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Experimentalism Otherwise

Ian Patterson By

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Experimentalism Otherwise

Benjamin Piekut

283 pages

ISBN: 978-0-520-26850-0

University California Press

2011

The historical scope of Benjamin Piekut's study of avowedly experimentalist music in Experimentalism Otherwise is confined to what Peikut tantalizingly describes as "four disastrous confrontations within the world of New York experimentalism in 1964." Nevertheless, the greater themes explored through the prism of experimentalism in avant-garde music open a revealing window onto human perceptions of the ordinary, and, by extension, the extraordinary. There's no significance behind New York as the setting for Piekut's study, it is merely an entry point, and a fascinating one, into a slice of the politically and emotionally charged America of 1964—suddenly confronted by Vietnam and the Beatles—against a backdrop of increasingly voluble gender, sexual preference and race protest movements.

Piekut explains experimentalism as an extended network, the result—not the cause—of conflict and disagreement. The individuals and organizations that the author puts under the microscope helped define the boundaries, or limitations, of experimentalism at the time. The opening chapter describes John Cage's excruciating encounter with the Leonard Bernstein-led New York Philharmonic, which Cage accused of murdering his music. The events would be almost comical if they weren't so serious, and are an old tale of the threat of the new. Another chapter highlights cellist Charlotte Moorman, permanently linked to Cage through her interpretations of the composer's music. Moorman—"a catalytic force in New York experimentalism"—was a classically trained cellist inspired to explore riskier terrain by Cage's example. Piekut recounts how Moorman endured Cage's ire for years, for her failure to follow his composition "26' 1.1499" to the letter, or more literally, to the second.

Piekut's objective, insightful prose is delivered with an energy clearly inspired by the events. His analysis of the philosophy of experimentalists such as Cage, Moorman and Henry Flynt—who picketed a Karlheinz Stockhausen concert, incensed at his "cultural imperialism"—is thrown into sharp focus through their conflicts with mainstream culture. Bernstein was seemingly suspicious of the experimentalists, and was dismissive of what he summarized as "dropping a herring down into a tuba and calling it a musical happening...or conceivably, a sonata for tuba and herring."

It would be simple to ridicule, mock or scorn an experimentalist like Nam June Paik for throwing beans at his audience or for drinking out of his shoe during performance. Moorman—Park's close collaborator for years—released butterflies, bowed a body in lieu of her cello and performed nude, for which she would stand trial in 1967 on charges of indecent exposure. Moorman—who would also briefly interrupt a performance to climb a ladder and jump into a container of water—said: "What we're doing is not avant-garde. Our work is of this time. It's not ahead of its time." These Cage-inspired attempts to allow sounds to be themselves, free from cultural interference or individual personality, reveal an admirable determination to shake up perceptions of the everyday.

The third chapter deals with the second wave of avant-garde jazz musicians, exemplified by the short-lived and fractious, Jazz Composer's Guild, which counted personalities such as trumpeter Bill Dixon, saxophonists Archie Shepp and John Tchicai, pianists Sun Ra, Paul Bley, Carla Bley and Cecil Taylor among its members. The JCG is one example of experimentalism within the confines of an organization that sought a radical solution to an oppressive social and economic environment, where record companies and clubs often dictated the music that jazz musicians could perform. Piekut describes a certain naiveté in the Guild's purist ideals and in its tactics to transform "complex and contradictory social spheres." It seemed doomed to failure from the start. "The Jazz Composer's Guild began with disagreement," writes Piekut, "continued with dissension, and ended in dispute, anger and disappointment." Saxophonists John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman were asked to endorse the Guild's principles, but declined, perhaps driven by a singular motivation which put their music above every other consideration.

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