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Grock

And the Berio Sequenza V

 

This page includes:

  Grock's biography.

  Luciano Berio's comments about Grock and Sequenza V.

  Abbie Conant's comments about using the video clips to learn Sequenza V.

  Eleven video clips of Grock in performance.

 

 

Grock's biography

Grock (January 10, 1880, Reconvilier, Switzerland - July 14, 1959, Imperia, Italy), original name Karl (Charles) Adrien Wettach, was a Swiss circus clown whose blunders with the piano and the violin became proverbial.

The son of a watchmaker, he became an amateur acrobat and was allowed to spend each summer with a circus, where he performed first as a tumbler and then as a violinist, pianist, and xylophonist. He became the partner of a clown named Brick and changed his name to Grock in 1903. Together they appeared in France, North Africa, and South America. When Brick married, Grock joined the celebrated clown Antonet (Umberto Guillaume). At Berlin, appearing on a stage instead of in an arena, they failed at first; but, by mastering the stage technique, they obtained a London engagement in 1911.

Two years later Grock perfected those adventures of a simpleton among musical instruments that made many a European audience laugh -- at his wonder as to where the strings had gone when he held his fiddle the wrong side up. The talented musician, who could play 24 instruments and speak many languages, became the king of clowns in the early 1900s. Grock performed for some of Europe's royalty. He also started a successful music publishing business for his popular songs. In 1924 he left England and remained on the European continent until his farewell performance at age 74 in Hamburg, Germany, on October 30, 1954.

Grock wrote several books, among them his autobiography, Die Memoiren des Königs der Clowns (1956; Grock, King of Clowns), and Life's a Lark. His performances have been preserved on film. The highest-paid artist at one time in Europe, was broke after buying a circus tent for his variety show after World War II, but recovered financially through successful tours. He retired to the villa he had built in the 1920s in the surroundings of Imperia.

 

Luciano Berio's comments about Sequenza V

In Sequenza V for trombone solo, the memory of Grock, the last big clown, peeps out. Grock was my neighbor at Oneglia: he dwelt in an odd and complex country house in the hills, in a sort of oriental garden with small pagodas, small lakes, bridges, streams and weeping-willows.

With my school fellows I used to climb over his garden's gates to steal oranges and tangarines. During my childhood the closeness, the excessive familiarity with his name and adults' indifference prevented me from comprehending his genius.

Only later--I was 11 years old--I had the chance to see him in performance at ``Teatro Cavour'' in Porto Mauricio I realized it. During that performance, just once, he suddenly stopped and, staring at the audience, he asked: WARUM (why). I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, I wished I could do both of them. After that experience I haven't stolen oranges from his garden anymore.

Sequenza V is a tribute to that ``warum'' in English: why.

(Luciano Berio)

 

Abbie Conant's comments about using the video clips to learn Sequenza V.

 

Grock Sings

 

Now that you have read how Berio was influenced by Grock’s performance and character as a clown, let’s look at some of Grock’s most famous routines.  (If you have already looked at the videos, all the better.)  We’ll now go through them a second time a look at some of the details.  (To make things easier, I've placed a link to play each clip at the bottom of the discussion here about each one.)

 

All of Grock’s routines revolved around music.  He was a music clown.  In the first video clip he sings a simple love song with the guitarist/clown as straight man.  Notice how repetitions and pauses in just announcing the name of the song builds tension.  A similar effect can be created with music.  How can you build people’s sense of anticipation for what is about to come in a phrase of music? 

 

Notice Grock’s perfect portrayal of a child’s demeanor and enthusiasm about singing his song.  “In your eyes it is written what your mouth has yet to speak.  I want to love you, really love you,” etc.  He entrances us with his charm and relative earnestness and then trips backward into a bass drum.  How can you entrance people when you play a phrase of music?  How do you surprise them with the turns it can take?

 

A fall like Grock’s is obviously the result of years of training.  Grock appears to be almost crotchety and stiff which makes his feats of virtuosic athleticism even more astounding.  What is the secret of imbuing music with a kind of modesty that only makes its virtuosity even more revelatory?  How does a musician imbue his or her work with perfect ease and grace that can suddenly reveal a technical grace that takes the listener’s breath away? 

 

 

 

 

 

Grock Dances

 

Here Grock invokes the ancient Law of Three.  A rhythm of repetition is set up and lures us into expecting the same thing the third time.  Always on the third repetition there is radical change that is the punch-line.  The Spanish clown comes on to play a guitar solo as Grock holds a woman’s corset he found inside the piano.  The Spanish clown dismisses him and starts to play.  Grock turns to leave.  Notice the perfect pantomime technique of his supposed exit.  He abruptly halts with his back still turned to us.  Then he turns his head toward us part way, smiles with obvious pleasure.  Music can also be perfectly shaped in a way that reveals a form of iconic imagery.  The musician must consider how the perfect timing and form of a phrase and piece is shaped.

 

The music haplessly “forces” Grock to dance.  He lifts up his oversize professor coat as if it were a pinafore to show his ankles.  His arm and leg movements are akin to modern day hiphop but with the oversize shoes appearing to make his feet twist at the ankles to a ridiculous degree.  As the dramatic irony intensifies his elbows move higher and higher until one of his flailing arms accidently bumps the soloist who stops playing and glares at Grock who gradually winds down noticing the music has stopped.  How do we make music that is not only objective, but also overwhelms?  How do we lead people to listen with the abandoned wonderment of children?  How do we create a music that is irresistible?   People pay us to move them (well, more or less!), to take them to another world or understanding, to create something they will always remember.

 

When Grock bumps against the guitar player, he is actually executing precisely timed cues that create the perfect rhythm of the skit.  Grock makes as if to leave the stage but is overcome by the music and starts to dance again.  Once more he bumps the soloist and this time is scolded.  “What’s wrong with you?  Why are you constantly bothering me?”  Grock perfectly imitates the mannerisms of a scolded child.  He stammers out, “I don’t want to dance!”  “Well then what do you want to do?”  Grock says in all innocence that he wants to participate.  He begins to sing with intense enthusiasm but badly.  The clown drags him off by the scruff of his neck.  

 

Is there not a fool in all great artists, including musicians?  Isn’t there a kind of abandon and surrender to something larger in their performing that makes it singular and transcendent?  Isn’t that what made musicians like Maria Callas, Louis Armstrong and Leonard Bernstein so great, so special?   You can’t really decide to be a fool for art, but through devotion you might find one day that is what you have become.

 

 

 

 

Warum?  (Why?)

 

Grock tells the concert violinist that he doesn’t understand Spanish.  The violinist explains that he wasn’t speaking Spanish but English.  In his inimitable style Grock responds, “English!  W-h--y?”  Violinist: I thought you were English.  Grock, “Me, English!  Impossss-ible!  I’m not English.”  Violinist, “What are you then?”  Grock, “A bicycle rider.”  This skit is an example of superb clown dialogue.  The seriousness of the straight man offsets the silliness of the clown who is also serious but ironically “unaware” of his silliness.  When Grock delivers the punchline in German, “Radfahrer.” (lit. bicyclist) he widens his eyes like a child telling us something very serious and important thus bringing the exchange to a climax.  The more serious he takes himself the funnier he is to us.

 

Shortly after Grock uses the word “warum” he responds to another comment with the comically drawn-out words “nicht moeglich” (lit. “not” possible or the more idiomatic “impossible.”)  This humorous intonation of “nit moeglich” (a Swiss dialect) became one of Grock’s most singular and best-known trademarks.  It is delivered with the same wide-eyed innocence as “warum” and should be studied as well. 

 

Musicians might consider how one can play a few notes of a key phrase with the same symbolic resonance that Grock creates when he says “warum” or “nit moeglich” – something so vivid, iconic and perfectly inflected that people never forget it.

 

 

 

 

 

Multiphonics

 

“I’m looking for a musician.” 

Grock: “I’m a musician!” 

“What instrument do you play?”

Grock: “The violin.” [Showing a ridiculously small violin.] 

“This one here?  It’s way too small.”

Grock: “I can play on a much bigger one if you want.” 

“What do you mean?”

[Grock hilariously pantomimes playing a contrabass while producing vocal multiphonics or harmonics.]  This sound is paid homage to in the B section of Berio’s Sequenza V.  Trombonists sing and play simultaneously, though Berio clearly doesn’t intend it to be comical.  On the contrary, the piece turns inward, almost anguished at this point.

 

Clowns explore the worlds of extreme dualities, and in their greatest moments, capture both in a single instant.  The greatest musicians do the same.  How can you create music, such as in the second half of the Berio, that shows the mirth and sadness within the clown at the same time?  These strange simultaneous dualities are among the most mysterious aspects of truly great art, such as in the overlapping ironic joy and celestial sadness of Mozart’s music.  These ironic dualities allow great art to oscillate and resonate with endless symbolic meanings.  In some respects, being an artist can mean spending your life trying to capture those ineffable moments that suddenly reveal the profound ironies of human existence.  But again, it is not something you can really strive to do.  Through intense, sustained work you just find that it sometimes happens.   Watch in all of these clips, how Grock reveals these ironic dualities, and how they lend his work such profundity.  He is a fool but wise at the same time, simultaneously happy and sad.  And yet it is never forced.  Through long practice these dualities have become a part of his being.

 

 

 

 

Grock’s Entrance

 

The violinist asks for a chord from the orchestra to herald the entrance of the great Professor.  Grock, top-hatted, sheepishly comes out from behind the curtain, clueless and somewhat hunched over walking slightly bowlegged, like a country simpleton.  Clowns can spend years developing their trademark way of walking.  His dress jacket is so small that the sleeves reach only to the middle of his forearms—his shirt collar juts out in back, and his tie is the wrong color and disheveled.  The waist on his trousers is up to his chest.  He has white gloves on that accentuate his huge hands.  The violinist stares his disapproval as Grock self-consciously tries to find a place to hide his hands.  He futilely tries to improve his appearance by sharpening the crease on his trousers.  He pulls up one trouser cuff all the way to his hip to reveal a skinny, almost feminine bare leg.  This is to some extent every performer’s nightmare, coming out on stage and being brutally scrutinized by a critical observer.  But watch the actual entrance again and try to see how many elements of theater are in play.  Posture, walk, the big build up to the paltry showing, facial expression and and and…?  Grock’s brilliant movement is the result of over 60 years of using his body as a finely tuned instrument on the stage.  The multi-layered pantomime, acrobatics, juggling, balancing, playing and singing merge into a bio-spiritual force of pure joy.  He is the embodiment of the joy of performing.

 

Can you capture an iconic embodied identity as you make your entrance for Sequenza V?  Can you capture it in all of your music-making?  Isn’t that a characteristic of all great performers? 

 

 

 

 

 

Scratching

 

This hilarious sequence is a study in oppositions.  Notice Grock’s extremely formal and physically graceful “classical musician bow.”  He hangs on the piano which puts him at an unnatural angle to the floor.  Why?  It is a combination of the elegant and ridiculous which makes it funny.  He barely lights on the chair, as if he had had hundreds of Alexander Technique lessons.  Actually the reason why becomes clear later.  The interruption of Grock scratching destroys the elegant atmosphere.  Scratching in public is so indelicate!  Check out the sly handoff of the violinist’s bow as he whispers in Grock’s ear.  The contortions of blithe satisfaction and grimaces of relief counter the smooth, emotional control of the soloist.  The violinist’s retrieval of his bow from down Grock’s shirt elicits a fleeting moment of ecstasy from Grock’s pliable face.  Utter comic genius.

 

Like many of Grock’s routines, this clip also illustrates how he plays upon the stilted patrician rituals that encumber classical music.  Affected formality is countered and parodied by absurd informality.

 

This same faceting of forms and images, a careful contrasting of sounds, dynamics, phrasing, and timing can give our music the same indelible qualities that mesmerize people.  In its highest manifestations, music sometimes goes beyond mere sound, to profound symbolic representations of human identity.  It is part of Grock’s genius that he could capture a similar profundity in the seeming simplicity of his clowning.

 

 

 

 

 

Juggling

 

More delay before the grand performance with violin and piano.  Grock pulls out a single ball which is made from one of his gloves and starts to go through the standard juggling moves as if he had several juggling balls.  His expression and body movements show us what an “incredible” stunt this is.  It is a double irony because juggling with one ball shows no virtuosity, but by his precise and showy movements he makes it astoundingly virtuosic.  His movements virtuosically ape virtuosity.

 

The greatest performers always have a similar kind of detachment in their work.  We sense a mysterious and profoundly subtle disengagement, as if they were surrendering to something larger than themselves.

 

 

 

Sliding

 

Don’t try this at home or school.  Breaking your neck will be nothing compared to what your accompanist will do to you for walking on the piano keyboard.  Grock removes his top hat and sets it on the grand piano forgetting that the lid is fully open.  The hat slides down on a ramp to the floor. After playing a short intro Grock sees the hat and retrieves it by getting up on the piano and following its path down the slide.  You can get an idea of his flexibility when he is sitting on the floor like a baby.  By studying this in slow motion, I was also able to see that he slides down the keyboard lid on one foot!  Notice how through a couple of delays, he creates a brief pause that perfectly sets up his fall through the chair.  Again, every musician’s nightmare to the extreme.  The violinist throws up his hands in capitulation, which is the perfect frame to a perfect stunt.

 

Every musician should strive for this same mastery of the body and timing.

 

 

 

 

 

Yodeling

 

One can’t be sure, but in this clip it looks like a real-life mistake happens.  The orchestra jumps in so quickly that Grock misses the entrance for his song.  He continues by mimicking singing in a way that is so vivid and entertaining it is better than the song itself.  This is a song made out of pure gesture.  The gestures delineate the phrases of the music in such a delightful way.  We see that music derives from something deeper than mere sound.  Music is a form of thinking and being.  Sound is simply the medium through which it is transmitted.  Grock then boasts his country of origin with some excellent yodeling framed with his trademark throat singing or multiphonics.  Then he exits with his characteristic clown dance and a smile. 

 

It is at those fundamental levels prior to sound that the deepest meanings and joy of music reside.  If properly done, even a gesture of the arm or hand can create a kind of soundless music.  You could hear music when Louis Armstrong laughed, or spoke, or even when he just walked on stage.  At the highest levels, music is a form or way of being.

 

 

 

 

 

Handling Soloists

 

Notice the musical phrasing of all the sound effects, and even the perfect musical timing of the bop on the head with the violinist’s bow.  Then the complete change of character as Grock goes after the soloist with the keyboard’s lid.  Again we see the Law of Three.  The violinist pokes his head out from behind the curtain three times and each successive threatening windup on Grock’s part is weaker until Grock returns to the piano and puts his top hat on for protection.  This is the reverse of the normal build up structure of the Law of Three.  Here it is used as transitional material.

 

The musical timing that can be seen in human interactions, and structural phenomena like The Law of Three, illustrate how fundamental aspects of music shape the very nature of our existence.  It is when our music-making captures and reflects these essential qualities of life, that it becomes the most profound.

 

 

 

 

Acrobatics

 

A tin toy was made of Grock playing his concertina sometime in the 1930s.  This is how famous he was in Europe.  Hohner made him a special piano accordian and he visited his friend Ernst Hohner in Trossingen, Germany regularly.  Notice how Grock’s left foot controls the timing of his fall through the chair.  And notice the funny sound that represents his shock almost into a coronary as he holds his heart.  Again he has lured us into a mini trance with his music- making and then abruptly and hilariously interrupts the trance with a pratfall.  At this point, a German announcer melodramatically builds up Grock’s next feat which is perhaps his most famous.  The announcer notes that no one was ever able to copy the coming stunt.  Grock accompanies himself with his concertina, and at just the right moment in the music he hops onto the back of the chair.  It is interesting to analyse this movement in slow motion, or stop time, frame by frame.  He must leap up, get one foot up on the front edge of the chair so that when he seats himself on the back he doesn’t tumble backwards. All in the same leap he also manages to cross his legs.  Simple, elegant and utterly virtuosic.

 

In so many ways, clowns reveal the essential nature of music.  Through timing and mastery of the body, gestures are created that help us celebrate and understand our human condition.  So for you trombonists, have fun working on Berio’s Sequenza V, especially now that you can see that it is deeply imbued with the spirit of one of the greatest clowns the world has ever known, Grock.

 

 

 

 

 

For more about the integration of the performing arts, see also: Twenty-One Questions for Young Performers by Abbie Conant and William Osborne

 

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Wired Goddess

    Taos Studio Photos Poetry Trombone Class Miscellaneous