Sunday, July 31, 2011

Flood And Tyde

Fluxus, Post-Modernism, Downtown Music and European Improvisation: a starting kit
Words: Gian Paolo Galasi

Maciunas, Fluxus ccVTRE Fluxus 1964-1975
When talking about the Downtown music scene, the 'Reaganomics', as the end of the 'Loft-Scene', postmodernism and the influence of Fluxus on avant-garde music were cited. 'Postmodernism' was a transversal movement, a tendency in contemporary culture to criticize sharp classifications - as male versus female, straight versus gay, white versus black, and imperial versus colonial - emphasizing the role of language, power relations, and motivations.

As a non-belief in objective truth, postmodernism is related to what happens in that space once called 'subjective'. A form of subjectivity not seen as a whole, but analyzed, which is disintegrated, in tendencies, influence spheres, disciplines. In a way, Postmodernism is related to the human being from a point of view that is strikingly similar to that of sociologists and anthropologists, even if 'in absence', so to speak. As Victor Turner, a British cultural anthropologist wrote in his "The Anthropology of Experience", 

'all human act is impregnated with meaning, and meaning is hard to measure […]. Meaning arises when we try to put what culture and language have crystallized from the past together with what we feel, whish and think about our present point in life'.

Victor Turner differentiated himself from Claude Lévi-Strauss structural anthropology in this, that he took up Wilhelm Dilthey idea of 'experience' and put it at the center. Experience so is the result of "the Hermeneutic circle", which is the recurring movement between the implicit and the explicit, the particular and the whole. This idea is at the core of what Turner called 'liminality'. As Charles La Shure states in his "What is Liminality?",

“liminal” first appears in publication in the field of psychology in 1884, but the idea was introduced to the field of anthropology in 1909 by Arnold Van Gennep in his seminal work, The Rites of Passage. Van Gennep described rites of passage such as coming-of-age rituals and marriage as having the following three-part structure: 1. separation, 2. liminal period, 3. reassimilation. The initiate (that is, the person undergoing the ritual) is first stripped of the social status that he or she possessed before the ritual, inducted into the liminal period of transition, and finally given his or her new status and reassimilated into society.

This is something similar to what happens in the art field. It is not by chance, in fact, that Victor Turner himself, in his "Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society" (1975) shifted on performative drama as modern forms of liminarity:

Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman - Living Cello
We tend to find very frequently that it is not a theorist’s whole system which so illuminates, but his scattered ideas, his flashes of insight taken out of systemic context and applied to scattered data. Such ideas have a virtue of their own and may generate new hypotheses. They even show how scattered facts may be systematically connected! Randomly distributed through some monstrous logical system, they resemble nourishing raisins in a cellular mass of inedible dough. The intuitions, not the tissue of logic connecting them, are what tend to survive in the field experience.

More recently, Davide Sparti (professor of Sociology of Cultural Processes and Epistemology of Social Studies), in his "L'identità Incompiuta. Paradossi dell'improvvisazione musicale" pointed at the issues of identity and social recognition as the main characteristics of improvised music. Having Michel Foucault and Annah Arendt as primary references, both involved in matters like change and freedom in the subjective experience, and their connection with social and cultural tendencies, Sparti tried to analyze improvised music - John Coltrane, the AACM, Sun Ra, Sam Rivers and Sonny Rollins are some of the musicians taken as an example - relating aesthetics choices to identity choices:

In the moment in which he detects in the improvisational event his proper and unique criterium, the jazz player seems to sentence himself to disregard and marginalization (both musical and social) […] a freeing from judgements and acknowledgments stored, without accessing to another community that can recognize the musician. [my translation in English] 

Those words are echoing the ones Anthony Braxton used when talking with journalist Graham Lock about 

'Western media's current misdocumentation and misunderstanding of 'trans-African functionalism', that is black culture and particularly jazz'

even if the perspective is slightly different in focus. Sparti is working on an attempt to describe how subjectivity is involved in the process of improvising, seeing the final shape of the 'solo', the style of the musician and his social acceptance as results, whereas Braxton's statement stressed out how and why mass media were such as reductionists: 

"The music has always been associated with the red-light district and all of that mentality, as if the music was an affirmation of lower partials, or sin, when in fact in every phase all of the masters had a viewpoint about humanity, and the music that was solidified - the science and vibrational dynamics of that music - held forth the most positive alternatives for the culture" 

In that perspective, the 'loft era' was a permanent laboratory in which musicians, as individuals, had the possibility to get in touch and work on their artistic creation, to build something similar to a community in which to share their ideas and practice their music, and a place in which to have inputs on the matters of self production and self determination as creative human beings.

John Zorn, Polly Bradfield, Andrea Centazzo, Eugene Chadbourne - 1978

The following phase, in which post-punk, contemporary music and visual arts collided with jazz and improvised music, was like the big cauldron in which different tendencies and different aesthetics merged together.

Initially, the term Downtown music was given to the a scene that was heavily influenced by the Fluxus movement - even if the first musician to be actively involved in Fluxus was John Cage. Fuxus was concerned, both in Europe and in the Usa, on the cutting off with linear narration, using shock as a tool to communicate more directly than in the official - at that times 'bourgeois' was of common use - world related to art galleries.

As in George Maciunias' Manifesto (1963), we can read:

"Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, 'intellectual', professional and commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, mathematical art." 

Whereas Sun Ra stated, in a 1983 interview with Graham Lock:

"I like all sounds that upset people, because they's too complacent. There are some sounds that really upset 'em and I like to shock'em out of their complacency 'cause it's a very bad world in a lot of aspects. You need to wake up." 

While Braxton's 'restructuralist' concept was an attempt to throw away the divisions between art and life, as in the romantic view of Charlie Parker as a self-destructive drug addicted but instinctive be-bop genius, Fluxus' ideal was exemplified by Maciunas with the lines

'FUSE the cadres of cultural, social and political revolutionaries into united front & action.' 

Performance, 1983. Courtesy Artservices / Lovely Music, New York

This idea of 'fusion' as revolution, against artificial division as an instrument of 'power' - bourgeois in this case, but if you take Malcolm X speeches, there were a lot of references to the Roman Empire, as a metaphor for both political and cultural colonialism - is the reason I put together references to Turner's anthropology with improvised music, Fluxus and Postmodernism. 

Even today a documentarist like Eyal Sivan puts the concept of subjectivity at the center of his work on social and political conflict, as the blind spot to start with in order to develop tools that can goes beyond a dualistic structure.

If we name a subject as someone who has a proper history, able to understand it and speak about it as to express the sense of it - that is the concept of 'hermeneutic circle': going from the 'inside', the lived experience, to the 'outside', the judgement on what experienced, and then again going 'inside', as a way to proof the validity of the given sense in the living experience -, it seems logically following the sense of what Sonny Rollins did every time he was spending some time far away from the clubs and the music business - everytime he would be able to keep success going on - in order to let his improvisational language evolve once more instead of becoming manieristic. 

Having your own language is a way to affirm newly, and in a different way, what you are, at your own risk of no more being recognized, as happened, at least at the beginning, to the musicians involved in the free jazz movement, often mislabeled as 'anti-jazz'.

As far as the Downtown scene with his many faces (conceptualism, minimalism, performance art, art rock, free improvisation are only some of them), the idea of mixing various forms of art in a provocative and apparently rough manner was related to that of getting rid of the artificial divisions between art forms, that was typical since the half of the 18th Century of the Capitalistic world.  

Globe Unity Orchestra - November 7, 1970
Kongresshalle - Berliner Jazztage Berlin, Germany

Nam June Paik installations, as an example, were also a way to communicate that the common classification of TV as a 'commercial' media and that of contemporaray music as a 'sophisticated' form of art is something that is related to a solidified and accepted use; by using TVs together with a viola you can create something in which to experience that the previous boundaries are blurring - philosoper Michel Foucault talks about something similar when referring to the 'technologies of the self'.

The idea of a new experience made possible by art means was the common and fertile ground of that period, both in New York and in many parts of Europe - almost in Central and Eastern Europe, where Dada and Surrealism developed before French Situationism and Lettrism. 

Even saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, initially a painter that worked with Paik helping him in his first performances in Germany, and other European improvisers were influenced by Fluxus elements, creating a music that was related to jazz as improvised music but in a very personal way.

Complete Communion next outputs will be dedicated to the Downtown New York movement since 1979, as far as to the European Impovised Scene. The goal of this series of articles, as of my last three on part of the AACM - even if only through the Art Ensemble of Chicago, at least for the moment - and the previous ones dedicated to the Loft-era - are meant to widen the boundaries of listening to music, giving tools in order to put music into its cultural context and have them as a whole.

Related Bibliography:
Arnold Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, 1909. University of Chicago Press, 1960
Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (1974), Cornell University Press 1975
Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (1982), PAJ Publication
Michel Foucault, Technologies of the self. In L. H. Martin, H. Gutman and P. H. Hutton (eds) Technologies of the self. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988
Graham Lock, Forces In Motion. The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton. Da Capo Press, 1988
Stewart Home, The Assault on Culture. Utopian Currents from Lettrism to Class War. Ist edition Aporia Press and Unpopular Books, London 1988. 2nd UK edition AK Press, 1991.
Davide Sparti, Suoni inauditi. L'improvvisazione nel jazz e nella vita quotidiana. Il Mulino, 2005
Davide Sparti, L'identità Incompiuta, Paradossi dell'improvvisazione musicale. Il Mulino, 2010
Fluxus. Henie Onstad Art Center, catalogue, Henie Onstad Art Center 2010

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