New York

David Van Tieghem, Bump in the Night (Part 2)

Alice Tully Hall

John Cage’s gently terroristic ideas so ravaged the conventional wisdom about music that experimental composers/performers are still busily rebuilding the “new music” genre years later. David Van Tieghem, in the latest version of his constantly retitled and revamped music-performance piece, adopted a neo-Cageian approach—a knowingly innocent attitude combined with whimsical choices in sound-making—to a distinctively ’80s theater of comedy. As indicated by the title of the series in which it appeared, the “Serious Fun Festival,” Van Tieghem’s concert was couched in terms of smart entertainment. If that left Bump in the Night (Part 2) uneasily stranded in a conceptual no-man’s-land between insight and clever comedy, well, that’s where a lot of performances deliberately locate themselves today. But simply straddling the crossroads where vaudeville and esthetics intersect is no longer interesting in itself. The key to negotiating this now well-traveled road would seem to be to avoid dulling the cutting edge of subversive satire with stupid performance tricks. While Van Tieghem’s witty exercise didn’t entirely escape moments of annoying smugness in its sometimes arch mélange of serious fun, a self-deflating irony paradoxically pumped enough life into it to keep it afloat.

The format was simple. Behind a table piled high with toys, gadgets, household items, and assorted weird objects, Van Tieghem presided over a series of noise-making episodes like a child acting the role of a mad music-scientist in a wacked-out laboratory of sound. The performance dynamic was also basic: Van Tieghem manipulated things, and the audience laughed. But within this basic setup, there were considerable subtleties. Sometimes the event was funny in a very Cageian, Zen-like way, as when Van Tieghem “played” unexpected objects with an attitude of open curiosity and produced unusual results—for example, amplifying the sounds of ping-pong balls rolling in a metal bowl or of masking tape being pulled from the roll; or striking plastic water bottles like drums while varying their distance from the microphone to create shades of sonic thumps; or simply handling ordinary objects like a flour sifter or a comb and amplifying the sounds that he created. Other gestures reached for a broader humor, as when Van Tieghem beat toy drums with drooping drumsticks, or ran vibrating dildoes over inverted metal bowls. Occasionally, the moment turned toward Andy Kaufman–like bizarre comedy, as when Van Tieghem did a robotic, jerky dance routine while lip-synching to a dopey recording about “Peter Percussion.”

There were two elements that held together this anthology of disparate comic bits: a background soundtrack of prerecorded tapes that provided mock-dramatic settings for the unrelated sequences, and Van Tieghem’s performance persona, that of an elegant but antic improviser having as much wry fun as any viewer. As is typical of this genre, however, the performance’s effectiveness diminished as its length increased. During the first 25 minutes, Bump’s constant surprises delivered some disconcerting thumps to the mind’s funnybone; after 50 minutes, it had become a bead-stringing parade of novelties, fun but no longer seriously diverting. Van Tieghem didn’t make use of Cage’s idea about structure—of time itself as an architectonic grid—and didn’t really substitute anything in its place except for a mock finale. Had it been slimmed down and turned into a performance poem, Bump would have been a marvel.

John Howell