As the tentative first blow met my body, the combination of the performers grip on the cello's neck and the contact of the strings against my lower back produced a delicate A minor 7 chord. Even in my anguish I had hoped to be struck with a C major 7 that would harmonically resolve the A minor 7, whose tension hung helplessly in the theater's bright acoustics. I wouldn't be so lucky. The second blow crushed between my shoulders, shattering the cello's wooden body.
My blindfold now sagging, I caught a glimpse of my attacker, a portly tuxedoed man sweating profusely, holding the neck of his cello, which was now beyond recognition. Before scampering off stage, I turned to the audience, shielded my eyes from the stage lights, and saw a blur of faces. Some cheered my plight, provoking my attacker and barbarically demanding my demise. But some sat stunned, as shocked as the cello. If only, I thought, I had entered the right theater. They would be on their feet cheering me, exalting my bold musical experiment, my genius, my artistic vision.
The experiment was an original. It was avante garde, set to answer a barrage of questions. What is performance? What makes a performance legitimate? Who determines performance? It was an exercise in the dynamics of the communication between performer and audience.
The experiment would go like this: In an intimate auditorium—perhaps on a small mid-western college campus dotted with elms, cottonwoods and weeping willows—an audience takes in a solo musical recital. The recital would go down at dusk, as I have heard that important events usually occur at dusk. Before the lights go dim, the concert goers study the program they received from an usher outside the theater. They notice the song titles, imagining the style and guessing the time period and country of origin. They recognize one of the songs and are ashamed that they do not recognize more. They notice the composers and are proud that they have heard of all but one of them.
As expected, the concert begins with a thunderous bang, designed to energize the most lethargic music loather with hopeful anticipation. After the ups and downs of several movements, the yawning concert goers have predicted the path of the recital, the moods, the emotions. They have heard this song; they have seen this recital, but with different notes, different compositions and different performers.
This is what I would expose.
In a prearranged scheme, the performer would play from memory but appear to read from music on a stand, creating an illusion for the audience.
He would squint as if following sheet music and pantomime page turns. Two-thirds through the opening piece—at the magnificent approach to the climax—I, in cahoots, would charge the stage and turn the stand around, exposing its emptiness. To further embolden my vision, I would wear a blindfold during the performance to symbolize the audience's vulnerability and lack of scope.
By the end, the audience will have been duped and forced to ask themselves questions. If the performer was not playing from music, what was he playing from? Was he improvising? Was he even playing what the program claimed he would play? What exactly were we hearing if there indeed was no music on the stand?
I would then pick up the empty stand and sprint off stage. Unaware of my alliance with the performer, the audience will be tense and uneasy. But the performer would regain his composure and continue the recital from memory, playing in confidence. The audience, however, would sit for the duration of the show with stomachs tumbling, unsure of what might happen next.
In order to pull off the stunt, I'd have to establish contact with an actual musician capable of playing a recital that would attract an audience. This would be difficult, as the only musician I was on a first name basis with was Bubs the Clown's bass-drumming sidekick on the local television program "Fun Time with Bubs." And that relationship existed only because I was a member of the Bubs Birthday Club.
I did however know Dave, a guy who set up chairs and music stands at one of the recital halls for various ensemble classes. I figured he must know a musician willing to participate in an original performance art piece.
Dave took some convincing but it wasn't anything a 10-pack of tacos, a quart of chocolate milk, a miniature ceramic burro and $75 cash couldn't do. He agreed to spread the word, but would go about it discreetly, seeking only musicians interested in the avante garde. The tactic nearly backfired when a quartet of low brass players thought the term "avante garde" was code for homosexuality. Dave was roughed up a bit before nimbly looking up the term in a pocket dictionary while his ribs were being stomped. Realizing the error, the low brass quartet apologized and treated Dave to an arrangement of the theme from Guys and Dolls.
Despite word getting out and a handful of potential conspirators, Dave was unhappy with the planning stages of the experiment. In addition to the low brass beating, it seems a few of the tacos I used to convince Dave to get involved had done a number on his large intestine.
Over a basket of rolls in his apartment, Dave somberly requested that he go alone in the quest to find a musician. While we both wanted the same outcome, Dave believed we had divergent visions on how to get there. He offered no concrete examples of this and I, regrettably, did not ask for any.
In Dave's plan, once he settled on a performer, he would report back to me and allow me to proceed with the rest of the experiment. Until then, I was to remain unseen.
I disagreed with this strategy, being raised on the cliché that two heads are better than one. I felt there was something. . .something I could offer in the early stages to make the experiment the one-of-a-kind performance art piece that it was. That something didn't come to mind under pressure at Dave's apartment. But it was my experiment. I couldn't be left out of any stage of my experiment.
Dave said we should just agree to disagree. I disagreed with that as well. Dave then pointed out that by disagreeing, I had actually agreed to everything. Caught in an irreversible conundrum, I walked somberly from his apartment. Feeling somewhat duped and dejected, I thought it only fair for him to return the ceramic burro. He refused.
In the dark on the project for two and a half weeks, I finally received contact from Dave. It came in the form of a note card. The typed message was subtly slanted, as if the card had been turned slightly as it entered the printer.
"I found a willing musician. His name is Francois Magris. He plays the viola. He's French. He's playing at Frazier Hall next Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. It was as close to dusk as he could make it. He is expecting you and is prepared for everything."
On the evening of the recital, I had anticipated being nervous. After all, I was about to present an original performance art piece. I had every reason to be nervous. But I wasn't. And the more I thought about my lack of nervousness, the more panicked I became. Was my lack of nerves indicative of the importance and originality of that night's concert? Possibly. It was a chance I did not want to take. Nervousness was a crucial component of the performance.
To be safe, I set out raw chicken on the counter which I would force myself to eat after the performance, hours later. Facing the reality of diarrhea and food poisoning would surely keep me jittery all evening.
At the recital, I thought it best to start my performance the minute I set foot in the theater and thus, would have to blindfold myself in the theater's foyer. I stumbled a bit getting inside the concert hall and sat in the first seat I felt that did not already have a person in it.
Judging by how far I had walked blindfolded in the theater, I could tell I was near the back. This suited me fine, figuring how frightening it is the moment you sense someone from behind is strangely running down the aisle of a crowded theater. The longer I waited, the more gut-wrenchingly tense and nervous I became, which made me feel wonderful.
I could sense the lights going dim as the audience wrapped up its meandering chit-chat. I heard the clicks of shoes on the stage followed by applause and a stray whistle or two. I imagined Francois Magris strolling on stage, facing the audience and bending slightly at the waist. I pictured him taking his seat on a chair placed onstage by someone else, adjusting the music stand then glancing into the audience in hope to catch a glimpse of his co-conspirator.
As expected, a thunderous rip opened the concert's first number. I imagined Magris' bow flailing to and fro, his hair choppy and fluttering, his eyes locked to the music stand.
Since I had not heard the song before, I had to guess where the two-thirds mark was. From there it was a blur. I remember rising from my seat and cautiously running down the aisle. I remember blindly tumbling onto the stage, rolling and thrashing until I knocked into the stand. I remember an uproar. I remember the cello.
The performance went wrong on so many levels. To start, I should have been able to differentiate the sound of a moaning cello to that of a prancing viola. And I should have put on the blindfold after I was in the theater instead of the lobby. Walking toward the theater, I had a choice of entering the door on the left and a door on the right. I grasped and groped until I found a door handle. Apparently I went right, where I proceeded to terrorize an audience and unsuspecting cellist.
But my most crucial mistake was not reading the newspaper. If I had done so, I would've known that in the weeks leading up to my original performance art piece, at least 14 musicians had been harassed by lone stage-storming concert-goers. Some of the musicians had conspired in the hooliganism and some had not. Many performers were playing in fear.
I blindly walked into a concert hall and terrorized a cellist unwilling to be intimidated, a cellist ready to defend his stage.
Meanwhile, Francois Magris played a charming viola recital one theater over without incident. The performance was adored by critics in attendance.
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Copyright (c) 2000, 2004, David Erik Nelson, Fritz Swanson, Morgan Johnson