It was a hot evening, and tempers were frayed. “George, these seats are awful. How did we get such awful seats? We have to ask to be moved. Ask someone to get us some better seats.” George, who in fairness did not appear that unhappy with his seats, did his best, but there was no budging. Tickets were tickets, rules were rules. George and his dragon, elderly Americans unaccustomed to anything other than five-star service, sat behind me. You could feel the smoke coming out of her nostrils and his saintly embarrassment. It almost ruined the evening. But not quite.
It takes a lot to disturb the exquisite sense of calm that makes Ravello, high on Italy’s Amalfi coast, such a priceless retreat from the world’s noise. Every summer it plays host to a music festival, entertaining audiences on a spectacular stage mounted, it seems, on a cushion of clouds, with spectacular coastline views on either side. The festival’s musical legacy is partly to commemorate Richard Wagner’s visit here in 1880, which inspired parts of Parsifal.
The festival dutifully pays homage to the composer each year, but has also taken on a life of its own, choosing an annual theme to help define its programme. This year’s subject was “Il Gioco”, or “Play”. In the festival guide, quotations were pulled from all directions to give added credibility to the theme, just in case we were experiencing the odd frisson of guilt, luxuriating in all this painless beauty. “Civilisation is not a matter of work: it is all to do with leisure and play,” said someone called Koire. “He who has mastered the art of living makes little distinction between work and play,” added an anonymous Zen maxim (the author of which could usefully have chatted to Wagner at some point).
Which brought me, and my fellow spectators, to our awful seats in the gardens of the Villa Rufolo to listen to Jed Distler, a pianist and composer from New York. Distler, I noted from the programme, had taken the festival theme seriously. Comically seriously, in fact. Of particular appeal to me was his promised version of Wagner’s Ring cycle on toy piano in 75 seconds, which is about a minute and a quarter too long for my tastes, but just about bearable. Other composers were to receive equally short shrift: also advertised were Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas played in one minute, and Scarlatti’s complete sonatas (time unspecified, but in the ball park of a Ramones single, it seemed).
First, however, came the more serious element of the concert: Frederic Rzewski’s “Fantasia” and “Nowhere”. I had never heard of the composer and neither, I would guess, had most of the audience, but Distler explained that parts of the pieces would involve vocal interventions and some banging on the piano lid. We chuckled uneasily. He started to play. There was indeed much crashing and banging, some of it on the piano lid, some of it on the keys themselves, producing a sound not unlike those parts of a Tex Avery cartoon when a cat has to race across a keyboard to avoid crushing by a passing anvil overhead.
There was more uneasy chuckling and then something more. Giggling. Not the carefree, relaxed giggles of holidaymakers revelling in the civilising effect of leisure and play, but real, uncontrolled giggling. Hysterics, in fact. A couple across the aisle were shaking uncontrollably. Two rows ahead of me, there was weeping. The more Distler crashed his piano and whooped into the microphone, the more they giggled. And as we all know, the failed suppression of hysterical laughter in a context in which one is supposed to be rapt with concentration leads only to one thing: more giggling. By the end of the pieces, a good third of the audience was laughing out loud.
The trouble was, this was the non-comic part of the evening. Nothing in Distler’s somewhat severe demeanour encouraged us to take these pieces anything other than entirely seriously. But they were evidently hilarious to this rather conservative audience, unused to the strange, undisciplined sounds of the avant-garde. Undeterred, Distler swept into the jocular part of his concert: the Wagner, Beethoven and Scarlatti abbreviations. They were technical tours de force, containing many more musical jokes than I was capable of appreciating, I’m sure. But unlike his piano-lid antics, they weren’t all that funny. They were received with a sigh of sophisticated amusement, but for the first time in the evening, no one was convulsed with laughter.
It was a funny old occasion. Distler’s own composition, “Assault on Pepper”, had us straining to identify extracts from the Beatles songs on which the piece was based, which was diverting at least. The concert was remarkably successful on one level: it certainly made me think about the uneasy relationship between art and humour, or work and play. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that art is funniest when it takes itself most seriously, and at its least amusing when trying to raise a laugh. It is something to do with the gap - at times a chasm - between high-minded aspiration and bracing reality, which is, after all, the basis of so much comedy.
Never mind. Distler rightly received respectful applause at the end of his concert, which finished with his piano version of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from Woodstock. I have to report that much of the audience had fled by this point, including hapless George and his angry consort, who I’m sure revered their national anthem but didn’t, in all honesty, seem Woodstock types.
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