You walk on stage, and it’s terrifying: senior-recital-gone-wrong, late-to-a-masterclass-with-Big-Name-Soloist, career-ending-farce-with-your-parents-in-the-audience terrifying. As always, it’s inexplicably hot on the boards (or too cold, or the lights are too bright) and you’re sure the audience can see the sweat glisten on your frustrated, unhappy face. You’re flubbing notes left and right, barreling through an old favorite, lilting and swaying, trying to pretend like you’re really, actually feeling it this time, when you find yourself thinking: This is absurd. What are we doing here?

To perform in a traditional classical music context is to attempt to dance gracefully through an arcane series of conventions and traditions without giving the game away: walk out to applause, bow at the audience, play, bow a few more times, smile, walk out to applause. No talking, no clapping between movements, no audience participation, no mistakes. 

At a certain point in the 20th century, a jaded, post-War generation of composers decided to stop playing by these rules and start using them to shock, amuse, and confuse. Often connected with ideas of the absurd, the pieces born out of the ennui and existentialism of this heterogeneous mid-century gaggle attempted to poke holes in the unwritten assumptions of Western concert music. But they also tried to expand its limited sonic and theatrical repertoire by including stage directions, speaking, acting, slapstick comedy, costumes, and more. The curtain was pulled away to reveal the Theater of Music in all its glory, a shambling chimera of traditions practically begging to be made the fool.

Mauricio Kagel, “Match”

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Perhaps the most prolific purveyor of extra-musical, theatrical elements on the concert stage was Argentine-German composer Mauricio Kagel. Nearly every one of Kagel’s works incorporates some extra-musical buffoonery, whether it be the snorkel and flippers of his faux-opera “Staatstheater” or the enigmatic miming of his work “Con voce,” in which performers are asked to more or less silently mimic playing their instruments. While not the first to attempt the theatrical concept pieces which would become his calling card, Kagel certainly pushed the absurdity of life on the stage to an early extreme.

In “Match,” two cellists play what can only be described as a game of musical tennis mediated by a percussionist-referee. This 1966 rendition features old-school-avant-garde camera work and flashy editing that leans into the uncanny valley, creating an enigmatic black-and-white short film out of an already far-fetched piece of musical theater.

Luciano Berio, “Sequenza V”

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Although Kagel had a more sustained stay in the realm of the musical absurd, some of his better-known counterparts of the mid-20th century also wrote pieces with aspects of comedy, absurdity, and theater. Among these experimenters was Luciano Berio, whose best-known works include his “Sinfonia,” a distorted tour of cultural history via musical and textual quotations in which eight vocalists speak, whisper, and shout passages from the likes of Samuel Beckett and Claude Lévi-Strauss. 

Alongside “Sinfonia,” the series of 14 instrumental solo pieces titled “Sequenza” are Berio’s most widely performed works, and for good reason: their focused, virtuosic explorations of instruments from the harp to the accordion make them easy fodder for solo recitals and showcases. Perhaps the most famous of the bunch remains the solo trombone work, “Sequenza V,” in which a lone trombonist wields a plunger mute to incomparable comic effect. Allegedly based on an encounter which a young Berio had with a clown named Grock, the piece asks the performer to turn to the audience in the middle of performance and pose the simple yet deadly question “Why?” Ever since Christian Lindberg performed “Sequenza V” in a clown outfit in 1994, the tradition of donning a clown’s wig and makeup to perform the piece has lived on, for the greater good of humanity.

Karlheinz Stockhausen, “Der kleine Harlekin”

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Costumes are often the easiest way of getting your foot in the door of the musical absurd: in a musical context so bound up with the image of a coat and tails, the initial shock of seeing a performer don a zany outfit is sure to bring the whole charade of musical formality into question. In “Der kleine Harlekin,” the stylistic chameleon and purported intergalactic alien (according to himself) Karlheinz Stockhausen uses a silly costume to great effect, even invoking a longstanding cultural tradition in the process. In reference to the commedia dell’arte character of the Harlequin, Stockhausen instructs the performer to don the Harlequin’s garb and dance around the stage in a spritely manner, directions which Karel Dohnal certainly takes to heart in this performance. More a monodrama than a musical work, “Der kleine Harlekin” uses the tropes of classical music performance and transforms them into an absurd pantomime.

György Ligeti, “Mysteries of the Macabre”

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Of a slightly harder edge is György Ligeti’s “Mysteries of the Macabre,” a reduction for soprano and instrumental ensemble of an aria from the eclectic Hungarian composer’s only opera, “Le Grand Macabre.” Several different versions of the piece exist, but the core remains the same: a frantic coloratura soprano shouts, whispers, and wails in coded, nearly nonsensical language, trying to warn the indifferent conductor and orchestra of the coming of a great Macabre (or the end of the world). She is Gepopo, chief of the secret police, and her desperate pleas are met with derision from the instrumentalists, who mock her with bongos, slide whistles, and shouts of protest. In this rendition, Barbara Hannigan, a veteran of the work in its many forms, also takes on conducting duties, focusing all the attention (and derision) on herself.

John Cage, “Living Room Music”

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In “Living Room Music,” John Cage takes the most mundane of settings and transports it to the concert stage, instructing a quartet of performers to tap, slap, and speak their way through a gauntlet of rhythms and text. Meant to be performed on furniture, boxes, and whatever else you might conjure up from your living room, the theatricality of the piece rests largely on its staging. Still, the inclusion of text from Gertrude Stein lends the piece an absurdist air—Stein’s fragmented, repetitive language calls attention to the inherently meaningless rhythms of speech. Like all of the theatrical pieces in this playlist, “Living Room Music” asks the audience: Why not this on a stage? Why not this in music?

Steven Takesugi, “Sideshow” 

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The legacy of mid-20th-century theatrical and absurdist music was by no means lost on subsequent generations of composers, who often looked to performance art, theater, and contemporary philosophy for inspiration. Among these composers is Steven Takesugi, now an elder statesman of a “postmodern” strain of musical composition which similarly concerns itself with pastiche, parody, the grotesque, and the meaningless. More disturbing than anything in “Le Grand Macabre” is Takesugi’s highly programmatic work “Sideshow,” a carnivalesque nightmare that turns performers into monstrous sideshow attractions. The acting chops required of the musicians throughout the hour-long run time of the piece are staggering: while performers do in fact play their instruments, they are also required to fake death, fake page turns, make grotesque faces, and sync up with an electroacoustic track. In NO HAY BANDA’s rendition, you’re never sure which sounds are electronic and which are the grunts, gasps, or noodlings of the performers themselves. The ensemble’s name, a reference to David Lynch’s surreal cult classic “Mulholland Drive,” captures the essence of the piece: There is no band here, only uncanny mannequins waiting for their cue.

Mark Applebaum, “Tlön”

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No living composer has more successfully spread the gospel of musical absurdity than Mark Applebaum, the zany Stanford-based composer whose TED Talk-style lectures with titles like “The Mad Scientist of Music” have brought his playfully radical creativity to a wide audience. Unlike the darker visions manifested on the stage by many of his predecessors and contemporaries, Applebaum’s challenging of musical conventions comes with a clownish smile and a knowing wink. Noticing an Applebaum piece on a new-music program can be akin to finding an inflatable bouncy castle in the middle of a graveyard: unexpected, but not unwelcome. 

Of all of Applebaum’s works, “Tlön” strikes closest to the heart of the musical dilemma presented by all of classical music’s venerated conventions. A reference to a mythical world created by the inhabitants of a fictitious country in the Jorge Louis Borges short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” the piece’s title gestures at a conception of the world which sees nothing as real except what goes on in the mind, and flirts with the idea that habitual patterns of thought can change the way we perceive and respond to the material world. The concept of a piece for conductors without music is so silly and so obvious that it’s easy to kick yourself for not thinking of it first, yet for all its inherent whimsy, the resulting performance is surprisingly beautiful, a dance piece set to a silent soundtrack.

Georgia Koumará, “Walk in and find your supper!”

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For every big name composer who dips into the well of musical absurdity, there are scores of up-and-comers creating equally (if not more) compelling work in a similar idiom. The bitingly funny has a significant share in the music composed by young composers these days, for reasons that should be obvious (there’s a lot to parody out there). Still, with the Greek composer Georgia Koumará’s “Walk in and find your supper!” it’s difficult to tell what, if anything, is being made fun of: Games? Conformity? Art itself? Named for a children’s game called Huckle Buckle Beanstalk, which involves hiding an object for a seeker to find, the piece is a wild ride of conspiracy, surrealism, and highly compelling chamber music textures. True to its name, the piece, after starting with a pointillistic flurry of activity, finds a quartet of violin, cello, flute, and clarinet discussing their plans to hide a series of objects around the room for a lone seeker to find. When the seeker enters, he is ridiculed by some and helped by others. In true absurdist fashion, the rules of the game are never made clear to the audience. ¶

Peter Tracy is a writer, cellist, and noisemaker based in Seattle, Washington. His writing on music has appeared in Early Music Seattle's Clef Notes as well as Second Inversion and his online newsletter,...