THE DROP AT THE FOOT OF THE LADDER
Musical Ends and Meanings of Performances I Haven’t Been To, Fluxus and Now
By Lutz Eitel
Wolf Vostell is crawling around on the floor, sticking pins into chunks of raw meat. Beside him stands a rough wooden structure, like makeshift three-storey asylum bedding, on which students loiter, their faces tied around sloppily with black straps. One ragged man gorges on hamburger meat in methodically unappetizing fashion. Over in the next room Joseph Beuys is massaging his own face with doll boxing gloves, then refreshed he seats himself on a crate made up like a cockpit with tape machine, alarm clock and a music stand to which is attached a rear view mirror (for fine-tuning his performance or keeping an eye on the viewer). Charlotte Moorman is testing the sound of a cymbal by throwing it through the room. The gaze of the bearded man on her left shows that the resulting crash must be a strange and wonderful thing while she’s making a gesture that signals: exquisite. Nam June Paik bangs both forearms flat on the piano keyboard every other second, the piano sounds tuned down and wobbly, but maybe that’s just the film we’re watching. He rests his weary head on the keys.
These images are from a 24-hour happening that took place on the 5th of June 1965, the closing event of Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal, a gallery with a rich post-war history that included staging the proto-fluxus summer fest Après John Cage in 1962 and a year later Nam June Paik’s first solo show, Exposition of Music – Electronic Television. The scenes have been captured for a German documentary that investigates the latest developments in performance and pop art, Kunst und Ketchup (Art and Ketchup, directed by Elmar Hügler). With the antics on display, one wouldn’t be surprised if the narrator struck a note of ridicule, but despite the mildly ironic aloofness with which he repeatedly stresses the opacity of proceedings, he somehow doesn’t play it for laughs. An exasperated comment like, “It was very hard to comprehend the action”, immediately leads to a quote from philosopher Bazon Brock (who also features, striking poses in a headstand) that “to comprehend is to reveal one’s own dependencies”. Still, a bit of hype is necessary, and the voiceover informs us that now carnival societies must fear the competition since, for ten marks, here you get a super-show with jugglers, flagellants and ascetics. Which sounds great but is promising a bit much if you compare it to performance and body art from the next decade – in Wuppertal in 1965 no performers were in danger of being harmed during the proceedings.
Then also, quite apparently no bourgeois sensibilities were harmed during these performances. You just have to watch the society ladies with the handbags who are here for fun but also have a serious curiosity that is quite touching amongst the art pranks. (My favourite scene is where Eckart Rahn sits in a lab coat making funny wheezing noises on a recorder while staring hard at a German translation of the Kinsey Report on the music stand, and you hear a voice from the audience whisper: “Can you see if maybe he has music sheets behind that somewhere? No? Really?”)
Judging from the faces in the audience, this was a popular avant-garde. If, in retrospect, Fluxus seems a movement expanding common notions of what art could possibly be, it is important to remember that the artists didn’t leave their audiences behind. Fluxus was co-founded around 1961 by the gifted marketer and mediocre artist George Maciunas, inventor of the label and the guy who mostly held things together (partly against the will of the artists involved). Fluxist Dick Higgins, in his 1979 Child’s History of Fluxus, put the early story thus:
“In September 1962 the first of the Fluxus concerts happened in a little city where George Maciunas was living, in Wiesbaden, Germany… The concerts certainly did get written about! They were on television too. Poor George Maciunas’ mother! She was an old-fashioned lady, and when the television showed all the crazy things that her son George was doing at the Fluxus concerts, she was so embarrassed that she wouldn’t go out of her house for two weeks because she was so ashamed of what the neighbours might say. Oh well, you have to expect that kind of thing. Actually some of the neighbours really liked the Fluxus concerts. The janitor at the museum where the Fluxus concerts were happening liked them so well that he came to every performance with his wife and children. By and by other museums and public places wanted Fluxus concerts too. So Fluxus concerts happened next in England and Denmark and France… Fluxus got famous.”
The huge differences between the artists who came together under the Fluxus label can easily be seen in the artistic approaches on show during the Galerie Parnass event. Simplified: the Germans worked with symbol-laden imagery and metaphor, while the actions of the visitors followed a more surrealist (anti-)logic. (The term at the time wasn’t surrealist though but “neo-dada”. It is probably a major factor for the positive audience reaction that people felt this kind of art had been firmly established since dada, just as today many music-related performances will make one think of Fluxus. Only then the tradition was a good thing and now it makes things appear a bit old-hat.)
Vostell’s work is driven by images that are clearly political: he is “crucifying” raw meat which he then lets lie around the place for the rest of the event until the chunks begin to smell bad. The personnel he employs for his performance sit in close, roughly built bunks that signify our industrialized life-styles and, with the bandage-like straps over their faces, a certain post-apocalyptic mood: the abject life waiting for us after the big one. Beuys of course has a more hermetic symbolic language, and accordingly the voiceover has the most difficulties over his performance – calling it “artistic yoga, spiritualized abs training”, before confessing: “The meaning of this action remained a secret.” But watching the action it doesn’t seem so hard to read Beuys’ performance at all: he warms his thick boots against a heap of lard, then after a while he fussily prepares himself to lay his cheek against another cushion of lard beside him on a little stand. Even if you are not aware of the life force ascribed to lard by Beuys’ self-mythologizing (tartars had saved his life after a plane crash in the Second World War by covering the badly hurt future artist with the stuff, come on), the transmission of energy between performer and material is acted out in sufficient awkward purposefulness to make clear that you’re watching the deepening of a relationship which has considerable power, especially since the viewer can’t help a certain revulsion at the thought of emulating the artist.
Against that, Charlotte Moorman’s solo performance is like a methodical vaudeville act. Her cello piece is a catalogue of gestures, extended techniques, props like whistles, sirens, even a pistol, hoot, zing, bang, boom with effortless elegance. Seen from today it sounds a bit obvious, Spike Jones with all the fun drained out of it, or indeed the carnival. (I’m not sure what her piece is. The closest on record I know from her would be the different versions of Cage’s 26’1.1499″ for a String Player, but more disjointed and with more props here.) Late in the proceedings of the 24-hour event, around 10 pm, she plays strains of romantic favourites wrapped only in cellophane. A man lying on the floor almost nailed by the endpin of her cello holds up the music sheet, while Paik accompanies on the piano. They play careless salon music with barely a twist, and if you wanted to you could read that as a subversion of bourgeois ideals of domestic music making, but of course the familiar tones also make this pure entertainment. And again, the audience is delighted. (Laugh tracks being rather typical for Paik-related musical performances. On Ubuweb there is a recording of his Etude for Pianoforte at Atelier Bauermeister in Cologne from October 1960, where the audience screams with delight. A review of the premiere of that etude a year earlier had ended with the words: “In the fourth movement, the finale furioso, Paik ran about like a madman, sawed through the piano strings with a kitchen knife and then overturned the whole thing. Pianoforte est morte. The applause was never-ending.” Also of course think of John Cage performing his Water Walk on the popular TV show I’ve Got a Secret in 1960.)
These transatlantic differences in artistic approaches tend to get lost when one tries to understand Fluxus as a somewhat coherent movement (and that is also why many of the artists involved often had their doubts if the involvement in fact would hurt their own art). In the German documentary of course the European perspective wins out and maybe that is why Moorman and Paik do come over as a bit lacklustre. It is the Germans that dominate the central theme of the film: art and life. Vostell, in a later segment especially dedicated to him, gets to repeat his rather straightforward view on this: “Art is life and life is art.” To Vostell that means a political responsibility for the artist who has “to sharpen the consciousness of human beings for all the facts of life.” Likewise Beuys has a famous dictum, more complicated in its implications, that “everybody is an artist” (a potential which, to be set in motion, nevertheless sort of depended on the art of Beuys).
On first blush, such thoughts might seem to tie in with Allan Kaprow’s slightly earlier idea of a “blurring between art and life”. But Kaprow, inventor of the happening and not himself a Fluxist, who staged scripted actions that increasingly were not made for an audience at all, was not interested in conflating the two, but rather in giving his art more natural living spaces. He wanted his art to resonate not within the gallery but within life, and he wanted to use the materials of life, but it is still art distinct from life. In a conversation with Robert C. Morgan he described it thus: “What I am primarily interested in is the kind of activity, like the brushing of my teeth – whether associated with happenings or not – whose reference to other art events is very, very remote, if indeed possible to make at all.”
In his 1958 essay “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock”, Kaprow wrote out the following predictions for the “young artists of today”: “All of life will be open to them. They will discover out of ordinary things the meaning of ordinariness. They will not try to make them extraordinary but will only state their real meaning. But out of nothing they will devise the extraordinary and then maybe nothingness as well. People will be delighted or horrified, critics will be confused or amused, but these, I am certain, will be the alchemies of the 1960s.”
This turned out to be a rather astute prediction, but when 1960 had arrived the need arose to already go one step further beyond or below the “real meaning” of events and into something more undetermined. Walter De Maria (soon to have a short brush with Fluxus): “Meaningless work is obviously the most important and significant art form today. The aesthetic feeling given by meaningless work can not be described exactly because it varies with each individual doing the work.” An aesthetic feeling that can not be described exactly, this of course stands no chance of surviving being digested by art history, and the need for a larger historical narrative probably is the main reason why meaningless work has not become an official art movement of the time. The simplest form of historical narrative for 1960s avant-garde art includes that it was made in opposition to the establishment and to easy money (Pop being the problematical movement here, but that wasn’t fully recognized as avant-garde). The avant-garde had to offer institutional critique and knock art off its supposed pedestal every day anew. It has become nearly impossible for us to see anything from the 1960s as meaningless if it fit into that larger trend, though often the meaning will lie only in its historical context. Here’s a telling quote from Hal Foster et al.’s Art since 1900 that shows you how high the pressure is to fit the narrative. They sum up Kaprow by admonishing him that he “might have been too indirect in his wish to underscore the hold of market forces on our lives and on our consumption of art in particular.” Such expectations already had a deep history in the 1960s, Duchamp for example repeated complaints about the commercialization of art endlessly in his later interviews and even pretended to have stopped work altogether (while making editions from his readymades).
Kaprow himself, from the same conversation with Robert C. Morgan quoted above: “The problem with artlike art, or even doses of artlike art that still linger in lifelike art, is that it overemphasizes the discourse within art, that is, art’s own present discourse as well as its historical one. Peripherentiality is loaded so much in art that the application to, the analogy to, the involvement in everyday life is very difficult.” Push and Pull: A Furniture Comedy for Hans Hofmann from 1963 is Kaprow’s sly comment by on his own attempts to get around these forms of discourse and how discourse wins back no matter how messy you get. The instructions read: “Anyone can find or make one or more rooms of any shape, size, proportion and colour – then furnish them perhaps, maybe paint some things or everything. / Everyone else can come in and, if the room(s) are furnished, they also can arrange them, accommodating themselves as they see fit. / Each day things will change.” Instead of just letting the action stand, Kaprow offers a counternarrative that gently pokes fun at the agonies of real-life furnishing and mixes that with formal composition theory Hofmann-style: “Consider whether or not you’re a red-head and dressed in Kelly green. Are you fat, fatter than the table? In that case, quickly change your clothes if the small chair’s colour doesn’t correspond; and also lose some weight. What about the kids? And their toys? I’d suggest allowing for a variable proportion of three yellow toy ducks to be considered equivalent to one medium-sized violet dress (softened by black hair, brown eyes and leopard-skin bag). Now these relationships will be seen to exactly balance the combined density of the orange large chair, the brownish mantle ornament and the beige stripe running around the baseboard. You mustn’t neglect the spaces in between the furniture and how they figure in the total space. They are, in fact, ‘solids’ of another order, and each negative area is coloured and qualified by the punctuating components (tables, chairs etc.) around it…”
The visitors to the piece’s premiere at a group show given by Hofmann and his students at a warehouse in New York 1963 enthusiastically joined in on the fun. Photos from that are just like everybody’s remarkable tolerance for meaningless art (or art whose meaning remained undecipherable to those watching the protagonists making fools of themselves by polite standards) in the footage from Kunst und Ketchup. It is like a glimpse of a garden of innocence we cannot get back to. Though honestly I do not even want to go back and visit the Galerie Parnass because, well, the performances look amusing at best and the music sounds awful. Even Charlotte Moorman’s playing seems not designed to produce satisfying music (while she was, by all accounts, a very good musician, her small body of recorded work already indicates that for her the event itself was the important thing). Wrapped in cellophane, quoting romantic chestnuts, she references the making of music rather than making music herself.
But anyway it seems avant-garde music was not necessarily held to the standards of concert hall craftsmanship. Beuys could improvise clumsily on the piano and call it an homage to John Cage straight-faced. He prepared the piano after Cage (though his preparations would again be with materials that for him had a symbolic significance, and the whole gesture of preparing the piano was to free it from its repertoire and its serfdom to the bourgeoisie). Beuys on the piano sounds completely awful because he even tries to make music and just doesn’t have the ability…though what do I know, after hanging up a hare on a chalkboard and before tearing its heart out at the Festum Fluxorum in Düsseldorf 1963 during what he labelled his first ever Fluxus performance, he played suggestions of Satie pieces from memory and, “Here he played piano so beautifully that I could not forget that tune,” according to Nam June Paik.
Here’s a classic: the performer carries a stepladder on stage, places it carefully, then, with varying degrees of fussiness (you can’t just get this over and done with), places a bowl at the foot of the ladder, half fills it with water from a pitcher, then climbs the ladder with the pitcher and tilts it, aiming nonchalantly, until drops of water from the lid of the pitcher fall down splashing on the surface below. There is the sound of water dripping, which we hear like never before.
The piece is Drip Music by George Brecht from 1959–62, a classic Fluxus staple. The score allows different realizations, it reads: “For single or multiple performance. A source of dripping water and an empty vessel are arranged so that the water falls into the vessel.” Then there is a second version with only the one word: “Dripping.” The classic performance of the piece is probably influenced by another, more explicitly staged “Fluxversion” with added fun props: “First performer on a tall ladder pours water from a pitcher very slowly down into the bell of a French horn or tuba held in the playing position by a second performer on the floor level.” So in the most common realization, we have the head of one and the tailpiece of the other set of instructions.
Above, on a beautiful ladder – it looks like they spent hours hunting for props in nearby antique shops – is Dick Higgins in 1962, performing a rustic version running water from a pot into a metal tub. The version below is George Maciunas at the Fluxfest Amsterdam in 1963 with portable gear. Note the woman on the left who closes her eyes the better to listen in rapt attention. She is internalizing the sound to illustrate Brecht’s 1986 dictum: “You are actually doing something – even if it’s listening to water dripping – even though it sometimes can seem passive…you are still invited to see if that ever turns up in your experience, or even make one for yourself. If you want to.”
(Note also that both performers seem to be pouring rather than dripping. The stage requires a grander gesture. Still it looks like in their versions the water sounds might rather have been like taking a leak, which to my imaginary ears goes against the spirit of the piece.)
The quote above is after Gabriele Knapstein, who in her book on Brecht offers the most useful analysis of his event scores that I have found. Every reading of the Drip Music score(s) will hinge on the second version, the continuous form of a single word, “dripping”. The first version offers the basic layout of a performance, the second allows the event to happen independent of planful actions anywhere. Knapstein says: “With this utmost reduction of specifications Brecht opens up the sphere of operations to allow a realization of the score in very different situations. The drip event cannot be presented in a stage performance only, but also in an everyday situation, where for example a dripping faucet might move into the centre of attention and become a ‘sound event’.” This reading is of course completely valid, but let us for a moment think about how the viewer would in concrete fact experience this second version of the piece: by only reading the score, acknowledging the possibility of a staging of the first version, then by imagining a dripping faucet or whatever…and making a mental note that George Brecht now owns the sound of dripping faucets forever. (To accidentally encounter an actual dripping faucet and see it as a performance of the Brecht piece would run counter to the artist’s supposed intent of focusing our attention on the thing. We would not be open to the sound of the dripping and instead just recognize: ah, that’s Brecht, and be satisfied with correctly identifying the author of the sounds.)
There is another contradiction in Drip Music, which makes straightforward experience of the work difficult, in that it is pretty overdetermined as pieces go (see especially Douglas Kahn’s Noise Water Meat for a humourless recital of that). It references the history of music from Händel to more explicitly Cage’s compositions Water Music (1952) and Water Walk (1959). There is a reference to the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, to whom Brecht had devoted a section of his text Chance Imagery (1966), in effect describing how later developments in intermedia art grew out of Pollock’s splashing. Apart from these art references, the work had evolved from science-related research: a burette had been the source for the drops in early versions of the piece, the artist dripping on different materials to test their sound properties or experimenting with different dripping rates. “My life is devoted to research into the ‘structure of experience’,” Brecht explains the scientific background to his work (adding in parentheses: “I don’t think we can determine the ‘structure of nature’.”)
A heavy piece, a far from meaningless art. But while Brecht was aware of most of these aspects, we must keep in mind that art-historical references in 1960 did not yet give immediate meaning to a work to the extent that we see it today. These were rather amusing associations, the work lay in the event itself, especially in the props whose choice would be the most important aspect of a realization. Knapstein quotes Hermann Braun, a good acquaintance of Brecht, who in 1996 recalled his earlier meetings with the artist: “How often we sat together in a pub, and then he suddenly took the salt shaker and a beer mat or whatever just lay on the table, and he put them in relation in a little experiment, and then explained to me: that’s really all I want to say. Connections like these seen as events…”
But let us now return to the guy up the ladder. Does he make, after Knapstein, a “sound event” out of the dripping? That would require a lot of creative attention from the audience (especially, as we’ve seen, if the guy pours and there’s no chance to get into a meditative mood of waiting for the next drip). In the early days, when the piece was still unknown, the action was suspenseful: what would happen next, now is that really all there is? Later the performer’s interpretational choices would be in the foreground, ladder or no ladder, pitcher or watering can, Keaton or Chaplin. Can an actual performance of the piece still be “about” dripping? Interestingly Brecht himself, in contrast to many of the Fluxus crew, took a lowercase route. Liz Kotz writes: “Brecht’s realizations of his own and others’ scores were characteristically spare, disciplined and anti-monumental, often permitting such events to remain unseen or barely perceived.”
Fluxus perfromances were meant to be repeated, they were collected in a Fluxus handbook, you could book “Flux events” from Maciunas and compile a menu after your tastes. Or do it on your own. Brecht in 1991: “Anyone with one of my scores for a chair or ladder event can find, or realize, such an event privately. No problem. If such an event is realized in public, it should be titled and/or announced as ‘A George Brecht Chair Event, realized by (name of the person who realized it).’ If you feel you require ‘authorization’ for the event, then send me two colour photos of the work, 20×25 cm, I will then send one photo back to you, with, on the back, my signed ‘authorisation’.” This, Knapstein notes, would cost a fee.
Today, though, as a repertory piece, Drip Music is usually a challenge to the performer in that other post-Cagean tradition, where you know what to expect when 4′ 33” is on the menu and since there is no silence anyway, there is no deeper need to listen to what you have already comprehended. And most often in practical fact 4′ 33” is a performance of Music for Keyboard Lid, often acted out with barely suppressed hints of piano virtuoso gestures (cue fluttering coat-tails). (Of course there actually is a Music for Keyboard Lid, La Monte Young’s Piano Piece for David Tudor #2 (1960): “Open the keyboard cover without making, from the operation, any sound that is audible to you. Try as many times as you like…” It would be possible to realize both this and 4′ 33” in a single performance. Young’s composition is still “about” silence rather than the piano lid, though, so it’s more a comment on Cage than a companion to Brecht.)
Here’s a Cage quote from 1958 pertinent to the question of making a repertory piece out of Drip Music as an open event: “A performance of a composition which is indeterminate of its performance is necessarily unique. It cannot be repeated. When performed for a second time, the outcome is other than it was. Nothing therefore is accomplished by such a performance, since that performance cannot be grasped as an object in time.” (I would now bargain with him: what does the first performance actually accomplish other than the knowledge that the piece is being performed, which translates it out of the realm of poetry into that of fine art?). Anyway, repeat performances of Drip Music or 4′ 33” are doomed to disappoint since both pieces are much richer in discourse than a performance could ever hope to be. The performance is a recognizable object only in the score, out of time.
Cage immediately goes on to say: “A recording of such a work has no more value than a postcard; it provides a knowledge of something that happened, whereas the action was a non-knowledge of something that had not yet happened.” This kind of reasoning dates his thoughts: why would a recording be just a postcard from the event instead of its own thing? It is again a way of seeing things, though, that does a lot to explain why audio documents of the events discussed here so seldom offer much to listen to.
So what about the music, the actual sounds? Brecht hasn’t left us many postcards at all – as was to be expected of a composer whose Solo for Violin, Viola, Cello or Contrabass from 1962 demanded that the soloist polish rather than play the instrument, or whose Flute Solo of the same year had two words for an instruction: “disassembling” then “assembling”. Even if these works have musical titles (as had the works of many other Fluxus artists), they were not about sound. It was the concert situation that interested the artists, an attitude in classical music audiences that would allow them to potentially perceive events with a concentration that would make complete works out of little gestures.
But this not true for the composer La Monte Young, compiler and editor of the 1963 Anthology of Chance Operations, which featured event scores, performance instructions and more proper compositions by Brecht and other Fluxus protagonists, the New York school and others. For Young, all his work was about sound. He included a series of his own compositions from 1960 in the anthology that have proved among the most quoted of musical events, even if most of them have not made it to many repeat realizations.
One piece that could be found in the Fluxus core repertoire and had been performed by Brecht and others was Composition 1960 #2. The score reads: “Build a fire in front of the audience. Preferably, use wood although other combustibles may be used as necessary for starting the fire or controlling the kind of smoke. The fire may be of any size, but it should not be the kind which is associated with another object, such as a candle or a cigarette lighter.” (Brecht in his characteristically humble interpretation lit a book of matches placed on an upturned glass on a stool, which also means contradicting this part of the score.) “The lights may be turned out. / After the fire is burning, the builder(s) may sit by and watch it for the duration of the composition; however, he (they) should not sit between the fire and the audience in order that its members will be able to see and enjoy the fire. / The composition may be of any duration. / In the event that the performance is broadcast, the microphone may be brought up close to the fire.” It is only in the broadcast that sound plays a role, the instructions for the performance itself are addressed solely to the eyes.
(By the way, it strikes me how different the sound in my head must be when I read the score today from those somebody in 1960 would imagine…their acoustic fire presumably closer to the real thing while mine is a fireworks of contact-miked in-the-face crackles, bumps and hisses…)
The other classic of Young’s work group is the butterfly piece, Composition 1960 #5: “Turn a butterfly (or any number of butterflies) loose in the performance area… The composition may be any length but if an unlimited amount of time is available, the doors and windows may be opened before the butterfly is turned loose and the composition may be considered finished when the butterfly flies away.” Reading the score, I’d imagine this as a silent event (rather more silent than Cage’s silent piece in fact…I’d also imagine sunspots and the audience perched on pews and there’s always only one small white butterfly, don’t ask me why), but Young has repeatedly stressed that these compositions to him were about the sound. From an interview with Richard Kostelanetz in 1968:
“I started thinking about the butterfly. Alone, it made a very beautiful piece. Being very young, I could still take something so highly poetic and use it without the fear I would have now – that it would be trampled on. Now, I would offer something quite a bit more substantial than a butterfly or a fire – something that can’t be so easily walked on. After all, a butterfly is only a butterfly. No matter how much I write about the fact that a butterfly does make a sound – that it is potentially a composition – anyone that wants to can say: ‘Well, it’s only a butterfly.’” Kostelanetz: “Your point, then, in bringing into the concert situation a jar of butterflies and then releasing them, was that a butterfly makes a sound.” Young: “True. Another important point was that a person should listen to what he ordinarily just looks at, or look at things he would ordinarily just hear. In the fire piece, I definitely considered the sounds, although a fire is, to me, one of the outstanding visual images.”
Looking back from 1968 also, critic Tom Johnson noted, “For several years I had been hearing crazy stories about La Monte Young. About how he turned a butterfly loose in a Berkeley auditorium and said it was a piece…”, and it is pretty obvious that the daring of this gesture would overlayer the little sound involved, and only through the viewer’s reflection that it still was supposed to be a musical composition could that sound be heard (today again louder than before, what with chaos theory and the butterfly effect, invented a dozen years later). The other thing I find interesting in the Young quote above is how eight years down the line the composer already felt that the freedom there had been in 1960, to take something as fragile as a butterfly and call it a piece, had already gone. That corresponds to the pressures of the need for a proper narrative put on Kaprow by the critics and on Brecht unwittingly by his more aggressive peers.
As already mentioned, Brecht’s own interpretations tended to be so low-key that catching the event and identifying it as a piece was often all the audience could manage. If we return to Drip Music, it was only in much later interpretations that the sound came fully into focus. Of course the work should be perfect for kitchen sink interpretations on YouTube, though again most performers there overdo the pouring and it is very seldom that the videos transcend the joy of the uploaders’ discovery that indeed it was simple to find all utensils for a realization in the household. Among the more high-blown projects, Fluxus co-founder Ben Patterson realized and recorded an interesting version in 2002, which was released on the Alga Marghen label and can be listened to on Ubuweb. In his notes on the recording he says: “Recently, as I was preparing a concert of classic Fluxus works, I decided to re-examine the original scores, rather than rely on my memory of performances of the traditional interpretations of these works.” (That’s pretty funny considering the score consists of 25 words.) “Thus, I discovered that George Brecht’s original instructions for Drip Music allowed for both a single source or multiple sources of dripping water. Remembering George’s first career as a chemist, employing laboratory equipment to produce multiple, dripping sources seemed appropriate. A device was constructed including 3 gerbil water bottles suspended from metal rods and a piece of moulded plastic packaging, amplified with contact microphone.” The result is rather like a percussion piece, since the drops don’t fall on water but on what sounds like empty plastic containers of some size and volume. Because of the three sources, there is slowly decelerating phase shifting between them, so our thoughts are more of minimal music (Steve Reich) than the event of water dripping.
While Patterson’s realization sounds very nice but uninspiring, the score can of course be blown up to an overproduced event like the 2008 realization at Tate Modern, which saw a long row of performers each with their vessel and bowls amplified, and sounds of a horde of towering giants pissing into waterfalls came blasting from the loudspeakers.
It seems difficult. One would expect that at least a composer of the stature of Karlheinz Stockhausen, if he entered the fray, would easily produce a memorable soundpiece from Fluxus ingredients. But the film made by Peter Moore from footage of the American premiere of Stockhausen’s Originals in New York 1964 (three years after their German premiere) suggests otherwise. The work is a rather theatrical affair of 18 different scenes to be performed in sequence or simultaneously, with prescribed character roles (artist, composer) all on a choreographed journey of finding themselves. Since the composer had kept the details of realization open and was rather delivering a structure, many of the proceedings were determined by the director of the event, Allan Kaprow. The film offers glimpses of diverse roles for musicians (played among others by new music luminaries Max Neuhaus, James Tenney, Alvin Lucier and Charlotte Moorman, who is lying on her back playing with the cello on top of her), a lengthy spot for Nam June Paik as performer of “action music”, realizing his own earlier pieces (his casting being the only hands-on decision by Stockhausen, the Korean did not yet belong in that circle and first met Moorman there), and on the margins the director’s son Anton, whose role it was to play with cardboard boxes at the side of the stage.
Watching postcards from that extravaganza – which took place in classical concert venue Judson Hall for five nights over a week as part of a festival organized by Charlotte Moorman – there again seems to have been too much of a budget for the events on show, designed rather for small venues that force direct interaction with the audience. Here fashion models do the catwalk between the stage sets and huge backdrops overtower the usual household gear like stepladders and stuff… Nam June Paik is washing himself in a basin fully clothed, drinking soap water out of a shoe before banging his head against the piano…all against a hysterical laugh track and finally bathing in the spotlight for applause…it all does feel too complacent, too self-congratulatory, the overblown production draining the sense out of events realizable with hardly a budget at all. So one sympathizes with the knowledge that outside the hall a number of New York artists staged a protest – among them Henry Flynt, Tony Conrad and George Maciunas (against his own sheep involved; this protest is not in the film, by the way) – attacking Stockhausen as a “cultural imperialist”. (That was some years before Cornelius Cardew wrote a treatise called “Stockhausen Serves Imperialism” which contains no allusion to the earlier insult but starts from similar thoughts. The New York protesters saw a “characteristic European-North American ruling-class Artist” and the power relations between him as all-mighty composer and the poor executing performers, not to speak of an audience badgered into submission, seemed offensive to them.
All that of course before they had witnessed the presentation. Stockhausen had a reputation.)
We are only in 1964, and the peers already demand an art with an anti-institutional narrative. Art movements of the 1960s were expected to demolish elitism, to push art from its pedestal. Director Kaprow was obviously already for his contemporaries “too indirect in his wish to underscore the hold of market forces on our lives and on our consumption of art in particular.” Butterflies were no longer sufficient. It is no coincidence that around this time it became obvious Fluxus was past its peak.
What about the soundtrack, original recordings from the event layered as wild sound over the images? Stockhausen’s Kontakte are used here as incidental music in the version with piano, but they are hodgepodged with bar jazz, sounds of the spectacle and other assorted noises in a literal fashion that detracts rather than adds to the piece.
Speaking of questioning the power relations between artist and audience, La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #6 goes like this: “The performers (any number) sit on the stage watching and listening to the audience in the same way the audience usually looks at and listens to the performers. If in the auditorium, the performers should be seated in rows on chairs or benches; but if in a bar, for instance, the performers might have tables on stage and be drinking as is the audience.”
If we now fast forward to today, the artist most interested in using indeterminate performance situations to stare back at the audience is probably Mattin. He works with improvised music (where he often plays, if at all, computer feedback) and noise (where he might remain motionless in silly get-up behind his console, blasting room recordings of audience patter at intolerable volume back at the hapless listener), attempting to upstage performance situations with results ranging from consensual discomfort to unasked-for disruption. His approach to questioning the power relations can be rather simple, asking audience members at the top of his lungs: why they are there, why so mannerly, how could he make them leave? On the theory level, improvisational practices and noise for him have a direct political impact which he sort of invokes in texts that work with tropes from critical theory, used mostly against the discourse they were borrowed from, in the punk spirit that says you do not have to master an instrument to play it. The questions he poses about the concert room are more hippie than punk, though: “What would it require to emancipate oneself from the situation and the roles that we accept when we enter such a space? How are social spaces produced in a given situation? What are the accepted conventions? Can we challenge them? Can we change them? Can we dare together by abandoning old conventions?” (from the foreword to his 2011 text collection Unconstituted Praxis).
At a 2009 concert in A Coruña, Mattin played a duo with veteran leftfield improviser Keith Rowe. (And if the jump forward in time has been too violent for you, here are random connections: Rowe having played with Cardew, Stockhausen’s accuser, in AMM, Mattin releasing a record titled Keith Rowe Serves Imperialism on his label after the Cardew pamphlet. Or Rowe, who will often find a conceptual twist to his music, doing a set having had his hair cut on stage by duo partner Toshimaru Nakamura, which is usually what a realization of Dick Higgins’ Fluxus piece Danger Music Number Two (1961, score: “Hat. Rags. Paper. Heave. Sheave.”) boils down to, except that Rowe says he really just had his hair cut on stage and it had nothing to do with the whole Fluxus thing… The photo of Mattin and Rowe was posted on the internet forum i hate music on a thread dedicated to the event by Miguel Prado. The thread also contains Rowe’s response quoted below and the information about Mattin’s motives from posts by the artist himself.)
Mattin decided before the concert, unbeknownst to anybody else, that he would not play or even hold to an instrument, a situation that his duo partner would then have to cope with and decide to make music or not. That might lead to a problematic and potentially interesting situation between performers and towards the audience. (In fact Mattin describes the experience of just sitting there as rather excruciating, but that is his pleasure and hardly adds to the meaning of the piece.) He would have the whole event recorded with several microphones, and when the first person started applauding Rowe’s performance, that recording would be played back at the audience (all that had gone before – music, room and audience noises). so the concert would continue again for the same time.
Mattin’s performance decision was built on several ideas: for example, a reference to the custom in Rowe’s former improvisation ensemble AMM to not plan anything ahead and to not talk about performances; or the notion that the recording would conflate performer and audience, in effect levelling the hierarchies. The actual experiences in the room, though, would be driven less by ideas and more by the psychological dynamics. Duo partner Rowe did not see it as an upstaging of conventions in his post from 9 February 2010: “I felt the performance tended to reinforce the artist and audience relationship, Artist as master and an overly manipulated servant, Artist as master at the centre, dominating all aspects volume / duration / content / interest / audience entering a forced and manipulated relationship, provoked into reaction, Artist as mystical visionary at the centre to be viewed looked at regarded bowed to, the captive audience vs. Mattin’s rigidity.”
In 1965 Claes Oldenburg, then an artist with some ties to Fluxus working in happenings, described the viewers’ role in these terms: “The audience is considered an object and its behaviour as events… The place of the audience in the structure is determined by seating and by certain simple provocations.” While that’s a much too cynical statement for Mattin, who prefers a sometimes naive enthusiasm for audience liberation, the situations he creates could at the outset be seen as a continuance of the Oldenburg tradition. (Also remember that Kaprow got rid of the problem by eliminating the audience altogether.) Against this conflict between artist and audience, Rowe’s vantage point is the more communal, treating the listener as emancipated. But while that leaves Rowe to play music that breaks the conventions, if he so pleases, an art that questions the power relations in the manner that contemporary discourse would expect – that delivers the questions “What are the accepted conventions? Can we challenge them?” to discuss them on a meta level – is easier to realize from the rather aggressive stance that Oldenburg or Mattin would take, since it allows to identify an “other”, which can then be overcome. The right to identify conventions is what makes the artist (or, within the wider discourse, often the critic) master here. Since Rowe like him also addresses the performer/audience relation in his art, and both in fact suspect the other of assuming too much “status” as an artist, Mattin’s dissociation roughly follows the class distinctions we have seen in the conflict around Stockhausen:
“While I get the impression that Keith is interested in bringing improvisation more to the level of classical music, or high art (he often mentions ultimate modernist painters such as Rothko, Pollock), I am much more interested in bringing improvisation down into the mundane. So any sound in the room is equally valid, and everybody in the room is able to not ‘disturb’ the situation but to add to it. However I am doing this slowly with rudimentary methods and from my safe ‘performer’ status, basically because I still have to learn a lot how the concert situation and the structures that hold it together functions.” So while Rowe to Mattin seems sort of interested in serving capitalism, the latter explores the capitalist situation until he has collected sufficient data and developed the necessary craftsmanship…to then bring everybody down. (Quoting the above is arguably a bit unfair, since the respect Mattin has for the older artist gets in the way of the reasoning, but it does show up that, even following his approach, it is still the artist who decides when and to what degree the audience will be liberated.)
For Mattin, improvisation is not just what the musician does with his instrument, but he may also appropriate audience reaction, which is where power relations really get complicated: “Do we really need to play the sounds ourselves to improvise? Can we not allow other sounds in the room to sound, or to appropriate them? … Do I need to ‘produce a sound’ to be defined as someone who is improvising? Would not that be thinking in capitalist terms when you always have to produce?” So the artist forces the audience to improvise over the fact that he won’t play along with their expectations and improvise on stage, and then appropriates their reaction (which would mostly have been turning over to the other performer who actually played, and then, after the playback set in, struggling to grasp and evaluate the concept) to re-define improvisation from below. The concept invites being made fun of. But on the other hand it works: the questions the artist wants to provoke while sitting there attempting his best Buster Keaton face for 90 minutes are not our thoughts from the audience, but he’s putting in enough energy to indeed make us ask ourselves about the situation.
What’s driving him…why wouldn’t he want to make good music…why doesn’t he like me…do all artworks bring their own discourse…if this were a more traditional music I’d just think he was too drunk or he chickened out of playing with a legend…what’s the canon of best institutional critique…and yes, in one question artist and audience are united: why don’t we do something against it?
In a sense, Mattin doesn’t have a work at all here, except the audience starts improvising and then he becomes like a figure in the play, and it doesn’t much matter which narrative spin we give the thing, if we throw beer bottles, make Rowe stop to listen to the sound of Mattin just sitting there or if we merely consume the situation… In Mattin’s conflation, all sounds are of equal value anyway.
Late 2009 in Paris, Mattin performed a duo with Taku Unami, where both men sat on chairs beside each other and cried, or pretended to cry (depending on your willingness to suspend emotional disbelief) for the audience. The work had a title with a vaguely vintage-Koonsian ring to it, Distributing Vulnerability to the Affective Classes, and it came with a statement that included theoretical thoughts on the terms “vulnerable” and “affective” which I will leave out of the discussion (though they did strike a chord with me, since e.g. Beuys as a performer often works from an awkwardness that makes him seem very vulnerable, while at the same time he’s still the most top-down performer there ever was).
Let us instead look at the passages in the statement that concern the audience/performer and performance/space relations: “When can one feel [an] activation of the space taking effect? When there is a dense atmosphere which makes you aware that something important is at stake… When this dense atmosphere is produced, the people involved become painfully aware of their social position and usual behaviour. If the density of the atmosphere is sufficient it can become physical, disturbing our senses and producing strange feelings in our bodies… Every movement or word becomes significant. What is created is not a unified sense of space or time, but a heterotopia where one location contains different spaces and temporalities. Previous hierarchies and established organizations of space are exposed. The traditional time of the performance and distribution of attention (the audience’s respectful behaviour towards the performers etc.) is left behind.”
There is a recording of the event on the site of the Wire music magazine. Listening to this, it immediately becomes clear that “the traditional time of the performance and distribution of attention” have not been left behind, the audience are a marvel of respectful behaviour. The very fact that they’re not putting an end to the show seems so decadently tolerant that it makes trying their patience appear a desperate necessity. Judging from the recording, the performance stayed in a kind of carefully calibrated half-assedness, where it was left to the audience if they wanted to get emotionally involved in the staged crying. No attempt to go whole hog, no Stanislavski histrionics that would force the audience into a kind of psychological experiment…the vulnerability lies not in the act of crying, but in the bad performance of it – here Mattin and Unami indeed do use that sense of awkwardness that can make very personal performances possible, again think Beuys or, say, Mike Kelley in his performance work. Good craftsmanship in fact would just make this an acting display… There is a feeling that I often have with Mattin: I as a viewer would like to be challenged in my preconceptions by him, only he doesn’t do it well enough – though my expectations of good craftsmanship for this context are of course a contradiction in themselves.
But all of that is again contradicted by the collective epiphany Mattin envisages in his statement: the “activation of the space taking effect”, “something important is at stake”, “every movement or word becomes significant”. That is of course completely delusional – the reality of being in the room will for most people stay within accustomed emotional parameters. Come on, it’s just art. But this delusion is also a fantasy that is the very anti-Utopia of meaningless art.
Maybe half an hour into the performance, the artists start howling sustained notes and music creeps in as a reference. I prefer not to hear that as music proper. And I don’t think it’s improvisation compared to the decision to not play.
Unami in his own work can approach the question of play or no play from a different angle, for example when his chosen instrument for improvisation is clapping. As a gesture, this has a burden of references about as suffocating as Brecht’s dripping. Clapping one’s hands can be a signal to pay attention, a gesture of approval, applause. It marks time, it can also mark space, it’s a method sound artists will use to check the acoustic properties of a place. There are possible references to Yasunao Tone’s Fluxus Clapping Piece (1963) and Steve Reich’s Clapping Music (1972). And this is just from my Western perspective, I wouldn’t know about the sound of one hand clapping or prayer claps.
On the track of Unami’s duo Two Hands with Angharad Davies (on Winds Measure, recorded in 2009) where both musicians just clap, I find the passages where the widely spaced-out claps are more authoritative a fascinating listen. The sounds really seem to be marking space, or the artists seem to be marking their territory. (Remember we haven’t been there. This idea would not work in the live situation, where territory would be claimed through position in the room, where watching the artist’s body language would play a greater role and the impatience of waiting for the next clap. We came to listen to the music.) But for most of the recorded time the clapping isn’t that authoritative, instead rather like an acoustic limp handshake. One could read that as a rejection of craftsmanship, going against the grain of the instrument, like Lachenmann would write for handclaps. But since clapping hands is not an instrument with conventions that would need challenging (outside of Flamenco?), the piece during these passages only carries as long as you’re interested in the spectacle of gauging your own reactions, listening to the sound of yourself waiting for the next clap.
And yet, when we now think back, we wouldn’t have listened to the sound of a single Fluxus clap in that manner. And if we indeed did Manage to listen to the drip, we accepted it such as it was. There is today a world of decadent subtlety added to our listening to barely expressive stuff.
This subtlety seems to have been the crux for Unami’s solo performance at the Amplify festival in September 2011 in New York. The festival again has a thread on the i hate music board, where organizer Jon Abbey, musicians involved and audience members discuss proceedings and link to reviews – it is a wealth of sources that one could only wish for on the earlier Fluxus pieces, where it is mostly impossible to find audience reactions that are not a mere anecdotal recounting of events and gadgets used.
Unami in his solo performance built shaky edifices from cardboard boxes held up by bits of tape and of string, which he then gave to audience members to hold, and to finally bring the structure down with, on his cue.
In these areas of improvised music, the choice of an instrument can give the sounds a conceptual drift: the no-input mixing board of Toshimaru Nakamura or the exposed computer hard drives of Jin Sangtae have such poignancy that they make a great story and lend themselves to academic interpretation, whether one could actually make good music with them or no (luckily, these two can). Mattin, if he plays, is often credited as playing computer feedback, which is not immediate art like the above examples, but still offers sufficient references. Keith Rowe laid his guitar flat like Pollock the canvas. But cardboard boxes, no.
I seem to remember that Cage once said it wasn’t necessary to have witnessed a performance of 4′ 33”, but it would suffice to know it existed. As we have seen, that would be an understatement, since the weight of theory built upon the piece can hardly be carried up on stage, and the sound of not playing the piano tends to be drowned out by the poses the performer strikes. The story of “the silent piece”, like the story of refusing to enter a duo, like the butterfly or the drip, can be told in many a meaningful way that allows the work to live beyond the reach of the actual realization. These stories are the meat of most of what we have seen so far. Charlotte Moorman was maybe the greatest example of that: playing naked in cellophane, playing blocks of ice or jamming a bare-chested video artist between her knees and playing him – together with a set of beautiful photographs and fun videos sending postcards from the events – make one forget the scarcity of satisfying recorded sound. Even the clapping, while it does not make a great story, is a very organic way of asking the question: is that which you perceive still music, and should it be listened to as such – is it, indeed, worth spending any attention on at all? – and you can ponder that from my description above without having heard the sound or seen the movements.
Of course cardboard boxes hold a lot of references, too: they can be works of art (Warhol and Rauschenberg), they have been piled up in Fluxus (remember Kaprow’s kid in the Stockhausen show), one could think of makeshift poor houses in slums, of coverings for the homeless. Of moving the household. The artist’s favourite association, I learn from a post by Abbey, is filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s use of cardboard boxes and their sound effects, especially in action scenes. My favourite association (especially when taking into account Unami’s duo with Takahiro Kawaguchi from the same festival) would be dance, something like Grand Union, an improvisational (!) dance group that grew out of Yvonne Rainer’s ensemble (here’s a pic I found of them at the Walker Art Center 1972)… Still, it doesn’t add up, the cardboard box as a prop is so familiar that it makes no sense to look for forebears or anything: there is no story, no meaning to get out of it which would in any way transcend the very traditional discourse about “low” materials and art.
It would seem you had to be there. The first-hand reports suggest that it was very special witnessing the performance. Abbey relates the reaction of his wife Yuko Zama (who also took the two pictures from the Amplify festival I’m using here), describing how she “tried to spend some of the concert just paying attention to the sounds: the string pulling through the cracks of the box, the tape pulling out, the fan (with and without the plastic bags), etc, etc. She noticed that Unami was paying attention to the sonic element of the show very carefully, she was very impressed by this element and with the balance between this and the visual components.” So here, finally, the sounds take centre stage (of course this performance, which contained no external sounds or instruments, took place at a music festival, but remember that Fluxus events were also called flux concerts and the pieces had musical titles – the performance situations were on the whole rather similar, give or take half a century).
For Unami’s duo with Takahiro Kawaguchi later in the festival there is a detailed eye-witness report from Mark Flaum (mudd). Proceedings do seem to recall a choreography more than a composition, and they do show parallels with Fluxus performances in the matter-of-fact kitchen-sink surrealism of events: “The performance began with a ladder. / Or maybe the performance began with the musicians crashing and banging in the back corner of the room. Hurling boxes and detritus as they collected mic stands, extra chairs, cardboard and other debris to heap on and around the ladder. The light was low, and Kawaguchi placed flashlights to build freakish shadows on the walls… Both operated with a firm sense of purpose, marching up the growing pile, firmly placing the pole or plank they had collected in the back, and then marching to the back without any signs of communication between them. Unami tied his string to the top of the ladder and abandoned it, so later when he returned to retrieve it he had to step over a heap of chairs and a pole without hesitating. With it he strung a line from the ladder to the back of the stage, which he proceeded to hang with garbage bags like laundry… Meanwhile Kawaguchi…hung a trash bag from one of the hanging poles and began to fill it with the clockworks seen in his previous set, cranking them once again with a pair of pliers to set them ticking away…”
What is especially interesting here is that the two had published a CD made from sounds produced in a presumably similar manner, Teatro Assente (2011) on Abbey’s Erstwhile label. Flaum: “So there was sound. If my eyes were closed I can only imagine it would have been quite similar to the content of the album, filled with thuds, buzzes, and clicks. Not to mention the crying and the noise.” (Unami had cried here, too; also, the performance seems to have ended with a noise that could be interpreted as more conventional music.) “But to be honest it was very difficult to process the sound with my attention captured by the rest of the performance.”
Teatro Assente is not a postcard of some performance act that has happened; rather, it is an audio performance of staged sound. It is not narrative in the sense of a radio play; still, there are actors, most distinctly a woman placing her steps in front of the microphone or speaking a few muffled words. The tracks on the record have titles that do suggest something happening – for example “she entered the theatre and took her seat, 5 times at the same time (beep on her appearance and disappearance)” – but while these are narrative suggestions that might help one to perceive suspense arcs within a track, they are not written from a (fictional) listener perspective. They can also obscure how perfectly each sonic gesture is placed within distinctly outlined listening spaces. The different layers of sound are clearly defined and fleshed out: that of sounds happening and of post-treatment, of narrative and non-objective sounds – and if I now go into the sound picture blow-by-blow, I can’t help spinning my own narrative because these images keep coming up…but I will try to keep them down sufficiently to make the structure of the whole piece as clear as possible.
(As a last aside before that, it should be mentioned that Wolf Vostell, whom we met at the very beginning of this text sticking pins into raw meat, beginning in 1959 made a series of audio pieces within his so-called dé-coll/ages, where he played, cut up or treated field recordings and found sound. Some of these used recordings from happenings, and Manifesto, from 1963, with its thumps and slashes over the background of chatting gallery visitors, would especially qualify as an antecedent here, although the sounds hadn’t been worked into anything comparably complex – it is a collaged, decontextualized slice of life as art, or of art as life source material, the perfect sound for Vostell’s agenda. Collected on an LP in 1983, reissued on Tochnit Aleph.)
Teatro Assente begins with a beehive of Kawaguchi’s clockworks, as mentioned by Flaum above, falling into little rhythms and out again, busily shifting phases. The street outside is a distinct hum, so the clockworks are inside, this is where the artists sit in the sound picture, our creative backplane, and the ticking is oddly relaxing… Then, after 4 1/2 minutes the play begins: an entrance, steps coming up over a wooden floor. Very deliberate footfall: these steps want to be heard, they’re acting for the microphone. They cross the aural field from right to left, where they stop, a few muffled words confirm our suspicion it’s a woman. The same back out again. The moment she’s on the threshold suddenly the clockwork hive stops, having existed just for her. Her steps recede up the stairs.
The second track starts out with a more quiet room ambience, the woman enters more naturally, you hear her snuffle her nose. She starts running some kind of little machinery, maybe a weaving loom (the woman alone with her domestic chores, and does that count as a Vermeer reference?) If we take the title, “her cellphone rang while she was watching the blank screen of the theatre”, the noise would have been an empty projector rattling, to my ears it’s homework. But no matter, the atmosphere is different from the first track in that the action seems not directed at the microphone. Quiet again, then something falls, distinct shades of cymbal/drums within the crash stressing the staged performance element, while other noises that sound more like tin cans and pot lids are of domestic origin. Quiet again, silence punctured by falling stuff. Almost eight minutes in, a mobile buzzes on mute, muffled conversation. Some castanet clockwork starts to twitch until its spine is broken… And then suddenly the woman’s steps appear right near our ear on centre stage again and take their pronounced exit, as always panning sideways, dragging a tin can behind them. And all that had happened before in this track in retrospect seems to have been a projection achieved by stagecraft.
The third entrance is announced through beeps that set up a laboratory vibe. Very slow steps hit the stage, then slightly quicker ones performed by the same feet overlayer those, then another pair, up until five same persons are in the room at the same time. This happens twice like a repeat experiment to check the results. The timelines are multitracked as in a multiple exposure, like Foley sound signifying parallel universes (can those be heterotopias, too, or ways into them, at least?).
The fourth track is the comedown from that. You are here.
Piece number five puts the clockworks from the intro into a distance. After two minutes comes a drawn-out “oi” from a male voice and bass drum thumps that indicate the man is sitting at a drum set. White noise that increases in volume, some squeaks and steps, and then a clank that is picked out of its natural acoustic surroundings by a gripper from behind the soundboard and put through a heavy delay, repeating repeating. Immediately the clockworks fall into step. If only you apply a little postproduction to your life the everyday becomes musical. Later huge locks open metal bolts to large doors, playing into the artificial vastness of the delay space. The delays are very hands on, you can practically hear somebody at the controls twiddling the feedback and time knobs of the effects pedal, with the ambience going stutteringly up at a higher and down at a lowering repeat rate. This treated delay space relates to the multiple realities in the previous two tracks. Authority over the soundspace has been firmly established.
The next piece demonstrates the capriciousness of authority, starting close up to the clockwork hive, more rhythmical, less complex, with steps walking around our creative centre. Then a sudden cut to a wealth of birdscape (the title suggests a tropical rain forest, but some birds in here sound strangely familiar).
Track seven starts with a much quieter room tone again, which relates it to the second. Only there is no female protagonist, just vague nervous shuffling. An accidental tapping of amplified guitar string gives us not enough of a warning. Then the fuzz of guitar effect sounding like cheap screamo preset on a cheap portable amp and then…picture-book black metal riffage, clean and not too loud, rather of the diligent guitar shop variant. Serious, drily executed, like an exercise. Befuddled tapping exercises on the higher frets lead us almost into shred territory, before the intensity riffage brings it home again, bolstered by a noise track hinting at real aggression, until the amp is suddenly switched off. The dryness of deliverance and the sort of unquestioned authority…if I had to name the style I’d call it executive metal.
The final title track is by far the longest of all, so you would expect a sort of finale summing up all the parts –which is sort of what you get up to a point, only the character has been changed. The shuffling is more rhythmic than before (closer to music), an easily recognizable bass drum thump that signals music! where before the thumps might have been careless activity. A motor is humming tunefully (closer to music). Things are picked up, beaten in a vague rhythm, thrown away. Like exploring the room, sounding the room, finding out what might be useful for musical performance. In fact like the performance at Amplify described above might have sounded. This is the only track that offers no obvious sonic fiction but stays with the narrative of the sounds themselves.
But then suddenly it becomes a fiction through spoken word into the microphone: “Dokoda”, a man says, something other dokoda. Metal guitar mostly focussing around a single note. A huge stomp right in the middle of the aural field, then, like tin cans rolling out from that, amplified sound tentacles outstretching, the only “gorgeous” sound on the record… And there I notice the tension has gone. The big arc, the precise work with space and gesture and the setting up of sound stages for possible narratives of the earlier tracks, all sacrificed. Instead we proceed into (post-)deconstruction. The steps walking across the stereo field are now panned back and forth hysterically. Other sounds too, somebody behind the mixing board is proving to me that I can’t trust anything, that he can do anything with this blend of realities that he chooses. Like an unreliable narrator. The moment I make a note of that: rotor blades coming up the horizon: Apocalypse Now, Heart of Darkness, textbook unreliable narrator!
Later I ask Jon Abbey what the words the voice says mean, and it turns out they are first “where it is” and then “where am I”, and I feel a bit like having been cheated out of a reality at the end of a movie, when it’s all revealed to have been only a dream.
One would have wanted a summing-up. Or at least a ladder.
But it just breaks off…
[Picture] (Audience object, seated and provoked by Claes Oldenburg at his happening Ray Gun, Judson Gallery, New York 1960, with Kaprow in a beard near top left and Cage laughing the loudest.)