Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends, MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art in New York recently concluded a large exhibition of works by Robert Rauschenberg, billed as the “first 21st-century retrospective of the artist.” In 1999, I attended what was probably the last major 20th-century retrospective at The Guggenheim, which resulted in mixed and complicated feelings about his work. I was skeptical of the white-on-white paintings and openly detested the pieces that consisted entirely of unfolded cardboard boxes; but there were other works that were captivating, like his sculptural paintings with electrical elements. This new exhibition elevates the entirety of Rauschenberg’s work by placing it in the context of his many collaborators, both in the New York School of the 1950s and 1960s and beyond. The show also demonstrated the importance of place in the development and evolution of his art.


[Robert Rauschenberg. Grand Black Tie Sperm Glut (1987). Riveted street signs and other metal parts, 60 x 121 x 14″ (152.4 x 307.3 x 35.6 cm), Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York]

The source of his many collaborations can be traced to his time at Black Mountain College. He studied with (and was influenced by) Josef and Anni Albers. It is here that he met John Cage and Merce Cunningham, as well as fellow visual artists Cy Twombly, Susan Weil, and more.

John Cage 4'33
[John Cage. 4’33” (In Proportional Notation) [1952/1953]. Ink on paper, page (each): 11 x 8 1/2″ (27.9 x 21.6 cm); sheet (each, unfolded): 11 x 16 15/16″ (27.9 x 43.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis.]

Cage’s 4’33” is a piece that I admire greatly. He later claimed that his encounter with Rauschenberg’s white paintings was a major inspiration for the piece. In the context of place and collaboration, the white paintings take on a significance that was lost the first time I saw them. (I still don’t like the cardboard boxes, though.) One can also see in his white (and black) pieces the influence and evolution away from the precise minimalism of Josef Albers.

The friendships and collaborations formed at Black Mountain continued in his work abroad and then at his studios in downtown Manhattan, first at Fulton Street and then at Pearl Street. One amusing collaboration was a long ink-on-paper piece featuring the tire treads of a car driven by John Cage.


[Robert Rauschenberg with John Cage. Automobile Tire Print (detail). 1953. Tire-tread mark (front wheel) and tire-tread mark with house paint (rear wheel) made by Cage’s Model A Ford, driven by Cage over twenty sheets of typewriter paper fastened together with library paste, mounted on fabric, 16 1/2 in. × 22 ft. 1/2 in. (41.9 × 671.8 cm). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis. Photo: Don Ross. © 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation]

Rauschenberg continued to work with simple elements to produce three-dimension works both on and off the wall that would lead to his celebrated “Combines.” Some of these early pieces were quite small and often focused on just one or two elements, such as the piece Untitled (c. 1953) consisting of wooden and linen boxes. As an interesting aside, the original fabric box was destroyed by Rachel Rosenthal’s cat – another example of chance collaboration.


[Unititled (1953). Wood box with lid and removable balsa wood-and-fabric cube. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase.]

During the period of his early Combines and red paintings, Rauschenberg collaborated with Jasper Johns on a large mixed-media set design for Minutiae a dance piece by Cunningham with music by Cage. While red was the principal color of the piece, it also brought in a variety of other textures and materials, including wood, mirrors, newspaper and even a paint color chart.

Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Minutiae
[Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Minutiae (1954). Oil, paper, fabric, newspaper, wood, paint sample color chart, graphite, metal, and plastic, with hanging mirror, on wood supports 84 1/2 x 81 x 30 1/2″ (214.6 x 205.7 x 77.5 cm) Private Collection Switzerland. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.]

The music is very sparse, and the dance moves between very slow minimal motion and periods of frenzied activity. These contrasts are reflected in the set’s various materials and textures. Remy Charlip’s costume designs also seem to reflect the colors and patterns of the set.

In 1960, Rauschenberg participated in Jean Tinguely’s seminal performance piece Homage to New York. Tinguely and his collaborators assembled a large sculptural installation that was designed to self-destruct over the course of the performance, which took place in the sculpture garden of MoMA. Only a few fragments of the original piece remain today.

Fragment from Homage to New York
[Jean Tinguely. Fragment from Homage to New York (1960). Painted metal, fabric, tape, wood, and rubber tires. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist.]

Rauschenberg’s contributions included “The Money Thrower”, a mechanical contraption with springs, an electric heater, gunpowder, and silver dollars.

The Money Thrower
[The Money Thrower for Tinguely’s H.T.N.Y. (Homage to New York) [1960].  Electric heater with gunpowder, metal springs, twine, and silver dollars. 6 3/4 × 22 1/2 × 4″ (17.1 × 57.2 × 10.2 cm) Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Gift of Pontus Hultén]

One can also see the performative at play in some of his larger Combines, including Gold Standard, a collaborative piece with artist Alex Hay.


[Robert Rauschenberg and Alex Hay. Gold Standard (1964). Oil, paper, printed reproductions, metal speedometer, cardboard box, metal, fabric, wood, string, pair of men’s leather boots, and Coca-Cola bottles on gold fabric folding Japanese screen with electric light, rope, and ceramic dog on bicycle seat and wire-mesh base 84 1/4 × 142 1/8 × 51 1/4″ (214 × 361 × 130.2 cm) Glenstone.]

 

These collaborations and the increased presence of electrical elements and technology in Rauschenberg’s work foreshadowed E.A.T., the “Experiments in Art and Technology”, an organization which he co-founded with Billy Klüver, Robert Whitman and the engineer Fred Waldhauer. Among the works that came out of E.A.T. was Mud Muse, in which a large glass case filled with bentonite and water is excited by a sound recording fed into an air compression system. You can see a bit of the piece in this video:

Mud Muse. Robert Rauschenberg. #moma #nyc

A post shared by CatSynth / Amanda C (@catsynth) on

Mud Muse was a collaboration with Carl Adams, George Carr, Lewis Ellmore, Frank LaHaye and Jim Wilkinson.

Place is an important element of many pieces. This is perhaps no more apparent than in Tinguely’s Home to New York. But the influence of New York and the artists who coalesced there is apparent in his solo works as well, sometimes visually and sometimes spiritually. Eventually, Rauschenberg moved his home and studio to Captiva Island in Florida, where we worked on a larger scale and in a more solitary manner than during his days in New York. While there are currents that run through his work in both the New York and Captiva periods, the later Captiva works seemed to lack a bit of the edge of the earlier New York work – or perhaps it is simply part of bias towards the city that I always return to.


[Estate (1963). Oil and silkscreen-ink print on canvas 95 3/4 x 69 3/4″ (243.2 x 177.2 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of the Friends of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1967.]

There was far more in this exhibition of over 250 individual works than I can cover in this article. The continuity and focus on collaboration made it not too overwhelming to take it all in. I quite enjoyed the show, and it has given me a renewed appreciation overall for Robert Rauschenberg’s career and body of work.

CatSynth Pic: John Cage with Losa Rinpoche

Merce Cunningham John Cage tribute

A tribute to John Cage on his birthday (September 5), by the Merce Cunningham Trust.  The photo is courtesy of the John Cage Trust.

John Cage’s beloved black cat was named Losa Rinpoche.  From the John Cage Trust (on his 101st birthday in 2013):

John Cage had a very close relationship with his second black cat, Losa.  (His first black cat, Skookum, was tragically set loose on the streets of New York by a well-meaning worker on the roof. John was so bereft, Andy Culver told him we were going to have to send him back to Zen School.) One of their favorite games together was for John to put Losa under a cardboard box.  Losa would then move around the loft, the box on his back, weirdly animated.  I was horrified the first time I saw him do this. “He must be scared!” I cried. John just laughed. He said Losa liked it, and, furthermore, his new name was now Losa Rinpoche Taxi Cab.  Of course, Losa would, after a time, simply shrug the box off, look disdainfully at us both, and calmly walk away.

MoMA: Rene Magritte, Isa Genzken, John Cage, Dorothea Rockburne

There is always a lot to see at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) whenever I return to New York. This includes major exhibitions as well as smaller surprises tucked away in the labyrinth of galleries on the lower floors.

Of course, the most featured (and crowded) show was Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938. The exhibition is not a retrospective, but rather concentrated on a period of about ten years during which Rene Magritte developed his surrealist language and techniques. There are the deceptively simple scenes of everyday objects with unexpected or even disturbing details, as well as the early conceptual works that demonstrated his thinking about art, including This Is Not a Pipe.

moma_magritte_treacheryofimages
[René Magritte (Belgium, 1898-1967). La trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) (The Treachery of Images [This is Not a Pipe]). 1929. Oil on canvas. 23 3/4 x 31 15/16 x 1 in. (60.33 x 81.12 x 2.54 cm). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. © Charly Herscovici -– ADAGP – ARS, 2013. Photograph: Digital Image © 2013 Museum Associates/LACMA,Licensed by Art Resource, NY]

Magritte, Rene
[René Magritte (Belgium, 1898-1967). Le portrait (The Portrait). 1935. Oil on canvas. 28 7/8 x 19 7/8″ (73.3 x 50.2 cm). Museum of Modern Art. Gift of Kay Sage Tanguy. © Charly Herscovici -– ADAGP – ARS, 2013]

While the exhibition doesn’t include some of his works with which I was most familiar (such as Les valeurs personelles), it was an opportunity to see early pieces I had never seen before. One can see in all of these the focus on out-of-cotext objects and repeated motifs such as bowler hats. The use of text and images disconnected from conventional meaning appears through many of the pieces as well. In addition to the paintings, which dominated the exhibition, were also collages and 3D objects from pre-existing elements, popular forms among Magritte’s contemporaries.

Located across the hall from Magritte, Isa Genzken’s large retrospective exhibition was quite a contrast in terms of its scope and style. Rather than focused on a period of the artist’s career, it covered almost four decades from the 1970s to the present, during which Genzken’s practice changed significantly. Her earliest pieces indirectly incorporated elements of sound, with sculptures representing waveforms linearly or in polar projection (e.g., “ellipsoids”), and photographs of 1970s stereo system advertisements. From there, she moved to themes representing modernism and urban landscape, including in a series of large works made of concrete or other building materials, displayed together in a large room. While the largest suggested modern architecture, some of the concrete pieces suggested urban ruins.

Isa Genzken: Retrospective
[Installation view of the exhibition Isa Genzken: Retrospective. November 23, 2013–March 10, 2014. © 2013 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Jonathan Muzikar]

From the very minimal and geometric, Genzken’s work seems to have taken a turn for the more playful, with a large variety of colorful mixed-media pieces. She also poked fun at artistic conventions with her Fuck the Bauhaus series of assemblages.

060_IG
[Isa Genzken. Fuck the Bauhaus #4, 2000. Plywood, Plexiglas, plastic slinky, clipboards, aluminum light shade, flower petals, tape, printed paper, shells, and model tree. 88 3/16 x 30 5/16 x 24″ (224 x 77 x 61 cm). Private Collection, Turin. Courtesy AC Project Room, New York. © Isa Genzken]

There is a more serious tone, and one simultaneously hopeful and melancholy in her pieces made in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York. The event affected her deeply, as it did many of us, and I found myself lingering with these last pieces to find the emotion along with the lines, shapes and colors.

It seems like every visit to MoMA includes some show that directly or indirectly includes John Cage. This time, there was a small exhibition There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33″ built around the museum’s original score of the piece (in proportional notation). Works from the disparate schools such as Fluxus and minimalism and spanning a wide range of artists including Robert Rauchenberg, Josef Albers, Yoko Ono and Dick Higgens are included, and each some way explores the concepts of silence and space exemplified by 4’33”.

1636.2012 2239.2008

[John Cage. 4′33″ (In Proportional Notation). 1952/1953. Ink on paper, each page: 11 x 8 1/2″ (27.9 x 21.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis, 2012. © 2013 John Cage Trust]
[ Dick Higgins. Graphis No. 19 (Act One of Saint Joan at Beaurevoir). 1959. Felt-tip pen, ink, and pencil on paper, 14 x 16 7/8″ (35.6 x 42.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008. © 2013 Dick Higgins]

The minimal and conceptual is also at the heart of Dorothea Rockburne: Drawing Which Makes Itself. The exhibition, which has the same name as one of the artist’s early exhibitions in 1973, focuses on the use of carbon paper and basic drawing processes to realize large-scale works on paper and on the walls and floor. Some, like Triangle, Rectangle, Small Square were self contained and made the simple shapes and curves life-size, while pieces covering entire walls and floors gave the concept of drawing a larger-than-life but nonetheless inviting quality.

164.2004
[Dorothea Rockburne. Triangle, Rectangle, Small Square. 1978. Colored pencil on transparentized paper on board. 33 x 43″ (83.8 x 109.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Sally and Wynn Kramarsky. © 2013 Dorothea Rockburne / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

There was much more to be seen at MoMA, some of which like the recent photography acquisitions can be difficult to summarize in an article like this. Like many of the places I visit in New York, I really should be going more than once a year.

San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF): Celebrating John Cage

Today we review the opening concert of the Thirteenth Annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF). The concert was a tribute to John Cage on his centennial (one of many) and took place at SFMOMA. It specifically featured four of his conceptual pieces with chance processes or novel instrumentation.

The main included a performance of Cage’s Score Without Parts on SFMOMA’s rooftop terrace, conducted by Gino Robair with texts by Tom Djll. The performance was in conjunction with the opening of the museum’s intriguing minimalist design exhibition Field Conditions. There were even hors d’oeuvres served on tiles from one of the pieces in the exhibit. Unfortunately, because of another commitment I only arrived at the tail end of the performance, so I did not hear enough to reasonably review it.


[sfSoundGroup. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The main concert opened with members of sfSoundGroup performing Cartridge Music. This is the same piece that concluded the Music of Changes: Variation VIII concert a few weeks earlier, and featured the same personnel: Matthew Goodheart, Kyle Bruckmann, Matt Ingalls, and Tom Dambly. However, I felt that this was a stronger performance. Some of this may have been the staging and the sound support, but it also seemed that the cues for various elements were crisper and tighter, and the selection of sounds to use with the contact mics (i.e,, “catridges”) was more focused and suited to the structure of the piece. As in all music, practice and review from earlier performances helps.

This was followed by a performance of Cage’s most famous work, 4’33”. Normally, the piece is for a single pianist, but this particular performance featured a laptop ensemble. After all, it is a festival of electronic music.


[4’33” performed with laptops. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The performers (mostly members of SFEMF’s steering committee) sat in silence, as required by the score of the piece, with a few motions here and there. The audience mostly listened respectfully as well, I only noticed a few deliberate comments at soft volume. Thus, it was a successfully executed performance of the piece. I hope none of the laptops crashed.

The score for Fontana Mix, which is itself a work of art with curving lines and randomly distributed points, is actually a tool for generating other pieces. Aria is one such piece that Cage himself generated. For this performance, Fontana Mix with electronic sounds and Aria for voice were layered on top of one another, with Daniel Steffey and Christina Stanley performing the layers on electronics and voice, respectively.


[Daniel Steffey and Christina Stanley. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

My least favorite performance of a Cage composition was a boring and long version of Fontana Mix, so I had a little bit of trepidation. But this realization by Steffey and Stanley was vibrant and dynamic. Stanley’s vocals moved between numerous styles of singing (e.g., classical, popular, cabaret) and languages, punctuated by percussive strikes on found objects. Steffey’s foundation of electronic timbres was strong as well, with a lot of variation that left room for the vocals. Using these elements, they were able to realize genuine musical phrases and structure with a sense of narrative from the abstract scores.

The final performance of the evening was a realization of Variations II by Guillermo Galindo that featured a mariachi band. A mariachi band performing John Cage is certainly unusual, but in truth no different from any other interpretation of his scores with open instrumentation. For this performance, a four-piece group Mariachi Nueva Generación with traditional costumes and instrumentation, including violin, trumpet, the distinctive large guitarrón mexicano, and guitar.


[Mariachi Nueva GeneraciónPhoto: PeterBKaars.com.a]

Like Fontana Mix, Variations II is based on graphical elements that are combined to form instances of the composition. Specifically in this case, the interpreter combines lines and dots that represent musical elements that can then be notated for the performers. The result in this instance was a very sparse texture. The musicians would often play a single or pair of disjoint notes surrounded by periods of silence. There were only a few moments where multiple members of the ensemble played at the same time. The texture is a familiar one from realizations of Cage’s indeterminate pieces, but the overall experience with the band was a novel one.

The musical performance was preceded by a video with documentation and commentary produced by Jen Cohen. The video had some fun moments, with befuddled Mills professors reacting to the idea of a mariachi band performing Cage, and allusions to the graphical elements of the Variations II score. It didn’t feel like it was necessary to the experience of the performance. Nonetheless, Galindo considered it an “inseparable part of the piece and one doesn’t exist without the other.”

Overall, it was a strong opening concert for the festival, and it was quite well attended.

Happy 100th Birthday John Cage!

Wednesday, September 5, marked the 100th birthday of John Cage, one of our musical heroes. And we would like to celebrate with my favorite photo of him featuring him with a very Luna-like black cat.

John Cage’s centennial has been celebrated widely this year in concerts, exhibitions and articles. Locally, we have had numerous concerts, including a series by sfSound that included a concert of Cage’s most experimental music. I was privileged to play in Music for Amplified Toy Pianos at that concert. On the other end of the spectrum, I heard a concert of chamber music, for voice, piano and prepared piano. And last night I attended a concert of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival celebrating Cage, and event that included a performance of his most famous work 4’33”. These three concerts show the large range of his music and influence, in unconventional instrumentation, chance processes, and electronics. But his influence also extends beyond his music – he was a major influence in Fluxus (though how closely associated he was the actual movement is unclear to me), and his scores often turn up in museums as works of visual or conceptual art. And of course we have referenced him many times in articles on this site, including a mention of his 99th birthday one year ago.

There is even a John Cage Prepared Piano App for iPhone and iPad, authorized by the John Cage Trust with well-mastered samples from his prepared-piano music.

I have been having a lot of fun with it and hope to use it in a tribute of my own sometime soon.

John Cage, The Music of ChAnGEs: Variation VIII

Today we review The Music of ChAnGEs: Variation VIII, a concert in a yearlong series by sfSound celebrating John Cage’s centennial. This particular concert, which took place at The Lab, featured some of Cage’s more adventurous and experimental compositions, including works involving electronics and noise elements. These more conceptual pieces involved use of simple electronics, household objects, or unexpected musical sources. The scores are mostly based on sequences of instructions with absolute or relative time scales. In addition to 4’33” (which was not on the program), these are among the most celebrated examples of Cage’s music, but also among the more misunderstood and even reviled. I fall unequivocally on the side of celebration of these more radical and pioneering works, and thus I was privileged to be able to participate in this concert myself as well.

The pre-concert and intermission music featured an interpretation of One3 by John Leidecker (aka Wobbly). The piece contains the instruction to “arrange the soundsystem so that the whole hall is on the edge of feedback, without feeding back. The result is an abstract texture that goes from silent to occasionally quite loud at the unstable boundary, but the sound was also blended with the ambience of the conversations and commotion in the hall.

The formal concert opened with Radio Music. In this piece, each performer is given a written part with a sequence of AM radio frequencies to which to tune his or her radio (traditional analog broadcast AM/FM radios are required to perform this piece, no internet or digital-broadcast radios allowed). What, if anything, is audible on those particular frequencies is of course up to chance – sometimes it is just static, while other times one tunes into an actual station. Additionally, the performers were free to walk around the hall and to interpret the flow of time among positions in their part. The result was a spatialized electronic music texture with the radios playing the part of synthesizers with noise generators, distorted sine waves, and the occasional sampled recording. Particular combinations of sportscasts, music and tuning noise could be quite humorous.

This was followed by Music for Amplified Toy Pianos. Cage is often credited with bringing the toy piano into the realm of serious music with his 1948 Suite for Toy Piano. In Music for Amplified Toy Pianos, he pushes the instrument further with the use of contract microphones, amplification, and more percussive interactions with the instrument itself. Like Radio Music, the score involves a series of instructions, indicating the pitches to be played by each performer, when to perform a “sound effect” on the instrument, and when to change the level on the associated amplifier – but in this piece, the times are given in absolute units. This was my station for the performance, with my own toy piano that was rescued from curbside dumping in New York. It has certainly had a better life at CatSynth HQ, and then the opportunity to appear in a concert like this!

Performing this piece accurately requires concentration – one must pay attention to the cues on his or her own part without being distracted by the other sounds. Nonetheless, like all ensemble music one is listening to overall sound. The texture of the piece is quite sparse, with individual disjoint notes punctuated by percussive sounds (hits, scrapes, etc.). The amplification changes add a strange sort of dynamic expression especially as the ear inevitably tries to pull together disparate parts into short phrases. There was not as much empty space in this performance as I heard on earlier recordings of the piece, in part due to our interpretation of the noise elements, which included longer-duration sounds like scraping a comb on the piano and the interaction of the amplifiers with ambient and electrical noises. It was a delight to play and to be able to at least partially listen to. The other performers for the piece included Kyle Bruckmann, Daniel Cullen, Tom Djll, Sivan Eldar, Matt Ingalls, and Hadley McCarroll.

The only piece on the program not written by Cage himself was a tribute by Christopher Burns entitled Unlit Cigarettes (for John Cage). Ostensibly a multi-movement chamber piece with voices, winds, and strings, it followed the theme of other pieces in the concert with unusual patterns and instructions for the performers. Among the most interesting were the instructions for one or more performers to play on another performer’s main instrument. For example, multiple performers attempted to make sounds from Burns’ guitar while he held it. There was also a recitation of a familiar-sounding text by Gertrude Stein in one movement. Her writing often involves repeated words and phrases, which made for very contrapuntal and rhythmic music. Burns was joined in the performance by Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, Tom Dambly on trumpet, Tara Flandreau on violin, Matt Ingalls on clarinet, John Ingle on saxophone, and Hadley McCarroll on voice. You can hear a bit of the performance in this video:

This was followed by one of Cage’s most conceptual pieces, 0’00”. The score of the piece consists of the single statement “In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.” It is often subtitled 4’33” no. 2, and although it has very little in common with the original 4’33”, it does represent another extreme of what can be considered music. The “deliberate action” in this particular performance involved Matt Ingalls’ sitting at a desk and writing checks to pay the musicians. A contact microphone picked up the sound of the writing and it was amplified into the hall. It wasn’t the most pleasant sound even when judged in comparison to the other extreme sounds of the evening, but it was a faithful rendition and the action was a humorous and appropriate choice for this concert. (And it’s nice to get paid for playing experimental music.)

[Photo by Tom Djll.]

The final piece before the intermission was Living Room Music. Dating back to 1940, this was one of Cage’s earlier pieces and explores the use of household objects as percussion instruments. Ingalls was again seated behind the desk from 0’00” with the other performers (Matthew Goodheart, Tom Dambly, and Hadley McCarroll) arranged to either side. Despite what was radical instrumentation for a concert setting at the time, the rhythmic work seemed rather conventional, with repeated polyrhythms and other patterns from idiomatic music. It was the combination of the staging, to look more like a room in a house with the desk and books, and the timbres of the “instruments” that allowed the concept of the piece to enter the listening experience. Once one accepted the setting, then focus shifts to the rhythms.


The concert resumed with Music for Six, a performance of Cage’s modular piece Music for _____ by six musicians, essentially the same ensemble that played Christopher Burns’ piece minus Burns. This is one the most flexible and reconfigurable pieces, even more of a “composition generating kit” than the others. Although the instrumentation for this performance was traditional chamber instruments, the piece calls for extensive use of microtones that push the instruments into different sonic territory.

The most unusual instrumentation of the evening was in Inlets (Improvisation III). The piece called for three amplified water-filled conch shells, one conch shell played like a trumpet, and pre-recorded sounds of fire. The honor of playing the conch shells fell to Matt Ingalls, Tom Dambly and Tom Djll.

There was much of the expected splashing and gurgling sounds that one would expect from the conch shells, but also surprising details such as short percussive sequences from the action of the water. These instruments were quite difficult for the performers to control, which makes the resulting music more unpredictable. At times it was also difficult to tell what was generated by the water in the shells and the fire in the recording, adding an aspect of “elemental ambiguity” to one’s enjoyment of the piece.

The concert concluded with a performance of Cartridge Music. The piece has a similar structure to Music for Amplified Toy Pianos and Inlets, but distills the concept further to just modified phonograph cartridges – realized for this performance using contact microphones – and found objects. The piece unfolded with each performer rubbing his or her respective found objects against the microphones according to the timed instructions in the score. The resulting music was once again quite sparse, but with a wide dynamic and timbral range from the array of objects used, including Matthew Goodheart’s cymbals (a miniature version of the system he presented a few weeks earlier at the Outsound Music Summit), metal objects in a bowl played by Kyle Bruckmann, and many others. By following the changes in texture, density and volume, one can start to hear phrasing and form in the music.

In listening to (and in some cases performing) the works in this concert with their emphasis on generative techniques, “compositional tools” and indeterminacy, I could not help but think of Fluxus, for which Cage was an important influence (though not technically a member). The connection to Fluxus provides a strong conceptual context as well as connection to visuals of the time and place where Cage created these works. Nonetheless, they all still stand out as excellent on a purely musical level in the concert setting, with sounds and textures that were quite enjoyable to listen to despite Cage’s undeserved reputation of writing impenetrable music. The concert was also well attended, with a full house packed into The Lab. A very successful night all around.

John Cage at Tom’s Place

Today we look at last week’s performance at “Tom’s Place” in Berkeley featuring vocal and piano music of John Cage. Cage is of course one of my musical heroes, and his works for prepared piano are among my favorites.

The concert opened with two of his early pieces for prepared piano performed by Janis Mercer. Waiting (1952) consisted of a long period of silence followed by a short repeated phrase, followed by more silence. It could be seen as a stepping stone of sorts between Cage’s prepared-piano music and 4’33”, which was also written in 1952. Mercer also performed Bacchanale (1940), Cage’s first piece for prepared piano. It opened with dramatic repeated tones that evolved into shorter and then longer repeated phrases. The harmonies were anxious and fit with the timbre of the prepared strings. Prepared piano is sometimes called “piano gamelan”, and the name seemed appropriate for this movement, with its polyrhythms and complex minor harmonies. The following movement was much more percussive, with something that suggested bass and hi-hat.


[Janis Mercer. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The concert continued with John Smalley performing Experiences No 2 for solo voice. This was the first of two pieces on the program that Cage wrote for Merce Cunningham dances. This one used a text by e.e. cummings. Musically, it had a static and yearning quality, with phrases having an “incomplete” feeling melodically.

This was followed by an untitled vocal interlude from Four Walls informally titled “Sweet Love”. It is a playful piece, both in terms of its music and text (which was written by Cunningham). The performance by Laurie Amat clearly brought out this quality.


[Laurie Amat. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The concert resumed after a short intermission with In a Landscape featuring Mercer again on piano. Not only was the piano of the “unprepared” variety, the piece was actually quite tonal, with a dreamlike quality and something approaching a folk melody If I was presented the piece and asked to guess the composer, I would be more likely to say Debussy than Cage.


[John Smalley and Laurie Amat. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The final piece of the evening was Litany for the Whale, song by John Smalley and Laurie Amat. The piece consists of slow vocalization of the letters of the word “whale” in call-and-response form over an extended period of time. The length of the piece (over twenty minutes) and slow motion make it quite challenging for both the performers and the audience. For the performers it was quite an endurance test and for those of us in the audience the challenge was to keep focused on it. What worked best was to go into a meditative state and focus on some details of sound while letting others simply pass.

The show was quite well attended with a full and appreciative house. Overall, I was glad I made the trip to Berkeley on a Wednesday evening to hear it.

Fluxus in New York (MoMA and NYU, November 2011)

There have been numerous events this year marking the 50th anniversary of the Fluxus, including two exhibitions that I visited while I was in New York last month.

Fluxus was first named by George Maciunas in 1961, and involved a small network of artists in the United States, Europe and Japan who were already exploring some of the new movement’s ideas. Fluxus art generally involved event scores, or series of text or visual instructions that could be used by other artists to perform the works in the manner of a musical score, and the combination of instructional pieces into “Fluxkits” or “Fluxboxes”, collections of printed cards, games and ideas packed into boxes. Although much of this art was meant to be performed live at Fluxus events that ranged from formal concerts to spontaneous street performances and happenings – Fluxus events “could be performed by anyone, anywhere, at any time” – it also created durable works in the form of films, musical instruments, sculptures, and the Fluxkits themselves.

These ideas are not unique to the formal Fluxus moment of the 1960s and 1970s. Certainly, many of the ideas were present in Dada several decades earlier, as well as John Cage’s experiments with nondeterminacy in the 1950s. And the elements of Fluxus and its precedents are deeply embedded in contemporary art – the DIY sensibilities are present in many of the exhibitions I attend around San Francisco, for example. As such, the exhibitions are at least as much a historical snapshot of a particular time as they are examples of a particular artistic style and practice.


Thing/Thought: Fluxus Editions, 1962–1978 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), presents works from the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection, which was acquired by the museum in 2008. It was one of the largest collections of its kind and contains over 8,000 artworks and artifacts, including Maciunas’ 1963 Fluxus Manifesto.

[Fluxus Manifesto. 1963. Offset. Edited, designed, and produced by George Maciunas. 8 3/16 x 5 11/16″ (20.8 x 14.5 cm). The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008.  Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art. (Click image to enlarge.)]

The manifesto itself contains many of the elements associated with Fluxus, the “do-it-yourself” appearance with combinations of found material, personal notes (typed or handwritten), and declarations of spontaneous activity and a break with the traditional media and practices of art.

The duality of an object being at once instructions for a spontaneous artistic expression and itself a work of art appeared throughout the exhibition. This can be seen in the event scores as well as the flux kits.

[Fluxkit. 1965-66, Fluxus Edition announced 1964. Vinyl-covered attaché case containing objects in various mediums. Assembled by George Maciunas. 11 x 44 x 28″ (27.9 x 111.8 x 71.1 cm). The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008.  Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.]

FluxKit 1965-6 is at once a practical and portable collection of objects for generating performances. But the individual pieces, such as the cards with their lettering and geometric shapes, and even the arrangement of the elements into the kit box itself, are quite elegant pieces of design. In particular, the cards seem to embody both the do-it-yourself aesthetic and the prevalent tenets of industrial modernist design in the 1960s.

The score for Yoriaki Matsudaira’s Co-Action for Cello and Piano is at once a recognizable extension of traditional music notation and a visual piece with great deal of symmetry and geometry. I have not had a chance yet to try out the piano part myself, but will do so at some point.

[Yoriaki Matsudaira. Co-Action for Cello and Piano I. 1963, Fluxus Edition announced 1963. (Click image to enlarge.)]

The scores of John Cage fit naturally into this context as well, and were included in some of the displays in the exhibition (indeed, it seems like I always encounter at least one Cage piece during every MoMA visit). How closely Cage was involved in any of the Fluxus productions is unclear. He was however a major inspiration for the movement, and several of the prominent artists including George Brecht and Dick Higgins attended his classes

Perhaps the most intriguing of all the pieces were the instruments in Joe Jones’ Mechanical Flux Orchestra.

[Joe Jones. Mechanical Flux Orchestra. c. 1966, Fluxus Edition announced 1966.]

Each of these instruments, such as the Mechanical Violin and Mechanical Bells incorporate electrical motors and strikers that allow them to be self playing. Although these instruments were created in 1966, they still look contemporary with many of the electromechanical musical installations created today, although the electronic elements have improved. Similarly, Metal Zitar #4 has a striking minimalist appearance that could be part of a contemporary installation.

The contributions of Nam Jun Paik to the exhibition also explored the musicality of Fluxus, including it in his “essay” The Monthly Review of the University for Avant-Garde Hinduism! (Postmusic). In this piece, typewritten bits of the text are scattered at odd angles with the same DIY aesthetic as Maciunas’ manifesto and begins with the words “I am tired of renewing the form of music. – serial or aleatoric, graphic or five lines, instrumental or bellcanto, screaming or action, tape or live …”. Yet the art for which he is most known, his beautiful analog video compositions, are quite musical, and indeed he was quite directly influenced by Cage and Stockhausen to produce this body of work.

I primarily know Paik and his video art external to any experience with Fluxus. The same can be said for Yoko Ono, who was not formally a member of the group around Maciunas but was a friend and he admired and promoted her work. Her piece Eyeblink (Fluxfilm no. 9) was part of the Silverman collection and included in the exhibition.

It’s hard not to notice the way the term “Fluxus” and the prefix “Flux-” permeate so much of the work and any attempt to discuss it. Fluxus spawned, Fluxscores, Fluxkits, Fluxboxes, Fluxfilms (as in the previous piece by Yoko Ono), and even Fluxshops.

[Willem de Ridder. European Mail-order Warehouse/Fluxshop. Winter 1964-65. Photo: Wim van der Linden/MAI. The Museum of Modern Art. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.]

Willem de Ridder’s European Mail-order Warehouse/Fluxshop from the winter of 1964-1965 contains a jumbled array of Fluxus editions and kits. A reproduction of the Fluxshop by Jon Hendricks and Larry Miller was featured in the exhibition.

[Jon Hendricks and Larry Miller.  Construction of European Mail-Order Warehouse/Fluxshop, 1984.  (Click image to enlarge.)]

As much as any piece of the exhibition, it is a snapshot back into the time that this art was originally made.

The exhibition will remain on display through January 16, 2012.


A concurrent exhibition Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life at the NYU Grey Art Gallery presented still more original works and artifacts, this time arranged as a series of “essential themes of human existence”, including “Happiness”, “Health”, “Who am I?” and “Freedom”.

The arrangement around the themes rather than chronology, medium or artist, gave the presentation a rich multi-media feel. For example, below we see a variety of works for “Happiness”, including a film by Yoko Ono, her conceptual object piece A Box of Smile in the cabinet, as well as others including Nye Ffarrabas’ rather prescient Rx: Stress Formula, a pill bottle with capsules with photocopied bits of paper.

[Yoko Ono, A Box of Smile, 1971/1984 ReFlux Edition,plastic box inscribed in gold: “a box of smile y.o. ’71.”Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College: AcquisitionsFund; GM.989.12.5.]

The wry sense of humor permeates much of the work in the exhibition, such as Ben Vautier’s glass bottle with a handwritten label “God” affixed to its side as answer to the question “God?” The arrangement by themes and the particular selections of pieces bring out this quality more than in the presentation at the MoMA, even though many of the same artists and types of work were featured.

Artists central to Fluxus, including Maciunas and Brecht, were well represented here. In contrast to the musical scores, some of Brecht’s event scores were quite minimalist, with the most extreme example being Exit which consists only of the single-word instruction “exit” and was featured (again with a bit of dry humor) under the theme of “Death?”

I did also get to see one of Nam Jun Paik’s pieces for modified television set, Zen for TV, which consists of a simple linear pattern crossing the middle of the screen with little or no change.

Paik’s process of modifying television sets to produce new analog video art is a direct forerunner of the circuit bending that many of us in the electronic-music community do today.

In addition to this exhibition, the gallery featured both historic and more contemporary works created at NYU and the Downtown art scene in the show Fluxus at NYU: Before and Beyond. On display were more scores from John Cage as well as a rather large score by Earl Browne. Numerous posters, books and photographs rounded out this presentation of work that, like the original Fluxus group, pushed the boundaries of their media. I regret that I wasn’t around a couple of weeks early when Larry Miller presented a special gallery tour in conjunction with Performa 11, but I am glad I got to see both exhibitions at the Grey Art Gallery before they closed on December 3.


Both exhibitions described above were quite inspiring, and it is interesting to note how much both the concepts of Fluxus and some of the artifacts intersect with my own music and performance work several decades later. I expect to have at least as strong an influence on the new work I am planning for next year. It also opens up an idea of whether or not this website can serve as a source for a piece inspired by Fluxus? Any and all ideas are welcome.

 

San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, Part 1

Today we look back at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival that took place earlier this month. Specifically, we review the opening concert which took place for the first time at SFMOMA. Appropriately for a collaboration with an institution focused on the visual arts, many of the pieces combined electronic music with graphics, video, or dance.

SFEMF is often a coming-together of people from the Bay Area electronic-music and new-music communities, and the audience was filled with familiar faces. Some even joined me in live tweeting with hashtag #sfemf during the concerts.

The concert opened with a solo performance by Sarah Howe entitled Peephole live electronic music and video.


[Sarah Howe. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Howe describes her video work as “beautifully messy textures of low fidelity source material”. The result was quite mesmerizing, with ever-changing pixelated patterns on the large screen that pulsated and radiated, sometimes converging on seemingly recognizable images, sometimes completely abstract. The music featured highly processed electronic sounds taken from acoustic sources.

Next was Interminacy, a performance by Tom Djll and Tim Perkis based on “lost” John Cage stories, as “rescued from a Bay Area public-radio vault” (they did not say which public radio station). We hear Cage’s distinctive voice and speaking style, as recognized from his recorded interviews – see our post on John Cage’s 99th birthday for an example – with Djll and Perkis providing music in between the words supposedly derived from I-Ching. The music did cover a variety of synthesized electronic sounds, recording samples, and other elements, leaving plenty of silence as well.


[Tom Djll and Tim Perkis channel John Cage. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

It started out straightforward enough, but the narrations took a bit of a darker turn, which audience members may or may not have reacted to in amusement or horror. I personally fell into the former category, and considered this one of the more brilliant and well-crafted tributes I have heard in a long time. You can hear an excerpt from an earlier performance below (or here).

<a href=”http://djll.bandcamp.com/track/interminacy-excerpt” _mce_href=”http://djll.bandcamp.com/track/interminacy-excerpt”>Interminacy (excerpt) by Tom Djll/Tim Perkis</a>

The following performance featured Kadet Kuhne performing live with a video by Barcelona-based artist Alba G. Corral in a piece entitled STORA BJÖRN. Corral created visuals using the programming environment Processing that generated complex graphical patterns based on the constellation The Great Bear.


[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Kuenhe’s music weaved in and out with the visuals in undulating but ever changing textures and timbres. The result of the combined music and visuals was quite meditative – at the same time, the visuals retained a certain analytical quality perhaps because of all elements based on connected lines. Glitchy elements in the music fed back into the lines and spaces.

Plane, a collaboration Les Stuck and Sonsherée Giles featured dance, visuals together with music. Stuck’s musical performance began against a video of Giles’ dancing that was created using a special camera technique and a limited palette of colors and effects to produce a low-resolution image with no sense of perspective. It did look a bit like a heat image of a moving body.


[Les Stuck. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

At some point during the performance, Giles herself appeared on the stage and the performance transitioned to live dance. Her movement was slow and organic, and she often stayed close to the ground, as if to make herself two-dimension like the images on the screen.  Stuck’s music combined with the dance had a greater intensity than the previous music-and-visual performances on the concert, particularly in contrast to the far more delicate STORA BJÖRN that preceded it.

The concert concluded with a performance of Milton Babbit’s Philomel, performed by Dina Emerson. We lost both Milton Babbit and Max Mathews this year, and both were recognized with tribute performances during the festival. Philomel is perhaps the best known of Babbit’s famously complex compositions. You can hear an early recording of the piece in a tribute post here at CatSynth, as sung by soprano Bethany Beardslee. Emerson certainly had her work cut out for her in taking on this piece, but she came through with a beautiful and energetic performance.


[Dina Emerson performs Milton Babbit’s Philomel. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The piece combines electronic sounds, live voice and processed recorded vocals weaved together in a fast-moving texture that preserves a narrative structure. One can alternately listen to the words as disjoint musical events or as part of the larger story. At some point, even while focused directly on Emerson’s presence, the live and recorded sounds began to merge together. The electronics often seem to match the timbre and pitch register of the voice, which aided in the illusion of a single musical source.

Overall, I thought it was a strong concert with a particularly strong finish. It also was somewhat shorter and faster paced, with no intermission or long pauses between sets, which I thought was quite effective.

I also attended the Saturday concert and will review that in an upcoming article.