John Cage in the Funkatorium

John Cage might have been more popular if he had come from the Funkatorium.

During its recent visit to Wicked Weed Brewing, the BachBeer team discovered the Funkatorium, a taproom in Asheville featuring sour and wild ales. The name comes from one of the kindest words to describe the taste and aroma of many wild ales, funk. (Less-kind words include barnyard.) Yeast is what makes a beer funky. For example, Seb’s Garçon de Ferme, had an musty aroma because it was fermented with brettanomyces yeast.

Garçon De Ferme
Seb’s funky peach ale, Garçon de Ferme

One of our favorite beer writers, Mark Reis, has written an excellent article to help you distinguish between different types of wild yeast and bacteria in beer. He says brettanomyces yeast—“brett” for short—often imparts an earthy, “horse blanket” taste to a brew. Brett certainly had that effect on Seb’s tart peach ale.

The word funk does an important job in beer tasting. The strong, interesting aromas and flavors in wild ales are genuinely appealing to craft-beer lovers. But words like barnyard and musty are genuinely repulsive to most casual drinkers. Funk gives beer enthusiasts a more appealing way to talk about their unconventional taste. It makes horsey beer more palatable.

Another challenge to conventional tastes is the music of John Cage, a composer who spent an important part of his career at Black Mountain College, which was less than 20 miles from where the Funkatorium now stands. Cage earned a reputation as a maverick with extreme pieces, including 4’33”, which a pianist performs by sitting silently at the keyboard for the time duration given in the title, and “Organ²/ASLSP (As Slow as Possible)”, the longest performance of which began in 2001 and is scheduled to last until 2640. (John Darnielle of Mountain Goats fame described the organ piece beautifully here.) Describing these pieces is a bit like talking about a wild ale. Calling a piece “silent” or “century-spanning” will raise as many eyebrows as a “horse-blanket” beer.

Music nerds should take a cue from beer geeks and focus on the funk. Like a good draft list, Cage’s output contains a wide variety of styles. Cage often wrote music with dancers, so he became especially skilled with percussion. His series of three “Constructions” for various percussion ensembles is a BachBeer favorite.

Watch Cage’s Third Construction, performed below by So Percussion. Throughout the piece, propulsive rhythms animate a global bevy of percussion instruments including rattle, tin cans, tom-toms, claves, large chinese cymbal, maracas, teponaxtle, cowbells, rattle, lion’s roar, tambourine, quijada, cricket callers, conch shell, ratchet, and bass drum roar. The piece hasn’t lost any freshness since it was composed in 1941. Cage composed all of his Constructions according to intricate rhythmic schemes, but you don’t need to understand those to appreciate the groove.

Ain’t it funky?