The music may sound awful. But it’s real. And it’s honest.
That was artistic battle cry first in the late-1960s, in rebellion against the ultra-packaged pop music of the 1950s, and then a decade later, with less-cheerful drugs, when punk rock went up against ultra-slick disco. Now, this populist Expressionism lingers in indy films, indy rock or in the lunatic fringe of classical music. And it’s one of the most important anchors in my listening life.
What brought this up? (You might ask).
Earlier this summer, the American Sublime Festival of Morton Feldman music in Philadelphia brought together people who don’t usually share the same concert hall or have conversations beyond “Excuse me,” and did so with the backdrop of Feldman’s spare, slow, multi-hour pieces that force you to redefine what music is. And though many people think of Feldman as being extremely rarefied, the conversations inexorably wended their way toward what many called “outsider music” – that which refuses to cooperate with any received aesthetics.
The term was coined by the esteemed journalist and radio announcer Irwin Chusid – and was brought to my attention by Philadelphia City Paper critic Shaun Brady. Down the rabbit hole I went. Now it’s more like a sink hole.
The starting point: The Shaggs. Having just been portrayed in an off-Broadway musical titled Philosophy of the World, this obscure,late-1960s girl group was in the air. And while at the Philadelphia Museum of Art waiting for a Feldman concert to begin, Brady and I “came out” to each other with our mutual fascination with the trio of New Hampshire teen-age girls who could barely play their instruments, ofen sang in monotones, but with a naïve ineptness made them accidental Dadaists. More like involuntary Dadaists, since they had been drafted into rock ‘n’ roll by their blue-collar father, who somehow thought that they would win fame and riches.
The girls didn’t have a heck of a lot to say in their songs. They observe that people seem to want exactly what they don’t have. They sing about their lost pets – with so little pretense they perhaps didn’t know what pretense was. The off-Broadway musical gave The Shaggs get credit for awareness: While being forced into practicing by their dad as they faced a recording session for what would be their emblematic Philosophy of the World album, the girls lament that they only seem to get worse.
Nonetheless, they have plenty of company. Typical of outsider music, the Shaggs weren’t out to make artistic statements but acquired meaning decades after the fact when stumbled upon like archeological artifacts. Ultimately, the Shaggs were championed by avant-garde rocker Frank Zappa and others. Similarly, the Langley Schools Music Project is a disc consisting of 1960s rock hits – “Good Vibrations,” “Band on the Run,” “Space Oddity” – sung with spirited ineptitude by a Canadian childrens chorus, accompanied by cheesy piano, bass and guitar and recorded in a gymnasium in 1976 – but rediscovered in 2001.
The CD titled Innocence & Despair, and the unlikely combination of elements (edgy songs, guileless voices and shamelessly unsophisticated arrangements) make their music a collision of unlikely elements while also having a realness and honesty in their forthright musical expression and unguarded display of who they are. Some Ed Wood movies qualify for outsider status: Glen or Glenda attempts to encompass complex matters like trans-sexuality without having enough footage to fill out a full-length film, forcing the director to just repeat scenes again and again.
Reality and honesty aren’t necessarily valued commodities in art. Think of the Rococo painters such as Fragonard, who idealized reality to a point of fantasy. Or Picasso’s most intensely refracted Cubist paintings that are more about the constructive powers of the human mind than any portrayal of the world at large. Recently at the Bard Summerscape festival, Richard Strauss’ late-period opera, Die Liebe der Danae, had its first staging in the area, showing an aging composer indulging in all sorts of inside jokes about the gods of antiquity in the apotheosis of musical artificiality. Nothing wrong with that. It’s the cathedral approach to art. Reality is not welcome. The idea is to bring other worlds into this one.
The finer arts have no lack of outsiders. In his later years, Franz Liszt was writing short, odd piano pieces without key signatures – hailed as visionary after his death but gain their outsider status for probably having been the product of absinthe abuse. Disparate instincts in an impossible collision certainly mark the 1988 off-Broadway musical Frankie – an attempted to update the Frankenstein story: When the monster is finally put to death, and Dr. Frankenstein is ask if he’ll go to heaven, the answer is, “He knows the way. He’s been there before.” Then the African/American maid breaks into a gospel song about the monster making his way down the River Jordan. Just you wait: It’ll be rediscovered one day and greeted (though maybe not hailed) with amazement.
Among chanteuses, the Peruvian Yma Sumac’s freak voice qualifies her for outsider status: She had many octaves and was said to be able to sing two notes at once. I always enjoyed her as an oddity until discovering later (and more ethnically authentic) albums that give rest to the rumor that she was actually from Brooklyn. She could only have come from the land of the Incas, whose art can resemble childlike doodling because it developed blissfully unaware of Greek proportions.
What makes these oddities art? Hmmm. Art shouldn’t need an outsider background story about the music’s circumstances to be understood. But it certainly helps to hear Liszt’s more remote, emotionless musical doodlings with an ahead-of-its-time perspective before ultimately deciding if the music has any value. The Shaggs only needed their back story at first. The more we’re removed from the late-1960s world that their music came out of, the more the music’s individual elements take on an objective strangeness that can resonate with different meaning in repeated hearings. And that’s what art does. Outsider art at its most glorious might be the tipsy Barcelona church architecture of Antoni Gaudi, who seems like one of the world’s most amazing visionaries on one day, or Dr. Seuss with a religious conversion another day.
Artistic status, however, doesn’t automatically translate in value. Many people grasp the music but think you’re ridiculous for listening to it once, much less repeatedly. But value comes in unexpected forms. Three years ago when I first discovered The Shaggs, I took the Philosophy of the World CD with me to Early Music Festival of Utrecht as a counterbalance to all the ecstatic 16th-century Spanish polyphony I would be hearing. While staying on a rented canal boat (the Dutch version of a bed and breakfast), I left The Shaggs out on the coffee table, and one day, the disc went missing. The only explanation is that the houseboat landlord let himself in to make sure the place was in shipshape, borrowed the disc for duplication purposes, and perhaps confounded by what he heard, forgot to bring it back.
While talking to my now-ex-partner over trans-Atlantic phone – at that stage in the relationship when neither of us could do or say anything right – I discovered the disc was gone. He was baffled and annoyed that I was so upset. I was standing out on the boat’s deck in a late-afternoon light rain while he asked, accusatorily, “What’s wrong with with you?” I stared silently at the lily pads contemplating another failed conversation and the hopelessness of the bigger picture.
Wrong. Right. Failure. Success. What if we didn’t have such words?
The Shaggs represent a refuge from the constant social judgments of the outside world. I navigate those judgments well, but often wish that I didn’t have to. In contrast, the Shaggs relieve you the burden of being cool, suave or socially facile. Ineptitude and awkwardness are permissible. The Shaggs remind you mistakes are almost entirely an adult perception; children and animals don’t see things that way. And no matter how much therapy you’ve had, fear of mistakes can rule your life.
The beauty of Dada-ism, though, is that such judgments are thrown back at you. There’s no reaching up to its level. It takes the accomplishment out of art. To that, The Shaggs add another layer, having been involuntary Dada-ists – a musical accident, in other words. We’re taught to dread accidents. But accidents and mistakes open previously undetected creative doors. There really are no problems (as to old saying goes) but only disguised outcomes. At least that’s my philosophy of the world.