Book ReviewsNo. 92, Fall 2011

Review of Benjamin Piekut. 2011. Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press

Abstract

This is an original and important book, one that will pique the interest not only of an eager band of twentieth-century music historians, but also of scholars throughout the humanities. Piekut’s is one of those hard-to-pin-down projects, cutting across the boundaries that separate music history, ethnomusicology, and broader humanistic study. As a history of the nearly-present, or still-living past – much of the book’s material stems from interviews conducted between 2004 and 2009-“ethnography” is probably the best summary term. Call it what you will, the approach here is impressive in its scope, providing a social and political history as well as a musical one. Most commendable is the manner in which the author has wrestled with so many disparate sources (ranging from the anecdotal to the archival) to produce a concise and focused account, but one that also manages to retain some of the messiness of his subject. Four chapters tell stories of avant-garde music making, each loosely connected by time and place: a performance of John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalisby the New York Philharmonic; Henry Flynt’s encounter with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Originale; the establishment of the Jazz Composers Guild; Charlotte Moorman’s performance of Cage’s 26′ 1.1499″ for a String Player. All are presented within the context of New York City in 1964. An epilogue shifts to Ann Arbor, where possible resonances between the performance styles of Robert Ashley and James Osterberg (Iggy Pop to you and me) are explored. Of the many themes, two stand out: conflict and failure. Members of the avant -garde repeatedly find themselves at loggerheads with various counter forces. Cage wars with the traditionalism of Leonard Bernstein and the Philharmonic; Flynt, regarding Stockhausen as a mouthpiece for capitalism and “old” Europe, pickets Judson Hall with his group, Action Against Cultural Imperialism (AACI); disagreeing about (among other things) racial politics, the Jazz Composers Guild soon disintegrates; Cage lambasts Moorman for “murdering” his piece. Such conflict has in the past often been seen as the stuff of avant-garde legend, assuring entry into the pantheon of renegade artists; but the situations described here are complicated by the fact that much of the antagonism arose between artists with similar creative aims. Piekut shows an avant-garde not only battling against conservative institutions and unadventurous publics, but one that is fractured and at odds with itself. To give just one example: having distinguished between the free jazz movement and the “European American scene downtown;’ he writes that “The key task for a fresh appraisal of 1960s experimentalism is to register the ambivalence of the connections between these two avant-gardes, the ways in which these communities were both connected to, and separated from, each other in powerful ways”