Shredding the Climax Carrot July 3, 1973

When I was a composition student, the one thing which was always held up to us as an unassailable criterion for good music was whether or not it would ‘hold the attention.’ This seems obvious enough until one begins to consider what it involves.

In order to hold our attention for an entire evening, a work must jolt us once in a while with a well-timed surprise, hold a climax carrot in front of our noses so that we will have something to look forward to, lift us up and let us down in an appealing sequence, and titillate us with interesting details all along the way. Otherwise our minds might wander.

There is something manipulative about pieces which force themselves on us, conning us into following every move they make, and I think this process begs a few questions. What right does an artist have to tell his audience what to feel and when to feel it? Shouldn’t it be possible to have an enjoyable evening in a theater or concert hall without constantly being manipulated? When we go to something like ‘Rigoletto’ aren’t we really just sitting there like so many Pavlovian dogs, salivating when the bell rings, laughing when we are supposed to, and weeping on cue?

I am not saying anything is wrong with Verdi, not to mention Beethoven, Shakespeare, Bartok, or any of the other masters whose works hold our attention so well. We give ourselves willingly to these things, just following them along, allowing them to manipulate us, feeling whatever we are supposed to feel, and loving every minute of it. But I am not sure this kind of art, which actually tyrannizes its audience, is what people really want and need today. And I am not sure that we should continue to insist that a performance must hold us in rapt attention from beginning to end in order to be beautiful.

Some of the performances I enjoyed most this past season are ones in which my mind wandered a great deal. They did not try to manipulate me or ring any Pavlovian bells, and they did not struggle to hold my attention. They simply said what they had to say, leaving me free to listen or not listen, and respond in my own way.

I think the first time I began to think along these lines was the night Victor Grauer read his ‘Book of the Year 3000’ at the Kitchen (see Dec. 14, 1972). This was a truly non-manipulative performance, and it is a good example of what I am talking about, because Grauer made his intentions quite clear at the outset. His introductory remarks, as well as I can remember them, went something like this.

‘I’m going to be reading for about three hours against this electronic sound. There won’t be any intermission, but I don’t want anyone to feel tied down. If you would like to hum along with the electronic tone, or echo back some of the words or phrases I read, that’s fine too. And if you get sleepy, don’t force yourself to stay awake. We can take in a lot of things even when we’re asleep. The important thing is just to make yourself comfortable.’ I listened attentively much of the time, sometimes humming along with the electronic background. But I also took a couple of intermissions, and I spent quite a bit of time just lying on the floor, allowing the mellifluous words of the repetitious text to wash over my wandering mind. The piece was not holding my attention much of the time, but I would not have walked out for anything. Whenever I was able to tune in on the specific images and rhythms, I liked what I heard. And when I came to the end of a concentration span, the atmosphere itself was quite enough to keep me content.

In a very broad sense, all art is manipulative, and Grauer was pulling a few strings himself. After all, he did prime us with those introductory remarks. The lighting he used, the electronic tone, and the text itself all had a calculated effect. But this is not manipulation in the specific sense I was talking about before. No climax carrot. No surprises. No titillation. No insistence on holding the attention. He left us pretty much alone, allowing us to decide for ourselves how we wanted to respond, and leaving plenty of room for each individual to respond differently.

I encountered this non-manipulative attitude again when I heard Eliane Radigue’s ‘Psi 847,’ a wonderfully sensitive, though extremely subtle hour-long electronic piece, a few months later (see March 29, 1973). I had a chance to meet Radigue after the concert, so I decided to sound her out. ‘I like your music very much,’ I explained, ‘but I must admit that I wasn’t able to concentrate on it all the time.’ ‘Of course not,’ she was quick to reply. ‘No one can concentrate on such tiny differences for such a long time. But it’s not necessary. The piece can go along without you for a while. You come back to it when you’re ready. And maybe the things you were thinking about while you weren’t focused just on the music were also meaningful. That’s all part of the experience. How you get into the music, leave it, come back again, and so on. And it’s different for everyone.’ It is different. In my case I listened attentively for the first 15 or 20 minutes before my mind finally took its first intermission. But I remember the critic John Rockwell saying that night that he hadn’t paid much attention at first, thinking it must be kind of an introduction, but that he got into it later, after he realized it was going to continue on this same minimal plane. We were not being manipulated. We were simply exposed to something beautiful and allowed to deal with it in our own ways.

Grauer and Radigue are convenient examples, since they have expressed their attitudes verbally. But they are really only a small part of a large picture which has been evolving for some time. I think the seeds of this non-manipulative attitude could be traced back at least as far as Gertrude Stein and Charles Ives. Certainly the bulk of John Cage’s work has been relatively non-manipulative, though this was never his main concern. In 1956, for example, Cage introduced an evening of collaborations with Merce Cunningham with this remark, ‘The activity of movement, sound, and light, we believe, is expressive, but what it expresses is determined by each one of you—who is right, as Pirandello’s title has it, if he thinks he is.’ The works of dozens of current artists could be considered non-manipulative. Many of the things I heard this past season reflected this attitude. Like the three-day event presented by the Sonic Arts Union at WBAI, where people were free to come and go all day (see June 7, 1973). Or Max Neuhaus’s permanent sound installation in front of the Transit Authority building (see June 28, 1973). Or Alvin Lucier’s ‘The Queen of the South’ (see March 15, 1973), or Rhys Chatham’s ‘Two Gongs’ (see June 7, 1973), or David Behrman’s concert (see February 1, 1973), or Phill Niblock’s ‘Ten 100-Inch Radii’ (see March 8, 1973).

In some of these works a great deal of information is presented, and the audience pays close attention most of the time. But none of them require us to feel or think particular things at particular times. We are not treated as Pavlovian creatures, but as free agents who have our own ideas, our own fantasies, and our own curiosities. Pieces of this sort do not manipulate the audience, actively demanding anyone’s attention. They are passive in nature, and the audience is allowed to approach them in different ways.

I am less familiar with current playwrights, choreographers, and film-makers, but I have the feeling that this new wave of non-manipulative art is coming at us from all directions. It is a cool wave, reminiscent of the kind of coolness McLuhan was talking about when he discussed hot and cool communications media. And it threatens to drown our last sure-fire dictum for evaluating performance pieces: that they must hold the attention in order to be valid.