In April composition major and senior Alan Tormey presented a piece that impressed, shocked and offended the Oberlin community. "Two Pieces in Memorium Alan Ginsberg", was presented at the end of a student composition concert. The piece included explicit language and graphic sexual imagery.
Tormey described the piece as "a performance piece interested in creating an evocative context in which people could explore their relationship with issues."
The first movement, entitled "June 6, 1981," included an angry soliloquy by Tormey, who expressed his anger at the AIDS epidemic by shouting obscenities and cutting himself with a razor blade. He was accompanied by improvisational music by Nicholas Baumgartener, double degree junior on piano and David Todd, double-degree junior on violin. At the end of the first movement, Aaron Travers, double degree fifth-year, read a list of names, many of which were the names of members of the Oberlin Community.
The second movement, entitled "Plato," featured the same improvised violin and piano. While Travers read a poem written by double-degree junior Chris Santiago, two figures, dressed entirely in black and wearing face masks entered. One of the figures kneeled and performed oral sex on the other figure.
Tormey would not say whether the oral sex was simulated; he said that distinction is irrevelant to the piece.
The piece also included a portion when Tormey cut his wrists.
Although the piece generated a lot of lip service, Karen Wolff, Dean of the Conservatory, said, "I was surprised at the low level of traffic into my office." She said she got two kinds of reactions, "People who thought it was objectionable and people who said that it was good that it happened."
Tormey said that reactions he received were both positive and negative. "Some people thought I had gone too far, some thought I didn't go far enough," he said. "I was shocked by the amount of to-do about it."
Wolff said she thought the performance brought up important issues of art and censorship. "The important thing is the right of artists to do the kind of work that their souls and hearts tell them to do," she said. She defended Tormey's right to perform his piece, but she did say "Had I seen the performance, I probably would have found it objectionable."
Travers, also a composition major, said that he didn't really know what to expect from the performance. "I didn't expect him to kick a trash can or cut himself with a razor blade on-stage."
Tormey expressed frustration at the amount of attention the oral sex part of the performance received. "To take the act out of context and focus on the one part out of the whole is unfair to my work and unfair to the larger community that has to deal with these issues."
Wolff said that she addressed the issue of audience interpretation in conversations with Tormey. "Audiences are very vulnerable to the arts. If creative people are going to make political and social statements, people may be profoundly affected. The creator must be responsible for what he creates."
"I felt I was very responsible," said Tormey. "There were four separate disclaimers before the performance advising people who might be offended by graphic sex and explicit content to leave."
Tormey said that the piece was presented with the full knowledge and support of his applied professor and the composition division. Travers, however, suggested that the department was willing to accept almost all student pieces in order to ensure that the concert would happen.
"The composition department should be more sensitive to quality," said Travers. "There is a lack of discipline and rigor in the composition department, more so now than when I first got here."
The second movement was described by Tormey as an attempt to juxtapose images through poetry between classical mythology and contemporary pornography. "I tried to set up the lighting like Plato's allegory of The Cave," he said.
"That piece isn't indicative of Alan," said Travers. "He is a very serious composer."
Although the piece dealt with AIDS, the title refers to the poet Alan Ginsberg, who died of liver cancer earlier this year. Tormey said the title refers to the creative process that he and the poet used.
Copyright © 1997, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 125, Number 25, May 23, 1997
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