Indignant Senility – Plays Wagner

Indignant Senility - Plays Wagner

The idea of “Plays” albums goes back a long way, arguably to the first commercial recordings of classical musicians interpreting pieces of long-dead composers. This idea achieved both artistic and commercial success in mid-20th Century jazz, as its communal and interpretive nature allowed for both canonization and tribute within individual generations. As the mining of musical ideas has expanded conceptually and intensified qualitatively in the new century, those musicians favoring artistic notions have begun to use the “Plays” idea as a springboard for more personalized and far out forms of expression. Notable exemplars of this new approach include the Fennesz Plays single where his “covers” of the Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones were deep abstractions which maintained the aura of the originals, and the Ekkehard Ehlers Plays singles compilation where the pieces weren’t musically based on any particular source material, but on Ehlers’ visceral and emotional reactions to the work of the five artists he was “playing”. These projects were generous both in the consideration of their inspiration as well as in their surprising and enigmatic execution. Into this history walks Indignant Senility, one of the projects of Portland musician Pat Maherr, with Plays Wagner, an art project which attempts to fuse the ends of tribute album traditions into a circle by deeply abstracting the music of a long-dead composer.

Plays Wagner is a 77-minute album of a bunch of old thrift-store Wagner LPs run through a chain of effects, presumably manipulated in real time DJ-style. The sounds are stereotypically eerie, dysphoric, time-warped, and freaky. The cavernous decay and overdriven swells call to mind bottomless pits, headaches, morphed reality, and retributional comeuppance. This isn’t a new musical language, and that’s fine. Unfortunately, Plays Wagner fails on multiple levels. What makes this bad is that, for an idea so steeped in possibilities, Maherr simply takes the easiest one available and beats it into the ground with little to no artistic intention. Working from source material as well-organized and emotionally intentional as Wagner’s would seem to give one a leg up, but these tracks play through with no logical beginning, middle, or endpoints, leading to one torturous slog of an album. Even after familiarizing yourself with it, you could randomly drop in on it while it was playing and have no idea what track he was on, as all you’d hear would be more randomly EQ-ed swells and slowly drifting reverb. This sameness seems antithetical to Wagner and his use of leitmotifs over the course of his long works. Which begs the questions: What does Plays Wagner say about Wagner? What does it say about Maherr? What does it say about music’s historical development and its present moment? What does it say about anything? Your guess is as good as mine, but if you’re going to bandy about the big names, you should probably have something to say. There is other music working with similar sounds that also overtly tempts meaning, but which doesn’t shy away from the question it asks – Philip Jeck’s discography (but particularly “The Crypt” from Spire: Live in Geneva Cathedral Saint Pierre) and Willits and Sakamoto’s Ocean Fire being prime examples, the former for its assessment of musical history and the latter for its oceanic treatment of musical forms and vice versa.

In Maherr’s defense, this surely wasn’t intended to be a full scale, label-hyped release. Perhaps more suited to limited cassette release, this is the type of thing that is pretty interesting if made by one of your friends, or even seen casting an old space in a new light in a live setting, but which makes for extremely tedious home listening. That the tape blew up is credit to the enthusiasm and vitality of the smaller communities of noise makers, experimenters, and cassette culture, but some things only make sense embedded in their original environment with their intended audience. The usually top-notch Type label walks away from this whole ordeal with a chink in its armor.

Indignant Senility

Type Records