“What is salad? Is making a salad music?” Christopher Rountree wonders. The leader of the local experimental music ensemble wild Up is talking specifically about visual artist Alison Knowles’ very literal 1962 performance art/music piece Proposition #2: Make a Salad, but he also could be describing the Fluxus Festival that he’s curating for L.A. Philharmonic over the next eight months.
The festival, which occurs primarily at Disney Hall and runs through June, celebrates the madcap collision of art, music, words and ideas from the contrarian group of multidisciplinary artists who composed the Fluxus scene in the 1960s and ’70s. Fluxus — whose name evokes Henry Miller’s autobiographical trilogy of novels Sexus, Plexus and Nexus — was actually a movement that celebrated the process of creation over the finished work and raised numerous questions about the definitions of, and barriers between, art and music.
“Our bent is focusing on sound, but all this work lives within the art world,” Rountree, 35, explains in a phone interview while parked on a Silver Lake street. “It just happens to be in a music building.” He surmises that L.A. Phil’s Fluxus Festival might be the biggest and most ambitious homage to Fluxus yet.
“I think it’s a fair statement,” concurs Nancy Perloff, curator of the modern and contemporary collection at the Getty Research Institute, which has a large collection of Fluxus material and is assisting Rountree and L.A. Phil with the festival. “I personally have never seen anything on this scale.”
The festival, which commenced with a provocative participatory workshop at the Getty Center on Oct. 14, and a barely noticed performance-art action that was hidden among the thousands of bicyclists pedaling along the streets of Los Angeles during the orchestra’s CicLAvia party on Sept. 30, will total 16 events across L.A. Phil’s 100th-anniversary season. The next Fluxus-related concert occurs on Tuesday, Nov. 6, when visually inventive director Yuval Sharon stages a new interpretation of composer John Cage’s Europeras amid the imposing backdrop of film sets at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City.
But the most ambitious part of the festival will occur on Saturday, Nov. 17, when conductor-curator Rountree and director R.B. Schlather present Fluxconcert, a massive tribute involving works by artist-composers La Monte Young, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Ken Friedman, Knowles, Cage and others, which will occur both inside and outside Disney Hall.
“He’s kind of the master of ceremonies,” Rountree says about Schlather, half-jokingly describing the director’s piece Karaoke as “mandatory karaoke [by the audience before being allowed] to find their seats.”
Fluxconcert is so big, it will be delivered in three separate parts on Nov. 17. The first section centers on a slowly unwinding, two-hour extract from Young and light artist Marian Zazeela’s The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer, which is part of Young’s sprawling and hypnotic The Four Dreams of China. The second part includes pieces by Pauline Oliveros, George Maciunas, Ono, Friedman and Knowles that blur the line between performance art and avant-garde music. The third section encompasses more works by art-musical adventurists Luciano Berio, Dick Higgins, Paik, Ono, Cage and Young alongside the world premiere of Steven Takasugi’s Howl, a piece commissioned by L.A. Phil.
“We have 50 pieces happening simultaneously or consecutively all around the hall,” Rountree says about the second portion of Fluxconcert. “There will be a carnival feel; some of these pieces have a madness to them. We want people to be surprised. [These works] are like Einsteinian thought experiments. Some of these pieces, they happen in your brain only,” he adds. “So many of these pieces took six months to work on, and they’re going to be over in a minute.”
One of Ken Friedman’s works, Sonata for Melons and Gravity, involves the sight and sound of watermelons hurled from the roof of Disney Hall down into an amplified trough. Higgins’ The Thousand Symphonies, meanwhile, utilizes two long strips of blank manuscript paper that have been shot up by automatic machine-gun fire and then arranged by Rountree into something resembling a musical score.
Because machine guns are now illegal to own in California, the conductor had to hire shooters who have grandfathered permits to use the weapons. “It’s about chance, but then I start to put some filter to it,” Rountree says about overlaying a kind of musical pattern to the assemblage of holes and torn paper, which will be mounted at Disney Hall on a large wooden sculpture by installation artist Elise McMahon. “Maybe you should shoot a little more over here,” Rountree recalls instructing the shooters as part of his arrangement. The Thousand Symphonies is a three-headed piece that literally blasts away the distinctions between art and music. “You’d have similar patterns that would occur but in different parts of the page. I’m creating a big matrix in addition to what’s on the pages. It will exist as a sculpture that the audience can walk up to, then a video with clips of [the shooting] event, and then the orchestra interprets it.”
It is one of many Fluxus Festival works that invite questions about “what music is, how much of it overlaps with performance, and how much of it overlaps with ritual,” Rountree proposes. “How are all these pieces music — if they are music? We want people to see them and form an opinion whether it’s music or not. Many of the Fluxus pieces exist as polemics — they make people fall on one side of the fence or the other. Music is a ritual convening around shared sound.”
The rituals at Fluxconcert encompass everything from Knowles’ aptly titled Wounded Furniture, which celebrates the percussive sounds of tables being axed to bits, to the concert’s in-house mixologist, Arley Marks, who will serve specialty cocktails. “One of the tenets of Fluxus is that art is all around you,” Rountree continues. “What do we say when the bar is now a piece? On every side, no matter where everybody looks, they will be besieged by art.”
Despite all that dizzying and head-spinning activity, the major focus at the Fluxconcert will be on the program’s compositions by La Monte Young and John Cage. “He is absolutely central to all this work, even if he doesn’t think he’s the [Fluxus] type,” Rountree says of Young. “Fluxus is such a strange movement. Many of [the artists] say, ‘I’m not a Fluxus artist.’ La Monte says, ‘I don’t think of myself as Fluxus but I do feel that I’ve birthed the movement.’”
“La Monte is pleased about The Second Dream being performed,” says Perloff, who is working with Getty Research Institute chief curator and associate director Marcia Reed in assisting Rountree and L.A. Phil. (She and Reed have even been enlisted to perform Friedman’s piece Explaining Fluxus at Fluxconcert — “We don’t even know what we’re doing,” Perloff admits.)
“He’s playing a very, very strong role,” Perloff says of Young. Although the composer will be unable to attend Fluxconcert in person, she says that Young is ensuring the work will be “performed in a light and sound environment” designed by his wife, Zazeela. “The work is more about light and sound and duration than about Fluxus. … La Monte has always been interested in duration — ‘How long is it going to be? When do I stop?’” she points out.
“Chris is expanding the definition of Fluxus by including John Cage, David Lang” and other composers who are not technically part of Fluxus, Perloff says, noting Rountree’s “intentionally fluid, spontaneous quality.” Discussing Cage, she says, “With Cage, it becomes a little more complex. Cage is in his own space. I don’t think most Cage scholars would call him a Fluxus composer. Cage didn’t want to be called a Fluxus composer but he was heavily influential on Fluxus. … His method of ‘chance operation’ was very, very influential on Fluxus composers.”
Cage’s Apartment House 1776, written during the U.S. Bicentennial as a celebration of this nation’s multiplicity of voices and beliefs, will be performed at Fluxconcert by an unusual assortment of disparate singers, including R&B/soul stylist Georgia Anne Muldrow, jazz vocalist Dwight Trible, Brazilian performer Rodrigo Amarante, gentle folk singer Mia Doi Todd and even hard-rock party warrior Andrew W.K.
“It’s such a beautiful piece for this time in history,” Rountree says, citing the intersection of history, religion and family relationships that takes place in Apartment House 1776. “Describing these pieces to the performers is also difficult — ‘I can’t control what key it’s in!’”
Despite Cage’s aversion to being lumped in with Fluxus, parts one and two of his late-career 1987 Europeras are being included as part of Fluxus Festival, with performances by L.A. Phil New Music Group and a host of adventurous local opera vocalists at Sony Pictures Studios on Tuesday, Nov. 6; Saturday, Nov. 10; and Sunday, Nov. 11. The work is hardly a traditional opera, and Cage once famously joked, “For 200 years, the Europeans have been sending us their operas. Now I’m sending them back.”
“Europeras fit into Fluxus,” Rountree insists. “This is so in line with the way Cage wanted his work performed,” he adds about the visual presentation from the Industry mastermind Yuval Sharon, who’s in the midst of a three-year residency with L.A. Phil. “Yuval is so brilliant at creating a circumstance and waiting for it to play out. … What happens when we put all sorts of things together that one might think might not work together? We don’t know how they’re going to work,” Rountree admits.
Given Fluxus’ original impetus as a multidimensional, multidisciplinary and immediate reaction to the turbulent era of the 1960s and early ’70s, how can the Fluxus Festival avoid coming off as merely nostalgic?
“One of my goals is to not just present the historical hits of Fluxus,” Rountree says. “Performance art and process pieces are a huge part of what contemporary art is made of. The aim of classical music seems to be changing, to be more performative. Classical music is [historically] about definitions of what is music and what is not, but [in the future] classical music will be more about creativity than replication. It’s like we’re making new Fluxus pieces now.”
“I have seen a lot of Fluxus [revival] performances that were bad, trite and just very silly,” Perloff says. “The way Chris directed the performance of Ben Patterson’s Instruction No. 2 (Please Wash Your Face) was serious — a serious activity that he did very carefully and methodically,” she says of the performance by members of L.A. Philharmonic that literally involved washing their faces at the Fluxus workshop at the Getty Center in October. She describes Instruction No. 2 as “a quintessential Fluxus piece … collapsing the distinctions between art and life.”
Many Fluxus pieces challenge traditionally trained classical musicians by utilizing enigmatic “event scores,” such as George Brecht’s Drip Music, which are little more than simple descriptions that are left to open-ended interpretations. The event score for La Monte Young’s Piano Piece for David Tudor No. 1, for instance, says little more than to “Bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onstage for the piano to eat and drink.” The thrashed piano, stuffed with hay, “is retelling its own story of being destroyed. The thing about Fluxus is that they destroyed a lot of instruments,” says Rountree, who estimates that three pianos and at least one violin will be sacrificed in the name of art during the Fluxus Festival.
The only instruction in Young’s event score for #10, from his Compositions 1960, is “Draw a straight line and follow it,” so L.A. Phil bassist David Allen Moore and wild Up bassoonist Archie Carey dutifully got a dry-line marker (the kind used for marking chalk lines on baseball diamonds) and left a line of blue chalk as they paraded through L.A. Phil’s CicLAvia event in late September. Although L.A. Phil had gotten permission beforehand from the LAPD and L.A.’s Department of Transportation, the duo were only a mile into their route when puzzled cops halted their performance. “To us, it felt innocuous and somewhat meditative. These pieces are a process,” Rountree muses. “Whenever they stop is the right moment.”
Upcoming Fluxus events at Disney Hall include the world premiere of visual artist Ryoji Ikeda’s 100 Cymbals (which will require 60 percussionists) paired with Knowles’ Proposition #2: Make a Salad (Feb. 15); a day celebrating the performance art and music of Yoko Ono (March 22); a solo performance by radical violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja (April 6); wild Up’s rendition of Ragnar Kjartansson’s Bliss, a maddening repetition of a theme by Mozart (May 25); and David Lang’s Crowd Out, which utilizes the entire audience (June 1). Other Fluxus-style works will be interspersed among L.A. Phil’s more traditional classical-music performances, such as an installation of Young’s Piano Piece for David Tudor No. 1, which will appear during pianist Emanuel Ax’s concert of selections by Beethoven and Mozart (May 2-5).
“Can you repeat something so often past exhaustion and go into bliss?” Rountree wonders about Bliss, which takes two minutes from W.A. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and repeats it for 12 (!!) hours. “They will feed and serve drinks to the orchestra onstage. Twice during the piece, there will be a feast,” he adds about wild Up’s only appearance at the Fluxus Festival.
“It’s been an expensive project to make, and I’m proud of L.A. Phil for taking it on,” Rountree says. “I think when you have Alison Knowles as a guest, you have to make a lot of salad.”
More information at laphil.com/fluxus/.