For a time it seemed as though much of the avant-garde work of the early ’60s would be completely forgotten. I’m referring particularly to a subdivision of happenings, probably best described simply as events, that used to take place in Judson Hall, Judson Church, Yoko Ono’s loft, in early avant-garde festivals, on various Fluxus programs, and sometimes in experimental corners of Tokyo. The audiences were generally small and the programs were seldom reviewed or otherwise documented. The artists themselves saw no need to keep the pieces in repertoire, and kept moving onto new things, and the work became all but invisible. Now, however, a shop called Backworks has begun collecting and selling scores, programs, and other mementos from the period, some of which have become rare and rather valuable, and there is also some interest in reviving these works in actual performance. Recently, for example, there was a revival of Takehisa Kosugi’s ‘Anima 7,’ which has got to be one of the classics of the genre.
Kosugi was born in Tokyo in 1938, and by the early ’60s was a regular contributor to avant-garde events there, as well as in New York and in Europe. He did a number of slow-motion pieces. He did some conceptual scores that remind me a bit of Zen koans, as in ‘Malika 5’: ‘Watch a flower until one of them falls or all of them fall.’ He also did some very nasty conceptual texts, like ‘Music for a Revolution’: ‘Scoop out one of your eyes 5 years from now and do the same with the other eye 5 years later.’ Later he formed a little group called the Taj Mahal Travelers and began playing a unique electric violin. He hasn’t been in the United States for some time, so far as I know, but judging from the number of anecdotes I have heard, he made a strong impression on the artistic community when he was here.
Like so many events created at the time, the only score to Kosugi’s ‘Anima 7’ is a rather brief set of verbal instructions. The composer explains that the performer is to take an action that normally would be done in a short time, and perform it over an extended period. He goes on to suggest that one might spend 15 minutes to half an hour slowly taking off a sport coat or drawing a bow across a stringed instrument. He concludes by pointing out that such actions must be completely silent, but that they are still basically aural and musical, just as darkness is basically visual.
Of course the piece is not nearly as simple as its score implies, because it has to be understood in the context of the composer’s attitudes and his own way of interpreting the work, and with some awareness of the way the score has been interpreted by the composer’s colleagues. Yasunao Tone recalls one of the first performances of the work in Tokyo around 1963-64, in which Kosugi spent the duration of the piece slowly lifting a marionette into the air, and another in which he took off his coat, while several other performers did their own slow-motion actions. On one occasion Tone himself took part, presenting one hyperslow-motion wink. Philip Corner recalls a performance in New York in 1966 in which he slowly rose from the audience and mounted the stage, while Kosugi took off his coat, and four or five other people did other actions. Specific memories fade with the years, but it is clear that the piece was conceived as a somber ritual, and that it was not intended to be easy for the performers. If you don’t believe me, try any of these things, particularly the 15-minute wink.
The revival of ‘Anima 7’ took place at the James Yu Gallery on March 12 as part of the opening event of the three-week Counterweight series. It was presented as a duet with Tone and Charlotte Moorman. For a while it was not apparent that the piece had started, but eventually I noticed that Tone was gradually raising his left hand slightly, although he was otherwise motionless. Soon his right hand also began to rise, and he finally gripped the lapels of his coat. A few minutes later his coat began to slide over his left shoulder, ever so slowly, ever so steadily. His concentration was incredible. Now and then a muscle would flinch slightly from the tension. It soon became clear that he was in the process of taking off his coat, but with that discovery, the piece began to become more interesting rather than less so. How long would he be able to sustain that kind of movement? What would he do once the coat was off? Would he take off more clothes? It was as suspenseful as a detective story. In fact, having made that parallel, it seems like a bad idea to report on exactly how Tone completed his action. You may have a chance to see him in ‘Anima 7’ yourself sometime, and I’d hate to spoil the ending for you.
Meanwhile Moorman was sitting there with her cello, gradually raising her bow, drawing it across the lowest string, and bringing it back down again. I couldn’t hear a sound, although one person sitting way down front reported that the bow did make tiny sounds as it crept along the string. Moorman’s performance was also well paced, though she did not appear as intensely involved in the action as Tone was.
The performance set me to wondering how many other good pieces there must be in that early ’60s repertoire. I suspect that there are quite a few, and perhaps this would be a good time to revive and reexamine them. In fact, many of these events might be perceived more clearly now than when they were new. They no longer have much shock value, at least for anyone who has followed the course of avant-garde history, and we can begin to perceive individual works, instead of only seeing style. In 1965 stylistic questions were so close to home that everyone just about had to take sides. One was either a progressive, and more or less obliged to go along with anything brash and iconoclastic, or one was a traditionalist, and committed to disliking anything that didn’t fit the going definition of music. By now, though, it should be clear that this is just another branch of music history, that it produced good works and mediocre works, just like the other branches, and that we really ought to investigate what is there. In many cases I suspect that performers could also present these pieces better today than anyone did in the early ’60s. We have learned much about performance art in the ensuing years, after all, and we have also developed a number of gallery situations and performance series that would make excellent contexts for the early ’60s repertoire. I’d particularly like to hear some of the early events by Nam June Paik, Philip Corner, James Tenney, Alison Knowles, Dick Higgins, La Monte Young, and Yoko Ono.Note:
There was one very well attended Fluxus revival concert at the Kitchen two years after this (see Voice April 9, 1979), but in general this repertoire is largely forgotten. Curiously, we seem to be changing from a culture that only respected music of 1977/avant-gardists-reach-toward-the-people-alvin-curran-ingram-marshall-david-mahler-and-warren-burtious centuries, to a culture for which even music that is only 20 years old is considered passe and irrelevant.