Stolen Symphony: Fluxus & Neofluxus, Part 1

Saturday 30 December 2023

There’s always something horrible about Fluxus anthologies. They inevitably end up less than the sum of their parts; a motley collection of dusty, mismatched relics from a brief moment of excitement sixty years ago. As pure audio, shorn of performance context, they frequently make for very dry listening, made worse by a threadbare jokeyness that in retrospect sounds self-satisfied. If that wasn’t bad enough, the listener then starts to grouse that some of the selections aren’t Fluxusy enough. It’s a terrible position to be in and it may well be part of the point, given the Fluxus tendency to rub one’s nose in tedium, but in this current age of podcasts the concept of an information wasteland is now a daily reality and too many Fluxus pieces which attempted to problematise the situation somehow seem left behind, more quaint than prophetic.

Having said all that, the Sub Rosa anthology Stolen Symphony: Fluxus & Neofluxus, Part 1 manages to justify itself through describing the organic process by which this set of pieces grew into its present state, through members of the Opening Performance Orchestra in Ostrava meeting and being introduced to an ever-widening circle of Fluxus and Fluxus-adjacent artists. While attempting to be comprehensive, it nevertheless excuses its omissions and eccentricities through the personal artistic connections that went into making it. A number of the composers wrote new pieces for the occasion and who can turn that down? Several pieces by Milan Knížák appear, albeit in excerpts; apart from these there appear to be no other examples of the dreaded excerptitis. Most of the pieces are short: thirty pieces in a little over 150 minutes, of which only eleven exceed five minutes and, of those, just two stretch past ten minutes into the twenty-plus range.

One of the long tracks is by the Opening Performance Orchestra themselves. These regular collaborators with Knížák produce the title work, a typically dense collage of indiscriminately pillaged sounds that’s more immediately enjoyable than their Cage-inspired Chess Show because of its casual messiness. Speaking of John Cage, the anthology gets off to a bad start by listing his 0’00” as track 0 with a timing of 0’00”, accompanied in the booklet by a badly cropped reproduction of the score and a commentary by Petr Kotík indicating that he really doesn’t get what the piece is about. Apart from this stumble, the booklet is mostly above average with 72 pages of supporting essays and memoirs, while the album immediately lifts with some strikingly lively performances, perhaps uncharacterisically so in the case of Agnese Toniutti’s piano interpretation of La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #15 to Richard Huelsenbeck. Werner Durand provides overdubbed winds on a pair of Henning Christiansen’s feral folk compositions from mid 1980s. Examples of early 1960s “action pieces” by the frequently overlooked Fluxus Musicians Giuseppe Chiari are presented by cellist Deborah Walker and pianist Luciano Chessa. This is all starting to seem better than I first thought it was.

Playful, even whimsical pieces are interleaved with occasional moments of stark rigidity, which thus regain some potency as a disruptive, reorientating experience. The overall looseness is a welcome contrast to the stuffiness which can befall preserved Fluxus. Part of this is due to the studied disregard for assigning everything to a strict period of history, as here early 60s works by Young, Chiari, Yasunao Tone and others are mixed in amongst new pieces by Philip Corner and Bengt af Klintberg, as well as pieces from in between such as Toniutti’s restless performance of Dick Higgins’ hyperactive Emmett William’s Ear from 1977. Toniutti and Miroslav Beinhauer each play a piano piece by Fluxus mainstay Mieko Shiomi, but these are charming later works from 1990 and 2009, respectively. Terry Riley is represented by the austere Ear Piece from 1962 and a new piece for broken piano, written in his more characteristically insouciant style. The broken piano appears elsewhere, as another instigation behind this whole collection.

There are items of sound poetry and extended vocal works which seem to fall outside of the Fluxus remit (Sten Hanson? Dieter Schnebel?), besides some but not all of the usual suspects. Pianist Nicolas Horvath has the funniest track, striking an F-sharp over B precisely once as his sole contribution to this volume. Several pieces are culled from Toniutti’s album of Philip Corner compositions, including a suitably jagged solo rendition of the recent Small Pieces of a Fluxus Reality. I’ll have more stuff about Corner in the new year – a whole lot more. While the musicians and editors try their best to qualify and expand upon the label, this collection really does work rather well if you ignore the selling point of the F-word and treat Fluxus more as they do, an element of obscure influence over a somewhat neglected body of music created over many years into the present.

A live concert

Monday 31 May 2021

The crowd was small and well-spaced, by necessity. After fifteen months without socialising, it looked like I wasn’t the only one who was both a bit excited and a bit anxious at once, which made for a subdued audience: in good spirits but gentle, like a recuperating patient. I was back at Cafe Oto hearing Apartment House play live again, like old times.

Having just said that the ensemble had amassed a formidable repertoire of new and rediscovered music, the evening’s programme emphasised the point with its unusual shape and even bolder than usual choice of pieces. First half was a premiere by a guy I’ve never heard of. Dead Creek Organum by Henry Birdsey (the “Vermontian rust-drone man” it says here) is half an hour of densely-packed microtonal chords, roughly hewn into long, close-fitting spans. Tonight’s full ensemble played, string quartet (Gordon MacKay and Mira Benjamin, violins; Bridget Carey, viola; Anton Lukoszevieze, cello) modulated by pedal tones from an electric organ (Kerry Yong on various keyboards). For the audience, it was acclimatisation through immersion, retuning to heightened musical sensibilities.

The second half commenced with Yong playing Adelaide composer/pianist Stephen Whittington’s compressed but capricious take on Strawberry Fields as an incongruous introduction to several graphic scores, focusing on the overlooked and unexpected. Apartment House have performed selections from Louise Bourgeois’ Insomnia Drawings on other occasions, having noticed that these artworks drawn on music paper are “eminently performable”. With strings and string piano combining thin, raspy sounds, they take on an appropriately disturbing but hazy sonic form. Two Impulses by the Slovak Milan Adamčiak was more densely woven, with a score that intersected Adamčiak’s interests in art, music and visual poetry.

Personally, the most fascinating piece was Roland Kayn’s Inerziali. Kayn’s best known for his electronic, cybernetic works (or should be known – a Bandcamp page is dedicated to mastering and releasing a large backlog of mostly unheard pieces) but this early piece revealed his compositional roots in serialism, aleatory methods and stochastic composition. Inerziali is an open score of unspecified but finely organised events and combinations. Apartment House produced a taut, rapid interplay of prepared instrument sounds, using exacting means to produce complex sounds far beyond the usual consideration of pitch relationships. It’s an intriguing insight when hearing his later works, which build grand, forceful impressions from the curation of intricate details.

To finish, Milan Knižak’s Broken Music presented itself as a kind of musical antimatter. Like his negotiably playable collaged records, the score is fragments of defaced and collaged scores, which Apartment House played amongst recordings of the records. The matter here is as much in the gaps and the breaks, audible faultlines where the content has been lost, literally skipping from one anonymised fragment to the next. Crucially, unlike most collage, anything coherently recognisable is shredded, rendering typical considerations of content and taxonomy useless. You’re left with undifferentiated musical protoplasm, new to our ears because it’s unrecognisable. The ensemble boldly dedicated itself to alternating scratches and atomised half-gestures to produce something which forces effort from the audience to even hear it, in a way that registers. It’s a good way to start over.