Performance Art

3.4 The Musical Act

Fluxus had a microview of artistic practice. The group was concerned not with epic projects but with a rigorous reconsideration of music’s sonic materials. They were not so much sonic pluralists, as Cage was, as sonic purists—though not in an essentialist sense. George Brecht used the term event to describe the smallest unit of a situation. It is the event that defines the parameters of a Fluxus musical act. However, the group also considered the broader framework in which music signifies, through the exploration of the territory of musical practice and performance itself. This approach involved, among other things, the investigation of the objects of music making. It is not always clear where one of these strategies ends and another begins, for this approach is in the nature of flux. But if the diverse activities that make up Fluxus can be characterized, then the concept of an aesthetics of negation comes close. For music, this meant the ontological exploration of the borders of the concept of music and the spaces between it and the other arts—in short, what can and cannot be considered an act of music.

One starting point in exploring the sonic nature of music was what George Brecht, a prime mover in Fluxus circles, called incidental music: an ontological interrogation through indirect address, not by focusing on the thing itself. This method should not be confused with Cage’s interest in aleatoric procedures, for in incidental music sound is the by-product of action. This intention differs from that of conventional performance, where sound is the result of purposeful musical action, and from performances of Cage’s work, where sound can be the result of accidental action. An example is Brecht’s Incidental Music of 1961. This work consists of five pieces for piano, any number playable successively or simultaneously, in any order and combination, with one another and with other pieces. The fourth piece is scored thus:

Three dried peas or beans are dropped, one after another, onto the keyboard. Each such seed remaining on the keyboard is attached to the keys nearest it with a single piece of pressure-sensitive tape. [9]


Timelines:1960 – 1970
Workdescriptions from other texts

Works: Incidental Music

People: George Brecht, John Cage

Socialbodies: Fluxus