Tag: Fluxus

On Performing Fluxus in 2020

Karl Ronneburg's performance of Yoko Ono's "Voice Piece for Soprano"

In the bright and halcyon days of early 2020, my team at Fifth Wall Performing Arts planned something we thought would be fun: a spring concert of Fluxus-inspired works performed simultaneously by our friends in New York City and Ann Arbor. Each location would be livestreamed to the other, where we’d hoped the broadcasts would create a new sense of what Fluxus artist Dick Higgins called an “intermedia” space. These, of course, were the days before Zoom became a household name, before livestreamed concerts became the unfortunate norm. We’d had the venues booked, the artists lined up, and even an endorsement from Meredith Monk—but it was not to be. Like every concert in the spring, summer, and beyond, our Fluxus Fest was cancelled.

So, I took the opportunity to learn more. Though I first became seriously interested in Fluxus back in 2016 through the wild and wonderful world that is Dick Higgins’s “Danger Music” series, the COVID-19 pandemic forced upon me the time and space to begin correspondence with the LA Phil’s 2018/19 Fluxus Festival Curator, Christopher Rountree, as well as Fluxus scholar Natilee Harren. Their feedback, in addition to my own research, led to the remounting of our Fluxus Fest 2020 as a five-week virtual festival—one which finds Fluxus surprisingly suited to confronting the challenges of our time.

So, some questions: What is Fluxus? And, why Fluxus? Why now?

Fluxus was an art collective and movement in the ’60s and ’70s whose artists took up the direct legacy of John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and the Dadaists. In fact, some of the origins of Fluxus can be directly traced to John Cage’s 1958 Composition class at the New School in New York City—on the first day, Cage defined music simply as “events in sound-space”. Among the students in the classroom that day were Dick Higgins, Jackson Mac Low, George Brecht, Larry Poons, Allan Kaprow, and Al Hansen. Soon thereafter, Brecht began making what he called “Event Scores”, which, instead of musical notes, simply contained a list of printed instructions to realize a piece.

By 1962, the students from Cage’s class were joined by George Maciunas (a Lithuanian-American who coined the term “Fluxus”), and variously included Nam June Paik, Alison Knowles, Yoko Ono, Wolf Vostell, Emmett Williams, Ben Patterson, Takako Saito, Henry Flynt, La Monte Young, Meiko Shiomi, and more—though “membership” in Fluxus was often contentious. Some claimed that Maciunas at one time or another kicked out all but two or three of them, while others say that he had no right to kick out anyone and never did.

The group was active in the USA, as well as Germany, Denmark, France, and Japan, and were an incredibly diverse collective for the time: Dr. Natilee Harren writes that “Participants included artists who were women, who were queer, who were African American, who were from East Asia, and yet these identities were treated with an uncommon fluidity and criticality for the time. An a-national, polyglot community, Fluxus artists were citizens of the world; they traversed a self-defined international network, and the spirit of generosity and exchange in their work countered Cold War paranoia and the retrenchment of national boundaries.”

Simultaneously irreverent and spiritual, Fluxus artists pushed the boundary of what art could be and who it was for. The format of the Event Score in particular is interesting because of the way it delegates collective authorship to the performers of a work—a concept familiar to classical musicians, but one uncommon in the visual or written art world, where most Fluxus artists originated. By using text instructions, however, Fluxus artists broadened the scope of the score beyond music to include actions, concrete or abstract, that could be performed in contexts far beyond the concert hall. Though some view Fluxus as an Anti-Art movement (and it certainly contained Anti-Art elements), for the most part Fluxus was about decentralizing and revolutionizing the way we think about art. Again, Natilee Harren: “Fluxus artists looked for value in the commonplace, believing that art can be anywhere and belong to anyone. Rather than eliminating art, they sought to dissolve its boundaries in order to infuse everyday life with heightened aesthetic awareness and appreciation.”

PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART. Promote living art, anti-art, promote NON-ART REALITY to be fully (the word fully is crossed out) grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes, and professionals.

From George Maciunas’ Fluxus Manifesto


This brings us back to 2020. Spring rolls around, the world shelters-in-place, and life as we know it is over. How can Fluxus address this?

Fluxus as Practice

One of the most famous Fluxus pieces is Alison Knowles’ 1962 Proposition #2: “Make a Salad”. And that’s all there is to it. You just make a salad. I live in a 2-bedroom apartment with my brother, and though we don’t like much of the same foods, we both love salad. I spent a lot of time with him these last 7 months during the pandemic, and salad-making has become kind of a ritual that we perform several times per week. Proposition #2 begs the question: once you know that it exists, are you performing it every single time you make a salad? Thanks to Alison Knowles, I noticed this ritual with my brother, was able to pinpoint it as such, and now my salad-making has a certain kind of mindfulness that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Furthermore, to survive in the Time of Corona, many of us adopted new rituals and had to follow new instructions. Ben Patterson’s 1964 Instruction #2 reads: “Please Wash Your Face”. Fluxus asks, how different are these instructions from signs in public places asking you to “Wash Your Hands”, or to “Please Wear a Mask”? Are hand-washing diagrams not a kind of choreography, not a kind of graphic score? Fluxus reminds us that the daily events we do without thinking are performances, that any time we follow instructions, we are performing a score. Or, as said by Alison Knowles in a 2012 panel discussion: “My belief is that every person who gets up and goes into their day and does their work is coming from some unrecognized belief system that maybe they’ve picked up as a five-year-old, or they don’t look at it anymore. But to address that and work with it is powerful.”

Fluxus as Protest

In many ways, Fluxus is protest music, where the dissonance is always cognitive. Ben Vautier, for example, is known for his artistic practice of signing anything he could get his hands on, a statement on the hegemony of authorship in art not dissimilar to the practice of tagging by graffiti artists. Fluxus works have additionally retained their power today as political statements: for example, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, a group of 10 women performed a variation of Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piecein pantsuits in Madison Square Park while the Electoral College cast their votes. Natilee Harren writes: “Indeed, the best Fluxus and Fluxus-related work exposes how our lives are scored, orchestrated, or performatively designed for better or for worse, in both utopian and dystopian fashions.”

Fluxus pieces can also be powerful statements of identity. For example, in the first performance of my Fluxus festival, a trans woman friend of mine performed Yoko Ono’s Laundry Piece, going through her laundry basket to tell us about the clothes inside. A more guttural statement of identity might be Dick Higgins’s Danger Music #17 (to be performed on October 17), which reads: “Scream!! Scream!! Scream!! Scream!! Scream!! Scream!!”.

Fluxus as Community:

Finally, Fluxus’ power is in its ability to build community. The barrier to entry to perform a Fluxus piece is low (and the streaming technology widespread enough) that my team could reach out to my friends and colleagues across the country to perform Fluxus and Fluxus-inspired pieces from home, embracing the locations we are all in. We put together a five-weekend series, featuring over 30 artists from around the country, and I can’t be more thankful. I wrote my own Fluxus piece, Phone Call#2: “Catch up with a friend”, that I performed on October 10th as a statement of the power of this community and the power of Fluxus to create simultaneous mindfulness and disruption. In fact, Fluxus was an inspiration for the core mission of our company, Fifth Wall Performing Arts: to not just break the “fourth wall” by acknowledging the audience or the stage, but to break a newly-made-up “fifth wall” as well: acknowledging the artists themselves as human beings and not just characters or performers. When we perform Fluxus, we are performing as ourselves, bringing attention to our actions and their consequences. This opens up the traditional boundaries of performance as an artistic ritual, linking audiences with artists as people, vulnerable and in need of connection as we all are.

The week 4 video featured here begins with a clip from Hannah McLaughlin and Raquel Klein’s performance of Gift of Tongues by Emmett Williams (1962): “Sing meaningfully in a language made up on the spot”, performed simultaneously with Danielle Mumpower’s interpretation of Disappearing Music for Face by Mieko Shiomi (1966): “Change gradually from a smile to no-smile.” The clip then cuts to a portion of James Vitz-Wong’s original “I swear this is research” Piece: “Perform a recital while in virtual reality.” This was presented alongside Carlos Durán, Karl Ronneburg, and Grey Grant’s performance of Orchestra by Ken Friedman (1967): “Everyone plays different recordings of a well-known classical masterpiece. [We chose Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.] Each member of the orchestra starts and stops playing different sections of the recording at will.”–performed simultaneously with one repetition of Corey Smith’s performance of Bean Snow by Anne Tardos (1994): “Read the text slowly and deliberately, using a normal tone of voice. Bean snow. Bean snow beans. Bean snow beans about themselves. Bean snow themselves. Bean snow beans about themselves. Bean snow.”

I’ll leave you with a 1960’s vision of community and social distancing: Dick Higgins’s Danger Music Number Three: “Divide a large pack of incense among those present in a moderately large room. Ask each person to burn his or her [or their] incense, without flame, all together. Darkness throughout.”

The logo for Follow Fluxus is a series of boxes which each have printed on them one letter: "F," "o," "l," "l," "o," "w," "F," "l," "u," "x," "u." and "s."


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!

Goofing off, Perfected: Lessons from Fluxus

In my columns so far, I have explored different ways of integrating fields outside of music into our work, including alternative educational models and institutions, as well as considered the ultimate purpose or function of our work. In this, my final post for the month, I’d like to recap a personal experience on the periphery of traditional music.

This summer, I’m creating a collection of performances at the Walker Art Center surrounding an exhibition of Fluxus works by George Brecht, Yoko Ono, Allison Knowles, and many others. I recently sat down with Sarah Schultz, curator of public practice at the Walker, and a group of local artists, and Sarah asked a seemingly simple question: what is Fluxus? What followed was a conversation where simple statements became instantly complicated. For example, Fluxus is an insular form speaking to the art world’s nuanced concepts of the object, vision, and experience. Simultaneously, Fluxus is an open initiation to life and living, enabling the public to take the scores into their own everyday. These inherent contradictions are perhaps summarized best by Hannah Higgins (academic and daughter of Allison Knowles and Dick Higgins) as she begins her book Fluxus Experience. “Since Fluxus artists never seem to agree on anything,” she acknowledges, “Fluxus has become ‘a pain in art’s ass,’ in the words of Fluxus artist Ben Vautier.” Now, I believe that we can hold two contradictory ideas in our heads without passing out, but it does become difficult to explain exactly what Fluxus is and isn’t. If you were to say one true thing about Fluxus, you could say that Fluxus is about the primary experience itself. The vehicle for exploring the now moment in Fluxus is through the Event Score or the Fluxkit.

Event Scores involve simple actions, ideas, and objects from everyday life re-contextualized as performance. Event Scores are texts that can be seen as proposal pieces or instructions for actions. The idea of the score suggests musicality. Like a musical score, Event Scores can be realized by artists other than the original creator and are open to variation and interpretation.
– Allison Knowles

I consider Fluxus a shared cousin between the music and visual art world. It is fascinating to see how treatment of the scores differs because they are kept by private collectors or at art institutions like the Walker. The scores here are handled with gloves, cautiously maneuvered with a small stainless steel spatula (so as to not bend the corners), and kept in a humidity and temperature-controlled space. When I think about the thousands of scores kept by orchestras, or the ones I have at my studio, I can see a real contrast in both treatment and use. What if Fluxus scores were kept by orchestras, lent out to groups that needed them, rented, and written on?

Although I’ve researched the scores through books, it was grounding to visit the scores in person. (Primary experience wins again!) Fluxus scores were released in editions like Brecht’s Water Yam, Ono’s Grapefruit, and Kosugi’s Events. The scores themselves are casual and airy. Easy and smart. They seem a bit haphazard in a lovely way that feels comfortable and domestic. In looking at Water Yam, a collection of 98 scores by George Brecht, you can imagine George picking up his scores from the printer and sitting down to cut them out with a pair of scissors, all different sizes from tiny to quite large. The pieces are kept atop one another in no particular order inside a small plastic box with a sticker on top. Seeing the scores in person helped me to envision the score as a more dynamic object and imagine why a score is held so central in Fluxus works.

<i>Water Yam</i> by George Brecht

Water Yam by George Brecht

Creating a score is a labor. To create a score, we have to envision ourselves as someone uninitiated with our ideas. We put ourselves in the shoes of another person—an act of empathy—and we offer an experience to anybody who would invest time to decode the document and act it out in real time and space. A score is a set of rules for engagement. It is the same for a recipe, a manual, or a blueprint. Scores come with a contract between the composer and the performer—a contract that could be understood as rules for interpretation or etiquette for the creation of a performance. This is a vernacular that has changed over time in music, different for each generation, although it feels as though the door was blown wide open in the 20th century.
To the Fluxus composers, a score is a narrative experience that exists in the mind.

from <i>Water Yam</i> by George Brecht

from Water Yam by George Brecht

A score is an instigator that weasels its way into your life, as in Milan Knizak’s Cat (1965) which reads, “Get a cat.”  A score is a document of a poetic event already past, a connection to something immensely human.

From Yoko Ono’s 1971 edition of <i>Grapefruit</i>

From Yoko Ono’s 1971 edition of Grapefruit

A score is a tool, multi-faceted and evolving over time. A score invites performance, a presence, and/or goofing off.

‘Goofing off’ is a quality that Fluxus artists certainly honed in performance, and…there are positive qualities to goofing off. Goofing off requires developing a fine-tuned sense of what it means to pause long enough and distance oneself far enough from worldly objects and events to recognize their illusory dimension and thereby reinvest the world with wonder. In order to really goof off well, the instrumental sense of purpose so deeply ingrained in Western ego and epistemology must be abandoned.
– Kristine Stiles “Between Water and Stone” from the Walker’s 1993 catalog In the Spirit of Fluxus

This is the thing that surprised me about the Event Scores: the works are a direct invitation to play, as well as an invitation to presence. Serious focus and purposeless play are both intensely human and increasingly rare. Goofing off is another form of presence, or rather a complete lack of presence when we abandon our veneer to embrace a purposeless sense of wonder. We goof off and are human. In this way, Fluxus and their Event Scores point to our human condition in a way that is wildly dynamic. The score is an invitation, a call to action, and first-hand study and performance of these scores would be healthy for any of us.

Is It Dangerous?

Female violinist with tattooOver sushi in a crowded midtown sushi bar with the brilliant pianist (and close friend) Charity Wicks, we’re discussing, among other important topics, her future neck tattoo. She is one of the more astonishingly facile and gifted musicians I’ve ever met, destined for a great career. While she spends a lot of her time playing in Broadway pit bands (her choice) for shows such as Spring Awakening or Billy Elliot (for whom the tattoo would not rate a second glance; this would be true also if she confined herself to new music) she worries, rightfully, that it might preclude her, as talented as she is, from the side of her career where she plays Mozart and Brahms. But I also think she should chuck it all and get that tattoo. Because why not?—follow her bliss, be what she wants, take control, etc. But she blanches, fearing it will limit her appeal in her chosen career. Can she play Mozart for the Mozart crowd and sport a visible tattoo? What is it about her potential illustrated neck that gave her reasonable pause? In her wise estimation, it would be inappropriate, a sticking point, and it could prevent her audience from hearing her properly. I agree but wish I knew why. My only thought is that it might be too “dangerous.”
But how to define danger when it comes to classical music (itself a sticky and even somewhat “dangerous” term to use because it spans nine centuries of repertoire with no signs of slowing, despite reports to the contrary)? Can this kind of music actually be dangerous? Can any kind of music actually be dangerous? This rhetorical question has an obvious answer: it cannot kill you, but something in it scares enough people that the famously oppressive regimes of, say, the Taliban, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China (during the Cultural Revolution), the pre-Reformation Catholic Church, or that tiny town in Footloose all felt that there had to be rules and that certain things (or in some instances the admission of music at all) should be duly restricted.

Toward A Calculus of Danger

In order to initiate any kind of discussion of danger, it has to be defined, however broadly.

1) Music is dangerous in that it makes you bleed, die (i.e. physical danger, violence). We will leave out the thankfully-never-realized “Danger Music” movement, a Fluxus offshoot heavily under the influence of Antonin Artaud’s notions behind his (also thankfully unrealized) “Theatre of Cruelty,” which can be summed up by printing Nam Jun Paik’s performative exhortation of his (also thankfully unrealized) piece Danger Music #5 wherein the performer is exhorted to “creep into the vagina of a whale.”[1] The very realization would be a poor choice for both man and beast, and was likely intended as a comment upon, rather than a direction for, performance. It is safe to say that Mr. Paik—because his death in 2006 had nothing to do with a whale—never did a performance of this work. There are of course pieces that are dangerous not to the performers or the audience but to the instruments involved. Michael Nyman, in his seminal Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond says “[George] Maciunas’ Solo for Violin (1962) proposes that an old classic be played on a violin and that where pauses are notated the violin is to be maltreated—by scratching the floor with it, dropping pebbles through the f-holes, pulling the pegs out, and so on. And in a performance of Richard Maxfield’s Concert Suite from Dromenon, La Monte Young quietly set fire to his violin while the other instruments were playing away quite happily.” This predates Mr. Hendrix. For the record, any music that causes actual physical harm[2] to anyone concerned is not to be performed, not under any circumstances.

2) Music is dangerous in that it changes or challenges your assumptions. This of course presumes knowledge, because assumptions are based on prior understanding—and smack of a certain kind of duty. Even the tiniest smack of expectation (i.e. a symphony is played by an orchestra; people sing in an opera) implies assumption or presumption, and when something is different (a laptop plays the symphony; the opera is full of people screaming) it can be viewed as dangerous.

3) Music is dangerous in that it challenges what you believe about what music ought to do. This is somewhat the same as the former rule but it is more for insiders or deep and careful listeners—if you think that Handel’s Concerto Grosso is formally mandated by precedent to modulate to the dominant and instead it modulates to the subdominant, that might feel a little dangerous because it challenges the austerity of the form. Swap the slow movement for the scherzo in a symphony, or (as Ives does in the Concord Sonata) bring in a flute in a solo piano piece, and you defy the expectations of those who know what to expect. Now imagine the utter absence of what you might expect from even the most grizzled modernist, a subtractive music that prides itself less on what it contains but rather what it avoids, all your compass points removed: no chords, no cadences, no melodies, no recognizable instrumental timbres. If the music in which you are involved—you write it, you perform it, you review it or study it, you simply love it to the point of knowing it at an intimate level—comes to lack all that you have come to depend on, it can be a perceived threat to all you hold dear. And what is more dangerous to one’s own psyche to think than that the Great World is participating in something to which your invitation seems to have gone missing in the mail? [3]

4) Music is dangerous in that it scares, shocks, awakens, arouses, provokes. Some music can produce a sense of longing so strong—especially when crossed with the frisson of both not knowing where you are (either in the piece or on a broader metaphysical level) and the very possibility that the thing might spin out of control. What experimental composer Dick Higgins had to say about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony[4] is that the final bars are “…as close as one could come, within the harmonic concepts of the day, to simple hysteria, and they work because they take the risk of degenerating.” The train seems as if it might run off the tracks, and when you stop and think about how that might actually feel, the word “danger” certainly comes to mind.

5) Music is dangerous in that you cannot overcome it. Think of The Red Shoes and dancing oneself to death (less the action than the conception; actually dancing yourself to death, were “red shoes” possible, would fall under category No. 1), or an earworm you cannot possibly ever shake, that haunts you at least to distraction and at worst to total madness. There is a certain danger in music so infectious that when you hear it, you simply cannot shake it.[5] It can overwhelm, dangerously so. Or just think about the very words (set to an earworm of their own) “lay down that boogie and play that funky music till you die.” (Italics mine)

6) Music is dangerous that sends you signals about how to be actually dangerous. The rock and roll or be-bop “attitude.” The music—or, frankly, the cult or whatever behind the image of the music—offers an unsavory way of living as an actual alternative. This is the most fugitive notion because one generation’s feckless youth is another generation’s camp to a certain extent—reading Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd or watching West Side Story, both of whose subjects are juvenile delinquents, is not instructive but can actually seem quaint and of yesteryear. And a work like John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera reads not as a comment on society but rather as a fascinating period piece, like a slang dictionary. But this is what people feared about everything from the flappers to the hippies to the Rolling Stones to hip-hop (to countless other movements and phenomena): a rash, widely acculturated glorification of “low life” or less-than-savory living that posed a threat to values presumed wholesome and right.

7) Music is dangerous when it is used to tell dangerous stories or evince dangerous ideas. See below, The Ballad of Associative Danger.

Danger as a selling point has always been problematic, because as something gets under any kind of collective skin of the “zeitgeist” it gets gobbled quickly by marketing committees as a way to move product—because sex sells, and what’s sexier than something a little dangerous? But this kind of acculturated “danger” ages quickly and poorly, and at a certain point even the Rolling Stones (originally slated to play Alex and his droogie-droogies in the ultra-violent A Clockwork Orange, which, talk about dangerous) grace the cover of AARP magazine and Cigar Aficionado and write their memoirs, or age gracefully like Dylan and trade in the role of spry upstart for wizened sage. Either way, the danger wears off as society changes its concerns, and while there are always imitators seeking to put forth the same image, it is as often as not borrowed, overcooked, and usually sterile in the wake. Cutting edge (even the sound of that phrase hurts) comes with an expiration date after which kitsch and camp follow—not without merits, but they do serve to neuter the terror impact.

The history of concert music—particularly in the 20th century—is riddled with pieces which “flew in the face” of expectations, in essence making aesthetic hay with the received preconceptions of the 18th- and 19th-century forms…this is to say, in essence, that the template (or the comforting sense of a template) was in danger. It is difficult to imagine now, but a piece like Marc Blitzstein’s string quartet Serenade ruffled feathers because it was cast in three “Largo” movements—in the 1930s! And the obvious trope of the Sacre riots need not be rehearsed here even though riots were very much in the air, occurring also at the premieres of Berg’s Altenberg Lieder and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.[6] But the so-(uncomfortably)-called “primitivism” of other works like Milhaud’s La création du monde (which has “jazz” in it) or even Virgil Thomson’s F-major rebellion of a piece—Four Saints in Three Acts—illustrates how the simple dislocation of form, intention, or tonality (or atonality) can make sirens blare.

The Ballad of Rock and Roll
matchesIn the middle of teaching a university seminar, say, pitch a chair through a stained-glass window shouting “¡Viva la revolución!” and it might rouse the rabble and turn light on you. It would terrify everyone, some into action and some into reaction, but it would definitely have an effect. But the next person to do the exact same thing—even 20 years later—while it might startle, would certainly be shining in the borrowed light of the previous action, especially if many makes and models of chairs were constantly being hurled through all manner of windows during all levels of classes. My metaphor will fall apart quickly, but what better way to explain the four generations of rock and roll music that have turned their especial kind of danger into a multi-billion dollar commodity.
When Jean-Luc Godard simply filmed the Rolling Stones simply being the Rolling Stones, it was a quasi-revolutionary act. They were doing what they did: making music.

Flash forward several decades and rock and roll, like everything else, is subject to the same commercial ossification: there are academic conferences and dozens of books and dull it-all-had-to-be-this-way biopics.[7] Charlatans have come claiming the mantle and diluted the essence. Committees have made decisions based on money rather than something more substantial and therefore have subjected the once-potent genre to the same ruin as everything else—as always, revolutions beget revolutions and lose something important in the process. Obviously, this did not start and end with the Rolling Stones. But while this sort of danger works in dog years, it ages quickly and unkindly because good old Mammon is there all along, and one person’s rebellion becomes another person’s oldies. Even the Velvet Underground (the very name screams dank-chic)—who were, as the house band of Andy Warhol’s Factory, aligned with the motliest lumpen crew of hustlers, pornographers, transvestites, intravenous drug users, and homosexuals ever to band together under the aegis of high art—parted ways and grew up.[8] Danger is not the exclusive province of youth, but the don’t-trust-anyone-over-thirty credo of the 1960s and 1970s made it clear that aging was not the best thing for one’s career if one’s career was predicated on being dangerous—a truism too many took too seriously and let the danger overcome them in the form of addictions, unchecked mental illness, and suicide.[9] This might be the raw (and vanished) association my pianist friend is hoping to avoid having to explain, a shopworn nightmare vision to some to which she would be unfortunately linked by showing something that, to her expected audience, still comes off as symptomatic.

The Ballad of Colonial Danger / Ballad of the Outsider
velvet ropeThere is the powerful sociological danger in concert music: a ruling class, colonialism. By those who view it from the vantage of how it is most often presented—an expensive museum for the upper crust—when it comes for your music, if you feel any kind of provenance it must seem like a kind of annexation. This same elite that not only looks down a long historico-political nose, but who would have native musics replaced but also subsumed by so-called “high art,” in essence not only deracinating it but also, on the path to homogeneity, uprooting and reclaiming—or at the very least including it in a patronizing and opportunistic way. One thinks of Henry Cowell, deeply knowledgeable on all manner of foreign folk musics but a composer who made a point of including the widest possible swathe of them in his own concert work, who referred to some of the musicians whose work he pressed into service as “simple souls.”
In essence this is the fear, an opposing take on the in-the-street revolution. Think of works like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Copland’s El Salón México, or William Grant Still’s Troubled Island, and one can all but hear the terror in them on both sides. The “elite” believing that something ominous and other has come to besmirch their beloved music, and that same ominous and other being terrified of a loss of identity, of being effectively co-opted for use. And of course the effete elite (and yes, I am by all means speaking with an overt breadth that takes the cliché of a de facto group and speaks on their behalf, a cheap and easy socio-political overstatement with plenty of exceptions) would have much to feel challenged by when the music of the “other” finds its way into the unblemished purity of their concert music—the fly in the soup.

Cliques and klatches keep us safe, they bathe us in the warm bath of consensus, and this is not meant in any way to be demeaning. Composing music is really hard, a loneliness-of-the-long-distance-runner pursuit, and famously not exactly choc-full of security, so obviously even though “bunker mentality” is seldom meant as a complimentary description of someone’s forward thinking, the idea that there are people in the same situation with the same aims who think the same notion equally progressive is powerful and arguably necessary on a human level. This can, however, create the idea of an “insider” in which case, of course, there have to be “outsiders” to whom to compare them, and that in and of itself can be a dangerous notion to those inside. The path not taken has to be justified—though I hope for the sake of all of our mental health this is changing effectively.

But outsiders—or that-which-lurks-beyond the gates, be it flesh or idea—have always held the secret to danger because there’s titillation and a good dollop of naughty-naughty to be found on the dark side of the street. There is a kind of outside music, that of roughians, the barbarians at the gates, that has always made its way into concert music, from Dvořák’s hortatory “the future of American music rests in Negro Melodies” through Gershwin’s wholesale adaptation of jazz to the concert stage (or was it the other way ‘round?) straight through Bernstein’s epic kitchen-sink Mass,[10] the decibel-intensive work of, say, Christopher Rouse or Louis Andriessen, the ululations of early Philip Glass and on up to the entire so-called “alt classical” movement. There has always been this “other,” this outlaying, allegedly unwelcome thing that composers, those “genius parasites” as Alex Ross calls them, have managed to incorporate into their concert music.

Accused “outsiders” are too numerous to count, so much so that it can make one question the very out- and inside notions: like most things, it was far truer when John Cage, Henry Cowell, George Antheil, Lou Harrison, Colin McPhee, Dane Rudhyar,[11] and their ilk were engaged in their radical upendings and agons with the Great Western Classical Tradition. And like Freud, their once-radical anti-traditional approaches have become, in their way, a tradition unto themselves, as is the danger of danger. What was once radical can become, in hindsight, pristine, monumental (in that it is actually a “monument” which is a testament but more like a whitewashed statue), and the outside is always in danger of becoming, in fact, just another inside. Ask any composer, and they will probably tell you they are working “outside the system”[12] in some way because of the exact query that began this entire article, the idea that the inside has become untenably dull and that any artist worth the name must in fact be fighting against it.
The Ballad of Associative Danger
Hazard warning label.Judging from the violent backlash against Dr. Alfred Kinsey and Sigmund Freud, frank discussion of sexual matters were—and, sadly, remain—terrifying to people. Dr. Freud had the nerve to tell us about our nerves, and Dr. Kinsey suggested a slew of unthinkables, not least being that women liked sex, too. And as these two men were taking a heap of guff for their unpopular but at-the-end-of-the-day-absolutely-right conjectures, the globe bled out from two World Wars and America suffered the Depression, after which followed the retrogressive, state-supported witch hunts of Mr. McCarthy and his own thugs. At the root of this was not just the suppression of communism—that was the cover story—but really the suppression of transgressive ideas; an exercise in Soviet-style thought policing. In the midst of it, artists were demonized, terrified, lost lives and livelihoods.

In 1937, Marc Blitzstein wrote The Cradle Will Rock, a pro-union piece of agit-prop theatre meant to stir the masses if not to full-scale leafleted revolt, at least to let them know, by means of theatrical allegory, that one finger equals a finger but that five fingers pulled tight equaled a union. The musical (for lack of a better word) was shut down by the revolution-fearing government.[13] The storied premiere,[14] however, is an incredible tale of courage of conviction, as the very unions it supported threatened to ruin the lives of the actors and musicians should they set foot upon the stage—so they did it in the house. Something scared someone—or so the legend has it.

I wish I could say it was the bite of Mr. Blitzstein’s harmonies or the fugitive third-relation of his tonalities that brought the feds to the Lucille Lortel that night to shut down the proceedings, but it was not. The music did not concern them one bit save for the message that it evinced. One could argue that singing is more powerful than speaking and therefore without the music the show would have been less effective and therefore less threatening, and while this is true ultimately it was the brash Figaro-like characterizations of the Aristocracy (ruthless, stupid, and murderous) and the Proletariat (hard-working, victimized, intelligent, and strong) that shackled the show. It was not the music qua music that caused the success du scandale, any more than the Sacre riot was about asymmetrical rhythm groups and neo-primitive polytonality. It was about the ideas.

When an opera is genuinely scary, like Britten’s The Turn of the Screw or Peter Grimes, that is music that, if the Danger Calculus is to be believed, shakes and stirs us, yes, it is the music activating the fear. But without the story—without the ghost or the murder (or for that matter the psycho killer under the bed in even the most rank-and-file horror movie)—the score would not terrify when it does terrify. Much like the chilling ironies to be found in collaborations between Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, such as The Threepenny Opera, The Seven Deadly Sins, and Mahagonny, wherein low-life characters sing charming duets to one another or ballads of serial murderers are cast in jaunty major keys for maximum Objective Correlative, again the music on its own would not be able to do the job; there has to be a text, an action-moving plot. The music, while capable of aiding and abetting danger, is not in-and-of-itself dangerous. To say nothing of the sheer cultural vertigo—the weltschmertz—found in Alban Berg’s deliciously disgusting Wozzeck and Lulu, or the dangerous notions of messing with the natural order in Janáček’s The Makropoulos Case—to say nothing of the (intentionally) terrifying work of early Robert Ashley (Wolfman) or Diamanda Galas (whose first record is The Litanies of Satan and whose lone book is The Shit of God). These pieces, too, are dangerous—they challenge our assumptions; they make us think, make us sick, turn us on in unexpected ways; scare us—but because their music is so well married to their subject matter and serves to make the unbearable more stomach-churning by being sung.[15]
To wax anecdotal for a moment, a few months after September 11th I went to hear Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera, which with the benefit of hindsight was a dreadful idea. The score—again, one of my absolute favorites—did the opposite of what I needed, never landing, challenging me and my ears (or heart or soul) at every turn, and at that moment in my life it was exactly what I did not need. But worse—that moment near the end where, during an interlude (divorced from any moment of plot) the orchestra crescendos to a deafening volume on a single pitch. In a way, it is the most rooted moment of the show; in other ways, it was the most terrifying, and I experienced fear of actual danger more vividly than I ever had in the concert hall. I thought, yes, that planes were going to crash through the roof of the opera house into the orchestra pit, and as the note grew louder, I became more convinced that what I was thinking was actually taking place—it obviously never happened. And in subsequent viewings of the opera,[16] that moment, while gripping, never again caused me the physical symptoms of fright. Which means that the impending sense of actual violence I felt was in part due to the score (not a small one), but was also personal.

The Ballad of Richard Wagner
wagnerIf there is one indomitable and ever polarizing figure in concert music, it is Richard Wagner. More ink has been spilled teasing him out biographically than not just any composer but than any other artist period. In fact—and I offer a flimsy and unsupported statistic here so take it as only that—the Great German Composer stands as the third-most written-about human being behind Jesus and Napoleon.[17] While his music is quite good (depending on whom you ask) and innovative (ditto) the question remains: why, so long after his death and so many innovations later, do we as a culture still have such complex reactions to him and his work. Leaving aside associations for which he cannot be blamed—the poisonous rap of being “Hitler’s favorite composer,” as unimportant as it is untrue (tastes ran more to Franz Lehar)—in this single human being’s work, life, and thinking we find the root of so many conflicting philosophical and musico-philosophical narratives, from Teutonic Nationalism to Zionism, from atonality and modernism to neo-classicism and impressionism, not to mention free-love libertinism, anti-Semitism, Nietzschean will, and a whole list of others—I’ve even heard it explained that Die Meistersinger is the precursor to the pro-union agitprop of Blitzstein and Weill. And even those who consciously rejected Wagner (say Satie and Les Six) still agogically admit him and his work as necessary enough to fight against. So yes, his is an elusive legacy, not least as it is currently being fought in Israel, with some determined to never have his work played there and some determined to surmount the associations—a difficult issue with strong points and high dudgeon on both sides. But being an innovator and a hater does not warrant or endure this specific depth of examination—the reason Wagner continues to rate is that Wagner might well be the last of the Dangerous Minds in “classical music” not because of his ideas (though they sure can lead to some dark places) but because of the dark, sensual power of his music.

Joseph Horowitz is his usual elegant self on this topic in his (awesome, there’s no other word) book Wagner Nights when he describes Victorian Era society women gathering, sartorially trussed and bound, to listen to one Anton Seidl—a now-forgotten conductor (because he worked before there were recordings) who was Wagner’s associate and principal American advocate—conduct this dangerous music, music that “stirred” them in seriously non-Victorian, pre-Kinsey ways to heretofore-unknown heights of sexual arousal and climax, the danger of leaving the body, of losing control, of rapture. “They lived for Wagner,” Horowitz writes, “No less than the roller coaster or revival meetings that serviced the lower classes. Wagner was a necessary source of violent excitation. And Seidl, with his irresistible gift for climax, was the necessary medium. At the Met, Isolde’s death-song, thrusting toward regions of oceanic wholeness, of womb-like security, of pre-pubescent play, was consummated by the hypnotic and statuesque [soprano] Lilli Lehmann. The bad effects of husband and bedroom were silenced by a musical-dramatic orgasm as explicit and complete as any mortal intercourse.” He also quotes the contemporaneous poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox on Tristan who says, “I heard wild willows beat, and thunders roll / and as the universe flamed into fire / I swooned upon the reef of coral lips” and Willa Cather writing in the voice of a man watching his own dowdy aunt Georgina subsumed by a Wagner concert, “The deluge of sound poured on; I never knew what she found in the shining current of it; I never knew how far it bore her, or past what happy islands. From the trembling of her face I could well believe that before the last numbers she had been carried out where the myriad graves are, into the gray, nameless burying grounds of the sea…” One need not discuss the obvious deployed image here of the sea-death[18] to know to what these two powerful writers were referring.

If you think this a mere Victorian-era notion which can only happen set against vast acculturated repression, to be disabused one need venture no further than WNYC’s 2007 The Tristan Mysteries (in which I happily participated) in which a friend of mine, her voice disguised to protect her reputation, recounts in hysterically lurid detail her own similar experience listening to the “Prelude and Liebestod” from, yes, Tristan und Isolde, unexpectedly dampening the seat of Carnegie Hall. This in 2001. This is persuasive power; this is dangerous. Little wonder famously brutal director Lars Von Trier used the prelude and other chunks as an idée fixe for his apocalyptic Melancholia[19], specifically for a long-focus nude scene, because this music speaks to the sex and to the death instinct in equal parts. Little wonder the work caused stirring in otherwise unstirred repressed American housewife loins.

The Ballad of Atonality
The most persuasive case for music actually being dangerous, that there is a kind of music that intends to not only exclude but do harm, has been made by firebrand musicologist Susan McClary. To sum up her argument, when speaking of Carmen, the seductive title character’s music is chromatic, a whiff of the foreign which seeks to intrude upon the (exclusively male-created) tonality of Don Jose, luring him in with her white-and-black-note witchcraft because it threatens the purity of his I-V-I tonal cadences and therefore she has to die. While this 1) sounds like a flimsy argument and 2) seems to be better suited to the associative than to the strictly musical, scanning forward to other operas, there is certainly merit to the idea that the chromatic intrudes upon the diatonic. (e.g. Salome, where the title character there is wildly chromatic, who sets her mania against the alarmingly tonal John the Baptist and is fallen upon by guards; the chromatic Isolde is bested by the tonal Tristan and therefore she has to have one last orgasm and die.)

The danger of chromaticism was not just in the context of these operas, with their dangerous and seductive characters, but also because it was set against the ever-stalwart and purer cadences and melodic figurations of the foundation of tonal harmony. Lose that, though, and you lose more than just the tonic: the whole notion of atonality was a dangerous thing because, on the echt level it spoke of rootlessness, of homelessness, of an unceasing wandering, of trying to find sense when old rules no longer applied. This was dangerous because it was impossible to follow—two and three on the danger calculus fleshed out for all to hear. In an earlier time, a ninth chord that Arnold Schoenberg had put into an “improper” inversion and not properly resolved in his musical essay Verklärte Nacht was thought by one critic to be the harbinger of the death of classical music.[20]

It is almost impossible for those of us who have lived through the rise and (ostensible) fall of the idea of non-tonal music as the banner-waving face of “modern music”[21] to understand how powerful and genuinely terrifying it must have been. I think I would trade just about anything I have to have been at the premiere of Wozzeck—not just to have heard it but to have the luxury of hearing it afresh, of feeling the house trembling at what they had to have seen as the barbarians at the gate (some of whom welcomed them because they were their own; some of whom were probably afraid because they felt the plants in their especial terrarium could not weather the new sounds). Obviously nobody can, and in that fact lies the essence of the argument: that danger is not just a personal but also an historical precept, one that at the very least—especially when rooted in the surface rebellion of what might shock—can never be recaptured[22], try though one might.

Finale: One Last Thing (There is a Point Here)
fire alarmIt was once true that certain musics spoke of and for and were born from deep rebellion, like all art[23], but imitating their imitations and toning them down in order to be loved is no rebellion whatsoever. So where does that leave us, especially my friend who aspires to a tattooed neck and a simultaneous career as a performer of the classics? Has the danger—mock, echt, or otherwise—been siphoned out of the Great Tradition so much so that it has in fact been withered down to a calcification of itself? Is there any hope for any concert composer to make a string quartet, orchestral piece, or solo piano work that has the raw power and down-and-dirty daemonic grit to be actually interesting and potent? Can classical music[24] actually be dangerous? Can a simple collection of pitches and rhythms rendered from a score scare us, turn us on, make us think in a fashion unbecoming, get us dirty, make us laugh in the face of terrible bloody tragedy, do glorious violence to our preconceptions?

The short answer is: probably not. The subsequent answer: who cares? If music is, as Stravinsky famously quipped, “powerless to express anything except itself,” then music qua music needs the ballast of some kind of narrative thrust—a background against which the danger can be implied; a personal association with the sound; a plain flesh-and-blood story—or at least the Great Metanarrative of Music History to lend it anything resembling danger.

The gist of the problem is that what humanity seems to long for is a closed system because it is easier to manage, even for the most intelligent among us. What philosophers—and in this phylum of thinkers I include artists—try to do (and, wow, will this be alarmingly general) is create visible patterns, ways to latch on to the voluptuously untamable and ineffable spirit of this thing called humanity—which is also why we need not just a single philosopher or school of thought, or a single discipline with which to express, delineate, define, and process the hugger-mugger of existence. But obviously, no door is shut for long because humanity is the ultimate open system, and that notion, much like the infinity of the cosmos, terrifies we who want to understand. And so we force square pegs of art into round holes, to great and important effect, and occasionally something happens to remind us how artificial much of that is, and that is the great and untenable terror, the agape of true, untrammeled awe.

Maybe you love classical music like I do: not as an aperitif or some kind of relaxing thing to get you away from it all, but as a vivid and messy thing that is rich and strange; perhaps the story of my friend aspiring to the neck tattoo but fearing for the career feels like an unjust exsanguination, a commuting of something made by complicated people to something built by statues. To remove the sense of danger is, of course, to do harm to the work though, like anything, every generation gets the danger it deserves. I think, then, as artists it is important to keep the idea of what scares people in check and use it to our best advantage, to mind the distance between scaring and shocking, and to not presume the rebellions of the previous generations will be met with the same dumbstruck looks and contra-paeans in the press as previously, because that helps nobody. It is important to be bold—fortune favors it, or so the saying goes—but it is equally important to (at the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna) follow your own compass rather than just presume the vanity of immediate on-the-grounds-of-danger rejection. And if that scares you or makes you feel you have entered dangerous waters, then my guess is that you are on the right track.

1. Google this at your own risk.
2. There was an entire movement called Danger Music. Much of it involved turning the music up so loud as to damage the eardrums of the listener, or Mr. Paik’s excursion into a whale, that sort of thing.
3. The best iteration of this terror can be found in the pages of my friend Wesley Stace’s novel Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, which is about a composer but written from the point of view of a critic who seems lost in the aesthetic tidal shifts of concert music trends.
4. A piece of music so dangerous that not only did it feature in A Clockwork Orange (Burgess, a composer himself, and Kubrick were no strangers to classical music) but it also served as the source of much musicological heat when enfant-terrible but brilliant scholar Susan McClary wrote: “The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.” Indeed.
5. In my composition class, I had something called “Dangerous Music Day” wherein I played pieces (as did the class) that were in some way “dangerous.” As my two strongest examples of those pieces you simply should not be listening to in any way if you are trying to write music I used Stravinsky’s Les Noces and the theme from the Mr. Softee truck, the former because it is difficult to not write that piece once you hear it and the latter because it makes you loathe music altogether.
6. Every important piece seemed to need its riot.
7. Where every last scrap of famous lyric has to be drawn directly from the projected life of the subject in flashes of “inspiration”; and where almost always nobody is ever seen actually making music. Apparently rewriting and rehearsing are anathema to Hollywood notions of how legendary songs are made.
8. This is not to say they got worse—the solo records of Nico, John Cale, and especially Lou Reed are, to a certain extent, musically more powerful and profound than their collective VU efforts, but the inexplicable mystique of their rough-around-the-edges youthful efforts speaks to something different.
9. Let the debate begin over Reed’s Metal Machine Music—artistic overstatement or middle finger to record company? I’ve certainly heard both.
10. On which I’ve written about in these pages and so will not rehash here.
11. Another mea culpa for vast oversimplification and the square-peg-round-hole lumping together such diverse and radically different artists simply because they can conveniently be called “experimental.” It does them a disservice to help me make a point.
12. Though I really really am, I swear.
13. As was the WPA, eventually.
14. You can see this in Tim Robbins’s ham-fisted but ultimately effective piece of contemporary agit-prop (read: anti-capitalist) cinema called The Cradle Will Rock. Don’t get me started on either the disrespectful portrayal of Orson Welles or the deep historical inaccuracies in the script, but overall it stands as 1) an excellent portrait of the time and 2) a really good portrait of the life of Mr. Blitzstein—there should be more movies about composers.
15. I want to mention Tori Amos here because while she did not, until recently, identify as a “classical” composer, her unaccompanied song “Me and a Gun” which recounts her own rape is one of the more hair-raising pieces of contextual gut-punching on record.
16. Yes, I went back. Rabid fan or glutton for terror?
17. Or so the legend has it.
18. Or how many shades of gray she enters into…
19. Though Alex Ross says of this very phenomenon that in doing so Mr. Von Trier “buys into a cheap conception of Wagner as a bombastic nihilist.” I say nothing.
20. Though to be fair, what “advance has not been thought, by someone, to be the death knell of said thing?
21. Not to mention the movie Psycho, which made every atonal sound need its concomitant shower scene. How many times has a composer heard “that could be in a horror movie” about some piece of theirs?
22. Any more than Borges’s Pierre Menard could not, though not for lack of effort, become the author of Don Quixote.
23. Not every piece of art, but every discipline has seeds of revolt within it, or at least certain practitioners do.
24. For lack of a better term.


Daniel Felsenfeld

Daniel Felsenfeld

Composer Daniel Felsenfeld has been commissioned and performed by Simone Dinnerstein, Two Sense, Metropolis Ensemble, American Opera Projects, Great Noise Ensemble Da Capo Chamber Players, ACME, Transit, REDSHIFT, Blair McMillen, Stephanie Mortimore, New Gallery Concert Series at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, BAM, Kennedy Center, Le Poisson Rouge, City Winery, Galapagos Art Space, The Stone, Jordan Hall, Duke University, Stanford University and Harvard University. He has also worked with Jay-Z, The Roots, Keren Ann, and is the court composer for John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders. Raised in the outlying suburbs of Los Angeles, he lives in Brooklyn.