The Heavyweight Sound Fight last week was a collaboration between the Swedish composer Sten Hanson, who has been residing temporarily in New York, Charlie Morrow, who is well known to local avant-garde audiences, and Carles Santos, the Catalan pianist and composer, whose work has been reviewed here by both Gregory Sandow and myself. All are experienced composers, all are about 40 years old, and all are interested in experimental vocal techniques. The three had never collaborated with one another before, but a few months ago, perhaps influenced somewhat by a now-legendary Fluxus boxing event organized by Dick Higgins in the mid-’60s, they got together, raised some money, set the date for March 14 at Bobby Gleason’s Gym on West 30th Street, and worked out a game plan. Morrow was billed as ‘Passaic Pig Iron,’ in recognition of his home town, Santos became the ‘Barcelona Bull,’ Hanson took the role of referee, and posters went out following the form always used in advertising events at Bobby Gleason’s Gym. It was already a little unclear as to whether this was going to be music or sport, and the ambiguity increased as the cast was enlarged to include a soprano to sing the national anthem, a ringside band to play the Gillette theme song and provide accompaniments and between-rounds interludes, a dancer, a timekeeper, five judges, a boxing commission controller, a doctor, two trainers, and two bucket boys.
The event was scheduled to begin at 8, though it didn’t actually start until 8:30. Normally, audiences become very impatient in such situations, but in this case I didn’t hear one complaint. It helped that Giordano Capilano was playing incidental music on his ‘fabulous polyphonic synthesizer,’ but what really engaged me was the setting itself. Bobby Gleason’s Gym is a wonderfully tacky place, just like the ones you’ve seen in boxing movies. Paint flaking all over. A hundred or so chairs huddled around the ring. A little balcony marked ‘Press and Visitors.’ Lighting that makes the air feel like it’s full of smoke even when it isn’t.
The performance soon got under way with the grand entrances of the singers/fighters. The Barcelona Bull and Passaic Pig Iron had both written theme songs to accompany their entrances, though it was a little difficult to focus on the music, what with all the parading, the trainers, the bucket boys, the boxing trunks, and the cheering. But then, music becomes incidental music in most theatrical contexts. Not at all incidental was the national anthem, as recomposed by Hanson, for which we all stood reverently. Here the melody was not just ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ but a cross between that tune, the Swedish national anthem, and the Catalan patriotic song. Hanson had managed to knit the three tunes together quite smoothly, using nonsense syllables for lyrics, and soprano Janet Steele sang the little collage with a nice theatrical flair, her vocal sound richer than ever. There were also some cleverly satirical remarks by the announcer, Armand Schwerner, and an explanation of the rules, perhaps in Swedish, by the referee. Finally, Simone Forti marched around the ring carrying a little sign announcing ‘round one’ and provided the first of a number of very short dances that would introduce each round.
When the match finally started, it turned out that the collaborators had worked out specific procedures for each round. In some rounds the two contestants delivered the types of vocal pieces they are known for, but in others their vocal performances went off into religious-sounding chants or poems. One round consisted largely of insults thrown back and forth by El Morrow and El Toro, as I found myself calling the contestants. In another round they began singing love songs to one another, becoming such friends that the referee, with some help from the audience, began pleading for the two to continue boxing. In one round they both pretended to be KOed. In another they played toy piano and trumpet while the referee blew his whistle. In another round the two fighters danced with each other, and with the referee. The trainers and waterboys joined in, and a couple of them happened to be trained ballet dancers, and the whole round was a total delight.
But the delight ended, as it so often does, when it was time to make a judgment. I was one of the five judges myself, but it seemed to me that the event shouldn’t be viewed as a contest between Morrow and Santos, and that composers and performers can’t really be compared quite the way boxers can anyway. And since no one had asked me to do otherwise, I decided that the evening was really a struggle between Innovation and Banality. As the match went on, I became rather fond of this little allegory. The round with all the pratfalls clearly had to go to Banality, but some of the chanting, and a number of the referee’s contributions, were clear cases of Innovation, and it seemed to me that Innovation won the bout hands down. A couple of the other judges decided to rate El Morrow and El Toro, however, and the announcer decided to proclaim that Passaic Pig Iron had won the match. This triggered off a series of reactions that I am sure no one had planned:
The Barcelona Bull was understandably miffed and claimed that they had agreed in rehearsals that there would be no winner.
Passaic Pig Iron was understandably disturbed and spent a good deal of time after the match going around trying to explain to everyone that he wasn’t supposed to have won and that he had nothing to do with what had happened.
Several innocent bystanders pointed out that the announcer is an old friend of Passaic Pig Iron, and that all five judges had been invited that evening either by Hanson or Morrow, rather than by Santos, and that the sound fight had clearly been fixed.
Geoff Hendricks, who had been keeping score and making careful aesthetic judgments round by round, ardently argued that Santos had outperformed Morrow all the way, exhibiting far more control and subtlety than his opponent.
A few people felt that everyone should write letters of protest to the New Wilderness Foundation or the Soho Baroque Opera Company, the Sponsors of the event, or to the Voice, or to somebody, while others felt that Santos should demand a rematch, and still others were hoping that Meredith Monk would take up soundfighting and challenge both of them.
It became abundantly clear that this little event had, in a way, backfired. The idea was to go through the motions of a real boxing match situation, but to determine the details of the competition with a script. But not all of the reality had been transformed into artifice. A lot of what was left was very real, including the anger, the controversy, and the hurt feelings.
It became equally obvious that this element, this lack of total control, this spontaneity was exactly what had made the event so extraordinary. A sound fight like this may never happen again. But those of us who were there will probably be talking about the one at Bobby Gleason’s for a long time.Note:
Indeed, I still hear references to this event from people who happened to be there. No rematches were ever scheduled, however, and so far as I know, Morrow and Santos have never spoken to one another since.
Now there is a gap of one year in our collection. I wrote 23 articles during this period, but about half of these were written in Paris on rather routine subjects, and many others were about folk and ethnic music, and the few that had to do with American minimalism were written without enthusiasm or insight. Maybe the SoHo new music scene just seemed too dull after that night in Bobby Gleason’s gym. But probably I was just burned out after writing so many times about the same things. A year later, however, as I begin to understand some European types of minimalism, I found a new energy and wrote some things which you may want to read...