Fluxus Festival: A Ritual Convening Around Shared Sound

Christopher Rountree
LA Weekly

“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.”
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