The playbill refers to the piece as both a monument and a tombstone, since music in this genre couldn’t really develop any further. With this opera, the end of the road had been reached: like a Finnegan’s Wake of classical music, an aesthetic and formal investigation was carried to [its] logical — and some might say ridiculous — extreme. Joyce’s novel is just about as unreadable as this music is, for many, almost unlistenable. Funny that in the visual arts, it turned out a little differently: that same all-over chaos, no-holds-barred and no-rules-apply aesthetic resulted in works which many now find beautiful and pleasant to behold. (I think the same is true of the late 70s, early 80s No Wave bands, whose noisy music could only be enjoyed in short bursts, yet their artist friends expressing similar impulses became hugely successful.)
There are lots of books exploring what the fuck happened with 20th century classical music, when many composers willfully sought to alienate the general public and create purposefully difficult, inaccessible music. Why would they do anything that perverse? Why would they not only make music that was hard to listen to, but also demand, as in the case of Zimmerman, that the piece be performed on twelve separate stages simultaneously, with the addition of giant projection screens and other multimedia aspects? Were these composers competing to see whose works could be heard and performed the least? Why would anyone do that?
Having closely observed the behavior of New York’s downtown, avant-garde music scene for a few decades, I can say that this impulse is not limited to academic classical composers. There are many musicians and composers of experimental works who seemingly compete for the title of most obscure and most difficult for the listener, and even record collectors like to play along. In this world, any trace of popularity, however slight, is distasteful and to be avoided at all costs. Should a work become unexpectedly accessible, the artist must then follow the piece with something completely perverse and disgusting, encouraging members of the new, undesired audience to walk away shaking their heads, leaving behind the core of pure and hardy aficionados. This is elitism of a different sort. [My link, not Byrne's, obviously.] If one can’t be fêted by the handful of patrons at the Met, then one can be just as elite by cultivating an audience equally rarified in the completely opposite direction. Extreme ugliness and unpleasantness becomes the mirror image of extreme luxury and beauty.
In one scene, a group of bourgeois businessmen in pig masks lurch along the runway followed by two guys in Santa outfits, one of whom rapes a young woman screaming ceaselessly. When I saw the approach of the evil Santas, I got all excited — we’d suddenly descended into slasher movie territory. Killer Klowns: The Opera! The folks around me did not seem amused; I’d never seen so much seersucker in one place in my life.
A santa-clad rapist. Apparently played for horror and not kitsch. Really.