Sometimes it helps to make a list. In 2017, Mayke Nas delivered a speech to aspiring composers at Gaudeamus Muziekweek, attempting to answer a question so impenetrable that most of us choose to ignore it: ‘Why do composers do it?’. Later, she came up with a list of 10 reasons – many of them pros, some of them cons, all of them a little ludicrous – in an attempt to answer that question. I can’t decide which is my favourite: ‘not to sleep’ is the most relatable; ‘craziness’ is tempting, but a little over the top; ‘not being good at anything else’ is, I think, the reason that anyone does anything. But my favourite is ‘looking for trouble’. If ever there was a composer of mischief, it’s Mayke Nas, the artist responsible for making the piece of music that most resembles Bart Simpson writing lines on a chalkboard.
Mayke Nas makes ephemeral and uncertain music, reaching out for the best of the best in non-solutions. 2006’s Anyone Could Do It is a prime example: a maddeningly circular, rhetorically shaped piece of nonsense, it involves a group of performers, all unprepared, following instructions to make an imaginary piece of music. don’t know what they’re doing – just that they’re doing it. Cue aesthetic crisis: does the piece mean that anyone should be able to make art, outside of commodity chains and professional skill? Or does it mean the opposite? She quotes Fluxus artist George Maciunas, who spoke of art’s great paradox: it ‘must be unlimited, obtainable by all and eventually produced by all, but the artist doing art has to justify his income, demonstrate that only he can do art, and art therefore must appear to be complex, intellectual, exclusive’. It’s a tough one, and rather than solving the problem, Nas punks us with it.
As for her, Nas is the latter stuck in the former: an artist who has to make ‘art’, when all she really wants to do is press the button and see what happens. The immense Why Not? is so called because Nas wrote it free of hindrance. It’s a large-scale work for orchestra – the instrumentalists have to just go with it, throwing themselves into the piece’s bombastic abandon. They play a horrifying symphonic overture, breaking it up by making conversation, laughing in chorus and creating discordant bangs all over the place. With it, Nas turns passing whims into a grandiose piece. Based on a play by Peter Handke, I Delayed People’s Flights By Walking Slowly In Narrow Hallways has a similar combination of deliberate and hair brained: performers hyper aggressively write confessions about their lives onto blackboards, because – well, just because, really. The regimented rhythm and ascetic choreography of the piece make the piece iconic, gripping for the havoc it wreaks upon its performers.
The way Nas talks about her music, you’d think you were an accomplice, there at the moment she commits her crimes. She dares and probes, recalibrating the listener’s self-conscious until it’s working on her level, until certain lunacies feel entirely within their rights. Nas describes 2012’s Down the Rabbit-Hole as if it makes perfect sense. It does not. The abstract music works in a reference to the Beatles – she claims that ‘the accompanying melody of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, crushed like aniseed crumble, has found its way into the opening.’ Making good on this psychedelic influence, Rabbit-Hole is filled with nervous humour and fluorescent symphonies. Notes move haphazardly, ‘like how Alice repeatedly shrinks and grows during her experiences in the rabbit-hole, stumbling upon one astonishing situation upon the other’. The piece may as well be tumbling down the stairs.
In Rabbit-Hole, Nas notes the influence Stockhausen had on the Beatles when they made Sgt. Pepper. No barriers go up: in her world, pop music flows into contemporary composition without interruption. She’s said before that ‘pop, jazz, new media are all also found in new composed music’, and it’s certainly true of her music: majestically referential, her world is a stop-gap for culture rather than a bubble protected from it. Her pieces have been called things like Help! and It Don’t Mean a Thing, nodding to songs from times gone. As part of an online installation for the Ear Reader, she designed Snack Bar, a curated video playlist that shuffles together YouTube deep cuts, from concerts to game show clips and covers of video game music. Here’s everything: together at last.
All jumbled up, Nas’ Snack Bar is a bit of a clue: it tells us that this is an artist who likes to put art on shuffle, taking it away from the things that can explain it. Nas’ music can be taken as is. The utterly bemusing DiGiT #2 – a piece in which two players sit at a piano and play hand-clapping games, occasionally collapsing parts of their body onto the piano – is just odd, and better for it. In a time where art, news and life all travel without context – in which the funniest stuff we see online makes absolutely zero sense – Nas perfectly captures weirdness, and how we’ve become so very familiar with it.