I get a warm, happy feeling when I think about Mark Applebaum’s music. Or, at least, the idea of his music. The renowned avant-garde composer, a professor at Stanford University, came to Fresno State last week for a stint as composer-in-residence, and I attended his Friday evening “Radical Excursions in Visual Music.”
To a conventional ear, most of Applebaum’s works can sound downright weird. I’m not going to put on avant-garde airs: You won’t likely find me playing any of his works on my car’s CD player, say. But there’s something reassuring knowing that there are people like Applebaum out there tweaking the idea of music with a capital M — what it is, what it should be, what it can be. He’s like a gallant knight thrusting and parrying along Music’s edges, wreaking a little havoc here and there, perhaps even drawing a trickle of blood.
I’ve often found it hard to connect emotionally to so-called “New Music” in the past — Applebaum’s appearance was part of Fresno New Music, formerly the Fresno New Music Festival, and co-presented by Fresno State’s Center for Creativity and the Arts — but this time it was different. Take Applebaum’s “Aphasia,” for example. The composer recorded a trained singer and then “mangled” that singer’s voice on the computer. His live “Aphasia” performance consists of Applebaum playing the trippy recorded results, with said voice stretched, squeezed and turned into an often abrasive cacophony, and then performing live a series of choreographed hand motions to the obscured vocalizations.
The result was side-show worthy on one level, almost comical. (When the music seemed to zip, say, Applebaum’s hands would zip, too, in perfect synchronicity.) But the whole experience took on a deeper level. The chaotic recorded vocalizations and Applebaum’s frantic movements impacted me viscerally in a way that’s hard to explain.
At most I can offer an analogy: There was a sci-fi-style movie made decades ago — I’ve forgotten the name — in which scientists in a submarine-type vessel were shrunk down incredibly small and then injected into the human bloodstream, there to explore the dazzling unknowns of the body. As the sounds of “Aphasia’s” recorded vocals scooped and swelled, I felt like I was on an organic roller coaster, somehow racing through someone’s innards.
Weird, huh? Or, I suppose you could ask, is my interpretation any weirder than the composition itself?
It helps that Applebaum is so disarming about what he does, gently mocking his works while gently persuading you that his rambunctious ideas bear merit. Before he sat down to conclude the concert at his handmade Mouse-Ketier — a custom percussive instrument that allows the composer to scrape, scratch, swish, ding and rattle amplified sounds — he announced that he is both the best and worst player in the world of the instrument. With a cheeky attitude like that, it didn’t matter that “Mouse-Ketier Praxis” itself sounded like, well, a bunch of scraping, scratching, swishing, dinging and rattling. It’s the idea of the Mouse-Ketier — and what it says about music itself — that has such an impact.