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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 2 Indeterminacy
Richard Taruskin

There were those, however, who managed to maintain the frayed analogy between “revolutionary” politics and progressive esthetics and reconcile radical politics with radical art, though they did so by reverting to the nostalgic, by then fairly untenable ideal of what was known in the 1960s as the Old Left. The term referred to idealistic remnants of the revolutionary tide that had made the Russian Revolution, who refused to recognize or acknowledge the way in which that Revolution had been betrayed. At a time when the Soviet Union stood, for all the world to see, on the side of enforced artistic populism, these artists defended the old “revolutionary” ideal on both the political and the esthetic fronts.

Perhaps the most prominent was Luigi Nono (1924–90), who as a young partisan fighter courageously joined the Italian Communist Party during the last days of Mussolini's dictatorship, when membership was a crime, and who was eventually (1975) elected to the Party's Central Committee. Nono, who married Schoenberg's daughter Nuria in 1955, was a committed twelve-tone composer, as convinced as was his father-in-law of the method's historical inevitability, just as he was convinced of the inevitability of Communist revolution. He never recognized a contradiction between his musical idiom, which appealed only to an elite coterie, and his commitment to egalitarian politics. Although he was a loyal upholder of Soviet economic and diplomatic policies to the end (paying his last official visit to the USSR as late as 1988), his music was of a kind anathematized in the Soviet Union in 1948 and never “rehabilitated.” The contrast between Nono's political and esthetic commitments is particularly pointed, of course, in his most overtly political works, like Ein Gespenst geht um in der Welt (“A specter is abroad in the world”; 1971), a choral setting of words drawn from Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto, accompanied by an orchestra with a colossal percussion section (and with the strings often “percussing” à la Xenakis) (Fig. 2-7). Despite the source of its text and its expressive purpose, entirely comparable to Rzewski's, the work was given its premiere in West Germany rather than the part of Germany where Marx and Engels were honored as founding fathers, but where music like Nono's was unperformable. Nor was the work ever performed in the Soviet bloc.

Nono defended his musical idiom in terms borrowed from Adorno, another Marxist who turned a blind eye to the actual historical consequences of Marxist philosophy. Its dissonance was to be interpreted “dialectically,” like Schoenberg's, as a critique of bourgeois society's irreconcilable antagonisms (“disharmonies”). Such a metaphorical interpretation of a musical style was acceptable neither to the Soviets nor to the former avant-gardists of the New Left. To the former it smacked of self-indulgent hypocrisy; to the latter, of sterile utopianism. It was Nono's fate to be best appreciated musically where his ideological commitments were devalued, and vice versa. He had an important like-thinking exponent in the charismatic piano virtuoso Maurizio Pollini (b. 1942), whose concerts became Nono's best attended forum. But Pollini, too, has had to face the contradiction between leftist political sympathies and the realities of musical politics.

At the opposite, somewhat happier pseudo-political extreme were the outwardly carefree revolutionaries who created “happenings.” These were minimally planned performance events, at the border between music and theater, that mixed Cage's “purposeful purposelessness” with the ideology of the “absurdist” theater in which playwrights like Beckett and Eugene Ionesco (1909–94) expressed the bewilderment, alienation, and despair of existentialist philosophy by abandoning all logical plot development, meaningful dialogue, or intelligible character delineation in favor of a gross unpredictable humor that mocked all efforts at making sense of incomprehensible reality. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the perpetrators of happenings repressed their bewilderment and alienation and the rest in a great show of childish fun and aggression.

Conflicts Denied

fig. 2-7 Nono, Ein Gespenst geht um in der Welt, beginning.

The first—typically solemn, typically misunderstood—happening was engineered by Cage himself at Black Mountain College, an avant-garde retreat in North Carolina, in 1952. It was a variation on the 4′33″ idea. Cage programmed some overlapping sound containers (or compartments, as he called them this time) in advance by the use of chance operations and allowed himself and his fellow performers to choose an activity to perform during their allotted compartments. Cage himself standing on a ladder, read a lecture that contained some compartments of silence; some poets climbed other ladders when their time came and read; others ran a movie, projected slides, played phonograph records, danced, and played the piano, while Robert Rauschenberg suspended some paintings above the audience's heads. The idea, as in 4′33″, was to re-create utilitarian reality as autonomous art: “If you go down the street in the city you can see that people are moving about with intention but you don't know what those intentions are,” Cage said, lecturing. “Many things happen which can be viewed in purposeless ways.”55 The music of life was a perpetual impersonal flux.

Between 1956 and 1960 Cage taught a class at the New School called Composition of Experimental Music. In 1958, the class included a number of poets, painters, and composers — George Brecht, Allan Kaprow, Jackson Mac Low, Dick Higgins — of whom some later participated in a loose performance association called Fluxus. Organized by George Maciunas in 1961–62, Fluxus provided a venue for what Kaprow was the first to call happenings. Brecht, the group's main theorist, disclaimed all theory. “In Fluxus, there has never been any attempt to agree on aims or methods,” he wrote in 1964. “Individuals with something unnameable in common have simply naturally coalesced to publish and perform their work.” And yet he did try to name it: “Perhaps this common something is a feeling that the bounds of art are much wider than they have conventionally seemed, or that art and certain long-established bounds are no longer very useful.”56 In contrast to Cage's original happening (and his later “musicircuses”), which sought to embrace the macrocosm, setting in motion an uncoordinated, ungraspable multiplicity of events that would create an esthetic analogy to the totality and complexity of life, Fluxus celebrated the microcosm, reflecting that totality and complexity in single, individual actes gratuits (as the existentialists would say), acts-without-purpose. At first their happenings were minimally prescribed and modestly executed. Brecht's Organ Piece, for example, consists of a single instruction: “organ.”57 Piano Piece 1962 consists of another: “a vase of flowers onto a piano.” The Brecht instruction most frequently cited by those seeking to define or illustrate happenings is “Discover or make on (to) a piano.” His best-known composition, Three Telephone Events, consisted of the following:

  • When the telephone rings, it is allowed to continue ringing, until it stops.

  • When the telephone rings, the receiver is lifted, then replaced.

  • When the telephone rings, it is answered.58

The conceptual kinship with 4′33″ is made explicit in a Performance Note, which reads, “Each event comprises all occurrences within its duration.” It is Brecht's best known piece because Cage made seeming (and typically inaccurate) reference to it when asked to define music. “If the phone rings and you answer, that is not music,” he replied. “If it rings and you listen, it is.” Takehisa Kosugi, a Japanese composer who joined Fluxus a bit later, contributed a piece, Anima 7, whose instruction reads, “Perform any action as slowly as possible.”59 La Monte Young (b. 1935 in Idaho), the best-known composer ever associated with the group, had a big influence on its style and esthetic with a set of instructions called Compositions 1960, which included one of the few such compositions to incorporate conventional musical notation (see Fig. 2-8a). Another from the set consists of the instruction, “push the piano to the wall; push it through the wall; keep pushing.”60 In Composition 1960 #3, specially designated performers are dispensed with. Instead, the audience is instructed that for a specified period of time they may do anything they wish.

Conflicts Denied

fig. 2-8a La Monte Young, Composition 1960 #7

Over time, the group's activities followed the usual maximalist course into flamboyance and aggression, and acquired notoriety. A Fluxus composer named Ben Vautier composed a number of Audience Pieces that came close to psychological abuse. One involved locking the audience into the theater; the piece was over when (if) they escaped. Richard Maxfield (1927–69) created the emblematic Fluxus happening, “Concert Suite from Dromenon,” during which La Monte Young determined to set a violin on fire. The peak of aggression against the audience was reached by Nam June Paik (b. 1932), a Korean-born composer whose Hommage à John Cage consisted (as described by Al Hansen, a fellow Fluxian) of “moving through the intermission crowd in the lobby of a theater, cutting men's neckties off with scissors, slicing coats down the back with a razor blade and squirting shaving cream on top of their heads.”61 At one performance the recipient of Paik's attention was Cage himself, who, unamused, was led (in the words of the critic Calvin Tomkins, to whom he confided) “to wonder whether his influence on the young was altogether a good one.”62 Afterward, as Merce Cunningham recalled, “the piece went on for quite a while, and then Nam June disappeared. And we all sat and waited, and some time later, he telephoned from someplace to tell us the piece was over.”63 Cunningham, looking back on the experience, told a reporter that “it was wonderful.” Others, sitting and waiting to no apparent purpose, may have been perplexed at their strange imprisonment by the rules of concert decorum. Exposing them may have been Paik's purpose. Or perhaps it was sheer aggression.

Conflicts Denied

fig. 2-8b Nam June Paik.

But aggression, too, is a purpose; and acts like Paik's, therefore, do not seem quite as innocent in practice as they do in theory. Dick Higgins faced up to the dilemma—meanwhile putting Fluxus, in its maximalist phase, into a historical perspective of sorts—when he commented, in terms that other members may not have approved, that the group had a purpose after all, and that purpose was (or had become) the reintroduction of a sense of danger that had been lost to modern music. “A sense of risk is indispensable,” he wrote in 1966,

because any simple piece fails when it becomes facile. This makes for all the more challenge in risking facility, yet still remaining very simple, very concrete, very meaningful. The composer is perfectly well aware of the psychological difficulties which his composition may produce for some, if not all, of the audience. He therefore finds excitement in insisting on this, to the point of endangering himself physically or even spiritually in his piece.64

The motivating emotion seemed to have become envy of the scandals of the past, which led composers actively to court the sort of hostile response from audiences of which legends (like that of The Rite of Spring) were made. One concert the author of this book remembers attending did succeed in provoking a violent counter-demonstration from its tiny audience. It was sponsored by a Fluxus spin-off group called Tone Roads, a name derived from a series of compositions by Charles Ives, and took place at the New School during the 1964–65 season. The last composition on the program, by Philip Corner (b. 1933), ended with a trumpet player and a trombonist standing at center stage, each unrelentingly emitting the highest and loudest note he could maintain steadily, until most listeners had fled.

The remaining spectators either watched in bemusement to see how and when the performance would end, or tried to interfere with it. Paper airplanes were launched in profusion. Audience catcalls began to rival in volume the noise the musicians were making. One sincerely irate patron jumped on stage and snatched the music off the players’ stands, as if that would silence them; the trombonist pursued the would-be disrupter and snatched it back. The piece finally ended when the building custodian ordered everyone out of the hall. By then there were two on stage and five in the auditorium. (The author suspects that the intended ending was the departure of the last audience member.)

Paik produced the biggest scandal in 1967, with a happening called Opéra sextronique The performance was heralded by a poster, proclaiming (in the spirit of the Communist Manifesto) that

After three emancipations in twentieth-century music (serial, indeterminate, actional) I have found that there is still one more chain to lose. That is PRE-FREUDIAN HYPOCRISY. Why is sex, a predominant theme in art and literature, prohibited ONLY in music? How long can New Music afford to be sixty years behind the times and still claim to be a serious art? The purge of sex under the excuse of being “serious” exactly undermines the so-called “seriousness” of music as a classical art, ranking with literature and painting. Music history needs its D. H. Lawrence, its Sigmund Freud.65

The performance consisted of a cellist, Charlotte Moorman, appearing on stage “topless” (i.e., bare-breasted, in the media slang of the time). Paik, in Nicolas Slonimsky's untoppable description, “acted as a surrogate cello, his denuded spinal column serving as the fingerboard for Moorman's cello bow, while his bare skin provided an area for intermittent pizzicati.”66 Alerted by the poster, the police were on hand to arrest Moorman on a charge of public indecency. Instantly famous, she became the object of countless “newsmaker” interviews (including an appearance—fully clothed—on the Tonight Show, a late-evening television “talk-show” hosted by Johnny Carson) in which she gamely defended the cause of new music as a “First Amendment” (i.e., free-expression) issue.

It was at this point that the artistic avant-garde appeared to meld in common cause with the demonstrations of civil disobedience (sparked by the “Free Speech Movement” at the University of California at Berkeley) that grew with the expansion of the unpopular Vietnam War. Serious political engagement, however, was not motivating Fluxus's or Tone Roads's acts of provocation. Suspected of frivolity at a time of severe political unrest, the avant-garde found its reason for being undermined, and it largely evaporated. Its political energy, as we will see in a later chapter, passed, for most part, into popular culture.

Looking back on his activities in the year 2000, Paik laughed them off as a “kind of stupid avant-garde,” the antics of a “groupie” infatuated with Cage and the idea of liberation that he symbolized.67 The avant-garde to which he had belonged, he now admitted, consisted for the most part of “lucky, middle-class people” who found that inventing meaningful applications of what seemed the easiest idea in the world, total freedom, was in fact bafflingly difficult. “We were just wondering how to be new,” he conceded, at a time when novelty had become a debased currency.

But the movement was no laughing matter, really. Underlying it was a negative pathology, perhaps the most extreme artistic symptom of the period's widespread existential despair. Many of its members, having made renunciations just as impressive as Cage's, failed to find any positive outlet for their creative urge. Paik and Young, for example, were Darmstadt refugees with solid academic credentials. Paik had been a pupil of Wolfgang Fortner, the German serialist, while Young had studied in Los Angeles with Leonard Stein (b. 1916), who had served as Schoenberg's teaching assistant at UCLA.

Maxfield was perhaps the most dramatic case. He had worked with Roger Sessions at Berkeley and Milton Babbitt at Princeton before going to Italy on a Fulbright Fellowship to study with the leading Italian twelve-tone composers, Luigi Dallapiccola (1904–75) and Bruno Maderna (1920–73). By the time of his involvement with Fluxus he had already made a name for himself, having “acquired an excellent technique of composition in the traditional idiom before adopting an extreme avant-garde style”68 (as his entry reads in Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians). He was also a skilled and highly paid recording engineer, employed by Westminster Records, one of the most active independent classical labels of the early LP era. Against this background, Higgins's Danger Musics, not to mention acts of outright destruction like violin burning (or taking an axe to a piano, as prescribed in Paik's Hommage à John Cage), do not seem merely “gratuitous” but sadomasochistic. Maxfield's final act was literally self-destructive. He committed suicide by jumping out of the window of a Los Angeles hotel room at the age of forty-two.


(55) Quoted in Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (New York: Schirmer, 1974), p. 61.

(56) Quoted in Nyman, Experimental Music, p. 64.

(57) Nyman, Experimental Music, p. 66.

(58) Reproduced in Nyman, Experimental Music, p. 67.

(59) Quoted in Nyman, Experimental Music, p. 13.

(60) Reproduced in Nyman, Experimental Music, p. 70.

(61) Quoted in Nyman, Experimental Music, p. 74.

(62) Quoted Ibid.

(63) “Relations: Friends and Allies Across the Divide; Merce Cunningham and Nam June Paik,” New York Times Magazine, 16 July 2000, p. 11.

(64) Quoted in Nyman, Experimental Music, p. 74.

(65) Ibid.

(66) Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (6th ed.; New York: Schirmer, 1978), p. 1279.

(67) “Relations: Friends and Allies Across the Divide: Merce Cunningham and Nam June Paik”

(68) Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (6th ed.; New York, Schirmer, 1978), p. 1118.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Indeterminacy. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002008.xml