Critic’s Notebook: In a constellation of experimental sounds, all music is in Fluxus
Early Saturday evening, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s chief operating officer, Chad Smith, stood on a balcony at Walt Disney Concert Hall and dropped a watermelon into a bucket on the sidewalk near Grand Avenue, sounding a satisfying splat. “A waste of a good melon,” a passerby glibly noted.
So it was, this melon sacrificed for the sake of music, this melon mourned. Thus was an audience greeted for “Fluxconcert.”
The seemingly anti-art Fluxus movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, inspired by John Cage, questioned the role and activity of art and artists in society. This made it possible for the ridiculous to become startlingly entertaining illumination. When, in its destruction, a melon leaves behind a celebratory sound, we appreciate its preciousness.
Far and away the most radical aspect of the L.A. Phil centennial is the Fluxus component that conductor-curator Christopher Rountree, in collaboration with the Getty Research Institute, has tucked into the season. On Saturday, this included a communal atmosphere outdoors and in the lobby, where there were a number of cheerfully anarchic performances.
Inside the concert hall, however, seriousness pervaded, with a much smaller potion of whimsy. In a brilliant reversal of expectations, Rountree circumvented any sense of an orchestra slumming by making the six-hour occasion far less about what Fluxus can bring to an orchestra than what an orchestra can offer Fluxus.
For a 5 p.m. concert, cellist Charles Curtis and trumpet player Ben Neill led an ensemble of trumpets and cellos (with the occasional L.A. Phil member) in a 90-minute performance of La Monte Young’s 1962 “The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer” in its 1984 “Melodic Version.” There’s more to the title, but you get the general idea.
Not that the general idea is all that easy to get. The influential composer who began in the Fluxus world with Yoko Ono, who was — along with Terry Riley — a key instigator of Minimalism and who in this relatively early work created mind-expanding drones. A chord carries on and on, with cellos and trumpets finding close but not exact unity that released vibratory energy in a magenta-lighted Disney Hall, as though musical notes were subatomic notes shot through a particle accelerator.
To begin the regular orchestra concert a couple hours later, the L.A. Phil’s first associate concertmaster, Nathan Cole, gave the kind of solo performance of four Fluxus works that only a virtuoso could. In Ben Patterson’s “Overture III,” he unwrapped a violin from a large box, spilling packing material all over the stage. In Young’s “Composition 1960 #13,” in which the performer is allowed to chose any piece, Cole played a stunning Baroque solo sonata. In Nam June Paik’s “One,” the violinist held his instrument over his head for a minute — during which someone in the audiences yelled, “Don’t do it!” — and then smashed it. In Ono’s “Wall Piece for Orchestra,” he hit his head against the wall.
Each of these works is an individual action, meant to convey some kind of social meaning. By doing them together on a level of high accomplishment, Paik’s demolition of the violin greatly enlarged the emotions activated by the melon drop, becoming a potent statement on violence.
That statement was further emphasized in Dick Higgins’ “The Thousand Symphonies,” which are made by shooting bullets into staff paper to mark the notes. Higgins had been thinking of the Vietnam War. Played along with a video of making the score on a shooting range, these symphonies remain a potent statement about gun violence in our backyard.
Rountree used Cage’s “Apartment House 1776” — written for the U.S. bicentennial — unusually, as an act of healing after the Higgins piece. The orchestra is broken up into quartets that play altered, unrelated tunes of Revolutionary-era hymns. Four vocal soloists represent Protestant, Sephardic, Native American and African American traditions.
Rountree had the performers begin during intermission and then enter the hall with the audience. He added more soloists, including pop. Cage, like it or not, was dragged into Fluxus (as he was by the L.A. Phil, which labeled his “Europeras 1 & 2” as a Fluxus event, which it sort of is).
Berio, you can be sure, would have cringed to have his “Sinfonia” — written for the New York Philharmonic in 1968 — included as a Fluxus score. But why not?
Mahler is deconstructed in an atmosphere of musical quotes from a host of other composers. A vocal group, originally the Swingle Singers, sings and/or speaks phonemes and texts from the likes of Samuel Beckett and Claude Lévi-Strauss.
It is much performed and recorded, and the trend has become increasingly to make this all symphonically acceptable. “Sinfonia” has even been widely, if falsely, credited with instigating a New Romanticism trend, which Berio really hated.
In his excitably aggressive performance, Rountree returned the Italian composer to his avant-garde roots, although with too overbearing amplification.
All of this is very interesting, to be sure, but what made the “Fluxconcert” revelatory was the context of the L.A. we live in, the musical scene as well as the world around us. Fluxus is about paying attention to what you don’t normally, and suddenly everything is Fluxus.
The next afternoon in Disney Hall, for instance, the L.A. Phil gave a “regular” program — led by an outstanding young conductor, Roderick Cox — that began with the premiere of yet another Philharmonic commission (the seventh that week alone), “The Insects Become Magnetic” by Christopher Cerrone. While it may sound nothing like Young’s “Second Dream,” there is also a drone-like effusiveness of chordal sonorities that make the space you are in feel as though it were expanding.
And how’s this for a coincidence? The Fluxus program also included a Philharmonic commission for the occasion with a magnetic insect aspect, Steven Takasugi’s “Howl,” for which the composer’s program note began: “Once upon a time, an ant met a fungus.” Rather than entrancingly hum, these insects imaginatively crackle.
Elsewhere on Cox’s program were two works for organ and orchestra featuring Cameron Carpenter as soloist. Now with short hair and more sedately dressed in a velvet jacket, Carpenter doesn’t look quite so Fluxus as he once did. But he fit right in anyway, playing Francis Poulenc’s portentous Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings, which was written on the eve of World War II, with a ferocious focus and creating in the slow movement of Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony a spiritual transcendence worthy of Young.
That evening, the Los Angeles Master Chorale gave the West Coast premiere of Reena Esmail’s “This Love Between Us, Prayers for Unity,” for vocal soloists, sitar, tabla, orchestra and chorus. Written as a companion piece to Bach’s Magnificat, with which Grant Gershon began the program, Reena’s score could just as easily be a companion to Cage’s “Apartment House 1776,”
Here again are a host of great spiritual traditions; in Esmail’s case, texts and musical ideas from Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Jainism and Islam — though inexplicably neglecting Judaism. Her focus is on the interaction, spiritually and musically, between the West and India. Musically, she explores — as Ravi Shankar and others did before her — a common ground between the two traditions, with alluring melody being the most common.
It’s a Fluxus world, all right. A week before “Fluxconcert,” the experimental Southland Ensemble put on its annual Fluxus concert at the small art gallery Automata in Chinatown. This was pure Fluxus, and with the theme of light.
The concert happened to be on a day consumed with fire and smoke, and the program began, as instructed in Larry Miller’s “200 Yard Candle Dash,” with the performers racing around outside in the cough-inducing air, constantly relighting their candles. Each piece that followed in the gallery was an activity of shocking immediacy. Candles met radios. Musicians crawled on the floor under our feet as we sat on folding chairs in the dark. A face was illumined eerily by a flashlight. Edison was invoked.
Through flame and darkness, Fluxus crowned the environment king — be it amusing, absurd or, as this night, overpowering.
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