On ‘I Like My Friends’ by Mocrep
Chicago-based interdisciplinary music and performance collective Mocrep have spent the past few years positioning themselves at the forefront of international avant-garde composition. They have performed Jennifer Walshe’s Barbie opera XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS, run workshops in at the Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music and Stanford University and collaborated with European composers interested in the messy, physical side of composition: Marcela Lucatelli, Neo Hülcker and my own group Bastard Assignments. Now they’ve made a studio album, I Like My Friends, or more precisely, as intoned in the opening track GUITARCENTER, “an expression of fluid, multivalent dynamics, associations which intersect artistic, spiritual and practical planes. It is a monument. It stands for experiences that define Mocrep for its members.”
If we take their word for it, I Like My Friends is a straightforward manifestation of Mocrep’s personal relationships and collaborative working practices. A response to the cultural landscape they find themselves within. The album is a polystylistic mix of pointillistic improvisations, mellow jazz numbers, vapourwave electronica, country, metal, rap and spoken word. Each genre is meticulously realised and the whole album has a glossily commercial sheen.
Although the polystylism, improvisation and collaboration of I Like My Friends has precedent in John Zorn’s Naked City, Mocrep’s album is remarkable for its avoidance of avant-garde signifiers. The material is never abrasive or discordant or minimal; they aren’t interested in repetition, noise or field recordings, atonality or bland consonance. As each digestible, pleasing track goes past, the subtle provocation of I Like My Friends accumulates. What if New Music could be fun? What if it sounded exactly like pop music (surely the most relentlessly ‘new’ of all music)?
Is I Like My Friends as straightforward as all that though? All I Need seems initially to be a pitch perfect disco pastiche. But then Jenna Lyle’s vocal climbs giddily into a superhuman, coloratura-helium register (a vocal performance that has shades of the stratospheric Ariel in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest) and combined with the banally affirmative lyrics, “I’m awesome, I’m beautiful…you are my best friend,” the track is nudged towards irony.
Similarly Intermezzo announces itself as a delicate chamber ensemble piece, like Britten ripping off Purcell with a Thom Yorke vocal floating over the top if Thom Yorke was a classically trained countertenor. But then there’s one too many tastefully unexpected harmony change, a gloriously over-egged false relation and finally a florid clarinet solo that pushes the track towards ludicrousness.
On the ballad David the transition from guitar accompaniment to organ to strings within the opening verses of the song has an almost subliminal absurdity. Mocrep frantically ticking off boxes associated with Bowie-esque/Britpoppy production choices. Nothing is wrong or unexpected; in fact there are too many generic signifiers, a subversive abundance of the predictable and the anticipated. The introduction features a stylistic note-bend on almost every note of the guitar line where you might expect one. Something similar happens in the anachronistic use of cadential trills in late Beethoven. Beethoven uses the trills to make a reference to Baroque style but rather than use them for emphasis at stylistically appropriate moments, fills pages of the late piano sonatas and string quartets with them, in the process, hollowing out their significance and meaning.
What is thrilling about I Like My Friends is that while Mocrep constantly flirt with and hint at irony, the album never tips over into becoming a joke; there’s no winking, sneery postmodern detachment. Mocrep look you straight in the eye and ask you to take every noodly synth solo, flute break, groovy 12-tone bass clarinet line and the title itself entirely seriously.
Postmodern composers treat popular and classical music cultures (and culture in general) as a horizontal plane of potential raw material. The composer surveys and interacts with the material they use from an elevated, detached vantage point. Postmodern music suggests that all culture is fundamentally the same, apart from the postmodern composition itself. Mocrep’s album recognises this non-hierarchical cultural landscape but they do not adopt this detached pose. They have climbed down from their high-art vantage point and are working at the level of the materials they use. I Like My Friends uses postmodern compositional strategies like pastiche but from a position of sincerity, honesty and respect towards its source material.