Unlike a dentist or a piano teacher, performance artists do not simply hang out a shingle and wait for the public to line up at their doors.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Margaret Fisher, choreographer for the San Francisco Bay Area avant-garde dance troupe Ma Fish Co, and the company’s resident composer, Robert Hughes, have other jobs in what some folks deign to call the Real World. For the last eight years, however, the yoga instructor (Fisher) and the Oakland Symphony bassoonist (Hughes) have collaborated in a unique brand of performance art that has gained national recognition.

As part of Sushi gallery’s monthlong Neofest, Ma Fish Co will make its local debut tonight at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art’s Sherwood Hall. The company will enact two of its repertory pieces, “The True and False Occult” and “War Nerves,” each set to an electronic score by Hughes. “War Nerves” is based on Ezra Pound’s “Canto XLV,” an anti-war manifesto that attacked both usury and the post-World War I munitions industry in Europe.

It was logical for Hughes to compose the score for such a Pound-connected work because the 52-year-old American composer has resurrected and performed nearly all of Pound’s extant musical compositions--including an opera, “Cavalcanti,” which scholars had dismissed as unfinished until Hughes uncovered the sources.

Hughes became interested in Pound while pursuing his undergraduate studies at the University of Buffalo. From a professor who was a noted authority on Pound, Hughes learned that the controversial poet was also an amateur composer and a professional music critic. Hughes met Pound through this scholar, with whom he played in an amateur recorder quartet.


“In 1958, our little recorder group went down to Washington to the nuthouse (St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where Pound had been committed) to play Gabrieli canzoni for Pound,” Hughes recounted. “I asked him if he wanted to play a few notes on my bassoon, but he told us that he had sold his bassoon to buy boxing gloves when he went to Paris to spar with Hemingway in the 1920s.” Like much of the Pound legend, Hughes later found the poet’s bassoon tale to be spurious.

Although much of Pound’s composition required the corrective tutelage of formally trained musicians such as composer George Antheil, Hughes pointed out that Pound had a complex and sophisticated sense of rhythmic declamation that came from his studies of language and poetry.

“He revitalized poetry by breaking the hold of iambic pentameter on English verse,” Hughes said. “He studied the rhythms of spoken Latin and ancient Greek, as well as the rhythms of late medieval troubadour music, and put this rhythmic energy into his own poetry. He was a master of rhythm before he ever started composing music.”

While Hughes tailors and expands his own compositions for Fisher’s performance creations, many are based on music he has already composed and stored away on tape.

“When you are an electronic composer, you end up with a large library of your music on tape, the modern equivalent of sketchbooks in Beethoven’s time,” Huges said. “Margaret rummages around my tape library, listening to music I’ve not had the opportunity to make public, and frequently finds something she thinks she would like to use.”

From her, Hughes has discovered the merits of recycling his own surplus compositions. In August he will premiere, at the Cabrillo Music Festival in Santa Cruz, a work based on unused portions of a score he wrote four years ago for the Disney film “Never Cry Wolf.”

Hughes explained that Ma Fish Co approaches dance from an unconventional point of view. In Western ballet and even modern dance, the most developed parts of dancers’ bodies are the legs and feet.

“Fisher is not interested in running around the space,” he said. “She concentrates on other parts of the body as means of kinetic expression. From Hindu dance she learned that the fingers, for example, can be a terribly expressive thing. As a student of both sign language and martial arts, she believes that spectacle is not in the large gesture, but in the development of smaller facets of the body and musculature that most people don’t look for in dance.”

“War Nerves” made its first appearance last spring at New York City’s Dance Theater Workshop, where it was part of a larger intermedia work called “Against Nature.” Dancers Janet Jaffee and Deborah Slater will appear with Fisher in this evening’s performance. Curtain time for Ma Fish Co is 8 p.m.