When it came time to consider worthy arts organizations for this year's Genius Award, Seattle School's name came up and never went away. The local composers' alliance scored an unlikely hit this summer with the live-action songwriting competition Iron Composer--part Fluxus-informed composition experiment, part booze-fueled demolition derby--in which a pair of songwriters raced to compose and perform new songs in one hour while adhering to a strict drinking schedule (one shot every nine minutes) and being tormented by the audience. In one instance, audience members were given sheet music by crappy musicians--Céline Dion, Billy Joel--which they wadded up and threw at the songwriters as they worked.
Iron Composer was a thoroughly ridiculous idea from a group with a rich history of ridiculous ideas. In Paint, Fear, Karaoke, and Paintball, three Seattle School members--nearly all of whom pay the bills composing scores for video games--stood on stage performing simultaneous, competitive karaoke while Schoolmate Mike Min shot them with paintballs for "breaking the rules in his head." Min's solo composition Cockblocker found the West Point graduate dropping his pants and repeatedly punching himself in the crotch as hard as he could. Other works have highlighted the School's more serious side: The group won raves for Grapefruits, a production of Yoko Ono's little-seen Fluxus-inspired work of the mid-'60s. But with Iron Composer, Seattle School achieved the near-miraculous: forging an unprecedented alliance between experimental composition and rock 'n' roll mayhem. (This fact was underscored last month when Seattle School launched a new series of Iron Composer shows at the city's most beloved local rock venue, the Crocodile Cafe.)
Seattle School's genius is for diabolically crossbreeding braininess and brazen theatricality--seizing the elements that make live theater unique while rejecting the elements that make so much live theater deadly. "These guys know their stuff," said Lita Gratrix, who appeared in Seattle School's Fear, Karaoke, Discipline, and Paintball and Grapefruits. "Having a conceptual background and framework on which to hang their pieces is what makes the difference between Seattle School and so much of the other (crappy) performance art that's out there."
As Stranger columnist Christopher DeLaurenti describes it, "The collective, confrontational genius of Seattle School resides in their ability to mash up their multifarious musical heritage--classical tradition, pop music, text-sound composition, improvisation, Fluxus, and pure vaudevillian chicanery--into a distinctive, entertaining, and sometimes destructive whole. Time will tell if the individual composers of Seattle School turn out to be geniuses, charlatans, or something in-between, but right now they're following the grand tradition of composer/performers, from before Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky on through to Steve Reich and Bernhard Gal. Rather than wait 20 years for another generation of musicians to grow up and get brave enough to try pieces like Study for Air Guitar or Music for Clothing, Seattle School dares to do it themselves."
There may be needier organizations, but there are none to whom we'd rather give $5,000, if only to see what the hell happens. For more insight, we turn to the two men at the heart of Seattle School--Mike Min and Korby Sears--interviewed here by Bret Fetzer:
Place of birth: Houston, Texas
Years in Seattle: Almost 10
What's the least beautiful sound in the world?
Somebody calling me up for work. I hate the sound of work. How about a cell phone call?
So is your goal with Seattle School to avoid work for as long as possible?
I've pretty much whittled my lifestyle to a very meager existence and it works fine. So if I could eliminate more work, that'd be great.
Does it bother you that Seattle School's initials are SS?
The initials bugged us at first, but maybe we can make it our own so that no one thinks we're the police for the Nazis, which we are not. There's also some confusion of Seattle School with the school district. I'm trying to see how I can use that to my advantage. People have asked us, "What school's performing? Roosevelt? They have a good program. Garfield? That's great!"
What sparked your interest in this neo-Dada/Fluxus direction of art?
I grew up in Dallas. It's freaking huge, and yet the sense of public space is terrible. There're no public parks, it shuts down at night, there's no downtown, it's all suburbs. The idea of grabbing people and, without saying anything, getting them to do something, was kind of what I wanted to do as a kid. There was also Abbie Hoffman, an idol of mine. He set up situations where he steps back and the truth just occurs. It's indeterminate--Iron Composer has a lot of that too--you set it up, you step back. Whatever happens, happens.
Place of birth: Seoul, Korea
Years in Seattle: Too many to count
What's the most beautiful sound you can think of?
Oh, is it gonna?... Oh my god, I don't have--it's like Actors Studio questions! I'll go with the stock John Cage answer: Silence.
You seem to lean a great deal on John Cage. Do you have any original thoughts?
Good artists borrow, great artists steal. And I'm aiming to be the greatest artist of all time.
You used to be in the Army.
I was doing military intelligence for three years. There's a decision that you make when you're 18 and it kind of haunts you--but it was a great experience.
Do you think that your military discipline has helped you in your pursuit of neo-Dada art?
My military discipline has a lot to do with my sense of humor. I don't know if it has anything to do with the neo-Dada stuff, but I love neo-Dada stuff, I can't help it! I'm self-aware that I'm Dada, but I can't help it.
Isn't that very un-Dada, to be self-awarely Dada?
But it's very Dada to do it anyway.
Assuming that you were outrageously modest and felt that Seattle School didn't deserve this award, whom would you give it to?
It's really a toss-up. Seattle has such a great scene full of good, hearty things. Genius, I don't know. Genius. [Min flails verbally, making incoherent syllables for a moment.] This money's going to be so awesome, though.
What are you going to spend it on?
Expanding Iron Composer to pop greatness. That's the goal. To make it into, like, this completely syrupy super-pop behemoth that's full of corporate sponsorships and pseudo-edginess, then sell it out so we can do all of our real stuff later.