How to Make a Monster

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Harvard’s final Group for New Music concert of the academic year. The entire program was full of inventive and inspiring works, showcasing the raw talent of a few of the PhD candidates in composition at Harvard. The piece that struck me the most was the first piece on the program, by Sivan Cohen Elias.

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Elias describes herself as an interdisciplinary composer. According to the biography she supplied in the program, “In her work, she investigates the boundaries and possibilities of integrating different art forms into a unified medium. Movement, sound, drawing and visual objects are sewn into hybrid systems and bodies; merging behaviors of human, animal, and machine.”

How to Make a Monster demonstrates this perfectly. Although the piece was performed by the clarinetist Richard Haynes of the ensemble (Australian new music group Elision Ensemble), never once did this man pick up his clarinet. The piece requires a stage to be set – bowls upside-down on plates, a few bowls sitting upright, and a wind-up chattering teeth toy. Haynes does not appear physically on stage until quite far into the piece, wearing only an undershirt and boxers.

In order to truly set the stage for the piece, however, one must first read the poem that is supplied, written by Haynes:

How to make a monster
How to make a monster
Make a monster, how?
To make a monster, you need light.
You need light and metal.
Light, metal and sound.
Ideally, light, metal, sound and lots of teeth.
Light to observe and activate it.
Metal to birth and transform it.
Sound to give it spirit and shape.
And teeth, lots of teeth, because it’s hungry.
It chatters and squeals,
Bounces and dances,
Falls and sprawls,
Marches and arches
Its hind legs as it takes,
Takes over its waker, baker,
monster maker.

The piece opens with very slight movement and sound, turning on one desk light, the sound deafening against the otherwise silent John Knowles Paine Hall. Slowly, metal bowls start to clang. At first, the sound is soft – tiny bumps in the night – but eventually the pace quickens, resembling a clanging pipe that eventually builds into much, much more. A hand emerges from underneath the table. The monster’s limb is exposed.

As the piece develops, clanging turns into explorations of sound in pouring water from bowl to bowl, then clanging bowls with and without water inside. And then – surprise, surprise – the chattering teeth toy winds up. By now, Haynes is completely exposed, his body hovering over the table grotesquely as he beats on his bowls.

Elias’s piece is an interdisciplinary experience, in her very own words. Without the theatrical set-up, the piece would become unglued. Its setting gave the piece context, humor, and balance. Without this, it would have been a 60-minute bang-on-a-can piece (quite literally). Her table and theatricality actually makes a typically “unapproachable” piece, incredibly approachable to a vast audience.

One thought process of current musicology is that bringing things to a listener’s level will bring in new listeners. Oftentimes, this sentiment gets muddy; professors use this by bringing social media into the classroom for no apparent reason, except that this will “keep a student’s interest.” Rather than insulting the listener, Elias brings the listener into her world by setting a scene, and her musical integrity is left uncompromised.

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