Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Cage and the Dream Syndicate

For the last couple of months, I've been slowly working my way through Branden W. Joseph's recent book, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage. Inspired by the writings of Deleuze and Guattari, Joseph seeks to document the minor history starting from Conrad's work in the early 1960s with John Cale and La Monte Young in the Dream Syndicate, and concluding with his film and video work in the 1970s. With detours through Young, Henry Flynt, sculptor Robert Morris, and filmmaker Jack Smith, Joseph situates Conrad's work in response to the challenges that John Cage established in the 1950s, starting with a lack of any kind of transcendent meaning or intention on the part of the composer, which in turn leads to a more constructive attention and experimentation on the part of the listener. On a broader scale, Conrad et al. also responded to Cage's challenge to the power relations involved in music creation, as well as the dismantling of the boundaries between different artistic disciplines.

I've written before about how indeterminate pieces challenge the performer more than the listener, for whom the single auditory experience insufficiently demonstrates the open-ended nature of the compositions. Joseph's detailed discussion of the performance and reception history of the various conceptual pieces illuminates a word-score repertoire that exemplifies this perspective change. These included not only La Monte Young's famous efforts to feed hay to the piano, or to "draw a straight line and follow it", but word scores from Conrad and Flynt as well. It's hard to imagine that these pieces were actually performed, but the combination of sound and theatrics, as well as the ideas behind the works, made them relatively successful. The premiere (at Harvard) was followed by a performance in New York at Yoko Ono's loft, where Cage was in attendance. I can see Stockhausen's word pieces From the Seven Days and For Times To Come in the same vein, but more often I've seen word pieces that are fairly specific instructions (such as the Lucier work discussed in the post referenced above).

Because of Conrad's participation in the Theater of Eternal Music and his seminal recording with the German rock band Faust, I had always considered him primarily as a musician. But to my surprise, he appears to be more well known as a filmmaker; he is currently a professor at the University of Buffalo's Department of Media Study. A major part of his artistic journey was his work with visionary filmmaker Jack Smith. Although Smith was also a performance artist, connecting with the conceptual art movement, he provided the opportunity for Conrad's first film work, including the sound on Smith's most famous movie, Flaming Creatures (available online at UbuWeb Film — a truly astounding work, I can understand why it was banned). Smith's visionary films overflow with distorted images, and Josephs uses them as examples of Bataillian excess. I read a lot of Bataille back in the day, and often tried to find musical examples, stopping when I got to John Oswald's Plexure as the alpha and omega of musical excess. Avant-garde video and cinema are way outside my areas of interest or expertise — they alter my perception and not pleasantly — but Joseph's account made interesting reading. Unfortunately none of Conrad's film work is online, at least anywhere I can find it.

The book was slow going mostly because the detailed discussions involved artists for whom this book was my introduction. The only artist discussed here in any detail that I knew before was La Monte Young, and mostly through later compositions. I had read some of his conceptual pieces, but nothing about their performance and reception history. Morris, Flynt, and Smith I knew only by name. But the focus of the book wasn't biographical with respect to these artists, but more of what they found challenging in Cage's writings, and how they responded to him. Joseph's accomplishment is to have documented an Conrad's anxiety of influence, what led him to become the artist that he is. It shows a steady fractalization of the narrative, that the closer one looks, the more complex the story line. The Deleuzian model, with different striations and unexpected tendrils to parallel histories, is an apposite framework, and Joseph admirably confirms the original theories with Conrad's specific historical example.

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