Fall of 2008 saw me starting and abandoning various projects due to a crippling bus schedule. The following post is one of those aborted attempts. I sat down in (I think) October one night and watched, captivated, Sarah Kernochan’s documentary on Thoth, a street performer that, though appearing on first glance to be either insane or part of some intricate gag, actually reveals himself as some sort of maverick musical visionary, putting entire operas from his own powerful fantasy world, playing the part of orchestra, conductor, dancer, and singer.
The way the world looks at Thoth seems to be an extremely heightened version of how all musicians feel from time to time, cast out from regular society, some sort of bizarre sideshow to the “regular” world, and compelled at any cost to create, imagine, and evolve at any cost.
Am I about to don a loin cloth and start singing falsetto arias of my own design under a bridge here in Evanston? Not likely. I challenge, however, and musicians out there (especially freelance musicians!) to watch this video and not identify, even just a little bit, with Thoth’s place in the world:
The Fascination of Thoth
Talk about layers upon layers of intrigue! When you first witness Thoth perform, you likely had the same reaction as the onlookers in Central Park. If you’re like me, however, all the pieces of the puzzle that is Thoth (who is this guy and why is he playing violin and dancing in a loincloth while singing falsetto, for example) start to come together. No wonder Ms. Kernochan chose him as the subject for a documentary!
What fascinates me most about Thoth is how he came from a classical music background and, never fitting into mainstream society, created a vivid and full-scope imaginative subuniverse, with maps of the land that makes up this world and a mythology of its own. Taking this self-generated mythology, he crafts intricate long-form operatic works and enacts the whole story himself.
But Wait… He’s One of Us!
Thoth’s mother was a professional timpanist, performing for many years with the New York City Opera and in a short and ill-fated stint with the San Francisco Symphony. Learning this about Thoth’s mother helped me to understand the underpinnings of what I was watching. Suddenly all the voices and dramatic dances and gestures made sense–Thoth was performing an opera, just like his mother did for so many years, only in his opera he served as soprano, baritone, orchestra, librettist, and composer, with a hefty dose of performance art thrown in for good measure.
His musical upringing and training on the violin serves as the foundation for his sprawling compositions, which are simultaneously bizarre and captivating, goofy and profound, and filled with layer upon layer of intrigue. Strange? You bet. But isn’t Thoth really doing–to an extreme, to be sure, but doing nevertheless–exactly what musicians for countless generations have been doing: pushing the boundaries of creative expression using any and all tools at their disposal, and persevering despite an indifferent or hostile public?
The image from this documentary that sticks in my mind the most is Thoth playing to speed walking Wall Street workers. Talk about a perfect contrast between artist and public! I’d love to blow up a frame of that scene and put it up on my studio wall. I’d title it “Life of a Musician” or something like that.