Walking into the Woodward Theater in OTR, the first person I noticed was Quinn. We had never met before, but judging by the swiftness of his steps and his frequent motion of hand to chin during the warm up I could tell that he had a lot to say. As it turned out, Quinn had scored the piece that was to be performed as part of the Concert Nova series before Mark Mothersbaugh took the stage.
As the Concert Nova folks played their Mothersbaugh medley, which included his original scores for Rugrats and Wes Anderson, it struck me as odd that the clarinet was the star of the show and not the rhythm or percussion. This quirky little reed instrument brought to life the childlike wonder of Rugrats and the sly but silly nature of Wes Anderson in a way no other instrument could.
When Mothersbaugh climbed on the stage to be interviewed by CAC curator Stephen Matijicio, he peered at the audience with a grin of self-satisfaction and proceeded to take us back in time to his days at Kent State where he realized that de-evolution was real and created DEVO. He revealed that DEVO got its name from art history “First there was Art Nouveau, then Art Deco, then…there was DEVO.” It was the next step in art history, to use video to create an experience the same way Picasso used paint. DEVO was created during a time where he and his band members believed that those who worked with visual mediums would take over.
They believed so deeply in this idea that they would check out the 16MM slide projector from the Akron Public Library and schlep it up to Manhattan to put on Shows. This was during a time when studios balked at music videos and A&R turned their noses up at independent films. However, as we now know, Mothersbaugh and DEVO were right, so right, in fact, that their popular music video ‘Whip it’ is still referenced as one of the most iconic music videos of the 1980s.
As time moved on, Mothersbaugh found himself using his creative talents to score films instead of making them. As a child of the 90s it was a shocking moment when I found out that he had scored not only Rugrats but also Pee Wees Play House, those two campy childhood shows which filled my innocent little head with images of talking couches and sage babies and eventually led me to John Waters as a teen.
In addition to television, Mothersbaugh has also scored numerous films including two Wes Anderson Films,” Life Aquatic” and “The Royal Tenenbaums”. In both films, it is easy to see how the music became a character and moves along the plot line with a little auditory elbow grease. Mothersbaugh commented that “Music is so abstract you had to just convince the director you’ve given them what they want”.
With the interview over, the stage was cleared expect for the 6 sided keyboard, a few speakers, and an Ipad perched in the center of the piano. The players jogged on stage wearing all white jump suits and white booties looping around the massive instrument and glancing hopefully at Mothersbaugh, who stood lording over them wearing a referee’s uniform and a whistle that he confidently blew after a lap or two, and with that the musicians took their seats.
A camera was set above the stage to show an overhead shot of the flying hands across the keys and the ipad was which set to 1:1. Mothersbaugh had lamented earlier in the night that we don’t worship technology like we should, so having the ipad centered prominently and used as the conductor for the night seemed to fit just right. All attention was on the blinking numbers 1:1 and the hands of the pianists. With another blow of his whistle the music started and took us all to another place.
With titles like ‘Well intentioned information from the heart’ and ‘Optimistically paranoid but hopeful’ the songs bled into one another and knitted a tapestry of off color baroque synthesizer sounds that wrapped around the room leaving everyone captivated and curious. Mothersbaugh himself leaped from speaker to speaker twisting knobs and smiling a maniacal grin. Only stopping once or twice to glance up at the screen to see the movement of the players, and doing so almost like an act of reverence, he seemed to disbelieve that he could have pulled off this ‘experiment in humiliation’, but he did.
This performance left me curious and craving more. Luckily a retrospective exhibition of Mothersbaugh’s work titled ‘Myopia’ will open on September 25th at the Contemporary Arts Center.