That Ubu that you do

From Soft Machine to Pere Ubu, bands have been drawn to surrealist writer Alfred Jarry and the bizarre ‘science’ he invented. Mike Barnes on what happens when music meets absurdism.

Mike Barnes
Friday April 25, 2008
The Guardian

When Firmin Gémier, the actor playing Père Ubu, uttered the opening line of Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi at its Paris premiere in 1896, its author gained instant notoriety. Although consisting of just one made-up word, “merdre” – for which one English translation is “shittr” – it was enough to cause 15 minutes of uproar in the audience. When the play continued, its mix of absurd humour and obscenity provoked heckling, and scuffles broke out. in the auditorium. Nobody had seen anything like it. A perplexed WB Yeats, who attended the performance, famously said: “What more is possible? After us, the Savage God.”

The Savage God sounds suspiciously like a rock band, and Jarry managed, in fact, to create one of music’s odder distributaries, thanks to the concept of ‘pataphysics. Jarry’s school physics teacher – nicknamed Père Hébé by his pupils – managed to influence his charge in ways he never intended. As well as providing the seed of Père Ubu’s name, Hébé’s bungling manner, disastrous experiments and inability to control a class led Jarry to the creation of the spoof science of ‘pataphysics, in which contradictions are embraced, with all possible viewpoints having equal validity. (The apostrophe was apparently necessary to “avoid a simple pun”, although what that pun was has never been explained.)

To the extent that people are familiar in any way with ‘pataphysics, it would probably be through the Beatles. Paul McCartney heard a radio production of Jarry’s play Ubu Coco (Ubu Cuckolded) and was inspired to mention ‘pataphysics in song. Unfortunately, he dropped it into Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, one of his very worst. But, that disaster notwithstanding, ‘pataphysics has a curious place in music, a place that will be marked tonight at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, with a musical production, Bring Me the Head of Ubu Roi, featuring the veteran US avant-rock band Pere Ubu, which will be preceded by a free ‘Pataphysics in Sound concert in the venue’s foyer.

Put into a brief idiot’s guide – which, one assumes, would be as ‘pataphysically valid as any other guide – ‘pataphysics is, in Jarry’s words, “the science of imaginary solutions” and “the law governing exceptions”. In it, science’s apparently immutable laws are scoffed at. To Jarry, they are merely “the correlation of exceptions, albeit more frequent ones … which reduced to the status of unexceptional exceptions, possess no longer even the virtue of originality”. ‘Pataphysics was, he said, “the greatest of all sciences”.

Jarry claimed that “talking about things that are understandable only weighs down the mind and falsifies the memory, but the absurd exercises the mind and makes the memory work”. He was a singular artist who aimed to live life as a total hallucination. To this end, he drank formidable quantities of wine and absinthe, which precipitated his demise at the age of 34 in 1907.

Jarry’s legacy was formalised posthumously in 1948 by the founding of the Collège de ‘Pataphysique in Paris. Its constitution asserts that all people are ‘pataphysicians whether they know it or not, but paid-up Collège members have included artists Asger Jorn, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Jean Dubuffet, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Baudrillard, Umberto Eco, and the Marx Brothers. And its precepts have produced music more interesting and challenging than Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.

Duchamp created a number of musical compositions, many purely conceptual. But when Stephane Ginsburgh recorded Duchamp’s 1913 opus Erratum Musical a few years back, he took into account Duchamp’s observation that ‘pataphysics involved “canned chance” and ensured all the piece’s 88 piano notes were picked out in a random order with no emphasis on any one in particular. In 1960, Jean Dubuffet, who originated the term Art Brut, taped a series of improvisations with Asger Jorn, choosing from his collection of more than 50 instruments, few of which he could play to any recognised standard. These energetic, chaotic recordings were released as Expériences Musicales in 1961. And in 1975, the English composer Gavin Bryars – a member of the Collège de ‘Pataphysique – wrote Ponukélian Melody, a slow piece for wheezing organ, parping tuba, cello and bells. It was his musical response to Raymond Roussel’s novel Impressions d’Afrique, which was set in an imaginary African country.

But ‘pataphysics first truly overlapped with rock music in 1967, when Soft Machine – a psychedelic pop group with a penchant for improvisation – performed a live soundtrack to Jarry’s play Ubu Enchainé (Ubu Enchained) at the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh during that year’s Fringe festival. Early in the band’s career, drummer and vocalist Robert Wyatt’s whimsical, absurdist lyrics were often described as Dadaist. But were they, more accurately, ‘pataphysical?

“I wasn’t drawn to Jarry and ‘pataphysics from reading about it,” Wyatt explains. “I think we were chosen to be ‘pataphysicians before I knew what it was. Later, we were playing in Paris, and some representatives of the College of ‘Pataphysics came to the concert. A venerable old member of their group heard it for about five minutes, thought we played the most incomprehensible and appalling music he had ever heard, gave us his blessing and gave us certificates. So we are officially Petits Fils Ubu – Ubu’s grandchildren – and in our case it gives us the right to lead the marching band at the front of the victory parade of the ‘pataphysical movement. But nobody who gave it to us thought to explain it any more than you would explain a football match to a teddy bear mascot.”

For Soft Machine Volume Two, recorded in 1968, Wyatt wrote A ‘Pataphysical Introduction and A Concise British Alphabet. The latter is in two parts: he sings the alphabet forwards in the first, backwards in the second. This followed in the footsteps of Luc Etienne’s 1957 composition L’Apres-Midi d’Un Magnétophone: Palindromes Phonétiques, which has a similarly palindromic form – a recording of speech played normally, then with the tape running backwards . This emphasised that, ‘pataphyscially speaking, it meant as much, or as little, either way around, and ‘pataphysicians would describe the relationship of Etienne’s composition to Wyatt’s as an example of “plagiarism by anticipation”.

Was Wyatt guided by any of these concepts? “I don’t think I was guided by any thought at all,” he admits. “But I just decided that singing the alphabet backwards was a ‘pataphysical activity. Some people get upset by art that doesn’t make sense to them – I never had that problem. I never saw what was the sense that modern art wasn’t making. I was always at home with the science of imaginary solutions.”

Tonight’s performance of Bring Me the Head of Ubu Roi is just the latest in a long line of different treatments of Ubu Roi, from Jan Lenica’s 1977 cartoon version to a 1991 opera by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Jarry had an interest in the notion of “horrible beauty” in which an aesthetic appreciation of the monstrous was allowable and discordant elements could be counterbalanced by humour. Pere Ubu’s singer, David Thomas, agrees that this is a pretty good description of the band’s music, which is surmounted by squalling, untempered synthesiser and his own squawking vocals. But apart from their name and the fact that the title track of their 1977 debut album, The Modern Dance, includes the refrain “Merdre, merdre”, was Jarry an influence on Pere Ubu’s music?

‘The thing that impressed me over the time of immersing myself in Jarry in high school and the point at which I formed Pere Ubu, was Jarry’s theatrical production ideas,” Thomas explains. “It seemed to me that his method called for the engaging of the audience’s imaginations in the creative process, with his use of placards, ‘pataphysical notions, and anti-naturalism. As synthesised, concrète and abstract sound techniques and technology developed, and were integrated into rock music, then pure sound as a powerful narrative voice in its own right came into play.

“The object was the same as Jarry’s seemed to be, to engage the imagination of the audience in the creative process. To confound, illuminate, generate chaos for its own sake, to overlay intentions with counter-intentions, self-doubt, fear and hope, to create an art that, as accurately as possible in a three-minute song, mimics the human condition.”

Thomas has edited the play to concentrate on the two main characters. He has also added elements that he feels are in “the spirit of the original, particularly in the area that originally interested me in this project – the notion that the Politico-Media-Industrial Complex is filled with characters far more grotesque than Jarry’s characters could have ever been.”

Jarry wrote The Song of Disembraining for Ubu Roi, but Thomas has decided not to use it. “It’s not really a very good song,” he says. “The title is great but it meanders on and on forever.” He has instead translated parts of the plot into original song structures “where elegant to do so”, for which he is unabashed. “We are a rock band. We are Americans. We’re not going to pretend to be something we’re not,” he says. “The justification is that we’re the only band in the world which has for more than 30 years followed a Jarry-esque, or even ‘pataphysical course in rock music. We got a right to do what we want. The play is about ideas. The clothes you put on ideas are fashions that come and go. The ideas are what count and what survive.”

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About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.

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