'Extreme Humourism'

Notes on the concert: Mattin | Loty Negarti + Jon Mantxi

Guardetxea, Donostia, 08/07/2010
Published in the book Unconstituted Praxis by Mattin, March 2012

Loty Negarti, Bilbao, 2010 (Special thanks to Anthony Iles)


This text is nothing more than a few open notes on a gig. The memory of something which pretended to be a concert and ended up being a kind of monster; a deviant creature. I thought I had been taking part in this day, both as a member of the audience and as a musician. But now I guess, by a certain point, I was no longer an audience member any more, even if I was in silence, even if I did nothing more than sitting down on a chair. Or at least, I cannot find a way of reviewing what happened that day whilst taking upon myself the traditional distance usually attributed to spectators.

The venue was the Guardetxea (Donostia, Basque Country), an old 18th century gunpowder warehouse, now reconstructed and adapted for cultural purposes. The gig opened a series of experimental music performances each weekend throughout August 2010. The supposed program that day was a first performance by Jon Mantxi and myself (as a duo), Mattin following us with a second solo performance. When I was asked to write a review of Mattin's performance, I started remembering that night, and in the end I realised the impossibility of writing anything less than a detailed memory of our own performance. I'll try to explain why.

The idea for our gig was quite simple, and we wanted to proceed directly from this idea in the improvisation. Basically we were worried about the tacit norm among musicians of not speaking to each other during the 'sacred' time of the performance. Not only on the audience's side but, beginning with the musicians, these kinds of unspoken rules strongly determine what you are doing and how. It often happens that one doesn't feel comfortable with something: a sound, how the space is ordered, or another aspect of the situation. It's true that these uncomfortable elements could move you to an interesting situation. It is during these critical moments that one has the real opportunity to react unexpectedly and displace one's prefabricated behaviour for something else, even perhaps something more singular. But it is no less true that one of the aspects that functions to increase this intensity is the stage as a social device. Not necessarily in the literal sense of a 'stage' but in a broader sense of all the culturally instituted aspects underlying such events, basically: a space and a appointed time to focus the social attention in a specific way. This is precisely a substantial difference between a gig and a rehearsal. The same sounds, the same relation between musicians, but a difference in the over and over repeated 'intensity'. In a rehearsal, you stop for few seconds, make a comment, continue, or even speak without stopping playing. In a concert though your behaviour is different, less agile and more constrained. I think that these restrictions plays an important role in this process of making the moment stronger. And we wanted to experiment with these restrictions (modifying minimally but not necessarily cancelling them) in order to observe what happens and how this changed our experience as performers.

In improvised music one doesn't only try to make unexpected sounds or to get away from preconceived modes of playing your instrument. One also tries to establish a kind of acute relationship with the partner and the audience, one tries to find something shared, it could be a consensus or a dissensus, but generally under some form of negotiation. And it seems that this kind of 'rehearsal behaviour' is not the favourite form of engagement, for the audience at least. But why? Maybe because the relationship of attention between the people involved in the event is, in a sense, sterilised. So our main idea proceeded from this path of permitting to speech if needed or wished, trying to avoid this 'stage' restriction. Why not introduce common dialogue within the performance, not only in terms of the sonority (or musicality) of the speech but as a tool to negotiate with other musicians?

As I said, it was supposed that we were to be the first playing that night. But at the last moment Mattin ask us if we could invert the order because he wanted to be first. So, we changed the order. The audience consisted of a mixture of people, people from different places and different ages. Not exactly an homogeneous audience. Some rows of chairs were lined up in front of the stage, and everyone took their seats. Mattin stood up on the stage with his arms stretched out. No speaking, no movement, no music. Only the quiet sounds of the room in silence. After a few minutes looking extremely perplexed he started whispering quietly some words. It was difficult to understand what he was saying because it was almost imperceptible and because it took the form of responding to some questions which had not been verbalised. There on the stage, he looked like a crazy man responding questions to his imaginary friend. After a moment we could start understanding some of the words, and linking then with each other. He was trying to dialogue with the audience, giving sketches of answers. 'I don't know, lets see', 'We can do what we want', etc. We could conceive some idea of the kind of imaginary questions he was answering: 'So, and now what?', 'What's next?', 'What are we doing here?', and so forth. After a time responding questions he started formulating them: 'Why are you there and me here in the stage?', 'What do you want to do with this time?'. A big silence amongst the audience. It was as if a dense curtain of 'nothing' was growing between us and him, as if a deep cliff was suddenly appearing.

I was in silence, I didn't want to answer any kind of question formulated in this way. I wanted just to enjoy that big silence, that making explicit of the basic structure of that social space. Suddenly a girl in the audience entered into the game. She answered one of the questions, after, another person came to speak, and so on. One person asked Mattin to leave the stage. So, he came to us slowly and leant on the wall. Following the previous girl, other people entered speaking in a series of soliloquies. I remember one of them clearly: She was a woman. She started speaking about Power (with capital P), the spectacle and boredom. Actually she made a plea for the raw boredom, as a kind of exercise against this ubiquitous Power and his (sic) techniques for distraction. Then Mattin started a brief dialogue with her. He asked if what he was doing was a power exercise. 'No this is an exercise of counter-power' she replied. And she was not wrong. There were these people gathered in a small room, almost in silence and facing a sort of situation that is antagonistic to entertainment. She related how worrying was the fact that from childhood 'they' want us to be amused. From the very beginning, we have the sound of the rattle working, lights, sounds and colours, to keep us distracted. So, to escape from this, we have to face boredom without fear. After her short manifesto, silence came again.

The atmosphere was really rare. I personally wanted to do something, but nothing which fell into the pantomimic environment the performance had established. I wanted to play music. After a long silence, Mattin changed his role. He was not longer the artist but he was now looking from the space of the audience to a totally empty stage. We were looking there as well. Then he began addressing an imaginary performer, asking questions back and forth. 'How long will you continue with this?' and things like that. This was great, the most interesting point of the performance for me. The feeling was one of total absurdity. Nobody was there on the stage so the conversation was nonsense. But at the same time there was something interesting in it, because it was the same feeling one usually has in front of a stage, but with a degree of difference. At this point we entered into a second stage in the performance: during the first stage characterised by Mattin responding to questions from an absent interlocutor. This moment now passed into second stage characterised by asking questions from the floor to a supposed performer who is now absent. If in the first stage he was a performer, in the second he was now more a member of the audience, an active one, but a member of the audience.

There is a big division between the stage and the audience. A big fence, something that miscommunicates these two sides. Even if you think that you are connecting with the performer, it is quite common to observe a painful isolation from 'the other' side. Things are so predictable and tested that rarely can the specific elements of the concrete situation enter and determine or modify radically the performance. This concert was great because here was the same division but inverted: a mere audience in front of an empty stage. The situation had no end, only if the people from the audience decided to do something to stop or extend it could the situation change. This was very similar to Graciela Carnevale's famous exhibition but with the doors of the venue open.1

Jon and I felt free to act so we went on stage and started playing. The situation was strange because the typical boundary between one concert and the other had become so distorted. It was not obvious at all if those sounds we were making on the stage were 'the concert' or only one more part of Mattin's performance. I didn't know at all myself but I didn’t care either. I just wanted to play. After some minutes I felt that our idea of speaking on stage was not very relevant because these 'stage devices' were absolutely dislocated. In a moment Jon came to me and asked to the people to go up on the stage, because we wanted to speak. So, people from the audience came and took place in the small stage. I don't know why, but I stopped playing. Jon was not playing at all, but speaking to the people about 'speaking' and the stage. People started talking amongst themselves. We were included and I didn't feel myself as a musician or as an artist any longer but as one more in a strange group of people speaking about different things. After a long time discussing we decided that the concert was finished. But what concert? Our concert? Mattin's performance? Were both the same thing? Did we determine or modify his performance? His action had clearly modified the course of our gig. Nobody knew properly how to classify the time, and the categories of the space where dissolved. This was something more like a monster than a well developed sane creature. The defects, the errors and the detours had finally ended in something blurred, as beautiful as Frankenstein's monster. All of us went to the venue bar and continued with the conversation, this time in a fragmented manner.

In the meanwhile many of these conversations were concerning the 'concerts'. Someone commented that they were really discontented. He said that it had been an ambitious experiment with a poor and bad result stemming from a paternalistic approach. I didn't think so. Mattin does not have clear ideas about what was happening. Even if at the beginning it could seem that the contrary was the case, the truth was that he had no clear ideas about what was exactly happening nor about what could happen. For this reason I said he was not acting as a father who speaks looking down to his children being in the possession of the truth. I felt he was thinking about the situation itself in the very moment of the performance, making questions to himself switching the role performer-audience almost until the end, including the time of 'our' concert. Maybe it could be said that he was experimenting with himself as well.

Some boundaries had been expanded, or maybe reduced, who knows. It was not clear at all if we were performing our own gig (separated from the previous one as was supposed to be) or carrying on Mattin's performance, bringing it somewhere else. The fact was that during all the time of the 'event' some usually assumed devices were changed, distorted, detoured, even broken. There was an incorporation of noise, considered as a distortion affecting a preconceived clear signal. From the very beginning of the performance (from the first moment of these understandable whispered words), there was a high level of noise acting. Starting from that spoken language that was noisy and not clear at all, continuing with the lack of communication between all of us, going to the distorted categories of time and space, almost everything was corrupted.

But 'almost' is not 'everything'. There is an intermediate game between accepting conventions and rejecting them. You must deal carefully with this equilibrium, an equilibrium that is really dangerous. This is always present in the Mattinian approach to making music. A kind of ambiguity which moves you to questioning what is happening, what he, as performer, and you as part of the audience are doing. And this is great. But at the same time he is always giving you the required elements to make a criticism and that comes from the contradictory nature of his practice. You could put the questions far away, disintegrating many of the suggestions put on the table. Why was his name written in the poster? Why not to break with this convention as well and pass radically to another level? In which sense do you need as an artist the kind of privileged attention of the name, the poster, the stage, the audience? In material terms maybe? In terms of the ego? In terms of cultural-symbolic value?

There was a high degree of expectation after a long time without performing solo in the Basque Country. Many people were expecting something linked with the work he has been doing in the last years. These expectations are build up from the information you can find for example in his personal web page, in his last essays, in his last works. All this stuff is signed with a proper name. Almost all of them are developed because there is an institutional recognition of his work as being 'artistic'. Thus, he falls into a form of accelerated feedback. So, for instance, when that name appears in the poster and in the promotional information of the gig, the potential audience for this day could link information together and form an idea of the kind of 'spectacle' they might expect find there. Mattin, as many of us, is constantly accepting and using these expectations to his advantage. As a kind of offensive strength set against you but which eventually you may turn towards the fulfilment of your own aims.

However, in the circuit of these expectations and attributions, the noise enters as well, bringing you the opportunity to enjoy the unexpected and chance misunderstandings. I remember now a young boy in the audience. He was evidently without knowledge about who we were, and what kind of music we could make. He was Italian and coming with the son of a man linked actively to experimental music making. Before the concerts, this boy asked to the man which kind of music Mattin makes. 'Rumorismo extremo' (extreme noise) the man replied. He attended the performance attentively with this idea in mind. He found everything really funny and he was sometimes laughing without cease. In the second part, when we were at the stage speaking together he said that he had enjoyed this kind of 'humorismo extremo' (extreme humourism) music. Yes, he was right.


Gabone index

1See Mattin Interview with Dan Warburton: http://www.paristransatlantic.com/magazine/interviews/mattin.html