Fluxus Music
Peter Frank
Article reprint from Journal: Southern California Art Magazine #22, 1979

The loosely organised group known as Fluxus championed mixed-media work in the arts beginning in the late 1950s and lasting until the 1970s. Generally oriented toward the visual arts, the group involved numerous musicians, including John Cage and La Monte Young, dancers, sculptors, and electronic artists. Avant- garde music, dance, Happening, and performance art were all forms pioneered by Fluxus, under the casual leadership of George Maciunas.
Involving artists and musicians such as Nam June Paik, Joseph Byrd, Phillip Corner, Earle Brown, and Simone Forti, Fluxus, "… with its humorous and serious sides, its eloquence and diffidence, its populist availability and near invisibility, has endured to this day,” according to Peter Frank.

A widely published art critic, Frank has written extensively on forms of new art and has lectured throughout the United States. (by Gregory Battock)

Among the music- artists fabricating sound- producing structures, incorporating songs and instrumentals in performances, realising visual “ performances” of pre extant music, and creating graphic notation for visual impact and musical interpretation , there are artists - and musicians, the line blurs between them - who seek the melding of the very contexts of art and music. That is, the work they make is as much - or as little - music as it is art. It seems equally in or out of place in galleries and in concert halls, work shirt and overalls, tux and tails, in time and in space. The remarkable flexibility of this work´s context. This art- and- music work, while demonstrably descended from the visual and musical traditions, depends neither on visual nor on musical standards. It does not even have to be viewed or performed; to know it to experience it, and often just to know of it is to experience it. While its secondary media are visual and sonic, its primary medium is verbal, or perhaps ontological; while its secondary interpreters are those who merely read it in its statement form or somehow know the nature of its gesture (s).

Although such an aesthetic of disembodiment, paying no heed to the dividing like between two art forms, may strike one as the ne plus ultra of Western aesthetic development, it already has a respectable, if brief, history. (Good news: we reached the vanishing point decades ago) The more sensate combinations and superpostions of art and music can trace their lineage back as far as primitive ritual, as far back as the Symbolists and Futurists . In the context of post modernists aesthetics, however, the art-music aesthetic of disembodied aesthetic has the beat of everything else. In fact it serves as significant facet of postmodernism´s initial phase. The best label to hang on this disembodied aesthetic is Fluxus. The participants, steady and occasional, in the loosely knit Fluxus movement make up the majority of this aesthetic´s innovators and theoreticians.

In the late 1950s the reaction against the new orthodoxies of modernist art - Abstract Expressionism, the International Style of twelve- tone composition in music, Theatre of the Absurd, academic and ( to a lesser extent) anti academic ( for example, Beat, New York “ surrealist”) schools of poetry - was worldwide and shared some common sources, living and dead. One decision that seems to have taken place simultaneously in New York, California, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and other places was to work in between the art forms, to combine them, to blend them, or (best yet) to formulate new modes that obviated the distinctions between them. Gutai in Japan, le Nouveau Realisme in Italy and France, dance - and -music-as-ritual in the Bay Area were all tendencies in which creative individuals coming from discrete disciplines not only pooled talents but exchanged formal and attitudinal methodologies.

In New York, where Fluxus began, John Cage - himself a product of unrigid West Coast thought in the 1930s and 1940s - exercised increasing influence over younger thinkers and devisers in all the arts. This influence was made possible by Cage´s own responsiveness to work in various arts, a responsiveness brought about by involvement with Merce Cunningham´s dance company, summers spent at the Black Mountain school (where all the arts were taught), and study of Zen Buddhist thought and practice. In 1956, and for two subsequent years, Cage taught a course in new music composition at the New School for Social Research. In this course several younger artists, musicians, writers filmmakers and others were led, or were encouraged to lead themselves, to means of escaping the restriction of given media and modes of thought. Allan Kaprow devised the first Happenings immediately after attending Cage´s class. Classmates of Kaprow, including George Brecht, Dick Higgings, Phillip Corner, and Al Hansen, broke through mediumistic boundaries with Cage´s encouragement and example mind. But, despite the friendships and aesthetics alliances that began in that class, there were divergent sensibilities. The complex, heavily theatrical, and painterly format of the Happening favoured by Kaprow, Hansen, and others who came on the scene was eschewed in favor of more restrained, reflective modes by such as Brecht and Robert Watts. Higgins, who was unusual in his ability to work with equal comfort on grand and minuscule levels, recalls that, after the flurry of excitement shared by Cage class alumni at the advent of Happenings ( and related forms in Europe), a contrasting interest arose.

- in the music that was Bengt af Klingberg calls “ mellan batten ochsten” between the water and the stone. Naturally, if he needs of a particular work seemed to dictate it, it was realised in a purely musical or painterly fashion. But the alternatives were considered. This approach seemed more positive than the purely iconoclastic approach, in which the main context was an absolute denial of experience and the traditions which one had built up, even for oneself. 1
1 Dick Higgins, Publisher´s Foreword to the Four Suits ( New York: Something Else Press, 1965) pp xi-xii.

This growing interest in work - music or otherwise, performance or otherwise - that was not iconoclastic/bombastic led to the creation of pieces in which the economy of form and gesture was dramatically severe. The performances themselves were gesturelly ( if not chronometrically) minimal to the point of near inactivity, and quite often their scripts or notations were similarly spare. This sparseness can be read as a Zen inflection introduced by Cage. Such an inflection was redoubled by the influx into New York of artists, musicians, dancers, writers, and others around 1959-60 from Japan and from the San Francisco Bay Area. A unity among creators in ( or. more accurately) from the various arts had been forming in this places, a unity based on the directness and simplicity and on the questioning of limits: where does one art stop and next begin, and why there? Where does interest and boredom begin and why there? Where does tolerance end and outrage begin, and where are the Dadaists to ask “ Why there”?

The West Coast, Japanese, and sporadic European contingents merged with the New York group, attended one another´s loft performances, and began putting it all into words, into verbal instructions and position papers, into cards,flyers, and books. By the end of 1960 La Monte Young, a Cage disciple from Bay Area, had edited An Anthology of work participating in the new sensibility. In the version of the book published in 1963:

George Brecht published card events;
Earle Brown published excerpts from his Folio, the first graphically noted compositions;
Joseph Byrd published a piece for wind quintet comprised of cards with single or paired notes, the cards to be played and repeated in random order ( a very early modular composition);
Cage declared that “ Eventually everything will be happening at once…”
Walter de Maria proposed an “Art Yard” - an hr-earthwork - talked about “ Meaningless Work” and contributed several intimate activity pieces ( Beach, Crawl, Surprise Box);
Henry Flynt defined, outlined, and gave examples of “ concept art” ( “ Concept art’ is first of all an art of which the material is ´concepts´, as the material of, for example, music is sound.”);
Yoko Ono published a visual poem;
Dick Higgins published a visual poem;
Ray Johnson and James Waring published a laugh poem;
Jackson Mac Low published poems and stories determined by chance operations, to be read and sung by eye and mouth;
Jackson Mac Low published poems and stories determined by chance operations to be read and sung by exe and mouth;
Simone Morris (now Forti) published examples of her ordinary- movement dance pieces and notations.
Nam June Paik gave the background to his Symphony for 20 rooms;
Terry Riley published verbal and graphic scores;
Diter Rot ( now Dieter Roth) included an unbound page riddled with holes;
Emmett Williams published several of his modular poems;
La Monte Young published fourteen compositions from 1960. 2
2 La Monte Young, An Anthology (New York: La Monte Young and Jackson Mac Low, 1963; 2d ed., Heiner Friedrich, 1970), unpaged.

One of Young´s compositions bears resemblance to traditional musical notations: a fifth interval, B- natural and F-sharp, “ to be held for a very long time”. Another composition consists entirely of the direction, “ Draw a straight line and follow it.” Another: “The performer should prepare any composition and then perform as well as he can”. Another:” This piece is little whirlpools out in the middle of the ocean”. The Piano Piece for David Tudor no. 3 reads: “ Most of them/were very old grasshoppers.” Composition 1960 no.9 consists of a small card with a straight line on it, enclosed in an envelope on which the following is printed: “ the enclosed score is right side up when the line is horizontal and slightly above center”.3
3 Ibid
The concision and poetry of Young´s formats, the wide range if interpretation they encourage and the availability of their language - anyone can realise a Young composition at any time, with no concert hall, instrument training, or even effort necessary- attracted other artists of the new sensibility, especially those whose performance scores were evolving toward a simplicity of form and statement anyway. George Brecht , Robert Watts, Yoko Ono, Dick Higgins, Allison Knowles, and George Maciuanas, the designer of An Anthology, achieved new brevity, partly through Young´s model.
Maciuanas a former architecture student was so taken with the whole aesthetic- not just Young´s friends in New York - that he set out to do a series of his own anthologies modelled on the first one (which he also intended to publish) . The series was to be called Fluxus, indicating the protean nature of the work. Financial problems nipped the project in the bud, but the groundwork laid for Maciunas, who became the loose-knit movement´s proselytiser, publisher, and theorist. “ FLUX ART,” in Maciunas´s definition, is
noart- amusement forgoes distinction between art and nonart, forgoes artists´ indispensability, exclusiveness, individuality, ambition, forgoes all pretension towards a significance, variety, inspiration, skill, complexity, profundity, greatness, institutional and commodity value. It strives for nonstructural, nontheatrical, non baroque, impersonal qualities of a simple, natural event, an object, a game, a puzzle, or a gag. It is fusion of Spike Jones, gags, games, Cage and Duchamp.4
4 Adrien Henri, Total Art: Environment, Happenings, and Performance ( New York Praeger Publishers, 1974), p 159.

The Fluxus sensibility, with its humorous and serious sides, its eloquence and diffidence, its populist availability and near- invisibility, has endured to this day, the precursor of nearly every dematerialisation ( to use Lucy Lippard´s term) and intermedia art ( to use Dick Higgin´s term) realised in the post modernist context.

Where does music fit into Maciuna´s definition? Where does music fit into Fluxus praxis? Music fit where all the other individual arts fit into Fluxus - into a process of de-definition that robs music and the other arts of media that is itself not easily distinguished from the rest of life. But there is a musical bias to Fluxwork. In the performance scores and directs realized in the Fluxus mode and context, musical referents and formats abound- parodistically, perhaps, but undeniably. Musical instruments are the focuses for (often widely destructive) Fluxus actions; ensemble presentations often follow concert hall style and are given in full formal dress; works are structured in burlesque variations on compositional forms ( for example, sonata form, the concerto); performance notations often refer to pitches, even incorporating (traditional) pitch notation.
Philosophically, this musical bias can probably be attributed to the nature of music as the most abstract, least palpable of the arts. No pictures, no objects, no human motion is necessary in the musical experience. Even literature emphasises text and talk equally; music does not stress both sound and score, but just the sound. With the advent of electronically produced music in the early 1950s the musical performer - and the whole mystique of musical performance and interpretation ( which is the object of Fluxus´s parodic stagings) - was rendered potentially superfluous. Fluxus took over from there.
In actuality, the musical bias of early Fluxus probably resulted from the musical identity of its most readily identifiable progenitor, John Cage , and the musical interests of his students and other followers. Even artists who came to Fluxus from visual, verbal, dramatic, or choreographic backgrounds tended to have some interest in music. Fluxus can be seen, in fact, as providing these non musicians with a way of absorbing their violin d´Ingres - their secondary and perhaps embarrassingly amateur involvement in music into their art.
Of course, Fluxus also gave, and still gives, musicians the opportunity to absorb their particular side or co-interests into their music - and then to make that inter medial result widely available and easily comprehensible to anyone armed with three insights: some familiarity with the contemporary context of intermedia and concept art, curiosity, and patience.