Robert Erickson

That we live in an age of mass-ism and populism can hardly be news. Movies, television, recorded music and radio have brought to birth and nurtured a vast audience for pop news, pop sports, pop pornography, even pop medicine and pop psychotherapy. We have pop violence, pop politics, a pop congree, and, especially, pop advertising. All advertising in the mass media is pop; advertising is what fuels pop entertainment, and what makes the new audiences in America a little different from those in some other parts of the world, where electronic and broadcast media are more jealously controlled by the state. At the top of the bureaucratic pyramid in Russia, in France, in all those countries with state radio and television, decisions are made that affect all listeners. During the Stalin years, according to Shostakovich, if the great leader and teacher happened not to like your music they came for you in the night and you disappeared. Music criticism out of the end of a gun. It is not so deadly in the countries of enlightened Europe – they don't shoot you. But they do operate tight hierarchical organizations with a single superbureaucrat at the top. Each country seems to have room for only one superstar. Often the supercrat is the country's superstar composer. Efficient. The King doesn't get pushed off the Hill so easily. If you are not in favor with the reigning superbureaucrat, you are allowed to smigrate, or to wait in line.

In America, things are not so orderly. Instaed of czar, star, superstar, one per country, we have factions, struggles, contention, not for culture as defined by the state, but for money and profit. That is the big difference, and it is shaping our music, all of it. You may not see a lot of difference between being shot for writing the wrong kind of music and dying in your own vomit of disgust in a world where everything has a price. There is plenty of black in the picture I am painting – who could deny it? – but there are streaks of color and light that merit attention too.

It was the media explosion of the sixties and seventies that did it, with the help of kids raised on comics, Elvis and TV. Using the know-how picked up from ads and entertainment the heard and saw every day of their lives, they brought a new kind of theater to Chicago for the 1968 Democratic convention – street theater with cameras – absurd, outrageous, confrontational, fizzing and bubbling with high spirits, and probably also with mind benders more potent than champagne. It was real life theater, angled and edited and tilted, but wonderfully real and fictional, all at the same time. Boundaries between fact and fiction disappeared on the colored screen, and a strange mixture of art and life and fantasy has been with us ever since. Our media world is a fact/fiction world, maybe because the real world is too much to take, and not so entertaining, either. Think of that great American drama, Watergate. It is our Ring of the Nibelungens, vast, deep, mysterious, full of power, money, and betrayal. We are chipping away at some sort of public comprehension through docudramas, phony history, talk show lies, profitable factual novels and fictional non-fiction. It all goes over the air, everything. With advertising sprinkled throughout like raisins in rice pudding. Mayor Daley was unable to ring down the curtain on the 1968 Chicago show. Richard Nixon pulled it down on Watergate often enough, but it kept rolling up again, and we saw everything and heard everything through the electronic window. If neither of these powerful men were able to dodge what the press likes to call the public's right to know, it seems obvious that our broadcast media are free, in the sense that they are not an arm of the state. Television and radio are very big business, arenas for the grand dramas of selling, where business me compete for consumer dollars, and play their own kind of King on the Hill. No one judges. No one censors anything. There isn't room for the personal. Market surveys determine, without the slightest intervention of taste or ethics, whether or not what goes over the air will sell the product. Using music, drama, news, sports, wars, and all other public events mediated by radio, television, movies – and don't forget cable, that jolly green giant just beginning to crawl – businessmen and their ad agencies are able to send the message to millions, everyone, youngrichorpoor, with money to spend.

Even the edges of that large mass are still wide enough to harbor substantial audiences, with a variety of tastes. Age graded, segmented into a multitude of ways, the identifiable groups are by no means small. The one I see as the important new leader of the muses has the college crowd and non-college young adults dead center, surrounded by pre-college young and post-college adults. It has a gargantuan appetite for television, radio, records, movies, crowds, beaches and events. It grew out of the sixties and seventies rock audience and it is largely a segment of that enormous group. It consists mostly of middle-class people from about 18 to 40 years of age, adventurous, curious, not narrowly a musical audience, above all looking for experiences. It is not likely to contain many piano teachers or music professors. Today, it can be found chiefly on te east and west coasts of the United States, in the large cities of the central states, and in Europe. It is already rather large – to call it a splinter may make it seem smaller than it really is. But audiences are large in these mediated times, and there is room for all sorts of splinters, blocks, and jostling groups. Given our pluralistic traditions, large population, vast American spaces and large number of big towns and cities, there is room for older forms of high art, too, museum art, although there are moves with that world to turn museums toward circus and theater (surely a response to the audience I have described), and other moves to change their function from cultural morgues into arenas for the unveiling of up-to-the-minute fashions. Museums carry essential advertising messages to investors from art world salesmen; they develop news, gossip and ideology, foster a demand for new art, and push up prices. Artists of the last forty years, especially painters, have been financially successful, almost accidentally, as it were. Dealers and collectors, scrambling for the work of newsworthy and praised-in-the-press artists, pushed prices to the point where even the artist profited. Rothko's nine million killed him, and it was not much different for Pollock.

There is nothing comparable in the music world, where the contemporary era is strictly segregated, allowed only in the far back of the music bus. Opera, symphony, chamber music and recital have their chief support from an older, steadier, but not-to-be-ruffled crowd. Familiar music, museum music, sanctified masterpieces (not too many, please) are brought smoothly up-to-date by superstars, aristocrats of the baton, who act out before our eyes the music of dead aristocracies. We hear their music and enter their worlds. American nostalgia for stamped and authenticated cultural traditions is wide and deep. We have a sheepish veneration of the old order running deep in us, all the stronger for its strain of guilt. Fashion magazines and society columns keep a close watch on those citizens of our democracy who may have descended from aristocratic European families with titles and difficult names. We are ambivalent about it and we like to think that our president is a descendant of Irish kings, as they say, and that Nancy is a bona fide member of Hollywood royalty. Yes, aristocracy is till here, flourishing. It gives us social structure, and lots of us have a line of division that puts the moneyed among the aristocrats. By listening faithfully to aristocratic music, expensive music, music that requires expensive gowns and slick tailoring, we can become aristocratic too, separated from the slobby masses, above them, higher. This two tier culture, inherited from Europe along with its ideological icons, may always be with us. Not having a homegrown royal family, unless we can count the Kennedys, who come close to a swinging equivalent, we tend to find for ourselves a higher class, fictional maybe, but important to our well-being. Americans need uplift, especially if they feel that there is status and money up there.

It is hard to assess how painting and sculpture will fare in this media-drenched environment. There is interest, intense interest, in performance art and video art in the art world, and visual artists have had a deep interest in film since the first war. Visual artists are going beyond old fashioned collaboration with musicians and writers. They have the advantage of not having to break up long standing tradition. It may even be too later for most of them, because Andy Warhol burrowed into every corner of the media world during the sixties, leaving behind few untrashed alleys. Warhol is a hard act to follow, as Calvin Tomkins tells in his book, Off the Wall, where he points out that Ad Reinhart, a generation older than Warhol, and gadfly to the action painters, identified him as the ultimate debaser of high art, and a celebrity whose name was as well known as Dali's or Picasso's. After applying mass production methods to silk-screened paintings (when his 47th Street Factory was going at full blast production reached 80 a day) Warhol branched out into movies (one a week), rock music, and multimedia discotheques. Before the sixties had ended he had bored deeply into every communication medium, leaving little room for other exploiters. His dream was “to have a movie playing at Radio City, a show on the Winter Garden, the cover of Life, a book on the best-seller list, a record on the charts....and it all seemed feasible at the time.”

Like few of his contemporaries he understood and sympathized with the extraordinary contemporary symbiosis of art and commerce – he had lived it his whole professional life, and he saw long before most visual artists, that the express train of performance art was picking up steam, and that visual artists who sought fame or notoriety would have to jump aboard before it was too late.

On many college campuses and in larger towns and cities one is likely to find one variety or another of these new kinds of theater, often including performance art of one sort or another. They are mixed affairs, informal, and often with an untheatrical look about them. Like a television show, this kind of theater presents itself as a fast-changing mosaic of striking juxtapositions, and like any television show, it is more like the dada theater of the teens and twenties than anything else. Advertising likes mosaic constructions: the raisins in the pudding are what pay for everything, so ads and show stutter along in snippets, not unlike music hall, review and cabaret. Theater pieces are likely to be popular and populist, humorous or satirical, and there is always shock and absurdity, whether comic or pathetic.

This sort of theater has surprisingly deep roots into the past. When Picabia demanded, at a Paris dada evening, the right to piss in many colors, and when Marcel Duchamp appeared, nude except for a fig leaf in Satie and Picabia's ballet, Relâche, they were carrying on traditions that were by no means new. The focal point of the original infection was, of all places, in good, steady, middle class Zürich, where dropouts and draft dodgers from World War I began to put on shows and cabaret acts, at a seedy bar that they named Café Voltaire. The painter and sculptor, Hans Arp, and his wife, Sophie Tauber, were in the middle of it, and some years later Arp wrote about it in Dadaland: “Revolted by the butchery...we were seeking an art... to cure the madness of the age, and a new order of things that would restore the balance between heaven and hell.”

This international group created a series of boisterous, extravagant events, comic and nonsensical, radically unconventional and anti-logical, using the materials of impromptu entertainment, to cobble up a new kind of free-swinging theater. After the police closed them down, at the end of 1916, they put on dada evenings in other locations, complete with theory, manifestos (Europeans have always wanted this sort of program note), poems, music, dance and theatrical sketches, full of insult, comedy and anti-art exhortation.

The Happening, the invention of which John Cage seems to have laid claim with his descriptions of the affair at Black Mountain College in 1952, is entirely prefigured in the Zürich shows and in Diaghilev's 1917 ballet, Parade – music by Satie, décor by Picasso, with a scenario by Cocteau (who always had his ear to the ground, and surely knew what was going on at the Café Voltaire.) Today Parade seems quite tame, but it shook Paris down to its fashionable socks, and provided Cage with the model and the ideology that he appropriated and has continued to exploit throughout his career.

There are as many versions of the Black Mountain show as there were participants and onlookers. Certainly there were concurrent activities: Merce danced, John read from the top of a ladder, David played Piaf records on an old phonograph at double speed, etc.. More scandalous, more theatrical even, was Cage's lecture comparing Beethoven and Satie, where he convicted Beethoven of error, and of being a deadening influence to the art of music; that he had practically shipwrecked music on an island of decadence. There was some sort of confrontation with Erwin Bodky after these assertions (Bodkey was giving a Beethoven course at Black Mountain that summer) which was only resolved by a communal food fight, apparently indulged to restore good feelings on all sides. That food fight seems, at this distance, the most dad thing that happened.

As to the development of musical theater pieces, most employing sounds and/or music, a rundown of firsts can put a little order into the claims of rival groups and individuals:

Most were avant-garde, many aimed at inciting the audienceand more than a few had dada overtones. Was it a coincidence that, during the sixties, we began to see dada-like realworld public events on television, an armchair video theater of erupting violence and painful intimacy? Affairs such as the Vietnam War, the Altamont rock concert with its knifing by one of the Hell's Angels hired to keep order, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, bank robbery, crime spree, with its flaming television ending, were unbelieveable and unimaginable, easily surpassing the horror of performance artist Rudolph Schwartzkugler slicing off his penis step by step, or Chris Burden's submitting himself to life-threatening dangers. Individual arts of violence were dwarfed to puny insignificance by the spics of the news.

Events and the vividness of television have done for art what Tristan Tzara called for in his 1922 lecture on dada. “Art”, he said, “has not the celestial and universal value that people like to attribute to it. Life is far more interesting. Dada knows the correct measure that should be given to art: with subtle perfidious methods, Dada introduces it into daily life. And vice versa.” Today's true artists, in Tzara's sense, are the cameramen, soundmen, directors and editors of radio and television.

From an obscure, however important place in underground and avant-garde circles during the sixties, this new kind of theater, with dada roots, absurdist branches, star-dusted leaves and electric background, began to find its audience: in the late seventies, people appeared who were ready to pay for performances by groups such as THE, Pauline Oliveros' Theatre of Meditation, Charlotte Moorman's underwater cello playing, La Monte Young's Theater of Eternal Music, the road shows of John Cage, Paul Dresher, Terry Riley, Stuart Dempster, Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson and others. The advertising in the program book for New Music America '82 tells the same story of a newly-forming audience. Philip Glass advertises Glassworks on CBS records and ECM lists records by Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Arch Records advertises a dozen or more, among them sound poetry not unlike that of the teens and twenties. Warner Brothers has half a page pushing Laurie Anderson records. Lovely Records has its long list of Ashley things. It isn't all records, either. The Kitchen boosts its touring groups; Other Media offers featured artists, events, music publishing, radio programs, video productions, and digital and direct-to-disk records; Audiographics offers two dozen cassettes of Explorations in Sound and Language Arts; and the Museum of Contemporary Art on Chicago's Ontario Street lists exhibitions that include John Cage, David Behrman, Nam June Paik and others. The programming of New Music America '82 is tilted heavily toward theater pieces: twenty-seven of the forty-five pieces include theatrical elements.

What has happened is that a lot of music that a few years ago had audiences of relatives and friends is now being attended by larger audiences. There may be some guidelines for success: it must not bear much of a resemblance to traditional theater; no performers, or a few performers works better than many, and one person pieces do well. These new audiences enjoy technological thrills, newness, the outrageous, and the chance to laugh. They are more in tune with the comic than the tragic, and messages, even when carefully spiced, are not a favored dish.

It does love its violence, along with speed, hi-tech and futurism. These are fundamentally and continuously fascinating.. The unappeasable appetite for violence often seems far out of control, and I am heartened to notice that violence, speed, hi-tech and futurism appear to be generating opposite tendencies. The meditation fad is the other side of speed. In the same manner hi-tech publicity has generated an ecologically aware publi, and our hysterical ruch into the day after tomorrow – the futurism that holds hands with technology – has left us up to our hips in nostalgi. Meditation, naturism, and a deep-seated nostalgia for the better life of some less troubled time are powerful currents, swirling in uneasy amalgam with their polar opposites. One often has the feeling that there are two very distinct audiences, whose tastes and tendencies are very different.

The meditation current has been running strongly for twenty years or more. I have heard tape recordings of Allan Watts and friends improvising some very hypnotic drumming made around the time he was writing about beat zen, square zen and zen. The tapes were made by Sandy Jacobs, one of the first Americans to exploit the zonky fascination of tape loops, and a canny impressario who uncovered a large San Francisco audience for far out sounds, in a wraparound planetarium setting, all this back in the fifties. Jacobs took his show to the 1957 Brussels Fair and also brought out a record on Folkways that is still available.

The drums were Boobams, developed, marketed and named by Gerd Stern, later a New York producer of happening-like events, who for a time in the fifties was Harry Partch's chief publicity man. Boobams were a spin-off from Partch's instruments by Bill Loughborough, an engineer who worked on the Partch collection for several years, and who took out a number of patents on drums and drumhead hardware. Watts, Stern, and Loughborough all had shows on KPFA, Berkeley, during those years, and quiet, laid-back music was often on its air, a lot of it undistinguished pot party background stuff. The faddish aspect of this quiet music, though it now seems to be associated with meditators, health groups, and experience seekers, will probably persist for a while. Why California should have such an affinity for spiritual fads eludes me; perhaps it is precisely because more than 20% of its adults have college degrees, and are on the rebound from the affair with formal education. They may be searching for the humanistic and spiritual things that have been stripped from education as we hurtle into the computerized future. A few months ago, I received in the main The Wholistic Health Music Catalogue, a publication of the San Francisco Medical Research Foundation, Inc.. Seventy-five records and cassettes were described, under various headings and categories. The music itself runs a gamut, from what used to be though of as uplift, through Gregorian chant, to something called Soaring, “a rich energized blend of oceanic space music, classical and jazz flavorings, earth rhythms, heartful transformative lyrics... An intense meditative and flowing movement experience.” It reads like an ad for some new kind of granola. There are the usual sitar, sarod, and shakuhachi records, and a cross-cultural Music for Zen Meditation, by Tony Scorr, employing “the soft tones of clarinet, koto, and shakuhachi.” My favorite is Harps of Ancient Temples. The description tells us that it includes the sounds of Atlantis and Lemuria, and that “the pieces are arranged chronologically, taking us back to earliest prehistory.” Wonderful! I have always wondered about the tunes the Cave Men used in their smoky rituals. Terry Riley and Steve Reich are represented, as one may expect, and there is even an imported record by a German, Peter Michael Hamel, which “is designed to open the mind”. Hamel's book, Through Music To the Self, is an eclectic gathering of musical/spiritual lore from all over, with interpolated ponderings by psychologists and religionists. Having developed over the years the usual allergies to hype, my mind gradually closed to a squint as I read his book, and became flinty a few days later, as I read Stockhausen's introductory remarks to Robin Maconie's new biography. Stockhausen asks, “Am I a newcomer in music history, or am I a reincarnation of an earlier composer? Are the superficial parallels between my music and the music of other cultures perhaps grounded in my earlier lives on this planet?” Though he may wish it he is not Pythagoras reincarnated, nor Abaris, nor even his own grandfather. He could be a reincarnation, if it has to be someone from the world stage, of P.T. Barnum, a man with an awesome, even other-worldly talent for publicity. Stockhausen has seemed to reincarnate over the years while still alive, for he has changed, vastly, from the excitement of arithmetical futurism, rationalistic and severe, toward other public faces, mutating along the way, each time resembling more closely an aging flower child from San Francisco's free-floating sixties. The terminology finding space in his discourse has changed from the jargon of science, familiar since the fifties to readers of his program notes and murky theoretical ponderings toward vocabularies of mystical adventurers and spiritual adepts. The music has not changed as much as the things he says about it.

We may also look forward (or not) to more of the mosaic-like theater I have been describing – what Richard Kostelanetz likes to call a theater of mixed means, and others describe as a theater of happenings, or multi-media. Musicians tend to call them all theater pieces; visual arts people, performance art or video art. Those from theater and dance prefer to avoid labels. However named this sort of theater is not likely to take place in conventional theaters or concert and recital halls. Since it is often much like a framed and filmed chunk of ordinary street life it is no surprise to discover its informality, randomness, and upto-the minute contemporaneity in the theater of video games. A recent New Yorker Talk-of-the-Town piece has descriptions of several current favorites of the too-young-to-drink crowd.

“The game Kick is where you're a clown riding on a unicycle with balloons hanging over your head, and on the first board you have to pop them with your pointed hat, and when all the balloons are popped and at some point a Pac-Man comes down from above and eats all the balloons and lands on the top of your hat and stays there.”

I have a string feeling that I might have seen this live, as a theater piece, at the San Francisco Tape Center sometime in the early sixties, maybe with projections, improvised sound and real balloons. The scenario is just right for the new kind of theater – only the emphasis on gaming is different. It is emphatically a theater of participation. The player is the chief actor, and he is anything but a passive viewer. He himself is in the midst of these fictional events, a real frog in imaginary gardens. Nor is the scenario set; it has its full share of contingency, randomness, and unrepeated suspenseful situations.

Or, if a Pac-Man doesn't come down, it shows you popping all the balloons with your finger, which you also get points for. Also, if you have that certain number of balloons and the Pac- Man at the bottom, the Pac-Man's mouth will turn up and all the balloons will fall into it. But the best is the Pac-Man coming from above, because you get a super bonus for it. But if you cannot catch the balloons or pop them you can kick them if they're near your foot. Then they fly up into the air and you have another chance. Then, after all the balloons are caught, the challenging rack comes; there are two buildings, one on each side of you, and people throw balloons out the window, but sometimes they thrown bombs, and if you catch one you fall off the unicycle. After you fall off once, by missing the balloons or catching the bombs, you go back to another catching rack, which is the same except with little blue monsters. After you've caught all those, the same board comes with little pink monsters as well as little blue monsters replacing some balloons. After all those are caught comes another challenging rack with blue and pink monsters, and after you fall off once on that, God only knows what happens.” ( The New Yorker, Oct. 2, 1982)

These kids are honing the skills they will need in adult life – quick perception of the kaleidoscopic speeding world, the ability to make sense of a flashing mosaic of impressions, quickness and alertness in traffic, and in human and electronic environments, all senses and reflexes quivering at full stretch most of the time. Anyone living that sort of life needs quietness, though it is harder and harder to find. So it is not unlikely that we are going to hear more quiet music, coming-down music, with or without ritual, philosophy or hype. If television and film are the natural means of mosaic theater, then long playing cassette and radio are prime media for the quiet arts. Portable private high fidelity with stereo headphone listening has been spreading among runners, bikers, auto and truck drivers, as an escape from the crashing noisiness of our freeways, towns and cities. The wraparound vividness of the sound allows listeners to be in two places at once – the reality of the freeway, and whatever fantasy world is on the cassette. A refinement of this world of auditory choice comes by way of a report last year by The New Yorker's dance critics of a Merce Cunningham concert where some members of the audience brought their own headphone outfits, apparently finding the music for some of the dances not to their taste. Are we going to see more of all this in our futures? More rather than less, I am sure, and it is anyone's guess what the impact of home video and video records is likely to be – explosive, I think.

The audience for it is not a large percentage of our 226,000,000; it is a tiny splinter, but far larger than any vangard audience of years past. It is full of fence walkers who may usually plod along on the commercial mass media side, but we are quite willing to take on art from the other side of the fence, especially if the trappings of concert hall and operatic stage are circumvented. There is a widening gap between audiences for any new thing, whether work of art or brightly colored sleaze, and audiences attached to the enshrined icons of museum culture.

For most of this century advanced ad exploratory art has tried with all its might to enter the horizons of traditional audiences. With some success too, though the cream of it floated to the top very very slowly, and exploration and invention was done in an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust.

The time they are a-changing. Opera, symphony, recital and drama audiences were never large, they were and remain elites. Exclusiveness is an important ingredient of their upper class cachet. The audience I have been probing here is an elite of sorts, too, but without so much desire for upperclassness. If anything, it is likely to be lukewarm about any sort of cultural prime beef. I has had too much inspecting and certifying form its professors already. It may not be surpassingly large, but it is orders of magnitude larger than its high class cousin. It is open-minded, curious about a lot of things, and not afraid of risk. It is willing to jumpt to either side of the fence that it walks between blatantly commercial entertainment and that emerging new kind of music and theater whenever something tickles its fancy.

So that is the way the wind is blowing. Hardly a breeze as yet. But watch out.


6 October, 1982. Encinitas, Ca.

(Transcribed from Erickson's typescript with hand corrections, 2007).