One of American composer La Monte Young’s better known 1960 compositions is no. 7, which consists of a B and an F# - a perfect fifth – and the instruction “to be held for a long time”. On a piano, you would do this by holding the sustain pedal down. During a Fluxus festival in Copenhagen in November 1962, however, the piece was performed on a harmonium. You would expect that it was a church organ, because the festival took place in Saint Nicholas Church, and some stories do replace the harmonium with an organ, but I am pretty sure that it was a harmonium. Arthur Køpcke decorated it with paper, old junk, a salt shaker and a pepper pot and some orange juice cartons especially for the occasion – and several eyewitnesses have described for me the majestic sight of Dick Higgins, tall and broad, pedaling away at the instrument and holding the tone, loud and clear, for something approaching 45 minutes. Both the sight and the sound must have been much more impressive than any piano rendition.
The performance ought to have been a perfect demonstration of Young’s wish to “get inside sound” – but it had exactly the opposite effect. Instead of drawing people in, it forced people out. The audience listened to the chord for some five or ten minutes. Then they started speaking to their neighbours and others around them, and finally, people started to leave the church and continued their conversations at a nearby hot dog stand instead. Through the open doors of the church, they could still hear the sound. A comparison with Satie’s Musique d’ameublement seems obvious here. The audience was supposed to talk while the five pieces it consists of were played, but during the first performance, the audience famously sat and listened intently until Satie climbed on stage and explained to them what they were supposed to do. With La Monte Young’s fifth, the exact opposite happened: people were supposed to listen, but they talked and walked around and away instead.
Why the difference? One could argue that the Satie work, despite its blandness, contained the minimum amount of elements necessary for an audience to recognize it as a piece of music and that the Young work did not. However, one could also argue that the occasion made a difference. Here, I make use of the system of three types or degrees of boredom that German philosopher Martin Heidegger proposes in a lecture series from 1929/1930 that he published under the title The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: “becoming bored by something”, “being bored with something” and “profound boredom”. We can disregard profound boredom here, but the other two are extremely relevant. Heidegger explains his first degree of boredom by means of the example of having to wait at a railway station and the second by that of attending a party. The difference is that the first type of boredom is defined first and foremost by all the things one does to drive boredom away, while the second takes place within a time span and a context where there is a place for it and is therefore not recognized as such until afterwards. Young’s piece invited boredom of the first degree, Satie’s of the second.
One can speculate whether Satie, although controversial, bore enough resemblance to a respectable composer– whether his premieres bore enough resemblance to respectable musical performances – for an audience to treat him and them according to the appropriate conventions. And one can speculate whether Fluxus and the Fluxus Festival in Copenhagen, although supported by the local branch of the ISCM, did not. But then, the association with the composers in DUT, as it was called, Det unge tonekunstnerselskab, did something else. At least one of the people I spoke to described the hubbub of the crowd as a piece in itself. Young’s piece may have been impossible to digest as a musical performance, but the audience’s efforts to drive the boredom caused by it away, could then be consumed as a performance instead. All that happened was that the focus moved from the cause of the boredom to the indices of its presence.