Experimental Music Discussion

In a sense, it could be argued that all music is experimental, and that it always has been. Since the beginnings of our species, human beings have been experimenting with ways to make music and song, and ways to reproduce and guide our soundmaking activities. Today, in the early days of the 21st century, Experimental Music has come to mean something more specific.

Some time in the 1950s musical experimentation seems to have split into two different streams. A composer’s stream and a performer’s stream. Both of these streams were important parts of Fluxus from the very beginning, and both composition and pure performance remain important today.

Of course the bridge between these two streams, is the Fluxus Event Score, which along with the Flux Box, is one of the defining Intermedia incarnations of Fluxus output.

I recently wrote a very brief history and discussion of this on The Free Jazz Forum, a web based community for musicians working with Free Improvisation and Experimental Music.

What is Fluxus?

This question has been asked before, and I have answered it in this, The Fluxus Blog, before. But that was a long time ago, and the question, “What is Fluxus” continues to be asked.

For readers looking for a simple answer, contemporary Fluxus artist, Allan Revich has summarized Fluxus into just four characteristic ideas:

Four Fluxus Characteristics

  1. Fluxus is an attitude. It is not a movement or a style.
  2. Fluxus is Intermedia. Fluxus creators like to see what happens when different media intersect. They use everyday found objects, sounds, images, and texts to create new combinations of objects, sounds, images, and texts.
  3. Fluxus works are simple. Art is small, texts are short, and performances are short.
  4. Fluxus is fun. Humour has always been an important element in Fluxus.

While these four principles are not absolute, they represent an excellent shorthand to understanding Fluxus.

For readers interested in learning more about the dual nature of Fluxus, please read on.

The answer to “What is Fluxus” has two parts:

Part One: Fluxus as an Idea

Fluxus cofounder, Dick Higgins saw Fluxus as an idea, a way of being in the world. It was more that a movement, and more than a group of specific artists. He elaborated this point of view very concisely in his short paper, “A Child’s History of Fluxus“.

Higgins explicitly rejected a notion that limited Fluxus to a specific group of people who came together at a specific time and place. Dick wrote, “Fluxus is not a moment in history, or an art movement. Fluxus is a way of doing things, a tradition, and a way of life and death.”

Ken Friedman, Forty Years of Fluxus (1998, 2002)

Ken Friedman expanded on Higgin’s ideas and described Fluxus as “laboratory” characterized by 12 ideas:

12 Ideas of Fluxus

  1. globalism,
  2. the unity of art and life,
  3. intermedia,
  4. experimentalism,
  5. chance,
  6. playfulness,
  7. simplicity,
  8. implicativeness,
  9. exemplativism,
  10. specificity,
  11. presence in time, and
  12. musicality

These 12 ideas are described fully in Ken Friedman’s article, Forty Years of Fluxus.

The artist and art historian, Owen Smith, has published extensively on the subject of Fluxus as an Attitude. His book Fluxus: History of an Attitude, is highly recommended.

Part Two: Fluxus as a Group of Artists

The Fluxus Movement began in the early 1960s, founded by George Maciunas and Dick Higgins, and built on ideas first articulated by artists like John Cage and La Monte Young, both of whom are primarily known as composers. There was significant influence from the Dada movement of the early 20th century, and from ideas circulating at Black Mountain College in the late 1950s.

A number of other contemporary events are credited as either anticipating Fluxus or as constituting proto-Fluxus events.[25] The most commonly cited include the series of Chambers Street loft concerts, in New York, curated by Yoko Ono and La Monte Young in 1961, featuring pieces by Yoko Ono, Jackson MacLowJoseph Byrd, and Henry Flynt;[30] the month-long Yam festival held in upstate New York by George Brecht and Robert Watts in May 1963 with Ray Johnson and Allan Kaprow (the culmination of a year’s worth of Mail Art pieces);[25] and a series of concerts held in Mary Bauermeister‘s studio, Cologne, 1960–61, featuring Nam June Paik and John Cage among many others. It was at one of these events in 1960, during his Etude pour Piano, that Paik leapt into the audience and cut John Cage’s tie off, ran out of the concert hall, and then phoned the hall’s organisers to announce the piece had ended.[31] As one of the movement’s founders, Dick Higgins, stated:

Wikipedia entry for Fluxus (accessed Nov. 11, 2020

Fluxus started with the work, and then came together, applying the name Fluxus to work which already existed. It was as if it started in the middle of the situation, rather than at the beginning.[32][33]

Maciunas especially, believed that he was creating a movement that was club-like. He was famous for pronouncing which artists in his circle were either “in” or “out”. This has had some significant effects on the perceptions of Fluxus after his death. Fluxus cofounder Dick Higgins saw Fluxus somewhat differently. He (and many of his contemporaries) saw Fluxus as an Idea. An idea not bounded by dates in time or membership lists.

The artists active in Fluxus today share the idea of Fluxus as an Idea.

A Child’s History of Fluxus

The following is an important historical document, republished here for historical reference. This copy is from THIS BLOG

The following was first published in 1979 in:
Horizons: The Poetics and Theory of the Intermedia

A Child’s History of Fluxus

by Dick Higgins

Long long ago, back when the world was young – that is, sometime around the year 1958 – a lot of artists and composers and other people who wanted to do beautiful things began to look at the world around them in a new way (for them).

They said: “Hey! – coffee cups can be more beautiful than fancy sculptures. A kiss in the morning can be more dramatic than a drama by Mr. Fancypants. The sloshing of my foot in my wet boot sounds more beautiful than fancy organ music.”

And when they saw that, it turned their minds on. And they began to ask questions. One question was: “Why does everything I see that’s beautiful like cups and kisses and sloshing feet have to be made into just a part of something fancier and bigger? Why can’t I just use it for its own sake?”

When they asked questions like that, they were inventing Fluxus; but this they didn’t know yet, because Fluxus was like a baby whose mother and father couldn’t agree on what to call it – they knew it was there, but it didn’t have a name.

Well, these people were scattered all over the world. In America there were George (George Brecht) and Dick (Dick Higgins) and La Monte (La Monte Young) and Jackson (Jackson MacLow) and plenty of others. In Germany there were Wolf (Wolf Vostell) and Ben and Emmett (Ben Patterson and Emmett Williams) who were visiting there from America, and there was another visitor in Germany too from a very little country on the other side of the world, from Korea – his name was Nam June Paik. Oh there were more too, there and in other countries also. They did “concerts” of everyday living; and they gave exhibitions of what they found, where they shared the things that they liked best with whoever would come. Everything was itself, it wasn’t part of something bigger and fancier. And the fancy people didn’t like this, because it was all cheap and simple, and nobody could make much money out of it.
(READ THE REST OF THE STORY…click link below)

But these people were scattered all over the world. They sometimes knew about each other, but they didn’t see each other much or often. And they spoke different languages and had different names for what they were doing, even when they were doing the same thing. It was all mixed up.

Well, La Monte had a pal – another George, George Maciunas: his name looked strange but sounded easy enough– “Ma-choo-nuss”. And George Maciunas liked to make books. So La Monte said, “Let’s do a book of-our kind of thing.” And his friend Jackson agreed. And they did it. La Monte collected the things for the book, and George Maciunas put it onto pages, and after a while, they were able to take it to a printer and have it printed. They called the book An Anthology which is a fun word for a collection. No fancy name. Not “A Fluxus Anthology”, because Fluxus things weren’t named yet. Just An Anthology. It was a beautiful book and you can still buy it and look at the beautiful, simple things in it – ideas and piles of words and ways for making your own life more wonderful. Well, it costs money to make books, and if you spend your money on one thing you can’t spend it on another. George Maciunas had rented a beautiful big room in the fanciest part of New York City, and there he had an art gallery where Fluxus kinds of things were shown and shared or allowed to happen. But when there was no money to pay for all that, once the book was done, George Maciunas had to give up his AG Gallery, as he called it; and he decided to go to Germany. With him he took some big boxes all chockablock full of leftover things that La Monte and the others had collected, but which didn’t fit into the Anthology.

George Maciunas’ idea was to get together with the people in Germany who were doing the same kind of thing, and to do something like a book and something like a magazine – it would be printed every so often, and it would always change, always be different, always be really itself. It needed a name. So George Maciunas chose a very funny word for “change” – Fluxus. And he started taking Fluxus things to the printers in Germany, to make his magazine. To let people know about this kind of book, he decided to give some Fluxus concerts there, so the newspapers would write about them and people would find out about his books. So in September 1962 the first of the Fluxus concerts happened in a little city where George Maciunas was living, in Wiesbaden, Germany (you say that – “Vees’-bodd-en”). Dick went there from New York, with Alison (Alison Knowles) his artist wife, and they took with them lots of pieces by other American people who had been finding and sharing Fluxus kinds of things.

The concerts certainly did get written about! They were on television too. Poor George Maciunas’ mother! She was an old-fashioned lady, and when the television showed all the crazy things that her son George was doing at the Fluxus concerts, she was so embarrassed that she wouldn’t go out of her house for two weeks because she was so ashamed of what the neighbors might say. Oh well, you have to expect that kind of thing. Actually some of the neighbors really liked the Fluxus concerts. The janitor at the museum where the Fluxus concerts were happening liked them so well that he came to every performance with his wife and children.

By and by other museums and public places wanted Fluxus concerts too. So Fluxus concerts happened next in England and Denmark and France. And new pieces kept being found or done -Fluxus people (we called them “flux-people”) sent things from Japan and Holland and all kinds of places. Fluxus got famous.

And then Fluxus began to get copied. Fancy people began copying Fluxus things and ideas. But they tried to make fancy things out of them – and that changed them. When teacups were replaced by millions of teacups they weren’t simple any more, so they stopped being Fluxus. That was always the difference: they stopped being art of life. You could always tell the real Fluxus thing from the fake ones because the real ones stayed simple, while the fake ones had fancy names attached to them.

Once fame began to happen George Maciunas and the other Fluxus people had to figure out what to do next to keep Fluxus fun and working for everybody. George liked to be the boss; but he was smart enough to know that he couldn’t be boss and tell the Fluxus artists what to do. because they’d quit and they were mostly better artists than he was. So he became the chairman instead. That meant that he couldn’t tell people what they had to do, or what they must not do if they wanted to stay part of Fluxus; instead he could tell the world what Fluxus was, and anyone who wanted to do that kind of thing was Fluxus. That was smart because it meant the Fluxus people didn’t break up into gangs that disagreed, the way lots of artists’ groups did before that. They stuck together to do Fluxus kinds of things, even when they were also doing other kinds of things at the same time.

Twice George Maciunas forgot this. Once, in the winter of 1963, Dick and Alison went to Sweden and gave Fluxus concerts; but there was no money to buy tickets so George Maciunas or Ben or Emmett could come to Sweden. So Dick (that’s me) and Alison gave the concerts with new Swedish Fluxus people there. George got very angry and told Dick and Alison they couldn’t be Fluxus people any more. But so what: nobody paid any attention to that. because Dick and Alison were doing Fluxus concerts of things by Ben and Emmett and George (Brecht) and Bob (Watts) and the Japanese Fluxus people and so on. It was fun and it was Fluxus, which was what counted.

In 1963 George Maciunas came back to America. He opened a Fluxus store and gave Fluxus festivals. The German Fluxus people came to visit; so did the artists’ groups before that. They stuck together to do Fluxus kinds of French ones. Invitations began to come from fancy places – museums and colleges; but the Fluxus people were too smart to get involved with those. They would have lost their freedom. So the colleges’ and museums got the fake Fluxus people and things (and they still have them, mostly). You could tell the fakes because they weren’t themselves: because of their famous names. The real things were much cheaper, and this confused the fancy folk. But oh well.

But by 1965 some of the Fluxus people themselves began to get famous. This would have been okay, except that George Maciunas didn’t know how to handle them anymore. He kept trying to be boss. He got very very angry when a group of Fluxus people decided to join some artists who weren’t Fluxus people in a big performance that was kind of a circus, called Originale (“Or-ee-ghee-noll-eh”). Maciunas and his friend Henry Flynt tried to get the Fluxus people to march around outside the circus withwhite cards that said Originale was bad. And they tried to say that the Fluxus people who were in the circus weren’t Fluxus any more. That was silly, because it made a split. I thought it was funny, and so first I walked around with Maciunas and with Henry with a card, then I went inside and joined the circus; so both groups got angry with me. Oh well. Some people say that Fluxus died that day – I once thought so myself – but it turned out I was wrong.

Why was I wrong? Because Fluxus things still needed doing and Fluxus people kept on doing them. Maciunas kept printing Fluxus things – cards and games and ideas – and putting them into little plastic boxes that were more fun than most books. I made little books that were really Fluxus, though they didn’t have that name on them. And every so often there were flux-concerts.

And there still are. A lot of time has gone by now. As I write this it is almost 1980. George Maciunas died last year of a long and horrible illness. But he knew before he died that his mistake was forgiven, that all the Fluxus people were together again – they came together for concerts, for New Years’ parties, for many things like that. And when Maciunas was dying, they came together to his house to help him finish up a lot of his Fluxus boxes and works before he died. When Maciunas went into the hospital for the last time, his doctors said, “We don’t know why this man is still alive”. But the Fluxus people knew. Being friends and sharing simple things can be so very important.

And though Fluxus is almost twenty years old now – or maybe more than twenty, depending on when you want to say it began – there are still new Fluxus people coming along, joining the group. Why? Because Fluxus has a life of its own, apart from the old people in it. It is simple things, taking things for themselves and not just as part of bigger things. It is something that many of us must do, at least part of the time. So Fluxus is inside you, is part of how you are. It isn’t just a bunch of things and dramas but is part of how you live. It is beyond words.

When you grow up, do you want to be part of Fluxus? I do.