It's a Sound Machine! It's a Sculpture! It's...Super Zwei-Mann-Orchester!

May 17, 2018

Walk into Drexel University's Pearlstein Gallery and you’ll encounter an imposing sight—and sound. A gigantic sound-machine sculpture called Zwei-Mann-Orchester (Two Man Orchestra,) created by experimental composer Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008) fills the space.

The sculpture becomes an “orchestra” brought to life by two players who sit inside it, and engage with its more than 120 sound machines, in a 50-minute score.

Zwei-Mann-Orchester (ZMO) is presented by Bowerbird, a Philadelphia-based non-profit dedicated to sharing experimental music and and other art forms. Check out ZMO at Drexel University's Pearlstein Gallery until May 31, 2018 with final performances on May 20th, 24th, and 30th.

We spoke with Bowerbird Director Dustin Hurt, who helped bring ZMO to Philadelphia.

Who was Mauricio Kagel?

ZMO at Drexel University.
Credit Ryan Collerd/Bowerbird

Kagel was a composer, filmmaker,  sculptor, and Neo-Dadaist conceptual artist. Born in Buenos Aires, he was a master at developing new vocal and instrumental techniques. By the late 1960s, he had moved well beyond traditional instruments (Kagel’s Unter Strom (1969), for example, calls for a “guitar performed by a truck supercharger," to fantastical and often absurd creations.  

He developed the role of the performer in what he termed "instrumental theater," a music in which the action of performers contributes as much as their sound.

Why did you decide to bring his sculpture/multi-instrument “sound machine,” Zwei-Mann-Orchester, to Philadelphia?  How did you design and assemble it?

Zwei-Mann-Orchester [Two-Man Orchestra] for two one-man orchestras (1971–73,) described by Kagel  as an "unautonomous automatophone," is a wonderful paradox.  It is a music composition and yet it manifests largely as a sculpture.  It has a 200-page score and yet most of the music heard is improvised.  To perform the work you need to build an enormous machine—and yet no schematics or blueprints are given. 

 

The Philadelphia edition of  Zwei-Mann-Orchester was designed and built by a team of six people—Yona Davidson, Neil Feather, Dustin Hurt, Scott Kip, Andy Thierauf, and Ashley Tini—over a period of four months.

Ours is only the fourth version of this work ever built.  The previous three versions were: the premiere at the 1973 Donaueschingen Festival, in 1992 at Documenta IX in Kassel, and 2011 in Basel at the Museum Tinguely. 

The German guitarist Wilhelm Brück was involved in the first three versions and served as an artistic consultant for our realization.

There seem to be a lot of moving parts. Any nerves that it might not work once you got it set up?

ZMO includes over 200 instruments, dozens of found and household objects, 300 yards of string, and is over 50' long, 13' wide, and 12' tall. Before each concert we have a checklist of over 50 things that have to be reset or lined up properly before the performance can happen. The concept of the piece  allows for "failure" --  if something breaks or doesn’t go off as expected, that's just part of it. In fact some of the sound machines are designed to be chaotic and unpredictable. Those are sometimes the best ones because you don't know exactly what's going to happen, but it's always interesting.

 

Performer Andy Thierauf
Credit Ryan Collerd/Bowerbird

Describe what visitors to the Pearlstein Gallery see when they walk into the exhibition.

The exhibition has been open for a few weeks now and I've had the chance to see quite a few people enter the space for the first time. No one is prepared for how large it is. Even if they've seen photos or video ahead of time, nothing can really convey the enormous size. The next thing they will notice however is how jam-packed it is. There's so much to see and figure out.

Imagine a gigantic fort of instruments, making up 120+ individual contraptions or "sound machines,” interconnected by a series of strings, rods, levers and all manner of other movable elements, allowing the smallest gesture to set off a visible chain reaction of sound-producing movements.

The performers sit inside the sculpture, with the entire timbral range of Kagel’s “orchestra” available from their music-making cockpits.

Some of our favorite invented sound machines include: Maraca Tree, Test Tube Guitar, Oud-ulum, Crazy Seed Pod, Güiro Wheel, Trident Xylophone, Disagreeable Drum, Caxixi Bush, Tumble Drum, Pendulum Harp, Banjo Baby, and the Violin Rotisserie.

Tell us about the musicians performing the “Zwei-Mann-Orchester.”

While all six people on the artistic team have some connection to music, Andy Thierauf and Ashley Tini have the special role of performing the work in concert.

Both are trained as classical percussionists specializing in contemporary music, and both are part of Philadelphia's thriving new music scene. Percussionists are used to having to play all sorts of instruments, but I think this really bushes that to the max. In this piece they each need to play all of the instruments of the orchestra, including violins, trombones, saxophones, pianos, harps,  and so many other things.  And on top of that they often have to play with more than just their hands -- using their feet, head, and other body parts. 

 Describe what audience members will hear when the piece is performed. How is it like (or not like) a conventional piece of music?

Kagel described ZMO as an unautonomous automatophone.

Kagel was interested in blurring the distinction between concert music and the sounds of our everyday life. I think this helps us listen to both differently. In ZMO  You'll hear a mix of things that might be familiar to you from an orchestra concert, but also from your living room. Sometimes the noisy sounds come from a traditional instrument and the most beautiful sounds come from something that you might see in your kitchen, such as a flour sifter. 

Kagel’s dedication on the Zwei-Mann-Orchester’s title page reads: “to the memory of a dying institution, the orchestra.” The work is a reflection on the changing position of orchestral music in our culture, and playfully blurs the distinction between instruments and everyday objects, questions the value we put on virtuosity, and elevates the role of the machines (and technology) to a point of absurdity.

 

What’s the typical audience reaction been? Do you sense that people have an emotional connection to the work?

Audience response has been exceptionally positive - so much so that we've just added another performance. Quite a few people have already come back to see it a second time—often bringing a friend.  The performers are incredibly charismatic—and the "orchestra" offers so many sounds and surprises it's hard to not be totally engaged, which is great, because if you take your eyes off it for a second, you might miss something. 

 

Kagel’s work has been called absurdist. Is there room for beauty in something that’s absurdist? If we’re looking for beauty in art, should we care about the absurd?

Thankfully, I think most people are looking for something more sophisticated and nuanced in their art experience than just "beauty," though I do love the beautiful moments of Kagel's music, especially when they appear unexpectedly. 

Kagel, like many artists, uses humor to express a wide spectrum of ideas. Absurdism sheds light on what our preconceptions of "what should be" and forces us to unpack our reactions to something that seems out of place.  Absurdism allows the artist to express paradox and irony, and perhaps most interestingl, ambiguity. 

Kagel once noted, "I am interested in ambiguity, not because I am a fan of ambiguity, but because it is an essential feature of the external world." 

There's a wonderful example in our wider, pop culture right now of the power of the absurd to express wide and complex ideas, and that is in Donald Glover's "Atlanta."

Why is it important for you to present experimental work, which may not be immediately be understandable, to Philadelphia audiences?

Fortunately we live in a time when Philadelphia audiences are very open-minded  and hungry for experiences like ZMO. The piece  is over 40 years old. I think I was more worried about it coming across as "old fashioned." Bowerbird has developed a very strong following for concerts like this.

ZMO, with its playful nature and sculptural qualities, has opened up some doors for us to reach new audiences. 

This work, like most of the work that Bowerbird presents, isn't about giving the audience an answer It's about provoking questions, questions that will be unique to each person, each moment, each experience. 

I'm interested in getting the audience to slow down and think about the world we live in, and to be more engaged with it, to think about what it takes—the cause and response—for a string of things to happen. To compare that experience with our expectations, and to be open to a different perspective.

Zwei-Mann Orchester is at the Pearlstein Gallery of Drexel University until May 31, 2018 with final performances on May 20th, 24th, and 30th.