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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #467
The Quartet
David Gunn

The four musicians sweep confidently onto the stage like conquering warriors, dragging their chairs behind them as if they were appendages of their gluetei maximi. They are all clad in black, and as they pass in front of the advertisement for Sonoma Organic Soot, they briefly vanish from view. When they reappear, the audience cheers as robustly as if they were victors at the Delphic Demolition Derby. They place the chairs in a semicircle as designed by M.C. Escher. Then they sit down and prepare to play. At first glance, the four resemble members of a string quartet. The instruments they grasp are indeed two violins, a viola and a decoupaged cello. But the musicians hold them as if they are shielding themselves from the overhead stage lights on which the Africanized bees have assembled their hives. And they wave their bows as if they're fly-casting for the elusive southern narwhal. For a while, there is no sound save for the lures bouncing across the stage and the occasional fish leaping after them. Then, gradually, the bows come into contact with the strings of the instruments. The scrapings and gratings that ensue startle the fish, which promptly disappear down into the orchestra pit. The man with the viola--it's still unclear if he's a violist--holds his instrument at eye level and unfolds from its base three legs that telescope to the floor. Then he unhinges the top of the viola and opens it, revealing a brazier-like device. The charcoal is already hot and smoking from the scraping of the bow. From a drawer underneath his chair he withdraws a trout, which he places directly onto the coals. The sizzling motif is picked up by the cellist, who crinkles a piece of cellophane in front of the music stand-shaped microphone. A woman in Row H utters a high-pitched nervous giggle, but she is quickly shushed by six panicky pantomimists in Row G. After a brief discussion, the two violinists trade instruments. One seems to have gotten the worse deal, because he hurls his instrument out into the audience. However, the aerodynamics of the violin are such that it doesn't travel more than a dozen feet before it curves back towards the stage and bonks the head of the violist--if, indeed, he is a violist. By majority rule (three votes to two to one), the players opt to end the piece's first movement early and move on to Part 2.

But before they can begin, they must pass through a hastily erected security station at the rear of the stage, the latest example of Homemaker Security intruding into every aspect of federally funded arts and crafts performances. The security screening agent gestures for the cellist to pass through the metal detector first. As she does so, her cello, which is made of adobe and cesium, sets off a shrill alarm. Instantly, the other three musicians improvise around the tocsin, finally settling on a g minor triad with a flatted fourth, no matter that bit of bravura is technically part of Part 5. Confused, the lighting designer turns on the overhead spots, the heat from which wakes up and annoys the bees. The term "beeline" is appropriate when describing events now involving the pantomimists in Row G, whose previously mentioned state of panic turns out to be prescient, indeed.

The consequent row among Row G's no longer silent majority seems to confound the screening agent, because when the other musicians pass through and set off the metal detector, he cheerfully waves them on. He does, however, confiscate the trout--which is unfortunate, since the fish was to play a crucial role in Part 2.

Part 3 of the--for lack of a better word--"composition" features the violist ... or at least the man in possession of the viola. Having folded the legs back into the base of the instrument and emptied the charcoal embers into a spittoon, he begins the section by gently blowing into a tiny slit in the scroll. Gradually, the viola begins to inflate. When it reaches three times its normal size, the "violist" squeezes the sound holes together, playing the instrument like a slowly deflating balloon. The violinists make similar sounds by pinching the miniature dirigibles that are part of the pegboxes' ornamentation, the cellist by rubbing her rosin against the Sonoma Organic Soot display. From the security station at the back of the stage, the trout suddenly chimes in with an eerily rhonchal counterpoint. The consequent frequency discrepancy causes one of the dirigibles to do a Hindenburg, catching that violinist's index fingers on fire, not for the first time. Fortunately, the rush of wind caused by the absquatulating pantomimists crossing the stage just then is sufficient to put out the flames. Another squawk from the still smoldering trout signals the end of Part 3.

Part 4, "Tacet," begins without pause. However, the foursome must be applying a geologic time frame to the "ma non troppo" marking, because an hour passes without any change in the players' taciturnity. Some in the audience--and based on past events, it's not surprising that they're all congregated in Rows G and H--become fidgety ... which signals the end of Part 5--a shame, really, since it's consequently over before it even begins.

As the bees return to their roost high above the stage, so, too, does the music return to the spare sensibility of the opening fly-casting motif: fling, wait, reel in, reload; fling, wait, reel in, reload. But, except for the trout, the fish remain in the orchestra pit, where they have discovered a mother lode of plankton upon which they are contentedly grazing. The "violist" describes a broad, Möbius strip-like gesticulation with his instrument, and the pantomimists, who have followed the bees back into the hall, mimic his gesture, turning it into a synchronized "walk against the wind."

The curtain falls, not because the performance is suddenly over, but because the bees have chewed all of the pollen off the curtain rods, causing them to collapse. In the nick of time, the cellist col legnos a switch on her soundboard, activating the emergency safety umbrella, and the musicians escape unscathed. Pantomimists, of course, are expendable. The more, the better, in fact. So it's not clear which the audience is applauding most: the musical performance, the purging of the pantomimists, or the trout's befuddling of the Homemaker Security agent.

No more is the phrase "the more, the better" applicable than on this 467th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, where the more time we spend on the featured interview--and, hence, the less on in-studio prattle--the better for you, our listening audients, not to mention, though I will anyway, Damian and Kalvos.