Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Subversive Smile

My son the composer invited me to an experimental concert at the university last Saturday. He mentioned that he was participating but offered no information about the show except to say "Bring earplugs."

The night of the concert, I arrived at the university building early, hoping to get a good seat. I followed a group of students through the door and down two flights of stairs to a sub-basement lobby, where we joined a chattering group of about seventy students and about two dozen grizzled free spirits of my generation. The mood was festive; hugs and laughter abounded. Such a carefree throng of university avant-gardists! I appeared to be the only workaday square present. Yet even a square can be stirred with curiosity and excitement. What would my son be doing in the show? Was he going to surprise me with a striking new composition?

At 9:00 p.m. the doors opened. We all filed inside and were issued earplugs. I took the earplugs even though I had brought my own pair. I figured that a backup set might come in handy somehow if the decibels were outrageous.

A man behind me said that the concert room was called the Black Box. The name was apt. The room was a dimly lit bunker the size of half a basketball court. Three of its walls had giant video screens showing swirling abstract patterns. High overhead, catwalks bristled with theatrical lights. To my dismay, no chairs, benches, or bleachers were present. I withdrew from the milling crowd to stand against the only wall without a video screen and observe the scene.

Meandering through the crowd came nine instrumentalists. Five were playing the violin; but instead of music, the only sounds emitted were squeaks and squeals. Across the room I spotted my son jerking his bow across his violin as if striking sparks. Two tuba players on opposing corners of the Black Box began blasting long notes at each other like heartbroken whales. I hastened to insert my earplugs. A trumpeter and a saxophonist paced back and forth in front of me, spraying noise at the crowd. I faced all of this with equanimity. I was in a cheerful frame of mind and was not going to let a few sour notes bother me. The players were no more than children in the marketplace calling out, "We sang a dirge, and you did not mourn."

On two low platforms about the size of small raised flower beds, student dancers writhed and whirled. All were dressed in white tops and flouncy skirts. All wore white headcaps like medieval nuns. All were female, except for one inexplicable young man in a tutu.

A gong rang out, the crowd parted, and a man with a shaved head stepped into an illuminated area in the center of the room. He began singing a doleful song in the style of the Appalachian shaped note singers. I didn't understand a word. My earplugs clipped off his consonants and left only the moan and wail of bluesy vowels.

After this the dancers became agitated and started haranguing in Italian and lunging at the crowd. I later heard that they were reciting verses from Dante's Inferno. The video screens lit up with drawings of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, followed by old film footage of houses blown apart during the early atomic bomb testing. These kinds of bleak images have often been used to give superficiality the semblance of Serious Art in academic settings. I saw it done before, and done with more bite, years ago when Viet Nam and the draft loomed over us college kids having uncomfortably low draft numbers.

Then, descending from aesthetic offense to moral offense, the video screens flashed to a vicious burlesque of Christ amidst the lampstands (Rev 1:12-20). Christ was perversely portrayed as a fierce skeleton. It was a bitter irony that the only Person capable of rescuing mankind from the horrors earlier displayed on the video screens was now being attacked. It was now plain to me that the production intended to transform the Black Box into the third round of Dante's seventh circle of Hell, reserved for the violent against God, nature, and art.

It was now time for my son to participate. He picked up his bass guitar and took his place beside a friend of his, on drums, and the professor responsible – and culpable – for the concert, on electric guitar. The three erupted into a credible heavy metal song or, more precisely, a heavy metal tirade. All of the classic elements were there: the repetitive bass patterns, the thudding drums, and the frantic and meaningless guitar runs, shrieking up and down the fingerboard like the tortured ghost of Your First Book of Guitar Exercises. My son was doing the customary head bobs of a heavy metal bassist. I could only hope that this behavior was a piece of clownish stagecraft in keeping with the rest of the production.

After the last heavy metal echoes died away, the Appalachian moaner stepped forward to do another song. Or possibly it was the first song all over again; I still couldn't understand a word. Then, as the video screens showed pictures of a demon and a multi-headed fiend, the whole troop of dancers and instrumentalists led the crowd in a funereal procession around the Black Box. I stayed put, next to my trusty wall, and watched them all pass by. When my son came round wearing a gloomy expression, I greeted him with the most hilarious smile I could muster. His face hardened, he fought to stay in character, he had to look away.

Sometimes love's only weapon against the darkness is a subversive smile.