Friday, June 06, 2008

Fluxus and musical notation

At Tate Modern last month, the Long Weekend (24th to 26th May) included a series of free concerts featuring musical scores and events by Fluxus artists. I saw a performance of Ay-O’s ‘Rainbow No. 2 for Orchestra’ ('A totally inexperienced orchestra plays a 7 note major scale on various instruments' – in this case including banjo, bagpipes and harp); Takehisa Kosugi’s MICRO 1; the 1963 piece F/H Trace by Robert Watts ('A French horn is filled ping-pong balls. Performer enters the stage, faces the audience, and bows toward the audience so that the objects cascade out of the bell of the horn into the audience'); and a Willem de Ridder flute piece (performed by the man himself).

Other musical events which I didn’t see included performances of Yoko Ono’s Sky Piece for Jesus Christ (1965 - a chamber orchestra is gradually wrapped in bandages) ; Anagram for Strings (Yasunao Tone, 1963); Alison Knowles conducting her Newspaper Music (1965 – performers read from newspapers in time and volume according to composer’s instructions); Solo for Balloons by George Maciunas (see image); and various responses to La Monte Young’s Draw a Straight Line and Follow It.

All of these works from the early 1960s high point of Fluxus are characterised by a playful approach to performance and notation, as well as an implicit critique of the role of the artistic or musical specialist – in the programme Alice Koegel (curator) notes: ‘One of the most unique aspects of Fluxus was the ‘free license’ that artists gave one another in interpreting their works. In fact, many Fluxus objects and performances began as a text or score open to interpretation by anyone at any time’. An invite for the Festival of Misfits in London in 1962 declared: 'We make music which is not Music, poems that are not Poetry, paintings that are not Painting, but music that may fit poetry, poetry that may fit paintings, paintings that may fit... something'.

Related territory is explored in an article by Simon Yuill in the latest edition of Mute magazine, All problems of notation will be sold by the masses. Yuill compares the recent practice of livecoding – where music is generated by writing and playing around with software code – with previous collaborative experimental efforts to step outside of traditional musical notation, including Cornelius Cardew and the Scratch Orchestra (1969-1972) and the work of jazz musicians such as Sun Ra.

I was struck by the fact that Ornette Coleman used the term ‘free playing’ in opposition to the term ‘improvisation’ ‘on the grounds it was often applied to black music by white audiences to emphasise some innate intuitive musicality that denied the heritage of skills and formal traditions that the black musician drew upon’ (Yuill). He quotes Coleman’s statement that ‘during the time when segregation was strong… the [black] musicians had to go on stage without any written music. The musicians would be backstage, look at the music, then leave the music there and go out and play it… they had a more saleable appeal if they pretended to not know what they were doing. The white audience felt safer’. As someone’s who shares Simon Reynolds’ (and evidently Steve Albini’s) instinctive suspicion of some aspects of jazz improvisation, this is music to my ears

(I freely admit that my scanty knowledge of jazz precludes making any meaningful judgment about it. I vividly remember a conversation at a party years ago - it was in a squat in St Agnes Place in South London- in which I had this epiphany that the universe of music is full of more worlds than anyone could have time to fully explore in one lifetime. Later I decided that I would never again force myself to try and like music that didn’t appeal to me just because it was cool when there was so much music that did appeal to me that I didn’t have time to listen to. For me at least, life is too short for jazz - or at least it has been so far. Like a bit of Sun Ra though!)

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