As Serious as a Heart Attack: Sebastiano de Gennaro’s Hippos Epos

Hippos Epos is the latest release by Italian percussionist Sebastiano de Gennaro, on Trovarobato’s Parade label. Of the six pieces contained on the disc, three are original compositions for percussion and electronics (Donald Fauntleroy Duck, Electric Poneis, Musica per Aristofane), two are highly imaginative reinterpretations of major works from the cannon (Kindersinfonie, and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 2), and one is a faithful interpretation of a minimalist landmark (Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood). It seems highly appropriate at this point to issue a bit of a spoiler alert for any interested reader, as the six titles represented on Hippos Epos are heavily steeped in irony, sarcasm, and humor.

Sebastiano de Gennaro

In a press release, Gennaro warns the listener that no track should be taken very seriously, not that such a warning is even necessary. The opening track is a rather vulgar piece titled Donald Fauntleroy Duck. The piece, co-written by Gennaro and Enrico Gabrielli, begins abruptly with an aggressive electronic squeal very reminiscent of the type of blood-curdling scream found at the start of many great punk and hardcore records. What follows can only be described as punk rock riffing on electronics, saxophone, and a snare drum, while samples of a belligerent Donald Duck chime in and out. The image of Donald Duck angrily and nervously pacing the stage like a riled up Henry Rollins in a dark, dank, hole-in-the-wall bar wouldn’t seem too far removed from the appropriateness of the opening title. Though Duck’s lyrical content remains largely intelligible throughout the track, one things is clear: he is pissed and wants the listener to know it. Any children in the room should get “ear muffs” for this one.

The following track is a re-orchestrated arrangement of Kindersinfonie, whose hazy origins are often attributed to either Leopold Mozart or Franz Joseph Haydn, is here scored for an ensemble of clarinets and electronic toys. It is a humorous and lighthearted contrast to the sonic brutality of Donald Fauntleroy Duck. The following two pieces Electric Poneis and Musica per Aristofane play as though they are soundtracks to scenes to science-fiction movies and cartoons. They are both composed for percussion and triggered electronics and display Gennaro’s abilities as both a multi-instrmentalist and composer. Compositionally speaking, these two pieces are separate and unrelated, but they contain strikingly similar and unsettling sound worlds and would not be out of place if paired together in a suite. The close of Musica per Aristofane almost begs for another movement.

"Hippos Epos" (Parade)

It is Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood that really sounds the most striking on the album, as it sounds seemingly out of place amongst the timbre-rich clatter of electronics, percussion, and toys in the preceding pieces. Reich’s meditation on the construction and deconstruction of simple rhythms certainly leaves the listener in what Gennaro describes as “a state not unlike hypnosis.” In taking Reich’s work at face-value, Gennaro delivers a very convincing performance that immediately transforms the listeners senses into something almost Zen-like. It is a serious performance of a serious piece of music, but it also marks the setup of a joke that would make even Victor Borge or P.D.Q. Bach envious. The punch line to this grand setup is none other than J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 2. Bach’s masterpiece should stand out as a major warhorse, displaying what is often considered the height of musical sophistication, yet in a bold move too ironic even for Alanis Morissette, Gennaro renders the famed concerto every bit as musically potent as Baby Einstein or Rockabye Baby: Lullaby Renditions of Pink Floyd. By simply re-orchestrating the piece for an orchestra of toys and percussion, the Brandenburg Concerto displays the seriousness of an episode of Spongebob Squarepants. It is Reich’s static, non-harmonic piece for percussion that comparatively sounds like the sophisticated superior.

Hippos Epos displays a playful and youthful sense of immaturity, while at the same time showing the comedic sensibilities and timing of Andy Kaufman. There are numerous musical jokes contained in this package with generous setup, yet like Kaufman, the punch lines are often awkwardly long and leave the listener questioning whether or not they should laugh with Gennaro or at him.

Sebastiano de Gennaro, Hippos Epos (Trovarobato Parade, TRB P 0006)

George Heathco is a composer, electric guitarist, collaborator, and teacher that lives in Houston, Tx with his wife and daughter. You can follow him on twitter:@GeorgeHeathco