Why that monkey washes his balls in my whisky

I have written a song. It is sung more or less enthusiastically by a choir of people who have never sung in public before. A recording of this song plays through speakers in a continuous loop. The lyrics are handwritten on the walls alongside a paragraph of text giving some context, but not necessarily providing answers. This text is like a program note traditionally given to a classical concert audience. Is the viewer supposed to listen and remain mute, or to learn the song and sing along?

This ‘program note’ explains a joke told by Slavoj Žižek in his book The Plague of Fantasies to illustrate the position of right-wing intellectuals: “conformist[s] who refer to the mere existence of the given order as an argument for it” (2008, p.56-57). These right-wing intellectuals are ‘knaves’, contrasted with left-wing intellectual ‘fools’. The joke concludes with a song, sung by an Eastern European gypsy musician, who is stereotypically supposed to work in a bar and be able to play any given song on request. So when an unfortunate patron asks a gypsy why a monkey inexplicably keeps washing his balls in his whisky, he misconstrues it as yet another request for a song.

My practice falls between music, art and theatre. I therefore find it difficult to locate my true discourse, and often look to other interdisciplinary models for guidance. My primary model is Fluxus, an international tendency that emerged during the 1960s and sought, amongst other things, to subvert the conventions of the art and music establishments of the day through humour. As I attempted to enter the art-theoretical discourse I was, then, drawn towards the philosopher who tells the jokes.

Image of the work installed in its original format during Map, Play, Narrate exhibition (2013), The Royal Gallery, The Hague (NL).

Being a composer trained in the emerging field of ‘artistic research’, I created this song to question why artists often look towards philosophy for guidance. I can provide no answer as to why, although I did add my voice (in the form of song). In addition, the work challenged me to consider how a musical practice can engage with a visual arts context without resorting to ambient sound. The song itself is a parallax: it cannot really be successfully presented in a concert or an art gallery, and is constantly shifting between music and art. Is it music masquerading as art, or art masquerading as music?

Why The Plague Of Fantasies? In an attempt to develop a theoretical basis for my interest in Fluxus subversion I located a short paragraph concerning “over-orthodox authors”; people who play-by-the-rules too literally, thus exposing the inconsistencies upon which ideologies are founded (Žižek, 2008, p.99-100). Instead of overtly critiquing music or art, I tried to play the role of an ‘over- orthodox composer’, composing a song that is mentioned but never sung: finding a need. The lyrics came first, a simplification of Žižek’s example. The melody is then an overly literal interpretation of musical text-setting (the age-old practice of setting words to music). Instead of inventing a melody myself, I decided that the note names (A B C D E F G) in the lyrics should correspond to the notes of the melody. However, in order to be truly ‘over-orthodox’, I did not follow my rule to the letter (as it were), but allowed for calculated serendipity within the rehearsals and eventual performance. The result is a satisfying melody that strays from the rigorous system used to compose it in the first place.

The purpose of this short text is to provide further context for the song itself. My intention is to provoke thought rather than provide answers. This song is a protest song for those with nothing to protest about, who find it difficult to take a position on anything. I am a white, Western, heterosexual male, not excessively poor or rich, with a reasonable level of education. What do I have to complain about? If I wrote the song then am the knave? Or is the song from the viewpoint of the masses tricked by the knave? This song is for people like me.