When the Experimental No Longer Seems Like an Experiment

United StatesUnited States Cage, Armleder, Brecht, Marclay, Young, Schwitters, Tone: John Armleder and Christian Marclay (performers). The Kitchen, New York City, 7.4.2017. (KG)

John Cage – 4’33, 0:00
John Armleder – Lecture, Pond, From Here to There I, From Here to There II
George Brecht – Drip Music, Three Brooms Event (Variation for Two Brooms/Mops), Two Colors Event, Flower Event
Christian Marclay – Protest, John’s Tie: For Nam June Paik and John Cage, Turntable Toss, Musical Saw, Safe Music (Unsafe Version)
La Monte Young – Composition #2 (Build a Fire), Composition (For Chairs and Tables)
Kurt Schwitters – Sneeze
Yasunao Tone – Clapping Piece

What’s to be done once we’ve become accustomed to non-music? What is left when the experimental no longer seems like an experiment, when the provocative no longer provokes, when the avant garde starts to seem a bit après?

The Swiss artist/composers John Armleder and Christian Marclay seemed to address that question without entirely answering it over two nights at The Kitchen, wherein an influx of Fluxus was once again among us.

The hourlong medley of outré super hits opened with Cage’s warhorse 4’33”, during which the focus became more about an errant moth flying about than any incidental sound (so polite, perhaps, was the audience). But in short order, the audience found itself sporadically laughing aloud as the pair carried musical instruments from one side of the stage to the other, and emptied a watering can onto the floor in George Brecht’s Drip Music, which was followed rather efficiently by his Three Brooms (Variation For Two Brooms/Mops).

Apparently accidental music did arise, now and again from a brush of piano strings, strums of banjolin and unamplified electric guitar strings, and from the continual rearranging of instruments called for in Armleder’s From Here to There. This bore a striking resemblance to Marclay’s own Sixty-Four Bells and a Bow, which likewise calls on the performer to attempt to move sound-making devices without making a sound. As with 4’33”, the aural focus was on incidental sounds for much of the hour.

As the minutes ticked, however, watching the rituals grew increasingly enjoyable. Eventually, it seemed as if the audience’s amusement had even infected Marclay. He started to smirk during John’s Tie: For Nam June Paik and John Cage (for which the performers cut each other’s neckties with scissors á la Harpo Marx). Soon after, when Armleder seemed to lose his place and the duo quickly conferred (there were no audio cues to keep them on track), Marclay seemed to be stifling laughs before they set their printed itineraries on fire for La Monte Young’s Composition #2 (Build a Fire).

At about the halfway mark, Marclay pulled out a battery-powered turntable and put on, quite softly, what seemed to be a record of folk music from around the world which they proceeded to toss back and forth, the jostle of each catch landing them in a different culture. That was, strictly speaking at least, a little bit of music before they took to blowing their noses (Kurt Schwitters’ Sneeze), before Young’s Composition (For Chairs and Tables). (Not titling it Furniture Music seems a missed opportunity.) Flares were lit and dropped into a clear plastic cylinder (Armleder’s Pond), filling the room with noxious fumes, making it something of a festival for the senses. One flare too many, however, caused the container to crack, leading Marclay to a reprise of Brecht’s mop. At about the 45-minute mark, a pair of rung bells may have been the first “intentional,” “musical” sounds, and Yasunao Tone’s Clapping Piece perhaps the second, before a return to the pianos for Cage’s 0:00. Music, or non-music, may never have sounded better.

Still, nothing was shocking. Nothing likely caused the rethinking of anything. The only real challenge was how to end a concert of so little content. The performers shook hands, cueing the audience to applaud, in perhaps an encore of Mr. Tone’s clapping opus.

Kurt Gottschalk

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