Ludwig Abraham entertains you

by Michael Lewanski

Sitting on the porch of a house in Logan Square, Ludwig Abraham told me this about how he met members of Mocrep for the first time:

I met Chris [Wood] and Zach [Moore] in Darmstadt in 2014.  The guy who pushed me to composition classes, into composing, into school for composers—he said to me ‘hey there’s somebody you need to meet.’  And then I met them and we just talked.  We just liked each other, and it was on. And then they had some days off afterwards and I said ‘yeah, you can come to my place because there's Ruhrtriennale,’ which is one of the world's biggest festival for performing arts. It’s the area where my school was and is a former industrial center so it may have the same problems as Detroit but not in that big a way.  And so they came by and I think the installations we saw were pretty shitty but we just hung out in my flat and listened to records one day, the whole day, and then we saw Planet of the Apes: Revolution in 3-D in an empty theater.  And that's it.  And then like on the last day they were like, ‘hey we actually have this ensemble and don't you want to do something.’

At this point, Ida Cuttler, a Neo-Futurist—drenched in a not-totally-clear combination of a sweat and water from the just-concluded rain shower—suddenly appeared at the gate, having finished a jog, curtailing our conversation briefly.  I fiddled with my phone, made a joke about exercise, and Ludwig and I resumed our convo as Ida went to the back of the house.  

I think I was there because I was meant to be interviewing him about his upcoming show with Mocrep, Pants, Pants, Pants, which the website describes thusly: “through show tunes, fast choreography, interviews and games and balloons, Mocrep and Ludwig Abraham team up to beg the question ‘What is entertainment?’.”  Having apparently unconsciously internalized that blurb, I found myself asking him that exact question multiple times.

[Distractionem I: As it turns out, Ludwig and I both had formative experiences with Weezer’s Blue Album.  When was the last time you listened to it?  Ludwig was initially drawn to “Say It Ain’t So” and “Buddy Holly”; but this is my article, not his, so I’ll point you instead to “Surf Wax America.”]

[Did you know Deidre is from Buddy Holly’s hometown? And had a crush on him in preschool??]

[[ML’s note]: that sentence ^^^^^^^ was written by Deidre.]

In the midst of an attempted question, Ludwig interrupted me to say “the thing is, entertainment is the human quality.  I think that’s what defines us; we search for entertainment.  Playing music for fun, for yourself even if you're not aspiring to be a rock star or pop star, it is entertaining.  Or reading a book is entertaining. I think the search, that we are searching for diversion, that's first of all human, then it gets capitalized on secondly.  The same with food.”

This is a striking claim, and since I’ve been trynna read some serious philosophy recently, I sought further definition. As it turns out, this is slippery and hard to pin down metaphysics, in a sense because he’s right: it's difficult not to imagine that just about all human activity might be described, broadly, as the search for diversion, distraction, and/or entertainment, and this list of all human activity includes what I’m doing now, say, the activity of metaphysics-construction, which realization might render my activity trivial or tautological.  Ludwig references this famous Louis C.K. bit about cellphones—“you need to build an ability to just be yourself and not being doing something… that’s what the phones are taking away, the ability to just sit there... like this… that’s being a person”—but without Louis’s didactic, moralizing sense.  If anything, Ludwig seems determined to be the opposite, to be a creature of his times, to exploit what it might mean to live in a world of constant distraction and entertainment-seeking.

[Distractionem II: so, I tried using an iphone app called Steno to record and transcribe my conversation with Ludwig.  The results were predictably hilarious but unexpectedly fruitful; you could try it sometime if you're experiencing writer’s block and are unsure how to generate material. Consider, for instance: “Like flying with like exact considered Heifetz. Of course yeah I mean he could have to grow its appeal yeah so that defense here. Yeah because you're going to get going or at yeah also saw cats. Okay like any was really yeah yeah and so you.”]

Something about how Ludwig presents himself comes across to me as very specifically European and very specifically German—a certain confidence that what he is saying and doing is right, or ok, or makes sense.  [Hmmm, sorry to interrupt again, but I have to; being honest, even though I wanted to make the point, I found it hard to complete this ^^^^^^ previous sentence because I notice myself, even in the moment I ascribe a characteristic to someone that I say is “European” or “German,” I realize how deeply problematic that is to say.  And even more so these days, where people in the United States—with a chief executive who really thinks that Nazis and first-amendment-rights-exercising protesters are basically the same, or that the first US president and the leader of an army of traitors are equivalent—are coming to understand that they have even fewer things in common and even less agreed-upon language than they ever knew.  In this context, I feel hesitant to call anyone anything at all, and I have no confidence in the words I use, and no particular reason to hope that anything I say might be meaningful.]  And also in this context, I find Ludwig a reassuring presence—a person who wants to, and is ok wanting to, give people experiences that are complex and uncomfortable, but fundamentally entertaining.

[Distractionem IV: sorrynotsorry more from my phone: “Stimpy the some. %Hesitation should go to Princeton %HESITATION. Pete impedes. All that's. Like I first band I honestly love through my brother was comes with roses. You know so it's like this weird like. Everything is like. That was like the dominant force of from me that's kind of this. When you're young and there's like this untainted it's.”]

ML: What does a person who comes to your show get out of it?

LA: Hopefully they are entertained... in a good way.  I’m really really serious.  I think there’s not enough...  also I work lots in the theater...  I think the biggest problem that there is right now is that it’s not entertaining enough. In any a “I’m frustrated” or “I’m happy” or “I cried” or “I’m angry” or whatever.  It’s too much catering to a discourse of whatever scene.  Of high art theater or high art dance.  I always say ‘theater theater’ or ‘dance dance’ or ‘music music.’  [ML here again, hi.  This reminds me of Johannes Kriedler’s “stil” series, what he calls “music with music”; also a formulation in this outstanding article by Marek Poliks: “new music is music about new music”, which I think he doesn’t mean negatively.]   It’s always meta-art, where it’s like you need to have studied how Beat Furrer comes up with his polyrhythms.  Yeah, I know how he comes up with that, I studied that; it’s boring!  It doesn’t help me when I listen to the music.  I just don’t think it’s interesting.  Someone else can think that, and that’s really great.  Hopefully what I try to do is… I want to be uncomfortable for somebody, and I want to be at the same time also very nice.  I’m coming from a place where I’ve learned I want to make beautiful moments for someone or offering them what can be very very inviting; but also produce something very very unsettling.  Hopefully in the end someone goes out and says “that was fun; that was interesting.”

[Distractionem V: Now I find myself regretting my choice of Weezer songs above.  My initial thought was to link to “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here” but I changed it, thinking something more compact and sexy would make it more likely that you’d listen to the whole thing.  In reality TWHTALMH is a much better figure for Ludwig’s work, formally speaking.  It’s conventionally constructed except for the fact that during the last chorus, the counter-melody—what had been in a sense a musical distraction—completely takes over and consumes your attention; the result to my ear is something exaggerated and suspicious, too obvious to be taken at face value, uncanny-valley-esque.]

I asked him if he were a composer.  Is what he's doing music?  Is what Mocrep is doing music?  What is music anyway?  I expected a complex answer to this.  [Speaking of complex answers, do you know the book by G. Douglas Barrett called After Sound: Toward a Critical Music?  It’s provocative, and—possibly—right.]   My experience, as a Chicago/US person in music, is, tbh, pretty, maybe overly, fraught on these questions.  I feel defensive about it, and from a lot of angles; my childhood and adolescence was spent strategizing defensive postures, to myself and others, to criticisms of my decision to go into an impractical field; and my adult life involves a lot of trying to explain to people why they should like music they don't like.  Ludwig’s answer: “I do write music and studied composition so for tax reasons and in a theatre context, where sometimes your title is helpful, I have to be one. I don't identify with the so-called new music scene and its image of a composer if that is what you mean.”  
Me: “In what sense is what you do music?”
Ludwig: “I write music.”

Ludwig: “But it’s always more that music; it’s music plus context in a very much more aggressive way than the genre of new music or classical music deals with it.  Sometimes in a bad way; sometimes way too much focus on the context and not enough focus on the music, you could say.  I think this piece [Pants, Pants, Pants, I assume he means] is like... I write a lot of music.  That’s what I do all year long, writing a lot of music, writing a lot of texts, but I always have the framework, I always think about what do I want to do with this; it’s much more purpose-driven in a broader sense.  

[Distractionem VI: I now feel self-conscious about having chosen a Latin word for “distraction.”  I think it’s because I thought it would be funny if it had a sort of Medieval scholastic quality to it, as if a distraction was a particular category of thing that had a function that could be stated and a set of clear characteristics associated with it.  But now it’s just pretentious.]

Ludwig described his education to me: he started with pop music, got into noise music, and then new music, wanted to go into what he calls the “free arts scene”, pursuing each with, it seems, an intensity and focus characteristic of a person who ends up working on a highly ambitious set of art-making projects in foreign countries at the age of 29.  Maybe one way of reading this is as long, drawn-out series of entertainments: education as an entertainment, say.

[Distraction [got tired of Latin] : I can get down with this^^^^^^^^^^, and in fact my education has been similar.  But I want to exercise a sort of professorial caution here; how much is your monthly student loan payment?  I have tenure, and mine is still not paid off.]

I realize that you may not have actually seen any work of Ludwig’s this whole time, and this is partially my fault (but partially his: he admits to being bad at documentation in a serious sense; probz got distracted or something).  You might check out this Andy Kaufman tribute, The World Is A Wonderful Place.  I watched the whole thing, but got distracted about 9 minutes in—realizing that I didn’t know Andy Kaufman’s work that well—and paused it for several days, browser window remaining open and all.

[It is secretly a source of low-level shame for me that I don’t have nuanced opinions about famous comedy performers; makes me feel so uncool.]

Ludwig: “I think the desire to have something that is just, in big quotes, ‘art’ is selfish.”

[My no-opinions-about-comics self-shame is really a story about thinking I’m not funny.]

In spite of, or tbh probably because of, my ignorance of comics, I feel totally entitled to theorize, especially after doing a bare minimum amount of research into this topic.  Since Ludwig mentioned him several times in our convo, I listened to the recent Louis C.K. Netflix comedy special 2017, and understood something about why a sort-of-in-name-only composer would find this work remarkable.  There’s a symphonic quality to C.K.’s routine, and I don’t mean this idly or preciously.  It has large blocks—movements, say—with internal structures that resemble musical form that (as Deidre pointed out to me) contain yet smaller forms that are even more intricately wound.  The broad-brush subjects are idiosyncratic and provocative commentaries (whose precise meaning is difficult to ascertain) on hot-button cultural topics like abortion, suicide, race, masculinity, sexuality.  It’s a grand political and public statement delivered in an artistic way, exactly like what the symphony was meant to be in a completely different socio-economic context.  Certainly I don’t want to tell you that Pants, Pants, Pants is going to be symphonic or operatic or whatever, because honestly I don’t really know what the show’s gonna be like; but I do want to tell you that I’m sincerely v. interested in how Ludwig thinks about genre and medium. [Not totally related, do you know Chris Fisher-Lochead’s string quartet about comics, Hack, recorded amazingly well by Spektral Quartet?]

[Feeling the need for a bland conclusion.] I’m a pretty stressed out person; and Ludwig said something similar about himself.  It occurs to me that something about his work might help me relax occasionally, and be ok becoming more, in a word, entertained.  [I feel certain I’ll regret this previous sentence when it’s published.]  I don’t mean to be uncritical of these ideas, which are not unproblematic [for instance, what is the role of criticality itself in a universe of constant entertainment-seeking? And, especially urgent these days, what is the role of politics?].  But.  Do you mind if we just get to that later?  Is it hopelessly naive of me to say that I’m just genuinely curious, and look actually forward to seeing Pants, Pants, Pants?  [Really, actually, you know, it might be great.]

[Here is the unedited Steno transcription of our entire interview except for the part that my fucking iphone stopped recording.  I think it would be an act of supreme discipline to try to read the whole thing, probably not entertaining at all.  If you can read it without getting distracted, I’ll high-five you.]

[Finally, I guess I want to offer a one of those fake I’m-sorry-if-you-were-offended non-apologies: if you find it off-putting that I heavy-handedly, eye-rolling-emoji-ly wrote all of my distractions and diversions into this piece, please know that I mean it not only as a smug, too-clever-by-half experiment in form, but as a way of for-realz considering and seriously engaging with what seemed to me a really interesting way that Ludwig seems to think about the world.  idk, you might try it, if you like; noticing your distractions, I mean.]

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