lørdag den 21. maj 2011


On 1 June, Copenhagen has a rare chance to experience György Ligeti’s Poème symphonique (1962). The piece is better known as “the metronome piece”, and for a good reason: it is scored for 100 metronomes that are simply wound up and left to run down. The work, and a couple of related ones from the same period, is markedly different from the rest of the Hungarian composer’s oeuvre, and its eccentricity is usually explained with a reference to Fluxus. The score of the Poème symphonique was reproduced in the first issue of the Fluxus newspaper V TRE, which makes the connection an obvious one. The fact that it appeared there probably means that Fluxus’ spiritual father, George Maciunas, planned to include it in one of the Fluxus yearbooks that never appeared; most of the material he collected for publication in the yearbooks ended up being printed in V TRE and/or as a single edition.
As a work, the Poème symphonique fits the Fluxus repertoire very well: it is simple, funny and concrete, it is what Maciunas called “monostructural” – but it is too easy to explain its wackiness with a reference to Fluxus alone. Ligeti himself has tried very hard to make it an organic part of his oeuvre by relating it to later, more acceptably musical works (his String Quartet No. 2 from 1968, more specifically the pizzicato movement in it), and musicologists tend to connect it with the mechanical style the composer developed towards the end of the 1960s. The only possible conclusion is that there is not a single story to be told about the work, but that it is possible to tell at least two. One of them is based on continuities, the other on breaks. One of them is connected, via the idea of the oeuvre, to the ideals of high modernism, the other via the suggestion of radical alterity to the notion of the avant-garde.
The appearance of such easy binaries ought to make one stop and think again.
Fluxus was different, but it was not unique. The type of experimentation it is known for, is characteristic for its time, and although the artists associated with it were more radical than most, their interests were shared by others. At the time when Maciunas collected the score of the Poème symphonique, he was interested in what he called “concretism”, a tendency in art to let phenomena be themselves. What he saw, or rather, failed to see in an oddly perceptive way, was a tendency amongst artists to abandon form as an artistic category. Fluxus works, and many other works of the same period, can no longer be filed on the basis of outside characteristics, but have to be understood from the inside out, as process. They have, so to speak, made the leap from invertebrate to vertebrate, from external shell to backbone. This reference to evolution is misleading, because the leap they made marked the change from modernism into postmodernism, and therewith the abandonment of all evolutionary thinking. Works such as these exist in what Rosalind Krauss famously called the “post-media condition”. 
Eric Drott, who devoted a long article in The Journal of Musicology to the metronome piece and two other works of Ligeti’s that are commonly associated with Fluxus, concludes that the piece does not conform to the Fluxus standard, amongst other reasons because it criticises recognizable musical conventions. The way the score is formulated, for example – extremely verbose and overly specific , with lengthy instructions about how to procure 100 metronomes, how to make sure that they are returned to the right owner, etc.; you will find the full text here – is interpreted by Drott as an ironic commentary on the typical modernist score of the time, with the attached elaborate instructions to the performer. As such, it is a specifically musical work, but at the same time it is not. The score does not contain a single note, but consists of words alone, and is therefore accessible in a way that is entirely different from the classical musical score. It is part-music, part-written word, and entirely something different.  It ventures out in that mysterious no-man’s land between the established media that Dick Higgins called intermedia.
At one level, the level at which Maciunas connected with the work, it is a musical piece that makes no effort to hide the nature of the material it employs, namely, the ticking of 100 metronomes. At another level, the one at which scholars such as Drott understand it, it is a supramusical piece that critiques certain musical conventions. Both interpretations are perfectly valid, but they fail to notice the way the piece behaves. Certainly, one of the things it does is cause performances, like all musical scores, but it also changes the status of the score. Its title, Poème symphonique, places it at the crossroads of poetry and music, but actually it inhabits a previously unclaimed territory in between music and the written word. It is intermedial in nature, but what is even more important is that it experiments with the score as a means to an end and turns it into an end in itself. As much as the presentation of a certain body of sonic material and as much as a critique of certain musical conventions, it is a postmedial work that can just as easily be read as a text as it can be performed as a piece of music.
Oh well. Whatever it is, I look forward to hearing and seeing it on 1 June.

tirsdag den 10. maj 2011


In my last blog entry, I wrote about a concert that has left traces in the present and has failed to do so at the same time. In this new one, I would like to supplement it with a concert that is twice there.The concert in question is the sixth and last of the Fluxus Festival that was held in Nikolaj Kirke in Copenhagen and the Allé Scenen theatre in Frederiksberg in November 1962. The first concert of the festival, on 23 November 1962, attracted a lot of attention, but because the reviews were unanimously bad, almost all supporters started to distance themselves from it and the other concerts, except the one at Allé Scenen on 25 November 1962, were left unreviewed. I never expected to find a review of the last one.

But I did, or rather, Dorte Errebo, an archivist at the Rudersdal historical archive, did. Thank you once again, Dorte! She drew my attention to a review in Birkebavnen, the Birkerød Statsskole college magazine.  Thanks to it, I now know that John Cage’s Fontana Mix and Music for the Marrying Maiden, Richard Maxfield’s Cough Music, Radio Music, Steam, Pastoral Music and Night Music, George Brecht’s Three Yellow Events and Two Durations and Dick Higgins’ Requiem for Wagner, the Criminal Mayor were all performed according to plan. In a sense, that is news, because Fluxus festivals NEVER took place according to the programme; but then again, nearly all of these works are movies or tape works, so how difficult can it be to play them as planned?

Of course this is a bit unfair. Thanks to the review, I now know that Brecht’s Three Yellow Events (1. Yellow, 2. Yellow, 3. Yellow) were performed by holding up a transparent piece of yellow plastic in front of a projector lamp, and that is a valuable bit of information. And I also know that the crowd expected scandal and soon became bored, so when imagining the scene, one has to remember to add paper aeroplanes, folded from program sheets, flying through the air.

But by and large, and quite unlike the episode I wrote about in my last blog entry, I now have a duplicate of the programme I already had. In the case of the other concert, I found that the combination of affirmation of its reality and its denial made it a ghost, and therewith a social thing. Does the lack of in-betweenness here mean that the concert is not social? After all, what we have here is an ensemble, consisting of two pieces of documentary evidence that both point in the same direction and that can therefore unquestioningly be treated as stand-ins – supplements, in the Derridean sense – of a lost, original event.

Living with ghosts means never entirely living in the present. A haunted present is alive with remains of the past and outposts of the future. This situation was easily recognisable in the case of the present/absent concert: it had taken place under the rule of a rector who believed he had already witnessed the essentials of the concert in the past and therefore did not think he had a need for it in the present; for whom the concert in the past represented the shadow of the concert that was censored, reaching back in time.  The situation would have been similar in the case described above if the review had never shown up; but it has, so what does its appearance mean?

There is a sense in which the concert can be said to be “happening between two” (Derrida’s expression) after all: it happens in the lack of change between the announced program and the performed one. It becomes a ghost when the program as promise of a future-to-come (a-venir, another Derridean term) meets the program as a fulfilment of that promise, with the extreme likeness of the two as the thing that determines its half-life. After all, it was the fact that the works were mechanically reproduced (projected/played) that caused the audience to react. People expected to see their expectations reproduced (they craved scandal), but what it got instead was a reproduction of the work, without the possibility of the fulfilment or defeat of expectations. The sociality lies in the frustration this produces, a frustration that is repeated by me, the scholar: while I am happy to have my facts confirmed, I am also disappointed by the fact that a new piece of evidence does not, or hardly, lead to new insights.