At the end of last semester, my friend and fellow IU musicology student Paula had the idea of applying for funding from IU’s Arts Week Everywhere to put on Pauline Oliveros’s instruction score Bonn Feier. The piece (pronounce it like “bonfire,” with a bit of a German accent if you like) has two main premises. One, it draws attention to the sounds of the campus or city in which it is being performed. Two, it aims to gradually take over the campus or city with strange activities:
The intention of BONN FEIER is to gradually and subtly, subvert perception so that normal activity seems as strange or displaced as any of the special activities. Thus the whole city or campus becomes a theater, and all of its inhabitants, players.
We came across this piece as a part of a class we took last semester with Professor Phil Ford. The class was entitled Process Music, and its contents are somewhat difficult to describe; the way that I’ve come to generally explain the title to people is that in the music we discussed and performed, the process of enacting the piece is just as important–if not more important–as any actual music or sound that results from the performance. This is music that is intended to be experiential, and that means it takes a variety of forms that don’t always really approach what we normally think of as musical performance. Bonn Feier definitely falls under that category; although there’s a sonic or ecoacoustic element, there’s also a good deal of performing that may not seem to have anything to do with music. More on this later, though!
Early this semester as the funding deadline approached, Paula sent out an email to all of the students from our class asking if they’d be interested in participating or helping with organization. I volunteered to help fill out the application and help with planning and logistics if we actually got the money. To that end, Arts Week claimed that they were looking for unusual performances, but we weren’t sure they wanted something this unusual. Our budget included four African log drums, several piñatas, wood and supplies to make our own totem pole, and a generous costume budget which included a gorilla suit rental. The piece also culminates in a bonfire, and although it would be acceptable to have some sort of non-fire alternative, we wanted the real thing.
In spite of our worries, we got all of the money we asked for, and so we began figuring out how exactly we were going to put things together. I won’t bore you with all of the details that went into our planning, but let’s just say that organizing an entire day’s worth of activities AND trying to get permission to hold an open fire on IU’s campus AND reserving the space in which to do it AND buying all of the equipment necessary to pull it off was not an easy task.
Fast forward to yesterday, April 21, the day of the performance and also–completely coincidentally, as we’d originally planned to perform the piece on the 14th–the day of IU’s infamous Little 500 bicycle race. (The Wikipedia article fails to mention the copious partying that traditionally accompanies the event.)
Paula kicked off the piece quietly by getting coffee in costume. Several others of us showed up costumed on campus not long afterwards.
The first major event of the day was a performance by Voces Novae, a Bloomington community chamber choir that emphasizes conceptual programs and performing in unusual locations. Several members of Voces Novae had agreed to meet at 11 AM and sing on the roof of the IU physics building, Swain Hall. They’d prepared a fun and diverse program including some shape-note singing, a spoken piece, and last but certainly not least, Flight of the Bumblebee:
The performance was brief and consisted of a physical audience of only two (Brad–wearing the Abraham Lincoln hat–and me), but we could tell that there were probably lots of people within earshot thanks to the noise coming from 3rd St., where several Greek houses are located.
The blank picket protest began at noon. Several volunteers silently held blank picket signs in front of the Sample Gates, a major IU campus landmark. Due to the Sample Gates’ proximity to several well-frequented bars, the area was very busy and the picketers got a lot of attention. Later the picketers slowly made their way down Kirkwood Ave. toward Bloomington’s square, stopping for a while in front of a favorite undergrad bar, Kilroy’s.
Many people interacted with the picketers. The most frequent question was “what are you protesting?” Several people also tried to guess at the message behind the “protest,” and others asked if the picketers were associated with the Occupy movement. However, the performers were instructed not to tell curious onlookers what they were doing, but only to distribute flyers advertising that night’s bonfire.
Log drumming was a major part of the day’s events, beginning at 1 pm and lasting until 5. Perhaps the most unusual of the log drummers was the McLuhan Prophet, a hooded and masked mystic who periodically read quotes from Marshall McLuhan. The only clue to his identity was his bushy beard…
Our sound guardians also stayed put for most of the afternoon. Gabe wore an elegant white tux and read aloud about astrophysics right behind the Sample Gates. His concentration was surprisingly good. As he later recounted, many people came up to speak to him, but he didn’t speak to any of them! He also interacted with the sounds at his post–at the chiming of a nearby clock tower, I witnessed him stop his reading and stare in the direction of the sound.
(note that the honking horns are not a part of our performance!)
Liz was stationed near Wells Library at the center of campus and read from Dante’s Inferno and a book in a Latin-Italian hybrid language. Her presence was quite imposing:
One favorite moment was when a group of people passed by carrying a large American flag. Seeing (and hearing) them from a distance, Liz began to sing the American national anthem. The approaching flagbearers reacted to Liz’s performance by stopping and waving the flag in rhythm. At the conclusion of the anthem, one of them shouted “Wow, that was an awesome coincidence!”
Throughout all of the sound guarding and log drumming activity, we had several natural soundmakers traveling around campus. They were equipped with pebbles and surprisingly realistic-sounding bird whistles, which they used to interact with the environmental sounds and with the communication of the log drummers.
Brad donned the gorilla suit at about 5 pm and headed over to Wells, where he sat in the lobby silently reading Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Brad noted that while several people pointed, stared, or took pictures from a distance, very few approached to ask what he was doing. Dorian also arrived in the Wells lobby prior to his participation in the Bloomington Chamber Singers’ performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis to perform excerpts from the piece on his double bass.
At 7 pm, several of us returned to the Jacobs School of Music and began our procession north to the bonfire site, carrying totemistic piñatas and our homemade totem pole (who has been dubbed Tobias by his creator). We happened to pass by a performance from IU’s drumline in front of the Musical Arts Center, and we privileged the drumline’s audience with a view of our totems and some dancing to the rhythm of the drums.
Upon arriving at Wells, we set Tobias down and began to walk and dance around him in a ritualistic circle, carrying our smaller totems.
We then carried all of our totems north to the Tundra, the grassy field where we were holding the bonfire.
The bonfire began at 9 PM. Our standard cast of performers from throughout the day was joined by several friends, including a couple of faculty members and their children. As the fire progressed, some other students came by to see what was going on, including several very friendly members of Sigma Phi Epsilon (whose house is right next to where we were holding the bonfire on the Tundra, and who were obliging enough to bring us a trash can full of water to extinguish the fire and let us keep the fire pit behind their house overnight). It was a pretty diverse group, and everyone seemed to have fun.
Okay, so the fire may not have happened exactly as it was laid out in the score:
Final Circle or Ritualistic Ceremony: at a chosen time, as a peak to activities, all ritual performers gather together in a circle around a bonfire or a reasonable substitute for a bonfire. The talking drummers and natural sound makers begin signaling, intermittently at first. The moving performers move slowly around the circle, maintaining their individual characteristic movements. Any others present are to chant the word “feier” continuously and simultaneously. The tempo of all sound and movement must gradually and imperceptibly increase until all activity is extremely fast. The acceleration must take at least an hour or more to occur. The activity then continues until each person can no longer participate.
We did chant “feier,” and we did move around the circle slowly at first and then get faster, and we did have log drumming to accompany our movements, and we definitely did stay for over an hour. But there wasn’t necessarily a constant increase in pace–that was just a little too difficult to accomplish with everyone tired out from performing all day and taking care of the end-of-the-semester workload. Still, we did our best and had a great time in the process.
I mentioned much earlier in the post that a lot of people have a hard time considering pieces like this one “music”–is totem dancing “music”? Are dressing up in costumes or picketing with no message “music”? Is interacting–sometimes somewhat intermittently, or in seemingly arbitrary ways–with the sonic environment “music”? Surprisingly enough, most of the people we interacted with at the bonfire (where we finally revealed what we were doing) had an easy enough time accepting it as musical activity, even if it wasn’t what they may have been used to. One of the Sigma Phi Epsilon brothers even asked me if what we were doing was related to John Cage’s 4’33″–which I thought was great, because that meant he actually understood both the idea behind Cage’s piece and some of the things that we were trying to accomplish.
Just a couple of final notes: A common experience to nearly all of the major performers was surprise at how frequently people reacted mildly to activities that were clearly out of place. Brad was struck by the fact that a woman stopped him on the street to ask him directions while he was wearing the gorilla suit, but gave no indication that she found his attire unusual. One student ran up to the McLuhan Prophet to enthusiastically play his log drum–apparently both on his way to Little 500 race festivities and on his way back–no questions asked. Several groups of people asked costumed performers to take their pictures, especially near the iconic Sample Gates, but did not question the costumes. Of course, plenty of people wanted to know why we were dancing in a circle around a brightly-painted totem pole, and many people did have questions regarding things like the picket signs and Gabe’s white tux, but the number of instances to the contrary seemed unusual. The timing of our performance may have been a factor, due to both the prevalence of alcohol and the general public expectation for mayhem during the weekend’s activities.
We also noticed that while we may have started out feeling self-conscious about our activities and costumes, we became more comfortable as the day went on, forgetting in some cases that we even had costumes on or that most people probably thought we were absolutely crazy. Gradually, even we as performers started to forget what was real and what was performance! I’d like to think that’s the ultimate realization of the score.
Complete photo album available here.