Stevie Cobb and her Incredible Rhizomatic Orchestra
by Sam Kriss
four in the morning in nasville tennessee. stevie cobb is deconstructing the keyboard. stevie cobb is dreaming strange dreams. stevie cobb is metabolising glycogen. stevie cobb can do several things at once. stevie cobb is a multiplicity of multiplicities.
silence. the faint dusty smell of an empty theatre. the slightly mournful stage lights bright. all bright. on stevie cobb’s shirt the dandruff. sparkling. on stevie cobb’s arms the fine network of wrinkles. bits of piano everywhere. reels of piano wire. keys scattered all over the wooden floor dispersed. like teeth after a bar fight. the brooding tenebrosity of the concert hall behind her seethes. the hazy orange light coming in through the windows. casting strange shapes on the opposite walls. stevie cobb is deconstructing the keyboard.
the problem with the keyboard is that it is a series of channels. blighted by organicity. entire purpose is to channel and direct musical flows. impede lines of flight. arborescent sequencing built into its construction. but you need a piano. there’s not a piano part in the piece the orchestra is to perform. you need a piano. so you have to deconstruct the keyboard. find the subtext of the piano. probe apart its internal contradictions. start with the black and white notes. a binary in urgent need of expansion. stevie cobb rewires the black and white notes. white notes sound flat and sharp now. but that’s just inversion. make them multiple. there’s a lot to do.
it’s two in the afternoon before the keyboard has been fully deconstructed. light in the windows. people bustling about around her. the light here always has the consistency of treacle. it doesn’t pour in bright and clean like water from a tap. slides down the walls. heavy light. it’s clammy. the sweat of pride. droplets that cover stevie cobb’s forehead. like thorns. like blisters. she pulls back the cloth. behold the schizopiano! there’s only seven strings now. one for each octave. and a sliding mechanism. stevie cobb holds a pedal. runs her hands along the keyboard. hinges churn. mechanical arms sweep up and down from inside the piano. it seems to be working. stevie cobb releases the pedal and plays the first couple of bars from the finale of rachmaninov’s third piano concerto.
dum da-dum da-dum-da-dum-da-daa da (ba bee boop boop ba bee boop boop) DUM da-dum da-dum da-dum-da-dum-da-daa…
players applaud. it’s not quite the same. the sound is different. notes almost melt into each other. like a steel guitar. stevie cobb is pleased with it. could have done more. could have prised apart the false unity of the note. have the whole piano play a single note. b flat. for instance. every key a different imagining of b flat. different timbres. different moods. you’d need eighty-eight schizopianos. but it would work. the chords that would sound out from such an array! she’d need to write scores in three dimensions. time note emotion. next time.
still work to be done. for a start. how can you deterritorialise a bassoon? how do you situate it away from its bassoonicity? stevie cobb flicks the bassoon with a single serrated fingernail. you have to see beyond the bassoon. you have to consider the bassoon as what it could be rather than what it is. what is the body without organs of a bassoon? how are we to go about precipitating the bassoon’s becoming-other? start by considering everything the bassoon is not. find the break. the line of separation. feel for its molar segmentarity. then dehierarchialise it. smooth out its striated space. what isn’t a bassoon? it’s not a castle. a light-bulb. it’s not a. a. not a. a fish. it’s not a fish. turn the bassoon into a fish. give it gills. in a frenzy stevie cobb stabs the bassoon with a boxcutter denting tearing. give it gills.
so much to do. some of the players are worried. the performance is tonight and stevie cobb is still modifying the instruments. they know of course that ‘performance’ as an event situated in space and time is a structural construct. they know they must operate according to nomadological principles. they know they must tunnel through the various striations. performance. concert hall. audience. wipe them smooth. but still. the performance is tonight. and stevie cobb is still modifying the instruments.
some of them are practicing. but sometimes stevie cobb comes up behind them and grabs the instrument out of their hands seize it. she’ll peer at the thing as if she can’t quite understand what it is. look at all the other ways you can make sound from this. listen to this. she raps on the body of the cello knuckles tapping hollow. a musical instrument is a text. it has its dominant readings. it has its subversive readings. it can be deconstructed. maybe hit yourself over the head with it. she demonstrates. listen. it’s sonorous.
has stevie cobb gone mad?
the performance. people cluster in the lobby. black jackets. white shirts. black dresses. red shoes. cologne. lipstick. a smell. cigarette smoke. malt whiskey. perfume. stevie cobb designed the posters herself. debussy’s la mer. big letters. as performed by stevie cobb’s incredible rhizomatic orchestra. small letters. laura turner concert hall. schermerhorn symphony center. nashville tennessee.
stevie cobb watches them file in. sitting on the podium. small puddle of warm light around her. boxer shorts. grubby t-shirt. skinny legs pale. bristling with fine hairs pale. dandruff. scratches her hair. she hopes there’s a riot. she’d give anything for a riot.
madames et messieurs. sous votre siège il y a une flûte. il peut faire beaucoup de sons. les frapper les uns contre les autres. si vous voulez. some of the audience don’t understand at first. but as their neighbours retrieve the flutes they too reach under their seats. they hold them in their laps. perturbed. we will not play music to you. we reject the false binary of performer and audience. play your flutes. at any time. any way you want. play them now.
one. two. one two three four.
first movement. de l’aube à midi sur la mer. soft. low. brass quiver. shimmering waves of strings. crescendo almost reached. back down. rolling. those in the audience who know the piece sit with an air of studied recognition. the sounds are all a little different. but not too different. a clarinettist rips two pages from his score. suddenly he is playing a triumphant major theme. others follow suit. scores upside down turned. cymbal spins over the audience like a discus. like a frisbee. crash against the far wall. paint and plaster shower down. the whole piece being played at once. no discord though. rhizomaticity is not atonality. swells and lapses still. melodies intertangling. stevie cobb licks her baton. the oboe a plodding melody. stops. silence. cymbalist swings the remaining cymbal by one edge. smashes it against the xylophonist’s head. all instruments burst into sound. drag the players along with them. a glorious swell. you can pick out one instrument. listen to its melody alone for a few seconds. then let it sink back into the harmonious cacophony. or listen to the strings as they cut angles across each other. or the vocalists coughing melodiously. the contrabassoonist and the tubist are kissing passionately. they swap instruments and return to their music. then break again to resume.
first flute notes waft from the audience.
stevie cobb remembers. the old white house in the catskills. running through the forest scabbed knees. climbing the cliffs. blood and mud. why don’t you play with dolls like all the other girls. remembers. later. mrs elderman the piano teacher. stephanie you need to play according to the score. the music rises like the mountains. the flutes. the audience. lofty trees packed like commuters on trains. undulating. and in the autumn the screeching tumult of red and orange and brown. cloud-carpets of leaves. someone rushes on stage from the audience. starts to play the schizopiano. the prickling of leaves on her back as she lay with adam on the forest floor. that summer she saw the sea for the first time. fourteen. a tidal wave of flute music from the audience. like a single note. the music twisting sinuously around it. until the last line of flight stretches out to infinity and the surging sea is stilled. first movement over. a lingering air of melancholy.
the audience leaps to its feet. applause commotion. so daring. so inventive. so unusual. so exciting. what an experience.
the first gentle notes of the second movement. jeux de vagues. scherzo. audience waiting for the furore to begin again. giving them permission to join in. licensed anarchy. structured rhizomaticity. safely ensconced in the soft prison of culture. what fun.
stevie cobb sits dejected. it’s all working perfectly. they loved it. it has been a failure, an utter failure.