Nick Zammuto and Jason Treuting with Janus, Daisy Press, and Grey McMurray @ Ecstatic Music Festival

Frank Zappa famously asked, “Does humor belong in music?”. He asked this question using an absurdist concert film, and answered it quite profoundly (I’m paraphrasing): of course it does, if music is supposed to be a reflection of human emotional life. Music persists in human society because of its ability to communicate complex emotions directly into our brains, more effectively than spoken or written language. Musicians play their instruments and the music plays us in turn. Humor persists for similar reasons, using language and wordplay and culture to elicit the uniquely human reactions of laughter and amusement. Humor experienced with other people helps you bond, and contributes to your shared history, much like music. But combining them has always been a challenge for composers. Historically, it’s difficult to produce funny instrumental music (although many great musicians have), and even when one hears clever, complex humor in a piece (think Shostakovich’s nervous, bitter sarcasm), it’s not usually laugh-out-loud funny. Finding a piece of instrumental music that you’d guffaw at like an episode of Arrested Development isn’t easy. When there are words, it’s usually in the form of funny lyrics, to a song whose general character is indistinguishable from other, non-funny songs. Nick Zammuto, composer and former ringleader of blues-folk musique-concrete act The Books, has a markedly different approach to music and humor, and together with composer/percussionist Jason Treuting, brought a variety of hilarious pieces to their slice of the Ecstatic Festival.

Jason Treuting – Photograph by David Andrako

Held at the Kaufman center, the show was also broadcast on public radio, and featured brief interviews with the composers and performers peppered throughout the night. Treuting and Zammuto were joined by new-music trio janus, vocalist Daisy Press, and guitarist Grey McMurray. The crowd was tragically sparse, but enthusiastic, as the churning mix of indie rock nerds and academic eccentrics that the Ecstatic festival tends to be. There was a crackle of genre-melting energy in the air, fueled by the musicians themselves. Treuting, known mostly for his work with So Percussion, played everything from traditional drumkit to broken bicycle wheel, and Zammuto drifted joyously from guitar to electronics to homemade low-frequency generators, while also providing the visual component of the evening. The program promised such works as “The Best Autoharp Solo in the World”, “The Stick”, and a spelling bee-themed suite. I was hopeful, but wary. Was tonight going to be genuinely funny or just kinda schtick-y? Was the music going to be clever for cleverness’ sake or feature authentic wittiness?
The first piece, a triptych titled “pluck, blow, bow”, was written by Treuting for janus. While they have a semi-default setting of flute, viola, and harp, characteristics the piece was written around , the trio are noteworthy multi-instrumentalists. Each section began with janus reading the dictionary definition of pluck, blow or bow aloud, splitting the words between them in varying rhythmic patterns, eerily affecting a hydra-headed librarian (complete with huge librarian glasses), a motif that carried into the music. Small overlapping fragments combined into a three-person ostinato that morphed in and out of various tempos for “pluck”. A snappy viola danced over a bed of bowed harp for “bow” (the finale of which involved all three members sawing at harp strings with violin bows, which is one of the richest and most colorful sounds I have ever heard, like a pitch-shifted tanpura). Finally, two cheap melodicas provided the backdrop for a titzi (a small, brash-sounding Chinese flute), wafting a thin, eerie cloud of just-out-of-tune-enough-to-be-disturbing vapor.

Janus – Photograph by David Andrako

Zammuto then introduced the next piece, “The Fig and the Finger”, written for janus and an audio/video loop. Inspired by the staggering number of stock photos of people performing rude gestures on the internet, Zammuto put together a video with his voice repeating “the fig, the finger, the fig and the finger”, etc., over constantly changing slides of said photos. (The fig: think one half the “I got your nose” hand gesture, one half a sharp upward arm jerk). Sometimes these gestures were to the camera, sometimes to computers, sometimes to other people, sometimes to nothing. My personal favorite was a series of beautiful landscapes…being flipped off. Underneath it all, janus played a gentle pulse of formless beauty, vaguely indebted to Sigur Ros, as well as Debussy’s music for children. The audience was in stitches, and even janus could be seen smirking through their concentration.

Janus – Photograph by David Andrako

Next up was “The Best Autoharp Solo in the World”. Zammuto, treating Final Cut like a turntable, took a homespun-style autoharp instructional video and sliced it up into a countrified prog-rock epic, with himself playing acoustic guitar and Treuting on drumkit. Slow, simple phrases were spun into loops of breakneck speeds, with chords rearranged and repeated and replaced in a lightspeed pastiche. Zammuto understands how to make something absurdly silly that never seems contrived, because it’s still honest, taking itself just seriously enough to feel genuine and unironic. A similar piece, called “The Stick”, followed a short improvisation, and built its silliness around footage from an infomercial about a ridiculous massage aid.

Treuting, McMurray, and Zammuto – Photograph by David Andrako

The centerpiece of the evening, Treuting’s 12 Words, featured all the musicians of the evening, in a musical spelling bee of sorts. 12 short pieces were written around words and phrases recently added to the dictionary: Agroterrorism, abdominoplasty, big-box, biodiesel, elephant in the room, labelmate, manga, mouse potato, rendition, spyware, unibrow, yogalates. Each word was read aloud, spelled, and followed by a musical description/approximation/companion piece. Treuting has a gift for humor and cohesiveness, each word/piece pair sharing clever commonalities. Press’ long tones reverberated ethereally through the hall, and her sargam improvisation over “yogalates” was executed with authoritative authenticity. Treuting shone during “biodiesel”, building complex interlocking rhythms with a broken bike wheel and a looping pedal.

Daisy Press – Photograph by David Andrako

Treuting and Zammuto don’t just agree with Zappa’s belief about the relationship of humor and music, they understand both well enough to combine them organically, without irony or lackadaisical sarcasm. Their humor is risky, taking chances and making leaps like one sees in great sketch comedy, and they know how to juxtapose contrasts to make great punchlines (rude gestures and impressionist chamber music, old-timey autoharp instruction and amped-up remixed country-prog). They also share with Zappa the ability to write for the talents of specific musicians like Press or janus for hilarious results. But the mix is so genuine, it goes a step beyond Zappa: it’s like they’re saying humor doesn’t just belong in music, but they belong together.

Evan Burke is a bassist and composer living in Brooklyn.