Monday, January 21, 2008

Intending, Dick Higgins

Back in the days of pure media,
when pictures were painted in paint
on cloth, before the best artists became
more interested in the intermedia
between painting and sculpture,
between music and theater, etc ,
there was no particular value attached
to intention. A work, finished, was
essentially an entity. The painting was
hung, noticed, and ignored. The script
ruled the life of a few actors for
a couple of hours, then was placed
aside and forgotten until its next moment
of dominance. It lasted, as opposed
to the reality of shoes. Shoes
serve and wear nut. From the moment
they are put on the feet, they
are always changing, until the time
when their change makes them less
serviceable, irreversibly so, and they
are discarded.

So many of the artists became unhappy
about this eternal, unyielding
quality in their art, and they began
to wish their work were more like
shoes, more temporary, more human,
more able to admit of the possibility
of change. The fixed-finished work
began to be supplemented by the idea
of a work as a process, constantly becoming
something else, tentative, allowing
more than one interpretation.
We see it in literature in the controlled
ambiguities of Joyce, William
Carlos Williams, Abraham Lincoln
Gillespie, Kurt Schwitters. In music
we see the tendency from Wagner,
of whom a very small variety of
definitive performances is possible,
through Ives, of whom a rather enor-
mous possibility of definitive performances
can coexist, through Cage, where
the emphasis is on variety and the
expanded experience rather than on
any sort of definitiveness, to Philip
Corner (and, perhaps, beyond'), in
whose work the only definitive quality
of the performance becomes the negative
one of not only being fascinating
itself, but of suggesting as many as
possible other interpretations within
the context of the piece.

The composition then consists less
of providing performers with explicit
materials to work with than of fixing
boundaries and kinds of images within
which the performers operate. The
reasoning which makes this attractive
to the composer or playwright we
shall get to shortly. But first I would
like to take up a few historical ob-
servations and contrasts about the period
in which this way of working

The late 1950's was typified by Abstract
Expressionism (called "tachisme"
in Europe) in painting, and by
the International Style (Stockhausen,
Koenig, Boulez, Nono, Nilsson, etc.)
in music, so called because of its
very close parallels, aesthetically and
technically, to the post-Bauhaus International
Style in architecture. The
International Style and Abstract Expressionism
both emphasized working
with very specific materials in an abstract
(it., uncrystallized-into-clearly-semantic-
details) manner. The reasons
for this we will not take up here.
However, the clarity and the vividness
of certain of the painters' viewpoints,
those of Pollock, Kline and
de Kooning, gave a certain prestige
to painting over all the other arts,
greater than it had previously had in
recent times. As a result, some of the
younger painters began to feel that
their work should include other
media, and began to extend toward
them. This is specifically true of
Rauschenberg and Kaprow, and their
experiments resulted in environments
and Happenings. On the other hand,
people involved in the other arts be-
gan to feel that painting was much
more advanced, much more filled
with exciting implications. And so
they tried to associate themselves with
painting. This brings us to the work
of John Cage.

Cage was always involved in both
formal and acoustic experimentation.
In fact, the implications of such an
early piece as Construction in Metal
(1937) have never been followed up.
However, in the early 1950’s, his work
began to parallel that of the best Abstract
Expressionists. At the time, he
seemed anxious to avoid the responsibility
of trying to mean something
semantic in his work, but now it begins
to look more like trying to develop
a structural principle that was
an alternative to the typical willed
imposition of the International Stylists,
which began to be seen as both arbitrary
and requiring the subservience
of the performer's own knowledge to
the composer's will, and therefore
implicitly fascistic and undesirable.
Whether or not it was Cage's view,
it is certainly my own, that serial
music is a neo-feudal tendency, and
quite without relevance to the rather
different problems of our own times.
However, a sense of this problem was
certainly implicit in Cage's attempt to
find more realistic structural means
of composing music; and he developed
the idea of working by chance operation,
or what is known in Europe as
'aleatropic methodology."

Chance meant fixing a set of possibilities
and allowing a system of relationships
between dice, coins, etc., to determine
the details of material. It was on the
one hand a practical structural method
of giving materials to performers, and
on the other a distinct reaction against
the International Style's habit of applying
arbitrary subforms to even the most minute
of details.

But of course it meant much more
than this. It meant accepting certain
risks. By accepting the validity of this
randomized material, one no longer
was willing to accept the necessity of
a clearly-defined willful imposition
over the details. This was implicit in
the whole procedure. A major part
of the responsibility for the piece now
lay in the system of relating the chance
operation to the materials that were
to be used. In other words, the composer
could talk all he wanted about
abdicating certain of these responsibilities.
In fact, this was not what
he did (nor am I certain it was what
he would want to do, since in order
to randomize a piece completely,
wouldn't one have to give up responsibility
for the system? And wouldn't
this mean giving up thinking itself?
And who wants to do that? Any serious
artist? Surely not Cage.). What
he did was to place the material at one
remove from the composer, by allowing
it to be determined by a system
he determined. And the real innovation
lies in the emphasis on the creation
of a system.

I am not going to take up, here,
Cage's concept of indeterminacy, since
it strikes me as an essentially defensive
argument that leaving the system
open to the performers' contributions
is valid, which I not only agree with
hut assume. Neither do I intend at
this time to describe (or attack) the
kind of art work which was sometimes
done on the basis of this attitude,
which gave materials to a performer,
which he would then interpret
according to his own system. This
work depended for its interest on the
performer becoming a composer and
developing his own system of interpretation.
It is therefore another story,
really, and a very interesting one. Perhaps
it is a point of further development.
I suspect it is not, that it is a
reason why La Monte Young turned
to what I have called "Balkan Jazz"
after doing such developments of
Cageian indeterminacy as simply pre-
senting would-be performers with the
proposition, "Little whirlpools in the
middle of the ocean," and letting
them take it from there. To depend
on someone else's ingenuity, as this
piece does, leaves any artist little scope
to be relevant in. Since Young has
more imagination than this scope allowed,
it is inevitable that he should
have turned to something else.

Another way to approach the idea
of an art work as the projection of a
system is to forego the idea of giving
materials to the performer (or to the
spectator). Jackson Mac Low, myself,
and Philip Corner (all independently)
began to do this kind of piece about
1960. This is the origin of the idea
of composing (or writing, or-unfinished
business-working in the visual arts) by
emphasizing intentions and systems
rather than the particularizations
that most materials produce.

Now, obviously, it is impossible to
see anything except in us physical
manifestations. On the other hand,
what one sees is irrelevant unless one
is able to see it in the context of one's
experience or to interpret it in some
way. So what does this new emphasis
have to offer?

The question disappears the moment
the illusory contradiction is resolved:
by giving blank forms, the
most relevant materials for a given
time and mentality can be filled in,
thus avoiding the appalling irrelevance
of perishable materials that are no
longer current (e.g., O'Neil's emphasis
on the need for a more honest
sexuality, Sartre's interpretation of the
alienation problem, lonesco's interpretation
of the same problem).

What the idea of working with
blank forms really offers is the opportunity
of working with unperishable
materials and (implicity) a field of
renewable ones.

The composer, writer, artist defines
the scope of the work. What falls
within it is the piece.

This brings us to the point of this
kind of emphasis on the artist's intention:
he is no longer completely
ruled by the specifics of his particular
corner of history. The entire material
of a piece can he worked completely
in terms of local problems of the moment.
A production which realizes a
particular piece during the New York
subway strike can be followed, shortly
afterwards, by a production that re
laces to general labor problems in
Sweden or to the interrelations between
the two Germanies, the two
Viet Nams, the two Chinas or Koreas
And it remains the same piece. The
field is open to realization in terms
of the most perishable materials, the
political, social, or economic tendencies
that are most current at the moment
of production. This releases the
artist from the kind of datedness that
makes it almost impossible to appreciate
an older political play, such as
Waiting for Lefty without a very
conscious (and annoying) effort to

Again, it eliminates the problems
that result from the limitations of
one's own artistic experience. For example,
writing a piece by intention
allows' a composer to use the complete
skills of a particular instrumentalist
without his having known what specialties
this performer has. Some trombonists,
for example, are able to produce the
effect of certain slides which any
"well-trained" composer knows are
impossible, and therefore doesn't call for.
Only in this way can certain technical
potentials be allowed to exist.

Finally, and probably most important,
in composing music and choreography
by intention, the composer
is able to concentrate the broad outlines
and forms of his piece into an
integrated whole. Frequently (I have
Stockhausen and Balanchine in mind)
a composition will make perfectly
good sense in its details, hut the whole
won't have any clarity or sense what
ever. By specifying clearly procedures
and processes which have sense imbedded
into them, this problem can
be avoided. By this, of course, I do
not mean simply to say, "Be sensible,"
since that doesn't really mean any
thing specific. I mean that the composer,
choreographer, playwright,
Happenings-man, what have you,
merely says, specifically, what he has
in mind, not in its material, but in
the basis for the material. This has
very great appeal for artists, and is,
in a way, a greater departure from
the boringness of a "classical art" that
has become irrelevant in the sense of
becoming discontinuous from our
daily lives, than simply finding ingeniously
new sorts of cut-and-dried
materials which do not, in themselves,
imply new processes.

Just a moment ago we mentioned
the key word in evaluating any work
in this general field of possibilities:
"specific." The specificity of the artist's
intentions has to be passed along if
the work is to suggest anything to
think about, which is normally a
requisite for comprehensibility and
impact, whether visual or sensuous
or emotional. If the artist is sufficiently
specific about what he intends,
work which is written by describing
intentions is capable of implying a
very high moral stature in the community
which it creates among performers
and audience, and the emotional
impact can be very great indeed
For example, in Philip Corner's
musical composition, published in The
Four Suits, "4th Finale," one would
have to he very insensitive indeed not
to appreciate the emotional community
which this game of art creates.
The success of the piece is clearly to
be attributed to its specificity. Everyone
knows just what he is to do, and
in the course of performing he experiences
why as well.

Specificity can therefore he used as
a factor to look for in evaluating the
new music, Happenings, and other
works which present formal innovations
of this kind. Once noted, the
piece, if it has anything in it, will
open up. If not, better luck next time.
But what kind of value is specificity?
For one thing, it's a relative one.
There are certainly degrees of specificity,
and being as specific as possible
is not necessarily a guarantee of the
quality of a piece. One would have
to be demented to attach much artistic
value to the suggestion, "Bark loud
like a dog," Yet it could be a very
interesting situation if one hundred
people would all do just that together.
In other words, the first instance, presented
in isolation, is specific enough,
but by simply being presented as an
imperative, one is more conscious of
the sort of person who might ask
that this be done. A hundred people
doing the same thing together could
create a mood of absolute terror. The
second possibility, with the hundred
people, might therefore be said to have
greater specificity in that it leaves
less open: who is to do the barking
is specified, and the image becomes
clarified. In so doing, it becomes more
possible to comprehend the artist's intentions
meaningfully. In the first case,
one is told what to do and one asks,
Why ? In the second, one gets the pic-
ture and joins the fun. Obviously this
is a very simple instance, but the point
holds true even in the more complex
pieces of Corner and Mac Low. The
specificity which is of value, then, is
whatever most efficiently defines the
artist's intentions in as many ways as

New York
Spring 1966

Published in foew&ombwhnw,
Dick Higgins, New York: Something
Else Press, 1966

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