Photo of an upright piano burning
It’s Music Because I Can Hear It: 1960s Experimental Music Festivals

It’s Music Because I Can Hear It: 1960s Experimental Music Festivals

Photo of an upright piano burning

Photo by Caitlin Schmid

In the spring of my senior year of college, I burned a piano. Before you give in to the rising outrage—it was more than some college prank: I organized a performance of Annea Lockwood’s 1968 Piano Burning with the composer on hand to lead a pre-concert discussion. I found a “dead piano” as the score required—an upright that had been relegated to the laundry room of a dorm for years, a piano well beyond the concept of repair. I contacted the fire department for a permit; I advertised on posters around campus. I watched as it went up in flames. Hundreds of people crowded around the space we had cleared in the middle of the quad, talking, laughing; a few brave students were allowed early on to plunk out Beethoven and Joplin; I remember the sound of the balloons taped to the lid popping in the heat, the twang of strings breaking under pressure, the whoosh as the instrument was finally engulfed. “This is way cooler than I thought it would be,” a jock-type admitted. Just like that, I was hooked: this music made people think, this music provoked discussions, this music was gutsy and political and sometimes it even required us to reconsider our definition of music.

I went to graduate school to study the sounds of burning pianos and squeaky rubber dolls and trash can lids, scores that instruct the performer to “draw a straight line and follow it,” and realizations of that score involving hair dipped in ink and dragged across pure white paper. The experimental music of the 1960s was (is), to some, ridiculous (and maybe that’s part of its power); to others, it proclaims freedom from genre, border, and label. But the thing that draws me in the most? It was meant to be experienced—sometimes conceptually, sometimes interactively, never by just some small community of musicians, but always by everyone. To achieve this, our intrepid experimental heroes turned to the festival medium.

There’s something special about festivals. All of the musicians, composers and organizers coming together to say: “General public, this is what we are about.” And the audience members responding: “We hear what you’re doing, we’re trying to understand it, and we like it or we don’t.” A festival isn’t something that can just happen on a whim; even the lowest maintenance variety needs personnel, materials, space, some modicum of promotion; a festival is a concentrated effort to self-define and proclaim a particular set of artistic values. For experimental music—meant to be experienced by everyone, remember—festivals were part of the territory, and that was true in East Coast New York (of course) but also in West Coast San Francisco and Midwest Ann Arbor, and across the ocean to France, Germany, the Netherlands, and England. Wherever this extended family of musicians and composers went, they made themselves and their work known.

Here is this week’s example. Charlotte Moorman (famously known as The Topless Cellist) organized what eventually became known as the First Annual New York Avant Garde Festival in 1963. “We wanted for all these new people to see what we’re doing: it’s silly for us to play for all our friends, you know,” she told Harvey Matusow in an interview several years later. What were they doing? That first festival was a series of six concerts spread out over the course of a little more than two weeks, held at the venerable Judson Hall. The first concert was Frederic Rzewski’s American piano debut featuring music by Sylvano Busotti, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Giuseppe Chiari. The next concert was a Toshi Ichiyanagi and John Cage double bill (apparently Cage’s Variations III, which involved amplifying the sound of drinking a glass of water, caused several patrons to complain of earaches). There was a chamber concert, an electronic music concert, a Moorman-Tudor concert, and an ensemble concert. Imagine Moorman’s pride as she looked over this extensive and varied program on opening night—the “friends” had made this happen.

reproduction of flyer listing concert programs including works by Cage, Feldman, Brown, Woolf, Young, Corner, La Monte Young, Ornette Coleman, Toshi Ishinayagi, George Brecht and Dieter Schnebel plus all the composers' signatures

A flyer from the first New York Avant Garde Festival in 1963.

The “new people,” on the other hand, were—shall we say—less enthusiastic. Witness that very first concert in 1963. John Gruen of The New York Herald Tribune titled his review “Far Out Concert, Stupefying Boredom” and signed off with “avant-garde piano music is decidedly something to watch—it might even get worse.” He wasn’t alone in his evaluation: Harold Schonberg of the The New York Times left us with this gem: “An evaluation of the work [Chiari’s Teatrino]? Don’t be silly, man.”

The first three years of the festival were held in a concert hall and featured the musical works of all sorts of known composers including Cage, Morton Feldman, and Edgard Varèse. Looking back, we might say it was a fairly traditional concert-going experience, and yet… Year two, October 1964: Carl P. Sigmon’s “Festival of the Avant Garde” for Musical America: “Time and again the potential fun quickly turned to tedium….One could only wonder why the youthful audiences cheered loudly….” Year Three, September 1965: Leighton Kerner reviewing a night of action music by Nam June Paik for the The Village Voice: “Take, for example, the opening night which aged some of us considerably.” So bitter, so soon. Little did the critics know what they were in for.

Logo with the words

The letterhead that was used for the New York Avant Garde Festival

By year four, Moorman had radically redesigned the format of this music festival. Held over 18 hours in Central Park, the works of 77 artists from 14 countries were performed simultaneously. Picture this: Ed Summerlin and Don Heckman improvising a saxophone duet early in the morning across the Children’s Pond; Joe Jones riding his Musical Bike; Jim McWilliams staging his Picnic (in which the point was to eat as many hot dogs as possible, even if that meant regurgitating what you had already eaten); Moorman herself realizing Nam June Paik’s Zen Smiles by passing out five thousand pennies and five thousand smiles, one of each to each audience member; Dick Higgins, sitting in a lawn-chair, dressed in a striped tunic, allowing his wife to apply shaving cream to his bald pate in a performance of Danger Music No. 2. This is all faithfully reported in Dan Sullivan and Richard F. Shepard’s September 10, 1966 New York Times article “The Avant-Garde Day in Park Goes On and On.” The reporters ask at one point if it is really music. “‘It’s music,’ Mr. Higgins said, ‘because I can hear it. To the audience, of course, it’s theater.’” Shepard and Sullivan don’t argue; in fact, they give up opinion entirely in favor of description, laced with a healthy dose of skepticism. “[There were] no cogent answers from anyone,” they say at one point. Then there’s my personal favorite subheading of all time, “Clapping Hands – to Ears.” And finally, the last word of the piece: “Nothing was settled.”

After all was said and done, the New York Avant Garde Festival ran almost-consecutively for fifteen years from 1963 to 1980 (excluding three years when Moorman was too sick to organize it). At its peak, it featured the works of more than 650 artists and attracted audiences of a hundred thousand-plus at a time in locations including the John F. Kennedy Staten Island Ferryboat (1967, “Music: Lost at Sea” read one headline in the The Village Voice), the 67th Regiment Armory (1971), and even the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1980). As composers, as performers, as audience members, as passersby, Charlotte Moorman made sure everyone had the opportunity to experience experimental music.

So there it is, a history of the early days of the New York Avant Garde Festival, a bit of proof that festivals and experimental music go together like ramalamalama. In a nutshell, this was crazy music—was it even music?—with festivals that kept getting bigger, and the tastemakers (represented by the newspaper critics) thought it was outré and boring. Done and done. But there is a catch: what I’ve presented to you today as “the New York Avant Garde Festival”—a description of events, documented opinions, all incontrovertible fact—is only what I’ve found in advance press and reviews. It’s not the whole story by any means.

We can never have every detail of any given event; my version differs from yours, and what he saw from the corner won’t be quite the same as what she experienced from stage-center. Plus, memories are faulty and colored by attitude and context. We can’t really blame the critics for their generally less-than-enthused reviews because, let’s face it, these guys (and they were mostly guys) worked for major newspapers in the capacity of music critics. They usually spent their nights seated in a hall on red plush velvet, listening to Bach and Beethoven and writing about whether or not a particular performance did justice to the composer’s vision, not about whether or not a particular performance might be considered music. Regardless of whether these experimental music festivals were objectively “good” or “bad,” critics had a stake in the musical canon (which the New York Avant Garde Festival most certainly was not a part of) and it comes across in their reviews.

History is written by those who write; the critics were writers. What we sometimes forget in our pursuit of facts immortalized in print, waiting for us to scoop up and rewrite into our articles and books, is that history is made by all sorts of people—from the creative composers to the friends of friends who lend their amps in a last minute Situation. What is written isn’t the only version of history, and the critics weren’t the only people at those festivals. There were organizers, there were performers, there were composers—all, one would have to imagine, more committed to the idea of experimental festivals than the critics. And there were audience members—sometimes willing, sometimes just in the right place at the right time (or the wrong place at the wrong time, no judgment).

And so here we are fifty years later, and I have limited options to recover history: I can head to the archives (if there are archives), I can talk to the participants (if I can find them—hello out there?), or I can turn to the microfilms and the internet and pull up the newspaper reviews and the advance press—the easily accessed, written records of these historical events. That last is exactly what I did for you today. It’s not a bad thing (it’s often all we have to go on), but you deserve more and in the next few weeks I’ll give you first-hand accounts from a variety of festival participants. It’s the only way we can even begin to see the whole picture. After all, if I hadn’t told you at the beginning of this article about Piano Burning in my own words from my own experience, all you might have had to go on was this, from the comments section of a review on a local blog: “MHMMMM just wondering if part of our added sales tax for ‘the arts’ paid for this?????”


Caitlin Schmid, wearing glasses, sitting in front of a bookcase filled with books

Caitlin Schmid

Caitlin Schmid is a graduate student in Historical Musicology at Harvard University. Her interests include American music, sound art, feminist approaches to musicology, and (of course) 1960s experimental music festivals. She’s particularly interested in your experience of these festivals – what do you remember? Post your memories in the comments below.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

10 thoughts on “It’s Music Because I Can Hear It: 1960s Experimental Music Festivals

  1. Maureen

    MHMMMM just wondering if part of our added sales tax for ‘the arts’ paid for this?????

    Just kidding. This was a very interesting article; it makes me wonder about the legacy of these avant garde music festivals. Do they have a descendants (direct or indirect) today?

  2. Woody Sullender

    There is an underlying theme in this article (and New Music Box in general) lamenting broader audience reception for ‘new music’. You indeed are celebrating an interesting time in 20th century music, when composers were actively engaging with the broader range of arts especially performance. This is obvious with the Fluxus ‘concerts’ that you site.

    However, instead of celebrating that past, why can’t we focus on performance in our contemporary moment? New Music Box frequently addresses issue of professional music performance, but very rarely tackles larger contemporary ideas of performance in general.

    For instance, A Google search of New Music Box reveals that Tino Sehgal’s name has never appeared in an article here, although he is a major artist working in performance today (winner of the Turner Prize; widely reviewed exhibition at the Guggenheim). People waited in long lines to sit across from Marina Abramović at MoMA (for better or worse), so the ‘general public’ isn’t just willing to engage, they’re determined and excited.

    So, what are contemporary artists doing? How are critics framing this? What are the larger issues in the field at large? How does it relate to music? What can we learn from this discourse? How can we inform this discourse?

    1. Frank J. Oteri

      Dear Woody Sullender,

      Thank you for commenting to NewMusicBox and providing some information about the British-German conceptual artist Tino Sehgal (b. 1976), whom you are correct had yet to appear in NewMusicBox until you mentioned him. Although our focus is on the work of American composers (we are, after all the web magazine from New Music USA), we have actually made reference here to the other artist you brought up, Marina Abramović, upon numerous occasions, the first time over a decade ago in a conversation between two American conceptually oriented composers, Stephen Vitiello and Marina Rosenfeld, then subsequently in our exploration of food opera, in a tribute to Ducth composer Louis Andriessen by his American student Derek Bermel, and–admittedly, not so flatteringly–in an essay which addressed her questionable practice of not paying people who participate in making her work. In fact, I’ve even referenced Abramović at least twice in my own writings on these pages (here and here). I’m personally a huge fan of her work. (I was at that MoMA retrospective though I resisted participating in The Artist is Present for fear that sitting across from her would result in my never being able to stand up again and time perpetually standing still.)

      But forgive me, I must confess that I’m not quite sure what you mean when you write that NewMusicBox “celebrat[es] the past” and “very rarely tackles larger contemporary ideas of performance.” Have you not seen our talk this month with Caroline Shaw, a composer who has a lot to say about performance who is younger (b. 1982) than both Sehgal and Abramović?


      1. Woody Sullender

        Hi Frank, thanks for responding to my feedback.

        My main point is that we can celebrate that historical moment when music compositions and Fluxus performance pieces were presented together because of their interesting cross-pollination, but then ignore our own contemporary landscape. If those festivals were such a great idea, shouldn’t we now all be talking about ‘participatory art’, ‘relational aesthetics’, ‘social practice’ and the numerous other loose categorical designations for a range of post-studio art/performance practices?

        Fortunately, there are currently cross-discipline festivals like Performa where Joan Jonas, Florian Hecker, Ryan McNamara, Keith Rowe, Maja Ratkje, and Benjamin Patterson are presented under the same umbrella of contemporary performance.

        You are correct, looking at someone like Abramović is a good start here. Although at this point, she is something of a pop sensation with her work with Lady Gaga to Jay-Z, so she is a bit hard to ignore!

  3. Jeff Perry

    I was a grad student at CalArts in 1982-84. The two Contemporary Music Festivals I witnessed (and helped with) were amazing smorgasbords of all sorts of non-traditional concert-hall fare. The sorts of events you might be interested in included an installation by Alvin Lucier involving bass drums, pingpong balls suspended on fishing line, and sine wave generators. There was also a performance of a work involving the pianist (Aki Takahashi, I think) passing piezo-solar cells or some such apparatus over the keyboard to pick up resonances. Also I recall a wonderful piece by German composer Dieter Schnebel in which he sat at a desk facing the audience, and engaged in intense three-part counterpoint between his two hands and noises he was making with his mouth. I strongly suggest that you see if the programs for the CalArts festivals are available–I predict you’ll find a lot to love! Best,

    Jeff Perry
    Paula G. Manship Professor of Music Theory
    School of Music / College of Music and Dramatic Arts
    277 Music and Dramatic Arts
    Louisiana State University
    Baton Rouge, LA 70803 / (225) 578-3556

  4. Allan J. Cronin

    Great article! Despite the difficulties in obtaining information on these festivals I think it is crucial to document them. Valuable books such as Benjamin Piekut’s “Experimentalism Otherwise”, Renee Levine Packer’s, “This Life of Sounds”, Ramon Sender’s, “Naked Close Up”, Hannah Higgins’ “Fluxus” documenting various festivals and happenings, Fred Turner’s “Counterculture to Cyberculture” and “The Democratic Surround” to name just a few have gone a long way to filling in some of the gaps in the historical record. But there remains a great deal of research and work to be done on things like the ONCE Festival, Other Minds, The Telluride Festival to name just a couple that remain largely undocumented. It is vital that efforts be made to document the last 50 years of innovation in the name of music as well as giving attention to more recent efforts it we expect to continue such explorations in a meaningful way. That history needs to be explored, celebrated and better understood from our present historical moment as a way to stimulate ideas and provide reference points that illuminate current and future efforts.

  5. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    I’m one of those folks who participated in the latter half of Charlotte’s festivals (1973-78) with my Dashuki Music Theatre at Grand Central Station, the World Trade Center, Shea Stadium, Floyd Bennett Field and the ill-fated Cambridge River Festival. John Rockwell at the New York Times called my Floyd Bennett field event one of the two best at the festival — but never tried to get my name for his review. So it was indeed an anonymous time. Much was lost over the years, held in personal archives and discarded as the participants grew older and began simplifying their lives. I have set up a website but have never been able to attend to it, so it’s empty:

    The question of archives is a sad one, and I would hope someone could address this topic here on NMBx. For example, I directed the post-Fluxus group Trans/Media during that same period in Trenton, New Jersey; we created the Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde, inspired by Charlotte’s events. I have a large archive in storage, from fliers and posters through recordings and photos and even costumes. No one wants it (and yes, I’ve written to universities and museums). Like the Vermont Composers Consortium archive that I also have, it will have no home. Without some sort of continuing endowment, media-heavy archives like these, however well-curated they might be by former librarians (yes, I was one of those, too), will simply disappear. So it will be with my personal composer archives and that of my friend Gilles Yves Bonneau, a composer who died over a decade ago with the 17 crates of his archives shipped to me and wrapped in plastic in my barn loft.

    Woody Sullender’s comments above are good ones. All of these archives could disappear right now and new music would go on unaffected, the lessons of the past already learned and absorbed or rejected and forgotten.

    On the other hand, how many times have people lamented their inability to research the history of an artistic movement because no one cared to keep the material, or so little was kept that history’s view was skewed or entirely wrong? Those of us who do care about keeping the material, sadly, will reach a (literally) dead end and these pieces of musical history will be buried in the landfill.

  6. Warren Enstrom

    Thank you for approaching this topic. Performance-based experimental music is quite interesting (and important) to me, and I am really excited to read what else you can dig up on it.

  7. tom scahill

    there was a time when the first reed flute was experimental and avant garde. mozart was an
    experimentalist, so were beethoven, stravinsky, strindberg, joplin, ellington, varese, cage, coltrane, monk, zappa, moorman, and many, many more. isn’t this how genres are born?
    it is very important that records and archives be saved. not just memorabilia but the thoughts
    and critiques about them too. this article is an important contribution to that end. well written too.
    thank you, ms. schmid.

    tom scahill, appreciator.

  8. Elizabeth

    My father, Raymond Wilding-White, helped organize experimental music festivals in Cleveland in the 1960s. I will see if I have some of the programs around. Feel free to contact me.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.