As I write these first words about George Brecht’s half-a century old Water Yam project I am listening through Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning, and for the first time since accepting Patrick and Sarah’s invitation to contextualize their Compost & Height round up of current realizations of Brecht’s event-cards, I feel completely overwhelmed with the possible links and ligature between Brecht’s Fluxus work, Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra, and the current field of composers and improvisers contributing over the next eight months to this project. This is perhaps the greatest realization I experience when undertaking a new writing project – the sense of what Buddhist phenomenology calls inter-being, the connectedness and copula of things that were thought to be disparate and discrete, until we turn our attention to them with a long, loving gaze. All I do is bring things into evidence, but they’re already there, Brecht said.
Contemplating works created as ephemera, improvised and offered warts-and-all, is itself paradoxical, and engages the listener, as do the best of the location recordings that are for me the marrow of Compost & Height, in bringing a work into evidence. Duchamp talked of the triangle involved in the relationship between the event-maker [in the first batch of submissions here the Water Yam events comprise sound, film, text and photography], the spectator, and the work realized in this encounter. Brecht took copious notes when he attended Cage’s classes at the New School in 1959, and this phrase is found in a notebook – to de- automatize our perceptions, a clunky way of saying pay attention to everyday objects and actions and you realize what music is possible when you start from scratch. The Water Yam project inveighs against our passivity as spectators, as well as against the manufacturing of virtuosity, significance, and Art. Henry Flynt, articulating the cooling of his initial enthusiasm for the Water Yam concept, called it an art of insignificant and silly gestures, like that was a bad thing. There are po- faced avant-enthusiasts today chagrined with the antics of artists like Takahiro Kawaguchi and Taku Unami, whose performances at the Amplify 2011 concert series were as Fluxus in spirit as anything presented 50 years ago by their antecedents LaMonte Young, Yoko Ono or Alison Knowles.
So that goes to my passing sense of engulfment and overwhelm, and to the wondrous flood-gates Patrick and Sarah have opened here with their invitation to contributors to reconsider and respond to the Water Yam’s succinct bullet points, from which any one of us might realize their hinted-at fecundity in our own way. Consider opposing it, supporting it, ignoring it, changing your mind, Brecht urged his readers in 1964; that’s the commission here, and already contributors from around the world are having a go at it.
To hold my mat against the tide of overwhelm, I will set aside the subject of my current listening, Cardew’s in some respects improbably prescient work The Great Learning, noting only a few of the more overt links to Brecht’s Water Yam event- cards:
Brecht cooked the seeds that became the Water Yam project sitting in Cage’s New School classes in 1958 [he wasn’t alone, fellow travelers performing in events at the related-milieu, the Chamber Street Series, at Yoko Ono’s loft, included Terry Jennings, LaMonte Young, Toshi Ichinayagi, the sour-puss Henry Flynt, et al.]; a decade later, Cardew’s classes, attended by youngsters Howard Skempton, Chris Hobbes, and others served as a motive force for developments like the AMM, the Scratch Orchestra, and ancillary branches of innovators like Brian Eno and Gavin Bryars. The Scratch Orchestra also employed event-cards, as well as the epic graphic scores Treatise and The Great Learning. When Brecht visited London in 1968, shortly before stating he was, for all practical purposes, out of Fluxus, he felt very close to Cardew and John Tilbury, finding an affinity with their ideas about music. Touched by his propinquity to Brecht, the next year Cardew and the Scratch Orchestra performed his Realization of The Journey of The Isle of Wight Westwards By Iceberg To Tokyo Bay, one in a series of pieces realizing Brecht’s gleeful, anarchisitic concept of moving geographic boundary lines around the globe, confounding nationalism and mashing cultures. Both the Water Yam events and the Scratch Orchestra were relatively short-lived and seldom documented, but have been significantly influential on experimental music. Gavin Bryars, to note only one example, links both worlds, as he was hugely influenced by both Cage and Cardew, and used the Water Yam cards when teaching music classes at Portsmouth in the 70’s. About the event-cards, Bryars noted that they provide those using them with
The capacity to be stimulated by visual and textual notation, and at the same time, initially empty of their own gestures , clichés, bag of tricks, default habits, to realize the score.
What contributor found here at Compost & Height in May 2012 doesn’t endorse at least some of those aspirations in their own practice?
Lastly, before allowing the reverent, untrained vocals of Paragraph Seven of The Great Learning to evaporate in the spring air, I’ll note that Cardew and Brecht were very much taken up with a practice near and dear to our hosts Patrick and Sarah, as well as to many of the gifted contributors to these pages over the past several years; that is the business of environmental events, of taking the music to the fields and open air, and to the most congested, noise-saturated capitals, to any place and every place. Now we arrive at a juncture in which Manfred Werder, Toshiya Tsunoda, Dominic Lash and Michael Pisaro, to name only a few, might be regarded as current practitioners of some of the elements those motive forces considered crucial to liberating sound from its moorings to circumscribed theories, venues and audiences. This lineage and linkage can be distilled to at least one Brechtian concept, what he called spiritual virtuosity. This in no way, lest it not be clear by simply reading the insignificant and silly event-cards, or listening to Cardew’s massed amateurs realizing his Confucian score, connotes religion or mysticism-on the contrary, it refers, I think, to a quality that is other than a technical or conceptual virtuosity, to the capacity to be attentive to the most quotidian realities, to the ready-mades littering our daily lives, to the dimensions of perfectly ordinary reality from which new music springs.
Whether you think that concert halls, theaters, and art galleries are the natural places to present music, performances, and objects, Brecht wrote, or find these places mummifying, preferring streets, homes, and railway stations, or do not find it useful to distinguish between these two aspects of the world theater, there is someone associated with Fluxus who agrees with you.
In agreement are the current generation of Wandelweiser composers, noise musicians, location recording practitioners, and everyone responding here to the Water Yam project.
When I was 15, I spent every available minute I could mange with my brother-in- law, a drummer in a rock band who was alert to the infiltration of avant-garde music into our shared world of late-60s rock albums. We huddled over the White Album’s Revolution #9, straining to discern sounds and signals lost to us by dint of our crappy record players. My brother-in-law was particularly obsessed with everything Lennon-related, and somehow scored first edition copies of Lennon’s absurdist writings, A Spaniard In The Works. One day he came up with a copy of Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, published the year he and I planted ourselves in the Yoko- is-a-crucial-factor-in-Lennon’s-development camp, against Ono’s frankly racist and sophomoric detractors. I recall nothing about that first encounter with the, depending on your perspective, either pith or nonsensical prose of that book, except that it threw a wrench in the gears of what I accepted, conceptually, as art. That was my first encounter with Water Yam cards, by any other name, and I would return to those pages over time, finding them alternately precious and fraudulent [!], or reading like a juicy zen concentrate.
Some context for the event-cards: inspired, as I said, by Brecht’s classes with Cage, the cards were, from 1959-1962, focused on events to be performed. In late 1962-1963, they were suggestions/guidelines for temporary assemblages, growing ever more personal, interior and abstract [including inner events, like, say, 4’33”]. Cage, unsurprisingly, cajoled that they be even more distilled, pared down to reduce the performer’s control almost entirely. Brecht was striving for an impermanent event, non-repeatable, unconcretized, and seldom documented.
This brings us to a sharp contrast with the 2012 platform here, digitalized realizations made to last. Initially the Water Yam cards were disseminated via post cards in the NYC area, conceived by Brecht as inexpensive and mass-produced, with elements of language art, musical cues, and pointers to internal events. Using language that might describe haiku, Brecht said they were a record of a more or less momentary state [some of Werder’s recent work comes to mind]. Like the ready-mades of visual art, the cards direct our attention to using everyday objects to make an event – analogies with much of the current music being made from cracked and hacked objects is obvious.
Brecht and the Fluxus crew had fun naming the iterations of their work – 40 years before Merzbow, they offered the Fluxbox, the Fluxkit, and the Fluxscore. The cards were priced at $4, and now fetch as much as $2,000 on the flux of Ebay.
Consider a few event-cards and leap to any current manifestation that springs readily to mind – when I saw
- Brazil, I thought of Wandelweiser composer Manfred Werder’s in situ work in the streets of Santiago, Chile; when I saw
- at least one egg, I thought of Lee Patterson’s Egg Fry #2 [as heard on the BBC!]. You get the idea.
The cards are intent on the expansion and breaking open of those performative dimensions cited earlier – event construction, venue and audience – through, paradoxically, the most distilled, reduced means, reminiscent of some manifestations of both the Wandelweiser and the onkyo scene.
Brecht reached a stage fairly quickly of encouraging artists to develop the capacity to go beyond Fluxus; he left it to those curious enough to pursue his injunction to realize in their own work, in their own time, what that might mean. Brecht’s class notes, replete with marginal doodles, have terms that sound as current and descriptive as some of today’s musicians – he scribbled notes about frequency fields, and duration fields, and amplitudes and the like. He wrote of reduction and multiples and assemblage; like any number of interesting musicians working today, there is an overlap between the visual and sonic fields.
The internet provides a platform for Compost & Height, the curators provide a forum that is open and egalitarian, an alternative to inaccessible galleries and venues, and contributors from Tokyo and Paris and Chicago and wherever can submit their work. This is simply post cards sent to expanded neighborhoods, and hooray for that. The event-card axis word-sign-object-action is digitally extended, and the Water Yam project, improbably, lives on. Where the work is concerned, however, this remains
What are the conditions that make an event possible? Events are produced in a chaos, in a chaotic multiplicity, but only under conditions that a sort of screen intervenes.
Everything necessary for an event is here.
Twenty-one realisations of George Brecht’s Water Yam is available for free download on Compost and Height.
Source material for quotes:
George Brecht “Something About Fluxus”, Fluxus Newspaper #4, June 1964
Liz Kotz, “Post-Cagean Aesthetics and the ‘Event’ Score”, MIT Press, October 2011
Gavin Bryars, on-line interview, source forgotten
Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished, Copula Press, 2008
What are the conditions that make an event possible? Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, University of Minnesota Press, 1992