out the soundboards in imitative adulation. Elsewhere in the once great hall, the concert promoters applauded with restraint while grimacing at the piles of rubble on what was left of the stage and calculating the reduction in profit margin.

Paleolithica stood six feet six and towered over her page-turning husband, Sevasto, especially now that he was partly buried under the remnants of the Yamahammerklavier. She bowed gracefully, acknowledged her wounded instrument, then suddenly lashed out with a well-aimed karate kick. The rest of the piano buckled, and a pinblock shard shot out into the audience and ricocheted off the heads of two lucky spectators. Sevasto merely licked his wounded knee and thought about similar havoc in 19th century southwestern South-of-North-Dakota.

The judges retreated to a corner dressing room as much to tally the results as to escape that nettling Hum. After a decisionless hour had passed, Paleolithica impatiently thwacked the pile of piano. A nervous anti-chord rumbled down into the earth’s crust, causing a spasm of continental drift directly beneath them. The dressing room floor collapsed into the consequent sinkhole, followed by a muffled scream and the least agile festival judges. The remaining arbiters scrambled back to the relative safety of the proscenial ruins, asked for silence -- which all but the Hum acceded to -- and announced that the winner was ... the Concerto for Enamel Shirt.

It was a wholly unpopular and preposterous choice, and chaos immediately broke out. The supporters of Mr. and Mrs. Paul, led by the mayor of Smackover, who was one of the lucky ricochetees, lobbed hundreds of breaded chunks of sea robin onto the stage, and then stormed it. It was no less than mob rule with fish sticks! Meanwhile, a geothermal storm was brewing beneath them, as Anwar Singh's Hum was hard at work worrying a fault line that led straight to the earth's core. Sevasto Paul sensed the impending disaster, and tried to escort the missus off the stage, but she was too caught up in the excitement of the moment to budge.

Well, it would've been too late, anyway, because just at that moment there occurred an episode of pandemonium the likes of which won't have been seen until this 274th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, whose own tumult is barely held in check by minimal programmatic structure and, to a lesser extent, by Kalvos.