Skyscraper Magazine » Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits
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Benjamin Piekut
EXPERIMENTALISM OTHERWISE
University of California Press
Format: Hardcover / Paperback / eBook
Release Date: April 4, 2011
By Dave Cantor June 22, 2011

Organizing the history of any music winds up being a Sisyphean task. Regardless of research, supporting evidence, and a wealth of first hand interviews, there’s bound to be dissent regarding any author’s supreme thesis. Benjamin Piekut, who obtained an advanced degree in musicology from Columbia University after studying music composition with the likes of Pauline Oliveros, attempts to hem up New York’s musical avant-garde dating back to the 1950s, when John Cage still seemed like an exciting guy to listen to. The composer’s work has always been more thoughtful than listenable, and Piekut attempts to get at how players involved in performing Cage’s work, specifically the New York Philharmonic as led by Leonard Bernstein, related to a handful of surprisingly soldered together concepts. Using 1964 as its scaffolding, Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits crafts a surprisingly strong narrative of a few specific events, including Cage’s problematic relationship with established pools of orchestral players, to distil a significant epoch in American music. Tossing in figures like Bill Dixon, Henry Flynt, and Charlotte Moorman initially gives this new study the appearance of numerous previous histories, but rounding it all out with Iggy Pop, The Stooges, and Ann Arbor’s avant-rock scene broadens the scope of Piekut’s investigation.

Apart from disabusing the music-geek of some incorrect perceptions regarding Flynt’s work – which winds up being the most engaging portion of the book – it is revelatory how Piekut takes into account political, philosophical, and musical concerns, explaining the banjoist’s relation to La Monte Young and a few Velvets. Following the North Carolina native to the Ivy League, back to the South, and then into civil rights issues creates a surprisingly three-dimensional character in less than a 50-page span.

Examining Cage and Flynt in terms other than those defined simply through music makes for interesting reading, but furthers the white-male dominated history of just about every discipline. Getting into the New Music as initially realized by players associated with jazz takes Piekut into difficult territory, though. White guys dissecting black nationalism rings hollowly for the most part. Saving this writer from missteps is the interesting perspective on what immediately made the Jazz Composers Guild an untenable collective; the various perspectives on race within the group, comprising Paul Bley, his wife Carla, and a few other white folks. Differentiating between white academic color-blindness and a Marcus Garvey styled black separatism turned an interesting corner. And while Carla Bley is portrayed as a creative and valiant figure in the music, Piekut’s evaluation of Charlotte Moorman becomes difficult.

Whether or not the author enjoys Moorman’s work – with or without Naim Jun Paik as collaborator – shouldn’t be available in an academic work of this nature. And while Moorman clearly troubled Cage when performing his compositions, Piekut doesn’t relay anything too complementary about a performer who, in some ways, was a rigorous feminist. Granted, Piekut’s perspective on the liberated women deepening trenches of gender divides arrives as a commendable concept. His clear distaste for Moorman, her cello, and an apparent inability to render Cage’s compositions in reputable fashion unfortunately shuffles close to gender bias.

With all the intriguing sussing out of the avant-garde’s difficulty wrangling a blue collar audience, the political bit falls away by the time readers arrive in Ann Arbor to witness the Stooges’ emergence in the wake of the ONCE Festival. Iggy Pop may not have ever appeared so intelligent in print. Even if that wasn’t the case, how many other screeds on modern composition end in a discussion of “I Wanna Be Your Dog?”

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