How is dripping water into a vessel a musical performance? Or the release of a butterfly into a space? Or washing one’s face?
These three events are all proposed in scores created by Fluxus artists, an international, anti-art community of composers, poets, visual artists, and performers dedicated to testing and blurring the line between art and life. These three performances are also just some of the many Fluxus scores being enacted as part of the LA Philharmonic’s season-long Fluxus Festival, organized in collaboration with the Getty Research Institute.
As the Fluxus Festival draws to a close, conductor and composer Christopher Rountree, who curated the festival, and GRI curator Nancy Perloff discuss evocative scores by John Cage, La Monte Young, Ben Patterson, George Brecht, and others.
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JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
CHRISTOPHER ROUNTREE: When you hear the Tchaikovsky Pathetique, does it make you grieve and then be furious? No, it makes you feel something about music. So these pieces, they really strike people in a very powerful way.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with composer and conductor Christopher Rountree and Getty curator Nancy Perloff about the avant-garde music and performance phenomenon called “Fluxus.”
Fluxus was an international community of experimental composers, performers, and poets active in the 1960s and ‘70s. Among the artists most identified with Fluxus were La Monte Young, Ben Patterson, George Brecht, Yoko Ono, and George Maciunas. Although he never identified with it, composer John Cage was deeply influential in Fluxus’ s development, through the series of experimental composition classes he taught at the New School for Social Research in New York City. There he explored the principles of chance and indeterminacy, which proved to be of great interest to Fluxus artists.
I recently met with composer Christopher Rountree and Getty Curator Nancy Perloff in to look at and talk about some of the Fluxus materials held by the GRI. The occasion was a survey of Fluxus performances curated by Christopher Rountree for the LA Philharmonic in collaboration with the GRI.
I’m in the Special Collections Seminar room of the Getty Research Institute, with Getty curator Nancy Perloff, and Christopher Rountree, Los Angeles-base conductor and founder of the new music chamber group, wild Up. Christopher and Nancy, thank you so much for joining me on this podcast.
Christopher, let’s start with you. Why Fluxus, and why now?
CHRISTOPHER ROUNTREE: You know, any moment in history that is as tumultuous as the one that we’re currently in, I would say it needs an anarchy against it. And I think any art form that rattles against power has a moment in times like these.
CUNO: Did it feel that way at the Walt Disney Concert Hall when you were performing?
ROUNTREE: It’s a good question. Doing Fluxus on a stage that says Wells Fargo on it, or in a hall that says British Petroleum on the front, is really a strange thing to be doing. And you have to approach it a certain way because you know you’re in these places of capitalism.
CUNO: Who had the idea to come up with Fluxus as a festival now?
ROUNTREE: So a few years ago I spoke with Chad Smith, who’s the COO of L.A. Phil, and he was previously the head artistic of the L.A. Phil. And I was showing Chad a piece that I made for a violinist named Jenny Koh. And I made it a couple years ago. It was a three-minute violin piece, or indeterminate duration. But I think about three minutes. It was just a love note written on a napkin, and then a song that I sang into my phone.
And what I said to Jenny was, here’s the recording of the song and here’s the love note, and you kind of would perform them both at the same time, or adjacent to one another in any order. And she said to me, “That’s not music.” And I said to Chad that, and Chad said, “Oh, it’s Fluxus. This is Fluxus.” And I said, “Well, you know, that’s flattering. I love those guys. But you know, I need to do research about Fluxus to really— I wonder if it’s Fluxus.” For sure, I’m inspired by that.
And so we started this conversation.
CUNO: So Nancy, let’s bring you in. What is Fluxus?
PERLOFF: Fluxus is an antiart movement. It began possibly in the late fifties; but I actually think more early sixties. George Maciunas, who was Lithuanian-American, is often considered the founder of Fluxus. He wrote a manifesto in 1963, in which he defied the bourgeoisie. He called it “bourgeois sickness.” He wanted to promote a revolutionary flood and tide in art, and promote non-art reality.
The antiart part, a lot of writers and critics have argued harkens back to Dada. That in many ways, Fluxus is a Neo-Dada movement, in its anarchic practices, in its focus on performance.
CUNO: Where was George Maciunas? Was he in New York? Was he in Los Angeles? What’s the link between Los Angeles and Fluxus?
PERLOFF: Oh. Well, Fluxus was characterized by its international…
ROUNTREE: Yeah, yeah.
PERLOFF: …base, really. Maciunas, I think, was originally in Europe, but you may wanna take this up.
ROUNTREE: Well, I think we pretty much view John Cage as— He said to himself, “Well, maybe I’d be the uncle of Fluxus, but don’t call me the father or grandfather.” So we think of Cage as kind of, in a way, spawning Fluxus. But— And he was born in Eagle Rock. So we can take that. I think of Cage as a New York artist, for sure. But just to know that he lived down the street from where I live. There’s something there. There’s something that feels close about that.
Right now, L.A.’s such a mecca for contemporary art and I think for Conceptual art in the past, particularly the past forty years. And so something about this place, I think, kind of has experimentalism in its bones, in a way, you know? Like, in the earth, there is experimentalism here. So for sure, I think Fluxus belongs here.
CUNO: Well, tell us again, and get us back to George Maciunas and the manifesto and the link to Cage. Were they at all close to each other?
PERLOFF: Not— No, not so far as I know. Cage, I think, is most closely connected with Fluxus, because he actually taught a number of artists who participated in his famous class at the New School for Social Research. He began teaching there in ’56.
This is his course description in ’58. And he called the course Experimental Composition. And he writes, “Experimental Music, a course in musical composition with technological, musicological, and philosophical aspects. Open to those with or without previous training. Whereas conventional theories of harmony, counterpoint, and musical form are based on the pitch and frequency components of sound, how high or how a low a sound is, this course offers,” and I think this is the most important, “problems and solutions in the field of composition based on other components of sound,” colon: “Duration, timber, amplitude, and morphology. The course also encourages inventiveness.”
CUNO: Okay, let me read a little bit from the Fluxus Manifesto, ’cause that’ll get back to Chris and his contextualizing the Fluxus, in terms of the politics of the movement. So this is 1963. It’s called Fluxus Manifesto. And it’s calling upon its readers to, quote, “Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, intellectual, professional, and commercialized culture; promote a revolutionary flood and tide in art; promote nonart reality, to be grasped by all peoples—not only critics, dilletantes, and professionals; fuse the cadres of cultural, social, and political revolutionaries into a united front and action.”
George Maciunas took these copies of the manifesto and he threw it into the audience at the Festum Fluxorum Fluxus, in Düsseldorf. That kind of language and that kind of action, that kind of aggressive action, doesn’t sound to me like Cage—at least at the moment at which Cage is writing his description of his course, which seemed to me precisely about the mechanical aspects of music.
CUNO: Chris, how do you relate the two?
ROUNTREE: When you’re describing it like that, that’s so right on, it seems so against Cage, when you describe it like that. And it seems so purposely polemic. And Cage is that, as well. But Cage kind of does it in this Taoist way or this Zen way. Like, we’ll put something here and we’ll all observe it. And I think with Fluxus, there’s so much action, radical action against and away, you know?
And when I think of them, like if I was to have a dance piece called Fluxus and a dance piece called Cage, I think one would be, you know, defined by stillness, and one would be defined by kind of radical motions. And however, they’re at the same thing. You know? Which is, questioning the art form itself, I think.
CUNO: So we have a score of John Cage’s here, Music Walk written in 1958 for one or more pianists. And we have it because the Getty has part of the archive of the pianist and composer David Tudor. Tell us about this composition, and maybe we can hear it, a bit of it, too.
PERLOFF: Yeah. So Music Walk. Performers share a single piano, and may also play radios. 1958. This is an important year, because according to one of the really eminent scholars—and I endorse this—this is no longer a score. What we’re looking at here is no longer a score.
CUNO: Describe it to us. I mean, it’s made of plastic and there’s that typed lettering and numbers on it.
PERLOFF: Exactly. So he uses these transparencies. He loved using these. What you’ve got here are the instructions, what the pianist and/or the radio performers are supposed to do. Basically, it explains that the piece gives the performers ten sheets, ten transparencies like that one, with points on them.
I don’t know how he did them, but [inaudible]—
CUNO: Are they arranged by chance all the— along the piece of plastic?
PERLOFF: No, I would say the chance has more to do with the process of making the score. And that’s why what we see here is a tool. It’s not a score, it’s a tool towards a score.
So the transparency that has the five red lines on it is a rectangular sheet. And the transparency that has the black dots or points on it is a larger sheet. And so you take—because they’re transparencies—you take the five lines and you lay it however you’d like over the dots. And then what is very specific for Cage is that each of these lines represents something different about how you play.
So one line is assigned for plucked or muted strings on the piano; one lines represents notes played on the keyboard; one line represents internal noises. So that would mean any sound the pianist makes that’s inside the piano. When you see pianists, you know, moving forward and plucking the strings. And then the fourth is external noises around the piano. And finally, any auxiliary noises. So the performers have a job to do. And he also has radio sounds that he’s [inaudible].
CUNO: [over Perloff] And is it only triggered where the point meets the line going through it?
CUNO: And is there a sense of duration of sound, or is it just as long as the sound lasts?
PERLOFF: Well, that’s actually a really good question, because Cage creates a lot of parameters and a lot of instructions on how to come up with a score. Next to Cage’s score, or tool for a score, we see David Tudor’s notes, lists of instrumentation, and his score for realizing the tool Music Walk, by John Cage. We have a set of rectangular sheets with very precise timings.
PERLOFF: And Tudor, in creating the score, created or assigned timings to each sound, and created a piece from that. So this is basically a tool towards creating a score. And that’s the way he describes it here, and that’s the way it’s enacted by David Tudor.
CUNO: So the instructions from Cage has here— or the instrumentation of Music Walk includes a piano, a portable radio, air whistle, plectrum, guinea bird whistle, piper whistle, shoe squeaker, goose whistle, wind-up vibrator, metal beater, thick rubber bar, thick flat plastic, water warbler, heavy drumstick, triangular ruler, and a coin.
PERLOFF: And you can incorporate any of those into the different types of sounds. So those could be auxiliary sounds, like a whistle would be an auxiliary sound. It could be a pluck on the strings. So all of these sounds have originated or come out from the definitions of what these five lines represent, in terms of category of sound.
ROUNTREE: What I love about looking at this is, this transparency, to me, the kind of long one with the lines on it, kind of looks like the neck of a guitar that we’re looking through. And then this one kind of looks like a constellation of stars, you know?
PERLOFF: It does.
ROUNTREE: It’s like you put a neck of a guitar over a constellation of stars, and you interpret it with this poem that’s just a list of materials. And to me, that is just so incredible. And he’s put so many rules in these instructions that are written out; but they’re the kind of rules that they make a bunch of different boxes, and then there’s nothing determined in the box. It’s like as long as it’s in the box, it’s right.
PERLOFF: Here at says, at the very end, “A performance lasts an agreed-upon length of time.”
CUNO: Agreed by whom?
ROUNTREE: The performers.
PERLOFF: By the performers.
ROUNTREE: It’s amazing.
PERLOFF: But I would also argue that this is very different from Fluxus. If you read through these instructions, they are very precise.
PERLOFF: Very specific. And they all have to do with musical sounds…
PERLOFF: …or related sounds. I mean, it’s very much about music, still. Unlike Fluxus.
And just to quote Cage, which is a famous quote, but it’s important to keep in mind, from A Year from Monday, he wrote, “Permission granted, but not to do whatever you want.” And that’s crucial.
CUNO: Okay, let’s listen to a performance of Music Walk by John Cage. And it’s performed by John Cage, David Tudor, Ian Underwood, Stuart Dempster, Pauline Oliveros and Morton Subotnick. And it was at the Tudor Fest. It was performed at the San Francisco Tate Music Center in 1964.
ROUNTREE: That band is like— that’s like lit. I want to see that band play every night.
PERLOFF: Well, there’s certainly a kind of— Unified isn’t quite the right word, but there is a kind of ensemble work going on, right? Where it’s not that they alternate between piano strings and radio, but it all does come together somehow, I think.
CUNO: And it’s all developed by chance each— differently with each performer.
CUNO: So each performance is gonna be a different performance…
CUNO: …but it’s always the same piece.
PERLOFF: That’s exactly it. And I think just to bring in for a moment the relationship to Fluxus, I’ve been emphasizing how it differs, but I would say it is similar in its focus on the idea of an event. That a performance is an event. And every event, every performance is different.
CUNO: Well, tell us about La Monte Young. Because I want to know if this is a generational change. Is it a geographical change? ’Cause La Monte Young is from, Idaho, I think.
ROUNTREE: Idaho, that’s right.
PERLOFF: Bern, Idaho, yeah.
ROUNTREE: Yeah. And then he spent a bunch of time in Los Angeles, for school.
CUNO: And Berkeley, where he went to college.
PERLOFF: Yeah, yeah, well, he was a—
CUNO: And did La Monte Young leave one scene in Los Angeles to arrive in another scene in New York City?
PERLOFF: Yeah. Yes, definitely. Definitely. He first was in the jazz scene, as a saxophonist, in Los Angeles, while also a student at UCLA and studying with Leonard Stein, serial music. And Leonard Stein had been a disciple of Arnold Schoenberg. So La Monte was really in both worlds.
Then he moves to the Bay Area, where his focus is both studying musical composition at Berkeley and working with the dancer Anna Halprin and her workshop, which also involved major figures like Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer.
And moving to New York, he becomes involved right away with people like Henry Flynt, with Yoko Ono, with Terry Jennings, with the loft scene. And then by the early,
CUNO: Cage was a great fan of Schoenberg, right?
PERLOFF: Yes, huge. So I mean, I think that whole common background of the two of them is very interesting. Particularly because I think both La Monte and Cage, once they left for New York, never looked back and never really thought of themselves as Californian. But I think in different ways, they both really are.
CUNO: Alright, well, let’s look then at this piece by La Monte Young, which is numbered, 2219, dedicated to Henry Flynt, dated April, 1960. Tell us who Henry Flynt was.
PERLOFF: Yeah. Henry Flynt was an interesting character. He was born in North Carolina. He was absolutely an American. He was an avant-garde musician, very interested in jazz, and also very interested in minimal music, did both. And I almost wanna say, although maybe I’m not being as reverential as I should be, that he was a writer. He fancied himself as a writer, as well.
CUNO: Prose writer.
PERLOFF: Yes. And so in addition to being a musician, he wrote most famously, this piece called “Concept Art”, which is an essay that La Monte Young later published. But they met right when La Monte was just arrived in New York, in October, 1960. They met right around that time, particularly when La Monte was running this loft series with Yoko Ono, where every concert was devoted to a different artist.
La Monte invited Henry Flynt to one of the loft concerts, the one that featured Terry Jennings, which is— who was a composer who they both shared a friendship and an admiration for.
So Flynt went to one of the loft concerts, and then was featured in another one, where it was just a concert by Flynt, early in the loft series. And from there, they worked together and shared ideas. And ultimately, published an essay in the famous An Anthology of Chance Operations.
CUNO: This is La Monte Young and Henry Flynt working together.
PERLOFF: Mm-hm, mm. Just one thing quickly, in terms of chronology. Is that it’s pretty sure that La Monte wrote this piece, the integer piece for Henry Flynt, when he was in California.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, tell us about him. I mean, I think I know a little bit about this music scene at the time, but Henry Flynt is someone I never had heard of until now.
ROUNTREE: I love his music. Actually, I mean, yesterday I was feeling a little down and I wanted to cook dinner and feel better So there’s this piece that I always put on. And it’s a piece by Henry Flynt, and it’s called Violin Strobe, from his album, Hillbilly Tape Music.
And the best way to describe the piece is that it kind of begins the same way that this La Monte Young piece begins, with like, one repetitive, stark noise.
But then Flynt keeps filling in the gaps more and more and more and more, until we have like a [he vocalizes].
Until we have like, you know, straight sixteenths, basically. And then we have these little blues licks, [he vocalizes], like, start to appear.
And all of it, it kind of sounds like a guitar, but it is a distorted violin.
PERLOFF: Having just heard Violin Strobe, it becomes all the more interesting to go back to La Monte Young’s 2219 to Henry Flynt, April, 1960, for several reasons. One, Henry Flynt takes responsibility for influencing this piece, through a repeated percussive sound. So this piece, which contains three pages of handwritten performance instructions, consists, essentially, of the forearm hitting the piano however many times the performer decides to hit the piano.
So his example—
CUNO: Hitting the same keys?
PERLOFF: Here’s the cluster. He gives you the cluster right here. Calls it the cluster, centered in the keyboard. He has very, very precise descriptions or directions for dynamics, for rhythm, for tempo, for duration. He explains the title, talks about what’s difficult, in terms of being consistent in the way your forearm hits the keyboard, and having the right amount of space between each what he calls bang.
So essentially, what we will hear—we have access to a recording—is La Monte Young playing his Henry Flynt. He called it variably titled piece. A tape of La Monte playing it, that he sent to David Tudor, in the hope that David Tudor would play that piece.
CUNO: Okay, let’s hear it.
ROUNTREE: I love that even here, when he’s like, you know, here are the pitches I like. He’s outlined a tritone. Like, even here— Like, what a…
PERLOFF: You’re right.
ROUNTREE: …beautiful little detail. He’s like also just the devil’s interval is the outsides of this chord. To me, that is like also hilarious and meaningful, you know? ’Cause for— There’s nothing random about that.
PERLOFF: One other thing just to note is that in our David Tudor archive, there’s a recording of Tudor playing this piece, not on piano, but with a standing gong. And so it has a very, very different sound.
ROUNTREE: Which is interesting, right? He— Can you imagine getting this note and it’s like, this is the way that you’ll do it. And then he’s like, but I think this time, we’ll do it without pitches. I mean, a gong has pitches, but they’re so numerous and so high in the overtone series, that our ears hear them as a shimmer instead of pitches. So I know— he knows that when he hits a gong, he’s— we’re actually hearing a cluster of pitches. Just our brain is experiencing tintinnabulation and shimmer, instead of notes.
CUNO: And when we first started talking about Fluxus and Cage and— I spent a great deal of time trying to argue that Fluxus and Cage are not related. I just see here that the piece that we just listened to and about which we’re talking, dedicated to Henry Flynt, was published along with Piano Piece for David Tudor #2 and #3, and a number of other scores in An Anthology of Chance Operations, which was edited by La Monte Young and designed by George Maciunas.
So tell us about the relationship between La Monte Young and George Maciunas, and about La Monte Young and Fluxus. Because we’ve been talking about La Monte Young as if he were close to, a disciple of John Cage.
ROUNTREE: Well, you were asking about An Anthology of Chance Operations.
ROUNTREE: If we go to these next, I think it’s a nice way of answering that question, too.
PERLOFF: This is a set of pieces by La Monte Young called Composition 1960.
These were composed— I mean, October, 1960, he’s in New York. July, 1960, he’s still in California.
And interestingly, we were looking at David Tudor’s score for Music Walk, which was strips of paper, graph paper in that case. Here we also have strips, white strips of paper, typewritten, sometimes signed in La Monte’s hand, in black pen. And some of the performance instructions on these white sheets of paper are very, very small. Like this one is the size of an index card.
CUNO: And what is that? Is that actually the score, or is that—
PERLOFF: That’s the score, yeah.
CUNO: So describe the score to us.
ROUNTREE: So this is one of my favorite pieces of all time. And it’s a piece of La Monte Young, called Composition 1960 #7. And what we’re looking at is a small treble clef staff with the notes B and F-sharp, with also a tie that seems to kind of go out into infinity. And then the words below say, “To be held for a long time. La Monte Young, July, 1960.”
And I think this is like one of the seminal works of this moment in history. And also I love that it’s also very small and fits all on a little index card. It’s like insignificant, in terms of its size, and yet it implies infinity in what its musical gesture is. So there’s this big series of pieces called Compositions 1960, a number of which have been on the L.A. Phil’s Fluxus Festival this year. We have a few more of them actually coming up in June.
CUNO: Well, tell us about this one, #5. And did you have it in the festival?
ROUNTREE: We have it on June 1st.
CUNO: Describe it for us.
ROUNTREE: We’re very excited about it. So Composition 1960 #5, the instructions read, “Turn a butterfly or any number of butterflies loose in the performance area. When the composition is over, be sure to allow the butterfly to fly away outside. 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.”
CUNO: So that strikes me as an image, as a performance, and as, in a sense, music, as Cage would have it in 4 minutes 33 seconds, where the sound is the ambient sound that’s happening around you. Is that right?
ROUNTREE: Yeah. I mean, for me, when I read this, it just happened to this whole room. Like, I was reading it and I saw it in my mind. And that’s one of the reasons why I love this piece, is ’cause I think when you read it, it happens to you. You know? And so there’s this whole part of it that is— that is a concept and a scenario. It’s like when you read a book and you see the room that the author is describing, and you see the events, and they affect you as if you’re in that room.
And I love that this piece does that in a just profound way. And then there’s so many things implied in this, in his instruction here. There’s this thing about the freedom of the butterfly. There’s a thing about, well, you know, you should have an unlimited amount of time, maybe, for this. Even that is an amazing thing to consider, a concert of unlimited time. And you know, maybe the piece is over when you can’t see the butterfly anymore.
ROUNTREE: You know, it’s like maybe you’re in the ocean when you can no longer see the land.
CUNO: When you perform this for the L.A. Phil, or with the L.A. Phil, where will it be? Will it be in Disney Hall?
ROUNTREE: So it’ll be outside Disney Hall, which is actually a big choice on our part. It’s a choice because first of all, we don’t wanna do this piece in a way that harms any creature of any size. So the way that you have to do this piece now when you perform it is, you have to hire a butterfly wrangler. Different butterflies have a different life span, but they’re all very short. So you have to commission butterflies just for this purpose. So they would not exist, and they’re grown from larvae, and they’re flown to you. Then you release them all into a big containment, like a box. And then you’re supposed to release them at a very specific temperature, so that they’re happy. And near vegetation like milkweed, that they love. And if they don’t leave the box, you’re designed to tickle them slightly with a feather.
And so we’re putting up this kind of milkweed-and-all-these-other-plants-that-butterflies-love kind of forest outside. We’re creating a performance area outside, so we’re still following the instructions. And one of the things we’re really concerned with is like, we don’t want butterflies to die in this piece. And doing it inside, especially inside a giant cavernous space with high ceilings, we were kind of sure that they would, inside Disney Hall.
And so it was a big concern. At the same time, I know that it’s less revolutionary to do it outside. And so this is one of our big, like, tightrope walks, is how do we do this piece and have it be a revolution, seeing a butterfly in a garden? Like, I’ve seen a butterfly in a garden before.
And so certainly, we’re not doing it in a garden, but we are making a space that they will be incredibly happy. And we’re releasing them in a way— it’s actually in a reverse amphitheater. So if you imagine that the performance will happen kind of up on a pedestal. And it’s part of Disney Hall where all you see is Gehry’s architecture and these kind of steel walls and a bunch of cement coming up. And our milkweed garden will be at the top of this big set of stairs. The whole audience will look up at it.
And at this certain moment, which is near dusk—it’s about an hour before dusk—all these boxes will open and, fingers crossed, the butterflies will ascend. And we’re doing it with about 600 butterflies. [inaudible voice] And the wrangler told us about one-third choose not to fly. So—
CUNO: What do they do, take a bus home?
ROUNTREE: I mean, you know. Well, we will see what they do. But I think there’s something about like 200 of the butterflies will remain. And then at some point, an hour later or something, they’ll fly away.
CUNO: How will you know that the piece is over?
ROUNTREE: It’s a good— it’s a—
CUNO: If you can’t know that they’ve all flown away?
ROUNTREE: I think we have to just be like—
PERLOFF: That’s like [inaudible]
ROUNTREE: The duration perhaps will go into night.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah. Okay. Tell us about this piece by La Monte Young, Composition 1960 #9.
PERLOFF: Okay, one thing I wanted to say, both about this piece and about all of these, that I think is really important, is that on the one hand, beginning there and continuing here, you’re starting to see La Monte Young approach sustained tones.
PERLOFF: The idea of long durations. That would be his contribution to Minimalism, is works that have very, very long sustained duration.
Here, in noticed, as far as duration, with the Henry Flynt piece that we were talking about before, he says, “You may make it of any duration, but the longer, the better.” So I think that’s something that we start to see in these pieces. And by 1962, La Monte is writing Minimal music with sustained tones. So it’s really important. This particular one is extremely evocative, and this is—
CUNO: Describe it to us.
PERLOFF: Yeah, what we see is first of all, we see an envelope, which we don’t see in the other strips of white sheets with typeface. Here we see an envelope that says on its back, “Composition 1960 #9. La Monte Young, October, 1960.” He’d just arrived in New York. “The enclosed score is right-side-up when the line is horizontal and a little above center.”
Now, musicians can talk about what that inspires, and I think that would be very interesting to us. What as an art historian just wanna point out is that these are very much about Conceptual art. I mean, these are concepts. These are images. These are ideas that can be pursued or not, within parameters, how one wants. But I think Conceptual art is certainly playing a role in what La Monte Young is exploring in these scores.
But I would also just wanna point out, as I think we’ve seen, that he’s incredibly specific about #4, the dates, and signing them, and then the dedications. Many of them are dedicated. So there is a whole world being created here, a kind of exchange with other artists that’s going on, that I think is very important.
CUNO: I mean, you can see that he’s composing almost every day, something. It must’ve been a very productive period of his life. Let’s go around the table here and look at this anthology, because this is an important anthology, in that brings George Maciunas back into the picture. Tell us about that.
PERLOFF: Basically, this was going to be an issue of a magazine called Beatitude. And Jackson Mac Low, the poet, and La Monte Young were approached by the editor, who said, “We want you to do an issue.” So La Monte started collecting all of the material. There’re twenty-five contributions altogether. Some are scores, some are texts, some are essays. I’ve marked some of them.
He worked with George Maciunas on the design. And the design— People often give George Maciunas a hard time and…
PERLOFF: …criticize him and say, “Well, he was— La Monte found him very irritating, too difficult to work” with and so forth. He never had a dime, et cetera. But look at that.
ROUNTREE: It’s so beautiful.
PERLOFF: And I do think I actually…
ROUNTREE: It’s so beautiful.
PERLOFF: …typed this out, because I think it’s really important to read the title in full. And it’s not so easy to follow, but— An Anthology of Chance Operations. This is 1962. Concept art, antiart— I can find it all here. Indeterminacy. Plans of action. Diagrams. Music, dance constructions, improvisation. Meaningless work, natural disasters, compositions, mathematics. And Henry Flynt was a big mathematics person. That’s how he described himself…
CUNO: And these were a group of people who were identified as belong to a group, or just a collection of individuals that he—
PERLOFF: A collection of individuals, some of whom are clearly Fluxus artists. I mean, George Brecht, whose work we have right there, is a Fluxus artist. I marked something he dedicated to John Cage. I did find it interesting how minimal Cage’s contribution is.
ROUNTREE: Cage’s? Yeah.
PERLOFF: I had to look and look. Where is Cage’s contribution? And all it is, is this kind of odd text piece that—
ROUNTREE: And it’s an excerpt from a much longer piece.
PERLOFF: Oh, excerpt from—
ROUNTREE: So he’s kinda like, I’ll give you part of the thing that I’ve made.
PERLOFF: This is the Henry Flynt “Concept Art” essay.
CUNO: How influential was it? This piece. I mean, was Henry Flynt an influential person at the time?
PERLOFF: This essay was influential. This essay, I’ve read about a lot.
CUNO: And influential among musicians or visual artists, too, or—?
PERLOFF: I think among musicians. But I would say more as a kind of conceptual piece, a theoretical piece that defends Conceptual art and talks about it in terms of structure, language, and mathematics.
CUNO: So one thing about this anthology itself, the physical book, the anthology.
CUNO: We’re looking at Yoko Ono poetry here. Is that while it’s meant to be minimal, it’s dramatically, beautifully designed. I mean, it’s a work of visual art that is attractive in itself, independent of the content of the words, the evocation of concepts that it might suggest.
PERLOFF: And I think George Maciunas gets a huge amount of credit of that. I mean…
PERLOFF: …he really did the design.
CUNO: Well, this play with typeface brings to mind another work here. And Chris, I wonder if you could tell us about this work.
ROUNTREE: Sure. Well, so the next piece here is by Ben Patterson. It’s a piece called Instruction #2. And there’s a subtitle, which is also the instruction of the piece, which is, “Please wash your face.”
CUNO: So the “Please wash your face” is printed on a towel, it looks like. And the towel is folded, and the folds form rectangles. And within each rectangle is a word. Beginning with the top, please wash your face. Then there’s a piece of soap, it looks like, right there.
ROUNTREE: Which is shaped like an orange slice. And all of this fits into the little plastic box.
CUNO: Which he then, the composer, mailed…
CUNO: …to friends and family, performers.
PERLOFF: Yes. Yes.
CUNO: Tell us about the performance of the piece.
ROUNTREE: Yeah. So this was one of the first pieces in the festival. It was the first piece in the the season proper. And we did a performance with five different people at the Getty.
You know, in doing this piece— I mean, first of all, Ben Patterson was an African American artist. And Ben Patterson writing a piece where the instructions are, “Please wash your face,” to me, it’s just like, the concept of this piece is devastating. It’s funny to look at it.
CUNO: What’s the concern?
ROUNTREE: You know, it’s almost like I don’t wanna talk about this piece, because I have so many questions about like, oh, am I allowed to engage with work as, like, a bearded cis-gendered, like, straight white dude? And yet when I look at this piece, it’s transformative every time I see it.
And to me, it’s light, and I think it inspires this kind of joy in its lightness, just the physical objects of this little orange slice, and that there’s a piece that’s telling you that you need to wash up. But also that it’s a piece about race and it’s a piece about power.
CUNO: How would you perform this piece? We’re looking at the pieces of materials that would be used in the performance of the piece, but they have themselves not performed in the piece.
ROUNTREE: We didn’t use this score. And also, I imagine if you did use this score, which is a towel and a piece of soap, you would destroy it. And probably when you got it. Not just now that it’s an older piece, the older materials, but when you did it you would actually destroy it, which is interesting.
But so what we did is, we had five people on a stage. We each had a wash basin. They were all on the ground. They were all lit with a simple light. They were uniform.
All of us were different ages and genders and our skin is different shades. Many of us were artists. We came from different places of power in our organizations, from like, curator, to someone working in development to someone who is a young bass player and composer. And all of us sat and washed our faces, with just these simple lights on.
And we amplified the sounds, just so we could really hear it. We amplified the sounds of the water as we were washing our face. And we walked onstage together, we did the action, and then we stood up and we walked offstage together.
PERLOFF: And what Chris did that I also thought was really effective was bring out sound. So the sound of people turning on the wash basin, the sound of the water, the sound of turning on and off the little lights…
PERLOFF: …that you had. So there was a kind of sonic experience, which I thought was really interesting.
ROUNTREE: Yeah. Yeah, well, be— You know, because we’re looking from the perspective of the L.A. Phil, so many of these pieces we’re looking at as pieces of music, not just pieces of art or pieces of intermedia. And so always we’re asking the question—and Chad Smith of the LA Phil kept asking me, “But what does it sound like?” And then always the question, but is it music? And we’re putting it in the spirit of music. We’re doing it as music.
CUNO: We were just finishing talking about Ben Patterson’s Please Wash Your Face. And the next anthology¬—I guess you’d call it that—arrangement of musical scores is called Water Yam, arranged by George Brecht. Tell us about it and its place among all these other works by Fluxus artists.
PERLOFF: First of all, the box that contains these instruction cards. And you’ll notice that they’re all different sizes. Some are very small. They’re all white, white cards with black typeface on them. They are not really instructions, for the most part; they’re more accounting for events that could occur. And the box that contains them all was, again, designed by George Maciunas. So it in itself is really a work of art.
I would just call attention to this one, Time Table Music, and to Drip Music. This was published by La Monte Young in an anthology. And it’s one that I think George Brecht worked on with Cage, or during Cage’s class.
CUNO: It was composed in 1959, in the summer of 1959. And its instruction is, “For performance in a railway station. The performers enter a railway station and obtain time tables. They stand or seat themselves so as to be visible to each other, and when ready, start their stopwatches simultaneously. Each performer interprets the table of time indications in terms of minutes and seconds. For example, seven sixteen equals seven minutes and sixteen seconds. He selects one time by chance to determine the total duration of his performing. This done, he selects one row of a column and make a makes a sound. This done, he selects one row or column and makes a sound at all points for table of times within that row or column fall within the total duration of the performance.”
So this is sounding very much like early La Monte Young. And it’s about the same time as La Monte Young. Tell us about George Brecht and his role in Fluxus.
PERLOFF: George Brecht, I would say, was one of the most important Fluxus artists. Influential.
CUNO: And he was in New York?
PERLOFF: He was in New York and he was also, I think, overseas.
George Brecht was a student of Cage’s, and I think one of Cage’s, you know, prouder moments, as far as a student at the New School for Social Research, when Cage was teaching his Experimental Composition class. And this Water Yam, Brecht did several versions.
And a project at the Getty Research Institute, which Jim, I’m sure you know about, called The Score, at least a short title, at the Getty Research Institute, one of the scholars contributing, Natilee Harren, has done very, very careful study of the contents of Water Yam. After all, it’s called Water Yam, which are not necessarily words that one would put together. But there’s a lot about water. So what I did for our display is pull out some of the water-related events, because I think that makes it very interesting.
There’re also threes. Three yellow events, there piano pieces, and then two vehicle events. But we have tea preparing, empty vessel.
CUNO: I love the vehicle events. “Start. Stop.”
PERLOFF: Start and stop. Yes, and—
ROUNTREE: That says— that says it all. Yeah.
PERLOFF: Three aqueous events. But the most famous and widely quoted is the one that Jim refers to, as well, Drip Music or Drip Event, which simply says, “For single or multiple performance. A source of dripping water and an empty vessel are arranged so that the water falls into the vessel. Second version dripping. George Brecht.”
CUNO: What do you say?
ROUNTREE: That silence was very good. I think we should leave that silence.
So we had this in the festival, and an artist who’s performed many times at the Getty, actually, Chris Kallmyer, who’s a Los Angeles artist, performed the piece out in— on the corner of Grand and First, right outside Disney Concert Hall. And there was this kind of giant set-up with all these different vessels, dripping one to another. He had like a big kind of wooden— almost a coatrack, where he had, like, washed a cloth and then hung the cloth so it would drip into a basin.
He went up a ladder and was pouring. And I think he also was interpreting the piece, as well. I know he did it for three different nights, and on one of the nights, he was also, like, simultaneously eating a score of Beethoven. For sure, that’s not in the piece. So—
CUNO: Are these things to be pulled out by chance? I mean, just randomly pulled out of the box, or [inaudible]
ROUNTREE: [over Cuno] Well, he only did this one, the Drip Music.
CUNO: But if you were to perform Water Yam as arranged by George Brecht, it would suggest that the instruction sheets are arranged by George Brecht so that you would pull them out in order, as he arranged them.
PERLOFF: Well, see, that’s very interesting because, I mean, this really takes us to a new place, as far as instructions, because here we have instructions with the La Monte Young pieces, you know, text pieces, word pieces. We have still something like instructions. Here, all of these were instructions. And you could do one card or you could do— A lot of times people do just do Drip Music. That’s become very common. Well, not common, but more widely performed, let’s say. But one could move in really any direction, from one card to multiple cards.
ROUNTREE: And you know, I’ve never thought of it like a deck. Like the idea that you might draw one and then perform that one. Maybe it’s because they’re all different sizes. So like, you know, like if all the cards in a deck are slightly different sizes, then you would know which one are the aces or something, you know? But I’ve always thought, oh, well, my favorite is X.
Like, there’s one in here which is not on the table, but it’s one of my favorite pieces ever. And it says, “Egg, at least one egg.” And like, that, to me, makes me so happy. It’s just exquisite. There’s this artist, Caroline Shaw, who writes kind of Post-Minimal music. Every day, she posts a picture of her soft-boiled egg on Instagram. Every day. And very often, she’ll figure out whether it’s a five-and-a-half minute or a six-and-a-half minute egg, and she’ll time it with one of her friends’ songs playing on her computer. So she’ll say, “Oh, well, this piece of Gabe Kahane’s is six minutes and nineteen seconds, so this is a six-minute-and-nineteen-second egg.
ROUNTREE: And then she shows how it went. And every day I’m like, you know, you’re doing this George Brecht piece, “at least one egg.”
PERLOFF: But I also do think the look of these cards is very important and very intentional, in terms of its beautiful, in terms of the effect of the black on white, in terms of the varied sizes of these. I think there’s a lot that one could say about the physical. And I think it’s interesting that he writes, “arranged by George Brecht,” rather than by George Brecht.
CUNO: Now, we’ve come a long way from John Cage to George Brecht. And in seemingly a narrow vein, but within which there seems to be infinite possibility. And that might define this period of time which we’re looking at, about five or six years worth of musical composition by half a dozen artists, all of whom know each other, some of whom worked closely together. And now they’re the heart and center of Chris’, of your celebration of Fluxus at the L.A. Phil.
So how has it been going for you at the L.A. Phil?
ROUNTREE: It’s been going really well. I mean, you know, we’ve endeavored so many pieces this year. The festival began about six months prior to the start of the festival at the press release, where we did one of Yoko’s piece, which is called Voice Piece for Soprano, which instructs all—well, it doesn’t instruct all present; we did it with all present—screaming against the wind, and then screaming against the wall, and then screaming against the sky.
And the festival began now almost over a year ago. And it’s going until June. So we’ve had all these pieces.
We’re learning a lot about what Fluxus does to an audience. What I’ve noticed about doing this work, particularly in the sphere of classical music, which for me, is a little bit more conservative than the sphere of contemporary art, but it’s perhaps just because I’m not necessarily in the world of contemporary art— But doing this work in the sphere of classical music, it’s such a polemic. When we threw watermelons off the building for Ken Friedman’s piece called Sonata for Melons and Gravity, there were people in the orchestra that were like, “I don’t want to play the concert tonight. How dare you waste this?”
When we crushed—
PERLOFF: Waste this?
ROUNTREE: Waste these watermelons.
PERLOFF: Waste the watermelons.
ROUNTREE: People could have those.
ROUNTREE: And that is a right-on point of view. And the piece itself, to me, it’s a joyous gesture, this thing of throwing something. Then it’s a destructive gesture. And then it’s a gesture of grief of this thing. You know? At least that’s the way I was experiencing it. And clearly, the people in the orchestra, conceptually, it was making them grieve and then be furious.
And how many pieces— Like when you hear the Tchaikovsky Pathetique, does it make you grieve and then be furious? No, it makes you feel something about music. And so these pieces, they really strike people in a very powerful way. We did a piece on the same concert, a piece of Dick Higgins called The Thousand Symphonies. And you have to shoot holes in a score with automatic rifles, and then spray paint through the holes, to create layers of counterpoint. All these holes are on sheets of music, on big scores, manuscript. And that then the orchestra plays all of these graphics. And the paint that has gone through the holes made by the bullets. And there were people in the orchestra that sat out the concert. There were people that were deeply upset that we would do a piece that involved guns at all. There were people that said, “You know, there was a shooting in Thousand Oaks last week. I think for that reason, we should not do this piece.”
And of course, my opinion was like, because there was a shooting in Thousand Oaks, also there’s a shooting in America every day, we should do this piece. And yet I understand why it’s painful. And so perhaps if you wanna not do it, that’s reasonable, absolutely.
ROUNTREE: So there’s been a lotta grappling with concept, in a way that’s rare in classical music. And that’s been really special. I feel like for that organization and for the players and for myself, as well, like, there’s been so much learning. Like, this is the kind of work that causes a different type of mindfulness about why we do what we do, and like what it means to make something, and then make something in public.
CUNO: So I think that was beautifully put. And I wonder, Nancy, if you could tell us about how you think the Getty plays in this same field. That is, what contributions does the Getty make, and what brings you two together today for the podcast?
PERLOFF: The Getty’s role was really to show the materials. The Getty Research Institute, has extensive Fluxus collections. One is the Jean Brown archive. And she was an American collector of Surrealism, Dada, and Fluxus. And it’s an extensive collection of multiples and some works of art and books and artist books and so forth. And then the David Tudor archive, which also has important collections of Fluxus.
So our role was really to bring attention to the materials, to the objects, whether they be scores or books or manuscripts, and to inspire ideas for performance. And so we had a lot of meetings where Marsha Reed and I pulled materials. So there was a lot of looking at Ben Patterson, who’s an artist who hasn’t been—a composer, really, and a musician—who hasn’t been given the attention he deserves. And that’s true of many of these artists.
And then the other part, I think, for the Research Institute is—and I’ve noticed with the concerts, and I think this is important to bring in—is people are struggling with, what does Fluxus mean? And is Cage Fluxus?” So there’s a lot of debate about definitions, which is interesting.
CUNO: So the questions we you started on, you’re still asking at the end of this podcast.
CUNO: But let’s close with one question that you can answer. What is the future of Fluxus?
PERLOFF: I would argue that performances are very, very important, because Fluxus was about performance. However, I think those performances need to be kept very close to the original scores, manuscripts, and materials.
ROUNTREE: And for me, the future of Fluxus is all about mindfulness and about observing that we’re performing all the time, and that the simple act of just like looking at one of these pieces of paper, these beautiful scores and, like, thinking about picking it up, that that to me, if that is a piece, just like Egg is a piece, like suddenly life gets really interesting. It’s like my therapist said, “You know, the reason why you go to therapy is not to get fixed. It’s, like, to have your life be more interesting.”
And so there’s something about this work, that it kind of can do that. And I think if we observe the world and the way that we engage in the world with this kind of mindfulness, I feel like that is somehow what Fluxus has taught me in kind of a central way.
CUNO: That’s a great place to end. So Chris Rountree and Nancy Perloff, thank you so much.
ROUNTREE: Thank you.
PERLOFF: Thank you, Jim.
CUNO: Upcoming Fluxus performances with the LA Phil include: Fluxus Piano Pieces on May 2 to 5; Ragnar Kjartansson’s Bliss on May 25; David Lang’s crowd out on June 1; and as a closing event on June 1, Fluxus at Noon to Midnight.
Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
CHRISTOPHER ROUNTREE: When you hear the Tchaikovsky Pathetique, does it make you grieve and then be...
“Music Walk (for 1 or more pianists who also play radios and produce auxiliary sounds by singing or any other means)” by John Cage. From the sound recording Music From the Tudorfest, New World Records #80762-2 Ⓟ & © 2014, Anthology of Recorded Music, Inc. Used by permission
“Violin Strobe” by Henry Flynt. On Hillbilly Tape Music
“1698 to Henry Flynt” (1960), Copyright © La Monte Young
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824