Ticket to the Freak Show


A conversation with Steven Kazuo Takasugi


Boston-based composer Steven Takasugi's Sideshow, a music theatre piece performed by the Talea Ensemble, evokes the sights, sounds, and stories of the notorious circus events that took place in the amusement parks of Coney Island, New York during the early 1900s. This conversation took place at the composer's Darmstadt office.

A conversation with Steven Kazuo Takasugi


Boston-based composer Steven Takasugi's Sideshow, a music theatre piece performed by the Talea Ensemble, evokes the sights, sounds, and stories of the notorious circus events that took place in the amusement parks of Coney Island, New York during the early 1900s. This conversation took place at the composer's Darmstadt office.


Steven Takasugi is in residence at the Darmstadt Festival in preparation for a late-night performance by New York-based Talea Ensemble of his new piece Sideshow (8 August, 22:30, Centralstation Darmstadt Halle). Beyond inhabiting the strange and uncanny aesthetic world offered by the amusement park setting, the project also examines the notion of entertainment itself, and its relationships to capital, morality, exploitation and above all, the dynamism of the cultural baselines attached to these themes.


In addition to this transcript of our conversation, also see this correspondence with Ryan Muncy and Rane Moore – two members of the Talea Ensemble – on preparing and performing this work


Kevin Zhang: So can you tell us about what is it about this particular subculture of the early 20th century underworld freak show, that drew you in so much that you set out to create such an expansive project set inside it?


Steven Takasugi: The underworld is actually a great metaphor, because at the time that I was first beginning work on what would become Sideshow, I had just returned to New York after having lived in Vienna for three years. And after this time in a city with such a specific history as Vienna's, I became very interested in the idea of unseen things, or even things that have been deliberately swept under the rug. For example, we lived on this block where there was a beautiful greenbelt, which everyone who visited us complimented on. But if you do some research, you will find out that it was actually an emergency burial pit during WWII. So here, you have this beautiful greenbelt that actually is full of corpses.


KZ: A metaphor of things under the surface.


ST: Yeah, and you know the movie The Third Man? There, this character is hiding underneath the streets in the sewers. This idea funnily enough shows up in a lot of literature around this time. There was an author, Max Winter, whose journalism really impressed me. It was way ahead of its time. Winter was a vice mayor, but would dress up as a homeless man to go into the sewer system, which in Vienna are hidden and not seen.


KZ: Do you see this metaphor extending to these Coney Island sideshows?


ST: The connection to Coney Island is that, all of a sudden (after three years in Vienna), I am back in the United States. I had spent six years previously already on the East Coast, as an undergrad in New York and had a close friend in Connecticut. At that specific time, I didn't have too much of an interest in the history of these parks, but it arose much later when I became interested in the idea of entertainment. I was thinking of the connection between the freak entertainer and the classically-trained musician: one where these performers are being trained from childhood. Sometimes, this was under their own volition, but often not! They are being trained to become these spectacles on a stage. So I was thinking a lot of the kind of prototypical Juilliard-style student.


KZ: And in this piece itself there are some theatrical, maybe even anthropomorphic mappings of the performers (the musicians) and the sideshow performers they are portraying.


ST: I knew the performers I was writing for, and I really felt for the kind of person that is the New York City musician, who has to survive with the city's rents hanging over their head. I lived there for 6 years and had every single job I could scrape up.


And I believe one of the first things that piqued my interest in these sideshows was this 1991 documentary by Rick Burns about Coney Island, which had many very interesting revelations for me. It was there that I first learned about the now infamous story of an elephant named Topsy. She was frequently abused, and after she retaliated against a spectator, was executed.


KZ: In your piece, there is definitely this theme of a moral dilemma, a Faustian one of sorts. The denouement is one of the audience becoming increasingly aware of this growing divide between the sideshow performer, and we as an audience inside the world of the piece. By the end, the audience begins to feel a dislike or discomfort, maybe not towards the characters/entertainers/performers specifically, but towards the whole situation.


ST: Certainly a hostility. In the beginning, the performers open with a big grin, which comes from the advertising logo from one of the old shows, Steeplechase. It's alienating, because there are too many teeth. So the smile is already weird and strange and discomforting. That was the symbol for one of these amusement parks and that was already a premonition of what was to come in the early 20th century.


KZ: Do you think that audiences in the early 20th century, when they see this symbol, had the same kind of uncanny valley feeling that we have today?


ST: I think they knew it. It was really the edge of Expressionism. You had the whole 19th century that have developed to that point. WWI was right around the corner. They all knew what was probably going to happen.


KZ: A sort of Fin-de-Siècle cultural zeitgeist in the air?


ST: Yeah, but it was also a time where there was a celebration of newly liberating morals. That's what Coney Island represented. Working classes are going to this place that's been deemed "immoral." And couples are able to touch each other in public, because they were on rides, for example. And it was just a release valve for everyone who was working in Manhattan. A million people would go down in the summer to escape for a bit from their terrible, working lives.


KZ: Of course, our general attitudes toward this particular type of entertainment—the sideshow inside an amusement park—have changed drastically between the early 1900s until now. At the same time, attitudes have also changed—but much less drastically—about concert music itself. And I also think that this is something everyone attending Darmstadt is super-aware of: the relationships between our performative artform to, for example, entertainment, capital, opportunism, political responsibility. In the sideshow's case, there was a failure of the artists in this sense, and it took the audience's response to engage legal changes, etc.


ST: It's a kind of bizarre Catch-22 type of situation, though, because after these shows faded, a lot of those former entertainers who had disabilities, suddenly were out of work, out of sight, and no longer had these what were actually lucrative jobs. And they protested because they wanted to be in the sideshows! But generally speaking, of course we think of this subculture today as total exploitation. Here these people were ogling at these people with disabilities, which today we find unacceptable to present as spectacle.


KZ: Can you tell us about the writer Karl Krauss and why his texts became important to this work?


ST: Well, he was major figure of that time over in Vienna. Particularly, he was a polemicist. A satirist. His life was rather sad. He was a converted Catholic (from Judaism). What happens in the course of his struggle to criticize society is that in the end, he dies somewhat suddenly and doesn't make it to 1938, but surely he knew it was all coming. For me, his aphorisms – you know, he's written LONG plays, reviews, tons of lectures – but particularly his aphorisms I took as inspiration because they were these short, poignant, and binding texts that were perfect for the sideshow.

By the way, on a tangent, Freud is also an important figure at this point. And he visits Dreamland (one of the major amusement parks on Coney Island), so that's an interesting Vienna-New York connection.


But Krauss' aphorisms are a real inspiration. There's a notion of entertainment that exists, for example as articulated by Postman who famously wrote that we are entertaining ourselves to death. So many people have said that these US elections are just a sideshow. Feldman said there is a distinction between entertainment and music, which is a thought that has followed me around, because he always wanted his music to be performed on these, well, expensive concerts!
But then, he was coming from this working class background. So he wanted to climb the ladder, perhaps. But in my case, I wanted to climb down the ladder! [laughs] I mean, it's obvious that I'm doing that classic thing of juxtaposing high and low culture in this piece, of course.


KZ: Can you could talk a bit about situating this particular piece within the context of your recent work, which I know has moved away from a so-called pure "concert music."


ST: Certainly. And in fact I wrote a lecture called "Why Theater?" which I will be giving it on the 6th after Sideshow. It explains how I departed from music that had been using tape.


But for years, I'd insist on listening to my pieces with headphones. In fact I was contemplating for a long time the notion of writing these tape pieces for a headphone venue, where one would have a communal experience of listening to music with others, just like a concert, but with everyone wearing headphones. That would be a venue I had to create. But of course, what happens practically is that people would end up just having a loudspeaker venue, and what happens for those tape piece is that one turns off the light. And by doing that, one understands that there's nothing to look at. Then, there's this griping and complaining that looking at loudspeakers in the dark is not a sufficient concert experience.


I realized that because you can't move it so regularly, the grand piano on stage was what people were looking at with the lights off. And I began to play with that, because that was the typical arena where all my tape music was performed. From there, I put cables in, and for this piece called Die Klavierübung, people began to think that possibly the sounds were coming from the objects on stage (but they were not). There was a part where I had piano sounds in the tape part, and it was being performed in the dark, while there was a live player sitting at the piano without playing it. It got to the point where someone in the audience came to me after a concert in New York and said "I wish you'd left the lights on." I asked him why, and he replied: "I like to see the keys go down!" [laughs] Then I said, "But you understand it's not a player piano? It was just coming from the speakers." He replied, "I know, I know, but I still like watching the keys go down." At that time, I realized that I was playing a trick on him. I had at least for a moment tricked him into thinking that maybe the piano on stage was playing sounds. He knew, but at the same time he was convinced and he was happy with that. That was a revelation to me.


Of course, this wasn't a completely new revelation, since there had already been prevalent the whole practice of lip synching, where people can be confused about what was coming of the singer and out of the speakers. You come across similar types of things constantly in many other situations too. But how to capitalize on this with the notion of the sideshow and this eerie ambiguity and paradox and confusion was something I wanted to play with. Intuitively, I was already doing that spatially and conceptually in the tape piece, and here in Sideshow I was playing with the staging and theatricality. So if you can lie to the audience and tell the truth at the same time, then you're getting to this darker notion of the spectacle.


KZ: Finally, I'm curious how your thoughts and discussions on the piece have developed as it traveled from city-to-city last year in the US, and what does it mean for it to come back full circle, in a way, to Europe?


ST: Yeah, it's really interesting that it when it started in Austria, everyone was talking about Karl Krauss. People in the States on the East Coast were talking about their relationships to their own experiences, so as the piece travels through the world you get all these local reactions. In New York, of course, it was Coney Island. (At the DiMenna Center, I thought it was great when they asked the Coney Island beer company to donate beer for the reception!) And in Los Angeles, it was really special for me to see it at the Monday Evening Concerts at Zipper Hall. For it to go all the way to LA was really special for me, and not just because I'm from LA. All the European exiles from the war ended up there. I grew up very consciously with the idea that I went to UCLA, with its Schoenberg Hall. Of course we had the exodus of figures like Thomas Mann, Adorno, Stravinsky. And there was Herbert Marcuse teaching at UCSD. In fact, Max Winter himself even ended up trying to get into Hollywood, though not succeeding.


Personally, I'm also very curious about what would happen if it went to other places, such as Asia, especially as I took a lot of influence from the Noh theater on my thinking. (This was something I was really interested in a while back, and was one of my research topics for my qualifying exam during graduate school at UCSD.)


KZ: Well, thanks for this insight into the work, Steve! I too am eager to see what the future holds in store for Sideshow.

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By Kevin Zhang