Experimentalism Otherwise, a significant new book on the New York progressive music scene in thec1960’s


I posted my blog review of the Carl Ruggles CD release on Amazon so I decided it would be reasonable to take an earlier review from Amazon and post it to my blog. So having made this guilty disclaimer, here is my review of a great book I came across in the fall of 2011:

For those interested in contemporary music and the New York avant garde of the early to mid 1960’s this is a book that is hard to put down. Each of the first four chapters is devoted respectively to: The New York Philharmonic’s 1961 performance of John Cage’s ‘Atlas Eclipticalis’; Henry Flynt and his rejection of mainstream avant garde trends (Stockhausen, Boulez, etc.); The (short lived) Jazz Composer’s Guild; and the performances of cellist Charlotte Moorman. A final chapter is devoted to a summary analysis which further connects these performers and events to the work of the ONCE Festival, Sonic Arts Union and (surprisingly but most appropriately) to the influence of these avant gardists on the subsequent work of Iggy Pop.

Nearly every significant figure of the avant garde is mentioned or quoted and the views of the general public as well as more specialized critics (which, of course, includes various members of the avant garde) are included in the course of the discussion and analysis. In addition to John Cage we hear from the likes of Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, David Tudor. The Henry Flynt chapter necessarily involves various figures associated with the Fluxus movement and related projects. The Jazz Composer’s Guild chapter includes Bill Dixon, Roswell Rudd, Michael Mantler, Carla Bley, Paul Bley, Amiri Baraka, George Lewis, the AACM. And the chapter on Moorman includes Nam Jun Paik as well as John Cage and various Fluxus artists. The final chapter connects to others not so closely associated with New York such as Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, the ONCE Festival, Sonic Arts Union and finally to MC5, John Sinclair and Iggy Pop.

While there is some musical analysis here the author seems primarily concerned with analyzing these events and people and placing them more clearly within the political, social and cultural contexts in which they existed and to which they reacted. And indeed he finds highly relevant connections to civil rights issues and political conflicts and social movements as well as musical and performance movements and practices.

The analysis in terms of the likes of Pierre Bordieu, Franzt Fanon and Michel Foucault may be a bit difficult for those who have no familiarity with their works but his analysis is fascinating and his writing style is very lucid. This is an intelligent book not aimed at a narrow specialist audience. I believe that he succeeds in producing a fresh, important and valuable perspective on the people, the music, the events and the responses to them which will continue to prove useful in present and future analyses of the state of contemporary music and performance.

Finally the book is full of references comprising at least a third of the volume which serve both to support and illustrate Mr. Piekut’s theses and also to provide easy access to further reading and research.

In the time since I published this review Mr. Piekut has come to the United States and is now an Assistant Professor at Cornell University. I will certainly continue to follow the work of this young scholar. And I eagerly anticipate his next project. Perhaps he will see fit to turn his analytical insights to more of America’s too little known avant garde music movements and provide some much needed documentation. And hopefully his students will be motivated to explore these as well.

It is worth noting that the ‘Other Minds’ people in San Francisco have recently chosen to make this book available at a discount on their website. They stock a small but carefully selected cache of books related to new music and their inclusion of this one suggests that they find it a significant volume. In addition they are also stocking local artist/composer/professor Luciano Chessa’s new book on Luigi Russolo, the early twentieth century Italian artist best known for his advocacy of the use of noise as a musical element. In fact I have it cued up in my reading list and plan a future review.

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2 comments on “Experimentalism Otherwise, a significant new book on the New York progressive music scene in thec1960’s

  1. Many thanks for this review. The New York scene is surprisingly under-explored by serious music historians. I know it’s a cliche, but I will run out and buy this one. If nothing else, it relates directly to my research. Thanks again.

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    • perkustooth says:

      Thanks for reading and for the comment. Another book which came across my radar that might be of interest is, “This Life of Sounds” by Renee Levine Packer, Oxford Press. It is a history of the Buffalo new music series in the heyday when Morton Feldman was there. Great little history which I reviewed briefly on Amazon.
      I am interested in your research and can presumably learn more about it in your blog so I will be checking that out.

      Best,
      Allan

      Like

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