Author: Caitlin Schmid

There’s This Thing Happening: The New York Avant Garde Festival and Its Audience

I started this NewMusicBox series on experimental music festivals of the 1960s with an article about critical reactions to the New York Avant Garde Festival; I trawled the newspaper reviews and promotional materials to find you facts. Next, we looked at the realities of composing and producing the Tudorfest; interviews and secondary sources carried the day. Then Ian Power gave us insight into what it was like to perform pieces from FluxFest Kit 2; in this case, personal and physical experience guided our understanding. And now I’d like to come back around full circle, to reinterpret what we think we know—the New York Avant Garde Festival again, but this time through the eyes of the audience.

Composers, performers—they’re relatively easy to find and talk to if you want to track them down. After all, many of them went on to established careers in the arts, and they have gigs and websites and email addresses. But audience members? People who just wandered in off the street and experienced what the New York Avant Garde Festival had to offer? That’s a little more difficult. Where do you even start?

I started by writing that first NewMusicBox article, hoping that the readers of this website might have been there, might be able to tell me something more about what the festivals felt like. I wasn’t disappointed. A comment on my March 5 article led me to contact information—which inspired me to send out an email and then schedule a Skype interview.

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz wandered into the 10th Annual New York Avant Garde Festival at Grand Central Station in 1973 and—instantly, magically, organically—became part of the event.

The original poster for NYAGF 10th Annual Avant Garde Festival consiting of multiple texts in different directions superimposed on one another.

Poster for NYAGF 10th Annual Avant Garde Festival at Grand Central Station, 1973.

There’s a catch, a small caveat to this audience member’s experience. Báthory-Kitsz is, in fact, a composer, a musician, the former host of the award-winning Kalvos & Damian. (He’s also an author, an instrument maker, a teacher, a librarian, and an archivist if you want the full picture.) He ended up becoming a good friend of NYAGF producer Charlotte Moorman, and went on to attend (and perform his music at) all of the New York Avant Garde festivals in the 1970s that followed—even the much-maligned Cambridge River edition. But at his first 1973 festival, Báthory-Kitsz really didn’t have any idea what he was in for. “I don’t really know how I heard about it,” he said during our interview. “Somebody must have told me there was this thing happening in New York—I don’t think I read it, because I certainly couldn’t have afforded to buy a New York Times. I heard it from somebody.” He was young, he was full of curiosity; he found a friend, took the bus from Trenton, New Jersey to New York City ($2.25 round trip), and made his way to the festival-occupied train tracks.

It was like a huge party, he told me. There were events happening everywhere, and he got to meet people. People like Jackson Mac Low, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Yoko Ono—people who were making names for themselves in the experimental milieu, who were doing the very thing Báthory-Kitsz hoped to one day do himself.

“That’s cool. I love this,” he thought. And so he found ways to participate further, to get in deeper. He called ahead of the next festival—dialing a number that turned out to be Charlotte Moorman’s direct line—and found himself heading to her apartment to help fold promotional materials and talk experimental composition. The thing about the New York Avant Garde Festival was that there was no application to fill out, no credentials to present. There were no obstacles to you (yes, you) participating if you felt so moved. All you had to do was inform Moorman that you wanted in—so your name could be put on posters and so you could be counted in the official tally of participants—and then you were in. That’s all there was to it.

The way Báthory-Kitsz remembers it, the New York Avant Garde festival was completely non-exclusive, totally welcoming. There was no need for traditional musical virtuosity to perform these pieces; there were no great skills to show off except for a willingness to jump in and do, to take an idea and run with it as far as you were able. It was a “that-sounds-really-exciting-let’s-do-it!” culture, as Báthory-Kitsz calls it. In some ways, that made the whole avant-garde an outsider to the musical establishment. And if that was true, if everyone was an outsider, it paradoxically meant that everyone was an insider—even the audience, should they so choose.

An historic photo of a group of people playing outdoors on invented instruments

Dashuki Music Theatre performing at the New York Avant-Garde Festival World Trade Center June 19, 1977; from L to R: Shirley Strock Albright; Jannet Passow Gillock; David Gunn; Dennis Bathory-Kitsz; Linda Kaye. (From the Dashuki Music Theatre page of the Trans/Media Arts Cooperative website.)

The distinction between audience and performers wasn’t important, because there was always the potential for the one to become the other. It was 1977 at the 13th Annual New York Avant Garde Festival held at the World Trade Center, and Báthory-Kitsz brought his own ensemble to perform a chamber opera he had written for instruments he’d built himself, including the geometrically tuned “Hharp” and the wood and glass “Uncello.” (I have a copy of the poster for this festival, by the way. Báthory-Kitsz’s name appears at exactly the halfway point in the list of 237 participants.) “I know we had an audience, because I have photographs showing we had an audience,” he told me. The question of who exactly that audience was…not so clear. Báthory-Kitsz remembers walking around the festival, going to see other friends and acquaintances perform—so there were festival performer-spectators at any given event. Then, there were people who had come to see his opera specifically, and so he assumes there were people who had come to see other particular performers. And then “at one point I know that somebody wanted to play my ‘Uncello,’ and so sure they were in it.” The audience member turned performer. “It was so crowded,” Báthory-Kitsz said, “the vast majority of the people there must have been audience.”

A photo of Báthory-Kitsz's uncello which is shaped like a giant bow with a clear glass sphere in the cavity

Báthory-Kitsz’s Uncello (From the page devoted to his instruments on his website.)

Must have been, but who knows. All that really mattered was that it was exciting, that it was this huge event with many people and many performances, that there was an experimental electricity in the air. In any case, it clearly made an impression. Báthory-Kitsz went on to organize his own Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde in ’74, ’76, and ’78. “We were inspired by [Moorman’s] festivals because we had no gathering like that south of New York and we didn’t know if any were going on elsewhere in the country. But we knew one was not happening in Philadelphia, and certainly not in Trenton.” That sounds really exciting, so let’s do it! Báthory-Kitsz et al. contacted Trenton’s city council in the fall of 1973, rounded up 60 artists—some with name recognition (once heard, who could ever forget the moniker of sculptor Woofy Bubbles?), some with only the experimental love in their hearts—and put on a festival. Hundreds of people showed up. It was a great success. So great, that they put on an encore two years later and then another two years after that.

The original poster for the 1978 Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde featuring text and drawings

The poster for the 1978 edition of the Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde (From the website of the Trans/Media Arts Cooperative.)

Báthory-Kitsz has photographs from the Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde—and from the New York Avant Garde Festivals, too. Photographs, and also negatives, slides, posters and playbills, bits and pieces of handmade instruments, thousands of hours of audio on reels and cassettes, and even a few 8mm films. All of these things live in a storage unit (if they’re not temperature sensitive) and his studio (if they are)—because no museum or university will take them. Archival media is expensive to maintain, and Báthory-Kitsz is (quite reasonably) unwilling to split up his collection, to skew the representation of these events. Here I am, a historian who can’t find archival materials about these festivals in any of the usual places; there he is, a participant and a documentarian, with mountains of archival materials that he just can’t reliably get to the historians. But these photos and those reel-to-reel tapes are our history nonetheless, and they tell a story about festivals in general as surely as they do about any one festival in particular.

“So, you went up to New York for the New York Avant Garde Festivals, and then you produced your own festivals—what was it about the festival medium?” I finally asked him. “Well, it’s where you met people,” he told me. “There was no occasion to meet anybody if there was not a large event to meet them at.” It was a time before the internet, it was a time of exorbitant long-distance phone bills—“we were really disconnected from each other,” Báthory-Kitsz noted. Tudorfest? The ONCE Festival? Fluxfest? They might have been happening, but you had to know someone who was in the know in order to know about them. And even if you did hear about a concert now and again, it was always hard to tell if it was going to be worth it. You needed a good reason to travel to hear something new and interesting—and what could be better than an event where you were guaranteed to hear not just one new thing, but hundreds, where you could meet not just one new composer, but dozens?

For critics, the experimental music festivals of the 1960s and ‘70s were a departure—and sometimes an escape—from the highbrow world of classical concerts. For composers, they were a risk, a gamble of time and money and energy—and also a chance to put their work out there, to show the world just what they were doing. For performers, they were the chance to reach a more general audience and to commit to the uncanniness, the empowerment, and the fun of the experimental ethos. And for audience members, they were an opportunity to participate, to live in the experimental world for a day or two—to hear some new things and make some new contacts. When Báthory-Kitsz went to the festivals, he met people; when he offered to help fold posters, he met people. When he decided to produce his own festival, he got in touch with all those people he had met at the festivals and the poster folding marathons. When he started his radio show Kalvos & Damian, he pooled those contacts. Each new contact led to more contacts with more people—critics, composers, performers, audience, some combination of the above, it didn’t really matter. They were all interested in experimental music.

“I have one last question,” I told Báthory-Kitsz. “Do you have any plans for future festivals?” “Well no,” he said, but he is planning a huge party in August 2015 to celebrate all of the people who contributed to the Kalvos & Damian radio show during its years on the air. The long list of past interviewees consists of composers of every stripe, including Laurie Anderson, Pauline Oliveros, James Tenney, Larry Austin, Frederic Rzewski, and David Behrman—avant-garde festival goers and doers every one. This party, then, is a celebration of the radio show, but I also like to think of it as a celebration of the way we meet people and the way that a community of experimental musicians produces so much more than a single event. It is, in its own way, a festival of festivals, and I for one hope that Báthory-Kitsz documents every last detail.


Fluxus is attitude, anti-art, cultural-social-political revolution, intermedia, renewed Dadaism, art as life and life as art. Fluxus is not a coherent movement, a set form, or a particular style. It is meant to be “grasped by all peoples, not only the critics, dilettantes and professionals,” as George Maciunas put it in his Fluxus Manifesto of 1963.

Maybe for that reason, festivals have always been important to Fluxus. So important, as it turns out, that Maciunas introduced the term “Fluxus” in a pamphlet he handed out at his very first festival in Wuppertal, Germany in 1962. After that, the floodgates opened: Fluxus festivals were produced throughout the 1960s and ‘70s in locations as diverse as Paris, France, and Rutgers, New Jersey. These festivals really did allow a public forum for Fluxus to be experienced by “all peoples.” In fact, the values of Fluxus and the advantages of the festival medium meshed so well that George Maciunas created several art posters that served as an introduction to Fluxus festival production. The first of these was called FluxFest Sale (1966), and the second was titled—even more explicitly—FluxFest Kit 2 (circa 1970). These two documents are conceptually similar (if differently organized), and so from here on out I’ll refer to the FluxFest Kit 2 as a stand-in for both.

An eight column listing describing all of the Fluxus artists' projects

George Maciunas’s 1966 Fluxfest Sale

It wasn’t a total free-for-all. Maciunas had very specific ideas about how a Fluxus Festival should be. What follows (capitalization, punctuation and all) is taken directly from the upper left hand corner of the FluxFest Kit 2 poster—we can think of these as the Rules with a capital R.

Any of the pieces can be performed anytime, anyplace and by anyone, without any payment to fluxus provided the following conditions are met: 1. If flux-pieces outnumber numerically or exceed in duration other compositions in any concert, the whole concert must be called and advertised as FLUXCONCERT or FLUXEVENT. A series of such events must be called a FLUXFEST. 2. If flux-pieces do not exceed non-fluxpieces, each such fluxpiece must be identified as a FLUX-PIECE. 3. Such credits to Fluxus may be omitted at a cost of $50 for each piece announced or performed.

Lesson learned: credit Fluxus where credit is due. The largest part of the poster, though, is a catalogue of approximately half of the Fluxus catalogue. Not all of the works listed were explicitly or implicitly musical, of course, but I can’t get over how many are performative and how many do make reference in one way or another to musical signs and symbols. A few examples, in list form:

  • George Maciunas, Piece for Conductor, 1965: Conductor steps over podium and takes a conventional bow. He remains bowed while tying shoelaces, polishing shoes, rolling and unrolling legs of his trousers, scratching ankles, picking up small specks from floor, pulling nails from floor, etc. etc.
  • Joe Jones, Duet for Brass Instruments: Rubber glove is place over bell and tucked inside. Air is blown until glove emerges from bell and is inflated.
  • George Brecht, Drip Music (Drip Event), 1959: For single or multiple performance. A source of dripping water and an empty vessel are arranged so that the water falls into the vessel. Second version: Dripping.
  • Robert Watts, C/T Trace, 1963: An object is fired from canon and caught in bell of tuba.

So, Maciunas created a document that not only provided specific pieces and scores, but also outlined a general format, and even gave a raison d’etre. In other words, this one poster supplied everything a person (musician or layman, artist or enthusiast) could need to produce their very own Fluxus festival. You could become the performer-producer of your dreams.

What was it like to perform these pieces? I wondered. And who is performing them now? Ian Power was born decades after the height of the 1960s Fluxus festival craze. He has never put on an entire festival dedicated to Fluxus pieces, and he doesn’t follow all the Rules. (Ian, have you paid any Fluxus fees lately?) Even so, he frequently programs Fluxus gems in concerts of his own music—Power takes seriously his role as new music composer-performer-producer-advocate. At the same time, he’s living proof of Fluxus’s reach: Power is the next generation of musician Fluxus enthusiasts.

Archival footage from a 1962 Fluxus Festival in Wiesbaden
A short digression. I’m not here to argue about whether or not Fluxus is music. In some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t. Personally, I find it hard to ignore that its members—many of whom at one point or another considered themselves musicians and composers—pointed to musical forms and instruments in so many of their titles and with so many of their materials and processes. And it’s hard to argue against the fact that so many of these pieces are performance based, that they move through time, and that sound is purposely juxtaposed with the visual. Regardless of whether or not you buy that, though—regardless of whether or not Fluxus is music—I think that musicians and musicologists (with our focus on sound and temporality) have a unique perspective on these performances, and with that comes the potential to understand Fluxus in new and exciting ways: what happens if we suspend our disbelief and treat these pieces as music?

Now back to Power. “If I program the pieces, it’s because I believe in them as music,” he told me in an e-mail interview. (Good, I thought, we’re on the same page.) “These pieces, even ones without much sound, coax me to attend to time and experience in much the same way (and in some important, invigorating different ways) than any other good ‘music’ might.”

True, and while Power hopes that some of this same attention might rub off on his audiences, he also recognizes that his role as performer—and therefore as a kind of translator—grants him certain privileges and responsibilities. A couple of specifics: during a recent concert, Power interpreted Mieko Shiomi’s “Boundary Music for Piano” as the movement of sheet music from the floor to the piano music stand, all accomplished as quietly as possible. That same concert, he set up Alison Knowles’s “Chair Music for George Brecht” in the back of the hall: he chose to provide a reading light, a book of Japanese death poems, and a biography of Erik Satie, all just waiting for Brecht to appear. Or not.

At one point I asked him: How seriously did you take these performances? Did you ever feel silly? “If I did,” he said, “it was likely part of the learning process essential to arriving at a place where I can really understand the music.” Power embraces the self-consciousness of performing these works, and notes that a good performer can make all the difference in establishing an atmosphere of good will and humor in the hall. “Not to compliment myself,” he said, “but if there’s one thing I can do, it’s commit to a Fluxus performance.”

That commitment is key. That commitment is the reason historical Fluxus has made its way through to the present day. Power wants to preserve the uncanniness, the situational poise, the amazement, the empowerment, and the fun of the Fluxus spirit—a big part, I think, of what makes this music (this art) as exciting and innovative now as it was in the 1960s.

Which brings me back around to the FluxFest Kit 2 and the question of performance. In the very early stages of my research, I’ve found evidence that at least one person did, in fact, follow Maciunas’s poster-art instructions (at least in spirit, if not to the letter). Jeff Berner, photographer and conceptual artist, presented his Fluxfest (a festival in two parts) at the Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco on March 31, 1967. Tickets were two dollars and fifty cents, and absolutely no cameras were allowed inside. “Experimental is not knowing what the results will be,” reads one of his publicity posters.

The poster for Jeff Berner's 1967 San Francisco Fluxfest featuring a drawing of a woman in a top hat and heels

The poster for Jeff Berner’s 1967 San Francisco Fluxfest.

Berner, though—Berner was a member of Fluxus. His website notes that he has participated in “the international conceptual/performance art group since 1965,” and so we have to consider him an insider, someone more specific than the “all people” Maciunas dreamed Fluxus would reach. What really interests me is who among us non-Fluxans rose to the challenge of transforming the FluxFest Kit 2 into a real-life, realtime festival. Surely somebody couldn’t resist the possibilities of this performative readymade. Was it you, NewMusicBox reader? Please step forward and identify yourself—we all want to hear your story!

Why Not Include the Bird—Tudorfest, 1964

In the spring of 1964 in beautiful San Francisco, Pauline Oliveros decided it was time for her new music organization, the San Francisco Tape Music Center, to put on a festival. She had recently met David Tudor and asked him to choose three programs of music to be performed twice each for a total of six concerts. The festival—curated by Tudor, performed by Tudor, in celebration of Tudor—became (obviously, inevitably) known as the Tudorfest.

In a characteristic move, Tudor chose pieces by his friends and collaborators: John Cage, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Alvin Lucier, George Brecht, and Oliveros herself. It was a hodgepodge of styles, a perfect representation of the sheer range of 1960s experimental music. Ichiyangi’s Music for Piano #4, Electronic Version cuddled up to Cage’s Music for Amplified Toy Piano. Lucier’s Action Music for Piano, Book I provided a nice contrast to Brecht’s Card-Piece for Voice. And if you were particularly in the mood for every variety of Cage, you could hear Atlas Eclipticalis, Winter Music, Concert for Piano and Orchestra, Cartridge Music, and Music Walk all on the same program.

But the piece that everyone seems to talk about—even now, fifty-plus years later—is Pauline Oliveros’s Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato. Here’s the set-up: there’s a giant seesaw on the stage. It goes up and down, as seesaws do, but it also moves side to side and roundabout. Seated on one side, strapped in with a seatbelt, is Pauline Oliveros and her giant accordion. On the other side is David Tudor and his more moderately sized bandoneon. Hanging directly over the center is a cage containing a brown-black mynah bird named Ahmed. There was no hard and fast score to follow, though Tudor and Oliveros had worked through improvisation techniques and styles in rehearsal. Instead, the audience experienced a literal whirl of music and motion, a blur of performers and instruments up high and then down low, a constantly shifting understanding of how sight and sound worked in space and over time.

Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato was only ever performed on those two concerts at Tudorfest, and Tudorfest was only ever put on that one year. (Personally, I want to know what happened to the seesaw. Did it become a sculpture in somebody’s garden? Was it dismantled and repurposed into other Tape Music Center musical props? Is it still languishing in a basement somewhere, waiting for a reprise of the Duo?) This was a much smaller operation than something like the New York Avant Garde Festival—which isn’t to say it didn’t attract the same sorts of interested audiences or the attentions of the press. There were critics at the event, and they did write about the performances they attended for their respective papers. These largely positive Tudorfest reviews were a part of the reason that the San Francisco Tape Music Center became known as a mover and shaker on the experimental music scene; in some ways, this was the festival that started it all.

Tudorfest was more than what you could read in the reviews, though. It was more than its success. It was a scramble, a stretch, a compromise—the usual behind-the-scenes madness. (You all know what I’m talking about.) If the festival was put on well (and it was), the critics almost certainly couldn’t have known what took place beyond the clean façade of onstage performance. But that’s what composer Pauline Oliveros remembers—that’s part of what makes this festival so interesting.

The cover of the University of California Press book, The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde

David Bernstein (ed), The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde. University of California Press, 2008.

I’ve spent a long time trying to track down what people have already said about Tudorfest. Most of the good stuff—a kind of best-of collection of interviews, retrospective essays, and scholarship—can be found in David Bernstein’s book on the larger group and its doings, The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde (go read it—it’s good), and in the program notes by David Bernstein and John Holzaepfel included with the recently released three-disc set on New World Records, Music from the Tudorfest: San Francisco Tape Music Center 1964 (go listen to it—it’s good). Oliveros is all over these sources; her words are on the record and they give us a different perspective than the reviews.

The cover of the CD booklet for New World Records' Tudorfest featuring a photo of David Tudor wearing a jacket and tie

New World Records’ 2014 release of archival recordings from the 1964 Tudorfest.

At the beginning of this article, I wrote that Oliveros had recently met Tudor when she asked him to curate the festival. That’s true, but I didn’t tell you that Oliveros wrote about how she met Tudor at the house of Olive Cowell (aunt of Henry Cowell). I didn’t tell you that Oliveros remembers John Cage, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and Toru Takemitsu all attending the final performances. I didn’t tell you that she invited dancer-choreographer Elizabeth Harris to stage her Duo, or that she asked Tony Martin to provide the lighting, or that Morton Subotnick, Stuart Dempster, and Ramon Sender (among others) all agreed to be part of the performing ensemble. Oliveros remembers these people because they were friends and colleagues, and because this was the support system that she had in place to produce a festival. This was really the only support system she had in place; she had to rely on this art world of musicians and composers—because mainstream grant foundations weren’t always clamoring to expand or develop experimental music.

To put it plainly: the Tudorfest was a stretch on the resources of the San Francisco Tape Music Center generally speaking, and that meant it was a stretch on the resources of its individual producers and organizers. “In those days,” Oliveros told one interviewer, “I taught a string of students: accordion and French horn. I copied music. I played in a variety of situations…. I have no idea how I did it in a way. And yes, I did do it. You know, you look back on it, and it wasn’t easy. I had maybe $250 dollars a month to get by on.”[1]

And yet, she did produce Tudorfest. She scraped by on $250. She called on all of her friends to help out. She got support from like-minded organizations including KPFA, the public radio station that shared building space with the Center and often allowed Oliveros and her colleagues to record improvisations using their equipment. Maybe the end result was everything Oliveros dreamed of; maybe she had grander plans she had to cut back due to space and time and money constraints. In the end, though, it was a success in the same way that her Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato was a success.

But even that piece, as Oliveros writes in a retrospective essay, was a series of compromises. The first time Oliveros and Tudor rehearsed the piece she was writing for Tudorfest, the composer-accordionist met the pianist-bandoneonist with a score in hand:

David and I rehearsed at my home in Hunter’s Point, which I shared with Laurel Johnson and her mynah bird, Ahmed,” Oliveros remembered. “As David and I rehearsed the music, Ahmed got very excited. I tried covering Ahmed’s cage to quiet him. Nothing worked. Ahmed insisted on joining our rehearsal. I realized that the bird was picking up on the sounds we were making. So I thought, ‘Why not include the bird?’ The duo became a trio: Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato (1964).[2]

Trio format established, Oliveros asked Elizabeth Harris to find a way to stage the piece…and Harris came up with the infamous aforementioned seesaw. By this point, it would have been hard for anybody to deny that the music was theater, and the theater was music. Oliveros wanted choreography, ways of manipulating the seesaw as a counterpoint to the sounds of the free reed instruments. First, there was the problem of playing an instrument and moving around at the same time: “I had to employ a safety belt to negotiate the swivel chair because of the imbalance of the motion of my accordion bellows,” Oliveros noted.[3] Second, there was the problem of reading a score while playing an instrument and moving around at the same time: “I swallowed hard and abandoned the written score that I had composed and decided on improvisational instructions.”[4] (The draft score still exists, by the way; it lives in the Pauline Oliveros archive at the University of California, San Diego.) A compromise, a collaboration: the line was always very thin—which worked out just fine, given that the experimentalists did their best to walk a thin line.

We can think of these behind-the-scenes challenges as part of the essential nature of Tudorfest, as part of what made the San Francisco Tape Music Center stronger, as part of what influenced the composers both at the time and maybe in their later years—these were the materials they had available, this was their experience, this was what they learned. As for me, I like to imagine that moment when Ahmed the mynah bird first squawked in rehearsal. I can imagine being frustrated, feeling like nothing was going as planned. Then: a moment of appreciation that sometimes the world just works this way, a dim thought, space to let it grow, and finally: What if…? What if the mynah bird became part of the piece? What if we brought him onstage? What will the people say? It’s only fitting to give Pauline Oliveros the last word: “I remember this period as a lot of fun.”[5]

1. David Bernstein (ed), The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde. University of California Press, 2008, p105.

2. Ibid, p.86.

3. Ibid, p.87.

4. Ibid, p.86.

5. John Holzaepfel, Program Notes for Music from the Tudorfest: San Francisco Tape Music Center 1964, New World Records, 2014, p22.

It’s Music Because I Can Hear It: 1960s Experimental Music Festivals

Photo of an upright piano burning

Photo by Caitlin Schmid

In the spring of my senior year of college, I burned a piano. Before you give in to the rising outrage—it was more than some college prank: I organized a performance of Annea Lockwood’s 1968 Piano Burning with the composer on hand to lead a pre-concert discussion. I found a “dead piano” as the score required—an upright that had been relegated to the laundry room of a dorm for years, a piano well beyond the concept of repair. I contacted the fire department for a permit; I advertised on posters around campus. I watched as it went up in flames. Hundreds of people crowded around the space we had cleared in the middle of the quad, talking, laughing; a few brave students were allowed early on to plunk out Beethoven and Joplin; I remember the sound of the balloons taped to the lid popping in the heat, the twang of strings breaking under pressure, the whoosh as the instrument was finally engulfed. “This is way cooler than I thought it would be,” a jock-type admitted. Just like that, I was hooked: this music made people think, this music provoked discussions, this music was gutsy and political and sometimes it even required us to reconsider our definition of music.

I went to graduate school to study the sounds of burning pianos and squeaky rubber dolls and trash can lids, scores that instruct the performer to “draw a straight line and follow it,” and realizations of that score involving hair dipped in ink and dragged across pure white paper. The experimental music of the 1960s was (is), to some, ridiculous (and maybe that’s part of its power); to others, it proclaims freedom from genre, border, and label. But the thing that draws me in the most? It was meant to be experienced—sometimes conceptually, sometimes interactively, never by just some small community of musicians, but always by everyone. To achieve this, our intrepid experimental heroes turned to the festival medium.

There’s something special about festivals. All of the musicians, composers and organizers coming together to say: “General public, this is what we are about.” And the audience members responding: “We hear what you’re doing, we’re trying to understand it, and we like it or we don’t.” A festival isn’t something that can just happen on a whim; even the lowest maintenance variety needs personnel, materials, space, some modicum of promotion; a festival is a concentrated effort to self-define and proclaim a particular set of artistic values. For experimental music—meant to be experienced by everyone, remember—festivals were part of the territory, and that was true in East Coast New York (of course) but also in West Coast San Francisco and Midwest Ann Arbor, and across the ocean to France, Germany, the Netherlands, and England. Wherever this extended family of musicians and composers went, they made themselves and their work known.

Here is this week’s example. Charlotte Moorman (famously known as The Topless Cellist) organized what eventually became known as the First Annual New York Avant Garde Festival in 1963. “We wanted for all these new people to see what we’re doing: it’s silly for us to play for all our friends, you know,” she told Harvey Matusow in an interview several years later. What were they doing? That first festival was a series of six concerts spread out over the course of a little more than two weeks, held at the venerable Judson Hall. The first concert was Frederic Rzewski’s American piano debut featuring music by Sylvano Busotti, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Giuseppe Chiari. The next concert was a Toshi Ichiyanagi and John Cage double bill (apparently Cage’s Variations III, which involved amplifying the sound of drinking a glass of water, caused several patrons to complain of earaches). There was a chamber concert, an electronic music concert, a Moorman-Tudor concert, and an ensemble concert. Imagine Moorman’s pride as she looked over this extensive and varied program on opening night—the “friends” had made this happen.

reproduction of flyer listing concert programs including works by Cage, Feldman, Brown, Woolf, Young, Corner, La Monte Young, Ornette Coleman, Toshi Ishinayagi, George Brecht and Dieter Schnebel plus all the composers' signatures

A flyer from the first New York Avant Garde Festival in 1963.

The “new people,” on the other hand, were—shall we say—less enthusiastic. Witness that very first concert in 1963. John Gruen of The New York Herald Tribune titled his review “Far Out Concert, Stupefying Boredom” and signed off with “avant-garde piano music is decidedly something to watch—it might even get worse.” He wasn’t alone in his evaluation: Harold Schonberg of the The New York Times left us with this gem: “An evaluation of the work [Chiari’s Teatrino]? Don’t be silly, man.”

The first three years of the festival were held in a concert hall and featured the musical works of all sorts of known composers including Cage, Morton Feldman, and Edgard Varèse. Looking back, we might say it was a fairly traditional concert-going experience, and yet… Year two, October 1964: Carl P. Sigmon’s “Festival of the Avant Garde” for Musical America: “Time and again the potential fun quickly turned to tedium….One could only wonder why the youthful audiences cheered loudly….” Year Three, September 1965: Leighton Kerner reviewing a night of action music by Nam June Paik for the The Village Voice: “Take, for example, the opening night which aged some of us considerably.” So bitter, so soon. Little did the critics know what they were in for.

Logo with the words "annual avant garde festival of new york" in white on black in which each word is separated with address (47 W 46th Street NYC) underneath

The letterhead that was used for the New York Avant Garde Festival

By year four, Moorman had radically redesigned the format of this music festival. Held over 18 hours in Central Park, the works of 77 artists from 14 countries were performed simultaneously. Picture this: Ed Summerlin and Don Heckman improvising a saxophone duet early in the morning across the Children’s Pond; Joe Jones riding his Musical Bike; Jim McWilliams staging his Picnic (in which the point was to eat as many hot dogs as possible, even if that meant regurgitating what you had already eaten); Moorman herself realizing Nam June Paik’s Zen Smiles by passing out five thousand pennies and five thousand smiles, one of each to each audience member; Dick Higgins, sitting in a lawn-chair, dressed in a striped tunic, allowing his wife to apply shaving cream to his bald pate in a performance of Danger Music No. 2. This is all faithfully reported in Dan Sullivan and Richard F. Shepard’s September 10, 1966 New York Times article “The Avant-Garde Day in Park Goes On and On.” The reporters ask at one point if it is really music. “‘It’s music,’ Mr. Higgins said, ‘because I can hear it. To the audience, of course, it’s theater.’” Shepard and Sullivan don’t argue; in fact, they give up opinion entirely in favor of description, laced with a healthy dose of skepticism. “[There were] no cogent answers from anyone,” they say at one point. Then there’s my personal favorite subheading of all time, “Clapping Hands – to Ears.” And finally, the last word of the piece: “Nothing was settled.”

After all was said and done, the New York Avant Garde Festival ran almost-consecutively for fifteen years from 1963 to 1980 (excluding three years when Moorman was too sick to organize it). At its peak, it featured the works of more than 650 artists and attracted audiences of a hundred thousand-plus at a time in locations including the John F. Kennedy Staten Island Ferryboat (1967, “Music: Lost at Sea” read one headline in the The Village Voice), the 67th Regiment Armory (1971), and even the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1980). As composers, as performers, as audience members, as passersby, Charlotte Moorman made sure everyone had the opportunity to experience experimental music.

So there it is, a history of the early days of the New York Avant Garde Festival, a bit of proof that festivals and experimental music go together like ramalamalama. In a nutshell, this was crazy music—was it even music?—with festivals that kept getting bigger, and the tastemakers (represented by the newspaper critics) thought it was outré and boring. Done and done. But there is a catch: what I’ve presented to you today as “the New York Avant Garde Festival”—a description of events, documented opinions, all incontrovertible fact—is only what I’ve found in advance press and reviews. It’s not the whole story by any means.

We can never have every detail of any given event; my version differs from yours, and what he saw from the corner won’t be quite the same as what she experienced from stage-center. Plus, memories are faulty and colored by attitude and context. We can’t really blame the critics for their generally less-than-enthused reviews because, let’s face it, these guys (and they were mostly guys) worked for major newspapers in the capacity of music critics. They usually spent their nights seated in a hall on red plush velvet, listening to Bach and Beethoven and writing about whether or not a particular performance did justice to the composer’s vision, not about whether or not a particular performance might be considered music. Regardless of whether these experimental music festivals were objectively “good” or “bad,” critics had a stake in the musical canon (which the New York Avant Garde Festival most certainly was not a part of) and it comes across in their reviews.

History is written by those who write; the critics were writers. What we sometimes forget in our pursuit of facts immortalized in print, waiting for us to scoop up and rewrite into our articles and books, is that history is made by all sorts of people—from the creative composers to the friends of friends who lend their amps in a last minute Situation. What is written isn’t the only version of history, and the critics weren’t the only people at those festivals. There were organizers, there were performers, there were composers—all, one would have to imagine, more committed to the idea of experimental festivals than the critics. And there were audience members—sometimes willing, sometimes just in the right place at the right time (or the wrong place at the wrong time, no judgment).

And so here we are fifty years later, and I have limited options to recover history: I can head to the archives (if there are archives), I can talk to the participants (if I can find them—hello out there?), or I can turn to the microfilms and the internet and pull up the newspaper reviews and the advance press—the easily accessed, written records of these historical events. That last is exactly what I did for you today. It’s not a bad thing (it’s often all we have to go on), but you deserve more and in the next few weeks I’ll give you first-hand accounts from a variety of festival participants. It’s the only way we can even begin to see the whole picture. After all, if I hadn’t told you at the beginning of this article about Piano Burning in my own words from my own experience, all you might have had to go on was this, from the comments section of a review on a local blog: “MHMMMM just wondering if part of our added sales tax for ‘the arts’ paid for this?????”


Caitlin Schmid, wearing glasses, sitting in front of a bookcase filled with books

Caitlin Schmid

Caitlin Schmid is a graduate student in Historical Musicology at Harvard University. Her interests include American music, sound art, feminist approaches to musicology, and (of course) 1960s experimental music festivals. She’s particularly interested in your experience of these festivals – what do you remember? Post your memories in the comments below.