John Maus: a scream performed

Heaven, London, 15 November 2011

By Oliver Basciano

The scream, both audible through amplification or silent – either mimed or drowned out – is preeminent in the live work of John Maus, exemplified by a short support set yesterday evening at London’s Heaven. That was a gig; Maus is a musician, but the American’s stage act channels motifs of performance throughout.

Dispensing with a band in favour of doomy, prerecorded, bass-heavy synth backing tracks, Maus sings through a reverb vocoder. His movement is constant, and while the immediate assumption that his anguished howls are those of cliché of rock angst, they arguably channel something much more interesting. The manic vocal noise (or suggestion of noise, Maus frequently shifts the microphone away from his mouth) is not just a funnel for pain – existential or otherwise, and ingrained into the collective imagination by Edvard Munch – but also an animalistic intonation of ecstasy. As much as he sings from a position of being crumpled on the floor, Maus also stands on the edge of the stage, exalting the audience. Watching this movement – watching him shake, bent double as he roars out under a dozen tracks – he becomes the personification of the evangelical pastors caught up in their hyperbolic rapture. The only difference being that where those religious men channel an awesome god, Maus seems to be physically expunging similarly sublime inner demons.

It’s this hypnotic performance that leaves the studio versions of the political philosophy doctoral candidate’s music feeling a little bereft. His second album, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, the title derived from Alain Badiou’s 15 Theses on Contemporary Art, was released earlier this year and while still a very enjoyable listen with the baroque finish to its production; lacking the physical presence of its author, the tracks mould themselves into simply heirs to the music of Joy Division or Bauhaus. Whereas live, Maus's physicality is at the forefront of one's attention and the auricular becomes almost secondary.

In this way (and there are more connections one might like to mine) the musician becomes a figure more akin to Marina Abramović. While the vocals of the latter’s 1976 performance with Ulay, AAA AAA, are more monotonous (at first) than Maus’s soaring and at times anthemic singing style, the two artists nonetheless channel the same nausea of discomfort for the watching public. For the first time viewer, Maus’s performance could easily come across as a parody of anguish, but like Abramović and Ulay – as their screaming becomes hoarse in that seminal work – the discomfort and pain become increasingly real. This lesson in an act becoming real, ever present in Abramović’s work, seems to have found a worthy student in Maus.

We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves is out on Ribbon Music/Upset the Rhythm records.