April 20, 2012

The audience object followed him everywhere

I’ve written a rather lengthy article on performance art with musical leanings, Fluxus to now, for the recent Eartrip issue. So if you have any interest in the music and antics of, in chronological order of appearance: Wolf Vostell, Joseph Beuys, Charlotte Moorman, Nam June Paik, Allan Kaprow, George Brecht, La Monte Young, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mattin, or Taku Unami, you can download the magazine from this site and read it. While you do that, I’ll stay here in the Beuys room, wishing I had a nice pillow of lard to lay my weary head on.

Missing in my list is John Cage, who does make a short appearance, but it still surprised me how unwilling he was to be integrated into the Fluxus part of the story. Obviously he would belong at the beginning of that. For example: one of my other tasks while writing this piece was the translation of a forthcoming essay on Cage’s 4' 33'' by Dieter Daniels, where the author relates an anecdote on how Cage would allow the complete credit for Fluxus to be ascribed to him: When in 1990 I asked him in a letter if George Maciunas wasn’t overstating things when he called the detailed Fluxus charts he had made the Travels of Saint John—because they feature John Cage as the most important protagonist—Cage simply answered: ‘No.’” Or take the Fluxus chapter in Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music book: it begins with Cage at his first happening in Black Mountain College 1952, holding forth from on top of a ladder (!!!). This is the source, isn’t it.

Well, twenty years before Daniels asked him, Cage sounded much more uncomfortable with the artists whose work seemed to somehow draw from his fountain.* In For the Birds, conversations with Daniel Charles from around 1970, he said: “I am not very familiar with Fluxpieces; I believe it has something to do with distributing directions to the audience concerning the most varied actions.” Which was meant as an insult, since intentionality, or rather the lack of it, was what at that point he was most interested in. And “distributing directions” would be the most evil thing an artwork could do. In Allan Kaprow and Fluxist Dick Higgins’ work, “intentionality is present,” he lamented. “They make true objects of their happenings.” If that doesn’t sound like a mortal insult today, objectification seems to have been a mighty weapon back then. Oldenburg (as quoted in my essay) impishly saw the audience as a mere object to be provoked, and then of course think of Michael Fried’s Art and Objecthood from 1967. If a thing materialized that much, it was a bad, commodifiable thing. Compare against that Cage on why he did it better: “I, on the contrary, am committed to letting anything happen, to make everything that happens acceptable.” (Which sounds a bit like Jeff Koons embracing our past, shameful taste and all.)

Daniels points out that this acceptance of everything which might happen doesn’t mean freedom for the performer, as becomes clear from a letter Cage wrote to the orchestra of the Zürich opera, berating the musicians that they had misinterpreted his work. But as a listener, you’re even worse off, you sort of need an instruction manual for 4' 33'', there’s so much you can do wrong. The audience at the premiere in 1952 were wrong. Cage: “They missed the point . . . because they didn’t know how to listen.” The listener is bound to fail.

Except George Brecht might still save the day, because around 1959 he came up with the concept of the virtuoso listener. Brecht’s score of the same name simply said: “Can hear music at any time.” Which has been read as a jibe on 4' 33'' and would be pretty funny as such, though a bit square. But it can be much more than that, since Brecht answers a real need that Cage’s piece poses. If (pretty big if) the performer of 4' 33'' doesn’t get in the way of the experience, the burden of carrying the work is shifted to the listeners’ side, who have to find something they can hear like never before. When there’s only the usual shuffling and coughing, they are in desperate need of listening virtuosity to even begin coping. Because Cage hasn’t been distributing directions, he’s been dropping urgent hints elsewhere, and now the audience object has to follow him and make the event happen in exactly the right way.

Maybe that pressure on the audience to perform has contributed to the piece’s astonishing resonance, just as much as its position in musical history as a point of no return. Cage himself was the very definition of the virtuoso listener, for whom “all sound may be music” (Brecht), but once everybody was in on basic virtuosic listening techniques, 4' 33'' became an incredibly fruitful influence on other music. There is now a deep tradition of composing with silence or sounds from the everyday without the pressure to deliver musical events (though still with high pressure on the audience to make music out of incidental sounds and noises).

Cage was right about the objects. Brecht’s pieces work best when little events indeed become like objects, or maybe even only possible objects. There is now a tendency to read the work in fashionable terms as pushing the boundaries of music. So thanks to Brecht dripping water has now become music. Polishing the instrument is music, too, proof, check, andsoforth. That would make Brecht’s work an appendix of Cage, though still an interesting one, since the areas he pushed the boundaries into were extra-musical but sort of believable as compositional events. It is maybe no coincidence that where Brecht staid within undoubtedly musical territory, his work was maybe not at its strongest. For a Drummer from 1966 read: “Drum on something you have never drummed on before. Drum with something you have never drummed with before.” These are wise words for the drum clinic, but as a performance score, they don’t exactly encourage reading deeper layers of meaning into them.

The Fluxversions of this piece (usually retroactive notations of realizations found for a score by the composer or his close circle) are immediately more interesting, if seen independently from the main score. Fluxversion 1: “Performer drums with drum sticks or drum brushes over the surface of wet mud or thick glue until brushes or sticks get stuck and can’t be lifted.” This is nice as an imperative to fail and so sends a different message. Since the outcome is fixed, though, and it probably would take a good amount of science to find a mud or glue which would really grab hold of the sticks or brushes instead of just hardening to the attacks, probably performers must rather choose to act the part—and as fiction the exercise becomes less interesting than as genuine experiment.

The second of the pieces also invites an entertainment approach: “Performer drums with sticks over a leaking feather pillow making the feathers escape the pillow.” The fifth is just awful, but strictly music again: “Performer dribbles a ping-pong ball between a hand-held racket and drum skin.” Seven is the most interesting since it has an extra layer of meaning: art being used for something useful (against the classic Oscar Wilde definition that it must be “quite useless”): “Performer drums with brushes inside a vessel filled with cream until cream is thick.”

An earlier piece by Brecht, Incidental Music from 1961, proceeds from a recital situation and, like the drum thing, distorts it through elements of absurdity, of failure, and while not of usefulness, of being used like a tool. One jumping-off point seems to have been Cage’s piano preparations and playing inside the body of the instrument. After the piano seat has been tilted against the instrument, Incidental Music part two of five goes: “Wooden blocks: A single block is placed inside the piano / A block is placed upon this block, then a third upon the second, and so forth, singly, until at least one block falls from the column.” A very cumbersome instruction for a simple task that children will discover on their own. But here there is nothing to discover, the game is surrealist in the incommensurability of the elements, and the ultimate failure is methodical.

The performer then photographs the situation, throws dried peas or beans on the keyboard (Dalí reference?), before finally, in the last part, “the piano seat is suitably arranged and the performer seats himself.” Him seated there, the obvious next act to follow this up with would be a romp through 4' 33''. Under the title: Music for Piano Lid.

There is a kind of influence, which you need to acknowledge because it is historically important in the chain of events, but which does not really help understand the work, if you take it in terms of content, because the temperaments of the supposed master and those following might be too different. Keith Rowe uses an expression for that which I think works very well, when he says (e.g. in a conversation with Radu Malfatti on the Erstwords blog): “One way of being influenced, is that people give you permission to do things. I always feel that Cage gave us permission to do something.” It was nice to find that this was actually an expression used by Cage himself, here talking about the time that he, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, and Christian Wolff met in the early 1950s (quoted after Calvin Tomkins): “Things were really popping all the time. Ideas just few back and forth between us, and in a sense we gave each other permission for the new music we were discovering.”

* Salomé Voegelin in Listening to Noise and Silence compares 4' 33'' to Duchamp’s urinal. “In many ways like Fountain, 4'33" is a ‘ready made.’ It brings silence, an extra-musical sound concept, into the concert hall, and thereby asks comparable questions of musical materiality and its conventions of performance as Duchamp did in relation to the aesthetic content and exhibition of visual art works by bringing a urinal into the gallery space. Both works introduced new, everyday, material into the realm of art and broadened the artistic process, proposing new aesthetic possibilities.” This flies in the face of most readings of 4' 33'', which usually go along the lines that silence does in fact not exist in the everyday (and therefore it is rather the concept of silence in music that is questioned to allow for the sounds that always will exist independent of the situation). But then . . . in my Eartrip piece I niggle about Brecht’s Drip Music often being realized with a pour instead of a drip, so that it sounds like somebody taking a leak! So Brecht’s piece would be a reference to 4' 33'', which I hadn’t caught before reading Voegelin’s book, and probably drops a broad hint for us to understand 4' 33'' according to her terms?!