Album: opus spongebobicum
Author: Dominy Clements
Frank Rothkamm is an unusual and interesting figure by all accounts. He trained as an actor, has studied bionics and been a computer programme creator and website builder, as well as having a vibrant creative life making music in a variety of forms. Flux Records is Rothkamm’s own label, on which he has produced a number of albums. Opus Spongebobicum is the latest of these, having the subtitle ‘40 variations on the Secret Formula from Spongebob Squarepants’.
For those of you without children, I can tell you that Spongebob Squarepants is an improbable cartoon character who lives in a pineapple under the tropical sea, working as a humble but uniquely talented ‘krab-burger’ chef. Having grown up with those excellent Fred Quimby produced Tom & Jerry cartoons, and the dry wit and slower pace of other work such as ‘Top Cat’, Spongebob Squarepants initially drove me up the wall with its manic childishness. The creator Stephen Hillenburg is no fool however, and once one has become acquainted with the characters and the surreal nature of the cartoon, there is in fact much quite sophisticated humour to be enjoyed. The title music on which much of Opus Spongebobicum is based is a deliberately banal sea shanty with a good deal less musical development potential than Diabelli’s ‘cobbler’s patch’, the Beethoven variations which are referred to in the booklet notes. Rothkamm writes that “Opus Spongebobicum continues the noble tradition of piano music as a form of sitting contemplation, or Zazen, full of emotional ritardando, aimless wanderings, unpredictable dynamics ...”.
This is one of a number of problems I have with this piece. The limited potential of the Spongebob theme is, as already mentioned, deliberately banal in its frothy bounciness and incurable, almost aggressive optimism. Creating 37 minutes worth of ‘aimless wanderings’ on such a theme seems to me a rather futile exercise, unless there is some kind of additional point one is attempting to make – either in a humoristic sense, or with at least a hint of irony. The only really ironic aspect of this work is, as far as I can hear, the title, which pokes directly at Sorabji’s remarkable Opus Clavicembalisticum, a piece on an entirely different scale and plane. I find Opus Spongebobicum almost as hard to take as Sorabji’s Opus, despite its comparatively brief duration.
This is piano solo music, but created entirely in the digital domain. The piano sound is acceptable, if rather electronic sounding if you are used to real piano sound. While the sonic quality is fairly good there is a distinctly narrow soundstage which gives an impression more of mono than stereo. This is a weakness which I feel could probably quite easily have been remedied in a final mix. Rothkamm writes at some length about the background, theory, and content of the piece, but as with the music it is hard to decide whether the composer is hoodwinking us with an intellectual smokescreen for pretentious nonsense, or providing serious commentary for a painstakingly prepared and deeply felt expressive vehicle for his creative art. One of the comments he makes on his own website makes me suspicious: “Originally each variation was conceived to be 33 minutes long and there were to be 32 of them (just like Beethoven’s Diabelli variations), but after recording 20 of these half hour variations, I changed my mind; each variation was to be 1 minute long.” In other words he’d already given up on and ditched 11 hours worth of music from a piece which would have been over 17 hours long, and what we get is a minimal compromise, or an intensely compact masterpiece in dubio – unless of course he’s having a joke at our expense with that original proposal, which I also suspect.
I note that the Nickelodeon trademark character Spongebob Squarepants appears nowhere on the design for this release, probably due to copyright, and possibly because the company would have nothing whatsoever to do with this project. Either way, it’s a blessing in disguise, since anyone buying such an item expecting a fun time with one of their favourite TV themes would be in for a surprise, and most likely a severe disappointment. This is ‘heavy going’ in the Lisztian, Sorabjian sense of the phrase, and I can’t imagine it going down a storm with many people. Had I seriously embarked on such a project myself I think I would have been tempted to delve a little deeper – utilising some of the intriguing possibilities offered by, for instance, Squidward’s clarinet playing, Spongebob’s foghorn alarm clock, that marvellous intermezzo music or some of the bizarre songs which crop up during the series, most of which share a similar inane quality with the main theme, but possess a compulsive character due to an inbuilt ironic self-awareness. I think the final track, the 40th variation which just has the sound of a needle ticking repetitively on a virtual vinyl LP, tells us all we need to know: plenty of stylish pretension, very little genuine substance. I admire Rothkamm’s brass neck and apparent hard-work ethic, but if this is a joke I don’t get it, and if anyone considers this a work of genius then they are very silly indeed.
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