Performance Art

3.6 Looking as Listening

An especially poetic version of a text score can be found in the work of another Fluxus artist, La Monte Young. His infamous butterfly piece, Composition No. 5 (1960), has the sound performed by the butterfly or butterflies themselves and draws attention to the fact that here no one present, neither the performer who releases the butterflies nor the audience, can hear the sound of the nonhuman instrument. An insect recognized for its great beauty, and often understood as a symbol of transformation in art, is here the instrument itself. Its flight acts as a visual metaphor for the absent melody, or inaudible sound. Young is reported to have said to his colleague Tony Conrad, Isn’t it wonderful if someone listens to something he is ordinarily supposed to look at?[11]

Turn a butterfly (or any number of butterflies) loose in the performance area.
When the composition is over, be sure to allow the butterfly to fly away outside.

The composition may be any length, but if an unlimited amount of time is available, the doors and windows may be opened before the butterfly is turned loose and the composition may be considered finished when the butterfly flies away.

In writing this piece, Young raised the issue of audibility as a prerequisite for music: I felt certain the butterfly made sounds, not only with the motion of its wings but also with the functioning of its body […] and unless one was going to dictate how loud or soft the sounds had to be before they could be allowed into the realm of music […] the butterfly piece was music.[12] This work raises problems of boundaries not just between sound and music, or sight and sound, but also between culture and nature. Is music to be defined by the human ear—or, perhaps more important, the limits of amplification technology?

The piece Arabic Numeral (Any Integer), to H. F. also places emphasis on processes of listening as it requires a performer to play an unspecified sound in regular pulses for as long as he or she wishes. Another of Young’s 1960s compositions, No. 4, has the auditorium darkened, but when the lights are turned on again the audience may (or may not) be told that their actions have been the performance. As in 4′33″, the ambient sound is the music, and attention is drawn to the context and site of performance. The theatrical act of lowering the lights prepares the audience for a visual spectacle, but it does not provide one (there is nothing to see). In addition, it focuses listening, even though nothing follows but the audience’s actions and sounds. The music slips out from the gap between expectation (lights go out) and realization (lights come up). The work dramatizes the implicit dialogue between sight and sound. No. 6 of this series reverses the performer-audience relationship, again in relation to sight, by having the performer observe the audience:

The performers (any number) sit on the stage watching and listening to the audience in the same way the audience usually looks at and listens to the performers. If in the auditorium, the performers should be seated in rows on chairs or benches; but if in a bar, for instance, the performers might have tables on stage and be drinking as is the audience.
Optional: A poster in the vicinity of the stage reading:

composition 1960 no.6
by La Monte Young

and tickets, sold at stairways leading to stage from audience, admitting members of the audience who wish to join the performers on stage and watch the remainder of the audience.
A performance may be of any duration.

Such an approach reverses the idea of the audience as passive spectators in the most direct way. It makes sight (gaze) the sole communicative act. Thus, the visual element of musical performance is made conspicuous, for it is all there is. It also underlines the socialized nature of witnessing a musical performance.