Who is on the Throne?
“Usurpation is a term used in biology to describe the phenomenon that occurs when a colony of eusocial insects is taken over by a queen of a different species, such as a cuckoo bumblebee (Psithyrus) or brood-parasitic paper wasp (e.g., Polistes sulcifer).” from the Wikipedia.org entry on Usurper
Please watch the first few minutes of the video below, observing in as much detail as possible, the intricacies of sound and image:
Now answer the following questions to yourself:
What is music?
Is this it?
If this isn’t music, what is it?
What are the instruments being used?
Is this composed or improvised?
Now, please consider this second video, in which a performance begins about half way through:
And consider your answers, above, in light of Cage’s, below:
Presenter: “Will you tell us quite seriously whether you consider what we are about to hear music? No tongue-in-cheek…”
John Cage: “No, perfectly seriously I consider music to be the production of sounds, and since in the piece which you will hear I produce sounds, I would call it music”
Usurper perform live. They make sounds, for the most part, and move around, doing things. A lot of their instruments are objects not normally recognized as musical: television remote controls, bear traps, plastic bottles, scissors, books, and so forth. Some of those objects sound great, and others don’t sound at all. Some, like the remote controls, are twisted or scraped to reveal unexpected sound possibilities be they understated and dramatic. Other instruments are musical, or at least sounding: toys for humans and animals, small percussion instruments, ringing metallic plates or covers, and even electronic instruments like tape recorders are used. They also make extensive use of text in their performances. Sometimes the text appears in ad hoc fashion in the form of onstage banter cryptic or pedestrian reveals musical intentions or lack thereof, frustration, or other concerns. Alternately, the text might be highly composed, and even may make an appearance as a pre-recorded track, played back during the performance in odd contrast to the seemingly improvised flow of sounds and actions.
Usurper very likely don’t care whether anyone would call what they do music, but they probably would be very interested to know what people do call it. I wasn’t at Tectonics Music Festival in Reykjavik last April, when Usurper performed in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra’s Harpa Concert Hall in a concert curated by conductor Ilan Volkov of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, so I couldn’t gauge crowd reactions, but I was a recent performance at Henry’s Cellar Bar in Edinburgh, Scotland and I can tell you what the audience did there: they laughed.
Presenter: “Mr Cage, these are nice people, but some of them are gonna laugh, is that allright?”
John Cage: “Of course, I consider laughter preferable to tears”
(performing “Water Walk” in January, 1960 on the popular TV show I’ve Got A Secret)
The Brothers Usurper: Malcy Duff (who works outside of Usurper as an illustrator of singular vision and originality, utilizing, among other things, structures of repetition and development to inflect time in comics in an eminently musical way) & Ali Robertson (performing likewise outside of Usurper as a soloist, and in variety of collaborative formations, often focused on text, language, cultural critique and abstract sound constructions) don’t mind if you laugh. Serious people they may or may not be, but as an audience member you have permission to be merry. Usurper are above dogma, style, and then general bitchiness of the art and music worlds.
Usurper are not competing with anyone, for any reason, but rather, they are playing with situations, language, and sounds. They are trying things out, new provacative things, like Dada might have done if they hadn’t had survival among the rise of fascism, or like Oulipo might do, with a touch less formalism, but only a touch less. Nor are Usurper trying to demonstrate their extreme technical prowess despite the fact that they improvise in a less pretentious and more honest way than most, quickly reacting in a new and amusing ways with found sounds and objects, and homemade instruments, in completely non-idiomatic ways. Being so non-idiomatic that they likewise avoid the traps of modernism or noise, they do not seek to take their place among the great heads of 20th or 21st century composition or free improvisation, despite whatever parallels one can draw from a comparison of the videos provided here and Cage’s performance referenced above. Moreover, they are not doing comedy, not exactly, but you have permission to laugh, you have permission to be yourself- to think about that, and to develop yourself. Meanwhile, Usurper are developing themselves. For their part, it all happens live, right there – onstage and in front of us, and with all of this laughing its hard to know if we are laughing at them, ourselves, or if they are are laughing at us.