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An Intellectual Vaudeville With Its Eccentricities: Cheap Lecture and The Cow Piece by Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion

Funda Özokçu

This is a performance about composition in general and where it goes, and perhaps more importantly how it comes about and why, although it doesn’t pretend to answer all or any of these questions.1

It may, however, help to explain why Jonathan Burrows found himself experimenting with words and music after 13 years dancing with the British Royal Ballet, and to know that Matteo Fargion is an Italian composer from London with quite a broad perspective on ways of making music with just about anything you can think of, including 12 model cows. Because this is also a performance about choreography, although probably not in the athletic, tumbling, sprint-around-the-stage-and-nose-dive-for-the-floor sense. Unless the cows get totally beyond the performers’ control of course. And they just might.

Primarily, though, it is a performance about grasping things in a lecture. Here it comes now. Watch closely, the special effects are quite expensive.

Two men in their mid-40s with piercing eyes and a vibrating presence, balding and dressed casually are on stage. An organ note sounds. It is a repetitive, suspending chord that hints that the simultaneous flow of words will follow the patterns of the gradually changing music, because the scene is that of a lecture room with two mics, two bundles of paper and a white projection screen. Not to mention the additional presence of 12 model cows on two desks behind the performers as well as a laptop, piano, mandolin, harmonica and two accordions. The two performers start playing with words like a soccer ball, jogging with their voices and passing the ball between each other, only to let it hover over the stage as if frozen now and again, and fall to shatter on the floor in order to make way for the next new thing.

It doesn’t go unnoticed in the performance that the whole piece is based on a talk given by John Cage in 1950 called “Lecture on Nothing”. That talk gave the idea for Cheap Lecture and the Cow Piece as well as its rhythmic structure comprised of units built up of a certain number of measures and divided into certain proportions. The proportions themselves are revealed as they are counted aloud during the course of the performance, sometimes at the cost of the comprehensibility of some other philosophical enlightenment or simple trivia that is being spoken simultaneously. The original idea was to make a spoken performance written in the manner of a piece of music, which is nothing more than “a predetermined shape of empty time”. In The Cow Piece the idea is expanded to include dolorous Italian folk songs, ludicrously cynical English rhymes, free adaptation of musical children’s games, percussion with various objects, offbeat choreographies, serenading of the cows and more.

The whole thing is nothing less than an intellectual vaudeville with its eccentricities. The light-hearted, amusing, impulsive Fargion character and his counterbalance, more serious yet not AT ALL devoid of surprises Burrows character brilliantly weave their way together through a free association of music, dance, time, repetition, meaning and the nature of making and giving performances; not in the least bypassing the unspoken dynamics of the relationship between the performer and the audience or ignoring the possibility of the two exchanging roles.

As the performance unfolds, and even after it has finished, reverberations continue. Spoken words, which represent thoughts as they flow in a stream of consciousness, can be said to constitute a literary text. A text is something that can bring its own music and something that can be writtenby speaking, while at the same time creating rhythms, tones and melodies. Music, on the other hand, can be as visible as fluttering sheets of paper thrown on the floor by the performers, marking the passing of time as the performance approaches the end. By creating rhythm in an incessantly changing flow of narrative, repetition is a way of using time to trigger recognition by the audience. Sameness brings about particularities, and as such the smallest facial difference represents the biggest character trait. Silences built up in the gaps between the notes and the gaps between the words are like punctuation marks, indispensable for meaning to arise. The discrepancy between the rhythm that we see and the rhythm that we hear is the premise of choreography and grasping hold of it all is the art and the science the performers are aspiring to. Grasping hold of what on earth they are doing isn’t easy but they do open up questions and create something as unique and untranslatable as a poem. As the performers themselves put it, “if you are struggling at times to follow what we are saying, allow it to flow over you. What you need to know will hopefully reveal itself as we continue to speak.”

“Or maybe what you prefer is to close your eyes and listen to the music?”

1The first part of this review in italics is inspired by the beginning of a novel called Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett.

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