Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits
Gresser, Clemens, Notes
Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits. By Benjamin Piekut. (California Studies in 20th-Century Music, 11.) Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. [x, 283 p. ISBN 9780520268500 (hardcover), $65; ISBN 9780520268517 (paperback), $24.95.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.
Experimentalism Otherwise focuses primarily on New York City and the year 1964. After a methodological "Introduction: What was Experimentalism?" (nineteen pages), Benjamin Piekut probes four seemingly unrelated events which might all be seen to share characteristics of experimentalism. One chapter each is devoted to these events: the New York Philharmonic Orchestra's performance of John Cage's Atlas Eclipticalis ; Henry Flynt's protests against the avant-garde in New York City; Charlotte Moorman's Avant Garde Festi - vals; and the creation of the Jazz Composers Guild. Instead of a conclusion in the traditional sense of summarizing findings, Piekut ends his book by relating the idea of experimentalism to the American singer and songwriter Iggy Pop.
Piekut begins his introduction by stating that this "book tells the stories of four disastrous confrontations within the world of New York experimentalism in 1964, plus one more about the extension of experimentalist techniques out of the city's avantgarde community and into the foreign realm of popular music a few years later" (p. 1). His approach is essentially to tell these "stories" in a new way; he explains that he "was guided to and through these stories by an appreciation of what the literary scholar Fred Moten refers to as 'the very intense relationship between experimentalism and the everyday' " (p. 1). This dichotomy-often identified as one of the defining characteristics of the "experimental art" of the late 1950s and the 1960s- can also be applied to this book. Piekut is aware of how storytelling requires the extraordinary (here the performance and conceptualization of music in time) against the backdrop of the ordinary. At the heart of this storytelling is the use of oral history and archival documents, as for instance in the first chapter, in which Piekut reassesses the conflict-rich performance of Atlas Eclipticalis by the New York Philharmonic. Piekut interviewed a number of former musicians of the orchestra, and juxtaposes their reminiscences of the rehearsals and performances. Previous retellings of this event seem oddly skewed towards the composer as victim and the orchestra musicians as "criminals"; such a black and white perspective is, in Piekut's work, less pronounced. The introduction suggests that this complex network of people creates tensions, which in turn produce what we can understand as experimentalism.
However, Piekut is less concerned with placing events within historical developments, i.e., into a uniform and "canon-ized" historiography, than with providing a "fresh appraisal of 1960s experimentalism," of which the main task is "to register the ambivalence of the connections" between what he sees as "two avant-gardes" (p. 3). Crucially, the first section of the introduction ends on the question: "What was experimentalism?" (p. 5; emphasis in original). Although one can agree that the experimentalism of the 1960s is different from whatever moments of experimentalism occurred later, the manner in which Piekut discusses most other scholarly work on experimental music as ideologically and theoretically misguided is alarming. He is rightly unconvinced by the purely musical definitions of experimentalism, and he seems to think that experimentalism is a concept that can be easily related to very different approaches to making and conceptualizing music (which can also be seen in his choice of subject matters for his "stories": the avant-garde, popular music, and jazz). His use of the "umbrella term" of experimentalism feels to me, however, a bit too conceptual. If one follows Piekut's approach of seeing experimentalism primarily as a matter of potential groupings and conflict, e. …