Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Counterforce

(This is fragmentary, but I have go to get it down:)

When the arts are lively in a community there are inevitably going to be those artists who get along well (or well enough), both aesthetically and politically, with the local institutional structure and there are artist for whom "getting along with" is simply not part of the program.

I've been reading Carolyn Brown's superb account of her days with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Chance and Circumstance, and one story in the narrative is that of the excitement as the company formed within the downtown artistic community (and with tendrils outside the city -- to Black Mountain College, to the communal project in Stony Brook, and wherever in the world company tours would eventually take them) while individuals negotiated their own relationships to the official institutional scene which remained stubbornly uptown.

Brown herself took daily classes in classical ballet with Tudor and Craske during (and beyond, with Craske) all of her years of study and performance with Cunningham. She even subbed in the corps during a guest appearance by the Sadler's Wells Company while Margot Fonteyn soloed in Sleeping Beauty; Brown's awed description of Fonteyn's performance is one of the best parts of the book; her take on Balanchine's supposed abstraction is also refreshingly objective). I reckon that, in time elapsed, Brown probably spent years on the subway commuting between halves of Manhattan.

We are fortunate that, before the last memories fade altogether, there are still memoirs being written of this critical time in American Arts. Brown's memoir points outward at countless points to the connectedness of this era. In the 1950's, the immediate rapport at the Cedar Bar between painters and composers is important, and the model of artists, living downtown, selling and exhibiting further north, is a critical one for the rest of us. The important figure of M.C. Richards is here, too, someone who connects to Black Mountain, to David Tudor, to the emergent crafts movement, to poets, and to her work on Artaud or Rudolph Steiner. Richard's Artaud, of course, connects immediately to Beck and Malina's Living Theatre. Malina's own autobiography, from a few years back, connects to an earlier "New York School" of composers, with Cage, Harrison, Hovhaness present and , as the Living Theatre was on the knife's edge of the Old and New Lefts, forward to the downtown scene that would include Cage and MacLow collaborations at the Living Theatre, Cage's (inherited from Henry Cowell, and eventually handed over to Richard Maxfield) courses at the New School, La Monte Young's concerts in Yoko Ono's loft, Fluxus, and eventually the Judson Dance group, which emerged from all of this, but most immediately Robert Dunn's composition course at the Cunningham Company. The downtown theatre and dance scenes that follow the Living Theatre and Cunningham and the Judson's continue to mean a lot, and not least to musicians. It is no small coincidence that Stravinsky and Cage, and, later, Phillip Glass were composers for whom music for the theatre was central.

(When some critic-who-shall-not-be-named insists that "downtown" music began in Yoko Ono's loft... )

So much activity, all of it with only provisional institutional support, if at all; at constant risk of being without rehearsal or performance space, seldom paid, and when, poorly. But good ideas eventually survive, I think. Charles Ives got theatre pit bands to read scores that classical orchestras could not then digest, the ultra-modernists of the '20's had to go underground in the nationalist-modal/tonal-'30s, Cage and Harrison trained bookbinders to play their percussion scores, and later made party pieces, "exquisite corpses", in collaboration with Cowell and Thomson. Those evenings of co-composition presage the days spent splicing together in the project for magnetic tape by Cage and Earle Brown. And when one reads about Cunningham's 1953 dance Fragments, to Boulez's tape piece Deux Études, you get a sense of yet another set of connections at play (do those pieces even exist any more?).

No comments: