Many different art movements of the twentieth century have influenced experimental music. This essay will focus mostly on the effect the Fluxus movement has had on music. Fluxus was particularly important to the development of an understanding that music does not necessarily have to be harmonic, and most importantly, that anyone can create music by organizing everyday sounds. This essay will discuss the following issues: how Fluxus artists challenged experimental/noise music; how audience becomes part of the performance instead of simply observing; and how noise music (as well as the Fluxus movement in general) was a protest against serious traditional culture.
Fluxus was not the first art movement that started the development of noise aesthetics. The proposal that artists should use everyday sounds in their compositions first appeared in the Italian Futurist painter and composer Luigi Russolo’s manifesto “The Art of Noises”. In his text the author criticized the old fashioned tools for sound production, and as an alternative he proposed making new musical instruments and using a multitude of machines. According to Russolo, perfectly harmonious music had reached a point where it no longer had the power to excite or inspire. Consequently, artists of the Dada movement extended experimental music ideas. A prime example was the Anti-Symphony concert performed in Berlin on April 30, 1919. Later, the Surrealist and Fluxus art movements brought in new, fresh ideas to noise/experimental music. The biggest influences were the Fluxus artists Robert Watts, Wolf Vostell, Nam June Paik, George Maciunas, Philip Corner, Benjamin Patterson, LaMonte Young, and Takehisa Kosugi. Fluxus performances grew out of the principle of concrete (ready-made) sound, and the Experimental Composition classes by John Cage ran between 1957 and 1959 at the New School of Social Research in New York. According to Cage, artists should use actions, concrete sounds, and random things, rather than being represented in an illusionist/harmonic manner. There were two different types of Fluxus performances. The early one was the “Events/Neo-haiku Theater”, which was followed by the “Happenings/Neo-Baroque Theater”. Happenings, environments, and Fluxus made the artist aware of sounds’ potentiality in creating work that retained a sense of immediacy, corporeality, and curiosity.
This is how Stewart Home described the specifics of Fluxus events in his book The Assault on Culture:
“The bizarre and destructive nature of some performances – which included the destruction of musical instruments, shaving exercises, and a leap into a bathtub filled with water – attracted a certain amount of media coverage. The festival as a whole highlighted the difference between what Maciunas would later label the ‘monomorphic neo-haiku flux-event’ and the ‘mixed media neo-baroque happening’. That is to say that although the fluxus performances were intermedial, in the sense that they fell between various disciplines such as music and visual arts, each composition focused on a single event isolated from any other action and was presented as an iconoclastic insight into the nature of reality itself.”1
“Events/Neo-haiku Theater” was a type of Fluxus event where each artist (or a small group of artists) had an opportunity to make their own short duration performances, and other people were simply watching. These events were popular during the entirety of the Fluxus movement. The word haiku came from Japan (a large number of Fluxus artists were from Japan). To give a typical example of this principle, I will discuss the piece called “Solo for Violin” by Nam June Paik. Originally, Paik performed this piece for the first time on 16 June 1962 in a Neo-dada music event. The action of the “Solo for Violin” performance could not be simpler: Paik was standing in the center of the stage. He took a violin from a wooden table and lifted the violin very slowly. The culmination of this performance was when Paik forcefully smashed the violin on the table. This is probably one of the most famous examples of “Neo-haiku Theater” (as various artists repeated it countless times, and it perfectly reflected the main principle of this type of performance). Another famous example of “Neo-haiku Theater”, or to be precise, a more multimedial version of it, was Philip Corner’s “Piano Activities” performed by George Maciunas, Dick Higgins, Wolf Vostell, Benjamin Patterson, and Emmett Williams. This piece was not typical for this type of Fluxus event, since five artists instead of one were making their “haikus”, and the duration of the entire event exceeded the limits of being short. This piece was one of the most scandalous during the first series of the Fluxus concerts in Europe. Compared with “Solo for Violin” by Paik, this piece was full of action. The artists’ crew took the grand piano and destroyed it on stage. Afterwards, parts of the grand piano were sold to the audience. These two examples show what “Events/Neo-haiku Theater” was all about, and how it had a potentiality to be developed into a multimedia happening.
However, Fluxus was not a perfect anti-art movement. When Guy Debord, one of the founding members of the Situationist International, published the book The Society of the Spectacle in 1967, it was obvious that Fluxus “Neo-haiku” events were still filling the format of alienated bourgeois culture. Debord’s direction was intended “to wake up the spectator who has been drugged by spectacular images”2. In Fluxus performances the boundary between the audience and the artist was still obvious. The audience was just a passive observer. Csaba Toth in his article “Noise Theory” used Debord’s text and discussed how “life in late capitalism presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. The society of the spectacle eliminates dialogue; organization of the monologue by political and economic organizations isolates and prevents direct, localized, non-repeatable communication”3. In Fluxus “neo-haiku” events, people were still isolated from the performer and from each other. The audience was still sitting quietly in their seats in an ordinary concert/theater hall, just like how they would watch an opera or symphony orchestra concert. The main proposal of F
luxus at the beginning was to go against the art industry. However, it suddenly became part of it. After their destructive performances, Fluxus artists sold the “leftovers” (what essentially was trash) to the audience as art objects. It was evident that Fluxus artists had to change something in the core structure of their performances, otherwise Fluxus would have become part of the art industry.
From 1970, another type of Fluxus events started to dominate – “Happenings/Neo-Baroque Theater”. This kind of event was different from “Neo-haiku Theater”, because instead of making short individual performances they started doing something together simultaneously and even the audience was involved in these performances/events. “Neo-Baroque Theater” events were mostly organized by George Maciunas, who was a Lithuanian-born American artist and the central coordinator of Fluxus. A core example was the Fluxfest at Douglas College presented in 1970. In this Fluxfestival there were three areas of activities: a “Fluxmass”, “Flux-sports”, and a “Flux-show”. One of the main examples of the “Neo-Baroque Theater” event from “Fluxfest” was the “Fluxmass”. Maciunas researched all aspects of Catholic mass and proposed humorous elements that would correlate to its various parts. This is how Geoff Hendricks described the event: “The Priest’s assistants wore gorilla costumes. The sacrament wine was in a plasma tank with a hose. The Lord’s Prayer was said in a dozen languages. Smoke bombs became candles. An inflated superman filled with wine was ‘bled.’ It was a spirited performance in true Fluxus style.”4 It may not be a surprise, but after this event the Fluxus artists were no longer welcome in church. Another, also very important example of how audiences became involved in a collective production of sound, was “Paper music” by Benjamin Patterson. This piece was first performed by Patterson and his crew in 1970. At first sight it may have looked like a typical “Neo-haiku Theater”, but the main reason this piece was part of the early stage of “Neo-Baroque Theater” events was that the performers, who were making noises on the stage solely with paper/cardboard, also gave an opportunity to the audience to play along with them by giving them huge rolls of paper and small paper pieces as well. In this way the boundaries between the audience and the artists started to vanish. Unfortunately, after George Maciunas’ death in 1978, the “Neo-Baroque Theater” events stopped, and the subsequent Fluxus activities were associated with turning from pure noise back to solo spectacle(s).
On the other hand, Asger Jorn described in his text “Mind and Sense” how the ancient Teutons, who produced polyphonic sound in an out-of-mind or simply non-harmonic way, had their warriors use this technique in battles against the Roman harmonic-minded armies. This showed different perspectives for collective approaches to experimental/noise music. This is how Jorn, using Tacitus’ manuscript as a source, described the Teutons’ polyphonic sound adjustment in the battles:
“Tacitus writes that there is a kind of heroic lay from whose consonance one could augur the issue of the coming battle. This consonance is called bardilus, and Tacitus’s account is probably the first report on the attempt at producing polyphonic musical harmonies. As the tones organized themselves along the rows of the warriors, the listener could decide whether there was a possibility of victory or defeat according to whether there was harmony or not. This singing, he says, is, as it were, one of valour rather than voice. Tacitus is not the only Roman historian who tells about the panic which the singing of the Teutons instilled in the Roman soldiers, and also among other narratives, in those of the victory of the Goths over the Roman armies these songs play a prominent part. Tacitus explains the technique in the following way: What they aim at most is a harsh tone and hoarse murmur, and so they put their shield before their mouths, in order to make the voice swell fuller and deeper as it echoes back. This is undeniably a somewhat more interesting explanation of the singing of the bards and of the story of the Berserkers biting their shields than the stupidities otherwise heard about them. It must lead directly to a study of the medieval English traditions of consonance in church choirs.”5
After many years, a fusion of the “Events/Neo-haiku Theater”, the “Happenings/Neo-Baroque Theater”, and Teutonic polyphonic singing techniques were applied in the Psychic (art) Strike Biennial do it yourself (DIY) concerts in Alytus, Lithuania. DIY concerts started in 2009 as part of the Alytus Art Strike Biennial activity. This concert does not have any structure, it is complete chaos, and everyone can join in at any time. The boundary between the audience and the artist disappears. This is the reason why it is similar to the “Happenings/Neo-Baroque Theater” where everyone could be involved. However, at the same time, this is very close to the “Events/Neo-haiku Theater” because every single person made their own small performance all playing at the same time. The main idea of the DIY concerts was taken from the Teutons in terms of how they applied polyphonic music in the battles. Everyone makes different sounds, which together are dissonant and confusing. In any case, how can we connect all these approaches into a context of noise/experimental music aesthetics? The main principle of these DIY concerts is similar to Fluxus ideas, and this is why everyone was playing with trash (or any found objects) and musical instruments (but just those you do not know how to play) in such a way that endless noise and chaos came from one side, and continuous invention and communication came from the other. Noise music as a genre tends to challenge the distinction that is made in conventional musical practices between musical and non-musical sound. In this way, the DIY concerts are part of experimental/noise music. This also plays a very important role in further de-professionalizing the music sphere, thus giving a chance for improvisation and life. This kind of production of sound tends to lean towards developing non-verbal communication skills, and strengthens inter-human, intra-human and trans-human relations, which is far more than conventional music based on consumption can offer. In fact, this resonates with the early intentions of Fluxus’ countercultural ambitions – to destroy Eurocentrist, intellectual, and alienated bourgeois culture.
1. Stewart Home, The Assault on Culture (1988), Chapter 9.
2. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (2006).
3. Csaba Toth, “Noise Theory” in Noise & Capitalism (2009), 27.
4. Owen F. Smith, Fluxus: The History of an Attitude (2011), 205.
5. Asger Jorn, “Mind and Sense” (1963).
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. (text here).
Higgins, Hannah. Fluxus Experience. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.
Home, Stewart. The Assault on Culture. London, 1988. (text here).
Jorn, Asger. “Mind and Sense”. (text here), 1963.
LaBelle, Brandon. Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010.
Russolo, Luigi. “The Art of Noises”. In Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. Bloomsbury, 2013.
Smith, Owen F. Fluxus: The History of an Attitude. San Diego: San Diego State University Press, 2011.
Toth, Csaba. “Noise Theory”. In Noise & Capitalism. 2009.
ubu.com Fluxus manifestos. (pdf here). Originally published in 1966 as a Great Bear Pamphlet by Something Else Press.
Van Gerven Oei, Vincent W. J. An Analysis of Fluxus Composition Techniques. 2007.
Welchman, John C. Sculpture and the Vitrine. Ashgate, 2013.
Williams, Emmett. Mr. Fluxus: A Collective Portrait of George Maciunas 1931-1978. Thames & Hudson, 1998.
List of Works
Corner, Philip. “Piano Activities”, 1962.
DIY (do it yourself) concerts at the Alytus Psychic Strike biennial, 2009-2013.
Golyscheff, Jefrim. “Anti-symphony” Berlin, 1919.
Maciunas, George. “Flux-mass” Douglas Collage, 1970.
Paik, Nam June. “Solo for Violin”, 1962.
Patterson, Benjamin. “Paper Music”, 1970.