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The first comprehensive study about the history of piano destructions. For information see Reimer Verlag

Piano Activities im Wiesbadener Kunstmuseum, 1962.
Bericht des Hessischen Rundfunks mit George
Maciunas, Dick Higgins, Wolf Vostell, Ben Patterson,
Emmett Williams und Alison Knowles.

Sensational uncovered Source of Fluxus Movement History

Until recently tape-recordings of concerts from the legendary International Festival of the Newest Music which took place in Wiesbaden in 1962 were thoroughly unknown. This Festival-– the first public event described as Fluxus – was known primarily through pictures, descriptions by the protagonists, and a short television report by the Hessische Rundfunk.

In 2011 a recorded tape was found in the archives of Kuniharu Akiyama, the Japanese musicologist and poet. On them are two versions of Philip Corner’s Piano Activities, which was performed on various evenings of the festival in September 1962 in the Wiesbaden Art Museum. The first of these is identical to one in the archive of Vytautis Landsbergis, musicologist and former president of Lithuania, found by Petra Stegmann and publicly presented for the first time in 2012 in the exhibit The Crazies are on the Loose … FLUXUS EVENTS IN EUROPE 1962–1977.

Maciunas had sent tapes to Landsbergis, his friend from youth, and probably also to Akiyama who Maciunas declared the Fluxus representative for Japan in 1965. The Akiyama archive versions were sent from Japan to the composer Philip Corner in Italy, from where he sent me the digital version. Both recordings are here presented, with the explicit authorization of the composer. The significance of these recordings will be explained in the following text.
(Gunnar Schmidt)

Piano Activities

After the concerts of the International Festival of the Newest Music took place in the Wiesbaden Art Museum on some September weekends organized by George Maciunas, there followed a noticeable historicizing of the concert and performance series. The first poster[1] of presentations named Fluxus announced a multiplicity of pieces, of which only one has arrived at a noteworthy notoriety, Philip Corner’s Piano Activities. In 1962 it was announced in a somewhat clumsy translation as Klavier Tätigkeiten. George Maciunas even told an anecdote only about this piece in a radio conversation a few months before his death in 1977, omitting any general description of the overall conception behind this concert series.[2] According to a statement by Maciunas, the program had merely a strategy of promotion which should bring the Fluxus idea and future Fluxus productions to an as-yet uninformed public.[3] In retrospect it is hardly possible to reconstruct the sequence of the actual events[4] What is sure is that the program poster, often reproduced, had little to do with the real performances. A number of proposed pieces were not played as Frederic Rzewski did not make the trip. [5] And it can no longer be explained what the connection was between performances of modern piano and electronic music, and the Fluxus pieces, in part destructive and far from music. According to Tomas Schmit, “a gigantic mixture was served up of the awfully conventional (modernistic piano music and the like) and what was important (a lot of first performances, at least European or German, by Brecht, La Monte, Emmett, etc).”[6] Two years after the festival Dick Higgins gave a disparaging judgment of the “very conventional” compositions by Welin, Stockhausen, or Feldman as “the most harmless.”[7] From this superficial characterization it nevertheless became clear that there was a break between the modernists and the Fluxus avant-guardians, which did not find its last significant expression in the performance of Piano Activities. Hiding behind the title, piano-destruction implications might be intuited in this, the most well-known of the 1960s destruction manifestations. The composition was merely announced on the poster for the first evening, but was then “done” on several evenings [8] – you could even say “done in” –, since this time the instrument had to be completely “done away with”. This action indissolubly binds the denomination Fluxus to it, although it should not be seen as the plaything of a “destruction art” at the heart of some convivial anti-art movement. It might be taken as a fact that this narrowing of perspective did find favor with the television reporting broadcast by the Hessische Rundfunk, in which a few minutes of the piano action was shown. A voice-over commentary, which quoted from a poem by the 19 th  century German poet Wilhelm Busch, which satirizes a piano virtuoso, imbued the scene with an ironic tone.[9] The attention of the media was rather unusual for that time, and was helpful for a more-than-regional diffusion. “The noise was heard around the world”, as Emmett Williams wrote. [10] But that it was turned into a Fluxus cliché in the wake of the piano destruction cannot be traced back to the journalistic comments. Rather, it does have status within a destructive culture. Before the effects of the assault pass away, the artistic position of the action should be discussed further.

The valuation by Owen Smith should be followed, which describes the Wiesbaden performances as a process of clarification for the group of Fluxus artists. [11] Ben Patterson confirms this evaluation when he says that only after the Wiesbaden presentations was a group formed.[12] Not least, the necessity for improvisation and short-term seeking out of new performance opportunities was the cause of more and more space being taken up by the comical and senseless works. According to the description given by Dick Higgins in 1964, the concerts were pure carnival, where eggs and cakes were thrown, toys and light bulbs smashed, and boring “anti-music” played. [13] The reaction of the public, not always massively present in the Wiesbaden Museum, varied according to Dick Higgins “from explosive (we had two riots) to docile and indifferent to sympathetic.” [14] Reading the reaction of the regional press at that time one does not get the same impression as that described by the artists (“Wiesbaden was shocked.”[15] ) and by Fluxus historians. [16] In spite of outraged outcries from the culturally conservative side, ironic but friendly commentaries were dominant, and did not keep quiet about the public’s “amusement” by this “great fun”. We read in the Allgemeine Zeitung “What is that about? Was it supposed to shock? In that case its purpose failed since it was an obvious lighthearted success.”[17] Bazon Brock took a decidedly critical stance, writing of himself as a “friend of the participants”. He expressed his boredom by what he saw and remarked, 

that the performers had obviously just as vague an idea of what they really wanted to demonstrate. Otherwise would it not be possible to explain that, for example, someone gently hit the legs of the piano with little hammers or loosened the strings with screwdrivers, instead of holding up this new proven concert grand with a cleverly circular saw which then would cut the creature through in the right direction. By this it seemed that all the participants knew that in these days bare protests and dull provocations will no longer set right what is wrong with us.[18]

Therefore, one need not necessarily consider the demonstration of destruction decisive for the artistic paradigm change; aggressive intention is more important. In the case of Piano Activities the aim was to question the unity of musical instrument and conventional playing techniques. It is incontrovertible that on the basis of this intention the performance possessed a central propaganda value; with it –a paradox formulated – the anti-art art intentions of Fluxus can be effectively realized. By dramatically putting the precious music instrument in the center of the scene, a connection to music was still possible, a connection which was suspended at the same time. It has often been emphasized that Fluxus came out of a music context, whereby the sound events nevertheless no longer could unequivocally be defined as music. However, the public at the time experienced a seemingly infantile redefinition of what could be taken for music. To work over a piano with saws, hammers, drills, stones, and kitchen utensils could hardly be taken as anything other than an attack on sensitive artistry. (repro 39) “Just like children do it”, one writer wrote about the behavior of the fluxists.[19] This corresponded thoroughly with Maciunas’ intentions, but this distinction is to be raised, that his position was not binding on all participants. For example, Ben Patterson’s attitude was that it was a question of the musicalization of noisy sounds, that he found anticipated by Edgard Varèse. For him the performance as destruction was nothing more than an incidental sideshow. [20] The possibilities of interpretation between music and anti-music are not only an expression of purely artistic revolution around 1960, but have an implied meaning for the status of actions within the semantics of culture – as will be soon made evident. But what was to be seen and heard? Insofar as the film, photograph, and text documents leave behind a reliable impression, the players fulfilled their roles with great seriousness. To be sure those taking part – George Maciunas, Emmett Williams, Wolf Vostell, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins, Benjamin Patterson, and Alison Knowles – circled around the piano like a mob, in order to work it over rather than to play on it, but in contrast to earlier manifestations of destructiveness, in this entering into action there was not felt even a trace of the passionate or the enraged. Although habitually serious musicians, they acted in a totally frivolous manner. In a text about this Dick Higgins pointed out that the professional performance behavior well accorded with the piano’s history. Let this “symbolic manner” of musical action be combined with inappropriate, inartistic situations, and a tension is exuded which invites to gaiety.[21] It was fully in this spirit that the piece was perceived by a part of the public and by critics: “Their program became allthemore gleeful the more assiduously they performed their concert pieces.” This anti-attitude was also expressed in a letter from George Maciunas to La Monte Young in which he wrote:

At the end we did Corner's Piano Activities not according to his instructions since we systematically destroyed a piano which I bought for $5 and had to have it all cut up to throw it away, otherwise we would have had to pay movers, a very practical composition, but German sentiments about this instrument of Chopin were hurt and they made a row about it.[22]

Such provocatively intended pragmatism was typical for Maciunas and was part of a strategy of the anti-elitist point of view. It is not to be wondered that precisely artists, as guardians of the sublime, would have to keep away from such goings-on. Even the composer announced his explicitly critical attitude though he had not been present. When Philip Corner learned about the destruction he was at first shocked.[23] As he affirmed in a letter to Maciunas, the Fluxus art procedure corresponded neither to the instructions nor the spirit of the score. It seemed that the performers did not know the score but acted only according to the directions from chairman Maciunas.[24] The composer himself has remarked that what was performed was another piece.[25] Maciunas had turned a completely serious musical intention into a joke. Corner on the other hand wanted to make something in the tradition of John Cage, to shape something coherent out of the chaotic reservoir of sounds that he saw buried in the instrument. The score consists of a set of performance instructions – for example, scratching on the strings, rubbing, and hitting –, directions as to the preparation of the piano as well as how one could relate to the other performers: supporting, undermining, transforming the kinds of action.[26] By these measures he wanted to broaden the field of possibilities for freedom in performance. In spite of this contempt for the composer’s intentions, the destructiveness can be justified. The performers by their exaggeration brought out a potential that the composer had not suspected. A part of the hidden history of the performance is that Corner did not take refuge in a wounded rejection, but rather noted a few reflections after the fact and then acted upon them. It is noteworthy that Corner was of two minds about his reappraisal. On the one hand he rejected the destruction; and this not only because it did not correspond to his conception,but because in his opinion it was a risky operation in a world so full of destructiveness: „This catharsis will not save us from aggressions in the larger world – a dangerous play.“ Corner’s intention was to become aware of an energy which has an underground connection to unhealthy disturbances which can only inadequately be overcome with anti-art humor. On the other hand he was capable of noticing the æsthetic side of the experience and value the sensitivity of the performers. „In performance terms: these sensitive and responsible people doing this thing in the way it was to be done. Heard the record. Very Good (it sounded).“[27] A prepared listener to an unusual acoustic artwork can recognize that the disruption gives an opening to the previously unheard-of. The musicologist Vytautas Landsbergis had received a tape with recording of Piano Activities from his friend George Maciunas and even in 2007 commented on the presentation admiringly: “What you can hear on the tape was really impressive. Very surprising, extraordinary.”[28] Two evenings from the Wiesbaden performances are preserved on the tapes, which until now have been unavailable to Fluxus researchers.[29] One take must have been made at the beginning of the concert series because the piano is still intact and sounding, even if out-of-tune. This piece is about 6 ½ minutes long and begins with a cluster played in the low register. There follow conventionally played passages from Paik, in part reminding of impressionist piano music, interrupted by single notes and chords, sometimes soft and sometimes percussive.[30] These traditional sounds are accompanied by brutal noises such as splintering wood, scratching, tearing, crushing, rubbing, hammering, that sound at times like a bomb assault was happening, and sometimes more like an unobtrusive clattering. As it continues, improvisation makes itself heard, as the players produce the most refined dynamics, relate to each other, create collective noise landscapes, and allow single sounds – as an example, the motor murmur of a drill which evokes a keyboard chord in answer. At one time an audience member begins to sing the Christmas carol “O Come All Ye Faithful”, meant as an ironic commentary, which makes the public laugh; an “Ah!” outcry is to be heard, and all comes to an end withan applause of approval. The mix-up of piano playing, piano manipulation and destruction produced in the listeners to nothing more than some good fun. This would never have taken place if the destruction had been executed only for destruction’s sake.

The second recording, a brisk four minutes, is of a completely different character. Freed from the traditionalistic accompaniment this version consists of practically nothing else than hefty hammering, sawing, rattling, and clattering. As if an industrious artisans’ guild were at work, there is hardly to be noted any interaction between the players or a differentiated sounding. As a historical sound document this recording is to be sure most expressive, since the audience has its share in the production of the overall impression: This public, probably predominantly young, is exceptionally euphoric; throughout the whole piece they talked it up, shouted out loud to spur each other on, laughed, and broke in with applause. The scene made one think of rock and roll or hot jazz events. Not only was the tendency of Fluxus to orient itself towards anarcho -populist behavior made clear, it was also understandable why the critics of that time principally recognized the anti-music aspects. The two versions intensify the question whether Piano Activities was, finally, music; or whether it corresponded to a straight-ahead anti-art Fluxus line. There is no normative decision possible about this. Philip Corner’s insistence seems more important, that there is a split between the experience of theatrical destructiveness and æsthetical listening impressions.

From: Gunnar Schmidt: Klavierzerstörungen in Kunst und Popkultur, Berlin: Reimer 2012. Translation from the German: Philip Corner.

[1] René Block, Gabriele Knapstein: Eine lange Geschichte mit vielen Knoten. Fluxus in Deutschland 1962–1994, Stuttgart 1995, s.p.

[2] George Maciunas,
KRAB Radio Broadcast
Seattle, Washington
September 1977, Clip 3. In: http://www.fluxus.org/FLUXLIST/maciunas/ (2012).

[3] Emmett Williams: My Life in Flux – and Vice Versa, Stuttgart 1991, p. 30.

[4] An attempt to reconstruct the events in 1962 in Stefan Fricke: Klangästhetik des Superlativs. Die Werke des ersten Fluxus-Festivals in Wiesbaden 1962. In: Alexander Klar (ed.): Fluxus at 50, Bielefeld 2012, p. 44–81.

[5] Personal communication with Ben Patterson on Oct 8, 2011.

[6] Tomas Schmit quoted by Ute Berger, Michael Berger: Mr. Fluxus. Ein Gemeinschafts-porträt von George Maciunas 1923–1978, Wiesbaden 1996, p. 51.

[7] Dick Higgins: Postface, New York, Nice, Cologne 1964, p. 44.

[8] It can be taken for granted that it took five performances to destroy the piano – although Ben Patterson remembers only one performance and Emmett Williams gave contradictory informations: he communicated five performances to Philip Corner but writes about 14 events in a text from 1982: Emmettt Williams: Heimkehr oder Die Nicht-Bewegung, die sich einfach immer weiterbewegt. In: René Block (Hg.): 1962 Wiesbaden Fluxus 1982. Eine kleine Geschichte von Fluxus in drei Teilen, Wiesbaden 1983, p. 312.

[9] Als Neuzusammenschnitt zu finden auf Michael Klant (ed.): Kunst in Bewegung. Aktion, Kinetik, DVD, Neue Medien, Ostfildern-Ruit 2004.

[10] Emmett Williams: A Flexible History of Fluxus Facts and Fictions, London, Bangkok 2006, p. 32.

[11] Owen Smith: Developing a Fluxable Forum. Early Performance and Publishing. In: Ken Friedman (ed.): The Fluxus Reader, New York 1998, p. 7ff.

[12] Personal communication with Ben Patterson on Oct 8, 2011.

[13] Higgins: Postface, S. 69 (see footnote 7).

[14] Ibid., S. 70.

[15] Maciunas: KRAB (see footnote 2).

[16] Thomas Kellein: Der Traum von Fluxus, Köln 2007, p. 66.

[17] Musik und Antimusik. In: Allgemeine Zeitung,Sept 3, 1962 p. 13. Also see the article Wiesbadener Kurier vom Sep 4./11./12., 1962.

[18] Bazon Brock: Die Kunst hat sich verweltlicht. Happening-Weekends in Wiesbaden [1962]. In: http://www.bazonbrock.de/werke/detail/?id=523 (2012).

[19] Das Stemmeisen im Resonanzkasten. In: Wiesbadener Kurier, Sept 4, 1962, p. 6.

[20] Personal communication with Ben Patterson on Oct 8, 2011.

[21] Higgins: Postface, p. 24 (see footnote 7).

[22] Emmett Williams, Ann Noel (eds.): Mr. Fluxus. A Collective Portrait of George Maciunas. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997, p. 53.

[23] See the statement in the documentary film by Lars Movin (Reg.): The Misfits. 30 Years of Fluxus, 1993.

[24] This is confirmed by Emmett Williams and Ben Patterson in Berger p.55 (see footnote 6) Philip Corner indicates that he gave the score to Dick Higgins. (Personal communication with Philip Corner on April 10, 2011). At any rate neither Maciunas nor Higgins brought the score to Germany and they forgot what was exactly written down. See the letter from Higgins to Corner in: Philip Corner: FLUXstuff, Vol II, Lebanon, New Haven n.d., p. 520.

[25] „Let‘s simply say they did another piece.“ Philip Corner: untitled. In: H[anns] Sohm: Happening & Fluxus, Koelnischer Kunstverein 1970, s.p.

[26] The score is printed in: Philip Corner: Piano Activities. In: Benjamin Patterson, Philip Corner, Alison Knowles, Tomas Schmit: The Four Suits, New York, Paris, Cologne 1965, p. 166–168.

[27] Corner (see footnote 25).

[28] Petra Stegmann: Fluxus in Vilnius. An interview with Vytautas Landsbergis. In: http://www.mxl.lt/en/classical/info/691 (2012).

[29] I thank Petra Stegmann (Potsdam) and Philip Corner (Reggio Emilia) who made the recordings available to me.

[30] Dick Higgins wrote in a letter to Philip Corner: „Paik oddly enough played the keyboard“ (see footnote 25). In fact the score provides FOR this possibility: „Keyboard Player plays in the orthodox manner, or another manner appropriate or possible“. In: Corner: Piano Acitvities, S. 166 (see footnote 27). Nevertheless Corner expressed his displeasure with Paik’s conventional way of playing: „I do not like it. I HATE THAT KEYBOARD NOODLING FROM PAIK“. (Personal communication from Philip Corner  July 27, 2011 and April, 23, 2012)