About five minutes before arriving at the venue for this performance, I suddenly had a recollection of that most horrific and blood-curdling moment in all of mainstream cinema, the chest-bursting scene in “Alien”. I don’t know why this abruptly came to mind (I actually still can’t watch the scene all the way through), though it turns out to have connections, at least in mood, to the performance of “Kerplunk!”.
Both the music and the stage setting had an emphasis on the macabre. Beth Fleenor vocalized and played clarinet next to a gruesome sign labeled “severed leg”, and often froze with a happy/creepy expression that was both a grimace and a smile (“Welcome to my nightmare!”). Eric Barber, likewise, played sax behind what was obviously meant to look like a blood-splattered television screen, as if the horror show were no longer contained (safely) within the video. The other three players (Bill Horist, guitar; Naomi Siegel, trombone; and Tim Root, keyboards and electronics) were more in the background, at least visually, though their playing was obviously part of the texture of the whole. Yet, ironically, the whole piece was based on the children's game "Kerplunk".
Composer Tim Root stated that the piece would be between thirty and forty minutes because it was partly improvised (it was closer to fifty-five). Then it began with Ms. Siegel rolling croquet balls (?) down an amplified chute, followed by a spate of strange vocalizations (from all players) and sampled sounds from a prepared piano. The piece was in several sections. For most of the first, Ms. Fleenor carried on a stream of consciousness monologue with details about eyes that had been plucked out, agonizing pain, a bad smell, and (longer) about the aforementioned severed leg. Some of the tension of this was relieved when she paused to sing in the manner of Meredith Monk, or to draw straws out from a cylinder set up with random items held in place by the straws (like the game). In the second section, Ms. Siegel came out from the shadows to continue the monologue, now with themes of both existentialism and regret, and just a little of the gore from the first part. Her voice, and perhaps the character she was playing, were much more soothing – though the background music began to recycle samples from earlier sections. An interlude of sorts was provided when Mr. Horist set down his guitar and played a home-made (?) instrument that looked (and sounded) like a cross between a sitar and a very large pi-pa. During this, the others alternately played modal melodies or ruminated about calculating what is incalculable and/or dissecting a dog. Sampled snippets of previous material continued to flutter about. Ms. Siegel danced slowly with her trombone on a couple of bags filled with packing peanuts (?) to give a crackling, snapping sound. All climaxed in a dissonant spasm of freeform improvisation – though the first attempt at this build-up was abruptly halted by Mr. Root shouting “Freeze!”; and then the piece ended with drones – quietly – after Ms. Fleenor had removed the last straw, and the last objects dropped (disappointingly noiselessly) to the bottom of the cylinder.
It was all pretty entertaining, though in the end I wasn’t quite certain exactly what I had seen or heard (that was probably the point). Certainly there was an air of death and Kafkaesque horror about it, including more than a trace of gallows humor. Obviously this was a function of the words, but the instrumental sounds themselves often had a sinister edge – particularly the sampled prepared piano, which (with its amplification) was much louder than it “should” have been and gave a kind of hollow, scary resonance. The entire work was probably “about” mortality in the way that “Finnegan’s Wake” is about dreams and the subconscious, or “The Lord of the Rings” is “about” Christianity, friendship, existentialism, environmentalism, and WWII (of course it isn’t “about” any of these, but it is also about all of them). The metaphor of things dropping (beginning with the balls in the tube and ending with the objects falling to the bottom of the cylinder) was simply about everything ending, and it seems that it was an ending where all of reality drops into a bucket of gore and is never heard from again. No possibility of redemption was offered, and therein lies its nihilistic tragedy.
After a short intermission, the “band” played two free improvisations. The first started with grumbly drones and evolved into a chaotic free-for-all (ending with a sudden hush and some Balkan-inspired vocals from Ms. Fleenor). It quit before Mr. Horist had a chance to play the cymbal that he’d been diligently threading through his guitar strings for a minute or two beforehand. The second (“Let’s play a short one for the road!”) began with a one-note trombone flourish (“Wow – that was short!”) and then began again, loud, and settled back into quiet drones. All in all, these were lighter pieces that provided a welcome contrast to the darkness of “Kerplunk!”.