August 1964

The Second New York Avant Garde Festival

Nandini Nair

Imagine a percussionist clad in latex red leotards, which embolden his not too subtle penis; a conductor donned with fur ears matched only by a fur g-string; a cellist packaged in see-through gauze and a chimpanzee in a little blue skirt – all aloft on stage. This is Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Originale” being performed at The Second New York Avant Garde Festival at Judson Hall, (57th Street) in 1964.

Those who decimated the typical and traditional were percussionist Max Neuhaus, music theorist James Tenney and cellist Charlotte Moorman. In “Originale” that combined spontaneous action with recorded music, the artists play themselves. The star cast also included Allen Ginsberg, Allan Kaprow (leading performance artist) and the mad and magical Korean-born American video artist Nam June Paik. “Originale” received much attention from press and public, ensuring that the following annual Avant Garde festivals were “carnivalesque” events in New York that subverted and thus liberated.

Classically trained cellist Moorman (1933-1991) had brought together 28 composers the previous year at a festival named “6 Concerts ‘63”. The festival’s name changed in 1964 to New York Avant Garde, as a woman who had attended the 1963 concert sued, claiming that her hearing had been hurt by the John Cage performance. In “Letter to (the deceased) Charlotte Moorman”, David Bourdon (friend and critic) recounts her saying; “We started calling it avant-garde the second year when our lawyers advised us that there should be something in the title to warn people that they weren’t going to hear Mozart.”

The inclusion of “avant-garde” in the festival’s name served as a fog-horn warning – this was going to be anarchy with a vision. The avant-garde cannot define one particular age as it is “Not a matter of rushing ahead of everyone – (but) it’s a matter of turning a corner,” as noted by Peter Nicholls (author and professor). In every period, artists walk through the past, but it is when the daring sneak into the back alleys of creation and expression, disdainful of laws and mores that they discover something new – something avant-garde.

In the 1960s that was what they did – they discovered something new. It was a time of ferment. The definition of arts was shedding its old skin to become un-arts. Jazz had become free jazz. Theater had become Living Theater. Cries of “Stop Analyzing! Start Living!” rent the air. In the midst of this artistic uproar and severance with tradition, Moorman was a dazzling figure. Nearly single handedly she went on to organize around 15 New York Avant Garde Festivals, capturing public arenas like Central Park, Staten Island ferry and Grand Central Station.

The Second Avant Garde festival was a turning point as it marked the start of Moorman and Paik’s relationship. In his first New York appearance, Paik covered himself with shaving cream, topped it off with beans and ketchup, stood in a tub and then drunk the squalid water from his shoe. A fellow artist sabotaged one show by handcuffing Paik to the scaffolding. Unaware that he was in real pain, Moorman thought Paik’s bellows for help and yowls of pain were part of the performance. The police had to finally be called in with a hacksaw, recounts Moorman, vividly describing this ground zero of chaos in a BBC interview. The group had to bribe the police who came to free Paik, as they were in violation of different laws. “I’m very stupid about laws,” says Moorman in the interview, adding, “Laws and the art generally just don’t mix.”

This first performance was not just a teaser. Paik and Moorman worked together for the next decade producing pristinely original works that spurned laws and “mixed transgression with high art”, as noted by Bourdon. Paik created cellos from television screens, from ice and from the human back. Moorman played these underwater, above ground, unclothed and dressed in chocolate. The classical instrument and the method of playing it, was reinvented and revitalized. They changed the sound of the cello by proving that it had infinite possibilities. The Second New York Avant Garde Festival did not define the avant-garde; instead it proved the power of performance when it breaks away from norms. It showed that freedom arises from subversions.