Packaged Pleasure

Solo performer with wrist bells and video score

This piece is about the character of the composer as a self-interested narcissist making self- indulgent work. I made this by reading a documentary about myself as a musical score, in which I play an exaggerated version of myself influenced by egregious stereotypes from television. The conceit of the piece is that I am a composer-performer who is so vain that he reads a documentary about himself as a score by mirroring his own hand movements whilst wearing bells on his wrists.

This was a collaborative work made with composers Kaj Duncan David and Mathias Monrad Møller for the Nordic Music Days festival in Copenhagen in 2015. The theme of the festival was ‘jouissance’. We interpreted ‘jouissance’ in the poststructuralist sense of an excessive type of pleasure linked to the division and splitting of the self (Childers & Hentzi (eds.), 1995, p. 162-3). Pleasure in this sense for me was having a documentary made about me and getting to play up and caricature my own arrogance in real life.

Our initial ideas were to make something about the widely reported “selfie addict” Danny Bowman, who was obsessed with taking the perfect selfie (Aldridge & Harden, 2014). I spent a week living with Kaj and Mathias, filming material that could be used for a mockumentary about my life as a composer. My exaggerated persona was inspired by real-life composers such as the protagonist on Channel 4’s 2009 documentary series The World’s Greatest Musical Prodigies, as well as famous character creations such as Alan Partridge and David Brent. We included shots of me in poses from paintings of Narcissus. For example, I adopt the pose of Caravaggio’s Narcissus (1599) at 21:03. Although not strictly a selfie, the piece is a 25-minute portrait which is implicitly directed under my control as the subject.

My presence onstage, reading the video as a score, leads to ambiguity as to whether these delusions of grandeur are genuine or affected. Performances of this work have elicited varied reactions, from the ‘knowing’ laughter of an initiated audience of musicians, to the obnoxious alter- ego being received at face value without question. This leads me to question whether we like our composers eccentric, deluded and arrogant, following the maxim ‘everybody loves a villain’. I achieve this by purposely displaying aspects of the “prophet-in-the-wilderness, who-cares-if-you- listen mentality” described by music journalist Alex Ross in his comprehensive account of 20th- century classical music The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007/2009, p. 569).

I wear bells on my wrists which tinkle as I copy my own hand movements in the video, showing the audience that I am an instrumentalist reading the video as a score that allows me to play an instrument. They are used in order to bring sound to my movements, rather than me making movements in order to produce sound, and have the additional quality of accompanying my farcical claim to be a “genie” (11:28) with a magical pantomime tinkling.

There is something uncomfortable about this piece. I present an awful character that does not encourage the audience to keep watching or listening. It is unconventional when presented as music, and requires patience on the part of the audience in order to get through the full 25 minutes. The audience finally get to hear a piece of recognisable music at the end, although there are examples of other musical performances throughout the film.

Through this piece I perform a version of myself obsessed with “being seen as radical” (Ingamells/ David/Møller, 2015, 16:05). This could be equated with composer Federico Reuben’s concept of “imaginary musical radicalism” that he perceives in contemporary experimental music today:

“It is also interesting to notice that all of these practitioners present themselves as radical, but without any reasonable proof; they often rely on bad taste and comedy, and embody symptoms that could be associated with late capitalism: narcissism, obsession, paranoia, delusion, hysteria and schizophrenia. Imaginary musical radicalism perpetuates the current condition of western music and politics, revealing it through the futility of its own (imaginary) radicalism.” (Reuben, 2015, p. 242)

Packaged Pleasure purposefully displays most of the traits that Reuben mentions: narcissism, obsession, paranoia, delusion, hysteria and schizophrenia. The piece suggests that I am enjoying myself in spite of the seemingly futile gesture of radicalism. The spoken monologues came from discussions with Kaj and Mathias. All three of us knew the stereotypes we were dealing with and enjoyed playing with them. The piece may seem like an in-joke, but it translates outside the field of contemporary music. There are deluded pseudo-intellectuals in many different fields, and the references made within the video do not refer to contemporary music too specifically.

26 September 2015, Nordic Music Days, Kongernes Lapidarium, Copenhagen
26 November 2015, HCMOFF, Coffee Kabin, Huddersfield
6 December 2015, Bastard Assignments, Asylum and Maverick Projects, London
29 April 2016, Birmingham Conservatoire
7 May 2016, Goldsmiths University of London
8 July 2016, Birmingham City University
17 June 2018, Pumphouse, Aldeburgh