Bowerbird's 'Zwei Man Orchester'

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The word “orchestra” summons the idea of something formal and elegant: orderly rows of tuxedoed and gowned musicians coaxing heartrendingly beautiful sounds from gleaming brass and shimmering strings, all under the commanding baton of a regal conductor.

That image is a far cry from Mauricio Kagel’s Zwei Mann Orchester (that’s “Two-Man Orchestra” for the German-language-challenged among you).

As realized by Philly experimental music presenters Bowerbird at Drexel’s Pearlstein Gallery, the Zwei Mann Orchester resembles the traditional orchestra after a bus crash into a thrift store. The result is a Rube Goldberg-style contraption that allows two people to summon a symphonic array of sounds from a Seussian junk heap of musical instruments and found objects.

The centerpiece of the month-long exhibition “Sound Machines,” Bowerbird’s presentation of Kagel’s Dadaist composition/sound sculpture marks the piece’s U.S. premiere — and only the fourth time since its debut in 1973 that a version of the Orchester has been constructed.

Like each of the previous incarnations, the Philadelphia installation is wholly unique, crafted by a team of musicians/sculptors into a kinetic, sound-generating, grand-scale doohickey.

“John Cage put forth the idea that the difference between sound and music is kind of a gray area,” said Bowerbird director Dustin Hurt, referencing the iconic 20th-century composer.

“I think Kagel’s intent was the idea that there’s music in everyday objects or everyday experiences. It’s refined, but humor is a big part of it. It’s this neo-Dadaist absurdism, where you do something really funny but you’re totally serious about it.”

Credit: Ryan Collerd

Laughing all the way

Unlike most Bowerbird performances, which are greeted with the intense, focused silence of serious music aficionados, Hurt fully expects to hear bursts of laughter at the six planned performances of Zwei Mann Orchester.

The mere sight of the gravity-defying apparatus — the dryer duct winding its silvery way toward a ceiling-level sousaphone, the cello in a baby’s cradle — should evoke a few chuckles; the glee should be even more infectious when a mallet-mounted shoe kicks a gong, or the tug of a string flexes an accordion on a painter’s easel.

That’s not to suggest that Kagel’s work isn’t intended to be taken seriously. The late German-Argentine composer was a highly-regarded avant-garde conceptualist and an artist whose work extended into the realms of filmmaking, philosophy, and visual art. In the 1960s his work took a turn for the speculative and absurd, replacing traditional instruments with fantastical inventions and repurposed objects.

Credit: Ryan Collerd

The dedication page of the Zwei Mann Orchester score reads, “to the memory of a dying institution, the orchestra.”

The piece was thus Kagel’s whimsical imagining of a future for what he saw even then as an increasingly antiquated concept.

“It’s kind of a pithy conceit of the idea that the orchestras were on their way out,” Hurt explained. “That didn’t happen, obviously, but in the ‘70s this was a much more radical idea. Nowadays people are doing all kinds of weird stuff, but back then the idea of playing, say, a trumpet with a traffic cone in the end was crazy.”

A symphony of miscellany

Hurt discovered the piece while combing through UPenn’s music library’s “miscellaneous instruments” section — and no instrument has ever been quite so miscellaneous.

The score would be unrecognizable to someone familiar only with the notes-on-staff tradition; instead, it’s a set of vague constraints for building the machine, most of the details of which are left to the constructors’ imaginations, along with a series of dynamics and the body parts meant to create them: knee, elbow, foot.

Most importantly, the entire array of instruments must be playable by two people on opposite platforms, both of whom remain seated for the entirety of the performance.

Credit: Ryan Collerd

In this case those performers will be percussionists Ashley Tini and Andy Thierauf, who will drag suction cup-studded rolling pins across a timpani drum, spin a centrifuge to strike two guitars with a weed whacker wire, pull a string attached to a rotisserie of violins, or drag a string of cymbals across a ladder using a bicycle chain.

“We’ve been inspired by examples from past versions, but for the most part it’s totally from our brains,” Hurt says, while setting the “oudulum” — a ring on a string suspended above a rocking oud — in motion.

“There was a four-month R&D period where we just tried stuff. We basically loaded the studio full of instruments, most of which we got from eBay, donations or pawnshops, and it just kept getting bigger and bigger. It became hard to tell what was part of the piece and what was just part of the studio space. An easel, a table, a stool, saw horses — they all got scooped up and recruited.”

When not being played, the instrument will exist as a sculpture in the gallery, supplemented by an array of supplemental materials: pages from the score, pictures and documentation of past versions, photos of the building process, videos of other theatrical Kagel works.

It will only come to life during the half-dozen performances scheduled throughout the month.

The glass doors of the gallery were already attracting curious stares from students, and Hurt hopes that the scale and ridiculousness of the endeavor attracts listeners beyond their usual audience. “This is not really like experimental music in some sense,” Hurt says. “The sense of play is really important.”

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